Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Waiting On Empty Air

I was scouring the Web the other day when I came across a talk by Steven Johnson on TED.com titled "Where Good Ideas Come From." I clicked on the link, expecting the usual litany of generic promises found under this kind of title: meditation techniques to clear your head of synaptic sludge, a diet program that augments imaginative output by 13.354%, and a list of books you must buy before you too are capable of producing ideas of merit. I readied myself for Johnson to peddle his snake oil and refused to join the audience of nodding, thoughtless bobble heads. But, as is usually the case with my preconceived notions, I was wrong.

It turns out that Johnson isn’t in the market of prepackaged epiphanies. Rather, his purpose is to debunk the power the “Eureka! Moment” holds over our cultural imagination. Johnson’s sell is that our ideas are not flash-in-the-pan moments of inspiration that come to us because either: A) our head is an idea making factory of unadulterated amazing, or B) we have been blessed by some deity of intellectual bounty. Instead, he proposes that good ideas need two important processes to mature. The first of these he calls the Liquid Network. To put it simply, the Liquid Network is a pattern of interconnecting ideas you construct by immersing yourself in the chaos of other people’s ideas. This chaos is mandatory to change and mature your ideas, and — let’s face it — an idea that doesn’t evolve will ultimately prove worthless. The second process is called the Slow Hunch a.k.a. time, the long, arduous, and painful variety.

Once said, Johnson’s system seems quite obvious, the commonest of common senses. However, when we turn our attention to the subject of creative writing, we find writers operating as if these facts do not apply to the creative process. Just stop and think about how many writers you know that act as though this system doesn’t pertain to them. How many wait day after day for their “Eureka! Moment” to visit? How many only write and read from that comfortable, safe genre and never venture forth into the chaos of something new? (And, yes, even the supposed anarchy of the postmodern or avant-garde will eventually render itself safe and formulaic given enough time.)

The reason for this fallacy is that we writers of stories and ideas have been wooed by our own creations. So many of us listen to the story of Isaac Newton under his apple tree and decided to sit under our own trees, hoping for the arrival of the consecrated fruit bludgeoning. We never bother to climb into the tree and drop a few of our own apples because we confused the metaphor of the “Eureka! Moment” with the actuality of the growing, struggling idea.

So many writers are raised hearing about the life of the mythic, lonely writer, the social Walden locked in a broom closet, her only means of escape her thoughts and a Remington (typewriter that is). Now, any writer will have long, drawn out periods of solitude; I’ll concede to that. Yet, any writer who writes something that resounds with others must obviously have had contact with people, whether from reading, socially interacting, schooling, and so forth. Those people will shape the author the same way she will in turn shape them. Otherwise, the author’s ideas would be of interest to only one person, herself. We fall for the obvious ploy of the writer as purely isolated because it makes for a great metaphor about the creative lifestyle, but, again, we confuse the metaphor with the reality.

Why this confusion? Simply because art is long and life is short. Metaphors provide us with mental short cuts to complex ideas and concepts, but in our rush to make long art compatible with our short lives, we can sometimes misconstrue the short cuts and the actual path. This misunderstanding is why books titled "How to Write a Novel in a Month," "The Shortcuts to Writing a Masterpiece," and "No Time, No Idea, No Problem!" not only exist but greatly appeal to writers, both new and seasoned alike. They fill their pages with metaphors and simplified stories that are completely believable at first glance since they contain that tiny, tiny granule of truth swimming in a bottle of nostrum.

Did an apple fall on Newton's head? Probably not, but even if it did, I'll bet Newton had had gravity on his mind for years beforehand (staring into what he eloquently called "the ocean of knowledge"). Do writers sometimes find themselves locked in lonely broom closets with their typewriters? I'm sure they do, but I'm also willing to bet they surround those typewriters with piles of books and have tack to the wall a list of people they are going to call when their book is finished.

Johnson may not be selling advice directly, but the advice that comes free with his intellectual wares is worth having. Write a lot. Read even more. Engage in a community, the more chaotic and varied the better. Be patience. Are you guaranteed a good idea? No, but it can't hurt your chances, and at least you won't waste twenty bucks on a copy of "The Shortcuts to Writing a Masterpiece."

Saturday, September 25, 2010

A Response to Deahl and Pinter

I stumbled across an article from Publisher’s Weekly the other day, by Rachel Deahl, which pointed out the proportion of women the in the publishing industry: 85% of workers with fewer than three years experience, 82% of workers with between 3 and 6 years experience, and 70% of workers overall are female. Some have called this statistic alarming, but I don't think that's necessarily the case.

Apparently the impetus for Rachel's article was this article on the Huffington Post by author and former editor Jason Pinter. The title, for those who don't want to click, is "Why Men Don't Read: How Publishing is Alienating Half the Population." This is a fairly inflammatory title to what I would describe as a less inflammatory post. Pinter's argument seems to be less about the number of women in publishing than in the lack of marketing pushes to garner young male readers. His anecdotal story about Chris Jericho's memoir is, I think, beside the point. I can think of any number of men (several men were likely in that meeting he describes, even if the proportion of men to women was 1:3) who would have no idea who Chris Jericho is or why anyone would be interested in reading his memoirs. I think that the real point is less about women not knowing what young men like and more about people in the publishing industry in general being out of touch with what young men want. Which is his real point.

I don't think he's wrong about a mantra of publishing being Men Don't Read, but I'm not certain he's right about the number of men who would be interested in reading books targeted at them. I can think of several book series that historically were targeted at boys (Heinlein's juveniles, the Hardy Boys, and the Choose Your Own Adventure series I read as a youth, for instance). But my sister had her Babysitter's Club books, Nancy Drew, and other series. The difference between us, though, was that my sister also read all of the books that I was reading, in addition to the books that were "girl books," a proposition I never reciprocated. This is of course an anecdotal experience and may not hold true on average, but I would be surprised if many young boys are interested in reading those urban paranormal romance books which are so popular right now, while I imagine there are many, many girls who still read traditional science fiction and fantasy that their male peers enjoy.

I'm reminded of Johnathan Culler's essay, "Reading as a Woman," from his book On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism and his argument that women are trained to adopt the role of male reader due to the presumption of a masculine reader in most prose works. I wonder if this hasn't shifted somewhat since he wrote the essay in the 80s and why that would be considered a bad thing. Doubtless women read fiction at a much higher rate than men, so why would the presumption of the average reader as female not make sense, especially when authors such as Dan Brown, Dean Koontz, and Philip Roth, those who would arguably appeal to male readers, are read at equal or higher rates by women?

Of course, all of this discussion is ultimately silly. Sure, books should be marketed more to boys and young men because they don't read as much and that's surely a problem. Every time I stumble across a MySpace or Facebook profile of a young friend or relative and they joke in the "Favorite Books" section about not reading or "haha, what are those?" it pains me. But the fact of the matter is that commercial publishing, those books put out by Random House and Hachette, is mostly about profit these days. What sells and to whom? While it may be true that Pinter is right, that more men would read and buy books if they were more assiduously courted by publishing interests, the current state of the situation is that women buy many more books than men, are more likely to buy them new, and to buy them in hardcover, and that is simply the best business model for publishers currently. They are already fighting the economic downturn just as the rest of us are, and the last thing they're going to feel inclined to do is shift their business model and marketing focus to appeal to a demographic which is perceived as being apathetic to their product, whether that apathy is real or imagined.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Welcome to the Bellingham Review Blog

Hello world.

Welcome to the launch of the blog. All of us at the Bellingham Review are excited about this venture into more personal interaction with our readers, and hopefully with the world at large.

We will have contributions from our current editors, including myself, as well as occasional postings from guest contributors. The main purpose of this effort is to begin discussions about what is going on in literature, what kinds of things we are considering academically and creatively, and what in the world at large is speaking to us.

I don't want to go on too long in a post about the blog. It will soon be apparent exactly what kind of blog the Bellingham Review Blog is. We simply hope that you find some measure of entertainment from it, and that you'll visit us again soon.

Christopher Carlson
Managing Editor