The 90%

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So, a lot of my genre writing friends are upset at Ian McEwan’s casual dismissal of science fiction in an interview about his new novel, Machines Like Me, which, by all measures of the term, is definitely science fiction, entailing alternate history and artificial intelligence. I haven’t read the book but a copy is winging its way to me as I type. I expect I will read it soon and will either love it or hate it. That’s how I feel about all of McEwan’s books.

I suppose the dissing of SF by McEwen is particularly galling, especially since we only recently got Margaret Atwood to acknowledge that maybe she has been writing SF all along. McEwen is not exactly nobody, winner of both the Whitbread and Booker prizes, with several of his novels made into films.

I actually expect that in both Atwood’s case and McEwen’s, the dismissal of SF was genuine and heartfelt but came from a place of ignorance and stand as a direct corollary of Sturgeon’s Law.

Theodore Sturgeon once opened his Guest of Honour speech at the World Science Fiction Convention with the words “90% of science fiction is crap” before relieving the stunned audience by adding “90% of everything is crap.”

Given that literary writers either don’t read much SF but get it from movies (where 90% is more like 94% IMHO) or, if they do, only occasionally or in their teen years. Chances are, if Sturgeon is correct, that all they were ever exposed to was, in fact, crap. I mean, imagine if your primary exposure to SF was the John Norman Gor novels, you, too, might have a low opinion of SF.

The whole war between literary and genre fiction is a bit of a phony one any way. Some say it began when literary writers got jealous of how much money genre writers seemed to be making while they were struggling in garrets, but, given McEwen’s success, that can hardly be a factor there. Another one may be that it is fashionable for literary writers to look down on genre writers as somewhat less capable or educated or as pandering to the masses. None of that was ever true, in particular. Most golden age writers were either experienced journalists or, more likely, people with science or engineering degrees (rather than English majors). Autodidacts were no more or less common in SF than they were in the literary book shelves. And as for pandering to the masses, it was remarkable how hard some writers tried to do exactly that. Hemingway and Tennessee Williams constantly worried about how to increase their popular exposure.

Besides, the disdain goes both ways. I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard genre writers of all stripes dismiss the quality of literary books and the character of their authors. And I’m sure with McEwen there has to be a little of: Damn it, he’s pouching in my forest when I’m barely making a living.

Personally, I think the line between genre and literary is a one with blurred edges and significant gaps, no matter how vigorously both sides try to defend the ramparts. And that is all for the good. One of the ways to ensure you fall in the 90% bracket is to narrow your focus and exclude exceptional works of whatever style. Maybe that’s what changed Atwood’s mind—someone exposed her to the 10% of SF that isn’t crap.

And that’s 10 minutes.

Relevance

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I was playing Cards Against Humanity for the first time yesterday and I came a cross a word which I didn’t have a clue as to its meaning—though I suspected it was something sexual. When the game was over, I asked my hipper, younger friend what it meant, though I also suspected I didn’t want to know. I was both right and wrong. As explained, it was vaguely disgusting (although I later found out her definition was wrong) and clearly not a word I was ever going to use myself—but at the same time I did want to know simply so I could be attuned to what people were doing and thinking. I wanted to be relevant.

Relevance—the ability to understand and comment appropriately on a topic—is something most people strive for all their lives. Most of you are probably trying to do it right now.

Certainly, as a policy adviser, it was my job to be relevant, to know enough about a wide range of subjects that, if I couldn’t immediately comment, I could quickly research to make useful remarks or give cogent advice. It was a struggle sometimes and, frankly, some topics constantly eluded me. Unlike some people, I usually was smart enough not to venture an opinion about something I was completely unaware of.

Relevance is what I have striven for as a writer. I try to keep up with the latest trends in fiction. I read a lot and listen to what other people are saying about the field. I think I have a sense of what the cool kids are doing, well enough to make reasonably intelligent critical comments or editorial suggestions.

But that doesn’t make me relevant. My own stories don’t seem to resonate much with editors these days. That may just be a phase or maybe my time has come and gone. It happens to most of us and, sometimes, the only answer is not to try to be young and hip and cool and diverse (hard when you are an old white man) but to shrug and move on to other things – like cooking exotic foods or traveling to mountaintops. Maybe it would be better if a lot of people—and not just old ones—stopped trying so hard being relevant to the wider world (or, at least, attempting to impose their own sense of importance on the culture) and tried to be relevant to themselves, their families and their closest friends.

I doubt if many will follow my advice—the quest for relevance is a struggle against the grave. Yet, maybe they should acknowledge that relevance is like any other social commodity. You have a lot of it at one time and you can use it to build up your laurels (that you can then uncomfortably rest on) and create a legacy or you can spend it on making irrelevant comments that make you look foolish and out of touch (says the guy who insists on writing political blogs two years after leaving the field of advising politicians).

Still, I will struggle to understand new technologies, (I took part in a fascinating meeting about block chains today) social media—which in “my day” consisted of showing people slides of my last vacation—and following the latest trends in politics (how is this different than the 1930s?) and cultural transformation. Because the alternative might be to retire to Cambodia and stare at the waves all day.

And that’s ten minutes.

The Power of Art

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Many years ago, I was riding a subway in Mexico City when a young man boarded and began declaiming in a loud voice – not shouting but projecting. My Spanish wasn’t good enough to make out everything he was saying but I knew love was involved and the Spanish was very formal. Other passengers looked bemused – especially when he got down on one knee to several young ladies in succession. There was some blushing and a lot of laughter. As it turns out he was an actor performing in a Cervantes festival and he was quoting some love speeches from the play. The power of art to surprise, engage and excite people never ceases to amaze me.

A year or two later I remembered this event as we were preparing for “Freedom to Read” week in Calgary. I suggested that we go about the city and read from banned books in public. No warning would be given – these were to be guerilla readings. The committee agreed and a number of intrepid – and usually nervous – readers were dispatched to C-train stations, public squares and shopping malls. Most of the audience was – like the subway riders – bemused but were polite and mostly engaged by the event.

And that brings us to Julius Caesar and Donald Trump. The Shakespeare in the Park company in NYC has been preforming the Shakespeare classic with Caesar being portrayed remarkably like Donald Trump. It is meant to be satire and as such works quite well. Caesar was a man who claimed to be of the people (though in fact he came from a rich and powerful family) and was riding a popular wave toward the monarchy. Others – those committed to the Republic and democracy (you see where this is going) – did everything they could to thwart his ambitions and his attempts to buy the people with their own money. In the end, they fail in the greatest way possible – by assassinating Caesar, which act lead directly to the end of the Republic and the rise of the Emperors.

The point is, of course, that democracy ultimately fails when the only option people can see is political violence. This is not an incitement to assassinate the President but rather a harsh lesson in what extremism can do to damage society. The central message: never give up on the law.

However, Trump’s followers don’t see that point. Their man is being unjustly portrayed and they are bound to stop it. Several of them have stormed the stage and ranted loudly (and largely unintelligibly as they were yelling not projecting) and were then escorted to jail. In the wake of this, attendance fell – no wait, it rose to its highest levels in years. Good job!

Meanwhile, theatres that produce Shakespeare all across America – none of which have anything to do with this production of Julius Caesar – have been getting death and bomb threats, though no actual violence has occurred. I am almost speechless at the thought of this. It’s as if they think a play is like a movie and appears simultaneously all over the country. Or maybe they just want to teach that Shakespeare guy a lesson. “If we see him, we’ll thrash him.”

Apparently art still has the power to bemuse and engage – but also enrage in an incoherent and ineffectual way.

Do your bit – go to a play this month. And that’s ten minutes.

Taking Offence

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I have a friend who used to say he didn’t take offence even if it was offered.

What the hell does he know? Everyone these days takes offence at pretty much everything someone else says or does and, what’s more, they demand that the offending person by sufficiently punished. Personally I’m offended – and soon you will be, too.

This morning a man is complaining because his anti-abortion flag was taken down by City Hall. He was offended at this insult – which occurred apparently because so many people were offended by the flag. Meanwhile, on Facebook, someone demanded that people stop talking about Mother’s Day because he had recently lost his mother. And so it goes.

Stephen Colbert recently joked that the only use for Trump’s mouth was as Putin’s cock holster. This offended people on both the right and the left; the former thought it vulgar and an insult to the presidency while the later called it homophobic. Meanwhile, Colbert has apologized (sort of) even though he’s frequently said much worse things about better people. This has not stopped the demands for his firing nor diminished the ratings of his late night show.

Over in Ireland, Stephen Fry was under investigation for blasphemy over remarks he made about some generalized God. Never mind that he was addressing an age old theological problem as to why there is evil in the world. And don’t say free will – that might explain evil people but it hardly explains tsunamis or cancer in 4-year olds. The investigation was dropped when it was discovered there was only one complainant and he wasn’t really offended but thought others might be. How presumptuous! I’m offended that he appropriated other people’s offence for his own purposes.

Which brings us to cultural appropriation, which apparently now means observing, talking about, thinking of or imagining anything that is not directly taken from your own culture. This is not to diminish the real issues of colonialism and the silencing of the voice of the other – which may well be a factor in why some writers and artists do not get the attention they deserve – but to suggest that it is inappropriate to even imagine the other is a crime against… well, I’m not sure who. Some have even suggested that eating ethnic food might be inappropriate (and don’t get me started on the evils of tourism) which I’m sure would come as a big shock – and economic blow – to the Chinese family that sells me noodles.

This is not simply an issue of free speech as some have framed it but something much deeper and concerning. It is a form of cultural isolationism, an ahistorical approach that appeals equally to the xenophobic right and the identity-obsessed left.

But if we actually are one race – the human race – and live on one world, as environmentalists like to say, shouldn’t we all be learning from each other and using our imaginations to make the other us?

But maybe that’s just offensive.

And that’s ten minutes.

Gatekeepers

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The other day, a friend was critical of the arts granting process, objecting to the fact that writers had to have had 2 or more ‘professional’ publications to qualify for a grant, effectively excluding self-published writers no matter how successful they had been at selling their work. He went on to suggest that similar restrictions were not placed on musicians or dancers or painters.

The latter statement is simply not true. Except for occasional special programs to encourage new artists, (Canada Council used to have a category called Explorations grants – I applied unsuccessfully several times when I was starting out), all grants require that artists demonstrate they are professionals or on their way to becoming one. The wording differs but essentially it says you must be making an effort to make art a significant part of your work and livelihood. One of the ways you have historically done that is through professional publications (or performances in a professional venue or showings in a professional gallery).

But, of course, the world is changing. More and more people are self-publishing or, if you prefer, indie publishing. Some of them are quite good. And granting agencies and professional organizations are responding. For example SFWA – the organization representing professional science fiction and fantasy writers – recently changed their membership requirements to include indie publishers, provided they had made an income from their writing equivalent to the minimum advance required for traditional published writers (roughly $3000USD in a single year). In this case they are using the marketplace to establish your professional standards. Given how few indie authors make that, it still represents a significant barrier and keeps the organization ‘professional’ in its mandate.

The Canada Council of the Arts studied ways that it can be more relevant and helpful in the digital age. It is doubtful they will base their qualifications on income but nonetheless they are looking for ways to include professional artists who have been previously excluded. I strongly suggest those interested to provide input in the still on-going consultation process.

But why have qualifications at all? Why not let anyone who claims to be an artist apply and let the chips and grant dollars fall where they may?

Two reasons come to mind. First most professional artists served an apprenticeship, years or sometimes even decades working on their craft – getting rejected and then accepted, taking courses and workshops and finally winning acceptance from the larger community. A lot of them – myself included – resent the fact that all that might have been pointless. We could have just slapped together a document on our first try and then with the click of mouse published it on Amazon. We take some comfort that most of those books don’t get read but take even more in the idea that they aren’t viewed as professional.

For grant agencies there are practical concerns. They already can’t fund all the proposals that do get through the qualification process. Dropping those requirements would lead to flood of applications – almost all of which wouldn’t and, in fact, shouldn’t be funded. The purpose of government grants is to fund people to become self-supporting artists not to support their hobbies or whims. Sorry. And, on top of that, the only way they could judge the quality of someone’s work – without the screening of professional gatekeepers – would be to actually read the self-published books themselves.

Not only would the workload overwhelm the lightly-paid juries, it would probably burn the eyes out of their heads. Because while some self-published work is very good, the vast majority is unreadable drek. Trust me – having read some of the things at the bottom of my own slush pile, I know. Oh, god, how I know.

And that’s a little more than ten minutes.

Write Drunk

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The best advice I ever got as a writer was an off-hand comment Hemingway once made: Write drunk, edit sober. I often use that quote in workshops and on writing panels at conventions.

Of course, like all things in literature, it shouldn’t be taken literally. It is a metaphor for writing without inhibition, with passion and emotion. Hemingway also claimed that writing was easy; just sit at a typewriter and bleed.

I’ve read a lot of well-crafted fiction and I can always tell when the writer hasn’t bled in the process of making it. Restraint in the creative process always carries with it the faint stench of cowardice. As a writer or any other type of artist, you need to take risks – put things out there without censoring your thoughts, words or emotions. Say anything, feel everything – at least in your first draft.

Of course, throwing everything on the page doesn’t mean it has to stay there. Editing sober is as important as writing drunk. Then you have to exercise your craft, your understanding of what belongs and what is excess. Not everything we write when we write a story needs to be in that particular tale. It may not belong anywhere in your published work. But if you don’t tell your secrets even to your first draft, your work will always have the feeling of contrivance rather than creation. Well-crafted sentences are good – unless they are boring.

Frankly, creation is a messy business.

But how do you do it? How do you turn off the inner editor and let it all hang out? Practice is the best answer I can give you. Keep trying to write as if no one is reading and after a while you may get the hang of it. Write fast is another solution. Thomas Wolfe was known to write 10,000 words a day on occasion. By hand. No wonder he died young.

Hemingway himself was more restrained. According to his own records, he ranged from 500 to 2000 words a day – also mostly by hand when he was doing first drafts – at least on the days he was writing at all. He went for weeks or even months at a time without putting pen to paper, sometimes arguing that he had to let things ferment until the writing demanded to be done. But even when he was writing, he was only going at it for a couple of hours each day – always stopping when it was going well and he knew what was coming next.

Scott Fitzgerald took another tack. He suffered. He struggled. And when he put it down on paper, it was all filtered through that pain. Sylvia Plath was said to have taken the same approach.

Of course, it might not wise to follow the advice of these writers too closely. They all died young – Hemingway was about my age when he ended it all. The rest didn’t even come close.

Still, no guts no glory. If you are not willing to suffer for your work, you can hardly expect readers to respond with anything more than superficial emotion.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go check on my supply of bourbon.

And, that’s ten minutes.

Write Off (and On)

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I’ve been writing since I was about 15. Not every day of course, not even every year. Still, it is the one artistic thing I’ve ever been good at. I actually failed art in school. Can you imagine that? Who fails art? Me. I was a little better with music but only because musical notation is a lot like math. I can read music; I just can’t play it.

I tried. Saxophone of all things, because it would be foolish to take up an instrument where it was easy to fail. No one blames you when you fail to master the saxophone. Though it’s not like the bagpipes where they actually thank you when you give them up. A few years ago I bought another saxophone thinking I might do better at 50 than I did at fifteen. Not so much – but it is nice to look at.

Sax

On tour with Silver Donald Cameron

But writing was something I could do – well, not really well for the first fifteen years I was doing it. I’m not big on keeping memorabilia but I do happen to have a play I wrote when I was in Grade 11. To call it crap is an insult to sewage. I also have a notebook with my first short story and pages of really bad poetry. Of the three forms – poetry, play and short story – the prose was the best. Not good mind you but better than the other two.

Yet, strangely it was the theatre that got me writing in a serious way back in the late 80s. I wrote a number of plays – about 20 – and some of them even got professionally produced. I would have liked to be a successful playwright – theatre parties are such fun – but I suspect that my motivation was focused on the wrong things.

Instead, for better or worse, I settled on prose fiction and most notably on science fiction. I have written some fantasy, a mystery or two and even some literary fiction – and published some of what I wrote – but if I’ve learned anything about writing over the years, it is that it is better – for me, at least – to pick one thing and try to do it well.

You might think by now I would have developed my work habits to the point where writing was something I did every day or at least every week. Not so. I have over the last thirty years or so gone long stretches where I didn’t write at all. I think my biggest gap was when I first moved to Ottawa in 2002; I didn’t write a word of fiction for over 18 months.

In recent years, I’ve spent so much time editing and publishing other people’s work that I barely have time to write at all. Saturday was an exception. I invited my writing group over to have a day-long write-off. We all get together and write (and chat and snack). It can be productive but for me, not always. The last few, I snuck off and did some publishing work instead.

Fortunately I had brainstormed a story a couple of weeks ago – come up with most of it in 20 minutes in a coffee shop while waiting for a meeting. Brainstorming is a technique I teach but have failed to use myself recently. Duh. So I actually wrote – over 2000 words. It felt pretty good. Think I’ll do it again over Easter. Because I can.

And that’s ten minutes.