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10. On Prospero’s Island

My husband was not bothered by Prospero being “Prospera” in the new film of The Tempest. I was bothered by it. This bothers me.

The botheration has nothing to do with the quality of Helen Mirren’s performance. She is a very fine actor, her heart is in her part, and she knows how to speak the poetry. (Some of the younger actors in the film don’t; they just don’t get the beat.) Once or twice she looked so dishevelled and harried that the word “menopausal” came into my mind, which it shouldn’t have; but that was costuming, makeup, more the director’s fault than the actor’s. Mirren was splendidly in control, as she must be, control being the mage’s great and perilous gift. She showed affection for her daughter most convincingly — a matter of body language and expression, mostly. And in the great speeches, the camera’s closeness to her worn face and clear eyes lent touching immediacy to her strong, straightforward rendition of the words. If Shakespeare was saying farewell to his art, his own magery, in this play, as it seems he surely was, Mirren has the age and the authority to make that farewell most poignant.

But all the same, it bothered me that she wasn’t the Duke of Milan but the Duchess, not Miranda’s father but her mother, not a wizard but a witch.

So what?

What difference does it make?

Do I believe a woman can’t be a great mage? Am I an Archipelagan quacking “Weak as woman’s magic, wicked as woman’s magic”? (a line that still gets quoted as if to show that my fiction exists to deliver my opinions and that what my characters say is my opinion.) No, that’s not it. Making the mage a woman didn’t bother me because I think a woman isn’t up to the job. Far from it.

What bothers me about Prospera is this: she isn’t Prospero. She isn’t the same person. She’s somebody else.

Of course every actor who plays the part is a different Prospero. But I believe there are limits to how far you can change the physical being of a character in a play without putting both the character and the play at risk.

A famous example of such limit-testing by an actor (and an interesting reversal of this one) is Sarah Bernhardt’s playing Hamlet when she was a middle-aged woman with an artificial leg. She didn’t turn Hamlet into a woman; she played the Prince not the Princess of Denmark. So the experiment was a different one. But she tried to prove that the limits of gender, age, and physique were not limits to her genius.

Some surviving reports by the witnesses of her Hamlet make polite efforts to admire, but have a kind of stunned, disbelieving tone. It was just a bit too much. It didn’t work.

It’s sad to think about. By all accounts Bernhardt was a genius, and she still had her golden voice, her passionate temperament, and her adoring audience. So why couldn’t she play the greatest role in English drama? It wasn’t fair...

It isn’t fair.

Fair or unfair, I question the wisdom of radically changing a Shakespeare play just as I’d question the wisdom of chipping at the Venus of Milo to make her thinner so as to suit modern ideas of beauty, or repainting the Sistine Ceiling to brighten it up, or performing the Halleluiah Chorus in waltz time.

I can do some thought experiments on this subject. For instance, a male Rosalind in As You Like It.

Yes, I do know Shakespeare’s women’s roles were played by young men, the convention of the time. It hasn’t been the convention for several hundred years. And it doesn’t explain much about his women except their convenient propensity, which Rosalind shares, for dressing up as boys. (If you want to see a wonderful momentary glimpse of what the reality was probably like, get the 1940’s film of Henry V with Laurence Olivier and watch the transformation of the French princess into the boy who acted her in Shakespeare’s time.)

I didn’t get far with my thought experiment of a male Rosalind. I got stuck as soon as he dressed up as a girl.

I got a little carried away with my thought experiments. For example, Richard III played by a blond, blue-eyed, six-foot, gorgeous young hunk, to show that the Tudor myth about his being a monster was a bunch of lies. . . The problem is that everything Richard says and does in the play is magnificently, mythically monstrous. He is the Tudor myth. He is Shakespeare’s Richard. He can and should be fascinating, but to make him pretty would be idiotic. Even Olivier succeeded in looking sort of ugly when he played Richard, which shows what a good actor can do with unpromising material.

But I should stick to gender reversals. So, how about making Kate the Shrew into a man, and Petruchio the Shrew-Tamer a woman? Has it been done?

If it were done, would it show or prove anything beyond the director’s egoism and the actors’ virtuosity? The Taming of the Shrew is an explicit comedy of injustice. As such it makes us laugh and rage, teases our complacence, goads us by its endorsement of male triumph and female submission, and through its partiality may lead us to look at facts we’d like to deny and lies commonly accepted as fact. To change the genders of the main parts would diminish it to a portrait of a couple of odd bods, a bullying woman and a sharp-tongued but weak guy.

Arguably, gender is important in As You Like It and the Shrew because Rosalind and Kate are young women, sexual beings in passionate heterosexual relationships. Whereas Prospero is the widowed father of a fifteen-year-old daughter. Anybody that old doesn’t have any sex, really, right? He’s fifty, he’s past it, what gender he is doesn’t matter, right?

So then how about King Lear? Lear’s even older than Prospero, maybe even sixty, seventy...

Serious consideration of the proposal of a Lear sex-change leads me to declare that there’s something at stake in the gender of this character beyond mere sexuality. I find the idea of Queen Lear intensely silly. Though for all I know she’s blundering half-naked across a blasted Hollywood heath towards me at this very moment, bellowing “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow! You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout Till you have drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks!”

The relationships in Lear’s highly dysfunctional family have a lot to do with gender, since gender has a lot to do with power, and power, again, is what the play is about. The exercise of it, the sharing of it, the lust for it, the loss of it. And the renunciation of it. Lear handles and mishandles his power as a man, having been taught certain ideas of what it is to be a man, as all men are taught. His daughters seek power as women, who’ve learned what it is to be a woman — as all women learn — and how a woman can get power through manipulating men. Cordelia is as much a manipulator as her sisters, though she is motivated by self-respect and affection as they are not. She wants to shore up her father’s power, not to take it from him, but her behavior is as gendered female as his is gendered male. None of them can break out of the expectations and limitations their society has set around them.

We in the 21st century, some of us at least, have a little more freedom as regards gender, larger expectations. So we grieve to see Lear and Cordelia trapped in a narrower, meaner definition of what a man is and can do, what a woman is and can do. We know that gender is not destiny; we know that the idea of gender as binary leaves out an endless number of actual and possible variations and combinations; we know that gender as we commonly experience it is to a great extent a social construct, often an extremely cruel and stupid one. And so we can lament at seeing Shakespeare as a man of his time caught in the prejudices of his time.

But I don’t see that that ability to make a moral judgment gives us any reason or right to change his plays. Reinterpret them, endlessly, yes. Rewrite them, no.

Though very few words were changed in this Tempest, to change the sex of the main character of a play was a major rewrite.

Prospero is an imaginary person, who exists only in the words the playwright wrote for him to speak. He is the words he speaks, and they belong to Shakespeare.

Prospera is another imaginary person, one not invented by Shakespeare. But she speaks Prospero’s words. And so she bothers me. Is she a person or a ventriloquist’s puppet? If she is genuinely a character, why has she co-opted another character’s speeches?

A gorgeous movie with Helen Mirren playing a powerful magician-queen on Hawaii’s Big Island full of frustrated monsters and airy spirits and sweet music and the best poetry in the world — if somebody could write that script and shoot that movie, I’d go see it, sure!

But when I see The Tempest, I want to see The Tempest. I want to see Prospero. I’ve known him for years and years, and every time I see him played by a different actor I learn a little more about who he is, see a different side of him. I love and admire the man, cross-grained as he is.

In this Tempest he wasn’t there. Somebody else was there.

I liked her; I’d like to meet her — somewhere else. Only not there. Not on Prospero’s island.

3 January 2011

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11. The Tree

“The Tree” is included in UKL’s forthcoming No Time to Spare


12. A Riff on the Harper Contract

New language in the termination provision of the Harper’s boilerplate gives them the right to cancel a contract if “Author’s conduct evidences a lack of due regard for public conventions and morals, or if Author commits a crime or any other act that will tend to bring Author into serious contempt, and such behavior would materially damage the Work’s reputation or sales.” The consequences? Harper can terminate your book deal. Not only that, you’ll have to repay your advance. Harper may also avail itself of “other legal remedies” against you.

From a blog by Richard Curtis.

* * *

Dear Mr Rupert Murdoch,

Forgive me, for I have sinned.

Because I did not read my contract with your wonderful publishing house HarperCollins carefully, I did not realise my moral obligations.

There is nothing for it now but to confess everything. Before I wrote my book Emily Brontë and the Vampires of Lustbaden, which you published this fall and which has been on the Times Best Seller List for five straight months, I committed bad behavior and said bad words in public that brought me into serious contempt in my home town of Blitzen, Oregon. In fact the people there found me so seriously contemptible that I am now living in Maine under the name of Trespassers W. This has nothing to do with the fact that some parts of my book come from books by Newt Gingrich and other people, in fact quite a lot of them, but everybody borrows from great novelists, because information wants to be free. It was nothing really materially damaging, only just the money and i.d. I stole from the old man with the walker and some things I said about some schoolgirls with big tits back in stupid Blitzen. I have really suffered for my art. I hope maybe you will forgive me and not terminate me and make me pay back the money because I can’t because I already had to give most of it to some stupid lawyer who said I had defaulted on a loan and was behind in my child support which is just a lie. That stupid brat never was mine. I am sure you will understand better than anybody else could that the only actual crime I have committed was writing my book. And I believe you will see that it was expiated by your giving me the contract for it and publishing it and making a lot of money out of it. So it is all right, I hope. I really hope so because I have nearly finished the sequel Alfred Lord Tennyson and the Zombies of Sex-Coburg and my agent says it is going to be a blockbuster as soon as it comes back from the person who is rewriting it. You would not want to miss it I am sure! And here in Maine I am paying strict regard to public conventions and morals just like you do. I would not go to a Democrat Convention if they paid me and crime is the farthest thing from my mind. I would feel so terrible if I damaged the reputation or sales of my Work, or your reputation. You are my Role Model.

Please believe me your loyal and obedient author,

Trespassers W.
18 January 2011

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13. The Horsies Upstairs

“The Horsies Upstairs” is included in UKL’s forthcoming No Time to Spare


14. Egypt

I have not wanted to write directly political blogs, having no real confidence in the rightness or the usefulness of my opinion. And the virtue of most blogs is that they expose an opinion to the give-and-take of discussion, but I duck and cover from that. I don’t have the energy, the will, or the conviction to take on a public argument about anything other than the Google Settlement. But I can’t keep silent about what’s been happening in Egypt without feeling that silence is a betrayal of something very great that I have honored all my life.

I am bitterly disappointed in President Obama’s withdrawal from his first, apparently spontaneous support of the uprising, his agreement that Mubarak must go and go now for there to be a real movement towards democracy. Once again he vacillated and came down on the side of “compromise,” which in the circumstances means compromising America’s moral position.

The man who told us Yes, we can, now seems almost to have taken for his motto: WWWD?

The men who replaced the Commie Bogey with the Bogey of Islam huddle about him whimpering that the various corrupt Middle Eastern autocracies we fund are all that has stood between us and universal jihad for 30 years and we must go on propping them up with “moderate” policies, i.e. billions of dollars in aid and weapons and oil payments, or the tide of terrorism will descend upon us all.

That the crowds in Tahrir Square are not immoderate, that they are not religiously but politically motivated, that what they are demanding is not the rule of the imams and ayatollahs but democratic process, self-rule, freedom — this means nothing to the people who make their money and get their power out of the three American wars, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and against terrorism. Whatever would we do if we didn’t have all those wars? Take the billions spent on “defense” and spend it on schools and public works and health care and stupid stuff like that where nobody gets killed? Well, the military and corporate war profiteers will see to it that that doesn’t happen, by letting just enough of the profits keep trickling down to their advocates in Congress.

If the American president had delivered a clear message of moral solidarity with the peaceful crowds in Tahrir Square and then stood by it, if he were talking now not just with old-crony-Suleiman but with Mr El Baradei and the leaders of the Egyptian Army and the Moslem Brotherhood, that would do more to defuse radical Muslim terrorists, and to weaken the half-demented regime in Iran, than anything else we could do.

If we want to see Israel survive, Egypt offers us a chance to try to force Mr Netanyahu and his party back from the brink to which, in a death-instinct as determined as that of any jihadist, they keep dragging their people closer and closer.

Old Egypt is offering us a new and great opportunity: to break free from out-dated, noxious alignments and policies in the Middle East, to speak out for freedom from tyranny, to support a people reaching for democracy, to remember what being on the right side is like. The opportunity won’t last long. They never do.

9 February 2011

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15. Footnote to my Egypt Blog Post

No, Obama didn’t do what W wudda done, and I’m sorry I got all despondent and impatient because he seemed to be so slow, undecided, and halfhearted in doing what he shudda done.

And he is currently doing what he oughta do, it seems, in the Bahrain situation.

Yes, we have no right to run the affairs of other nations. But we do it. We can’t pretend that we don’t carry decisive weight in the affairs of a country like Bahrain. What’s the good of the elephant pretending that it’s not in the room?

What behooves the elephant is to move its feet very, very carefully, use its trunk with delicacy, be patient and restrained as befits its great size and strength, and above all, never go into musth.

21 February 2011

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16. Uniforms

“Uniforms” is included in UKL’s forthcoming No Time to Spare


The Center of Warmth in Tahrir Square

A Guest Post by Mona Elnamoury

Mona ElnamouryIt has been called the Republic of Tahrir Square, a place very much like Annares; everybody cooperates, no leader; everyone is a leader. Art and music and dramas and creativity and dreams are reborn there not for Egypt only but for humanity. It has been the center of warmth to all chilly Egypt during the last month of the Egyptian revolution. But what is the future of the revolution?

Tahrir Square, Liberation Night, 11 February 2011

Finally it is coming true!
Tahrir Square, Liberation Night, 11 February 2011

As a middle class Egyptian woman, I cannot say whether the revolution will stumble or fall; succeed or fail. As a university professor, I still find it hard to see exactly what may come next in Egypt’s future. No one can tell. But what I can surely tell is the fact that this revolution will never fail easily. The honest Egyptian people will simply die hard especially after they have tasted the joy of freedom and after they have known about the amount of corruption that has sucked their blood for so long . But let me summarize it in points because it is so complicated.

  1. Who started the revolution were the middle class educated youth not the poor toiled people. I have previously wondered why the “Proles” never rebelled (to use Orwellian language). I know now. They are always too tired and too absorbed in the daily struggle for bread and the mere primitive basics of life to revolt. The comfortable youth; who had the luxury to read, discuss, surf the net, know different languages and think were the ones who started the revolution. They started it in the virtual world of the net and amazingly enough they had all the instructions on the net all the time. Then, everyone else followed: Moslem brotherhood, Christians, the workers, middle class families, rich people, university professors, the poor, and even some army officers. They could follow after the original youth broke their fright fear at last.
  2. Thirty years of totalitarian ruling is enough to destroy two generations in many subtle ways. The intricate network of corruption that was gradually interwoven in Egypt over the last thirty years is Egypt’s greatest challenge now. It is so tough and widespread that it needs real perseverance and patience to “deconstruct” to use Professor Nasr Abo Zaid’s term: “deconstructing corruption”.
  3. The old regime is still very much in power. As I have just mentioned, the network is widespread and the list of the people who need to be expelled out of the country is extremely large. Now I know how genius was the idea of “leaving Omelas” all together. It looks to me like the best answer now to this problem. I am not sure how many Egyptians will be left if — theoretically speaking — the corrupt ones were forced to leave. In fact, I think that somehow we have all been infected by this corruption either by participating or by being silent or finally despairing. So, the old regime is still in power working, hiding facts, manipulating with people’s minds again; trying all the time to figure out new ways to survive.
  4. The relationship between the people and the army is ambivalent. There is an unacceptable slowness in carrying out the demands of the young people; namely:
    • Changing all the current temporary government because it is actually the tail of the old government and forming a new cabinet. (They give that one month)
    • Discharging all the local councils and all the governmental universities’ presidents and all the deans.( in 1 month)
    • Setting free all the political prisoners.( in 1 month)
    • Presenting all the ones responsible for the violence and killings of the last events to quick trials.( in 1 month)
    • Deconstructing/reconstructing the Interior Ministry (police) in 1 month
    • Presenting all the corrupt ones to trial and bringing the hundreds of stolen billions back to the country.
    • Having a seriously transparent and democratic presidential elections in 6 months.

These are the basic demands. From the side of the revolution, they seem fair and easy to accomplish. But why they are not? We cannot frankly express our concerns about the army performance not out of fear but out of cautious wisdom. The army might be the last ally to the people and it has always been honorably biased to them. So, should we totally lose it with no serious evidence? Also, we know that it is being cornered. There is the burning Libyan border, the unrest down in the Nile Basin countries, the everlasting threat from Israel in the east, the daily strikes in many places all over the country, unstable economy, and finally the countless corruption cases pouring on their heads every day. The army is faced with terrible inheritance. Can one actually totally dismiss that some of its sectors might have been touched by corruption too?

So, all in all, we are having a state of half a revolution! Again, you can count on the people; the youth who have decided to camp in Tahrir Square since last Friday till the demands are carried out. They have not been nicely treated by the tired army neither are they exactly accepted by many ordinary worried Egyptians who misunderstand their intentions or wish to see normal life back. There is the fear that the homeless hungry people may rebel against the rebels if the economic situation keeps deteriorating (which is one way to explain the term ‘counter-revolution’).

One last feminine thing; it has been extremely difficult to be a mother during that month. You are either the mother of a young man/woman or a child. If you belong to the first category you can either have him/her in Tahrir square in spite of your fears and tears fighting for the freedom of their country and getting the near risk of losing their lives or one of the eyes at least. Or, you may have the kid at home safe and sound in front of TV but despicable and shameful. If the mother of a child, you had to explain what was going on in the best way you could (and sometimes it was just impossible) and at the same time you had to keep the child away from all the tension on TV or outside when the runaway prisoners (freed by the old regime to terrorize the people) and thugs filled the streets. Most important of all, you had to keep the faith and the hope and the smile to give them to everyone. I used to figure myself in the center of the warmth of Tahrir Square when it was cold and grey enough for everyone. Only then, the colors became bright again.

Keep your fingers crossed for Egypt.

— Mona Elnamoury
2 March 2011

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17. Would You Please Fucking Stop?

“Would You Please Fucking Stop?” is included in UKL’s forthcoming No Time to Spare


18. To my Readers in Japan

I wrote my translator-friend Akemi Tanagaki in Tokyo a brief email note. She answered,

“Thank you for your concern.

I’m all right and my family is all right.

Only we feel so sad, helpless and worried.”

And she asked if I would put a brief and simple message on my site for my readers in Japan — “but I know that it is very difficult to find words with which to talk to those suffering very much.”

Yes, dear Akemi, it is difficult, it is impossible. But I am honored by your asking me to try.

To My Japanese Readers:

There is an ocean between us, yet that ocean joins us.

The great tsunami that struck Japan travelled on, growing weaker, until it came to the west coast of America. Here it did little harm. But with that wave came to us the great wave of your grief and suffering.

I hope you know that there are many, many people here who are thinking of you now, and crying for you, and praying that the worst will soon be past.

I admire, more than I can say, the quiet courage the ordinary people of Japan have shown amidst so much loss, suffering, and fear. Your strong and patient faces are beautiful to see. I look at them and cry. I wish you strength and the hope of better days.

With love,
14 March 2011

Update 16 March 2011: Japanese translation at http://r2fish.cocolog-nifty.com/1day1book/2011/03/post-d47e.html


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19. Unfacts Concerning the Google (Un)Settlement

In discussions concerning the Google Book Settlement — and now Judge Chin’s ruling against it — I keep running into the same misunderstandings over and over.

Some of these are simply mistaken ideas of what copyright is and does. Most of them naturally arise from the very complicated nature of the issues. All have been perpetuated by inaccurate, confusing, tendentious language.

I’ll cite these “unfacts” as I come upon them and have time to discuss them. I welcome corrections of factual mistakes and will revise to include them. My opinions are just that, my opinions.

1. Unfact: Everybody who opposed the Google Book Settlement hates Google and everything it stands for and wants to destroy the Evil Corporation root and branch and go back to carving runes on rocks.

Fact: Most of us who opposed the Settlement use Google all the time. Whatever misgivings we may have about corporate control of information, Google’s performance in offering access to information without strings attached has so far been admirable and immensely impressive. And most of us strongly favor the idea of a free digital library.

The problem is that Google saw fit to defy copyright law by digitalizing works without permission from the copyright holders.

Discussion: I don’t understand why Google did what they did. If they’d just done it right — followed their own motto “Don’t be evil!”

I know... the Library of Alexandria consisted mostly of stolen books taken by force from the libraries of subject cities. But in this case there was no need for theft. Many authors would gladly give permission for their out-of-print books to be included in a great free digital library (especially if it paid usage royalties, as European public libraries do). The harm came when Google began digitalizing works without permission, and thus attacking both copyright and moral right.

2. Unfact: Copyright is a selfish grab by rich, famous authors so they get to make all the profit out of their books.

Fact: Copyright is a limited and carefully designed law to protect authors from poverty. It allows authors control over the rights in their books, so that they, like any worker, can make what profit they can from their work.

It’s called “copy” right because it involves, literally, the right to make copies of the work.

An author contracting with a publisher sells the publisher a limited piece of her copyright: that is, the right to make copies (i.e., publish the work in a certain form for a certain period of time) in exchange for a share (usually 15% or less) of the publisher’s profits.

Discussion: Copyright has existed only since the 18th century. Till then, writers mostly lived by finding and sucking up to a rich patron. Since then, writers have been able to make an independent living... well, dependent on the whims of publishers — but after all, publishers and writers have pretty much the same stakes in the very chancy game of making books.

Only ignorance or irresponsibility dismiss copyright as “irrelevant to the Digital Age.” It’s needed more than ever, to protect authors from trying to live by selling themselves to corporations or selling their text space to advertisers. Copyright law has to be extended and rewritten to work with the new technologies of publishing. The notion that it’s unnecessary makes it all the harder to get that necessary work done.

A lot of people quote Stu Brand: “Information wants to be free.” I wonder why they hardly ever quote the other half of Stu’s sentence: “It also wants to be paid for.”

Information can be free to the user, the reader, and pay a living wage to the originator, the author: Think of the free Public Library.

This balance can extend to the Internet, if we can rewrite copyright law to cover the new technologies.

Sneers and sloganeering ain’t going to butter the beans. It will take hard and careful work. Can you imagine trying to explain to the current Speaker of the House how it might be done and why it’s important to do it?

3. Unfact: Out-of-print and out-of-copyright are the same thing. “Orphaned” books are out of print and out of copyright.

Fact: A book that is “out of print” is one which no publisher currently claims to have in print and available.

A book that is “out of copyright” is one whose copyright has expired. It is said to be “in common domain.” No one can own the rights — anyone can copy it, reprint it, etc. at will.

Out of print and out of copyright are entirely different things. Most books go out of print within a year or two, but their copyright goes on for decades.

An “orphaned” book means a copyrighted book whose copyright owner — author, or estate, or trust, or representative — can’t be located.

An orphaned book is usually out of print, but it is NOT out of copyright. It’s “orphaned” because the copyright owner can’t be located to send royalties to, or ask for permission to excerpt, copy, reprint, digitalize, etc.

Discussion: “Orphaned” books were always a problem in publishing, but didn’t become a huge problem until the recent grotesque extension of the period of copyright (called the Mickey Mouse Act because a lobby led by Disney Corp. strongarmed it through Congress.)

Copyright used to be 28 years, plus a 28-year extension at request. It is now the lifetime of the author plus 70 years (that could be 120 years!) — an indefensible crippling of the intention of the Copyright Act, which was to give living authors the rights and profits they’d earned, and then let the book go into “public domain” — become free to everybody.

Under Mickey Mouse, a huge number of books are going to end up orphaned — trapped in useless copyright.

It is (God help us!) up to Congress, with the guidance of the Justice Department, to figure out how “orphaned” books should be handled. The best first step would be to knock down the Mickey Mouse Act and return to a rational duration of copyright. If this is unthinkable, perhaps the Copyright Office should be enabled to declare a copyright void if the copyright owner cannot be found — after a bona-fide search plus a period of say two years.

It’s a real problem. But it has nothing to do with Google’s illegally digitalizing books without getting permission from the copyright owners.

The use of “orphaned” as if it meant “uncopyrighted” is an obstinate, unfortunate confusion of terms, clouding the whole debate: and many of those who have used it that way surely know better.

And the sneakiest gambit is that of talking as if only orphaned books are being illegally digitalized. All the time the Settlement has been in the courts, Google has been blithely going ahead digitalizing any book it wanted without obtaining permission, let alone contractual terms. (I can attest to this, since they have thus pirated several of my books, with no attempt whatever to contact the publishers, my agent, or myself — none of whom are exactly hard to locate.)

Such methodical theft looks like more than corporate indifference to the law. It looks like a deliberate effort to destroy copyright. In other words, the corporation would like to do away with the concept of workers getting a fair share of the profit from their work.

That would “be good” for the corporation. Not good for the worker, the writer — or for readers, or for anybody else.

28 March 2011


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20. Unfacts Concerning the Google (Un)Settlement

Part 2

Continuing, and I hope ending, my discussion of certain often-repeated misunderstandings and misinterpretations of issues related to the Google Book Settlement and copyright:

Unfact: The failure of the Google Settlement spells the end of the “Alexandrian” dream of a great digital library open to all.

Fact: It does nothing of the kind. By denying Google its bid for total control, it may well make that dream more possible.

Discussion: Supporters of the Google digitalization project appear to believe that a private, for-profit corporation is the likeliest agency to establish and maintain a universal, free, public library. This is a leap of faith I cannot make.

Supporters have often spoken as if Google’s archiving project were the only one, on which therefore all hope depends. Surely they are aware of other ongoing digitalization projects that have no corporate strings attached and whose purposes and policies are open to view — such as Project Gutenberg.[i]

Yet, however impressive volunteer projects such as Gutenberg may be, I can’t help thinking that it’s the United States Government that should be founding and operating a digital archive/library, exactly as they founded and maintain the Library of Congress.

The project should be a Digital Library of Congress — using the skills and meeting the standards maintained by our national public library, and funded by Congress for the good of the American people. (If other countries develop such digital libraries, they can all meet on the Internet, in the greatest Alexandrian Library ever.)

Given the know-nothing, starve-the-poor-to-stuff-the rich rant now prevalent in Congress, it’s easy to dismiss such hope as mere wishful blither and say that we should give the job to the people who can do the job... That is, hand it to a hugely successful profit-making corporation dealing in information technology, which has proved its indifference to copyright law and its eagerness to control both the content and the availability of every book ever published in America?

I haven’t an awful lot of faith or hope in Congress, but given the choice, I’ll take Congress over Google, hands down.

(Just as I’ll take Google over Amazon, if it ever comes to that.)


Unfact: “Fair Use” is a clearly defined and clearly understood concept, which Google has observed scrupulously in its digitalization project, by delivering only “snippets” not full texts of copyrighted material.

Fact: It is even harder to determine precisely what Fair Use is than to determine than what “snippets” are.

Some useful definitions of Fair Use:

The primary definition, obviously, is the one supplied by the United States Copyright Office, copied below.[ii]

If you Google “Fair Use Definition,” Barron’s Law Dictionary has a useful discussion, and Wikipedia a long and interesting article.

Discussion: In my last blog, I stated what I recalled as the duration of copyright before the “Mickey Mouse” extensions. My Webmistress and friends at the SFWA emended this before the piece came out. Readers at BVC suggested further useful corrections, which then, in classic Internet fractal mode, led to anti-corrections, leading to hyper-corrections, and a whole wonderful garden of forking arguments, full of thorny niggles, and quibbles in full flower.

I fear what any attempt by me to define “Fair Use” might lead to. A Great Dismal Swamp, with a thousand opinions emerging like velvety green untrustworthy tussocks from the peat-black water... That’s where most discussions of Fair Use I’ve heard end up. I’m not going there.

I will stick to mere personal history, followed by a metaphor.

For decades, I or my agent have invoked Fair Use: either when I want to use a brief quote from a copyrighted book I’m reviewing or discussing or citing — or, conversely, when people ask my permission to use a quotation from my work. If they ask to reprint a whole poem or story, or use an excerpt of over a page or two, or a chapter of a book, then we request full and formal acknowledgment, including citation of the source and copyright information, and if their use of it encroaches on the salability of the original work, we ask a fee. If the quote is of a reasonable size (on the order of a few lines from a poem, a sentence or a paragraph from a story or book), I or my agent thank them and tell them they don’t need formal permission, because such use of a brief quote comes under the Fair Use provision of the rules of copyright; all we ask is that they say who wrote it and where it came from.

I believe that this process is exactly what the Copyright Office’s definition of Fair Use is intended to reinforce and expedite. Like so many not entirely precise definitions, it works fine — perhaps better than super-precise ones. It worked fine for me for forty years and is still working fine.

The problem comes when somebody, for whatever reason, redefines Fair Use to mean you can take pieces of any length out of a copyrighted work and do what you please with them without notifying or obtaining permission from the copyright owner, let alone arranging for appropriate compensation.

This irrational extension of a rational policy begins to reach Moebius-strip circularity when we find a corporation digitalizing an entire copyrighted book without permission and then invoking the doctrine of Fair Use to justify the procedure, since only portions of the book, called “snippets,” have so far been released onto the Internet.

It’s as if pirates captured a galleon as it sailed home from the Indies, then took a couple of sailors and a few pieces of eight from it, put them in a rowboat, and sent them home ahead of the ship.

Seeing it, the ship-owner shouts to the pirates, “Hey! You stole my ship!”

“Whatever do you mean?” say the pirates. “It’s just a little snippet of a rowboat and we didn’t steal it, it’s all yours.”

“But where is my ship?” cries the owner.

“Ship?” say the pirates. “What ship? Oh, that galleon? That’s ours. We digitalized it. See the skull and crossbones?”

[i] Project Gutenberg is a non-profit volunteer project that has for four decades been digitalizing texts that were never copyrighted or are out of copyright. As of December 2009, it was offering 34,000 items and adding fifty new e-books a week — mostly in English, mostly literary. The copyright status of all these titles has been ascertained and recorded. The Project doesn’t claim new copyright on titles in the public domain, as some digitizers do; but, if the Project Gutenberg trademark is used, certain restrictions apply — the text is not to be changed, or used for commercial purposes. (To evade these restrictions, all a user who wants to censor, alter, mash-up, or try to sell the text has to do is omit the header and trademark.) The few copyrighted texts so far included in the Project are distributed with permission of the copyright holder, and are subject to whatever restrictions the copyright holder may specify. PG texts are fully accessible (not the so-called “snippets” offered by Google) and are checked for completeness and accuracy.

The Project was started by Michael Hart in 1971. It is operated through the Internet by volunteers. In 2000 it affiliated with Distributed Proofreaders (DP), greatly increasing the number of volunteers and texts. A non-profit corporation, Project Gutenberg Literary Archive Foundation, handles the project’s legal needs and receives tax-deductible donations.

[ii] Definition of Fair Use from the Copyright Office:

“One of the rights accorded to the owner of copyright is the right to reproduce or to authorize others to reproduce the work in copies or phonorecords. This right is subject to certain limitations found in sections 107 through 118 of the copyright law (title 17, U. S. Code). One of the more important limitations is the doctrine of “fair use.” The doctrine of fair use has developed through a substantial number of court decisions over the years and has been codified in section 107 of the copyright law.

Section 107 contains a list of the various purposes for which the reproduction of a particular work may be considered fair, such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. Section 107 also sets out four factors to be considered in determining whether or not a particular use is fair:

  1. 1. The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes
  2. 2. The nature of the copyrighted work
  3. 3. The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole
  4. 4. The effect of the use upon the potential market for, or value of, the copyrighted work

The distinction between fair use and infringement may be unclear and not easily defined. There is no specific number of words, lines, or notes that may safely be taken without permission. Acknowledging the source of the copyrighted material does not substitute for obtaining permission.

The 1961 Report of the Register of Copyrights on the General Revision of the U.S. Copyright Law cites examples of activities that courts have regarded as fair use: “quotation of excerpts in a review or criticism for purposes of illustration or comment; quotation of short passages in a scholarly or technical work, for illustration or clarification of the author’s observations; use in a parody of some of the content of the work parodied; summary of an address or article, with brief quotations, in a news report; reproduction by a library of a portion of a work to replace part of a damaged copy; reproduction by a teacher or student of a small part of a work to illustrate a lesson; reproduction of a work in legislative or judicial proceedings or reports; incidental and fortuitous reproduction, in a newsreel or broadcast, of a work located in the scene of an event being reported.”

Copyright protects the particular way authors have expressed themselves. It does not extend to any ideas, systems, or factual information conveyed in a work.

The safest course is always to get permission from the copyright owner before using copyrighted material. The Copyright Office cannot give this permission.

When it is impracticable to obtain permission, use of copyrighted material should be avoided unless the doctrine of fair use would clearly apply to the situation. The Copyright Office can neither determine if a certain use may be considered fair nor advise on possible copyright violations. If there is any doubt, it is advisable to consult an attorney.

FL-102, Reviewed November 2009.”

5 April 2011

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The Painful Slow Process of Creating Utopia

Guest post by Mona Elnamoury

Mona ElnamouryFrom my point of view, it is hard to find the revolution, half revolution or even the counter-revolution in Egypt these days. The brief idealistic utopian moment seems to be fading away in the background. What you actually find is politics in action: all the tactics, maneuvers, secret/public deals, interests talking. Where are the rebels? They are still trying to gather forces every Friday in Tahrir Square asking for the rest of the true Egyptians’ fair demands. But you know what ? As I wrote that phrase “true Egyptians’ fair demands” I wondered a great deal. Who are the true Egyptians and what are their demands? The crystal moment of the liberation night where we all wanted the same thing and looked at the same direction is somehow dimmed. The rebels, my husband, and I together with the educated people want a free Egypt capable of keeping its wonderful history together with a reaching promising future. The religious political movements want more power. However, millions of the hard-working toiling people want economic security and a return to normalcy. Somehow, we want that too together with the lacking general national security. The police is still not in full control again after the famous shameful retreat and setting prisoners free followed by setting the police stations on fire on 28th of January. Thugs are still on the streets committing many kinds of crimes. Serious children kidnappings are taking place. (My heart sinks as I see my children to their school bus everyday!) Traffic offences are being committed all the time. The police does very little about them all. Something went very wrong between the ordinary people and the Egyptian police officer. Their relation is more wrong than the oppressive relation they used to have before: it is suspicious and careless.

Though the violence may no be more serious than it could be on the nights of New York, this chaos in the security situation is all newly and surprisingly becoming real to us. Before, we vaguely knew what danger and from which direction, but now it is very possible that we are shooting in the dark.

The Council of Armed Forces, which is actually ruling the country now, is still acting suspiciously slowly leaving the previous big wigs to sort things out before arresting them under public pressure! The next rebellious move should be against the army from inside the army, I guess.

I feel people are tired. And though we all enjoyed a new democratic trait in the recent referendum over the constitution, oddly enough there seems to be a vague fatigue of the new issues of freedom and responsibility amid this chaos. Even my 8-year-old daughter wants everything to be settled soon as she is afraid she should study all these long messy details in history books in the coming years !

I still count on the Friday demonstrations to bring out the genuine spirit of utopia again. I am still mysteriously optimistic. We had reached the lowest lowest bottom of it before in the final months of Mubarak’s rule. Surely we are rising, no matter how slowly that is happening.

Mona Elnamoury

Mona Elnamoury is Egyptian and is a correspondent of UKL. Her guest blogs begin with an eyewitness account of Liberation Night in Tahrir Square.

11 April 2011


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21. Beige

Beige is the only color I can think of that is used as a fashion sneer. “Everything she wears is beige,” with a falling, faintly snarling tone to the word. Or, more personally, “Oh she’s such a beige person...”

Of course you could say that beige is hardly a color at all. For a moment today I thought it wasn’t even a word.

When I want to write about anything that’s likely to be in the Oxford English Dictionary, I look it up there first. I have the cumbrous 2-vols.-w.-magnifying-glass edition. Cumbrous but invaluable. It tells you where the word came from and who first used it when and all kinds of good nerd stuff like that. So I looked it up – and it wasn’t there.

That had never happened to me before with the OED. It wasn’t there? A word wasn’t in the OED? Beige wasn’t in the dictionary?

Is the world coming to an end, word by word?

After I had sat awhile stunned, magnifying glass useless in my trembling hand, it occurred to me that after all, beige is a French word. The OED doesn’t list words in other languages, it can’t do everything, after all, and maybe beige was still considered foreign and printed in italics in England when the entry was made in the OED, perhaps years before its first edition in 1971 — yes, almost certainly, B being so early in the alphabet. And I’d heard the word in England pronounced very frenchly, behzh, not comfortably diphthonged into bayzh or bayge, as in America. So I put away the magnifying glass and tucked big fat Vol I back in its case and took down the French-English dictionary next to it.

I have to admit it was a relief to find beige right where it ought to be. “Beige, adj. [f. It. bigio] Beige, natural; serge ~, serge of undyed wool; une robe ~, a beige frock.”

Frock? Ah yes. The Concise Oxford French Dictionary is British too... But since its first definition of beige (in French) is beige (in English), the 1952 COFD had got a jump on the 1971 OED.

I liked the second definition, “natural,” and the mention of undyed wool. But before pursuing these I wanted to find out about bigio, so I took down my Hoare’s Italian Dictionary (a classic, and the source of the classic question, What does she need a dictionary for?) and looked it up. Bigio means grey. It is the basis of the name of several Italian birds, dimishing sweetly as they go: A warbler is una bigia, a black-cap is una bigiola, a whitethroat is una bigiarella. Bigiolino (the little grey one) is an edible fungus, and bigiolone (the big grey one) is a fungus which I expect you’d better not try eating because Hoare doesn’t say anything about edible.

The Italian word for grey that I knew was grigio, so I looked it up too and there it was; but no birds or mushrooms. I don’t have a real Italian-Italian dictionary, which might distinguish usages, so it’s just my guess that grigio might be the “colder” kind of grey that shades into blue, and bigio the “warmer” kind shading off towards tan. Chalk pastels come in these two distinct kinds of grey, with a full range from light to dark in each; and you need both, cold for sky, warm for earth.

So, after this little trip to Europe, back to beige in English. My original reason for writing about it was: Why is it looked down upon? Why is it used as a sneer-word?

Its use in English is mostly for clothes and wall paint. And I guess, in clothes and wall paint, it’s hard to make a statement in beige. You need screaming lime, or hot fuchsia, or stark black. Beige avoids making statements. It turns away and murmurs; you can barely hear it. It’s an introverted color. Unadventurous. Uneventful. Dull.

The reason I got thinking about it was that I realised about half my clothes are either beige or very near it, and most of the rest (leaving out an enclave of bluejeans and blue t-shirts) are black, which goes well with beige. I hate the Spring catalogues that come out thirty seconds after Xmas with all the pretty sherbet pastels and the bright redwhiteandblues and the lilac polka dots and there won’t ever be any hope of anything beige until next October and then they’ll probably be off on one of their screaming lime kicks again.

If I had black or brown skin I still wouldn’t go for screaming lime, but I’d be a sucker for crimsons and scarlets and golds. I love the colors and they’d look good on me. If. But they don’t, because my skin is beige. Most of the year it’s a kind of fishy, pallid beige; sometimes in summer by sitting in the sunshine the way the dermatologists say we must never never do, I achieve a warmer tone, a feebly reddish speckled tan, like a farm egg. Never more than that.

So, do I wear beige as camouflage – to make me disappear?

I think it’s the other way round. I think it’s because if I wear scarlet or screaming lime, that’s when I disappear — all you can see is the clothes. Grigio hair, bigio skin, pouf – gone – dimmed to invisibility. Real camouflage. If I wanted to be seen, I’d have to take off all my gorgeous lime and scarlet clothes and appear in my natal, naked beigeness. That would be a statement, I guess.

So what did I want to say about the color? Was I just being defensive about my skin and my clothes? There was something more than that. A positive feeling. A defense of beige itself. A real liking for that range of color – the bigios, the gentle, subtle, lively earth colors. The color of unbleached, undyed wool. The dun of a dun horse. The color (aside from the black and white and pink etc. of their markings and decorations) of the feathers of sparrows and towhees and finches and quail and robins and phoebes .... a sort of default feather color. The tan or dun or light brown of many lovely, common kinds of wood. The color of many rocks — sandstones, volcanic ash, beach sand. The color of very old paper. The soft color of dust.

22 April 2011

PS. After writing all that, I remembered that at the end of my 2-vol OED is a Supplement of newer (or dirtier) words that didn’t get into the first edition. So I looked for beige in the Supplement, and there it was, yessirree, at least two inches of it in agate type. All interesting, including the fact that it was an undyed cloth before it was a color, but not really adding anything to what I wanted to say here, except for defining it as “yellowish grey.”

I’m still thinking about whether I agree with that or not. Yellowish? I’d be inclined to call beige a light brownish grey or greyish brown, or a shade between grey and dun. But perhaps, without the very faint hint of a yellowish tone, it would shade off into greige? Greige is, I believe, a strictly English-language word, made up by textile and fashion people, and a nice one, too: exact, expressive. I’d like to have a greige silk jacket right now. Come on, catalogues, enough with the screaming lime.


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22. First Contact

“First Contact” is included in UKL’s forthcoming No Time to Spare


23. The Middle of What?

When I was a kid America had three classes. Upper class was yachts, Harvard, Cartier, caviar, crass fat bankers in tailcoats with cigars in newspaper cartoons. Middle class was tree-lined streets in neighborhoods, State U, a class ring, meat and potatoes, Helen Hokinson ladies in New Yorker cartoons. Working class was dust bowl, soup lines, grey faces under cloth caps, cartoons of bums with their toes coming out of their shoes — then overnight it was three shifts at the shipyards and the steel mills, housing shortages, housing developments, public schools full to bursting, and Rosie the Riveter.

And men in uniform. The uniform that cancelled class, or anyhow made it semi-invisible.

Now I’m old, it’s less interesting. America, I’m told, has only one class: the middle.

But doesn’t a middle need the stuff it’s the middle of — the above, the below, the left, the right, the front, the back?

Apparently not. We are, as it were, all middle. There are of course “the wealthy” (never called the rich — rich is a four-letter word) but they occupy a private stratosphere, they are above class, just as they are above paying taxes. “Upper class” is something Americans like to think only the British have. “Lower class” ditto. And the variant forms of lower-classness have vanished too. “Proletariat” was always a commie word. “Working people” sounds so old fashioned. “Labor” — I wonder how many kids, knowing no other connotation for the word, think Labor Day has something to do with having babies? As for “the working class” — haven’t heard of it for years. It probably died (in more ways than one) with the birth of Reaganomics.

I thought maybe my union, the United Auto Workers, could bring itself to talk about the working class, but no. The union magazine, Solidarity, does not use the term working class for its members. An article in the latest issue called “Rebuilding Middle Class is All About Priorities” does mention people who are able or unable to “work,” but uses the word “workers” only once: “the American middle class was built by workers’ struggles.” Evidently now that the middle class has been built, the workers and their struggles are no longer needed.

I used to dislike the phrase working class because it seemed to imply that the other classes all lay about on cushions doing nothing. The middle-class people I knew certainly worked for their living. But at different kinds of work than the working class, less physically consuming, and better paid; so that, however imprecise, the term indicated a real difference. Now even the distinction of blue collar/white collar workers seems to be out. Euphemisms abound. I wonder if terms such as “service industries” obscure discourse more than they clarify it.

Marx thought the workers of the world were going to inherit it, forming a classless society. Our speech now, and our speeches, imply that we live in such a classless society. But where are the workers?

Do we in fact all belong to what Marx called, with loathing and contempt, the bourgeoisie — those supported on the labor of the working people?

To attain a bourgeois standard of living was the so-called American Dream. Have we all achieved it?

Well, if we’re all middle class, I guess so. But I can’t help asking how come so many of us middle-class folks are looking for a job, month after month after month, till they drop us off the rolls so we don’t have to be counted as unemployed any longer? How come a school lunch is the only hot meal, or the only meal, a middle-class kid may get all day (and not on weekends and not all summer)? Why is the nice bourgeois house on the tree-lined street boarded up, lost to mortgage default? Aren’t middle-class young couples supposed to have 2.3 kids and a dog and two jobs and be doing better than daddy did? Don’t middle-class middle-aged people belong on the golf course, not waiting at the unemployment office? And what the hell are all those old bourgeois doing lined up at the Food Bank?

Well, it’s a hard thing to define, the middle class, and who belongs to it.

The only people who clearly can’t belong to the middle class, because they can’t possibly share the American Dream, because they are and can’t ever be Americans, are those illegal people that come across the border and live and work here for forty or fifty years and think their illegal kids ought to be educated by American taxpayers. Well they can just go back where they came from and take their brats and their shovels with them. We’ll dig our own ditches and educate our own kids. Yessirree. Just watch us doing it.


Denial is ingenious. One of its neat tricks is to up a bogey between you and a reality you don’t want to see, so you can fear, and control, the bogey, while it hides the uncontrollable reality.

Fear and hatred of a “communist threat” that never really threatened us led to the use of “socialist” as a bogey-word to blacklist any program for institutionalising social justice. Certain favored institutions and programs that operate essentially socialistically, such as Medicare or the Armed Forces, are exempt from the blacklist — militant patriotism and immediate self-interest do wonders with whitewash. But in most cases, the bogey, the specter of creeping socialism — a term that slithers all the way back past Reagan and Nixon to the so-much-admired Eisenhower — is invoked against any governmental program involving mutual social responsibility, and against any suggestion that the playing field isn’t level.

So, because those foreign unAmerican commie socialists talk about the working class, America can’t have a working class. Or working people. Or, for a very large number of us, work.

But who needs work? We’re all middle class — all living the American Dream.

25 May 2011

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24. To Save Free Enterprise, Books Must Die

Publishers Weakly — May 27, 2011

The publishing house Harpy (formerly Harpy & Roe, then Harpy Collie, then HarpyCollie, now just Harpy again), a wholly owned subsidiary of the international corporation headed by the egregious Rupert Merdle, has announced a new policy designed to make Harpy equally egregious.*

The new policy ensures that e-books bought from Harpy by public libraries will “expire” — disappear — after they have been taken out of the library 26 times. If a library wishes to keep the e-book accessible, it will have to buy it all over again from Harpy.

By allowing their clients to take out hardcopy books an unlimited number of times before they have to be replaced, public libraries have been cheating Mr Merdle out of thousands of dollars a year via Harpy books, thus causing a dangerous drain on the resources of his corporation.

No way to prevent this disturbing library-caused loss to healthy corporate growth has yet been discovered, because a hardcopy book once bought cannot be controlled. It can be bought and sold again and again, or, far more disturbingly, can be given, or loaned, and thus used over and over by different people, in the most blatantly socialistic fashion, without anybody making any profit out of it.

Not so, however, with e-books!

An e-book cannot be worn out, cannot fall to pieces, can go on existing as long as technology supports it and electricity is supplied, and therefore never need be bought but once — a terrifying prospect.

Publishers Macmillion and Slime & Shyster avoid the terror by not allowing any of their e-books in libraries. But they are losing potential profit from sales.

The solution of the problem lay in realising that the existence or nonexistence of their e-books is entirely up to Mr Merdle and his Harpies.

Expiration is the answer. The death of the book. Nothing could be simpler.

The public library buys the e-book, planning to slip it furtively and indefinitely often into the unwashed hands of the kind of people who go to public libraries — but now they can only get away with this 26 times. The twenty-seventh reader who put the book on hold is out of luck. The book expires. Dies. Ceases, as far as the library is concerned, to exist.

If the library wants it, they must buy it again. And again. And again.

And thus capitalism will be safe. . . until the next assault from the anarcho-socialist-librarian underworld. Even now, some egregious libraries are refusing to buy Harpy e-books, thus cheating Mr Merdle out of thousands of dollars a year — a loss unacceptable, as mentioned before, to a corporation whose resources run only to the two-figure billions.


* The word “egregious” is not a slur or insult; it is from Latin ex grege, outside the herd, and merely means “outstanding,” or anyhow it did for about 2500 years. If you want it to mean something else, feel free.


Current information on the status of e-books in libraries may be found, among many other sites, at:


26 May 2011

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25. Petty Expectations

Part One. Critical Expectation: Genre and “Literary” Fiction

I’ve been pondering, tracing connections, wondering about expectations. The first object of my brooding is a pair of sentences from a book review by Terence Rafferty:

“In a horror story or a mystery novel, the flow is all toward narrative resolution, and is — or should be — swift and fierce. Literary fiction, by its nature, allows itself to dawdle, to linger on stray beauties even at the risk of losing its way. [“Reluctant Seer,” Terence Rafferty, NYT Sunday Book Review, 4 Feb 2011]

This little paragraph contains several assumptions, or expectations, that I find no less questionable for being very familiar.

The distinction Mr Rafferty draws between literary and genre fiction, though cherished by many critics and teachers, was never very useful and is by now worse than useless. The opposition — genre rushing hell-for-leather and plotbound to resolution, literature meandering sweetly like a brainless tot in a folktale forest — is absurd.

I seldom read horror, outside Edgar Allen Poe, but I do read mysteries. Mr Rafferty says their flow must be “swift and fierce.” “Fierce” appears to be decorative, “swift” is the operative word. But is it accurate? Some mysteries move swiftly. Many mysteries don’t. Some of my favorites move almost glacially, plodding along from detail to detail gathering irresistible impetus. Like glaciers, they’re in no hurry, but you don’t want to try to stop them.

At some point in every slow-paced mystery the pace will quicken suddenly. That is a great part of the art of pacing: variety. Some people crave the relentlessly “swift, fierce” pace of the pop thriller, but it’s by no means the only way to tell an exciting story; and to many of us it becomes, within a very few pages, merely tiresome.

All novels (except perhaps those by Marguerite Duras) have to move forward, and plot-driven novels have to move with some apparent, though often indirect, onward impetus; but the movement certainly need not be “all to narrative resolution.” In narrative, impetus and pace are their own reward. What is essential is continuity — keeping the story going. (None of its many devoted readers for the last 260 years would ever have got through Clarissa if its interminably prolonged story weren’t told with unfailing (epistolary) continuity, as well as considerable variety of pace — given that its general rate of progress is that of a coach drawn by one ailing horse on a very bad road in January.) Where the story goes is much less important, during the telling of it, than that it goes.

Even in mystery, so formally plot-driven and end-directed, resolution is by no means always the goal. The end of a mystery is very often a let-down. The end of most novels is a let-down. As Leonard Woolf remarked, the journey not the arrival matters. I’ve lost my copy of Aspects of the Novel and am trying to recall E.M. Forster’s definition — “the novel is an extended prose fiction that ends disappointingly”?

Authors whose novels move forward sometimes with great swiftness, even “ferocity,” and sometimes move deliberately, even appearing to loiter, include Austen, Tolstoy, Dickens, the Brontes, Melville, Kipling, Hardy, Tolkien, Patrick O’Brian, Mark Twain (in the two great novels), Henry James (in the earlier novels), Virginia Woolf (notably in To the Lighthouse), Owen Wister, Conan Doyle, Arnoldur Indridason, Karin Fossum.... oh, this is ridiculous! Variety of pace without loss of impetus is characteristic of every good novel I can think of.

Unless you read only for ceaseless cut-to-the-chase, I’ll bet that whatever novelists you admire as being really good writers, “genre” or “literary,” vary their pace, and yet never cease to move their story forward, however quietly and sinuously.

And never for one moment do they “lose their way.” They may mislead you — confuse you, even lose you — but they know where they’re going, and if you stick with them you’ll find out where it is.

Finally, I disbelieve in the existence of “stray beauties” in a good novel (unless the phrase means naughty ladies). What is beautiful in a good novel hasn’t strayed in accidentally. Beauty in the novel is bone-deep, essential.

Everything in a good story or novel is essential.


Part Two: Reader Expectation and the Young Adult Fantasy

A friend of mine submitted his young adult fantasy novel to a publisher. After initial encouragement, the editor had the kind of talk with the author that authors don’t want to have with an editor. This is how my friend reports what the editor said:

“Your book does not meet reader expectation for a YA fantasy. YA readers expect fantasy to be plot-driven, not character-driven. They expect the protagonist to be self-confident, to meet distrust only from other people. They expect the magic in the book to be overt and direct, not subtle or metaphorical. They expect no moral ambiguity: all characters or magic powers should be clearly good or clearly evil. They expect the story to move very quickly with no slowing down at any time. A novel that does not meet reader expectation will not sell.”

The editor’s final reason for rejecting the book: “Your book isn’t fantasy, because it’s open to interpretation. It’s literary.”

This editor’s verdict is almost certainly based on the opinions of his Marketing or Sales departments, whose interest in fantasy is limited to the mindless yearning to repeat Harry Potter over and over and over forever. However, the basic misconceptions here — fantasy cannot be literature; literary novels are open to interpretation, young adult novels are not — are probably the editor’s very own.

I first began to meet this mindset from editors when I submitted my last two YA fantasies, Voices and Powers, a few years ago. It was nowhere near as rigid, however, as what my friend ran into. Now, it seems, there is an orthodoxy: Fantasy for younger readers must have no toxic taint of psychological depth or moral subtlety, and be driven forward mechanically by plot, not by the natures and passions of their young protagonists. The story must allow of only one interpretation: Good Fights Evil and Wins the War, thus remaining ethically simplistic to the point of infantility. YA fantasies cannot use metaphor. Fish cannot swim in water. No, sorry, that is from another edict. YA readers expect fantasies to contain nothing they have not already read in other fantasies. We the Publisher know what the readers expect. We are God? No, but we know what we’re going to give them, and they needn’t expect anything else.

Well, so, there’s a separation of “genre” from “literature,” performed with a Texas chainsaw.

And not by a literary snob, but by a genre editor, who might be expected to know better.

So, goodbye, Alice. Goodbye, Curdy. Goodbye, Mr Toad. Goodbye, Little Prince. Goodbye, Frodo. Goodbye, Sam. Goodbye, Ged. Goodbye, Will. Goodbye, Wart. Goodbye, Deeba. Goodbye, goodbye... for a while...

You’ll be back. Full of passions and subtleties, doing evil while intending good and vice versa, unpredictable, ambiguous, and breathing metaphor as your native air.

Poor editor, poor bean-counters in Marketing! Never to have crossed the border into the Other Kingdom, never to have seen the fair folk there...

But meanwhile, poor authors of fantasy, told to be imitators of imitators of the secondrate, ordered off to the assembly line at the baloney factory!

And poor kids, who come to that twilight border across which the misty mountains can be seen, only to find a chainlink fence and a NO ENTRY sign, in front of which under a peeling golden plastic arch a nasty little man is selling second-hand hamburgers fried in fusel oil...

4 June 2011

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26. Against Eisenhower

From “Ghosts of Guatemala’s Past,” by Stephen Schlesinger, in the New York Times, June 3, 2011:

Eisenhower’s attack on Guatemala was brilliantly executed. A faux invasion force consisting of a handful of right-wing Guatemalans used fake radio broadcasts and a few bombing runs flown by American pilots to terrorize the fledgling democracy into surrender. Arbenz stepped down from the presidency and left the country. Soon afterward, a Guatemalan colonel named Carlos Castillo Armas took power and handed back United Fruit’s lands. For three decades, military strongmen ruled Guatemala.
The covert American assault destroyed any possibility that Guatemala’s fragile political and civic institutions might grow. It permanently stunted political life. And the destruction of Guatemala’s democracy also set back the cause of free elections in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Honduras.


This is kindly, honest, grandfatherly “Ike.”

This is the president who for decades has been praised for telling us as he left office that we should beware of giving “the military-industrial complex” too much power or letting it direct our national policies.

To destroy democracy in Guatemala he used American military or paramilitary force in the interests of an enormous American corporation, United Fruit. After employing militarism to serve industrial capitalism for eight years, his pious warning against both seems incredibly hypocritical.

Yet on it has been built a whole tower of adulation of Eisenhower as a far-seeing statesman, above party politics.

He was nothing of the kind. He was an Army general, accustomed to using violence to gain his goals, accustomed to the undemocratic, unquestioning obedience of the military, and fiercely opposed to any control over industrial capitalism, let alone any social alternative to it. He was the Cold Warrior par excellence. He saw “creeping socialism” everywhere. He was the grandfather of present-day reactionary Republicanism.

He might not like some of its present forms, the open religious and racial bigotry, the fiscal irresponsibility; but these demagogues are his political descendants, and though he might wince at their hate talk and shameless lying, his own policy was built on xenophobic fear (called “anti-Communism”) and protected by deception and hypocrisy.

I have felt for a long time that Eisenhower’s election (in 1952, defeating Adlai Stevenson in a landslide) was a cross-roads. We took the road that led us away from a rational future towards a mythical past; that led us away from hope, which is such hard work, towards fear, which is so easy; that led us to give up social justice as a guiding principle in favor of short-term-profit capitalism. Nixon, Reagan, Bush all came to power along that road, and each took us farther along it.

Another notable thing Eisenhower said as he left office was to the effect that “the future lies in packaging.” Not what is produced, not why or how it is produced, not who it is produced for, but how it is packaged — disguised — presented, represented, misrepresented, in order to be sold.

So here we are, suffocating under mountains of discarded plastic packaging — our armed forces engaged in three wars which bring profit to international corporations while bankrupting America — and our citizens still hearing that they can’t be safe unless they live in terror. Welcome to Eisenhower’s future.

13 June 2011

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27. Exercises

The man in Georgia who posted a lot of blogs pretending to be a Syrian lesbian involved in the anti-government protests in Syria and the congressman in New York who posted a lot of pictures of his crotch to women around the country ought to get together. The Georgian has explained his impersonation blogs as being “a writing exercise.” What he can do now is dress up as a Syrian woman, with veiled face of course, and go oooh! ooooh! at the congressman’s crotch. Then he can write a blog about it as a writing exercise. The congressman can parade his crotch, both veiled and unveiled, to the admiring Georgian. Then he can lie and say he didn’t. Then he can explain to his wife and constituents that he did it as a prevarication exercise.

Then perhaps they can both go somewhere a long, long way away, where I will never have to hear or read about them again.

I am trying to think where. Maybe Las Vegas. Maybe they could be a night-club act in Las Vegas. With Sarah Palin. Sarah Palin will lecture on the History of the Colonial Period and flash her glasses and shout Gotcha! while explaining how she gets healthy exercise while controlling predators by shooting wolves from a helicopter. Meanwhile the veiled Georgian blogger will perform the hootchy-kootchy and the unveiled New York congressman will perform the crotchy-crotchy.

They can call it the Cirque Sans Honte. The news media will eat it up.

24 June 2011

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28. It Doesn’t Have To Be the Way It Is

“It Doesn’t Have To Be the Way It Is” is included in UKL’s forthcoming No Time to Spare


29. Without Egg

“Without Egg” is included in UKL’s forthcoming No Time to Spare


30. Riffing Again

Dear Mr Rupert Murdoch,


This is your author who your company Harper publishes under the pen name of Scrad Riske, and who is living in Maine under the name of Trespassers W. because of being persecuted in Oregon for some things I was accused of about some old guy’s wallet and defaulting and child support and stuff.

I wrote you a while back* and told you how that was just lies and the only crime I ever actually committed was writing my book you published, Emily Bronte and the Vampires of Lustbaden. I am now very confused because I have finished the sequel, Alfred Lord Tennyson and the Zombies of Sex-Coburg, only my agent said to change the title to Lord Alfred Tennyson and the Zombies of Sex-Coburg so it would be in the right order and I always do what my agent says, but what confuses me is this. In your contract for my book it said that if “Author’s conduct evidences a lack of due regard for public conventions and morals, or if Author commits a crime or any other act that will tend to bring Author into serious contempt, and such behavior would materially damage the Work’s reputation or sales,“ my contract would be terminated. And so I told you then that I was paying strict attention to public conventions and moral just like you do, and you were my Role Model. And I was looking forward to making lots of money from my new book so I could pay the woman that rewrote it several times and my lawyers. But now you yourself have personally shown conduct that evidences a lack of due regard for public conventions and morals, and are accused of crimes that tend to bring you into serious contempt by absolutely everybody, except The Wall Street Journal and Fox News. So it is hard to know what to think. I have stopped watching Fox News because after I watch it I cannot think at all for several hours. Can it be true that what is wrong and bad for Authors to do is OK and fine for rich people to do? I am so confused I wonder maybe should I terminate our contract myself and go back to Blitzen, Oregon, where it seems like crime is sort of simpler and not so many people are quite so contemptible. If you have any advice for me I would like very much to hear it.

Your Troubled Author,
Trespassers W., a.k.a Scrad Riske
21 July, 2011


*See #12, A Riff on the Harper Contract, 18 Jan. 2011

Dear People at Book View Café and Webmistress Person:


I feared this would happen. Scrad was just so anxious and miserable, I had to let him write you again.

I am his aunt who he sends his mail through because of living in Cogneeto the way he has to.

I can tell you in confidence that Scrad’s real name is Dood Royal Ganglehard, but he likes to be called by his pen name. He isn’t really from Blitzen. He is from Fresno, but he started writing novels when he was sort of hiding out in Burns for a while. He was so happy when the Harper Publisher printed his book!

Now today Scrad read this in the news and just nearly went all to pieces.

“I feel that people I trusted— I don’t know who, on what level — have let me down, and I think they have behaved disgracefully, and it’s for them to pay.”
(RUPERT MURDOCH, denying personal responsibility for the phone hacking scandal that has racked his media empire.)

You see Scrad is very sensitive and so he feels it’s his fault letting poor Mr Murdoch who was his Role Model down like that. By behaving disgracefully. Scrad just doesn’t know how to make it up to poor Mr Murdoch. He’s talking about going to the House of Parliament and trying to apologise to all the lords and things there and tell them not to persecute Mr Murdoch and his boy Jimmy. Scrad knows what it’s like to be persecuted by the police and all them.

He just feels so bad for Mr Murdoch. And also Mr Murdoch says it’s for him to pay but he doesn’t have anything to pay with. He was hoping maybe Mr Murdoch did.

He would be cheered by your sympathy.

Yours Very Truly,

Mrs F. T. Thang (Ganglehard)

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31. Papa H

“Papa H” is included in UKL’s forthcoming No Time to Spare


32. Dangerous Writing, Dangerous Cover Copy

“Edgy” has passed its high point as the highest word of praise in the sophistico-critical vocabulary, but I’m sure something similar is replacing it at this very moment — an edgier word to imply dangerous, daring, nerve-wracking, aggressively shocking. Something like “fugu” — that Japanese fish that maybe kills you maybe doesn’t? — “For the fugu experience of your life, read Tad Grimgrocer’s fearless semi-fictional exposé of the kinky underbelly of the tampon industry.”

Meanwhile, we’ll have to coast along with “gut-wrenching.” Cover hype and blurbs continue to assure us regularly that if we read this book our guts will be wrenched. Also our eyeballs are very likely to be seared and our complacent assumptions shaken. That they go on repeating these phrases year after year must mean that it pays off, that readers want to be wrenched, seared, and sneered at.

It seems odd. If my assumptions are complacent, am I likely to go looking for books that discomfort, that disembowel them? Complacency, by definition, refuses to be made uncomfortable. Truly complacent people often do not read at all, because almost all reading is likely to tell you something you didn’t know and thus upset your complacency. There are complacent readers, of course; they read reassuring things that agree with their politics and their religion and bolster their assumptions. Probably the cover says it is “life-affirming.”

However, it seems to me that there’s something very complacent about announcing that your play or your book will shake people’s complacent assumptions.

Who are these complacent people anyhow?

The boojwazzee, I suppose... Artists are suppposed to épater le bourgeois, or we tell ourselves that we do, or we boast about doing so. But we have met the bourgeois and he is us.

In 21st Century America we don’t hear about the working class any more; we are all middle class. (A lot of us don’t have jobs and more of us than ever before go to bed hungry, which didn’t use to characterize the middle class, but never mind that.) There are the filthy rich of course, but they don’t read, they never have, there’s no profit in it. That leaves the middle class to épater itself.

My French dictionary says that épater means to break the foot off a wine glass, or “(slang) to flabbergast.” Can fiction still really flabbergast its readers, shock, shake, amaze, dumbfound, disturb, frighten them? Or can it merely continue meeting the expectations of those whose literary diet consists of revelations of infamy, perverted sexuality, violent injustice, monstrous brutalism, physical deformity, deliberate cruelty, and the mutual infliction of misery on one another by the members of dysfunctional suburban families?

These are revelations?

Is it news to most readers over five that people can be really, really mean to each other?

Or do they just like to read about it?

They do. I do. I sit open-jawed, horrified, enchanted to watch Atreus’s or Hamlet’s dysfunctional families destroy everybody who comes in contact with them in the process of destroying themselves. I am fascinated by Heathcliff’s cruelty and Ahab’s wicked madness and Lennie’s innocent murderousness.

But I don’t think Aeschylus, Shakespeare, Bronte, Melville, or Steinbeck were writing to horrify, to shock or frighten or sicken, to sear eyeballs or to wrench guts. They were aware of audience, oh yes indeed, but their intentions were not violent. They were not in assault mode. A writer whose intention is to frighten and distress the reader has a very aggressive program and a very limited goal. Serious writers want to do something beyond asserting power over their audience, beyond self-satisfaction, beyond personal gain — even though they may want all those things very much.

I think the mystery of art lies in this, that artists’ relationship is essentially with their work — not with power, not with profit, not with themselves, not even with their audience.

If this is true, a writer’s relationship with readers has no need to be aggressive, exploitive, coercive, or collusive. To writers whose essential relationship is with their work, the shock, distress, and fear their work may cause their readers to feel are means to an end, their only way of saying what they have to say. They will use these dangerous means carefully, sparingly, at need. The effect can be immediate, long-lasting, and profound. It can last several thousand years.

Writers whose work is not an end in itself but a means to gain fame, power, money, etc., may find that causing shock, fear, digust, etc. are a direct means to that end and can be hugely effective. They use them as a pusher uses drugs. The effect is immediate, brief, and trivial. It lasts until the next best-seller.

Readers who want no more than to get their jollies from the latest exploitation of the latest shock fad are praised by the blurbs for their courage in daring to read dangerous revelations, but I suspect that they’re just as complacent as the readers of “cozy” fiction — risk-free, knowing exactly to expect.

Good writers ask for our consent, in fact our participation in their work, our collaboration in its recreation on the stage as we watch it or on the page as we read it. I guess the reason they’re “good” writers is that they’re so good at winning consent and participation from us, persuading us to give them our trust, and rewarding it with something we did not expect.

That’s quite different from asking us to sit there guzzling another jolt of starbug caffeine while reading a novel in order to have our panic buttons pushed again.

Trust somebody who’s going to give us something we didn’t expect? But that could be dangerous!

Never fear. You’re safe. Just trust the cover copy folks. They’re all out there, ready to wrench your guts and serve them up in a presentation of fried eyeballs and fugu in complacency sauce. Bon appétit!

12 September 2011

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33. Clinging Desperately to a Metaphor

“Clinging Desperately to a Metaphor” is included in UKL’s forthcoming No Time to Spare


34. TGAN and TGOW

“TGAN and TGOW” is included in UKL’s forthcoming No Time to Spare


35. More About Steinbeck: Troubled Waters

My friend Roger Dorband told me I had to read Steinbeck’s book about Baja California and the Gulf of Mexico, The Log from The Sea of Cortez.*[1] Of course I went to Powells, and of course Powells, existing under the grace and blessing of heaven, long may it do so! had a paperback copy. Charles and I read it aloud, enjoying it greatly, and I wanted to write about it, because it’s a beautiful book and not very well known. But then, when I read the introduction to the 1995 edition (I generally leave introductions till after I’ve read the book) I almost thought I didn’t want to write about it. What I learned troubled me and greatly complicated my response to the book.

But Steinbeck was a complicated man. No use trying to simplify him. And if, in writing The Log, he dodged certain complications, that’s no reason why I should.

The book chronicles a six-week, 4,000-mile journey in a fishing boat (a Monterey purse-seiner), undertaken in the spring of 1940 as a scientific collecting trip to and in the great arm of the sea between Baja California and the mainland coast of Mexico. It is recounted day by day, as a log. It appears unmistakably, solidly factual: a record of the weather, the places visited, and the inter-tidal creatures seen and collected on the trips ashore. Yet in the telling of this straightforward narrative, something very important is not told. The story is true, but it is not the whole truth, and therefore cannot be nothing but the truth, since a lie by omission is no less a lie for being invisible.

Why did Steinbeck need to lie?

In The Grapes of Wrath, he kept his passionate temperament under a fierce, masterful control. He thereby achieved an honesty that I’m not sure he ever achieved again. In the alternate chapters of that book, many of them praising the splendor of the land – beautiful, passionate descriptive writing, filled with the pain that informs the whole book, the pain of seeing something absolutely good misused, abused, broken – his handling of the material is powerful and flawless. He describes; there is little explaining and almost no preaching at all. That is what I mean by control. He controlled himself, in the interest of seeing clearly and telling what he saw as completely, as honestly as he could.

In his early books, the material sometimes gets out of hand, and truthfulness gets warped by opinion or by over-facile emotion. Tortilla Flat (1935) isn’t the insightful book I expected about Monterey people by a man who had lived with them and knew them, but a rather patronising confection masquerading as machismo and confusing alcoholism with spirituality.

 It was his first success, and a big one. Yet he had the strength to move almost directly away from that kind of success. He wrote In Dubious Battle and Of Mice and Men, and then his masterpiece. The Grapes of Wrath was published in 1939.

Two years after it came the original edition of Sea of Cortez, co-authored with his friend the marine biologist Ed Ricketts. The Log is Steinbeck’s narrative of the voyage, excerpted ten years later from that first, collaborative version.

They were, he tells us, aboard the Western Flyer, one scientist doing research on tidewater fauna, one writer helping the scientist, and four crew, professional fishermen. His portraits of the crewmen are affectionate, humorous, and respectful. Now and then a bit of the Monterey-boys-drink-hard-and-thus-are-wise stuff turns up; but it’s only right and natural that a book about hardworking men in a small ship will include some of the predictable, traditional forms of male bonding. And because all six of them really were working hard, not running away from work in order to booze, Steinbeck can be very funny, without getting coy or boastful, about the amount of beer aboard, and the port visits.

So, four Monterey fishermen plus the two researchers who hired them. It worked out fine. All six of them were nice guys, and they had a hell of a good time, and it’s a hell of a good story.

But — perhaps reading aloud one notices these things more — something about the way it’s told kept making me uncomfortable. Steinbeck uses the first person plural, speaking throughout as “we.” This may reflect the fact that the original version of the book was a collaboration, but it’s confusing, tricky. Sometimes “we” means all six men. Sometimes it means himself and Ed Ricketts (not named in the book, though the crewmen are). Sometimes it’s evidently Steinbeck repeating things he learned from Ricketts. And sometimes it’s definitely Steinbeck going off on philosophical journeys by himself, making large, cloudy preachments or thinking fascinating thoughts. So some of the “we”s seemed truer than others, some had an odd, artificial ring.

Then I read the Introduction and discovered that all the “we”s are false.

The all-male crew of six is a fiction. There were seven people aboard the Western Flyer. One was a woman, Steinbeck’s wife Carol. He took her, or she chose to go, in an attempt to salvage their troubled marriage.

When he wrote the book, he – to use a verb that has never lost for me its terrible resonance from the dictatorships in Argentina and Chile – he disappeared her.

That they divorced soon after is neither a surprise nor a justification.

So in The Log, Steinbeck presents a falsified record as a factual one. Defended as artistic license and by the nobody-knows-what-truth-is argument, such fact-bending and lying by omission is now far more acceptable than it was in 1940, indeed rather fashionable. I doubt it will bother many people as much as it bothers me. I just wish, I bitterly wish, that he’d had the self-respect to know that all he had to do was tell the story straight on, first person, with all the people on board, and Ed Ricketts’ incredibly prescient insights to illuminate it, not as a fairy-tale of six guys on a jolly escape from ordinary life, but as a true story of seven people on an extraordinary voyage through a difficult, beautiful, haunting, and – for two of them, surely — painful reality.

Well, so, you have to forget the disappeared wife. You can’t wonder about her, if you want to read the book. And I still say read it, because though the author evaded instead of controlling his material, so it missed being all it might have been, still, it is a delight. Telling the story day by day, using all his marvelous power of accurate, immediate description, Steinbeck takes us with him on that little shrimp-boat in those strange, mirage-laden, inland waters, so lonesome then and so remote. An unforgettable trip.

And his meditative flights, though a bit pompous sometimes, are often brilliant and lovable. I can only give a taste, such as this from page 178. Their work in the Sea of Cortez was identifying, counting, and collecting the creatures of the tide pools. He’s been talking about the relative importance of common species and unimportance of the rare ones. He’s using ideas he learned from Ed Ricketts, a true pioneer in ecology, whose ideas are part of the foundation of a great deal of our thinking now. But the language and the mystical delight are pure Steinbeck.

[…It] seems apparent that species are only commas in a sentence, that each species is at once the point and the base of a pyramid, that all life is relational to the point where an Einsteinian relativity seems to emerge. And then not only the meaning but the feeling about species grows misty. One merges into another, groups melt into ecological groups until the time when what we know as life meets and enters what we think of as non-life: barnacle and rock, rock and earth, earth and tree, tree and rain and air. […] It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again.

Or, from the last page of the Log proper, as they head north on the grey, fierce ocean, away from the sunlight and shallows of the Gulf:

There was some quality of music here, perhaps not to be communicated, but sounding clear and huge in our minds. The boat plunged and shook herself, and rivers of swirling water ran down into the scuppers. Below in the hold, packed in jars, were thousands of little dead animals [...The] wind blew off the tops of the whitecaps, and the big guy wire, from bow to mast, took up its vibration like the low pipe on a tremendous organ. It sang its deep note into the wind.

8 October 2011

[1]Viking published Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research, by John Steinbeck and Edward F. Ricketts, in 1941. In 1951, Viking published the narative part of the book separately as The Log from the Sea of Cortez, by John Steinbeck. This is the book I read, republished as a Penguin Classic in 1995, with Steinbeck’s tribute to Ricketts, and a very useful Introduction by Richard Astro.

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36. Readers’ Questions

“Readers’ Questions” is included in UKL’s forthcoming No Time to Spare


37. Notre-Dame de la Faim

“Notre-Dame de la Faim” is included in UKL’s forthcoming No Time to Spare


38. Long-Term Discouragement

Our government decided over fifteen years ago that certain citizens, categorized as “long-term discouraged workers,” do not exist. The category exists, but the citizens don’t. When the Bureau of Labor or other entities give the numbers of the unemployed, these men and woman are excluded: they are not there. They are our government’s version of the Disappeared.

Strangely enough, though out of work, they do not belong to the category of “the unemployed.” The Disappeared (according to an excellent article in DailyFinance) consist of those who “had pursued jobs in the past 12 months but, discouraged by the lack of opportunity, had stopped looking altogether.”

Now how, exactly, does the United States Government know that all these people stopped job-hunting? Gave up for good? Are stretched out in the recliner in front of the TV with a beer, or more likely in front of no TV with no beer and no recliner due to lack of income, and have been lying there for months? Does the Bureau of Labor Statistics knock on their door (assuming they haven’t been foreclosed and evicted and still have a door) and come in, and ask, and observe them for a week or two to see if they are or are not going out looking for a job? Well, no. The statistics on unemployment are gathered rather more indirectly than that.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics counts as “unemployed” only people who have “actively looked for a job in the previous four weeks.” The number of people in the category, “the unemployed,” is based on the number of reports of frequent, continuous job-hunting, which people out of work are required to submit, in order to qualify for unemployment benefits — up until the set date when those benefits cease. After that, the unemployed cease to be even the unemployed. They cease to be counted. They disappear.

And yet the government knows something about them. It knows, for certain, that not one single one of them is looking for work. It knows so because it says so.

It seems odd that people would stop looking for work just the very moment when the dole they were getting by on stops. But remember! They are not the unemployed. They are not even people. They are a category: “the long-term discouraged.” Clearly a negligible category — slobs, louts, layabouts, no entrepreneurial spirit, no good ole American get up and go. They aren’t counted because, frankly, they don’t count.

Currently, around two and a half million American citizens don’t count.

It’s an amazing effective trick, replacing human beings with categories. The statistics present us the highly managed category “the unemployed” as a reality; editorial writers and TV pundits intone it over and over; and it’s only too easy to accept it — until you realise it entails the belief that two and half million unemployed Americans aren’t looking for a job, won’t look for a job, wouldn’t look for one if there were any to look for. Do you believe that?

The trick was perfected in 1994 to pad employment figures. It has worked beautifully ever since.

It allows the government to keep telling us that unemployment is “only” around 9%. The actual figure, once the padding is removed, is certainly over 16% and probably over 22% — very near the worst days of the 1930’s.

It allows the government not to provide job opportunities and works projects. Who needs ’em?

It allows the government to let people starve. Starve? Who? Them? But they don’t exist!

Even if they did exist they’d be so lazy they wouldn’t even vote. Forget ’em.

Some of these non-existent Americans have been visible, recently, joining the tent cities and demos of Occupy America. (But don’t worry, those discontented liberal whine-ins never get anywhere. We’re still testing bombs, we’re still in Viet Nam, racial segregation is still enforced by law, and this recession’s a blip that trickle-down will fix in no time. And it’s morning in America.)

What I don’t know is, how do we refuse to play along any longer — how to demand that the Bureau of Labor Statistics stop padding and give us an honest count? I guess it begins by simply refusing the padded figure every time we hear or see it — correcting it, protesting aloud. Lies grow in the silence of those who hear them.


5 November 2011

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39. Ninety-Nine Weeks: A Fairy Tale

Once upon a time there was a poor woodcutter who lived with his wife and their daughter and son in a cottage at the edge of a forest. He loved his trade, and worked hard at it. But most of the land belonged to rich ogres, who kept the forests for their own use. Firewood was so expensive that ordinary people had begun to heat their houses with coal. The woodcutter went from door to door offering timber or firewood, but again and again he was turned away. His wife was lame and could not walk far, though she worked hard and well, keeping the kitchen garden and the house. The daughter and son went to the village school. Young Janet looked after the mayor’s wife’s babies every afternoon when school was out, and young Bob earned a penny here and there doing odd jobs. That bit of money the children could bring home was all the family had now, and every penny had to go for rent to their ogre landlord. They had no new clothes or shoes, and ate only from their garden. Their life had grown hard, and winter was coming on.

“Maybe you could get a job at the coal mine, John,” said the woodcutter’s wife.

So he went up the road ten miles to the coal mines and asked for work, but, as he had feared, they told him he was too old to learn that craft, and sent him off.

He trudged homeward, downhearted, though he was by nature a hopeful man. Evening was coming on. Shadows fell across the road. Among the shadows he saw a tall, beautiful woman standing. “Woodcutter,” she said, “be of good cheer! I am your Gift Fairy, and I will give you and your family enough to live on. You will have food, and can buy shoes for your son and daughter!”

“Gracious lady,” said the woodcutter, “you are very kind. What can I do to deserve such a gift?”

“To deserve my gift, woodcutter, you must not work, but every day you must look for work,” said the lady. “You must try four times a day to find a job. No matter if there is no work to be found, you must not stop looking for it. I will be watching you. I will know if you grow discouraged. If you cease to look for work for one month, I will know it, and my gift will cease to appear.”

“Lady,” said the woodcutter, “I’d be glad to have work, but if I ask for a job four times every day in the village, I’ll be going to the same people all the time, because it’s a small village, and they’ll get sick of me.”

“That is not my concern,” said the lady.

“Could you maybe, instead of giving me money, give me some kind of job — any kind?” said the woodcutter, who, as we know, was a hopeful man. “I’m not too old to learn a new craft, and I’ll turn my hand to anything.”

“That is not my department,” said the lady. “The Works Fairies are not functioning at present. All I can offer you is my gift, on the terms I have told you.”

“I accept,” said the woodcutter, with a sigh, “and my family and I are grateful.”

“That is proper,” said the tall woman, and she vanished into the long shadows of the evening.

The woodcutter went home. As he came to his house he happened to put his hand in his pocket, and felt something there, and drew it forth, and lo and behold! it was a silver coin, enough for them to live on for a week. So he went in, and his wife and children gathered round him asking eagerly, “Did you get the job at the mines, Dad?”

“No, they won’t have me,” said he, “but I met a magic lady and she gave me this,” and he tossed the silver coin up spinning in the air. And while they passed it around and admired it and wondered at it, he told them that the magic lady would give them the same every week, so long as he would seek work wherever it could be sought for.

“Now Bob,” he said, “go change this coin at the brewer’s, for he’ll have the change, and bring home a pitcher of beer, for we’ll celebrate tonight. And Janet, you go put four fine chops on our tab at the butcher’s. And dear wife, come give me a good kiss while the kids are out, eh?”

So they made merry that night.

Next day the woodcutter went into the village asking for work at every door, and he did so faithfully, day after day, until the villagers began to say to each other that John Woodcutter was daft, coming back and back when they’d told him and told him they hadn’t a thing for him. And what did he think he’d find, anyway, with the roads already full of men out of work?

The brewer’s wife offered him the job of cleaning out her cow-barn, since she no longer kept a cow, but it was only two or three day’s work, and she wouldn’t give him a silver piece for it, nor half one, so he had to turn her down. After that, when she poured beer for people in the brewery bar she told them that John Woodcutter went around asking for work but when you offered him a job he was too lazy to take it. And some of the people nodded wisely and said, “What do you expect of people who’ll take money for doing nothing?” and others said, “The fairies have no business handing out good money to layabouts and wastrels,” and the mayor said, “Fairy money is foul money. It corrupts those who take it. Mark my words, we’ll soon see John driving a carriage and his wife wearing silken gowns!” Then they all nodded wisely, except one man who had just lost his job of road-paving, and was spending his last coppers on a half-pint of beer to drown his sorrows. That man drank his beer, went out onto the road where John had told them he had met the tall, beautiful lady, and waited for her to appear. And there she was. And she offered her bargain, and he took it.

John kept going about his village, and villages for miles around, seeking and asking for a job. He longed with all his heart to be doing an honest day’s work, but wouldn’t take the part-time jobs he was offered, for they’d bring him in less than the lady’s gift did; so his reputation as a working man was soon lost. His wife Mary’s rheumatism kept growing worse and now was very bad, so he and young Janet kept the house and garden. The boy Bob dropped out of school and got himself prenticed to a carpenter, and they were proud of him, but the fee was a fifth of their silver piece, and Bob as a prentice brought no money in. After a whole year had passed, John was feeling almost as desperate as he had felt coming home from the mine. That evening he went down to the road, and there among the shadows stood the lady, tall and beautiful.

“Lady,” he said, “I look for work, I ask for work, but there’s no work to be had. And people have lost patience with me, bothering them for jobs, but not able to take the little they can offer.”

“You may cease to look,” said she, “whenever you wish.”

“But that would break our bargain.”

“Yes,” said she. “By seeking work, you prove that you are a hopeful man, who believes that good people always have enough money. To cease seeking would prove that you have lost that righteous belief. It would show that you are discouraged. The Gift Fairies cannot see discouraged people. You would become invisible to me. You would become ineligible for my gift.”

“Ah, well,” said John. “We won’t be discouraged, then.”

And month after month, he trudged about, wearing out his shoes, which he couldn’t replace because Mary’s medicines cost a great deal now, and young Bob’s appetite was something ferocious, and young Janet no longer looked after the mayor’s children because the mayor’s wife said her clothes were too shamefully shabby. Mary wept because her pretty daughter didn’t have a decent dress on her back, so John bought cloth from a peddler, and Mary sewed Janet a new dress.

“Tsk, tsk, look at John Woodcutter’s Mary flouncing about in silks and satins, and her dad taking money from those fairies and never doing a lick of work...“

The weeks passed, and every week the day came round when John would feel in his pocket and find the magic piece of silver. Eagerly did he wait for that day, and the money was spent almost before he had it. Then one week the gift-day came, and he felt in his pocket, and nothing was there.

He waited a minute, and felt again. Empty.

He went and weeded the potato patch, and then felt in his pocket, and his other pocket. He went all about the house looking at the ground to see if the silver coin had fallen from his pocket. Nothing.

Evening came, and he went down to the road to that place where the lady stood, tall and beautiful. “Oh, lady,” said John, “your gift didn’t come today. And Mary’s worse, and we really need it.”

The Gift Fairy looked at him silently, as if from a long way off. “John Woodcutter, is it?” she said at last. “I can barely see you. Your ninety-nine weeks are up.”

“What ninety-nine weeks?”

She seemed to look through him as she spoke, and her voice came as if from far away. “You had ninety-nine weeks to look for work. You found nothing. You are now officially discouraged.”

“Oh, but lady, I’m looking for a job every day as hard as ever, even though it’s been close on two years — truly I’m not discouraged — I keep hoping!“

“You are officially discouraged, you have officially ceased to look actively for work, and you are officially invisible to the Gift Fairies.”

“Oh, lady,” cried John in despair, “for how long?”

“Forever,” said the faint, cold voice of the Gift Fairy.

And no matter what John said to her after that, no matter how he pleaded, she did not reply, and gave no sign of hearing or seeing him at all.

Terribly downcast, he set off for home at last. But on the road just as night was falling he met his landlord, the rich ogre who owned most of the property for miles around. “You,” said the ogre, looking down from his tall black horse, “you’re the troublemaker in the cottage by the forest. You haven’t paid your full rent for months. You’re to be out of there at the end of the week.”

“Mr. Ogre,” said John, “if we paid full rent out of what the Gift Fairy gave us, we had nothing left for food and clothing. And now she says she has no more to give us at all.”

“The Gift Fairy, is it!” said the ogre. “Living off the fairies — I should have known it! Do you realize those fairies of yours are trying to raise my taxes — MY taxes — to pay for your roads, and your damned schools that teach you sedition and irreligion, and your police that should have put you long since into one of the jails I have to pay for with MY taxes? Fairies! Everything that’s wrong with this country is the fairies’ fault! Get out of my sight before I give you a whipping!” And the ogre flourished his whip at John, then slashed his horse hard with it, and galloped off into the night.

The rest of that week, John went looking for any work at all, whatever it was and whatever it paid, but another man had always got there before him.

Hearing they could no longer pay for young Bob’s prenticeship, the carpenter sent him home. Bob’s sister Janet had just finished school, and the two young people talked it over and planned what they might do.

On the last evening of the week the brother and sister went down to the road where their father had met the Gift Fairy, and sure enough, she was there among the shadows, tall and beautiful. But she did not look at them.

“Lady,” said young Bob, “I’ve been looking for work and cannot find it, so maybe you’d give me the silver coin, until I do?”

But the lady paid no attention to him at all.

“Lady,” said young Janet, “I’m through school now, and I can teach, or look after babies, or look after sick people, or garden, or cook, or anything at all almost, but my mother needs me, nights, and I can’t find work in the village. So maybe you’d give the silver coin, until I do?”

But the lady paid no attention to her at all.

Bob pleaded, Janet wept, but to no avail. She never looked at them.

A little red fox looked out of a covert by the road and laughed. “She can’t see you, young’uns,” the fox said. “You’re invisible.”

“But I’m hopeful,” Janet said, and Bob said, “But I’m not discouraged!“ And both of them said, “But we’re here — right in front of her!”

“Maybe,” said the fox. “But you didn’t lose your last job.”

Janet and Bob stared at him. “How could we lose a job when we’ve never had one?”

“A good question,” said the fox. “But since you’ve never been employed, you’re officially entering the work force: and so, you’re not eligible for fairy benefits. You’re invisible. It’s wonderful,” said the fox, snapping at a flea on his flank, “how fairies think, and what they can see and can’t see. My opinion is, they’ve been listening far too much to rich ogres. My opinion is, they’d do a better job at being fairies if they listened to the other ninety-nine percent.”

But young Bob and Janet, trying not to weep with disappointment, were already trudging off up the road to help their parents pack up what little they owned and leave their home forever in the morning.

The fox shrugged his narrow shoulders, looking after them through the shadows of the night. “Nobody ever listens to foxes,” he said.


Some Foxy Figures

Official Bureau of Labor Statistics figures for 2010:

About 14 million people were officially counted as unemployed.

(5.9 million of these people had been unemployed for 27 weeks or longer.)

People without work or without full-time work but NOT counted as unemployed:

8.9 million “involuntary part-time workers” (would work full-time if they could)

6.1 million “wanted work but did not actively seek work”

Of these, 2.5 million had looked for work within the past year; the rest had not, because, according to the BLS, they did not expect to find any (the “discouraged”), or they could not take a job because of a disability, or were in school, or had no way to get to and from work, or had children but no child care.

Also not counted among the unemployed by the BLS are more than 2 million people currently in American prisons.

The total of unemployed not counted as unemployed is at least 17 million; added to the counted figure of 14 million, 31 million people were out of work last year.

The figures have not substantially changed so far this year.

There was a good deal of hoopla recently when the number of oficially unemployed dropped from 14 million to 13.9 million, so that we have “only” 9% official unemployment. This drop is mostly because the “long-term unemployed” simply have been shifted into the “did not seek work” category. Same bods, different pigeonholes.

The true rate of unemployment remains between 16 and 25%.

(It is much the same in European countries that do not fudge the figures as we do.)

The number of unemployed people receiving benefits (less than half) has dropped recently: this is not, as the media say, because we are “recovering from the recession,” but because so many people have been out of work for more than 99 weeks. Their eligibility for benefits has run out.

Even of the 14 million “officially unemployed,” about 30% have been out of work so long they have lost benefit eligibility.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that every dollar spent on unemployment benefits brings the country $1.90 in “economic growth.” A bargain, says the little red fox. (But Fox News would not agree.)

21 November 2011

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40. Five Bad Myths

I was impressed by a recent MoveOn.org emailing (November 23, 2011), listing five myths — actually pieces of disinformation — relentlessly propagated by reactionary politicians and news media. There are of course dozens more such myths or lies — President Obama was not born in the United States, etc, etc — but these five are, at the moment, the biggies. To have them all in one place, clearly stated, was useful to my thinking about Republican tactics and the deliberate or unthinking compliance of the media.

These myths have been accepted and repeated by speakers and writers without strong political convictions or who seek to give “balanced coverage” of events, without considering that you cannot balance myths, in the sense of propaganda, deliberate misinformation, with facts.

The murder of six million Jews in Germany did not take place: myth (denial). Six million Jews were murdered in Germany: fact (history). You cannot “balance” or reconcile the myth with the fact and arrive at fact.

You don’t ever get information by repeating disinformation.

Two lies — or five — or a thousand — don’t make a truth.

You can find MoveOn’s myths and debunkings at http://front.moveon.org/top-5-fox-myths-to-debunk-this-thanksgiving/.

And many thanks to MoveOn for all the good work they do!

As I read the list of myths, I began to arrive at my own personal debunks or demystifications, harsher and more radical than theirs.

And here they are:

MYTH #1: The congressional Super Committee failed because both sides refused to compromise.

REALITY: It failed because the Republicans in Congress, following the Party Line, now refuse ANY compromise on ANY issue offered by the Democrats.

Reaganist Republicanism has become a rigid ideology, as Stalinism was.

To be a Republican politician now, you must be, literally, politically correct.

If you don’t correctly parrot the Party Line, you will be exiled to (shudder!) Liberal Siberia.

MYTH #2: Nobody knows what Occupy Wall Street is about.

REALITY: Everybody knows what Occupy Wall Street is about.

But some people are so frightened by the trouble our country is in that they’re in denial about it. The goals of the Occupy Movement make these people morally uncomfortable, threatening their complacency — and so they deny that it has any goals at all.

MYTH #3: Occupiers should stop protesting and just get a job.

REALITY... And the American children who go to bed hungry every night should stop whining and just go buy a supersized burger with fries at MacDonalds, and the homeless should get off the streets and move into a nice house, and the old retired people who are losing medical insurance should ah, umm, well, they should just shut up and get a job. Or die. Or something.

MYTH #4: Occupy Wall Street is intent on provoking violence, especially against banks and the police.

REALITY: A few people have used the Occupy movement as a front for their antisocial behavior, just as a few people have used Republican hatred of Obama as a front for their psychopathy.

The Occupy movement, facing a violent police force in several cities, has so far remained nonviolent. If they can hang on to their nonviolence, they will have made a moral statement comparable to that of Gandhi, or the Freedom Riders, or the young people of Tiananmen Square.

MYTH #5: The biggest crisis facing our country is out-of-control government spending.

REALITY: Our crisis is a loss of active citizenship — a weakening of confidence in democratic ideals and principles. This loss, this weakening, is directly aggravated by Reaganist ideology and propaganda.

Reaganism, seeing extreme inequity as the engine of capitalism, says that the poor should be taxed heavily, the rich more lightly, and the very rich should not have to pay taxes at all. Democracy seeks to share the cost of maintaining government (taxation) equitably, each contributing according to income.

Reaganism says that the government is the enemy. Democracy is the idea that the people are the government.

So, are we our own enemy?

Pogo, thou shouldst be living at this hour.

28 November 2011

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41. Literary Bests

The Award System. A while ago I was invited to choose, from a list of winners of a certain literary prize, “the three best works of American fiction of the last sixty years.” The three works that got the most votes from the invited voters would be announced as the three Best American Novels since 1950.

I’ve judged literary competitions or juried literary prizes pretty often. Every time I did it the responsibility seemed heavier, and so did my conscience. At first, this simple choice from a list seemed like it might be fun to do. But I found I couldn’t do it at all. The list was strong in well-known names and had some fine books on it, but it wasn’t the best sixty American novels since 1950. It was just a list of award winners, some excellent, many mediocre.

I wrote the director of the event explaining my inability to participate, and got back a kind and unreproachful letter. It was both reassuring and troubling to find that he understood my feelings. He asked, off the record, if I ignored the prescribed list of prize winners and picked any three American novels as my choice of the best of the last sixty years, could I do that?

I had to think hard, and I had to say no.

I found that I don’t believe there are three “best” works of American (or any) fiction of the last sixty years. Or ten “best.” Or a hundred. Several hundred? That’s more like it.

There are a whole lot of good writers and good novels. Yes, OK, there’s even more mediocre and bad fiction. So what?

Some good novels are outstandingly good. And I have my favorites, sure. All of us do. That means that they’re my best, or your best, but “the best”?

Maybe within one narrow genre, or a few years, a general agreement on the favorites might show up: but within a few years the results would probably be quite different.

Not long ago, in a vast poll of British novel-readers, The Lord of the Rings came out on top. I was delighted — the vote was such a lovely smack in the eye for trendy snobs and ignorant pedants. But I didn’t believe for a moment that it meant The Lord of the Rings was the best English novel ever written. That would be incredibly naïve.

Yet it is what the award system, the “best” system, asks us to believe.

Voting is the dangerous but essential tool of democracy. In art, voting is dangerous without being essential. Often it’s not even appropriate. In art, even given a carefully selected jury of peers, there’s no way to guarantee that a vote reflects informed, unprejudiced judgment not influenced by fashion, faction, or mere personal quirk. Anybody who’s juried an award, or just argued about a book, knows that.

Novels and stories that a whole lot of readers, plus honest and serious teachers and critics, have continued to hold in esteem for over six decades are surely beginning to deserve the status of “excellent” or even that slippery and over-used adjective “great”. But there are so many different kinds of fiction, so many standards by which to judge a novel, so many ways in which one work may excel another — Whose judgment is so widely and deeply and disinterestedly informed that they can presume to say which handful of them are “the best”?

And when you’ve said it, what have you gained?

And what have you lost?

To say Don Quixote is the best Spanish novel is another way to say it’s the greatest Spanish novel. And when you’ve said it either way, where has it got you? Better to ask, as a good scholar, critic, teacher, asks: why and how is Don Quixote excellent? Why can every Spaniard quote from it? Why is it read and loved after 500 years? Those are real questions, useful questions, that can help lead a reader into and through the book.

Scholars, critics, and teachers who know how to ask and answer these questions are capable of making serious choices, of establishing a canon of literature. The danger they run in doing so is that they and others almost invariably believe their choice to be complete and immutable.

All canons of art are overly restrictive. And all of them are out of date before they are declared.

Used with great caution and suspicion, a literary canon, a list-of-the-best, may have some use in guiding and informing inexperienced readers, but I think probably it’s far more useful as a target of intelligent argument and dissent.

Literary awards are useless for guiding and informing and don’t even make good targets. In declaring a book as “the best,” a literary award serves that book. It does not serve literature. On the contrary, it does literature a considerable disservice.

Awards serve above all to supply commercial booksellers with a readymade commodity and lazy-minded readers, teachers, and librarians with a readymade choice. They needn’t pay attention to the books that didn’t win the prize, they needn’t exercise their own critical faculties, they don’t have to think, they can just order the prize book and believe they’re reading what’s “important.”


The Idea of The Best. There really may be a best mouse trap or salad spinner, at least till a better one’s invented or the technology is improved. And certain inventions are more important than others. But what would be the sense or use in saying something or other is “the best” technological invention of the last year, or decade, or century? It’s a nice parlor game, but it has almost no intellectual or practical value.

Similarly, in art you might be able to pick one work as the best from a set of similar works of the same general period in the same genre. But, applied to a huge set, such as all the American novels of sixty years — or even one year — “the best” is a meaningless concept. You cannot usefully compare the excellence of oranges, eggplants, knives, hats, French poodles, and dreams.

The idea of “the best” is most comfortable in the sphere of measurable competitive activities — sports. Elsewhere it enforces a competitive attitude that is profoundly out of place.

Once, on a literary jury for a local award, I said I wished we could give the award to the whole excellent shortlist. A couple of the other jurors liked the idea, but one, a librarian, oddly enough, fought it tooth and nail: “Nobody would care if five or six people won,” she said. “Nobody gives a damn unless it’s a horserace. I certainly wouldn’t.”

She got her way, and we chose our one winner. But I left depressed and discouraged. Seabiscuit or Secretariat ran faster than the other horses, they won. A jury didn’t pick them out as “the best.” When you have a jury, it’s not a horserace. It’s a choice. And it may very well be quite arbitrary.

Awards are supposed to spur competitive excellence. But despite the theories of (almost universally male) critics and psychologists, the practice of art is not inherently a competitive activity. It can be made into one, of course. Male or cultural competitiveness often makes it into one. But I do not believe and see no evidence to prove that the passion to do something you have a gift for doing is originally driven by the need to excel or even to show off. Most people who have a gift work extremely hard at it, if they are able to, because the work is intensely, immediately, and reliably rewarding. You have to make a living, but art is very seldom a practical way of doing so. Most artists are in it for the satisfaction of knowing they’re doing, literally, the best thing they can do. In that sense of doing one’s best, and only in that sense, “the best” means something in art. To consider art as a competition to be “the best” is to miss the point.


The Use of Literary Awards. I’m not saying literary awards should be done away with, or that they have no use at all — only that we shouldn’t take them as meaningful literary judgments.

There have been literary competitions ever since ancient Greece, and though they tend like all competitions to select the predictable, to favor work by men over work by women, and to become ingrown or corrupt, still they serve as spurs to artists who want or need spurring to do their best.

Competitions and awards arouse interest in the audience, even if it’s the kind of interest appropriate to a horse race — witness the hysteria of betting on some of the “big” literary awards — which brings much-needed money to artists and those who support or invest in their work. This is a service principally to the business of art, but also to its vitality in the culture.

And to an author, early in a career, an award can be a true and needed validation — a beautiful reward, like the Boss sings about. The first literary prizes I won, the Nebula and the Hugo, were beautiful rewards to me. They gave me strength by justifying both my trust in my readers and my trust in myself as a writer. They come from the science fiction community: one is awarded by writers, the other by readers. They are of value almost solely within that community. They are ignored or actively despised by those who institute themselves the guardians of capital-L Literature.


Waste, Injustice, Ungenerosity. When it comes to capital-Literature, the prizes I’ve juried, awarded, or been awarded have left me increasingly uneasy about the arbitrariness and injustice of the choice and the arbitrary need to pick a single winner. Particularly with the “major” national prizes, the pleasure of award and recognition, given or received, is damaged and diminished by knowledge of how the system plays into the prejudice and exclusivism of a literary establishment or coterie, and the advertising machinery of the bookselling business. Praise becomes fame becomes commodification and so on round.

The “majorness” of the “major” awards is itself almost entirely arbitrary and factitious. Why has everybody heard of “the PEN/Faulkner,” while the other PEN awards go unknown and unnoticed? Are the jurors of one PEN prize somehow of ineffably higher calibre than the jurors of the others?

At least we know who they are. The jurors who pick the MacArthur “Genius” Awards are so ineffable, or so anxious about their corruptibility, or so afraid of the vengeance of disappointed non-geniuses, that they accept permanent anonymity. I think this is wrong. In fact I think it’s despicable. Anonymous judgment is a slap in the face of responsibility.

Then there is the waste factor. Of course a good book deserves recognition, but the one-winner-takes-all award ensures that the also-rans — all the good books on the shortlist — are pretty much dumped — forgotten. To name one winner is to create a whole slew of losers. Why? What good is that?

Survival of the fittest, sure, but you can overdo it. Would you shoot every horse in the race but the winner? “Best” book all too often comes to mean “only” book – of the month, the year, the decade…

How mean, how ungenerous we are! I wish that, instead of picking one and dumping all the rest, we celebrated our writers continually and in droves.

I wish we gave literary prizes freely, the way they used to give prizes at the Pet Show at Codornices Park in Berkeley when I was a kid. Every kid in the neighborhood brought their pet, and every pet got a prize, an ad hoc, unique prize: for Soulfulness — for Loud Meowing — for Unusual Spot Placement — for Being the Only Skink…. There was no Best of Breed (in those days there were many mongrels and few breeds), and certainly no Best of Show.

I‘d have some trust and interest in literary prizes like that. For Soulfulness — for Sitting Up and Begging Nicely — for Passion Well Expressed – for Excellent Use of Semi-Colons — for Being the Only Novel About Elderly Female Entomologists in Love….

You think literature would suffer, if prizes were given so freely? You think sharing praise diminishes its worth? You think good books are written in order to win huge advances and one-a-year prizes? Maybe so. I think not. I think the desire to excel in competition, whether for prizes or for money, is likely to produce a mediocre and predictable novel on a trendy topic in a mode recognised as “safe” by the sales department of a large commercial publisher.

I think good novels are written by writers who want to write this novel, their novel, which is like no other. And which is therefore unpredictable, unsafe, and unlikely to win a prize. Given time and chance and a little publicity, of course, it may keep winning readers for years and years to come. But most corporation-owned publishers could care less for the years to come. Bottom line this month is all that matters.


Book Groups as the Opposite of Awards. I don’t mean Oprah or commercial ventures, I mean the kind of reading group organised by private people among their friends and acquaintances, that have become common in the last twenty years or so. These groups often consist of modest people who don’t trust their own taste and therefore accept too meekly the publicised judgment of PR departments and award-givers. The book club that always picks the newest best seller or Big Prize winner for next month isn’t doing much for literature, although the cookies or the wine and cheese may be terrific.

But a lot of book-club members have been reading all their lives. Reading people tend to be a bit balky, independent, resistant to being told what they ought to read, inclined to go off and discover it for themselves. There are a lot of book groups doing quite serious independent reading and discussion. I wonder if they aren’t doing more to preserve and celebrate literature than all the national awards and lists of Bests.

And how about all the Internet sites and blogs that discuss books read? Some of them are awfully naïve — some of them are awesomely knowledgeable.

There are various ways to sneak around the fences and monuments erected by the Guardians of Literature and the Awarders of Awards in order to get to where we can find out and talk about what’s actually going on in literature. Maybe readers of this blog can suggest some other sneaky routes.

28 December 2011

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