Three Pound Brain

No bells, just whistling in the dark…

Month: August, 2010

Just Another Innocent Pig

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: One man’s dog is another woman’s pig – I get that.  (Disciple Manning)

Was up all night drinking, playing ping-pong and playstation hockey – I have that feeling of random circuits sparking. Some hilarious comments on my last post, so I thought I’d post this as a kind of communal reply.

I really wish I had thought of something devilish t0 say to that professor of yore, but I was literally stupefied. Growing up I was the goofy kid who was easy to bully and tease because I wanted everyone to like me. (Luckily, I was also a strapping farm boy who had taken his father’s advice – “Punch them in the nose if they start giving you lip” – to heart). Bushwhacked (these are the entendres that burn me) is too friendly a word to describe the shock I felt. I slunk away like a wounded teenager. Maybe I should have punched her in the nose!

I know some people will be offended by Disciple. And I know some people will scratch their heads wondering what the big whup is. Write long enough, and you come to realize that there’s literally no end to the kinds of reactions you get. The people who ‘get you,’ you end up prizing, and you think, Thank god someone has a brain out there! The people who don’t, you end up resenting, and you think, What’s up with all these assholes! Even Goodkind feels this way, I wager. He probably hires people to feel this way with him.

So in a sense, what I’m moaning about is simply the cost of doing business as a writer, and I really should just shut up and be thankful that these people are buying my books, despite thinking I’m a sexist.

But you also learn, if you write long enough, that the book is simply a long-winded salvo in a much larger discursive exchange. It lives a reputational life all its own in the cultural aether.

I have a keen appreciation for the power of priming. Reading consists of stamping clarity onto ambiguity, and what that clarity will be depends heavily on one’s assumptions going in. Most people, I think, look at reading as if it were a kind of archaeology, an uncovering of discrete, semantic artifacts. But the fact is what you uncover varies wildly according to the caprice of things like social proof bias. This is why it’s so easy to punk the publishing gatekeepers – agents and editors – by sending them chapters pilfered from literary masterpieces. Anonymize those chapters, strip them of the associational cloud of values that positions them within our culture, and even professionals will miss their ‘genius.’ Why? Because we use conspiracies of tacit agreement to tell us how to dig in the right way when we read. All the time. Unconsciously.

I really don’t make arguements like the one from yesterday to convince people, though if that happens, then so much the better. I literally look at it as a way to piss in the soup, not so much to control the frame of interpretation and debate as to problematize it, and maybe to dull a few of those knives I can hear being sharpened over there on the Westeros board!

Yesterday was an exercise in spin doctoring… plain and simple.

There’s this feeling I get in the weeks prior to a book’s release. Month’s prior, it’s almost as if I construct this sham confidence about the book, its strengths, its audience, how it will be received. The closer the pub dates comes, the more this confidence evaporates, the more I remember just how random it all seems. You remember the way publication, even as it gets your name spinning on the cultural merry-go-round, amounts to a strange kind of demotion, how you cease being the all-powerful Creator and become simply another interpreter.

The book is strong. The book is inventive. The book is deliciously perverse. All these become I think the book is strong. I think the book is inventive. I think the book is deviously deceptive.

And you realize that the vast majority of people who read it don’t really give a flying fuck what you think. They’ll make up their own damn mind.

And call you a sexist, without qualification, because they forget that their reading is as much a reflection of their own biases and bigotries as my own.

Before you put on those rose-coloured glasses…

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: Stupid is as Smart says it is.

So Disciple of the Dog is due to be released soon. I’m almost certain that all those convinced of my sexism will be gratified. It hasn’t escaped my notice that everyone who has commented on this blog seems to be male. I’m sure some will take this as evidence of my sexism as well. Given that I literally believe that males are – in the majority of modern contexts – the ‘weaker’ sex, I remain mystified. Given that I’ve caught myself preferring do deal with women in various professional capacities – such as doctors and lawyers and what not – I’ve come to suspect that I actually have a bias against members of my own sex. No laughing matter that. I just don’t find men as cooperative or reliable.

So what gives?

I have a dirty, working class sense of humour, which has caused me problems in the past. I like swapping crude jokes when I drink. And me and my friends still go to the nudie bar on very special occasions. If this working class culture is hopelessly sexist, then, yes, I do bear its odour. You will use your charge of sexism as a way to conceal what could be a species of class bigotry.

Sex, as one of the primary engines hidden in the ‘darkness that comes before’ conscious thought, remains a primary theme in my work. My male characters are sexually attracted to women – often excessively so. I don’t believe I do anyone any favours by idealizing my characters. Ive been told by a couple of feminists that male sexual attractions is essentially transgressive, and as such, sexist. So I’m a victim of my realism, here.

I don’t believe in quota characterization. Actually, given that we find ourselves in the midst of the Great Gender Reversal, I find the notion, well, preposterous. We’re already debating ways to ‘save our boys.’ In a couple of decades, we’ll be discussing ways to ‘save our men.’

As a result I’m an equal opportunity discriminator: everybody is fucked up in my books. If you happen to be more sensitive to problematic representations of women, then these are bound to stand out for you, and you will argue that the women in my books are especially fucked up. And that thus, I am sexist.

I can appreciate the possibility that I take a ‘masculine sensibility’ to my writing – I actually try to explore this in Disciple of the Dog. From a commercial standpoint, this is apparently disastrous – according to at least one of my editors. Men are apparently forgetting how to read en masse, so I need to adopt more of a female sensibility… Huh?

I’ve been told by a few people now that I have the bad habit of ‘blaming the reader’ when they criticize my work. Since I feel as though I actually take quite a few of those criticisms to heart (I really don’t see many other authors biting bullets out there) and use them to inform and hopefully strengthen what I write subsequently, I can’t help but feel the impression arises from my various attempts to defend myself from this charge.

People have no clue where their intuitions come from, but because they live in a culture that urges them to embrace, rather than examine, every intestinal twinge, they raise towers of invective on what is the mushiest of foundations. We unconsciously game ambiguity to confirm our claims all the bloody time. So if any of the above – masculine sensibility, frank sexuality, weak female characters, working class vulgarity – generate a suspicion of sexism, your subsequent reading will confirm that suspicion, sure as shit. In fact, you might even come to think that everything I write is so obviously sexist, that all my protestations to the contrary will strike you as either disingenuous or the symptom of moral agnosia. You will literally think that you see me more clearly than I see myself.

But how else can I respond, other than to say, ‘Look, you’re totally misreading me’? You – that is, the evil accusing-innocents-of-sexism you – are just plain wrong. Meanwhile, the unconscious gaming of ambiguities is simply a fact of reading. This is why the principle of charity, simply giving the benefit of the doubt, applies as much to reading texts as it does to others. We misinterpret each other all the time, while remaining utterly convinced of our moral and semantic rectitude. I have no doubt that for some, reading Disciple of the Dog will be one of those times.

Just after I finished my coursework for my PhD, a professor of mine told me that I had received an A for her course – news that I found especially exciting since it meant I would be (so I was told) the first student to receive a perfect 4.0 in the program’s history (I used to care about that shit then). After the break, when I went to collect my paper at her office, I was stunned to see the A rubbed out and replaced with an A-. When I asked her why, she said that over the holidays she had come to the realization that I was a sexist – I shit you not! I was bowled over, to say the least. “Why?” I asked, thinking she had heard me telling some off-colour story – or something. So she says that all of her colleagues – male colleagues – had been positively raving about the papers I turned in to them, while the paper I turned into her, though quite good, simply was not rave material. That was when she realized that it had to be because she was a woman: I simply didn’t respect her enough to turn in a rave quality paper.

I know this sounds crazy, but it is absolutely true. As was the response I gave to her: out of all my instructors, only she had refused to give me an extension, and as a result, out of all my instructors, only she received a paper that was written in a rush. She refused to believe me – actually went to so far as to deny I had made that request, even when I gave her the specifics of where and when I made it. I could tell she remembered, but at that point, she needed me to be a sexist.

And this illustrates the danger of all accusations of bigotry, let alone sexism: given circumstances of sufficient enough complexity, discrimination can be read into almost anything at anytime. And once those words come out, it’s so very hard to bottle them back up again.

The Perils of Calling Smart People Stupid

by rsbakker

I still haven’t had a chance to look at the comments… But I will, once my master, the Great God Procrastidemus, gives me permission.

Otherwise, having completely alienated another one of the fine patrons of the coffee shop where I spend my mornings writing, I thought I would talk about the perils of calling smart people stupid.

The conversations almost always start with some variant of the question: “So you think you’re a critical thinker?” The most recent one ended with me saying, “I’ll shut up now,” to the response, “Yes. Please do.”

Now I’ve had dozens of these conversations, almost always with people in the humanities. Quite a few professors frequent the shop, so I end hearing quite a few sweeping statements about how benighted the poor world is – a claim I whole-heartedly agree with, the exception being I’m inclined to lump the speaker (in this case, myself) in with the rest of the world.

Now I’ve resigned myself to the fact that in some respects, all that distinguishes the educated from the evangelical is the sophistication of their tactics. They both think the other is the sign of the End. The both think themselves morally superior to the other. And they both despise genuine criticism.

I know I do. It’s like this involuntary muscle begins twitching, and I literally purse my lips to prevent myself from speaking. It seems like I have to let the thing tire itself out before I can honestly consider the hard words I’ve heard. When I do speak, I have this strange sense of convincing myself as I speak – and moreover, using my knowledge and vocabulary as a kind of weapon. I find it takes real effort to take a step back, shake my head, and realize I’m simply playing the confirmation game.

Now I like to think I’ve managed to gain some good cognitive habits over the years. I think I’m pretty good at reminding myself that things are always more complicated than they seem. I think I do a fair job at qualifying my claims, and hedging my commitment to newly acquired ‘facts.’

If I still feel as if I have a leg up on the people I’m debating, I think I’ve become good at reminding myself that they feel almost precisely the same way.

I used to feel as though I had become quite good at debating others in a nonthreatening way, but now I realize that this isn’t true at all, at least not in the way I had assumed. I actually think that I have become good at debating points -religious, political – with people lacking graduate degrees in the humanities. The evangelicals I question and debate, for instance, almost always seem to like me afterward – even when I manage to freak them out.

So why isn’t this the case with academics in the humanities? It could be my own insecurities – perhaps I come across as needing to score points against them. Or perhaps, there’s a tacit hierarchy that I’m violating – the hierarchy of the Judge and the Judged.

You see, critical thinking, among many humanities academics, is the cornerstone of their mythic self-identity. They are, you might say, Ordained Critical Thinkers – this is the very sphere of their expertise. So when someone like me comes along claiming that the biggest barrier to critical thinking is the assumption that you are a critical thinker, I’m guessing that it constitutes a kind of existential threat.

I have a friend who once roomed with an expert in ancient languages. Whenever the Mormons or the Jehovah’s Witnesses came canvassing, he would invite them in to peruse his library of biblical texts – Aramaic, Coptic, New Testament Greek, etc. – and totally, utterly, freak them out.

I’m starting to wonder whether something parallel is going on here. To pin your self-identity to critical cognition in the absence of any real knowledge of human cognition has got to be an uncomfortable situation, akin to being a Goethe scholar without being able to speak German, I suppose.

Or maybe I’m just an asshole.

Zits on my faith…

by rsbakker

Time to ease back into the tub.

If you haven’t noticed, I have a tendency to fall down the rabbit hole now and again. This time, the catalyst was the final push to complete the final draft of The White-Luck Warrior. I’m not quite done, but in addition to my habit of vanishing into monomaniacal pursuits (an apt description of WLW if there ever was one), I have the habit of losing interest in things on the doorstep of completion…

There was a time when I waged real war against these self-sabotaging tendencies of mine, but I’m in my forties now, and I just can’t be bothered. There’s a time in every man’s life when he has to call a truce with his character flaws, and find a set of secondary habits that squeezes at least a modicum of virtue out of them. For me, it was learning how to organize my life so that I yoke my monomania to my writing, instead of bouncing all over the place…

So – hopefully – I’ll be able to get to the comments people have kindly left in the interim, and to formulate the rants that have been accumulating in my frontal cortex.

The next time I disappear, you can blame the Unholy Consult.