Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Save the stats! Heavy on the SAUS!

Some of you may be aware that I blog occasionally at a couple of marketing research sites, mainly about fairly esoteric marketing research issues.  As it happens, this is of a more general interest: the abolition-in-progress (but there's still time to reverse it) of the Statistical Abstract of the United States.  Professors and reporters have already rightfully fulminated on the subject; here's my take on it from my admittedly small corner of the noosphere.

Assuming, of course, that a sphere can have a corner ...

(A P.S. side note: I turned on the "adult content" doorway that makes you say Yes, I know Mr. Barnes might use some naughty words or talk about fucking or something  mostly so I can be comfortably profane and/or obscene as I please, and those not pleased can go back to their fluffy bunnies, and do whatever unspeakable thing it is you do with those.  But it particularly pleases me that people have to go through an adult content warning to find a pointer to an article about restoring the Statistical Abstract of the United States.  Somewhere out there, there are either some seriously disappointed pervs, or some really perverted ones.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Hornets, bulls, technai, and 2012

One of the reasons I drifted into the life I live is that I am excessively fond of stories; stories tend to mean more for me and do more for me than just about any other genre of communication. So let me start with the story of how I became aware of what I wasn't aware of, and then wander off into what I think it all means, and then maybe spin you a story about the future. This might be a long one.

Just after Proposition 8 passed in California in 2008, a couple of people on Facebook got the idea that they wanted to protest that particular piece of ugly shit in the rest of the country, and not having put together a protest before, and being young with all the insane confidence of youth, they just kind of suggested that some people might want to get together with some signs and banners that weekend at their local city halls, wherever those might be. Others picked it up and in about five days, something above 100,000 people—possibly as many as a quarter million—nearly all without parade permits or any formal organization to speak of—converged on around a hundred city halls in the United States.

I became aware that this was going on about two days after it started, i.e. with four days to go till the demo. Now, back in my younger days, I had worked at a large number of demonstrations, mainly anti‑nuclear‑weapons as I have always been opposed to being blown up for other people's causes, but also civil liberties, various civil rights/racial issues, pro‑union, economic justice and a number of other usually left causes as well, plus a couple rallies for gun rights and one against turning productive forest into a playpen for rich kids, which I guess you could either regard as balancing my personal budget or just having really liked a parade when I was younger. I knew some things about what goes into a successful demonstration—or thought I did.

For many demonstrations, I'd been on security because I'm large, scowl and glower well, and generally look like I am not to be fucked with, and was therefore suitably intimidating to counter demonstrators, but can manage to say Don't be an asshole in a pleasantly indirect way to our own side.

So when I looked over the plans for the anti‑8 rally in Denver and saw that it looked utterly, totally, completely like the biggest mess of an amateur hour I'd ever seen, I went looking for the organizers to volunteer for security. The cause was certainly worthy, I was deeply pissed off about Prop 8 for a lot of reasons, but the whole thing looked so inept to my experienced eyes that I had visions of all kinds of crap breaking loose, and I thought they needed help.

I finally found a very pleasant guy who was putting together security, contacted him, and discovered, on the day of the rally, that we had nineteen people to keep some kind of order in a demonstration and march that had about 1100 people by my rough statistician's count‑noses‑and‑multiply methods. As a security detail, that's maybe a third of the number I'd think were optimal for a well‑organized regulated political parade and rally, and this wasn't meaningfully organized at all.

It was an interesting afternoon. The protest went well, making appropriate noises where and when it was supposed to. The counter demonstrators were sparse and not terribly noisy, but that was where I got my first inkling that today was going to be different from many similar days in my past. A self‑identified gay filmmaker was there to take advantage of the presence of the counter demonstrators—apparently she was working on some project about anti‑gay hatred—and simply pushed through the little group of us separating them from the demonstration, creating a platform and a speaking space for them (local TV followed her in and filmed some of that over her shoulder).

Naturally we asked her not do that. Her response was to shrug and tell us not to interfere with her work.

And there was absolutely nobody for either her or us to refer to about it. We'd have felt absurd trying to shut out a lesbian filmmaker at a gay rights rally, and anyway we had a lot of other crap to attend to. As far as she was concerned, she'd rarely have such a good collection of Christish cuckoo birds to collect interviews from again. Like it or not, it was do your own thing day.

In fact, a couple of blocks into the march it was becoming clear that with nobody in charge, nobody was going to pay much attention to the arm banded security people, not even for such things as our trying to keep street crossings safe and keep the group together. One guy who might have been off his meds, had brought a bullhorn and attempted to lead the crowd in incomprehensible cheers; another buttonholed everybody who looked like a reporter to explain that this event was just the beginning of a movement against oppression that began with his expulsion from a Madonna concert.

And yet it really didn't matter. I have seldom felt quite so irrelevant (and as a science fiction writer and a theatre historian, I can compare that afternoon with many other experiences of feeling irrelevant). The crowd was big enough that it just forced its way across streets, traffic or no, and would mill around in the street while stragglers ran to catch up, an invitation to get busted, but the police chose not to—maybe because there was no predicting how that crowd might react, and no one around who could effectively say "be cool". The lunatic chanter wandered away somewhere in the middle of the march, once everyone had seen him and decided to ignore him. The Martyr of Madonna eventually was trailing along with the stragglers, chatting pleasantly, having found an approximation to sympathetic friends.

We finished up at the same park which was more recently the site of an Occupy Denver encampment, and as we few pathetic security folks—nearly all of us veterans of demonstrations going back decades—gathered , our sort‑of leader shrugged. "It looks like it's turning into a big party; I don't think we could clear them out if we wanted to, and anyway since we never had a permit in the first place, there's no deadline to disperse by." We just took off the armbands and disbanded. As we were doing that an older cop came by and said, "Well, that was scary, but I guess it came out okay." Apparently he'd seen enough demonstrations to think he knew, like we thought we knew, what too many people , too few security, no authority anywhere, might mean.

We thought we knew, the cop and us, but the more I have thought back to this, we didn't know crap. We were there at the birth of something new, which is probably going to matter a great deal, and we missed it all because we were old hands and we were looking to see what we'd seen before.

That night, nationwide, the center‑right news media (what the righties call the liberal or mainstream media) reported that a bunch of overdramatic gay lovers of street theatre, excitable teenagers with a thing for the '60s, and some mildly photogenic regular people had acted up a bit but the show was now over. Fox News, as is their wont, insisted it was the work of a sinister cabal trying to push the homosexual agenda—the idea that there was any leadership with any agenda made me laugh. And in the couple weeks that followed some minor lefty papers printed stories claiming that this marked some kind of turning point in historical something or other. (Including a couple that said it wouldn't matter in the long run because it was all so badly organized, and urged us all to get back to the vital function of building a mass movement). Commentators on all sides both deplored the absence of a program, the to‑them random wish list comments of the randomly interviewed participants, and the failure to bring forth a leadership to "consolidate the gains" and "strategize to pursue the goals" that they had just finished saying we didn't have.

They missed it too, but unlike my companions and that cop, they missed it willfully and aggressively.

What we all missed was the new world that had already arrived: not only leaderless resistance that self‑organized (the world has seen that since, probably, the first food riots in the first Neolithic settlements) but resistance that resisted having a leader. And in the new interwebz world, that's not just a slogan or an ideal; it's a practical option for popular resistance.

A few months later the Tea Party erupted; more recently Occupy Wall Street and its many offspring have burst onto the scene. And as much as possible, the political class and the journalists who cover it have gone on missing the point.

This new way of non‑organizing popular resistance—whether it's a right or left leaning population that's doing the resisting—is a techne. (Tech knee, if you're a in‑your‑head pronouncer. The plural is technai, tech nigh).

Techne is the Greek word from which we get both technique and technology, a craft or way of doing or method. It was the center of a big argument between Platonists and Aristotelians, about whether rhetoric was an art (i.e. a path to the truth itself, like geometry or astronomy), or just a techne like weaving or military strategy—a way to achieve an effect that worked equally well for any purposes, good or bad, truthful or deceitful, cruel or kind.

There are many technai for conflict. T.E. Lawrence, a right winger if ever there was one, figured out that you could bleed a great power by forcing it to expend resources keeping basic services functioning, and invented the modern resistance movement; that techne was applied by everyone from Ho Chi Minh to the Nicaraguan contras, against every power big enough to bleed, ever after. In the 1930s, Charles De Gaulle published a book describing the techne we now call blitzkrieg, which was read assiduously in Russia and Germany; the war began and ended in a series of blitzkriegs from all sides, which worked equally well for any side that applied them, however good or bad its purpose. The technai of nonviolent civil disobedience were used to liberate India, interfere with Western development of nuclear weapons, desegregate the American South, and overthrow Communism in Poland and Czechoslovakia, and are being used today by the Occupy movement and the pro‑lifers. No techne belongs to one side or another, at least not permanently.

But technai have consequences and implications, regardless of who uses them.

Let's look at this self‑organizing anti‑organizational internet‑driven techne of resistance a little farther. Try this analogy: traditional power and traditional freedom have somewhat resembled living in the same meadow with a large, dangerous bull. If you come to his attention in an unfavorable way, the bull will fixate on you and try to trample or gore you, and it's very difficult to stay out of his way once he's decided you need trampling or goring. But most of the time you get your freedom from the fact that the bull mostly ignores you; he just wants to have the sunniest spot in the meadow to himself, receive gestures of respect, never be startled or inconvenienced, and of course leave piles of bullshit everywhere. (That being his freedom).

I presume the analogy to traditional leadership—known to the Tea Party as "the elites," the Occupiers as "the 1%" and to most of us as "they" (as in "they would never let people do that", "it would make sense but they won't ever do it," etc.) is reasonably clear. Power derives from the ability to rip any one thing apart and then squish it absolutely flat, but that power requires not having to deal with too many things at a time; freedom comes from not annoying the bull, or being the bull.

Now consider these new movements, which are more like hornet swarms. If a hornet walked up to a bull on the ground and said, "hey, bull, this is bullshit, get it out of my meadow"—squish. In a hooking, goring, trampling contest, I think we can fairly say the bull would win. Over any distance he runs faster than the hornets fly, too.

But if you have ever seen what happens when a bull accidentally knocks down a hornets' nest, you know who wins anywhere near the nest. Notice that there are no hornet generals, admirals, CEOs, facilitators, nest organizers, or hornet resource directors. (No hornets in armbands keeping order, either). Every hornet is just flying out to find her way to something that seems to be responsible for the unpleasantness to hornet‑kind, and do what harm she can to the nearest apparent culprit.

Frankly, bulls don't know what to do about hornets. They know what to do about rival bulls (usually ritual combat, but if necessary, a real fight to the death). They know what to do about disagreeable little creatures with whom they share the meadow (either ignore if they're not too annoying or gore, trample, etc. if they are). But these hornet things hurt and there are a lot of them and some of them are clever and go up your nose or sting you in the balls, and they keep coming even after you make an example out of one of them by squashing her into hornet goo.

So, getting even more anthropomorphic about this, the bulls do what any authority does when it can't do anything: they call names. These are not real hornets, these are astroturf hornets, who are being financed by a rival bull. The hornets have no program and if they ever want to run the meadow, they are going to have to learn how to charge, hook, and trample. The hornets are just irresponsibly saying that we can't do ordinary things that everyone needs for the good of the whole meadow, like rubbing our backs on trees and knocking down hornets' nests. Anyway the hornets are of no importance because it's just a temporary fad thing, you know how hornets are, they like getting upset for a short period of time. They'll disappear in the winter and never come back. Why is everyone so interested in hornets anyway when the bull has a job to do?

In fact let's just knock down another nest and squish a few hornets to teach those bastards a—ouch. Ouch. My nose. My balls. Now that's just irresponsible. I really, really hate hornets.

Now here's where it gets interesting. Yes, you read all this way before it got interesting. Might as well finish now ….

Hornet swarms form and fight near their nests, i.e. their vital interests. OWS was recently extremely active because it looked like the inside‑the‑Beltway bulls (the best meadow there is) were cutting a deal about the deficit, which is a classic insider issue that actually doesn't matter very much in the lives of ordinary people most of the time, mostly concerned with being nice to big banks, and that deal would almost certainly involve cutting the living hell out of programs that many people depend on; it would make life on the economic fringes and margins much worse in order to win the moral approval of the people who brought you the bailout. Their nest was kicked over, in other words. The Tea Party got its knickers in a knot almost entirely over the health care proposal, because one sharp and deep status division in the United States is the one between people who have health care coverage and people who don't , and it was going to spoil the club, both by somewhat reducing the absolute privileges of the people already in, and by allowing all sorts of riff‑raff in.

At the moment OWS is noisy and the Tea Party quiet because one nest is being disturbed and the other is not. But we're coming up on an election year. One of the traditional ways for the two bulls to fight it out is seeing who can spread the most bullshit on the meadow, and in our polarized team‑spirit polity of today, that means promising to take away the unjust privileges of the other bulls' followers.

In other words, both bulls are going to kick over a lot of nests next year, whether they want to or not. For the first time since the phenomenon appeared, the meadow is going to be full of swarming hornets.

Maybe that means nothing; bulls will just develop thicker hides, learn to wear facemasks and cups, and so on. Maybe it will just be a distraction: bulls will spend a lot of time chasing hornets instead of battering each other, the ground will get torn up more and there will be more motion, but nothing that really matters will change.

But maybe … hornet swarms in conflict might well devolve into millions of individual hornet‑versus‑hornet struggles. What might that look like? Arguments on the street and in bars (also known as democracy)?

Or Beirut or Belfast?

Once two bulls lock horns, it usually goes on till one realizes he can't win and gives up in some dignity‑saving (if possible) way. There's a way out of a bull‑to‑bull conflict.

When bulls fight hornets, the bull eventually gets out of it by moving far enough away from the nest and staying there.

And when hornets fight hornets …. does the newly developed techne even apply? What new ones might be about to be invented?  Will it look like some hapless old-style demonstrators trying to get cooperation from a filmmaker … or like the Johnson County War or the Hatfield-McCoy feud?

I guess we'll find out.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Just in case you're not getting enough of me here ....

... I also put out an irregular freebie newsletter for readers, fans, whoever wants it.  (What a relief that I did not keel over at the fourth word after the ellipsis).  I just put out another newsletter, and if you'd like to start subscribing with that issue, just click on the email-me link over in the right sidebar and drop me a note asking to be added to the list.  This issue contains a small amount of news about my life, some spiffy freebies, some brief reminders that I sell stuff, and a longish essay about series.  (Series have been much on my mind because I've started six in my career, several of them shot out from under me, and in this weird new world of surfing the revenue curve between traditional and self-publishing, I can suddenly think about continuing one or more series, so I've been talking things over with the newsletter readers as to which series ought to continue or re-start, and in what ways). The essay is only partly about my series; it's mostly about what kinds there are and what sort of artistic choices are involved.

That's a fairly typical pattern for the newsletter.  Sometimes there's more news, sometimes there's something bigger to promote commercially, and always there's a unique essay, with which I bribe people to stay on the subscription list.  The long essays in the newsletters will only appear there (as far as is in my control) so if you are a desperately crazy Barnes completist, I guess you need the newsletter and should drop me that note. 

Do be do be do and why it's not always about length

Today I shall grump a bit about the peculiar problems of length in stories, and where they lead, and see if I can straighten you all out, or provoke you into writing me notes to straighten me out.

Fiction simulates reality in part by  balancing doing against being, the question of "and then what happened?" pulling the reader forward while the question "and what was it like?" makes it real enough to be worth thinking about. 

Stories are written to be read sequentially (although in a bit of my marketing research I discovered that surprising numbers of people don't read stories sequentially; my public piece about that was in the late, lamented-and-or-gloated-over-by-dozens-worldwide HelixSF, now available in a much revised version).  To keep the reader reading sequentially, there needs to be a promise/threat of something interesting that will happen soon but not now; for the promise or threat to be something that happens, someone has to do something, but for it to be interesting, someone has to be something. 

The missing person must turn up (dead or alive) but for us to care, the person looking needs to be (for example) a tough type with a soft heart, or physically weak but immensely brave, or something.  The laboratory-created monster must turn on its tormentor (next chapter) but for it to be interesting, the monster or the tormentor have to be something more than caricatures.  Without any "do" there's no reason to turn the page and without any "be" there's no reason to care, and if either is missing, the book ends up on the toilet tank as a progressively ignored ghost of an experience.

That do/be balance is trickiest at intermediate lengths, I think, and simplest at long and short.

If the story is much shorter than about 3000 words, the balance will probably collapse between being and doing completely, tipping over into pure doing so that the story will end up as a short-short (i.e. all plot and hardly any people, as in many terrific stories by Roald Dahl, Saki, or Frederic Brown) or into pure being, becoming a vignette (now called flash fiction by people who think fiction was invented in an internet workshop somewhere) like "A Clean Well-Lighted Place" or John Updike's "A&P."

Up above three thousand words or so, a short story is a kind of a plotted prose-poem – that thing Edgar Allen Poe called the single effect to be achieved at one sitting  -- and is the shortest form in which that do/be balance can easily have something substantial on both sides of the scale. Very often that single effect is a shock of recognition, and because there's not much space to depict shifts and changes in them, characters are much more usually do-ers than be-ers, but at that length, reader interest usually requires a fair bit of being, as well as doing, even if only a small number of characters get to really be and only one action gets really done.

Now, officially, on awards ballots and that sort of thing, a short story is a story less than 7500 words (some awards also say longer than 2000 or 2500) and that's about the least productive definition possible. (Actually, I can think of an even less productive definition: since the English language is about 12.7% the letter e, and printer's words are defined as 6 characters, 7500 words X 6 characters X 12.7%=5715.  "A short story in English is a story in which the letter e occurs no more than 5715  times."  There.  Feel free to send suggestions about even less productive definitions)  What should define the short story is "one big do and one big be" at a length you can consume at one sitting (which depends, I suppose, on your reading speed and butt strength).  A short story does not become something else when the writer cuts five words out of 2502,  or adds a six word character description to a 7497 word story, except for awards purposes.

At the opposite pole, a novel, whether it's a tight little French zoom-wham, or a great whacking Russian landscape,  is to some extent about what it is like to live through a given time as a given person; it's about being, whether it wants to be or not, because you're going to spend a while there.  But since hardly anybody wants to "just be" on each page, separate from all other pages,  250 or so separate times over and over, the "and then what" and "what did he do then" and "what did she find out" things come into play, and there has to be at least some doing; otherwise it might as well be a book of quotations, or a series of 250 vignettes and short-shorts about 250 different people with the same name.  (Note to new writers: don't do that.  Just don't.  As I say to children who are about to do something insanely dangerous with a  cry of "Watch this!", I will believe that you can without your showing me.).

And in between there are the other lengths, and those are where that do/be problem really gets interesting.

Novelettes, in the 19th century popular press where the word was popularized, were originally "good parts versions" of adventure stories – all the action scenes (action broadly defined – not just explosions and fights, but also kisses, quarrels, revelations, oaths, all that other stuff that is memorable in a book) with just enough narrative summary between so that the reader could follow the story – lots of do and minimal be.  You could call them self-abridgements of never-finished novels, and because they were a way to present blood and thunder in a small package, oriented as much toward pure entertainment as any form ever has been, a stain of disreputability used to cling to the term. Nowadays novelette is the magazine-publishing term for short stories with a little more description and one or two secondary plots. 

So the purposes of a novelette are either to enrich a short story with some secondary plot or added scenes, or, harking back to its origin, to deliver high adventure at high speed.  Either way it's a very "do" form: the do-do-do (and a bit of extra be for balance) is what makes it a novelette.

Then a few decades ago the pulp magazines found it convenient to sort stories by length, for reader convenience and to enable a quick rough cast-off (estimate of the number of pages of copy needed for an issue).  In the full-size pulps (7 x 10 x 1/2") of the 1920-40 era, there were about 625 words to a page after ads and illos were taken into account, so a short story was 4-12 pages, or up to 1/10 of  a standard 128 page issue.  A novelette was between a tenth and a quarter of an issue, and novellas ranged from a quarter to about half an issue. 

You will note that the last full sized pulps expired the year I was born, so you may ask what their space constraints ought to have to do with our literary culture today.  

There was a flurry of awards-founding in the early 1950s, and the  awards ballots slightly adjusted  arbitary length divisions by basing them on word counts, but that's where they came from and mostly that's where they remain.

I would hope it is obvious that some novelettes manage to do novelette things in less than 7500 words, and some might take more than 17,500, perhaps as much as 30,000 words to achieve a novelette-ish purpose.  Nowadays, thanks to the emphasis on word count, there are actually otherwise sober, normal-seeming writers who will take out or add 200 words so as to be on the right side of 17,500 words, depending on whether they think novelettes or novellas are "more in demand" or "hotter" or "more award-noticed" this year.  (That maneuver reminds me of nothing so much as the legendary farmer who discovered, on a resurvey, that his farmhouse was actually in North Dakota by a hundred feet for so, and declared it was a blessing because he didn't think he could take many more Minnesota winters).

Novellas, on the other hand, were conceived as a kind of fusion between short stories and novels; their origin is much farther up the brow.  A flock of artsy-serious types in the 1880-1920 era thought short-story single powerful effects were great but wanted to do them with novel-like complexity.  It turned out you could do that, but it was pretty hard to sustain at the kind of length that you find in Dickens, Thackeray, or Trollope (even Dickens couldn't – A Christmas Carol  is a novella).

Novellas became a somewhat awkward form commercially (which only enhanced their prestige) because they made for a too-slim volume for book buyers (who wanted to make sure they were getting enough literature per expenditure) and too long a piece for most magazines (whose readers wanted variety, something harder to give them if you let one novella take up room that could be occupied by five to seven short stories.)  It's a heavy-on-the-be form in which a dense structure of meaning is laid onto a few interesting incidentes (sometimes only one).  Think of how much The Secret Sharer, Beyond Bedlam, or The Last of the Winnebagos revolve around what it's like to be standing there in the moment when a conventionally honest man makes a self-admitted killer his best friend and confidant, when several people who are by our definitions mad come to realize how much they prefer what we call madness to what we call sanity, or just to be the owner/keeper of one of the world's last dogs and to have to cope with its death.  Those novellas – fine ones all – explore how much being can be supported by a little bit of doing.

.Once again the pulp fiction magazines appropriated the literary term and made it a length, eventually codified in the awards ballots to 17,500-39,999 words.  When fiction magazines were a major source of  cheap mass entertainment, the label "novella" (or sometimes just "short novel") let readers know that this story might be reserved to be read in a long evening, a weekend afternoon, or across a couple of days' trolley rides or lunches. 

And once again, the focus on word count leads into silliness.  Realistically, for example, Conrad's The Duel or The Brute are far less than novella length, but they're novellas in intent and feel; on the other side, although The Last Unicorn, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, and Double Indemnity were published as novels, everything about them says novella.

A few thoughts that are not quite conclusions:

As what one out of circulation fanzine called "one of science fiction's two leading bridesmaids" (the other is Lisa Goldstein, and they were commenting on this sad distinction), I am probably less involved, or at least less profitably involved, in the awards process than anyone else.  But since it doesn't affect me – I can pretty clearly also-run at all lengths and themes – I have what might pass for objectivity, and it seems to me that in the fiction awards, the benefits of having an easily applied rule like length are outweighed by the drawbacks of forcing "The Elf-knight Rescues the Spunky Princess" to compete with "Certain Ruminations about Melville in a Lunar Colony."  The Oscars throw all purposes in together (though they break out short forms); the Grammies subdivide by subgenre; the Emmies and Tonys do a bit of both.  Might their example be worth thinking about?  Would you need impossibly complex juries to decide whether works were trying for noveletteish or novellaish purposes?  (And there are other possible purposes; what about works that attempt those?)

If you aspire to write well, you might consider where you want to be (or what you want to do) about the do/be spectrum; not so much in the rough draft, I think, as later on in revisions.  Want a short story?  Cut to the biggest do surrounded by the biggest be.  Novelet, lots of do with enough be for flavor.  Novella, lots of be with enough do so it's not dull.  Novel, plenty of both, well-mixed.  Or something like that.

I think lately I haven't read enough of the old kind of novelette, the self-condensed unwritten adventure novel.  In the same sense that I haven't had enough red wine, pie a la mode, or rambling late night conversations, lately, i.e. it's something that isn't good for you if it's exclusively what your life is about, but it's also something where if you never get it you're missing something.  Seems like it wouldn't be a hard thing to write, and for all I know dozens of good writers are doing it right now. I don't keep up enough. Is there a major contemporary master of the Old Novelette?  (Not the length, mind you.  The aspiration, regardless of the length).

I think many science fiction editors are too easily pleased with phony novellas, i.e. plot-thin stories in which there's vast amounts of reflection and description that are only ill-hooked to the few events.  One reason phony novellas occur in such profusion is that they are a lazy process for a smooth, craftsmanlike writer, they make an editor feel like s/he is purveying Art, and although readers complain due to the dull pointlessness, such readers can always be dismissed as Philistines. 

Many times when a reader complains of inconsistency, they're complaining about a sudden radical shift in the do/be ratio.  In real life people sometimes spend many ages just hanging out and talking and thinking, and then abruptly see more sudden drastic action than they will ever see again in their lives (that's kind of the point of many John Irving novels).  But in fiction a sudden shift from bang-bang-bang do-do-do to a tranquil flow of reflective be's throws many readers right out of the story.  That's part of what makes From Here To Eternity, The Great Gatsby, and Butterfield 8 the masterpieces they are;  they manage to do that and make it work.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Ten Form Letters I'd Rather Not Send, If You'd Rather Not Receive

About that invitation to correspond:

(or Approachably Reclusive Part II:  THE NEXT DAY)

Usually if you write, and say something interesting, I'll write back, even if it's just a quick thank you.

If you  say something not-interesting,  for many years I have had a few form letters always ready to go, which I use in cases where it is obvious to me that no thought or effort should be wasted on my response.  Somehow copying and pasting those doesn't seem to require nearly as much effort  as admiring someone's photos of their cats in person.

To save us all time, I guess, if you suspect that what you are about to send will  be eligible to receive one of these form letters, just skip sending in the first place.  (There are doubtless countless blogs where they will welcome you with open arms, particularly if they have mastered aikido).

The ten form letters I have sent out most often in my working life could be summarized as:

1.     My, how cleverly you are able to paste together Republican talking points.

2.     Actually you like some words I wrote a long time ago, and not only am I not your soul mate, you would perceive this instantly if you met me, because the person you seem to be writing to doesn't resemble the person sitting here reading your note.  Thank you for liking my words,  I hope I will write other things that please you in the future, and no, let's not meet.

3.     Yes, it is my job to try to depict people like yourself in my stories, and I'm sorry that I didn't do it to your liking, and will take what I understand from your letter into account  and try to do better next time around.  You are not only entitled to your anger, but I am going to ask a big favor of you: in all seriousness, please be sure to denounce my work publicly.  If I am misleading other people about your kind of people, they need to be told, and I have already demonstrated I'm not the one to tell them.  It is, of course, possible that we are both wrong, in which case your people and the general public deserve a chance to decide that, and to decide, they need to hear both of us.  My take is already out there; please put yours up somewhere.  If by any chance you are looking for a retraction, however,  I  don't usually do that.  I draw what I see and if I see something different later,  I draw that then.

4.     I don't know or understand a thing about your life but you already are writing about it very well and I can tell it's interesting.  You don't need a co-author, you need to sit down and write that.*

5.     Thank you for urging me to say more of what I am already saying, but please, staying real, let us not make any point of my courage here: I'm in a historically privileged group of people living in a milieu with a tradition of individual rights.  Therefore I can state almost any opinion I am likely to have, without much of anything to fear, and where there is no rational fear, there is no courage.  Rather than congratulate me on whatever you thought it was dangerous to say, take charge and work through that danger yourself.  Fear breeds fear, and if you think it takes nerve or guts to say what I've said,  then if it is at all possible for you, please say it in public yourself, and experience – or make, if necessary – your own freedom first hand. Courage also breeds courage, but you have to start with some of your own.

6.     You have mistaken my character's  opinions for mine.  I make people up; just as they are not all me physically, and a good thing too for the sake of the sex scenes, they are not all me politically, spiritually, esthetically, or socially. Thanks for letting me know I drew a character well enough for you to mistake him/her for a real person that you detest.  If you were to meet me you would in all likelihood detest me for some reason entirely different from the one you think you do.

7.     My, how cleverly you are able to paste together Democratic talking points.

8.     Get help, for everyone's sake.  No joke.  Your letter is a symptom,  but I'm not a doctor.

9.     I do, in fact, have a religious faith, which I take seriously, and which I believe to be a better approximation to the truth than what you have sent me; it is one of my faith's tenets that God does not damn anyone, which is why I will not attempt to rescue you from the peril you are not in, let alone accept that anchor you have tossed me in your mistaken belief that it is a life preserver.  God, I believe, does condemn certain ways of occupying oneself – businesses, we might call them, in the old sense of "what people stay busy with," such as concocting and distributing malice, distrust, and anger – so I trust it will be clear when I say God bless you for your concern, and my spiritual welfare is none of your God-damned business.

10.  You have not misunderstood me.  I do think exactly what you object to. You will not stop me from saying it merely by telling me you don't like it.

*an observation for which I have no explanation: the letters I get from people who want me to help turn their interesting experiences into a book are inevitably well-written and tightly focused on the interesting parts; at a guess, this is because finding what's really of interest in your own life is the hard part, and once that's done it's just a matter of setting it down.

The Legend of Approachably Reclusive, What It is and How It Came to Be

There's an excruciatingly wonderful local bookstore here in Denver, Who Else? Books, which is part of the Broadway Book Mall (an institution founded on the principle that a dozen book stores can easily share one space and one cash register, an insight that I wish many more book stores would catch on to for their continued survival).  I hardly ever go in there, but when I have a new book coming out, it's Ron and Nina Else that I alert to the fact, and it's their store where I tend to do readings, signings, and all the other odd Ritual Dances of Attracting the Money Fairy that writers do.

For the last few years, whenever  she's announced an event that involves me,  Nina has used expressions like "somewhat reclusive," "semi-reclusive," "kind of reclusive," and so on.  The most recent one, though, was my favorite:  "approachably reclusive."

What she means, I think, is that when I do show up, I like hanging around and talking with people.  Enough dedicated fans turn up to see me read that the activity seems to be worthwhile for all of us (or maybe they are just  curious whether anyone who writes like that can actually sign his name, or remember to hold the book right side up?), and I usually enjoy visiting with them and hanging around, though I'm a pretty dull guy in real life, and often find that once we're in a personal conversation,  my readers are more interesting to me than I am to them.

I don't think that's false modesty; they're always seeing things in my books that I didn't know I'd put in, or taking off on tangents more interesting than anything I'd thought of, and I seem to pull in readers from eccentric backgrounds with interesting personal stories. 

The rest of the crowd, usually, is my friends (and some of them are now relatives, since I recently married into a large family of people who read), and only a few of my friends are writers (many of them don't read much).  I acquired them over the decades from school, work, or church, or living down the hall, from dating their sisters or joining a volunteer political organization with them, and about all they have in common with each other is that I like their company.  Usually after the reading part, if I can, I like to circulate and introduce new people to each other – too many interesting people in the world have not met – and do all that meet and greet stuff.

Then I go to a nearby pizza place, consume a couple glasses of wine and half a pizza, go to bed early, and avoid seeing anybody other than family for a couple days to recover.  For me, a big dose of people demands huge amounts of energy, especially interacting with them – I find performing much easier, and am much less drained when I speak, sing, or act for a crowd of a thousand than when I spend an afternoon in the bar making conversation with five people I don't know.

So there you have it.  Approachably reclusive.  I have a large circle of friends and a biggish family and hardly any of them have any interest in, or anything to do with, books, science fiction, marketing research, theatre, or anything else I do professionally.  Hey, my grandfather was an enameler in a bathtub plant, and a man with seemingly millions of friends (at least from what I remember, trailing behind him to social events when I was very small), and I don't remember him ever talking about bathtubs or enamel.  I'll talk but prepare for it to be dull.

I love getting mail, though, and although I'm a  highly unpredictable correspondent,  I usually write back, though in some cases it can take disgracefully long periods of time.

So, here we are:

•An invitation to occasional correspondence about almost anything, even writing and books.  (I'm not activating comments because I am unwilling to spend time and energy on making you all play nice with each other, defending what I happen  to say so as not to appear to endorse your silly objections by silence, or responding to anything promptly.  I'll try to do occasional mailbag roundups whenever enough material has come in that I think is interesting, and I feel like doing that instead of working).

•A bit of that self-promotion that all us writer types are supposed to do constantly nowadays.  (I just wish I had a self to promote, as that would doubtless make it easier; my consciousness resembles a meditating monk with severe monkey mind, except without the monk).  There'll be a pointer over in the sidebar or somewhere to tell you where to buy stuff connected with me, and I'll mention things as they become available, but I figure we can stay fairly commercial-free here.

•A sort of central clearinghouse for my other more specialized blogs; I intend to develop a few other projects by blogging them (in some cases with comments turned on), and I'll refer to those here as I start them.  I'm thinking something about massaging data and analytics/metrics, a couple book projects that I'll probably develop interactively on line, and something or other about the book-doctoring work I've done as a sideline for many years.  "Approachably Reclusive" is where you'll find pointers to all that.