Previous Posts: January 2014

Critical Hit Dept.

When James Agee reviewed Bugs Bunny, it was a thing of beauty.


This is James Agee writing about the Bugs Bunny cartoon Rhapsody Rabbit:

Observations on film art : The Rhapsodes: Agee, Farber, Tyler, and us

The best part of it goes two ways: one, very observant parody of concert-pianistic affectations, elegantly thought out and synchronized; the other, brutality keyed into the spirit of the music to reach greater subtlety than I have ever seen brutality reach before. I could hardly illustrate without musical quotation; but there is a passage in which the music goes up with an arrogant wrenching of slammed chords — Ronk, Ronk, RONK (G-B-E) — then prisses downward on a broken scale — which Bugs takes (a) with all four feet, charging madly, scowling like a rockinghorse late for a date at stud, (b) friskily tiptoe, proudly smirking, like a dog toe-dancing through his own misdemeanor or the return of an I-Was-There journalist, a man above fear or favor who knows precisely which sleeping dogs to lie about. It killed me; and when they had the wonderful brass to repeat it exactly, a few bars later, I knew what killed really meant.

I would kill, and hide the bodies in deeply inconvenient places, to be able to write like that.

More to the point, though: when was the last time you read a movie review, a book review, a review of an anime, anything that had this kind of brash panache, this sort of uninhibited gusto? Agee wasn't so much trying to review the movie as recreate a moment from it in our minds, and that is one of the most ambitious impulses for any critic to attempt, let alone, indulge in, let alone succeed at.


Tags: criticism James Agee


Science Fiction Repair Shop: Revenge of the Geeks Dept.

When SF is written by people who are fans of nothing but SF, it's bad news.


Hayao Miyazaki gets a deserved reputation for being a cranky old man, but there are times when his garrulousness is spot-on, as when he recently complained that the big problem with the anime studios today is that they're staffed by otaku.

I agree, although I'd put it a slightly different way: the problem is that they're staffed by too many people who are nothing but otaku, and that's something I should talk about in detail at Ganriki when I'm back off my self-imposed hiatus.

I have the same issue with SF&F: it's too often written by (and maybe also read by) people who are nothing but SF&F fans.

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Tags: classics science fiction Science Fiction Repair Shop writers writing


Science Fiction Repair Shop: A Washing Machine In The Sky Dept.

Why literary fiction often chooses to be fantastic in such a straight-laced way.


Which Authors or Books Have Worked on You as ‘Negative Influences’? - NYTimes.com

[Thomas Mallon on Donald Bartheme:]

A writer freed from the need to calibrate with reality, or even be internally consistent, could put a washing machine into the sky along with a rainbow. So why not put a rhinoceros up there too? Where my contemporaries reacted with an “Oh, wow,” I shrugged with something more like “Whatever.” Barthelme, in an interview, insisted how in his work “it’s not the straightforward that’s being evaded but the too true,” and by that last phrase, he meant, I think, the trite and truistic. But I felt then, and mostly still do, that no verity can be too true; it can only, excitingly, be revealed as false or even truer, if you dig into it on its own terms.

When I first ran into the Bartheme brand of experimental fiction, my first temptation was to think of it as failed SF — or, rather, mislabeled SF. Why not just call such work SF and be done with it? That was long before I knew about the perceived stigma many non-SF writers had of SF generally: it was escapist b.s., newsstand pulp product for spotty mouth-breathers who hadn't yet left the nest, let alone pulled their pinkies out of their nostrils. I suspect the recent explosion of Dark Teen Fantasy product hasn't helped matters any: when the shelves are littered with third-hand Orwellisms like Divergent, it's hard not to feel a boiling clot of contempt rising in one's gorge for everything filed in that wing of the bookstore. (Goodness knows I feel it.)

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Tags: criticism fantasy literature readers reading science fiction Science Fiction Repair Shop writers writing


Gentlemen, Start Your Photocopiers Dept.

Self-publishing shouldn't just be an excuse to recapitulate what exists.


OK, time for a new wrinkle on an old complaint.

I've written before about how one of the most consistent disappointments I have with self-publishing is seeing people work really, really hard to do nothing more than recapitulate what's already out there. Instead of trying to do the things that conventional publishing won't do because it has no idea how to market such material, the self-published crowd too often falls back on doing the things that everyone else is doing, just in highly miniature form. Hence the floods of self-pubbed paranormal romance, warmed-over space opera, dark teen fantasy, and so on.

If I sound like I'm being critical of people's tastes, it's not because I think those books shouldn't be written. Such material will find an audience in any market. It's that I think a big part of the point of not going through the apparatus of conventional publishing is to avoid repeating all its most obvious gestures — to do something new.

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Tags: creativity creators culture self-publishing writing


Get Me Outta Here Dept.

I'm moving. Expect radio silence.


The next couple of weeks around Chez Genji are likely to be very scattershot and slow, as I'm in the final stages of prepping for my cross-country move. I'll go into the whys and wherefores of that later — it's actually not some big dramatic thing, it's mostly a matter of economics and practicality — especially since I imagine I'll have more to say about the matter after I've resettled and am not living out of tote bags and banker's boxes. Between then and now, though, don't expect much out of me.


Tags: excuse our dust real life


Epic Fail Dept.

Epics are about depth, not length.


The Squidhead Files: Marching Orders

Our cultural desire for a legitimate epic — a story that feels as if it will go on forever, yet proceeds with strength and intent toward a satisfying conclusion instead of spinning out into endless side-quests and prequels — is mounting. Maybe it's never gone away.

I've written before about my problem with so-called epic storytelling, something Gabriel echoes in his post above: it's too easy for something like that to turn into shapelessness for its own sake, to start as Homer and end up as General Hospital. Hence my general aversion to storytelling as a mechanism to provide people with a bath to lie down in and go to sleep, so to speak. A good story should wake you up, not lull you into complacency.

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Tags: epics sequels writers writing Yasushi Inoue


all is not one

The systematic study of most any spiritual path (in my case, Zen) leads you, if you're lucky, to confront the incarnate meaning of the clichés thrown around by people who have at best read a few books about it. "All...


The systematic study of most any spiritual path (in my case, Zen) leads you, if you're lucky, to confront the incarnate meaning of the clichés thrown around by people who have at best read a few books about it. "All is one" is a perfect example of such a thing, not only because it's such a generic spiritual bromide but because it's so easy to get wrong, or turn into total twaddle. 

Here's a f'rinstance. At some point I mean to sit down with both the book and movie of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, one of the more recent bits of semi-popular culture that makes this conceit central to its execution. What worries me is whether or not the book/movie (one, the other, or both) will simply invoke the idea without actually being about it. It's the difference between Traffic¹ and Crash. The former was unsparing in its understanding how everything is connected, because that connectivity is not always a benevolent thing. The latter was shameless piffle, which pulled so many strings I wanted to start pulling them back. (Don Cheadle was good in both of them, though — but let's face it, a film of him counting cracks in a wall would be good.)

The way I see it, you can't make "the interconnectedness of all things" into a theme by just showing a bunch of stuff from 35,000 feet up, drawing lines between them, and saying "See? They're connected!"

For one, doing that makes the work no longer about the things in question, but about the arbitrary connections between them. The problem is that the creator doesn't see those connections as arbitrary, because she made those connections, and she'll always convince himself there's a good reason for why Tab A belongs in Slot B. What's harder to do, by orders of magnitude, is to convince the audience that such connections and no other are the spokes that belong in that particular wheel.

The other problem is that the connectedness of things is not always a feel-good experience.

Strike that: the full-blown version of such an experience has to be something that rattles the teeth and squashes the eyeballs. The default, fall-back feeling for most people is to believe they're a unique and special snowflake, and therefore can feel all the more separate from the rest of the universe. They take from it as they need, and receive from it as they choose.

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Tags: Brad Warner


Welcome to the Fold: Blowed Up Real Good Dept.

A bigger bang isn't always a better one, whether in movies or in books.


Child's Play: The Degeneration of Blockbusters | Balder and Dash | Roger Ebert

Artists certainly are allowed to make films that only satisfy their own creative pursuits. But blockbusters — more than any other kind of film — are conceived of as a way to entertain and satisfy audiences (so they can make money). Modern spectacles feel like they're built to entertain and satisfy their filmmakers instead. They're not considering who their destruction is actually for anymore. They're just doing it. Or, as Vulture wrote, when it comes to destruction porn, "No one necessarily asks for it; it just kind of happens."

My own reservations about how this unfolded in Man of Steel are actually not what's most on my mind when I think about this.

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Tags: destruction porn Flight of the Vajra movies writing


Apres Le Deluge, Quoi? Dept.

If you think of the artist as a person, an individual, you're less likely to construct your business around treating him with contempt.


Flooding Theaters Isn’t Good for Filmmakers or Filmgoers - NYTimes.com

... as tough as it is to get any movie made, it’s even more difficult to produce and distribute genuinely original, nongeneric, non-groupthink work, which is one reason the big studios are now largely in the recycling business (“Iron Man 3” and the regurgitated like). American independent cinema is a confusing, contradictory and maybe useless designation. Who, after all, is independent? Yet it used to seem like both a refuge and a promise, a place where art and industry were on equal terms.

There was a comment on Twitter the other day — can't find the reference now, sorry — that the best measure of what constitutes "indie" vs. "corporate" in most any realm is how the artist and his work is treated. An indie comics publisher, for instance, lets the artist keep his work; a corporate comics outfit has him essentially sign the work over to them. Book publishers, thankfully, don't do this unless you're talking about work-for-hire for the likes of a major franchise.

Underneath everything else, there's an attitude towards the artist that manifests itself in such things. If you think of the artist as a person, an individual, you're less likely to construct your business around treating him with contempt.

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Tags: creativity creators distribution moviegoing movies publishing


Slush Piles Dept.

How both self-publishing and conventional publishing are doing authors and readers (and critics) the same kinds of disservices.


A good post from a fellow self-pubbed author:

There’s Something Wrong With Publishing — And It’s Not What You’ve Been Told | Zachary Bonelli

There is still a lot wrong with publishing. We still lack adequate systems for getting developing writers the feedback they need in order to improve — form rejection letters are instructive in that they tell a writer something’s wrong, but they are effectively worthless as improvement tools. We still don’t have an online system for helping people find quality, undiscovered literature — our existing systems use ‘popularity’ as the metric that increases visibility, which causes a small handful of books to become big and stay big at the expense of everyone else in the market. The list goes on, but all of our problems are solvable. The question is, will we step up to the challenge of solving them? Will we continue pining for the good old days on one side, and insist that Amazon is our savior on the other? Or will we instead reject any and all dogma, and continue to evolve as a publishing community?

Most of what he talks about is how the forces on both sides of the equation have their merits and their drawbacks. The elitism and stonewalling of conventional publishing is bad enough, but the anarchy of self-publishing creates an elitism of its own.

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Tags: audiences publicity publishing writers writing


Throw Away Your Books, Go Out Into The Streets Dept.

You don't need all that stuff. Really. Especially if you "think it'll come in handy someday".


I've spent the last couple of days engaged in the not terribly uplifting process of shoving things into boxes and then shoving said boxes into a big storage container sitting in my driveway. The Great Weeding Out And Winnowing Down, as I keep calling it. Aside from playing the game of So That's Where That Went!, I've also been realizing, with no small amount of chagrin, how easy it is to turn your home into a landfill.

Parting with most of my book collection — what I thought would be the hard part — wasn't as difficult as I imagined. Most fiction is only meant to be read once, and a lot of nonfiction or reference work is either being eclipsed by on-line resources (albeit of widely varying quality) or other, more recent works derived from better research. Anything you don't come back to in a year, or which you don't see yourself coming back to and being able to get something new out of in the future, isn't worth keeping. It's not as hard to come to this understanding as you think.

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Tags: psychology


To Go Against The Flow Dept.

Why it's good to resist the temptation to just give people what they want.


Martin Scorsese Writes Open Letter Discussing the Future of Cinema | /Film

If John Cassavetes, my friend and mentor, were alive today, he would certainly be using all the equipment that’s available. But he would be saying the same things he always said – you have to be absolutely dedicated to the work, you have to give everything of yourself, and you have to protect the spark of connection that drove you to make the picture in the first place. You have to protect it with your life. In the past, because making movies was so expensive, we had to protect against exhaustion and compromise. In the future, you’ll have to steel yourself against something else: the temptation to go with the flow, and allow the movie to drift and float away.

The same goes for just about every art we make these days, I think. It's gotten easier than ever to not only write but publish, to not only draw but assemble a portfolio, to not only create music but produce it with a degree of polish and technical perfection that our predecessors would have never been able to buy at any price.

For a while I believed the problem with all this was that it made things too easy, that it removed from the act of creation all the building of muscle and refinement of strength that used to be an inevitably by-product of mastering the art in question from the ground up. But it took Marty's words here to put the right perspective on it. It's not that it's become too easy to create, but that it's become too easy to simply give people what they want rather than what they deserve.

Drawing this distinction is hard enough that many people have not been able to do it over the course of their entire careers. I'm constantly torn up about it myself. If you give people what they want, then they know they can go to you, and thus you have an audience. But if you give them nothing but that, you're starving them of all the other possibilities that can only be known to you. Like Brodksy talking about Dante, there are things only you will ever be able to give any audience; neither the person you are nor the creation you could produce would ever be conjured up by anyone else.

While Flight of the Vajra was still under wraps, I mentioned to a good friend of mine that it seemed downright scary — unfair, even! — that I was the only one who could ever finish such a thing. I didn't like that, if only because it meant we lived in a world where real creativity was the exception, not the rule. Then again, if it was the rule, odds are it wouldn't get called "creative" in the first place. I came out of that conversation knowing all the more that I owed it to both myself and the world to work on the things that I could safely call irreplaceable.


Tags: creativity creators film Flight of the Vajra Martin Scorsese publishing writers writing


Selling Last Year's Model Dept.

We'd sooner sell another version of the old than dream up something truly new -- and maybe it's marketing that's the culprit.


James Bond, Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot - Why Do We Keep Resurrecting the Same Literary Characters? - NYTimes.com

.... are we caught in a diminishing loop of derivative creativity, some kind of stranglehold of the secondhand? Have we wandered deeper into Eliot’s Waste Land — the fragmented panoramas, the “heap of broken images,” only now with more zombies — than the poet himself could have foreseen? Can it be that our highest form of cultural expression is the YouTube mash-up? “The originators, the exuberant men, are extinct,” Evelyn Waugh wrote in 1957, “and in their place subsists and modestly flourishes a generation notable for elegance and variety of contrivance.” We do not have Tolkien, in other words: We have J. J. Abrams. ... Tolkien, too, was of course drawing on his sources, his own scholarly vaults of inspiration, his Kalevalas and Nibelungenlieds and all that. But he was closer to the root, to the first fictive impulse.

You can probably guess how I feel about all this and where my sympathies lie, but I'll go on anyway.

A big part of why we have a heap of broken images is because we've managed to make it unsustainable to sell anything else but last year's models. Curiosity has become an acquired taste, and an increasingly rarefied one. It's easier to give people a variation on something they — and everyone else — already know, instead of trying to tickle their imaginations in a different way.

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Tags: creativity creators fiction marketing writing


One Singular Sensation Dept.

Why creativity always needs some*one* in the driver's seat.


From my previous post: "The whole point of having a singular creator for something is to avoid diffusion of the kind of responsibility that needs to be assumed in a singular way."

Here's what I meant by this. A creative work can be done either singly or collaboratively, but there should always be, whenever possible, an authority somewhere to say what the project is or isn't. Without that, the results tend to be baggy and unfocused.

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Tags: collaboration creativity creators


Sunk Costs And Time Regained Dept.

Why it's so hard for creative people to let go of something they've already sunk so much into.


Being around creative people of all different stripes provokes observations, especially as you see different people making the same mistakes.

One thing I see a lot: It is very difficult for creative people to turn their back on something they've already spent time on. They're worried that if they quit now, all the hard work they've poured into $PROJECT will evaporate like so much morning dew in a blast furnace. (See the "sunk cost fallacy" for more on this.)

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Tags: creativity creators ideas writers writing


Science Fiction Repair Shop: The Prediction Fiction And Other Conniptions Dept.

On John McCarthy's odd comments about literary fiction vs. SF.


Professor John McCarthy — you might know him as the creator of a little language known as Lisp — wrote this a while back:

SCIENCE FICTION AS PREDICTION (31-Mar-1999)

Personally I hate and fear modern literature and it makes me especially unhappy when it invades science fiction. The literary authors are always trying to manipulate my emotions on behalf of some cause or other they have read about in the New York Times Magazine. They want to make me share their hatreds; they rarely show affection for anyone except when they show him as a victim of someone who represents one of their hates. Therefore, I enjoy most old-fashioned science fiction in which the author shows us some neat thing he has thought up or heard about in a straightforward adventure context with good guys and bad guys of a conventional sort. It is even better if he can tell a good story without any fighting, but I understand that this is hard for authors.

His comments about SF in the essay are worth reading, but his comments about modern literature as a whole made me wonder when someone had slipped Tabasco into his Ovaltine.

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Tags: criticism John McCarty literature science fiction Science Fiction Repair Shop writers writing


Science Fiction Repair Shop: This Is What You Want, This Is What You Get Dept.

"In a few generations, there will be no new ideas, only popular ones."


Some gloomy notes here about how digital distribution doesn't always translate into digital consumption.

Books, Just Like You Wanted - NYTimes.com

“This generation will get to read the books they really, really like,” wrote A. Raja Hornstein of San Rafael, Calif. “Any thinkers who are unpopular or outside the box or, well, creative, won’t be read. The next generation will get to read the books written by the vapid, money-hungry writers of this generation who never read any creative works. In a few generations, there will be no new ideas, only popular ones. But there will be lots of new problems and nobody smart enough to solve them. Way to go!”

That sounds eerily like the problems I've cited with SF&F's development over the last few generations. Once it reached a kind of cultural critical mass, where it was not only on shelves but on small and big screens alike, it became easier for it to be written by people who had never read anything but that — or worse, whose primary exposure to it was through TV or the movies. (This isn't to say that TV or the movies can't do those things well, only that if you stop your research there, you won't get much of anywhere.)

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Tags: audiences fantasy literature readers science fiction Science Fiction Repair Shop writing


Science Fiction Repair Shop: Dream Off Dept.

Why do people assume "fantasy" means "unserious"?


Has Russell Banks ever actually read any fantasy? Evidently not:

Russell Banks - By the Book - NYTimes.com

Q: ... how would you describe the kinds of books you steer clear of?

A: Anything described by the author or publisher as fantasy, which to me says, “Don’t worry, Reader, Death will be absent here.” In his brief introduction to “Slow Learner,” Thomas Pynchon says he takes serious writing to be that in which Death is present. I agree.

I guess the likes of, oh, Mervyn Peake haven't contaminated his bedside table, then?

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Tags: fantasy Russell Banks science fiction Science Fiction Repair Shop


Welcome to the Fold: You'll Ruin It For Everyone Dept.

Why I keep my work close to the chest until it's done, done, done.


One thing I've noticed about myself vs. other writers with a Web / social network presence is how much more explicit and candid many of them are about their work while it's still being produced. E.g., Twitter updates about word counts or editing status, or even posting the whole thing to their blog incrementally (my friend Scott Delahunt has been doing this with his Lethal Ladies and Subject 13 projects). I don't think these approaches are bad or wrong, just that I've found that they're not the approaches I prefer to take.

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Tags: criticism editing feedback Flight of the Vajra Welcome to the Fold writers writing


Version 2014 Dept.

Where I stand and where I'm headed in the newly-minted year.


Yes, I know it's not actually a new year for some folks — that's part of why I'm always reluctant to post such a thing here, weird as that sounds — but it's a new enough year for enough people that I figured some discussion of what awaits me is in order.

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Tags: games Ganriki.org promotion real life Welcome to the Fold



About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from January 2014 listed from newest to oldest.

December 2013 is the previous archive.

February 2014 is the next archive.

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