Dec 30

 

Yesterday I stumbled on a website which has apparently created a fair amount of buzz in the literary world: Literary Rejections on Display.  Despite the hideous name (seriously, folks, what kind of an acronym for a blog is LROD?  Now, RR on the other hand…), the site itself is pretty funny…or devastatingly sad, maybe, depending on your particular situation and whether you preferred Tigger or Eeyore as a kid (I've known devotees of each character, and, well, let's just say the shoe fits.  I guarantee Billie Joe Armstrong was an Eeyore guy, even if he denies it.).  Ostensibly developed and maintained by a published and award-winning writer, the site essentially celebrates, er, rejection–at least of the literary kind.  Writer, Rejected (God help him/her/it if he/she/it ever posts at the Chronicle using that name) or one of his/her/its readers will post some rejections, add some witty repartee ("Unfortunately, there is nothing I can do about my 'general air of bitterness.'  The blog is supposed to be helping me with this.  Or so says Lady Shrink.  I hope this means you'll come back."), and then let the comments fly.  Posted rejections vary from the apparently bitter ("Literati Roll," where a number of high-powered contest judges is added to the list of those who rejected poor W, R because since he/she/it didn't win the contest he/she/it obviously lost it, thanks to these bastards) to the evidently bizarre ("It's Not Easy Being Gay," where one reader sent in a rejection which actually said "it can be difficult to publish a male gay novel successfully").  I say "apparently" bitter because W, R claims he's/she's/it's not, or at least not as much as it might seem (and besides, W, R has an agent and is published now, so he/she/it says)–he/she/it just has a sense of humor, thinks the publishing industry is B.S. (see, there's an acronym you can go to the mat for), and wants everyone to know it.

On one level this guy/girl/acronym has really got it going on.  First of all, he's/she's/it's (let's just go with HSI from now on, 'kay?) gotten people to notice–and people in the industry at that.  Editors and agents alike post on HSI's blog either defending themselves, desperately trying to explain what publishing or agenting is really all about or bemusedly trying to figure out what the hell is going on, with (generally) predictable results.  There are more than a couple of industry execs who have made it their business to run around the Internet crying foul at anyone who dares question their methods for whom I imagine W, R is a spawn of Satan (sorry, S.O.S.), and boy, would they blacklist the hell out of him/her/it if they could find out who it was (more on that issue in a minute).  Second, W, R is utterly unflappable, so much so that even if you find HSI annoying and self-indulgent, the attitude starts to grow on you.  In one post, HSI responded to the comment "A normal person would just give up.  Why post evidence that you are a BIG FAT LOSER for the world to see?  I don't get it.  You must suck as a writer." with "Hey, wait!  I recognize you.  You're the voice inside my head!  How did you get out?"

LOL, W, R.

It's particularly amusing to see people try to play psychological games in the apparent hope that Rejecto-man will rip off the mask and come forward with a sobbing confession about HSI's true identity, when it's obvious that even if HSI weren't obviously having a blast outing, picking on and often humiliating agents and editors (all except Rosemary Ahern, who has won the coveted GAK! or Golden Apple of Kindness award (that's W, R's acronym, not mine) and is kind of a mock patron saint of the site), there's no way HSI could reveal his/her/its identity now: far too many bridges have been, well, annihilated (burned isn't strong enough) to take the chance, and after all, it's a lot easier to be brave behind The Mask Of Internet-Anonymous Strength.  I should know.

Which leads to the other, not so nice side of the LROD.  Given the anti-heroism of the mysterious W, R, who throws out names like they're going out of style without any intention of doing the same for himself/herself/itself, what, really, is the point of all of it?  It's not really a "this editor is a bastard.  This agent should be thrown to the wolves" place; there's certainly more than a fair bit of carping at the industry, but the minute an agent or editor posts a response, W, R's tone becomes absurdly conciliatory and rational. ("Jim!  You are good to stop by and give us some insight.  Listen, I think maybe you bring up a very good point here.  Your intention is to help and you want to offer some kind, useful advice, but blah blah blah brownnose brownnose brownnose can I do your laundry for you thanks!"  Okay, I was paraphrasing the last part.  HSI actually offers to wash the guy's car.)  But it's also, clearly, not a "let's all have a rational discussion about the problems with the publishing industry, of which we all want to be a part."  And it's sure as hell not satire when it spends half its time bitching about how crappy it is to get rejections and how lousy agents and editors are on their respective power trips and the other half backfilling frantically when a member of one of the aforementioned groups shows up in person.  It's not a heartwarming rags to riches tale about one writer's struggle for recognition (since, according to W, R, "in the eyes of many, I am still a literary reject"), but it's equally not a "wallowing in failure" blog…since, as W, R insists, HSI is published and award-winning.  It's just a site that says things.  About people.  Anonymously.

And that ultimately is the issue here: LROD is really like cotton candy.  It tastes good; W, R can obviously write, and is such a great mixture of self-deprecation and absolute aplomb that you stick with HSI.  Any criticism leveled at HSI will meet with the same kind of "what, me worry?" rejoinder.  It's so clever that it's sweet, and it's fun, and it's even a little decadent, but it's also, well, candy: it isn't real sustenance, and too much of that same diet gets awfully old after a while.  Someone, back behind the invisibility screen, read these rejections and was bothered by them: really bothered, so bothered that HSI needed to create a site and a persona, one part Tigger and three parts Eeyore, to call the bastards who did this to HSI out.  But we'll never see that person, both because HSI doesn't have the guts to do what HSI does to agents and editors on an everyday basis (and I wouldn't weep for them either…they're public figures, and they ought to be able to take the heat) and reveal who HSI is and because we'll never see a real reaction from him/her/it either.  Everything is for the funny, the joke, dude, relax, we're all having a good time, or you're right, I'm a bad person, I know I am, that's why I write this.  It's all about the smile of the court jester, and if you've ever watched a jester (or the modern equivalent, a clown) for long enough there comes a point where you start wondering where the human is behind the "look, I'm hilarious!" game.

I assume that if and when W, R stumbles on this post HSI will leave a comment poking fun at me, or HSI, or both.  That's cool; it's the typical postmodernist "nothing matters, even my saying this" game, and HSI plays it really well…HSI is one funny dude/dudette.  And there's no doubt that some agents and editors need to be taken down a few pegs.  But still, I can't help but wonder a little bit about how exhausting it must be for Writer, Rejected to play this shell game all the time, and what would happen if HSI ever slipped up…you know, posted something about a rejection really pissing him/her/it off, or said "you know, guys, I'm really feeling down today.  Really, this time, I promise.  I really need help.  Really.  Can someone help me?"  Would anyone actually step forward?  Why would anyone have any reason to believe the emotion was genuine this time?

But nah, it's all about the joke, anyway.  We'd rather have fun, right?  Pass the cotton candy…I love it when he does this next juggling act.

Dec 28

Seek and ye shall find.

Posted by A Writer

 

Just about finished with book two, so only time for a short post today.  This week's coolest search string:

disappearing car door

Hey, if you found your way here because you're looking for an invisible portal for an automobile, more power to you…I guess… Smile

Full length post on the way shortly. 

Dec 27

Yo hablo diversity, I swear.

Posted by A Writer

 

If there's anything the holidays are great at, it's giving you the chance to reconnect with loved ones, friends and family…

…even if they're bigots.

Well, not bigots, exactly.  Actually my family is pretty cool by and large, compassionate, caring, and smart.  It's probably because my family is all those things that I find the dinner table exchanges that often happen a little tough to take.  Let's take an example, shall we?

Cousin:  The problem is that you don't have any standards any more.  Anyone can just do whatever they want.  I mean, the deli I go to every day for lunch, I can't even order a sandwich anymore.  They installed this system where you order your food through a computer thing.  You know why?

Me:  Why?

Cousin:  So they could hire people who can't speak English.

Me:  Uh…

Cousin:  That way they don't have to pay benefits.  And the immigrants there, they don't have to pay Social Security taxes or anything.

Me:  But that's not true–Social Security gets taken out of their checks before they get them.  And if they're illegal immigrants, they can't collect Social Security, because they can't register for it.

Cousin:  Oh.  [Pause]  Still, though, why can't they freaking speak English when they come here?

Me [getting up]:  Oh, look, the ham's ready!  

This is pretty much the extent of a conversation I had with a family member during Christmas, and on the drive home (after I got over being horrified) I started thinking about what would cause this kind of an attitude.  This is the kind of guy who would–in fact, who has–helped a total stranger whose car had rolled over get out, helped get his kid out, and stayed with him until the police arrived…and gave him his cell phone number in case he needed a place to stay that night.  And the kicker?  The guy was Hispanic, with a heavy Spanish accent.  

What the hell?

Assuming my cousin isn't a lunatic, or hasn't watched Sybil one too many times, there's got to be some explanation for this disconnect.  What causes him to be a private Samaritan and a public Know-Nothing?  Because it is that private/public split, I think, which is at the root of the illegal immigration debate which has reached such a fever pitch in this country.  Show me a Republican candidate who wants to fire off a new salvo against the country's porous borders, and the way immigrant labor is destroying our economic and moral authority in the world (I think this might have more to do with that second issue, but I digress), and I'll show you a Republican candidate who employs more than one of these on his staff.  The dirty little secret no one wants to discuss, of course, is that immigrant labor, legal or otherwise, currently makes up much of the workforce for those jobs which we'd rather forget need to get done.  It's fine to claim that American workers are just falling all over themselves to get these low-paying jobs, but the truth tells a different story: for a variety of cultural and economic reasons, the immigrant population (which has been largely excluded from other positions) has been more willing to take the jobs the rest of us haven't.  

But I don't think this really gets to the crux of the matter.  No, beyond economics, beyond resentment for perceived wrongs, beyond just plain old simple racism, I think what really underlies this issue is what my cousin was suggesting while passing the mashed potatoes and gravy: they don't speak English.  Now that was fine, I think, so long as it was a problem confined to the border areas; hell, we all like Tex-Mex food, right (sure, even my cousin)?  But when non-native English speakers began showing up in the Midwest, Northeast, and other areas previously considered bastions of, er, the "America for Americans" attitude, all of a sudden everyone became fascinated in keeping the English language safe for democracy, or something.

Now on one level I can't object to this phenomenon: I teach English in college, I'm a writer, this whole freaking blog is about "literature, language and life rewritten," so obviously I like English.  I even like the English.  And on a basic level, I do think it's important that people who plan to be here long term work to learn the English language during their time here, for their sakes as much as anyone else's.  But my objection to the "English NOW!" people is a much more complex one:

1.  English is an exceedingly difficult language for non-native speakers to learn.  Its rules are constantly subject to exception, it's (see what I mean?  Smile) forever adopting and assimilating words, phrases, even rules from other languages, and it often doesn't read the way it's spoken…all of which makes it a lot harder to pick up than just sitting in a couple of classes or listening to a few tapes.  In other words, it takes time, far more time than we're generally willing to give.  Add that to the problem of having to culturally adapt to a new environment, which foreigners who come here are often much better at doing than we are when going elsewhere, and you can see that the "why can't they speak freaking English" theory isn't a particularly good one.  And speaking of the ugly American

2. …we really have very, very little right to say anything about anyone else's ability to adapt to us.  If you've ever traveled and been embarrassed by an American tourist loudly complaining about the lack of English speakers–in Greece–you'll understand what I mean.  As with other aspects of our foreign policy, we could use some serious humility lessons before we get all hot and bothered about having ATMs give options in Spanish.

3.  There is something particularly hypocritical, and mean-spirited, about the anti-immigrant, pro-English crowd who are themselves all immigrants or descended from same.  I'll leave for now the point that none of us are native Americans except for, well, Native Americans.  But what about the immigrants whose families themselves showed up here a hundred years or fewer ago?  What about the O'Malleys, the Santorellis, the Kaplans, the Beauchamps?  Do any of those people, whose fathers and grandfathers fought their way through the mistrust and suspicion of those who thought they were taking their jobs, stealing their women, speaking strange languages (hmm, why does this sound familiar?), have any right whatsoever to slam the country club door shut now?

An admittedly rhetorical question, with an admittedly clear answer: no.

Now none of this is to suggest that schools should drop English courses and just teach languages based upon regional conditions.  For many reasons, simplicity among them, it just makes sense that English should remain the dominant language of a country which still mostly speaks it.  But demanding that every immigrant who arrives in the U.S. must immediately drop everything and sit in language classes until they "get it" is not only unrealistic but ineffective and, frankly, hypocritical in the extreme.  And given America's sorry history of treating those it views to be different as very, very different, it would seem to me we ought to be especially careful handling the situation now.  In the meantime, we'll just have to muddle through those bizarre holiday dinners the best we can.  If worse comes to worst, I guess we can all just talk sports instead.

Hey, at least we'll be getting to what really matters!

Dec 25

 

And I've got nothing sarcastic, funny, or righteous to add to that.  I'll have a longer post out on the 26th or 27th at the latest…until then, Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa, and Happy Anything Else Which Applies to everyone! 

Dec 23

Bah, humbug.

Posted by A Writer

 

I'm frantically trying to finish my second novel before the end of the year, and so only had time for a quick post today–so I thought I'd head over to WordPress and find a snowfall plugin for the holiday season.  Well, it turns out there are lots of snowfall plugins, and they all just require you to install and activate them, right?  Sure, so long as you add footer code, make a "simple call" to the main file, use the Plugin Editor, re-alter the main file, change the orientation of Mars and Venus…Sure.  Thanks.  Have I mentioned that I'm a writer, not a computer programmer?  Furious

Sorry, dear readers–it may be a White Christmas for you, but not on my site, I'm afraid.  More (on something very different, I hope!) tomorrow.

Dec 22

 

There's an interesting discussion going on at the Chronicle of Higher Education's forums (I know, I'm a glutton for punishment, ain't I?) about parents who won't be able to mortgage their homes to help pay for their children's education because of the current mortgage crisis.  The original poster (who seems even less sensitive to academic egos than I accidentally was last week…apparently we're a growing breed Innocent) finds the idea that this is somehow "bad" for colleges and parents "ridiculous," and follows that sentiment up in a later post by telling people not to "buy into the myth that you need to send your kids to college.  Let them sort their own lives out and pay for it when they are ready, IF they want to go."

Hmm.

As usual where higher education is concerned, this kind of statement immediately throws me off–because I couldn't agree more, and less, with the sentiment behind it.  And I think my own ambivalence to the whole subject mirrors a larger ambivalence in higher education generally.  Politically, those who make up the academy are generally much farther left than the general population (don't fret, Bob Jones and Hillsdale, you keep on fighting the, er, "good fight" out there, y'hear?), and that means that academics tend to be down with (hip language alert: this means "like" or "appreciate," or so my students tell me…I don't think they have a reason to lie) the working class, lower income families who reject the privileged lives led by us ivory tower types (if you could only taste the caviar I eat every morning!  Ah, and the Puligny Montrachet…but I digress (from reality, actually)).  But this is a problem, because despite the dripping sarcasm at the end of the last sentence, I am politically associated with the working class and economically associated with the upper middle class.  

In other words, I'm philosophically democratic and personally elitist…or so goes the argument.  In truth, of course, I'm neither one of those things exactly.  I'm certainly liberal, and I think democracy is a pretty swell thing ("swell" might be a little strong, but I guess I've bought into Churchill's idea about the subject), but I also believe in the benefits of a meritocracy–actually the necessity of a meritocracy, which actually really isn't that debatable if you think about it.  Consider the alternatives to a system where the best people for a job are the ones doing it…Okay, stop considering them, you're starting to freak me out too.  A meritocracy on some level is almost a requirement for anything to get done–but there is obviously a tension between that system and a democracy, where everyone's opinion, theoretically, counts equally.  

And this leads us back to the original thread from the Chronicle.  The sentiments expressed there are, of course, nothing new; for many years people have argued that a college degree isn't necessary, that there's no need for this kind of "elitism" in our culture, and so on and so on.  But there are a couple of problems with the argument–even with the terms of the argument.  What do we mean by "necessary"?  To be a good person?  Obviously not.  To be an important person?  Clearly not.  But statistically speaking, the opportunities afforded those with college degrees are significantly greater than what is afforded those without such degrees…which is why college enrollment is up across the board, and why the market for professors is better than is often claimed (counter to the "glut of Ph.D.s" garbage, which you can read more about here).  It's an economic fact that the high school diploma of the late 1960s has become the college degree of 2007; to be on an equal footing, then, it is "necessary" to get some kind of post-secondary degree.  I'm aware of the exceptions, but nine times out of ten the "exceptions" had a lot of other advantages that don't get covered in the "Bill Gates was a college dropout and look where it got him" stories.  And beyond the practical reasons, there is a kind of broadening of perspective that a college education provides–something which (though certainly possible) isn't nearly as easy to come by outside of the college environment.  By and large, you're better off with a college degree than without one (from where is a separate and not nearly as important a discussion).

But the problem with this, of course, is that it's based on the premise of affordability–and the truth is that many families can't afford the ridiculous (and they really are "ridiculous") costs of college.  The institution where I went (in part because of expense) was public, and since I was in-state I had reasonable tuition–$1500 a semester, I believe.  When I moved on campus for my final two years at the school the number shot up since I was paying room and board, but the cost was still under 10K a year–and even that was only possible because of a modest sum of money my grandmother had left me when she passed away (so much for the Montrachet, I guess).  I incurred a significant amount of debt going through graduate school, which I'm still paying off…but I managed, somehow, to make it through.  Here we had a partnership–my parents paid what they could, I paid what I had to, and it ultimately worked out.  If my parents had paid everything, I'd like to think I would have worked as hard, have taken it as seriously, have cared as much.  But it's hard to say for sure…I certainly knew my share of kids who were on a full ride from Mommy and Daddy and didn't give a damn about college.  Then again, I don't think they would have given a damn about anything–and I don't know if that was because of Mommy and Daddy or not.  All I know is that if I had to do it entirely by myself…well, I wouldn't have been able to, probably then or ever.

Sacrilege! cry the democrats.  Let the kids sort it out, you elitist fraud!  If you really cared about it enough, you should have paid for it! 

But see, here's the problem with the argument: to pay for it, I would have had to have enough money without the college degree, and that would have been exceedingly difficult.  Why?  Because I would only have been able to work at the jobs I could get without a college degree, and only advance as far in that job as I could without said degree; and thus, I would have had less money to pay for that degree.  No problem, you say; you save until you're ready.  Sure–if I was willing to wait four, five, six, ten years, I probably could have saved enough…though while trying to save over that span, the college costs would have continued to soar.  But even if I eventually had the money, would I have been able to go at age 25, 26, 30?  Or would I, like all of my friends, have been married by that time, or have kids, or be involved in various community activities, or something else which would make the prospect of a college degree unlikely?  My strong guess is that something else would have arisen by that time, and made my college chances slim at best.

But so what?  In that situation I would have had another life outside of college and been fine.  Well, sure; but what I did instead was to go to college, gain the benefits I've already mentioned, and then go on to those other things.  Saying that I wouldn't have missed something I never experienced doesn't change the fact that I missed it, and reduced the potential scope of my life in the process–and all because, in the original poster's scenario, my parents hadn't bought into the "myth" that they needed to send me to college.  The argument is a simple one: after college I could choose to do what I wanted with all potential paths available, including going on forums and calling college-sending parents believers in myths; before/without college I wouldn't have that same range of options. Ultimately, then, if democracy really is about preserving choice, then this merit-oriented, allegedly elitist idea–that college is beneficial–is actually the most pro-democratic belief of all in this entire debate.

Well, I'll be damned.  Maybe meritocracy and democracy can co-exist.  Almost makes you want to start buying into myths again, doesn't it?

Dec 21

What exactly are we Kindling?

Posted by A Writer

I'll fully admit that I think technology is cool.  I grew up at a time when computers were just entering the mainstream consciousness and video games were becoming, for better or worse, a part of every child's early upbringing.  (Yes, parents, even the ones who "weren't allowed."  Unless you lived in a cave or you're Amish, (and how are you reading this if either is true?) your kids had friends, and they played video games, because their parents were cooler than you…at least according to your kids.  Don't fret, though…you could have been these parents.  And your kids did love you, even if they thought you were dorks.)  So on its face I ought to be pretty pumped up about the Amazon Kindle, the new E-book reader which has taken the publishing world by storm–well, at least according to Amazon.  Thus far they've rolled out pretty much every celebrity author they can find to wax poetic about the device.  "It's astonishingly easy to use," raves Neil Gaiman; "It really is intuitive."  (I wish he had used it to download and read the real Beowulf again before giving us his version, but oh well.)  "…[I]t's actually clearer, easier on the eye than the printed word," gushes Moneyball author Michael Lewis.  And in case you don't think there's enough gravitas from the endorsement pile, I give you this: "It's lighter, I can carry it, and I can have more [books] at my disposal."  That's from Toni Morrison.  That's right, Pulitzer Prize winning, Nobel Prize winning author Toni Morrison.

Hah.  There's your freaking gravitas.

Yes, listen to Amazon and the ever-optimistic Jeff Bezos and you'd think you've got one hell of a revolution on your hands.  And it does have a lot going for it.  By all accounts it has overcome one of the major issues with E-book devices thus far, which is that it uses a technology that makes reading the Kindle screen resemble the experience of reading a standard book (it still looks a little computer-y to me, to be honest, but I haven't held one in my hands yet and so can't fairly judge).  Even more significant, its Wi-Fi service is entirely free and works anywhere inside the U.S., so you can download any book available through Amazon  (which is a lot of them, and Amazon has picked up the pace of digitizing currently existing editions big time) and be ready to read within seconds…to say nothing of, oh, reading a blog or two.  If you've got a Kindle you can try it right now–just go to www.rewrittenreality.com and *ow!*  Fine, fine…jeez, you try a little shameless self-promotion…  And a downloaded book of this kind is a fraction of the cost of a print edition.  You can even browse the web, checking out those places which involve writers talking about their craft and other such interesting topics, like the Rewriting of Reality, say… *ducks*.  

For writers, of course, the Kindle is even more of a revelation.  Think of the possibilities of a device which can get your work to anyone at any time, seamlessly linked from other sources and other content and immediately accessible.  You do an interview on NPR, someone hears it on their way to the airport, and by final boarding call the person is reading your book…and if she likes it, downloading other books of yours when she lands, or E-mailing a link to the book to her friend.  In a way it's a far superior version of hypertext, that early 90s phenomenon which was supposed to revolutionize the way we read and interacted with the written word.  That didn't happen, in part because of the lack of mobility (a nice feature of books is that you can take them with you, of course); but with the Kindle, that isn't a problem, and combined with its "real text" technology it seems to have solved all the problems.  Publishers, for their part, would love to get out of the pricey paper business if they could–less storage space, less physical production cost, no shipping costs.  With that kind of low overhead the publisher could even afford to take a chance on the more edgy, riskier authors–hell, it might even get video gamers interested in reading again if it's cool enough.  The publisher wins, the writer wins, the reader wins.  Even the trees win.  We all win.  Everyone go get a Kindle.     

Except, well, it's not quite that simple, you see.  For all of Amazon's self-fawning (and don't get me wrong…I like Amazon a good deal.  I just wish they weren't quite so cult-ish about themselves sometimes.), the opinions outside of their benign influence have been considerably more mixed.  The reviews have mostly been of the "good start, get back to me when you finish version 2.0" variety thus far, but even the most fanboyish (I'm officially entering that in the "Word of the Year" competition, by the way–if "w00t" can win, anything is possible) commentators have acknowledged that this isn't quite the greatest thing since sliced bread.  For one thing, it's really expensive.  $399 is a hell of a lot to pay for something which isn't a laptop; you could find the latter at the same price, and could do a lot more with it.  And that relates to the second problem: for those who love the all-in-one stuff (I like my combination PDA/phone/camera/dishwasher, personally), this isn't your cup of tea–you could theoretically E-mail with it, but the interface is slow and ultimately you're working around what the device was intended to do.  No audio file support, no PDF support, no photo viewer, etc., etc.–this is an E-book reader, period. 

Now, as defenders will immediately point out (and have, often irritatingly), that's all this was intended to do–if you want a laptop, get a laptop.  It's a fair argument, but one which won't wash so long as you can carry a laptop and a couple of books onto a plane and be perfectly happy.  What the successful E-book reader needs to do is somehow make the experience of reading on a screen replace the experience of reading on a page, or at least supplant it enough that in combination with its other features–convenient, cheaper in the long run to buy books, much more portable, better for the environment, etc.–it becomes worth buying.  The Kindle doesn't do that.  It's fine to build a mousetrap which is safe, economical and convenient, but people don't start beating that path to your door until it becomes a better mousetrap…because the original model works pretty well to begin with.  And the more you make the E-book reader "just like a book," the less all the arguments about how it bridges the digital divide and gets video game aficionados interested in reading again apply.  

The bottom line is that the Kindle is a step forward, because it's opened up a discussion which realistically considers the possibility of a functioning and viable E-book reader.  That's a good thing, because we need as many models of book delivery as possible.  But it hasn't replaced the iPhone as the coolest thing (have at it, fanboys!) yet, and more to the point, what you are reading will remain critically important.  A crappy book is crappy whether you read it on a stone tablet or have it beamed into your brain.  But hey, if you get a Kindle for Christmas and can't stop playing with it for weeks afterwards, let me know.  Far be it from me to get in the way of Toni Morrison…or her gravitas.   

Dec 20

Reroll THIS, bitches!

Posted by A Writer

I'm almost caught up, so a longer post is on the way tomorrow.  In the meantime, I figured I'd publicly confirm just how dorked out one writer can be–and if you can identify the picture above, count yourself in the club: 

I Am A: Neutral Good Elf Cleric (5th Level)

Ability Scores:
Strength-12
Dexterity-14
Constitution-13
Intelligence-15
Wisdom-14
Charisma-16

Alignment:
Neutral Good A neutral good character does the best that a good person can do. He is devoted to helping others. He works with kings and magistrates but does not feel beholden to them. Neutral good is the best alignment you can be because it means doing what is good without bias for or against order. However, neutral good can be a dangerous alignment because because it advances mediocrity by limiting the actions of the truly capable.

Race:
Elves are known for their poetry, song, and magical arts, but when danger threatens they show great skill with weapons and strategy. Elves can live to be over 700 years old and, by human standards, are slow to make friends and enemies, and even slower to forget them. Elves are slim and stand 4.5 to 5.5 feet tall. They have no facial or body hair, prefer comfortable clothes, and possess unearthly grace. Many others races find them hauntingly beautiful.

Class:
Clerics act as intermediaries between the earthly and the divine (or infernal) worlds. A good cleric helps those in need, while an evil cleric seeks to spread his patron's vision of evil across the world. All clerics can heal wounds and bring people back from the brink of death, and powerful clerics can even raise the dead. Likewise, all clerics have authority over undead creatures, and they can turn away or even destroy these creatures. Clerics are trained in the use of simple weapons, and can use all forms of armor and shields without penalty, since armor does not interfere with the casting of divine spells. In addition to his normal complement of spells, every cleric chooses to focus on two of his deity's domains. These domains grants the cleric special powers, and give him access to spells that he might otherwise never learn. A cleric's Wisdom score should be high, since this determines the maximum spell level that he can cast.

Find out What Kind of Dungeons and Dragons Character Would You Be?, courtesy of Easydamus (e-mail)

Dec 19

 

Only time for a short post today as I'm catching up on stuff I couldn't do while I was wrapping up my end of semester grading, and so I thought I would update a previous post.  My stated policy is to avoid posting things which refer only to me, but since this is an update I think the situation is a little different.  And so:

1.  My laptop is fixed.  Really.  I've been looking at the perfectly functioning machine for hours and giggling in delight every so often.  (Not really, but I love the visual.)

2.  I still haven't heard about the book chapter, but have heard good news on another writing front–which I'll have more to say about in a couple of days.

3.  My band has gotten…well, no, it hasn't gotten its new player.  The waiting continues there.

But the overall message is that some of the logjams have begun to clear…and that may presage roaring floods to come.  But I'll take a flood over a logjam any day, especially if I've complained about the logjam before. Cool

Dec 18

It has no other master.

Posted by A Writer

 

I'm not a big fan of the term "fanboy"; it conjures up images of XBox/Playstation 3 Geek Wars with everyone normal losing (just kidding, l33t denizens, I like video games too.  Not as much as you, but I like them. Smile).  But I have to admit that this morning's news that Peter Jackson has reached agreement with New Line Cinema to produce The Hobbit has gotten me more than a trifle excited.  Why?  First, because it means we'll get to see two more films based on one of my favorite books from one of my favorite writers…and second, because it means we'll get to see the films based on the books, not based on the titles.  What made Jackson's handling of The Lord of the Rings films so spectacular was not the whizbang special effects (although those were admittedly cool) or the realism of the battle scenes (although those were absurdly sweet…have I hit full fanboy status yet?), but rather his understanding the fact that as cool as those things were, they weren't really the point of J.R.R. Tolkien's work.  Ultimately the heroic sacrifices and epic battles are being fought as much for the little, everyday places of The Shire as they are for the restoration of Minas Tirith's majesty–and thus even at the most elaborate, over-the-top moments of the film, Jackson never forgot the importance of Frodo and Sam's individual struggle to get through Mordor, both smaller and simultaneously more significant than the wars being fought elsewhere in Middle Earth.  In short, he was (usually) true to the spirit of the books, and that was probably his most significant achievement.  A friend of mine likened the accomplishment to walking through a minefield miles long with mines set at three foot intervals, somehow getting through the whole business tripping (perhaps) one or two of them at most.  Given the disastrous adaptations which have been hitting the screen in the past few years, a single blown mine here and there seems to indicate an act of miraculous genius.

But while I heaved a sigh of relief that The Hobbit will be in good hands (Jackson may only direct one of the films, but his rumored choice to direct the other would be Guillermo del Toro, and that guy's not too shabby either), I started thinking about why I had to sweat this out as much as I did.  Fantasy and science fiction has never been more popular at the box office (I'll leave The Golden Compass out, which I have neither seen nor read and which has been underwhelming in terms of revenue), and you could make the argument that in some ways this is the golden age of speculative fiction and film.  So why are the film adaptations so lousy?  It's certainly not the source material; I, Robot is a wonderful book; A Wizard of Earthsea is an underrated work of fantasy; Beowulf is obviously a seminal piece of literature; and Eragon…well, okay, yeah, Eragon is a piece of crap to begin with.  Even Jeremy Irons couldn't save that garbage.  But for the most part, we're dealing with great books which have tended to get terrible treatment on the silver screen.  What gives?  And how do we save more works of fantasy from entering the Dungeons and Dragons territory (I mean the movie, not the game.  Any time that one of the Wayans brothers is the best part of your film, you know you've got problems.)?

Some of the issues vary from film to film, but I think there are a couple of universal problems which need serious consideration.  So I've whipped up a couple of handy commandments for producers, directors, and writers to live by.  Follow these precepts and you're less likely to turn gold into lead, which while an impressive achievement is kind of a bummer for people who really think gold is a good thing to keep around.

Thou Shalt Not Forget The Point Of The Book.  Now I know that movies are different animals from books, and that you just can't keep everything in a movie adaptation without challenging the four hour mark (Bollywood routinely blows this mark away, but…well, actually, if this is a Bollywood characteristic I shouldn't have to say anything more about what's bad about doing it, should I?); this is why removing Tom Bombadil from The Fellowship of the Ring movie was a good decision, even though I liked his character in the book.  Ultimately the book is not focused on him but on the Ring (in fact Bombadil's lack of interest in the Ring is a clue to this) and the Fellowship's quest to destroy it, and sticking around so Bombadil can chatter more funny stuff about weeping willows while smiling at his trophy wife just doesn't fit that focus if you want to save time.  But as I said before, the ultimate point of the books isn't lost in the films, and you get the sense that this is what Tolkien would have wanted in a film version of his work.  Compare that to, oh, say, I, Robot, (*spoilers ahead, though frankly the whole goddamn film is spoiled if you ask me*) where a book which was revolutionary because it suggested that robots would not take over and destroy humanity, and in fact might be better moral agents than humans, gets converted into an "OMG robots are so scary look they're trying to kill us and Will Smith knew it all along OMG they're so scary!!!111!!" dystopic flick (have I mentioned how tired I am of dystopias?) with a twist of "let's make Susan Calvin a hot chick so we can get a gratuitous shower scene" thrown in for good measure.  Or Beowulf, which I've already talked about elsewhere

In both of these cases, a great story is butchered for no apparent reason, with the result that the actual story will have to wait, possibly forever, to get told for real.  (I, Robot, in fact, is not even based on the book.  It was originally a half-assed script thrown together by some jackass which was ultimately tweaked and renamed when the I, Robot franchise came calling.  But hey, why should we use the Harlan Ellison version, which had Asimov's explicit approval?  As if Ellison knows anything about sci-fi!)  But the point here is that it is not necessary; the books themselves have plenty of action, drama, suspense, and plain old fun without throwing in random shower scenes.  When you start asking third-rate screenwriters to "adjust" first-rate authors, I promise something is going to get lost in the translation.  In the name of all that is holy, do your homework (like Jackson did), read the books, talk to experts, and find someone willing to draw upon the spirit of the work for the screenplay before seeing what happens when you throw the whole business into a blender with a high-heeled Angelina Jolie.

Thou Shalt Not Let SciFi Touch Your Work.  Ever.  Even If They Say They Will Be Really Really Careful With It.  Now look, no one is more grateful for the SciFi Channel and their constant Star Trek reruns than I am…and Farscape was pretty good, until they inexplicably cancelled it in favor of keeping Richard Dean Anderson in a job.  But anyone who was unlucky enough to see the abomination SciFi called Earthsea knows that it's a bad, bad idea to get the rights to a book without asking the still-living author how best to produce that book on screen–because this trash is the result.  It's bad enough that they tried to squeeze three books into one short miniseries, and even worse that Ged's shadow (*more spoilers, but seriously, why would you care?*) somehow became the Toxic Avenger, but changing colors (literally–Ursula Le Guin always emphasized the importance of the fact that the vast majority of her characters in the book were dark skinned) is unforgivable.  Instead the producers decided to roll out Danny Glover to play the black wizard supporting the far more powerful white kid who needs his help (what, Morgan Freeman and Christian Bale weren't available?) while the rest of the super-white cast ogle each other in a series of nauseating Beverly Hills 90210 moments.  Now why Le Guin felt she needed to give up her rights in the first place is another story (and one I don't think she's very convincing in trying to explain), but the point is that SciFi is completely hopeless with this kind of stuff (and it's not getting better–look at Tin Man if you don't believe me).  Stay away from them like the plague.

All of which brings us back to Jackson.  Given how terrible the adaptation could have been, and how many mistakes he could have made with the seminal work of fantasy in our time, the fact that he made so few (yeah, Faramir doesn't work quite right, and Sam's advice to Frodo about the Ring in that same part of the movie is completely wrong…but that's still a pretty damn good track record on the whole) is well nigh miraculous…and that's yet another reason to rejoice that he's now in charge of the films of The Hobbit.  Ultimately, at least with Tolkien, Jackson subjugates his own ego to the work he is directing, and that's probably the biggest commandment of all: Thou Shalt Not Put Yourself Above Your Source Material.  The more that directors, producers and movie studios get this last commandment in their heads, the more we'll all be spared deadly robots and Toxic Avengers–and that, my friends, is (in the words of Gandalf) an encouraging thought, even for a fanboy.