Jan 26

Technology is your friend!

Posted by A Writer


As you may have noticed (I hope), I've been AWOL the last few days for several reasons–one of which is the beginning of a new semester, with its excitement, nervous energy, and idealistic visions of a better tomorrow.  (And its committee meetings, and faculty meetings, and…sigh.  You get the idea.)  And as usual, the new crop of students looks both promising and hopeless, depending I think on changes in the moon.  (This is a leap year, right?)  All seems to be routine in the college world.  But on my way into class today I noticed some changes around my institution's campus–a few new mysterious towers, a couple of vans bristling with ladders and wires parked outside two of the major classroom buildings, some folks in hard hats and carrying clipboards wandering the halls; and within my classrooms, brand spanking new projectors.  Digital zoom, Dolby surround system…nice.  This'll be sweet for the Super Bowl.

Except, of course, that you don't watch the Super Bowl in a classroom.  You might talk about the economics of the game there, and maybe discuss injuries in a sports science class.  But watching the game itself?  Nope.  You're not going to play Madden '08 there either (more's the pity, I suppose), or check out Law and Order in HD.  No, this is an educational setting…though you might start to wonder about that if you wander around campus a bit.  Brand new computers in all the rooms, high-tech podiums with built in DVD players, VCRs, iPod docks…yep, it's a veritable sea of tech, and my school hasn't been shy in advertising that fact.  Top 200 Most Wired Campuses, Top 200 Most Wireless Campuses (the lists weren't in the same article, though it would have been fun to watch them fight it out if they were), in partnership with major technology corporations, developing new technology programs–it's a brave new world, and we're leading the charge right into it.

But hey, I like technology.  I have an mp3 player and a cool smartphone myself, to say nothing of my DVR and flat-screen HDTV with HDMI inputs.  When I watch the Super Bowl on that bad boy, let me tell you, I'm going to…um…

Wait a minute.  How did I get off the subject of education again?

Because you see, that's the real problem here.  My college is so hot and bothered about its technological profile it's almost funny…but what's getting lost in the shuffle is the educational side of things.  How are all these wires, gadgets and doodads (I love that I was able to use "doodads" in a 2008 post) actually helping the learning process?  My college, and many others, claims that adopting all this technology is just getting us in "sync" with the younger generations, that we will either adapt to the IM / iPod mindset or perish in our overwhelming irrelevance.  To a degree I understand this argument; a lot of professors are fiercely anti-tech, and whether they realize it or not that stand certainly isn't helping them reach a new crop of 18-22 year olds in their classrooms every year.  (They probably don't realize it.  The same view of the world that makes them look at a computer as Satan's child and pop music as Perry Como's domain generally doesn't allow for very insightful self-assessments.)  But there are two major issues here: first, just having cool whiz-bang technology sitting in a classroom won't help students absorb the professor's (hence the subject's) coolness through osmosis and further the educational mission.  In fact, most institutions are lousy in explaining what the hell they're really using the "Web-rific Powerpoint Enhancer 2008" for, since, well, they don't really know.  Someone like IBM or Apple has sold some poor innocent VP for Technological Advancement on vague promises of how the Projector 2020 will enhance student learning a hundredfold, and the next thing you know they're showing up in every classroom to the bewilderment of professors who never asked for and will probably never use them in the way they're intended.  Not only this is a waste of resources (but that's the capitalist way, right?), it can detract from the classroom, particularly if an overzealous Dean decides that his school is going to be the most techy place in America no matter what it takes.  All of a sudden professors start seeing memos about portfolios and running student chat rooms, and that's when we know that we've started down that long, steep hill.

But most of us are used to resisting or deflecting institutional pressures; it's a lot easier to smile and nod beatifically and then do what we want in our classes than it is to confront the dragons head on.  The second issue is the really bad one: students see through this ridiculous charade.  Contrary to the mass media's opinion, the younger generation is not reachable only by technology; it's reachable by accessible, meaningful and challenging work.  I'm continually amused by a lot of college professors' obsession with Powerpoint, which is generally used to produce a bunch of boring slides while people look through the Xeroxed handouts–of the exact same slides–just in case the program breaks down.  (Now that's a brave new world, baby!)  It's certainly "technological," but who cares?  You could have gotten the same result with a standard slide projector and a good old reliable set of handouts.  And students immediately recognize this problem; you can force-feed technology into a lesson all you want, but if the lesson itself feels like it was pulled from Ferris Bueller it's not going to matter if you can send the knowledge right into the students' brains.  Students resent being patronized, and this is patronization of the highest order.  Beyond that, it's a hopeless chase; academics have only now started to hear about what a "podcast" is, and by the time they start integrating it into their classrooms the students will already be on to "text-casting" or something similar.  Chasing the sun would be an easier proposition.

So what's the answer, then?  Should we just bail out on all things tech and head back to chalk and notebook for our exclusive educational diet?  Well, no–technology can be useful, so long as it's used to enhance a lesson which could have stood on its own.  I can tell my students all I want about Greek drama, but when I can play a film with period costumes and acting techniques I can really heighten their understanding.  I can explain the creative process, but if I show examples of different takes on the same song, for instance, using a combination of YouTube, mp3s and websites, I can give them multiple ways to access their own understanding.  Technology is indeed your friend, but no one likes a friend who never gets the message that it's time to leave.  The sooner school administrators get that message and stop bringing that friend along to every party, the sooner we'll be able to get back to the real business of educating our students–even when we aren't using something with a computer chip to do it.    

Jan 19


There's an interesting discussion going on over at Absolute Write about the newest plagiarism scandal to rock the romance world.  I admit to being a bit late to this topic, since romance novels and I have kind of a hate-hate relationship (which is really understating the case; nothing says "supermarket line" quite like a Fabio cover).  Anyway, apparently the fine folks at Smart Bitches Who Love Trashy Books (the subtitle is even better: "Come for the Dominican Bitches, Stay for the Man Titty") have outed one of the most popular romance writers in America (i.e. another person I've never heard of), Cassie Edwards, showing how she plagiarized large portions of Luther Standing Bear's Land of the Spotted Eagle and an article by Defenders of Wildlife for her book Shadow Bear.  The evidence does seem pretty damning:

1.  From Spotted Eagle: "There was no kneeling, no words were spoken, and no hands were raised, but in every heart was just a thought of a tribute. No assembly ceremonies were held in the morning, each and every person on his own account holding his moment of worship."

    From Shadow Bear: "'That is because there is no kneeling, nor words spoken, nor hands raised, but in every Lakota heart there is just a thought of tribute,' Shadow Bear proudly explained. He turned to her so that their eyes met. 'You will learn that no assembly of our people is required for that tribute, either. Each and every person, on his own account, holds his own moment of worship.'"

Hmm.  Well, maybe just a harmless mistake, right?

2.  From Defenders Magazine: "Ferrets stalk and kill prairie dogs during the night. Using their keen sense of smell and whiskers to guide them through pitch-black burrows, ferrets clamp a suffocation bite on their sleeping prey — an impressive feat, considering that the two species are about the same weight."   

    From Shadow Bear: "'I read that ferrets stalk and kill prairie dogs during the night. Using their keen sense of smell and whiskers to guide them through pitch-black burrows, ferrets suffocate the sleeping prey, an impressive feat considering the two species are about the same weight,' Shiona said, shivering at the thought, for to her one animal was as cute and precious as the next."


3.  From Spotted Eagle: "So the sunflower and the buffalo were two beloved symbols of the Lakota. So first, last, and throughout existence, the Lakota knew that the sun was essential to health and to all life. In spring, summer, and winter its rays were welcome. In the spring its warmth brought forth new grass; in the summer its heat cured the skins, dried the meat, and preserved food for storage…"

    From Shadow Bear: "She paused, swallowed hard, then said, 'The sunflower and buffalo are two beloved symbols of our Lakota people. The sun is essential to all health and life. In spring, summer, and winter, rays are welcome. In the spring, its warmth brings forth new grass; in summer its heat cures the skins, dries the meat, and preserves food for storage.'

Okay–what the hell!?

I've been teaching long enough to know that this is flat out plagiarism from the word go, and not particularly artful plagiarism at that.  If I had an example like this from one of my students (and I have), the paper would get a zero and the student put on notice in my class and in the department that one more such case would result in immediate failure of the course and the student referred to the Dean.  In the world of publishing, of course, the situation is a little different, and the consequences ought to be worse.  You would assume that Ms. Edwards would release a public apology, the book would be pulled from the shelves, and some settlement made to the authors who had their work blatantly stolen.  Maybe she could become an advocate for truth in writing from this point forward…giving seminars, talking to aspiring writers about what she's learned…right?

Nope, not so much.  Not only did her publisher (Signet) not apologize for the plagiarism, it actually claimed she had done nothing wrong

"Signet takes plagiarism seriously, and would act swiftly were there justification for such allegations against one of its authors.  But in this case Ms. Edwards has done nothing wrong.

The copyright fair-use doctrine permits reasonable borrowing and paraphrasing of another author’s words, especially for the purpose of creating something new and original. Also, anyone may use facts, ideas and theories developed by another author, as well as any material in the public domain. Ms. Edwards’s researched historical novels are precisely the kinds of original, creative works that this copyright policy promotes.

Although it may be common in academic circles to meticulously footnote every source and provide citations or bibliographies, even though not required by copyright law, such a practice is virtually unheard of for a popular novel aimed at the consumer market."


Leaving aside the not-so-subtle shot at academics in the last paragraph (although you jackasses may waste your time asking permission to use other people's work, we're too busy making money and don't have to put up with that crap.  Stealing stuff is what we're all about.  Run along now and play in your ivory tower.), this is perhaps the most ass-backwards explanation of plagiarism I've ever heard.  "The copyright fair-use doctrine permits reasonable borrowing and paraphrasing of another author’s words, especially for the purpose of creating something new and original"?  Uh–no, no it doesn't.  First of all, fair use applies to the educational arena (you know, where us naive academics like to play) and specifically non-profit and/or public good purposes.  I promise you that if I start quoting Robert Jordan like it's going out of style in my next novel Tor isn't going to smile beatifically as I start cashing checks.  Second, do any of those examples I just cited strike you as "reasonable"?  Particularly when half of what Edwards is plagiarizing is from an actual Native American!?  The resulting outcry from this ridiculous answer apparently caused Signet to reconsider, releasing a second statement that they now "believe the situation deserves further review."  Uh-huh.  As does their legal team's initial advice, no doubt.

But surely this is just the money-grubbing publisher's issue; Ms. Edwards, who claims to be sensitive to Native American causes and culture, obviously feels terrible about the whole business, right? 

"Hi, Lisa,

I just got on My Space and I found your wonderful encouraging letter. Thank you for believing in me, for I have done nothing wrong. My publisher is standing behind me 100%, for they know my work better than anyone, and they know that all romance authors who use research for historicals have to use reference books to do this. My readers love this accurate material about the Indians. And if I couldn’t use this material my books would not be worth anything to my readers who depend on me.

The sad thing is that I am writing these books now in a way to honor our Native Americans, past, present and in the future. And I am honoring my great grandmother who was a full blood Cheyenne. She would be so proud of me if she could read what I am writing about the Indians who have been so maligned for so long. And do you know? I feel picked on now as our Native American Indians have always been picked on throughout history. I am trying to spread the word about them and what do I get? Spiteful women who have found a way to bring attention to themselves, by getting in the media in this horrible way.

Right now I am getting hit from all sides….CNN, The New York Times, AP, everyone who those women could think of to contact. And what is also sad is that a fellow author, has spoken up and condemned me.

Thanks again for your support. When I am feeling stronger I plan to write a bulletin on My Space, but right now I am totally drained of energy from what has been done to me. I hope that you will tell your friends, who are so much also mine, the wrong that has been done to me, and tell them that I will get through this. I will be found innocent and vendicated of any wrong.

For now, it’s all too raw and horrible, but I will be alright.
Love, Cassie" 


(The "fellow author" who condemned her, by the way, is Nora Roberts, who I have heard of and who knows something about plagiarism issues.) That's right, kids: not only does Edwards not want to apologize, she thinks she is the victim…and not only the victim, but a victim just like the Native Americans were.  

Let's just let that sink in for a minute.  (As one of the commenters put it: "Pointing out copy-pasted paragraphs of statistical information about ferrets: the smallpox blankets of the twenty-first century.")  

I'm not sure what I find more stunning–her breathtaking defiance of the evidence right in front of her ("Sure I was holding the ax which was in her head, and naturally I was yelling at her, and of course I had told all my friends and family I was going to kill her with an ax, but I didn't do anything wrong!!!!") or the almost obscene reversal of blame she engages in ("you know, no one ever thinks about the murderer's feelings!").  It's Patriots Videogate redux–I'm just the criminal, man, don't blame me.  But however you want to slice it, it's apparent from her reaction and that of a lot of her fans that something's getting lost in the translation here: either she doesn't get it (which would imply a level of ignorance from a bestselling author so staggering I can't freaking deal with the possibility), or she does get it and is involved in one of the most disingenuous and reprehensible campaigns of "screw you, stop attacking me, I'm a big time author, bitches!" I've ever seen.  Neither option is particularly appealing, especially concerning a woman who claims to be honoring Native Americans while referring to them as "Indians" in the same breath.

In a way none of this should be surprising.  Teachers routinely ignore blatant examples of plagiarism in their classrooms because they just don't want to take the time to track down the relevant material, and as a result a number of students sail through their educational careers merrily stealing and robbing other people's intellectual property without once being slapped down for the practice.  The result?  They get out into the "real" world (well, pseudo-real in the case of publishing) and do the exact same thing they learned would get them places earlier–steal like mad and angrily deny culpability if and when they get caught.  Does anyone think that Cassie Edwards never did this before?  She never wrote, say, some tenth grade paper on Moby Dick using something other than her own, er, rapier-like wit and silky smooth prose?

There's this cool bridge I know, see, and there's a big sale going on…

The point is that mindsets of this kind develop early, and it's incumbent on all the "first responders," if you will, to change that mindset as soon as possible, despite the tearful pleas and the furious denials.  You do your students, children, or reprobate authors no favors by looking the other way for a minor infraction.  Because the longer you wait, the more you let go, the stronger the suspicion becomes that there are no consequences for wrongdoing, and stealing really isn't that big a deal, and "everyone does it anyway" so who really gives a damn?  And that, my friends, is where the Cassie Edwards of the world start to pop up.  This certainly isn't the first time plagiarism has reared its ugly head; it's happening all over the place, in fact.  But unless we stand up and say something now, we're going to have a hard time slowing it down.

So kudos to the Smart Bitches for the revelation.  As I've often said, never was so much owed by so many to so few.

What do you mean that sounds familiar?

Jan 16

End of an era?

Posted by A Writer


I don't have time for a long post today, but I had to mention something about this.  Looking at a few comments over at LROD (my favorite private dancer site) I noticed one posted by Gerard Jones, and the name stirred a memory…and then I remembered Ginny Good, and everything came back to me at once.  Back when I was first starting the submission game in 2004 I went looking for literary agent sites, and stumbled across Everyone Who's Anyone.  The site is technically a listing of literary agents…but it's actually way more than that.  Jones, a Haight-Ashbury refugee who's never gotten over the flowers in his hair, even though he sure as hell isn't a gentle person himself, starting querying every agent he could find in 2001 about his book Ginny Good.  And I mean every agent.  Seriously.  He sent out thousands of E-mails to agents…and got bupkis.  Well, that's not totally true–he did get some people to notice his style, which is, well, unique:

"Your children and grandchildren are gonna see your name among the thousands of chicken-hearted, money-grubbing schlock-peddlers and giggly twits and useless goons who dismissed my beautiful books and chose instead to go gaga over the unspeakably inane, mind-numbing twaddle that will become known as American literature and culture of the early 21st Century.  And you picked it.  Wow.  Should you feel good about yourself, or what?"

Heh.  Writer, Rejected, eat your heart out.

What really got Jones on the map, though, was his website Everyone Who's Anyone, where he listed every agent he had queried (and more he could find) on the site, including E-mail addresses.  He also put E-mail interactions with said agents on his site, and when they objected, er, rejected them right back:

"Hmmm.  That's a pretty insulting letter regarding Al Zuckerman that you've posted on your site!  Emily Kischell, Assistant to Al Zuckerman.

Dear Emily:  Really?  You think so?  I thought it was sort of funny myself.  Tastes vary wildly vis-a-vis humor, however.  Thanks.  G."

And when they asked him to remove their addresses, sometimes with ever-increasing annoyance, he would post all of those messages too.  In short: he ignored them, just like they tend (let's me honest, agents have something like a 90% rejection rate) to ignore us.  And boy, did that feel good for those of us who were getting tired of being told how "unenthusiastic" a given agent was about representing our work.  

Well, Ginny Good eventually sold, and since then Jones has gotten other books out there, but he's now announced that he's finally done updating his directory…which is kind of sad.  Even when I wasn't actively querying books it was nice to know that someone somewhere was fighting the good fight.  And as W, R points out, Jones really got a lot of the "who gives a damn" crowd a voice in writing, and that was a big deal too.  Of course Jones isn't dead, and he's not going anywhere anytime soon (God forbid!), but still…there's something a bit sad about not hearing as much from the guy who wrote "[My book is] about a billion times better than any of the giddy, contrived, touchy-feely, 'redeeming' horsepiss that have won pussy Pulitizers or namby-pamby National Book Awards lately, that's for sure. It's tough being the best writer alive when everybody's been so brainwashed by preposterous puke that nobody even knows how to read anymore. Thanks."

Thanks right back at you, G.  The rest of us clowns got a lot from you, even if we don't dig Scott McKenzie.

Jan 14


I've had marketing and promotion on my mind lately, as for whatever reason I've been finding examples of it in a lot of areas in my life.  My band is starting work on its second album, and still trying to sell the first; gotta promote.  I've just had an academic book come out; gotta promote.  My first novel is due out next year; it's early, but in this business, gotta promote.  I've got this site called Rewritten Reality, see, and…

Well, you get the idea.  Gotta promote.

I'm not necessarily opposed to the idea of self-promotion in theory.  There's over six and a half billion people on this planet (damn, bro, that's a lot of people), and a lot of them are doing the same kinds of things I'm doing.  Not all of them, and not exactly the same things, and certainly not all of the same things at the same time…but close enough.  And of course I'm in a temporal game, too; if I were a pro football player, I'd only really be up against a little over a thousand people who could do what I do at that given moment.  Sure, if I want a crack at history I'd need to be much better…but just to draw a paycheck and be successful at my position I would only need to be better than others in my peer group, which in that case would be pretty darn small (er, in total numbers, not size.  These are big freaking guys.  If you're one of them, you're big, and I'd appreciate it if you not go after someone who, well, isn't.).  But there is no potential plagiarism or staleness in that model; if I'm a great running back, and run for 150 yards and three touchdowns a game, no one is going to yawn and say "yeah, but seriously…I saw Barry Sanders do that in a game once too…what's the big deal?"

This, unfortunately, won't wash in writing or playing music, where my output is always getting measured not just against contemporary work but against everything which came before it.  I've got to deal with countless numbers of people who have written books and played and recorded music in the past in addition to the current crop of said artists, which makes standing out from the crowd even more difficult.  So I've been seeking out information about how I might stand out more (and legally, of course…standing out through illicit activity isn't too tough), and made a horrifying discovery:


Hmm…kind of catchy.  Hyperbole aside, TSPWCFTD is a scary thing.  The term refers more to a type of individual than one specific person (although I have a couple in mind), and has a couple of clearly discernible characteristics–I note them here as a warning for future people who might be drawn into TSPWCFTD's spell.

1.  TSPWCFTD is not a writer.  He/she was a writer at one time, certainly, though what was written is immaterial.  Cookbook, memoir, mystery, romance…it doesn't matter.  What matters is the book was finally written and must now be promoted with the fury of a thousand suns.  (That would also be a cool title, so don't steal it.)  Promotion is now the number one job: t-shirts, pens, postcards, stress balls must be purchased; book signings, one a month at least, must be scheduled; online message boards must be spammed; websites must be designed (more than one); contests must be run; famous authors must be contacted and begged for attention and blurbs.  All available funds must go towards promotion.  All bookstores in a hundred mile radius of the author must be contacted, as well as all newspapers, radio stations, and schools.  There is no God, only Zool.  *SLAP.*  Sorry.  Anyway, you get my point; writing has faded into the background here.  All that matters is promoting the book to anyone who will (and even those who won't) listen.

2.  TSPWCFTD has learned through experience, as he/she will sagely tell you, that publishers cannot and will not promote for you.  It's up to you.  Besides, you know better than anyone else what your book is about, so who better than you to explain its benefits?  And TSPWCFTD is nothing if not sure of him/herself, kids; the strength of his/her belief is often directly proportional to his/her desperate need for this book to succeed.  I suspect that like most true believers, there is something else going on below the surface with the TSPWCFTD…much more is tied into the book than just its pages and cover.  

3.  TSPWCFTD loves to suggest group activities.  "Why don't we do a group book signing?" he/she enthuses.  "That way we can save costs and have fun at the same time!"  And it seems reasonable; it would be cheaper, and it does sound fun, and often it is those things.  But just as often, unfortunately, the kind and friendly person who made the suggestion in the first place will quickly turn into TSPWCFTD in the presence of potential customers, and all of a sudden what seemed like a pleasant experience with a few fellow writers has become a Republican presidential debate, where no holds are barred, no quarter given, and no advantage unseized.  Afterwards, when leaving the scene, TSPWCFTD will revert to his/her charming self:  "Wasn't that wonderful?" he'll/she'll say.  Try not to let your jaw hit the floor upon hearing this (it can be painful).    

All of this probably seems more funny than anything else.  What's the big deal with promoting one's own work, after all?  So some people go a little overboard…who's it hurt?  But the problem, you see, is that self-promotion is not in fact a victimless crime, and on a lot of levels TSPWCFTD does much more damage than you (or even he/she) might think.

1.  Your job is to be a writer, not a promoter.  I like stress balls as much as the next person, but let's be honest: no amount of squeezing some rubber for anxiety relief is going to cause books to magically fly off the shelves to your readers, at least in the amount you're able to produce them.  The Random Houses and Penguins of the world can afford to make promo items like this recognizing that there will never be any one to one relationship in terms of stress ball received / book purchased, because they're buying them in bulk and because they know the more the author's name recognition goes up the more books they can ultimately sell.  But they also know it's not just this book they're selling, but your next one and next one and next one.  They're building you into a brand, and they can't do that if you haven't written anything else…which you won't be able to do if you're spending twenty, thirty, forty hours a week or more on promoting your first book.  The moral of the story?  You should be building a career where you, and everyone else, expects your next book to be as good or better than the first one, not trying to promote your one and only great work.  Both publishers and readers want staying power from the authors they read.  Besides, you're a writer, not a salesperson; there are people who do that latter job very well (and if you have that much fun doing it, you should become one–the world needs better salespeople and publicists (and I'm not being sarcastic…it's an extremely important job).).  Authors promote books; publishers promote authors.  It's an important distinction.

2.  It's true that publishers will no longer (if they ever did) simply take your manuscript, go forth with it and make millions while you hole up in your secluded cabin working on your next great work.  You do have to be proactive in promotion.  But that may mean you need to hire an independent publicist, or you might have to go to some conferences and book signings here and there; it does not mean that you need to hit every bookstore, sign every copy, or go door to door like you were selling vacuum cleaners out of the trunk of your car.  First of all, legitimate publishers have better contacts and better distribution options than you do; if they didn't, you simply would have self-published and kept every cent of the money for yourself.  Most authors don't do that because they know the way to get their work in front of the largest possible audience is to trust the people who have been doing that for more than a century: the publishers.  Second, publishers (usually, not always) know how to run promotional campaigns without making them feel like Nigerian E-mail scams.  No one wants to be seen as "that guy," but that's exactly how TSPWCFTD comes across–amateurish, desperate, and annoying.  And just like the spam which shares these characteristics, people like this get ignored, dismissed, and sometimes actively rejected by readers who want to be enticed into reading good work, not worn down into buying an author's book just so he/she will leave them the hell alone.  What's worse, other authors end up getting lumped in with these people…so that readers start avoiding authors altogether.  That's obviously bad for all concerned, including you.             

3.  And that's the most important facet of all this: you.  What does being this desperate, begging, and ultimately ineffective figure get you?  Ostracized, very possibly; marginalized, quite likely; humiliated, almost certainly.  No one wants this.  You want your books to sell, you want people to turn to you as a source of entertainment, intellectual stimulus, and ideas, and you want to make a mark on your little part of the universe.  Losing friendships, contacts and group affiliations just so you can sell an extra book or two (and that's really what this comes down to…none of the activities of TSPWCFTD has any large selling impact, because the scale just isn't large enough to make that happen) isn't even remotely worth it.  

None of this is meant to suggest you shouldn't have an active presence out there, and that you shouldn't be letting people know about your book (and why it's cool, and it obviously is, right?).  But it is meant to temper the enthusiasm of the first time author a trifle and remind him/her that the best way to promote a first book is by writing a second one even better than the first.  Your job is to write.  Do so, and leave TSPWCFTD to their stress balls.  They'll probably need them more than you in the long run. 

Jan 10

When Academics Attack!

Posted by A Writer


I haven't been to the Modern Language Association's Convention in two years now, owing to a lack of interviews (I already have a good gig, and it would only make sense to shift if the job was better…so I'm down to sending out between five and eight applications a year now to places with a serious level of competition) and a total lack of interest in attending an event which its organizers has decided would be best placed between Christmas and New Year's–when academics are pining for the joy of meeting other academics rather than getting to see their families and actually relax for a couple of days.  The MLA has finally seen the light and is shifting the date to after January 1st (after years of being told by its members that this is an absolute necessity) though it won't actually happen until 2009.  Moral: academics take a long time to decide about things which ought to be self-evident.

I had heard from friends who went to this conference in Chicago that I hadn't missed anything (as usual), and so had happily forgotten all about it–when what should I stumble upon but this little gem from Inside Higher Ed.  That's right, kids; apparently there was a full out dust-up at the annual meeting, and I missed it.  (If you knew and didn't tell me, I forgive you.  Reluctantly.)  Evidently there were two major issues at the heart of the battle royale–the second one, which involved the ever-controversial Ward Churchill (the professor fired from his tenured position at the University of Colorado at Boulder either for "research misconduct" or for calling some of the 9/11 victims "little Eichmanns," depending on whose side you're on), I have to reluctantly save for another day so I can concentrate on issue one: the support for those who criticize Zionism. 

Yep, that's basically the request.  And I'm not really oversimplifying it: the resolution, originally drafted by the MLA's Radical Caucus (I love that name…would be cooler if they replaced "radical" with "revolutionary," but one freedom fight at a time, I suppose), called for the MLA to "defend academic freedom and the freedom of speech of faculty and invited speakers to criticize Zionism and Israel."  As the article in Inside Higher Ed points out, there is no mention made in the resolution of defending the rights of faculty and invited speakers to, say, support Zionism and Israel, or criticize Hamas.  This is strictly about supporting the right of academics to criticize Israel.  But this is obviously an oversight, you say.  They want to support everyone's right to speak…they were just talking about a specific issue which involved Israel this time around.  Right?

Er…no, actually.

As it turns out, there isn't one specific precipitating factor for this resolution.  It's just a general "lots of people who don't like Israel aren't getting to say so and that sucks" proclamation.  And while I'm all in favor of proclamations (we really don't have enough of them these days, right?), I'm having a hard time seeing how this one would be either helpful or fair.  And I'm not the only one; Cary Nelson (who ironically enough wrote a book called Manifesto of a Tenured Radical…which either means he's mellowing or selling out, again depending on your point of view) found the first resolution "incredibly divisive and quite destructive" and wrote an alternate resolution suggesting in part that it was "essential that colleges and universities protect faculty rights to speak forthrightly on all sides of the issue," which passed in lieu of the original one by a two to one margin.  Problem solved, right?  Well, not entirely…because according to Inside Higher Ed, the people who supported the first resolution thought Nelson's version was too "even-handed."

Come again?

Yep.  Apparently the "facts on the ground" indicate that this isn't a "50-50 situation"; in other words, there isn't more than one side to the issue.  Israel is the problem, and their supporters already "meddle on campuses."  So supporting the right of someone to support Israel publicly, or criticize those who would discriminate against the supporters, doesn't work.  We need, in the words of Dr. Barbara Foley, to "talk about what's real here."  Real being, apparently, that Israel can take care of itself.

And it's through the looking glass we go, boys and girls!

I'm not sure where to start here.  First of all, I am on face deeply suspicious of anyone who claims to have the absolute and definitive answer to a subject who is unwilling to answer questions and face scrutiny concerning that answer…particularly when the subject is as deeply complex as the situation in the Middle East.  There is no question that Israel has made many, many mistakes, and often carried itself with a sense of arrogance and entitlement (to say nothing of its violent overreactions) which has made things worse.  There's also no question that speaking to dedicated Israelites is often difficult–I have many friends who are perfectly rational people on all other subjects, but mention Israel and their eyes glaze over (for them this isn't a rational calculus but an emotional one, and I respect the difference).  But the idea that Israel is solely responsible for the problems in the Middle East, given the fractured and often violent behavior of the Palestinian establishment, is as absurd as the idea that Israel is wholly blameless.  If it's not 50/50 (it's up to you to decide what the exact ratio is), there's certainly plenty of blame to go around.

But all of this is really irrelevant because of the second point: even if Israel were responsible for everything bad in the world and sent its avatars around to kick puppies (those heartless bastards!), the original resolution is such a caricature of true academic freedom it's breathtaking.  Let me get this straight: we should get external agents the hell out of our internal academic affairs, and demand that we defend the free consciences of our fellow faculty members, just so long as they feel like taking a shot at Israel.  If those fellow faculty members choose to defend Israel, though, forget about the free conscience and pass the gag.  We certainly wouldn't want to be "even-handed." 

Have we gone mad?

The point of academic freedom is that professors should have the right to espouse whatever theories, ideas and beliefs they choose (so long as they do not require their students to agree with them in the case of subjective opinions, which has its own problems) without fear of retribution.  That's all.  It doesn't allow for exceptions, like "you can't support Israel openly."  Uh-uh.  It stands for everyone or no one; that's how it works.  Thus far I assume most of you are probably nodding your heads rather impatiently.  Obviously free speech means "free."  What's the controversy here?

But that's just the problem: for some reason, the moderate and fair approach ultimately taken by the MLA here (something which has not always been true in the past) is being seen in many quarters as cowardly and driven by political correctness, not a reasonable sense of fair play.  "Shame on the MLA for insisting on the masquerade that they are being even handed by protecting the rights of all.  The fact of the matter is that they are siding with entrenched power while turning a blind eye to the one sided silencing of dissidents," proclaims Levon Chorbajian, a professor of sociology.  "This is not moderation but cowardice with the MLA repeating the past history of their predecessors and the Screen Writers Guild in the McCarthy era," says the appropriately named "Viper."  Siding with entrenched power, no doubt, because of the MLA's misguided belief that freedom means what it says: free.

I'm sorry to say it, but break it all down and you begin to see the real problem here: academia, never known for its close connection to reality, has grown so out of touch that it now believes that positions like ones in which people assert that one-sidedness is virtue and fair-mindedness vice are reasonable ones to have.  In no other arena could the statement "this is too even-handed" be made without getting laughed out of the room.  I despise David Horowitz and his perverse appeal to open-mindedness in college classrooms (an appeal which relies on closed-mindedness from outside of them) largely because that appeal is so disingenuous…but how is this any different?  Because we're beating up Israel instead of Bush?  Sorry, that doesn't wash.  Either we support the rights of those on all sides of the issue to discuss it freely, without fear of censure, and let the famous marketplace of ideas do its work, or we shut the whole damn marketplace down and throw free expression out the window in the process. 

Ultimately, of course, there aren't too many people in the general population who give a damn or even know much about the MLA, except maybe as those folks who put out that book that shows how to do a Works Cited page for high school English.  But it's interesting both that the MLA tried to be relevant and fair minded for a change, and now is getting hammered for its trouble.  I can't wait for the sequel: When Academics Attack–The Unrated Version.  Now that should make for some fun holiday entertainment.

Jan 7

Andrew Olmsted’s last post.

Posted by A Writer

I stumbled across this entry at Kristin Nelson's bloga posthumous entry from Andrew Olmsted, a soldier who's had a blog for the past five years of his time serving in Iraq.  He wrote this last entry and instructed it be posted in the event of his death, which happened on January 3, 2008.  There is something eerily haunting and deeply powerful about this entry, and try as I might I can't think of anything sarcastic or pithy to say about it.  In fact there really is little to say at all; I had never heard about Olmsted until now, and I'm not sure if I would have agreed with him politically, but this isn't about soldiers, or politics, or even opinions about why we should or shouldn't have gone to Iraq in the first place.  This is really just about one writer's final words, and I think for today we'll let him speak for himself.  I'll have another post up soon.

Jan 5

Clash Of The Titans, Baby!

Posted by A Writer


I've been running around like crazy the last couple of days, and today when I sat down to write this post my mind was so frazzled that I couldn't decide what I wanted to talk about.  The primaries are pretty cool, but don't have a whole lot to do with writing, literature, music, or academics (and don't tell me that Chuck Norris's endorsement of Mike Huckabee counts as a cultural reference.  The last thing you want is Chuck Norris finding out that you said that, because he'll track you down and kick your ass through the InternetAll the kids say he can do that, so it must be true.).  And my blog isn't about technology, even though technology is also cool (MP3 players FTW), so I can't do some rant about what sucks about the iPod.  But just as I was about to give up and start writing a top ten list (God help me), from the heavens above an angelic form did descend and point to the previous sentence.

The iPod? 


And sure enough, a quick search later and I found what I was looking for–a brand spanking new lawsuit leveled against Apple for its unusually restrictive copy-protection policies.

Ooh, goody.

Yep, it turns out that a class-action suit has been filed against Steve Jobs' brainchild claiming that the inability of iPods to play .WMA files, and the inability of iTunes-purchased songs to play on anything other than an iPod, violates U.S. antitrust laws.  Doing this has unfairly constricted the market and made it more difficult for other companies to compete (well, that and the fact that some of the rival MP3 players look like this. Glurps ), and the suit (filed by Stacie Somers, who bought her iPod at a Target and obviously is the Erin Brockovich of portable music device owners) demands that Apple forfeit the money it earned from this and, of course, pay damages to the plaintiffs.

Er…I thought you said this wasn't a technology blog…

Just you wait, my friends–this is where it really gets interesting.  Because the lawsuit doesn't really argue against the infamous Digital Rights Management (DRM), which prevents songs from being freely distributed and played on any platform; no, it argues that Apple isn't supporting the right kind of DRM–specifically .WMA, which just happens to be Microsoft's proprietary DRM system.  Yes, as it turns out the real bankroll behind this lawsuit (Stacie Somers doesn't own her own law firm, if you can believe that) is a certain Redmond, WA based company which knows a little something about antitrust violations.  Not since Godzilla took on King Kong have we seen this kind of a fight.  Microsoft vs. Apple–let the battle for glory and honor begin.       

At this point you're all probably audibly yawning (and thanks, I can feel the love).  Who gives a damn about two absurdly wealthy corporations fighting over who gets to eat more at the trough?  But this is where we move away from technology, because this is really much more than an issue about whose muscles are bigger.  On its face the lawsuit is absurd; as Mitch Wagner points out, to be a monopoly "Apple would have to be a gatekeeper controlling consumers' access to digital music and video, and that's simply not the case."  And it's pretty ridiculous for Microsoft to claim that Apple is violating antitrust laws (I should just stop the sentence there, but I won't) when it's asking the courts to have Apple put in a different format…which presumably would also be, uh, violating antitrust laws.  Welcome to Bizarro World.  But beyond the merits of the lawsuit, what about this mysterious DRM?  What is this all about in the first place?

Why, profit.

Yep.  DRM is allegedly intended to protect the intellectual property of various artists from being stolen [sic] by keeping people from distributing songs, movies, and other such things on file-sharing networks like Limewire or Kazaa.  DRM means you can only buy and play stuff from the people who control DRM–not the artists, by the way, but the industry which owns them.  And the music industry hasn't stopped there; the RIAA (which stands for "Rich Irritatingly Arrogant Attackers," I think.  All the kids say that's what it means.) has been in the business of running around the Internet suing everyone with a pulse who's illegally downloaded a song or two, or a thousand…but often just one or two.  (Among the hardened criminals it's taken down is this single mother, who I frankly feel relieved is off our virtual streets.)  And the argument is a good one–artists work hard producing their music, and stealing from them is wrong.  I can get behind that; I don't want my work stolen, whether it's from my band or from my books.  And besides, kids, stealing is wrong!  Where's the controversy here?

Well, that's just it…if it were just a matter of saying that stealing is wrong, we could all nod our heads and go home happy.  But the question has to be asked:  who is stealing from whom?  And if you take a look at who is really angry here, you'll be surprised to note that it tends not to be the artists themselves.  Oh, the big ones are mad: Metallica is one of the biggest examples of a band that went after its own fans for illegal downloads (and that certainly helped their public image, by the way).  But most independent artists are not only not opposed to downloads of their music, they actually encourage it.  Even some larger bands have gotten into the act.  Why?  Because as it turns out, what really angers the RIAAs and Apples and Microsofts of the world is not that the people are "stealing" from the artists, but that they are stealing from them: the companies who, frankly, have been stealing from the artists for years.  Go ask Billy Joel what he thinks about the typical music industry executive.  Or go talk to Vertical Horizon.  Or Bob Dylan.  Or Radiohead.  Or any one of thousands and thousands of bands and independent musicians.  The truth is that the music industry has been screwing the artists for so long with unfavorable contracts and incredible middleman markups that many musicians have literally been ruined by the process.  And this in part explains the level of anger and ridiculous overpursuit of the evil downloading single mothers of the world: no one hates being thieved from (apologies for the language mangling) more than a thief, and the music industry has been doing that like it's going out of style for decades.  The message from the RIAA is not that stealing is wrong; it's that anyone else stealing is wrong.  They'll excuse me if I'm underwhelmed by that kind of "battle of conscience."   

Now don't get me wrong; I don't think that running around downloading and uploading materials is a wonderful trend, or that we should promote stealing.  I can't afford to be that charitable, anyway.  But the hypocrisy involved in the music industry's behavior is so breathtaking, and the artists themselves are so generally against this "sue at all costs" mentality, that it's hard for me to get all fired up about someone downloading and listening to one of my songs for free–especially since that same industry has been overcharging for so many years (do you think it costs a company $15 to produce a CD?  No…try around five dollars, after all the promotion is done and salaries paid.  I think companies could probably squeak by with only a hundred percent markup, say.  I'd be willing to take up a collection if they were having trouble making ends meet.).  Lost in the holy war between Gates and Jobs is a simple truth: neither company would even exist were it not for the people working for them, the inventors and producers of their software and hardware.  And no one in the music industry would have a job if not for the people who write and perform the music which the rest of the public wants to buy.

In other words, O fickle CEOs: know thyselves, and stop fighting over whose method of abusing the artist is a better one.  And for heaven's sake, leave the single mothers alone.  Britney Spears has enough to deal with.  

Jan 2


Everywhere you look, dire warnings about the current state of the publishing industry abound.  "The publishing industry is in a state of change, shock, and reformation," the San Francisco Public Library Herb Caen Magazines and Newspapers Center proclaims (man, someone at the name bureau was asleep at the switch with that one).  "This industry is in a shambles," moans Simon Barrett (I think Writer, Rejected ought to take a look at this one for a real pick-me-up).   "Publishing is truly difficult.  It's about taking risks in a fundamentally broken business," Seth Godin asserts.  Yes, everywhere you look you can see the locusts and the dying fish; we are living in the last days, my friends, and you'd best settle up with your literary maker before the royalty check comes in.

The situation might not be quite this apocalyptic (although as you all know, I do love me an apocalypse), but it certainly seems as if the industry has gotten far more difficult to break into, and in some ways even harder to stay when you do break in.  And the rise of the blessed word processor has made things even worse, since now everyone who thinks they've got a sweet new idea about a vampire who's really sorry he has to kill people, see, and he's filled with angst and he likes goth music and he's bisexual and…is now submitting to the same people we are.  In other words, the ever-daunting slush pile has gotten filled with road dirt, and cleaning through it has become a holy horror for publishers and agents alike.  It's no wonder that rejection rates have hit 90% and are climbing, and that authors are looking for other avenues as a result.

And fortunately, a new avenue has opened, for in to fill the void left by traditional publishing, arriving to save the world of books from itself in the nick of time, is the non-traditional vanity press: a publisher where you pay so they don't have to.  Yes, for the low, low fee of whatever you're willing to pay to make sure your book is "successful," you too can hold a printed and bound copy of your hard work in your hands.  Then you can strut around at dinner parties and make oblique comments about obscure caviar brands, because hey, you're a published author, and membership hath its privileges.  Okay…that's really a little unfair, because as some have pointed out, a lot of these presses aren't about vanity at all.  They're just about changing the stodgy old cigar smoking publishing world, dragging it kicking and screaming into the new century:

"Some people are afraid of progress.  Any kind of progress.  Even when it comes to things like the creative arts, there are those who would rather eat sewage than to see something succeed by using new methods of doing business… [A WRITER'S NOTE: this is true.  I once watched an agent friend of mine immediately order a heaping helping of "Jenkem Surprise" at a restaurant after I mentioned hearing about something called a "website."  It wasn't a pretty picture.]  Many people out there are under the mistaken impression that PublishAmerica is either a vanity press or some form of self-publishing.  On the contrary, they are a regular publisher…Sometimes, you have to take the road less traveled to reach your destination.  We can't always follow the well-defined path…We are all intelligent enough to know good writing when we see it."

Amen, sister, amen.  And you ought to know what you're talking about, since PublishAmerica published you.  Who the hell do these conservative pantywaists think they are?  If they would only be willing to see the value of a new way, we could all be published authors, and the rusty, locked gates of this dinosaurs' world would be blown wide open.  Sign me up for PublishAmerica, the U.S.'s number one publisher, and progress!  Because, I mean, it is progress, right?  It is something different than the norm, right?  Places like PublishAmerica pay their authors…and so…they really care about us… 


Sadly, Virginia, no.  There is a Santa Claus, but he didn't bring you a legitimate publishing contract this Christmas.  Because when you start looking below the surface of these places, ones which throw things like "progress" and "change" and "the road less traveled" around like they're going out of style, you start to see some rather ugly truths.  PublishAmerica does indeed pay its authors: $1.00.  Yep.  That's it.  For whatever you write.  Send them a four hundred page historical epic with glossary and citations from Barbara Tuchman included: $1.  Send them a ten page "graphic novel" about your cat, using the underutilized Crayola medium: $1.  Send them your shopping list: $1.  (Don't laugh…it's non-traditional, you luddite!)  PA does exactly what all vanity presses do: it promises validation and delivers disappointment.  And whether you're the new Kurt Vonnegut or the old Louis L'Amour (was that dude ever below fifty?): you get $1.  Next in line.

Of course, PA advocates will say, it's not about the one size fits all one dollar advance: that's "symbolic," anyway.  It's about PA taking a risk on new and edgy material which other publishers (the cigar-smoking stodgy ones, remember) won't touch.  It's about getting books in the hands of eager readers.  It's about the goddamned road less traveled!  And of course that's a compelling argument; it really shouldn't be about the money, or at least not at first.  But the problem is that it's not doing those other things either.  First of all, the material isn't new, or edgy, or even copyedited, because PA accepts anything.  I mean it.  Unless you write a book entitled PublishAmerica Iz Deez Nutz (and that might work if you could get around the copyright problems of the last two words), you're in.  Don't believe me?  Then feast your eyes on this:

"Richard didn't have as sweet a personality as Andrew but then few men did but he was very well-built. He had the shoulders of a water buffalo and the waist of a ferret. He was reddened by his many sporting activities which he managed to keep up within addition to his busy job as a stock broker, and that reminded Irene of safari hunters and virile construction workers which contracted quite sexily to his suit-and-tie demeanor. Irene was considering coming onto him but he was older than Henry was when he died even though he hadn't died of natural causes but he was dead and Richard would die too someday. . . ."

Ah, the sweet, sweet prose of Atlanta Nights.  This book, expertly written by the well-known author Travis Tea, was immediately accepted by PublishAmerica upon submission.  The only problem, of course, was that Travis Tea was actually a bunch of well-respected published science fiction writers who had decided to test how selective PA actually was by writing the worst book they could…and quickly found out the answer.  Of course PA immediately withdrew acceptance after it found out about the hoax, but, well, someone had to tell PA about it…apparently the QA department wasn't fully awake that day.  But even the stuff which isn't intended to be bad usually is–in fact the vast majority of PA material is absolute trash, largely because it hasn't been through the process of (sorry, Writer, Rejected) rejection and subsequent revision.  In other words, instead of being told to go back to the drawing board–with those who don't have the work ethic or inclination to do so leaving the rest of us blessedly alone–these writers have been told that they're great…so great, in some cases, that they don't even need editing services.  Nope, they're just flat out geniuses from the word go.  And it's only because of kindly PublishAmerica that anyone found out.

Except, of course, for the second problem: no one will find out.  PA claims to have published more than 20,000 people (PA actually claims a whole lot, but this one might actually be true), and proudly trumpets that over 800 PA books are bought per day.  But as James MacDonald points out, a quick analysis of these numbers shows that this means that about 13 copies per title are actually bought per year by all the bookstores in America combined.  In other words, PA authors will sell one book a month to someone other than themselves and their understanding but overtaxed families.

Road less traveled…must remember the road less traveled…

But look.  If the books aren't being sold to bookstores (who can't order them at a standard bookstore discount, by the way, and can't return them if (when) they don't sell, and thus won't buy them), and Amazon never has any in stock (for the same reason), then who the hell is buying them?

Why, the ones to whom PA is most beholden.  The ones who are most grateful for PA's help.  The authors.

Yep, the authors themselves, as it turns out, are the ones to whom PA really markets.  They get a 40% discount on the title…so if they just buy a few copies, they can sell them to people themselves.  And who better to market a book than the person who wrote it, right?  Just pick up a few copies…well, ten…hmm, not selling anywhere, better make it fifty…er…

In fact, if you check through the threads at PublishAmerica's site, or even better at Absolute Write (where the overtly critical PA posts won't be instantaneously deleted), you'll discover that many of these writers are so desperate to see their work in print, and so horrified when they discover their mistake with PA, that they'll sink hundreds, thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars into buying, marketing, and selling their own books just to keep from feeling the pain of their massive, massive error.  (Y'all know that whole "sunk cost theory," right?)  But the amount of money lost by these poor writers doesn't even matter–because the truth is that even if they do somehow figure out a way to do nothing but market and spend every last dime buying and selling this worthless merchandise, at the end of the day they will still have a book published by the laughing stock of the industry.  A PA published book is a negative for future sales.  Better start warming up that name machine again, because your current moniker will be permanently ruined as that of a legitimate writer worthy of respect, attention, or the "risk" of being published by a mainstream publisher…one which, for all its stodginess and cigar smoking, makes its money by selling your books to readers, not to you.  

But look, you say, this is old news.  There is no shortcut to becoming a better and then published writer; you have to learn, to edit, to take criticism, to make your work better, to get through the rejections before getting published.  Everyone knows that this is a scam.  But that's just it: they don't know.  Thousands more authors every year fall into this trap, and hundreds of more posts and websites pop up warning people to watch out, and yet the sucker line keeps growing.  PublishAmerica is probably the worst offender, but there are many, many more of these places which promise the moon and deliver, well, sewage–and in the process not only clutter up the industry, making it more difficult for legitimate authors to get through, but drain the bank accounts and break the hearts of countless writers who thought they had what it took to get published and noticed, and did: a bank account.  Yet vanity publishers like PA continue to skirt the law, whistling merrily along past their astonishingly unethical business practices, absurd threats of legal action against those who would fight back and outright lies to their customers while cashing check after check after check.  They traffic in dreams, and buy and sell egos, and all the while have the unmitigated gall to claim that they're doing it in the name of progress and the road less traveled.  And writers, hopeful, dreaming, desperate, whip out their credit cards and follow the Pied Piper right down to the bank.

And there's your apocalyptic lesson for today, boys and girls.  Virginia, your little friends might have been affected by the scepticism of a sceptical age, but I think they were on to something.  Take a good look at your Santa Clauses, everyone; not everyone with a beard and a little round belly is the genuine article…and not everyone who claims to be a publisher really is one.  Even if they are doing it all, of course, in the name of progress.

Jan 1

Happy 2008!

Posted by A Writer


Hope your New Year's Eve is a safe one–thanks for checking Rewritten Reality out, and sticking with it!  I'll have a longer post to you shortly.