Jul 2

Look, ma…no legs!

Posted by A Writer

Look, ma, no legs!

Despite the problems it can cause, there's something pure about the spirit of competition.  It can drive us to do more than we could normally.  But then there are those problems: people who lose any sense of, you know, the right thing to do…people who'll do anything to get ahead, even if it involves tearing down everyone else to do it.

You'll have to excuse my being a little cryptic–I wasn't sure exactly how to start a post about the situation I just heard about, and opted for ironic commentary because flat out vitriol didn't seem appropriate.  Nothing seems appropriate, in a way, for a guy like Robert Stanek.  If you haven't heard of him, it's because you haven't spent a lot of time hanging out on Amazon or in certain circles of fantasy fiction readers and writers, where his name is usually a punchline.  Stanek, you see, is a self-styled fantasy writer whose work is award-winning in the extreme.  Check out his Amazon reviews:

"This tale is highly original, fun, and dynamic. It's an easy read for those of you who have difficulty reading books. It's easy to follow and it makes sense, in the same way that J.K. Rowling's writing makes does. The wording is made to make sense, not to confuse. A big bonus is that there's a wealth of depth if you want to explore it. Like with the history of the world and the fact that every character has a history and seems real. So wonderful that all the characters have pasts, presents and futures. Excellent book as well as a series, I highly recommend it! Definitely a keeper!"  

"The battle for the Kingdoms and the Reaches begins! This is the best book, everything you would want in a book is right here it is so good at painting a mental picture in your head it will have you yelling out loud throughout this entire book if I could give it more than 5 stars I would!!!! It is perfect for teen and adult Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings fans. It is very realistic. Robert Stanek is a wonderful author who can write exactly what a reader likes." 

"It was great!!! Fantasy Book of the Year. Better than Harry Potter. The Storyline was exceptional. Can't wait to start the next one. WOW! Two thumbs up for Mr. Stanek."

Holy cow–that's pretty impressive.  And every one of these reviewers think his work is like (or better than) Harry Potter!  Why haven't I heard about this guy before, you're thinking, right?  Where can I read his stuff?  You're in luck, my friend, because if you search carefully you'll see actual excerpts of his work.  Prepare to be amazed:

"Carefully he dabbed a wet cloth to the corners of his eyes and only then did he become something other than the frightened boy who in his dreams huddled into the forlorn corner because of the sense of security it gave him to know his back was against the wall and that nothing could sneak up on him from behind."

Uh…

"The hair, black as the receding night, flowed to her waist and while it was normally braided and folded over her left shoulder, it wasn't now."

Er…

"Amir didn't know if whether it was the veins of black that streaked otherwise pure white hair, the eyebrows with matching spikes of black mixed with gray or the beard that flowed to the middle of his chest in a sheet of pure silver that made Noman seem a king, but he seemed a king nonetheless–and a great king at that.  But Noman was not a king…"

…nor was he a MAN!  Oh…sorry.  Got caught up in the prose there.  Hmm.  So THAT'S why you haven't heard of him.  The truth, of course, that his work is godawful…so bad it almost seems to be deliberate.  But so what?  There are lots of lousy authors out there pretending to be big literary presences. But this is where the story gets interesting…because, you see, Stanek is pretty much alone in assuming his own worth.  But what about the Amazon reviews, you say?  Let's take a look at a few again:

"While the author isn't necessarily the best writer and some of his plots were predictable, the story was nevertheless utterly fascinating. In review of all four books in the set and in what is a first ever for me, I agree that this series is in many ways as good as Harry Potter, Narnia, etc in that it is a wonderfully character-driven story with strong plot, good action, and a fantasy world that is extremely interesting. The magnificent illustrations in the books don't hurt either – they are spectacular."

"I haven't loved a set of books this much since reading Chronicles of Narnia and Harry Potter. Prepare yourself for an immersive journey into the heart of the kingdoms of men! For anyone wanting to dig deeper into the mysteries and secrets of the stories I recommend any or all of the companion books."

"My children have enjoyed reading these as much as I did! Great books from a great author. The story's well written and beautifully illustrated.

This first book is as magical and wonderful as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. It's all about adventure and unraveling the mystery at the heart of the story. Recommend it to anyone who enjoys fantasy."

Noticing a pattern?  Like the fact that everyone, EVERYONE, wants to compare this to Harry Potter?  And I mean EVERYONE?

Uh-huh.  The truth is that fairly obviously, Stanek wrote all of his positive reviews himself.  The (lousy) prose is the same, the patterns close to identical.  And he didn't stop there: many one star reviews of other significant authors have the following pattern:

"This guy is rubbish, if you want to read real fantasy, go read Robert Jordan, George RR Martin and Robert Stanek!"

Yep.  Not content to pump up his own work with self-praise, he actually posted reviews of other authors in which (of course) his work was made superior.  (I won't get into what I think about Amazon allowing such behavior to continue…let's just say that Amazon isn't always known for making the wisest decisions either.)  But this would still be just an amusing story of self-aggrandizement without the final chapter.  Once real authors got wise to this practice, they (and a lot of readers and bloggers) started to call Stanek on it, humiliating him (I assume) in the practice.  Things died down until recently, when Pat Rothfuss, Jim C. Hines, and David Louis Edelman started to notice a bunch of one star reviews showing up on Amazon of their books–unusual, since all of them have been out for a while to positive critical attention (Rothfuss's Name of the Wind was a massive success).  All of a sudden there's a surge of negative attention for no reason?  Odd.  Let's look at a few of these reviews:

"I agree that this book doesn't come close to deserving the high rating it has here on Amazon. I give it three stars at the most. While there were some fairly interesting and tense moments in the story it was mostly a snooze, and the writing bordered on the poor side. The book reminds of something like a spin on Harry Potter that was written by James Patterson- it falls pretty wide of the quality/originality that I expected. How is it possible that it has such a high rating?"

"The only part of the book that resembles Potter is the presence of a school where the principles of magic are taught, that's it. Potter was very much a "chosen one" archetype. Kvothe is flawed and the degeneration of his legendary abilities as an adult is a change from the prodigy found in Potter and was a bold choice for the author. Kvothe is as fragile as he is talented. I've come to the conclusion that the people who are turned off by this book do not have patience for the kind of back story that Rothfuss created and failed to pick up on the satirical tone of the novel. It is a different kind of epic fantasy and it is not for everyone."  

"Hats off to you for your honesty about this book. A lot of reviewers have commented that for something rated so highly this is remarkably bad. One can echo that, but one must also note friends and family probably meant well. The writing is the worst of it. This discourtesy ranks up there with the worst of the worst of writers. So we look into world building, the story, world building and see what we find. The world is very poorly constructed, much like the characters. Every thing is so random and patched together and just doesn't fit so well. Perhaps shipping Rothfuss off to Iraq where many friends are serving would help him build some character and integrity? Until that happens, better to leave this untouched."

Now these sound oddly familiar, don't they?  And let's see…what do all of these authors have in common?  They're all fantasy authors, all legitimately published and successful, and—-every one of them publicly called out Stanek for his review scheme.

Surprised

Uh-huh.  Obviously Stanek has decided to go on the attack, and to hammer these other authors as a warning to all those who would dare to challenge his, uh, credentials (which seem to involve being a ex-Air Force vet with a fake Distinguished Flying Cross and writing crappy fantasy books).    

Wild Blue Yonder THIS, bitches!

Fortunately people are now wise to Stanek's M.O., and all of the authors he's gone after are too established to get affected by this…though Rothfuss still seems to be pretty upset about it, and I can't say I blame him.  (Again, I'm desperately trying to avoid commenting on Amazon allowing this practice to continue…and it's not easy, believe me.)  What's most staggering about Stanek's behavior isn't really even how unethical or utterly devoid of human decency it is; what's really stunning about it is how much it helps feed into Stanek's own delusions of persecution.  If he spent one fifth the energy and time he wastes tilting at windmills (much better written ones, btw) on actually, you know, writing better books, he might have had a shot at being published, or at least becoming a respectable writer, years ago.  Instead he's subscribed to that oldest and nastiest rule of competition: if I can't make it, nobody else will either.

Sometimes I like to imagine Stanek typing away at his keyboard, steam coming out of his ears in his righteous fury, blasting away at all of his critics real and imagined with his fake
reviews and his bogus authority.  But I try not to think about it for too long.  There's nothing more unpleasant, after all, than an undisciplined child throwing a really, really big tantrum.

Apr 17

It's one thing to be annoyed at the queryfail project, as I was (and certain it would lead to a whole lot of backlash, as it did).  It's a whole other thing to take a bazooka to the entire agent class, and wipe out the families just for good measure.

People.  Please.  They're not all out to get you.  And "argument by napalm" tends not to be effective.  Can everyone just take down the vitriol a few notches?

Apr 3

#Everythingfail.

Posted by A Writer


 

It never fails: just when I think I've seen and heard everything in the writing world, along comes something to remind me how young I am in the ways of the Force, so to speak.  A few weeks ago brought the arrival of #queryfail, the brainchild of agent Colleen Lindsay (who we've had the pleasure of welcoming to RR before).  Maybe, Colleen thought, we could get past the vitriol and frustration between agents and authors if we could just explain how to avoid the common query mistakes.  Maybe, she reasoned, we could take a step forward in the industry if we could just work together to create better queries–less work for the agents, better results for the authors…everyone wins.  Maybe, she hoped, we could all make a difference in this process.

And then she thought "Nahhhh, let's just make fun of the stupid authors instead."

And so #queryfail was born–a Twitter (social networking for twits, apparently) experiment in which a number of agents and editors twittered examples of how not to submit queries.  A lot of the examples were indeed egregious:

This is my first attempt at writing a fictional novel.

Like my protagonist, I definitely could be described as overachiever, and I naturally have hair like Lady Godiva.

My credentials for writing this book include: A divine mandate to speak the word of God.

[That last one's pretty solid, actually…I'm going to file that one away.]

Yep, those are pretty hideous.  And assuming that all the agents did was post them, and then basically say "no," seeing that kind of stuff could be helpful…at least for the authors who do read Twitter (somehow I think the divine mandate person has bigger fish to fry than microblogging…just a guess).  Unfortunately, the agents went, uh, a little further than that.

"What if everything you knew to be true, turned out not to be true? What if it were, in fact, false?" Wow, a first sentence.

Say you don't know how to paste the first five pages of your manuscript into your email? Please get your 3-year-old to teach you.

"I am writing this query letter to request permission to submit my proposal to you." Permission denied.

Hilarious, huh?

Yep, and there's the rub.  For all the protestations of "this was educational," and "we weren't trying to be mean," and "no, really, get over it, this is the nature of the business," the truth is that the professionalism went out the window the minute this idea was hatched, for two reasons:

1.  The authors never gave permission for their letters to be torn apart in this way, even anonymously.  Now some have already argued that this kind of thing is done all the time: at Absolute Write, at Query Shark, writers' groups, and so on.  This is a great argument, except, of course, that in each of these cases the authors submitted their queries with the full understanding that criticism–even harsh criticism–was the intended purpose of the submission.  Here authors were submitting their queries in good faith, with the (however misguided) intention of acquiring representation.  That this somehow became a golden opportunity to "educate" a desperately interested public is absurd at best and incredibly disingenuous–i.e. BS–at worst.

2.   This was never, ever intended to be "educational," no matter how much the apologists stamp their foots and insist it was so.  Don't believe me?  Consider Colleen's opening line:

What is #Queryfail Day, you ask? *rubs hands together gleefully* 

Mr. Chips, we hardly knew ye.

The idea that anyone sane would write some of the queries listed here, or learn anything from this process but "wow, glad I've never done anything like this," is absurd on face.  But even if this was just a joke–like comments suggesting one consult one's three year old on how to use a word processing program–it's obvious from the word go that the chances of any person who would send a query like this having enough technical knowledge and interest to get on Twitter and read hundreds of #queryfail entries are, er, very low.  And if they do read these things?  Is their reaction more likely to be "ah, now that I've been publicly humiliated I'll definitely start querying the right way!" or "Oh my God, how awful.  I can't believe how stupid I was.  I can't believe what a terrible writer I am."

I'll give you two guesses.  You shouldn't need more than one.

Of course this was entirely anonymous…except, of course, to the people who do read their queries here, and are angered / horrified / and not likely to change.  For them, there's no question what the "point" of this exercise was.  Of course, if such writers do stop querying, that's probably better for everyone, right?  Save everyone aggravation, cut down the static, everyone's happy.  Oh…except for the poor sap who's been shot down.  But who gives a damn about him or her, right?

The truth is that this had nothing to do with education and everything to do with blowing off steam.  And while that kind of thing might be understandable at a bar after work, it's a lot less understandable on the Internet, advertised beforehand, with (apparently) sequels to come.  It's especially incomprehensible coming from the agents who asked for queries to be sent to them in the first place.  Does that mean authors shouldn't follow the rules?  No…but it does mean that listing utterly egregious query examples and mocking them mercilessly isn't likely to lead to the allegedly desired result.

But worse than all of this is the promise that Queryfail 2 is right around the corner, and the repeated insistence by its apologists that it's an incredibly valuable activity (and so much FUN!), and that authors are too thin-skinned, and they're all prima donnas, and they need to get over themselves, and chill out, and let it go, all indicates that no one has learned from this experience the first time around. 

I note with some irony that #agentfail has just hit the web, with all the resulting bitterness and anger resulting thereunto.  Many agents are, apparently, shocked at the upset being expressed in the comments.  Hurt.  Appalled.

Hmm.  I can't imagine why anyone would have that reaction, can you?

Feb 19
Racist?  Us?

Racist? Us?

It’s hardly shocking that the New York Post is again making news with anything but its journalism (it’s well known no one puts the “blo” in tabloid quite like the Post), but I have to admit that this one is a doozy even for them. I’m not going to repost the cartoon (I don’t think the thing needs even more exposure), but in case you haven’t heard about this dust-up: the Post published an editorial cartoon on Wednesday showing two white cops, one holding a gun, standing over the bullet-ridden body of a chimpanzee. One of the cops, looking rather befuddled, says “They’ll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill.”

Hilarious, right?

But it gets better. Confronted with the utterly predictable backlash–from people who suggested that the cartoon might seem, you know, a bit racist and all, given the historical stereotype of African-Americans being represented as monkeys, and, you know, a bit illegal and all, given that the real force behind the stimulus bill was President Obama, himself an African-American, and so the implied threat is pretty obvious, and, you know, a bit ethically horrendous and all, given the history of African-American abuse at the hands of white police–the Post didn’t issue a typically weak apology, making bland references to the First Amendment before sneaking away to hide under a rock. No, confronted with the firestorm of controversy, the Post instead decided to double down:

“The cartoon is a clear parody of a current news event, to wit the shooting of a violent chimpanzee in Connecticut. It broadly mocks Washington’s efforts to revive the economy. Again, Al Sharpton reveals himself as nothing more than a publicity opportunist.”

Offensiveness this, bitches!

Now I’ll fully concede that Al Sharpton is probably not the ideal person to be issuing statements about, well, anything, and particularly considering his own shaky record on telling the truth when it comes to racial matters he probably would have been well served to lay low on this one. But who chooses to criticize something really doesn’t have anything to do with the legitimacy of the criticism, and so I don’t really think this is much of a defense. More important are the first two sentences, which tries to link the cartoon to the recent chimpanzee attack in Connecticut and financial crisis and skirts the racial question altogether. I say “skirts” the question, because it actually doesn’t repudiate the criticism directly. In fact, it doesn’t have anything to say about the racial elements at all. Whether it’s a “parody” of a current news event (and by the way, what exactly is there that’s subject for parody in the chimp attack? Did it qualify as a Stupid Pet Trick in the cartoonist’s mind?) or is “broadly mocking” the stimulus package, these things have nothing to do with whether or not the cartoon was racist. The silence on this point is deafening.

But fine, let’s assume the cartoon was racist–again, hardly shocking coming from the cartoonist Delonas, who’s been reflecting his boss’s views for a long time now. The guy’s a no-talent bastard and should be fired, the newspaper should be (if possible) even more ignored than it is now, and on we go, right? But the real problem is the implied defense of the cartoon–it’s satire, stupid, don’t you get it?

Uh, no. No, I don’t, actually.

First of all, parody isn’t satire. Certainly there are parodic elements within a satirical work. But satire is intended to be subtle and clever, not stupid and obvious. Quite apart from the racial overtones (and a political cartoonist would have to be utterly tone-deaf not to recognize them in his work, even if he somehow wasn’t intending them to begin with), the cartoon takes two utterly disconnected events and ties them together in an entirely meaningless way. Is the point that white people hate stimulus package makers? Or that a monkey could have written something better than the lawmakers in Washington? It might be mocking something–racist cops, crazy chimps, stimulus package writers–but God knows what.

Second, and this is probably the most important issue, satire is intended to instruct through its example. What precisely is being taught here? What’s the lesson? Watch out if you create a stimulus package, or a couple of white cops will gun you down in the street?

Look, I’m all for good satire. And there isn’t any figure too important to be mocked. But when you produce something neither funny nor tasteful, which doesn’t make sense in any but the most offensive context and even at that is absurdly stupid, hiding behind the shield of “it’s obviously just parody” and “Al Sharpton is a publicity hound” is about as obnoxious as it gets. But given the fact that a public apology seems unlikely, I’d accept bankruptcy from the Post.

Now that would be funny.

Dec 6

UR DOIN IT RONG.

Posted by A Writer

 

I hate to go back to l33tspeak/cat photos for a post title, but at least I didn't write this one.  No, this is taken from a comment in a thread about Ravenous Romance, a new E-publishing venture about chefs in love.  No, sorry, it's actually an erotic romance publisher–I assume the ravenous part comes from how quickly people devour the books, chain-reading the works like nicotine addicts left alone in a cigarette factory, which will be useful since Ravenous promises to publish "a-book-a-day." (This must be true, since they've trademarked the phrase.)  Ravenous makes lots and lots of claims, in fact–"great stories, well told," audiobooks for every novel it publishes, cheap prices, etc., etc.  (I felt a bit let down that I wasn't offered a free book light or one of those cool pairs of folding reading glasses, actually, but I digress.)

But this isn't a post about whether or not Ravenous can deliver on its claims (I'm not exactly into the romance scene in any case, particularly on the erotica side).  Because the thread I got the post title from stretches to 289 comments before petering out, and most of it isn't overly positive.  The initial post in the thread, entitled "Start Up Press Sending Lots of Unsolicited Emails to Authors and Readers," has some, well, concerns about Ravenous's business model.  But the fun really starts when Jamaica Layne gets involved.  Now Layne, a pseudonym for Jill Elaine Hughes (hey, I've got no problems with the whole "second name" stuff), has been waving the pom poms for RR for a while–a quick tour of Absolute Write and a number of romance sites shows Ms. Layne/Hughes has been quite the busy bee.  In this particular thread, she starts innocently enough:

"In regards to authors being qualified to edit, please note that I worked professionally as an editor for several years before becoming a novelist."

Hughes, you see, is both an editor and author for RR.  A little odd, but certainly not unprecedented…and hey, it's not like her agent is one of the cofounders of the press or anything…

"Lori Perkins, a New York-based literary agent, and Holly Schmidt and Allan Penn, owners of book packager Hollan Publishing, decided to join forces to create a new kind of genre fiction publishing company."  

Lori Perkins, Hughes' agent.  Oh. 

But fine; even though we're already into pretty sketchy territory, these people are professionals, and this has to be on the up and up.  Perkins has a serious track record.  Simply respond nicely and professionally and everything should be fine, right?

"If you have a personal vendetta against me or RR, then don’t read my books or don’t buy books from the publisher. But continuing to turn this board into your own personal version of Lord of the Flies does nothing for the flamers’ reputations."

Hmm.  What would Piggy say?

"I have received many supportive emails from very, very reputable authors and editors asking me 'what the deal' is with some of you people on here, and all I can do is throw up my hands and say 'I have no idea.'"

Ah, yes, the "many anonymous people, who won't say it publicly, have contacted me to say…" tack.  Always effective.  And finally:

"Online behavior can and does come back to bite people in the career."

The old crowd pleaser–not so thinly veiled threats against people with negative things to say about your press (not about you personally, though Hughes tends to get this distinction confused a lot).  In fairness, this was a response to other comments made…but again, they were comments made about the press, not Hughes herself.  Hughes goes on to say she was not blacklisting anyone–but editors and agents might choose "of their own accord not to work with certain authors based on flame wars in public forums.  Always something to keep in mind." By Hughes, one would hope, insofar as she's throwing as many fireballs as anyone else.  But as the thread continues, other RR authors decide to jump in the pool too:

"You're an idiot, plain and simple.  A bigoted, stupid, backwoods idiot in triple WHO DOES NOT HAVE A LIFE…"

I think a bigoted, stupid and backwoods idiot probably doesn't need to have the effect tripled to NOT HAVE A LIFE, but maybe I shouldn't deduct for "ladyslipper's" style.  Either way, we finally get to the money quote: 

"Why did I respond? Because when you read such stupid, unfounded opinions such as these journalists must.  Sort of reminds me of the Salem witch trials or better yet a lynch mob, drooling blood."

Hurrah–and the ridiculous analogy arrives!  I think I was more reminded of a group of authors having a heated argument on the Internet, but different strokes, as they say.  But in any case, the reason this is the most important part of the thread is the answer our wanna-be Cinderella gives to her rhetorical question–she must respond (whatever kind of journalist she may or may not be) when she reads "such stupid, unfounded opinions."  Has to. She is required to reply and prove, through the force of her rhetoric, that the people reading this thread–the romance readers to which she and other RR authors must presumably appeal–are members of a lynch mob engaged in a witch hunt, a hunt begun, in this odd formulation, by the witches themselves who I guess were interested in selling some eyes of newt.

What I'm left wondering is what must make these people, Hughes and ladyslipper and every other overly defensive author tilting at the windmills of non-personalized criticism, respond.  I presume they mean they must seek out and fight injustice wherever it stands, and perhaps save the reputation of their startup E-press while they're at it…but of course that's not really it, is it?  They must respond because they're insulted.  They must respond because people are suggesting, and thinking, that they are somehow lesser authors than others. 

They must respond because they're pissed off.

And it's that last reason–the "I'm angry and you're going to know it"–which is the most counterproductive.  Let's be clear–attacking one's readers ala Anne Rice isn't the smartest business decision, and doing PR by hammering every other E-press isn't much better.  This isn't a witch trial, or a lynch mob, or a bunch of stupid backwoods idiots.  It's a group of skeptical readers to whom you either will or won't cater–either you'll decide that they have a point, and your press will need to adjust its business practices accordingly, or you'll decide they don't and will ignore them.  But attacking them, going on to Internet boards to fight the slings and arrows of outrageous romance readers, is the worst thing you can do, because it confirms what they already believed to be the case–you're low-rent and thin-skinned.  Not a good combination.

So, fellow authors, take the lesson of RR to heart.  You don't have to respond.  Really.  This isn't a war crime, or a false accusation of treason, or even an attack on your public image.  It's a criticism on a random Internet blog, and you don't have to say anything in response to that.  You can simply smile, nod, and log off.  There's a big world out there, and lots of books to write for the people who live in it.

Please stop the madness.  Because when it comes to public relations, you really don't want to be DOIN IT RONG.

Nov 4

Hope.

Posted by A Writer

 

That a group of bigoted slave-owners could have the wisdom and foresight to create a document, and system of governance, which could adapt to allow the descendants of the slaves they owned to someday become the chief executor of that document is an extraordinary occurrence.  There is no greater symbol of what makes America a truly unique country than that.  The United States of America has much wrong to answer for, and much I've brought up myself.  But there is much good about it as well, and on this evening I am proud to be one of its citizens.

Sep 29

Yes we can, and no she can’t.

Posted by A Writer

 

This isn't a political blog, but political issues will sometimes intersect with the interests of what I talk about here…and given the stakes of the U.S. presidential election this year, those issues are magnified big-time.  This election has attracted far more interest than normal for all sorts of reasons–trying to overcome the eight year disaster which is the George Bush legacy, the financial crisis, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the first African-American presidential candidate ever nominated for a major party in the U.S., and of course the first female candidate nominated for president.

Er–oh.  Yes.  Of course Sarah Palin is actually the first female candidate nominated for VP by the Republican party.  My mistake…but in my defense, it's a pretty common one.  Since Palin's nomination last month, based on media coverage and the breathless enthusiasm of conservative pundits ("she's just so REAL!!!!11!!!") you'd think she was the Republican standard-bearer, with poor old John McCain bringing up the rear.  And this is kind of the root of my concern–her nomination, which says so much more about the state of one part of American politics and, down the road, the state of American education as well.  Why is it such a big deal?

Because this person is by far the least qualified VP candidate on a ticket in the last century…perhaps beyond (though Schuyler Colfax had his own problems, of course!).  And because her boss is 72 years old, with a history of malignant skin cancer.  That's why.  And perhaps, even more importantly, because both facts–and this isn't hyperbole, kids–are being utterly buried by the McCain campaign as fast as it can shovel the dirt, as well as some other rather smelly stuff I won't describe in detail here.  The pick is a cynical lie, and a transparent one at that.

In the interests of full disclosure: I'm clearly left of center on the political front, though I'm nothing close to a lockstep Democrat.  Though I have my own concerns about Barack Obama, it was fairly clear to me as the primary went on that he was quickly learning from his mistakes, was potentially inspirational both symbolically and otherwise, and was a refreshing change (i.e. neither astonishingly stupid nor smugly arrogant like a certain "Decider" I could think of) from the norm, and thus I was happy to vote for him.  And quite aside from my disagreements with McCain on a whole host of issues (really, why is one's inability to keep a Navy plane in the air a qualification for the highest level of public service?), his destructive and incredibly disingenuous campaign had pretty much turned me off as it was.

And then he nominated Sarah Palin, and (for me) all hell broke loose.

Now there are all sorts of things I could say about the transparent pandering of the pick.  There are all sorts of things I could bring up about the Republican party, which has spent much of the last hundred years fighting to undercut rights for all distinct groups including women, suddenly discovering the horrors of sexism (how dare they ask Sarah a question!  Deference, please.).  And don't get me started about the obsession with assuaging the religious right.  But for me, what this truly comes down to is this:

She's just not that bright.

Once the true believers have gotten over the gasps of horror and shocked exclamations of dismay, please let me explain.  I'm not talking about simple intelligence–the ability to understand a casual witticism, the capability of drawing logical conclusions from available evidence (though I'm not sure about the whole dinosaurs and people thing, but let that pass), the skill of forming coherent sentences.  Palin's obviously no fool; she wouldn't have ended up governor, with a pitifully thin list of accomplishments that would make Dan Quayle laugh, if she were.  She's obviously got political sense and savvy–and besides, anyone who can vaguely juggle five kids and a major public service job has got to have something upstairs.  No, I'm referring to something far more insidious: a lack of interest in the world outside.  She's just not very intellectually curious, or even vaguely intrigued, in things outside her very limited expertise.  How else do you explain not getting a passport until last year–when she was already in her mid-forties, and (as both she and her handlers continue to inexplicably cite, as if they're not in on the joke everyone else makes of this) living next to Russia?  How else do you explain a total inability to understand basic economics–or what the relationship between the credit markets and the consumer is?  How else do you explain a lack of knowledge of her own running mate's economical reformer credentials (well, okay, that's partly because he doesn't have any, but at least she could get on the same page with what he claims he's done, right?)?

Is it the five colleges thing?

The bottom line is that Sarah Palin seems like a nice person, and that's obviously part of her appeal.  She's so real, enthusiasts gush.  And while I'm not sure how many Americans shoot moose and race snowmobiles on a regular basis, I'm sure they can identify with the concept of a hockey mom as much as a soccer mom.  So she's got some family troubles…so what?  Everyone has those, right?  She's just like me, people say.  

And that's precisely why she would make a great therapist.  Or social worker.  Or minister.  It's important for people in those professions to be able to directly identify with their clients.

The problem is that she's not doing any of those things.  She's running for Vice-President of the United States of America, one old man's heartbeat away from the Presidency, and she needs to be taken on a United Nations tour like she's the freaking president of the Chamber of Commerce.  Look, folks: I'm all for down home common sense and folk wisdom.  But this job, to be potentially the second most powerful person in the world, doesn't need someone we could meet at the local general store.  It requires the best of the best, the smartest, the most able, literally the cream of all our crop.  Now the tension between meritocracy and democracy in this country is nothing new; for centuries we've struggled to find the balance between equality for all and getting the best and brightest.  But part of that balance has been struck by our tacit understanding that we ultimately elect the best we can, not the most like us we can.  Should they understand what we're going through?  Of course–that's a necessity for good leadership, as it's always been.  But requiring our leaders not simply to understand a certain life but live it themselves is tipping the balance to mass opinion: the Wikipedia/American Idol culture, where what we think is true is more important than what's actually true.  And somehow, over the past eight years, we've gotten the idea that electing our friends and neighbors is a better idea than electing the best we can find.  But where else should we advance this theory?  Science?  Education? Medicine?  ("Sure, you say that's a goiter.  But frankly I don't agree with you, and neither does my friend here.  He says it's cancer, and he thinks we should operate right now, and he's my friend, so I'm afraid you're out of luck.  But thanks so much for your input, Doc.") 

The truth is that Sarah Palin represents the worst retreat to the feel-good generation I could imagine, all part of the race to mediocrity which upholds ignorance as a badge of honor and knowledge as a sign of dangerous, "exclusionary" elitism.  I believe that the majority of Americans are now starting to get this–McCain's collapse in the polls mostly has to do with his economic missteps, but he hasn't been helped by Palin's cringe-inducing interviews, which have started to bother even people who like the whole "hockey mom" persona–but the fact that it's taken this long to make the point is a bit disturbing.  It has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with sexism, and everything to do with elitism–the elitism which we ought to require of our leaders, the way we require it of our military generals, our doctors, scientists, and teachers.  No one likes to be made to feel stupid, or patronized.  But reveling in one's relentless average-ness isn't the answer either, and picking a running mate to appeal to that mindset in others is even worse.  Education is founded on the idea of striving for something more than what you are, of learning about the world, of bringing light to the dark places of the intellect.  For me, I want a leader just as interested in that journey as I am, not someone whose idea of foreign travel begins and ends with a snowmobile trip to Canada. 

Though I hope such a trip crosses over some Bridge to Nowhere.  It seems like such a shame to waste the image otherwise.

Sep 7

These are not the hammer.

Posted by A Writer

 

It took a while, but I've finally entered the Joss Whedon world.  It's actually hard to imagine that I've been out of the loop on this guy for this long; anyone who did Buffy, Angel, and Firefly (plus the Serenity bonus round…and even the screenplay for Toy Story!) has serious street cred, and Whedon's got more than most (hell, his father was a screenwriter for The Electric Company, which is cool, even if I don't really understand why that show would need a writer).  He's got a huge number of fans (Whedonistas, Whedonivas, Browncoats…and probably lots of other names, but you get the idea), a crazily impressive career, and now, to top it all off, he's got an Internet musical about a bizarro supervillain played by the former Doogie Howser.

Er…

Yes, I'm of course speaking (as every Whedonista knows) of Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, which came out a couple of months ago (I know, I know, I told you I was way behind the curve here).  It's really just your typical boy meets girl, boy loves girl but also secretly intends to take over the world, boy has to deal with arch-nemesis who also is interested in girl musical blog…which makes about as much sense in practice as it does in theory.  But for most of the show it really doesn't matter; Neil Patrick Harris is funny and appealing as Dr. Horrible, and everyone drops pop culture references, puns and jokes like they're going out of style (my favorite: the head of the League of Evil, which Dr. H desperately wants to get into, is Bad Horse. Nickname: "The Thoroughbred of Evil.").  Add in some funny inside jokes for people who have ever read a superhero comic book in their lives, and some reasonable production values (it's even got some decent music!), and you ought to have a solid satire of most of these supervillain origin stories.

Until, that is, the end.  And if you haven't seen the whole thing yet, go now and come back (I'll still be here, I promise), because I'm about to say a lot more about it (in other words, SPOILERS AHEAD).

Back?  Settled in?  Good.  Now then, how to put this…Um…

WTF???????

So Acts One and Two present a kind of light-hearted parody, with plenty of humor and fun…and even a mildly entertaining love story (albeit a vaguely creepy one, given Dr. H's evil tendencies).  And just when you feel you understand the mood of the show, and are ready for Act Three (again, SPOILER ALERT!!!!!!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!)…

…Penny dies, and Dr. H gets into the League of Evil, and the whole thing ends.  Everyone loses.  Really.  Roll credits.

I'm not sure what thing annoys me the most about this ending, so I'll just throw out my top three:

1.  It's completely incoherent.  The ending is utterly, completely and totally off from the entire tone of what preceded it.  Now I understand that Whedon is known for playing with genre conventions and winking at his audience the whole time (Buffy is pretty much entirely founded on screwing with typical horror movie tropes), and that he's never so happy as when he's killing off characters, but still–there's a difference between cleverness and tone-deafness, and this is a whole lot of the latter.  That Dr. H. goes on to get all the evil he ever wanted, but still feels vaguely angsty about the whole thing, doesn't change the complete illogic of the way the mood flips.

2.  It's pretentious.  Whedon actually claims that this work is a standard "tragedy," and therefore the ending fits within that tradition.  Uh, no.  First of all, I'm sorry, but this is called Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog for a reason, and it ain't to draw upon tropes from Euripides.  (The chief bad guy is freaking called Bad Horse, for God's sake!)  It's a light-hearted parody until we hit the last three minutes, when it takes a hard right turn into pathos for no particular reason, other than the idea that "bad stuff happens to good people" which is a. not always true and in any case hasn't been unique as an artistic concept in twenty years and b. a pretty lame message to deliver, if you've decided you need to deliver a message at all in a movie which has as one of its villains "Fake Thomas Jefferson" (no, I'm not making that up).  Second, tragedy is supposed to be transformative, cathartic.  What exactly is transformed in any of the characters?  Or the audience?  Do we feel purged from the experience of watching someone die thanks to a defective death ray?  Yeah, I don't think so either.

3.  It's at best absurdly conventional, at worst flat out sexist.  Penny is the only truly innocent one in the entire show, and as is the case with every standard horror movie, the innocent (and naive) has to die somehow.  (Of course, she does have sex before getting killed, so maybe that's the trope we're dealing with.)  Either way, the idea that Whedon, who has made a career out of creating strong female roles (though I'm a little more skeptical about how liberating Buffy really is than the Whedon fans seem to suggest), would even toy with sending the wrong message on either of these cases is mind-boggling.  And no, I don't buy that showing a single newspaper headline calling her "What's-Her-Name" is presenting some kind of deeply satirical message.  Gotta do better than that.

What it comes down to is that DHSAB is really disappointing, and it makes me seriously question if the rest of Whedon's work is as overrated as this.  I'd like to think it isn't–the Browncoats can't all be wrong, can they?–but given the worshipful treatment it's gotten everywhere, you have to wonder. And if the rest of his work demonstrates these kinds of bad decisions, I don't think I'll be wearing this anytime soon.

Aug 7

No, no, he just SOUNDS bigoted!

Posted by A Writer

 

I'm late to the party on this one, but I couldn't let this event pass without commenting on it in some fashion.  The problems all started when William Sanders, editor at Helix (a reasonably well-known sci-fi webzine) rejected a story submission.  Hmm…that seems innocuous enough.  Maybe things got really out of hand when the rejected author posted the rejection on his website?  But again, that's no different than what the good people at LROD do every day.  So what on earth could have caused the blogosphere to hit the Apocalypse Now button?  Maybe if we take a look at the letter itself:

No, I'm sorry but I can't use this.

Well, perhaps a bit pointed and dismissive, sure, but that's par for the course for some editors.  Certainly nothing over the top here…

There's much to like. I'm impressed by your knowledge of the Q'uran and Islamic traditions. (Having spent a couple of years in the Middle East, I know something about these things.)

Why, this is even a bit encouraging.  What's the problem?  I can't imagine why…

You did a good job of exploring the worm-brained mentality of those people – at the end we still don't really understand it, but then no one from the civilized world ever can – and I was pleased to see that you didn't engage in the typical error of trying to make this evil bastard sympathetic, or give him human qualities.

Surprised

Oh.  So that's why.

Yep, it turns out that Sanders actually rejected this author's speculative fiction piece with a straight-up racist screed.  Because it doesn't stop there: after some more explanation about how this isn't speculative fiction and thus isn't appropriate, he finishes his letter with this gem:

And I don't think you're going to sell it to any other genre magazine, for that reason – though you'd have a hard time anyway; most of the SF magazines are very leery of publishing anything that might offend the sheet heads. I think you might have a better chance with some non-genre publication. But I could be wrong.

Uh-huh.  He actually said, straight-faced, "sheet heads."  In a rejection letter.  From a "professional" editor.

Wow.

Now under most circumstances, you might expect the editor of a public, well-known publication to either deny that such a letter was ever sent (which would admittedly be ridiculous, but denial is the first fallback), claim that it was taken out of context, or issue a full and profuse apology.  But not this time; when William Sanders takes a hit, he comes out swinging.  His comment on the website entry–and hold on to your hats:

Son, hasn't anybody ever told you that public posting of a private email message is contrary to the rules both of accepted internet practice and common courtesy?

Glad we've established the rules of common courtesy, which apparently wouldn't apply to any of the people Sanders has defined as "sheet heads," but let's look further:

I do appreciate your efforts to be fair – certainly far more so than most of the other people in this ward, ah, group – but the fact remains that you've done something both socially and professionally unacceptable in posting it at all. So if you had any idea of submitting anything else to Helix, forget it. I won't work with people who pull this kind of shit.

You see, kids, posting private letters is socially and professionally unacceptable.  Spewing hate speech like it's going out of style, on the other hand, is just fine.

I suppose this is what I get for trying to be a nice guy, and give you a little encouragement rather than the standard thanks-but-no-thanks form rejection. Silly me.

Encouraging?  Yes.  Racist?  Yes.

(I notice, too, the presence in the lynch mob of another person I've tried to help, and to whom I thought I'd been particularly kind. No good deed, etc.)

Of course none of these people have read the story, and so they fail to grasp the context – that I was talking not about Muslims, or Arabs, or Oompa Loompas or any other religious or ethnic group, but about terrorists and violent extremists. (That being, after all, what your story was about.)

Ah, and here we finally get the first whiff of plausible deniability–the sheet heads and worm-brained people are actually terrorists.  Which makes sense, of course, because the terrorists in the Philippines, the ones in Ireland ten years ago, Timothy McVeigh, they all…

Er…hmm.  That's odd.  In fact, the only ones who fit this "sheet head" description are the non-white, Muslim kind–the ones who traditionally (from the Fox News view of the world, anyway) wear turbans. Which makes one wonder why Sanders wouldn't use the term "bomb-happy street thugs," or "suicidal maniacs," or indeed any other term that doesn't specifically refer to Muslims.  Perhaps that's because Sanders is, I don't know, an utter liar?

But I don't feel any need to defend myself, or Helix, to these people; indeed I doubt that there's anybody outside their little Mutual Masturbation Society who gives a damn what they think about anything at all.

They are cordially invited to have intercourse with their precious selves. I'm sure most of them could use the practice.

A charming finish. Unfortunately for Sanders, though, lots and lots of people outside the so-called MMS gave much more than a damn about it; writers and editors from Tobias Buckell to Jim Hines to Patrick Nielsen Hayden slammed Sanders on their blogs, and soon lots of writers who had previously been published by Helix starting sending requests for their material to be removed.  Sanders started by ignoring the requests, then agreeing to them, then charging $40 for the privilege of removal (I swear I'm not making this up), and finally removing the stories and leaving this quaint tag line in its place:

This story removed at author's pantiwadulous request.

It takes a special kind of bigot to invent a new word while in full-out bigotry attack mode, by the way.

In the process of all of this, though, Sanders managed to double down by responding to an Asian-American contributor to Helix who had requested her work be pulled with this delightful soupcon of hatred:

[Your story] never did make any sense…[I only accepted it] because (notorious bigot that I am) I was trying to get more work by non-Caucasian writers.

Hooray for intellectual consistency!

What troubles me most about this episode isn't really Sanders' bigotry, though, contemptible as it is.  I've seen a whole host of racists from the light-handed tell an off-color joke from time to time types to the full out burn the cross on the lawn kinds (and both are on the same continuum, by the way.  You don't get a pass because you only tell, or laugh at, a "harmless" Hispanic joke once in a while.), and the existence of people like Sanders, while fortunately getting rarer, isn't a shock to me.  What is shocking is how many people decided to come to his defense, actually making comparisons to Hunter S. Thompson and objecting to what Sanders terms the "PC waterheads'" (what's left after water and sheet heads, by the way?  Poopy heads, if we keep moving down the same path of maturity?) assault on free speech and, the real culprit here, someone who dared to air Sanders' rejection letter in a blatant violation of privacy.

Whaaaa????

Okay, folks, let's break this down.  

1.  There is no right to privacy associated with a rejection letter.  None.  You sent the author a letter, and that's it.  If I want to post every rejection or acceptance letter I've ever received and start making fun of the letter-writer, I've got every right to do that.  Moreover, please get over yourself. You're not an intelligence agency, though you seem to have the same level of knowledge about Islam (i.e.: none).

2.  Free speech gives me, you, and anyone else the right to say whatever we want about whomever we want without fear of imprisonment or abuse.  It does not give me, you, or anyone else the right to say whatever we want and not face the consequences in a similar fashion: in other words, to have to listen to any number of people who wish to register their public displeasure with what you've just said.  Free speech is not free license.  If I run out on the street and start screaming racial epithets into the sky, I don't have the right to expect that people will just smile peacefully and walk by.  Someone, or everyone, would have the right to stop and yell equally offensive epithets, or non-offensive speech, right back at me.  They would not have the right to threaten me, my family, or my home–and I wouldn't have the right to threaten them either–but they would certainly have the right to respond in kind to the exercise of my free speech.  

If someone was trying to stop Sanders from speaking, that would be wrong.  But the idea that people are out of line for vehemently and publicly berating Sanders for his idiotic bigotry is so laughable as to almost defy description.  The bottom line is the injured party is certainly not some two-bit editor of a quarterly webzine, or the rejected author (who backpedaled from his posting of the rejected letter at a prodigious rate of speed), or free speech advocates.  It's not even the other authors previously published in Helix who didn't deserve the guilt by association they've gotten in some corners.  No, the injured party is the group of people who read Sanders' letter, and his ever more shrill and defensive responses to the attacks on his words after that, who knew that he was referring to them: their culture, their heritage, themselves.  That group is the real loser in this whole mess.  And for Sanders and his defenders not to understand that, but instead to hunker down behind an array of "that wasn't supposed to be public" walls and "you're attacking my right to free speech" trenches, is not only disingenuous but flat out despicable.

There is no missed context, or misquoting, or misinformation here.  But there's one hell of a missed opportunity to close rather than widen the racial divide.  And on that score, Sanders deserves every bit of vitriol he gets. I hope he'll understand why someday.  But in the short term, I'll accept a good old-fashioned tongue-lashing.  I suspect it's more benign than what he would have allowed the "worm-brained" "sheet heads" if given the opportunity.

Jul 8

Anyone who's been on the Internet for any length of time knows all about the dreaded flame war: that peculiar form of conflict where people get unreasonably irritated at other people, either via E-mail or (more often) a public message board, start firing off increasingly insulting messages like they're going out of style, and eventually get so out of control they either drag the entire virtual community down with them in flames or get banished from the forum with extreme prejudice.  I've been lucky enough to stay out of these kinds of things for the most part (Smokey Bear was a big childhood influence, I guess), and it had been a while since I'd seen one.  But I just got through watching another regional conflict nearly spiral out of control, and boy, did it bring back memories of the good old days.

The specifics aren't really important, and besides, it'd be kind of hard to change the names to protect the innocent.  To sum up: person A (we'll call him/her Innocent Bystander, or IB for short) asks an innocuous question about an unknown entity (UE for short).  Persons B, C, and D (we'll call them The Opinionated, or TO) all weigh in with their opinions that UE probably isn't a good option for IB.  Suddenly Person E (a rage-filled individual–RFI, of course) suggests, pretty defensively, that TO don't know everything and shouldn't be attacking UE.  Both TO and IB assure RFI (aren't acronyms fun?) that they're not attacking UE but simply calling a spade a spade.  RFI demands that UE be allowed to respond to being called a spade.  TO, IB and everyone else (EE) says this is a bad idea.  RFI calls most of TO a bunch of ****** and demands they have the guts to speak to UE.  TO tells RFI to grow up.  RFI calls TO…

Well, you get the idea.  In the end the second finishing option was chosen, and off RFI went into the sunset, to EE's relief.  But the whole business left me thinking about the motivation of the flame war.  I was getting pretty philosophical about it, in fact, until the basic question hit me:

Why the hell do I care?

In fact, why the hell does anyone care?  What's at stake here?  Sure there are the occasional discussions about politics, ethics, or baseball (about roughly equivalent value, I'd say 😉 ) that have big time consequences.  But in the vast majority of cases the discussion topics are only slightly more important than the arguments people have about them.  I get it, I get it: humans like to argue.  We enjoy competition–even conflict.  We like to win.  But no one actually wins here, because the fundamental tenet of the Flame War Code is that you never, ever acknowledge someone to be right about anything.  Really.  Take a look at one of these flame wars and see what happens around page five of the fifteen page thread: even entirely impossible propositions ("if you weren't such a ********* you might understand a little ******* logic, you ******* ****") get treated like arguments that need to be rebutted ("I do understand ******* logic, you ****** *****; if you weren't such a ***********, I'd…")  At this point no one even remembers what the hell the argument was about in the first place.  It's gotten real personal.

So the question remains: why?  What makes it personal?  And I think a quick look in the mirror tells us the answer:

Because they're laughing at me.

That's really what it comes down to.  Our irrational fear that someone somewhere thinks less of us, or at least the virtual version of us.  Or maybe it's not all that irrational after all.  E-mail and instant messaging has made the use of the :) ubiquitous, and has helped cover a multitude of sins–or at least insults–by making everything right before it not such a big deal.  It's the universal sign for "just joking."  And we go along with it, but not always willingly–because there's a part of us that wonders if the joke was being made because the other person believes it's true, deep down.  What made him/her think of that to begin with, we wonder.  And once you've started down that road, friends, it's awfully hard to get off before you reach Destination Paranoia.  Suddenly anything anyone says about you online is coming from a position of truth, and how many other people are going to believe what that person says, and…

And all of a sudden there is a bogeyman coming to get you.

Given this kind of setup, it's no wonder people respond the way they do in a flame war.  The goal isn't to beat the other person's arguments, let alone have a rational and productive exchange of ideas: the goal is to annihilate the other person, to obliterate him/her, to destroy her utterly before he/she does the same to you.  And when you're in a war of annihilation, there is no strategic victory.  Kill 'em all, and let God (virtually speaking) sort it out.  Now this isn't to say that the flame war doesn't have its place.  It can be amusing to watch, and the best ones are legendary entertainment.  But that entertainment comes at a price, because anytime we laugh at one or the other person for his/her ridiculous overreactions, we're confirming the fears that made a normally sane and rational person behave like a two year old in the first place.  And when we then find ourselves getting drawn into a heated argument, what's our reaction likely to be?  

They're all going to laugh at me!   

All of this is not to say that we can't get into a high-stakes discussion online.  It's simply to suggest that we think carefully about our motivations, and other people's.  Maybe there isn't any physical harm from a flame war, but there sure as hell are emotional scars, even if they're coming from a silly argument…and that means we've got to tread a bit more carefully through the online forums and comment sections of the world, even if we can't see the person writing angry messages to (at?) us.  The next time someone calls you a *******, you might want to consider responding with something like this:

You may be right.

It's true, non-committal, and non-escalating.  It might not save the world, but it'll go a long way to stopping one more conflict that we can do without.