Monday, August 25, 2014

Nerds and their toys; or, The thing you like is not your ego

The World Fantasy Award is--and I hope this isn't too big of a shock--an award for best fantasy in the usual major categories (novel, novella, short fiction, anthology, etc.). The award statue is a caricature of Lovecraft--or, if we're being honest, a pretty faithful view of Lovecraft.

Now, Lovecraft is a guy with a spotty legacy in a few areas. Some people today think he's a bad writer because he occasionally used odd words ("squamous") and his mad narrators can be a little completely insane in their descriptions.

But where Lovecraft really shines for people who don't like him is in his racism, which is very real. Though it's also more complex than some people seem to understand: when looking at historical racism, it's important to understand that their racism is not our racism. So, Lovecraft has some things to say about Africans and Asians--and also Eastern, Southern, and Northern Europeans. Also the British at times. Also: Yankees. Or put it this way: Lovecraft has some really mean things to say about the Jews--or at least, Eastern European Jews. He has no problems with Portuguese Jews. And his hatred of blacks in NYC is pretty clearly a hatred of southern culture. And for all the evil mixed race people--whether that mix is human or monstrous--there's no real notion that there are some completely clean people in those encounters.

But put that to the side for a moment, because, however complex and nuanced Lovecraft's racism can be, he's also just a racist.

So now we come to the main issue that's rocking a very tiny corner of the nerdosphere these days: should we change the statue for the World Fantasy Award so that it doesn't look like we're honoring Lovecraft? Why don't we honor someone else, like respected author, Octavia Butler? That, at least, is what the petition going around now asks for.

I have to say, at first, I was not influenced by the anti-Lovecraft petition, largely because (a) I like Lovecraft's work; (b) I think the statue--designed by Gahan Wilson--is neat; and (c) it was easy to get into the weeds of the argument that the statue should be changed. About that last point, the argument should simply just be that Lovecraft's racism makes him a bad choice for a statue honoring fantasy. That's a pretty persuasive argument, to me. Instead, some of the anti-Lovecraft bloggers and writers have pointed out that he's not a great writer or didn't write fantasy--neither of which are really true. And when Butler got proposed, I think many people scratched their heads: she has far less fantasy in her works than Lovecraft does.

If I were for changing the statue, my argument would simply be: because of his racism, he's a bad emblem for fantasy; and rather than all pick our favorite authors, we should choose something more abstract or symbolic to represent the award.

(For comparison, the science fiction awards are symbolic: the Hugo Award's statue is a rocket, while the Nebula Award's statue is a... nebula. Sure, those symbols harken to a time when science fiction was synonymous with space, but everyone understands that they are symbols. Even if you don't have a rocket in your novel, you can enjoy your Hugo. So it's perfectly reasonable for the World Fantasy Award to be something like a dragon or a sword or something similarly symbolic of fantasy.)

But now that I've seen all the pro-Lovecraft arguments--mostly in the form of whining about political correctness--I'm really coming around to the idea that we should change the statue. Maybe this happens in all sorts of genres and hobbies, but people who love Lovecraft--among whom I usually include myself, except in this occasion--sure can't tell the difference between an attack on Lovecraft and an attack on themselves. It's like any negative comment about Lovecraft is aimed at their own ego.

I don't want to single out Lovecraft fans, especially after listening to a podcast discussion about the Game of Thrones tv show vs. the books where one nerd talked about how the show was threatening to ruin his reading experience. On one hand, I get where he's coming from, since the books are very plot-heavy and surprising. On the other hand, oh brother--discussing this particular media property in the hushed tones of romantic and religious exaltation seems a little overdone. I've had movies and books "spoiled" for me and you know what? I still enjoyed those books and movies. Demanding that no one else gets to enjoy something because their enjoyment threatens yours, that's not any way to go through life.

This seems to be something that nerds in particular are given over to: the adoption of some particular works as central to their identity. And again, one hand: I get it, because when most culture is set up in a way that doesn't excite you and then you discover something that does--something that no one else is excited about--of course you're likely to take that on as a part of yourself. Everyone else cares about football and you're the only one reading Dragonlance books? Then you may think of yourself as the person who reads Dragonlance books. But seriously, we nerds do ourselves no favors when we calcify our identities and associate our egos with some particular person or work.

Or for the bumper sticker: No matter how much you love Lovecraft, he does not love you back.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 241: George R. Gleig, Storming the Capital (#241)

George R. Gleig, "Storming the Capital" (1821) from The War of 1812: Writings from America’s War of Independence:

Last week, we read Dolley Madison's letters to her sister around the time of the British invasion of Washington, D.C.; this week, we get about the same time period from the POV of a triumphant British soldier.

First thing to note is that the young Gleig (18 at the time he joined the fight against Napoleon in 1813) is writing a memoir to be published; so if his writing seems a little more audience-friendly than Dolley's note to her sister, there's a reason for that.

(Still, quick lesson for writers: if you want to give a description--here, of the land--because it's necessary to understand some later issue, feel free to tell us that BEFORE you go on with your description. Gleig gives his reason after, which is no way to win friends.)

Second, while Dolley was writing from within the historical moment--and so limited in not knowing how that history would work out--Gleig is writing after the fact and writing a comprehensive note on the war. So, when he describes how strong the American position was, even before he says it, he knows the second part of that sentence: what a strong position those losers had. Similarly, when he's describing the destruction of Washington, D.C., it's interesting to note that the British army at that moment is split up into two groups--and he's never clear as to which group he personally was in.

Third and related, Gleig writes for posterity, so he explains pretty clearly how the British won the battle of Bladensburg even though they were outnumbered and the Americans were strongly positioned. (Answer: the Americans did a very poor job of soldiering. Though Gleig does take time to praise the American seamen who were on artillery duty.)

He also explains--with a mixture of righteousness and slight embarrassment--the aftermath of the battle: when a British detachment came into D.C. under flag of truce to negotiate the surrender of certain goods (plunder being an integral part of war at that time), they were fired upon, which is why the British decided to burn some government buildings. It's curious to me that I'd never heard about the envoys being fired on; and it's also curious how Gleig expresses some regret that the British army burned and destroyed the archives and some printing offices. Which, again, may be something he felt at the time, but is clearly something you might reconsider when looking at the battle as a historical event.

Monday, August 18, 2014

A Serial Killer in Every Kitchen: Hannibal and weird dialogue

As others have noted before, according to TV-reality, the US is primarily made of serial killers and sex criminals, which is a stark contrast to real reality, where we are largely made of cheese and color additives.

Hannibal takes this observation to the logical conclusion: if everyone is a serial killer, then even the people trying to stop the serial killers are going to be serial killers. Or at least incredibly unstable people with points-of-view that would make Lovecraft say, "Nah, bro, too dark."

I won't say too much because I (a) don't want to spoil it for anyone and (b) am not done with the first season myself. I will say that it is a show that really highlights how crazy American standards are for violence vs. sex. To wit: there are a lot of dead people, many naked, but we'd never see that much skin on a primetime, major network show if the body was alive and in bed rather than, say, draped over a table of antlers in a field.

It's also a show that beautifully breaks one of the cardinal rules of scriptwriting for many genres: "dialogue should be like real talk, only better"; or "... like real talk, with the boring bits removed." Many beginning screenwriters (::cough:: me ::cough::) and many beginning drafts may start with dialogue that's really helpful to the audience, but not at all realistic.

"Why did I ever listen to you when you told me that this mine held the lost diamond that would buy my family's farm back from that evil developer" is not something someone would really say. "I'm so mad at you for leaving me, especially because of my abandonment issues after my dad's plane crashed under mysterious circumstances" might work in a comedy.

Or put another way: When Han Solo brags that the Millennium Falcon is the ship that made the Kessel run in less than twelve parsecs, we in the audience don't think, "wow, I can barely get dressed and out the door in less than twelve parsecs." We think, "Boy, this guy really loves his ship / is full of shit." The content of the line gives us less information than the tone and context of the line. The beginning writer forgets that and tries to jam info into the words, usually using too many.

In Hannibal, certain characters--mostly the dangerous killer Hannibal and the unstable criminal profiler Will Graham--speak occasionally as if they've wondered in from Clark Ashton Smith or Thomas Ligotti. (Now I can use Thomas Ligotti as an example, thanks to the plagiarism brouhaha over True Detective, so--thanks, True Detective!)

And it's great precisely because it's so weird and precisely because the content of the lines is still less important than the tone and the context. Hannibal may go on about how the enclosure turns the tortoise into a god--oh, wait, that's Twitter's Hannibal at the Zoo--which doesn't really tell us anything about the tortoise, but tells us all about Hannibal's weirdness.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 240: Dolley Madison, “Dear sister, I must leave this house” (#240)

Dolley Madison, “Dear sister, I must leave this house” (1814) from The War of 1812: Writings from America’s War of Independence:

Today's entry is a letter from Dolley Madison to her sister before (and about) the British occupation of Washington during the War of 1812. It's interesting to read her letter next to the headnote that comments on how different versions of this story get told, another reminder that eyewitness accounts of history ain't always all their cracked up to be. (You'd think a private correspondence written soon after the fact might be trustworthy; but who knows Dolley's relationship with her sister? Do you tell your family the total truth? And let's add that this letter isn't even the original copy.)

The basic story is that the Americans didn't expect the British to take Washington. So Dolley Madison took some care to prepare for an evacuation--though it's clear that some of the evacuation was also done at last minute, when it was clear that the British were, ahem, coming. In her letter, she notes that she took papers of government, the valuables of the house (not her own private property), and a picture of George Washington (this famous one--which also has a weird story behind it). In the letter, they try to take the picture down, but end up having to break up the frame; in a later version, Dolley herself climbs up to cut the picture out of the frame; in a version written by a slave of theirs, Paul Jennings, Dolley only had time to take away the silver.

For me, there's a certain inevitability to the whole historical issue, something we've seen over and over: will we ever know what happened? Probably not. So what really interests me here is how Dolley represents her own feelings at the time. At one moment, she's declaring that she won't leave without her husband; at another, she's noting that a letter from him--in pencil!--gives her great anxiety about this war; and at another moment, she notes that a faithful servant called French John has a plan to blow up the White House and she can't make him understand why they can't take advantage of all the opportunities. Which seems the most interesting to me. Who is this French John? Why couldn't he understand? Is it because he's French (which I doubt) or because he's a black slave (which I strongly infer)? Is he, in fact, the same slave who later wrote his memoirs about his time in the White House?

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Robin Williams

Reading blog posts, tweets, and Facebook status messages about Robin Williams, I am struck by the fact that I have nothing new to say about his death. I could assemble an entire blog post about my feelings and memories cobbled together from what other people have said:
like you, I was allowed to watch some things with Robin Williams that were maybe over my head or a little racy because my mom loved him, probably from his time on Mork and Mindy
(I think I saw World According to Garp around puberty, when the focus on penises and what to do with them seemed totally reasonable);
like you, I had a tape of some of his comedy and could do many of his jokes from memory; 
(for me, even more than my Comic Relief cassette, it was the soundtrack to Good Morning, Vietnam--"What is a protective dike anyway? Is it a large woman that says 'Don't go near there!'?"); 
like you, I remember him for his hilarious comedic performances and for those other movies he did: the dramatic, the quirky, the little oddball roles that he could bring real depth to, the movies that no one else but me liked--except now I'm learning that you liked them too; 
(sure, Dead Poets Society, The Fisher King, Toys, but did you see him as the mad anarchist bomber in The Secret Agent, with his "I myself have no future. But I am a force" speech?, oh, fuck I'm crying again); 
like you, Robin Williams's struggles with addiction and depression and suicide call up other struggles, both in my own life and in the lives of my loved ones;
(...);
and like you, Robin Williams's death hits me hard--harder than I expected.
I wanted to write something about him and about his death, because it shocked and still shocks me. But now I'm struck by how common the responses are, how my feelings and thoughts are pretty widely shared. Usually, that's the kind of blog post or tweet I run from. But now, when so much of our culture is geared towards novelty and (the illusion of) originality, it seems important to recognize how much we share.

Robin Williams could make us laugh together and he could make us cry together.

Maybe that's why one of the shared images that got to me was Robin Williams on the picket line of the writers' strike.

Because here was a man who seemed to understand the importance of solidarity, of charity, of offering a helping hand to the person on the step below you; a man whose work brought and still brings many people together, whether laughing or crying; a man who even now, in our grief, is reminding us of what we share.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Home, but soon away

Again, a boring little meta post to explain why I don't have a big critical post up about The Guardians of the Galaxy. (Short: it was fun, with some caveats.) I am now home--not my NY home, where my parents live and where I grew up, but my San Angelo home, with my girlfriend and dog.

And in a few weeks, I will be leaving his home for a few months, to take an immersive web development course in Austin. After debating about accommodations and sublets, I've decided to go with the simplest and most social option of staying in the DevHouse, the student-dorm-lite-like house owned by one of the founders of the program.

There's some definite down-sides to this choice--they don't allow pets, so if Sarah and the puppy come to visit, we'll have to find somewhere else to stay for a weekend; but since I have a wide stay-at-home/introvert streak, I wanted something that would combat that and make socializing (and late-night coding) an easy option.

Still, a nagging question: should I get a shower caddy?

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 239: Toshio Mori, Japanese Hamlet (#239)

Toshio Mori, "Japanese Hamlet" (1946) from Shakespeare in America: An Anthology from the Revolution to Now:

A Japanese-American son gives up all worldly interests of job and money in order to dedicate himself to becoming the best Shakespearean actor in the world. He survives on a small allowance from his family, which otherwise ignores or berates him. The narrator is a friend or neighbor who listens to this actor-trainee as he runs through the roles--he loves playing Hamlet best--until the narrator starts feeling guilty about this guy's failure to move forward with his life: sure, keep reading and practicing Shakespeare, but maybe you should go out and try to meet up with some theater people?

Now I say "Japanese-American" because the character's name is Tom Fukunaga and he lives in Piedmont (California?), but there's so little about this that actually bears directly on ethnicity. It's not like Tom's parents want him to get a job because he's Japanese-American. You could tell the same basic story for an Irish-American or a Jewish-American character or any sort of ethnicity: some guy has a dream, but is so wrapped up in that dream that he doesn't do any of the work to move towards it.

That said, perhaps there's some subtextual ethnic/race issues: in the 1940s, could a Japanese-American get on stage as Hamlet, the Danish prince? Or to make this more personal, Toshio Mori was going to have a book published in 1942--but that plan was scuttled when the attack on Pearl Harbor intensified anti-Japanese feelings. So there's a way to read Tom's refusal to try to get on stage as pre-emptive: he knows he won't get on as Hamlet, so why try? Still, this feels like reading into the story.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Home, so...

I am home, which naturally both interrupts my blogging schedule, and, well, interrupts every other schedule I have.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 238: Anonymous, No Room in the Cemetery (#238)

Anonymous, "No Room in the Cemetery" (1966) from Reporting Vietnam: American Journalism 1959–1969:
Friends and neighbors of the 19-year-old youth, who was killed in Viet Nam May 19th when grenade fragments ripped into his body, crowded funeral rites at the Newton Church of Christ in Montgomery Sunday.
That's a hell of a sentence, and the whole of the paragraph. This short, anonymous article tends to move like this sentence, packing lots of information into spaces where you might not expect it. I can't help but think that the author threw in that bit about how Jimmy Williams died--and how visceral it was--to drive home the strangeness of this burial.

Because this piece may be in the book on Vietnam reportage, but this snapshot is of America with some deep racial problems. Jimmy was buried in Georgia because there was no room in the Alabama cemetery close to his family, a segregated cemetery.

It's curious to me that this story is written in a somewhat inflammatory style for a journalistic article. Against our current and terrible commitment to "balance" in the news, this article is pretty clear in taking a side, taking the controversial stand that a black soldier killed in an American war should be treated equally. I'm being a little facetious here--it's like when people today come out against slavery and the Holocaust--but I shouldn't be: back then, as this article makes clear, that was still an open issue. But what I'm really curious about here was the prospective audience and how they might've reacted to this piece, printed in the Baltimore Afro-American. The article's author is clearly upset by this, but how did everyone feel after reading the article? Did articles like this change people's minds or galvanize them into action and resistance?