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Links to Chew On: Art and Eruptions and AI Bookbots

April 30, 2014

Okay, so here goes with the trying to put these up on a quarterly basis (on the last day of the first month of each quarter; although I’m going to have to decide what to do since Halloween always falls on the last day of the first month of the 4th quarter…) A bridge to cross when we come to it. For now, lessons learned: don’t try to compile a list of links on recent genre controversies for one of these posts.  Those take a lot of thought to say anything cogent about them. (So I had to save all my genre controversy links for a later post…)

  • Every Award-Winning Book Sucks: Scalzi’s faux-sensationalistic headline makes a very basic point – the book with universal appeal has yet to be written, and the most highly-praised books will be a let-down for someone.  So enjoy this sampling of one-star reviews of Hugo award-winning novels from the past decade…
  • The Future is Now! At least, last year, a ton of science-fictional concepts made giants leaps closer to reality. You know, the really cool stuff, like mental control of a robotic arm (hello Cyborg and RoboCop) and robotic exoskeletons, spray-on skin, the legalization of self-driving cars (in some states), and artificial leaf technology. This stuff is mind-boggling.
  • Amtrak may be making Residencies for Writers on Trains a thing… I like trains. And I like writing. It would never have occurred to me to put the two together. Note that the article linked calls these “free rides for writers” in the headline, but in reality if this becomes an ongoing thing, there will be a cost. Discounted tickets maybe? Who knows, since there was only an individual, promotional test-run.
  • I feel like this is something I’ve shared an opinion or two about before, but NPR recently aired a story questioning whether popular, famous, even universally-acclaimed works of art have achieved such status wholly on the merit and quality of the work or… if there’s something else, some element of chance, involved in their rise to ubiquitous-praise.  “Good art is popular because it’s good, right?” But a study on that question suggests: well… not quite. Chance plays a huge factor: what gets buzz early tends to build on that buzz over time, such that a small but crucially-timed bit of word-of-mouth can lead to a massive response, and vice-versa. The caveat: there’s a minimum threshold of quality to which a work of art must rise before this element of chance can have it’s effect. In essence: you can’t accidentally explode the popularity of something that’s truly crap. The caveat to the caveat, of course: quality is in the eye of the art beholder. But my feelings are that this is reflective of the writing world, as well. You have to be good, to write good and engaging stories. Good writing, I’ve come to believe, is a necessary but insufficient precondition to success in the writing world. The other factor is wildly erratic good luck. There’s a lot you can do about the first part. (I.e. practice, practice, practice, write, write, and write some more. Also, read a lot, too.) There’s roughly squat you can do about the second. Still… the second won’t do you a bit of good unless you’ve got the first. “Opportunity Knocks” is a lot of chance and luck, but Opportunity only comes in and stays a while if you’ve cleaned the place up and have a special place reserved, I guess.  Have I beat this string of metaphors enough?
  • Author Jim C. Hines adds a little more context to his annual Writing Income reveal, for those that are interested in this sort of information (i.e., yours truly).
  • Hines also has some advice on Chasing the Market: don’t.  Sounds like good advice to me.  I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that many of us who write dream of making it big and writing a book that can be fairly described as “the next Harry Potter” or “the next Hunger Games” or “the next” whatever it takes to be a massive best-seller.  Not all of us, but some of us, and I daresay many if not most.  But frankly? I don’t think you’ll get there unless you first abide by the maxim: “Write what you love.”  Because otherwise? I think the writing will show that your heart ain’t in it – and your reader’s hearts won’t be in it either.  Which is not to say that writing what you love is a guaranteed path to riches – far from it, of course – but I do believe it’s a necessary prerequisite for finding that path if you’re looking for it down the writing road.
  • Speaking of writing what you love, I’m sure you’ve heard that old aphorism “Do what you love”.  But maybe we should stop saying that? “You keep saying that.  I do not think it means what you think it means.”  Miya Tokumitsu, writing for Slate Magazine, argues that the aphorism unnecessarily apotheosizes the many “lovable” career options and roles available to the already-elite, but degrades and demeans the hard, often physical labor options available to the middle and lower classes – work that’s rarely “lovable” but always necessary to making something valuable happen.  I must say, I found the article compelling, and not just in a “Solidarity Forever” sort of way.  It gets to something science-fictional but fast become socio-economic reality that I’ve often wondered about: someday, there will undoubtedly be robots to do all (or most of) the hard, physical, manual, and unpleasant labor that is necessary for the functioning of society.  Is this a good thing?  What happens to the human workers it displaces? Do higher level “service” and knowledge-work roles expand as a result, requiring the efforts of those displaced? Do folks whose roles have been replaced by machines get another shot at taking on service, creative or knowledge-based work?  Is there sufficiently increased demand for this increased supply of labor? Seems doubtful. Does it simply drive down the real wages of people working in these sectors such that they are now paid for less than what it costs to maintain a robot?  In many ways, it’s the same set of moral and ethical questions presented by the problems of outsourcing.  To which I have few if any easy answers.
  • Want to know the truth about Hermione Granger? Author J.K. Rowling says she got it wrong! Hermione would’ve been with Harry, not Ron. Say it ain’t so? Okay, let’s be honest: this is not earth-shattering news. Not earth-shattering because many, many of us knew this a long time ago. Most of us (or at least your humble correspondent) shrugged our shoulders and said “Oh, well, that’s how the author wanted it to go,” and we were fine with that because taken as a whole, including little quibbling flaws like that, the Harry Potter series was pretty fantastic.  But, I mean, this was self-evident from at least the second book (Chamber of Secrets) when Ginny came basically out of nowhere (she was barely even mentioned in the first book) to play a damsel-in-distress with a crush on Harry, and you could immediately see the plot machinations that were going to force Harry and Ginny together since Hermione and Ron were already predestined to be together.
  • While we’re on the topic of Harry Potter, have you heard the news that there are more HP-universe movies coming? Now, Harry won’t be in them, but the scuttle-butt on the street is that “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” and “Quidditch Through the Ages” are headed for the big screen.  I’m of two minds. First, let’s be upfront and clear about this: yes this is a mercenary cash grab. You and I both know that Harry’s story is done, and being a tale well-told, there’s no need to tell more. However, and you knew this was coming, didn’t you: there may not be the need, but there’s so very clearly the desire for more. So many people fell in love with the characters and world of the Harry Potter stories, and many of them would dearly love to see more stories told in that universe. And they’ll pay to see these movies. So why shouldn’t those movies exist? Will they be as good as the HP movies? Will they make as much of the so-much-money? Well, no and no. But I’d put money on this: they’ll be entertaining, and they’ll be successful.
  • Back on the subject of publishing, and of self-publishing, Chuck Wendig calls for criticism of the Self-publishing movement – as in folks actually being willing to post negative reviews and/or find some way of separating the proverbial self-published wheat from the tons and tons of self-published chaff (oh so much chaff… and so much of it is actually crap).  Le Gasp!  What Madness Eez Thees? His thesis is pretty simple, and hard-to-dispute: If self-publishing is every bit as legitimate a career choice as traditional publishing (and he argues that it is), then it (i.e. the culture around self-publishing) needs to stop being self-congratulatory, stop celebrating mediocrity, and start building systems that allow high-quality and professional work to be recognized and found.  But who will fill this role? Wendig offers few answers. It won’t be editors and publishing houses – that’s the traditional gatekeeper method. Perhaps it will be other (successful) self-pubbers? But I’m not sure I see much of an impetus to create these traditions and mechanisms.
  • Continuing on his critique of the culture of self-publishing, Wending compares the glut of low-quality material to a volcano that spews… well… this is an expletive-light blog, so let’s just call it fecal matter. The real meat of the post is about the problem of “discovery” in a field of self-publishing where large number of (mostly) low-quality work are available – how do readers avoid the stuff that doesn’t work for them and find the stuff that does? It’s hard. And blogger Suw Charman-Anderson warns that the eruption of said volcano is unlikely to abate any time soon – and she makes a very interesting logical argument about the problems of the Dunning-Kruger effect in relation to self-publishing. I find myself in the category where I consider myself moderately competent at what I do (vis-a-vis writing), but not sufficiently competent to warrant a paying career in this industry as yet. That’s in part because I lack much by way of objective external validation of my competency, and I don’t trust my inner sense of that competency. So what Suw says here resonated with me. Mike Cane believes that Amazon itself will have sufficient motive to put an end to the glut of low-quality (and, importantly, non-selling) literary output, on the basis that hosting this material takes up server space and disrupts the Amazon search and recommendation algorithms. This is, of course, predicated on the assumption that the costs to Amazon of hosting very-low selling titles is non-negligible, that they won’t make substantive improvements to their search and recommendation algorithms over time, and that the cost of each of these would be greater than the negative goodwill this move would generate among the hosts of digital self-publisher’s cheerleaders. So there’s some logic and merit to the argument, but we on the outside can’t really penetrate the opaque walls of Amazon’s own self-interest (or any other corporation’s self-interest, for that matter) to gauge which of these factors is more influential to their strategy and thinking. Suw reiterates these limitations to Mike’s theory, with a bonus helping of actual numbers that suggest that the cost to Amazon of hosting large amounts of literary excrement is entirely negligible. Then she fantasizes about the impact of post-singularity  technologies (she doesn’t use that phrase, but still…) on discoverability and the future utopia of reading that AI will bring. The latter, of course, reads like science fiction, but hey it could happen – and I could dig it.

 

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Alex Hurst permalink
    May 5, 2014 5:41 am

    So… many… links… haha, but thankfully I’d read almost all of them before this post. 😀 Lots of interesting things going on, as always.

  2. May 5, 2014 8:18 am

    Yeah, since I’m collecting the links over a period of three months, a lot of these may easily be old news to some folks. But were it otherwise I’d be posting individual links in individual posts on a highly irregular basis, which doesn’t seem as worth it to me, at this time…

  3. May 13, 2014 6:18 pm

    I read part of Wendig’s piece (I find that a little bit of his prose style goes a very long way with me), and I do agree that nobody benefits when you praise things that don’t actually deserve it, whether because of the way they’re published or because you’re friends with the writer or for any other reason.

    In fact, I find that type of praise to be really condescending. It’s like if you went and saw a local band in a club and they weren’t very good, but they were just a local band and they’d managed to find the stage and face in the right direction, so that was all you could expect anyway from a band without a record deal.

    But, as far as I’ve been able to tell (and unfortunately) there isn’t any type of publishing that’s designed to bring out works that I’m going to consider to be good. The big-time publishers (however many of them are still left) are in the business of trying to figure out what will sell, and I’m sure that’s challenging enough these days.

    When I find something that I like, it’s usually word of mouth, or reviews, or sheer luck. And I never pay any attention to who the publisher is anyway. The last few books I’ve bought, I mostly couldn’t tell you if they were Big Pub or small press or self-pub. I expect I’m not the only person who’s oblivious to that these days. As long as it’s on Amazon, what does it matter?

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