Three Pound Brain

No bells, just whistling in the dark…

Month: August, 2011

An Inch of Imagination

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: As soon as etiquette, any etiquette, is professionalized, then the quirks that illuminate and individuate are all but doomed. No yardstick is more unforgiving than a well-meaning one. No condescension is more unyielding than kindness.

First, some cherry-picking: Luke Burrage has posted a podcast review of The White-Luck Warrior where he spends the better part of an hour discussing the issue of misogyny in the series. E.D Kain also weighs in on the issue more generally on his blog.

Also, I’m on holidays, and will be for the next several days, so apologies to all those who’ve posted comments. Hopefully I won’t be too buried to reply to them by time I’m back online regularly.

What I really want to discuss was The Atlantic‘s recent Fiction 2011 issue. I’m not sure what to say about the short stories selected, except that I prefer writers whose personality leaps from their prose–the very thing the creative writing industry seems bent on murdering.

What I want to raise as a topic for debate is Bret Anthony Johnston’s pretend article against the literary slogan, “Write what you know.” I say ‘pretend’ simply because I can’t see how anyone committed to the maxim would disagree with anything he says. Since the slogan is aimed at fiction writers, it seems painfully obvious (to me, anyway) that most everyone would paraphase the maxim to mean, “Use what you know to breath life into what you invent.”

In this sense, Johnston’s article isn’t so much critical of the slogan as it’s critical of a certain facile, and my guess is, relatively rare misinterpretation of it. Apparently some of his creative writing students seem reluctant to diverge from ‘what they know’ in any way.

From beginning to the end, Johnston assumes the Priority of the Mundane over the Spectacular. You can bet no one is writing epic fantasy in his class. Personally, this is how I’ve always understood, “write what you know”: as a way to demarcate what is cool – or ‘serious’ – from what is uncool – or ‘silly’ – from the standpoint of a particular, identity-obsessed, in-group – ‘the literary.’ Since the masses have a baseline appreciation, even hunger for, spectacle, one handy way to define yourself over and against the masses is to condemn it, turn it into a marker of what advertisers call, ‘negative reference groups.’ Want to become one of the ‘cultured’? Make a fetish of the mundane, something which this slogan does quite effectively by turning the question of proper content into a question of honesty.

But, like so many self-serving rhetorical ploys, only a question or two is required to pull the whole house of winning-hands down. The resulting implicatures tend to be weak, which is why things get so thorny so quickly if you take such ploys as a basis for further reasoning – which is precisely what Johnston does here.

Consider his final diagnosis of what might be going on:

“What if the reason we find it so difficult to cleave our fiction from experience, the reason we’re so loath to engage our imaginations and let the story rise above the ground floor of truth, isn’t that we’re afraid we’ll do the job poorly, but that we’re afraid we’ll do it too well?”

I still find myself marvelling over this, so much so that I urge you to read the article for yourself. Is he really suggesting that the culprit is the possibility that we writers will be dwarfed by what we write, that our work will blot our role from the reader’s mind, and develop a life of its own?

Is he really saying that what holds these young writers back is the fear that they will actually write the book they dream of writing? Don’t we all write to be blotted out by our creations? Isn’t that the whole point? To say something bigger (with things small – in the case of literary fiction).

Either way, I have a far more likely culprit for his student’s reluctance: status anxiety. His creative wards are desperately trying to join a community obsessed with content and authenticity. What? Me, write from the perspective of a handicapped, black, jewish grandmother?

Like anyone trying to ‘learn the ropes’ of any unforgiving social game, the literary wannabes in Johnston’s class are simply ‘playing it safe.’  They see a genre that defines itself against imaginative ‘excess’ – commercial genre – so they find themselves afraid to use their imagination at all.

And this suggests that Johnston’s essay is actually about something far different than what it purports to be: a crisis of imagination in a moribund institution, desperately rooting about for ways to affirm its relevance and vitality.

I’ll let Johnston have the final words… (well, almost):

“Writers may enter their stories through literal experience , through the ground floor, but fiction brings with it an obligation to rise past the base level, to transcend the limitations of fact and history, and proceed skyward…”

 But only a few inches, no more.

School’s… Out… For Autumn!

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: Ask the right question and a fool will build his own gallows. Answers for wood. Presumption for rope.

So I finished teaching that creative writing class at Fanshawe – my first straight gig in, like, a decade or so. I had a blast, and from what I could tell, the rest of my class did as well. I was going to write that I wasn’t sure why I love teaching as much as I do, then it occurred to me that this wasn’t true. There’s something about throwing the light switch on for a bunch of ‘young people.’  There’s something about making a room full of people laugh.

It makes me think of the old Burt Lancaster film, Elmer Gantry, the story of a shill who falls in love with a Christian Revivalist, and through sheer sociopathic charm beds her and takes over her mission. Lancaster does a brilliant job broadcasting the animality that underwrites so much spirituality, and the film does a brilliant job depicting the mobbish ecstasy of submission en masse.

Not to say my course was anything remotely approaching this (“Raise your hands and sing out the Glory of the Revised Manuscript and the Well-Written Query!”), but something happens sometimes, I think, in certain classes, something they call learning but feels more like trust. Whatever it is, we had it.

I was worried going in, simply because the course was too big to effectively workshop: How do you teach creative writing without workshopping? In a sense, you don’t. So I began with the sociology and psychology of creative writing, discussing audiences and authority gradients, the structure of ‘stable communication’ and the way literature tries to both milk and undermine it. Blah-blah-blah.

All the while I assigned paragraphs, which was always the core of my teaching strategy back when I taught basic college writing courses. Paragraphs, paragraphs, paragraphs. Two for every three classes, assigned in class to be turned in personally the following day. This encourages attendance, and most importantly, it keeps your students constantly writing, constantly engaged, through the week.

And I’ll be damned if it doesn’t seem to work. 

The idea behind each assignment was to tackle one of a number of things that tend to distinguish amateurish writing from professional work. It’s amazing how important the paragraph is, structurally speaking, and how much it can transform your writing once you master them. They are the cogs… or even better, the sprockets, of well written fiction.

So… like, yah… It was pretty cool.

But nowhere near so cool as sitting on your ass pondering apocalyptic madness on your screen…

The big reason I’ve been posting here as often as I have was simply that the class stranded me with small chunks of my day, and my brain is a diesel: it takes sometime to warm up. In a sense, this was where I was the student: I feel as though I’ve learned so much about the more ephemeral aspects of the biz.

For the first time in my career I actually started paying close attention to my sales. Amazon has a feature that allows authors to manage their own books and provides Bookscan data broken down by region in the US. I now know, for instance, that I am far bigger in traditional blue states than I am in red (no surprise there, I suppose, but I was hoping). I’ve also come to realize that my US sales are far below what they could be, compared to the UK and Canadian markets. And unfortunately, I now know just how dismally my two side-projects, Neuropath and Disciple of the Dog, have fared. (You’re a bunch of genre purists out there, you know that?)

But I also learned that The Second Apocalypse is alive and well, as tenacious as C. difficile in the cultural gut, and most importantly, growing, not quickly, mind you, but steadily – enough for me to turn down a full-time teaching job… Something which is gold these here parts.

Now I gotta make like Elmer Gantry, only without the womanizing, the speaking-in-tongues, the ranting and raving about What God Wants according to this ancient prose-poem. (The hellfire and damnation stuff I’m okay with).

I need to save some souls from the iniquity of certain certainties.

Sell a fucking book or two.

And write.

The new side project, what I turn to when I burn out on The Unholy Consult, will be a selection of stories and vignettes call Atrocity Tales, concentrating on events from the founding of the Consult to the rise of the Scarlet Spires during the Scholastic Wars. I’ll be posting them online as I go, soliciting feedback, and hopefully providing newcomers a less daunting way to climb into the series. Something to take the density out of The Darkness That Comes Before. Something easier to recommend.

Ironies In The Fire

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: We gaze at our navel because its closer and easier to shave than our asshole.

And the answer to the identity half of the question is:

 Oh, I don’t know. Out of nearly 7 billion people, I’m fortunate to be in the top 1% in the planet with regards to health, wealth, looks, brains, athleticism, and nationality. My wife is slender, beautiful, lovable, loyal, fertile, and funny. I meet good people who seem to enjoy my company everywhere I go. That all seems pretty lucky to me, considering that my entire contribution to the situation was choosing my parents well. I am grateful and I thank God every day for the ticket He has dealt me. If I’m not a birth lottery winner, then who is? The kid in the Congo who just got his hands chopped off and is getting raped for the fourth time today? To paraphrase the immortal parental wisdom of PJ O’Rourke, anyone in my position had damn well better get down on their knees and pray that life does not become fair.

In other words, God. It has been Ordained.

And the answer to the belief half of the question is:

As for belief, I don’t concern myself in the slightest with the perfect correspondence of my beliefs with What Is So or not. They either do or they don’t, but regardless, the Absolute Truth of Creation doesn’t depend upon what I happen to believe it to be at the moment and I don’t think such correspondence is even theoretically possible. Bakker simply doesn’t understand that I don’t believe his opinion, my opinion, or anyone else’s opinion matters in the least, except in how they happen to affect our decisions and subsequent actions. See Human Action for details.  

By way of clarification, no one asked him about the ‘absolute’ of anything. I’m not sure I understand, otherwise (and would welcome clarification). Is he saying he doesn’t believe in the question? Or is he saying the truth or falsity doesn’t matter, so long as people do what he wants them to do? Or is he actually biting the bullet, saying, ‘I really don’t know whether my claims are right or wrong, but I don’t care one way or another, so long as people seem to believe me.”

Or is he simply avoiding the question once again.

Now, if I were a follower of Theo, I would like to know what the hell he’s talking about. Why should they take someone who doesn’t care about the accuracy of his views of faith seriously? Or, if he does take the accuracy (as opposed to the consequences) of his claims seriously, why should they trust the claims of someone who doesn’t take the likelihood they are wrong seriously.

One of the things that seems to make democracy such an effective form of governance, for instance, is its capacity for reform, for adapting to new social realities. It’s ugly, it’s prone to error, but the institution is designed to eventually get it right.

One of the ironies that always had me scratching my head following Theo’s blog was the tension between his dogmatism and his purported libertarianism. A libertarian like Michael Shermer, for instance, is skeptical of government’s ability to manage society independent of markets for much the same reason he’s skeptical of an individual’s ability to magically stumble upon the truth independent of (natural) science: humans are just not smart enough to master the supercomplexities involved. Centrally planned economies fail, on this account, because all things being equal, the solution to a distribution problem enacted by a ‘Red Director’ will be wrong, whereas the market not only generates a plurality of possible solutions, it also selects the one or ones that actually solve the problem.

This could be why democracy and capitalism at the social institutional level have so outstripped their competitors: creative flexibility in the face of supercomplexity. All I want to suggest to Theo and to any of his readers who happen to find this post is that skepticism (and it’s social incarnation, science) is the cognitive analogue to democracy and capitalism.

The reason science has so outstripped its competitors boils down to creative flexibility in the face of supercomplexity. Multiple researchers with multiple hypotheses, embedded in a system that selects for accuracy. You never ‘go all in’ – rather, you hedge your bets, always realizing the complexity of things is such that you could very well lose. And you listen closely to those making contrary bets around you, realizing that they are at least as likely to be holding the winning hand as you. 

In the case of each, democracy, capitalism, science, the process is messy and complicated, two things that cut against our stone age psychology. We despise uncertainty. Very little is pretty close up with these institutions: the grandeur and the power only reveal themselves when you take a big step back.

So given this, the best answer to the Question, I think, would be something along the lines of: “I think I’ve won the Magical Belief and Identity Lottery because more and more research seems to indicate that humans are hardwired to do so, even though odds are I’m just as duped as the next guy. I’m ‘programmed’ to fool myself.”

This answer at least possesses the virtues of remaining open to further scientific scrutiny, and explaining why the idiots who disagree with you seem to be just as convinced of their idiocy as you are of your brilliance.

Foil As Meme Delivery Vehicle

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: The louder a person points, the more they become the show.

Theo’s back with a wonderful thrashing of my work, character, and psychological deterioration – or straw approximations of them. I had no idea he was so relevant and well-connected. I was surprised he didn’t post his college transcripts, or at least his Stanford-Binet.

He has lot’s and lot’s of theories about me, but for some reason, he keeps seizing on the ephemera and refuses to give an answer to the one question I keep asking over and over: What makes him think he’s won the Magical Belief and Identity Lottery? His reluctance or evasion or whatever it is must be obvious to at least some of his readers by now.

[Turns to Theo]: By the terms of your own argument, I’m irrelevant, so why all the wasted e-ink? Why not write an essay answering this one simple question? I’m just saying that this list applies to you as much as anyone else, that you’re just another fool with lot’s of guesses like me and everyone else. But you seem to think otherwise. Why?

Post-Script: I inserted a link to some of David Dunning’s work for the people popping over from Vox Day to the previous post, the stuff he received a ‘noble Ig Nobel’ for. (The organizers also give awards to publicize works that justify their critical and satiric mission. I’m curious how many comments will simply seize on it as confirmation of their views).

The Show Must Grate On…

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: Les is mor.

[Addendum 19/08/11: For those of you popping over from Vox Day, something on the inverse correlation between logical competence and self-appraisal.]

[Addendum 18/08/11: Some (or perhaps just another) perspective]

I finally had a chance to check out the comments on the “Prince of Misogyny”  post I referenced a couple of days back. The parallels to the responses on Theo’s blog are nothing short of creepy. The big difference seems to be that where everyone on Theo’s board was busy calling me a low self-esteem loser, these guys are accusing me of insufferable pomposity…

I guess I am all things to all people after all!  A Nancy that needs to “grow a pair,” and a Pig who can’t stop showing them off. How awesome is that?

Believe it or not, I actually want to keep both of these blog war ‘relationships’ afloat. I know some of you hate it, and think it’s just an aggravating waste of time, and you could be right, but these exchanges make me very curious. And I find it’s helping me see my past my own tendencies to become defensive or morally censorious–and most importantly, to find the kinds of questions that give these ‘hard believers’ pause. (Does anyone know of any real research done on individuals prone to fanatical belief on facile grounds?).

As a veteran of Gabe Chouinard’s old board, I’ve been through the real wringer with people who were every bit as perceptive as they were nasty. Matt Stover, especially, was an estimable opponent, as apt to grill your character as thoroughly as your arguments (imagine Happy Ent, only really, really pissed). These guys are strictly bush league in comparison. There’s nothing anybody’s said that has prickled enough to jarr me from my experimental mindset–yet.

And as far as the books go, I actually think this stuff demonstrates that my writing, for better or worse, is rich enough to support a wild, wild variety of competing interpretations. And most important of all, that it’s actually reaching people who can be outraged.

Anyway, by way of UPDATES, I thought I should mention that I have included a couple new pieces in Essays, Speculations, and Stories. This last page I just added today.

As with everything, feedback is welcome! With “The New Theory” essay, I’m especially interested in where people would like me to add footnotes. It’s a puppy I would actually like to publish someday… I think.

Sweet Manna

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: The Second Law of Cranks states that for every crank, there exists an opposite crank – an ‘anti-crank.’ Unfortunately, rather than annihilating each other on contact, they have the effect of splitting the universe in two. (The First Law of Cranks (for those of you unfamiliar with epistemological physics) states that for every Opinion, no matter how preposterous, there is at least one crank who will call it Gospel).

[Just a note: I actually posted the following question on the Dude’s ROH website. “I’m guessing you agree not all accusations of misogyny are equal: what criteria do you use to distinguish genuine accusations from spurious?” The question never made it past moderation. Too funny. For someone who claims to be a troll he certainly seems shy! ]


Now this is almost too good to be true! I ask for a liberal Theo and lo…

Should I be suspicious? I admit, I’m having a hard time deciding whether this is serious, or simply provocation for it’s own sake. Either way this guy makes Theo’s Straw Bakker look like the tin man. And his M.O!  Logically decisive swearing, and some of the most cogent name-calling I’ve ever encountered. How do you engage someone who, unlike, Theo, doesn’t even pretend to be rational? 

I tell ya, the stock some people put in pure attitude. What would you call it,  the arguing ad na-na-nana-naa?

Does anyone know who this guy is? I’d be interested in drawing him out on his motivations. Just what does he think he’s accomplishing with a site like this… Does he care?

The strange thing is how… I dunno, flattered I feel. I’m not so sure that I should, but getting blasted by kooks like this makes me think I gotta be doing something right. It could be they’re the only one’s willing to waste the energy!

Could you imagine if a sizable portion of the planet decided that the strength of a claim depended on the amount of vitriol they put behind it. It would be almost as funny as it would be tragic. Don’t people realize that the only thing cheaper than belief is attitude?

Guilt by Socialization

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: A snob is someone who looks down on his own reflection – and takes a long piss.

Two posts in one day, I know, but that Eco thing was just too rich, and I wanted to get this out while the article in question was still relatively fresh.

Fantasy has garnered quite a bit of attention in the mainstream press lately, thanks to the success of HBO’s A Game of Thrones. Roger recently sent me a link to this article by Lev Grossman in The Wall Street Journal. Rather than dwell on the piece, however, I want to consider two critical comments that were posted in response, simply because they strike me as fairly representative. (With any luck, this will be picked up on the blogosphere: if there was ever a time for a social legitimacy food-fight, now is it).

First, there’s Jason Stuart:

This article has failed in every case to adequately combat the criticisms it mentions. It has, in fact, only served to reinforce any negative stereotypes associated with the genre, but, more importantly, it reinforces the lack of respect held not so much for the overall genre, but for the large mass of cult-like readers of said genre.

The obvious yet almost always ignored example of how “fantasy” can still be “literature” is Gabriel Garcia-Marquez and the rest of the Magical-Realists. But, since they aren’t writing about epic multi-generational global wars (focusing only on the richest, most elite members) that threaten fictional worlds populated mostly with dragons and trolls, they are dismissed outright be the faithful.

The question is not one of adherence to the tropes of “reality” but one of RELEVANCE to reality.

So far, no argument has been made to convince me that the bulk of fantasy pulp is relevant in the least to any average man’s real life.

Escapism, to be precise.

The one thing I like about this response is it’s honesty: Stuart isn’t afraid to acknowledge that the lack of respect for the genre translates into a lack of respect for the audience. This makes it clear that the authority gradient at issue isn’t simply aesthetic but social as well. There’s Respectable readers who read respectable things and there’s Unrespectable readers. As I’ve argued ad nauseum here and elsewhere, you can’t separate the genre from the readers. Impugn the one, and you impugn the other.

Gabriel Garcia-Marquez only serves to highlight the degree to which this distinction is social: the reason Magic Realists are not considered fantasy authors is simply that they don’t write for fantasy readers. Instead, they write for the Genre-that-dares-not-speak-its-name, which is to say, they write for so-called ‘literary readers.’ The ‘fantastic’ can either denote a formal commitment or a social one. Since Magic Realists generally buy into the authority gradient that Stuart references, they sure as hell are going to go the formal route: to write for the Unrespectable is to risk losing the respect of the Respectable.

Now simply calling readers Unrespectable smacks of chauvinism, which is why I think Stuart feels compelled to further rationalize his distinction. The problem, he suggests, is one of ‘RELEVANCE.’ He has encountered no argument to convince him that fantasy is relevant to “any average man’s life.”

Unfortunately he fails to provide any argument to convince anyone of the contrary: that it is irrelevant. For people like me, people who think the precise opposite, that so-called literary fiction has become all but culturally irrelevant (in any positive sense), and that genre is pretty much the only socially relevant fictional form available to writers who want to make an actual difference in actual lives, an argument would be nice, because heaven knows I’ve looked for one! Alas, he simply asserts this is the case. But I’ll get back to this issue below.

Perhaps the following commentator, Harry Schwartz, has an argument:

You summed it up perfectly: “The question is not one of adherence to the tropes of “reality” but one of RELEVANCE to reality” Hilarious to claim that Harry Potter isn’t wish-fulfillment fantasy (scrawny orphan boy discovers he has incredible powers and belongs to an elite secret society, where he’s a famous hero), or that fantasy’s focus on pure unadulterated good-vs-evil doesn’t detract from its relevance as literature (Austen and Tolstoy wrote extensively about morality, but they did so via believably complex, flawed, and relatable characters, not larger-than-life heroes and villains. That’s why thinking people have been enjoying their work for over a century). Fantasy is an escapist pulp genre like thrillers or romance novels. Fantasy writers talk about “world-building”, meaning shoveling in tons of detail to make the story’s universe seem huge and sweeping, like a place you could actually escape to (though some people seem to struggle with the fact that they don’t actually live there, as the recent Harry Potter phenomenon has shown). That this world building is often hilariously flawed (frequently depicting a world that’s been stuck at a Medieval level of technology for millennia) may not make it less entertaining, but definitely makes it inferior to true literature. Shakespeare may have used ghosts and witches on occasion, but he never built any worlds. Still, that’s not to say the fantasy genre can’t be executed competently and entertainingly, or that a skillful author doesn’t deserve respect (James Clavell wrote historical fiction pulp extremely well, and he’s one of my favorite authors). But it’s no more a mark of distinction to read it any more than playing video games is, in fact it’s probably a good sign if an adult is hesitant to share their enthusiasm for either one. That’s why they’re called guilty pleasures. Just because it’s more acceptable now for adults to enjoy adolescent entertainments (not a great trend, in my opinion) doesn’t mean those entertainments will ever be taken seriously as artistic achievements. One hopes.

Once again, we find a number of loaded social references, which seem to boil down into the binary, Thinkers against Adolescents. Once again, though, I’m not sure I see any argument. A bunch of assertions, a whole bunch of loaded language begging the same old, we-cool-you-losers authority gradient, but nothing you can really point to in the way of rational justification.

You could say he ends with an argument: Why isn’t reading fantasy not a “mark of distinction”? Because we call them “guilty pleasures.” But this isn’t really an argument so much as a question begging conjunction of assertions.

So we are left with: fantasy isn’t literary because it’s escapist, and it’s escapist because it isn’t relevant to life, and it isn’t relevant to life because… well, we don’t know.

We could be charitable, and construct an argument for them using several value-judgements they make in passing. Secondary worlds are hyperbolic. The characterization is unbelievable. The action is unrealistic.

So we could say that the argument they would make is that fantasy isn’t relevant because it isn’t believable or realistic. In other words, fantasy isn’t relevant because it’s fantastic…

But wait a tick… Hmm.

I guess they don’t have an argument after all.

Let me make a suggestion: the social RELEVANCE of fantasy lies in its audience, the fact that it reaches millions upon millions of people. All you have to do is look at fandom to realize that fantasy moves people far, far more profoundly than so-called ‘literary fiction’ (which, as you all know, I think has devolved into a spectacular in-group exercise, like-minded authors writing for like-minded readers, pretending to challenge all those out-group ‘adolescents’ (who never read them) with books literally designed to alienate readers without any specialized training. Popcorn, in other words, masquerading as salad.)

Make no mistake: the difference between fiction in general and literature is moral. The latter is supposed to be good for you in a way the former isn’t. This means the difference between fiction in general and literature has to do with real world consequences – whether or not it ‘resembles’ what counted as literature in ages gone by is pretty much meaningless once those forms cease to have real literary consequences for real readers.

These guys are simply doing what everybody does: making moral yardsticks out of their aesthetic tastes. They literally think their bookshelves make them less ‘guilty.’

Is There an Eco in Here?

by rsbakker

Apparently Theo has discovered a “fail proof method” for determining whether The Prince of Nothing is pornographic. According to Umberto Eco (an impressario famed for the development of ‘fail proof methods’) any time the pace of a narrative lags, the book or film or what have you is ‘pornographic.’

Is it possible that Theo is serious? If this is simply his way of exacting ironic vengeance, then I think it’s actually quite funny. Otherwise… Holy moly, man. Talk about “inept philosophizing”!

There is, however, a serious criticism buried in a footnote (!) to the text: the question of whether it’s possible to sincerely suspend judgement. He offers what might be called a “When Push Comes to Shove” argument. I’m not sure his formulation is coherent, but the general point, I think, has actual bite. Moral action does seem to demand clarity and conviction. 

This, by the way, is another self-conscious thematic pillar of The Prince of Nothing (that he missed), the relationship between our attitudes to our beliefs and the kinds of actions they license. The fact is all our moral judgements are at best educated guesses, whether we acknowledge them as such or not. Once you acknowledge this – my argument is – you’re more inclined to give the other the benefit of the doubt, to be conciliatory, or to put it in terms that Theo would understand, turn the other cheek.

One of the reasons I’m so critical of the new atheists is their tendency to see religion as the moral problem, rather than as one symptom among others. Certainty is the problem. Communists, Islamists, Anarchists: it doesn’t matter. In each case you have a three pound brain murdering other three pound brains in the name of some truth that no three pound brain is capable of grasping.

I’m not sure why he thinks I’m ‘post-moralist,’ given that I’m a moral realist. Is it simply because I refuse to think morality is simple?

Also, why doesn’t anyone make fun of me for my aphorisms. That’s the way to go.

And lastly, is it my imagination, or does he seem to be modifying his rhetorical tactics? He’s using more qualifications, it seems to me.

The King of Straw

by rsbakker

Think about it like this.

If I wrote literary fiction, this encounter would have never happened. Rather than engaging – and yes, even learning from – people with genuinely contrary views, I would have been stranded with this cartoon in my head, probably used some particularly clownish example like Sarah Palin as my anchoring token. I would have simply lampooned and dismissed their contrary views, made in-group jokes about how obviously idiotic they were. My ideas would be king in a land of strawmen…

Starting to sound familiar, yet?

As it stands, I think I’ve learned a couple of important lessons. First, if you’re going to provoke, keep it simple. They scan everything you say, ignoring everything but what they perceive to be your rhetorically weakest point, and no matter how irrelevant, they hoist it and wave it around as though it’s the only thing you said.

Second, and I have Roger to thank for this one, not only stick to second-order claims (claims about claims), but be clear about it.

And third, and perhaps most importantly, bite the bullet. When they call you an idiot, say, “Yes! That’s my point!” I’m not sure why, and I would certainly welcome speculation on this point, but this seems to make them itchy. I agree with James: the comments on Theo’s site are actually quite atypical. You get the feeling that they’re standing on marbles over there.

Ideologues can be dangerous. Oslo is just the most recent example. My fear, which I’m sure I’ve mentioned far too many times, is that the internet is facilitating human communication, not communication more generally. And human communication is flawed through and through, saddled with all kinds of tendencies that may have been adaptive back in the stone age, but are now problematic in the extreme. If we do destroy ourselves, dollars to doughnuts coalition psychology will have something to do with it.

Let’s call it Group Crashing: drawing out various groupthink communities, not only to prevent groupthink within your own cohort, but to jam, as much as possible, the groupthink of others.

Maybe we should form a… ah… er… group. A Group Crashing Group. We could gather together as many argumentative, contrarian assholes as possible, put together a list of targets from across the political and cultural spectrum, then provoke as much rational debate as possible, all the while working the main message: “You don’t know what you’re fucking talking about!”

Sounds foofy, I know… But interesting all the same.

I’ve already decided I’m going to try this again, only this time with someone on the opposite end of the ideological spectrum. Does anyone know of any particularly obnoxious, liberal, literary-minded site?

In Contempt of Contemplation

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: All authors feel sorry for the characters in their novels, which is what makes self-pity inevitable when they begin blogging.

I received a ping-back for a Black Gate review of The Prince of Nothing by none other than Theo, that ultra-conservative blogger I debated on the issue of nihilism in contemporary fantasy quite a few months back.

One thing you can say about my books is that they get reviewed–way out of proportion to their sales, if you ask me. I’ve long since abandoned any attempt to keep track, let alone archive, the new ones I invariably find when my masochism gets the best of me and I troll the web. But this one is special, partly because it’s written by Theo–or Vox Day, as he is better known–and partly because it falls into a ‘special’ class.

I remembering wondering what Theo would make of my books back when we were debating, since it seemed that many of the things he and Leo Grin were bemoaning in 21st Century epic fantasy–heroism, moral clarity, mythic depth–were things that I happened to be self-consciously tackling. Forgive me for waxing Don Cherry, but I remember thinking that he would actually like the books, and that he would make a flag of the sexually related material as way to trash it. I shit you not.

And Bingo was his name-o…

Reading Theo’s review, and you would think someone was being raped every other page (rather than every other other page)! Not only did the sex really, really, really stand out for him, but it really, really, really offended him as well, apparently enough to overpower what he did like about the books. Fair enough, I suppose, but given that the first book is called The Darkness that Comes Before (!), and given that the irrational springs of human action are a primary focus of the book, and given that sex is one of those springs (history and appetite are everywhere: if anything there’s far more ‘history porn’ in the books than sexual porn), you would at least think that he would reference this connection…

I guess he missed it.

This brings me to what I was most curious about, back when: What would Theo make of the thematics of the trilogy. To be honest, I thought this was where he would spill the most pixilated ink. Why? Because reading his blog, I realized that in many respects I had written the trilogy for him, for people who really, really, really think they’ve won the Magical Belief-and-Identity Lottery.

And this, if Vox Day is to be believed, is Theo in a nutshell. The Grand Prize Winner. Reading his blog, I had the impression of drawing circles inside of circles:

Fiscal conservatives…

Social and fiscal conservatives…

White, social and fiscal conservatives…

White, male, social and fiscal conservatives…

White, male, English-descended, social and fiscal conservatives…

White, male, English-descended, Anglican, social and fiscal conservatives…

I’m sure the list goes on, but this was as far as I was able to go. What began as snobbish hilarity quickly turned into consternation and a kind of baffled, dare I say? disgust. Discussions of partitioning America along more ‘rational’ identity-driven lines, of the ‘behavioural profile of African-Americans,’ of the ‘proper place of women,’ of the forced resettlement of immigrants, of the ‘flaws of democracy’ made me realize that Theo had more than a few fascistic leanings. I’m still shaking my head.

Parochialism is part of the human floor plan: we’re hardwired to continually draw ‘identity circles,’ to parse our social environments into myriad shades of us and them. But some of us, unfortunately, find ourselves on the extremes of this instinctual continuum. On the one hand, there are those who are utterly oblivious to social difference, and on the other hand, you have those who are obsessive about it. Where the one tends to rationalize from a “we’re all in this together” standpoint, the other tends to rationalize from a “dog eats dog” perspective.

Of course, both groups claim the moral and rational high ground. Theo literally believes that he is made of better stuff (‘superintelligence,’ I think, is the term he uses to describe his intellect). He literally thinks his gender is the apple of the Creator’s eye. He literally believes his little corner of the human gene pool is the only one that doesn’t smell of pee. He literally thinks that reason is his friend and his friend alone (because lord knows it makes idiots out of everyone who disagrees with him).

And he knows he just has to be right because everywhere he turns he finds confirmation of his views, as well as affirmation of his identifications. It couldn’t just be coincidence, now, could it?

Well, it’s not coincidence. Humans are cognitive and identity egoists, which is why you find versions of Theo no matter what the in-group happens to be: African, Asian, Arabic, Norwegian. Our brains aren’t simply primed to generate patterns out of noisy social environments, they’re primed to generate happy patterns, ones that confirm preexisting views and affirm our self-identifications.

If anything dwarfs the references to history and appetite in The Prince of Nothing, it’s vanity and stupidity. Despite apparently recognizing “thinly disguised references to philosophers,” despite his superintelligence, despite all those readers who complain that I’m too obvious with this particular theme, Theo genuinely seems to have no clue that this is what The Prince of Nothing is about: the comic folly and the tragic consequence of thinking–like most everyone else–that you are the winner of the belief-and-identity game show–only like, for real.

Here’s the quote I would like to leave him:



White-skinned. Still young enough to clutch its toes. Eyes at once vacant and lucid, in the way only an infant’s could be. The penetrating white-blue of the Steppe.

My son.

Cnaiür reached out two fingers, saw the scars banding the length of his forearm. The babe waved his hands, and as though by accident, caught Cnaiür’s fingertip, his grip firm, like that of a father or friend in miniature. Without warning, its face flushed, became wizened with anguished wrinkles. It sputtered, began wailing.

Why, Cnaiür wondered, would the D nyain keep this child? What did he see when he looked upon it? What use was there in a child?

There was no interval between the world and an infant soul. No deception. No language. An infant’s wail simply was its hunger. And it occurred to Cnaiür that if he abandoned this child, it would become an Inrithi, but if he took it, stole away and rode hard for the Steppe, it would become a Scylvendi. And his hair prickled across his scalp, for there was magic in that–even doom.

This wail would not always be one with its hunger. The interval would lengthen, and the tracks between its soul and its expression would multiply, become more and more unfathomable. This singular need would be unbraided into a thousand strands of lust and hope, bound into a thousand knots of fear and shame…And it would wince beneath the upraised hand of the father, sigh at the soft touch of the mother.

It would become what circumstance demanded. Inrithi or Scylvendi…

It did not matter.


I’m sure this comes off as peevish and thin-skinned to those of you unfamiliar with the previous debate. It’s generally bad form for authors to respond to reviews. Why? Because we instinctively understand that authors are ‘too close’ to their work to have anything impartial to say.

But part of the reason we invest so much passion in books lies in the fact that they judge us well. Our readings can say a frightful number of things about our values, our beliefs, our abilities, our sensitivities, our education, as well as our social identifications. As far as The Prince of Nothing is concerned, Theo is at once comic and tragic, a small man–like the rest of us–convinced he is the measure of us all. He is, in a sense, the true anti-hero of the books.

In creative writing workshops I always spend time talking about ‘critiquing critiques,’ teaching freshman writers how to sort the wheat from the chaff when it comes to feedback. I talk about the problem of ambiguity, and how readers are prone to manufacture problems, especially when they think it’s their job to find them. The ability to sort representative problems from idiosyncratic ones is as crucial to an author’s overall development as it is to the success of any one book. In order to learn from your mistakes you have to be able to identify them.

I’m still trying to puzzle through the lesson of this one.

Nothing happy, I’m guessing.