Monday, February 19, 2018

Politics in fiction, and the pitfalls of agitprop

One of you recently asked me, “How do a writer’s political views show up in his or her fiction? When do politics in fiction go too far?” 

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Authors most often reveal their political and philosophical views through selectivity. In other words: which stories they choose to tell, or which stories they are instinctively drawn to.

Let’s take the War on Terror as a thematic example. 

A conservative author is going to be inclined to write a novel about heroic FBI and CIA agents stopping the next 9-11 terrorist attack. 

This is a perfectly valid story choice. Islamic terrorists have staged attacks in the West, after all. Not just 9-11, but the London subways bombings, and the Boston Marathon bombing. Islamic terrorism is a real problem, and a fair topic for a story. 

A politically left-leaning author, on the other hand, would take the theme of the War on Terror in a different direction. She might write a novel about collateral damage from American drone strikes in the Middle East. Or she might write a story about a peace-loving Muslim college student who was unjustly accused of aiding Islamic extremists.

These, too, are valid choices. There has been collateral damage from American drone strikes in the Middle East. And it is certainly not impossible to imagine a Muslim college student being falsely accused of aiding terrorism. False accusations occur in every legal system on Earth, after all—including the American one. 

In the above examples, both authors are showing their political hands somewhat. Both (might) be accused, by hyper-sensitive readers, of writing stories that are “biased” or “political”. But neither of these authors has yet strayed into the realm of “agitprop”—which is something that the fiction writer wants to avoid at all costs.

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What is agitprop? The English word agitprop is taken from the Russian агитпроп. (If you can read the Cyrillic alphabet, you’ll see the immediate resemblance to the English word.) Agitprop is a combination of “agitation and propaganda” in art. 

In film or fiction, agitprop is a story that exists solely to form the vehicle for a political message—which is usually one-sided and without nuance. Agitprop is not story informed by politics, but story subverted to politics. 

Both the Soviets and the Mainland Chinese cranked out agitprop during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. The storylines were always predictable, and designed to instruct the masses on the glories of communism and the decadence of the capitalist West. 

Russian and Chinese storytelling have improved considerably in recent years. (I recently watched the Russian-Ukrainian film, Battle for Sevastapol. Wow, was it a good a movie!) But the North Koreans still create agitprop, and the results are predictably cringeworthy. 

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In English-language literature, one of the most common genres for agitprop is dystopian fiction. 

The setup usually goes something like this: Liberals/conservatives take over the government, and America (or the UK, etc.) turns into a leftwing/rightwing dictatorship. Rampant tyranny and pervasive misery ensue.

A specific example in this category would be Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. I don’t mind a novel with feminist themes, or a movie in which head-shaking male chauvinists get their comeuppances from a strong, capable female protagonist. (In fact, I rather like strong female protagonists in film and fiction—because they are usually far more interesting than their weaker alternatives.)

But Margaret Atwood’s story of women being turned into breeding cattle by evangelical white males in a near-future America is unrealistic, nakedly ideological, and…well, ridiculous

Atwood wasn’t telling a story with The Handmaid’s Tale, she was going on a rant. The Handmaid’s Tale is pure agitprop. It is also one of the most overrated and overhyped novels in American literary history. (And—before you ask—yes, I’ve read the book. I’ve also seen the 1990 film adaptation.)

But there are rightwing versions of the agitprop novel, too. Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged comes immediately to mind. While not technically a dystopian novel, Atlas Shrugged has strong dystopian overtones. It is also filled with cardboard-cutout characters who exist as simplistic representations of abstract ideas. 

Even worse, Atlas Shrugged is filled with long-winded political disquisitions. The most prominent of these—John Galt’s 60-page speech—is enough to compel the most dedicated of readers to seek out mindless distraction on Facebook or television.  

*        *         *

The fiction writer need not strive for complete political neutrality. There are some topics—crime, race, terrorism—that are nearly impossible to write about without pushing some readers’ buttons. (Especially in this day and age, when so many people are actively looking for reasons to be offended.)

And while the writer should strive to create complex characters with conflicting motivations, it is not always possible, or even desirable, to present “all sides” of a given issue in a work of fiction. A novel should not aspire to be a symposium, or a round-table discussion, on a sociopolitical subject. 

Wonder Woman is a female superhero. By design, every Wonder Woman movie is going to contain a degree of feminist inferences. How could it be otherwise? And that is always going to annoy a small subgroup of male viewers, who perceive every assertive woman as a “feminazi” Likewise, every novel in which the Muslim character really is a terrorist (as opposed to a peace-loving, misunderstood humanitarian) will be panned by some readers as “Islamophobic”. 

The writer shouldn’t worry about fine-grain distinctions like that. But the writer should not write a novel in which a ham-fisted political message completely overwhelms the plot and the characters. 

When writing about political topics in fiction, always beware the pitfalls of agitprop. 

Sunday, February 18, 2018

The end of Barnes & Noble

As reported on TechCrunch, the end is nigh for Barnes & Noble:

I’ve been chronicling the slow demise of B&N for years now, watching the company bleed out, drop by drop, until it has become a shell of its former value. B&N was a cultural center in places without cultural centers. It was a stopover on rainy days in New York, Chicago, and Cleveland and it was a place you could go to get your kids’ first books. 
That’s mostly over now. On Monday the company laid off 1,800 people. This offered a cost savings of $40 million. But that’s particularly interesting. That means each of those people made an average of $22,000 or so per year and minimum wage workers – hourly folks who are usually hit hardest during post-holiday downturns – would be making $15,000. In fact, what B&N did was fire all full time employees at 781 stores. 

In the Cincinnati area, most of the Barnes & Noble stores closed a few years ago, so the chain has already ceased to exist for me, in all practical terms. 

I miss the walk-in bookstore. As recently as a decade ago, there were no fewer than four Barnes & Noble and Border stores within a thirty-minute drive of my house. 

Now there are none.

I spent significant chunks of time in these stores during my twenties and early thirties. I'm more than a little nostalgic about their passing. 

During my 1980s childhood in Cincinnati, the Waldenbooks at the local mall defined bookstores for me. I was first exposed to Borders when I moved to Columbus for a few years right out of college. I couldn't believe that there could be a single store--so large!--devoted only to books.

Borders was like heaven for me. And so was B&N, after I discovered it around the same time. 

After I moved back to Cincinnati in 1996, one of my first steps was to chart out all the Barnes & Noble and Borders locations in the area. There were many of them then. 

These were my favorite hangouts on Saturday morning. I bought a lot of books at both stores over the years. (I also met two girlfriends at B&N, but that's another story for another time.) 

The big retail bookstore is not the only thing I miss from the 1990s. I was also a huge fan of Blockbuster. 

But as I've confessed here many times, I'm an unabashed throwback. The twenty-first century and I coexist on less than harmonious terms.  

A kinder, gentler, more secular America? Think again.

It is no longer meaningful to speak of the “Christian West”. Europe has been abandoning traditional Christianity for at least a century. America, too—as measured by regular church attendance—is becoming increasingly secular. And secularization is not only for pot-smoking lefties anymore. Republicans and rightwing voters are increasingly secular, too.

Oh joy! Now everyone will be kind, cool-headed, and rational, right? 

Not exactly. As C.K. Chesterton (1874 - 1936) presciently wrote, “When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything.” 

The evidence for Chesterton’s assertion abounds in our present political landscape.

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What we see today, on both the right and the left, is not the triumph of cool-headed Enlightenment values, but a new left-right paganism in which identity-group politics are elevated to the status of a quasi-religion. 

On the left, this takes the form of a semi-religious obsession with transgenderism, which is far out of proportion to the number of people who actually identify as transgender. We can also see this in the unholy rage of Black Lives Matter activists who openly call for violence against police officers. 

This is not your grandparents’ liberalism, in other words. Neither Jimmy Carter nor Martin Luther King Jr.—two compassionate religious liberals of a previous age—would be embraced by today’s angry, secular left.

We see the effects of radical secularism on the far right as well: At last May’s ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville, young extremists carried anti-Christian swastika banners. 

The Nazis were disdainful of Christianity because Christianity is incompatible with racism. Christianity is universalist; it requires compassion and brotherhood across nationalities and ethnic groups. (The Nazis, in fact, had a grand plan to scrap Christianity in Germany, and to replace it with a modified version of pre-Christian German paganism.) 

If today’s conservatives (particularly younger ones) reject Christianity, we should not be surprised that they—like their young leftwing counterparts—will be susceptible to the barnyard logic of identity-group politics. 

As Mr. Chesterton warned us, people need something to believe in. And tribalism has an age-old appeal. 

*      *      *

The New Atheist writer Christopher Hitchens (1949 - 2011) subtitled his 2007 book, God Is Not Great  “How Religion Poisons Everything.” 

On the contrary, Christianity has more often served as a unifying force in American culture, encouraging us to right old wrongs and to resolve our differences. 

Martin Luther King’s embrace of Christian non-violence forced apathetic whites throughout the United States to acknowledge that the treatment of African Americans under the Jim Crow regime in the South was wrong. Christianity had also been the driving force behind the original abolitionist movement of a hundred years prior. 

More recently, Christianity was a fundamental influence of the “compassionate conservatism” of Ronald Reagan, Jack Kemp, and George W. Bush. (Notice that you don’t see the alt right talking about “compassionate conservatism,” except to occasionally ridicule it.)

Writing in The Atlantic last year, Peter Beinart observed that the secularized right and left are proving to be far angrier, far more intolerant, and far more violent than their Christian-influenced predecessors were:

“For whatever reason, secularization isn’t easing political conflict. It’s making American politics even more convulsive and zero-sum.
For years, political commentators dreamed that the culture war over religious morality that began in the 1960s and ’70s would fade. It has. And the more secular, more ferociously national and racial culture war that has followed is worse.”

Anyone who believes that de-Christianization will make America a kinder, gentler, more rational place really needs to spend a few hours observing the shrill online behavior of Internet atheists. (Internet atheists are generally so obnoxious, that I suspect they drive some people to the nearest church out of sheer spite.) 

There is no evidence for the assertion that a lack of religious belief will make people more compassionate or rational. More often than not, in fact, the nihilistic moral code of atheism gives license to people’s basest and cruelest impulses.

We should not forget that the two bloodiest regimes of the last century—the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany—explicitly rejected Christian values. This historical evidence does not bode well for our post-Christian future. 

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Should writers read reviews?

Someone asked me the other day what I thought of that oft given advice that writers—especially fiction writers—should not read reader reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. 

I spent many years in the corporate world, and that has affected my biases. No marketing manager worth his or her salt would suggest that ignoring customer feedback is a smart move. 

If you wish to make a living (or at least enough money to justify the endeavor) as a writer, then you need to think of your readers as your customers. 

That said, there are some important disclaimers to keep in mind.

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1.) Art is subjective. Not everyone is going to like your work. I don’t care who you are, or what you’ve written. 

Let me give you a concrete example. For my money, Michael Connelly’s crime novels are pretty close to perfect. I’ve read the entire Harry Bosch series, and I have yet to read a single one that I didn’t like. 

Most readers agree with me. And yet—Michael Connelly’s most recent Harry Bosch novel, Two Kinds of Truth, has received over two hundred 1- and 2-star reviews on Goodreads. 

I am reading some of the negative reviews of Two Kinds of Truth on Goodreads as I type this. I just don’t get it. I read Two Kinds of Truth, and I read every page of the book with sheer delight—as I have all of Connelly’s novels.

But on the other hand, I cannot, for the life of me, figure out the appeal of the films of Quentin Tarantino. 

I’ve watched Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill, Inglourious Basterds, The Hateful Eight, and Django Unchained.   

I’m sorry; but I think the films of Quentin Tarantino are almost unwatchable. 

But what do I know? Millions of people love Tarantino’s movies. Quentin Tarantino has been a successful director since the mid-1990s. That isn’t a fluke. 

The people who love Quentin Tarantino’s movies are not “wrong”. Nor are the readers who didn’t like Two Kinds of Truth. The lesson here is that tastes in art vary by individual; and a song, movie, or novel that speaks to one person may leave another cold—or even angry (more on this shortly). 

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2.) But here’s a big disclaimer to the above: To paraphrase Stephen King (who was paraphrasing Abraham Lincoln): You may not be able to please all of your readers all of the time. But you should be able to please at least some of your readers, some of the time. 

Without the objective standard of the marketplace, it is all too easy for a writer to become overly self-indulgent, lazy, or navel-gazing. 

The writer should, I believe, gage reader reviews (or other forms of feedback) to ascertain that a book is a “viable product”.

What this means is that a significant number of people who are not your mom, your significant other, or your best friend have read the book and given it a thumbs-up, a “this works for me” imprimatur of approval. 

If a hundred random people really like a story, and a hundred random people really don’t, then it’s okay to split the difference in favor of the author.  

But if two hundred random people don’t like a story, then you may have a problem. In fact, you almost certainly have a problem. 

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3.) Some readers actively seek to be offended. They will be unscrupulous in their reviews; and there’s nothing you can do about it. There was a day when critics and reviewers were expected to judge art objectively, and filter out their political and philosophical biases. 

That day is long gone. In these hyper-sensitive times, many readers will brazenly pan a book because they don’t like the politics of the main character, the politics they believe is implied in the story, or the politics that the author has expressed on social media.

Back to Michael Connelly’s Two Kinds of Truth: At least two of the negative reader reviews I found panned the book because one of the characters expresses an anti-Trump sentiment. 

I noted this; but it was a minor aspect of the book. To describe Two Kinds of Truth as an anti-Trump diatribe would be a gross exaggeration. 

But leftwing “review mobs” are far more common, especially on Goodreads. This reviewer initially made a moderately favorable assessment of Larry Correia’s Monster Hunter International. But after disagreeing with some of the author’s social media posts, she changed her 3-star review to a 1-star. 

The reviewer—who is also a Goodreads librarian (in other words, someone with actual power within the Goodreads ecosystem)—has engaged in such shenanigans on more than one occasion. 

I haven’t yet been attacked for the real or imagined politics of one of my stories. One reader-reviewer, however, did give my suburban thriller Our House a 1-star review because I chose a villain who is in late middle age. 

The reviewer wrote, on both Amazon and Goodreads: There is nothing good in the book the characters were one dimensional. I couldn't believe it, and if your [sic] over 50 be prepared to be insulted though out [sic] the book.” 

There is more than a little bit of irony here. If someone wishes to take issue with my center-right politics, my heteronormativity, or my cisgendered white maleness, that might be fair game. But my bias against the no-longer-young? I don’t think so. 

I turn fifty myself this year—and I mentally turned fifty about a decade ago. If you read my blog, you’ll know that I drift closer to the category of “middle age curmudgeon” than “young hipster”. 

I am anything but a young hipster. In fact, I sometimes (half-) jokingly invert that old slogan of the 1960s: “Don’t trust anyone over thirty.” My version of the line is: “Don’t trust anyone under forty.” 

There are countless examples of politically motivated, punitive 1-star reader reviews (especially on Goodreads). I don’t recommend that the writer attempt to spar with such folks by leaving comments. But nor should such diatribes be taken as serious, legitimate reviews.  

*        *         *

4.) Every book has it’s target market. Readers from outside that target market, even if the book is good, will sometimes assign low ratings. 

At the urging of a much younger female acquaintance, I once tried to read John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars

I made it through about fifty pages before giving up. I had the same experience with Gayle Forman’s If I Stay

This isn’t because either of these books is objectively “bad”. This is, rather, because both books are targeted at female teen readers. Both contain lots of sappy teen romance, and male protagonists who are sure to annoy anyone who is not a teenage girl. 

I am, as noted previously, a fifty-ish, heterosexual man. Suffice it to say that I am not within the target market for these books. 

It isn’t that I can’t handle stories that don’t contain car chases or shootouts, or that I don’t like fiction written by women. On the contrary—I very much enjoyed Lucinda Rosenfeld’s literary novel, Class. I also liked Mary Miller’s The Last Days of California

But teenage girl romance novels? No, sorry—I just can’t go there. 

I didn’t rate either The Fault in Our Stars or If I Stay on Amazon or Goodreads. This was because I knew that my ratings would be low—and unfairly low. As a corollary to my previous statement: Neither of these books is objectively “bad”; but neither was the book I was looking for—because I’m not the target audience. 

Very often 2- and 3-star reviews come from readers who simply wanted the writer to pen a different book. My corporate thriller, The Eavesdropper, received one such two-star review. The reader stated that rather than a workplace murder conspiracy, I should have written a novel about a conspiracy to kill the president, or a terrorist conspiracy to steal a powerful weapon. 

That’s a fair expression of preference; but the disgruntled reader was actually looking for a novel by Vince Flynn, Tom Clancy, or Clive Cussler. The Eavesdropper is more akin to a novel by Joseph Finder or John Grisham. 

I don’t blame the reader for not liking the book; but I might have pointed out that had he read the description, he could have seen that The Eavesdropper is a claustrophobic corporate conspiracy thriller, not a big-stage novel about the fate of the Free World. 

When your book winds up in the wrong hands, it is usually because a.) the title, cover, or book description are off, or b.) you have given the book away to thousands of random people. 

In the aforementioned situation, the 2-star review occurred because of b.) above. When I launched The Eavesdropper, I gave away thousands of free copies. I also made the book available on Kindle Unlimited.

It is inevitable that your book will occasionally end up in the hands of the wrong reader. (I ended up with a copy of The Fault in Our Stars, after all.) But proper marketing and packaging of a book can prevent many such mismatches. 

Reviews from readers who were simply looking for another book should not be ignored out of hand, like those from readers throwing temper tantrums over politics. But these should be assessed primarily as failures of marketing—not failures of writing.  

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So where does all this leave us? I believe that reader reviews should be taken into account, but they should also be read with a discerning eye. Just as not all books are brilliantly written, not all reader reviews are fair, thoughtful, or even rational.

Do not—I repeat—do not adjust your entire writing strategy with each review. “O, that way madness lies.”

Nevertheless, it pays to remember that even if you’re self-employed, you always work for someone. If you’re a professional writer, you ultimately work for readers.

Don’t dismiss the feedback of your customers. Do remember that there are one million of them; and some of them will inevitably decide to fire you. 

This is a natural part of the process. Once your writing reaches a certain level of competence, it is usually better to focus on finding the readers who do like what you do, versus contorting yourself in vain attempts to please the ones who don’t—and probably never will. 

Is the problem guns….or mental illness?

In the wake of last week’s tragic school shooting in Florida, a great debate has recommenced: Is our epidemic of school shootings—now roughly twenty years old—a problem of gun control, or a problem of mental illness? 

You’ve seen this debate in your personal Facebook feed, and on Twitter—if you still bother with Twitter. (I largely don’t bother with Twitter anymore.) The fanciful idea of arming teachers has also been floated once again. 

(My teachers were, by and large, wonderful people; but there isn’t a single one of them whom I can imagine returning gunfire in a hostile situation.) 

We’ve also learned that the FBI had been notified that Nikolas Cruz was an unstable individual who specifically talked about engaging in a school shooting. It is interesting to note that while FBI agents have the leisure time to form anti-Trump cabals, they don’t have the time to follow up on credible threats about school shootings. 

But what about the main issue of the debate: Mental health or gun control? Which is it?

*      *      *

Let’s start with the gun control issue. I grew up shooting rifles and shotguns with my grandfather in rural Ohio. Shooting animals was never my thing. But I loved to shoot trap and skeet. I’ve destroyed many a clay pigeon in my time. 

And while hunting animals is not my idea of a good time, many of my friends and relatives are hunters. In my part of the world—the Ohio River Valley—we have no wolves, and lots and lots of deer. Responsible hunting keeps the deer population under control. And venison is a very lean alternative to beef, even if it is a little on the gamey side. 

My point here being that I’m not one of those “Eek!—a gun!” types. I am very, very comfortable with firearms, as I have been since roughly the age of twelve. (I’m now forty-nine.)

Guns are essential for hunting. If you live in a rural area, moreover (where coyotes, if not wolves, still exist), a firearm is an essential tool. 

My grandfather owned every conceivable weapon that a sportsman or rural dweller might want: He had .38-special revolvers, 12-gauge shotguns, and lots of bolt-action .22-rifles.

What my grandfather did not own were high-capacity assault rifles like the AR-15 (the weapon used in the recent school shooting in Florida). 

My grandfather was a WWII combat veteran. He fired 50-caliber machine guns at German Messerschmitts. So this wasn’t a man afraid of guns. But it would never have occurred to him to acquire a weapon whose only purpose was to kill or engage in combat with large numbers of people. 

And this is where, in my view, the gun movement has gone awry. Forty years ago, gun ownership was about sporting, and—to a lesser degree—reasonable personal protection. 

Now the gun movement seems to be about competing with the US military in terms of firepower. Are personal stockpiles of weaponized anthrax and household nuclear weapons next?  

*      *      *

But what about the “mental health” issue? Over the past twenty years or so, abnormally large numbers of young males have felt compelled to gun down large numbers of people. While adults have often been collateral victims, their peers have consistently been the main targets.

In my youth (the 1970s and 1980s) no one worried about school shootings—because they were extremely rare. Between 1940 and the early 1990s, there was about one such shooting every generation. Since the late 1990s, there has been at least one such shooting practically every year—and there have been multiple incidents in some years. 

We can’t blame this spate of violence on inner-city African Americans. The school shooters have almost uniformly been white, and at least moderately affluent. Quite often they have been downright wealthy. And while Islamic terrorism is an important issue, these shootings have occurred regardless of what’s going on in the Middle East. 

So what has changed? Let’s take a look at that.

In my youth, there was much less emphasis on a.) shielding kids from adversity, and b.) restraining every expression of male aggression. 

This is another way of saying that boys of my generation were often roughnecks and knuckleheads. We played physical games like dodgeball. We sometimes got into tussling matches and (gasp!) fistfights.

And yes, there were bullies. Some of my earliest memories involve coping with school bullies—even at my suburban Catholic school. Unless someone was really brutalizing you, the adults mostly let the kids work these matters out on their own. 

We were also under no illusions that everyone gets a trophy in every field of endeavor. Childhood involved winning—and frequently losing. You dealt with stuck-up cliques, and little girls who told you that you were “gross” if you revealed that you “liked” them. So you dusted off your ego, and maybe the next girl would be more amenable to your fumbling romantic advances. 

Compare this to the extreme social engineering we see today—whereby sixth-grade girls are no longer permitted to refuse the dances of boys they don’t like. 

In recent decades, in other words, the entire enterprise of raising and educating kids has been aimed at creating an unrealistic perception of life on Earth. Teachers and other authority figures have attempted to social-engineer a childhood world in which there are no bullies, no rejection, and no failure. 

At the same time, they have denied boys the safety valves that were common in my day: contact games like dodgeball, and yes—the occasional playground fight.  

Is it any wonder that under this contradictory combination of circumstances, male aggression occasionally explodes in extreme violence?

Oh…and one more thing: Kids of my generation weren’t taking doctor-prescribed psychotropic drugs in large numbers. 

In 1980, if you were an unruly kid, no one diagnosed with you with the made-up disease of ADHD and drugged you with Ritalin. You got your ass paddled, and were told to be silent in class. 

Yes, children of my generation were subjected to spankings, not time-outs. 

How do I know? Because it happened to me on more than one occasion. And guess what? I’ve didn’t develop any violent tendencies as a result. 

On the contrary: It is the hyper-coddled, socially engineered, drugged-into-submission generations that have subjected the world to the mass school shooting…Not the generations who had to endure bullies, rejection, and spankings. 

And we didn’t even know what Ritalin was…

*      *     *

Oftentimes societal problems require not simply a leftwing or a rightwing solution, but a combination of both. 

Do pro-welfare state policies create more welfare recipients? Sure they do! But so does inadequate public education. Perhaps you see where I’m going with this.

On one hand, I’m willing to acknowledge that there’s something slightly screwball about private citizens owning military hardware—which is exactly what an AR-15 is. 

On the other hand, though, I’ll ask you to acknowledge that the namby-pamby educational and child-rearing policies of the past two decades have failed many young people. School shootings are not the only disturbing trend on the rise. Teen suicides are increasing, too—despite the fact that children are more coddled than at any time in history. 

Life is full of unpleasant realities. We should give our kids coping skills by allowing (and perhaps forcing) them to face adversity early in life. This means dealing with peer rejection, bullies, and failure. 

And almost no child should require psychotropic drugs like Ritalin in order to cope with daily life in the big, bad suburbs. 

The world isn’t perfect; and this is something that everyone should have to face pretty much from toddlerhood forward. By teaching kids this lesson from an early age, we can reduce the risk that they will explode one day—in self-harm or in the harm of others—when they learn the inevitable truth. 


The USMC bows to ideology over reality

According to Military.com, the U.S. Marine Corps has “quietly dropped” a pass/fail physical fitness test that has hitherto been an obstacle to female candidates becoming infantry officers. The USMC, in case you don’t know, is the most infantry-centric of all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces. 

The Marine Corps is, therefore, the branch with the most “structural impediments” to 50-50 gender representation. In our current environment of radical identity politics, there are some folks who find that highly objectionable.

Therefore, the Marine Corps has been ordered to lower its fitness standards so that more women can lead troops into combat in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. 

*       *       *

“Gender neutrality” is all fine and good. But this is not gender neutrality. This is lowering the standards—placing a proverbial thumb on the scale—in order to bring about a result that meets the aims of social engineers. 

In endeavors where gender neutrality objectively exists, there is no need to alter standards. For example: Women are now 51% of law school students. Clearly, the study of law is objectively “gender neutral”. 

But infantry combat is not gender-neutral. It requires high levels of strength, aggression, and physical fitness. In the aggregate, men and women are simply not equal in this regard. (This has a downside as well as an upside, I should add: It’s no coincidence that the vast majority of violent crimes are committed by men.) 

*     *     *

Our society has become so paranoid about gender politics, that any acknowledgement of male and female differences is now labeled “misogyny”, or the hating of women. Au contraire: A society based on exclusively male values would, in many respects, be the equivalent of a sweaty locker room. I personally would not want to live in an all-male society. I don’t think most men would.

Furthermore, it may well emerge that women are better equipped, on average, for some tasks in the military. Studies have shown that women are better at certain types of multitasking. This might mean—for example—that women are better at some computerized jobs aboard aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines. 

That isn’t misogyny. It is simply acknowledging what everyone has known, since roughly the first grade: Males and females are different. 

Not in every aspect, but in some aspects. Biological reality is what it is. The US military should base the requirements for each job on objective criteria—not on the criteria that a noisy band of ideologues wishes them to be. 

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Fiction writer, know thy limits...

In a tweet following yesterday's tragic mass shooting in Florida, horror author Stephen King appeared to believe that MS-13 is a type of firearm. 

Examine the tweets for yourself: the evidence is rather compelling. 

I happen to know that MS-13 is a gang; but there are all sorts of things I don't know that much about. Keeping up on the news is a full-time job. (Or at the very least, it's a part-time job.)

This is why I limit the topics I blog about here. As fiction writers, we can't be expected to know about everything. 

Nor does the average accountant, physician, or CEO. But the difference is: Most accountants, physicians, and CEOs don't feel compelled to churn out half-baked pronouncements on Twitter everyday. Fiction writers aren't always so cautious. 

Since taking to Twitter about two years ago, Stephen King has often conflated his knowledge of writing fiction (which is indisputable) with an encyclopedic mastery of current events--which he clearly doesn't have. 

Stephen King proves again and again that he isn't exceptionally well-informed about the world beyond his little corner of Maine. Moreover, his opinions tend to consist of little more than leftwing boilerplate. If King had not written Carrie and The Dead Zone, no one would give a hoot about his political views.  

Here we have an object lesson of why most fiction writers should stick to storytelling. Or--if they must sound off--they should focus on topics that they have actually taken the time to learn about.

'Black Panther' and identity politics: a postscript

In a post earlier today, I pointed out why African Americans, whites, and everyone else should simply enjoy the new Black Panther movie, without getting upset about peripheral and contrived political issues. It's a superhero movie, folks; don't try to to make it more than that!

But in the present age, some people are always determined to make it more than that. Now Black Panther is coming under fire for failing to include LGBT representation. Someone at Marvel forgot to check a box, apparently.  

You can't cater everyone's agenda with a single book or movie--which is why storytellers should refuse to even try. There lies madness. Moreover, it's a recipe for bad art. 

As recent headlines demonstrate, for a certain kind of viewer/reader, story should be subordinated to politics and demographic box-checking. 

If you write fiction or make movies for a living, I urge you to tell such folks to go pound salt. Those are readers/viewers that you don't need. 

‘Black Panther’ and contrived outrage

Do you remember all the contrived controversy over last year's superhero movie, Wonder Woman?

Wonder Woman is a character who, quite literally, dates back to the World War II-era. But because of our current neurotic obsession with the politics of race and gender, some journalists decided that Wonder Woman was actually a post-modern statement about twenty-first century feminism. (Some saw the movie as a anti-Trump statement.

But things were just getting started. Shortly after that, some busybodies on the Internet decided that Wonder Woman wasn’t feminist enough—because actress Gal Gadot is conventionally attractive, and she she shaved her armpits for the movie. Perish forbid. 

And then we had an angry male backlash. This was partly a reaction to a series of publicity stunts, in which theaters, in order to cash in on Wonder Woman's feminist credentials, held no-guys-allowed showings of the movie. But there were also the inevitable men who simply disliked the movie because someone else on the Internet said that it was feminist.

I saw Wonder Woman. I found it to be an entertaining superhero movie—nothing more, nothing less. 

Yes, any movie with the title Wonder Woman is, ipso facto, going to have vaguely feminist overtones. But we aren't talking here about about a lecture from Jessica Valenti or Anti Sarkeesian—which would make me want to drive nails through my skull. We're talking about a superhero movie. 

And as superhero movies go, Wonder Woman was pretty good. I didn’t see what all the controversy was about. 

But manufactured controversies tend to roll that way: You have to be actively looking for a reason to be offended.

*      *      *

Now a similar, unnecessary controversy has arisen about the new movie Black Panther. This time the flashpoint is not gender politics, but racial politics.

Black Panther features a black (African) superhero, and multiple African secondary characters. This is not affirmative action, but a function of the story. Much of the film is set in a fictional African country, Wakanda.

Based on the trailers I've seen, Black Panther looks like a fun movie. But a group of (mostly white!) journalists have decided that Black Panther is the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the election of Barack Obama, and the second coming of Martin Luther King, all rolled into one.

The New York Times has described the superhero movie as a “defining moment for black America”. Really? 

The Kansas City Star declared that Black Panther “is so powerful, it could change Hollywood forever”. 

Once again: Really? All this from a superhero movie? 

*     *     *


And is always the case with these things, the aspirational quickly turns dark and conspiratorial. Serious publications are asking if it's permissible for white kids to wear Black Panther garb (because, of course, “cultural appropriation”). There is even an Internet effort to discourage whites and other non-blacks from going to see the film, so as not to taint the showings with their white privilege. 

(I should note that social-justice minded whites, and not blacks, seem to be leading these efforts. I should also note how stupid and self-defeating they are. On the contrary, white people can aid the cause of future black superhero films by buying cinema tickets and merchandise. But since when does one expect logic from the far-left social justice crowd?)

Not that the far right reactions have been rational, either. Some people have been upset about the lead character's name. During the nadir of the 1960s, the original Black Panthers were sometimes guilty of encouraging violence. That's a fair observation. But symbols change meaning over time, and their meanings often vary according to context. 

I've become more than a little annoyed with that tiresome social justice warrior type who sees crypto-racist messages in The Dukes of Hazzard, all because of that Confederate flag atop the General Lee. 

There is nothing “racist” about The Dukes of Hazzard. Likewise, we need not invent a “kill whitey” message in Black Panther. Nor is Black Panther “reverse racism”, as some angry voices on the Internet are claiming—any more than Wonder Woman was “male bashing”.

*     *      *

It is worth asking, amid the current cultural insanity: How should white people view Black Panther, or any other form of entertainment that features African Americans? 

Here's a radical idea: How about if we view it as entertainment, and judge it on its merits as such? All this hand-wringing about cultural appropriation, white privilege, and reverse racism is mostly unnecessary. (Not to mention that it's boring as hell.)

Allow me to introduce an example from saner times. During the 1980s, everyone watched The Cosby Show. Bill Cosby’s subsequent fall from grace notwithstanding, The Cosby Show depicted African American society in a positive light.

While watching The Cosby Show as a white person, circa 1988, I never once thought to myself, “Wow, how enlightened I am for watching this show about black people.” Nor did I question the “white privilege” or “cultural appropriation” implications involved. (We didn't use idiotic language like that in the 1980s.) And I certainly didn't think that NBC was subjecting me to “reverse racism”, by airing this show about African Americans, which I could freely choose to watch or not watch.

I watched The Cosby Show in the 1980s for the same reason that so many other people did:  It was a well-written sitcom with engaging storylines and likable characters. 

Yes, I noticed that most of the characters on The Cosby Show were black. But that was all secondary to my enjoyment of the show. Or even tertiary. I really didn't care, one way or the other. Almost no one did. 

Ditto for the entertainment provided by Michael Jackson, Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor, Prince, or any of the many other talented African Americans who became stars in the 1980s. Or—for that matter—Wesley Snipes in the 1990s. There was, believe it or not, a time—not so long ago—when Americans could watch a movie or television show without immediately resorting to culture-war rhetoric. 

I recall watching the movie White Men Can't Jump (1992) in the early 1990s. The movie, which stars much younger versions of Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson, takes swipes at both white and black notions of masculinity. But mostly the movie is just a lot of fun.

Virtually no one got upset or outraged over White Men Can't Jump in 1992. Today, everyone would be upset and outraged over the movie. Social justice warriors would object to the film’s implications that inner-city African American youths are statistically better at basketball than their white counterparts in the suburbs. The alt right crowd would be object, too, for the very same reason: “And exactly what do you mean by that title: White Men Can't Jump? Sure we can.”

*      *      *

Manufactured controversy and contrived outrage have become the cultural baggage of the twenty-first century. 

We weren't always this angry, over every little thing. As an American born in 1968, I speak from experience and empirical observation. I observed the 1970s, the 1980s, and the 1990s. The 2010s are the nuttiest decade I've lived through yet. Every movie, novel, television show and song must be rigorously scrutinized on the basis of who it might or might not offend. A self-appointed cadre of online journalists and keyboard warriors have declared themselves the arbiters of what entertainment we can consume without feeling guilty, or outraged.  

Enough is enough. We can turn the contrived outrage machine around. We can start by letting Black Panther be what it is: a fun superhero movie. 

Let's not try to make it something more—not a black power movement, nor reverse racism, nor a call to reflect on white privilege and cultural appropriation. Good grief: Does everything in our culture have to devolve into a boring, long-winded sociology lecture? 

Let superhero movies be fun…like they used to be, and (perhaps) could be again.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Rereading ‘Misery’, after thirty-one years

I recently reread Stephen King’s 1987 novel Misery

In case you don’t know, Misery is primarily a novel about obsessive literary fandom. But there’s a lot more there besides. 

The hero, Paul Sheldon, is an author of popular gothic romance novels that feature the heroine Misery Chastain. But Sheldon wants to turn his writing in a more “serious” direction. Specifically, he seeks to rebrand himself as a writer of literary fiction. 

To this end, Sheldon has spent the last year working on the manuscript for a novel called Fast Cars. A radical departure from his Misery books, Fast Cars is a gritty, navel-gazing story about inner-city car thieves. 

Oh, and in his last published work, Sheldon has killed off Misery Chastain. This background fact sets up one of Misery’s major conflicts. 

While driving (drunk) through rural Colorado, Sheldon wrecks his sports car. He awakens, badly injured, in the spare bedroom of one Annie Wilkes, a middle-age ex-nurse. 

Wilkes introduces herself as Paul Sheldon’s “greatest fan”. She is solicitous at first; but Sheldon soon realizes that Annie is not what she seems. For one thing: Why hasn’t she reported his presence in her spare bedroom? Why is Paul not in a hospital, already?

Paul learns that Annie is medicating him with drugs that she’s lifted from a hospital dispensary. Annie is no longer employed as a nurse, it turns out. (The dark reasons for her termination eventually become apparent.) 

Within a day or two, Annie’s friendliness is intermingled with threats—and then violence. Paul, being severely injured and cut off from the world in Annie’s spare bedroom, is completely under her power.

When Annie finds the manuscript for Fast Cars in Paul’s luggage, she denounces the unpublished book as ignoble and profane. She forces him to ritually burn it. 

(This was in the days when most authors still worked on typewriters; and Paul Sheldon has neglected to make a photocopy of the manuscript. An entire year’s worth of work goes up in smoke!)

But even worse awaits Paul, when Annie reads the latest Misery Chastain novel. Upon discovering that Paul has killed off her beloved heroine, she physically attacks him. 

Annie then puts Paul to work writing a new Misery Chastain novel—for her sole readership. She orders him to “undo” the death of Misery in the new book. 

(Note: This isn’t necessarily as difficult as it sounds. Nor is it unprecedented in fiction. The show runners of the popular 1970s television drama Dallas decided at one point to kill off the character of Bobby Ewing, for reasons that have since become obscure. The Dallas show runners later changed their minds. The entire storyline in which Bobby Ewing was killed was subsequently explained away as the dream of another character.)

That will give you a taste of where Misery goes as a novel. You can find a complete plot synopsis on Wikipedia, of course. But I would encourage you to skip this and read the actual novel, assuming you haven’t already done so.

*      *      *

As I mentioned at the outset, I recently reread Misery. But I read it for the first time in June of 1987, shortly after it was published in hardcover. 

Sometimes books—like songs—form memory-markers for specific periods in our lives. I remember reading Misery while sitting in the wrought-iron chair on my parents’ front porch, while waiting for the landscaping crew that I worked for to drive by and pick me up. I remember the day as being hot and intermittently rainy. 

But of more interest to you, the Stephen King reader, I remember Misery as a shift back in the direction of the “old” Stephen King of the 1970s and 1980s. 

The previous autumn, I had read It. This was the first Stephen King novel that I hadn’t really liked. Whereas King’s previous books (‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, The Dead Zone, etc.) were economical and tightly plotted, It (1986) struck me as bloated and self-indulgent. It contained some weird sex scenes that didn’t add much to the story. 

Two things were going on in the private and professional universes of Stephen King at the time. First of all, his drug and alcohol abuse issues were becoming more acute. (King details his downward spiral in his 1999 memoir, On Writing.) This would produce one of the few truly bad Stephen King novels, The Tommyknockers (1987). Even Stephen King admits that The Tommyknockers is not a great book.

Secondly, his narrative style was becoming looser, more meandering. Read Under the Dome (2009) or Lisey’s Story (2006). These are nothing like the perfectly paced, disciplined stories that Stephen King published in the 1970s and early 1980s. 

So Misery, in 1987, was reassurance for me that the old Stephen King—the one who had so captivated me three years prior—was still there. I wrote off It as a fluke—not knowing that It was actually the true indicator of what was to come. 

*       *      *

But Misery is, nevertheless, a story that seems engineered to perfection. At 420 pages, Misery is not a short book; but you’ll likely finish it within a day or two. I did just that twice—once in 1987, and again in 2018.

Misery is a claustrophobic novel. The story unfolds entirely in Annie Wilkes’s farm house. There is no “love plot”. The story simply doesn’t have the room—or characters—for that. Except for some flashback scenes (and the final resolution scenes), Paul and Annie are the only characters throughout the book; and they are certainly the only ones who are fleshed out in any detail. 

Misery is a recommendable Stephen King novel for readers who, for whatever reason, don’t want to read about traditional supernatural horror topics like ghosts, vampires, and werewolves. Misery contains nary a hint of the supernatural. Its villain—Annie Wilkes—is entirely human and ultimately very mortal. (No spoiler intended!)

And this is what makes Annie Wilkes one of Stephen King’s most memorable monsters. As we grow older, and we observe more of human behavior, we increasingly wonder what dark acts others are capable of. For that matter, we may even wonder about ourselves, from time to time. 

I’ve never done anything truly rotten—certainly nothing that rises to the Annie Wilkes category of rottenness—but at the age of forty-nine I’m not proud of everything I’ve done. 

Who is, at forty-nine? At nineteen (my age in 1987), I was still able to delude myself regarding the inviolability of my own virtue. But at nineteen, I had not yet been tested by the world. 

Few people have been truly tested, at nineteen. At nineteen, the world still looks black-and-white, and so do you. At forty-nine, though, you see the grey areas—in yourself, as well as in others. (But just beyond the grey areas lie the truly black ones—damnation, in other words. And “there’s the rub”—as Hamlet said.) 

*     *     *

If you’ve been paying attention to the news, you’ll know that America has become increasingly fragmented in recent years. Despite the superficial hyper-connectivity of the Internet, more and more people are living “in their own little worlds”—politically as well as personally. Although it was published in 1987, Misery is a book that will get you thinking about the isolation that has become far too common in the post-modern digital age. 

While I found Misery to be an entertaining novel at nineteen, I got a lot more out of the book at forty-nine. The book contains far more, theme-wise, than is readily apparent.

Granted, Misery was published thirty-one years ago. But it’s as compelling as anything in the book section of Walmart today. And—as I hope I’ve convinced you—the story is quite relevant to the social condition of the twenty-first century.