Saturday, August 15, 2015

Ant-Man had far too many racially offensive stereotypes and plot holes big enough to drive a movie through

So, at the drive-in, there was Ant-Man and the new Mission Impossible movie.  This isn't about the MI movie (short take: it's good if you like spy movies, and I often do), it's about Ant-Man.

In the future I honestly, seriously, sincerely think that people will study the Marvel movie campaign for it's ability to shut off people's ability to interpret and criticize media for the purposes of selling it to them.  In short, Ant-Man is awful.

In particular, and, Marvel, I wish we'd keep meeting like this, Ant-Man is racist and sexist.  Also, the plot is has a lot of holes - by which I mean inconsistencies.

So, the sexism starts and ends with Hope Pym.  It has to start and end with her, because she's the only woman in the whole damn thing.

Despite her competence, she's not the star of the movie.  Why?  Daddy issues.  Her daddy doesn't want to "lose his little girl", so he infantilizes her to keep her away from super-heroing, instead selecting a not particularly good crook to do super-heroing.  Yes, rather than trust your competent daughter who knows all the super-tech to do the job you need done, you're going to risk bring in a literal, convicted thief to quickly learn the super-tech for the job because you're a fucking moron who doesn't value women.

And when Hope Pym learns that her father is over-protective because Hope's mother, Hank's wife, died super-heroing, the whole thing with Hope being really qualified for the job just goes away.  As does literally decades of neglect, like somehow Hank being sad that his wife died somehow makes it better that he ignored his daughter for 25 years or something.

(If you're going to mention that, y'know, maybe Hope will be Wasp because of a thirty second take - that's not a very good retort.  That, in the future, there might be a non-sexist movie with Evangeline Lilly as Wasp does not alter one whit that in Ant-Man, she was an infantilized woman whose objections over being infantilized were dropped in an absurd way to allow the white man to take charge.  Also, Lilly as Wasp is whitewashing the character.  At almost every turn, the Marvel movies show that they're not nearly as socially minded as they claim to be.)

And completely preventable, too.  If Hope was on tech duty, without the physical skills required to do the heist, cool.  If Hope had been injured leading up to the heist and they needed someone else, also cool.  It could have been handled in a number of ways that didn't involve removing the character and setting the groundwork for her being Wasp (though it would have helped if she was Asian-American).

Still, that's pretty light compared to the racism which is pretty boggling.  Pro-tip: if your only Hispanic character is a criminal who is also comic relief, you're being racist.  Oh, there's another black, criminal comic relief character, too!  Hilarious!  Blacks and Hispanics are, after all, naturally criminal peoples, and they're so whacky when they're incompetent!  (Like it somehow balanced the scales, one of the whacky, incompetent crooks was Russian.  I think they put that in there to say that they were making fun of everyone, which is a tactic I've seen before, and it's stupid.  That you also make fun of white people doesn't mean that the racist caricatures aren't racist caricatures.)

I mean, the white guy is a thief for SOCIAL JUSTICE, and then teaches the blacks and Hispanics how to be better thieves!  For while blacks and Hispanics are crooks, of course, they are whackily incompetent at that and under all conditions are superior when a white man is in charge!

So, even when the heist was ongoing, every time they cut to a black or Hispanic character being comic relief, it took me out of whatever moment there was.

That's what makes the movie awful.  Even if it wasn't racist and sexist, it's one of those superhero movies where keeping your story straight seems irrelevant.  The best comics manage to do it, so they should be able to bring that kind of A game with movies.  They don't.  So rather than being an example of comic-style storytelling at its finest, it ends up being a comic-style potboiler, and not even a particularly good one.

So, when Hank Pym recruits Stephen Lange, he does it by bribing a person to tell a second person, relying on them to tell a certain third person who will then tell a very specific fourth person, who then talks to Lange about a heist.

In short, this is stupid.  This is *embarrassingly* stupid.  It doesn't show Hank as being some kind of master manipulator so much as it shows a deus ex machina, crude and unsophisticated.  Anyone with any experience with human beings knows that telling one person to tell a second person something is pretty chancy - but to imagine that one person tells a second person, who tells a third, who tells a fourth, who tells a fifth . . . and by the time it gets to the fifth person that it is in any sense recognizably what the first person says?  That is ridiculous.

And the bad guy - who's name I can't remember, as he wasn't very memorable, so I'll call him Yellowjacket - was supposed to have been driven crazy by Pym particles . . . except he wasn't ever really, well, exposed to them.  At least not moreso than a bunch of other people, including Hope, who showed no signs of violent instability.   Until he puts on the Yellowjacket armor, Yellowjacket isn't really exposed to them at all, except ringside for a few experiments on other objects.  Which is to say as close as Hope was to Yellowjacket's experiments and Lange's numerous transformations.  DOESN'T MAKE SENSE.

Plus, there was this bit where Hank Pym says he can't use the shrinking tech because he used it for "too long" and it's harmed him in some way . . . and Stephen didn't go, "What kind of harm are we talking about?   What kind of exposure, and what are the risks?"  Nope.  The fact that the technology does some kind of lasting harm is mentioned to keep Hank out of the game but then completely dismissed.  This is lazy writing!

I also found the character of Stephen Lange to be narratively muddled.  On one hand, he supposedly went to jail for crimes of social justice - he stole from a corporation who had cheated people to return the money.  But he's also supposed to be some kind of burglar in the more common sense of "stealing for his own gain".  Which is it?  Was he a crusading Robin Hood-style thief engaging in social banditry or merely a weak-willed crook who rips people off when they going gets tough?

Not to mention that Lange, at the start of the movie, says he's a burglar since he doesn't fight people, but by the end of the movie he's fighting up a storm.  Mind you, the character was shown to be physically capable, so I'm not arguing his ability but his desire.  His moral objections to violence simply evaporated without a trace or comment.

There were probably more, but this suggests the various ways the parts of the story didn't fit with each other.  It didn't make sense in ways that it SHOULD have made sense.

If not for the sexism and racism, this alone would have meant I wouldn't have liked the movie very much. I really expect a screenplay to hold together the basic elements in a consistent way.  I think it's one of the basic jobs of the writing and directing staff - to make sure that the important narrative elements in a story cohere intelligently.  Ant-Man failed to do this.

But the movie was racist and sexist.  1980 wants it's childishly and offensive stereotypes back.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Don't buy Joanne Penn's How to Market a Book

At the meeting this past Sunday, I mentioned how books for indie publishing are different than books for small businesses.  One of the things I mentioned is the centrality of money and research to small business publications.

Since I am revving up to indie publish, and spurred on by the conversation, I got a copy of Joanna Penn's How to Market a Book.  It is very well received on Amazon.  It has 5 stars with 134 reviews.  This depresses me.  Broadly speaking, I think this is precisely the sort of book that has been sold to writers over the years, saying it will help them get published but offering nothing of substance.

Most of it is personal anecdotes, which is a very far cry from data.  In particular, it doesn't answer the question of how many people did everything Penn did and failed.  What is the actual success rate?  What are the real financial, business and personal risks?  Penn doesn't talk about them, doesn't do much research at all, and often simply brags about her success.  She also repeatedly tries to sell the reader other books about the subject of her book, or directs you to other media instead of presenting it in her own book.

I'm about a quarter of a way through it and . . . it sorta stinks.  It starts off with a lot of the same cheerleading that you'll find in any marketing book.  But then something weird happens . . .

In a normal marketing book, they'd start talking money.  The only place Penn talks about money is estimating that it will take between $500 and $3500 to have your book professionally edited.  For actual marketing?  She bangs the drum of what she ridiculously calls "co-eptition", a clumsy portmanteau of cooperation and competition, but actually meaning cooperation - that an indie writer is best served by networking with other like-minded writers for success.

While I think that's a good idea for reasons artistic and social, she only offers her own experience as proof of this model.  This is one of the really serious departures from a how-to book on a small business model.  If a book on small business said something like that, they'd have some research to back it up.  I understand that indie publishing is a new field, so there aren't a lot of trade organizations or government data about the field, and it isn't like places like Amazon are opening their data vaults about indie publishers.  But one of the key jobs of a writer writing a non-fiction book is research, especially a non-fiction book.

Sure, I get it, you've succeeded.  (And much of the book reads like an extended commercial for her novels, I should add, which is also quite a bit different than a good book on small business.)  But it's bad reasoning.  The question is not whether Penn succeeded, but the extent to which her success was based on a specific plan of action that can be repeated by other indie publishers.

So, every time she tells some little anecdote from her success story, I roll my eyes.  Yeah, I get it, you succeeded.  Good for you.  But what are the NUMBERS?  The data?  What methodology did you use?  What arguments are you making?

Additionally, my scam-o-meter is going off, big time.  When a person tells me that, due to technological advances, you don't need to spend money . . . ?  That's a very slight variant of get-rich-quick schemes that are old as dirt.  When someone comes to me and says that they have a system through which you have to do something not very hard (network online) to get financial rewards?  I look in serious askance, particularly when they don't have verifiable data.  I just find it incredibly hard to believe that money doesn't really factor into success in marketing.  I mean, sure, I find it easy to believe that a publishing house style full court press doesn't work due to differences in the business model, but the idea that money is removed from the equation altogether seems beyond belief.

Some of the advice is good - such as the importance of understanding keyword searches - but her advice is, basically, "Read these other books."  Again, it smacks of a distinct lack of research.  Why the hell did I buy YOUR book if you're just going to tell me to buy someone else's book?  Isn't it Penn's job, as the author of a book that's literally about marketing books, to distill that research into usable form to assist your readers in accomplishing their goals?  I think so.  And it is commonplace in books about, y'know, real marketing and small business.

The short answer - it looks like Penn scammed me.  As I can afford it, fiscally, and have the kind of mind and education that is on the lookout for trickery, I won't waste too much of my time with this drivel - but I feel sorry for people who are lured into the promises of easy success and spend their time following instructions like "network with blog sites", without being given any concrete, specific advice what that means or where to go, instead of the nuts and bolts of real marketing in the digital age.

I will also point out that Penn repeats over and over that there are no rules, that the field changes constantly, that there are no guarantees of success.  All of this is true, but the frequency of the reminders feels like a cooling off process - where the author gets up your hopes and then covers their ass so when you try her advice and it fails, she can just say, "Oops, I guess things changed.  So sorry."


Going through various price strategies, Penn gives no concrete data.  So, a lower (or even free) price for a book at the start of a series MIGHT be a good idea.  Her "research" amounts to one interview with one writer.  What is the general effect?  I guess that would take research and that's hard or something.

She ends the section on pricing with advising a person to read another book . . . which is part of her strategy, I suppose.  "Co-eptition" in part works by inserting other people's works into your own.  But this has the net effect of reducing the value of Penn's book and creates a scam.

Again, this is a common scam.  You buy something and then learn that to get what you really want?  You've got to spend more money!  It would not surprise me if the book on pricing suggested yet more books to buy to get the information one needs to make rational marketing decisions (perhaps closing the loop by referring Penn's book) . . .

Which, while we're on the subject, makes me think about one of Penn's premises - that you should be ethical in your marketing.  I mean, I am not stunned that a person claims ethics and then engages in bait-and-switch tactics, luring you in to spend more money to get what you need from the book you bought.  The first thing unethical people do is appeal to ethics, after all, assert their honesty.

Let me speak to Joanna Penn: bait-and-switch isn't ethical, Joanna.  If you buy a car and find you've go to spend extra for the fuel tank, well, no one does that because it's unethical bullshit.


Chapter 3 is about short-term marketing.  The header is "no platform needed."  Hmm.

The sections about long-term and short-term marketing are the make-or-break parts of the book.  If you're reading these words, it's because part 3 and 4 broke the book.  I don't care if there are personal anecdontes in other sections so long as these sections provide useful information.

No stories.  Not recommendations for other books.  Information.

Let me go read part 3.


Nearly the first thing the author does is buy reviews.  At the book's start, Penn says it's terribly UNETHICAL to buy reviews, but in part 3, well, she describes how she gave out free books to people on her mailing list, asking them to review it ONLY if they liked it.  She included a smiley face, so I guess it's not trying to buy reviews . . . ?

No, let us be clear.  She is giving away merchandise for positive reviews.  If buying reviews is unethical, this is unethical.  She calls it a "soft pitch with no pressure".  It is not.  It's trying to buy positive reviews.

(The ethical way to handle it, by the by, is simply to give out the books without mentioning reviews one way or the other, or a general call asking for a review.  By specifically asking only for positive reviews, she breaks the code of ethics she spoke about in such big letters earlier in the book.  I mean, sure, her readers don't have to give a positive review, but that's equally true of any reviewer who gets something for their review.  They CAN just take the money and give a crappy review.)

While unethical by her own standards and a mere anecdote, she says that 30 percent respond with 4 or 5 star reviews.  She does not mention if any give bad reviews - but I suspect few if any do, since she's specifically asking them NOT to review her book unless it's a good review.

She then says, in big ass bold letters that "Sending free review copies is totally normal and accepted in the publishing industry."  So it's okay because someone else is doing it?  Plus, these aren't merely review copies.  If that was the case, sure, but she's specifically asking for only good reviews, she's asking that people with bad reviews do not review the book.

She goes on to say that it's okay because she hasn't paid them.  Unless, y'know, a free copy of the book might count as "payment".  (Hint: it does.)

And the horror keeps going on.  She says that this only works with fans of your genre, and that you want honest reviews.  Unless, of course, they're bad ones.  In that case, she doesn't want them.

She includes a link to an article about targeting Amazon's top reviewers.  So, y'know, once again I've bought a book that references me to something else instead of giving me the data that I thought I had paid for.  She then goes on to talk about an Amazon premium option - giving a link to an interview she did with someone else instead of, I don't fucking know, WRITE A SUMMARY OF THE INTERVIEW.

Hellfire and damnation, this woman is a horrible writer!

Then she goes on to talk about book bloggers, how to contact them and such.  This part isn't so bad, but again, no numbers.  But, again, a link to a thirty minute interview Penn did with someone else.  Really?  I thought I bought a book and apparently I bought an advertisement for other products!

Then there's a section on "what not to do."  She beats the drum, again, about not buying reviews after starting the chapter on how she buys reviews.  It's unethical!

. . .

Okay, I know this thing is getting long, but here's the thing about ethics and advertising - I don't know where the line is but I do have some thoughts on the subject.

It is increasingly commonplace for companies to buy ads that look like copy.  It is not illegal, at least not in the US.  We have a very high level of freedom of speech, here, and specific jurisprudence (Citizens United!) that says spending money is identical to freedom of speech.

I do not think that because something is legal that it is automatically ethical.  But, on the other hand, I'm not sure why big, powerful companies can create ads that look like copy but individuals can't.  To me, that sounds hypocritical, or at least extremely naive (I believe that Penn, in his regard, is naive; it isn't like she did a lot of research into advertising norms as practiced on Madison Avenue).

So, where's the ethical line with marketing?  I dunno.  But I do know when you're giving away a book for free and asking people who don't like it to not review it, you're actually buying reviews.  So I know that Penn is being a hypocrite.

Ahem.  Moving on:

In 3.2 she finally gets to paid advertising.  Oh, joy.

She suggests paid promotional sites that have lists of avid readers who might be interested in your book.

On the other hand, she says one ought not buy email lists, calling them a scam.  Eh.  Spam works.  It's not illegal.  It's not even fundamentally unethical.  Americans have the right to communicate with their neighbors for commercial purposes.  It's the reason why spam isn't flatly illegal, it's the reason why mailing lists aren't illegal, or door-to-door salespeople.  There is no legal way to distinguish between people who engage in mass mailings (electronic or otherwise) or door-to-door activities who are there "legitimately", since certain kinds of speech are strongly permitted (religious and political, for instance) and because people's standards differ.

Penn's ethical biases are childish.  I understand that a person might hate spam.  I do, that's for sure, and I don't see myself using it, but she beats the drum of ethics time and again in ways that are absurd.

While offering no real proof, she provides more anecdotes about how she used paid promotions successfully.  She then goes on to talk about what Bookbub is and . . . says she has no idea if it works.  That it's expensive, requires a monthly fee, but each author has to decide if it works for them.

Again, data?  Fuck that shit.

Then she gives a fairly extended anecdote about her one experience.  It starts with the obligatory cooling off, saying that there's a large number of factors that go into things and an given person's experiences are likely to be different than hers.

That's why you need to do research.  Instead of just taking your experiences and writing about them, you attempt to create a representative sample, collate the data and present THOSE results.  That's what I actually paid you to do.  If I wanted anecdotes?  Jesus.  The Internet is FULL of anecdotes!  I did not buy a book for ANECDOTE!

Neither should you, by the way.

It's a crappy anecdote, too.  It's about her experience with Bookbub and she gives a very little data on how much she made - though only in the first two days of the promotion.  She gives some Amazon and Kobo stats for both the peak and a week after, but no numbers on total sales or money made.  Weaksauce.

Then she dismisses Facebook paid adverts by saying she's not a fan.  Again, anecdotes offered instead of data.  She mentioned Goodreads paid advertising but only mentions it, then Kirkus Reviews, a quote from one person who did well with it (that's what qualifies as research to her - she got one quotation, done and done!) and another anecdote on her experience with Kirkus (weakly negative).

Then she speaks about her experiences with traditional media.  It didn't work for her.  She gives reasons why she thinks this is the case, but without attribution, though some of it seems legit (not targeted enough, too long between seeing her and the opportunity to buy her book, no specific call to action - sounds reasonable, sure, but where's the data?).

Then Penn talked about hiring a publicist.  To me, a competent publicist would seem a godsend - someone who can efficiently and skillfully do the marketing tasks that a given writer might stink at and certainly has no experience with.

Almost nothing is given beyond a suggestion that you do your research and budget carefully to maximize your chances of successful.  I get the feeling that Penn hasn't used a publicist (no anecdotes!) and, as ever, no research.  She points out that it's expensive relative to the other techniques in the book.

VERY disappointing.  Even in my minimalist research at this point, I'm aware there are a bunch of different kinds of publicists.  Particularly, in this day and age there are a number that specialize not in traditional media but digital media, but also many others besides.  To characterize a publicist as someone who operates solely in traditional media is to do a serious disservice to their service, as well as to lead the readers of Penn's book astray.

This is keeping in context with her researchless style.  If she has never used a publicist, well, since she does no research, why should she look into the success and failures that other people might have had with publicists?  Creating representative samples isn't in her wheelhouse, apparently.

She spends, for instance, a LOT more time on getting a good photographer than a publicist.  Really?

Then she talks about a press kit, gives a few websites about them, and how to contact the press.  The amount of effort she puts into this is slightly strange given her attitude towards traditional media . . . though the reason becomes clear when she gives her multi-page success story about her press releases.

Remember, she can't guarantee doing what she does will be successful, but she really likes telling you about her personal experiences!

She also talks about her experiences with TV and radio.  Now we're in the world of outright bragging.  Around about her section about press releases, there is no longer any context about how this improved even her own sales.  She made no attempt to link her experiences with the press, TV and radio with anything so pedestrian as sales spikes or anything else.  She devolved into pure braggadocio.

Needless to say, not what I wanted to read.

Almost no talk about how much things cost or, really, any data at all.  Overall, her advice on short-term marketing is both "do as I do" and "don't expect it to work", personal stories that she seems to know don't mean very much, but yet are the focus of the chapter!


In chapter four, we get to long term marketing with a "platform".  It starts out with backlash against the idea of having a platform (I suspect I'm part of that backlash - a lot of it seems to offer much and return little, but always allowing a person to spend more and more time in the minutae of social media networking).

Since I think she's going to mention it a lot, Penn really loves the work "karma".  I dislike the way it's used in English, because it smacks of orientalism.  Karma is a Hindu and Buddhist religious concept about the accumulation of one's deeds on one's soul and the effects this has over multiple generations.  It is not "what goes around comes around", though it is used that way with great frequency.  I feel that's insensitive, if not racist.

That said, I have some interest in this section.  I am an engaging public speaker.  I would very much like to get up on stage and tell people who awesome and clever I am, convincing them to buy my books, stuff like that.  I expect to get some anecdotes, though.

It's worse than I thought.  It is clear that part of the reason Penn suggests this is because she likes it.  It's fun!  I'm told this repeatedly.  I'll make friends!  I have friends.  It's totally worth it!  Why?  Uh, because she likes it.  It is magic, she says.  She literally calls it magic.

It is not.  She calls herself an introvert, but I think that we need a bunch of new terms.  For a person such as myself, who constantly struggles against competitiveness, social media can easily become an incredible drag.  Strangers barging into my life, expecting to be taken seriously, who I often find are fucking morons.  I get competitive, then I get mean.

I don't think this is very strange.  Interacting with a large and shifting group of strangers is challenging.  Much in the same way that some people are better at groups, some people are going to be better at social media.  I greatly prefer speaking to large bodies of people than getting attention from strangers because of some post I wrote.

I am also very aware that during Penn's rhapsodizing praise of platform, there are no numbers attached as regarding publishing.  WHY a person selling books should create a platform is unclear for an indie writer (she rightly points out that traditional publishers love that kind of stuff, though having looked into that there's no good reason why for them, either - I think it's a legacy issue, harkening back to the days when speaking engagements and such were the only way for a writer to reach an audience).

Penn does say that having a good platform can become a business onto itself.  She gets speaking gigs, for instance.  She attributes this platform to her being a full-time author-entrepreneur.

But this is weak.  I mean, I speak well.  I would love to supplement my income with speaking gigs.  I'm seriously considering both interviews and podcasts because I think I'd be good at them and there's enough intrinsic joy in them that I would want to do them regardless of their "success".

(Interestingly, and I think this is a big lacuna, at no point does Penn talk about other kinds of marketing.  She doesn't have T-shirts, coffee mugs or other merch for people to buy relating to her books.  Hmm.)

Afterward, Penn talks a little about brand management.  She talks again about authenticity.  She fuckin' loves that word like crackheads love the pipe!

Let me be clear.  Authenticity doesn't mean very much.  I don't mean that a person shouldn't be authentic, but in the sense that the word has little meaning in a promotional sense, except as something you wish to inculcate into your fanbase.

OK, that's not actually clear.  What I'm trying to say is that it's great to have people think you're "authentic" but there's no real standard of what that is, artistically.  It is, at best, sublime.

Not to mention the little problem that maybe you're an asshole.  If you're "yourself" but you're a jerk?  Maybe you should try to be someone else, someone, I dunno, more marketable.

And, indeed, a lot of the advice is irrelevant of any authentic experience.  So, for instance, I should be authentic but also stay focused.  But . . . I, Chris Bradley, am authentically diverse.  I like different things.  Today, it's writing about this terrible marketing book.  Tomorrow, it might be something about my cats, or something political, or a recipe I like.

See?  Be authentic but consistent, stay focused . . . I guess it helps if you're that kind of person.

Otherwise, fake authenticity, I guess.

Then there are the calls to spend more money on other books as well as the inevitable interview podcast.  Because this book isn't about actually providing you with data, but bragging and advertising.

Then there's a very long section about pen names.  I'm not sure why, probably because it was easy to write.

I also think Penn dances around the gender issue instead of gripping the bull by the horns.  The truth is that it's harder being a woman than being a man in most cases.  (Though in the case of, say, paranormal romance author, being a woman is a pretty solid plan.)  But to say that, after going on and on and on about authenticity is hard.  If you're lying about being a man because you write science-fiction, are you being authentic?

It's a touchy issue and she handles it poorly is what I'm saying.  For my money, I would have preferred a simple practical guide.  I wasn't looking for ethical advice from this book, but marketing advice.  Whether or not it is authentic or ethical or anything else to craft a nom de plume but the marketing reasons to do so.  Whether an author then wants to ignore that advice because they find it distasteful can and should be up to them, I figure.

Then there's some stuff about websites, but it was so banal I skipped it.  If you're going to have a website, it's probably best to hire a pro.  Knew that!

Then, she suggests an email list.  This part isn't bad, probably because Penn's career has been strongly influenced by her mailing list.  She's clearly anti-spam (which is fine, as I am, too, though in a truly useful marketing book I think that spam should be addressed as a potentially useful marketing technique; I do not pick up how-to books for ethics but data and options).

Really, she should have started out with this.  It is easy to do and a vital tool of direct marketing.  I accept that every author should have one as being obviously true.

Then she talked about blogging.  It's a good idea because it changed her life.  Once again, who cares?  Penn's personal story isn't the point to this!  I bought a book on marketing, not her life story, not a biography!

I dislike blogging as marketing - I mean, I hate it - so I won't be doing it and mostly skipped the section about how it changed her life.  Maybe if I had some confidence it would be about more than her personal experiences blogging, including research data about its efficacy, I would have slogged through it, but she's a terrible writer who should suffer in the pits of hell for her affronts to nature and humanity.

Indeed, I then stopped.  Clearly, there isn't much here for me since I'm not looking for ways to make ending my own life easier.  It's a terrible, nasty, boring book that doesn't redeem itself by providing useful research or data.

It is, unfortunately, typical of its breed.  Indie publishing is likely the right course for me, but the books about it seem designed to take advantage of people.  This is pretty normal in the publishing industry, though - a fair bit of publishing is about lying to writers, after all, and taking advantage of their hopes and inexperience to make a quick buck.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Criticism on Authonomy's post about sense in fantasy and historical fiction

I often click links and wonder, "Do people actually consider, do they really, truly think about the things they write?" Often, I feel the answer is, emphatically, “no”. In particular, the article here has a bunch of stuff that - upon inspection - isn't very true. Sure, it gets repeated all the time by writers and people in the publishing industry, but like many things often repeated but rarely discussed there isn't too much truth to the author's claims. Apropos of this is this blog post on verisimilitude for fantasy and historical fiction. It is terrible.

For instance, the blog post says, "[T]he author of a fantasy novel filled with invented creatures and magic must ensure that these elements exist within coherent systems and are subject to perceivable rules."

Really? First, I'm going to mention a kind of writing that gets scant respect from the literary types but has created many of the most enduring characters and stories of the last hundred years: comic books. If you have a fast paced story with colorful characters, it appears that consistency, much less verisimilitude, is irrelevant. Superheroes are constantly developing new abilities to get out of situations in a non-stop barrage of deus ex machina. The only reason not to acknowledge this is pure snobbery, because superheroes are enduring and popular, many of their figures and stories having become bedrock culture of the 20th century (and certainly the 21st).

(One of my favorite cases in point is Batman's cowl. Sometimes it's cloth, except when he gets shot in the head when it is revealed to be a helmet. I would say, “Choose, dudes”, but the truth is that I – or, really, anyone else – doesn't much care.)

But, really, it doesn't stop there – it's in most fantasy. Lord of the Rings? Remember Gandalf coming back from the dead after fighting the Balrog? Yeah. There was nothing inherent in the logical structure of the narrative to suggest, much less state, that would happen. It had happened to no other character and was not thought to be something that could happen by any of the protagonists, yet it occurred: Gandalf came back from the dead.

One of my favorite examples about how consistency in fantasy is a bugbear is Dracula. How, exactly, did Dracula get his ship into England, again? He killed all the crew, sure, okay, he's a vampire, I get that, but what mystical authority allowed the ship to find its destination uncrewed? And why should Mina have a psychic connection to her attacker, allowing Van Helsing and the others to track Dracula? There is nothing inherent in previously existing vampire fiction known to Victorian audiences to make this credible or coherent. It was clearly something added solely for the purpose of allowing the humans to confront the undead, pure deus ex machina.

I could go into more details - almost all fantasy and sci-fi books do this to some extent - but the key point is that while our ability to notice out-of-place things is real, equally real is our ability to see patterns that we want to exist. A big part of the trick isn't to create a setting where everything is plausible within a rigidly constructed framework - you could go quite mad attempting that, though some writers can make it work - but that the writing does whatever it takes, by whatever means it takes, to get the audience to see a pattern even if it makes no sense to do so by giving them reasons to see things your way. We forgive Tolkien because we want Gandalf to return; we forgive Stoker because we want Dracula to lose. Consistency or verisimilitude does not really enter into it.

Additionally, due to the power of the Internet, and the rise of fanfic, the extent to which the audience is not only willing but actively engaged in finding patterns where none were created by authorial intent is evident. Just as we see patterns in the clouds, the complex narrative of a novel allows people to see a great many things that any given author never intended (and it is even easier with series, written or otherwise) - thus the large number of people who sexually obsess about Draco Malfoy or Snape, which J. K. Rowling finds strange and incomprehensible, or pretty much any slash or ship related to almost any media. Verisimilitude need not apply. Consistency be damned. We see what we want to see and I feel that a big part of a fiction writer's job is to seduce the audience into accepting their narrative. (This isn't news, it's simply suspension of disbelief and there are many tricks to making it work – verisimilitude is merely one and not even the best one, I think.)

The author then goes on to say, "Historical fiction also depends upon strict coherency." Nonsense. I mean, complete and utter nonsense, and a lot of that is because it's impossible to get "strict coherency".

History, because of its incomplete nature and our inability to understand the internal lives of the people who lived it, is a moving target. As a historian, at any given time, there are competing narratives of just about any historical subject.

To pick literally the first one that came to mind, the authorial intent of Machiavelli's The Prince. Is it a handbook of political ruthlessness or a cunning satire? To this day, the question is unresolved. Some find it absurd that Machiavelli, who spent the rest of his life as a staunch republican, suddenly became obsequious to tyranny, finding it more likely that The Prince was meant as an insult to the de Medici and Borgia (and, indeed, the central premise seems to be that Cesare Borgia got lucky, so I think this is a very strong argument).  Others, of course, think that Machiavelli's imprisonment broke him and, in order to secure a job, any job, he wrote a toadying manuscript (also a strong argument). Which is it? Who knows? Both positions have some merit and we can't ask the writer.

But if you were writing a story about Machiavelli, you'd likely choose one of two contradictory narratives, or create a third narrative. At any rate, you're going to run into a lot of people who think you're absolutely wrong no matter the depths of your research.

All of history is like this - it is a fluid narrative that changes as we change. From the idea that the "Dark Ages" was a time of technological regression (go ahead and google "Carolingian Renaissance" to start to find out what modern historians actually think of that idea), or the causes of the American Revolution, our perception of history is almost always controversial in some regard. There is no such thing as “strict coherency”. What makes perfect sense to you is likely to enrage someone else.

(And a living issue: primary education textbooks are being rejected because the historical narrative does not match what various school boards demand to be true. History is a minefield of conflicting beliefs and opinion, ranging from the very naive to the well-researched and intensely sophisticated but equally contradictory and exclusive.)

So, creating coherency must first ask, "Who's coherency?" Lacking an objective standard, how does that even make any damn sense? (Answer: it doesn't, but you've got to know something about historiography to realize how history is constantly, almost necessarily mired in controversy.)

(I want to emphasize that I am not suggesting that writers fail to do research. I'm not saying that a work should not have some internal consistency. I'm just saying that "strict coherency" is nonsense regarding historical research for a historical novel – that the standard is irrational.)

And . . . then I stopped reading the article, I admit, even though I was mostly through it. Why bother going on? What bothers me is the extent to which these oft-repeated maxims are unconsidered in, I think, the face of considerable evidence to the contrary. The idea that they even MIGHT be wrong is totally undiscussed (as opposed to, say, the way fans pick apart the media they love, or historians continue to search for truth in the mists of the past). Still, writers love repeating them to each other. I think we should stop and reconsider them, really think about them, and maybe even think about why we are encouraged to think this way.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Craig Morgan repeats tedious bullshit cliches while defending American Sniper

Once again American Sniper has appeared on too many of my feeds and made me reasonably upset.  I am including a Rolling Stone review of the movie, too, because it says a lot of things with which I agree in regards to Hollywood and war movies, generally, as well as being a very well-written piece.

(Short form: war movies suck because in order to turn a war into a film that doesn't make a person crawl out of their skin requires grave offenses to art and sense.  But for me, the money shot of the RS review is, "The thing is, it always looks bad when you criticize a soldier for doing what he's told. It's equally dangerous to be seduced by the pathos and drama of the individual solider's experience, because most wars are about something much larger than that, too."  I have struggled with his dilemma, myself.  War is so terrible that some balancing the horror that many soldiers experience against critiques of war, itself, that I feel are necessary to prevent future wars.  The most horrifying thing about this, for me, is that I absolutely know that warmongers use the pains of soldiers as cover for further wars - but dismissing the legitimate pain of human beings isn't something I'm good at.  So how does a person talk about the tragedy of war when the people who perpetrate and profit from the misery use the suffering of human beings as a defense . . . to further perpetrate and profit from war?  Drives me crazy.

(Blame Kai for this.  She encouraged me to ramble on.)

Seth Rogan said, "American Sniper kind of reminds me of the movie that's showing in the third act of Inglorious Basterds", which is a mock Nazi propaganda film.  Unlike Michael Moore's comments, this isn't factually in error.  It's a person's opinion and, frankly, given both the overt nationalist sentiments of American Sniper's director (anyone else remember Clint speaking to that empty chair?) and the subject matter, I don't find the comparison unlikely.

Craig Morgan took umbrage with Rogan's opinion in one of the most absolutely tedious ways imaginable.  In particular, Morgan said, "You are fortunate to enjoy the privilege and freedom of working in and living in the United States, and saying whatever you want (regardless of how ignorant the statement) thanks to people like Chris Kyle who serve in the United States military."

Bullshit.  Some assholes in the Middle East do not threaten any rights Americans possess.  They are very far away and can attack us in extremely limited ways.  To believe otherwise is to engage in conspiracy theory of the strangest magnitude.  The last time that the US military actually defended the rights of Americans - the last time they were under actual attack by an enemy - was probably the American Civil War.  Arguably World War II, but since neither Nazi Germany or the Empire of Japan had the physical ability to invade the United States so I don't think they actually threatened our freedom.  Middle Eastern terrorists obviously threaten the lines of some Americans, but their ability to kill Americans has been made much easier by our invasion of several Middle Eastern countries.  Middle Eastern killers now have much more convenient access to Americans, which is why so many have been dying.

Additionally, it is easy to find people who actually do protect American rights, immediately and directly.  People like the American Civil Liberties Union.  I would, furthermore, argue that an artist as bold as Seth Rogan does a great deal to protect freedom of speech - by using it.  One of the things that keeps rights healthy is their exercise.  One of the ways laws form and dissolve is through tradition - by keeping the tradition of freedom of speech alive, through its healthy exercise, Seth Rogan is absolutely defending human rights, and more directly than a sniper in the Middle East.

Sentiments of people like Morgan are also corrosive to the very idea of freedom.  We do not owe soldiers our freedom.  We possess it as a natural right.  Read the Declaration of Independence!  It is integral to American democracy that the people possess rights, not because they are given, but because they are natural to the dignity of humans.  Because if it is true that we "owe" anyone our rights, then they can revoke them, because they own them.

It is that idea - that rights are natural and their exercise is healthy - has done more to expand freedom than all the arms that have ever existed, both here in the United States and all around the world.

Lastly, Morgan said that Rogan's words were insensitive to Chris Kyle and his family.  C'mon, dude.  You can't have a big budget movie with A-list directors and actors made, to considerable profit, and then use that as an excuse for people not to critique the movie!  If you want to live a private life, here's a pro tip: don't have your dead husband's life story made into a movie.  By so aggressively putting the story out there, it opens the door to critique.  Opens it wide.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Bill O'Reilly lies about statistics to whitewash cops - I know, it's SUCH a surprise!

Once again, troubles in America are perpetrated because counting is a skill few people seem to develop.  Please, America, learn to count!

Bill O'Reilly - who, admittedly, also thinks that NYPD Officer David Pantaleo shouldn't have choked to death Eric Garner - gave the statistics that 123 black people were shot by cops last year while 326 whites were shot by cops.

First, the caveat that there are no accurate statistics about police shootings in the US.  Police departments are not obligated to tell anyone when a cop kills someone.  So, let's bear that in mind.

Second, let's do the math.  About 50% of Americans are white.  About 12% of Americans are black.  The ratio, there, is about 4:1.  Even accepting O'Reilly's numbers as absolutely accurate and representative, he's saying that around 2/5ths of the people killed by cops are black.  Translation?  Black people are seventy percent more likely to be killed by cops than white ones.  If you can't figure that out, shame on you, because it allows assholes like O'Reilly to pretend that everything is hunky-dory and to convince other people that racism isn't a thing.

He's also just reprehensibly saying that, hey, cops killing 459 people is okay.  Dude, countries have gone to war over less provocation.  The Boston Massacre?  FOUR people were killed.  FOUR.  It was considered by those Founding Fathers O'Reilly claims to love as a clear sign of tyranny.  So when you're at the place when it's necessary to talk about proportions and percentages to get a better handle on how many people are killed, you're waaaaaaaaaay past that into the territory of "just stop it, already" and maybe into the territory of "maybe a revolution isn't that bad an idea".

Also, other countries don't feel the urge to shoot their citizens so often.  Places like Great Britain can go whole years without cops killing anyone.  This is particularly interesting because Britain - with the exception of murder, where we outstrip all industrialized nations, often by an order of magnitude - has very similar crime rates to the US.  Yet, English bobbies don't feel the need to kill over a hundred Brits a year (if you can count, you know this is about proportionally accurate).  Indeed, the last time a cop in Britain shot someone dead was March 3rd, 2012.  Before that, August 2011 and before THAT June 2007.  That's right.  Between 2007 and 2011 - four years - no English cops fatally wounded NO ONE.  (And, unlike the US, Britain does keep accurate statistics about police killings.  Though, granted, it's a lot easier over there since their cops kill so few people.)

So the idea that, hey, cops are okay because the only kill 459 people a year and only black people are only 70% more likely to be gunned down by cops than white ones, everything is hunky-dory.  Nope, no problem at ALL that police kill 459 people a year, a disproportionate number of them black.  Not a problem at ALL.  Not to Bill O'Reilly.

Okay, and here's the real bogus part - O'Reilly was just plain lying.  There were about 459 people killed by cops in 2013, sure, but not all of them were either black or white.  A lot of them were, y'know, Hispanic because about 1 in 3 Americans is Hispanic.  A whole bunch of them are unnamed, without any attribution of race and sometimes not even of gender!

Remember, the US does not keep police officer killing statistics.  So such records are usually compiled from police crime desk stories.  Often, the information given is very scant and is rarely accurately fact checked.

For instance, according to Wikipedia's list of people killed by cops in January of 2013, forty-six people are listed as having died that month.  Eleven of them - over 20% of them - are listed as unnamed.  Hmm.  I checked seven entries before exhausting myself, and in the news articles about the shootings, in no case was the race of the person identified.

So, since out of those 459 people (barring the unlikely event that O'Reilly has access to data taht I don't have), O'Reilly assigned everyone who got killed by cops in American as black or white (which is, itself, disturbing) - totally ignoring the fact that many people killed by the police do not have their race released AND that a bunch of Americans are neither white nor black . . . well, what else can I conclude other than O'Reilly lied.  He pulled this specious bullshit "fact" out of his pocket to distract an outraged guest and whitewash racist police brutality.

Fuck Bill O'Reilly.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

My present thoughts about Ferguson and the drudgery of causation

The worst part about seeing fnords is that almost no one else does, so I find myself in conversations or making observations that not many people understand.  I find this frustrating so I shut up more often than I should.  What's the point of saying something when no one listens?

Anyway, here's the bit about Ferguson.  I'm not sure to what extent it is fair to take a specific incident and turn it into a referendum about broad social policy. While I understand the legitimate issues at stake in Ferguson, I find this specific incident far less touching and significant than the general trend that I don't think many people understand.  Here it is:

We have all been tricked by the "war on crime".  It has never been about crime.  Every other industrialized nation in the world has crime rates similar to the US without our crazy obsession with crime and punishment (and they all have a small fraction of our murders, due to the fairly strict gun control laws in every other country worth living in).  This very strongly suggests that crime rates in the US have been dropping due to outside factors (such as the fact we're a generally richer nation than we've ever been, leaving fewer people in utterly desperate straits).  No, no, the war on crime has never been about crime but about race.

As the social movements of the Sixties changed the attitude of Americans, it became unacceptable to perpetrate violence on minority communities merely because they were minorities.  Cops couldn't just go in to beat and kill minorities to satisfy the racist bloodlust.  Yet, all of these police departments and justice systems were top-heavy with brutally vicious racist assholes.  The cops and judges that came into power in the 60s were raised in the undeconstructed racism of the 50s and earlier.

It is likewise important to realize that this continuity extends forward - the cops and judges in power now arise directly from those people in the 70s.  It is very important to remember that there is direct continuity of personnel between then and now - that the people in charge of law and punishment are the chosen heirs to the people who played the trick I'm going to reveal.

The people in power of the justice systems in the US weren't cured of their racism simply because some hippies made it harder to bash in black people's heads.  So they invented the war on crime, which distributed the bulk of law enforcement assets in crime ridden areas.  Well, those crime ridden areas were poor and non-white neighborhoods, they were defined as crime ridden by those undeconstructed racist cops.  A bunch of laws and procedures were invented to rationalize this (and I'll talk about a couple of the specifics below) but the important thing to remember is that when you police a given neighborhood (even taking away stuff like racism, which was definitely a big player, but this is true even if you take that way), the neighborhood that is more policed will seem to have more crime.

This is easy to figure, right?  You take two identical neighborhoods and you put twice as many cops into one as the other, the one with more cops will tend to find more crime - because that's one of the key duties of the police!

In turn, this rationalizes even more police coverage of those neighborhoods in a vicious circle.  All the did was create the conditions through which the same behavior was permitted, merely changing the rational for that behavior to something that appeared less racist.  It also allowed police to characterize non-white communities as being inherently criminal, even though it was a condition they created in the first place.

I said I'd give a couple of examples.  They racists who set up this system consistently overplay their hand, but they aren't called on it because the more attenuated an argument becomes the less likely people are to pay attention to it in the first place.  It's easy to understand that cops beating and killing black people because they're black is wrong.  It's harder to understand that a bunch of racist people created a system to justify continued racist abuses under layers of statistically skullduggery.  Most people don't bother to penetrate the more complex argument and/or assume the people proposing the more complex argument "have a point" so they give violent racist assholes a pass.

Still, examples.  Both of them come from the major campaign of the war on crime, the war on drugs.

The first is that black people account for about 12% of the US population and about 13% of drug users and drug peddlers (the difference is due to wealth, by the way - poor people use more drugs and black people get paid about 3/5ths what white people do in another part of the complex and persistent pattern of racism in the US).  However, over half of the people arrested on drug related offenses are black.  This is what happens when you send your cops into black neighborhoods to look for drug dealers while ignoring the ones in white neighborhoods.  It is the natural consequence and it is racist, hidden under statistical skullduggery.  And it creates vicious stereotypes of black drug dealers and black drug users when the truth is that drug sales and use is almost perfectly evenly distributed by race.

(The sentences between black and white people for similar crimes is also greatly different.  In all, black people spend about eight times longer in prison than white people for drug related offenses.  Hella racist.)

The second clear and obvious example is crack cocaine.  Until very recently, 1 gram of crack cocaine (which tends to be sold in poor, black neighborhoods) was treated as 100 grams of powder cocaine (which tends to be sold in rich, white neighborhoods).  Now 1 gram of crack is as bad as 18 grams as cocaine.

The rationale behind this is that crack is some sort of superdrug.  It isn't.  The bioavailability of crack cocaine is about 15% more than snorted cocaine.  That's it.  It produces a short but intense high, but as with all narcotics how high you get is primarily a product of how much you take.  If you've got enough money, you can put as much coke up your nose to give you the same intensity of high as crack - and it'll last longer.  Likewise, if you don't have a lot of crack, you might smoke less, producing a less intense high.  Since the metabolites of crack are identical with powdered cocaine, there is no particular difference in the character of the high - it's the same high.  You just get it a little faster with smoking, per unit, though the high is shorter in duration.

Which is part of the reason why black people spend eight times as much time in prison vis-a-vis white people - when 1 gram of your drug is worth 100 times its weight in sentencing, you're going to be staying in the big house for a loooooooong time.

This isn't subtle, people!  But the essential trick is that the when blatant, overt racism became less permissible in the 1960s it wasn't like the cops stopped being racist.  They found a way to keep doing the same stuff, but buried under somewhat complex arguments.

Which is why it is vital to remember that the justice system of today is run by the hand picked successors to the guys who have always been running the show.  It is being run with the same eye towards permitting the overt racism of the 50s and earlier but with the new lingo.  They've had generations to tighten it up, to create the vacuous procedural bullshit that we've seen all over America, to solidify their "reasons" and cover up their racism with charts and shit.   But it's shit.  They're just racist thugs.

So, I very strongly feel for the people who have been trapped by the war on drugs.  But when I hear people talking about this specific indictment, well, Betty Bowers summed it up pretty well when she said, "Whether Ferguson and racism or 9-11 and terrorism, Americans always fixate on the theater of results rather than the drudgery of causation."  But the drudgery of causation is the important part!  Without discussion of that causation, no amount of riots over specific police actions is going to mean very much.

Monday, November 17, 2014

NaNoWriMo and the writerly culture of self-abuse - and a call to arms to stop it!

NaNoWriMo has been a very positive experience for me.  It's my first year of doing it and I'm very glad I have - it has been wonderful.  Still, I guess I'm just a critical person because there's one thing that vexes me: the extent to which wrimos are critical of their own work.  There is a persistent culture in NaNoWriMo that says to its participants that their novel will stink, that writing swiftly is somehow inferior to writing patiently, but there's no reason to think that's . . . true.  That's right.  My criticism is that you people think you suck when you don't!

My initial draft of this post included a lot of historical stuff about 19th century writers like Dumas and Tolstoy who have written enduring classics of literature on very tight schedules.  It is true.  Many of the finest novelists who have ever lived wrote in ways similar to wrimos.  My initial post included additional historical details about how this kind of writing fell out of favor due to changes in publishing that made centralized publishing houses more economically profitable and not because of the preference of the audience, and how that centralization lead to those publishing houses putting a premium on shorter works due to the cost of paper, glue and ink.  Yeah, that's right, all that "stay focused, write concise" stuff is primarily due to publishers wanting to save money on paper, ink and glue - it was never an artistic choice!  It was never a popular choice!  (Which is part of the reason why almost everyone who reads this will have their favorite works in some giant series like Harry Potter or Game of Thrones or whatever.  Most readers don't want their favorite novels to end!)  I ended up saying that modern comic book writers also write in a fashion similar to wrimos and they have created many of the most enduring cultural icons of the past hundred years.  In short, I talked a fair bit about why writing quickly, as wrimos do, does not lead to inferior art and a brief history behind the often cruel modern editing practices that have more to do with the cost of physical books than anything artistic.

But that was long and boring, so I just summarized it and am going to move on to what I think is the more trenchant argument:

The odd of you failing to suck are in your favor - you're probably an average writer.  There, I said it.  Your book doesn't suck, it's probably average.  Some will suck, but the odds of your book being truly bad are about the same as it being truly great.  And for most of you?  Your book is somewhere in the middle.

But here's the thing - being an "average" writer is pretty goddamn incredible.  Just like the "average" of any other artist!  In any other artistic field, people are quick to point out that their local music scene, art scene produces things that are lacking only big budgets of major distributors and are more in sync with the local attitudes and culture!  Local artists rock.  You are a local artist.  This means you rock.

I don't understand why wrimos attack each other like this.  If this was musicians instead of writers, we'd be pretty goddamn awesome.  I assure you that musicians don't stay around their local scene talking about how much they suck!  They instead talk about the conformity and banality created by the big labels, they revel in their idiosyncratic nature and local culture.  And people would come from far away to listen to the products of that local musical culture.

What I'm saying here is we should adopt that mindset.  We would find that the "average" of unpublished writers is about the same "average" for published writers, just as it is for musicians who aren't signed by big labels, or indie filmmakers, or pretty much anyone in the visual arts who doesn't have a studio in Manhattan.  Because, let me tell you, I don't think a bunch of rich white people in New York City are any better at determining what's good for the three-hundred and fifty million people in the United States any more than a tiny group of rich white people in LA are very good at deciding what we should all listen to or make into movies.  (And, of course, this doesn't even count everyone outside of the United States!)  Most of us live in a huge country with incredible diversity and it is ill-served, I think, by the New York City centered publishing industry.  We should break free of the strange notion that a small group of people far away from us in terms of culture, education, needs and wants should determine what defines good writing!  I'm saying we're as good as the local artists in every other field, who are very good artists.

I think we should adopt that mindset.  We are good artists.  We are making good art.  As good as all those other local artists out there that we thing are good.