Big Apple, Little Apple Dept.

On leaving New York City behind.


Part of me wants to hammer the keyboard with both fists over a rash of store closings in Manhattan: the Rizzoli bookstore, J&R Music World, Pearl Paint. J&R and Pearl are chains, but had the mentality of indie shops run by knowledgeable curators. Rizzoli was more or less irreplaceable. (If the Strand is next, I'll eat my hats.)

To me, losing this stuff isn't about having that many less places to shop. It's about having that many less perspectives on what a store can be, what it can provide people, and what sort of other things it can cultivate. But it's most symptomatic, if anything, of how the city just isn't "the city" anymore — of how, as James Purdy put it, New York is a city with no memory.

Such losses are not the main things that compelled me to leave the New York area, but they did come up time and again in talks with my wife about such a thing. I know that I could go back and pretend it was still the same place, and cling to the things that have somehow resisted change — this museum, that bookstore, those restaurants, these people  — but that would leave me with an increasingly deluded view of how the city was changing, and not always for the best.

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Tags: New York


Flight of the Vajra: But Here's What It's Really About Dept.

The story isn't the pitch, but for readers, it often is.


Last night a friend mentioned he'd discussed Flight of the Vajra with someone at a geek meetup, although the lead-in was a bit oblique.

Other Person: "I don't read long stories as much as I used to."

Friend: "This book has a guy punching another guy in the brain with a city."

Other Person: " . . . what?"

Yes, this sorta-kinda does happen, but it's that the climax of the story, and it's far from being the most important thing that happens in it. But it's become something of a running-gag-explanation for my friend, who drops it in peoples' laps as a way to spark their curiosity about it. He also came up with a great one-liner to describe the book, one which never fails to turn heads: "A more responsible version of Tony Stark has to save the galaxy, and his elite strike team consists of a circus acrobat, the Dalai Lama, Commissioner Gordon, Seven of Nine, and David Bowie." (I'm putting that on cards and using them for my table pitch at the next con.)

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Tags: Flight of the Vajra publicity storytelling writing


Hold Your Collective Breath Dept.

On how there can be "suspense without surprise".


From Tolstoy or Dostoevsky:

What makes us “believe” in the reality of a Shakespearean play? What is it that makes Oedipus or Hamlet as exciting to us after we have seen ten performances as when we saw the play for the first time? How can there be suspense without surprise?

Emph. mine. The whole question of suspense and surprise comes up often when we look at, say, movie adaptations of comics or other media. The suspense in some franchise product like Man of Steel doesn't come from knowing, outside of a certain circle of characters, who lives or who dies — it comes mainly from us wondering how that status quo will be maintained, or at what cost it will come.

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Tags: audiences creativity writing


The Shelf Is Full Dept.

Are there too many comic book movies? No, just too many movies made from the same prefab story beats.


Much discussion as of late in the "are there too many comic book movies now?" rubric:

Are Too Many Heroes Coming to the Big Screen at Once? | MovieBob - Intermission | The Escapist

Comics (and thus superheroes), then, aren't a genre but are up until recently a "niche," and it's my read of the situation that the rise to prominence of this particular niche is likely seen as vaguely threatening to established critics of certain vintage. Cultural awareness is THE intellectual currency among art and entertainment writers, particularly those that cover current events within their field. Seismic shifts in what one's awareness needs to include can end an entire generation of livelihoods. Witness the culling of old guard music critics who refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of hip hop in the late-80s/early-90s.

Devin Faraci's great takedown of the too-many-comics-movies conceit is linked from the above article, and I actually credit it with knocking a certain amount of the snobbism out of my thinking on this subject.

But the problem I keep coming back to is not that we have too many movies of a certain genre or too many movies of a certain originating medium; it's that we have too many movies built out of the same prefab storytelling beats. Some of those movies can be very well made, but that doesn't ameliorate the underlying problem.

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Tags: comics Hollywood marketing movies


Act Your Age Dept.

The great books of the here and now may be wholly invisible to us except in retrospect.


I'm currently clavicle-deep in Tolstoy or Dostoevskyfull disclosure, I'm a Dostoevsky man, but I won't turn down the Big T at his best — and the sheer amount of social upheaval in the 19th century that served as the background for both authors' works makes the times we live through now seem almost piddling. Well, almost. We only know the times and the manners we have been born into.

And the times and the manners I was born into don't seem any less seismic in their own way. Right now it's a three-way split between whether we choke to death on our own waste products, bottle ourselves up in our own digital creations and never come out again, or invent hyperdrive and light out for any number of other places to mess up. If there isn't the substance of some great and towering drama in all that, I don't know where else you could find it. But so far all of the great works of the moment seem to bulk so tiny in emotional content compared to their potential spiritual predecessors.

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Tags: classics writing


To Push All The Right Buttons Dept.

Flatter the audience at your own risk.


I sometimes think the hardest thing about writing is how easily that falls into a routine of telling people what they want to hear about things. As soon as you find you have a captive audience that likes being flattered about something, and you're rewarded for such flattery with success — it doesn't have to be monetary, just social — congratulations! You're now stuck in your own echo chamber. Hope you brought your own lunch and dinner.

This kind of flattery doesn't have to be very sophisticated. It just has to be about what the audience believes to be true, whatever the audiece is not going to be all that motivated to examine critically. This could be anything: their ideas about the relationships between men and women (and both men and women can be flattered for having ideas in that regard that range from reactionary to downright atavistic), notions about human perfectibility or social progress, whether or not the Cubs are ever going to win the pennant again — anything.

Fine. Now, let's complicate the picture further, shall we?

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Tags: art creativity entertainment writing


Pounded Out And Pounded Flat Dept.

Me versus template storytelling, again.


Why I Don't Like the User Story Template | The Agile Management Blog

... where they excel is making sure every story is expressed in the format As a ____ I can____So That____.  No matter what the story is, they find a way to shoe horn it into that template.  And this is where things start to fall apart.  The need to fit the story into the template becomes more important than the content of the actual story.

The term "story" here is being used in the context of Agile management, where a user's needs with a particular (software) product are expressed in the form of a narrative so that a dev team can work with it more coherently.

I knew this walking in when I read this post, but at the same time, I couldn't help but think about the term "story" in its most conventional context. Isn't this what we've also managed to do with storytelling in the most general sense, turn it into a formula where the mere fact of the filling in of the blanks trumps everything else?

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Tags: story ingredients storytelling writers writing


A Critical Hit Dept.

Me versus blurbs, again.


Part two.

Music Criticism Has Degenerated Into Lifestyle Reporting - The Daily Beast

Discerning consumers who care about music and have good ears should be the bedrock of the music business, but many of them have given up on new artists because they can’t find reliable critics to guide them. Record labels, for their part, need frank, knowledgeable feedback from critics — both to keep them honest and hold them accountable — but such input is in short supply and veering towards extinction.

The same, I feel, goes with most any creative endeavor that has a strongly commercial component to it. I've bottled and saved a good deal of my venom for the way book criticism has become a highly degenerate practice, not least of all because of the way authors themselves are being recruited to be a part of the business by way of book blurbs.

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Tags: criticism


But All My Friends Loved It Dept.

On the difference between "culture" and "lifestyle".


Music Criticism Has Degenerated Into Lifestyle Reporting - The Daily Beast

Even statements that appear, at first glance, to address musical issues are often lifestyle statements in disguise. I’ve learned this the hard way, by getting into detailed discussions over musical tastes, and discovering that if you force pop culture insiders to be as precise as possible in articulating the reasons why they favor a band or a singer, it almost always boils down to: “I like [fill in the name] because they make me feel good about my lifestyle.” Most disputes about music in the current day are actually disagreements about lifestyle masquerading as critical judgments.

Why stop at music? In fact, why stop at any cultural artifact at all? I propose a thought experiment: replace the word "music" in the above formula with the words "movies", "books", "TV shows", "comics", "video games", and most every other cultural product we can attach a discrete label to. I'd bet you the whole of my next month's savings account interest accrual (OK, it's not much, but hey, it's money) that there will be no discernible change in meaning.

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Tags: culture fandom lifestyle


Dream On, Dream Off Dept.

Give the people what they want. Or you can give the people what you want.


One of the fun pastimes I entertain with friends (read: arguments I like having) is arguing about the definitions of words with subtle shades of meaning between them. At some point along the way, one such discussion turned to the meaning of the word fantasy — in the most generic sense of the word, one broad enough to mean things like a Playboy centerfold, not one limited merely to books by Tolkien / C.S. Lewis / Eddings / GRRM / et al — and about what classified as a "harmless" vs. a "harmful" fantasy. The general consensus was that any fantasy you could not act on without such action being expressed primarily and solely as the infliction of harm upon another sentient being was bad news.

I love it when discussions like this come up, because they afford all sorts of digressions that might never come up otherwise. So, my riff on the whole thing went like this: The agreed-upon definition here presumes that the person having the fantasy wants the fantasy to come real in the first place. But many fantasies are not like that — and in fact, I'd argue the vast majority of fantasies are not like that. That's why they're fantasies and not aspirations (to pick another word that might better fit that specific bill).

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Tags: audiences creativity


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