Sunday, July 31, 2011

It's Sunday & I'm Feeling Sentimenta-al: ChillTFO

Sentimental Response To Other Blog Posts At Other Blogs

I am just now connected to the internets and so am just now catching up on my google reader (and hopefully figuring out wtf this is).  I came across this by Sean Lovelace at HTMLGIANT and this by Lily Hoang I thought about when I started writing and about people I loved and I wanted to write it out in the comments, but thought this would be better.

I wrote some poems in the fall of 2007 for Carmen Gimenez-Smith's undergrad poetry workshop.  It was a workshop I took because I was looking for an easy semester and to possibly meet girls if my marriage collapsed.  I didn't, but it did eventually.

And she pushed me to write more and better.  She pushed everyone in the class, though most of us hated her for it and probably got bad grades for it, but I loved it.  We read Susan Briante and Sarah Vap, two poets I still love and emulate.  Carmen loaned me books that I kept for four years.  Notably Tremelo, by Spencer Short.  I also kept a book by Dean Young and contemplated keeping it.  Maybe a few more (I know I borrowed more, but I'm not saying).  She had me read Frank O'Hara as a side project and he's the love of my life.  She had me read O'Hara because I was on a big Kerouac kick from On The Road and O'Hara successfully moved me off of it and into a better, more genuine, more artful style (I know, it's contradictory).

I wrote some good poems for her class and wanted to write more and so I did and I applied for graduate school.  I stuck around NMSU for the spouse, who had her dream job working for Social Security and didn't want to move.

I loved NMSU.  I met amazing people there.  I met Mike and Tracy.  I met Carrie Murphy.  I met all these other cool people.  I didn't have any workshops with Carmen until the spring of my second year.

In the workshop with Carmen it was the semester of my divorce.  The marriage I anticipated ending two and a half years earlier did actually end in a class with her.  During this class I wrote so many poems.  I wrote so many poems about all the people I've ever kissed or loved or wanted to love or just fucked or just wanted to fuck or just thought about fucking way after we had actually fucked or just thought about fucking way after we had never actually fucked.  Every poem was a love poem.  Every poem was a hate-fuck.  Every poem was a mind-fuck.  I wrote so many that I couldn't get them all workshopped in one semester.  It would later be my thesis and is now my manuscript.

During the semester Carmen was so rough on these poems.  We had a one on one meeting and she made me revise lines right in front of her.  She crossed out lines and made me come up with new lines from my mouth, in public, not from my pen, alone in a room.

I felt like she hated me.  I felt like she hated my poems.  But you know, I'll never meet another person who cared as much as she did for my writing.  You know what?  That's a lie.  Every one, every single fucking one of my poetry teachers at NMSU cared a shit load about my writing.

I miss that.  I miss all of those people who give a fuck.

Thanks Carmen.  Thanks for opening a door to all these people who gave a fuck.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Breaking Bad, Medium, and Withholding Women

One thing I discovered in workshop that may not surprise you is that it's remarkably easy to make people dislike a female character. Often you won't mean to do it: if she stands up for herself in the wrong way, or if she doesn't seem purely generous and nurturing and self-sacrificing and emotionally available, that will rub people the wrong way and they may say things like, "The mother character is a real bitch." People are just ready to dislike women. You also often see this in writing, especially amateurish writing; often the writer, male or female, reserves a special scorn for women who are seen as failing to do their wifely or motherly duties, for instance if they are a little cold or cruel.

This is a problem because it reflects and reinforces sexism, but it's also a problem we need to watch for as writers and readers because it can really get in the way of our stories. Consider the fact that any fully-realized character needs his or her own agenda. A woman, just as much as a man, in a story requires goals that conflict with the goals of others if she's going to be a useful, interesting part of the story. In other words, she has to do things that will cause many readers and writers alike to think of her as a bitch. If you're thinking of your own characters that way, it becomes awfully hard to write them well.

This brings me to Breaking Bad. This is a show starring the dad from Malcolm in the Middle as an aging man who discovers he has terminal lung cancer and begins cooking meth in order to pay his medical bills and provide for his family. With each season, the main character -- Walter White -- becomes a little more compromised, a little more entrenched in the criminal world, a little further beyond redemption. (I will probably spoil the show a little now.) Breaking Bad has slowly become a major critical hit, with anticipation for the just-launched fourth season being rather intense. A lot of my online friends and people I admire like it rather a lot. But it's never quite worked for me, and I think the main reason is the dynamic between Walt and his wife.

Husbands and wives in fiction can rarely truly get along if they're both going to be truly present in the story. Fiction usually requires impressive people, and it always requires trouble: mistakes, and conflict. If your protagonist is something of a hero, or an antihero, then naturally his wife or her husband will have to be a daunting figure as well: impressive people generally don't marry unimpressive people. And if your husband is running around making terrible mistakes and getting into trouble, then you're going to, as his impressive wife, have something to say about that. Probably there will be conflict between you. Probably it will be big. The writers of Breaking Bad get that.

They may also have some sense of the difficulty of writing a wife that stands athwart her husband and retains the sympathies of the audience. Breaking Bad is an interesting test case because this is one example where the husband is clearly in the wrong: we're sympathetic to his initial involvement in the drug trade, but the longer he stays there the more obvious it becomes that he's the villain of the piece, dopy mustache or no. But of course the nagging wife who knows better but still comes out looking bad and unsympathetic is a bit of a trope, isn't it? Think of poor, nagging Marge: she's always trying to ruin Homer's fun, which means she's trying to ruin our fun, even as we recognize that she's in the right. The Simpsons often makes this dynamic work, and it works best when Marge is recognized as an eccentric in her own right -- one whose eccentricity happens to take the form of trying to be dull and safe at all costs. Breaking Bad suffers from nagging wife syndrome, in spite of its own best efforts.

The thing is that the show doesn't seem to like Skyler (the wife character), and the reason I say this is that three seasons in I know almost nothing about her that couldn't be said of every nagging wife in every TV show ever. She clearly sees herself as morally superior to her husband and most other people. She doesn't like risk-taking behavior. When she eventually figures out that Walt is cooking meth, she leaves him immediately, even as he's just recovering from his cancer. She doesn't talk it over with him, she doesn't even seem especially upset. He's been lying to her and he has to go; he can't see their children anymore. End of story.

The problem here is complicated because she's very much in the right. Walter is a dangerous man living a dangerous life and he should not be allowed in their home. But her decision is simply correct, it's not human, it's not specific to her character, it's just something she does because it's the right thing to do. Her moral superiority is further undermined by her decision to have an affair with a man who is clearly doing illegal things at her accounting firm and probably for his own enrichment. The show is good about showing the illegality and corruption we casually accept in our own lives while turning our noses up at illegality among the underclass (for instance, the way Walt's DEA brother-in-law watches Walt's teenage son drink tequila without a word of protest, but shows no hesitation to destroy the lives of people outside his social circle for similar violations) but Skyler really didn't need another reason to look unsympathetic. Said teenage son, Walter Jr., doesn't know why his mother left his father (he doesn't know about the drugs, so from his perspective the story is "my dad almost died and then my mother left him for no reason") shouts at his mother for being such a "bitch." What we're supposed to feel is sympathy for Skyler, and to some extent I do, but it's hollow: ultimately her character is defined almost purely by standing athwart Walt's desires, and a vague sense of moral superiority. We don't know much else about her. We don't understand why Walt loves her and, worse yet, we don't understand why she ever loved Walt.

I just don't think the writers quite like her enough, as I've said. I don't think they understand and care about her enough to make her more than the unfeeling bitch who stands in Walt's way. Ultimately she might do more unlikeable things if they did like her, ironically -- but they would have the specificity and humanity she currently lacks. In short, they've got the right idea with Skyler, but they can't seem to believe in it enough to make it work, and the show suffers for me as a result. 

The husband character in Medium makes an interesting point of comparison. This is an NBC show about a woman, Allison (Patricia Arquette) who can communicate with the dead. Naturally, she solves crimes. The difference between this show and, say, Ghost Whisperer, is that it pays a lot of attention to the strains Allison's power places on her family: talking to the dead often leads to strange, dangerous behaviors, which particularly frustrates her husband Joe (Jake Weber). My family was into this series; I mostly wasn't. I saw its merits, especially relative to most entries in the genre, but for me the formula quickly wore thin. Its weakest point? The husband character, Joe, who constantly stood athwart his wife's attempts to use her power to save lives and catch criminals.

The thing is that in the beginning, Joe had a point. His position was basically that his wife did not have special powers and that she was putting their family at risk by pretending otherwise. This is, generally speaking, the right position. If Tracy starts to believe she's magic tomorrow, I'm probably going to work pretty hard to disabuse her of that notion! But the thing is that if Tracy proceeded to successfully use her magic powers every week, I would probably decide to consider seriously the possibility that I was wrong and she was magic. Joe never seemed to really quite catch on, and it made him look like a bit of an idiot. There came a point, several years in, where he was still trying to talk her down and I just couldn't take it anymore.

This is essentially the same character as Skyler, but actually apparently worse: not only is he constantly standing athwart our protagonist, he's genuinely wrong to do so, and even more stubborn about it for all his wrongness. But the truth is that even though he ruined the show for me, I could never dislike him the way I do Skyler, because the show never really disliked him. He always seemed specific to me. He was invested with life of his own. He had a job that he cared about, he had things he wanted to accomplish in life, and he had a way of arguing with Allison that didn't make him seem excessively smug, even as he gradually came to have what was clearly a much weaker position. The difference between the characters seems to come down to a collective misogyny: even when writers know better, even when they're trying their best, they can't help but render a woman in the right as an unlikeable nag if she stands athwart our narrative desire. A man in the same position, even a man in the wrong, is afforded sufficient sympathy to keep us from hating him even as his position becomes untenable. I don't dislike Skyler, I think, because of a problem that I personally have with women: I think it's a collective problem wherein the writers don't like her enough to make her a fully realized character, and so she becomes a bit of a generic, withholding annoyance instead.

As a final example, think of Scully in the X-Files, a character who was sometimes entirely sympathetic and sometimes unbearable. Every week there was clearly a magic guy or a space monster or whatever, and every week she insisted, in the face of increasingly insurmountable evidence, that no such things existed. Sometimes this seemed okay, and sometimes it was awful. I would argue that the difference was mostly, again, in the specificity of her characterization: when she droned on about science and rationality, she was just "the rational one," or essentially another generic version of the nagging wife. When we could see that she was genuinely bumping up against the limits of her ability to cope. She was seeing crazy, irrational shit every week, and it only made sense that this would lead to cognitive dissonance, especially in someone who had devoted her life to making sense of things. When the writers remembered to sympathize, there was a lot there to sympathize with. When they forgot, she was truly irritating.

All this is to say that we have a problem here. And it's essential that we solve it: women are more than half the world, and they deserve to play a major role in our fiction. But until we know how to let them participate in real conflict without seeing them as bitches, we won't be able to do them justice.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The New York Times Paywall and You

People are surprised that the New York Times paywall is working out pretty well, and I would count myself among them. For my part, I never thought that the principle of a paywall was crazy, only that the particular model the Times had chosen seemed excessively complicated. Regardless, I'm wondering if we should really be so surprised that people would be willing to pay for a website.

It's been conventional wisdom that people simply wouldn't pay for electronic content for some time, but I think there were two related but separate issues clouding our judgment: a) the lowered cost of distribution's inevitable downward pressure on prices, and b) the fact that the Internet used to suck.

A) is pretty simple. When you get to the point where it's essentially free to distribute something, customers are naturally going to put a lot of downward pressure on prices. Small and large publishers alike are freaked out by the demand for ebooks at nine, seven, and five dollars, or even one dollar, but the idea that you can charge hardback prices (and pay your authors hardback royalties) when you've cut your overhead to the bone is ridiculous. Consumers know better, but it wasn't until iTunes that we started to see digital content priced in a reasonable way by any retailers with juice. Now with online content retailers like Amazon, eMusic, Netflix, and etc. beginning to charge prices the market will bear, it certainly seems to me that people are paying quite a lot for digital content. 

B) is something that becomes painfully clear in retrospect. Back when people started selling content online, the Internet sucked. Their websites were hideous and barely usable. Broadband was rare enough and bandwidth cost enough that if you wanted to pay for something big, it was legitimately best for everyone involved to just order the CD, at which point you might as well go to Wal-Mart or Best Buy or whatever and skip the shipping. Major corporate websites like that of the New York Times were usually ahead of the curve, but not by that much -- and in all honesty, that site still kind of sucks (I might subscribe simply for the ability to turn off the "too many stray clicks and we'll load up a dictionary page" feature).  The Internet is almost good these days! It's often very close to user-friendly! And as we feel more confident in retailers, we'll probably make more digital purchases, and more often. That's certainly been my experience.

Which makes sense: people are offering services I want at prices that seem reasonable in forms I can easily use. That's, uh, how you make a sale. The Internet may make it more difficult to create and market mega-hits, and the fragmentation of markets may even reduce full-time professional participation of content creators generally. But the idea that people will simply refuse to pay for things they value strikes me as unrealistic. Yes, we can often just go bittorrent it. But honestly, bittorrent is a bit of a hassle, and I like giving my money to the people who do things I care about.

Meet the Lavenders

Our own Carrie Murphy has a chapbook out with Birds of Lace Press.

Tracy and I both often had a hard time figuring out how to respond to poetry appropriately during our time in the MFA. We know what we like and what we don't, but the conversations surrounding poetry in academia were usually mystifying. I generally find it more productive to ignore the whole question of what is "poetic" and to focus on what is beautiful, exciting, and fun.

Carrie's poetry is all of those things. It is smart and sexy and funny. It is good. We think very highly of her and her work, and we think you will too. Meet the Lavenders is about a girl group. I have heard her read a little of it. I am looking forward to reading the rest.

Here is a description from the press: "Carrie Murphy's 'Meet the Lavenders' introduces us to the fictional 1960s girl group The Lavenders, a threesome with dreamy dreams immersed in the pursuit of all that is girl group-related. A complex, adoring and intimate view of a musical and social phenomenon that usually doesn't allow a scratch below the perfectly manicured surface."

Here is a trailer featuring an unusually desperate reader:

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

"Losing is fun!"

There's a class of games I haven't played because it feels like it would be a bad idea while I'm still working on finding employment: things like Dwarf Fortress and its descendent Minecraft seem, to me, a little too potentially absorbing to be healthy right now. (I'm staying away from Angband too.) Ultimately it wouldn't matter, but it makes me feel a little better.

I do feel a lot like I've played Dwarf Fortess, though, as my friend Charlie's descriptions of his games are always so weird and specific that it can be a lot like playing just to hear them. The game is extremely complicated, both in terms of what you can build and in terms of how it can (and will, inevitably) collapse; while I'm sure some commonalities would emerge over time if I read more about the game, each retelling is so radically different from the last that it reads as more of a story than as a simple description of a game.

This New York Times profile of the brothers behind the game is pretty fascinating. The programmer, Tarn Adams, sees Dwarf Fortress as his life's work: he spends most of each day coding and lives modestly on donations from fans of the game. In spite of its incredible complexity, he plans to spend the rest of his life adding further layers of mechanics. Probably my favorite quote from the article: "The hippos like the sewers!"

Part of what's interesting about the game is that it seems designed to generate fascinating sentences. A lot of its energy is devoted to language, and to opportunities for language. I'm looking forward to trying it out someday.

Monday, July 25, 2011

"He's a tin can!"

Another weird thing about the morality of Saturday morning cartoons is the special vengeance reserved for robots and, occasionally, cyborgs. In most action-adventure shows aimed at children, the villains will frequently or primarily use robotic or otherwise artificial henchmen. The first time I noticed this trope was in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise, wherein the Foot Clan will be staffed primarily by human ninjas if the film is rated PG (see: live-action movies) but they will be robots if the show is intended primarily for children (see: the various animated series). 

You figure out pretty quickly that the Shredder isn't using robots because they're better at combat than human beings, or even more hardy. Quite the opposite: as a rule, robotic opponents are easily bested and they tend to come apart with the slightest effort. Their arms and legs are easily torn off, their heads removed casually, their bodies cut in half (vertically or horizontally) with even the crudest weapons. The Shredder isn't using these things, in other words, because they work. He's using them so the Turtles can destroy human forms guilt-free.

To return to the example of X-Men, there's a moment that happens fairly often wherein Wolverine realizes that an opponent is, in fact, a robot. Usually he figures it out by severing one of the thing's limbs. The obviously-robotic arm or leg will fall away, sparks shooting out this way and wires jutting here, the camera lingering lovingly on this image of dismemberment. Then we cut back to Wolverine, whose facial reaction makes it clear he sees what we see: this dude is a robot. Then he has to verbally acknowledge the situation, just in case anybody missed it the first time: "He's a tin can!" is the go-to line. Then, we go back to the severed robotic limb, looking especially robotic in case we didn't notice any of the other things that just happened. Then back to Wolverine, who smiles a while longer before closing in for the kill. He removes another limb or cuts its torso open.

The dominant emotion in these moments is clearly relief. Wolverine, who has been trying and failing to stab dudes all day, finally gets to really go for it. He can't believe his good fortune! The kids at home are supposed to be cheering also. Finally, they get to see some real action. And it's hard to blame the characters or the audience if they're maybe a little too excited at the chance to finally blow off some steam; as a rule, when it really counts, Wolverine can't seem to stab anybody. 

In some ways, this is a legitimate solution to the problem of how to resolve high-stakes dramatic tension without warping the minds of young children. You can question the prevalence of action shows in children's entertainment, but once you're committed to making such a series, you're going to need a work-around for this problem. However, with even a little scrutiny, the solution breaks down and becomes, in my eyes, more troubling than the problem it was meant to address.

For one thing, the heroes usually learn that they're fighting machines only after they've used sufficient force to kill what they believed at the time was a person. Wolverine cuts off the arm, watches it fall to the ground, and then sees that the dude is a robot. No wonder he's relieved: he thought he was doing something awful! Now it's okay. His attempted murder is retroactively justified. (We see again how this model requires that intent become a non-issue.)

Secondly, this moment requires that the robots are simulating humanity. It wouldn't bother me if Wolverine were to dismember, say, a rogue backhoe, but neither would Wolverine express such delight and relief in the process of doing so: it would pass without remark, and (precisely because the object he murdered was strictly an object) it would carry little or no dramatic weight. The Foot Clan do not behave like things, however. They are not efficient, their movements are not stiff, they do not broadcast their machine-ness to the viewer in any way. Rather, they go out of their way to simulate humanity. They are often comedically clumsy. They sometimes seem to be afraid. They seem to react to their environment emotionally, rather than treating it as purely instrumental. They do all of these things so that we can enjoy the experience of watching violent murders on television, even if those murders officially deny themselves. To the extent that they behave at all like machines, it is their willingness to launch themselves in wave after wave at the Turtles, their clear superiors, which really only establishes them, within the genre's conventions, as henchmen. We've watched dozens of fat guys (actual people) charge blindly at a rampaging Chuck Norris; to the extent that this behavior defines the Foot as mechanical, it applies to dull-witted human beings across the board. If anything, it only seems to reinforce our suspicion that henchmen are not human.

In X-Men it gets weirder still. While the closest equivalent of the Foot and their only recurring robotic enemy, the Sentinels, are more convincing as non-humans (they evince emotions, but these emotions are so clumsy, broad, and inappropriate that it only reads as slapstick) but there are a number of peripheral characters, especially certain cyborgs, that make the trope especially troubling. We have to remember that this is a highly unrealistic sci-fi world wherein Turing-proofed AI is not only likely, but sort of mundane; there aren't any foregrounded mechanical characters (at least at this point in the series) but if we saw a thinking and feeling machine it wouldn't be even a little surprising. We assume they're out there, among the various aliens and mutants and superhumans and deities and so on. And occasionally it seems likely we're dealing with one: at the close of the Dark Phoenix Saga, Wolverine ends up fighting robots who profess pride at their mechanical nature, asserting that "organics" can never defeat them. Of course these are still, in spite of their intelligence, legitimate targets for maximal violence, presumably because they don't feel pain. Their intelligence doesn't give them a right to their bodies, it only makes them more interesting conversational partners during a fight.

In the case of the occasional cyborg characters, dismemberment (but only of the clearly-robotic parts) is not only normal but practically required. This is the weirdest thing of all: the characters clearly experience fear, if not necessarily pain, when their robotic arms are removed. And it's not like these are extraneous parts: these are replacements for their organic arms, which were presumably amputated to make room for the new, mechanical ones. Conceding for the sake of argument that they don't feel pain in these, or that such pain is so diminished as to exist in a different moral category from our own pain, the implication seems to be that it would be morally acceptable to dismember a paralyzed person so long as you knew he or she would survive: after all, he's not going to feel it. Even human beings have no right to their presumed-numb mechanical body parts. The difference between a robotic limb and a paralyzed limb is of course that you can repair the robotic arm more easily, but even if we could effortlessly regrow our paralyzed limbs should they be removed, I doubt we would consider it moral to thoughtlessly remove them.

The project, then, is not to allow the guiltless destruction of inhuman objects, but rather to get as close as possible to a human being and then destroy that. The clear implication is that there are subhuman categories that do not deserve our sympathy or any sort of human rights. And this is what concerns me: that children (and adults) exposed to this entertainment are being trained to think like killers. They are being taught that there are classes of people, or almost-people, that have no right to their bodies, that do not feel authentic pain. These are the people we can treat however we want.

The relief Wolverine feels at discovering his enemies are machines -- are not authentically human -- strikes me as a species of the relief people have felt in the establishment of slavery, in launching wars. The pleasure of discovering a category of person that can be freely exploited and broken seems to be intense.

It's not that I'm especially concerned that these stories create killers. The sort of people who are devoted fans of X-Men and Ninja Turtles are not widely known for their violent tendencies. It may be that externalizing and processing this impulse through narrative is good for us. But I have to think it would be better still for us not to replicate the ways of thinking that create armies. Children are thinking about violence and death all the time. This isn't because the popular media has foisted it on them: rather, violence and death are all around us, and exploitation too. Growing up is, in many ways, learning to see and then sublimate these things. By teaching that violence can be justified -- that there are good and bad categories of violence, important and expendable categories of people -- we trivialize it, and perpetuate things we should prefer to end. I would rather that we acknowledge, in our stories, and especially the stories for our children, what violence really is, and how much its victims (deserving or not, if such can be deserved) really suffer.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Would you like to be my lit friend in DC?

If you know me at all in my actual life, you know that I crazily, inappropriately, outsizely and completely love the state of New Mexico. I moved here three years ago to get my MFA at NMSU and I just fell hard for everything about it: the strangely beautiful desert, the gigantic sky, the mountains, the food, the manana attitude and casual lifestyle, the Old West stuff everywhere, all of it, everything, in total. It's my place.

cliche desert sunrise picture
I even love stuff about New Mexico that most people hate, like the bad drivers, lame local government, insane wind and heat and dust and the way you ALWAYS get a rock in your shoe even if you're wearing a pair that is completely tied and closed.

Unfortunately, the winds of the world are now pushing me towards Northern Virginia, where my boyfriend is going to be doing a Phd. I'm basically crying my eyes out every day to leave NM, but as I've just secured a job in my new area, I'm trying to have a good attitude about leaving where I love to live in the political highwayland of the DC suburbs.

Here I am looking pensive and forlorn on a hike. See how much I don't want to leave the desert?
One thing that could make the transition a bit better for me, I'm hoping, is if I had a way to meet like-minded individuals. If you're reading this post on this blog, I'm assuming you are at least somewhat like-minded.  I hear DC has kind of a burgeoning lit scene. Do you live there? Do you know any writers who do? If you're a person who likes books and lives in NOVA or DC or even MD, I am inviting (imploring?) you to be my friend. I'm planning on going to readings and stuff but I also like to drink drinks and do non-literary things with literary people.

I'm arriving around August 15th. Get at me. Please and thank you.

The Peculiar Morality of Saturday Morning Cartoons

I've been watching the '90s X-Men animated series continuously for the past couple weeks, whenever I didn't have something especially urgent to do. I'm hopefully in the final phase of a job search, so that's most of the time.

I loved the show as a kid. I think of myself loving comics generally, but the truth is I didn't spend a lot of time reading them until my teenage years, when I discovered Vertigo and later Chris Ware. Back then I was really more excited about the cartoon. At some point my schedule changed such that I missed many of the later episodes, though I can't figure out what would have pulled me away except by force. Watching it now, I'm honestly surprised by how good it is; there are painfully weak episodes in every season (the Christianity-themed Nightcrawler guest star episode is especially execrable) but the writers made a lot of smart choices that showed respect for and faith in their audience, and while the animation has its problems it rarely suffers from a lack of effort or interest. The multi-episode arcs are complex and interesting, with an ongoing time-travel thread that gets surprisingly convoluted without ever quite becoming ridiculous. The time-travel thread in particular is effective because it shows the viewers how wrong things can go, how high the stakes really are: because of the peculiar morality to which action shows for children subscribe, we can't actually see anything bad happen, but we can see the terrifying future results of hypothetical bad things that might eventually happen.

For instance, in the time-travel thread we occasionally see the glistening preserved adamantium skeleton of Wolverine. What the show never explicitly says, but what you have to know in looking at it, is that Wolverine died. He died so violently, in fact, that all his skin and meat were stripped from his metal-coated bones. That must have been awful. But we didn't see it! So it's all okay. As long as we supply the suffering, as long as we're responsible for that cognitive leap, it's acceptable for it to exist within the show.

Note: Overwrought Music Video for Comedy Purposes Only

A lot of the moral weirdness of the show centers on Wolverine. He's generally the most popular X-Man. I can't honestly say I know why -- his incredible longevity and ability to survive terrible circumstances allows the comics' writers to tell some interesting stories, but his basic schtick of being a grouchy guy who likes to kill stuff but also is secretly a teddy bear is not what I would call the core of a compelling character. Rather -- and this is especially true in the cartoons -- he's a bit one-dimensional. Anyway, he's popular, so you have to include him and you can't change much. But, as he exists, he sort of demands a lot of material the cartoon can't accomodate. His powers are, remember, the following:

1) He has these really sharp claws. 2) He has a mutant healing factor. 3) His skeleton is coated with metal. 4) He has sharp senses, like an animal.

Three of those four powers require violence to be relevant. You can't use sharp claws except by cutting things, and most of the time those "things" would have to be people. You can't heal unless someone does you harm. Your skeleton isn't likely to come up very often unless something's gone terribly wrong. So they tone Wolverine down a little. His healing factor doesn't seem to be as good anymore (one of his enemies seems to know he can die from excessive cold, and it takes him days rather than seconds to recover from a scratch across his torso) which is a good call, because otherwise there would be no danger for him in a world where most weapons do no visible harm. His claws seem a little smaller and a little less lethal (though this varies from episode to episode). But they can't change the underlying principle: Wolverine is the one X-Man who doesn't mind killing, who in fact kind of likes it. But they also can't change this: Wolverine is not allowed to kill anyone because it would upset children and their parents.

Their solution is that Wolverine is constantly planning to kill people. He just never gets to actually do it. In almost every episode, he pushes someone down on the ground, gets out his claws, and says something like "Now let's see what you had for breakfast" (they use that one several times). You can tell he's going to cut the guy's head off or gut him because there's no other way it can end, and because he's probably said at some point in the episode that he's planning to do this. And, well, it's what you would do, right? These are life-or-death situations. The lives of his loved ones are at stake. Nothing else makes sense. But you also know that he's not going to actually get to hurt the person. Each and every time, someone throws a rock at him, or punches him off, or shoots him with a (harmless, but forceful) laser. Then he just sort of forgets to try again, I guess. It's weird, and if you watch too many of them back to back it also gets pretty funny. Like Worf in Star Trek: TNG, Wolverine is ostensibly the deadliest character, and he's also usually the first one to go down.

Another weird thing is that someone apparently told the writers that they couldn't use the word "kill," as in, "I'm going to kill you." So the characters can literally threaten to cut each other into pieces, but they can't talk about what the result of doing that would be. (You know, death.) Instead, they have to say "destroy." I don't know about you, but I find the idea of destroying a person way more threatening than the idea of killing someone. To destroy a human being would be to ruin them thoroughly, wouldn't it? Wouldn't it mean breaking them down to their component parts? Wouldn't it mean wrecking their lives, and then maybe killing them even after the death was largely academic?

The underlying principle in these ways of avoiding violence is that intent doesn't matter as much as action. And in practice I agree, most of the time. Yet there must be something terribly corrosive about making the decision to end another person. There is surely a difference between a soldier trained to kill and one who's done it, but the difference doesn't seem to be moral, and it must diminish with every day that soldier renews his commitment to the inevitable killing. We see Wolverine decide, again and again, to kill other people. The fact that he apparently never gets to actually do it seems, at some point, irrelevant. We are still continually watching him live in that moment of choosing to kill.

I've always remembered the "destroy" thing as being more of a Gundam Wing tic. There were two English dubs for this surprisingly quiet entry into the giant robot 'splosion-fest genre, and the one aired during primetime was again directed at children. The blood was mostly edited out and the deaths were downplayed, but the series was about giant robot battles in a growing giant robot war wherein a core of powerful giant robots often blew up dozens of other giant robots in a matter of minutes. There's just no getting around the fact of death in a show like that, but you can still say "destroy" instead of kill.

The characters were naturally threatening and promising to kill each other constantly, and begging for their lives, and so basically the word "kill" came up in the script approximately forty times a minute. In the kiddie dub, it was "destroy" instead. The results were hilarious. (I don't know how there isn't a YouTube montage of this nonsense.) 

I wonder how cartoons today deal with these problems. I feel, from what I've seen, as if they're generally less ambitious and more good-natured to begin with and so avoid much of the awkwardness discussed here. But I'm not sure. What I do know is how weird I felt, at times, watching these shows as a kid; they suggested a morality I could never really understand.

How I listen, how I read

It occurred to me last night (or, in fact, now, when I first opened up the "new post" page and started typing the words you are presently reading, due to the fact that evading the mental blocks designed by my own mind to stop me from creating a blog post currently requires me to start writing at night and then continue + finish the next day when guilt over the time I've already sunk won't let me do otherwise) that a chief difference between how I listen to music and how I read books is that I mostly listen to music in order to stop feeling emotions, or rather, to exhaust them. That is to say that when I am too angry or when I am too sad or when I am too nervous my preferred coping strategy is to open up the ol' iTunes playlist and choose an album that is likewise too angry, sad, or nervous. Then I listen to that album until I no longer feel the way I felt. So like for instance when I feel that the universe is against me and I'm going to die broken and alone I might listen to "Cowboy Dan" on a loop for a while:

If I want to listen to music but I don't have any particular emotion going on more than the others I'll usually listen to something really laid back because I don't want to screw with how neutral I'm feeling (for me a certain variety of very conscious, very aware laid-backness is extremely nice). Or I will listen to a display of joyful virtuosity because my favorite feeling in the whole world may be the unique blend of care and carelessness, of play and work, involved in a truly show-offy display of virtuosity, because secretly I worship technical accomplishment in all I do, to the point where (because I am not technically accomplished in most things) I can barely work up the will to do much of anything other than write and help others to write. Anyway when I feel this sort of laid-backness I will maybe listen to something like White Denim's Exposion, which has the benefit of being both extremely chill and quite technically accomplished:

In fact I am listening to White Denim now, because I feel pretty laid back right now, because of a reason. ("Now" still refers to "last night," when I wrote this, and when in fact I suspect I will post it, though you will probably still read it "today," or rather, tomorrow, if you read it at all.) That's what made me think of writing this post.

So basically when I listen to music my goal is usually to reduce my feelings by way of catharsis, or at least to maintain my feelings more or less where they are. There are exceptions to this rule (for instance, I usually listen to Antony and the Johnsons more to exhaust emotions I never even actually have than to deal with anything I'm actually feeling) but I tend to listen to those exceptions less often than the albums that fit the rule.

When I read the situation is different. There are some books I use this way sometimes (for instance I would say my experience of Blake Butler is closer to how I feel about bands like Modest Mouse than it is to how I feel about many other writers I enjoy) but usually if I'm reading a book I am looking to expand and intensify my thoughts and feelings for the duration. For instance I have just finished The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and man I had a great time with that, like a lot of people. It's dramatic and in some places perhaps even very slightly melodramatic but that's the point. I had a lot of different feelings while I was reading it -- often paler imitations of the feelings the characters themselves were feeling, for instance intense grief, terrible longing, deep regret, intense pride, terror, courage. If the novel had not delivered these feelings I doubt I would have bothered reading it. But it did.

Why is it that I want my music to whittle me down and my reading to build me up? I'm really and truly not sure. It seems lame to end a blog post with a question about how other people feel about your post's subject because a) of course you're invited to comment and b) it never works, but still, I am curious: does this post resonate with your experiences? Or do you feel differently? What is the deal?

Monday, July 18, 2011

Learning from Don Bluth Films, pt. 3

Bet you didn't know this was going to become a regular thing!

Anyway, Tracy and I are having a nice little night to ourselves. We ate some pork tacos and then some Nutella toast, I spent some time researching agents (who, it seems, are interested in good books; go figure), and now she's working on some documentation for our old digs at Puerto del Sol. (I did some of that earlier today.) She turned on All Dogs Go to Heaven for a bit of background noise and I got a little sucked in.

There's a lot I don't love about All Dogs, especially the orphan, and there are a few things I really do like (the menace of Carface, more persuasive for its imperfection, and the juxtaposition of metaphysical and squalid imageries), but the key moment in the film, the bit that makes it worth watching, is what happens when Charlie gets up to Heaven. It's not what you would expect.

It may be worth noting here that while I do not really believe in Heaven, and I haven't for some years now, I've never been able to invest the emotional energy necessary to believe in much of anything else, including the nothing I suspect is waiting for me. To the extent that I try to comfort myself about death, the way I like to look at it is this: before I came around, there wasn't nothing, there was in fact everything, and everything will persist when I'm gone. My death doesn't end anything. In fact, it may be a sort of reunion -- with the everything I wasn't experiencing before I was alive. Not being alive is the normal state of affairs, after all.

And that's about the best I've got. But when I'm being lazy about it, what I hope for is pretty much the generic afterlife you see in cartoons like All Dogs. It should be like life, but boring: less suffering, less work, more time to spend with loved ones just sort of pleasantly floating around, enjoying the ease of making it without making rent. So when Charlie is murdered and floats up to Heaven, I'm thinking, "That looks like a pretty great deal." Sure it's boring, but sometimes boring is good. Anyway, he isn't really dead. The rational response would be a celebration. It would be exploring his new digs. It would be maybe romancing the pretty lady dog who seems so eager to join him in a duet. When you go to Heaven you're supposed to say, "Thank you!" Or you're supposed to say "Awesome!" Or you're supposed to, at any rate, calm down, chill out, relax, and enjoy.

Charlie makes the movie work when he refuses to stay. In fact, the key is that he's not even actually interested in Heaven. It's weird because he's clearly not a believer, has obviously invested extremely little thought in his soul's final destination, and yet he's not at all surprised to find himself there in the clouds. He could not give less of a shit about what's happening, about the implications of it. His immediate response is to go back down and deal with Carface.

And it's key here that Carface is not actually a major evil, especially at this stage in the film. Yes, he killed Charlie, and yes, he'll probably do it again. But honestly? These are dogs. We're not that worried about them. The empire at the heart of their dispute is a pile of raw meat and a rat race track. This stuff manifestly does not matter.

And that's precisely what makes it so great as a reason to go back. This is the moment in the movie when we realize we're dealing with a sort of maniac: the special kind of crazy person that makes a good protagonist, the kind of guy who especially won't let something trivial go. He's willing to risk his life and his immortal soul in order to get back at a bulldog in a vest and lime-green bow tie, not because he thinks it will make his life better or even because he thinks it'll make it worse but because he just can't help himself. Everything that comes before this terrible decision is prologue, and most of what comes after is coasting on it. We're pretty sure he could make a great mistake again, and we're interested in seeing what will come, in any case, of this one.

It's a useful example of something I've said here before: you want to make a story happen, make sure you've got some characters willing to make terrible, awful mistakes. Characters eager to ruin their own lives.

Novel Length Short Story: The Pearl by John Steinbeck

So I just finished reading a novel.  It was short-ish, but reminded of what Gabe said back in short story month about genres of length.  The Pearl feels like a short story.  I really don't think I would have read it or kept reading it if I didn't HAVE to take baths because my bathroom only has a tub.  My copy is all old and shit.  I'm fine with dropping it in the water.

This is really just to say, that yes, short stories over 100 pages exist.

It's Sunday & Team USA Lost: ChillTFO, We Still Have Miley Cyrus and Gymnastics

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Our most Traffic-Gettingest Posts

Were you ever wondering how to generate traffic for a lit blog attached to a seemingly never-coming literary magazine based on the reputations of two writers no one ever heard of? (That would be Tracy and I.) Well, most of our posts are not especially good answers to that question, but follow me in a journey up my own butt as I reveal our most traffic-getting posts of all time.

In this one I make fun of the concept of Lime-Cucumber Gatorade, then "liveblog" my first experience of the beverage. Hilarity ensues. This one is easily our all-time most popular post, and I wrote it drunk in about fifteen minutes on a Saturday night. A surprising number of people link to it on Facebook in a week, and it often gets dozens of hits a day from various Google searches, which makes sense given that we're the top result for a Google search on the subject, and I don't know about you but the first thing I do whenever I see or experience a new beverage is to Google it and see what some jerk with a blog thinks about it. This is also our most commented-upon post, with a current count of 13 comments, about twice what anything else has ever gotten, and still going strong. Most of the comments seem to like the drink, and several agree that I'm gay.

Nothing I write will ever be more popular than this post. Nothing. Ever. Soon it will develop its own consciousness and rampage through the countryside.

This one may grab the second-most hits from Google per day on average, but it's definitely first in disappointing Google users. I know this because people never find it searching for "Incisive commentary on sex in games that begins with the premise Duke Nukem Forever was a shitty game," or, "Video game discussion that ultimately and counter-intuitively concludes the Lunar series is the sexiest video game of all time," but instead some variation on "Duke Nukem sex tape" and "Duke Nukem sex." I'm pretty sure they just want to see the Duke get laid. Which is kind of weird, actually, because the sort of man-child who likes that game would presumably rather be dissolved in acid than be called gay. And yet here they are, searching for porn on the basis of its male participant. In any case, it makes me glad I elected not to include video of the offending Duke Nukem scenes.

This one is weird mainly in that people seem to be Googling its title pretty much exactly, but I don't feel like these are readers of the site. I guess they wake up one day and ask themselves, "Has anyone taught a Simpsons class? Did they learn anything from it? I sure hope so!"

The answer is Yes, the Internet. Someone has done that. (It was my wife.)

This one is benefitting not from particular Google searches so much as Google's faith that if something is linked in fifty places, it must be pretty good. Some guy who apparently answered one of those "Make money simply by blogging!" ads wrote a decent response (which I can't be bothered to find) to this post that was mostly actually a rehash of this post, then he put that response on every generic blog about books or reading within fifty miles, presumably in order to get someone (him or his corporate overlords) some AdSense dollars. My entire online writing career is about burying some pornographic Captain N fanfiction I wrote when I was fourteen at the very end of a long list of Google results, and this guy has really helped the cause.

Friday, July 15, 2011

I like big books (and I cannot lie).

So there's a YouTube user who apparently saw that they were now allowing ten-hour videos and thought, "I am going to make ten-hour loops of Mario climbing a vine, and such." Then this person did exactly that. And, in spite of seven years of higher education, I am currently watching the video. Or rather, I'm listening to the Mario theme on loop while the video plays in another tab. Every now and then I click over to that tab and watch Mario climb the vine for a little while. And that really is all that happens: Mario's music plays, he climbs the vine. I'd like to say I'm doing this out of appreciation for the absurdist sense of humor that led to such a video, but while that's playing a small role, I think the truth is I can't believe anyone would make a ten-hour video that wasn't brilliant. I know how this person made the video: he hit copy and paste a lot of times. Or maybe it was even simpler. Maybe he told iMovie, or whatever program, "Waste ten hours," and then it did. Maybe there's a button for creating idiotic loops. I But somehow, even though I should know better and in fact I do know better, it seems terribly ambitious, a sort of Dada masterpiece.

Mark O'Connell wrote a thing a while back comparing our relationships with long novels to Stockhom Syndrome. I felt an immediate sense of recognition and at the same time I thought it war sort of ridiculous. Which is probably how a kidnapping victim feels when someone points out his or her own unhealthy attachment to the perpetrator. I guess I like to look at it differently. When I read a big or even an interminable book, I am being optimistic. I am choosing to believe in the author: to believe that there are still ambitious things worth doing. To be sure, it is fallacious to equate bigness with ambition, and the obvious pun (it is "phallacious" as well) has some truth in it. I am a man who wants to be a Big Man who wants to believe there is such a thing as a Big Man, who has fetishized bigness for its own sake, I am sure. I can find such motivations in everything I do, which suggests I'm either a hopeless retrograde sex addict, a human being, or both.

These days I mostly read long novels when I'm given a choice, which means that the indie lit crowd and I are often reading different books. Small presses generally focus on small books, for a mixture of financial reasons (it costs more to print more, after all), reasons of fashion (the general rule of literary magazines today is to shrink rather than grow), and for other reasons also. I guess I find the financial origins of these small books a little frustrating, not least because I tend to write long books: too long for most small presses. Again, it's not that longer books are actually better, but that they seem to project a certain self-confidence, a certain quantity of daring: they are brave enough to demand our time, our money, our strength (we have to hold the suckers up). I like to invest my time as a reader in writing that believes in itself. And while O'Connell wrote mostly about dull, pretentious time-sucks, I am reading David Mitchell, who often writes long books, and whose long books are as tight, lovely, and entertaining as any short novel could hope to be, but moreso, because there's more. And really, as someone who loves reading, that may be all I'm really asking.

But then I think about the ten-hour mario video still running in my other tab, and it makes me wonder why I read what I do. Am I more interested in the idea of big, ambitious art than I am in actually experiencing beauty? Sometimes, maybe, yes. And all I can say in my defense is this: 


Thursday, July 14, 2011

Ben Lerner's Mean Free Path

This book has come up a few times for me in the last few weeks.  I bought it during my cross country journey while hating every single book I brought with me.  I had to carry so much stuff and I didn't have any room for anything.  I left a pillow (on purpose), a towel, soap, and shampoo (on accident) in Brooklyn.  I feel like I traded those things for this book.  

I saw Evan Lavender-Smith mention Mean Free Path in his Experimental Literature interview at HTMLGiant (which he killed, one of my favorites so far in the series).  He talked about poetry being one of the only avenues of experimental literature.

I also talked about Mean Free Path, and Lerner's work in general, with a few Portland poets I met through If Not For Kidnap.  It was pretty good conversation, as all the components were there:  good food, good people, good beer and cocktails (enough to last long into the evening).  The gist of our discussion of Mean Free Path was about the idea of repetition vs revisiting or recontexting language.  I felt that in Mean Free Path the bits of language were not so much being repeated, but recontextualized.

Another thing we talked about was the line breaks.  We all felt they were perfect.  When I read it, I felt like I was reading the reason why line should be broken.  So many good line breaks.  Sometimes I felt like these went hand in hand.  The way the repeated bits of language set me up for an expected outcome, that the language would be a full bit, but it was truncated or broken across the line differently.  Or I was shocked to remember the language, like an echo that took twenty minutes to come back and only after it scared the shit out of me did I remember that I was the one who said it in the first place.

Some of us (not me) felt that the line breaks were too perfect.  They were "crafted".  That Lerner had polished his book to a perfect sheen and that now it was soft, like shiny cheese in the supermarket.  This was actually a refreshing thing to me.  Feeling like I was reading something that took time.  It wasn't accident that brought it to me.  But I see what they mean.  It's a book that is fine tuned, mathematical almost.  Very clean, like a Google server farm.  Too clean.  You can't eat a sandwich in this book.  Too many crumbs.  Someone would shoot you or fire you for doing so, which is what the book is about.  Life is almost being controlled for us.  When Lerner falters, let's a little awareness into the pieces, you see that there is effort in the process, that he knows that this is a poem, that he's using language, that this isn't math and he isn't solving for x, and that he's going to be wrong most of the time.

    In an unconscous effort to unify my voice
    I swallow gum.  An old man weeps in the airport
    Over a missed connection.  The color of money is
    Night-vision green.  Ari removes the bobby pins
    I remove the punctuation.  Our freezer is empty
    Save for vodka and film.  Leave the beautiful
    Questions unaswered.  There are six pages left
    Of our youth and I would rather swallow my tongue
    That waste them on description.

For a good breakdown on the form.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

House of Leaves

So over the past several weeks, as we've been moving and starting jobs and looking for jobs and so on, I've had another long-term project: Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves. (Enjoy that blue "House," because I'm only doing it once.) I've been trying this whole time to think of anything to say about it and I'm not sure I've gotten very far at all. I finished the book last week, sitting on our new, old, green couch next to Tracy. Now I'm doing something I don't usually, which is to try to figure out what I should think and say by reading online what others have said. It's not that I'm worried I'll say something stupid -- although it is a little bit of that. It's more that the book seems to have digested itself so thoroughly that even as I feel overwhelmed by the idea of interpreting it usefully, I feel equally that it's already past all interpretation, and not just because of the fora dedicated to such work. What follows, then, is not an attempt at any sort of definitive opinion, but something very much in the mode of "here is a blog post about an interesting subject."

If you haven't heard if House of Leaves by the way, it might be best to start with the Wikipedia page. Basically the book is a comically academic critical exploration of a documentary that doesn't exist, The Navidson Record. This documentary concerns a family (including a photographer, now documentarian) that moves into a new home only to discover that it is larger inside than outside. Indeed, the home grows a hallway, then a labyrinth, perfectly black, constantly changing in layout and scale. This academic critical exploration narrates much of the film in what is basically the style of a novel. This academic exploration is officially authored by a blind and dead man, and was found by a young man who calles himself Johnny Truant, who has become obsessed with the blind man's book to the detriment of his health and sanity. At some point after Truant finishes with the book, it's then further revised and amended by unnamed editors at a publishing house. Where actual author Mark Z. Danielewski fits into all this is an exercise left for the reader. It has a number of significant formal complications that mirror (sometimes) the events in the text and often require an unusually active level of reader participation. It is fairly long and often physically taxing to read (unless full pages of tightly packed Courier are your idea of a good time).

So, to begin with, I hope I won't lose my spot at the cool kids table (that's right, I'm cool now, pass it on) if I say I find the book frustrating, and not always in a good way. You can justify most of the book's more questionable aesthetic decisions by way of a meta-argument, usually something like "well we're supposed to get lost in the book the same way the characters get lost in the house." I want to buy this, and I do think it's more or less the book's goal, but I don't really believe it when I'm honest with myself, primarily because the material we're getting lost in (usually: academic fluff 'n' bullshit) is so much less interesting than the house our protagonists are exploring (an impossible labyrinth as old as the Earth itself wherein strange, mysterious, menacing forces alter time and space according to their own designs or, worse yet, no designs at all).

There's a pattern to the novel: just when things are getting really good in the narrative of The Navidson Record, which basically operates as a horror/love story, they get interrupted by our blind academic for page upon interminable page of interpretation. How are Will and Tom Navidson like the brothers Jacob and Esau, and what do these similarities suggest about the Record itself? Questions like these are interrogated at some length, with frequent reference to outside sources that mostly don't exist. Sometimes this is cute, sometimes it's funny, and occasionally it gets sort of intense, but mostly I felt a real disconnect between the book's ambitions and my own experience. Johnny Truant is reading the same pages I am, ostensibly, and it drives him insane; he hallucinates murders, hallucinates his own death, comes to conclude (correctly) that he may not exist, lets his life collapse around him. But why? I never once felt threatened and only experienced thrills or fears of any kind intermittently, and strictly while I was reading the sections that focus on The Navidson Record. If I'm supposed to feel something like what the characters are feeling, that simply isn't happening, and it won't: not as I wade through what often feels like extraneous self-referential play.

The Navidson Record is an excellent story unto itself and clearly the main draw of House of Leaves, but it would be too much to suggest that it would be as good (or better) without the intervening materials. At the same time, one does wonder. Truant's narrative (which takes place in footnotes and appendices) is more engaging than the faux-academic stuff, but it's also rather a massive shaggy dog story, thick with foreboding and narrative potential on which it rarely delivers. The metafictional qualities of the novel do lend it a certain weight and intensity, even if they sometimes seem misdirected. I wouldn't say, in other words, that I only want the fun part of the book: but it does seem suggestive that I think of it as "the fun part."

The sheer amount of active participation required by House of Leaves and the ways in which it constantly interprets itself suggest that we are meant to plunge into the labyrinth by further interpreting it ourselves, perhaps forever. It is strongly suggested by numerous events in the plot and the form that there is ultimately no center to the novel, no one truth, no secret, and yet it sure has a lot of codes for a text that so adamantly resists being cracked. I don't mean to be dismissive when I say the result is basically a prank: we are constantly enticed to search even as we are promised we will find nothing (or, more likely still, ourselves; whatever we find in the world is ultimately, the text suggests, an encounter with selfhood). I'm not against pranks: fiction is lies. But I do find it difficult to enter into a relationship I'm told in advance will be basically fruitless, or, more optimistically, only offer me what I had to begin with. And the tools of interpretation the book offers itself are, perhaps because I've spent the last three years in academia, rather unappealing. Basically, I have trouble crawling into a book already 50% of the way up its own ass. 

I remain skeptical of fiction obsessed with flaunting its own means of operation: thoughtful readers know that fiction is lies, and one can play on that fact with a lot more subtlety than Danielewski uses here, usually with better results. As I've said, I wouldn't excise the non-Navidson Record materials completely if it were my book, but I would reduce them tremendously and attempt to fold them into a satisfying narrative. A book doesn't have to invite or demand reader participation to receive it, doesn't have to be ostentatious about what it wants us to do with it: we were always already participating, interpreting, deciding.

This is not to say House of Leaves is not worth reading. I've written here before that great novels should fail, and I stand by that claim, and House of Leaves is indeed a great novel, not least because it is a great failure. Readers and writers with an interest in formal experimentation are strongly advised to read the book: Danielewski's greatest contribution is probably his awareness of the page as an object and a resource. I literally laughed with delight on several occasions as Danielewski used the transparency of the page, manipulated common formal elements in uncommon ways, and, at one point, used both sides of each page to show two sides of the same words, as if they were suspended on glass or some other medium. House of Leaves questions everything about the form of printed fiction, which is a valuable service to those of us who enjoy printed fiction.

Reading the book is often very happy work. The sheer amount of effort required to understand the text will turn some off, but generally serves (along with its bestseller status) as a strong argument for trusting one's readers. There are complex calculations necessary, quite frequently, to understanding House of Leaves at even a basic level, and these calculations can be intensely pleasurable.

I'm curious what you'll think of this post. Have you read House of Leaves? Am I totally missing the point? What do you think?

Monday, July 11, 2011

Why publish? pt. 2

Elisa Gabbert was kind enough to write a post responding critically to my previous post on the subjects of Fugue Magazine's footnote scandal. This happened on Wednesday while we were still moving into the new apartment, which in Internet time means it might as well have happened ten just before they nailed Jesus to the cross, but I want to encourage more people to disagree with me publicly (I thrive on discord!) so I felt I should respond.

I should start by saying that I think Gabbert is a cool, bright writer and I think her argument makes sense. Mainly I want to use it as an opportunity to refine + clarify some of what I said in the previous post, as well as to discuss some of the differences in how prose and poetry writers approach publishing and editing, which I think are at the root of our disagreements here.

It's going to get a little convoluted now, as, for clarity's sake, I'm going to quote Gabbert quoting me and then replying to the quote:
"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."

This is an unusually strawmanny argument from Meginnis. There's a distinct difference between changing the font or layout of a piece and inserting new content into it (or removing content without asking, or changing the order of the content). I also think you get more leniency here with prose than poetry. I recently had an experience with an editor who wanted to right-justify half the poems in an issue. The font is usually not an element of the poem, but the margins are, and you can't just change them to mix it up visually. It would be the equivalent of an editor changing all the paragraph breaks in a story, not for semantic reasons but to better fit the layout of the page. Adding footnotes strikes me as one of the most disruptive ways you could alter a piece of prose while keeping the original text intact, up there with inserting subheads.
These are good, useful points! There's generally understood to be a pretty big difference between choosing the font and choosing the words that go into a piece. But part of what I was trying to get at -- and I realize now I didn't make this sufficiently clear -- is that I think that difference is rather less significant than most people believe. 

Tracy and I are currently working on editing and typesetting the first print issue of Uncanny Valley and there are actually two very different processes for different kinds of content: some of the material, usually the more formally straightforward prose, is being edited strictly on the levels of sentence structure, paragraph structure, and content. For the writers being put through this process, we're using track changes on word documents and working collaboratively with the writers to negotiate how much we can and will alter their language. (Our contributors have so far been entirely professional about this, by the way, for which I am eternally grateful; there's nothing worse than a contentious editing process.) After that, I typeset the pieces, and will soon send them galleys for their approval. These people can ask for anything at this stage but I would probably regard most requests with some degree of hostility: the design really should be, I think, largely up to me. What they would need to do to convince me to make a significant change to the design is to demonstrate that it was necessary to the effectiveness of the piece.

Then for some people we aren't bothering with track changes or really even applying text-level edits for anything but obvious grammatical errors or typos -- these tend to be poems or more formally engaged prose that derive much of their meaning/pleasure/power from their presentation on the page. When I've finished the preliminary typesetting for these pieces, I'm going to send the galleys to the authors and ask them what they think of certain font choices, layouts, and etc. I'll be more open to changes in these cases as any formally engaged work must be, in its editing, negotiated in those same terms -- the terms under which it was written.

I even have one piece (by Robert Alan Wendeborn) where I wanted to change the visuals to such an extent that I sent him a document that demonstrated what I meant to do to the piece and offered him the opportunity to revise on the content level given what I was planning.

Part of what I meant to argue, and again this didn't come across clearly because it was rather tangential to the situation, is that writers often place blind trust in editors and designers when it comes to the formal aspects of their work while erring on the side of excessive protectiveness where content is concerned. This leads to writing that is less interesting on the levels of form and content. What I wanted to suggest is that we should probably be more liberal when it comes to our content and more discerning/engaged when it comes to the forms in which our work is presented. 

As an editor, I've only encountered significant negotiation on form from poets, who tend as a group to be generally hostile to revision of any kind. I would like to see some poets relax a little in this regard, but I would also like to see many prose writers become a little more like these poets.

Which brings us to more from Gabbert:
"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 ... 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?"

This is an interesting and very literal interpretation of the concept of an "editor." (In the literary world, many editors' work is 90%+ curatorial.) I sort of admire this approach to publishing, but I also think it's kind of naive. (Or, I admire it because it's naive.) Most people publish not because they want their work to be better, but because they want it to be validated by a third party and then exposed to a larger audience. This is also why most people don't self-publish: both validation and potential audience tend to be greatly reduced. Of course there are exceptions, but it's more work to find an audience when you don't have an established publicity department, and without the built-in reputation of an established press, you're fighting the biases of the many people who believe gatekeepers exist for a reason.
This is all very true! And I'm glad Gabbert finds my naivete at least a little charming, because I'm going to stick to my guns on this one. Ultimately, I'm driven by careerist concerns and my desire to be read, so if a good press or magazine wants to publish me without contributing the editorial interventions that would improve my work, I'm probably going to go for it (as I have done plenty of times in the past). But I would really prefer to be edited, because I've seen what it can do for my work (both the text being edited and the texts I will write and revise in light of the experience) and I want to have that as much as possible.

And while I understand that most people aren't interested in publication primarily as a mode of improvement, I want to make it as clear as possible to anyone considering working with us that if you don't want our help with your work, if you don't want to see it changed by publication, you probably shouldn't submit to us. There are a few pieces that we'll print or post online in more or less the form that we received them, but more often than not, we plan to interfere. 

I would generally advocate for more communication on these matters. Fugue should probably have provided its authors with galleys -- we can disagree about how much the footnotes mattered (I still think an astute reader would likely guess they weren't in the original pieces) but I suspect we can also agree that writers and editors alike would benefit from more effective, explicit communication about the parameters of their relationship: the form it will take, the burdens of each role, the goals of their union.