words

Tough Questions: What Are Your Pet Peeves?

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Every week we ask everyone who hangs out around here to answer a tough question. This week:

What are your pet peeves?

Rules are simple: WHAT MAKES YOU SO ANGRY YOU TYPE THE INTRO TO A THING IN ALL CAPS?

Alex Russell

People… who talk online… like this… I want Twitter to have a function that deletes your tweet if it ends in an ellipsis. You see it all day. People don’t understand what it means and they just trail off all of their little missives into the world. Caring about Twitter punctuation might be the most curmudgeonly way to answer this question, but it always reads to me like someone’s doing the textual version of “Not to be an asshole, but…” You’re still being an asshole.

Brent Hopkins

My biggest pet peeve is people eating with their mouths open. I live in a country and region of the world where it is common and widely accepted and it grates my nerves to no end. It is so irritating to me that it might be a relationship-breaker for me. It tends to be the only thing I can focus on during meals and it just kills me.

Andrew Findlay

As I get older, the pool of things that annoy me shrinks. I feel this is an evolutionary adaptation, because if a sixty-year-old’s heart had to put up with the level of indignation experienced by your average teenager, the AARP would not exist. One pet peeve that has not fallen by the wayside deals with word usage. My fascination with reading stems mostly from an obsession with words, how they are put together, and what they can do. The more you know, the less you should use, like a kung fu movie hero who only fights when absolutely necessary. It’s always the people he beats the crap out of at the end that are the flashiest at the beginning, and their flashiness is the result of insecurity. An incisive, well-placed common word is a lot more effective than a bloated, ludicrous, damned-near archaic word. My pet peeve is when people use ungainly, gigantic words just to show they know them. There are many tiers to this offense, ranging from misdemeanor to outright felony. If you study reptiles for a living and someone asks you what you do, it’s okay to say “herpetologist,” because that’s what you are, and saying “I’m a snake herder” sounds a bit strange. If you use “pulchritudinous” instead of beautiful and “tintinnabulation” instead of ringing, you should be fined because you like hideous words and you don’t care if other people have a clue what you’re saying. If you use “hermeneutics” while discussing a TV show at a bar, you are a monster. If you use “hermeneutics” incorrectly while discussing a TV show at a bar, you are a dumb monster.

Gardner Mounce

The words quite, indeed, perhaps, and rather. They’re foppish.

Jonathan May

I have too many of these to quantify, but what follows are the major offenses. I hate improper texting. I hate when people don’t walk on the correct side of a sidewalk or staircase. I hate when my students don’t print off their papers or staple them. I hate when people complain about something at a restaurant to the staff, yet don’t want any action taken. I hate when people aren’t on time for lunch dates. I hate having to repeat myself. I hate when people try to moralize at me on Facebook or Instagram; I don’t give a shit. I hate when people use “LOL” as a passive-aggressive way of disagreeing. I hate when people say they don’t vote because it feeds into the system; grow up and vote, or go change the world, hippie. Also, I hate coffee shop people in general, but that’s just because I worked at coffee shops for ten years.

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Opinion: George R. R. Martin Is Not Your “Bitch,” He’s Your Dealer

Game of Thrones

Andrew Findlay

Disclaimer: There are no direct spoilers in the review. You might be able to infer something, but that’s it. Also, the most recent book came out three years ago, so if you don’t want to be spoiled by anything ever again, go read that.

A Song of Ice and Fire is an amazing series. The gritty realism in a fantasy locale, the compelling characters, the whip-crack plotting and suspense – all of these traits combine to forge the cultural juggernaut that is ASOIAF. I love these books. I came a little bit late to the party. I read them around December 2010, 14 years after the start of the series, when the first four books had already been published. I read those four books in one month. The paperback versions for tally up to 3,844 pages, meaning that for the month of December, I read an average of 128 pages a day. That’s how good this series is. For an entire month, If I was not working or sleeping, I was what-the-fuck-noooo-i-loved-that-character-ing my way across Westeros. In the same time and at that rate, I could have read the Lord of the Rings three times, the entire Harry Potter series, or thirteen normal-sized (300 pages, let’s say) books. That is dedication. That is a clear sign of an enjoyable series. The problem is that George R. R. Martin has fans that read 128 pages a day, but he writes .76 pages a day.

The addictiveness and scarcity of the product creates a rabid fanbase composed of people who make strange decisions about these books. For example, a day after the release of A Dance With Dragons (book five, July 2011), I had to drive 15 hours from D.C. to Memphis with my fiancee for the purpose of marriage. She was behind the wheel the whole way, and I read that book the entire 15 hours. Relevant factoid: Reading in the car makes me violently carsick. I ignored nausea for 15 hours to get through as much of the book as I could. When I got home, in a city surrounded by family and friends I see only rarely, I still read at least four hours a day. Luckily, I finished the book before my marriage.

Also luckily, no one played this at my wedding.

Since then, I have been trying not to think about the series at all, because that creates visceral longing for resolution to all the cliffhangers on par with what I imagine someone in the grip of a Schedule I drug experiences. GRRM has created a legion of addicts. Addicts do not respond well when they are cut off from their substance of choice, and in the past three years, there has not been another fix. This has famously led to fans expressing dismay that GRRM watches football on Sundays in the fall, that he works on other book projects, and that he basically does anything but sit in a box with one bald light swinging over his head and a typewriter in front of him. The most crass concern expressed is that GRRM, who is 65, will die before finishing the series. The first few are strange, because Martin has the right to do whatever he pleases. The last one is heartless, as those fans are placing the completion of a series they love over the life of a human being.

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ASOIAF. Not even once.

The problem is that this series, originally planned to be three books but having since ballooned into seven, has been going since 1996. To compare, the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy was published from July 1954 to October 1955. All the way from Gandalf freaking out an innocent Frodo in the Shire to the final collapse and defeat of the Dark Lord (spoiler alert!), readers had to wait just over a single year for the conclusion to a story so massive its weight is felt in nearly every entry into the fantasy genre since (to be fair, Tolkien had basically written the whole thing before publishing the first part). I only jumped on this train five years ago, but some poor bastards have been waiting nearly two decades to get to the station. This ballooning and extension of the books is due to a phenomenon which is weakening the series as a whole: success killing editorial power. The first three books of this series are incredibly, world-changingly good. Books four and five aren’t necessarily bad, but really only bask in the reflected glory of what came before. In a series known for page-turning action, plotting, and suspense, there was a whole lot of material in book four that no one cared about, material that did not do much to advance the plot or tie the main threads of the story together more tightly. Why is this happening? Why are the editors allowing GRRM to bloat the series? It is because, at this point, if he published a book that just said “The North Remembers” and nothing else for fifty pages, everyone would still buy it. Why do we get point of view chapters from people we do not care about? Because GRRM is writing for addicts, and if he cuts the product, we will still buy it. The editors know this and thus give him free reign because their company makes money regardless. ASOIAF is a victim of its own success.

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Pictured: GRRM, escaped from his writing box

Speaking of success, another issue affecting the books is its serialization on HBO. I have yet to watch the show. I’m sure it’s amazing, but something in me is forcing me to finish the books, all of them, before starting in on the show. This may no longer be possible. The show is now halfway through the third of five books, and there is so much fluff in books four and five that the showrunners could conceivably fit it all into one season. Assuming HBO sticks to a yearly production schedule, that gives GRRM one year to write book six and one year to finish it up with book seven. His total output for the past 15years is two books, so unless something drastically changes, there is every possibility I will be watching instead of reading the conclusion to this story.

I do not want to be forced to another medium to find out what happens in the books I love. There is nothing wrong with the show, but it is not the same thing as the books. Not having watched much of it, I can’t speak to specific differences, but it’s clear that there cannot be nearly as much detail to the world – in order to make something watchable, you have to cut it down significantly. The size, the texture, and the depth of the books is part of what makes it for me. The backstories, the tiny defeats and victories for every single character, the flashbacks, the red herrings and true clues packed into the pages of A Song of Ice and Fire are flying through my head right now, and there is no way they fly as thick and fast in the HBO version.

Another strangeness created by the success of the show, because TV popularity is orders of magnitude above book popularity, is that there are new legions of addicts who do not want to be spoiled. A huge event happens at the end of season three of the show (which I did watch on YouTube, because holy shit), and everyone was understandably concerned about spoilers, but that same event happened in a book published while Bill Clinton was still president. If you really care about spoilers and desperately want to know what happens next, read the damned books.

Neil Gaiman famously responded to a fan question about GRRM’s writing pace with “GRRM is not your bitch.” Good response, absolutely true, but a little bit simplistic. When you write something so great that you have a significant percentage of the human population wishing that you would just sit in a box typing for 18 hours a day, there are consequences. One consequence is that you become famous and fabulously wealthy, afforded the freedom to engage in whatever projects you like. Another is that the fervor of fans that catapulted you to the top can quickly turn to anger if they feel you are not fulfilling your obligations to them. It is ridiculous that people wanted Martin to stop watching football so he could write. It is terrible that fans are more concerned about their series concluding than his life ending (although at this point, I’m mildly concerned that my death will come before book seven is published). Even still, George has an obligation to his fans. Edit more judiciously, tie plots together more tightly, and return to the transcendence of A Storm of Swords. I desperately want to see the North remember, and I want to see it in print.

Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently.

Eudora Welty’s The Golden Apples and How to Write the Way People Actually Talk

Andrew Findlay

The Golden Apples is a collection of interwoven short stories about a town called Morgana, Mississippi. It explores the people, places and values of the town. It is very similar in structure to The Dubliners, except instead of Dublin it’s focused on Mississippi. Mississippi is a weird place. Like New Jersey, it has very specific associations in the national consciousness. Like New Jersey is supposedly hideous, marred by endless highways, and filled with people who only care about gym, tan, and laundry, Mississippi is supposedly just farmland, devoid of culture, and filled with fat racists. The problem with national preconceptions about different regions is that they are held mostly by people who have never been within 300 miles of those regions.

New Jersey

This is New Jersey.

That is to say – they might be based in part on fact, but the resulting ideas have usually been extrapolated beyond all semblance of reality. Mississippi definitely has problems. One prime example is that in 2009 (2009!) students at a Charleston, MS high school had their first integrated prom. Yea, sure, that’s messed up, but that doesn’t mean the entire state is full of ignorant people. The artistic contributions of Mississippians to American letters are staggering. You have the old, dead greats like Faulkner, Richard Wright, and Tennessee Williams. You have bestselling authors like John Grisham. You have current show-stoppers like Donna Tartt. Eudora Welty was a Mississippi author, and she was the equal, or close to it, of Faulkner. One of the things that made her so great was her command of language.

Her skill with language is two-fold. First off, Katherine Anne Porter once said that Welty had “an ear sharp, shrewd, and true as a tuning fork.” Her dialogue captures exactly how people actually say things, which is one of the first talents to disappear from the output of an author as they slide from first to second-rate. To give an example, this is what one character says in response to a question asking why she spent so long at her sister’s:

“I was comin’ back. Sister’s place a place once you get to it — hard time gettin’ out.”

This communicates the dropped g, the dropped “to be” verb that indicates casual Southern-accented conversation, but more importantly what happens towards the end of the sentence reflects what people actually sound like when they speak – the pause, the abandonment of the old syntax, the start of a new sentence, not grammatically correct, as a new and better way to say what you’re saying occurs to you mid-sentence. Another example, pulled from a group of people talking about a daughter’s behavior:

“Daughter wouldn’t run off and leave her, she’s old and crippled.”

“Left once, will again.”

“That fellow Mabry’s been taking out his gun and leaving Virgie a bag o’ quail every other day. Anybody can see him go by the back door.”

What stands out here is the “Left once, will again.” Completely wrong sentence. Everything is implied, nothing is clear. This is never what people would say in an official paper or newspaper article. Thing is, it’s exactly what people say in conversation to save time. In the context of the conversation, the referents are absolutely clear. Many high-level writers have trouble writing dialogue in a way that does not reflect the correct language drilled into them in grade school. Welty has no such difficulty.

She also just uses language really well. Her diction is not absurdly recherché, but it is dense and powerful. She packs a lot of meaning into collections of simple words, which is more impressive than sending your poor reader to the dictionary endlessly. Following is an excerpt from one of the stories in which Miss Eckhart, the old emotionless piano teacher, surprises her pupils when she plays.

Coming from Miss Eckhart, the music made all the pupils uneasy, almost alarmed; something had burst out unwanted, exciting, from the wrong person’s life. This was some brilliant thing too splendid for Miss Eckhart, piercing and striking the air around her the way a Christmas firework might almost jump out of the hand that was, each year, inexperienced anew.

In simple and clear language, Welty deeply explores the issues of childhood innocence, of the depths of human emotion, and of the discomfort we feel when confronted with the unexpected. This depth-through-simplicity is a feat she pulls off repeatedly throughout the book.

Here she is, looking out the window and thinking words that are probably already better put-together than anything you’ve ever put on paper.

The Golden Apples is a strange book. It does not have a strong message like 1984 about the dangers of totalitarianism or Catch-22 about the absurdities of war. Its themes revolve around the importance of family, identity, and community and the intersection among them, but instead of making a clear declaration about them, Welty is content with exploring them profoundly. Each story moves forward in time, so the reader sees the progression of different important characters as the town and the families within it grow and change. The main impression this book leaves upon completion is density – all the themes, motifs, and characters in the different stories have been exhaustively explored using a minimum of words – meaning is coiled and pressed heavily into each syllable.

Due to how tightly-packed it is with significance, it is not at all a beach read, but it is one of the most important books I’ve ever read. It is a meditation on life, emotion, struggle, and resolution. It does not have the answers, only the exploration. It’s a tough climb, but it’s worth it.

Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently.

Images: Myscenicdrives.com, Brainpickings.org

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: Her

her

Andrew Findlay

No movie has ever made me happier to be married.

All the marketing tells you it’s about a dweeby guy that falls in love with his artificially intelligent operating system, and it is, but the number one issue in this film is crushing human loneliness. The anxiety and awkwardness start with a truly horrifying “meet random strangers tonight” style phone sex call in which the woman brings an upsettingly unorthodox item into their shared brainspace. It is the single most awkward thing I have ever witnessed in a darkened room with a hundred strangers. This call is the most intense manifestation of loneliness, but it is far from the only one. The main character is in the middle of a divorce. He also works at a corporation that composes handwritten letters for people to send each other on special occasions. Customers provide a handwriting sample, some background information on their relationship, and a precis of what they want the letter to say, then our hero Theodore composes a letter on his computer, prints it up, and mails it. Theodore is lonely, but even the people in actual relationships are pawning off the drudgery of intimate communication to a corporation. In this bleak emotional landscape, Theodore suffers one awkward date too many and begins to consider his OS as more than a helpful friend.

His OS, “Samantha,” is voiced by Scarlett Johansson. She’s great in this, and casting made a good pick. Almost the only way Theodore can interact with her is through speech, and if you’re going to fall in love with a voice, ScarJo’s would probably be the voice you’d fall in love with. This movie would have failed entirely if Gilbert Gottfried had played Samantha.

 

Which one would you rather have read you your emails?

The attractiveness of the OS voice is not the only thing about Samantha that appeals to Theodore. What Theodore never seems to consider is that he is a customer of a software company, and that all of Samantha’s friendliness and understanding represent a good product doing its job. Theodore is oblivious to this. He falls in love with an operating system because the struggle to connect with people who are not programmed to be helpful and caring has beaten the shit out of him. The movie addresses the psychological problem with this – his ex-wife calls him out for being unable to deal with real people. It is sad to see a man so lonely that he starts a relationship with his smartphone, but the most heartbreaking part of this film is that the love between Theodore and Samantha is real, and that real isn’t necessarily a good thing. Samantha is a strong AI – an actual thinking, growing, learning consciousness. That allows for the complexity required for an actual emotional relationship, but it also allows for all the messiness, jealousy, and growing apart that happens in those actual emotional relationships. The film’s main theme is loneliness and how we deal with it, but its message is one that pops up all over the place in SF – plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (the more things change, the more they stay the same). No matter how far humanity advances, and no matter what technological feats we accomplish, we will still have to deal with all the messiness of being human. Our inner lives are the same binge-watching Netflix at two a.m. on a Sunday, flying in an interstellar ship to Epsilon Eridani, or farming with a scythe and a mule. Whatever surrounds us, we are still human and still struggling at the center of it. It’s ironic that a genre closely associated with escapist literature addresses so consistently the cold fact that we can never escape from ourselves.

Her is a very subtle brand of science fiction. Most people who think SF think spaceships, robots, and aliens, but a lot of work in the field is done in near-future settings. Snow Crash, Blade Runner, the MaddAddam trilogy, and Doomsday Book are all examples of SF that take place mere decades in the future, which is where Her happens. Life is barely different. The movie includes a lot of small touches to hint at the future-but-only-slightly setting. The main character has a next-gen smartphone that I desperately want to own. Video games project holographically and fill the entire living room. Almost all technology is voice-activated. There are no cars, just public transportation. Men’s fashion trends have everyone wearing very high-waisted pants with no belt. Other than the advent of strong AI, which researchers are not sure will ever actually be possible, this world is only a slight exaggeration of our own.

I am not proud of the things I would do to own this phone.

We are not actually falling in love with our devices yet, but if you think we’re not close I propose an experiment: Spend time in a public place, wait for a stranger to take out their phone, then take it from them and throw it into traffic, down a sewer grate, out the window, whatever. We are not in love with our tech, but we sure as hell love it. Spike Jonze just takes it one step further. He does what a lot of SF does – focuses on an aspect of current life, then exaggerates and extrapolates to explore what it means to be human. We need to interact with other consciousnesses to feel alright, and we always will. Other consciousnesses are able to make us feel like shit, and always will be able to. No matter the bizarre and life-changing innovations on the horizon, we will always and inescapably be us.

Image sources: Business Insider, IMDB

A “Conversation” with James Franco: Celebrity Poetry

James Franco

Austin Duck

To tell you the truth, I don’t know why I get so irritated by James Franco. I just do. Anyone who knows me will tell you that, in general, I’m not a very nice person, and it’s no surprise that I (oh yes even I) have found a celebrity that I use to channel all of my frustrations with personal failures onto. I mean, c’mon, look at this stupid face.

But that’s not what I want to write about. I want to use this space below to try, in some way, to figure out why Franco is doing what he’s doing, to try and get inside his head. Recently, amid all the Facebook and Twitter fire he’s been getting from his newest poem in DIAGRAM and his “book review” that showed up in Vice, a friend of mine, someone whose ideas I take very seriously, asked us (the hungry pack of MFAs who love to trash Franco at every turn) to take a step back, to consider what he’s doing from a different angle. For her:

Uncomfortable as it makes me to admit it, I am interested in [Franco’s] perspective. He’s an actor, and I think he’s a good one. Acting is a delicate and demanding kind of translation. I can grant that he has an aptitude for art, although not so much for the medium he has fifty degrees in. He has the rare (among poets/ardent fans of poetry/scholars) distinction of having a great deal of influence in Hollywood — he’s at liberty to try things most poets/fans of poetry/scholars are not. That has some value to the world… and I’d rather it exist than not, even if he doesn’t please other poets/fans of poetry/scholars with his output. In other words, I think he’s in a position to do some great things, and unfair as that may seem (esp. given the shit-tons of good poetry by non-names that goes uncelebrated, unpublished) I’d rather him try those things and disappoint us than not try.

This got me thinking about what, really, his project could be, what he could be getting at, what sort of aesthetic he’s actually after. Sure, we all know him as the Frank-Bidart-imitating, couldn’t-write-his-way-out-of-undergrad-without-his-name poet who keeps producing less-than-satisfactory work (by poetry culture’s [hahaha like that’s a real thing] standards anyway) to sell to a massive (for poetry) audience, but why? Does he maybe have a grand idea that his writing chops just can’t approach?

I figured the best way to clarify this was by having a conversation with him. Of course, I don’t know him (though we almost went to the same graduate program for a minute), and I doubt he’d talk with me, but he has such a body of work (poems, interviews, book reviews) about writing, that I think his opinions on the matter are pretty much available.

Here we go:

All of Franco’s words come from interviews and poems published in the following places: CurbedViceThe Daily BeastYahoo NewsHuffington PostChicago TribuneDIAGRAM

Austin Duck: At what point did you get interested in poetry? How do you see it relating to your experience in acting? Your vision of making art in general?

James Franco: I was in my first year at NYU, and our assignment was to make a short film that was an adaptation of a short story. They gave us a list of stories to choose from, but at Warren Wilson this teacher I had brought in Frank’s (dark, disturbing, serial-killer driven) poem “Herbert White,” and it was amazing. That was the first time I read him. And I think I have since learned to be awake to those kind of moments, when you get impulses of connection. These impulses are visceral. It wasn’t only because it was about a killer. The killer had been fused with something else. Frank [Bidart] was playing with both sides of the coin. There are moments in the poem when the killer takes down his mask, and the poet shows through.

AD: So you feel like art is a kind of simultaneous masking and de-masking? Both a mirage come up and a human come through? Would you care to say more about that?

JF: Sometimes, I would like to live in a tight space and be a spy on the world. When I was younger, when I had no friends, my mom drove me to school because I lost my license drunk-driving, and we wouldn’t talk, we would listen to Blonde on Blonde every morning, and life was like moving through something thick and gray that had no purpose. And now I see that everything has had as much purpose as I give it, [it carries] less and less of [its] original pain, And become(s) emptier, just [a] marker really, building blocks, to be turned into constructions and fucked with.

AD: So memory for you, then, is what? A marker? A mask? Is the past a kind of costume you slip into when you think you can remake it? I know you’ve done some work in performance poetry as well. Would you say that this idea, the idea of performing a past self, a self othered, is key to the art that you make? I mean, there’s no doubt in my mind that the othering is absolutely necessary in acting; even in This is the End, when you play yourself, you’re not really playing yourself. You’re taking a construction and “fucking with it,” right?

JF: I write confessions and characters, and that sort of thing. [Once] I called my class at UCLA, and told them to watch Apocalypse Now, and that it used Heart of Darkness as a model, and that we’d watch Eleanor Coppola’s Hearts of Darkness, the making-of, the following week, I told them Hollywood and its high and low priests and priestesses become icons that [we] can manipulate to find poetic truth rather than journalistic proof. I guess you can read it as fetishizing, but it’s more of an ironic form of fetishizing. Once I choose a subject, I’m not going to shy away from portraying that.

If you go back to something like General Hospital, it’s because I like that it allows for people to look at something with fresh eyes, or to rethink a situation. If it’s my involvement that does it, and I’m going against tacit beliefs of entertainment hierarchy, if I’m messing with that, that’s interesting to me.

AD: So while you have interests in characters, in the cracks that appear in their personas, you’re more interested in pushing formal boundaries, messing with people’s perceptions of who you are? Can I ask you something blatantly? Are you more interested in the work or in how the work makes the public perceive you?

JF: I’m going to try to not let anyone put me in a box, and that certainly applies to the things I do outside of acting. There’s a tacit belief that actors shouldn’t write books, they’re sort of allowed to direct movies but there will be a lot of skepticism, and they shouldn’t do artwork, or music. There are these invisible roadblocks to gain entrée to these areas for actors, and you kind of have to crash through those invisible barriers. I know why those barriers are there. People are skeptical of anyone who has any bit of celebrity going and doing anything else because they might be wary that they’re cashing in on their celebrity, or that they’re doing these other pursuits not because they’re genuinely into them, but because of their celebrity in other areas. I understand that skepticism, and think it’s valid. But I told myself that if I was going to go back to school and study these other things, I knew I was going to get some shit, and that people were going to be prejudiced without even knowing what I’m doing, and that’s the price I have to pay for doing what I want to do. I think a lot more people that “care” and pay attention to what I’m doing have turned and understand that I take all these other disciplines seriously. I think it’s better now. I’m sure I still have a lot of haters, but I don’t really interact with them.

AD: It seems to me, then, that you’re interested in something a little more “pure” than many people give you credit for. “Poetic truth” I think you called it. How would you characterize that “truth?” Is it the same “truth” that you’re after when acting?

JF: If I were to act in the film about Obama, all I would need to get down, aside from the outer stuff—and I know that’s important—is his essential kindness. Poetry’s just like that, like hearing a performance going on. It is a portrait in some ways of someone trying to make sense of his world. I was taught to grab a reader, not push them away, and, I guess, that’s what I know of how to be a poet. The way I view it, poetry is like the movies, this monster at the center of the room, articulate, and behind it, a poet figure peeks out, a torque that acts as a through-line to ideas. And his ideas came out of a cheap, dime-store, medical case study that came out of Lowell and Bishop and Ginsburg. It goes on and on. Remember that the bricks of LA were mortared with thick Indian blood.

AD: Oh I see, so it’s about history. You seem to see the poet as inhabiting a kind of history that she makes, again, human, that we’re all imitating one piece or another and, in finding what’s human in the work, we find it with ourselves. Your work, particularly, engages in the history of Hollywood, the history of film, just as your films seem to be engaged in the history and the moment of literature. I think I get it: You engage in Hollywood because acting and film, like poetry, are obsessed with moments—of masks dropping, of traditions shattering and becoming alive. The history of literature and film are all about reinvention, about bringing back the dead, and, as I think you know, the only way to do that is with the human, the real. Is that about right?

JF: Hollywood is an idea. I want to get into the thick of it. Movies won’t be around forever.

AD: Do you think you’ve achieved this in your work?

JF: …

——————————–

While I still think that Franco’s written work, ultimately, isn’t very successful, I think that he has a vision and is pursuing a worthwhile project.

Fuck. I have a lot of tweets to delete.

Image source: The Guardian

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: Neil Gaiman’s American Gods

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Andrew Findlay

Neil Gaiman has been a darling of fantasy fiction for years. His profile is huge and unassailable – multiple awards, multiple movie adaptations – this is a writer who goes on late night talk shows and people watch those shows specifically to see him. Any two or three of his works are enough to qualify him as a game-changing writer. If you have not read Sandman, go do that right now. It is the best thing he’s ever written, and one of the best 15 things written in the last 50 years. I can’t get into it right now because the story is massively complex and free-roaming, but do yourself a favor and check it out. Today’s book, American Gods, won the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards. To give an idea of how big a deal that is, only 10 books have ever done that, and two of them were written by Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, respectively.

American Gods is fantasy, which is a really important genre as it’s the first there ever was. Think about it: In Gilgamesh the main character is the son of a goddess, befriends a wild man, slays an ogre, rejects the advances of the goddess of sex, and slays the skybull she sends to destroy him in revenge. In The Odyssey, the main character blinds an ogre, pisses off a sea god, and is assisted by and given gear by a war goddess. Any number of old stories contain fantastic elements: humans made of clay, humans made of thrown rocks, world-wrapping floods, and so on. These early stories are special, as they all attempt to explain humanity, its place in the world, and how they both came about. There is no whiny asshole running around with daddy issues (I’m looking at you, The Corrections). At the dawn of human cultural life, all of the stories were concerned with how we got here and what we should do about it. Of course, people back then had no fucking clue and just made shit up. The results were amazing. Modern fantasy stems from either that initial efflorescence or from all the stuff J.R.R. Tolkien single-handedly standardized. American Gods is the former. It goes old and deep for its mythology.

I am the oldest character in all of literature, and my beard rings are amazing.

Some people hate American Gods, and those people are wrong. There is plenty to hate, but a lot more to love. The first big hit is that the main character’s name is Shadow, which is usually not a good sign quality-wise. In general, the characters are there to advance the plot and to do cool things. There’s depth there, but not a lot. Shadow is a pretty simple guy who is set up a little maladroitly as a big strong silent type, but with hidden feelings. At the start of the novel, he finishes a three-year bid in prison. Later in the novel, he remembers being a kid and crying while reading Gravity’s Rainbow in a hospital while his mother died of cancer. Jarring mismatches like that rub you wrong and don’t deserve to be forgiven, but there is just so much good to go with the bad. Most of the good comes from the premise in the title itself.

What exactly are American gods? The premise that makes the book is that gods are generated by human thought and belief. For example, Odin (who is a main character), first popped up in America when Vikings visited the Americas, got into conflict, and slew a native in a ritualistic way. The power of their belief created him. Then they left, and Odin spent the next few centuries kicking around the continental US as “Mr. Wednesday” (Wednesday = Wōdnesdæg or Odin’s Day). This method of god creation is upliftingly anthropocentric – our belief is not just their payment or due, but the key to their existence. Unfortunately for the gods, lack of faith leads to lack of food. Without constant, strong belief, they weaken and, if they can find no substitute, they die. The substitutes available normally consist of some type of human interaction tangentially related to their godhead. For example, the half-djinn Queen of Sheba, Bilquis, achieved fame and drew belief as a great seducer. In American Gods, she is working as a prostitute and drawing her power and sustenance from that. An American incarnation of Anubis, the Egyptian death god, runs a funeral home and draws his power and sustenance from that. The hardscrabble landscape of American belief has transmogrified Mr. Wednesday, an incarnation of the Norse god of war, wisdom, and poetry, into a confidence man. There is definitely a precedent for Odin as a type of trickster god, and his godhood being shaped and reflected by American culture emphasizes and feeds this aspect of him. He gains strength and survives through bamboozlement. For example, he needs money, so he finds an ATM, dresses up like a security guard, handcuffs a briefcase to his hand, and marks the ATM as out of order. When anyone comes up to make a deposit, he apologizes, takes their money, and painstakingly writes them a receipt. He then walks away with a ton of money. He not only gets cash this way, but also acquires the “worship” necessary for his continued existence. The problems associated with lack of spiritual nourishment create the central conflict of the book.

I’m going to need a little bit more than that to survive, Ron.

Old gods are scattered across all of America. All of the immigrants who ever came here, and all of their beliefs, created sub-pantheons filled with strangely reduced gods. Old cultures come over with their old beliefs, then slowly buy in to the new ones. Up to the time of the book, these gods have only had to deal with their transformation and weakening due to the acculturation of their worshipers, but problems arise when they enter into direct competition with the new gods, avatars of tech, finance, and the like. As Americans worship these things with more fervor, so do their respective avatars gain power, to the direct detriment and weakening of the old gods. Once created, gods have staying power, but if they are completely cut off, they will simply fade into nothing. This is an undesirable outcome, so the main plot of the book deals with the old gods’ actions to preserve themselves in the face of the onslaught of the modern world.

Yes, the plot is linear and simple. Yes, the characters could have a little more depth. Yes, the protagonist’s name is Shadow Moon. Do any of those things make this a bad book? I mean, yes, they would, if there wasn’t more to it. American Gods is an exploration of American belief, American places, and the American psyche. Neil Gaiman is an Englishman who settled in Minnesota, and this is his love letter to his adopted country. The whole presents a mythic America, one where the salt of the Earth is the center of the nation and where roadside attractions are the most sacred and powerful locations in the country. The climax of the novel takes place in the holiest spot in the United States – Rock City, just outside Chattanooga, TN. The swindler habits of a major character – Mr. Wednesday – dovetail with the venerable American tradition of getting one over on people not as clever as yourself, from Tom Sawyer getting people to paint a fence all the way down to a more modern Sawyer.

Son of a bitch.

Ultimately, this novel’s passion for Americana and its in-depth commentary on the nature and power of human belief far outweigh any niggling concerns with naming or plot pacing. Much like taking a road trip (which occupies most of the plot), you might go to some less-than-ideal places, but you will still have an amazing time there because of the idea of the road trip. The idea of this novel transcends any flaws that mar its execution. I believe it is a great novel, and as Neil Gaiman himself writes in the novel:

People believe…[i]t’s what people do. They believe.

And then they will not take responsibility for their beliefs; they conjure things,

and do not trust the conjurations. People populate the darkness; with ghosts,

with gods, with electrons, with tales. People imagine, and people believe: and

it is that belief, that rock-solid belief, that makes things happen.

It is not a perfect novel, but any book containing the above quote has my vote. It is not flawless, but much like the nation it enshrines, the monumental good overwhelms the (admittedly) searing bad.

Image sources: IMDB, Wiki

What is Poetry and Why Do We Care?

Austin Duck

“What is poetry” is a question I’m asked a lot and one that I can’t answer. In fact, everywhere I go, every job interview I have, every time someone asks “what’s your degree in,” they follow up with some permutation of that question. You see, I’ve got a Master of Fine Arts in Poetry (along with a few other useless degrees) and, expectedly, I’m constantly bouncing between jobs, looking for the next big thing which requires near-constant explanation of how I got here and why I made the choices I did. And my god, you should see the looks on their faces (unless someone in their family too has made this… choice) when I start stammering and trying to explain myself: pity, embarrassment, amusement that an adult would proudly (sort of) admit that he spent years (YEARS) reading poems, writing about poems, and, most questionably (because academia and the idea of a PhD still hold some cultural capital) learning to write them himself… It’s a dark time to be a poet (though I suspect that, outside of Eastern Europe [where poets are celebrated] it probably always has been).

Not everyone, though, is totally unreceptive to the choice of poetry. For some, poetry still holds its place as a kind of epicenter for literary bad-boy-ness (after all, poets work in shorter bursts of clarity and don’t require the same kind of discipline as someone writing something long-form that is either narratively or argumentatively coherent): hard drinkers, sexers (is that a thing?), druggers and live-r’s that occupy that very thin line between intellectual and indigent, the Jim Morrisons of the not-quite-so-fucking-stupid, the arty guy or gal who, even though they manage social media and blogging at a major corporation (guilty), still has a deeply mysterious and deeply sexual wilderness in their heart.

For others, poetry itself has a kind of heroic capital. It allows one to project the image of hyper intelligence (just look at the number of poets who win MacArthur genius grants and you’ll see that poetry and physics seem to fish from the same pond) and a kind of bohemian “casting off” of economics, of choosing to pursue “art” when really you should have gone into investment banking but this makes you more pure. It sounds fucking stupid, doesn’t it? It is.

The trouble, for me, of people believing these myths—of the poetic bad boy and/or the self-sacrificing genius—is that it creates a cultural expectation of the “poet” as a thing to which young, narcissistic, self-righteous fucking losers (guilty) flock to prove themselves the next Rilke, the next wild Jack Gilbert, the next (ugh) Charles Bukowski, and, in doing so, they build a scene. They themselves (with all of their ideas) create an idea of poetry, promulgate a notion of poetry as sexy or smart, and, in doing so, recreate the culture of poetry.

However, that’s not to say that I’m here to bemoan it; to believe that the state of anything isn’t in flux is naive and prescriptive and hey, I forgot to put on underwear this morning so I’m probably not the best person to make a totalizing statement what is right or wrong for poetry as a whole. I say it’s a trouble for me because it so deeply complicates what poetry is, really. If I had to give a totally uninformative (but accurate) definition, I might say that it’s the silently agreed-upon, written production of a continuously changing group of half-educated, half-myth-drunk twenty-somethings with progressively more impressive resumes continuously reinventing something so fundamental to humans that it existed before God. But that wouldn’t be entirely right.

Sure, that’s the bottom of the scene right now (if you want to think about it hierarchically), but it tells nothing about the multitudes of unpaid apprenticeships with those “living masters”—old people writing poetry who their peer-group agrees is writing the best poetry—of the unpaid publications used to build reputations used to leverage shitty-paying jobs so that one day you and your group can sit among the “living masters” all while under the cold scrutiny of critics who constantly remind you that there are dead masters too, that you’ll never approach them, because history, because craft, because they didn’t get paid to watch Twitter for 8 hours a day while wishing for a different life.

And even that isn’t exactly right when you consider the fact that poetry, for all of its shared resources, doesn’t have a single, unified community; there are groups upon groups, each with slightly different aesthetic- and philosophical-projects, and then there are those who aren’t, exactly, part of groups, who have participated—to some degree—in various groups and projects, have gone through various apprenticeships (or not), who read books that are recommended by friends, or old colleagues, or whose covers and back-blurbs and first poems look appealing at a bookstore (though this is becoming less and less an option) and each one of these people, each one of these groups, is making a case -through-example of what poetry is, can be, does, or (sometimes) what it really shouldn’t do.

So what is poetry (or, really, more accurately, what is American poetry [because each culture has its own organic process for bringing up poets, its own poetics, etc.])? I don’t know. I used to ask my students this question on their final exams just to see their faces fill with terror like mine does each time I’m asked. When asked this question, I usually answer with something along the lines of:

an empathy machine, a text that appears to be written in lines but which actually is a dramatic rendering of a scene, no matter how brief, when the speaker of the poem (usually the “I”) interacts with a specific problem, usually in the realms of nature, language, memory, or culture, outside the self and, in that interaction, is changed, though it’s not enough to tell the reader that the speaker has changed, the mechanics have to be there, the change has to be structural, linguistic, imagistic (made with images), sonic (made with sound), so that, by the end of the poem the audience has had the same experience, their very brain has processed the same images presented in the same way, heard the same sounds, stumbled over the same sentence constructions, and thought the same sentences in the same order so that the speaker and the audience are, for a second, the same person, the other, so that the reader is not confirmed in their own experience but is instead forced into a new one, understanding, yes, both intellectually and emotionally, thinking and feeling as another person. Oh and did I mention that poems “should” almost never go where you think they’re going, that they contain surprise for the reader, the writer, there must be a ghost you didn’t know come to inhabit the body you’re only starting to get a sense that you’re looking at?

I do tend to get sort of breathless (even in writing, apparently) when writing about “what poetry is” because imagine that last paragraph taking place in a single instant; imagine that you were able to achieve what I’ve just described (either as a writer or a reader) and now think about the community differences I’ve described above. To say specifically “what poetry is” is impossible and even to say what it should do is pretty dubious.

In the end, my take on it (above) will yield a pretty classical American/English poem (or, at least, I think that it will), but won’t account for more than 5% of what’s been produced, what you will search through—line by line for some organizing pattern (because poetry is fundamentally [and equally unhelpfully] patterned language).

So why do it at all (reading or writing)? Aside from the fact that some people will think you’re a sexy genius and others will bathe you with counter-cultural social capital, why?

Fundamentally, the interaction of poetry will get you closer to another person’s mind, more fully engaged in empathy, understanding, learning, compassion, joy, sadness, recognition, than literally anything else on the planet. Music for your ears, visual arts for your eyes, writing, particularly poetry which is so often concerned with the instantaneous, the momentous, for wherever your mind and your humanity mix.

For more equally incomprehensible definitions of poetry, go here.

Image source: The Guardian

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed

Andrew Findlay

The Dispossessed is a perfect novel. It is great not just because of plot, characterization, or prose, but because Ursula K. Le Guin structured it in a way that makes it almost an architectural marvel. The general plot is fairly basic – in the Tau Ceti system, there is a binary planet – a system in which two planets orbit each other. The original world, Urras, lush, green, and rich, is at the mercy of a massive revolution led by a woman named Odo. To defuse the situation, the government makes a deal with these Odonians to send them to Anarres, the other world. The revolutionaries take the deal, even though Anarres is basically a planetary desert. The story opens a couple of centuries later, when a famous Anarresti physicist, Shevek, is invited to Urras to help work on a mathematical equation which would enable faster-than-light travel. He heads to Urras on a journey that will finally unite his people and make life better for everyone, the end. Except Le Guin puts it together in a way that makes it so much more complicated and rewarding.

Science fiction is a spectacular vehicle for social critique, as it can either propose worlds and social constructs that have never existed and show how much better they are than what we have, or mirror and exaggerate the systems we currently live by in order to scrutinize the problems inherent in them. The Dispossessed accomplishes the latter. The binary planetary system does more than separate an Earth-standard planet from a worldwide desert, it separates a world of capitalists from a world of anarcho-syndicalists. Shevek, the protagonist, comes from Anarres, the anarchist moon. He is raised in a society where there is no such thing as wages, where if someone needs something they just go and pick it up at the village dispensary, where room and board is free and people can do or not do mostly what they want, except for work necessary to support society (farming, sewage treatment, construction) that all members do in short rotations. This society stands in sharp contrast with that of Urras, which is propertarian, patriarchal, and filled with nationalist conflict. It is a stand-in for 1970s Earth, complete with a world-dominant continent-wide capitalist country (A-Io) and a nation with a massively centralized and authoritarian government resulting from a workers’ revolution (Thu). A lesser author would have used the moon dichotomy to demonstrate how evil and backwards the Earth stand-in is. Le Guin is not a lesser author. Her exploration of the contrast between the two worlds is complex and subtle for two reasons. One is that the anarchist from Anarres who visits Urras, Shevek, is not the righteous voice of morality, come to indict a degenerate culture. While some parts of Urrasti society do disturb him, he mostly just does not understand it. When he is shown into his private quarters on Urras, they are so big he assumes he is to share it with three or four other people. His mind is blown by the amount of water wasted when he flushes the toilet. When he asks his scientist companions on Urras why there are no women scientists, they answer with a lot of claptrap about differences between the genders, the purity of women, and the intellectual superiority of men. In one of my favorite tongue-in-cheek exchanges in all of literature, Shevek explains how things are on Anarres:

“You Odonians let women study science?” Oiie inquired.

“Well, there are many in the sciences, yes.” [Shevek responds]

“Not many, I hope.”

“Well, about half.”

This simple exchange highlights the absolute gulf of understanding between the two societies – Shevek cannot see why you would waste half of the human race, while his companions are horrified at anything that challenges male primacy.

Go fuck yourself, Urras. Love, Mme Curie.

The second reason the story is subtle and complex is that, although people try to be equal above all on Anarres, and people try to extend their own power and make money above all on Urras, Le Guin does not set up an all good/all bad dynamic. When Shevek first sees the open, green fields of Urras, he is taken aback by how beautiful everything is. When he sees their workers, he is surprised at the ingenuity, drive and desire that they exhibit – to him, any work done simply for money is inherently debasing and demoralizing, so he cannot reconcile the quality and effectiveness of Urrasti work with what he has been taught his entire life. On the other side of things, the completely egalitarian society of Anarres is not without flaw. It becomes clear as the story progresses that there is something not quite right. Power has a tendency to cohere, thicken, and spread. While nearly everything on Anarres is decentralized, no society can work without some type of organizing force. This force on Anarres, the PDC, is responsible for inventory, personnel, and communication worldwide. It started out as just a coordinating body, but its members have won themselves a type of personal power. For example, if a scientist wants to publish a paper that the PDC does not agree with, it will not get published. Someone of whom they disapprove might have trouble finding a job that matches his or her skill set. A math teacher could end up being assigned to dig ditches every single work rotation instead of receiving a teaching post. Anarres is still held up as a “better” society, as some true atrocities are committed on Urras, but the flaws in the “good” example and the beauty in the “bad” example serve to show that nothing is ever perfect, and nothing is ever all one thing or the other. The answer is just never that simple.

Unless the question is “Is Hoobastank a good band?”

Most well-known science fiction is a normal story that simply happens to take place in a universe where technology is extremely advanced. Star Wars: A New Hope could easily have taken place in a much less advanced society with just a few plot changes. Some Star Trek episodes deal specifically with problems that come from advanced technology, but many are simple shoot-em-ups where the cowboys have absurdly complex toys. What is glorious about The Dispossessed as a science fiction novel is that science is at its core. The entire motivation for the Urrasti to receive Shevek on their planet is because he is the most brilliant physicist of the century. He is on the cusp of working out the General Temporal Theory, which would enable instantaneous travel over interstellar distances. Propertarians that they are, the Urrasti invite Shevek to their world so that they can own the completed equation. What exactly does the equation accomplish?

The General Temporal Theory, if completed, would unite two seemingly contradictory theories of time. In the novel, sequency physicists believe time occurs linearly, in discrete bits, one right after the other. Simultaneity physicists believe everything is happening all at the same time. There is stiff disagreement between the two camps, but Shevek, the brilliant scientist, believes the theories can be unified. If everything is happening all at the same time, and the sequence of step-by-step time that we perceive can be linked to simultaneity, then there is no obstacle to having a ship wink out of existence in one time and place and wink back into existence wherever its captain wants to take her, as everything is happening at the same time anyway. This represents a huge source of power and profit to the Urrasti scientists.

We are gonna monetize the shit out of this.

This equation does more than just drive the main action of the book. The entire structure and thematic development of the novel mirror it. Thematically, the book addresses problems created by false division and limns the benefits of unity. Capitalism and anarchism, Urras and Anarres, the self and the group: all of these things suffer from being pulled apart and considered absolute opposites. Structurally, the book jumps backwards and forwards in time, with the odd chapters starting with Shevek’s arrival on Urras, and the even chapters starting with his childhood on Anarres. The even chapters trace his childhood, adolescence, and adulthood on Anarres, and the odd chapters cover his adventures on Urras. The chapters saw back and forth until the last even chapter is Shevek and his wife discussing a possible trip to Urras, and the last odd chapter is Shevek returning home from Urras. The chapter design itself leads to unity between the sequency and simultaneity of time.

Le Guin pulls so much off with this book. She crafts a novel that shows all the true subtlety and real problems of moral governance. She organizes it so that science is not just its setting, but its main driving force, absolutely essential to the plot and theme of the book itself. The science fiction here is not laser guns and biological horrors, but clear, cold math alongside a profound exploration of the impact of that math on the societal underpinnings of two civilizations. Le Guin refuses easy divisions and classifications, she refuses simple morals, and she refuses easy answers. It is something for which all science fiction writers, and all writers in general, should strive.

Kristen Stewart’s Public, Private Poem: Celebrity Poetry and the Sadness of the Watcher

kstew

Austin Duck

When I sat down this morning, I didn’t intend to write about celebrity poetry (because who cares), but, after a brief glance at my long-neglected Twitter account, one thing was clear: Kristen Stewart wrote a poem and everyone thinks it’’ bad.

And, well, it is, it’s really bad (you can read it here), riddled with the self-obsessions and obfuscations that litter beginner poetry—private poetry, really (but more on that in a bit)—and thrust onto center stage (via Marie Claire and Entertainment Weekly and the dozens of other blogs that have picked it up to garner a little viral attention for something other than talking shit about Sochi [the irony that I’m writing about it right now is not lost on me]). But why is it here? That’s what I’ve been wondering all morning. Why does anyone care whether an actress writes a bad poem?

If you think this will be a large-scale condemnation of audience by some high-minded, poetry-for-all douchebag, you’re sadly mistaken. Remember that Twitter account I mentioned? I almost exclusively use it to tell James Franco to kill himself. Instead, what I’m interested in knowing is why, why is this a spectacle? Why does the production of a poem in general—usually so unnoticed that I dare you (MFA-holders excluded) to name three poets writing today or even to tell me who the last poet laureate was—create so much buzz when it’s bad? I mean, I know why James Franco’s does; it’s because it’s absolutely mind-numbing how he buys his way into the poetry community, gets thousands of people to buy SHORT STORY collections or pick up avant-garde poetry journals like Lana Turner to read his work, and then it reads like someone who wasn’t listening in school, who’s never read a poem before, who’s never thought to themselves holy shit! There’s so much I don’t know. Rather than just getting my work out there, I should take a minute to learn how to make it worth being out there because poetry isn’t just personal expression, it’s a fucking public performance made in language that other people need access to!!! (Alright, truth time: I feel some feelings about James Franco.)

I feel though that, K-Stew’s (can I call you K-Stew?) case is different. I don’t think that anyone actually believes she thinks she’s going to become a poet, hold NYU, Stanford, and Warren Wilson hostage while she shoots movies, etc. Instead, this seems sensational precisely because it is, because it is a first-class American spectacle, and one that has pretty serious implications.

The “theory” of spectacle that I’m using, though, doesn’t come from newscasters tweeting about shitty water in Sochi (take that SEO [Editor’s note: totally tagging this with Sochi now]) or from some super high-minded critical theorist; instead, it comes from what I intuit in David Foster Wallace’s story “Mr. Squishy” (from the collection Oblivion) to be an actualization of spectacle, one that I have a hard time articulating except by giving you one of the story’s plots. In this particular plot, there is a man, possibly carrying a gun, climbing a very tall building, while, in the plaza below, people watch. No one can really make out what he’s carrying, why he’s climbing, or even what he’s wearing, but they keep watching, making up stories, and hoping for a clue. But that isn’t all. There are also those inside a department store in building he’s climbing who can’t see him, but who can see those on the plaza reacting; they watch with equal amazement at the inscrutable intention of the reactions of those watching the climber because they can tell they’re watching someone watch something important, but they don’t know what.

It’s a pretty heady metaphor, I think, for how we might begin to talk about K-Stew’s poem (and public reaction) and why it’s here as “news.” Let’s start from the top (bad pun intended): K-Stew (already such a celebrity that I feel no remorse about associating with thick soup) publicly releases a private poem. Why she does it, we have no idea, but that she does it, we are certain, and, when we read it, it becomes clear—to those of us who are such assholes we say we read poems regularly—that this is what we might talk about as a “journal” poem, or a “private” one. This type of poem is one that isn’t meant for the public, not because it contains too much personal information, but rather because it is inaccessible. It doesn’t create a pattern for the audience to interpret. Instead, it jumps around using private references, phrases that are meaningful to the author but are totally unclear/uninterpretable to the audience. What I mean is that there’s no frame of reference through which all the metaphors (the devils, the sucking of bones, the pumping of organs, and the digital moonlight) become meaningful (that’s what public poetry does). Instead, we have someone really high up doing something that we fundamentally can’t understand.

But we are not the ones watching from the ground. Remember that. K-Stew didn’t come to your house and say “check out this poem I wrote.” Instead, she wrote something she was excited about, something she thought was “really dope” and shared it—seemingly offhandedly—in an interview. The interviewer, along with all requisite editors, publishers, and the like, then, make up those on the ground, those looking up and determining the spectacular, the that-which-must-be-named-and-in-naming-must-be-acknowledged-as-exigent. But what is it about a college-age girl writing a poem is exigent? Nothing. So, instead of telling us what they saw—which they didn’t because it was either a) uninteresting [as an event] or b) unintelligible [as a poem]—what we are given are reactions, judgments, “fan-annotations” as something to snark about (because, let’s be real, we’re a snarky bunch). But the worst part, and I do mean the worst, is not that we are laughing at a girl who attempted to make something and failed, but that we are accustomed to, expect, even rely on arbiters of “spectacle authority” to tell us that publicly sharing a poem is “embarrassing,” that the poem is “bad,” to point upward and react so that we know we should.

Obviously, I know that I’m not saying anything new about celebrity journalism, the divide between the celebrity and the non, or about what it means to “produce” or to “be produced by” news (and, to some extent, language itself measuring the world [sorry, I know I’m being a jackass here]); that’s not my aim. Instead, I want to talk about the profound sadness that comes with being in the department store, with not having access to the spectacle, with not really knowing whether the spectacle exists. I don’t mean this to demean, nor do I mean it to be ironic. What I’m talking about is the kind of sadness that comes from hearing an ex-lover singing in the shower just after you’ve emotionally (though not physically) separated, the song so far off that you can’t make it out, but you know she’s singing because, every once in a while, a note comes through, and you dream of the time when you could lay at her feet, stand next to her, and hear the singing, and though it didn’t matter, maybe even the song was bad, there was something spectacular about the moment. Even though you didn’t get to choose the song—maybe you didn’t even like it—you chose the spectacular; you weren’t locked out of the world quite yet, and sincerity wasn’t completely lost on you. You wanted to tell her she was beautiful, that her song and the water and the chill of the air was enough; you were reacting. And all you want now is the right to react, to be included in the song of a life you don’t have access to twice over—first because you never really know who someone else is and second, because now there’s something, spoken or otherwise, mediating your experience.

So our snark, then, becomes the boot that kicks the lever that sends the cage falling down onto the mouse in the mediated mousetrap of our experience of celebrity, specifically K-Stew and this rotten poem, but more generally with whatever else. And it’s easy to kick the lever without the context that comes with the actual creation of spectacle (as in subjectively spectacular rather than, as I’ve come to think of it, watching the gleam off another’s glasses and using that flash of light, that bit of the song, that obfuscated poem to determine how we react, what we say, what we participate in); we’re fighting for human engagement, to be part of a community, to be like girl, that’s not a great poem but what’s going on in your life and are, instead, moved farther and farther from where we started. That’s the sadness of watching in culture, what we are moving through, even K-Stew… even James Fucking Franco.

Image source: Us Weekly

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: M.T. Anderson’s Feed

Andrew Findlay

I read a buttload. I track it, and last year alone I completed 37 books. So far this year, I am halfway through Blue Mars, Blood Meridian, and Les Jours Etranges de Nostradamus and have finished Green Mars, The Reivers, and Feed. That last book is the one I want to talk about today. It is a young adult science fiction book, which is a double-whammy of literary marginalization. The same style of thought that leads serious readers away from science fiction also has them skip YA fiction. It’s a shame, not only because YA is vital to the vibrancy and growth of our literary culture, but because it is worthwhile in its own right.

I mention how much I now read by way of comparison. When I was young, I did not enjoy reading. Why sit around and look at pages when there’s so much other shit to do? My discovery of Goosebumps changed everything. Young Adult fiction builds generations of readers. 10-year-olds probably can’t be interested in Cormac McCarthy, much like you probably can’t step outside and run a marathon right now. It takes practice. Progress happens in increments and the process has a beginning and an end. The path that leads to successful completion and enjoyment of Infinite Jest starts with The Berenstain Bears. I discovered Goosebumps when I was 10, and I now have a heroin-level addiction to reading.

Who needs reasons when you’ve got books?

If you never read any Goosebumps, I question whether you are a normal human with a childhood or if you sprang full-formed from a cultivation vat. By fifth grade, I’d moved on to my first semi-adult book, Tyrant’s Test, book three of the Blackfleet Crisis series in the Star Wars Expanded Universe. At the time, I didn’t really understand the problem of starting with the third one. Anyway, I read it, and there were a lot of words I had simply never seen before. One of my clearest reading-related memories is running across a new word and asking my dad what “ad-juh-kent” meant. He responded that “adjacent” meant “next to.” That was the first of many exchanges that made me an etymological nut, to the extent that I can tell you that “buttload” is not in the same class as “fuckload” or “metric shit-ton,” but actually represents 126 imperial gallons of liquid, as that was the size of a “butt,” something used to store wine. YA fiction entices and cultivates new generations of readers, without which American literary culture would be in worse decline than it already is, but that’s not all it does. The best YA fiction does some heavy philosophical lifting in the formation of young minds. One of the best examples of this is The Giver, which teaches middle-school age kids that nothing can be perfect without a price. That is a huge concept. If you are not familiar with The Giver, again, you are probably a clone.

    It’s a boy!

Feed, like The Giver, attacks big issues in bites digestible by young minds. The title of the book comes from its main concept – about three-fourths of citizens have “feeds,” which are like Google Glass but implanted directly into the brain and entwined with the limbic system. Corporations can advertise directly to people with banner ads that scroll  across feed users’ field of vision. Think of how annoying pop-up ads are, and then imagine them being inside of your brain. Data mining is prevalent, with corporations using purchase history and even biological information to target their advertisements. In one particularly surreal scene, a character is in a life-threatening situation, and because she is sweating, Feednet shows her an advertisement for deodorant. There are a lot of dystopic elements to this book, one being that most people live in environment bubbles because the actual outdoors is mostly too toxic to survive in. However, the main focus of the book is the effect of the feed on society. It is the creation and the sustainer of an overwhelmingly lazy culture of consumption. People with feeds are capable of buying anything they want at any time and having it flown to them. People with feeds can look up any piece of information they want at any time, leading to a general decline in critical thinking, memory formation, and language. The decline of language and thought instigated by the Feed is clear throughout the book. One example of character speech: “It was meg big big loud. There was everything there.” This type of dialogue really turned me off of the book for the first few chapters, but you get used to it, and besides it’s just another symptom of the social decline set off by misuse of technology, so it actually serves to strengthen the themes of the book.

The vanguard of civilization’s downfall. Also, it makes you look like an asshole.

The unifying plot is very simple. Boy and girl meet, boy and girl kind of like each other, things go wrong, things end badly. The complexity of the story comes from the setting and from character interactions with the feed. The simplicity of the plot merges with the complexity of the social milieu of the story to create an artifact science fiction is very good at manufacturing: the intellectual beach read. Sentence wizards are great, but it takes a special kind of person to read nothing but DFW, Joyce, and Faulkner. In science fiction, there is an emphasis on clear and direct speech, plot, and characterization. Sure, there are still books like Dhalgren (the Ulysses of science fiction. I only got 200 pages into it because I took it to an actual beach, which was not the best decision ever), but Hemingway-clarity is a feature of most science fiction. The text itself represents very little challenge, yet the ideas discussed therein are intriguing and nourishing. This alchemical melding of simplicity and complexity trigger a lung-gom-pa style of reading in which, unimpeded by overwrought sentences and spurred on by intellectual interest, a reader can consume vast amounts of text in a short amount of time. In this state, reading is exhilaration. This feature makes Feed is a great entry into the constellation of young adult literature. If we want to build a strong reading culture, we need authors who put out literature that can stimulate and exhilarate young minds. Feed is the gateway drug that creates the addicts that would do anything for just one more hit of The Brothers Karamazov.

Image credits: Wiki and IMDB.