A novel is not a historical document, but it does become one, regardless of its author’s preference. Our entertainments reflect their times: how we choose to remember historical events, and how we prefer to remember them. Especially when the worst of times, World War II, becomes material for the lightest of entertainments.
Emphasis mine, in big part because of how it echoes something I've been reiterating in various venues: all entertainment is art whether or not we want it to be, so we owe it to ourselves to make better art.Read more
Three of Britain’s Oscar-nominated screenwriters say that an increasing tendency among film studio bosses and directors to “mutilate” film scripts is forcing top writers to either direct their own work or write for television, where they command greater respect.
... Writers’ Guild rules do not permit writers to take their name off a screenplay if they have been paid more than a certain amount. Studios can, in effect, buy their names.
It's not exactly news that writers get treated like dirt in Big Entertainment, but the way the noose has not only been tightened but lined with razor wire on the inside never ceases to appall me.Read more
For some time now I've been investigating migration options for my various blogs and sites — as in, out of Movable Type. WordPress seems like the likely choice, but my biggest objection to WordPress is that it doesn't do static sites by default, and it doesn't make sense for a blog to be a dynamically generated asset.
Now, there's various plugins which can produce something akin to a static blog, and after some experimentation with them I think I have a reasonably stable end result. But I still have to think about a whole host of other issues:Read more
This is either the smartest or stupidest thing I've done in a while. I'm tilting smartest.
I went back and re-read many of my posts from the past several months. Stupidest, because it made me nod my head and realize I might be on to a bunch of things (self-reinforcement!) Smartest, because the sheer amount of topical repetition made me realize I was getting stuck in a rut.
What I've decided to do, then, is to take all the stuff I was shelving in favor of regular blogging — the reviews, mainly — and bring those back all the more. Rather than complain about all that's wrong, it might be more constructive for me to focus on what's right, or where to look to find what's right.
It's easy to get stuck in a rut, easiest of all when you're not paying much attention to what you're doing. By that I mean doing something, perhaps even with close focus on the thing itself, but not so much on what the doing of the thing represents for you in the larger picture. Much of my nattering about the cultural ecology, as I call it, has been as much for trying to figure out my own position in it as trying to figure out how best to deal with it. But the fact that I've circled back constantly to the same answers over and over tells me this is something of a dead end. The best thing for me to do, then, is produce the best work I possibly can, find the best audience I can for it, and let the rest take care of itself.
This doesn't mean I won't be discussing that subject from time to time — I still have some posts queued up in that vein, after all — but after that, I'll re-tackle the subject only when I think I have something genuinely new to say about it, and not just make a restatement of a previously established position. Instead, I'm going to try turning my energies in other directions, and seeing what comes of that.
Wish me luck.
Sometimes it takes someone else to say what's on your mind. Sometimes they say it better than you do.
Seatbelts, folks; this could get bumpy.
My comrade-in-arms Zach B. has been talking at his blog about electing not to go with self-publishing as a default option. He laid out his position in a post titled "Humility", then defended it further by explaining some of the toxic attitudes he felt the self-publishing circuit encouraged. Among them is a reflexive hatred and distrust of conventional publishers.Read more
Just as a modern politician’s job is to deliver seven second soundbites, [Maroon Five]'s job is to deliver seven second audio clips which will encourage young-ish people with a high disposable income to turn a little red knob at least 180 degrees clockwise. No wonder they look so stressed.
... Why does most music sound the same these days? Because record companies are scared, they don’t want to take risks, and they’re doing the best they can to generate mainstream radio hits. That is their job, after all. And as the skies continue to darken over the poor benighted business of selling music, labels are going to cling to what they know more fiercely than ever.
One of the largest risks involved in producing any kind of creative work for a mass market is not the creation of the work itself, but its promotion and distribution. There's only so much shelf space in the physical world, and in the online world, there's only so much time to grab someone's attention and convert that into a sale. In the end, it's the boys who run the pipeline who win; they have many more opportunities to seize peoples' attention and let them know about something they don't.
Various attempts to find a technical solution to this problem have come along. So far the most promising ones seem to be projects like Goodreads, something focused specifically on consumers of the media in question, and designed to get them to participate in the joint project of enjoyment and promotion. But even that has bottlenecks. A number of my books have landed on peoples' to-read lists, but I would scarcely call the momentum that's resulted from that a viral phenomenon. There's only so much time in any one person's life to read, and only so much time to spend pawing through something like Goodreads recommendations lists.
The easy way to draw attention to something is to just produce something that sounds, or reads, or looks like everything else out there — or enough like everything else out there that you can leverage the existing mass of material to get it promoted. This is not the worst idea, actually: few people are able to recognize what makes something interesting without being able to recognize how it connects to other things in their experience. But too much of that, and you're at risk of losing your boots in a bog of sameness, one where people aren't able to figure out why everything has suddenly become so boring.
It's tough to get people to pay attention without throwing tons of money at the problem, and it's tough to throw tons of money at the problem without worrying about hedging your bets. If someone else has an answer to this dilemma, I'm all ears.
Not long ago I talked about how mainstream entertainment feels like the quest for a better hamburger, one where at the end of the day, all you have is a hamburger. So, I asked myself, what would my books constitute? And then out of nowhere, I thought: They're like potatoes.
Misshapen, irregular, imperfect, lumpen (how I love that word). Left in the dark (after they're finished), they sprout, by provoking me with their alternate possibilities. I could have done this, I could have done that. But you take them, cut them up, fry or bake them. And in the end they all get et.
I try to make the best potatoes I can, at whatever moment I happen to be making them. I know there's always room to improve. But there's no sense in letting that stop me from making something now. And in the end, I'd rather have something a little misshapen that it is its own thing, instead of something made to order.
Now. How much of this is acceptance; how much of it is just self-indulgence? I'm still mulling that one over. If I can help it, I don't want to let these kinds of insights lull me into a self-reinforcing conformity all its own. Maybe there's no way to know except by having someone else come in and disturb your peace, without you asking for it.
There's a lot of damage in life for which the best prescription is "get over it", but I suspect a great many people don't want to hear that. (This was me once upon a time.)
Said folk know, on some level, getting over it is precisely what they need to do — but why would they vent and fume to others for so long, unless they were holding out for an exception to the rule? What they need is to get over it, but what they want is for someone to come to them and say, "Yes, you're right, this is terrible. Let me wave a magic wand and set it so that you're in the right."Read more
What with one thing and another, I can never be sure if I have made myself surpassingly clear on a given point or not, so here goes. Part of why I pound as much as I do on the pop-culture pap machine (here, here, here, here, and here, just to cite a few recent examples) is because its effect on creators is all the more baneful and baleful than its effects on plain old audiences.
My opinion — prejudiced, pretentious, and self-important as it is — is that creators ought to hold themselves to a higher standard in terms of what they feed their imaginations. This doesn't mean that they should never watch or read crap; it means that if they do, they need to not pretend that the sincerity of their affection for it makes it any less crap.
It isn't for me to say which things are crap. Everyone has to figure that part out on their own, and then — this is the key thing — build their own taxonomy of what they want to see in the world. In other words, they need to know what their own standards actually are, and how to rise to them.
More than that, though, anyone who has the nerve to create something for an audience of greater than one owes it to themselves to understand the implications of what they're doing. It's fine to say that you only want to entertain people, but you also need to understand that nothing is ever "merely" entertainment, that all entertainments are also art whether or not we want them to be, and that bad art is as harmful as bad journalism or inept science.
Most of the folks I meet with professed ambitions to become a creator of some kind — a comic artist, an author, a game programmer, a musician — are conscious that they have an ambition to fulfill, but don't have as much of a sense that they also have a responsibility to rise to. They know they have some burning goal to reach, and that's fine. But they rarely seem concerned with whether or not they're about to get into a rat race with ignobility in the process.
None of this is me making a case for self-censorship, or moralizing others about their choices. People are driven to do what interests them alone, and there's no talking them out of what their gut is saying. But it may be possible to awaken other gut instincts they didn't know they had — the feeling, for instance, that catering to an audience's worst impulses does more harm than good — and then marry the one to the other.
It speaks well of our own relatively flexible system that it can accommodate criticism and dissent without lopping anyone’s hands off. But this is also a backhanded testament to our society’s successful denaturing of satire, and the impotence of art in our own culture. Autocrats from Plato on have advocated control and censorship of the arts to ensure the stability of their states and micromanage their people’s inner lives. In the mature democracies of the West, there’s no longer any need for purges or fatwas or book-burnings. Why waste bullets shooting artists when you can just not pay them? Why bother banning books when nobody reads anyway, and the national literature is so provincial, insular and narcissistic it poses no troublesome questions?
I'd always wondered if the opposite of censorship was not enlightenment, but indifference.
It's tempting to believe that under active oppression, it becomes easier to develop a striving mentality. A romantic mindset, sure. But it also becomes nearly impossible to get any real day-to-day work done, and one expends so much energy not getting caught, or ducking the system, that at the end of the day you don't have any strength left to pat yourself on the back for being so brave. All other things being equal, I imagine Camus would rather not have written under a nom de guerre for Combat, and Solzhenitsyn not bothered with samizdat.
I'd rather deal with indifference as a nemesis than censorship, because one of the benefits of indifference is that you do get left alone, you do get to cultivate as you please, and you find that indifference may be vast, but not infinite and total. Few read, but the few that do read with the kind of hunger and totality that more than makes up for it.
That said, one of the convenient things about censorship is that it tells you exactly what weaknesses your self-appointed moral guardians have. It isn't always easy to tell at a glance.
Between one thing and another — book edits, lingering illness, other things I don't want to go on about in public — some more thoughts came together to clarify why homogenous entertainments are individually good but collectively bad.
Earlier in the week, I threw the dice and watched The Equalizer, knowing full well it has about as much to do with the TV series (which I loved, unabashedly) as 21 Jump Street had to do with its own eponymous predecessor. It wasn't a bad movie — let's face it, nothing with Denzel Washington in it is ever totally awful — and it was possible to even convince yourself it was a "good" one. It invested a certain amount of time and attention into its characters; it paced itself well; and it only allowed itself to become ridiculous after we had enough invested in it that we wouldn't feel foolish for still sticking with it after that point. A sly tactic.
But it was a hamburger. A good hamburger, but a hamburger all the same — one produced by a system that assumes the hamburger is the culmination of all it can do.Read more
In one of my random notes from hither and thither, I have this phrase: "There's a lot of money to be made in both saving people from themselves and telling them what they want to hear."
File under Depressing But True, I suppose. Not a day goes by when I don't see opportunities — as a writer, as a human being — to sell my skills short for the sake of easy money, easy attention, easy anything.
Random example: romance fiction. There's a ton of it on Amazon and it sells like mad, and from what I can tell it sells to an audience that devours it and then promptly flings the empty bag over its collective shoulder. It's popcorn, and everyone involved knows it's popcorn, which is fine.
I've thought, at one time or another, about popping some variety of that corn, a way to make a quick name for myself (not to mention a quick buck). But the plans always get scotched by a couple of pieces of brutal reality:
Every now and then I come back to this whole conundrum and try to find a way to refine it without veering into the territory that everyone who writes product for a living is a fool. I don't believe that for a second, in big part because such thinking cuts me off from the whole world of genuinely good stuff that is written strictly to entertain. I just know that for what I'm doing, it's not the right choice, and it would lead me to do things I wouldn't feel proud of.
Brad Warner once said "There’s really not much money to be made in this line of work [in his case, being a Zen teacher] unless you cheat people anyway." In my case, yes, there are a few (VERY few) people who make something like a living doing this. Some make enough of a living for ten or twenty other people, which is I guess not something limited to any one profession; do you really think the CEO of GM or Ford or whatever deserves to be paid nine figures?
My point about bringing up the line about cheating people — and it's hard to say this without sounding like I'm disparaging other others — is that I can't bring myself to be "just an entertainer" or what have you without feeling like I'm cheating people. I know my ambitions are bigger, if stupider, than that. I'd rather have a few people reading my books who are the right kind of audience than a whole lot of people who are mostly there to kill some time or follow their friends and read whatever they're reading. Again, I don't think those things are bad, just that I'd rather do my best to have them not be the primary motives for why people want to pick up something that has my name on the cover.
You see how hard it is to say something like this without sounding snide? I'm not trying to say that people who either write or read "entertainment" are idiots or panderers, or cheaters/cheated. Both parties fulfill irreplaceable functions in this world. All I'm saying is that I don't think I'm comfortable being on either side of that particular equation, and I don't think I ever will be. It's also easier to attract and keep a small but devoted audience (if one that doesn't put a lot back in your pocket) than it is to attract and keep a big but indifferent one. And none of this is my way of trying to prove to more successful people that they've got it all wrong, because I'd never convince them anyway.
I promise this is the last time I'll bring this up. At least until next year!
As for the bit about money to be made in saving people from themselves, more on that one another time.
Another argument that keeps coming up re: the Marvel movies (yeah, that tired canard again, but bear with me) is that they're not in fact "all the same film". This is something other people have defended pretty vociferously. Winter Soldier is a spy thriller; Guardians of the Galaxy is comic space opera; Thor is cross-universe mythmaking; etc.
But in the end, all of them are the same kind of movie: an action-beat-driven tentpole Hollywood blockbuster with tons of cash and digital effects thrown at the screen. There's no room in that garage for anything that's not part of that paradigm. Would the Marvel stable have ever produced something like Under the Skin, for instance? No, because something that nervy and difficult wouldn't put asses in chairs, so they don't do it; they know they have tickets and DVDs to sell, and that's the only thing that really matters when all the heated rhetoric evaporates out of the air.Read more
Perpetual Hollywood gadfly Terry Gilliam reads the graffiti on the wall:
In Hollywood, at least when I was making films there, there were people in the studios that actually had personalities. You could distinguish one from the other. And now, I don’t see that at all. It’s just gray, frightened people holding on without any sense of “let’s try something here, let’s do something different.” ... The big tent-pole pictures are just like the last tent-pole pictures. Hopefully one of them will work and keep the studio going. It’s become … it’s a reflection of the real world, where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer and the middle class get squeezed out completely. So the kind of films I make need more money than the very simple films. Hollywood doesn’t deal with those budgets anymore; they don’t exist.
Gilliam echoes the same concern a lot of other filmmakers have: there's no middle ground. Everything's either microbudgets or superblockbusters. What an irony: the medium that expanded its palette of artistic concerns to compete with the timidity of TV is now finding itself becoming all the more timid, and with all the more of its creative luminaries gravitating to ... TV.
As much as I enjoyed Guardians of the Galaxy, I knew full well it was a symptom of something very wrong with things, and that cut into my enjoyment of it. It's not that I didn't want to see the film; it's that I wanted to see other things flanking it that were not at all the same sort of thing. But the more I stick around, the less of that I see, and the harder it is to find such things, because the presumption is that there's no return on the investment for such products. Well, sure: if you throw even the best films at unreceptive audiences, you get nothing back, but no discernible effort exists to cultivate audiences the way a record label cultivates artists or listeners.
One of Gilliam's better points, easily breezed past, is that smaller-budgeted films can't compete because they have no promotion - something of the same issue experienced by smaller presses and singleton/self-publishers. There's just no way to be heard save for what few ears you can flag on your own. I take some comfort in knowing they are the right few years (well, I hope they are), but that by itself isn't a strategy. I suspect more of the burden falls to the press to do the cultivation and curation that others won't — but when do they have the time, the budget, or the wherewithal for such a project?
In fact, the critical apparatus and the creative apparatus are starting to resemble each other quite a bit in that they both consist of a bunch of atomized, miniscule forces all working in futile parallel. A lot of praise gets thrown around for good things, but who hears it? A lot of great work gets created, but who ever finds out about it?
One thing that has been in the back of my mind on top of this is the way indie games and indie comics seem to find their audiences far more quickly — and far more faithful and devoted audiences, too — than indie books. I haven't dug into this too deeply yet, but there's something about the way those audiences work that needs to be recreated in other domains. Maybe it's because of the relatively newness of the fields, and the ways we have of dealing with them and discussing them are less inhibited by time and tradition.
More on that to come later.
Good, nobody tried to blow up the planet while I was sweating and sniffling my face off. On to business:
Once you know what a rule is and why it exists and how to follow it, then break it, and then ask yourself how that feels.
This is a fairly foundational prescription for any budding writer: learn your Strunk & White, then see under what circumstances any given rule can be bent or broken, and to what end. I like how Zach throws in "then ask yourself how that feels" at the end of it, because not all of us are going to indulge in the same things we like as a writer that we might as a reader.
The main thing, though, is that the whole point of bending the rules is not necessarily to impress others, but to push yourself, to get yourself out of your own self-designated comfort zone. Don't think this is limited to anything strictly technical — e.g., writing in first person when you've preferred third, or the other way 'round. It also means not settling for the same subject matter or the same set of POVs that inform your work.
You can make a career as a writer repeating yourself. Find something that people like to curl up with, and you can dole it out to them in various permutations and combinations. But the danger there is in doing just that — in giving people what they want, in oh-so-slightly different forms, over and over.
The danger isn't even in being an entertainer; it's in becoming an entertainment machine.