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Thursday, May 31, 2007

Posthumous Fame

Thanks to Vincent van Gogh, there is an image trapped in the collective unconscious of great artists who toil in obscurity only to be discovered moments after dying. The greatness of the artist's vision is verified by the lack of attention given to their work while they were breathing, and we all get to congratulate ourselves for being far more perceptive than our forebears.

It is a beautiful and solemn image, and one capable of inspiring both awe and pity. It is also an image that I would like to avoid.

In my high school yearbook, beneath my picture and name and in place of the accomplishments I neither sought nor accrued was a quote from Woody Allen. It read, "I don't want to achieve immortality from my work. I want to achieve it by not dying." As time has passed, I would also like to add this addendum: "I don't want to be a success after it is of any use to me. I want it now. Now, now, now, now, now."

I have no idea what posterity will make of my works. That's something that only time will tell, and I will be dead and, presumably, indifferent. I want the kudos to start now. I want the praise, I want the money, I want the fame. I want people to get that slight bugginess to their eyes when they see me. I'll gladly sign your book or other artifact. I will attend the events and accept the awards. I will gladly be magnanimous and self-effacing as people I don't know inflate my ego with unearned praise. I will make the fewest demands I can and shake every hand. I will be grateful for it, since it has happened so late.

As long as I am still breathing, I will be grateful.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Querying the Deal

There are many things about the writing life that most people are not aware of. The common assumption would be that the writer writes something, sends it out, and is either accepted or rejected on the merits of the piece.

The truth, however, is slightly different.

Because of the teeming hordes who want to write despite lacking any noticeable talent, certain conventions have established themselves in the publishing world. Over the years, the importance of crafting pitch-perfect query letters has risen steadily, and most judgments made are made on your query (for nonfiction and novels) or cover letter (for short stories).

The thing about this system is this, to me: Since one is always dealing with different individuals who have different ideas and reactions to these letters, it's kind of like having to go to the door of a speakeasy and having to guess the password. And each individual has a different password, so each knock at each door has the same odds of succeeding as the first.

This even goes for acquiring an agent. It's enough to make you crazy sometimes.

So far, I have queried five agents concerning Drayton and have gotten four rejections. I've retooled my query after each rejection in the hope that I might just hit the right note, but you can never tell. Maybe fifth time's the charm.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Frightened by Gore-Text

Republican apologist and New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote a rather scathing review of Al Gore's new book in his column this morning. He doesn't address Gore's points about the attacks the Bush Administration has made on representational democracy, but instead concentrates on Gore's distrust of television and childlike faith in the power of the Internet.

This should give you an idea of what the attacks against Gore are going to be in the coming months: More machine than man, Al Gore seeks to rule from on high.

It all just makes me think that the Democrats should draft Gore to run for President in 2008. He scares the Republicans far more than Hilary or Barack or Edwards. Put out a movie, and they pee their pants. Write a book, and they pee their pants. Run him for President, and there will be a Noah-like flood.

In 2004, the Republicans got just the Democratic candidate they wanted in John Kerry. Him they could beat, which is why they made sure that Howard Dean's "shouting" in Iowa got so much press. I mean, was that footage really meaningful in any way? No. It's only use was as an item that was easy to make fun of. And then it got run over and over and over again. Dean's candidacy got shot down for no better reason than that he looked a little silly for a few seconds and that image could be exploited.

And I'm sure that Fox News ran that clip until it got faded and the audio started to crack.

And that's what the Democrats should look for in a candidate. The Republicans may have no idea of how to run the country, but they have a great sense of who they can and cannot beat in a general election. So the Demoocrats should always look for the fear.

Friday, May 25, 2007

A Comment on a Comment

I was just after reading a story on the BBC News website concerning a school shooting in Toronto. the thing that really got to me, after the horror of reading of another school shooting, was the quote of a comment used to promote others to comment. It went thus:

"Canada has very strict gun laws, but the laws don't work."

It was attributed to someone from the Good Ol' US of A, and it made me shudder. The reader who made this comment shows no ability to reason critically. I say this because of facts stated in the article itself.

For example, this killing was the 26th in Toronto this year and the 13th with a handgun. I'd like to point out that Virginia Tech has a higher murder rate on one day and that all of them were by handgun. Atlanta, the city I currently live in, had 90 murders in 2005, which was its best year in 36 years. In 2004, there had been 151. This was in a city with a population of about 480,000.

Meanwhile, in Toronto, there are only 26 murders in six months in a city with a population of 2,500,000. Can anybody see the difference there? Is it possible that Canada's stringent gun laws had anything to do with this discrepancy? I could be wrong, but I make that as murder rates of 9.6/100,000 (reducing the total number of murders by half to make the numbers comparable) in Atlanta to a murder rate of 1.4/100,000 in Toronto.

By all rights, because of its huge population, Toronto should be much more dangerous than Atlanta, but it isn't. Trying to claim that their gun laws don't work based on the occurrence of one shooting is fallacious reasoning. Blaming our high rates of murder--particularly via handguns--on our lack of laws may or may not be right, but it has more basis in fact than the other.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Book Critic Brouhaha . . . ha ha ha ha

(The following is a revised version of a comment I posted on Baby Got Books concerning a controversy that has erupted concerning the loss of book critic jobs at major newspapers in the United States. The Baby Got Books discussion of this issue has continued, and I'd like to thank the folks who participate there for helping me to refine and expand my thoughts.)

It’s been interesting to me to see the controversy concerning the disappearance and shrinkage of book pages from newspapers as promoted by the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) play itself out. When this matter first surfaced on Baby Got Books, I dutifully went to the linked website and signed the petition. And I would do so again today, if need be.

However, at that time, I never even began to consider the idea that lit blogs would be used in a blatant scare tactic to try to rescue the job of a single book editor at a single paper. Posts on the NBCC blog, such as this one and this one floored me with their poor reasoning, naivete, and flat out bigotry. Somehow, the literary crowd has gotten the idea into their heads that lit blogs and not greedy communications industry monopolies are putting book reviewers on the unemployment line and have taken to attacking them indiscriminately. Sheila Kohler, for one, implies that no one who blogs could possibly have any knowledge of literature, a position which, since it is not based in any sort of objective research, is merely prejudice. Although I suppose it is only fair that we expect her to be Kohleric.

The thing, at the end of the day, is this. Newspapers as a physical entity that people leave on the floors of America’s buses and subways is quickly turning into an artifact. It is a casualty of the Internet. The AJC should save Teresa Weaver’s job and do away with the paper. Commit to online editions. All the same content, just online. This is where you place your ads and what you sell subscriptions to. Costs come down because you don’t have to buy newsprint. (Which will cause its own economic fallout, but no solution is perfect.)

The other thing is this. Blogging is actually the future for professional reviewers. I pay The New York Times money each month for the privilege of pawing through their website unfettered, and I think they are ahead of the curve on this stuff. From what I’ve seen there, I think that traditional columns will morph in time into blogs, as will reviews. Because here’s the dirty little secret about book reviews: They are not pronouncements from on high, but are actually one-sided conversations between readers. Having formal book review blogs, with the opportunity for moderated comment, will only enhance that conversation.

Which brings me to the third thing. Book reviewing is not serious literary criticism. I work in a university English Department and the scholars I work with are the serious literary critics. Book reviewing is typically a journalistic endeavor on a par with stringing stories about fires. Pretty much anybody can write one and submit it and have a halfway decent chance of getting it published, depending on the newspaper. It’s one of the most basic ways of building credits as a writer and shouldn’t be confused with dealings in divine revelation.

Now, I will admit to participating on Baby Got Books, which is a lit blog. And I will also admit that there have been reviews I have have written but not posted because they seemed to me to be too much like professional reviews. That does not, however, imply that the reviews posted on Baby Got Books or any of the other lit blogs are inferior to their newspaper brethren, only that they are less formal than professional reviews and less likely to be presented as the utterances of some kind of oracle.

They also tend to be kinder than professional reviews, and I really can't imagine seeing something as needlessly hurtful as Dorothy Parker's "This is not a book to set aside lightly; it should be thrown with great force" appearing on the average lit blog. That, however, makes neither Mrs. Parker more correct in her judgement of that book than a lit blogger might be concerning Special Topics in Calamity Physics.

All-in-all, this controversy is just another struggle of the past to try to avoid the future. The people complaining about lit blogs are afraid. They are glimpsing the future and wonder at their places in it. Will they still be able to indulge in the usual round of logrolling and backscratching and free books that they’ve enjoyed for so long? Will they still be able to eke out the money for the gas bill or a nickel bag by dashing off a couple of ill-considered reviews? Will they still be able to continue to pass themselves off as experts in a field that defies expertise?

In my view, lit blogs like Baby Got Books–as distinct from reviews on Amazon, which quite often don’t make sense–are a healthy and potentially significant part of the conversation among readers that calls itself book reviewing. They are also great marketing tools for forward-thinking publishers. And they’re not going to go away, unlike the book review section that starts on page D-3. That, my friends, is history.

Oh, yes, and one final thought: If book reviews were as powerful as the folks at the NBCC seem to think, the collected works of Dan Brown would be out-of-print instead of the passing reviews of Teresa Weaver.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Stop the Presses: Another Drayton Update

I finished revising Chapter 11 a few minutes ago. That means printing out Chapter 12 so that I can start demolition work immediately.

That's one more good chapter to send to an agent, as soon as I can convince one to take a look at it.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

No, No! Look Over There!

This is getting a bit circular, but I'd like to direct my few readers to my most recent post on my former political blog, Shooting Off My Fat Trap, even though it will direct you right back here. That post just plain amuses me.

Monday, May 21, 2007

It Can Happen Here

As I was walking from the parking garage to my office today (and it's a bit of a hike) I started thinking about the Bush Administration and the way that people will sometimes refer to them as being a bunch of Nazis. Now, of course, they are not Nazis. They're not organized enough. The thing that is so horrifying about the Nazis, the thing that makes Hitler's achievement in murder more spectacular than Stalin's or Pol Pot's is the simple, banal, bureaucratic efficiency of the thing. They laid tracks and established railroads, railroads with schedules and stops, and built camps, each designed to a specific deadly purpose, with a factory-like efficiency. They killed people the way that Detroit used to make cars, with the same lack of passion and the same plodding skill.

The Bushies, though, are not efficient. They are efficiency's antidote. Of course, in a couple of prominent areas--curtailing the right vote and lining the pockets of the already wealthy--they've got their chops down. However, in most other areas of both governance and misgovernance, they are a bumbling pack of incompetents.

So, they aren't Nazis, certainly not in the Hitler sense, and their being fascists is debatable, although their hunger to merge government, military, and corporate interests into one nationalistic lump is an indicator of, at least, sympathy with that point-of-view. However, I think the attribute that best defines them is their taste for totalitarianism.

These are people--mostly men, along with a few women in housecoats--who believe that they should rule without opposition or dissent. The argument they put forth in 2000, that counting all the votes available to be counted wasn't "expedient," is an example of their disdain for democracy, as are their systematic attempts in both 2000 and 2004 to disenfranchise, in one way or another, people who were unlikely to vote for them, and as is the current scandal enveloping the Department of Justice. It's all about obtaining single-party rule in perpetuity, the goal of every totalitarian.

These are folks who mourn the loss of the Soviet Union and hope to rebuild it here in the United States. Gorbachev is more in touch with the democratic spirit than Cheney is. Perhaps the time has come for a bit of glasnost here in the U.S.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Write Right: A Drayton Story

In the movies, writers are usually shown pounding out words by the baleful, rarely pausing and never stopping. Sentences pour forth in a cascade, as a cataract on a river, and that first effort is exactly what goes to press.

In truth, writers work very differently. Take Drayton, for example. I have a draft of the whole novel now, but am not even nearly finished. Instead, I am taking each chapter as it stands and rewriting it from the top. Right now, I am at work on Chapter 11, and it has changed almost completely. I've hardly relied on the previous version, but have it printed out as a guide to use as I go along. Most of the chapter so far has gone well. I have probably about 1800 words so far and am very pleased.

However, I spent the last week reworking three paragraphs and slowly adding a fourth. I go back, every day, and make changes and then change the changes. I think I'm almost finished, but only time will tell.

And this how writers really work. You write and then you revise and rewrite. You change and you change and you change, and then you get an agent who wants changes and an editor who wants even more. And you work and you revise and polish and never actually get it to the place where you really want it to be.

But that's the process.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Get Me Vegas

Well, Wolfie finally stepped down from the presidency of the World Bank--without taking any responsibility for his actions, of course. He can now go on the neoconservative speaking circuit and tell the faithful how aggrieved he is. That will be followed by his ghost-written book, Everybody at the World Bank Is Mean. And then--Oh, boy!--the chance for another Brit Hume "I Just Want to Help You Like Goebbels Helped Hitler" interview. Good times.

The White House has promised to nominate a successor tout de suite. I suspect that, in the spirit of conciliation, they will nominate either John Bolton or Donald Rumsfeld. Unless, of course, they nominate Brit Hume! Let's keep an eye on the morning line.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

What Do They Call That Disease Again?

Last weekend, I had some bright thought about what I would write for my Thursday long essay. I made no note of it and told no one else, which, since no one else would really care, seemed prudent. As the week wore on, I thought about this subject matter from time-to-time, and each time took a moment out to congratulate myself on the brilliance of the subject and on my ability to remember it throughout the week.

This morning, senility won out. The brilliant notion for a post is gone, and it has left no forwarding address.

This, of course, left me in a bit of a bind this morning, especially since I had no idea that I had forgotten my topic until I actually opened up the window to start writing. So, what I did was this: I went for a walk.

Quite often, when I'm walking, all sorts of bright ideas occur to me. Ideas for stories, pieces of dialog, retorts I should have come up with 15 years ago, all of them pop into my fevered brain like kernels of corn popping in a microwave. On rare occasions, I actually remember them, but most of the time they pass through my brain like dandelion fronds floating on a gentle summer breeze. On even rarer occasions, I remember something that I had temporarily forgotten. Unfortunately, today was not one of those occasions.

I needed a new plan, a new brilliant idea that would take the place of the one departed and give me some topic to drone on about at some small length. So, I decided to write about memory and the way it slowly goes away as the years take their toll.

Now, I don't know for sure that this is what happens to everybody. Other people's memories may remain just as strong or poor as always as the years pass; I claim no special knowledge of that. I just have my own tawdry experiences to draw on, and fewer and fewer of them as the minutes tick by.

I used to have a quite formidable memory and could store away long passages from books, movies, and plays with ease. I used to study by reading the chapter in question the night before the test and then simply hocking it all up the next morning. I remembered incidents in my life down to the last, most excruciating detail and could report them at nauseating length. Sports scores, hitting and pitching statistics, and a detailed history of almost every sporting event played within my lifetime came to me like the card at a magician's fingertips.

Now I can barely remember how old my son is on any given day or why I went into the room I find myself standing in. Of course, it's just a function of having more to remember. Every day brings a new avalanche of information, all of which has to be sorted, categorized, and forgotten. It's at work, at home, and on the Internet. It's in the magazines and on the TV. Information, like fluoridation, is everywhere, and the older you get, the more of it you have to deal with. Did I pay them? Did I write that? What's for dinner? Where do we keep my socks? What's this for? Do we really need that? Who the hell am I?

If life is like a river, it has generally been at flood stage for some time now. It tires a person out and steals their focus. It's enough to make a person want to go live in the woods. As long as I could bring my computer, cell phone, TiVo, and satellite radio. Because when you come right down to it, I'm not really one of those--oh, you know, those people. The ones who do those things. The Whatchmacallits.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Wolfowitz at the Door

Were Paul Wolfowitz a man of any character, he would have long ago resigned as president of the World Bank. Unfortunately, he has proved to be a gutless little weasel who confuses mere tenacity with courage and conviction. He apparently has gotten to the groveling stage in this little drama and has made the assertion that getting rid of him would be "detrimental" to the well being of the bank. The truth is that he got caught using his power to benefit one individual at the expense of the bank. Highhanded and smug, he thought he could recreate the World Bank in an image pleasing to him and his sponsors while avoiding any accountability for his actions.

Men--true men--do not act in these ways. If they slip, though, and this sort of mess comes to light, they do the manly and honorable thing: They resign.

On an unrelated note, hell is just a little more crowded today thanks to the passing of world-renowned hypocrite, Jerry Falwell. If there really is a literal Hell, then I am confident that he is there, dressed in a Tinky Winky costume and serving every whim of those he worked so hard to have hated and reviled.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

A Couple of Things

First, I'm tired of trying to maintain three active blogs, so I'm just going to merge the whole bunch into this one. From now on, all my political and social rants, updates about my novel, Michael Drayton, Detective Guy, and the Thursday long essay will appear under this banner.

Second, I'd like to post a bit of a political rant. Based on the inability of the Bush Administration to disavow favored incompetents Paul Wolfowitz and Alberto Gonzales and the sheer stubborn, pointless resilience of both of those gentlemen, it has occurred to me that we need some way of showing these folks what miserable failures they are. Because I think that is the problem: They don't get it. Since they seem to believe that every failure they encounter (and let's face it, everything these guys touch turns to dust) is someone else's fault and that the solution is to try even more of that failed approach for longer with more money behind it, they are clearly delusional. The poor guys need help. And the American people are just the ones to give it to them.

I suggest that we pelt them with over-ripe tomatoes at every opportunity. I think that bombarding them in this way whenever they appear in public just might get across the idea that it's time to retire. And just think of the boost the tomato-growing community will receive! Why, we'd need a couple of truckloads just for Dick Cheney alone.

Unfortunately, I have to suggest just such things because the cowards in Congress won't start impeaching and removing people. Start with Gonzales and move up the list. These people need to be taught that they report to us and not to each other. Although they may work at the pleasure of the President, they work at the service of the People.

Unlike a lot of the anti-Bush crowd (and I've been among them since before the beginning), I don't think that our current ruling junta is constituted of people who mean ill. I don't. And I think that is the truly tragic thing: These idiots think that every idea that pops into their feeble little brains is a gift from God and not just a notion that might be either right or wrong. They also have an instinct for totalitarianism. Karl Rove and Dick Cheney have more in common, intellectually, with Joe Stalin than they do with, say, James Madison.

And when you're faced with people of this ilk, there's only one thing you can do: Grab a tomato.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

The Punitive Nation

It has struck me over the years how the default solution proposed to almost any problem in the United States these days involves punishment of some sort. Deal with drug use? Impose draconian punishments. Late with the credit card payment? Impose a fee. Late for work? Write it up for the file. School not performing well? Cut their funds.

The idea is a foolish one. The assumption is that the prescribed penalty will affect behavior, but, of course, it doesn't. And the penalties, instead of making the situation better, make it worse. People's lives are ruined for smoking a reefer. Someone who was already in a financial hole is now a little deeper. A worker who was already poorly motivated has another gripe to add to the list. Students at an underfunded school have an even smaller chance of succeeding.

I'm not necessarily sure what the answers are to all these problems, but I know that punishing people doesn't help. The problem is that, once you've announced a punishment, you can't not implement it, no matter how destructive the imposition of it would be.

People don't like to hear this, but there is no programmatic approach to solving problems. It's all ad hoc. Whatever your ideology, you're wrong. Life is too complicated and random to be tamed by some system. And you don't have to take my word for it. Just pick a random stretch from history, and you will see in glorious black-and-white the failures of every ideology and system. The only way to deal with with the problems posed by trying to live in a society is to take each issue on its own, look at it, take it apart, and look for solutions that are inherent in the problem itself.

But, for God's sake, don't just resort to kneejerk punishments.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Welcome to Babel

A few months ago, I had a brief flirtation with a blog that concerned itself with the problems faced by copyeditors. The posts concerned matters of style, grammar, and usage, and the examples used were generally taken from the host’s place of work, a prominent American newspaper. Despite having been away from actively editing copy for some time, I pitched right in, contributing defenses of The Elements of Style concerning the rules advising use of the active voice over the passive and the misperception that Strunk and White proposed that one never use the word “that.” (Professor Strunk’s prejudice was against the phrase “the fact that,” which he claimed “should be revised out of every sentence in which it occurs.”)

Over time, I became a regular participant and would pop off on every subject, oftentimes in complete contradiction to my actual practice. On one occasion in particular, I came out strongly and vociferously against starting a sentence with “and.” As I worked on my novel later that day, a certain conjunction kept working its way to the front of the line in sentence after sentence. Of course, I never revealed my duplicity on the blog; I considered it a family matter and nobody else’s damned business.

My participation ceased after the blog, which had been home to only current or former copyeditors, started to be visited by linguists. Now, I have nothing against the study of linguistics. I’m sure it has its uses, and it certainly keeps those who are interested in it busy. However, whenever the concern at hand is copyediting, linguistics and the people who study it are as useful as a paint roller is to a miniaturist.

Since linguistics is the study of human speech, no approach can be considered right or wrong, just as no frog can be considered right or wrong to a biologist. On the other hand, copyediting is the art of establishing right from wrong in the use of language, specifically the use of written language.

And this is where the conflicts arose.

“Ain’t” was suddenly defended as being no worse than “am not” or “amn’t” if the writer was feeling Irish. Just like the kid in the wheelchair down the street, “ain’t” wasn’t right or wrong or better or worse. It was just different. And to suggest otherwise was to be narrow-minded and bigoted and just an all-around nogoodnik.

My take on the subject was somewhat different. I stood with those who thought that “ain’t” had little place in formal writing, except when quoting someone or in fiction. Even then, there could be exceptions and no one advocated an Amish-like shunning or stoning over an occasional “ain’t.” After all, sometimes there just ain’t no word like it.

This skirmish was merely a precursor to the real battle though, which was prompted by a discussion concerning the phrase, “could care less.”

A group of us came out against it since the original phrase, “couldn’t care less,” seemed to more accurately reflect the intentions of the speaker. Others defended "could care less" as being an idiomatic expression. And that's fine with me. I disagree with that point-of-view, but it is a legitimate one and one I respect.

The problem for me came up when someone--a linguist--posted a comment that responded to one of mine. This comment was filled with jargon and buzz words and academic nonsense and ultimately argued that "could care less" is correct simply because people say that. I responded with a long, angry comment in which I attacked every point young Poindexter had made, and, not enjoying getting that worked up over a phrase that should be avoided whenever possible in both forms, left that blog and have never been back.

It is important that the idea of correctness in the use of the English language be preserved. Without having some standard, some lingua franca that all agree to, our ability to communicate becomes circumscribed and the American English community will slowly devolve into a loose coalition of small linguistic villages, shells of oarsmen all rowing in their own rhythm and direction.

As I pointed out in my farewell comment on that blog, I can make myself known in any group of English-speakers in the world, even when I might have trouble understanding those I am speaking to. The reason is that I speak Standard American English. And I will continue to prefer "couldn't care less" to "could care less" while trying to avoid both. Although, in the case of the proper use of language, I really could care less.