Archive for March, 2010


Friday, March 19th, 2010

So it’s been just over four months. Fatherhood. The art of sleepwalking. The rapid realignment of personal priorities amidst the white noise of ultra-bandwidth screaming from tiny, hungry lungs. I’m about to cast a terrible, unrevocable jinx upon my long-term sense of well being by issuing the following claim: it actually hasn’t been as insanely difficult as I feared. Raising a baby is hard work, of course. Rebuilding a carburetor is hard work, too (does anyone actually remember those things in this age of anti-lock brakes and fuel injectors?). With enough work and focus, though, it can be done. And the results can be similar: you hope for a smoothly purring machine, yet there’s a chance that you’ll end up with a loud beast that spews black smoke out of its ass. Well, Simon’s spewing has been mainly from the front end, thankfully. You see, that very statement encapsulates much of this four-month experience. I am thankful that my son spews onto my shirt and pants. A year ago I would have shuddered over the thought of such rancorous expulsion, but, if anything, having a child is an ornate lesson in tolerance (and the redefining of what constitutes a “mess”).

There was one imminent change that I was truly dreading, though. The loss of personal time. I didn’t actually do much with my personal time. Watch television and movies. Think about oiling the chain on my bike. Make a sandwich. However, like any other misused and ignored freedom, from the Conan O’Brien show that I never watched to the Kiddieland amusement park that I never once visited, the threat of removal suddenly catapults “personal time” to the top of the worry list. My initial fear was that I would become nothing but a bare-bones consumer. Raise the child, go to work, watch a few television shows, mow the lawn. There would be no room for art, for creativity and reading. I believe that it is essential for any artist to be immersed in a particular medium. One doesn’t create from the barren precipice, overlooking the lands. One creates from within. It is obvious when a piece of art was created outside of its environment. We assume that canned, top-40 tripe was made by talentless hacks who wouldn’t know Lou Reed from Lou Rawls. That’s only a part of the picture, though. The good top-40 musicians are living in that world, speaking that language. When an outsider, or “alternative” musician attempts to create top-40 pop, it often ends up as limp, heartless crap. That’s because that musician wasn’t immersed in the proper environment. This is even more apparent with writers, and more basic.

There are two rules to writing. Really, just two, and they are very simple.

1. Read
2. Write

That’s it. Everything else is a refinement of one of those two rules. However, there are plenty of writers out there who skip the first rule. A fiction writer needs to read fiction. Good fiction. Immersing yourself in the art of your peers stimulates the parts of your brain that creates that art. Creativity generally follows the GIGO principle (“Garbage In, Garbage Out,” to you non-programmers out there): if you read nothing better than trashy novels you’ll probably end up writing nothing better than trashy novels. Additionally, the practice of the craft is often reliant on talent, and without some level of talent and even instinct, the art simply won’t go anywhere. However, if you stop reading, or only read a book every now and then, you really can’t hope to continue on the path of the writer. And if you truly enjoy writing, you must truly enjoy reading. Otherwise you wouldn’t even stand the act of reading your own work, which seems like a miserable way to live.

So I wasn’t too worried about losing the personal time to watch a movie or build a bookcase (those who know me just snorted at that one). I haven’t given up on writing fiction, though. Without the time to read stories, I certainly wouldn’t have the time or motivation to write them. And I’ve heard that lots of parents don’t have the time to read.

Enter: audiobooks.

Yes, books on tape. Books on CD. Books on iPod. I’ve had a few of these kicking around for years, but never gave the idea much thought. I always preferred my own inner voice to that of some orator, who’s inflections lend an additional layer of interpretation that isn’t always beneficial to the text. Also, reading and writing are very close to the math centers of my brain. I love the logical interlocking of words, phrases and paragraphs. There is a very real, visual pleasure in reading, in the beauty of patterns and flow, like the unfolding of a proof or an equation. Listening to a book requires visualizing both the words on the page and the unfolding images and feelings created by those words. It also requires constant mental tracking. A printed book will automatically pause when the reader drifts, but an audiobook will keep on hammering away, even if someone has passed out, chin to chest, drool to shirt. In general, an audiobook requires more concentration than its printed parent.

During Simon’s first six weeks, I stayed at home, working with Rachel to establish new schedules and rhythms. I ended up taking the late shift for about a month or so, staying up nearly all night. As the crepuscular dissolved into the nocturnal, I found myself in the strange state of retaining a somewhat alert, active mind within the shell of a teetering, exhausted body. I couldn’t rock the baby and read at 3am simply because my eyes wouldn’t properly focus, eyelids often independently blinking in asynchronous disharmony. So I took a chance on a Stephen King audiobook, just to keep the wheels turning.

Soon I was “reading” at all hours. By the time I returned to work, I had both my typical train-commute book, along with the baby-feeding audiobook. Better yet, all of the quotidian lapses throughout the day, from making a sandwich to cleaning dishes to sorting laundry to shoveling the sidewalk to walking to the train, could easily be ensconced within an environment of literature and narrative. I kept the audiobooks somewhat simple, reading through the Harry Potter series, catching up on other Stephen King works (both good and mediocre). Then, remembering the GIGO effect, I branched into deeper territory, including a great re-reading of Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. Meanwhile, I have still been reading physical, printed books at a regular rate, usually during the commutes to work.

In effect, with the arrival of my son my rate of reading has increased. I’ve probably read more books during these four months than I did during the entire preceding year. And my story-generating cluster of neurons has been brightening, not only with new ideas, but also a better sense of composition and flow. One of the most effective methods of polishing and revising your writing is to read it aloud. If it doesn’t flow from your mouth, it’s probably awkward on the page. As regular readers of the Megablog know, I created a short video in 2009, featuring a story I had written earlier that summer. The story was simple enough to function pretty well on the page. However, I found that some combinations of words simply didn’t work in the oration. Being both the writer and orator, I had the luxury of rewriting my words to fit my mouth. Still, the experience of reading aloud, leveraging performance to convey nuance, gave me a heightened respect for audiobooks and professionals who read them. Then, when I started listening to audiobooks continuously, I noticed the differences between quality, professional orators and, well, stiff and lifeless “readers”.

Remember when the updated, early-2009 version of the Kindle was released? It included a text-to-speech feature that would automatically read content aloud, allowing disabled readers to have access to anything Kindle-readable. The Authors Guild staged a very public freak-out, claiming that this feature would erode the audiobook market. They seemed less concerned about the vast amount of disabled readers who would have a simple, portable tool for reading and buying books. It was all about the sanctity of the audiobook as a billion-dollar-per-year product. (Oddly, when I just looked up the Authors Guild website, the front page contains an “advocacy” article about the Guild being applauded by the White House over efforts to “ensure access to books for people with print disabilities” — I guess as long as that means produced audiobooks at twice or three times the price.) Not all authors agreed with the Guild, though. Neil Gaiman, who, along with Harlan Ellison, is one of the most talented readers of his own work, supported the text-to-speech feature. Wil “Shut Up, Wesley” Wheaton, actor cum über-blogger, took it a step further, claiming that text-to-speech doesn’t even come close to the experience of a quality audiobook. He effectively demonstrated this by providing both computerized and human-orated samples of the same passage. The comparison was clear: text-to-speech is a feature that couldn’t possibly be confused with an audiobook, which is a product.

Well, unless the audiobook is a piece of crap. This is the familiar controversy introduced with any innovation of digital distribution: content providers are raking in the cash by selling crap. Before the MP3 boom, consumers didn’t have many options for previewing music. You might hear a song on the radio and be titillated into buying an album, only to find that 80% of the tracks were pure slug slime. The entertainment industry went bananas over digital file sharing because the vacant crap that they were peddling was instantly devalued. Consumers could listen to it, judge it as crap, and simply chose to not buy it, to not get stung by a stinky purchase. Meanwhile, file sharing has been proven to have no effect on record sales, and sales of non-crap music have actually been boosted (at least for Canadians (Rush!)). I think that same fear generated the Authors Guild paranoia over text-to-speech functionality. If an audiobook is as robotically-read and lifeless as a text-to-speech reading, then, yes, there is a chance that this free feature would bite into the profits of that particular audiobook. But that’s because that audiobook wasn’t carefully produced and is a substandard product. The profit is undeserved. The result of all of this pissing and moaning from the Authors Guild was that Amazon allowed publishers to optionally cripple the text-to-speech feature. And some publishers have actually done it. Authors Guild (supposed advocate of access) wins, disabled readers lose.

My point is that there is an additional layer of consumer gambling when it comes to purchasing an audiobook. So, just as I do with print books, I have employed a variety of methods to borrow my audiobooks. Standout performances include Stephen King’s Under the Dome and the Jim Dale readings of Harry Potter. Just steer clear of abridgments. There is a uniquely sinking feeling that comes when, after listening to three hours of The Baroque Cycle, the narrator unexpectedly announces that “the following is a synopsis of pages 83 through 145.” Dammit! Also, as mentioned, the Neil Gaiman material is certainly worth purchasing, as is anything containing Harlan Ellison’s voice, even if it’s just one of his perfect, undiluted rants. If you haven’t watched that Ellison clip, give yourself a few minutes of enjoyment. Ellison draws flack because he’s often over-the-top cantankerous, but that is basically a byproduct of being both brutally honest and completely intolerant of the idiosyncrasies of stupidity. He always motivates me, both as a writer and a human being.

And now I have Harlan Ellison to blame for my latest ethical dilemma. As his voice is a mark of entertainment quality, I’ve sought out his various orations. While browsing through Tom’s media collection, I noticed the audiobook CDs of Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. This book has been repeatedly recommended by a variety of friends, and the slickly produced audio version includes the voice talent of mister Ellison. So I borrowed it, imported it into the iPod and, eventually, incorporated it into my stream of audiobook immersion. I loved it. An instant, well-crafted classic. I immediately tracked down the excellent sequel, Speaker for the Dead (a paperback kindly lent from Jeremy). It is one of many Ender sequels, multi-volume franchising a common occurrence in science fiction and fantasy. As I started reading the third book (switching back to an audiobook version), I decided to check up on Orson Scott Card. This is a normal consumer activity. If you feel particularly thrilled by some piece of art or entertainment, you usually want to learn more about the creator. You want that added connection. Sometimes the person turns out to be a weirdo, and other times he or she is amazing and inspiring, drawing you even deeper into the art. Then there is Orson Scott Card.

I had heard various rumblings that Card was anti-gay, but I tried to ignore that as I started reading his works. If the prejudice started to surface in the literature, then I would certainly back off, as anti-gay is very much not a part of my belief system. However, the three books didn’t seem to be heading in that direction. They were, however, clearly heading into soap-box territory. He was already spending less time with plot and character, and more time working out complex ideas through long passages of dialog. There’s nothing wrong with that. It is a classic method, particularly in the harder genres of science fiction. Ender’s Game, though, wasn’t like that at all, with its purity of story and character. This illustrates my love/hate relationship with science fiction. My favorite literature includes characters and plots that stick with me, that become interwoven with my life. Most classic science fiction, though, features ideas, thought experiments and pontifications that sing out beyond the pages and words. With “harder” science fiction, characterization becomes secondary to the hyper-detailed, sometimes overly dry explanation of fantastic ideas. For me, this reads as an anesthetized brain-dump, often soulless. The Ender books weren’t nearly that sterile, but they were definitely dipping into the cold pool of monologue disguised as dialog. So I was already on the fence about reading my way through seven more books (Jeremy has promised that the fifth book, Ender’s Shadow, is an excellent rejuvenation of the franchise).

Back to the anti-gay thing. Card is universally active. Active writer. Active teacher. Active blogger. Active member of LDS. He isn’t just a tertiary mormon. The dude is a direct descendant of one of Bringham Young’s 55 wives. There was no polygamy or mormon ideas within those Ender books. At least nothing overt. Outside of the fiction, though, he has written some particularly closed-minded diatribes. For someone who denigrates the term homophobic, he is hypocritically and publicly afraid of the effect that gay marriage will have upon heterosexual marriage. The idea that gay marriage could destroy the entire concept of “normal” marriage, that it “marks the end of democracy in America,” is, at its heart, rooted in fear. Fear of homosexual relationships. A phobia of homosexuals. Therein lies the hypocrisy. What is marriage? For a person such as Card, who claims to be “protecting marriage from a fatal redefinition,” it must be defined in terms of procreation, as that is a primary distinguishing factor between heterosexuals and homosexuals. But what about heterosexual married couples who do not have children? Are they destroying the concept of marriage? There doesn’t seem to be a huge, religiously-driven backlash against those folks. So it seems to be about something more basic than procreation: sex. People who are afraid of homosexuals are not afraid of two men or women loving each other. They are afraid of the idea of two people of the same gender having sex with each other. That’s really what it comes down to. That’s what actually disgusts some people. I certainly don’t condone that viewpoint, but, if someone is disgusted by something, I can’t decree to that person that he or she is not legitimately feeling disgust. However, being gay is also a social position. It is an identity. Gender itself is not as simple as sex. If it was, then no one would mature beyond adolescence. Everyone would be constantly trying to do it with everyone else. There would be no nuance of gender and identity. And all heterosexual marriages would result in obscenely massive families. Regardless of one’s belief in the biological legitimacy of homosexuality, the sex/procreation argument against gay marriage is shallow. I am married. I have a child. I didn’t get married so that I could finally “do it”. I got married because I am in love with my life partner. Marriage is about love. It is about a lifetime commitment between two people. No one could possibly argue against that. The folks who leverage religion to spout anti-gay fear mongering are not doing a very good job at convincing me that this sex-centric view of marriage has done anything to solidify it as an institution. Love-based marriage, though, is solid. A marriage built upon love, relying on that love for sustenance, rarely results in divorce. I cannot assume that gay marriage is built upon sex, as there is no motivation for most gay people to marry in order to have sex. If a gay couple can already have sex, and cannot procreate, then why get married? Yes, it’s about love and permanence. Therefore, if both gay and heterosexual marriage is rooted in love, gay marriage is indistinguishable from heterosexual marriage.

What a can of worms! Even in the midst of such a hot issue, I can still read Orson Scott Card’s fiction, just as I can still appreciate films from Elia Kazan, and not assume Volkswagen drivers are closet Nazis. I might be more detached from the art, but I can still enjoy it. Card, though, has crossed the line. The “line,” in this case, is the distinction between personal, public expression and the action of overtly oppressing a specific group of people. No, his rants didn’t cross this line. He might have motivated the wing nuts who sustained Proposition 8 (the California bill effectively banning gay marriage), but, in my opinion, everyone has the right to speak up. Card crossed the line when he became a board member of the National Organization for Marriage. The NOM is the Jersey-based group that was instrumental in passing Proposition 8 in 2008. Take a moment to think about that. A group of people who, on the whole, did not live in California decided to influence the Constitution of that state. These people were so phobic of the idea of gay people even having the option of legal marriage that they decided to wage a national campaign against a particular state, fearing that California would be a corrupting anchor, dragging down the entire nation. Look, I think California is massive and fantastic, and I could certainly see myself living there, but this is not the United States of California. Cali is the most populous state in our country, and it carries 55 of the 538 Electoral College votes. That’s a bit over ten percent. That’s not going to sway the entire country (unless the country was already heading in a particular direction). In 2009, Orson Scott Card joined the NOM. He has moved into a position of national action, able to impose his views upon people who are not his neighbors. This is a guy who won’t even teach at a non-LDS university. I’m sure that Card is passionate about a particular belief in marriage, and sees himself as a responsible husband and father. I’m not going to insult those aspects of his values. However, he has used his fame and literary success to impose his sex/procreation-obssessed world view upon others. There are people in California who have been negatively affected by Card’s efforts, who have never cracked an Ender. And now, just thinking about this guy gives me visceral spasms of disgust.

Ugh. In the true spirit of GIGO, I have spent my allotment of scrivener’s energy on this blog, leaving little left over for the actual fiction-writing that I so revere. Who is a greater hypocrite, the man who spews anti-gay hypocrisy or the man who claims to be writing fiction but is actually spewing an anti-hypocratic diatribe? Um, it’s the anti-gay guy.

Some great writers have been terrible, destructive, abusive people. If I take a no-read stance on Card, does this mean that I need to research every writer, every artist, to be certain that I am not inadvertently supporting some agent of oppression? No. Reading is part of my personal enrichment. I have a healthy filter, allowing me to selectively separate the acts of the artist from the products of that person. I reserve judgment on future discoveries of authorial atrocities. We do not live in a world of absolutes. People try to shoehorn things into absolute categories because it makes those things easier to understand. Limit the variables, crunch it all down to talking points. And that’s why I’m neither a conservative nor a liberal, because both camps tend to blind themselves with dogma. For Card, his absolute is marriage, invariably rooted in this confusion of sex and procreation. He has so completely corrupted himself that I cannot think of him without thinking of his garbage, and I cannot separate the man from the product. So I will no longer listen to him.