Thursday, June 30, 2011

The search for nouns, adjectives, verbs

On a recent trip to Louisville, Tracy and I visited the Seelbach Hilton, particularly its basement Rathskeller room, formerly a bar,  now a historical curiosity, the "backdrop for Tom and Daisy Buchanan's wedding in The Great Gatsby." We were led there by our friend and former schoolmate Ashly. I am trying to remember the basement-bar well enough to describe it for you now; some of the ceiling was apparently leather, thick with dark brown designs, water damaged here and there bot mostly quite pristine. There were strange fixtures on the pillars that supported its many interlocking arches (or whatever the proper architectural term is). There were rich depictions of the zodiac. There was an empty bar, no longer used. I will admit I was more fond of the working bar upstairs, less visually interesting but also a little less dry: there was some excellent whiskey-flavored beer. Tracy had an old-fashioned (she said she loved it).

While we were in the basement the main thing I said was that you could probably get like six nouns and six adjectives out of it, which is really pretty good for one room where no one really lives or works anymore.

Recently also I lamented to my family the difficulty of varying one's verbs in-scene. I have tended to write almost exclusively in-scene, and I'm having to relax this policy as I write this next book simply because I'm getting tired of the verbs a scene usually offers. Here are some of the verbs I use most often: Said. Took. Grasped. Lifted. Ate. Held. Was. Seemed. Appeared. Wanted. Walked. Ran. Stood. Drank. You will notice that many of these verbs are essentially the same thing, that like a fourth of them are different was of saying someone has something in their hands, and then two more are verbs for when they put those things in their mouths.

Part of this is a weakness particular to me as a writer. I sometimes get too caught up in the logistics. I tell you where things are or how they are arranged or how they are moving from point A to point B when you never would have asked. But part of it is this: when one wants to be precise, one's vocabulary is often quite limited. Most grammatical errors in novice writers are clearly the result of boredom. They want to say it in a different way, so they substitute one part of speech for another, use one word simply as a way of meaning another (more accurate) word without saying it. Because they are bored of the words. 

My novels tend to require a fair amount of research, but it's not because I want to get things "right." Not really. I don't mind being wrong. (I am, after all, writing fiction, which is defined by error, by wrongness.) I do the research so I can wring out the two or three unexpected nouns a setting might offer, the verbs I might otherwise miss, the adjectives and adverbs I don't encounter in my own life, home, family, habits. 

In short, when I write a novel or sometimes even a story, I feel as if my real project is to time it such that its vocabulary and its plot exhaust themselves together. It's not that I can't use any word twice, it's that I want to have a few words I only use once. It's that some words are more interesting if you use them three times but not six. It's that there are some words or phrases that only seem to get better with each repetition -- a really good name, for instance, will tend to improve the more often you hear it, as it accrues the residue of character.

I read histories for my nouns. I remember seeing how often the word "tile" appeared in John Hersey's Hiroshima and thinking how it never appeared in my depiction of Hiroshima and thinking, "It's time to go back and lay down some tiles." I read Wikipedia pages. I watch Mr. Rogers sequences on "how it's made." I read about food. I study the pile of junk on my table. I look at photographs and try to guess what a thing might be called. I definitely need to read more about architecture as I only know the barest set of nouns, often find myself improvising a term where I'm sure a term of art would be better, more concrete, more specific, more beautiful. In researching my last novel, I discovered the power of Sears catalogues. If you need to know the precise names for all the shit that filled American homes over the last century, try a Sears catalogue! There is such a wealth of nouns and adjectives.

Where are other places I might find more nouns and adjectives?

And is there a place on earth with some additional goddamn verbs?

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Lessons from Don Bluth, Part Two

I've been talking about the different categories of conflict, desire, and fear that Don Bluth films tap into to create interesting storytelling. Continued from Monday's entry, here.

3. Don Bluth films don't flinch at the seedy underbelly.
This is what turned me off of a lot of the films as a kid. I remember the scene toward the beginning of All Dogs Go to Heaven where Charlie goes to a casino to bet on the rat races; the place looks just terrible to be in, and while there's a sense of some camaraderie, you feel like everyone (every dog) there has pretty much ruined his life. Plus, Charlie just got out of dog jail. Plus, his old partner concocts a plan and succeeds in having Charlie killed. This is where the movie starts

In An American Tail, too, there's plenty of smoking, boozing, and underground dealings. The films are not shy of these things--and they probably get away with it because they also make it look really unappealing to be a person who does any of these things. But the seediness is interesting in that it often seems to give the characters a real and at least slightly appealing alternative to their own (morally purer, but equally terrible) lives. No one wants to be the villain in a Disney movie. On occasion the villains are sympathetic, and on occasion their motives come across as pure enough even if their actions are not. But in Don Bluth films, there's often a chance that the hero will go along with or turn into their nemesis. Not because they're the same inside, or whatever--"You and me, we got more in common than you think"--but because the villain has a visibly better life. So not only does the hero have to shun that life; they have to collaborate with others to destroy it, so that no one can have it at the expense of others. That's a little better, I think, than the generalization that occurs when we pretend we're all the same inside, and that we're all just a stepping stone away from making bad decisions instead of good ones. Probably we all make both, and the thing that's interesting is which ones we make when.

4. Victory in Don Bluth films doesn't come from just the main character.
My last lit course in grad school was a Shakespeare course. (This was also true during undergrad.) One thing I noticed while in that class was that Shakespeare pretty regularly uses persuasion as a way of creating conflict and thus setting events in motion. Often the primary power women characters get comes through their persuasion, and more specifically their rhetorical skills; their ability to consistently steer the conversation toward (or sometimes away from) a particular mission or aim is often what wins them favor or good fortune. Of course, someone, usually a male in a position of high power, has to recognize and grant that this has happened, and provide the earned reward.

In Don Bluth films, the power of persuasion is usually minimized. Characters do not generally win others to their side, at least not through the strength of their self-presentation. Fievel is not a mouthpiece; when he comes up with the plan to get rid of the cats, it's not his voice that delivers or directs the decision. When he says he's looking for his family, it's not an act of persuasion but a lone act of perseverance that others gradually take up as a cause worth aiding. Rather than insisting, then, on the power that comes with being able to move and direct others--whether through words or behavior or strength or rank--the films often seem to hint at a different kind of power, one that comes when enough people who are used to doing their own jobs opt to help others out for a while. Sometimes that means losing something valued, as it does in All Dogs Go to Heaven. Sometimes that means going unnoticed, or being reduced for a time to impotence, as it does in The Secret of NIMH, or in An American Tail.

This sounds, as I write it, so academic I kind of want to throw up. I think it's right. But here's what seems really important to me about all this: Literary stories are governed, more than they'd like and more than they realize, by Disney, and by formulas native to children's stories. Because they are stories--tales of things that happen--they must create a sense of achievement, or realization of goals, and a sense of opposition. Also because they are tales of things that happen, they must begin and end, meaning they must create some sense of necessity, or desire, and some sense of resolution, or fulfillment. It's not that these constraints demand sap, or sentimentality, or a big show--there is no danger to these basics at all, and no need to undercut them (though we always have the freedom to try). If anything, the differences between Don Bluth films and those from Disney show that formula is a really robust tool. Victory doesn't have to name a single hero. Resolution doesn't have to eliminate mystery. Most important, I think, is that audience expectations, and the formulas that describe them, aren't so frail and shallow as the word has generally been used to imply. Formula is an important part of our work. There's a lot of room to show off, to be smart, and to play.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Why publish in the first place?

It's too bad Lia Purpura comes off as such a humorless scold in this letter, because if she hadn't I might be more sympathetic to her argument.

To back up for a second, yesterday Sean Lovelace posted at HTMLGiant about what I guess has developed into a minor shit storm: Fugue Magazine's "Play" issue published a number of writers with footnotes added to their work without permission. The footnotes were written by Michael Martone, who never saw the works he footnoted and had no role in choosing where the footnotes were placed. The writers were not told that these footnotes would be added, they weren't shown any galleys, and now Fugue is feigning surprise that this has upset anyone, or they are genuinely surprised -- I can't decide which is more likely. 

So as I say, I wish Lia Purpura's aggrieved letter on the subject were less prissy and self-righteous, because there are legitimate reasons to be angry about this. Fugue probably would have been wise to warn people, to give galleys, though honestly I think the surprise of the way it did happen is sort of delightful and I would hate to miss out on it. However, reading Purpura's letter mainly had the effect of clarifying for me what publishing is about for me, because her approach seems so ver wrongheaded. It's worth reading the letter in full, but I'll excerpt here the parts that are relevant to my argument:
When I sent you my essay for the special issue on “play,” I entered into a good faith relationship with Fugue and its editors: I sent the previously unpublished piece to you on time, without errors, ready to receive any editorial comments offered, and I assumed that your editorial process would proceed as expected. In other words, in any editorial relationship I’ve known, an editor, at the most basic level, solicits and accepts work, organizes it, and attends to proofs and correspondence. What I received from Fugue, instead, was unprecedented tampering in the form of  added “footnotes” representing another author’s work embedded in mine. It’s clear, from speaking with other authors whose work was similarly treated, that none of us were consulted. 
The "good faith relationship" described here seems to leave extremely little agency for the editors: you curate the work, you alter it slightly if at all and only with the permission of the author, and then you arrange it in a book, i.e., put the pieces in order in a series of discrete, bubble-wrapped recreations of the Word Documents from whence they came. The editors aren't even allowed to put the words in relationship to each other in any visually interesting ways: they just pile the pieces on top of each other, bind it with some glue, and call it a day.
You sent no proofs, did not let me know about the plan for Michael Martone’s essay (to publish it in fragments, as footnotes inserted into others’ work) and thus I had no chance to express whether I was comfortable with this arrangement. Had I known about it, I absolutely would have declined. “Seeding” another’s work in mine without prior approval is an absolute breach of the assumed writer-editor relationship; embedding another’s work in mine is a form of colonization: using a thing for your own purposes. Most egregious is this: you’ve made the experience of reading my essay into the form of reading I fight against (in the classroom and as a writer and thinker) and hate most: the distracted skimming that constitutes so much of our daily reading life. The footnotes distract, pitch a reader out of the moment as I’ve constructed it, mimic the internet’s incessant pop ups or CNN’s running news tape, refer to another writer’s work (or to his project which then intercepts mine – much like someone taking a cell phone call in the middle of a live conversation), and thoroughly messes with both the boundaries of my piece and the reader’s experience of my piece.
I could say a lot about her overwrought use of the extremely loaded term "colonization," which strikes me as a massive overreaction, but I would probably say something impolite. We'll stick to the point: not only does this author feel entitled to protection from the words of others, she clearly needs to be protected from the world as a whole. It's not enough that they publish her work, Fugue has to avoid even symbolic acknowledgment of all the forces that will inevitably interfere with it on some level: she's already upset that you might accidentally hear someone else say something or see an image while you're supposed to be devoting yourself to her words, and this is just making that insecurity that much worse.

This letter was especially interesting to me because we are finally going to have the money to start printing Uncanny Valley, and I am thinking about how to design it, and every now and then I have a pretty radical idea about how to present a given contributor's text, and I wonder if they would be okay with that. But, to be honest, I don't plan to ask their permission, exactly: I plan to send them galleys, and to give them a chance to object, but I sure hope they won't be as childish about it as is Purpura about it. As an editor, I expect a lot of deference when it comes to deciding how to package and present my authors' work.

For instance, if I think a certain font is best for a story, and I make the story that font, I will think it is pretty stupid for the author to say, "Dude, I am pissed about that font. Put it back in Times New Roman." If I want a certain piece to have different margins than the others, I want to be able to do that. And if I want an illustration in there and I go to the trouble of finding or buying or making the illustration and putting it in, I hope the author will be wise enough to shut up and accept the illustration, even if he or she doesn't like it that much.

It is widely accepted that editors can and will change our writing in a number of rather important ways. We don't usually put two different writers' words on the same page, and we definitely don't link them with the visual device of a footnote very often, but we do arrange them in a sequence, and surely this sequence changes the words, and yet if say Tim Dicks tells me that he doesn't want his story after Brian Oliu's but he is still okay with it coming before Roxane Gay's, I will drive to his home and throttle him. These sorts of changes are so common as to be essentially invisible, so common that we would likely perceive any author's objections as illegitimate. So it can't be that editors are not allowed to change the text: they already do.

I have a rule when I decide to work with a magazine: any changes they suggest, I will do my absolute best to accomodate. If I can take their edit exactly as they provide it, I will do so. If I can't stand the edit, I will do my best to provide an alternative designed to accomplish the same goal. I do this because I believe that trusting editors improves writing. I do it because if I trust them enough to design the container for my text, I should trust them with the text itself. I do it because I wouldn't publish with someone if I didn't want them to change my writing, to make it better. If it were already perfect in its little Word document, I would leave it there. I publish a piece because it is not perfect, because it needs to be improved, because I think the process of publication will improve it.

This suggests a very active role for the publisher, a role I think few publishers take as seriously as they should. Generally speaking, editors do approach the process much as Purpura would have them: they interfere with the text as little as possible, essentially paste in the Word doc, maybe correct the spelling, and call it a day. This is not a very interesting or rewarding interaction.

Again, Purpura's argument should probably be stronger. This is more interference than you could call strictly normal, and the fact that she was never shown galleys or otherwise consulted makes Fugue's decisions more questionable. I can't see the essay to know for sure, but my sense is that the footnotes are probably clearly not hers (after all, they appear throughout the magazine, that seems like a strong clue). But I can absolutely understand that she might not see it that way, and I want to empathize. But it's just so hard to agree with someone who writes paragraphs like these:
I would ask that your reprint this letter, which is even more important to me than having my essay reprinted with corrections, though that, too, would be an appropriate response. 
Most importantly, I request that you review your editorial ethics and consider ways of asserting substance over surface, depths over gimmicks, and that you let your readers know, in an open letter, that you understand the problem you created and that you pledge to behave more responsibly in the future.
The tone here rather grates, doesn't it.

I don't know. Ultimately whether Fugue was right or wrong isn't that important to me. The principle here is this: If you don't want your work changed, why do you publish with other people? If you need total control, why not self-publish?

I publish to have my work changed, improved, handled by others. I want their stink on it. I want their buy-in. I want whatever they can bring. I'm sort of mystified by people who don't feel the same, I'll admit.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Screenshots for my fictional video game Legend of Silence.

So I think I mentioned my story "Navigators" was published in Hobart 12. It's a story that focuses on a fictional video game called Legend of Silence; Matt Bell was kind enough to write a close reading here that will give you a good sense of it. Here is the first paragraph: 
After they found the metal boots but before the dirt clod, Joshua’s father bought graph paper at Wal-Mart. Unfurled and pinned up on the wall where his mother’s family pictures had once hung, it stood six feet tall by seven feet wide. The paper was hung in three rows, each printed with thousands of small gray squares. If Joshua crossed his eyes the squares seemed to rise from the page. “It’s time we started a map,” said his father. “Or we’ll never finish this game.”
Having read the story, Dave Wells (friend of Tim Dicks, twitterpal of mine, artist) took an interest in the story. Some time later, he made some Legend of Silence art -- a total of four pieces. The first three were screenshots. You can go to Dave's DeviantArt account to see more of his art; recently he's been doing a 30 Days of Creativity project, which was part of the impetus for his Legend of Silence screenshots.

There's a lot of detail in these, and you can tell that Dave paid close attention to his sources -- both my story and the games on which he based his sprites. Here is the first he posted:

Dave's description: "The beginning of Legend of Silence, when you must relinquish your crown and begin your quest. Press B to drop your crown."

Lessons from Don Bluth

One nice thing about being home for an extended period of time is that my parents tend to give me jurisdiction over which movies we watch (though not which TV shows we watch--I've been subjected to a nearly endless stream of Ice Road Truckers and How It's Made). They also seem to create situations in which my favorite childhood movies are playing, and the test seems to be how long I will resist watching with them. 

Yesterday's test was An American Tail. I'm not sure I was in love with the movie when I was young, actually--my appreciation for it is new, and it's an appreciation enhanced by my realization that Don Bluth was also in charge of or central to several other pretty fantastic kid's movies--The Rescuers, The Fox and the Hound, The Secret of NIMH, The Land Before Time--and some others that may not be truly great but that I'd argue for--All Dogs Go to Heaven, Pete's Dragon, Anastasia, Titan A.E. They all tend to share some characteristics that I think are worth noting as tools for fiction, but what really interests me about them is their commitment to a few key deviations from standard kid's fare. This is particularly important to me to the extent that I'm a writer of fairy-tale or fable fiction, and to the extent that I prefer fiction that creates a specific world for itself rather than assuming a common understanding of the real world. Mainly, I find, Don Bluth films create their reality and make it matter by tapping into different sources of fear than are traditional.

1. Don Bluth films treat as real the problems of material lack.
Don Bluth films are rarely populated with characters who are (legally and ethically) wealthy or even characters who are generally comfortable materially. Problems of money, and usually the problems of material security that they cause, are usually what initiate and constrain the plot--Fievel's home is burned, Mrs. Brisby's home is about to be destroyed, the dinosaurs have no home. The characters often express a particular problem with money, too--Mrs. Brisby has to rely on the generosity of the local doctor to get medicine for her child--but money is abstract while poverty is not. Don Bluth films tend to make the ultimate problem of poverty visible by depicting characters with shabby clothes, insufficient shelter, and little food. Disney fails to really approach this--Aladdin has some patchy pants, but he owns a pet and lives in what looks like a pretty nifty loft overlooking the city.

This is an important one because a lot of modern literary fiction attempts to play on poverty, but without making it visible. Characters may be unable to find a job, or unable to afford medication, but rarely do they lack food, clothes, or shelter, nor risk losing them. Poverty is difficult to write about because it limits the characters' options, of course--characters who are starving don't really have a lot of psychological choices and decisions to make; they don't need to make life changes, they just need to eat. But often these are productive constraints. It is only when Fievel lacks all his caregivers and all his options for housing, for instance, that he begins to question his family's love for him, and the strength of their bond; this is the strongest character movement of the film. It ends up more powerful because Fievel lacks everything material and opts to give up something spiritual as a result.

Which leads me to...

2. Relational Breakdown
Structures like family, friendship, and love tend to resist breakdown in even the most soul-searching literary fiction, just as they do in Disney movies. There's nothing wrong with painting the strength of interpersonal bonds, but Don Bluth films do seem to improve by questioning and risking the breakdown of strong relationships. One character detail that impressed me this time in An American Tail was the resistance of Fievel's father to his daughter's faith that Fievel was alive. He's lost his son on the ride over to America, and for him, letting the bond quietly decay is apparently easier than holding out hope that it will be restored. Even when he receives word that Fievel is indeed alive and must be somewhere nearby, he maintains that it could be "some other Fievel Mousekewitz." There is rarely this danger in other children's films--a bond may be tested, weakened, or temporarily undermined, but it is unusual to see characters willfully and independently release their ties to others. Often it is someone else who has gotten in the way, and once they are eliminated, so is the relational disturbance.

Some literary fiction has the opposite variety of risk-aversion, in that you'll see a breakdown without a corresponding relationship. Divorces, affairs, estrangements, etc. will occur, often with major consequences--but without any sense of how strong the bond was to begin with. For a breakdown to matter, we have to understand that, however distant things are now, there was a time when the bond was strong and personal. Often the problem here is one of assumption, too--writers assume that because something takes place in the real world, there's no need to specify what a bond was like when "we all know" that families are close, that fathers and sons share special bonds, that people get married because they're madly in love. It would seem like these things could be left to assumption, but they just can't. Assumption is not strong enough to sell real love. And so An American Tail makes the degree of its father-son bond clear and specific--if you watch the beginning, you can tell that Fievel is, in all honesty, his father's favorite kid. He dotes on him. He rests hopes on him. Their bond is not unusual--it's just specific, and so we know what they've lost when, on both sides, that bond breaks down.

Believe it or not, I've got more, so I'll make this a two-parter. And as usual, I'll add my disclaimer: It's not that I find An American Tail to be a true masterpiece or work of art, though I will say that my standards for "masterpiece" are kind of nebulous and non-commital; I don't like calling anything a masterpiece, because it inevitably rips the title from other things that are just as well-executed, just as important or valuable or necessary. Any criteria seem insufficiently rigorous to me. So I generally opt not to draw the distinction, and try to learn from all sorts of things, especially things that I've failed to look critically at in the past--being a kid and all. Works of art or not, I know these films are still in there, and that they've influenced me. I like to speculate on how.

It's (Still) Sunday: ChillTFO

Friday, June 24, 2011

Read (and share) Gabriel Blackwell's Neverland

It's been almost a year since Gabriel Blackwell first sent me this wild, funny, strange, rich story. In the time since then, he has slowly, painstakingly reinvented its form with a series of additions: YouTube videos, audio recordings, old-school ads, and general strangeness. Neverland uses the medium in which it exists more extensively than just about any narrative prose I've seen before, and for that reason alone it's worth your time (and your promotion on Twitter, Facebook, and so on).

At first, Gabe asked me to design a container for the story that would look like a crappy corporate site from the late '90s. Then he suggested it should actually look a bit more like Wikipedia. I ended up somewhere in the middle. I mention this so you'll know that the mistakes are usually intentional. 

Like several of Gabe's stories, Neverland is a rich satirical brew, appropriating and combining a number of sources into one totally original concoction. It's one of the very few things that made me actually laugh out loud this year -- and it did so repeatedly. I hope you'll read it.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Tune in Tomorrow

We are presently in an Iowa City Super 8, halfway through our quest to discover a good apartment. So far things are going fine.

Tomorrow morning, I will post something awesome. You should tune in and check it out. That is all.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Duke Nukem, Sex and Video Games

I have to say that as a fan of the medium, it's been genuinely exciting to watch the gaming community resoundingly reject Duke Nukem Forever as the ugly, idiotic, mean-spirited, rancid garbage that it doubtless is. There are, to be sure, Duke dead-enders in fora worldwide doing their best to justify the game's unique approach to such hilarious subjects as rape, but they have all the vim and pep of Sonic the Hedgehog loyalists -- the best they can manage is to suggest that Gearbox gave them exactly what they wanted, following this sad claim with a sad little shrug that suggests they know what that would say about them if it was true.

The deal-breaking scene (which I haven't found the energy to watch and so will not reproduce here) features Duke choosing whether to murder women who have been raped and impregnated by aliens (including at least one previous sexual partner, who is meanwhile begging Duke to take her back, as I understand it, promising to lose "the pregnancy weight" real soon) or to watch them die horribly as alien offspring burst from their stomachs. If you choose to kill the women, he makes jokes while you do it -- he also tells you, reassuringly, that they aren't really human anymore. I've read enough shocked descriptions of the scenario that I feel I could probably reconstruct it in some detail if pressed.

One of the interesting things about the overwhelmingly negative reviews has been the tendency of reviewers to affirm that it isn't rude, raunchy comedy that upsets them, and it isn't sex in and of itself. This is sort of surprising, and maybe in some ways a step forward for the community -- I feel as if generally, we've reacted against sexy content as if titillation were inherently bad, childish, even wrong. That's not what we're seeing this time. It's not that it's necessarily evil for people to want to play a game that features Sexy Fun Times, it's that Duke's particular brand of Sexy Fun Times is neither sexy nor fun. It's just ugly.

This does make me want to ask what people would suggest as a healthy alternative. I'm skeptical that games will do much better with sex than Duke for a long time -- not because game developers are an especially immature group, as some would hold, or because gamers themselves are much worse -- I've known a larger share of generous, sensitive, thoughtful gamers than I have known people from the general population with these qualities (yes, this is self-selection and confirmation bias, but still: I feel it). The trouble is that games are not like sex, and may not develop the capacity to represent it until they've cracked what may be the greatest technological and design challenges they face.

In other words, the goal of a game -- as we've discussed here before -- is really to master an abstracted system that hides behind the concrete specificity of its world, objects, physics, visuals, etc. You become great at a shooter when you stop seeing the shooter and start seeing the simple geometry, the trajectories, the math behind it. This, more than any deficiency in the male character, is the reason that games tend to be power fantasies about ballistics. Shooting is one of the easiest physical interactions to depict in a satisfying way (you don't even have to render the bullets, only to project their movements and demonstrate the results) and as a form, video games are uniquely equipped to tell the story of mastery, of gathering power, of gaining control.

If this sounds suspiciously like a list of our culture's worst sexual tendencies, you may see where this is headed. If it weren't already our tendency to treat women as something to be conquered, as proving-grounds for our own masculinity, games as they exist today would still encourage that approach -- again, not because we or they are evil, but because games are about what healthy sex is not about. Just as the imbalance between genders where games are concerned is baked into the cake of our current models of the sexes (men are raised to destroy, to master, to overpower, and this is what games are best at depicting) so is any narrative of sexuality depicted through games inherently likely to encourage the ugliest impulses.

This is especially the case because sexuality can be so malleable. When people claim that games were at the root of a given act of violence, this is deeply implausible: unless you were already truly damaged, you simply don't shoot a person because you saw Master Chief do it. That's ridiculous. Even the weakest moral compass would be enough to tell you that was wrong. And likewise, I sincerely doubt Duke Nukem Forever will lead many gamers to a newfound interest in snuff. But it might encourage them to think of their girlfriends, their wives, and the women they would like to be nearer as things to be manipulated, controlled, managed, used: as variables in a ballistic system. 

Sex is fundamentally narrative. We like what we like because of the stories we can tell ourselves. And many seemingly unhealthy stories can in fact be very productive, useful, powerful, even beautiful -- part of the trouble with sex is that we've been persuaded our own bodies are weird and wrong, such that we have trouble knowing when we're using them the way we were meant to. We begin corrupted by our culture and then we try to find a way to heal. What we don't need is further incentive to hate ourselves, and each other -- and it's worth noting that for all Duke Nukem Forever encourages us to hate women, it does far more to encourage men to hate themselves: there is no one as ugly, as loathsome, as pitiful as Duke himself. You can literally fling shit around in this game with Duke's bare hands. You can microwave a rat to death. You take steroids, presumably destroying your body and withering your genitals, to get strong and kill bad guys. Duke Nukem Forever degrades nobody so much as it degrades Duke.

What are the other ostensibly sexy games out there? Well, there are a few. There are games where you take nude photos of women. These do not look very fun. There are, I think, massively multiplayer sex games -- I don't know anything about these, but I imagine that even the worst are better than most in other genres, simply because you have to interact with other people to get what you want. There are, of course, about a million sex games in Japan, which I would judge unkindly if I felt entirely comfortable judging the sexual discourse of another culture -- I haven't played any, but as I understand it rape is fairly central, as are any number of fetishes that seem, to my sensibilities, somewhere between icky and immoral.

There is the upcoming Catherine, an "erotic horror puzzle platformer" that seems at least potentially interesting, but which seems also likely to operate by making people more afraid of themselves and each other. If we're lucky, this will be therapeutic, a way of processing these fears. If we're not, it will only be grotesque.

Probably the most successfully sexy games I've ever played were only sexy incidentally -- the Lunar games, a charming and perpetually remade series of Japanese RPGs. The Lunar series has a fairly incidental set of collectibles called bromides that are essentially harmless cheesecake shots featuring the women of the games (and -- good for them -- a couple of the men). The pictures are rarely very revealing, the sort of thing you might see on Myspace without thinking twice. I found them tremendously embarrassing as a teenager playing the games, but while you might question the decision to let the player collect naughty pictures of characters he's supposed to come to know and respect, the key here is exactly the concept of character: whether entirely innocent or more suggestive, they consistently emphasize the personalities of their subjects. The player is encouraged to see these women as people, even at the height of their apparent objectification. The results are genuinely charming.

Vintage Playboy Was So Good

Arthur Paul

"At the time, they wanted to make an elaborate Cinemascope musical comedy based on the Dewey decimal system, and they wanted me to punch it up... I had written a TV show called Surprise Divorce.  We used to take a happily married couple out of the audience and divorce them on television.  Anyhow, I got the job."  -Woody Allen, My War With The Machines

"PLAYBOY:  Haven't both of these segregationist societies been implicated in connection with plots against your life?
KING:  It's difficult to trace the authorship of these death threats.  I seldom go through a day without one."  -interview with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

"The contemplative immobility of my two pupils, the different poses in which they froze like frescoes at the end of this room or that, the obliging way they turned on the lights the moment I backed into the dark dining room---all this must be a perceptional illusion---disjointed impressions to which I have imparted significance and permanence, and, for that matter, just as arbitrary as the raised knee of a politician stopped by the camera not in the act of dancing a jig but merely in that of crossing a puddle."  -Vladimir Nabokov, The Eye

"He had no difficulty in recognizing her.  Her name was Mabel Murgatroyd, and they had met some months previously in a water barrel in somebody's garden on the occasion when the police had raided the gambling club they were attending and it had been necessary to seek whatever shelter the neighborhood could provide."  -P.G. Wodehouse, Bingo Bans The Bomb

Shel Silverstein

Shel Silverstein

Additional work by Jean Paul Getty, Ray Bradbury, Harold Pinter, Jack Kerouac, and Arthur C. Clarke.

Oh and nude women.

All this in Playboy, January 1965.

Is there a magazine, any magazine, that does work like this, even if "this" is terribly flawed in contemporary context?  I can't think of anyone that can even come close to publishing work of this caliber.  Maybe it's because I'm "in the moment" and the magazines seem so normal to me, but in 40 years they'll seem like they were amazing.

Thursday, June 16, 2011


I've been meaning to write something here for a while, but the part of my brain that forms coherent through-lines is gone ahead of me, on the road to Minneapolis, while I am still here in Orlando, wading through an apartment of boxed books and bagged clothes and, this morning, cat vomit. Instead of putting up one coherent post, then, I offer you a five-pack of personal essays:

1) I have found the unemployed life strange. I expected that I would get up early, drink coffee, write, write, write, but really I've spent my time looking for work, packing up the apartment, listening to podcasts, and playing Intendo. Intendo was what my Sunday School teacher called video games, when I had a Sunday School teacher. This was a long time ago. He was a middle-aged farmer, and spoke with a proud drawl, and was plump and jolly and pleasant, and I thought his pronunciation was a playful take on the NES's actual brand name, but then one day he asked my class: What do you get if you take the last o off Intendo? He was very serious. He said, You get intend. I can't be sure about this, but I think he then blew his nose.

I later dreamt that the stovepipe running through my bedroom in my parents' house sprung a leak and his head appeared in the hole, and expanded, like a malevolent balloon.

2) The most frustrating thing I have packed here is books. I thought I had a small collection but there is a jagged mountain of beer boxes and furniture boxes and crates in my living room, many filled with books that I either have never read or will never read again. I can't bring myself to sell them to some discount shop, or to recycle them, for fear that I will want them someday. Yet they are so heavy, and eat so much space. How do people travel with these things? Do you have advice? Do you have horror stories?

3) I decided a while ago that it was banal to tweet or blog about the strange search strings that bring people to my blog, because a lot of people tweet and blog about the strange search strings that bring people to their blogs, but then I realized that so many people do this because the search strings are so very strange, so surreal.

I feel that my blog receives a lot of strange search strings, probably because of all the short fiction on it. Recently someone found my blog looking for "moonshot exercise," which is not weird, really, but which did make me wonder: Can such an exercise exist? It sounds like a painful thing, or difficult, as in, "That one's a moonshot. That one, you go for the deep bend and you maybe snap a tendon."

The most popular search string used to find my blog is "cockroach bite."

4) A few days ago I read Benjamin Percy's The Wilding. I solicited Percy for Flyway, Iowa State's small lit journal, when I was the fiction editor, and he started teaching at Iowa State just after I left, and I've been on the watch for his work since then. This novel is somehow his first fiction I've read. I found it tight and evocative, and surprising. Several times in the first forty pages I thought, This setup is kind of obvious, and then later realized that the obvious setup was a misdirection. The book surprised me through to the end. It is about male representatives of three generations of a family who embark on a camping trip to a favorite wilderness that will soon be smoothed into a golf course. Along the way they infuriate locals and each other and maybe a bear. There is another man who wears a suit made of animal skins, and a woman who is a devoted runner and a veteran of owl invasions. I put the book down a few times but then kept walking past the red cover and couldn't resist picking it up to find out what was going on inside.

5) Next I plan to read a Denis Johnson story. Have you seen the film adaptation of Johnson's short story collection? It is pretty good. It is mostly useless, I think, to compare adaptations to originals, but viewed alone the movie was entertaining, and sad in the way the book is sad. If it's missing anything, it's the central character's weirdness. He is more tragic in the movie, in a more relatable way. He is also pretty, of course, and the people in his life are pretty. He also drives around with Jack Black.

How To Decide What Book To Buy

So when I was in New York I bought a book.  I didn't need a book, I had over a half dozen books, but wanted one when I was at Strand Book Store.  There were so many books and so many good books that I had to have one of my own.  So, how did I narrow down, from the millions of books in Strand, to the single book I chose?

1.  Decide what kind of world you want to be in

I wanted to be in a new and good poetry world than I'd prepared for on my trip.  I was reading books by MLP, and Action, and Black Ocean, and those were the only ones I'd packed, so I was looking for something a little more, idk, academic?  heady?  I can't put my finger on it... I was also looking for something with a connection to New York.  So I was in the poetry section...

2.  Decide the size/style of book you need

Sometimes, nothing but a hardback book will do.  Sometimes, you need a tiny book to fit in your pocket.  I needed something that would fit in the little bag I was carrying (manpurse).  So I limited the whole of the Strand poetry section to these three books...

3.  Decide how you'll answer questions about the book if asked

The questions that could be asked are, What are you reading? What's that about?  Why are you reading that?  So I figured that explaining Lorca or the concept of duende would be too much, and make me look like a crazy mystic poet or something.  Saying, Oh, he's a poet that lives in Brooklyn, sounded too cliche for me being in NY or something, so the Gorrel was out.  It was also a little too much in that other poetry world that I had already packed so readily for.  The Lerner book seemed perfect, he teaches at Brooklyn (teaches at, sounds better than lives in), the book is from his usual publisher Copper Canyon, which is pretty mainstream academic.  The only problem was the size and the aesthetics of the book.  It's a blue cover, my favortie color and I think blue books compliment most of my wardrobe, but the image is a pretty standard terrible-university-press image.  The size is also incredibly awkward and strange (I think it's like 7" by 9.5"?  whose idea was that?).  It was too square and too tall.  There's a reason the kindle is the shape that it's in.  It feels good in your hands at that size and the words look good on the page at that size.  Blah.  

So what did I do?  I chose the Lerner book, Mean Free Path.  I'm still not happy about the design of the book, but it does read really well.  A lovely book.  I devoured it.  I'll write it up later, when I'm not being so shallow.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Music That Wants to Break You Down

It is summer! I have been reading a lot more than usual and writing a little more than usual, and I look forward to blogging about those things quite a bit more than usual. But weirdly, most recently, I've been finding myself listening to more music than usual--particularly older, experimental music.

The first is a piece I hunted down while writing a story about a fire, having happened to pull its concept out from the blurry memories of my high school music composition course. I remember our band director telling us (hiding his anger under a veneer of willful open-mindedness) about a composer who held a piano concert where they arrived on the stage, set fire to the piano, and left, leaving the audience to gasp, protest, and ultimately settle into their own chatter while the piano snapped its strings, collapsed on its keys, and burned to ash. The real story seems somewhat less incendiary (ha ha), as the composer, Annea Lockwood, chose an old upright piano beyond repair, and the people at the (I believe outdoor) concert probably knew that she was not a famous pianist and didn't come expecting etudes. It becomes somewhat less romantic when you realize that the real "music" of the burning piano is not intended to be the straining and crackling of the piano itself, but the conversation that surrounds it.

Here's a (heavily edited) couple of videos documenting a more recent performance:

But for my money, if you really want something that communicates the destruction and futility of art, you can hear what happens to a piano's insides by watching Yosuke Yamashita play one while it burns (he starts playing at 3:08, but the lead-up is worth it):

A few nights ago, Owen Pallett posted a link to a set he did for Domino Radio, and I was so taken by one song on the list, OOIOO's "Umo"--this wild, pounding, frantic incantation--that I decided to go find the video, which turned out to be a more engrossing experience than I anticipated:

Obviously, there's some images of destruction in here--trees being felled, the buck slipping down through the sands of the hourglass. There's tons of other symbols that I can't even begin to interpret. But the overwhelming experience of the song to me is one of desperation that ultimately achieves; the calling and crying seems to more or less conjure something at the end. Maybe even a renewal (if dancing, drumming wildlife can symbolize renewal).

It's fun to compare OOIOO's song with the piece it's covering, Roberto de Simone's 1976 "Secondo Coro Delle Lavandaie." The sort of electronic twang and fuzz is not gone, even though I'm fairly certain Roberto de Simone is not using anything electronic at all--just awesome drums. And there's a feral desperation to this one as well--both feel aboriginal in some way, ritual. Both seem to promise that, if you yell loud enough and long enough, whatever it is you have to have will come.

For my money, though--this live version is the purest, and the most worth watching:

The exhaustion that really performing a piece like this would cause is best showcased and dramatized here--you know by the end what's had to happen in the body to produce sound and rhythm of this duration and intensity. This is what happens when the body becomes a drum. This one is no incantation; it's a complaint, and so its art is made by wearing and breaking itself down--its formula, its rhythm, its instrumentation, its performer and character--until there's nothing left to go forward on. And even then, there's the sense that they could continue on, attaining nothing, making nothing, forever, like the piano with its strings and soundboard burnt away.

And I'm not sure if it's good or right to believe this way, or if it's a healthy part of me that believes it--but I think that this type of destruction is a kind of wondrous thing.

Best Book Trailer Ever?

I am not a huge fan of the book trailer as a genre, but Brian Oliu predictably kills it:

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Pacazo, eventually (Part 2)

So I finished Pacazo, and it's hard to say much about the way the book changed in this latter 40% without spoiling more or less everything. I was right to suspect that the arc of apparent healing would have to be disrupted at some point, and my guesses as to how it might happen weren't too far off, but experiencing the novel's structure for yourself is probably necessary to its intended effect, so instead of discussing all that (though/because it was very successful) let's talk about several other things I noticed while reading.

1: The protagonist may be self-absorbed, but the novel sees past him.

I wouldn't call the cast of Pacazo especially large, but there are a number of reasonably developed characters: Reynaldo, a botanist and friend to John who likes alien movies and wants to study in America; Arantxa, John's boss (he teaches English at the university) and a potential love interest; Casualidad, whose name means "coincidence" (her actual name is Pilar, but John didn't want to call her by his dead wife's name); a hungry, hairless dog; Armando, another professor who has given John a book of poems -- these are some of the people we come to know in the book. 

At times the novel's structure feels pleasantly baggy. One Amazon reviewer complains that there are unnecessary scenes, but the unnecessary scenes are a part of the book's pleasure: in part because what makes them seem unnecessary is the fact that the protagonist, also our narrator, is not really quite perceiving them. We have to read past some scenes as presented in order to see how they advance the story. The most obvious case is the progression of Reynaldo's arc. Fairly early on, Reynaldo begins to change in ways that the narrator apparently finds wholly unremarkable. The attentive reader won't be able to help but suspect what Reynaldo is up to, and it seems impossible that John doesn't see it also, but, well, he really doesn't. The novel's premise -- John's search for his wife's killer -- takes a back seat for a long stretch in the middle, but because we're seeing the events through John's eyes, we often have to exercise some imagination to get the most out of the story.

I like this. I like the way it evokes the mystery of others without relying on an excessively convoluted model of human behavior. It's not that people are complicated so much as that we usually fail to actually perceive them -- we're too blinded by ourselves. In structural terms it creates a pretty neat effect wherein characters seem to emerge and submerge periodically, sometimes changing in front of our eyes, sometimes changing when we aren't looking.

This is a pacazo, I guess.
2. Kesey gets a lot of mileage out of unexpected juxtapositions.

I've written here before about how much I loved it when Infinite Jest changed tracks unexpectedly, something that usually happened between sections and occasionally between paragraphs. Sometimes we alternated between present action and past action, sometimes between external activity and internal reflection, and sometimes we switched settings and characters unexpectedly. This was nice. Kesey doesn't wait for a paragraph break to change subjects -- he does it with gestures as small as a conjunction. Usually this serves to show us the distance between what John is observing or saying or doing and what John is thinking about, a distance that can become disturbingly wide. Here's one of my favorite examples (note: Mariángel is his very young daughter):
Around the fountain there is a ring of small plants covered with tiny gold flowers and Mariángel bends, pulls one out by the roots. She shows it to us and I nod. She bends again, pulls out another. I should tell her to stop. We sit and wait and stare. She pulls out a third. I will crush the joints of his fingers first.
He is thinking, of course, of the Taxista that he means to kill. This is one of the easier disconnects to negotiate -- our attention is being drawn to the differences between John's circumstances and his thoughts -- but often the relationship is more complicated. When he's more distressed, he shares more details about Peruvian history, so that the interruptions of history serve partly as an index of his emotional state, but also their particular details serve at a second coordinate in a triangle that might allow us to guess his feelings, his anxieties, his needs, etc. Between his present action narration and his reflections on history, implied by their relationship, lies some secret of his inner life -- the third point of the triangle. Sometimes this geometry is not too difficult to understand, and sometimes it is quite hard. It is always, anyway, interesting.

3. It made me want to read more fiction concerned with the world outside my own.

One of the weird tendencies of realism is its habit of casting anything outside the realm of its (usually white, usually middle-class) author's immediate experience as a sort of fantasy. Because realism is defined by plausibility rather than reality, other times and places have become markers of genre. To the extent that realist writers visit other places, they often treat those places as fundamentally unreal. This may not be exactly racist but it's pretty close. So it was nice to see a basically realist novel that was interested in times and places outside my own, and which treated the setting as a real place rather than some sort of fantasy wonderland.

4. The novel expertly negotiates desire.

Here I mean the desire of its readers, the desire of its protagonist, the desire of its author. As I wrote previously, it initially seems to be a sort of revenge novel, and though this tendency flags in its middle, it does return quite strongly in the third act. The protagonist is, as a critical historian, skeptical of our ability to reach the past from the present moment -- he is aware that even when he believes he has found his wife's killer, it will remain impossible to know for sure. This reflects our growing dissatisfaction with simple revenge narratives, but the book can't just deny the desire it creates: it makes us want revenge, fails to provide a sufficient replacement for that desire, and shows us how the narrator fails to find a sufficient replacement as well. It would be stupid for it to insist on refusing to satisfy a need that it created in the first place. But it does, in satisfying that desire, complicate it, and give us a way of looking at the context of that desire, allows us to consider its problems as well as its power. I feel as if a lot of narratives I've seen in the last few years have struggled to manage desire in light of the sometimes-paralyzing difficulty of assigning guilt -- the most successful have simply decided to lay the guilt on the head of their protagonists and ostensible heroes. Pacazo does this, to some extent, but it also does other things, and more. It satisfies the desires it creates, rather than scold us for wanting.

Monday, June 13, 2011

You are not entitled.

It's been a while since I used this blog to say anything especially harsh, but today I saw this article on "Why Selling E-books at 99 Cents Destroys Minds" get some attention today and I wanted to point out that it's kind of, well, awful. And there are so many things wrong with it that I feel like the easiest way to deal with it is one mistake at a time -- a not entirely fair approach, but you can read the whole piece if you want to see the context.

I should start by noting where I agree with the piece's author, Chad Post: 99 cents is a bad price for ebooks, and his own decision to sell his press's ebooks at 4.99 is a good one (I might go slightly higher myself, but it's good for everybody to experiment with different models and see what works best). I don't like 99 cents as a price because I think a good book is worth more, and I think people will be willing to pay it: if I'm willing to put in the time necessary to reading a novel, I should almost certainly be willing to pay at least five dollars. You don't want to miss out on royalties, but the sweet spot where readership and revenue are maximized is probably not at the one-dollar level; sure, the best-sellers on Amazon are often in that range, but how long will it take readers to notice that these books are rarely satisfying, and how many dollar-priced books are failing to find an audience just like all the rest? It seems like bad business, and in the long term, we don't want to establish the norm that ebooks cost a dollar when we could almost certainly ask for more if we have confidence in our product. Post also makes some salient criticisms of the way big publishers have tried to keep ebook prices artificially high.

I'm not sure to what extent Post would agree with me on what I've written in the above paragraph, but there seems to be some overlap between us. Unfortunately, that's where it ends. This is his second paragraph in its entirety:
As much as one might hate e-books (and trust me, I’ve in no way incorporated this part of the digital “revolution” into my reading habits), it’s become impossible to ignore. It may be overstating things a bit, but if your book isn’t available as an e-book, it basically doesn’t exist. This is sad; this is true. For many, publishing e-books is simply a foregone conclusion.
Maybe the kind way to put it is I don't understand any of this paragraph. Why does he hate ebooks? It's not clear. (He explains further in a moment, but it's not very helpful.) Is it true that books not available as ebooks might as well not exist? That certainly hasn't been my experience, but there does seem to be demand for ebooks, which means that people like buying and reading them. Why is this sad? I don't understand: if you're a reader who's not into ebooks, it must be because you don't think they will serve writers and readers, but if people want them, that would seem to suggest they're serving those people. So what's the problem? If ebooks are indeed a foregone conclusion (and I see little evidence that this is true, but it probably will be in the near future) then that seems to suggest that they're successfully helping readers to connect with books they enjoy. That sounds like good news to me.

Post gradually warms up to a discussion of how Kindle books are sold:
But what’s really at the top of the e-book best-seller lists? As of this very moment (10:10 pm on Wednesday, June 8th), here are the top five and their prices: A Little Death in Dixie by Lisa Turner, $0.99; My Horizontal Life by Chelsea Handler, $1.99; The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, $5.00; Summer Secrets by Barbara Freethy, $4.99; and The Help by Kathryn Stockett, $9.99. 
So aside from The Help, which is the 9th bestselling book in paperback, the top five are all $5 or less. And aside from The Help, none of these books are in the top 10 for Literary Fiction paperback sales. So what does this mean?
Well, it means less than we might think. For one thing, the lack of overlap between top 10 lists in paperback sales and top five ebook sales is best explained by the facts that most super-cheap Kindle ebooks don't exist in print, and those that do are not receiving a free marketing push in their printed forms from Amazon. Extreme cheapness in print books is generally seen as a bad thing -- only in ebooks does the idea of a major bargain suggest relatively little about literary quality (after all, there's essentially no overhead with ebooks, so it's only natural that the cost would be pretty low). Basically, Amazon has an incentive to convince us that Kindle books are cheap because the Kindle device is relatively expensive upfront. (It does in fact pay for itself in terms of cheaper books over the long haul, but most readers aren't probably sure how many books they'll want in a year, how often they'll want to replace the device, etc.)

If you've got an ereader -- which Post goes to great pains to make clear he is above -- you probably understand how cheap stuff sells so well. When you get the Kindle, the first thing you do is go to the store and buy one book you've been meaning to read anyway, as well as downloading a bunch of free stuff and maybe trying out one or two super-cheap titles just for the hell of it. Then my guess is you settle in and become the sort of reader you always were, but now with a new tool. Anyway, this is how it's gone for me and all of the people I know who own Kindles (anecdata!).

Post goes on to, predictably, shit all over the tastes of everyone who isn't reading what he thinks they should be:
At BEA, Keith Gessen introduced me to the works of John Locke (probably not the one you’re thinking of), a best-selling Kindle author whose books are all sold for $0.99. He made over a hundred thousand of dollars in royalties last year — far exceeding the wildest dreams of most every mid-list (if John Locke is even midlist) author in the country. Having read the opening of one of his “Donovan Creed” novels, I can assure you that he’s not selling all these books due to his talent. No offense intended, but let’s be real about this — it leads to a much more interesting conundrum.
Ugh. Yes, he is selling the books due to his talent. I haven't read Locke's work, but the mere fact of his selling his books can't be due entirely to the price point: quite a lot of people have had the bright idea of selling their books super-cheap on Amazon, and most of them are not in fact top sellers. Locke is either a talented marketer (like most financially successful artists) or he's talented at giving people what they want (like most financially successful artists). The fact that he writes things that I probably wouldn't like and that Chad Post probably wouldn't like doesn't prove the system is broken unless we begin with the premise that Chad Post's tastes or my tastes are Correct, as if handed down from God on high. And really, what are the odds of that? And in any case, what the hell does this have to do with ebooks? Budget-priced crowd-pleasers have always been the big sellers, and -- by definition! -- they always will be. Blaming ebooks for the tautological fact that popular, low-priced material will tend to be popular is asinine.

Something to think about: Roy Kesey's Pacazo, about which I wrote recently, is the #232,028th best seller among Kindle books on Amazon. It's #464,700 in printed books. Comparing those numbers is difficult and maybe impossible, but I think it's fair to say that the ebook version is helping the novel reach more readers -- and, my educated guess is, making its publishers and author significantly more money at $8.97 per electronic copy than its physical edition with a list price of $22.00 and a deeply discounted Amazon price of $15.40. That seems like good news to me.

Now we're going paragraph by paragraph:
Two of my longstanding issues with e-books are: a) how your brain processes texts read on a screen, and b) e-books make books feel like disposable entertainment. I’m going to leave the first for a separate article and/or book, but I think the second objection is valuable here.
He drops this in here like it means something, but I'm pretty sure he's never going to write that other article or book. It's more useful as a scare tactic -- the idea that reading text on a Kindle, which simulates the experience of a physical page really well, is all that different from reading text on a page, strikes me as... difficult to substantiate. As for his second objection, he follows it with this paragraph:
As announced by Bowker a few weeks back, more than three million books were published last year: 300,000 from “traditional” publishers, and 2.9 million from nontraditional publishing outlets, such as self-publishing.
What... What does this mean, exactly? I mean, what does Post believe that it means? I'm genuinely puzzled. I think this number refers to printed books, for one thing, which, okay, so how does that advance his thesis? Or, if it's electronic books he's talking about, does he have a reason to believe the glut of books will devalue his preferred books, the 300,000 from "traditional" publishers? Are small presses traditional publishers, by this reckoning? Does he mean to imply that the nontraditional publishing outlets and products are somehow inherently inferior to the traditional ones? I'm at a loss, here. 
So, you have an e-reader, you’re bored with TV and all your video games, ain’t feeling the Facebook, and want a book. Why pay $12.99 for “entertainment” when you could buy a John Locke thriller for $0.99? I have no answer to that question. Seriously. And this has always been my problem with e-books: they emphasize immediate entertainment — and gratification — over real “reading,” which takes more commitment, patience, attention and time.
To begin with, if I'm the sort of person who has literally exhausted all of my television and video games, and the Internet before it occurs to me to buy a book, odds are I was never going to be the sort of reader Post clearly values above all others. I probably just don't like books that much to begin with! But that part of this paragraph at least makes some sense. Then it totally loses me again. Why is "entertainment" in quotes? Does Post feel that books are not actually entertaining? Maybe that's why he can't imagine why you would pay 12.99 for one book when I could buy a thriller instead for a dollar. It doesn't occur to him that I might like that other book more. Like most sane people, I don't buy my books by volume. I choose the ones I want and then I buy them if I can justify the price. (That's why the bloated hardback book business Post criticizes earlier in his article was relatively good money for those it benefitted: they found authors who were more entertaining for $25 than other paperback writers were for $15, or $10, or still less. How Post fails to make this connection is rather beyond me.)

And in any case, once again, how do ebooks uniquely devalue reading? The logic that brings readers to buy cheap electronic thrillers is exactly the same logic that has lead them to purchase cheap printed thrillers for decades. Leaving aside the fact that it hardly seems like a problem that most people don't like reading what I like reading, this isn't anything new, and it's certainly nothing special about ebooks.

The last sentence of the paragraph is also puzzling. Apparently, reading the things Post likes reading is real "reading" (although the scare quotes would rather seem to suggest the opposite) because it's so hard and places so little emphasis on gratifying the reader. I'm starting to wonder if Post even "likes" "reading" the things he claims to enjoy "reading." If he does, why does he have so little faith in his product? Why does he assume a 99-cent thriller -- ANY 99-cent thriller -- will always win out?
As someone devoted to literary culture, this scares the crap out of me. Sure, John O’Brien and a few others will claim that this has “always been the case,” that there has always been only 10,000 “serious readers” in the U.S., and that’s the same today as it was 50 years ago, but I don’t know if these people are actually in touch with the world around us. It’s all $0.99 e-books and instant movies and Angry Birds.
Again, I'm at a loss. At this point in the essay, Post seems to move decisively into his own crotchety parallel universe, one where his opinions and evaluations require no evidence whatsoever. He insists nobody is reading anything but 99-cent ebooks in spite of the fact that his own list of top five sellers tells him otherwise, and meanwhile produces no figures to suggest that more people were ever reading The Right Books than are reading them now. For the record, here are the prices of the top ten sellers on Kindle at this moment: .99, 5.00, 1.99, 9.99, 7.70, 2.99, 4.99, 7.14, 12.99, and 12.99. I guess Chad Post is right: no one will ever buy anything but cheap garbage!

Like so many of the self-declared guardians of literature, Post only seems to be happy if he can define reading such that hardly anyone is actually doing it. That makes him more special, and it also makes the relative commercial failures of his press's list seem more noble: 

At the same time, I work for a nonprofit publishing house whose mission is to promote international “pure literature” to as wide an audience as possible. There were fewer than 300 translated works of fiction published in the U.S. last year. And aside from that Swedish crime writer, the other 299 sold way less than 50,000 copies. The reasons for this are diverse and complicated and occasionally xenophobic. But the point is: the 10 authors we publish a year are sort of lucky to have their books available to English readers. And they’re damn good books! Books praised by the New York Times, books that influential tastemakers gravitate towards, books that sell a few thousand copies.
And as a nonprofit, our goal is more focused on readers than sales. We couldn’t survive without donations (and yes, we can always use your support — anything is great, a million dollars is better), in part because we can’t sell enough books to survive without them. We could quit publishing this “pure literature” stuff and go all in on Donovan Creed & Co., or we can continue to raise money with the belief that what we’re doing is important to culture — as long as people read it.
You can see the way Post is at odds with himself here, the fundamental ambivalence: on the one hand, the fact that his favorite books don't sell very well requires him to believe that commercial success is unimportant, or, better yet, proof positive that one's writing is worthless.  John Locke's success proves that he suxxorz. On the other hand, books need readers to do their work, which suggests that he should, you know, try to sell his books. The results of these conflicting impulses manifest in one tremendously meaningless sentence: "And as a nonprofit, our goal is more focused on readers than sales." Do you see the problem here?

You can't have readers without sales.

Post wants it both ways. His favorite books deserve all our readership, but we're such scum that we won't ever read his favorite books, but then again maybe we're so cool (like him!) that we'll not only read the books but donate a lot of money to his press, which will presumably waste the money by failing to find any readers, because all readers are scum, except for that super-cool minority (like him!) that reads his books and sends him money. Doesn't it seem like it would be a lot simpler to write something about how cool his books are and how we should buy them and read them? I thought so too. But that would mean risking failure, which is something most publishers (and writers) simply can't allow. Instead, they have to define the situation such that they're always winning, especially when they lose.

Here's another genuinely meaningless paragraph:
And there are a lot of people who like e-books. And even more who like the $0.99 variety.
This one has the distinction of being literally impossible. There may be a lot of people who like ebooks, but no matter how many there are, there can't be "even more" who like the $0.99 variety. By definition, there are fewer people in the latter category than in the former.

From here Post spends some time explaining why his press decided on the $4.99 price point, which (again) I think was probably the right call. This leads him here:
And in terms of that revenue thing? Here’s a concept: We can’t survive by selling all our books at $4.99 unless someone drops a million-dollar check in the mail right now, or we sell 4 or 5 times the number of copies we typically sell. 
Wait. What? I don't know the details of Post's business model, but let's do some quick math. If you go to his press's catalog, you'll find that all of the featured books are paperbacks in the price range of about $12-$16. Paperback books cost money to produce -- in my experience, mid-range runs like those Open Letter is probably doing will usually end up costing at least 50% per unit of the final sale price: in other words, they're making a profit, when shipping and production and marketing and so on are considered, of maybe a couple dollars per sale. At any rate, they're certainly making less than $12-$16 per unit.

Ebooks, meanwhile, have much lower overhead, as we've discussed: you pay to design them, maybe you pay for a little bit of marketing, and that's it. Production is free. Amazon's royalties to the publisher for a $4.99 book are, unless I'm mistaken, about 70%. Certainly they're better than the percentage the publisher is making on the sale of a paperback book. If they sold four or five ebooks at $4.99, that would be 70% of $20.00 or $25.00 -- so about $14.00 or $17.50. Compare that to the money you make off just one printed paperback, and not only are you better off selling the ebooks, you're very likely tripling or quadrupling your profits. Even if I'm way off on my figures, it just doesn't take four ebook sales to replace one printed book sale for a press like Open Letter. Is it possible Chad Post doesn't like ebooks because he isn't very good at math?

I mean, okay, I don't want to be an asshole about this, there's roughly infinity things I don't know, Chad Post knows some of those things, and it's possible that some subset of the probably very large list of things I don't know that Chad Post does know justifies this bit of his argument, or at least makes it less obviously innumerate than it looks to me. But really, what this looks like to me is another case of the oldest story in publishing:

Grumpy Publisher/Editor/Writer X believes that his tastes are The Best Tastes. Because the world does not beat down his door in order to purchase his merchandise, because they do not provide him with the sales he feels he deserves, he constructs an elaborate alternate reality where the fact that he isn't getting what he wants (universal acclaim) only serves as further proof that he's succeeding, that he's special, that he's smarter than the rest of the world. And maybe he is! In fact, odds are pretty decent his IQ is above average, for whatever that's worth. But meanwhile, he's stuck in that parallel universe, and his entitled whining is kind of tiresome for the rest of us.

I think that really what so many writers, editors and publishers hate about ebooks is this: they lower barriers to entry, they reduce the cost of distribution, the cost of marketing, and the difficulty of connecting with readers. In short, they take away excuses.

I don't think it's a big problem that the whole world doesn't love what Chad Post loves. It's awesome that he can find books that bring him pleasure, and that he can share these books with other people who will enjoy them. But I do have to wonder if he wouldn't be a more effective advocate for his favorite books, if he couldn't market them more successfully, simply by accepting that he isn't so special: that others might like to share with him, just as they enjoy sharing other books of other kinds with other people. John Locke knows that readers love reading, and he knows that many readers love reading what he writes. Does Chad Post know this? Is he too cynical to believe it?