Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Articles that start fiction ideas #4: Where have all the icons gone, long time passing?

io9.com is a pretty interesting site, the "arts of the fantastic" sub-site off of Gawker.   I'm assuming that almost anyone likely to be reading this has found it long ago and reads it regularly, but if you haven't, get on over there and read Charlie Jane Ander's article How To Create A Brand New Iconic Hero Or Villain and Marc Bernardin's reply to it.

Now, titles are often a bit misleading, and neither Charlie nor Marc were really able to tell us how to do it.  Which is a tiny bit disappointing, in the pleasant personal daydream  department, because that's a how-to that many of us in this silly business of storytelling would dearly love to be able to do.  Creating anything that lived as long, and as deeply in the mass psyche, as Batman, Tarzan, or Bullwinkle – or equally good, the Joker, Professor Moriarity, or Boris Badenov – is as close to immortality as any of us can dream about.  Heck, I wouldn't be unhappy about being the creator of anything that tied for recognition with Mr. Ed. *

So an article with a "how to" about that was going to receive my undivided attention, even though I knew it probably would not and could not live up to its title.

Sadly, of course, over here in reality-land, it's not actually possible to write such a how-to.  If it were, we'd all be billionaires (or at least our lawyers and managers would), and the world would be neck deep in iconic figures. 

But I think there's a deeper reason why that probably-editor-imposed title was actually not the right question.  Sometimes "how to" is a much less important question than "why could …?"

Now, what was it about that era – roughly 1890 through 1960, with a scattering before and after – that was such a good time for iconic heroes and villains?

Let's sneak up on the question by looking at a figure that is often just the sidekick in the main epic: the genius inventor.  He (almost all of them were male) might be an evil dude building a take-over-the-world-ray, or a heroic inventor saving the world with a Martian death-plague vaccine, or anything in between on either side of the moral and iconic fence, but I think he's interesting for two reasons:
1)    he was very often used to narrate the real, contemporary world around him, with real life figures being fitted to the archetype, and
2)    to quite a remarkable extent, he did not really exist.

This is an excellent place to see the difference between "how to" and "why could."  Suppose for some bizarre reason you want to invent something in your garage that will transform the world (and make you overwhelmingly rich).  Then the question, "how do I change the world with something I build in my garage?" won't get you very far. 

How to? "Simply build a world-transforming device that exploits an innovative technology that the whole world will turn out to need, and have good patent attorneys" is not a very good explanation for either the successes or failures of Samuel Morse, Robert Fulton, Charles Hall, George Washington Carver, James Watt, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Gugliemo Marconi, the Wright Brothers, Alexander Graham Bell, Nicola Tesla, Luther Burbank, Philo Farnsworth, Lee de Forest, Hermann Oberth, Alan Turing, Vannevar Bush, Hu Davis, or Steve Wozniak.   All it does is cause you to sit daydreaming about tabletop fusion for less than a thousand dollars, or genetic-engineering a mushroom that grows on sewage sludge and makes gasoline, or what happens if you spin a disk of superconducting entangled qdots so that the edge is moving at relativistic speed.  Pretty soon you're externally another garage nut posting notes about how misunderstood you are on the Internet (and you probably have to use your mom's garage because you can't afford your own) and internally you're sort of like Lex Luthor in a world where nothing works.

But "Why could those guys come to occupy the places they did in the generally accepted narrative of technical and economic history?" is a pretty good question.  It gets you considering the intersection of:
•a culture that sought out and demanded individual heroes, with
•a capitalist economy where it was cheap to produce and distribute publicity, at a time when,
•the cost and possibility of some technical improvements had changed abruptly, and
•there was a mass market for the improved/new technical products, and
•most of the consumer market was made up of people who were simultaneously fascinated with, and
•made uneasy by the technical improvements.

I've emphasized those connections in bold-italic because I don't think they're additive, i.e. 90% of conditions met would give you 90% of heroic innovator mythology.  I think they're more multiplicative, where a single zero would cause the whole thing to fail, but if they're all 1's (i.e. yes) then you get that result.

The "hero inventor" was a social construct, even if a lone guy in  a basement really did do everything (and it was pretty rare that that actually happened).  If in fact there was no single inventor, or the one guy was in fact a sharp businessman more than an engineer, or the shrewd engineer was a shrewder publicist and actually worked for giant corporations or even government bureaucracy,  then as a society/economy/polity we fixed all that up when we told the story. 

We made up everything we had to, publicized it like crazy, and another Tony Stark/Bruce Wayne created more amazing gazillionaire-toys, or another Peter Parker sat down with his earnings from his paper route and built web-shooters that worked the first time (so well that he could safely swing from buildings on them).   And he came from a peculiar time that really wanted to believe a peculiar absurdity, that heroic innovators had to overcome scorn and humiliation before succeeding. The heroic innovator should be somebody "they" all laughed at.   (Why anyone would laugh at Hershey and his chocolate bar is beyond me.)

Naturally that iconic brilliant inventor shows up all over the landscape of pop entertainment,from Tom Swift (Sr. and Jr.) to Dr. Hans Zarkov (who builds the rocket that takes Flash Gordon and Dale Arden to Mongo), Susan Calvin, Q of the Bond movies, Gyro Gearloose, most of the comic book heroes who build their own gear, and about every third Heinlein novel.  Somehow or other, antigravity drives, supercomputers, time machines, and all are produced by one guy at a drawing board with a slide rule. 

Don't believe it?  What's the matter, buddy, haven't you ever heard of Thomas Edison?

Objectively,  it's absolutely preposterous; Edison pioneered methods for using hundreds or thousands of anonymous testers, working in parallel, to find a breakthrough.  One of Henry Ford's most significant gifts was figuring out effective ways to run teams of engineers.  No single human being could have held the whole Space Shuttle in his or her head. You can do a lot of digging before you turn up anybody Ayn-Randian in the actual history of that immense technological ascent from pretty good steam trains and watches to pretty good moon rockets and computers.

So why did our culture – or rather our great-great-grandparents' and two generations after culture – pour so much effort into persuading itself that miracles of teamwork were in fact the work of lonely individuals?  There's a standard Marxist answer of sorts, best expressed perhaps in Brecht's Questions from A Worker Who Reads, but all that really talks about is the result.

There's at least one standard take on it, which is that particularly in the US, that's the period when the giant industrial combines really took over the economy; it was the age of mass production, assembly lines, time-and-motion studies, and mass marketing.  The old cranky America of interesting dissidents and kooks was dying, with less and less room for Doc on Cannery Row, no space for Finnley Wren or Auntie Mame, where My Man Godfrey really was the forgotten man and there was not even a walk-up over a Chinese restaurant with room for Murray Burns.  Instead, more and more of the world's work would be done by The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit a.k.a The Organization Man, who was the prince of The Pyramid Climbers.  Or you might listen to Don McLean's "Homeless Brother" to get an idea of the change I'm pointing to; "the children have grown older, and the cops have gripped us tight/there's no spot 'round the melting pot for free men in their flight."

It's almost a truism in cultural studies that when something is vanishing from the culture, it gets a sort of glorious twilight of being held up and revered just before being shitcanned forever, something like those horrible office parties for elderly incompetents being forced into retirement.  The American frontier was actually a spectacular mess of a thing; an ongoing land-grab and genocide, a massive any-which-way-you-can splitting up of a whole continent's resources, a remarkably raw deal for the taxpayer back east and a phenomenal giveaway to the least scrupulous capitalists on the scene.  But it was also a place of perpetual labor shortage, so that for a brief generation or so, it was a place where, as Orwell explained about Mark Twain's frontier books: "This is how human beings behave when they are not frightened of the sack" and "If you disliked your job you simply hit the boss in the eye and moved further west."  (Whether literally true or not, it was certainly a vision that appealed to people throughout the English-speaking world; nowadays, HR would take another view).

So even though there is hardly a human activity more cooperative, both immediately and at a distance, than technical innovation, and even though there were literally hundreds of counter examples available to anyone with eyes, the movies, pulp fiction, radio drama, and early comic books preferred the idea that the riddles of the universe could be solved – and turned into handy gadgets like giant robots and death rays – by lone, impoverished maniacs in old castle towers, or at least by any handy gazillionaire with a particular bent for good or evil.

All right, so the world was becoming mass-ified, people were becoming interchangeable.  Two world wars demonstrated that the new way of warfare was mass-produced slaughter in which most fighters died of being in the wrong place at the wrong time (e.g. being a British infantrymen sent running into machine gun fire at the Somme, or a Japanese infantryman left to die in a hole in the Pacific).  We could still dig out the occasional Sergeant York or Audie Murphy, and in our pop fiction, Achilles and Hector lived again.  Inventions came out of places like Bell Labs, but we could find the contribution of the Boy Scout in his garage and make that into the holy vision it had all sprung from, bringing back Daedulus – who lived again, even more so, as the hero's kindly older mentor/buddy or the nemesis who wanted to rule the world.  Mass civil disobedience by millions of people liberated millions, but somebody had to stand in front of the camera, and that person could be the Prophet and the Liberator. 

I'm going to suggest that those iconic figures had something going for them that isn't immediately obvious: they were the psychic focus of the Resistance.

The Ranger had to be Lone because the mundane world of the working ranch, railroad, and mine was a depressing, dull place with little freedom to it; the jerks were in charge.  The General Purpose Savior Honky (of whom Jake in Avatar is just the latest incarnation) was never, for example, an official of an international body, or an investigator from the Department of Not Treating the Natives Like Shit; he was some isolated reluctant hero who got dragged into it because he just couldn't stand to see the unfairness of it all.  "Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid … " doesn't work if the man is working for the Bureau of Social Welfare and has a large backup team of specialists. 

Nowadays community is a positive buzzword, and certainly most of us like to feel connected, but we want to feel connected as individuals, not as Rank 27, File 132.  We don't always know what each other are feeling, and we even like that we have to figure it out, and that other people have to figure us out.  There are countless myths about the tricky Old Coyote, and the mighty Hercules, and the wily Sindbad, but hardly any about the replaceable Bob.  What surprise is there, then, that when our culture brought forth  mass-produced entertainment for mass society, the characters were colorful, larger than life, exaggerated, mythic, iconic – i.e. thoroughly individual?

A real-life Joker or Riddler would be caught in almost no time, by a team of cops; you'd get him on surveillance cameras.  A real life mad scientist might possibly murder many of us with a germ, but probably it would look like a flu epidemic; he's not going to build a giant robot and hold Chicago hostage.  Look at the actual level of violent street crime in a major city in the developed world, calculate the odds of someone being on the scene just when it's happening, and how much work is there, really, for The Shadow,  or even for Mike Hammer? 

But it wasn't about that.  It was about the dream world and the dream time, where we are all individuals.

And not just any individuals.  We are all the princes and princesses of Fairyland.  In Fairyland there is one person that really matters, and that person's becoming or being recognized as who they are supposed to be is what the story is about.

Because Fairyland is a metaphor for growing up.  Sleeping Beauty has an encounter with something forbidden and falls into an apparent coma, along with everybody else in her life, but when the right guy kisses her she wakes up.  Snow White hangs out with a crowd of sexless little men until she is fed something superficially attractive by a cruel, envious older woman, and when she is kissed, she too wakes up and assumes her rightful role as queen.  Peter Parker, as a teenager, suddenly gets magic juice in his blood and becomes much more powerful, but when he refuses to use that power responsibly, he loses his family, and must struggle to atone.  A moment of pity and compassion for a helpless, dying being both dooms and ennobles Hal Jordan to become the Green Lantern. **  Diana, Princess of Themyscira, gives up the dull princess gig of hanging around being awesome with the other Amazons, and goes out and fights in the real world of sexism, supervillains, and inconvenience, and emerges as much more of a person – indeed, as Wonder Woman.

And growing up, like it or not, is a matter of becoming more, and not less, individual; even in cultures that don't value individuality in the  same flamboyant, public sense that the West has tended to, finding out who you are matters, and that "who you are" will be different from who everyone else is. ***

So here's the rub of it, I think: modern mass society, for a long time, had not much room for individuality, and in many ways was no place for grownups.  As consumers and citizens, we were more desirable if we behaved like adolescents, running after every fad and desperately trying to outcompete the neighbors on superficial matters.  Whatever we might lose as workers and creators could be compensated for with better robots and more dumbed down jobs, but the economy really, really needed people whose lives could be changed by getting a new car, the right brand of beer, a healthy organic cereal for the kids that moms can feel good about, a great night's sleep, and breast implants.   (Not necessarily all at once).

That's not a grownup thought pattern.

As far back as the mid-1950s,  Paul Goodman, in Growing up Absurd, was noting that there was less and less room for adults in the contemporary world.  Our pop culture was a daydream of the most attractive idea there is for adolescents: growing up.  But our economy and society increasingly said, dream, but don't do.

I'm hardly the first person to note that when we raise our kids to think that virtue should win out over vice (perhaps after a long struggle), or that being true to yourself can be more important than fitting in, or that the people in authority are not the best judges of who deserves compassion, or any of the rest, we are raising rebels.  How many movie villains have we heard sneer at the hero's best qualities?

The thwarted hero/heroine quest is a metaphor for something else, too: for the disenabling of maturity, for removing the possibility of growing up.  The trouble is, it's a shitty story.  "And so, having heard the warning of the Cranky Crone of Curmudgeondom, Prince Daring rethought the whole thing, went home and made up with his parents, married a local girl who bored him silly, and settled into his pleasant sincecure."  So you can't thwart the development and keep them reading.

But you can teach them not to value it, and that's what I think our particular stage of consumer capitalism is doing to the young, and is really the reason why it's hard to imagine the birth of new iconic heroes/heroines/villains.  One of the most common defenses against maturity is my old and much-loathed enemy, snark.   If Spider-Man is just an angsty teenager, if Batman is merely a campy bodybuilder with a psychotic tendency to ultra-violence, if Sherlock Holmes is only an autistic freak who works on weird police cases … then their stories can be entertaining without mattering.  And it's easy to sell that version, because first of all the real buyers, the distribution and sales personnel, are not kids.  Not chronologically of course, but also not emotionally.  It's all more fun if it's mocked as you're doing it, if we all feel in on the secret, if we just treat it as another turn of the Hero's Journey Crank.

And that kid in the corner?  He doesn't know what he's missing, though he may be aware that nothing quite scratches the itch.  She has no clue what's wrong with all the snarkiness surrounding the story; all stories as far as she knows are embedded in snark.

I don't know enough about the game world to know whether Marc is right, that game narrative is in its infancy.  Maybe games can be made snark and irony proof, and maybe they can be made to reward a world in which Player One grows up.  I hope so.  Because honestly, when the day comes, and it's coming quickly, that we pass the reins of civilization to younger hands, I'm sort of hoping it'll be to Flash Gordon, Philip Marlowe, Stephanie Plum, or Harry Potter – and not to Bart Simpson.

* It might not be a horse, of course, of course.  People of a certain age have now begun to hum.

**I assume we all know that sometime around adolescence, young men have that strange awakening of the ability to discern other people's suffering as important, and that a young man who does not awaken in that way is forever stunted? (Depictions of this run the gamut from the high end of Thomas Hardy's "The Man He Killed" all the way down to Barry Longyear's Enemy Mine).  Or have the more brutal versions of pop entertainment won out completely, and am I just talking to myself?

***This is one reason why our master poet of childhood named, recurringly, the characters in his best works "Whos."  Because ultimately, it is their individuality or personhood that matters; a person's a person, no matter how small,  and the big person who defends this asserts firmly that "I meant what I said, and I said what I meant."

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Book Doctor's Little Black Bag: English and French Scenes and Beats: learning to s...

English and French Scenes and Beats: learning to see your story's mechanical and innate rhythms


Editor or agent says your story is good but "wanders"

Abundant notes scrawled in the margin saying "why is this here?"Cut way back" or "Move somewhere else." You can see the point of the notes but haven't a clue how to comply without screwing things up.

You've been very careful about viewpoint and you know you wrote it all in limited viewpoint, either single viewpoint throughout or one viewpoint at a time, but several editors—especially the more careless ones who don't seem to be able to remember character names or events—are telling you that you need to learn to write in viewpoint.

You notice yourself that you seem to be spending too much time on setups and you've had to repeat some of them multiple times (a cab ride across town that happens because your hero needs to meet with two people who live far apart, an EVA to replace the Astrocrevulator for the fourth time, Nellie walking her dog hoping to meet Allen, Allen crouching in the parking lot trying to get up the nerve to rescue that poor abused dog from Nellie), and you're sure many of them are unnecessary.

Editor or agent (or sometimes critique group if they're astute) is complaining that everything in the story always goes on a little too long and seems to just trail off.


The heart of what I did as a book doctor was to repair some mixture and connection of the plot (the innate rhythm) and the presentation (the mechanical rhythm). The key to that was being able to see them clearly, and because of my theatrical training, mostly I learned to see the innate and mechanical rhythms by using the analytic tools I acquired as a stage director. This is a long piece and I'm not entirely sure I've been clear enough, or can be, but if you can learn to do this, you'll be amazed at how far and fast you can move your work.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Things continue at Father Lucifer ...

Father Lucifer, a novel in progress: Father Lucifer: Middle Part of Chapter Two:

I knew Breit hated to be awakened before nine, so I phoned him at 8:30 from the lobby of the City‑County Building. The hawwnkks and brakkk‑k‑k‑s from his end could have been a walrus receiving the Heimlich maneuver.
"Detectives in Denver are unlicensed," I said. "Anyone can be one. Even an ex‑felon illiterate oaf like me. They were going to start licensing them a couple years ago but the state board that controls licensing said detectives were not important enough, at least not as important as beauticians, so they didn't." It had taken me about fifteen minutes to learn this as I wandered from office to office. "But if you're going to take clients and accept checks, you have to register a trade name, and now that I've been around here asking, the tax guys know you're out there. I thought Nasty John's Detective Agency didn't have a real good salesy ring to it, know what I'm saying?"
"Yeah." Hrawk‑bbb‑hrawk‑k‑k. "Yeah. All right, well, give us a name, list yourself as fifty percent owner. Some name someone your age would like."
"Beer and Chicks Detective Agency."
"You know what I mean."
I did, so I called Leigh, since she's my consultant on what's cool. It was also my chance to make sure she was on her way to school, which she was.


The Father Lucifer site has been slightly reorganized, so that the three sections of Chapter 1 are now a single post, cleverly called Chapter 1, and considerably cleaned up typographically  as well.  I'll try to do that at the end of every chapter.


The magic number, I am realizing, is three; whenever three people ask me a question via email, I feel compelled to put the answer out in public.  So here's a quick answer to the question "What's this Father Lucifer thing all about, Barnes?"

Way back when Raymond Chandler wrote "The Simple Art of Murder," he spelled out how the then-new hardboileds would be defined against the then-conventional "manor mysteries" (now often called cozies).  Pointing to the work of Cain and Hammett (and indirectly to his own) he laid out the basic idea: the kind of world where life is cheap and great evil lurks, a man who is "not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid," and an investigation that one way or another turns over the rocks of human evil (and perhaps sometimes surprises us with finding a flower rather than a snake).  The idea was the kind of world where murders really are committed, even if in many ways the story was highly stylized, using at least somewhat more realistic means and for somewhat more realistic purposes.  

Since this involved a much more violent world than, say, Lord Peter Wimsey or even Sherlock Holmes commonly visited, it helped to have the detective be a healthy, strong young man (in most of the classic Chandlers the detective is somewhere under 35, sometimes under 30).  But mystery readers are series readers, and after a while, the new wave of detectives were getting pretty long in the tooth, and it wasn't really credible for them to take a beating anymore.  Furthermore, the paraphenalia of film noir/LA hardboiled was getting to be as historically remote as hansom cabs and steam trains ...

So a new generation of hardboiled writers invented it all over again, in a new world of disillusioned Vietnam vets, heroin, corrupt intelligence agencies, rock and roll, ex-hippies with secrets, and all that.  One of the great inventors of the new hardboileds was my friend and encourager, James Crumley.  (If you are a mystery fan and you have not read his The Last Good Kiss, go do that.  Just trust me.  You need to.)

And once again, the series are getting long in the tooth, and we now have fifty and sixty year old detectives from that wave who think too much and can't take a solid beating, get really drunk, fuck someone inappropriate, take another beating, and drive four hundred miles, all in one chapter, and just be a little achey the next day.

So, I said to myself ... "Self, when Chandler was writing his young men, he was in his forties and fifties.  And thanks to teaching in a small college with a large number of ex-cons, and working some jobs where I was around young men who have had, let's say, police troubles ... I know enough to write in that scene, and I have friends who can be my beta readers and run-pasters, and it's time for another reboot on the hardboiled."

Hence Hal Dimmesdale:  twenty-five, chip on shoulder, good at violence, and maybe Otnay Ootay Ightbray, but under all the roughness, there is "a man who is not himself mean."  

And that's what I'm up to, and what I've been trying to sell my own agent, and a variety of publishers, for several years, generally to a chorus of "But the mystery audience is old people and they want to read about detectives their own age," coupled with "I don't like how brutal this guy is,  or the ugliness in his past,  or the way he doesn't respect intellectual detection."   Well, we shall see whether anyone besides me likes the idea ... and in this new self-pub world, I can find out.
 Special shout-outs to Patrick Rhone and Rob Brown.  Patrick asked who the smartest bloggers were, Rob said I was one, and Patrick believed him.  Two down and seven billion to go....

A couple of small notes about other things afoot: the newsletter went out a few days ago, and if you were meaning to subscribe, you still can; usually when someone adds a newsletter subscription I send along the most recent newsletter, unless another one is really imminent.  Just email me and let me know you want to be put on the mailing list for it.

Also, for the collectors among us, I'm doing some inventory reduction at my eBay Store, and I've got a few last-ofs being auctioned this week.  Last easy chance you'll have at a signed first edition of Orbital Resonance, signed complete paperback set of the Meme Wars tetralogy, and last chance at any signed TimeRaider ("Dan Samson") novels.  Historically about half the time the auctions go to someone making the minimum bid (a.k.a. the former regular price), so if your collection needs any of those, now's the time.


Monday, January 23, 2012

Reading, boys, personhood, all that stuff, redux (Latin for "to quack again")

I'll start off this time with some bits and pieces for your consideration:

•I was listening to a recorded interview with John Lennon; he said that many teenage boys start to learn the guitar because they think it will help them get girls. "The tragedy," he said, "is that the only boys that trick works for are the ones who realize that the guitar is more interesting than the girl."

•Robert Louis Stevenson said that he wrote Treasure Island in part at the request of his stepson who asked for a book with "pirates and no kissing." Actually it contains practically no women—just Jim Hawkins's female relatives, who run the inn while he's off chasing pirates. There's also not a lot of relationship, as nearly all the connections are purely functional—the intrepid treasure hunters are friends but they're mainly coworkers, and so, in a different way, are the pirates on the other side.

•It's been out for a while, but I just happened across it recently: There's no such thing as a reading test, by E.D. Hirsch, the famous promoter of the idea of cultural literacy, and Robert Pondiscio, his longtime associate at Core Knowledge. Their arguments are interesting and worthwhile in their own right, but I'm particularly struck by one body of research they cite: the one that shows that decoding skill is much less important in reading comprehension than interest, that poor readers reading things they understand and take an interest in out-comprehend good readers reading about matters of no interest/understanding, and the terrible Catch-22 that kids who haven't been exposed to much plain old general knowledge (of exactly the type that many ed majors are taught to dismiss as "mere rote learning"), not having any way to connect to material, can't make much use of the reading strategies they're being taught.

•Years after it first ran, this is still one of the most-read articles in Slate, returning to the top 5 for a week out of every month or so. If it had appeared in the New York Times, Slate would probably have run one of their "Where does the Times find these women?" apparently endless series about it, but it does look at what appears to be a real phenomenon rather than a trend confined to the southern parts of island of Manhattan: ambitious, driven young women who don't seem to be able to find their male equivalents, and so settle into unsatisfying long term sexual relationships with amiable doofuses who are just drifting along. The takeaway for my purposes here is the last paragraph:

And yet while young men's failures in life are not penalizing them in the bedroom, their sexual success may, ironically, be hindering their drive to achieve in life. Don't forget your Freud: Civilization is built on blocked, redirected, and channeled sexual impulse, because men will work for sex. Today's young men, however, seldom have to. As the authors of last year's book Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality put it, "Societies in which women have lots of autonomy and authority tend to be decidedly male-friendly, relaxed, tolerant, and plenty sexy." They're right. But then try getting men to do anything.

•Another piece from Slate: mostly the piece is about the use of value-added as a way to find the good teachers for such administrative purposes as merit pay and sorting out babies and bathwater, and because it's by an economist describing economic research, it manages not to mention much of anything interesting that happens in classrooms. Nonetheless, what it does reveal is that the effects of good teachers are extremely persistent; the right fifth grade teacher will still be suppressing teen pregnancies when the kids are sixteen, boosting their graduation rate when they're eighteen, and raising their overall success in work, military, or college when they are in their early twenties.

•Finally, a source I'm just going to grit my teeth and admit I'm using. One of the first "scientific" advice columnists, writing about psychology and spouting vast amounts of very right wing nonsense (and with a number of unintentionally hilarious catchphrases), was George W. Crane (father of a couple of right wing Congressmen; dear me, what a memorial!) But in his daily column The Worry Clinic, one catch phrase he kept repeating, that I am forced to admit appears to be true, was, "Remember that every human being is wearing an invisible tattoo that reads, 'I want to feel important.'"

Now, by the rule of seven, I know I've just flooded your registers and made myself completely incomprehensible. So it goes … let us forge on into the tulgey wood, and do ignore those whiffling and burbling sounds all around, it's the local wildlife.


Those stray bits all have quite a bit to do with boys, and reading, and all that, which I'm going to revisit again.

There are some predictable upheavals and uproars that happen when the subject of boys and reading is brought up.

Critics of the current state of YA will claim:
•there's not much role for boys in modern YA
•it has become a girl-focused field in which boys are relegated to being Trophy Boyfriends, Supportive Nerds, and Gay Sidekicks, and
•one way or another more traditional boys are being left out of books, and
•that's why so many boys stop reading fiction for pleasure after about fifth grade.

Defenders will point to
•the need for young women, gay men, and people of color to have characters who look like them,
•larger and more passionate audiences for YA than ever before (depending on whose estimate you use, it's quite possible more boys are reading more books—it's just that so many more girls are reading that the overall proportion of boys reading is dropping)*
•dozens of boy characters of indisputably traditional masculinity in various recent books, and
•a slightly retro point: if the poor boyses are feeling left out because they're not the undivided center of attention, after having it all to themselves for so long, well, boohoo, why don't the little sissies stop whining and just man up about it?

The critics can then say that there we have that anti-boy attitude in action, and that they're talking about overall trends and the Spirit of the Age.

The defenders can retort that they didn't start the fight, and if there are that many exceptions around, the rule is not proven.

Eventually, all the YA authors, critics, and librarians meet each other for a fist fight out back of the ALA.

Tragically, that one doesn't happen. It might make ALA a buttload more fun to attend, but such is life, people are so often blind to its possibilities.

Instead, what happens is that many people get to feel very, very important in the cultural struggle, and in shaping the next generation and getting them all edumatated and stuff, which as we all know is very important because eventually somebody's got to be able to read the directions to keep our life-support machinery running.

They get to feel very important. Dr. Crane would be so proud.

The neat mirror image both sides have of each other allows nearly everyone involved to feel both terribly misunderstood and absolutely right, a wonderful combination if the critics, librarians, authors, and publishers (CLAP for short) are to feel really important. It's a perfect coffee-house snark-off in that everyone can treat the other side's arguments with a knowing reduction:

"Right, no wonder he's writing for teenage straight boys, he's just doing that man thing about what a big weenie he has."

"Yeah, so it's not enough for her to be a Sex in the City re-enactor, she wants everyone to be, especially the boys."

"Meatheads rule everything else in the schools, so now every book has to be about sensitive meathead wangst."

"Girls like to dream about impossible, unimaginably strange worlds, like one where hot guys have a passion for library interns."

Is everybody important yet?

Here's a thought. Maybe there's a flip side to Dr. Crane's bit of wisdom there. Maybe it's not just that people want to feel important. Maybe it's also that people hate, loathe, fear, and despise anyone who tells them they are not important.

And maybe because our culture has a thing for dichotomies, or maybe due to too much Hollywood movie programming, or maybe it's human nature, but one of the most common ways to improve people's feeling of being important is to tell them that someone else isn't. Maybe Stevenson's stepson, who wanted "no kissing", and had grown up as a boy in a female-dominated household, was looking for a feeling of importance, so he quite rightly sought a subject on which boys could feel important (pirates) but then he quite humanly (let's give the guy a break, he was twelve years old) also decided to declare something his mother and sister, good Victorians that they all were, probably valued more than he did—i.e. kissing. In fact, his indulgent stepfather gave him a whole pirate story with NO GURLZ! to be anachronistic about it.

I'm skipping around that bit of psychobabble, "self-esteem," because it seems to me that people can manage pretty well while thinking of themselves as utter turds, and even recover from a self-image as fuckups, scoundrels, or whatever, as long as they think it matters. I base this on nothing empirical whatever; I just think a drunken wife-beating Klansman who believes that it matters that he drinks too much, beats his wife, and hates people baselessly, is at least one step closer to reform than someone who mentally adds, and I don't give a shit. This may explain how many religions seem to save people from their own worst sides, even though it is not possible for all of those religions to be true in all details at the same time; they envision a world in which, for one reason or another, an individual human soul matters, and therefore both crimes and kindness, both meanness and nobility, are relevant, and my decision to go to the devil is not purely my own affair.**  (Nor is it purely anyone else's; see Form Letter 9).

In short, maybe it's not just self-esteem (gosh, darn it, people like me …); maybe it's that people ache for the sense that what they do matters, that they are important, not in the sense of an inflated title and the ability to make miserable underlings listen to their pontifications, but in the sense that the universe really would be different without them. (Even if it would be better without them, that still means they are important!)

I'm trying to avoid speaking for anyone on this, not even for my own subcategory of straight white American males with decent educations who read a lot as children. But it seems to me that I rarely if ever found myself thinking about Robin Hood, or Philip Marlowe, or Flandry of Terra, "And he's a Caucasian with a penis, just like me! This affirms that I am wonderful because I am a Caucasian with a penis!"*** The effect was something much more subtle, something that I don't think I ever thought consciously at all: The white guy matters. The white guy brings mattering-ness, a.k.a. importance, to the story.

When I was twelve I had one of those odd transformative experiences of falling through the page and into Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World, the granddaddy of Jurassic Park and every other dinosaurs-alive story. If I could show a few readers as good a time as I had then, on the sunny porch in the time between finishing mowing the lawn and going off to a pickup softball game, I would be more or less forced to consider myself a success as a writer. I don't remember noticing anything about the whiteness of Professor Challenger and Sir John and all those dinosaur hunters, until a minor character—"our Negro, Zambo"—intruded. Zambo was bringing up the supplies with which Challenger and Co. would be escaping from the deadly plateau, having fallen afoul of a batch of "natives" who lived there among the dinosaurs.**** Challenger's lot were badly outnumbered and in deep crap, Zambo was loyal as only a fictional non-white can be … and very big and strong … so I thought when he turned up that they'd hand a machete and a rifle to him, and maybe to the trusted muleskinners that came with him, and even up the odds a bit.

No way. He had to climb back down to wait with the mules.

It didn't make Zambo look unimportant, to me; it made Challenger look like he was having a momentary lapse into stupidity. Within a year or two I figured it out, and then it made Challenger seem, retroactively, like a blowhard and a dork.

But I am guessing that for a kid with African ancestors, that dismissal probably stung with the force and precision you get by telling someone they are unimportant. It wasn't that Zambo was cool and it was as unfair as dismissing Lando Calrissian from Star Wars would have been—the guy was barely even there, and then right when his arm and gun might have made a big difference, he wasn't even important enough to stand around being stalwart or maybe die heroically. He was unimportant and anybody who identified with him would have felt that.

So I'm going to propose a radical notion here: what if instead of making the CLAP of YA feel important … we all agreed to find our own importance, not step on each others' too much … and concentrate on convincing the readers they matter? Let's get real here; it is not at all infrequent that a character of a given category (race/gender/culture/etc) is avoided, or replaced with someone who has the outward trappings but not the inward nature, and this happens in fiction generally, but when it happens in YA, some reader someplace who is just beginning to kind of like this reading thing is stung with unimportance. They can tell when we do it, folks, and whether it's a troop of Space Scouts that is all straight white males, or a girl who goes to high school with only gay mixed race werewolves, if there's a big flag saying Unimportant people omitted, the damn kids will see that flag and read it. They're not stupid.

Now here's the thing: what I think may be most flagged with Unimportant is not girls or boys, any particular race, or any particular religious faith. For reasons that might have to do with my previous piece about boys and toilets, I think the signal that is shutting out more kids than anything else is the one that says Your relationships are important, your accomplishments are not. It's been a cliché in YA for a long time—you could argue that all the male characters in A Wrinkle in Time are taught this by authorial sledgehammer, and god knows there are plenty of YAs in which one way or another it turns out it's friendship, or family, or true love, etc. that triumph. It will be a long time, I think, before you read an approving Young Adult novel about, for example, a young gymnast with a shot at the Olympic team who dumps her boyfriend because he's taking up too much of her time and emotional focus (and you'll have a whole room full of those before you see an approving story in which, say, a guy ditches his girlfriend to have more time for the debate team).

This is not because it's humanly impossible; nor is it particularly unforgivable; and it is not actually a conscious position as much as it's just a logical consequence of some widespread beliefs in the literary community, such as that stories about relationships are more artistically worthy than ones about adventures (for a visit to the awe and majesty of death and the horror at the heart of ordinary life, I will stack up Lawrence Sargent Hall's "The Ledge" against Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find" anytime, but in one, the situation is the focus, and in the other it's the relationships). It's not that relationships don't matter, but relationships by their nature don't have goals (or shouldn't—if you've ever been trapped in a conversation with someone who wants to set goals for a relationship, you know what I'm talking about, and may you never know). It's not that relationships are unimportant, but if they have the only importance there is, if actions and achievements are relegated to unimportant window dressing, then the agency that makes for personhood is dismissed with them, and thus the personhood of any character who ismainly a do-er rather than a be-er. 

And that brings me to the various accounts of male haplessness and lostness in current YA. Has our literary culture out-Hamleted Hamlet? After all, everyone says the guy takes no action, but in the course of the play he launches at least four major schemes and plots, and he does kill five people. He would seem to be giving action its due, and be perhaps a bit overactive by current standards.

When I think about the best teachers I've had who were people rather than books, the main thing I remember is how vital they made it seem. Poetry, axiomatic set theory, African post-colonial politics, nineteenth-century stagecraft, judo, close reading, realistic set design, Goju-ryu, Early Latin—those teachers made sure we knew it was important. And because we tried to do it, we became important too, and the knowledge stuck because it was attached to our importance.

Maybe we're teaching too many kids to look for their importance in the wrong place, and they're resisting it like sensible people would—the boys more than the girls because they have more of a heritage of agency, of being important because of what they do as much as because of who they are.

I have known many dedicated artists and scientists who somehow raised happy children on a mix of benign neglect and brief-but-intense attention paid mostly to "who is this delightful person becoming?" I have known many people who tried to be full-time professional parents, dedicated their lives to "having a great relationship with my kids, " who produced lost kids who had a hard time being happy.  Being is always somebody else's job to infer about you, and they can re-infer at any time, so you never get to keep it, and your importance comes from what you "are" in their eyes; your personhood is dependent, even if it is dependent on a person who loves you (or the you they imagine and construct) with all his/her heart.  But doing is your own job and once done, can only be taken away from you by lies in which you acquiesce; if you climb up on the roof all by yourself without permission, your mother can decide you are a bad person, but she can't take climbing onto the roof away from you.  (This, by the way, is the point, to me, of one of my very favorite short stories, Philip Roth's "The Conversion of the Jews.")

Not, again, to say that we must now all write tales of mindless action, but consider how many young women, gay boys, and members of various mistreated minorities have managed to enjoy "boy books" full of action. Might that be because a person taking action is someone with whom any child will want to identify?  Because for kids, who are in process of becoming persons, personhood is the ultimate attractor, and everything else secondary?  If so, then maybe we should stop telling the boys that they need to read these books to be more like the characters in them, i.e. appealing to bookish girls, and start saying "It's a book about doing ... challenging ... facing ... struggling with ..." all those specifications for do.   Offhand, I remember that as a boy, I adored Call it Courage, The Sky and the Forest, and Island of the Blue Dolphins—nonwhite heroes all, and in the case of Blue Dolphins, an actual girl. But all of them doing an immense amount -- and therefore, persons.


*I don't suppose anyone will notice that this means that many, many more teens of all genders are reading, which of course, is good news, and therefore not news at all. I think we should give all the credit for that to the first pop star or actor to publicly say s/he had nothing to do with it.

**See the quote that is the epigram of FatherLucifer for one way of phrasing this. And that epigram is a bit of a clue about where the book is going. Actually one of these days I should do a piece about the epigrams in my books; there are more clues there than many critics imagine, and very often to the reader's exasperated cry of "What was it about?" my best answer is, look at that little quote at the beginning.

*** Please, nobody name a band "Caucasian with a Penis." Just don't.

****Sadly, I now realize, none of the "natives" looked the least bit like Raquel Welch. I don't know how I failed to notice this at the time.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Newsletter is imminent.Wagons are alerted,women and children are in a circle,National Guard sent somewhere safe

My irregular newsletter always contains news of my dull life, some blatant commercial pitchery-beggary, special offers for subscribers, and a longish personal essay that I won't be publishing anywhere else.  Usually that essay is of particular interest to devoted Barnes fans or to collectors; sometimes I ask people's opinions, sometimes I fill in some details about mysteries of my career.  (I suppose that answering questions, but only for a select group, is pretty much the definition of Approachably Reclusive).

Anyway, if you've been meaning to sign up for it, click that "email me" button over to the right and let me know.  It's free and you can de-subscribe anytime.   If you're already a subscriber, it's going to be along within a day or so.  And if you're a subscriber and suddenly thinking "Oh, gawd, not another one," now's the time to let me know you'd like to be off the mailing list.

The Book Doctor's Little Black Bag: When you can't finish a book because the characters have taken over

The book is acquiring new characters and scenes at a furious rate. You're a bit surprised but very pleased that you can keep track of them all ....

You like your characters better than your real friends, mainly because your characters do not roll their eyes at each other and desperately try to flee when they see you coming ...

You really, really love to say "My characters took over my story."

Cure: this week in The Book Doctor's Little Black Bag.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Warmed up leftovers, reading protocols, collapse of civilization, and various

About the long-promised boys and reading piece: Looking at the situation as it stands this morning, my blog piece about boys and reading still seems to be inflating and I'm not sure it yet says what I want it to say. Maybe it will stop growing and start cohering by next Monday. Meanwhile, though, I had this rerun that had been unavailable for a while, one of my five "The Well-Bitten Hand" columns from Helix SF. This piece first appeared under the title Hopping and Bopping Through Dipping and Flipping, and like pretty much any nonfiction I write, it digresses all over the place. Since this version is about 30% new material from the Helix version, as you might guess, it digresses even more.
Anyway, I did want to get this back out there, eventually, because I think it's of some interest to other writers and to readers generally, and since I'm having a hard time getting the new work done, here's a bit of the re-warmed and re-seasoned old.
One of the things I do for money (that I will admit to in public) is statistical semiotics. Most conventional flavors of semiotics are about what signs do and how they do it. The semiotician tends to look at the operations surrounding a sign one at a time:
•how the driver sees a newfangled red triangle yield sign and knows she doesn't have the right of way, even though all the yield signs she's seen before were yellow
•why blood in the stool narrows or widens your doctor's range of possible unpleasant things to try on you
•how a unicorn in a space suit on a book cover tells a reader to pick this one up or leave it alone.
Semiotics can be described recursively as the study of semiosis—how a thing becomes a sign, and so how a thing means. For example, a conventional semiotician can tell you things about how you observe that the three ficvurts in this monosench can be abgnarled from context, how your dog learns to read your mood, and how a picture of Albert Einstein on the cover tells a reader that this is a pop-science book with a possible admixture of New Agey nonsense.
Statistical semiotics deals with populations of signs and their emergent properties.* It is concerned with questions like:
•the tipping point where a hateful epithet for a minority group becomes socially dangerous to use even when none of the group are present
•how the cell phone flip-with-hair-toss that Alicia Silverstone invented and developed on the set of Clueless became de rigueur for teenage girls in the industrial world within a decade
•how the blue-collar white guys started using the language of Reaganomics, and moved away from the language of the New Deal.
•the way in which Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky precisely skirts the edge of meaning, so that if you were to change one more English word in it to a nonsense word, the message's clarity would change drastically.
•the growth, spread and decline of any population of signs or sign-complexes from end-zone dances to leopard print
•the gradual and partial displacement of Yeah right (without the comma) by It's all good.
If I haven't made it clear enough with all those examples, I hope I've at least made it complicated enough to inhibit the sort of science fiction convention panel "polymath" who can spout a single inane sentence about any subject.
Because most of the one-liners about these phenomena seem to like to use the words meme and memetics, and are badly mis-focused at least from the standpoint of someone who pays attention and reads the research in the field, I prefer to call myself a statistical semiotician, not a memeticist, and I call these things-that-spread-through-the-noosphere semiotic replicators, fads, fashions, ideas, and pretty much anything other than memes, preferring to carry the rags and tatters of the concept around in my hands rather than pack it into unsuitable baggage.
In the last decade, I was paid to do statistical semiotic studies aimed at answering questions like:
•why did anti-iPod advertising by Apple's competitors so consistently fall flat?
•what reasons did teenage boys cite to other teenage boys for going or not going to the prom?
•what happened to consumer loyalty at a famously environmentally-friendly company when news stories revealed some very ugly union-busting and benefits-cheating aimed at their famously smiling, helpful employees?
Now, all of that is context for one study that I did in early 2005, which I still keep coming back to because I think it has profound implications for anyone who lives by writing, or tries to, in our present world. I was trying to determine how people were reading a small city magazine. We knew who our target demographic was, and we had some idea how that differed from our actual demographic, so the idea was to see:
• what material most attracted the target demographics
•how the target demographics interpreted all the magazine's content, including material that wasn't of interest to them
•what use they made of their interpretations
•what use people not in the target demographic were making of the magazine.
In the years since I did that work, I've returned to it often, and I think it has important implications for speculative fiction of all kinds.**
"How people read" has been an interesting question to semioticians with an interest in spec-fic for a long time. Traditional semiotic approaches have argued that one reason why some people can't read science fiction is that they lack the reading protocols for processing it; probably the most famous formulation of this was Samuel R. Delaney's MLA address, which is still resonating in periodic uproars in the field, such as these by James Gunn and Jo Walton.
A reading protocol is a process or method for making sense out of a piece of text, and it is often expressed as a direction or guideline, i.e. a sentence in the imperative mood, but it is very doubtful*** that anyone actually formulates and uses protocols in that way except in research. Probably no actual reading protocol in any actual person is expressed internally in words—surely nobody actually memorizes some rule like "regard all mentions of the same name in a book as being the same person unless instructed otherwise****," or "assume a female lead character without a mate will want to acquire one, and that her acquiring one is what the book is about," or "if the viewpoint character is a detective describing a crime scene, watch for clues."
But people do seem to read as if they had a large number of such rules in their heads, and in much the same way that they buy shampoo as if they were trying to reach the highest isosatisfaction curve in an n-dimensional satisfaction space, and people turn on their headlights at dusk as if they each had a threshold for how many lights on they had to see from oncoming cars. Estimating that as if (statistician sense of "estimating" – inferring an approximation of the structure, parameters, constants, and coefficients from the data) can be a useful source of insight over in that statistical semiotic world where I sometimes make what is sometimes a living.
Applied to individual, interpretive semiotics, the idea draws some fairly well-deserved mockery. Usually the SF-courant semioticians have applied the idea of reading protocols to the problem of why some otherwise proficient readers have a hard time with sf, and the argument has been that it is because they lack some critically necessary tactics in their reading protocols (tactics that are nevertheless acquired by every twelve-year-old geek automatically). "Norton pushed the plug into the jack in his head," the semioticians assert, may cause the "sf-impaired" to visualize a man with a tire jack driven through his head, shoving an electric or drain plug against it. "The yacht descended on a pillar of fire, coming to rest atop the castle keep" requires that the reader automatically consider the possibility that a nautical term might refer to a spacecraft and that the pillar of fire be literal rather than a biblical reference, and this is supposedly a skill that must be acquired, which is beyond the gifts of some PhD's in literature but well within the reach of the average middle-schooler. "Today the blue sun occulted the red just at noon, and for a rare moment on Fairbairn, shadows retreated under their objects and nearly vanished," is supposed to be very nearly incomprehensible to these hypothetical sf-protocol-deficient readers because they will think "occulted" has something to do with the occult, "on Fairbairn" refers to something located on a person by that name, and that shadows always behave as they do on Earth, so that these sf-impaired people will not grasp that by describing a shadowless noon on a clear day as unusual, which it is not on Earth, the writer is indicating that we are in a place different from Earth.
Generally such arguments appears in papers by English professors who love sf and can't persuade their colleagues to touch the stuff. Poor things, they'd be grabbing up Hamilton, Doc Smith, Heinlein, and Gibson if only they had the sf-processing module implanted, but alas, they somehow just can't.
Odd, isn't it, that a mind that gets poststructuralist literary theory, historical materialism, Beowulf, Chaucer, and the metaphysical poets is supposed to croggle beyond decrogglability at "The door dilated?"
The "deficient reading protocol" is a comforting explanation, and like all comforting explanations, should be regarded with some suspicion.
Once again, I don't mean to imply that there are no reading protocols, or even that the imperative-sentence estimates of actually wordless protoocols have no value. It seems to me that there are significant differences in reading protocols among readers; a person who does not regularly read sf will probably not get nearly as much out of,
Bishop Yoshiko Baker polished the diamond-encrusted sapiosaur crucifix one last time, briefly praying that it would be acceptable. She slung it on her left shoulder, out of the way of her holster. "Start count," she said. She waited through the countdown, and walked forward into the Cretaceous.
as the experienced sf reader who begins at once constructing time-traveling missionaries, greater sexual equality,  a species of intelligent dinosaur which is apparently neither altogether friendly nor hostile to the missionary, further blending between our present-day cultures, and so forth.
What I am saying is that there is a serious flaw in the standard sf-friendly semiotic explanation for why some people who enjoy reading can't enjoy sf and even report not being able to understand it.  It seems very improbable that they would start liking sf  if they would just install  a couple of critical modules in their reading protocols. By the definition of the problem, they enjoy some other kinds of reading, they have therefore learned some other protocols.  Why should someone who has mastered "watch for mythic allusions and motifs" be  incapable of learning, "treat neologisms as clues to the underlying social relations"?
I think the better explanation is something closer to Roland Barthes's idea in The Pleasure of the Text: a large part of the pleasure of reading is in using the reading protocols you like to use and using them well—feeling the familiar tools in our mental grasp and enjoying using them expertly in pretty much the same way a chef likes the feel of his favorite cleaver, a cartoonist uses a favorite trick of the brush, or a carpenter likes to feel a carefully cut piece fit in tight, true, and flush. Some people like some tools better than others, and the sf reading protocol is simply pleasant to some people and not to others.
So my guess is that if readers encountering a new genre are forced to use an unpleasant-for-them tool frequently (or a neutral tool in an unpleasant way or for an unpleasant purpose), they may cooperate at first, and perhaps even try to learn the new protocol if they don't have it. However, if they continue reading the offending genre, after repeatedly finding that they can't understand it without having to do this unpleasant kind of reading, they will first dismiss the content (if I have to get it that way, I don't need to get it) and then perhaps refuse to use the protocol (better not to understand it than to have to understand it that way).
Some fairly litsy friends have asked to read something of mine (I generally point them at Orbital Resonance, A Million Open Doors, One for the Morning Glory, or Mother of Storms, depending on how much I think they like literary allusion and/or sodomy), and come back in a moderate fuddle saying "I don't understand the first few pages, even." It turns out that they did get it; every move they made in the game of reading this was a perfectly good one that any sf fan would do automatically, but, as one friend said, "I don't want to have to do that on every page. Actually, I don't want to do it on any page, but if I just had to do it a little at the beginning, I could deal."
So I'm working off a somewhat different hypothesis from the usual sf-semiotician. I don't think it's incomprehensible or inoperable reading protocols that defeat the would-be sf readers, and especially I don't think that they run into a single word or line of text requiring a new-to-them protocol and give up. I think it's more like an allergy developed by repeated exposures; they keep having to use a protocol that's no fun, and they build up a mental record of unpleasant experiences. Then they are expected to access that record of displeasure over and over as they go through the work. Not only do they have to extrapolate a change in Catholic doctrine because the bishop is female, they have to re-remember the change and the bishop and the woman, over and over, as other things explain it, are explained by it, contradict it, or resonate with it.
After a while that ever-growing log of mildly annoying experiences to remember gets to be so much that there's a complete abdication by the subconscious process that lets people enjoy a story (by experiencing it as a movie on their forehead, a voice over a campfire, a puzzle to be solved, or whatever their particular version of falling into the page is—these too are different reading protocols, of which some more soon).
In other words, rather than a property of individual signs processed by individual protocols, I think the resistance to sf is probably an emergent property of a population of unpleasant sign/protocol interactions. The reader doesn't usually give up at the first one or at the thousandth, but just becomes more reluctant to go on with every new, displeasing interaction.
Now back to what I found on that magazine survey.
When I undertook the project of trying to figure out how people read that little city magazine, I proceeded differently from the way a more conventional semiotician would. Rather than try to analyze my own reading process (under the assumption that other people's processes would be similar) or collecting what other people said about their processes, I went looking for ways to watch large numbers of people read the magazine. It was distributed free in stacks outside the doors of bars and restaurants, many of which advertised in the magazine and had an interest in cooperating. With a little pre-arrangement, I was able to get into line on busy nights, wait through the line as it passed by the free-magazine dumps, watch people pick up and look at the magazine I was interested in, quietly go out the back, record what I'd observed on that trip through the line, and go around outside to get into line again.
There were a striking number of people who had one or more misleading protocols, the term I used for reading protocols that were nearly certain to result in an interpretation different from that intended:
•many people make no distinction between ads and articles
•many people make no distinction between coverage and advocacy
•due to the preceding two points, for some younger women, a magazine that carries ads for clothing they don't like is a bad magazine. Many of our advertisers were boutiques that didn't appeal to our target demographic; their advertisements signaled to women, "This magazine wants you to dress like an expensive skank." Women who were not in the target demographic, on the other hand, tended to like the ads, and by transference, the magazine, though they flipped past most of the articles.
•couples on dates, perhaps because they are desperate to make conversation, snag out sentences at random to pick over, and for those couples, those sentences are what the article is "about". For example, the man said, "It says here that capers are supposed to be overdone," based on a quote from a prominent local chef: "Some people really overdo the capers" [on a particular dish]. His date responded with "Oh, good, I never really got what capers are, so I guess I should read the article."
•Some people treat all text as authoritative and ignore any pictures: a couple was looking at a piece about an interesting building which was visible from where they were standing, and pictured in three separate photos. They were agreeing that they would like to see that building sometime, and wondering where it was.
•Some readers assume the author of the article is the model in the photograph that accompanies it.*****
•Local celeb photo-and-quote profiles were frequently assumed to be by the local celeb, and completely under the control of the subject.
The actual figure from my notes was that in 46% of all observations one or more misleading protocols was being deployed; i.e. the reader was getting something that was not intended, by a process no one thought s/he would use.
Now, probably many of these were quite unskilled readers, possibly people who barely read at any other time, and they weren't trying very hard. You can hardly find lower-priority reading than a city mag read while waiting to get into a popular bar, restaurant, or club, and since most of the population is infrequent readers, I would guess that many of the people I was watching were, too. I'd have seen utterly different phenomena if I'd been hanging around the journals of opinion rack in the Tattered Cover, which was just a couple blocks away. (If anyone had picked up the magazine at all).
Often you can tell exactly what a reader is reading because many people never lose the habit of pointing with an index finger when they change pages, or of occasionally silently mouthing a word they are reading, and many slightly nearsighted people (who don't wear glasses when going out for a social evening) hold the page very close and stare right at the word they are reading.
One thing stood out vividly: about half the observed readers who appeared to be under 35 began each new page by looking at the center, scanning outward from there in a sort of loose clockwise spiral, and then beginning to read in the more conventional left-right-diagonal-down pattern once they had found something of interest. From eavesdropping I could tell they were looking for a word or phrase to catch their attention, checking back to contextualize it, and then reading only as long as the text was still "about" that word or phrase.
As with many of the ad-readers and sentence-excerpters, their conversation indicated that under their protocol, that word or phrase was what the article was "about."******
This at least helped to explain some of the more mysterious letters to the editor: "I liked your article about the mayor" when an article about how to find a parking spot on a busy night had only briefly quoted him; "As a proud Italian-American I had to write—" when the piece was a profile of an architect influenced by Italian Renaissance paintings; and perhaps my favorite of all the mysteries—"About your article, women do too understand wine! Stop disrespecting women! You are part of the problem!" which we traced back to the headline of the wine column appearing on the same page with a different article that included a quote from a coach about the increasing number of women who are knowledgeable about football. (That letter was signed with a usually-male name, by the way, opening yet another can of worms).
Digging through some scholarly studies on reading strategies, I discovered that this particular spiral-reading protocol has a name, because it is of interest to many people besides the proprietors of small magazines. Scanning from the center of a page outward until a word or phrase of personal importance (mayor, Italian, woman, understand) is located, and then reading just the text immediately surrounding the item of interest is one subset of what is called "dyspraxia" – bad eye-tracking while reading, which in turn is one of dozens of causes identified for dyslexia. The gaze can go many places other than left-to-right, diagonal down, and in people with dyspraxia, they do. The spiral form usually goes left-right-down (rather than diagonal) and then skips backward to the left, then up, so the spiral is lumpy and unpredictable, and its center slowly drifts down the page.
A surprising number of people with dyspraxia are able to make it through school and into employment (just as many people who outrightly can't read also do; there are ways to fake it--for example just knowing what a document is about may be enough). But I doubt that very many of the people I was watching had actual dyspraxia; I think their pattern mimicked it because it's a quick way to find quotable phrases in a text you haven't read.
Finding quotable phrases in a text you haven't read is useful for people in several situations at least:
1)    unprepared students taking open book tests
2)    unprepared students faking their way through class discussion
3)    writers and journalists looking for half-remembered quotes
4)    people assembling inspirational material
5)    fundamentalists finding places where "it says so in the Bible"
6)    clerks and bureaucrats looking for an applicable rule
Some reading and literature teachers call it dip-and-flip, and I'll use that from here on because, again, I'm pretty sure that in most cases the cause is not medical, and besides I have less faith in my ability to reliably spell dyspraxia.
Students who read like that frequently derail class discussions right into the twilight zone. (The Grapes of Wrath may suddenly be about recipes for oranges, whose great-grandfather and by extension whose ethnicity believed more in working hard, or whether creosote is bad for the environment).
But it's more than just a way for students to find something to say to get those participation points without the bother of reading an actual book.
Dip-and-flip appears to be  the actual reading protocol of a sizable part of the public who genuinely read for pleasure, especially when you add one more wrinkle, which has been observed in book-lover meetups: many adult dip-and-flippers will then find some sentence they especially love and read it over and over, very nearly memorizing it. For them, that's what the book or story is now "about," and if they like the work, they like it because they think those abstracted sentences that they repeatedly re-read are "so true."
Go to anyplace where you can buy used books (especially less-selective places like the Salvation Army store), look for non-textbooks that have been marked and highlighted (especially religious and self-help) and you will find many books where what seem to be a few words and sentences of personal significance have been clearly pulled from context. Eavesdrop on people talking about books in a coffeehouse and you'll find yourself putting quotes around "about."
Certain types of books lend themselves to dip-and-flip: religious tracts, the sort of political book that is put out by primarily-entertainers*******, self-help books, books of short essays. Surprisingly, as a way of getting meaning out of a text (whether or not it is the intended meaning), it does work for many books. (Haiku collection, check. Ann Coulter political essays, check. Porn, doesn't everyone read it like that? Moby Dick, they can't possibly avoid realizing that it's about a whale, check.) Other genres, it seems to me, would be very hard to dip-and-flip—cozy mysteries, psychological horror, or Regency romances all rely so much on developing their ideas through time.
Dip-and-flip seems to be more prevalent in younger readers, although it's observable in people of all ages; it's a small-minority phenomenon among the oldest readers now reading, uncommon but not unknown among the Silent Generation (1927-45), a substantial minority among Baby Boomers and Gen X, and seems to have become epidemic in college students with the arrival of the Millennials in 1996. Thus in retrospect it was no big surprise that I saw a great deal of it in front of trendy clubs, bars, and restaurants in 2004-5. It looks as if every day more of the old linear readers are going to the Big Circulation Desk In The Sky From Which There Is No Reshelving, and more first graders are looking around the page and saying, "It says 'cat' here. I have a cat. His name is Fluffy."
Most writers that I tell about the increase in dip-and-flip immediately plunge into depression about it, but then given what the world is like for people who care about books, reading, literacy, etc., pretty much every piece of news nowadays plunges writers into depression. Fiction writers and tech writers, who worry a great deal about the order of things and try very hard to put things into good, clear order, are particularly prone to being unhappy about the rise of dip-and-flip—if, indeed, it is rising at all.
As with many other phenomena that people find obnoxious—ranging from serious things like sexual harassment to minor things like people not saying "goodbye" at the end of a phone call—it is not at all easy to sort out whether something is occurring more, or being reported more. (Often it's both.) But whether it's actually becoming more common or just getting noticed, dip-and-flip is one more component of the foreseeable future, and perhaps it would be a good idea to think a bit about what it's going to mean for speculative fiction of all kinds as some writers adapt to it and others don't.
A writer who ignores a large part of the audience over a long period of time—even if the remainder is sufficient to make a book profitable—will quickly be stomped into the ground by the writers who don't ignore the "bad" readers. Slots in the magazines and publishing schedules are awarded not just to the profitable, but to the most relatively profitable. I'm very far from being the only person who knows about or takes an interest in dip-and-flip reading, and the information now gradually being developed will sooner or later filter down to editors, buyers, and sales people. (It may take a while—the average publisher does much less marketing research per dollar sold, and makes much less use of the little research they do, than just about any other for-profit enterprise, a fact which explains much about the book business). So even if no one in publishing ever seriously looks at the research or figures it out, the Almighty Market will nudge them along with much the same result for fiction in general and fiction of the fantastic in particular.

Here's a few predictions I'll venture:
Dip-and-flip will be relatively good for fantasy versus science fiction, so look for the trend of fantasy dominance to continue. Readers who are abstracting images that catch their fancies, and then mentally replaying those images like hooks in a pop song, will find mythic images (however hackneyed) in a fantasy novel, and those images resonate; elves, dragons, ghosts, young naive heroes, old smart guys who are more than they seem, etc. don't need semiosis from the book itself because they are already semiotic just by being in the prevailing culture. Not only that, thanks to a hundred years of psychoanalytic theory, nearly everyone can perceive and articulate how those things resonate in their own individual psyches. A dip-and-flipper might miss that "The man had to face the dragon by himself, as he had faced so many other things" is the lead in to an exciting fight with a dragon, but might very well still buy the book if it contains that sort of good metaphor for sucking it up and taking a dressing-down at a sales meeting, or buckling down to pass calculus, or doing something about a drinking problem.
Science fiction (at least non-media-tied science fiction) has to occasionally present something a reader has not seen before (even if some of it fails in this regard). So in science fiction, the dip-and-flipper's eye is apt to skim over a bunch of neologisms, recognize nothing, and decide there's nothing here to do with my life, next page. "For planets of the same density, the escape velocity is directly proportional to the radius," is unlikely to resonate quite so easily as "Pippin despaired, for across the whole wide plain in many days' journey he saw no track of any unicorn."
The same arguments would say that softer science fiction (with its also-mythic rockets, aliens, and headjacked boys in mirrorshades) will work better for a dip-and-flipper than the modern hard sf, and that a great deal of contemporary goshwow may actively repel them ("I can't relate to nano anything," as one fantasy reader I know, who never seems to remember the plot of anything she reads, says rather often).
Return of the infodump.  On the other hand, some aspects of science fiction may very well be strengths in reaching the dip-and-flip crowd. Throw-away details that are nifty in their own right, particularly when given a context that need not be remembered or searched for in the rest of the book, might give the dip-and-flipper something to talk about.
Though I can't say that they all do that, most dip-and-flip readers I have had a way to observe seemed to me to be reading now to talk later. (This may be, of course, because they are the ones easiest to study—the ones who never talk are much harder to find. It may be because I observed all of them in public or quasi-public settings.) Possibly a book in which they find sentences like "In 2031, laws required all cars on any public road to be self-driving..." might spark the kind of conversations that many of them seem to be reading for.
That sort of thing, of course, flies right into the face of what I spent years learning to do—instreaming the backstory with clever little tricks like,
"I'll have the car drive you home."
"Oh, wow. An old-fashioned gentleman. I'm surprised you didn't say you'd drive me yourself."
"My god, how old do I look?"
The infodump might make a moderate comeback, especially if there's some sort of labeling to indicate Researched factual article on true material which is extrapolated in this book. Something like that is already happening with colored sidebars in some of the textbooks for high school and college science fiction classes, and I'm trying a variation on it in the forthcoming Losers in Space.
With various kinds of annotation and hypertext, much more could be done; we might hit the point where the plot fades away, and "science fiction" refers to a futurist scenario with characters and settings, expressed in something that might look a bit like densely interlocked web pages. (Ever seen a young gamer poring over a new module? Or met a kid who had memorized half the Guinness Book of World Records, or seemed to know some specialized encyclopedia by heart? The process could well be similar).
So is this the end of science fiction?
What will dip and flip science fiction look like? "Different" is not "the end." The science fiction of the future might look more like, say, the John Brunner quartet where he played around with Harold Adams Innis's ideas (Stand on Zanzibar, The Jagged Orbit, The Sheep Look Up, and The Shockwave Rider—all of which I liked and I'd love to see what the new generation of writers might do with something in that format. Hint, hint, you folks just starting your first novel).
Or it might bear more resemblance to Drowning Towers, Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, or A Short History of the Future, none of which went quite so far as Brunner did, but all of which have that same scrambled structure of a fairly tenuous plot winding through a collection of incidents that are interesting in their own right, with plenty of hatches and viewing ports so you can look into the guts of the thing and see something interesting at any point.
In that light, let me mention two more fairly recent novels—Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife (which I read a couple of months ago) and Chris Genoa's Foop! (which I read in 2006 and have since taken down from the shelf a few times). The first time, I read both straight through, just like the old linear poop I am, but for a couple of weeks afterwards, I left them on my toilet tank, and discovered that they are, if anything, better when dip-and-flipped (though it helps a great deal to know the central gimmicks of The Time Traveler's Wife before dip-and-flipping it). Foop! is so fresh and funny that I like to read middle pages without getting to them through the preceding material; its central ideas infuse each page rather than grow across the book, and it helps to let them startle me.
Dip-and-flip means something good on every page. A book page, printed, is about 350-400 words, which is read in less than a minute by most linear fiction readers (shall we call them "left to right diagonal downers?" L2RD2s? "Linear" works for me, though I bet quite a few of you are thinking "what's wrong with 'normal' or 'correct'?"). A book that rewards dip-and-flip reading has to have, literally, something good on every page and some pleasure in every minute, which is hardly a bad thing. In the book-doctoring end of my life, I've certainly read enough pages with no good stuff—whole chapters with none, in fact—and a book that offers a thrill a minute can be forgiven for a lot.
Finding new worlds with our feet on the ground. Then again, perhaps the dip-and-flip readers are going to push science fiction toward some of its hidden potentials. Certainly they experience the contrast between the fictional world and the real one more intensely than the rest of us do, because they only touch the fictional world with their feet firmly planted in the real.
There can be uses for such an effect. One reason sf so often fails to live up to its promise as a venue for social criticism is that sf readers move comfortably into the fictional world and seldom look back to their own until the tea is cold, the dog needs a walk, or the bag of Cheetos is empty, and so they accept all sorts of utopias and dystopias, and enjoy them, without necessarily making any comparisons to the real world. (Of course many of them do compare—but they don't have to, and they can choose not to. Dip-and-flip readers don't have to decide to bring it back to the real, because they never leave).
Ultimately, too, isn't dip-and-flip reading something like the way we encounter the real world? There's too much to bother with absorbing, so we catch high spots here and there and replay them in our minds over and over? Might not the right kind of dip-and-flip sf leave us more of a feeling of having gone somewhere new?
Acausality: the final frontier.  Linear reading tends to be causal—what happened in Chapter One is causing what happens in Chapter Six, and both together cause what happens in Chapter Seventeen and so forth. So we build these little cause and effect hooks and sticks in our minds, back and forward in the time of the book, as we read linearly. We see, in the world of the book, an orderly world where at least some causes have effects -- part of the linear reading protocol is "if the writer is making a big deal about this, I'd better pay attention because clearly I'm supposed to remember it later on when something big happens." By the same token, in our view of the book, most effects have causes—"if something surprises me, I will think back to previous things in the book and see if it wasn't inevitable all along." It's pleasant and comforting to see a world with handles which we can grasp and use to make sense of it, both because we relish our sense-making skills as Barthes described, and, as I said in my last column, we enjoy that strong feeling that, even if the world is out of our control, it could be in our control and it would be in a more just or better-understood world. Causality nails the world down; it's the anchor of both science and plot.
Dip-and-flip reading is by nature acausal, looking for the shit that happens but not worrying about why it happens. It pries the world up from its causal anchor and lets it float. If you're grabbing out pieces of text like a student getting ready to pretend he's read a book, or a funjadelical salesperson trying to treat the Bible as a set of self-help pointers, the pieces don't cause each other and you don't project causalities between them. The pieces are just what they are and you like them as pieces, for themselves, or not.
Not seeing causes, only intrinsic interest, fits into many people's experience of life -- anyone who believes himself to be the captain of his soul has never had any very serious disease; anyone who thinks she is the mistress of her fate lives someplace where the highways are always dry and it never freezes. There's a fair degree of financial independence, education, and plain old luck that goes into making people capable of believing themselves to be fully autonomous.
Aside from a better fit to one side of reality, acausal perception is also a better fit to one side of unreality: the dream or unconscious life is apparently acausal. Dip-and-flip reading converts the text from a hand-over-hand climb along a connected chain of causes to a burble in the tulgey wood, where, as in dreams, things just are. If we are the practitioners and lovers of escapism—and it is hard to deny that we are—we may be in process of discovering that there is more real escape in allowing wonders to just be where and when they are than there could ever be in analyzing how somewhere or somewhen else works.
That brings up reading protocols one more time. (Remember them, in some digression or other?) I have no idea how many unique-to-sf reading protocols there are, or how many protocols one would need to write to fully theorize the process of a proficient linear sf reader, but my guess would be that the great majority of unique-to-sf reading protocols are causal by nature. The readers are invited to figure out how this or that thingy-in-the-future signifies a change that happened between their now and the story's then, and the answer is presumed to be that something today caused something tomorrow that caused something the day after and so forth all the way to the time of the story.
To borrow an example from Larry Niven, a reader's process might be something like, "if they call transplantable organs 'thumbs,' what kind of history must bridge the time between ours and theirs? Obviously people have become very casual about cutting other people up, and thumb-running is as ubiquitous as drug-dealing in my world, with the same callous indifference to consequences..." and so on, all from that one word.
Dip-and-flip readers are least likely of all readers to have causal reading protocols—so they are less likely to comprehend fiction-of-the-fantastic by the protocols that science fiction readers have long relished using. Especially if dip-and-flip reading really is on the rise, the coming speculative fiction will need to offer a wide variety of fun in the moment as much as (or more than) a rewarding game—to be more like an orgy and less like a pickup basketball game, more like sitting by a pond and less like climbing a mountain. I don't see why that's impossible, let alone to be dreaded. It is perhaps no more than the difference between a seven-course meal and a seven-dish buffet; either way, once the invitation has been issued and the table is spread, it's only the people who refuse to eat who go hungry.


*An emergent property is one possessed by the group rather than the individual. Diversity is an emergent property: if a crowd contains people of nine nationalities, four income strata, and six self-identified races, even if there are no mixed or dual cases, the crowd is diverse. Traffic congestion is an emergent property: a traffic jam is made up of dozens or hundreds of cars that can't move because of the congestion, but no one car is congested. Weather is an emergent property of the molecules in the atmosphere: it snows, but individual nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon dioxide molecules don't, and an individual water vapor molecule can't condense and freeze by itself.
** see, I told you there'd be a point in here somewhere. Press on, brave souls, for though I am in a wildly digressive mood, and we're going to sneak up on that subject through many digressions, it nevertheless crouches somewhere ahead of you, waiting like an insurance salesman who just wants five minutes of your time.
***academese for "fucking unbelievable and we both know it so don't use it as a strawman argument against me."
**** John Green and David Levithan had immense fun with frustrating this protocol, not long ago, and the result of that little prank still makes me (and a few hundred thousand readers) smile. But do notice how carefully they violated it so that the frustration became fun. The difference between doing it well, as Green and Levithan do, and just violating it because you can, is the difference between the kind of elaborate practical joke that sends the victim into a momentarily surreal experience of the world, and the kind that involves unexpectedly dumping water over someone's head.
***** No one ever seemed to wonder why so many writers were anorexic-looking young women in very expensive clothing.
****** I put "about" in quotation marks because in different reading protocols "about" seems to mean something different to some readers than it does to others.
******* I am thinking of the habit of right wing commentators, when they manage to offend enough people so that a sponsor gets nervous, of explaining that they aren't really political commentators, that they are "primarily an entertainer."  I aspire to some day found a band called "Rush and the Primarily Entertainers."