Posts Tagged With: reading

Why Genre Writing Matters

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Yesterday i spent a long drive down to Burlington, Wisconsin to play a board game with some old friends. Now, by old, i mean we aren’t old. Older than we were, for sure. But time’s a funny thing. You don’t see it passing, it just does and one day you’re 40 and you haven’t seen those people you grew up with for 20 years or so, but even that time… weird though it is… evaporates as soon as you are in a basement with dice in your hand playing a board game. Just like you used to do.

But this isn’t really about that. Maybe i’ll hold that one off for later.

This is about the writer i heard on the news radio station i was listening to on the way down there. I don’t remember her name, but i can tell you she’s a shakespearean professor of english and she writes Romance. From the sound of things she makes a freaking KILLING at it too. Note – this is also not a promotional ad for all budding writers to run out and scribble some romance for the sake of riches.

Anyway, she chatted a little about the killing she was making at it and most importantly how those in her profession – her literary colleagues – were oblivious to it. They were completely unaware that her professor salary was dwarfed in the extreme by the small fortune she was raking in for writing pulpy bodice rippers. Well. Ain’t that just the shit?

I grew up with Genre writing. I didn’t know it at the time. I just thought Genre writing was called books. But i poured through The Hardy Boys and Encyclopedia Brown. I graduated, slowly, to horror through Stephen King and then to… ahhh… this is fun… The Dragonlance Chronicles by Weis and Hickman. I was so damned envious when one of my friends scored a signed copy of Dragons of… something. I read them all. Then i soaked in Sci Fi for a while – Heinlein, Card, and then…

Neuromancer. I’ll be honest. Neuromancer broke my brain. The prose. Hell, i didn’t even really know what prose was at the time but i knew this was something different. For a while, William Gibson became my god and everything became Cyberpunk. Everything. And it was a delight. The world was complicated. Fast. Beautiful like moonlight on a heap of discarded computer parts or neon glinting on gutter junk.

Somewhere along the way, though, i stopped.

But that’s not a tragedy. There is more to the world than Genre fiction. I don’t regret for a second falling in love with Steinbeck or Hemingway or Austen or Fitzgerald. I would be an utter idiot for not falling for it. It’s beautiful, amazing stuff and it’s expanded my brain further than i think Genre fiction would have been able to. Plus, and this is really it, i burned out on Genre. It became harder and harder to find GOOD books in fantasy or Sci Fi. So much of it just seemed the same. It wasn’t the sort of hell i ever expected but it did suck.

The point of all this autobiographical blah blah is that there is still something to Genre fiction. There’s a reason so many people still read and love it and frankly, i think i got it. I got the bug again. And here it is – here’s the big secret that i think is worth telling. Shhhh… don’t let too many people know.

Genre fiction brings you hope.

There. There it is. That’s the secret.

I was watching Tomorrowland with George Clooney or as my friend and i like to call him Eyorhay Kloonay. It’s not a bad little film. Flashy. Fun. But one part stuck with me. The main character is sitting in school through a series of montages of her classes as she’s being bombarded with the negative reality of the world she lives in – war, famine, global warming, starvation, etc. Her hand is perpetually up and perpetually ignored. Finally, at the end of the montage, the teacher allows her to ask her question. What is her question?

How do we fix it?

Okay. And that’s pretty genius. Cuz here we are and the world seems like it’s falling apart around our shoulders and everything sucks and people are getting stupider and blathering bullshit everywhere we look and it gets really depressing when you see glaciers calve off and ice shelfs fall into the sea and everyone is all like ‘lalalalalalaaaaa!!! Let’s fucking PARTAY!’

But Genre fiction… It asks the question. How are you going to fix it? It ennobles the idiotic savage. How many sci-fi stories have inspired new scientists? Neil Degrasse Tyson has indicated that it’s inspired him. How many fantasy stories have made activists of kids who have gotten inculcated into the concept of evil. They WANT to be heroes. Maybe it’s not the only thing, but start them young on something… and miracles are possible.

Hell start em old. Start them whenever. In Mysteries, terrible crimes get solved in a way they so rarely do when we see all the blood splashed all over the news. In fantasy, we fight evil and we win. In sci fi we explore and face our fears of the unknown. In romance we find love in spite of terrible obstacles.

We fucking need these things. Particularly now when the world DOES seem so horrible. We need to believe in doing the right thing, being brave, exploring. The challenges are HUGE and… well.. this is just my opinion but the only damned thing that is going to save our asses against the ever-yawning void of the banality of tragic indifference is an ascendancy of imagination.

Remember that part of Lord of the Rings when Gandalf is talking about the ephemeral nature of hope? Yeah. That. Right there. How many kids read that and said: Fuck yeah. That’s going to be me some day. I’m going to stand in front of the Witch King of Angmar and though he’s going to rend me to ribbons, it’s where i need to stand. How many looked into the stars and saw themselves in a spaceship scudding among them?

Genre fiction spits in the face of the impossible. It eats it for breakfast and poops out rainbows. And hell… we can’t go wrong when it teaches us that you can stand with a dwarf and an elf and battle a freaking dragon. A. FREAKING. DRAGON. It says: yeah… i know these people are weird, different, different races that i don’t really understand but right now, these are the crew that are going to battle THAT big fricking dragon so i don’t give one god damn that one’s short and the other has pointy ears.

So, yeah. We need it. And i’m happy to write it. I want to do it as well as i know how because i WANT some kid to read it and be like ‘hell yeah. This is what justice is all about. This is what friendship is all about. This is what i’m looking to create in MY life.’

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An Accidental Education: Games and the Real World, Etc.

As a writer and former devotee of fantastical works of fiction i have an uncomfortable relationship with the entertainment diaspora of video games. I should say straight out that i am also an avid gamer. This is not the same thing as saying i truly like them. They are still mostly a distraction, a diversion, and sometimes a complete and total waste of time. What interests me most about them is their potential. Games, like most writers, would be graded with the dubious distinction in the classroom of ‘not living up to their potential’ – a remark i’ve heard many times on my own report cards from when i was a lad of 15 – lo these many decades ago.

The trouble with video games is that they are not literature. Literature aims at explaining ourselves to ourselves, deepening the experience of our reality through identification with others. Games, on the other hand, accidentally stumble into a strange form of education. Well, some of them anyway. Most of them only educate you on the best way to dispatch zombies. But see i’m one of those management RPG gamers. I love The Sims, Civilization, the Total War epics, etc. Anything where you build empires and attempt to maintain and grow them is my thing. The war and killing stuff – ehn. You could leave that out of them and i would still be a pretty happy world builder.

Literature, you see, often stumbles into the human psyche, telling us a lot about ourselves and how we view the world and overcome our own foibles on a very personal level. Games, because they aren’t literature and generally aren’t written by those with a literary mind, don’t do this much. Sure there are the story games that come pretty close: Red Dead Redemption, the Grand Theft Auto series, etc. But for the most part they fall short because they are predicated on adversarial relationships of a violent (and entertaining) nature. Connection and real interest in the characters is often wanting – in the extreme. Therefore, truly interesting connection with the story isn’t really possible. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe reading, because it’s such a personal journey of the mind, can’t and shouldn’t be supplanted by games, but for an avid reader and a middling gamer i could use a little more.

Which finally brings me to the subject at hand. One thing i have noticed that games do very well is provide an opportunity to grasp difficult concepts in an informal and entertaining manner. The empire building games i love have really sparked my imagination and made me wish that even those games could do it better. Empire: Total War can be interesting in a way that a lecture on Napoleon and the age of Empires couldn’t. (unless you’re me of course) And the game itself is just deep enough to make it desirable to want to learn more. Age of Empires can teach about resource management and sustainability if you let it, and who could forget about trying to problem solve your way through the traffic snarls of SimCity?

I don’t believe that the designers of these games attempted much more than trying to make a lucrative game that would be widely engaging enough to make oodles of dough. That said they somehow stumbled into a way to teach real lessons about real things.

Lately i have been playing a lot of World of Warcraft. True to form i don’t just play. Well… I do – while i’m playing it, but whenever i log off i am flooded by the sociological, anthropological, and theoretical. I’m taken in by where it COULD take me if it were more developed and more focused and less bent on rampant entertainment. What i have learned, so far, about World of Warcraft is that it is a crash course on capitalistic entrepreneurism. Every character created and every player behind those characters, want what we all want – to acquire stuff, to be legendary, to be heroes. But within the world of Azeroth the primary means of this legendary status seems to be capitalistic. You buy your way to the top, by making things and selling them on the market – often attempting to manipulate the market in your favor.

The game itself, in terms of the stories it tells, has quite a bit of morality to it. Every race of characters has a story and it’s easy to sympathize, but the primary means of moving through the story eventually becomes economical. I don’t think of this necessarily as a bad thing. I mean, it’s a game and it’s always important to remember that (as some occasionally seem to forget) The fact remains, however, that there is more that games COULD do, if the writers were there to work on them. The stories COULD become a great means of interacting with a world that is more or less in your control, and the morality and ethics of the training that is possible if the world were well written could be an invaluable resource to a world that is getting smaller and smaller with each passing day and each bit of information shot across the world. Can you imagine, for instance, a conservative christian playing as a Paladin banding unwittingly with a conservative muslim to save a virtual home from a raging force? It’s these possibilities that could be better explored and i hope will be.

We’ve only scratched the surface of what video games are capable of but i think, in a way, these educational moments will have to remain accidental and not heavy handed. Technology seems to have thrown open the doors on the possible and shown where it crosses with the intentional and the accidental. We’ve concocted an entirely new realm (sometimes literally) where people learn quickly how to adapt the new tools at their hands and put them to a qualitative purpose. I’d like to think the best of this technology. In the past few weeks we’ve seen how it has started literally changing the world we live in. For a while now i’ve been saying the days of ‘Wars for Regime Change’ can finally be put behind us once we start securing the right of people to information. Instead of dropping bombs, drop servers, bandwith, tweets. Yeah. I know that’s a little fantastical and delusional but we have yet to fully discover just how delusional that is – particularly when the power of thought expressed, shared, and evading dictatorial repression has just moved two mountains in the past month.

So what can Games teach us? What can we learn about ourselves? What can we learn about others? Perhaps it will take a virtual world to teach us the value of the real one? Perhaps it will take Orcs and Taurens and Gnomes and Elves to teach us the absurdity of racial divides within ourselves? Who knows. Right now i can honestly say that Warcraft alone is fully capable of teaching us the intricacies of markets in a way the stock ticker on TV never could. I don’t know if thats a good thing or not but it’s more than i had before – particularly in regards to a subject i could have cared less about a month ago.

Now if you’ll pardon me i have to go check on how the Mageweave Cloth market is doing today and i’ve heard there’s a run on Iron Bars which i just happen to have on inventory.

Categories: Deep Thoughts, Video Games | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

All Hail Emperor Zhark!: Something Rotten Book review

Three days ago, sunday, i went to the not really local but still independent bookstore in the neighborhood and picked up three books. One of these books was the fourth of the Thursday Next series of books which my few minions will recognize that i’m totally addicted to. I finished it last night.

Generally i don’t read that fast. I don’t want to read that fast. I’m one of those ‘savor the book in a slow feast’ type guys, having a little morsel here and there, tearing off a chunk to chew on my way to work, etc. But Fforde lays a table of candy coated feasty goodness and i turn into a kid in a candy shop – i know, unforgivable use of cliche. The strange thing about Fforde’s writing is it doesn’t leave me full – in fact it’s like a delicious feast that leaves you wanting more, and luckily for all inquisitive readers the books are like launch pads to explore other writers, other books.

Book four finds our Plucky Heroine finally reappearing out of Bookworld to do dubious battle with the great and all too powerful Goliath Corporation (now trying to convert themselves into the most popular religion), and the fictional (fictional, of course taking on an entirely different significance here) English Chancellor Yorrick Kaine. She brings with her a new son, Friday, a juvenile delinquent Dodo Bird, Alan (son of the wonderful Pickwick) a morose Danish Prince who is worried about his penchant for equivocating, and the memories of a husband who never existed.

If you are familiar at all with the style of these books you’ll soak it in quick – that feeling of a great big plot stew, everything thrown in (including bits you think probably shouldn’t) add a dash of extreme weirdness and voila – a wonderfully strange novel you think can’t possibly work but somehow does. I honestly don’t know how Fforde manages to hold the whole thing – and his head – together while writing these gleeful hodgepodges. I know, for myself, i would probably send for the guys in white coats after finishing every novel, but somehow he manages to pull it off, leaving the reader just a little dizzy.

Well last night the novel left me with a serious case of the sniffles which is a first in the series. A beloved character, whose arc i managed to figure out a while back, finally revealed herself and expired and, well, in the middle of six foot hedgehogs, talking gorillas, a displaced Dane with an affection for Mel Gibson films, and plot devices so convoluted and twisted that the forest of them is opaque with baroque twists, there i was dazzled by a moment of honest tenderness.

the down side to attempting to write a review of such a thing is that it’s basically impossible to show the moments that produced the excitement and happiness without totally revealing the plot and ruining the experience for others. I mentioned this sensation before, but i reiterate the fact that i can only say the book is a whole lot of fun, and Fforde – though reigning in the dazzling cleverness of the last two novels – still retains a panache for the absurd that is not simply praiseworthy but should be lauded across the land – particularly in a world that seems to grow increasingly dire with each passing minute.

So maybe this isn’t the book you’ll be discussing with your literary friends trying to convince them that you’re a brilliant post avant critique, but it is one that you’ll tell your other friends about – the one’s who still stand slack jawed and marvel at words, and plots and characters. The one’s who might still read Hamlet for fun will get it, and if you know of any people who have privately whispered their admiration for Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams they will thank you for the suggestion.

And of course, Emperor Zhark – bloodthirsty interstellar tyrant that he is, is a wonderful character. Just sayin.

Categories: Book reviews | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

In Defense of Reading: (sigh) again…

I know it has been a while since my last post. Don’t worry. I have been busy, but after the high point of the end of NaNoWriMo, i’ve relapsed into a basic planning stage – biding my time, chewing the cud of the novel, spitting at passersby, that sort of thing. While words have been fewer and much more far between, they have continued and more ideas have been produced.

In fact i have been working so hard on generating ideas, and filling in the great, gaping, desert wide holes in the plot, that i have actually come up with one or two ideas for entirely new stories.

And then i wander into the ‘Why Bother?’ crowd while doing a little research on one of those ideas.

So here i am, starting in on a career – with much trepidation – at the ripe old age of 36. I have virtually no prospects for my fiction at present. I acknowledge that i haven’t the ‘qualifications’ of a writer (whatever those are and believe me i have wondered and pondered and despaired on that score for three decades). I’m stocking up the bookmarks on my browser, i’m getting a little more engaged on events, i’m starting to take it seriously.

And then I run into authors, published professionals no less, lamenting the fate of the written word in public and from every available soap box. It’s enough to get a budding scribe a little down.

So why bother? Why should you even bother to read? I mean you can glean oodles of information in seconds. Just type in whatever you want to know, hit search and at your fingertips are libraries of so called information available for the quick of eye and short of time. Congratulations.

Look. I get it. The world is moving really stupidly fast. You don’t have time to read. You have to wash the kids, brush the food, eat the meeting, drive the plane, dance like a dervish through the chaos of another fruitless day trying to catch up with the world which always seems just beyond your grasp. Why on earth would you have time to settle in with a book? Impossible! There are not enough hours in the day!

It’s really quite simple. Reading will save your life. I’m not talking about skimming, or gleaning the bare facts of something from a printed page, or an email, or a text message (though i would and will maintain that all of those are perfectly valid, though enormously truncated versions of literature). I am actually referring to finding a spot in the sun and curling up with a book. How will this save your life, you might ask?

For exactly the reason that you need to do it. I know. Silly circular argument. But listen closely – when you sit down with a book you are actually saving your life by slowing down the world, you are savoring it in a way that is otherwise not possible in any other way except meditation because reading is a meditation. There. I said it. It’s that simple.

When you read you are saying to the world that my life, chaotic and messy and faster than all hell that it is, is worth being saved. You are saying that i value my life enough to create the time to do it. Of course this can also be done listening to music, gardening, cooking, building a house, provided that you are doing that and only that. Any act, in meditation, is just that salvation you’re not getting from your television, or your Facebook, or your Twitter account, or your stupid job.

But reading is more than this. It is an illustration, a story, a self realization, a recognition, a moment where you actually grant yourself permission to think and think slowly and carefully about things. We don’t read superior literature because it will make us brilliant and easy to talk to – because quite frankly i have read a lot of ‘great literature’ and the best i can say is that people look at me funny when i bring it up in polite conversation. But that’s just the point. Because i read and because i care about the ideas that are transported between the book and myself, there is a much larger and much slower moving world that i have access to that would only become the dizzying morbid blur of nausea inducing motion that the rest of humanity seems intent on.

By the way, that dizzying, morbid, nauseating blur is the handbasket your sitting in – in free fall to where all handbaskets inevitably end up.

I guaranty that you will never learn psychology better than at the hands of Shakespeare, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dickenson. Doctor Phil could spend the rest of his days attempting to explain their insights to you and he would fail as miserably as he always does. You will never learn beauty and love without Rumi, Shelley, The Brontes. Okay, you might. But it will take longer and it will be just a little less colorful. Read and you will slow your life down. Read more and you will find it more manageable. Read even more and you might even start to enjoy it a little, finding little moments of the day reflected in words on a printed page, in a poem, in a glittering paragraph by Wilde or a terse, abrupt word by Hemingway.

Reading isn’t dead, nor is writing for that matter. It is merely changing. I am not a fan of the ebook and i don’t think i ever will be but it might be a boon in the end as people slip it surreptitiously into their busy techno-crammed lives. Writing will and is changing to the little bits of literature, delivered like koans to be read, enjoyed and discarded. A tweet is not literature, but it could be. A Facebook status can be as fine as a haiku or a sonnet and the novel will persist, the short story will evolve, new readers will be created in the strangest places. But for all of these tiny missives, thrown to the wolves of a voracious interconnected readership, don’t forget to take time and reconnect with your own head in some nice long piece of fiction.

The real point of reading is not necessarily to fill your head with all sorts of stuff and be big and smart and superior – though that is a bit of a side effect. The point is just to get in contact with your head at all, which is generally so busy trying to process information like mad that it doesn’t have time to talk to you right now. This leaves you in the unenviable position of being a minor passenger on a train that is completely out of control and speeding by everything of value.

I guess you know where the tracks end up. Same place as the Handbasket.

Categories: Fiction | Tags: , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

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