Tag Archives: op-ed

I Did it My Way

Years ago, back in the ‘seventies, I used to ride motorcycles. My favourites were the British and Italian  classics, the Triumph Bonneville and Norton Commando, and most of all, my beloved Ducati 750 Desmo. These were far from perfect machines: the Triumph left puddles of oil everywhere, the Norton had issues with its quirky Isolastic engine mounts, and my gorgeous Ducati suffered from maddening electrical issues. Nonetheless, each of these bikes had at least one feature so outstanding, did one thing so damned divinely well, that I could overlook all their other faults.

By contrast, when I got to know my first Japanese bike, the newly-introduced Honda CB 750, a four-cylinder technological marvel of the time, I experienced a strong sense of anticlimax: from handling to acceleration to braking, the bike did everything well; it didn’t drip oil, didn’t try to shake itself and you to pieces, and it was dependable in the way we’ve now come to expect from everything Japanese and German. But I didn’t love it. Couldn’t. It lacked the fire, the one outstanding trait that redeemed all the faults of my previous European machines. Why?

Design by committee.

Three decades later, I still feel the same way. It seems a universal law that if you try to iron out every flaw in something and take a truly cooperative approach to design or creativity, the end result lacks heart, spirit, fire, whatever you want to call it. (I’m sure you’re thinking right now of examples that would prove me quite wrong, but I’m afraid you’ll never convince me. I have a seventh sense that can discern genius and creative fire in anything, from a frying pan to an aircraft). To make something that works very well is easy; to make something that turns sane people into fanatical cultists (see: Mac owners) is far harder. Steve Jobs trumps HP any day.

I rather think it’s that way with the Arts, too. With film, no question, right? Hollywood movies are almost without exception bland, formulaic, and devoid of the fire I’m talking about. Well, I’m starting to think it’s at least partially true of books as well. All things being equal (in this case, the writer being a pro that knows his or her craft, and having a good story to tell), I’d rather read the story at least close to the way writer originally envisaged it, at the length they felt it needed to be, with the ambiguous or unhappy ending the publisher’s marketing department vetoed because it could hurt sales, than a heavily-massaged, corporate product which half a dozen people have had major input on.

This isn’t to say that writers don’t need input. As well as writing, I’ve both edited and published other authors’ stories myself, and I understand the myopia all artists can sometimes suffer; and God knows we all need feedback and copyediting. But I have serious issues with the increasingly Hollywood-corporate approach to creativity that a lot of authors have to endure, because I believe that  somewhere along the line, something is going to get lost, some intangible quality that makes the work unique and sings of the Artist’s spirit and vision. I mean, can you imagine an art dealer or gallery owner walking into Picasso’s studio and telling them more people would like the painting and it would fetch a higher price if he backed off the Prussian Blue a bit? Yes, he was a genius, but Fine Art painters are typically left to work undisturbed, and the finished product is the way they see it.

We’ve seen what the corporate approach to Art has done for Hollywood and the music industry (or for that matter the brewing industry) over the decades, and it’s not pretty: it’s sucked all the uniqueness and bite from the products of each and incrementally replaced them with a formulaic smoothness that’s wholly lacking in originality and… Integrity? Fire? Truth? LotR, Firefly, Psycho,… Would any of those have turned out the way they did if the creative genius behind each had been replaced by a committee and second-guessed at every turn? For a compelling example, check out John Mellencamp’s superb 2010 album, ‘No Better Than This’, recorded the way they used to do it in the ‘fifties, with everyone singing and playing around a single mic. As Mellencamp explains, “everything was cut live with no overdubs or studio nothing! These are real songs being performed by real musicians—an unheard-of process in today’s world. Real music, for real people!” Smooth, it’s not. But it’s drenched in integrity, spirit, and that unmistakable, ineffable spark of creative truth.

Is it any coincidence that each of those industries–Hollywood, the Music Industry, and the breweries–have now lost huge amounts of market share to the Indies and small ‘crafters’ in each field? The worm turns.

Yeah, I can hear all the rebuttals, but, hey–this is op-ed, not a statistical analysis. And, yeah, I’ve always been an autodidact and a loner in every one of my endeavours, winning or losing largely on my own merits. It’s the way I’m wired. I’ll take advice, even solicit it, but I’ll do it my way or not at all, thank you very much. So when I discover someone like Dan Simmons or Kris Rusch, writers I enormously respect and admire, are wired much the same way, it makes me feel I’m not entirely crazy. And that’s a big reason why I’ve decided to publish my new novel, ‘Sutherland’s Rules’, through my own Indie press, Panverse Publishing, even though all the feedback I’m getting suggests it might be a very good candidate for a traditional publishing deal. Because, among a laundry list of other things, I want more control than I’m ever likely to get going the traditional route.

When you have a seventh sense, you have to trust it. Even if it means leaving a few drips of oil here and there.

 

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What Ails Us

The recent senseless events in Aurora, CO brought home to me yet again the central irony that underlies the security of our society: that two of civilization’s greatest strengths—compassion and free speech, two noble ideals—are also our greatest weaknesses. And it made me turn again to a favourite play written 2,500 years ago.

The fact that I’ve taken very little interest (beyond the general facts) in the Aurora killings doesn’t mean I have no opinion. I have no need (do you?) to see rescuers carrying blood-soaked victims from the scene, or scenes of anguished, weeping parents and friends of loved ones, or to know the shooter’s background and what others thought of him. I know we seek out the detail, the minutiae, largely because we need to understand how and why these terrible, senseless things happen, why previously harmless people suddenly blow and slaughter random, innocent strangers; yet for me, the how and why seem terribly obvious.

But let’s look at the irony first.

The Aurora, CO shooter, like almost all these sickos, got exactly what he wanted: fame. He got it because the rest of us believe in free speech and a free press. The same holds true for terrorists—where would they be if the media simply ignored them? Powerless, since their power is rooted in fear. Similarly, terrorists use our compassion against us by taking hostages. When we place high value* on every individual life—as we do in civilized societies—they have us over a barrel. So although logic dictates that one should never, ever accede to a terrorist or kidnapper’s demands, we invariably (and often despite public denials by the authorities that demands were met or ransoms paid) do. Again, publicity pays a part, but compassion is the underpinning here. Because we place a higher value on a single life than people in many parts of the world place on a hundred, an entire nation’s foreign policy can be affected or its leadership toppled by fanatics on the other side of the world taking a few dozen hostages.

But whatever logic may dictate, humans don’t typically act on it, much less so where strong emotion is involved. Although simply denying extravagant publicity to terrorists and flashy mass murderers would rob them of a good deal of their power, I don’t expect it to happen soon.

So where does this leave us? Returning to domestic (i.e., US) violence, I don’t for a moment believe more stringent gun laws are the solution. They didn’t help in Norway, and the Aum Shinrikyo cult in Japan came within an ace of  killing thousands without firearms**. We could argue about smaller capacity magazines causing less deaths, but that doesn’t address the core problem, which is one of a very deeply sick society. Just two generations ago dynamite and fully automatic weapons were freely available in the US, and nobody went around shooting up cinemas or blowing up high schools. What happened? What changed?

For an answer, we could do far worse than look back 2,500 years to the great Greek tragedist, Euripides. Euripides was over 70 when he left the frenzied, disillusioned, war-obsessed city of Athens for the freshness and mountains of Macedon, never to return, and it was there that he wrote his penultimate and, to my mind greatest, play, The Bacchae.

For those who aren’t acquainted with the work, The Bacchae is overtly about the conflict between Dionysus, God of fertility, ecstasy, and wine, and King Pentheus, the arrogant and masterful king of Thebes. But for a deeper look, let me offer a few brief extracts from translator Philip Vellacott’s excellent introduction to the Penguin Classics edition:

The play sets forth two opposite sides of man’s nature. First there is the rational and civilized side, on which a large community like a city depends for its stability. Since Pentheus is a king, he is in Thebes the official representative of this side, which is concerned with law, the conventions of sex and property, the organizing of war. Then there is the instinctive side, which by its simplicity by-passes all the errors of rational man, enjoys the life of the senses without the ability or desire to analyse it…

When the civilized grows arrogant and masterful, it is betrayed from within by the bestial…

The ‘worship’ which the Greek Gods required  (…) was simply a recognition that they existed, that they were an integral and immutable part of human nature, of human society, of the natural world…

The Bacchae is—among other things—a demonstration that the consequences of refusing ‘worship’ in this sense to Dionysus are disastrous, since such a refusal is a denial of undeniable fact; it is a ‘condemnation,’ if you will, of intolerance, violence, and cruelty, all of which are generated when humanity tries to deny either of the two sides of its nature.

Does any of this ring bells?

In my recent 4th July post, ‘On Freedom,’ I wrote about the increasing and often petty limitations on our own freedom, such as not being allowed to enjoy a beer on a beach. In our earnestness to make our society ever safer, we continually tighten the restrictions on individual behaviour at the same time as we turn up the heat and pressure on everyone. Oh, it’s all well-meaning: we are compassionate, we want nobody to be hurt or suffer. So we legislate for every eventuality, and then look for more loopholes, and close those off. Public drunkenness makes us uncomfortable, threatens us, so we have rules against it; but soon those rules don’t seem enough, so we make more rules… and more… And like King Pentheus, the more rules we make, the greater our fear of and sense of threat at even minor infractions, until eventually, all of us feel penned in and unable to move, with all the safety valves shut off. Something has to give, and some people will blow—with sometimes catastrophic consequences.

In a conflict between a God and a king, who would you place your money on?

*     *     *

*someone recently calculated, using a complex and arcane procedure, that the value of a human life in the US is currently around $8 million.

**police found the cult had explosives, Anthrax and Ebola cultures, and stockpiles of chemicals to produce enough Sarin gas to allegedly kill  four million people

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On Freedom

Today being Independence Day (which I, as a Brit, and a lifelong monarchist, refer to as The Day of Blackest Infamy and Betrayal) it seems appropriate to write about freedom.

For all its faults, the US still scores high in this regard. As someone who’s traveled a good deal and lived in other countries, I have some solid points for comparison here. The First and Second Amendments—the Rights to Free Speech, Religion, Free Press, and to Assemble and Petition the Government; and the Right to Bear Arms—are pretty much unparalleled. I can also attest, from direct experience, that anyone who wants to go into business for themselves is rather more free to do so in this country than almost anywhere else in the world. Even in the current dire economic circumstances, anyone with a little skill and ingenuity coupled with the will to work can make it here, and for all my own dithering and mistakes, this country’s been very good to me in that regard.

That said, could Americans’ freedoms be improved upon? Hell, yes.

Many years ago, when I still lived in Santa Cruz, I received a parking ticket. On examining it, I was astonished by the number of codes, i.e., regulations which, if broken, would get you a ticket. If memory serves me well, there were over ninety of them.

Or take alcohol. I understand not letting kids drink, but why on Earth shouldn’t responsible adults be allowed to share a beer or a bottle of wine on a beach or in a public park in California? I also never understood why a passenger in a car shouldn’t be allowed to sip a beer, since there are solid laws already in place to cover the driver’s need for sobriety. And the restrictions on buying alcohol are becoming outrageously intrusive. Self-checkout in supermarkets, which has always required a store employee’s direct approval, now forces that employee to check your ID and log your date of birth along with the sale—why? And, worse, where does this end?

Tobacco, now. I don’t smoke, but I fully support the freedom of others to do so. I understand the issues with bars, restaurants, aeroplanes, and similar closed spaces; but there are towns in California, such as where I live in Concord, where you can’t smoke in the street or in parks; and an increasing number of condominiums and housing complexes are banning people smoking not just outdoors but in their own homes. Apart from being heavy-handed, coercive, and undemocratic, this, folks, is just plain stupid.

Then there are the questionable licencing requirements for many professions, among them manicurists and hairdressers. In my old trade as a decorative artist, I was required to be licenced as a painting contractor. However, in most cases the onerous (and expensive) courses a licence applicant is required to take, and the tests they’re required to pass, have very little to do with establishing quality and competence but everything to do with generating revenue both for local authorities and a whole parasitic infrastructure of schools. So with the unhappy example of manicurists, although I agree that someone using blades and sharp objects around people should understand safety and hygiene issues, let’s look at the California course requirements here:

Cosmetologist = 1600 hours

Barber = 1500 hours

Esthetician = 600 hours

Electrologist = 600 hours

Manicurist = 400 hours

… and note that a manicurist isn’t allowed to wax your eyebrows.

And God help you if you’re a licenced professional in one state and want to move to another, because in most cases, there’s no reciprocity. You have to start all over again.

This, friends, is just wrong. All of it.

To my way of thinking, when laws stop honest, competent people making a living at something that isn’t, say, medicine or the Law, without having to pony up thousands of dollars and take a year or two out of their lives, something is very wrong indeed.

I understand municipalities’ needs to raise taxes, but I can’t condone doing so by limiting people’s ability to make a living and by strangling individual freedoms. In my own past case as a decorative artist working alone, why did I have to pass a certification that pretty much exclusively concerned itself with employment law, wages and withholding, employee insurances, and the rest? Since as an artist I mostly fell through the cracks, I was unlicenced for years, and I can’t begin to tell you how many times I was hired to correct or even wholly redo jobs that licenced contractors had botched.

How long until they require artists to be licenced?

Of course, these laws are typically enacted under pressure from various interest groups, or under the wooly-headed idea that they protect the public or the licencee. Bullshit; road-to-hell paving, etc.  In the vast majority of cases they exist to generate revenue and to keep lawyers busy.

The solution? Well, I side wholly with the ideal Libertarian (though not the Conservative Libertarian), and these would be my immediate thoughts:

1. Protect the Right To Do Dumb Things That Don’t Hurt Others (Ha!).

2. Apply a unitary, Federal standard (no chance).

3. Limit litigation (not going to happen).

4. Get rid of all unenforceable laws (yeah, right!).

5. Do away with 90% of the laws on the statutes; repeat until you arrive at something close to the Ten Commandments (definitely not going to happen).

Hey, we can dream, can’t we? And despite all the inanities I’ve listed, it’s still a free country, or at least far more so than most. Count your blessings.

Happy Fourth!

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Deja Vu All Over Again

Two news items on the excellent website io9 got me thinking about memes and the failure of the artistic imagination. The first of these concerned itself with aliens, the second with zombies. Only one really pissed me off. Here’s why.

Annoying as it may be, the remarkable popularity of the zombie in popular culture is at least defensible in that the condition of the mythic undead seems to correlate pretty closely with a real-world phenomenon, namely, rabies. As the article points out, many of the symptoms, particularly the ‘silent, semi-lucid, unending aggression’ of the rabies victim, are precisely those that typify the movie zombie. Well, fair enough. I still have sub-zero interest in reading or seeing movies about them, but I buy zombies as somewhat believable, a pop-culture meme with some basis in fact.

The other news item was about a 14-minute short made for literally a zero budget. ‘This no-budget short film captures the creepiness of an alien encounter on a shoestring’, trumpets the io9 headline. Since I generally like io9, I decided to go with it and commit 14 minutes of my time to see why this ‘science fiction film’ (io9’s words, not mine) was in the running for a grant from Ridley Scott’s production company.

I should have known better.

This short, about a young woman whom nobody will believe trying to resist yet another alien visitation, is the worst kind of meme. Oh, the cinematography and production is fine, until the alien comes along. At which point we’re treated to bright white lights, electrical and electronic  malfunctions, things rattling and shaking, and a three-fingered alien hand coming around the victim’s bedroom door: in short, the generic alien encounter meme that has been around for something like three decades, at least since the movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

The pop culture meme of the skinny alien, with its childlike, elongated head, slitty eyes, three-fingered hands, blinding light, undampened electrical fields, and fond use of rectal probes, is out of control. But unlike zombies, we have no data point whatever on which to base the alien meme: it’s made up, people! And it wasn’t a very good effort in the first place! The chance of aliens looking like this is no greater than aliens that look like octopi, or ambulatory potatoes, or nothing we can even begin to comprehend.

To my way of thinking, this is the worst kind of laziness. When there is the opportunity to do something entirely fresh and original, why does every filmmaker do exactly the same thing as has been done before? If the answer is, because that’s what audiences expect, all I can do is bury my head in my hands and say they deserve to be fleeced at every opportunity. You can tie a pink ribbon around a turd and put it in a Tiffany box, but it’s still a turd. And yet, we continue to reward these pathetic, uninspired imitators.

Once in a very, very long while, a filmmaker comes along who gets it. Unfortunately, we have to go back even further than Close Encounters for that one, to the 1972 film (based on a 1961 novel), Solaris. Surreal? Hard to understand? That’s exactly the point, though, isn’t it—a real alien encounter is going to be confusing and incomprehensible.

And startlingly, memorably, original.

So the fact that millions (probably hundreds of millions) of people are already convinced that the generic movie alien is representative of the real thing (as though we had even the shadow of a clue) is something I find both maddening and depressing. Haven’t we been here with angels and fairies?

When an artistic form runs out of, or refuses to embrace, fresh ideas, it’s usually considered dead. I think we can safely declare the science fiction film—at least where aliens are concerned—to have entirely flatlined.

Zombie article link

Alien short film link

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Subterranean Euro Blues

I was never a fan of Europe.

More specifically, I was never enthusiastic about the EU, the idealistically-driven political and economic integration of the many different nations and peoples that make up the European continent. The architects of the EU, elder statesmen who’d lived through the horrors of two world wars in the span of a generation and a bit, sold it as not only an economic solution to the problems of  cross-border trading and tourism (I remember when a trip from London to Northern Italy meant changing currencies at least twice,) but as a permanent solution to nationalism and an end to conflict between the nations of Europe. Like all idealists, they discounted human nature.

My own skepticism stemmed mostly from aesthetic rather than practical reasons. When the UK decimalized its currency in 1971, I  was dismayed. Our ancient, eccentric, and uniquely complex system of pounds, shillings and pence (a pound was made up of twenty shillings of twelve pence each; half-crowns were two shillings and sixpence; threepenny pieces were thick and octagonal; and then there was the professional unit of currency used by lawyers and doctors, who billed in guineas, a guinea being one pound and one shilling) had overnight been reduced to a thing of appalling simplicity, with pennies becoming the equivalent of cents and everything else, tradition, history and all, swept away as though it had never existed. Furthermore, although only in my late teens, I knew that much else that I valued would be lost: the individuality of nations, and the distinct character of each people.

Anyone who’s watched D.A. Pennebaker’s amazing documentary of the 1965 Bob Dylan tour of the UK, ‘Don’t Look Back’ will realize that England was like another universe in those days, with attitudes, habits and traditions radically different from those of mainland Europe. The same was true to a lesser extent of European nations—their peoples, customs, and architecture were fabulously distinct. Young as I was, I knew two things: first, that I didn’t want the nasty, vanilla homogeneity that a unified Europe would bring; and secondly, that it wasn’t going to work.

Just a dozen or fifteen years ago, as the reality of the Soviet Union’s demise had begun to sink in, a good many loopy people on the far Right had begun to worry about the sinister New World Order they saw emerging, in which the UN—dominated by the Antichrist and his demonic minions—would bring all nations together and plunge humanity into some kind of Socialist slave hell. I laughed in the face of more than one of these nutcases, pointing out that people everywhere were trying to secede and demanding independence, provinces shearing off from their parent states like ripe fruit from the tree.

People in the real world cleave—for good or ill—to tradition and sovereignty in a way that delusional idealists across the spectrum can’t possibly fathom. Whatever carrots the technocrats used to sway the electorates of the EU’s many nations to join (labour mobility, farm subsidies, economic integration, the creation of a world-class trading bloc, etc.), would never be enough to cement such disparate peoples into a single nation-state. As NYT columnist Thomas Friedman recently pointed out, Greeks are not Germans, and (fortunately) never will be.

So where does this leave us?

Well, for one, Greece will almost certainly default. Although whatever course it takes now is dangerous for its battered people, I believe it will ultimately default because all it has left, after the humiliation and suffering of the past year or so, is to reclaim some measure of sovereignty and self-determination. In the same way as lack of control and predictability are the circumstances which cause the greatest stress to primates, so it is with nations; and while a return to the drachma will likely precipitate a run on the banks and possibly a period of hyperinflation, the Greek people will have regained a measure of pride and a sense of being in charge of their own destiny. I wish them every success and a speedy recovery.

As to the rest of us, I’d say we’re in deep shit. A Greek default may well precipitate further defaults (Portugal certainly, Spain maybe, Italy… ugh), and just possibly the total collapse of the Euro. Although the masters of Europe have had some time preparing for such a disaster and have shored up their financial levees, their continued failure—like all politicians in all democracies, I’m sad to say—to do more than the absolute minimum required guarantees catastrophe. Who the winners will be in the ensuing flood of fear and uncertainty is impossible to predict. One thing is certain: speculators will do well, ordinary working people will get screwed, and politicians will continue to live in a fantasy-land all their own.

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On Tolerance and Civility

There’s an appallingly common mindset which presumes that if someone holds this view, then they must hold that also. So if you drive a truck or work for the FBI, you’re probably a right-wing Christian fundamentalist; if you make a living as a teacher or writer, why, you must lean hard to the left.

This is, of course, bullshit.

That’s not to say that the above don’t occur, and may even be common: but to pigeonhole everyone is both preposterous and simplistic. Real life isn’t like that; hell, even fiction—at least the better sort of fiction—isn’t like that. The best villains, like the hero, are nuanced and complex.

Yet we’re encouraged to think in binaries and cleave to polar opposites. Stereotyping people who hold views contrary to our own makes it so much easier to dislike and ridicule them. That makes us and our gang feel good. Unfortunately, it’s a slippery slope, and what begins as simple disrespect and derision can end up in the dehumanization of others that leads, in its most extreme form, to genocides. Hitler and the Jews, anyone? Mao and the Chinese intelligentsia? Serbs and Muslims? Hutsi and Tutus?

I was brought up in a Jewish/Italian partisan family right after WWII, which might explain why anything that smells of conformity, lockstep thinking, brainwashing—from the far Right’s white supremacy to the far Left’s political correctness, from rabid, angry atheism to sinister, apocalyptic cultism and Scientology—makes me see red. I’m fine with anyone believing whatever they want to believe in religion or politics, but I despise intolerance, incivility, and character assassination. I’ll stand up for anyone who is attacked for sincere and honestly-held beliefs, even when I don’t agree with them. Where I draw the line is when they seek to impose their will and belief system on me.

There’s a real simple rule here, and it’s do as you would be done by. Maybe it’s time to start thinking for ourselves and start seeing people as individuals rather than as clones, well-meaning individuals who love their families and think they’re doing right rather than mean fools who are out to get us. Like the famous Christmas incidents in the trenches of WWI, maybe we’ll discover that the guys in the enemy uniform are just like us.

Ah, we say, but they started it! Well, maybe they did. Or maybe we watch too much TV or listen to too much talk radio, left or right, and—like those old folks who see the world only through the media and live in fear of everything—have  cut ourselves off from reality.

My personal beliefs are highly heterodox. I follow no party or school of thought. Accordingly, I’ve always had friendships across the political and religious spectrum (that seems unusual in the US, but is not uncommon elsewhere). We can have raging and wide-ranging discussions and arguments yet still remain good friends; sometimes, we learn from one another. At the least, we respect one another and know each other for good people.

I tend to the atheist side of agnostic, but in my 23 years here, two of my closest friends have been Christian fundamentalists, and these are two of the finest people I’ve ever met. Because we respect one another, we can agree to disagree, even though I think they’re deluded and they worry I’ll burn in hell. We laugh. We build on commonalties rather than differences. We enjoy the friendship and like being respectfully challenged now and then by someone who respects us. These are seeds that spread.

If one proceeds on the premise that even those who disagree with us mean well, there’s no need for enmity… but it’s so much easier to demonize people we disagree with than to deal with them, and isn’t that what the media and our environment wants us to do?

Look in the mirror. Whom do you demonize and ridicule?

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The Hollywood Syndrome

In 1999, during a talk at MIT, the late, inimitable Douglas Adams quipped that “getting a movie made in Hollywood is like trying to grill a steak by having a succession of people coming into the room and breathing on it.” I’m of the strong opinion that the book publishing industry, especially in the US, has for some years now been heading in the same dubious direction, a trend exacerbated by both macro-economic factors and the present turmoil within the industry.

Let me begin with my cards on the table: I’m biased. I prefer the real over the idealized, the purity of the artist’s original vision over a heavily-massaged corporate product; similarly, I believe true beauty is better appreciated without pancake makeup and every strand of immaculately-styled hair tucked perfectly in place. In the same way that a perfect world crafted by committee would be an intolerable, saccharin Disneyland, a book produced by committee with the cynical purpose of making the most bucks is not going to appeal to me. It may—may—be a smashing success, and that’s okay if you want to live in a world of Dan Brown thrillers­­: I don’t. I want some verisimilitude in a book, and that includes protagonists that sometimes aren’t proactive, characters who might not change, and loose ends that don’t get tied up in a pretty ribbon. I’d bet my dog and lot that the warped notion that an unholy alliance of agents, editors, sales and marketing people, and (shudder!) accountants will improve an already good book rather than turn it into processed mush is about as intelligent as the dream of the Edsel. And we know where that ended up.

This isn’t to say that developmental editing doesn’t have a place: of course it does. Even the best authors can be too close to their own work and benefit from educated and intelligent input. A good agent and editor can be an invaluable asset to any author. But the process has got entirely out of hand, with more books than ever being rejected or twisted out of shape because of bizarre preoccupations over category, marketing demographics, and inherited assumptions of what readers want.

Don’t believe me? Okay, let’s take the case of Science Fiction in film. Those of us who love Science Fiction literature know very well that even the best SF stories and novels (Philip K. Dick, anyone?), in the process of being scripted and filmed, have most of their intelligent content ripped out and replaced with gunfights, explosions, chases, and slo-mo kung fu. Why? To target that all-important adolescent male demographic, of course. Now, proving this happens to manuscripts is less easy, but every one of us who works with or is a writer has seen it at first- or second-hand. While I don’t think we’re yet at the woeful state of the movie industry, I do think that the US book industry is pretty far along the road to a lockstep conformity dictated by factors that have little to do with good writing and everything to do with perception and factors unrelated to quality.

A couple of years ago at the World Fantasy Convention in San José, I asked GOH Zoran Živković why non-Anglophone SF (‘World SF’) typically has very different thematic concerns than US/UK SF, and is often far more vibrant, political, allegorical, edgy and even surrealist. His reply was both insightful and telling: “The publishing industry in the US is very powerful,” he said, “and its strength is what determines the market. In the rest of the world, writers write what they want to write, not only what is marketable.”

Aliette de Bodard, in a superb and heartfelt 2011 blog post on the prevalence of US tropes in storytelling, addresses the same issue from a slightly different angle. This pressure to conformity, originating from purely commercial concerns, is warping the literary landscape and spreading like a cancer. Again, let me qualify: there’s nothing wrong with the book industry attempting to pick winners and make a profit, but there’s a great deal wrong with marketing people and accountants dictating a book’s final shape; not only that, but—like Hollywood—they’ve proven over and over that they’re not very good at it, because otherwise every book would make a profit.

To conclude, not all artists or writers have 20-20 vision; there are plenty of bad indie books out there, just as there are plenty of bad indie movies. But, given a good cut of beef in the first place, I usually find that a steak grilled on a high heat by an experienced hand tastes a great deal better than one cooked over months by having a succession of people breathe on it.

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