Previous Posts: Uncategorized / General: August 2012

The Newness of the New Dept.

Please, no more "instant classics".

In the context of a discussion of the Sight & Sound poll:

The great movies (almost) nobody voted for - scanners

As for the appeal of the "new," I think that's the worst thing about contemporary pop culture. What's "new" this week, or this month, or this year, isn't likely to be truly fresh or innovative or even novel (in the short-term sense); it's just whatever is being released, promoted, advertised, and/or "viral."

Someone else goes on to mention in the comments that the canonization process for culture is slow for a good reason. Most of the Sight & Sound votes aren't from the last 20-30 years because it takes at least that long to determine if a movie (or anything else, really) has a long-standing contribution to make to our culture. It has to outlast its own novelty, and that's not something that can be predicted.

This is why I squirm at labels like "instant classic" (an oxymoron if there ever was one). Not just because they imply a rush to judgment, but because they imply a lack of understanding of why a canon of classics in any category is assembled in the first place, or what it takes. 

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Tags: creativity fiction writers writing

Yakety Yack, Do Talk Back Dept.

On dialogue in fiction, which is less about forensics than selectivity.

Goodreads | A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, #1) by George R.R. Martin - Reviews, Discussion, Bookclubs, Lists (1 star ratings)

People are often told in entry-level creative writing classes to 'listen to how real people talk, and write like that', which is terrible advice. A transcript of spoken conversation is often so full of repetition, half-thoughts, and non-specific words ('stuff', 'thing') as to be incomprehensible — especially without all of the spoken cues of pattern and tone. Written communication works very differently, and making dialogue feel like speech is an artificial process.

Keely is right, but at the same time I see why the advice is given. I suspect the problem is that it's only half the advice. You should indeed listen to how people talk, but only as a base to build on — not as a source for transcription.

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Tags: writers writing

Talked To Death Dept.

On long-form work in a short-form culture.

A Swing and a Miss - B. R. Myers - The Atlantic

Decades ago the Romanian philosopher E. M. Cioran wrote that he found novels from Latin countries less deep and moving because, or so he suspected, the writers in those more sociable climes talked their thoughts to death before putting pen to paper. In that sense, ours may now be the most Latin culture of all. In an effort to offer something, anything, that is not already on Facebook, our writers seem less likely to go big than to go small, writing in great polished detail of the most trivial thoughts and deeds.

I'm not sure if "Latin countries" includes Brazil, because that would disqualify folks like Machado de Assis, who I most definitely count as being both deep and moving. Bloody shame, that. Cioran is also one of those authors whom I give points for being original, but take them away again for being interminable and tedious — you dip into him for aphorisms, but reading him as any kind of systematic thinker seems unwise.

But let's drop back a bit and look at the main contention of the above 'graf — that the chattier the culture, the less likely it'll produce untrivial literature. (I didn't like using the word "untrivial", gross as it is, but it seemed closer to what I meant than just saying "profound".)

The problem isn't that we post every stupid little thing on Facebook or what have you — it's that we are letting that way of talking and thinking about things push everything else out of the picture. The mode itself isn't new; Dwight Macdonald was complaining about similar things in newspapers back in the Thirties, where a sentence or two separated by asterisks in a columnist's daily tattle was what passed for insight.

The conventional wisdom about "short, controlled bursts" is that people have less time to read and so much information to contend with, that it's better to adapt to their attention spans than to fight a losing (information) war. It's people's attention, not even their money, that has become the real commodity — and their time is a form of money, to them, since they only have a finite amount of it to spend.

I agree with this, up to a point. The trick is to find ways of using those shorter bursts to hook an audience's attention for longer and longer stints — so that by the time they sit down for those 500 or 800 pages you've been saving them up for, a) you'll have something to say to make it worth the time and b) they'll be all the more grateful for the experience. That all requires some thought about what those 500 or 800 pages do actually contain, instead of what can be pumped full of air to fill that space.

Tags: readers reading writers writing

The Budget Is Too Damn High Dept.

You paid $200 million for WHAT kind of movie?

J.J. Abrams Thinks Movies Are Too Expensive | /Film

Abrams’ philosophy is, oddly, a rarity in Hollywood as you rarely see mid-range studio tentpoles anymore. Studios seem more open to losing money on overpriced spectacle like John Carter and Battleship rather than concentrating of less expensive, more practical movies which would more easily turn a profit.

Most interesting of all is a note in the comments about an interview with Robert Rodriguez, who noted that the reason many Hollywood movies have such absurd budgets is because producers are too used to the culture of throwing money at a problem, even a trivial one, to make it go away. A lot of it goes into buying pricey actors as "audience insurance", or front-loading a film with disposable spectacle set-pieces to ensure that butts get into seats.

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Tags: movies

The Stainless Steel Rat Moves On Dept.

Harry Harrison, 87.

Harry Harrison died today. I think I wanted to be him when I grew up. Him, or Daniel M. Pinkwater.

You might remember Harrison as the creator of The Stainless Steel Rat, Make Room! Make Room! (source for Soylent Green), and Bill, The Galactic Hero. I remember him for all those things and many others — not least of which was Deathworld, a trilogy of novels I got turned onto by my friend James Carstensen (where are you now, man?), which summed up Harrison's anti-war stance via a clever extended metaphor. He wrote prolifically, right up until the end, a habit and a trait I valued tremendously, and did his best not to repeat himself.

Among my unsung favorites of his was One Step From Earth, a collection of stories that used the gadget concept of matter transmission to explore a future history of humanity   — everything from the first man transmitted to Mars in 1993 to mankind's disappearance from the universe. Another one of his many to fall sadly out of print, and like Deathworld before it, one which would have made a great and unconventional SF movie.

I never did meet the man, and I regret that. He was one of the few SF authors I not only read but admired as a person, someone whose stances on life and man's place in the universe were intelligent and humane. He disliked the military, having served in it himself, and his distaste stood apart from the pack of Baen/Tor spear-rattlers — where they were writing The Red Badge of Courage, so to speak, he was writing The Good Soldier Švejk. "My generation of writers were all fans," he said in a Locus interview, a situation that seems to have only deepened with the growth of fandom into an industry unto itself.

He will be missed, but I'm sure he'll be remembered. I also hope he will be emulated.

Tags: Harry Harrison science fiction writers

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This page is an archive of entries in the Uncategorized / General category from August 2012.

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