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."

Uh…

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."

Buhhhwhattt??

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" 

Surprised

(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 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.

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 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 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.

Dec 15

Regular readers of this site (or even the new ones who are quick on the uptake…meaning all of you, of course! :) ) will I think have picked up two things about my personality by now:

1.  I don't suffer fools gladly.  (I do suffer because of them, though.  I suffer even more when I'm one of them, which happens more than I like to admit.)

2.  I'm a bit of a contrarian, or at least a skeptic, when it comes to "conventional wisdom."

Both of these characteristics stem from my sense that we tend to, well, settle for things more than we should.  Vaccinate children for everything which we neither had nor needed to concern ourselves with twenty years ago (including chicken pox…vaccinating against chicken pox?!?)?  Sure…everyone says it's a good idea.  Accept widespread civil rights abuses to protect against imminent (so we're told) terrorist attack?  I guess…everyone agrees that some sacrifice in personal liberty is a necessity.  Believe that the contestants on American Idol are the best singers in America?  Well…if they won the vote fair and square…

Yes, there is safety in numbers, and comfort in feeling that you're not on your own.  When it comes down to it, in fact, most of us would much rather walk with the marchers than against them–and there's often a good reason for doing so.  Despite my serious qualms about the Amazon review system (and Harriet Klausner, patron saint of the "amateur" reviewer), I must admit that there is a benefit to it when dealing with significant numbers.  One person telling me that x book is terrible and I should avoid it isn't particularly helpful; fifty people telling me the same thing, some with evidence to support their claims, is more likely to give me pause–not because I'm a thoroughgoing democrat (although I suppose I might be :) ), but because the simple law of averages suggests that of those fifty people, a few of them are likely to have some similar tastes to my own.  Or to put it another way, they can't all be smoking crack, or at least not the same kind (and if they are, they might be on to something).  The bottom line is that it's reasonable to assume that there is something off about the book, film or theater production in question if everyone who read or saw that particular thing said similar things about what was off about it.  Sometimes, then, broad consensus is worth taking into consideration.   

The problem, of course, is that broad consensus is notoriously fickle and inaccurate–so that millions of people can think Sanjay is a good singer, while others who saw the Emperor's lack of clothes a long time ago think their fellow AI watchers really are smoking crack…which they are, by the way, if you saw some of his performances *shudder*.  (This fear of fellow citizens' crack smoking habits also applies to politics, but not in this post.  :) )  I thought of all of this while reading a book jacket the other day that promised "a frightening new vision of a dystopic future."  Now I would hope that a dystopic future is "frightening"–that's kind of the point–but what gets me is the "new" part.

How is this new?

The idea of dystopia was first conceived, at least as a separate term, by John Stuart Mill (who kicks lots of ass, by the way…one of the few philosophers where you don't have to pull out the "he was a man of his time" excuse to defend some of his ideas (you listening, Rousseau?)) in 1868.  A vision of a world gone horribly wrong would have been new in, say, 1869.  I'll give you a few decades grace period, though; if you want to count H.G. Wells' The Time Machine (1895), go ahead.  But basically, by the time we hit the 20th century the idea of a post-apocalyptic, near future dystopia is well established.  And you can rack up the names from there, in books and films: Brave New World1984Fahrenheit 451Planet of the Apes (you blew it all up!).  Mad MaxBrazil (I don't care that it's directed by a Monty Python cast member, it's still goddamn depressing).  The MatrixV For Vendetta (advertised as an "uncompromising vision of the future"–I guess a compromising vision would be one where we weren't all soulless automatons ruled by faceless bureaucrats).  And of course, I Am Legend (now in its fourth incarnation; where else could you get Will Smith acting the same role as Charlton Heston and Vincent Price did?).  And the list goes on and on.  I'm sure this is indicative of our culture's disassociation with itself, and reflects our worries about our increasingly soulless society.  I'm sure that it serves as a warning to all those who have ignored the collapse of our civilization's basic morality.

But when it comes down to it, I just find the whole goddamn thing as boring as hell.

First of all, the dystopic visions are founded on the exact same speculations as the utopic ones, with the same flimsy evidence and the same rampant leaping to conclusions.  And while I will gladly accept that the near-future dystopia tales can have startling resonances with our current society (it's not that hard to imagine the government restricting civil liberties when it, well, already does that), I think being drawn to those resonances says more about our complaint reflex than it does about a greater claim to truth.  Think about it for a moment: life is often terrible.  Awful.  There are times when it seems hard to go on.  And yet for the vast majority of people, life is often also positive, exciting, fun–hell, sometimes even fun.  Now certainly there are a subsection of people who deal with worse things more of the time than the rest of us–but no larger, I suspect, than the subsection of people who deal with better things more of the time than the rest of us.  In other words, most of us get through basically okay, highs and lows in roughly equal measure.  Yet visions of utopia are dismissed as Candyland fantasies while visions of dystopia are called "brave" and "uncompromising."  Second, the "we're all going to die tomorrow" stuff has been done…a lot.  And if nothing else, it would be nice to, perhaps, try something new for a change (which ought to be a goal of all speculative fiction writers)–like imagining a world where destruction isn't the inevitable conclusion.

But maybe we like being depressed, you say.

Well, no; you could argue we just like being realistic.  But my point here is that the vision of a future wracked by death, disease, and universal despair is just as unrealistic as the vision of a future wracked by joy, happiness and cinnamon rolls (which is maybe the greatest possible future I could imagine), and so I'm starting to wish for some critical balance here.  My own work is hardly all sunshine and light, but I'd like to think there's at least the possibility of hope within it…and without that hope, I think I'd rather curl up and cry than waste time writing about how terrible everything is.  So for a little while, I think I'm going to bypass the section of the bookstore or video shop dedicated to the uncompromising visions of the future and look for works willing to compromise just a little on the possibility of hope.

Sort of a cinnamonrollia, if you will.  I could dig that kind of vision.        

Dec 12

Just a short post today to note a piece of sad yet oddly inspiring news:  Terry Pratchett, fantasy writer (he's most famous for his work on the Discworld series) and super-satirist, announced on his website yesterday that he has been diagnosed with a rare form of "early onset Alzheimer's."  That news, which would be devastating for anyone, seems particularly awful coming from one of the wittiest writers in the English language (I'm not exaggerating.  This is a guy who wrote "Bishops move diagonally. That's why they often turn up where the kings don't expect them to be," and that's just for starters.); the thought of Pratchett losing the ability to create his strangely uplifting work is a deeply sobering one, particularly because his work is so, well, non-sober. 

That's the sad part.  What makes this simultaneously inspiring is the way Pratchett finishes his message:  "I would just like to draw attention to everyone reading the above that this should be interpreted as 'I am not dead'.  I will, of course, be dead at some future point, as will everybody else.  For me, this maybe further off than you think – it's too soon to tell. I know it's a very human thing to say 'Is there anything I can do', but in this case I would only entertain offers from very high-end experts in brain chemistry."  This is exactly the kind of thing that makes Pratchett's books so good; they present ideas with a deep sense of humor, irony, and skepticism about the human condition, yet never come across as cynical or bitter.  In fact, Pratchett may be the only author I know who can spend an entire book poking fun at our ridiculous species and our crazy world, yet somehow leave you feeling that we're really not all that bad and the world isn't all that terrible after all.  In any case, here's hoping that the added attention this announcement brings causes Alzheimer's research to get kicked up a notch, and that Pratchett still has many more years of making us laugh, smile, and most of all think ahead of him.  Or in his own words:

"Gods don't like people not doing much work. People who aren't busy all the time might start to think."  

Amen.

Dec 10

In Harriet Klausner We Trust?

Posted by A Writer

If you're a writer, or someone with a vague interest in books who spends any time online at all, you've probably heard of Harriet Klausner, Amazon.com's #1 Reviewer.  For those of you who don't know, Ms. Klausner is famous for her, er, review rate; she hit the fifteen thousand reviewed books mark this year (I wrote the number out so the more skeptical of you wouldn't believe I accidentally hit an extra zero.  Suspicious bunch, you people.), and shows no signs of slowing down.  Yesterday she posted reviews for another ten books, and on her top days has reviewed far more than that.  And she reads widely as well: mysteries, romances, horror books, science fiction, young adult, she's got them all covered.  According to TIME, Harriet is "part of a quiet revolution in the way American taste gets made. The influence of newspaper and magazine critics is on the wane. People don't care to be lectured by professionals on what they should read or listen to or see…Online critics have a kind of just-plain-folks authenticity that the professionals just can't match. They're not fancy. They don't have an agenda. They just read for fun, the way you do."  Harriet Klausner Goes To Random House: the heart-warming story of a "citizen reviewer" whose folksy style has won over the jaded regulars of the publishing world. 

Maybe.

But take another look at the prolific HK and you'll find a couple of clouds to this silver lining.  A quick perusal of her reviews indicates that all of her reviews–all of them–are either four or five star affairs.  Apparently every book is good or great, which is a pretty good track record for an industry which has the reputation of producing some schlock on occasion (just scurrilous rumors, no doubt).  Still, you would imagine that one or two authors wouldn't have gotten the "only great books accepted" memo and might, possibly, have written something a little below par.  (I in no way wish to disparage My Beautiful Disaster, of course, which is obviously one of the greater books we've produced as a species.  Jordin Sparks liked it, and it got five stars, for God's sake!)  But it's conceivable that Harriet just has a great eye for otherwise misunderstood talent.  What isn't as easy to explain is how every review reads like something taken directly off the back cover of the book itself, with a couple of vague generalizations thrown in for good measure.  Read the book description and HK's review of the aforementioned MBD and you'll note some stunning similarities.

But wait, wait, wait.  What happened to folksy charm?  She doesn't even get paid for doing this!  And she's a speed reader!  Didn't you read the TIME article?  Are you against quiet revolutions, you industry shill?  All good points.  I love folksy charm, and sign me up for the next peaceful revolt.  But when you learn that she's actually sent advance copies of books "by the truckload" from publishers who are desperate for any kind of exposure for their books, and that she's become widely derided as a "joke" by industry execs, you may start wondering what worth her reviews actually have.  It's certainly not the deathless prose: "Readers along with the two DS will wonder whether Alan has gone over the edge or found a real connection; which premise makes this a deep read."  Now there's a five star sentence.  In fact, there seems to have been a not-so-quiet revolution against poor folksy Harriet, from conspiracy theories that she's actually a fake created by the publishing industry to pump up their books to full-scale attacks on her intelligence and (already shaky) credibility.  There's even a Harriet Klausner Appreciation Society, which is a society but is not appreciative.

But many of my more savvy readers will probably know that the word has been out on Harriet for a while now.  I bring it up again here because over the past few months I've begun to see a disturbing trend, which I call the Harriet Klausner Effect (HKE, patent pending), manifesting itself in more and more places.  The HKE refers to the practice of seeking out, by any means necessary, outside testimonials, reviews, and gestures of approval to validate one's work for an increasingly skeptical public (I told you that you were a suspicious bunch).  The latest example of this phenomenon is the paid blog review craze, where people are, apparently, paid to review other people's blogs.  In fact, there are actually whole sites dedicated to encouraging this phenomenon.  The process is pretty simple: submit your blog to the site, and for a fee (which can run to $300 and more, by the way) one of the site's paid reviewers will post a review of it, either on that site or in some cases on his/her own blog.  The reviewer gets paid, the blog gets exposure, and everyone's happy.

Um–what?!? 

I'm sure I'm late to the party on this, but I think even the most credulous person out there will raise an eyebrow at this model.  Even Google has recognized the problem and started to adjust its search engine criteria to take account of (and more easily reject) sites which rely on this "pay-per-review" model.  Yet rather than either applauding this response or sheepishly admitting we just screwed it all up, a lot of bloggers have instead decided to attack Google and the objectivity argument:  "A blogger's job sometimes goes unappreciated and for granted. Pay Per Post and ReviewME offers models where, at least, they can review products and services they find interesting and give a fair assessment of those products, while being appreciated ($$$) for it."

For the second time: what!?!

In the past, this kind of Conflict of Interest 101 situation would have been justifiably demolished for its utter lack of objectivity.  This is why the famous "industry-funded studies," like those which found no link between smoking and cancer in the 70s, don't get that kind of unquestioned authority from the public anymore.  But thanks to the HKE, "lack of objectivity" has now been removed and replaced with "appreciated."  We're objective, the bloggers say, we are, we swear to God!  The money has absolutely nothing to do with our review.  We would review these sites anyway; now we're just getting "appreciated" for our work.  Uh huh.  Which is why, no doubt, these sites were willing to drop three or four bills just to get you to pay attention to something you would have paid attention to anyway.  I love quiet revolutions, don't you?

Sarcasm aside, the point here is that standards matter, and taking money from a site to review it seriously reduces the credibility of that review, no matter how much you stamp your foot and say it ain't so.  I do theater reviews, and while I'm sure the press people are nice to me when I come to their performances (just as you would be nice to anyone on whom you're trying to make a good impression), that's the extent of their "payment" to me.  My editor and his/her review medium is the one to whom I'm responsible, and thus conflict of interest doesn't enter into it.  It's often impossible to avoid all connections to something you're reviewing, of course; if I say I like WordPress (and I do), I can't avoid the fact that I'm using a WordPress-created site to say it.  But there was no quid pro quo there; I started using WordPress because it was great, and then decided to talk about it.  WordPress didn't send me a check, or a review book copy, or anything else to do the review.  I just liked it and said so.

Such arguments seem to me to be obvious ones, but so pernicious is the HKE that they seem to be getting muddled in people's minds, and I can't for the life of me figure out why.  I want public acceptance as much as anyone, and you better believe that I want my books and music to do well.  I'll even check out Rate My Professors once in a while to see what my students think about how cool I am (and whether I got a hot pepper, and I did, thanks for asking).  But even divines recognize the importance of free will and prayer freely given; forced or solicited reverence doesn't cut it, no matter how pious you claim to be.  Get your name out there, market and promote yourself, talk your work up at every opportunity.  But don't pay for the privilege.  You're better than that.  Even Harriet Klausner says so, and she only gave you four stars.