Thursday, March 31, 2011

Dreams and Fiction

This morning I dreamt I signed onto this blog and typed up a terrible and awkwardly confessional post, and then that I went back to bed and woke again and typed a longer, an epically longer, ramble. Then I woke for real (our apartment was battered by a rainstorm through the night and I woke several times to the rattle of windows or the cat's movement as she lost her mind) and thought, Did that happen? Did I really just brainvomit into the internet? I was relieved to learn I had not.

(Then later I dreamt that my Sarah, my fiancee, had secretly written everything I'd ever thought I'd written. Turns out she had a system going where she'd get on my computer when I wasn't around and type a story in an invisible font and then every time I sat down to type I was just unconsciously reading and retyping the words she'd already put in! In my dream I was pretty impressed and also freaked out. I was like, You're so clever!...but weird.)

It's unusual to dream of writing because usually if anything I think about the reverse, of writing about dreaming, in the sense that after I wake up I might ask if anything that shot around my head in the night might be salvageable for the Story Every Day project or for something longer. Usually I discard everything because it's all jumbled and insane and even if vibrant will lose its color through the day and ultimately reveal its banality, but sometimes, rarely, something seems worth saving. It seems amateurish to carry ideas from sleep to story, though, or lazy, or indulgent. One of the very few emails I've received from a reader was a question about my story "Three Tiny Men," about its origin, how it was created, and I felt like I couldn't tell her the truth, that I pretty much carried its kernel from a dream and modified it to work as a short piece. The technique worked well in that case, I think--the weirdness of sleep balanced well against the mundanity of the narrator's gardening--but more often, I suspect, leads to indulgent, boringly weird fiction. I'd argue that dreams usually make for bad writing even when they're not a source of a story but just an element in it (although there is a great, great scene in Ryan Boudinot's "Chopsticks," in Monkeybicycle 7, in which the narrator describes dreaming that he must perform hand surgery on a friend, which he botches, and which he must present by sobbing, "Welcome to your new hand." This is one of my favorite moments in the issue.)

(mostly) unrelated: Rumjhum Biswas, a writer based in India, interviewed me about the Story Every Day project, and the result went up this morning. YESSSSSSS. We primarily discussed the inspiration for short pieces and the merits (and limits) of very short fiction.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The new LIES/ISLE is good.

Really cool to see people using the medium.

These things will often happen to ordinary people.

I haven't had much time this semester for outside reading, a situation I lament often, but ever since AWP I've been stealing the occasional fifteen minutes with Anna Karenina. I don't have much to say about the book yet, as my Kindle tells me I'm about 8% through and the titular character just showed up a few hundred words ago.  Also, the last couple years have made me pretty much genuinely afraid of criticizing major books in public. (Don't worry: I'll get over it.) But there is one particular thing Tolstoy does with some regularity that I really dislike. I'd like to see this trope dead and buried, but I still see it in recent books as well.

What do I mean? I mean the part where Tolstoy makes a sharp observation, or in some cases what he seems to think is an especially sharp one but which I find rather painfully banal, and then telling me how common and ordinary the thing is, either among people of a certain class or among people generally. The particular moment that really made me hate this is the following:
All these days Dolly had been alone with her children. She did not want to talk of sorrow, but with that sorrow in her heart she could not talk of outside matters. She knew that in one way or another she would tell Anna everything, and she was alternately glad at the thought of speaking freely, and angry at the necessity of speaking of her humiliation with her, his sister, and of hearing her ready-made phrases of good advice and comfort. She had been on the lookout for her, glancing at her watch every minute, and, as so often happens, let slip just that minute when her visitor arrived, so that she did not hear the bell.
I mean ugh, right? Up until now we have a passage of the sort that I'm not exactly wild about, in general, for reasons of personal taste -- although unlike so many of the writers he inspired, Tolstoy seems to write with an awareness of the banality of his characters' feelings about affairs -- but it was well-executed. It worked. We had some discussion of how Dolly felt, it seemed accurate, and we can feel her anticipation, her anxiety, her ceaseless waiting, her nervousness, etc. And we have what could have been a very nice little moment: Dolly stops paying attention for just one moment, and in this time her anticipated visitor arrives. This puts her mildly off-balance and out of sorts. This is familiar and endearing and it feels very true.

But then Tolstoy had to screw it up by pointing to how familiar and endearing and true it is with his little aside: "as so often happens." It drives me up the wall. One of the chief pleasures of fiction is those moments of recognition, where a phrase or a particular moment feels so right, so much an emblem of your own experience, that you feel both more invested in the story itself and more connected to the writer and the characters as human beings. But this doesn't work if you draw attention to it. Saying "as so often happens" tells us that you think you've landed one of these moments. And either you're right, in which case it would be better if the moment could be allowed to stand alone without all this eyebrow-wiggling, or you're wrong, in which case now you're wiggling your eyebrows about something that never happened for your reader. Either way you look like a tool.

And this goes to a problem with many fiction writers generally. So often, writers are doing everything in their power to insist that their fiction is real and true and right. And this impression, if I come to it organically, can be a good thing for a reader -- it can feel nice. But when you push the point too hard, it gets to be ridiculous. Why are you writing fiction if your goal is to show me how well you understand reality? And if all you're doing is confirming me in my experiences, if you're only inscribing your prejudices as general principles of people and the universe, what's in it for me?

Just don't do it, guys. Winners say no.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Mike and Tracy Review Sucker Punch: Part Two

Part Two of our dual review of Sucker Punch focuses on sex, superhero fashion, and what makes a character feel human. Click to read Part One.

T: So putting some separation between the needs of the characters and the needs of the movie is probably one good way we've come up with to fix the movie. I mean, do you think there's something so integral about identification in American film? Do you think we can't really tap into the idea that we don't need to identify with somebody, that we can't view a character as separate from ourselves but still compelling?

M: Well I think that in popular movies that tends to be the case, and I'm frustrated by it. And, for women especially. There are plenty of movies that have the sort of male Ahab figure, who's this crazy guy you can't really say you identify with but you still sort of appreciate and sympathize with. I don't think I've ever seen that person successfully done as a woman in film, and I think that's in part because of the audience. Because every time I've gotten anywhere close to that sort of person in my own writing, people have enjoyed the character as a character but they've hated her as a person. They've said, "What a bitch." Very dismissively. Which ultimately I'm just going to accept; I see that as sort of their problem. But in a movie, I think that becomes really hard, to let go in that way, because a movie often seems to endorse your reading of itself, so that a film can become in practice very mean-spirited by virtue of mean-spirited audiences. It's really troubling.

So I think that, yeah, for women especially, there probably has to be identification in the near term. But I think, even before that, the thing that I was thinking about as a way of solving this is that you need to invest in the characters as fictional characters from the beginning. I mean, you forget the main character has this backstory that seems really important, and that you'd think would get resolved by the end of the movie because it gives you a villain, it gives you a goal that's really explicit. She wants to get the money and her house back--

T: And to avenge the sister--

M: Exactly. To avenge the sister--

T: Because the sister's just gone.

M: Yeah, the sister is forgotten completely, and that's just weird. I don't think you could do that with a male character. I think this movie only does it because it's so meta--that's why it thinks it can get away with it--but I don't think it can get away with it. And if you look at the other characters, there's barely any investment in them as characters. I don't know anything about them, and they don't know anything about themselves. You don't have to know things about a character, but they have to know things about themselves. And I don't think they do. And they're enlisted in this fantasy, which is again a sort of meta solution. If it's a fantasy, of course they don't know anything about themselves, she doesn't know anything about them. But I just don't buy that, and I think that's probably where the solution is, that for female action heroes, you probably need to build in identification for an American moviegoing audience just for it to work, in the near term, though I'd like to get away from that. But then in the long term, we still just need to know that they're people before we write them.

Mike and Tracy Review Sucker Punch: Part One

We saw Sucker Punch this weekend, and though we had a good time and left with some positive feelings about it, we couldn't stop talking about what we took issue with and--the eternal problem when two writers see a film that has huge promise but fails to deliver--what we would have done differently. What you see here is Part One of our follow-up conversation about the film. Ultimately we focus on the influence of anime on action movies, the golden rules of characterization, and exploitation as a feature of the superhero genre. Click to read Part Two.

T: So when we talked about the movie yesterday, we were talking about how it seemed at once to try to cast off exploitation--you know, it's dealing with all these female heroes who are clearly in a situation where other people are objectifying them, and where they're going to be objectified--but that the movie tried to simultaneously take us out of that world. It seems to say, "Look how ass-kicking they are, you can't pigeonhole them and say they're just objects," and that that seemed like a plausible way of making female heroes, but that it ultimately didn't work in the film.

M: Yeah, what I was saying was I didn't think there was really much of a vocabulary for talking about, or rather for showing that idea. Really it's visual, because I think you could write it more convincingly--I feel like I've read it more convincingly--but it's difficult to show in film, especially in film that, for good reason, wants to be exciting and pleasurable in the same way that action movies featuring men are. And it begins with the fact that it's difficult to show a woman's body in a way that lets them participate in the genre, and all the pleasures thereof, without it being purely exploitative--I mean, you don't shy away from showing a man's body.

T: Especially not in a superhero context.

M: Exactly. There you flaunt it--you give Iron Man armor that still looks like a naked guy. Your options for women are sort of a lithe sexy lady, or maybe there's a small girlish lady, or you go the superhero route and she's really curvaceous. Those are sort of your options for characters who look like they could maybe punch stuff. And then you could also have a big beefy lady. Some people think that's the best option, but to me, that's just exploitative in a new way. And then if you try and hide her completely, it's kind of the same problem, it's a reaction against exploitation where, if nothing else, there's shame about the body because it has to be hidden. So I feel like just giving a woman a body and dressing her for an action movie is almost impossible and it requires incredible deliberation.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Women Who Write: Ashley Farmer

I used to think of myself as primarily a prose poet. And times are I want to sit down again and write a whole book of quarter-page little things, especially when I read really spectacular examples of them. Here, by Ashley Farmer, is one from the latest Wigleaf--"Man Found Dead in Graveyard":

The iris, says the newsflash, is a thumbprint. When I rub fists to eyelids I follow a river down a blank tunnel. Reemerged, I'm unspecified in an unlit town, atop a hill, washing myself in a river of irises. (I fingered that flower once, an iris. Split the petal across my thumb like skin on skin and never touched one again).
From a friend, I received a sketch of a face: Have You Seen This Man? The man who shows up in dreams? The same man materializes behind thousands of lethargic eyes. Dreamers come forward saying they recall his gaze, he's their ex-this/that, he's maybe a man they used to know. They flash his photograph.

Wigleaf / 3.22.11

Video Game Death Compilation

With thanks to Matt Bell and Brian Oliu, two dudes who know about video game death:

Beautiful Little Dudes

I used to want to be a sculptor more than like anything. Other stuff I wanted to be more than anything: A puppeteer (involves sculpture), a claymation guy (involves sculpture), a painter, a comic book artist, an actor, a voice actor, a scientist (very briefly), and probably a whole lot more. I've always been more enamored by what I imagine I could make in a given medium than the results of my brief dalliances, except where fiction is concerned: the process is absorbing enough, and I seem to have enough of a natural knack, that the product generally resembles what I wanted closely enough to keep me going.

There are simple and obvious explanations for my belief as a child that I was a good writer, for my belief as a teenager that I was a good writer, for my belief as a college student that I was a good writer, and possibly (he said, self-deprecatingly) for my belief now that I am a good writer: that is to say that as long as you can write a halfway coherent sentence, your bad prose will look stunningly similar to good prose. It's all just words on a page, and if you were dumb enough to write it then you're probably dumb enough to think it's worth reading (it was apparently involving enough to keep you going until you finished). For other types of artists, humiliation is easy and fast: whenever I draw, I can immediately see how crappy it is in comparison to the art I admire. It just doesn't look the same. As for my sculptures, they always fell apart. What it says about me that I stuck with the art form where self-delusion is easiest is something I don't like to dwell on. It may be a kind of laziness, a cowardice, or both. It's a good thing I love books.

I wanted to make, now that I think of it, my own chess variant. (I thought I was good at chess, perhaps for reasons similar to those that made me think I could write: chess dudes moving around on a board badly looks pretty much the same as good chess if you don't know enough to know better.) I wanted to make little guys for the chess variant. I bought cheap dough. It was supposed to make statuettes, as I understood the situation. It didn't. Or rather, I didn't. I am not a sculptor.

The person who made these -- user Ionustron -- is clearly a sculptor. These statues are made of twisty ties. You know, the kind you tie a bread bag off with.

I mean, holy shit, right?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

I Love Shin chan

My relationship to art has a lot to do with my relationship -- a rather intense one -- to shame and guilt. I sometimes, often, feel both, am sometimes crippled by them. Sometimes I'm tempted to conclude that most people find them as troubling as I do, and that this is why most (bad) popular art seems constructed primarily to insulate audience and artist alike from any feelings of doubt or self-loathing. Novels so often seem to explain why things are the way they are, with the implication that the way things are is, if not okay, then at least no one's fault, or at least not your fault or mine. Film often does the same, but just as often fails even to acknowledge that anything is wrong: good deeds are rewarded, bad deeds are punished, and the ending is, if not genuinely a utopia, then a gesture toward one, or some other small transcendence. Literary short fiction, meanwhile, continuously evokes white liberal guilt with one specter or another, only to excise it in a small, symbolic moment of intense catharsis (whether by symbolic self-destruction or self-affirmation). These are generalizations, but they're based on general experience.

Of course, I like to defuse guilt as much as anybody. It's important. But I think that art manages guilt and shame best when it speaks honestly -- that a good story can be clarifying, rather than only comforting, by helping us to accept what we should accept in ourselves, leaving us to worry over only the things that need worry us: and hopefully, with the energy to actually do something.

Like any comedy, The Simpsons lives or dies on its jokes. For the last few years it's been dying more than living. But what made it a great show (when it was still any good) was its comfort with shame. Homer is a bad husband and a bad father, and he's confronted with this fact often. He's ugly and stupid. Bart is a trouble-maker and Lisa, for all that she gets right, sometimes forgets to be decent to other people. And of course this is why we love them. And they love each other in spite of it all. And we love them for that most of all. A lot of people hated The Simpsons when it first came out, without watching it, because when you hear these characters described in the abstract you don't want to watch them live. People made them sound shameless. But that's not it: rather, the show lets us watch them manage their shame at who they are and what they do. It helps us feel close to them.

Shin chan is much like what The Simpsons used to be. The jokes (at least as translated -- more on that in a moment) are sometimes cruder and more cruel, with references to child- and wife-beating, molestation, and, most often, bodily functions -- a subject that, in spite of their reputation, The Simpsons almost always avoided. Shin, the main character, is a five-year-old boy with no social graces. He talks frequently about his poop, and generally makes a spectacle of his body. His trademark move is the "ass-dance," and he likes to show off Mr. Elephant (his little penis, a surprisingly common sight on the show, and one that Adult Swim was smart enough not to censor). The rest of the characters usually respond with intense embarrassment, which is also apparently how Japan feels about poor little Shin. He makes them blush.

You might describe Shin as shameless, but it would be more accurate, I think, to say that Shin is someone still in the process of learning shame. You see him blush fairly regularly, and his emerging self-consciousness occasionally expresses itself as an awareness of the effects he has on other people. He usually finds this funny, but you can see that he'll one day be more or less like the rest of us -- if maybe a little more healthy. The other characters seem to need him: he provides a space in which they can be themselves, in which they can remember what it felt like not to struggle so with guilt. While Shin is never an especially convincing character himself, his family -- especially his father, Hiro, and his mother, Mitzi -- seem uncommonly persuasive as simulations of human beings. I've become especially fond of Mitzi in recent viewings: her irritation with her children is genuine and funny in a way most televised familial bickering never is, and her affectionate jostling with Hiro feels right to me as well. The show's broad strokes and scatological humor often provide a sympathetic view of the anxieties associated with womanhood and motherhood: her struggles to feed the family economically, her continuing efforts to save money for a totally unnecessary boob job, and the episode where the siren song of irregular tampons for irregular women proves too much to resist: "That's me," she says, just before her bike rolls backwards, downhill, at top speed. 

The arc of the first season (to the extent that there is an arc: each episode is generally divided into three loosely-related vignettes) deals primarily with Shin's accidental destruction of their home and the family's temporary move into a crappy, cramped apartment to wait out the repairs. This serves as a stress on the family, but what's remarkable is that for all their constant criticism of Shin, when he actually messes up badly (catastrophically, even) they immediately pull together: they love Shin just as surely as ever, and, as they prove in the tiny apartment, they love each other too. It's heartwarming without ever tipping into sentimentality. And their acceptance of each other -- as well as their more reluctant acceptance of themselves -- might even be called therapeutic. The delightfully lumpy animation -- never unaccomplished or ugly -- shares this affection. And watching it, I feel a little bit better about myself, for a while, too. The shame recedes. I find the energy to live, and live better.

The good news is, you can totally watch Shin chan if you want to. You can watch it on YouTube, on Netflix, on Hulu, on the Funimation website, wherever you like it. (Netflix is best if you've got it.) And you should! It's the funnest.

Women Who Write: Tamiko Beyer

This is one of those Women Who Write where I get embarrassed and imagine a good half of our readers saying: Of course she does. Where have you been? Today was my first exposure to her writing, and in case you, like me, were not previously familiar with her, maybe you can go check her out--she publishes widely in addition to blogging regularly at The Kenyon Review.

From the latest issue of DIAGRAM, this is "Sweet Branch Stitched to Bitter Tree":

After many sleight-of-hand days the sun squares itself on the white walls. Tart is what your tongue says against the slice you lay across it. Sweet say your molars. This apple grown from graft. Open the myth starred in every core—shiny useless things. 
Our stem tale sutured.
Where your limb would be,
I find my violent pleasure.

DIAGRAM / 11.1

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Of Course

When deciding the "best book of poetry" for any given year, why is it so hard for outsiders to have any chance at all?

Crying, Screaming Toward the Earth

Sarah suggested I write about this NPR article, "Cosmonaut Crashed Into Earth, 'Crying In Rage,'" which is awesomely and weirdly titled and is itself both awesome and weird. The article is not about the crash, exactly, but about the crash as reported in a new book, Starman. The comments tilt with concern about the veracity and balance of the account, which details with steely morbidity the lead-up to a mission that everyone knew was doomed. As Robert Krulwich writes,

In 1967, both men were assigned to the same Earth-orbiting mission, and both knew the space capsule was not safe to fly. Komarov told friends he knew he would probably die. But he wouldn't back out because he didn't want Gagarin to die. Gagarin would have been his replacement.

Krulwich summarizes how the men both, in the end, tried to muscle the other out of harm's way, and how Vladimir Komarov made it aboard and rode the deathtrap and, as his parachutes failed and he hurtled toward the earth, ragesdagainst the bureaucracy responsible for his death. As a bonus, Krulwich includes an image of the letter the Nixon Administration prepared for release in the event that Armstrong and Aldrin were stranded on the Moon, left to wait for death in the gray dust and thin gravity.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Women Who Write: Andrea Kneeland

I have encountered and very much enjoyed Andrea Kneeland's work in fiction, but today I was looking for some poetry and found her in Tarpaulin Sky ("Drafts"):

This is my list. My list
is a pointed sphere grown autumnal
in the dusk light. In the dusk light,
the bird cry cracks open, screams
out a name to the clappering
sound of horses hooved deep
on the shoreline. On the shoreline,
the riders are cradling shadows in
the stuttering waves. The stuttering waves
outline the bodies; the horses collapse,
out numbered in the dusk light.

so much for the moon she said
the scene at the end when the girl is shot

I thought this was just a fun sort of haiku variation--and really liked it that way--but each "line" is also linked to other poems; it is kind of awesome, and I have linked to them too. Read them!

Tarpaulin Sky / Chronic Content
Alice Blue Review /  Eight

Cathy Day and the big thing

Cathy Day of "The Story Problem: 10 Thoughts on Academia's Novel Crisis" fame/notoriety has continued to write on the subject of teaching students to write novels and big things more generally in the creative writing classroom at her blog The Big Thing. I was a fan of her original essay on the subject and so I am thrilled to see her continue to approach this problem of pedagogy. Her three-part interview with John Vanderslice about his approach to the problem (beginning here) is excellent as a way to begin thinking about how you might structure your own class on writing novels, and so is this plan for a class of her own, to be taught in the fall. 

As an undergraduate I wouldn't have needed such a class for the typical reasons, as I was already writing novels regularly (I completed four in the course of my four-year degree, each one longer, more ambitious, and less crappy than the last). But of course I was the exception to the rule, and I certainly would have appreciated such a class: especially when you're an undergrad, and especially when you're not very good (as I surely wasn't), finding someone even willing to read your work, let alone critique it in a helpful way, is nearly impossible. I had several readers who made the time, and I was so grateful to them, but I could have definitely used more. I especially wish my writing teachers, who only ever saw excerpts, had been able to find the time. But of course they couldn't.

Ironically graduate school has made such a class more necessary, as I find it more difficult to put aside sustained writing time during the semester.

Day writes on the blog, and so does Vanderslice in his interview, about the usefulness of in-class writing time, and the necessity of writing with a small group of dedicated readers. There's also some discussion of how students might plan their novels (some planning is probably necessary, while deviation from that plan is likewise essential), and writing about what one is writing, which is something I've never honestly found helpful (the second I start to describe what I'm up to in a story is generally the second I become incapable of doing it anymore). I may offer my own ideas about how to structure such a class later, but for now I'm content to think about what Day offers, and to ask how you might do things differently.

I'm Still Talking About the AWP Pedagogy Forum

The pedagogy forum is gone. It is ended. I'm concerned that no one seems to be talking about this.

I wrote a post about it when we first found out. I mention in that post many of the reasons why I think it's such a bad idea to end the pedagogy forum, how switching to pedagogy panel presentations means only a certain group of people will be given a voice in the discussion of creative writing pedagogy, and how I can't really understand AWP's reasoning behind this as the pedagogy forums would seem to take up a very minor amount of space, time, and money. What worries me, though, is that since the announcement, I have not been able to find any official announcement, any reason given, or any discussion about the decision--particularly not from AWP, but not from writers or lit bloggers either.

This worries me for the reasons mentioned in the previous post--namely, I worry that switching to pedagogy panels will mean the old guard will be the primary voice of pedagogy even though they tend to teach less broadly and with less motivation to critically examine or change their approaches; meanwhile important contributors to the discussion, like people who teach in K-12 schools, or community colleges, or art schools, or prisons, or any context outside the MFA, are cut out. But let me just add one more concern to the list: The decision to end the pedagogy forum means that an important source of funding for graduate students to attend AWP is eliminated. 

It is difficult, no matter how you travel to the conference, and no matter how many people you share your hotel room with, for a single person to spend under $750 to go to AWP (assuming you're going for a couple of days), particularly when it continues to be held in major cities. We have a generous stipend at New Mexico State, and this still represents more than a full period's pay, and far more than a month's rent. Mike and I would not have been able to go to AWP, ever, without the promise of partial funding. This year we did not have that promise, and I did not go--we just couldn't spare the expense. Historically, the university has funded pretty much as many graduate students as wanted to go, assuming two things: that all of them had helped out with campus activities in some way (volunteering their time for campus or community events), and that a sizeable number of them were going to the conference to present papers. There is no meaningful way for graduate students to present university-recognized scholarly work at AWP without the pedagogy forum. We may be asked to participate in publishers' readings, but these are not seen as scholarly (and in fact aren't). The chances we will propose a panel and have it accepted are next to nothing. Without the pedagogy forum, and without the scholarly opportunity that it represents, our university will only fund a maximum of 4 students to attend AWP each year. And predictably, other sources of funding (i.e., through the department budget) are drying up more and more.

I can only imagine that other universities are in roughly the same situation. Take away the pedagogy forum, then, and you take away graduate students from AWP.

Graduate students in all disciplines are encouraged to attend the big conferences in their field, as this is how you present yourself as a scholar, someone committed to entering and contributing to the field. AWP has always been a weird place for grad students, as simply attending does not say much of anything about how serious you are, or what you intend to do in the field. But previously, grads could distinguish themselves by participating as teachers and presenting new ideas; without the pedagogy forum, grads have no way to either distinguish themselves or contribute. 

This is in part a result of our continued refusal to hold creative writing to the status and demands of a field of study--to treat it as a hybrid of hobby and intellectual pursuit. Creative writing as a field is in as odd of a place as grad students--did you do it because you loved it? And if you love it, and love is how you grow in it, get better at it, is there any point to talking about it seriously? AWP is in an odd place in that regard--yet it has never stopped them from serving the various populations and interest groups that might potentially attend the conference, with panels ranging in focus and philosophy. Grad students need a way to prove that they intend to take membership in that community--not that, as is becoming more and more the case, they intend to take a mid-semester vacation.

Again, if anyone has a rationale to offer for this, I am eager to hear it. Right now it just looks like AWP is tired of making space for people whose names they can't use as promotional bait.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Stallion Candy Cigarettes

Today I bought some candy cigarettes! Guests have stayed in our apartment all week and one of them smokes and at one point I said, I am going to buy some candy smokes so I can smoke with you. One of the guests said, I don't think you can buy those anymore. You can buy them online, I said, because I researched them once, when I started my current job, in an office full of smokers who regularly went outside to sit in the baking Florida sun and blow blue clouds at each other.

Anyway, we went to a candy shop and guess what, you can buy candy cigarettes in person. A ban was considered in 1970, then again in 1991, and both times was killed by the powerful candy tobacco lobby. I fingered through boxes marked with bullseye's and with stripes and decided finally on Stallion smokes:

We lit up (or "lit up") immediately. Kevin, one of my guests, pointed out that the cigarettes were just sticks of candy and did not actually produce smoke. I faintly remembered the cigarettes that did produce something like smoke, although now I think they were bubble gum cigarettes. The candy cigarettes I bought are just anemic white twigs that hang from your lips, getting bendy and slick, until you're disgusted enough to eat them or spit them out. If you eat them they melt on your tongue into puddles of chalky-sweet slop, which shouldn't be a terrible surprise but still sort of is.

You can light them on fire if you like, and they will char at the end, but you may experience dripping sugar that sears your skin on contact.

Gatorade: Lime & Cucumber Reviewed

Living in New Mexico, you get a fair number of special versions of things featuring lime and chili powder. Lime because it is the most popular fruit in Mexico, and chili powder because it is the most popular powdered chili in Mexico. We have lime-flavored hot Cheetos, for instance, which are pretty awesome, though they also taste suspiciously like Fruit Loops. 

Today at the grocery store Tracy and I discovered a Gatorade that declares itself proudly as lime and cucumber-flavored. The packaging tells us that this abomination is called "Limon Pepino" in Spanish. Honestly I didn't know cucumber had a flavor, and I definitely don't know how it's going to translate to the medium of Gatorade. I am now going to liveblog/review/liviewblogre my first bottle of lime-cucumber Gato-Rade. "Rehidrata, repone, y reactiva para mantener tu desempreno cuando mas lo necesitas."

11:15:12: I am now opening the bottle.

11:22:17: I have now opened the bottle.

11:22:22: It smells exactly like ten cucumbers. This is incredible.

11:22:33: I'm bringing it to my mouth, now. I'm going to ingest some of this beverage.

11:22:35: It only tastes like one cucumber, if the cucumber was dipped in lime juice for a few seconds and then dissolved in water over a period of months. And then they poured some lemon Kool-Aid in.

11:23:47: It's kind of salty. Like brine, except if the brine came in the form of a powder like that dehydrated lemonade stuff, and then you stirred water into it and there's your brine, all liquidy.

11:25:02.0008910003: I do feel pretty refreshed, however. I'm going to eat a cucumber with salt whenever I'm thirsty from now on.

12:05:57: So like the enduring mystery of this thing is why they made it smell so much more like cucumber than it actually tastes. The flavor is, once you accept that you're tasting cucumber, pretty much fine. But the smell is extremely off-putting. It makes me not want to drink what I objectively know will be an okay drink. This is a mistake.

Looking forward to cucumber Doritos, though.

Thursday, March 17, 2011


This article about writers and disappointment by S.J. Culver rings true to me, and at the same time it really makes it clear how different my experience of this whole business is from that of most people. Let's not go over my expectations (they're, uh, completely ridiculous) but let's do consider the possibility that going around assuming you're never going to "make it," never going to accomplish your dreams, never going to be happy or ever satisfied with anything you make, is not a good way to live, and not a good way to write great words. My ambitions are extremely unlikely by any rational measure, and I plan for the possibility of their failure, but I don't know how I could keep working this hard if I didn't think something worthwhile would come of it. When people say they aren't good enough to make it I wonder why they don't try to get better, and when they are bitter about how great writing never reaches the idiot masses I wonder about that too, about a lot of things.

I'm not sure what I have to add here, I guess, beyond my continual surprise at the way people let these things make them bitter. If it makes you bitter, why do it? If it hurts so bad, why bother? It's supposed to be fun.

Hooks that Snare

There's something humiliating about the way a hook makes you want. I've written here about the cruelty of Britney Spears' "Toxic," a song that gives you the first half of its hook repeatedly, but only offers the implicit second half explicitly once, at the song's center. Kinder songs will generally establish a hook and then provide a series of variations, evolving (at best, evolving with geometrically increasing speed) -- a strategy I suggest to writers as well. But even when one is getting regular doses of hook, it can be terribly infantilizing, the way one feels a constant desire for more, and, at worst, a terrible anxiety: will it happen again? Will it happen again? That thing we love? Will the hook come again? Will it be beautiful the way it was? Will it bring us that same pleasure? Or has the flavor begun to seep from our chewing gum? The hook makes us infantile not only because of the wanting, but because it is so masticatory. That is to say, we suck and chew until the flavor's gone, and then lament the passage of the flavor.

I'm enjoying the new Bright Eyes album The People's Key. This comes to me as a surprise. I remember greatly enjoying one of their very early works, something recorded before they were Bright Eyes in the way I think of that name, that band. Someone else even sang on one or two of the tracks. (No idea anymore what that album was -- I think it was an EP, which is a term I didn't know at 15). There was a long period though where they were synonymous with a sort of whiny confessionalism that didn't really do it for me, or rather which did do it for me but which I also found embarrassing precisely because of how cathartic I found it, and then as I was growing out of that phase they tried to grow out too, but the political angle of their reach for maturity felt somewhat unpersuasive. This latest record seems an effective synthesis, a genuine maturity: the whiny confessionalism has become more measured, no longer feels whiny, while the politics have become more persuasive in their simplicity and (therefore) their appropriateness to what are basically pop songs.

It's taken me a little while to settle into this album, however, because sometimes the hooks and little thrills are getting in my way. The songs generally rely on a familiar, comfortable structure, but with a series of dynamic shifts (some rather subtle, some less so) and twists and small surprises, little snags and snares, which catch the mind and ear, and thrill, and then depart. There's a moment in the climax of "Shell Games," one of the more immediately pleasing songs, where the guitars go all squealingly anthemic and stadium-rock-ready and Oberst sings "Everyone, on the count of three!" and suddenly there's a small crowd behind him, saying "three!" with him. This happens once more and then never again. It feels so good that on hearing it you immediately want to hear it again. Or at least I did. But nothing in the whole album is quite the same. There are many other, similar moments but nothing quite like that. And often, in any given song, there is another thing like this, a rare twist that never quite recurs, or several. Say the sudden pounding at the height of "Jejune Stars," which lasts for maybe 2.5 seconds. And on hearing it you want to hear it again.

For the first several listens I was letting these moments screw up the album. Instead of paying attention consistently I would tune in periodically, as to my Facebook feed, hoping for something surprising and beautiful to happen exactly whenever I happened to glance in its direction. I was waiting for the hooks. In "Haile Selassie," I was waiting for the rare climbing synthy purple shiny little flare of guitar and ignoring everything around it. This is not a good way to appreciate music.

I do the same thing with a lot of art, I think. I loved the show Battlestar Galactica but there were certain gestures the show would make sometimes that I enjoyed so much that whenever it wasn't making those gestures I would find myself often dissatisfied, in an ugly sort of way, chewing the show half-heartedly, trying to extract some of the flavor I preferred to its status quo flavor. There are gestures so beautiful they need a lot of preparation. Sometimes I would like to do without the preparation. Sometimes this is laziness on my part. Sometimes an art loses its way and forgets its own pleasures, forgets its own beauty. But I resent myself, quite often, for failing to be receptive as I should be, for only wanting the exceptions, for my contempt for any given artwork's status quo.

Often, when I hit the point where this impatience becomes overwhelming, I can solve it by taking up a new interest. I buy a different genre of music, investigate new writers, and so on. So partly this is a normal need for novelty. But partly it makes me feel like one of the characters in Infinite Jest who's seen the tape, who can no longer settle for anything less than perfect pleasure. Incontinent, speechless, only wanting. The hook is powerful. The hook is embarrassing. Art fails if it can't ensnare, and yet, in being snared, we are often embarrassed. The shame we often feel in pop music is the shame we feel in our bodies, in hunger, in digestion.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Maybe write something someone wants to read.

This post by Matt Yglesias concerns itself with the challenges posed to journalists by the fact that editors and advertisers alike can see which articles are being read and which aren't -- the problem here being that if you know for a fact that nobody's reading your important, valuable report on Substantive Issue X, then advertisers won't pay for slots in that article, which means that soon your important, valuable reports won't be written at all. Yglesias writes:
... the thing that I think journalists sometimes forget is that the point of writing on worthy topics is presumably to get people to read stories on worthy topics. In the print world, I think people got too complacent about the idea of reporting out a worthy story, plopping it on page A3, and forgetting about it. Was anyone actually reading that story? It’s not clear to me that they were. On the web if you want people to read worthy journalism it’s made clear that this is actually a two-step process. First you have to produce the worthy content, and then you have to get someone to read the worthy content. That’s a challenge, but it’s a challenge those of us interested in writing on subjects we think are important ought to welcome and attempt to meet. 
That may mean that people who write on worthy subjects earn less, long-term, than people who write about other things. But at the same time, it’s more pleasant to do meaningful work so why shouldn’t that be the case? And part of what it means is that people in the “writing about important things” business need to roll up our sleeves and try harder to make our output compelling to people. If an article about the school board falls in the middle of the wilderness and nobody reads it, it doesn’t actually make an impact. 
I think this applies for writers of all stripes, however. I've lost all patience for writers who constantly complain that no one is interested in all the stuff they're writing. This implies that the stuff they're writing is supposed to be great and important, but in fact -- revealingly -- they rarely make such claims. What they say instead is "How come no one wants to read quiet, subtle fiction anymore?" and "Why doesn't anyone care about stories about X?" Well, generally speaking I suspect that people will read quiet, subtle fiction -- if someone makes them aware of it, and if it's really, really, really good.

Most writers don't seem to believe they should have to make their writing really, really, really good, or alternately they take its lack of popularity as proof that they're doing something important. But why should that prove anything? I'm not generally one to argue that great work will find a huge readership, although I think that generally if we adjusted our ideas about what a huge readership is composed of and how one should get into contact with that readership this would be the case more often. But if you believe in what you're doing, if you think it's genuinely valuable, then you should want to enrich the lives of others by persuading them to read it. You have to believe you've made something worth their time -- not because it's "quiet," not because it's "subtle," not because you're somehow entitled to their attention, but because it's great.

And if you don't believe that, why would you ever ask someone to read it?

Monday, March 14, 2011

Speed runs

A speed run is pretty much what it sounds like: you beat the game as fast as you can. Sometimes you try to do everything in the game on the way, or as much as speed allows. Sometimes you try to see as little of the game as possible. Sometimes you take advantage of glitches in the game. It is generally considered a violation of the gamer's honor code to use cheats that were not included in the game -- i.e., GameShark codes -- and, oddly enough, it is often considered a violation to use cheats that were intentionally included -- i.e., the Konami code. Only glitches -- bugs in the software, quirks of the physics -- are widely employed.

This Portal speed run is in many ways an ideal example of the genre. From the beginning, it was clear that the game would be easily and often broken. Indeed, breaking the game is arguably how you solve it. The concept is basically that you have a portal gun, and later, two portal guns. You can use these to make portals between any two points you can see (always in a wall, floor, or ceiling). It doesn't take most players long to create an infinite loop (one portal in the ceiling, one portal in the floor) but there are more esoteric tricks as well. I liked putting my head through a low hole in the ceiling and watching it descend from another one somewhere else. The first time you jump through a portal, you see (as you arrive) your character's body leaping through it from outside, because you are both arriving and departing at the same time. It's wonderfully mind-bending.

It was inevitable that someone would find a way to get outside the game's levels, though the extent to which this player breaks the game is surreal, bizarre, and rather hypnotic. The amount of time it takes him to beat the game is also, as in the best of speed runs, not only unlikely but (one would think) impossible. The joy of the speed run is to see someone who has mastered something you struggled with, perhaps something that even defeated you (most gamers do not, in fact, complete most games they play). 

If you go to the Portal guy's YouTube channel he'll happily explain, in great detail, just how he broke the game. And this is where the speed run becomes contentious. The incredible speed the player achieves relies not only on exploitation of the portal guns, but exploitation of a glitch: it becomes possible, with inhuman timing, to move very quickly by leaping backwards in a certain way. As such the player has a script that allows him to simply hold down the jump button and steer. He compares it, in an attempt to justify himself, to the "turbo buttons" of old, a largely outmoded convention of specialized controllers that allowed the player to press a button as many times as the game would allow, with potentially nigh-infinite speed, simply by holding down the button. The player's exploitation doesn't bother me because the fact of his memorizing the levels such that he can literally play them backwards at such high velocity is plenty impressive enough. More troubling is the way that he apparently stitched together the video from a number of play-throughs, achieving his ideal time by combining his best results for each level. That is to say that this is a theoretically possible speed run, that the player has been scrupulous in allowing himself nothing impossible, but that he has not performed this run -- not as we perceive it. Still, the most impressive parts are purely his achievement. And many speed runs use similar methods.

He writes:
I don't believe anyone else in there right mind would try to do what I have done in this video. I completed the first segment on September 13, 2008, 06:12 AM and the last segment on July 03, 2010, 08:32 PM. Almost 2 years of working on this.

I can't decide if this Myst speed run is cathartic or merely ludicrous. Myst was, if you missed it, an extremely popular puzzle game with impressive-at-the-time 3D pre-rendered graphics, an uncommonly interesting story (I'm told), and a logic all its own. To describe it as difficult sort of misses the point. Solving Myst was like spending two years learning an instrument no one could hear you play. The concept of a Myst speed run is similarly masturbatory: ultimately it's a question of memorization and sequence-breaking (i.e., doing things in an order the designers never intended), leading to the most disappointing ending, having seen almost nothing, having spent zero time with the actual mechanics of the game. Portal is about the portal guns: Myst is a game about thinking, about wandering around, about experimentation. You can't experiment in a speed-run, and yet playing Myst without experimentation is like playing a Mario game without jumping.

This Super Mario Bros. speed run has been on the first page of YouTube search results for the phrase "speed run" for several years. If I knew a little more about speed run culture I might be able to tell you why the frame rate is so shitty -- my current guess is that this video was captured using hardware or software that wasn't quite up to the task of both emulating a game and recording it. This player uses the warp zones in worlds1 and 4, which is disappointing to me, but I love the way he reveals the possibilities of the game. That one could simply leap over every piranha plant in the game is simply not something that had ever occurred to me.

This Mario Frustration speed run is interesting for its ludicrous difficulty. This is apparently a ROM hack (i.e., a rebuilt version of a preexisting game) built on the exploitation of glitches and quirks. You can't beat these levels if you don't know Mario better than anybody should -- indeed, you can't even start the game if you don't know to hold down the jump button before it begins, so that rather than falling into empty space, you leap off of it, impossibly.

A Metal Slug speed run is probably difficult to appreciate unless you've played Metal Slug. The impression this video would give, I think, had I not been so thoroughly humbled by a previous entry in the series, is, "Wow that game looks easy." In fact one has to break Metal Slug a little even to play it, not in terms of exploits like those used in the Portal run, but in terms of fighting the game with your bare hands until you can somehow make a little room to breathe. The frantic energy necessary to complete a level even in a normal play-through is superhuman. What happens in the video above seems nearly impossible.

Of course not only gamers speed-run. In cases like the Rubik's Cube, the object itself -- the game, the cube -- is so simple, so finite, so elegantly designed that past a certain threshold of skill (the threshold that allows one to solve the puzzle at all) speed becomes the only ground on which to compete. Combine that with the global popularity of the Rubik's Cube and you get an intense competitive culture and dozens of videos of intense young men (often Japanese) doing what seems to be impossible. In the video below, Feliks Zemdegs sets the world record for cubing, solving in 6.77 seconds. In the video below that, he breaks his own record by .12 seconds: the new number to beat is 6.55. 

Unless I'm mistaken, Feliks' success owes to his rapid, skillful application of an algorithm. Cubists have found methods of solving the puzzle that rely on a combination of quick judgments and complex-but-duplicable manipulations of the cube. Mathematicians estimate that given perfect knowledge of a cube it would be possible to solve from any position or degree of scramble in a maximum of twenty moves. They call this God's number, and it's been shrinking over time -- previously God's number was believed to be 24. However, a player aiming for speed can't afford to wait for perfect knowledge of the object. Instead, they've developed strategies that generally result in solutions, given proper application. If they are fast and they are lucky, this can mean a world record. In Feliks' case, the greatest challenge seems not to be manipulating the cube successfully, but rather recognizing with sufficient speed that he has done so -- perceiving, accurately, what his own hands have made.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

What happened to the props.

On the first night of the play we cracked the plastic cup that held the pens and markers. Some of the pens and markers fell behind the platform center-stage. Some of the pens and markers rolled behind the curtain. Most of these were recovered. Some were probably not.

Every night the lead in the first play used a hardback book as a hammer. Every night she tore the fake paper slipcover with her teeth. The book bent and warped.

A print of Milton Glaser's iconic Bob Dylan profile was scuffed on its edges and corners as it was moved, moved again, leaned against the wall here, leaned against the wall there, propped up on a pillow, moved again. Another, less Google-ready print is raised to eye level, hung, lowered, raised to eye level, hung, but never sees real damage. An intentionally ugly, amateurish painting is kicked and stomped savagely at the climax.

The toilet paper roll, practically the only prop in the second play, is tossed back and forth. Dunbar's tattoos begin vivid and they will end vivid, though they are false tattoos. The blood on his abdomen, hands, mouth, and pants spreads with every performance, however, as if the character is slowly dying while we watch -- as if, were we to perform it enough times, his corpse would play the part, laying still on his back while the other characters behave as if nothing's changed.

The lighting cues jump slightly forward and back. The audio changes its volume.

In the third play, Tracy's, a jewelry box's joint snaps and is repaired. A drawer was already broken. The letter of acceptance is treated roughly but does not break. The table's leg is strained, and so is the leg of the fancy chair. They do not break, however, even when -- every night -- the daughter pushes her father into the chair.

In the fourth play, mine, the pens lose their caps. The markers dry out. The interviewer's stack of papers thins with every performance. The rubber band ball loosens, becomes ragged. Crumpled paper accrues in the plastic tub. The black and white photo is replaced with a color version.

In the first play, the curly blue ribbon on the hammer becomes stringy, limp, begins to lose its curl. The newspaper that backs the canvas grows ragged, begins to hang loose from the frame. The fake Kenny Werner album's cover skews.

In the second play, the toilet paper roll becomes more ragged. It's spotted with Dunbar's false blood. The right side of the platform begins to detach at the foremost corner, apparently from the stress of Dunbar's jumping down from the bench.

In the third play, the feathery boas shed here and there. The bright lipstick is diminished by the mother's use. The acceptance letter splits neatly in two unequal parts. 

In the fourth play, the box used as a desk begins to warp at one corner from the stress of being overturned each night. The gun is always loud. The lead pours a can of soda water on himself every night, but his shirt and coat are always dry the next night, and so is the carpet. Some things persist.

In the first play, a new bag of baby carrots. Fresh bagels. The false liquor bottle is emptied and refilled. The hammer's ribbon is limp. The painting detaches from its frame.

In the second play the toilet paper's coming loose. It has a tail. It's bloody. It's falling apart. When they throw the toilet paper it has a tail. Some falls out onto the stage. This is bloody also. I remove it between plays. The characters do not acknowledged what has changed, how their world is degrading, because they cannot. They always say the same things -- or close enough. 

In the third play, the feathered boas look tired. The bright lipstick is stumpy. The acceptance letter's been replaced.

In the fourth play, he is nearly out of paper. There is just enough to throw. The plants have gone flat. We dismantle the platform, and find the missing pens. 

Interview with Elizabeth Alexander

I came to Elizabeth Alexander's work through Monkeybicycle 7, which includes "On Anzio Beach," her simultaneously breezy and melancholy story about a woman's search for her missing father. The piece ranges through time and space, as the narrator and the smoking, drinking dog who is her guide bound into 1923 Paris, then to the desperate beachhead at Anzio in World War II. For the past few years Alexander has shelved and unshelved a long project about race relations in Dallas, where she grew up, but has steadily produced short work that has appeared in places like Anemone Sidecar, Gargoyle, and The Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion. Alexander agreed to answer some questions about "On Anzio Beach" and about the writing process she's used in her other work.

"On Anzio Beach" is made of characters and events that at first seem whimsical, but then reveal themselves as complex and somber, or even melancholy--as an example, Alet is a talking terrier, but he's also the reincarnation of the narrator's father's friend, returned in this dog body for only a short time. Would you write a bit about the genesis of this story, and of these characters?

The story came to me with the title, "The Last Christmas Pie." After a year of cooking disasters, including a small kitchen fire, my then 88 year-old mother decided that she would make a pie for Christmas dinner one last time. I think the story's genesis was my realizing that Mother would die sooner rather than later and wanting to make some sort of internal progression toward that eventuality. I see vestiges of those concepts in "Anzio" (p. 82, "She is dying," through the quote from "Marmalade Me," p. 83, and at the end).

I don't remember how I got from "The Last Christmas Pie" to "On Anzio Beach." Likely I shelved the project for awhile and took it up after there was a spate of new historical writing about Operation Shingle. (My dad did serve in the 56th Evac.)

The major source for "Anzio" is the history of my immediate family, from WWII until the recent past. The melancholy aspect of the characters likely springs from my own loss. All the main characters, except the fisherman, have historical (if not always personal) antecedents. As for their fantastical attributes. . . I seem constitutionally incapable of writing realistic fiction. My attempts to date have had consistently wooden or maudlin results.

This is a story that covers a lot of ground quickly, without rushing. It ends in a satisfying place, but I was left feeling like it could have spread out over a much longer space and still read as a full piece. Did you consider other scopes for this project, or did it always exist as a short story?

It always existed as a short story. Other readers have raised the question, however, which leads me to think that there may have been a longer possibility, or a different form, that I did not see.

You wrote that your major source for "Anzio" is the history of your family; can I ask what other sources you draw on in your writing?

Historical sources (people, events, and issues that interest me). The people tend to be literary or visual artists. The events and issues tend to be grim (e.g., Hitler's ascension to power, the recurrent threat of fascism, colonization and its legacies, war).

Like "On Anzio Beach," your other work that I've read--"Death Suite" in Archipelago and "Second Comings" in Prick of the Spindle--juxtaposes intimate character development and situations with chronologically and geographically sprawling settings or ideas. "Death Suite," for example, samples moments of violence against women throughout history and the world, and "Second Comings" summons images of Nazism in a modern setting. When you begin developing a piece, do you start from the broader view, or inside of a character's head, or somewhere else?

It varies, but I generally start simultaneously from the broader view and outside a character's head. The character's internal self emerges from his/her response to the problem.

Here's how "Colour Theory" developed: After reading Mouloud Feraroun's journal, I wanted to read more and write about the Algerian War. I'd had a years-long interest in Yves Klein and thought maybe I could work that in - but didn't want to treat only a European artist; research led me to Rashid Koraïchi. In a former life I was an ordained United Methodist minister; I see shades of that in "Colour Theory," where God appears as an affable but hapless character. The recurrent terrier ("Colour Theory," "Anzio") is an homage to our late great Alice Woodruff (a Cairn, 1984-2000).

"Second Comings" emerged as I was pondering what links there might be between fascism and child abuse.

I guess it's all stream of consciousness with me. I definitely proceed by instinct, rather than from an outline or plan.

I can see that instinctual development--your writing is often imaginatively playful even when it's serious, leaping from one image or place to the next. But it's also very controlled, composed of tight sections, like the individual pieces of "Colour Theory," and punchy sentences, like this, from "Second Comings:" "She had scabs in places that do not land on the pavement when you fall down." Does that concision come naturally? What's your editorial process like, once you've written a first draft?

I meant that the content is developed instinctually. I labor like a poet over the actual composition, often going word by word and almost always line by line. When the writing goes well and the piece is short, once I complete a paragraph it's pretty much set. In longer pieces, I write draft upon draft (at least 12 full drafts with "Anzio;" drafts of problematic/challenging paragraphs were countless). Needless to say, my process does not facilitate the creation of a large, or even a medium-sized, body of work.

Bonus Notes:

Here is some information on Operation Shingle, the 1944 amphibious Allied landing in Italy.

The Jill Johnson quote from Marmalade Me that Alexander references is

Nothing is deleted. That which is deleted has always existed. Whatever is, is constantly in deletion. Existence and deletion [are] the same thing.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Ideology and public opinion

Matt Yglesias:
In countries like the US and Australia where right-wing political elites are skeptical about global warming, you see the right-left split on climate science grow bigger as people pay more attention to politics. It looks very different in Germany. Well-informed voters are well informed about their ideological camp’s position, not well-informed about the issues. And in the United States, a conservative voter who takes the climate issue seriously probably isn’t a well-informed person who sees through Tom Coburn’s cant, he’s someone who’s so ill-informed that he’s not familiar with Coburn’s cant.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

David Brooks' Novel Apparently Really, Really Sucks

Via friend of the blog Ned Resnikoff, P.Z. Myers' devastating review of what sounds like it might really be the worst novel ever written:
I made it almost a third of the way through the arid wasteland of David Brooks' didactic novel, "The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement," before I succumbed. I had begun reading it determined to be dispassionate and analytic and fair, but I couldn't bear it for long: I learned to loathe Harold and Erica, the two upscale avatars of upper-middle-class values that Brooks marches through life in the story. And then I began to resent the omniscient narrator who narrates this exercise in unthinking consumption and privilege that is, supposedly, the ideal of happiness; it's like watching a creepy middle-aged man fuss over his Barbie and Ken dolls, posing them in their expensive accessories and cars and houses and occasionally wiggling them in simulated carnal relations (have no worries, though: Like Barbie and Ken, no genitals appear anywhere in the book), while periodically pausing to tell his audience how cool it all is, and what is going on inside his dolls' soft plastic heads.

So what is this book about? It's a bizarre chimera, an unholy grafting together of a novel, the story of Harold's and Erica's lives, and an ideological, psychological, neurological and pseudo-scientific collection of materialist explanations for their happy situation. Every chapter whipsaws the reader between a fictional narrative about some exemplary event in their history -- birth, education, being attractive and popular, careers, relationships, corporate revenues, morality, European vacations and other such universal concerns -- and a pedagogical and often facile digression into the supposed neural substrates that drive and reward decisions that will make these two happy and fulfilled. Neither part stands alone, and together ... I'm sure there were delusions of a soaring synergy that would drive deep insights, but instead it's a battle between two clashing fairy tales to see which one would bore us or infuriate us first.  

Curio is now an ebook.

Laura Ellen Scott has been kind enough to provide ebook versions of Curio in mobi format for kindle and epub format for everything else. These were expertly designed by her boyfriend Dean, who apparently knows more about making proper ebooks than most professional publishing houses. I mean, really, these are nice looking and very usable, to the point that even if you've read the stories already you'll probably enjoy reading them again in the new format.

What do they cost? Nothing at all -- just a tweet or a "like" on Facebook. So go get 'em and tell your friends. My original PDF version is now available for free as well.

Update: There was a problem with the ePub link, which I believe is now fixed. Let me know if anything gives you trouble.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Women Who Write: Sandy Florian

Did a little Google hunt for today's installment, and ended up following Sandy Florian from Action Books (Telescope, The Tree of No) to Tarpaulin Sky (32 Pedals and 47 Stops) to the horse less review, from which this excerpt comes:


A slowly shrinking man and a large stuffed condor squat side-by-side on a large cornice. The man, shriveling like a dead nut inside a shell, flaps his arms like wings whenever someone enters the room. The condor, an enormous bird with a featherless neck, remains motionless in the monumental position. Each has wrinkled skin. Each has a knobbly body. Each uses the same hourglass chamberpot. Beyond the pair, large eggs dressed in cotton wool lay shivering in their baskets. Ornithological experiments, the eggs come from Hamberg, Holland, and zoological stations in Africa.

Someone enters the room. It is The Moment. To The Moment, the man and the condor are irresistible twins of a maddened plan. To the man, The Moment is a black cockroach wriggling its tangle of legs. The man still flaps his arms whenever someone enters the room, but now The Moment crawls on the floor of the attic room.

Between the slowly shrinking man and the condor there is bird’s eye view. To each, the other seems a Buddhist sage replete with dignity, honor and grace. Hence, when The Moment flutters its antennas, the man looks at the condor and flies.

You Fall Away From the Fall.
You Become Formless From Form.
You are Fallow.
You are Fallacious.
You are the Topaz of Falsification.