Monday, October 31, 2011

Matthew Dickman Was Matthew Dickman For Halloween

Matthew Dickman was Matthew Dickman at a Halloween party this weekend.  He could have went as a lot of things.  He could have went as the lead singer of The Decemberists, Colin Meloy.

Matthew Dickman kind of looks like Colin Meloy.  Colin Meloy kind of looks like the lead singer of Death Cab For Cutie, Ben Gibbard.

So Matthew Dickman could have went as Ben Gibbard, or even as Colin Meloy dressed as Ben Gibbard.  Matthew Dickman also looks like his brother, Michael Dickman.  They are both poets.  Matthew could have went as his brother Michael.  It could have actually been Michael going as Matthew.

Matthew Dickman was nice.  We talked about Spencer Short and how he doesn't write poems anymore. We both danced.  Matthew and Michael also look like the mayor of Portland, Sam Adams.

A lot of people look like a lot of people.  The end.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

One way to write a good story: Tim Dicks' "The Fireman"

So one of the questions that has come up here in recent discussions is how I can evaluate a story as quickly as I claim (it often takes me about a paragraph to know that I'm not going to take something, and most of the time when I am going to take something I have a strong sense that this is the case by page 3). And then there is the more fundamental question, in many ways the one underlying everything we talk about and do here: how do you know when you're reading good or even great fiction?

As I've argued here before, my goal is to identify great fiction, but I think that sort of curation happens on a longer schedule than our biannual publication schedule. It takes a long time to definitely know what's great. What I do instead, when curating for a magazine, is to make strong guesses about what I will later believe is great, beginning with judging whether or not something I'm looking at is, by my standards, good. Of course it's not enough to be good. A lot of things are good. A story also has to fit my idiosyncratic needs as a reader if I'm going to spend real time with it, and especially if I'm going to publish it.  (Note: I'm going to talk about "fiction" here because we publish more fiction than poetry and for the sake of convenience, but most of the things I'm going to say here will be true of how I read poetry as well.)

Today we're going to look at a story by Tim Dicks that we published in issue 0001. The story is called "The Fireman," and you can click here to download the full PDF. (You might want to just do that and forget about this post for a while.) The idea is that we're going to look at how one specific story successfully created interest, maintained that interest, and ultimately created a satisfying reading experience. I'm not trying to create an authoritative account here, just to make some interesting arguments about how fiction succeeds.

A Truly Open Contest/Reading Period

The thing that I really don't like about contests:  I don't know shit about what's going on with the process.  So I have a proposition:  have a truly open process.  I don't think this would be so hard.  I think it actually would be really cool and different.

This is how I imagine it working:

  • Everyone can see everyone's name
What's the point?  I'd like to know who actually entered the contest.  There is no way to observe other people's receipts and see the actual forms in other contests.  Who is to say that the people who win even entered?  There is no way to prove it.

  • Everyone can see everyone's entry
Why do I want to see everyone's entry?  Because I want to see if it's taken at face value, not potential value.  I know what a good editor can do with a manuscript.  I've seen it.  I've done it.  I'd also like to be able to say, "man, they made a mistake and I hope that entry by so-and-so gets picked up, cause it's badass."
  • Everyone can see the judges'/editors' comments on everyone's work
Why?  Because getting a form letter saying "thanks for entering our contest/giving us money, but you lose," doesn't really tell anyone why the judges/publishers chose the work they did.  And I paid you $20 for what?  They say marvelous things about the winners, but nothing about the losers.  I would love to see a real genuine letter announcing the losers (which is basically what seeing the comments would sorta be like).  The letter would go something like this:  "We got a shit load of submissions from people who just googled 'poetry contest' and sent us their haiku collection.  We rejected those instantly.  Then there were a bunch of idiots who imitated our last book, and we're flattered but no thanks. There were a dozen  competent poets who deserve to have their book published someday, just not with us.  Finally there were four or five truly good books that we liked a lot, but we could only pick ____."  This also keeps the publisher from ignoring and auto-rejecting books.  They have to engage a lot of the work in some way.

I'd enter this contest.  Someone start this contest.

Monday, October 24, 2011


Okay, so, my last post has gotten a really surprising amount of traffic and comments here and elsewhere. So now I have further questions for people:

If you don't want MFA students to have the ability to judge and reject your work, are you also not comfortable with people who have never studied at an MFA judging and rejecting your work? (This is happening at many excellent journals all the time.)

If you are okay with being rejected by people who don't have advanced degrees or any degrees at all, why are you not okay with being rejected by people who have completed part of an advanced degree or a bachelor's degree?

If you are not okay with being rejected by people without specialized degrees in writing, are you okay with it when someone without a degree in writing chooses not to read one of your stories or poems?

If you are not okay with them choosing not to read your stories or poems, why are you publishing in venues where they will have the opportunity to do this? Do you want to be read by many people? Do you understand that being read by many people requires being rejected and ignored by many other people, some of whom have no real education at all -- in fact, some of whom can barely read, or cannot read at all?

Does that make you angry?

Have you submitted to Uncanny Valley? Does it make you angry to know that I read roughly one paragraph of most submissions before rejecting them? That sometimes I don't even get that far?

How much of your story or poem does a person have to read before it is okay to reject it? How many people need to read that much of your poem or story?

How much do they need to think about it? (About you?)

Do they need to write you personalized comments about how you can improve? About what you did well, and where you could have been better?

Is there a reasonable expectation of fairness in publishing? Of transparency?

Who told you this would be fair?

What are you owed?

When did you realize that you were owed these things?

How does it feel to be special?

Have you always been special, or did you earn it somehow?

Do you tell people that you are special when you introduce yourself to them, or do you expect them to work it out for themselves?

What kind of education or life experience is necessary to understand your specialness?

When will you be happy?

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The idea is that students suck, I guess?

Every now and then you get a reminder that MFA students are perceived as scum. I'm not trying to be hyperbolic, here: I am trying to draw out the logic of the blog post currently making the rounds wherein Passages North editor Jennifer A. Howard assures submitters that they are never rejected by MFA students. Do the students get input in editorial decisions? Of course they do. But they are reversed often, and they never get the final say. A real editor reads every submission. (Okay, so she doesn't call them "real editors." But that does seem to be the idea. Update: Uh, okay, actually she does, as anonymous points out, call them "actual editors." So.)

I sincerely doubt Howard would argue that you need to have an MFA to be a great writer or editor. The MFA in creative writing is an extremely new degree -- a blip on the historical radar. Kafka didn't have an MFA. Melville didn't have an MFA. Conrad didn't have an MFA. The Brontës didn't have MFAs. Shakespeare didn't have an MFA. Homer didn't have an MFA.  Practically nobody ever had an MFA until like five minutes ago. It's self-evident that the degree is unnecessary. (Not worthless: I got one, I'm glad I did, it was very helpful. But completely unnecessary.)

What is an MFA student? Well, it's a person who, like Kafka or Shakespeare or etc. before they were the writers we know them as today, wants to learn more about writing. MFA students are people who have decided to dedicate several years of their lives to improving as artists. They are not necessarily people who have no idea how to write a story, poem, or essay, although some of them might be. Rather, they represent as wide a range of innate talent and knowledge as do all of the writers who choose to study and practice writing outside the academy. In fact, one of the great causes of tension within MFA programs is generally the combination of great disparities in practice/talent (some students are necessarily much better than others and have written much more) and the inevitable difficulty of discerning who has the advantage (most everyone thinks he or she has the advantage).

As Howard acknowledges (without seeming to take exception), MFA students are also imagined as "kids," as in, "Did some kid reject my story?" This is weird. To start an MFA, you need to have at least completed an undergraduate degree by definition. In other words you are almost certainly at least 21, more likely 23-24 even if you came straight from undergrad, which a healthy proportion of MFA students (most?) do not do. My MFA class was quite young -- at 22, I was the second-youngest incoming student -- but most years seemed to average 27 or 30. Some MFA students are parents. Some are grandparents. I wouldn't object if you called the 22-year-old Mike Meginnis a "kid" and in fact at 25 I still wouldn't really object. (I expect to feel like a child until I hit 40 and possibly after.) But we don't generally think of young writers outside the MFA system as children, and I think it would generally be seen as in poor taste if we did.

There's a truly debasing quality to the way we think of and talk about students, and only students, that I find sort of upsetting. And the fact that it's not an issue of age or experience but strictly one of whether or not one has enrolled in a program really clarifies the issue. What we dislike, I think, is anyone who wants to be a writer. In fact, we often hate it.

The aspiration to write and publish is generally frowned upon by writers, of course. We constantly complain about the flooded marketplace, about the talentless hacks in the slush (and on store shelves). Self publishing is not allowed. If we see you trying, it makes us furious. And the MFA student, more than the writer outside the academy, more even than the self-published writer, is purely and always trying. It makes us feel all icky. What we want is for everyone else to give up so it can be just us and the writers we admire. (In the purest cases of this sickness, the writer admires nobody living: it should be him and the dead white men alone.)

For my part, I think that the humility of choosing to be a student -- of saying, "I know that I need to learn more and I'm going to dedicate several years of my life to doing it" -- is an admirable quality. And to me, the way we frown on people who want to be writers, jealously guarding our work and our publications and our everything from them, is really quite unfortunate.

The second ugliness here is that which raised the issue in the first place. Writers are upset about the idea of a student rejecting their work (in spite of the fact that many of these writers have not received degrees themselves, or ever formally studied writing -- incredible hypocrisy). This is silly. If your story was rejected that was because the publisher didn't feel like publishing it. There are better reasons for this and there are worse, but not liking the story seems like a pretty solid one. And it doesn't take much education to dislike a story. I've been doing it quite well for some time.

If you think it takes an MFA to understand what you've written, or to know that it's good, maybe you need to write better stories. Maybe you need to stop trying to publish what you've got. Maybe you should send it to your friends -- and only the ones you are sure will really get it. Maybe you should bury it with Beckett.

What makes you so special?

And why are students scum?

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Apostrophe & The Post-Romantic: Part 2

So I just finished reading Bright Lights Big City  (but why have I not seen the movie?) and it really made me think that the use of apostrophe in fiction, or long form narrative, has a much different end and reaches very different levels than that of Culler's 'levels'.  In this section I talk about post-modern address of the other in poetry.  I think that the post-modern address does not break outside of Culler's levels in the way that Bright Lights does.  Just an interesting thought...

Ann Keniston’s focus on apostrophe among Post-Modern poets in Overheard Voices, yields little expansion on these idealizations of the trope.
Keniston looks at various poets of the last half of the twentieth century:  Robert Lowell’s confessional, During Fever (1959), Kenneth Koch’s New Addresses (2001), Lucie Brock-Broido’s The Master Letters (1995), Sylvia Plath’s Ariel (1965), Louise Glück’s The Wild Iris (1993) and several others that fall in the last half of the twentieth century.  She sees these poets as challenging the Romantic notion of the address in terms of form, tone, and in the effect of the address in the poems, yet acknowledges that apostrophe is still a means of examining the self.  In this way she separates herself from Waters, who sees apostrophe as other centered and slightly breaks with Culler who sees apostrophe as a means of uniting self with other.
To discus the breaking of form, Keniston points to Brock-Broido’s “Her Habit” as an example of how, though Brock-Broido uses prose and epistle, the lyric address remains in tact (18).  Keniston also shows that Brock-Broido’s effect is unlike Culler’s ideal of reaching unity through the address.  The speaker of “Her Habit” switches the roles of the speaker and object as the speaker becomes the listener of the beloved:  “I have watched for you up & down the long clay path, demi-daily.  Sometimes I think I hear you in the solemn bark of birds, or the cantering of the dogs…”  Keniston sees this changing of roles “in the midst of the speaker’s attempt to unmake the addressee’s absence…” as a failure to “summon up her addressee” by the use apostrophe (19).
Though Keniston doesn’t note this, “Her Habit” actually does fall into some of Culler’s levels of apostrophe.  Brock-Broido creates an event where the speaker and the object are given the potential for unity (Culler’s second level), and the address itself is out of a desire and passion to be heard by the object or by the passion for address itself (Culler’s first level).  I find the former to be most true, as The Master Letters is entirely poetry of address.  Brock-Broido’s speaker has such a passion for address or for the object that she can’t help but apostrophize.  The conscious recognition of failure to achieve unity or proximity also isn’t a new complication of the trope, but a mainstay of elegiac apostrophe.
Though Keniston doesn’t see the same use of apostrophe flowing from Culler’s view of Romanticism to her view of Post-Modernism, there is a common theme among these critics and that is their vision of how pathos functions as a recurrent and indivisible notion of apostrophic poetry.  Keniston shows us poetry of address that “explore(s) selfhood, love, loss, and memory--issues associated with confessional poetry” (5).  In the history of poetic movements, which movement exudes more pathos than confessional poetry?  Culler sees Keats’ “This Living Hand” as a poem that risks being “a pathetic document testifying to misplaced poetic pride” (154).  Though readers don’t see “a pathetic document”, one can see the emotional appeal in “This Living Hand”.  This elemental nature of pathos in apostrophe might be the most undocumented aspect of the trope, but it is not an aspect that goes unchallenged by emerging poets.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Cherry Bawls: A Drink Review

It's 3:30, a beautiful day and I need to get my ass in gear and enjoy it.  What do I need?  BAWLS.  A caffeine and guarana drink, bottled in Miami Florida.

First, notice the studded glass shaft of this sleek clear bottle.
Next, notice the solid "pop" when opening.
The aroma is, uh, cherrylicious.
The flavor is sweet and quite smooth, reminiscent of a cherry cream soda.
I'm positive this would taste beautiful with some nice cheap vodka.
I'll update this blog post if I go on a sex, dance, or exercise rampage or if my heart beats through my chest.

Monday, October 17, 2011

"It’s just poetry and, if it is clear, this is a success." -David Aniñir Guilitraro

I have a longstanding interest in Latin America, and especially Chile. I briefly studied abroad there in 2007, and I just totally fell in love with the country: the landscape, the people, the mountains and ocean and delicious empanadas. Oh, and I named my dog after Pablo Neruda because I loved Pablo Neruda when I first found poetry and I love him still.

Chile is the land of poets, and here's an interesting article I recently came across profiling a Mapuche poet (Mapuche is the name given to the indigenous people of Chile). I know Chile is a little trendy now because of Raul Zurita and whatnot, so I thought I would share. I'm really interested in what Guilitraro says about "revenge poetry," in particular, how he seems to see his poetry acting as a defense against the positionality of Mapuche people in modern Chilean society. I'd bet Guilitraro doesn't love Neruda as much as I do; I really wish my Spanish was better so I could read younger contemporary Chilean (and any contemporary poets writing in Spanish, really) poets in their original language. In fact, I had a secret dream of going to South America to translate contemporary female poets in both Chile and Argentina, but I'm pretty sure the ship for that dream has sailed far, far away (because I'm poor and I don't know when I would have time to do that).

But anyway, read the interview.

A Poetic Concept of Identity: An Interview with Mapuche Poet David Aniñir Guilitraro via

Saturday, October 15, 2011

A Visit from the Goon Squad

There are a lot of reasons I might have decided not to like A Visit from the Goon Squad. For one thing, it's sort of about rock music, rock stars, and the people who love them, all of which I would classify as "subjects that sound like they would make for good stories but actually don't." For another, its author is a prizewinning, successful novelist, whereas I currently am not. (Grr.) But the book is very good, and often great.

(A brief aside: I don't think rock music or rock stars or enthusiasm about rock music and rock stars make for good stories because have you ever seen that work out, really? I mean it seems like sexy people having wild, sexy, druggy adventures would be inherently interesting, especially given the amount of striving that you have to do at the outset of a career like "trying to be a musician," but the fact is that "trying to be" pretty much anything sort of inevitably makes you into an asshole, which is why so many young, unknown writers [myself included] are so unbearable, and why no one likes actors, until they make it, at which point everyone likes them. Because either you shouldn't be trying to do it in the first place, in which case your lack of self-awareness is embarrassing and painful for everyone around you, or you actually are good, which justifies your constant whining about how you haven't succeeded yet, but justified whining is maybe more annoying than unjustified whining. And so but if you skip all of that nonsense and go to the part where the rock star is rock starring, well, now he's a rich successful prick and I hate him, and the sex isn't interesting and dear GOD are the drugs not interesting; the money is a little interesting but why do we have to deal with this rock star guy if what we really want to read about is money? And anyway A Visit from the Goon Squad falls prey, I think, to all of these problems a little, but it's sort of about how embarrassing and stupid the whole thing is, so it's easier to forgive, and then for the most part you don't even really have to think about the rock star thing, which is good.)

The novel is beautifully written. It operates much like a novel in stories, and in fact you could call it that and no one would blink if it were written on the cover, but it's not. Each chapter picks up a new central character, sometimes continuing a sort of recognizable narrative thread from some previous chapter, but always approaching the characters from a new angle, and usually in a different (sometimes drastically, sometimes very slightly) voice, with changes in person and tense and approach and one particularly radical, exciting change of form. I could very easily see myself reading a whole book in the form of what will probably be remembered as "the powerpoint chapter." Egan is an adventurous writer of the best kind, one who takes her literary pleasures wherever she can: in little bits of sci-fi, in more traditional literary forms and subjects, in lovely turns of phrase, in suspense, in horror, in people behaving very badly, in people being generous. I want to read everything she's written if it's all this good, and nothing else she's written if it isn't.

(You know what I mean? I actually wonder if there's an essay or a meaty blog post to be written on the subject of concepts, professions, and life stages/lifestyles that seem inherently dramatic but never actually pay off. Lawyers would be the classic counter-example, of course: television has taught us that a lawyer is compelling in any context, probably because their job is arguing, which is to say, generating conflict. Doctors are supposed to be the same way according to TV but it's never worked out for me. I liked House for a little while. I can barely imagine reading a book about a doctor, even though it seems like it would be easy to write a really good one. I don't know what would happen. If I wrote a novel about a doctor it would be an Atul Gawande type trying to use checklists and electronic records and careful, grinding bureaucratic stuff to slowly, slooowly raise his stats. That would probably be awful. [Or incredible.])

The sort of random jumps from character to character, from time to time and place to place, have all these weird subtle wonderful effects. Like sometimes you'll see a character and think, "Wow, that guy is interesting," or, "she seems sad," or, "I wonder what he thinks of his father," and you'll consciously or subconsciously look forward to the prospect of reading that character's chapter later in the book. But sometimes it becomes clear you're never going to get to read that character's chapter, that chapter isn't in the book, and there's this distance, like the person is leaving you--like maybe they've died, or they just don't want to talk to you anymore, like you've lost a friend. And then sometimes you read a whole chapter not 100% sure who the narrator is, or dimly aware but not really thinking about it, and then in the end it hits you that this scumbag is the guy you were sympathizing with two chapters ago, the one you believed wasn't a rapist, but he was. And it's just heartbreaking. This isn't of course anything tremendously new as a narrative structure, contrary to what some seem to believe -- I just wrote here like two weeks ago about Dennis Cooper's Closer, for instance -- but Egan's manipulation of the strategy is virtuosic, and she gets more out of it than I knew was really there.

(But for instance personally I find most stories about parenthood terrifically boring. You may think this is because I don't have children but I think the real problem is that when I think about it I find our entire approach to the very concept of child-rearing weird and perverse. I don't think I can explain why. I think it's something about the way most people seem to give up on achieving happiness in their own lives and instead hope that someday if they do everything right their kids will be happy. But then the kids do the same thing. No one is ever happy. It's awful. This is why I'm not having kids possibly ever. I want to create heaven in the world, not live for something I'll never see. [The happy kid elected president, walking on the moon, etc.] It's like religion for people without imagination or the ability to recognize a pattern. I do love kids, though. Also seemingly interesting but really boring: any writer, artist, intellectual, or other type of person where all the cool stuff happens internally and so you're reduced to spinning the camera around the character's head for thirty seconds, or the literary equivalent, to reassure the audience that something has happened.)

There is one real weak point in the book, and it comes at the worst time: I appreciate a lot of the weird world-building of the last chapter but the last chapter is, I think, easily the worst. Explaining why would probably constitute a pretty massive spoiler. I think it tries to re-open a question that it's already answered, and I think it does so with the least interesting central character and narration in the whole book. Suddenly it starts to feel a lot more like a typical "novel in stories" wherein the central character, viewed from so many angles, still finally eludes us -- "the mystery of personality," etc. Dull. I think this is another one of those cases where I'll pretend the second-to-last chapter is really the last. It even says "The End," which makes me wonder who convinced Egan to write more. Sadly, I think it was Egan.

(Why am I reviewing the contents of the book rather than the gunk I found stuck between its pages, by the way? Well, it was in the "new fiction" section. I have it for another week and then I have to bring it back: no renewals, no transfers. So there hasn't been enough time for the patrons to really muck it up yet. Too bad. You got a sort of book review instead of what I wanted to write, which was a dirt review.)

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Contest time!

Buy the electronic version of Uncanny Valley 0001 with a tweet (or $3) in the next 48 hours and we will enter you into a drawing for free print copies of the magazine.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Poetry Dos and Don'ts

Don't wear hats that look like used condoms when you're the MC of a poetry reading:


However, what you do on your own poetry time, is your own goddamned business.

Against Humanity

I feel like I've written about this here a little bit before, but I don't think I've ever quite communicated what I wanted to, so let me try again now. One of the things people like to talk about in grad school is what fiction is "supposed to do." Well, of course the correct answer is it's not supposed to do anything. It does what we want it to do because it is a human construction. And you can see this in the vast differences between fictions from different countries -- by the standards taught in American workshops, most fiction written in the world is not only bad fiction, it barely counts as fiction at all. So if we are honest with ourselves and if we are willing to admit the validity of the experiences and fictions of other people in other cultures, then we should be able to say at the outset that fiction doesn't really have to do anything.

I am a pretty argumentative person and not especially shy in such conversations, but I never bothered trying to advance this position. I could tell it wouldn't be received very well, not least because it called into question the validity of the entire creative writing education model. (I believe in that model, or I wouldn't have been there, but people get touchy.) I had a professor who was fond of saying that fiction should, if it aspires to be literature, be about the human condition. This is the part that I've written about before, I think: it seems like a mistake to me to say "the human condition" as if it meant something. It doesn't. There is no "the human condition." It's a popular phrase, but it's totally empty. We don't know what it's like to be human. We can't know. We can only know what it's like to be us, here and now. We can listen to others describe their experience of humanity. But that won't be "the human condition" either. It will be their human condition.

This instructor also said -- and this seemed to be a popular opinion as well -- that you couldn't tell a human story about someone who was simply trying to meet his physical needs and survive. Which is exactly the problem with attempting to define "the human condition." There are millions of people whose only experience of the world is struggling to find enough food to eat, enough warmth to stay alive. If we can't describe that experience, then surely we can't describe "the human experience." Now, I would say that fiction can describe that experience. But I would also say that it can look further outside of "what it is to be human."

I am thinking about this now because of a blurb on the back of Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad. I won't reproduce the blurb because my response is largely tangential to its substance. The blurb is about how human the characters in the book are. I don't disagree because I don't know: I haven't started reading the book yet. This also made me think of David Foster Wallace's belief that good fiction should make us feel less alone. This sounds just as harmless as the idea that fiction should be about the human condition, and it has the advantage of actually meaning something (I know exactly what it means to feel less alone.) But I don't think it's true either. I've always thought that loneliness was an extremely valid feeling. And many of my favorite books make me feel extremely alone. They isolate me from my world. I think that's a valid experience. I think it's a good one, often.

And here is the thing: most of the universe isn't human. I find it totally arbitrary to suggest that you couldn't write great fiction about being a fish, an octopus, a bear, or a block of wood. I often try to write about inanimate objects, alien lifeforms, nature, change, economics, machines. Often I fail, because writing about something other than yourself is difficult. But I don't know why we discourage it. I don't know why we tell people not to try.

Of course in writing about others we are always really writing about ourselves. The protagonist of Robbe-Grillet's Jealousy is never seen or heard: we know he is there, and we know who he is, from the way he describes what he sees. Our fiction reveals us in the same way, inevitably. And so if you do write the story of a fish or an octopus or a bear or a block of wood, you will really be writing the story of yourself, or of what you see in the object -- not of the object itself. And so there is a very real sense in which we cannot help but write about "the human condition," and there is a real sense in which all writing really should "make us feel less alone." But these things will attend to themselves. We cannot prevent them, and so we need not force them: we are free to explore as many strange territories, as many seemingly inhuman worlds, as we might like. What happens next will be literature because it can't help itself.

That our merely looking at an object invests it inherently with some partial share of our humanity is a fascinating thing. We might decide that our humanity is not that special, which I think would be a valid way to think about it. And this might improve our fiction. If we stop chasing our own humanity, what else might we discover? On the other hand, it might suggest that we are more special, more powerful, more central to the universe than anything else in existence. I would be open to that also. And again, it might improve our fiction: if we know that we have the capacity to empathize with anything, even a lamp or a cup or a book, then we might find the energy to feel for each other.

We fail to love and care for each other sufficiently because we are secretly worried that other people, people who aren't like us, might not be really human. But it seems more likely that nothing is human, or everything is. For my part, I suspect the former. Others might suspect the latter. I only really hate the ambivalence of those who believe that some things -- their things -- are human, while others are not.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Reviews of Uncool Things I Watched Drunk

So Tracy and I have a tradition of drinking a little and watching Netflix on the weekend. This tradition is, as I understand it, extremely unique. I will admit that I am personally maybe a little more fond of the whole "awful movie" experience than is Tracy, so much so that I enjoy simply reading about them. But the truth is that a lot of the things I legitimately enjoy, television-wise, are legitimately not good--and that I don't let that stop me from loving what I love. Life's too short to go without Jackie Chan Adventures.

Speaking of which, we'll start with Jackie Chan Adventures:

Okay, so, let's establish one thing right away: those jerks on the left? The luchador and his weird little friend? They're barely in the show. Which is important, because I hate them.

The rest of the show, though? Pure gold. In terms of "so bad it's good," you've got Jackie Chan's involvement in the show. There's live-action footage of him sort of frantically running around cut into the otherwise totally reasonable theme, and he gets a producer credit, but it becomes pretty clear pretty quickly that he had essentially nothing to do with the show: the cartoon "Jackie," who is voiced by another dude (who has apparently made a career of sounding sort of like Jackie Chan; he also plays Chan's character in the Kung Fu Panda TV show), doesn't actually look at all like Jackie Chan. (I'm not sure if we should be insulted that they didn't think we would notice.) Basically, the Jackie character is an archaeologist with a magical uncle and a tricky niece and together they help the government fight demons.

The show is harmless and sometimes pretty funny. It benefits from the fact that I used to watch it with my little brothers when it originally aired (2000-2005). We were home-schooled and I was too old for the show but we spent a lot of time at home alone. Uncle is definitely the best character. His catch phrases are: "Jaaaackie!" and "One more thing!"

Being drunk incapacitates just enough of my brain that the rest of it can enjoy the show without any irritating feelings of self-consciousness.

Now let's talk about Fire and Ice, which, just, terrible. I'll let the trailer explain the story:

Okay but here is all you really need to know: PAINSTAKINGLY. ROTOSCOPED. TITTIES.

There's actually, if you're in the right mindset, a lot to like about Fire and Ice. I have a real weakness for watching hopeless, obsessive artists chase a bad idea as far and as hard as they can, which might as well be the tagline for Fire and Ice. Their sheer attention to detail in rotoscoping those jiggling breasts represents the sort of calm, careful dedication I hope to bring to my own work. The fact that most of the story is purely a function of what some artists thought would be awesome to draw is pretty cool, really. And at least the guys in the movie are pretty thoroughly objectified at times, too.

But, okay, really, it's so bad. It's racist in a way that makes you feel bad for even noticing how racist it is, and it's nasty and ugly and mean, and the rotoscoping meshes terribly with the environments at times and always has that eerie wrongness endemic to rotoscoping, and the exploitation is just too much. If you've got to watch the weird, deeply compromised passion project of a mad animator, The Thief and the Cobbler is probably the way to go.

Now here is the only scene I remember from 2 Fast 2 Furious:

It's sort of gloriously stupid taken out of context, but the context makes it especially bad. What you have to understand here is that this is a moment of triumph for Suki. She's not winning their fateful illegal high-stakes street race, but she's getting second place after pulling off what is clearly the most totally bitching jump of her life in a sweet pink sports car. And what does she shout at the apex of this totally rad jump? "SMACK THAT ASS!" It's as if she's having some sort of religious conversion experience, submitting to the will of the universe (which she apparently imagines as a dude who is having slightly rough sex with her). After this race, the point is further underscored by the fact that she decides to settle down and devote herself to looking pretty next to Snoop Dog. (At least, that's all I remember her doing after this jump.)

And, another one from my childhood, Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends.

This one is like Jackie Chan Adventures but without good jokes or even slightly compelling action. Instead, it has one of the flattest interpretations of Spider-Man ever, an ice guy, and a girl who shoots fire (and flies).

We might get into individual episodes in a future post, but I think the main thing to know right now is the gleeful '80s logic of the characters' powers. Like everyone in '80s cartoons, these guys never just shoot their enemies with an ice beam or bathe them in terrible flames. Spider-Man rarely just grabs a thing with his webs. Instead they like to get creative. Ice-Man recently made a giant set of ice stocks to trap a multi-headed monster. Firestar doesn't, like, melt your face: instead, she makes a ring or cage of fire around your body. Spider-Man, meanwhile, can instantly sculpt umbrellas, nets, shields, and all manner of weirdness from his webs without any apparent effort. They come out of nozzles strapped to his wrists! The nozzles have an on-switch, and that's it. How does he do this? Is he a magic Spider-Man? Because that, and nothing else about this series, is preposterous.

Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends is another weird, fun thing from my childhood. Back in the days of VHS tapes and no money, it was pretty common to find a bunch of awful, ancient animation in Wal-Mart bargain bins. And sometimes, in those bargain bins, there were superheroes! That was all I needed to know. We would buy one or two of these and watch it like ten million times. I've spent a lot of time wondering why Ice Man and Firestar were both so comfortable with the idea of calling themselves "the Spider Friends," and now, because of Netflix, I get to ask myself all over again. My theory? They are way, way less marketable characters. #brandingbaby.

There are like a million more but I'm tired. Next time: Other things! Many of them worse than these!

Also, you can now get the PDF version of issue 0001 by sending us $3 or paying with a tweet. It's a good, low-risk (or no-risk) way to preview the magazine and confirm that it's exactly as awesome as you always suspected: although the print version is, honestly, more attractive and more fun.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Foxy Ladies Read Uncanny Valley OR Swimming Googles

Here's the proof! I took this gorgeous magazine to a party and people who have probably never touched a literary magazine paged through without prodding. It is a big, bright thing that feels good to hold. I am only addressing its physicality so much because it is so enjoyable and because I have already read the writing inside and know that it is like molten chocolate socked away inside a puffy cake.

I asked Sarah to review the issue for this space. I had reviews on my mind because tonight, after Sarah looked up a number for a Target outside the city, I noticed this review, left by a Google user:

Swimming Goggles I placed a phone call and I accidentally said swimming googles instead of swimming goggles. The phone receptionist did not laugh at me, so I was not embarrassed. Great service
This is a pretty awesome review. (You can read it in context here, where you can wonder where the photo at the top of the page came from.) It's also ridiculous, of course. As someone who used to answer a lot of calls from customers, and who had to efficiently extract information despite mechanical or verbal obfuscation, I will guess that whoever answered the phone either did not care about the swimming googles or cared a great deal, after the fact, while passing the story around the space behind the customer service guest.

Person 1: "Swimming googles!"

Person 2: (disinterested) "They were probably just looking at Google when they said it."

Person 1: (laughing, manic, holding curled fists to eyes, looking through) "Lemme just...lemme just put on my swimming googles."

But at least this review reviewed the subject it should have reviewed. Far more annoying are reviews that review something peripheral to the subject. I'm thinking here primarily of Amazon reviews. Last week I hit Amazon because I wanted to see how Neal Stephenson's latest novel was holding up, and I wanted to see how it was holding up as measured by little stars. The stars were not as full as I expected and hoped, but it turned out this was because somebody had Kindle problems, and a few people thought the prices for the hardback and Kindle editions were too high. Well, okay. These reviews address a product, and a product that is for sale, but they address it as if it is a mail order lawn mower blade. They are reviewing an entire service, I mean, in a place where many readers skim review scores as if they point to content.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The weird case of DLC

Reading this outraged (and not very persuasive) article on the subject of downloadable content, I found myself wondering what I personally think of the concept. For those of you who aren't total geeks, the idea is basically this: major video games rarely come out with all their content intact. Some of it is set aside, in advance, to sell to gamers later through digital distribution networks, usually for small fees (somewhere between $1.99 and $4.99). Nearly anything can be a candidate for sale as DLC, including additional characters, levels, costumes, horse armor, weapons, or stories. Often, in games like Fallout, you get a combination of all these things: a unique level with its own story that rewards you for your purchase and play with a unique, powerful weapon or equipment for the game. In Fallout 3, you might spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to earn the power armor upgrade. Or you might get the DLC that comes with power armor and an electric katana.

Horse armor!
The article linked above is an interesting example in the genre of gamers' confused responses to perceptions of "being ripped off." Development costs have expanded geometrically as game systems grow more powerful, but games themselves are about the same price or often actually a little cheaper, in real terms, compared to fifteen or twenty years ago. This is possible because the industry has expanded its user base. And making a successful game can indeed be immensely profitable. But the relentless entitlement of gamers is, well, unattractive. If DLC sells -- and it does -- then it's hard to see why game companies shouldn't make it. There seems to be a misconception at the heart of all this: that game companies are in the business of making art. For the most part, any art that they produce is incidental, and DLC is the proof. They are in the business of making money. Designers, programmers, artists, composers, etc. may be individually in the business of creating art, and a game is indeed art when its production is finished, but that doesn't mean that's what these companies do. These companies make money. I don't mean that as an indictment of "the system" or something. What I am saying is that smuggling emotionally powerful experiences through channels that compensate capital for their investment (and, furthermore, finance the creation of additional art) is where art comes from. But the more money you need to justify an investment, the more blah blah blah etc. You see where this is going.

Anyway, what seems to outrage players most is the growing awareness that extras are not really "extra," that they were always planned as part of the game's design and produced alongside the other, more canonical content. The most egregious example is when the "downloadable content" is, in fact, already on the game disk, simply waiting for an unlock key, which is what the gamer really buys. To be sure, the idea of paying for the ability to use some of the data for which I already paid is not exciting. And in fact I almost never buy DLC: I was raised with such an intense, defensive suspicion of anyone attempting to sell me anything that I have been known to destroy advertising materials within sight of the person who handed them to me. ("You didn't have to take it!" he said, of the flier I had crumpled. But so then why did he touch me with it.) But you can hardly expect these companies not to push every envelope as far as they can. It's not like they're killing baby seals or starving African babies. They are asking people with demonstrably disposable income to dispose it like so in exchange for something they clearly want. Meanwhile, an industry worth billions of dollars struggles mightily every day to entertain us. We tell them their efforts are shit even as we give them the billions of dollars. A relationship of mutual contempt is guaranteed by such weird transactions.

The thing is, it would be weird for an author to sell us a book one day, and then to offer us an opportunity to buy a "really fun chapter" or an intriguing new secondary character -- perhaps a romantic interest for the previously lonely lead. We might justifiably call that author an "asshole." This is based on the premise that a novel will not be released until it is finished -- until it is a satisfying, powerful, beautiful piece of art complete unto itself. This is not how most games work -- not the big ones. The undertaking of developing a triple-A game is so difficult, expensive, and time-consuming that the first entry into any franchise (and we are inevitably speaking of a "franchise") is necessarily a half-baked proof of concept, half-broken, half-interesting, half-beautiful, and, if it's lucky, charismatic enough to sell enough copies to finance the production of a second iteration on the core concept. And this one might even be pretty good! Big games are not art the way books are art. They can't be (yet).

You wouldn't sell a book without one of its key components, and games should not be sold without theirs if they want to be seen as art. And yet DLC is rarely, in a decent game, key to anything, and quite often throws balance. (Fallout 3 is particularly egregious in this respect: in the game proper, it takes tens of hours of effort to build a respectable arsenal. With a little bit of DLC it takes about one hour. And yet Fallout 3, the core experience, is a very good game in itself, even as it is also a failure, which is how I would describe most successful big-budget games.) When I feel betrayed by DLC, here is what I am really feeling:

I am angry that something I love so much is not really beautiful. I am angry that the developer is undermining my ability to convince myself otherwise by making such a hack move. I am wanting to believe that I can have a profound emotional experience with this game. When really, if that's going to  happen, then it will take place at the purely mechanical level -- in the joy of simulated ballistics, for instance -- or with a smaller, self-limited game with a defined mission and means.

You can't really do DLC for beautiful games like Ico or Shadow of the Colossus because they already have everything they need. Instead, Sony releases the equivalent of a Criterion edition. Other games can do DLC because they were always already incomplete. They were always already exciting, absorbing failures.

The funny thing is that a lot of gamers seem also outraged by DLC with no in-game function. But I've always taken such things as a good sign. Little Big Planet is one of the most complete, artistically satisfying games released in the last decade. (Though it's worth noting that, like many other artistically successful games of this period, it achieves that completion by soliciting player-created content, allowing the creativity of a few remarkable, uncompensated gamers to fill the gap between their vision and its completion.) Little Big Planet had a lot of DLC, but most of it was strictly cosmetic: cute outfits for your sackboy avatar. The fact that this didn't at all affect how the game played, that it was entirely cosmetic, was for me a kind of proof that the game believed in itself: that they were interested in the interactions of artists and art lovers, as well as those of sellers and happy buyers. The pure, simple commerce of buying an astronaut outfit for your sackboy is far preferable to the weirdness of more typical DLC.

But DLC doesn't outrage me. It only proves what I already knew, and never wanted to know: this medium is only beginning to deliver on its potential.