Sunday, July 31, 2005

Myths of Internet Communication

The internet is often regarded as an amazing advance in human communication, akin to writing, the printing press and the telephone. Through it one can communicate with someone halfway around the world, and to judge by the huge number of chatrooms, blogs, and posting boards that fill cyberspace today, a lot of people are taking advantage of this new technology, myself included. But the question keeps coming back to me: if this new tool of communication is indeed working so well, why is human society more polarized than ever? Shouldn't the internet make it possible for two differing views to work out their differences through a posting board or chatroom, and spare us all the painful violence of terrorism and war?

There are, no doubt, many reasons the rosy scenario has not come to be, but in my own experience it can be summed up rather neatly: the internet merely makes communication possible -- it does not make it happen.

Or it makes it happen in unexpected ways.

By this I mean the phenomenon of internet subcultures. Anyone who has surfed the web for any length of time can tell you that virtually any possible interest is represented there. Pick a hobby, and it will have both a web presence and a group who use the internet to explore and enjoy their shared interest. Most of the time this is a good thing, since this sort of communication allows those with shared interests, particularly if there are only a few of them, to coordinate their interests and activities. Sometimes, as in the case of terrorist, racist, or pedophilic groups (and I refuse to provide links to any of them here), this has been a decidedly bad thing, since these groups do no good for anyone and having a way for them to coordinate merely means more work for the law-enforcement agencies whose purpose it is to monitor them and shut them down.

But another question arises from this: does the existence of the internet facilitate the relations of subcultures with those outside them? In one sense it does, since after a Google search one can get in touch with such groups, and so new members can be brought in. As well, such websites allow idle surfers such as myself to explore the world in ways we might never otherwise. I'm not a member of any BDSM groups myself, but what I was able to learn from their websites, chatrooms, and posting boards was invaluable in writing the novels I have. Provided one is able to evaluate the quality of internet sources, one can learn a lot from the web.

As well, however, there is a clear tendency for online groups to form cliques. The anonymity allowed by the internet means that troublemakers can enter groups for the sole purpose of disrupting them. As well, the fact that internet communication does not usually take place face-to-face seems to encourage some to dispense with the social rules of polite behavior that are required to keep many face-to-face encounters from becoming brawls. It is easy to forget that each name on your screen is another person, and this often leads internet arguments down far more angry and even destructive paths than normal ones.

The result is that internet cliques are often quite careful as to who they allow in, who they trust, and in this way they are just like cliques in the real world, and for much the same reasons. Regulars become known and acceptance must be earned. Obviously this process will vary from group to group; a group dedicated to a stigmatized fetish like BDSM will be more careful than one devoted to the growing of water lilies or fruit trees. But all will work as human groups always do.

And so in this sense I must conclude that the internet both has and has not facilitated human communication. It has made small groups possible that would never have been possible before, but it has not changed the underlying human animal. We are still social in the same way we were before, with enemies and friends and hierarchies and opinions. On the internet, as in life, disagreements are often settled by separation, with the two parties forming their own little societies that do not commingle. Perhaps this is for the best, since perhaps we simply aren't really ready for the full impact of our latest technological marvel yet.

Monday, June 27, 2005

The Sin Fetish

Religion, like sex, is generally a very personal matter, and by its nature it tends to defy easy definition. This, of course, has not stopped people from trying, and if there is any one thing that has distinguished religion in the common era (CE or AD) from that of before the common era (BC or BCE), it is the tremendous amount of effort that has gone into defining religious things, organizing them into stricter and stricter dogmas.

The effect of this, historically, has been to make religions rigid, and it has created the need to enforce orthodoxy and stamp out diversities of opinion. Rather than claiming to touch on truths, religions these days often tend to speak in the singular: TRUTH. There is only one, they claim, one correct way of defining the divine, one correct way of viewing the universe. As this attitude festers, it tends to become aggressive, and inquisitions and crusades and jihads result. Religion, which can serve to liberate the human spirit, which can help heal suffering and provide meaning in what often seems a meaningless existence, becomes instead a tool of power and control, and it winds up adding to human misery rather than alleviating it.

The big tool in the toolchest of this sort of religion (which is, thank God, not the only sort of religion out there) is of course the concept of sin. This is not to say that sin is merely an invention of oppressive religion, for there is ample evidence of an inherent moral code in most human beings, even if they act against it. We do know the difference between right and wrong most of the time, even when we do bad things. Were there no inherent moral code, it is hard to see how human societies could function at all, and it is no coincidence that those societies which abandon moral codes completely tend to collapse or survive only with significant outside aid. One need not be religious to be moral, as ethical atheists prove every day.

When it comes to the idea of sin, few groups seem more enthusiastic about the matter than the Roman Catholic Church. This organization seems to love the idea of sin, seems to love defining it. A summation of Catholic sins given at the St. Thomas Aquinas Forum shows us that the church has grouped them into two broad categories: Mortal and Venial. Mortal sins, of course, are the really bad ones, and if you die having committed a mortal sin, apparently even a single mortal sin, you get to suffer in hell for all eternity at the hand of your loving God, even if you rescued Jews from the Holocaust or saved a million babies from starvation. A venial sin doesn't exclude you from heaven, but it's still bad. Maybe it warrants only a spanking or something like that.

Mortal sins, of course, get the most attention. Many seem to be based on interpretations of the Ten Commandments. I won't outline them all here, but will instead focus on a few features of them.

First, the commandments that get the most attention in the summation are #5 (You shall not kill) and #6 (You shall not commit adultery). Unfortunately, #5 is a mistranslation: correctly, the Hebrew reads: "You shall not commit murder". From #5 we are told that murder, abortion, euthanasia, and suicide are sins, and there is some logic to this, since each of these things can be interpreted as a form of murder. Of course, so too can hunting, eating vegetables, and fighting off an infection, since the commandment does not specify humans, particularly if you use the translation of "you shall not kill".

Other sins based on #5 include scandal, drug abuse, gluttony, alcohol abuse, terrorism, extreme anger, hatred and extortion. I don't know if blackmail falls under extortion or not. What's odd, though, is that although each of these things can be considered bad and immoral, among them only terrorism by its nature actually involves murder. The others can lead to death, but they don't have to.

Notably absent from these varied definitions of sin is war. While this might at first seem odd, the sad truth is that Christian and Catholic history are both quite bloody, and even the current Pope has argued that:

"Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia."

"You shall not kill" or "you shall not murder" apparently don't always apply if you use enough bombs. "Onward Christian Soldiers" and all that.

Now #6, "you shall not commit adultery" includes adultery, which is what it says, and then a whole host of other things that seem to be related to adultery only in that they involve sex or marriage: divorce, fornication, pornography, prostitution, rape, homosexual acts, incest, and masturbation. Now, some of these things are very bad things because they have clearly defined victims: rape and very often incest cause real harm and are usually the result of the abuse of power in one form or another. Divorce, on the other hand, has no clear victim and can be used to end an abusive marriage (note that spousal abuse does not seem to be on the list of mortal sins, unless it leads to one like rape or murder). Fornication can be a bad idea, as can prostitution, and if one of those involved is married, then both can constitute adultery.

But pornography, homosexual acts, and masturbation? Yes, all can be harmful in excess, but so too can religious devotion, as Jim Jones and David Koresh clearly showed. And the simple fact is that human beings are sexual, and that these are forms of sexual expression that need not produce victims. And to judge by the regularity of sex scandals within Christian organizations, repression hardly seems likely to eliminate the excesses that do occur.

There are more sins, of course, so many so that I can't recount them all in the space of this single essay. Suffice it to say that Reverend Lovejoy's remark to Marge Simpson is not far off the mark: "Marge, just about everything is a sin. Y'ever sat down and read this thing? Technically, we're not allowed to go to the bathroom."

The question is: Why? Given the almost fetishistic obsession with sin given by the Catholic Church and a huge number of Evangelical Protestants, one can't help but wonder if many Christians (and others in other faiths that do the same thing) aren't actually getting off on sin somehow. Note that the site from which I got the list of Catholic sins has no corresponding page detailing Catholic virtues (though it does have one on grace, which is not the same thing, and one on faith, one on Original Sin complete with a total misreading of what the book of Genesis actually says about the matter, another on angels, justification, redemption, and the position of the Church on controversial topics). The site also has, of course, lots of discussion about those the Church regards as its enemies, which seems to broadly be anyone who embraces modernity.

But I think the main reason isn't fetishistic but rather that it is political. The Catholic Church has through most of its history been a political instrument first and foremost, as have many other churches. By deciding that the church has the divine power to define sin, it gives itself the power to control the lives of its members, which is all the more disturbing given the use of forced conversions in Christian history, a trend that continues today through the use of extortion: Christ is the only way to salvation, and the only way to get Christ's support is to do what the church leadership tells you to do.

The church leadership, mind you. Not Jesus. A quick look at the citations in the list of sins given above shows us that only a minority come from the Gospels; most are from Paul and the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC). The simple fact is that the Bible itself doesn't actually mention many things defined as sins (such as masturbation), or mentions them only briefly (homosexuality).

So I confess that I find it impossible to see the exaltation of sin that dominates so much Christian thinking today as anything more than an effort to restore the political power that Christian churches had before the rise of secularism. You know the sort of power I mean, I'm sure: the power to make war, the power to persecute, the power to sell indulgences, the power to hold inquisitions and kill and torture Jews and heretics, the power to enslave Native Americans and Black Africans, the power to silence dissent and to tell boldfaced lies about science and medicine, and so on.

What I don't see is why anyone would consider such a grab for power to be moral. I somehow doubt Jesus would see it that way, since he spent most of his time talking about compassion, peace and love. What a weirdo, huh?

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Does "Publishing" Matter?

In recent weeks I've had the opportunity to engage in several discussions on several blogs about the nature of publishing. This is an interesting topic, but it has become all the more interesting with the rise of "Print on Demand" (POD) technology, which allows a publisher an economically viable print run of even a single book, which with older technology was simply not practical.

Thus far I have encountered four basic applications of POD technology:

1. Small Presses. By reducing overhead, POD benefits small publishers, many of whom operate on very tight budgets. This is in every way a good thing, since the small press has been under pressure in recent years as major publishers grow more and more dominant. Small presses are an important part of the publishing world, since they provide an outlet for titles that appeal to smaller audiences and which therefore are not commercially viable for a major publisher to invest in. Small presses, in other words, promote literary diversity, and this is good. A good example of a small press that uses POD is Prime Books, which specializes in literary science fiction, fantasy and horror.

2. Publishing Out of Print Books. Since the size of a print run doesn't matter with POD, the technology makes it profitable to bring old books with small audiences back into print, making them available when they otherwise would not be. One of the larger POD companies, iUniverse, has such a program, and there are imprints heavily involved in this, such as Wildside Press.

3. Publishing Limited Demand Books. Some books, by their nature, have an inherently limited demand. Examples include certain reference books whose contents are only valid for short periods, or books that are regularly updated. Rather than commit to (and risk having to dispose of) a large number of copies, POD allows the publishers of such books to produce them as needed.

4. Vanity and Self-Publishing. Despite a few well-publicized commercial success stories, the majority of self-published books sell only a small number of copies. There are a number of reasons for this, including quality concerns (self-publishing usually also means self-editing and proofreading, which are very different skills from writing), limited promotional opportunities, and an inherently small audience (unless Grandma is famous, her memoirs are not likely to be interesting to anyone outside the family, for example). Just as it benefits small presses, POD makes self-publishing economically feasible for the individual.

Put simply, because POD has a cost advantage over traditional printing when the number of books being printed is small, POD works best when the anticipated audience for a book is small, as in each of these four cases. While it is perfectly possible to print a million copies of a POD book, in the real world this is unlikely to happen. Since POD books are individually more expensive than individual books from a traditional print run, any publisher who expects to sell a lot of books will bias toward the economy of scale found in that traditional print run. Only if a POD book were to suddenly catch the public's attention and quickly sell a large number of copies might there be an exception to this, and in such a case a traditional publisher would almost certainly pick up the title right away and remove it from the POD inventory.

Now, the first three applications I noted above have few detractors, since they are simply traditional publishers using a new technology to cut costs, but there has been a lot of ink (or more correctly, bandwidth) spilled over the vanity/self-publishing aspect of POD, so much so in fact that some people equate the two. As a result, discussions about POD usually become discussions about self-publishing. I'll say here that I've self-published a book with POD, and so do not approach this discussion from the outside. I've also done professional freelance editing, and am fairly familiar with how traditional publishing works.

This brings us to a second feature of the modern publishing world: the internet. With the success of on-line booksellers like Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble, it is now possible to distribute a book worldwide without taking up shelf space in bookstores. Though I think it unlikely that on-line booksellers are ever going to replace the bookstore, the internet has created a method of distribution that did not exist twenty years ago. The biggest benefit of this, of course, is that obscure titles are now widely available; for example, you can find both the well-known Harry Potter and much-less-well-known The Usahar at Amazon.com.

Yes, these two along with almost every book that iUniverse and its peers have put out is there, a few keystrokes and mouse clicks away. The result of the combination of POD and the internet, in other words, is that there are a lot of books one can buy that wouldn't have been out there twenty years ago. Is this good or bad?

Hence the debate, since so many of these new books are self-published. Objections to self-publishing typically focus on the low quality of so much of it, and a look at the preview pages from any of the major POD companies shows that many of these books do indeed have a lot of problems. As a result, self-publishing is regarded by a lot of people as the option of last resort for authors whose manuscripts simply weren't good enough to actually be "published".

It's not really publishing, just printing and binding, the detractors say.

This is a comfortable position to take. It implies that we are protected from bad writing by a system that invariably rewards quality, and that there is some inherent merit in "published" work that is lacking in a manuscript that is "unpublished". What's odd, however, is that this is not the view that editors and agents in the business of publishing actually seem to have. They freely acknowledge that they are constrained by economics, and that the cost of publishing or representing a book precludes them from accepting every worthy title that comes across their desks. In an interview over at POD-dy Mouth (a blog devoted to POD), one editor even pointed out that self-publishing might be a good exercise for authors, so they can see how difficult and complex the publisher's job actually is; I can personally attest to the value of this lesson.

It's also worth noting that in the interviews at POD-dy Mouth, none of the agents or editors thus far have said that self-publishing by POD or otherwise will in any way hurt a budding writer's career; such things seem not to matter to the business one way or the other. There is no evidence that they consider self-publishing a threat to what they do. This makes sense when we consider that they are in business, that a good, salable book is a good, salable book regardless of its pedigree, and these people know they can't publish them all anyway. Better a good book be self-published than not published, one editor said. Readers seem to not really care; they either like a book or they don't and rarely pay attention to the name of the publisher.

So who are the critics of self-publishing? One group is reviewers, who usually refuse to deal with self-published work, and given the large number of books to be reviewed and the high percentage of bad self-published ones, this makes a certain amount of sense (I should note in all fairness, however, that some self-published work does occasionally get reviewed--sometimes favorably and sometimes not--in major venues such as SFSite). Those publications that do review a lot of self-published work, like Midwest Book Review, are themselves called illegitimate by some critics of self-publishing. Reviews by readers, such as those at Amazon.com, are also dismissed by some, despite the fact that these are the opinions of end users; that is, the people for whom the book was written. I confess that the logic to this escapes me.

Oddly enough, though, the harshest critics of self-publishing are often writers. Some are seasoned professionals, while others are self-acknowledged amateurs. The reasons for this are no doubt varied; a few are themselves veterans of self-publishing who perhaps were disappointed by their experience. Given the low sales volume of most self-published books it is hard to imagine that traditionally published authors would consider them to be competition, and you would think that those who are trying to sell manuscripts to traditional publishers would be glad that some of their competition was opting out, thereby narrowing the field.

To provide another possible explanation, however, a little autobiography is in order: Years ago, when I was learning about the publishing industry and trying to sell the manuscript of my first completed novel, I spent a lot of time with budding writers, and we all went to writing conventions together, where we networked with agents and editors. There was a clear prestige thing going on, imposed from below, by all of us who looked with a certain envy upon the authors who had sold books, and we also looked at the editors and agents as our path to the promised land. We listened to these editors talk so we could learn what they wanted us to write, bought them drinks in the hotel bar, and gave them our specially made business cards that proclaimed us as writers, all for just a chance to send them our manuscript. It was, as I look back on it now, lots of fun, and it was quite educational, because for the most part they were very nice folks with a very real love of literature, and they were trying to be patient with us as we badgered them while they looked for the one or two authors who might actually have a manuscript they could turn into a profitable book. The majority were honest, sometimes brutally so, about the publishing industry.

To us neophytes, selling a book was the most important thing in the world, and we wrote furiously and critiqued each other furiously with that goal in mind. But as time went by, I saw in myself and others that writing had become less important than being a "writer". This meant, of course, a published writer, because we had convinced ourselves that nothing else would validate our art. Our highest praise in critiques was "this will sell!" Not "this made me weep, it was so beautiful", or "this made me think about something in a way I never had before", or even "wow, that turned me on". There was a time when my highest aspiration was to be on the cover of Locus, because that would mean that I had "made it". I would have the status and prestige that I had so willingly granted to others (never asking whether they actually wanted it or not).

And so I can't help but wonder if at least some of the criticism from writers of their self-published, POD, Amazon.com-benefiting comrades isn't based ultimately on a fear that the mass of self-published work and the new means of distributing it will somehow lower the status of the word "author", or more specifically, "published author". Some argue that most self-published writers are simply unwilling to go through the long and often painful process that is required to write well. To be sure, one can now write a bad manuscript and spend a few hundred dollars on it and then proclaim oneself "published", but does this make one John Steinbeck? The work, the quality of it, will in the end be judged in either case, and no matter how nice the cover or the binding or the typesetting, if you have typos all over the first page or your story is impossible to follow or your style is incomprehensible even to a native speaker of whatever language you are writing in, your book will be called bad. By the same token, if your work is good, if it is one of those many fine books that traditional publishers might like to but cannot publish, then it will still be just as fine a book if you publish it yourself, provided you are willing to do the extra work and edit and proofread it well.

Selling a self-published book, of course, is another side to it all, and one that needs to be carefully considered.

Our society regards economic success as one of the highest (if not the highest) forms of human achievement, and this attitude extends into our views of literature. "Successful" books are generally regarded as those which sell well, as if popularity were synonymous with quality. Certainly, if one's goal is to make money, then sales are important, whether one is selling cars or books or shampoo. But books, and more specifically stories, are not merely a commercial product. They are also an art form, and art is by its nature subjective; what appeals to me may not appeal to you. It is possible to say that because Car A has airbags and a higher safety-rating and better fuel economy and performance than Car B, that Car A is a better car. But does the fact that Book A has magic and wizards and swordplay and a linear, entertaining plot and Book B does not mean that Book A is a better book? Are the Harry Potter books better than The Grapes of Wrath? Can an objective standard to make such a distinction actually exist in an art form?

I would argue not. It is possible to state that a book, or even a story, is poorly produced, based on a number of widely accepted norms (correct spelling, punctuation, and even to a lesser extent grammar, for example). It is also inevitable that we will each like some novels and stories more than others, based on our own individual criteria for what constitutes good and bad literature. But we would do well to remember that not every author writes what they do because they believe it will sell, or that anyone outside a certain niche will be interested in it. Both authors and audiences will vary widely, and popularity is not by itself an inherent indicator of quality any more than a hundred positive reviews at Amazon.com or one in the New York Times. Popularity is flattering and affirming and can be profitable, but what constitutes quality in literature is something we each have to decide for ourselves, ideally after reading widely. Not everyone likes Hemingway's work either.

So, ultimately, how do we define "publishing"? Dictionary.com gives us: 1. "To prepare and issue (printed material) for public distribution or sale" or 2. "To bring to the public attention; announce". It says nothing of an increase in status (thus shattering my youthful dreams); nor does it mention specific requirements as to how the work should be produced or disseminated. It does not guarantee quality or fame or fortune. Rather, publication is merely the act of making one's work public.

And this, by way of conclusion, should stand as a warning to any and all prospective self-publishers: if you think self-publishing is going to be easy, you are mistaken. If you think it is going to get you status as a "published writer", you need to take a close look at exactly why you are writing in the first place. If you think it will make you money, know that the odds, as in the lottery, are stacked against you. Self-publishing requires skills in editing and copyediting and proofreading, not to mention an ability to self-critique, that few writers have. Many POD companies offer these things as services (for which they charge you), but in the end, the one who is investing money in the venture is you, not your publisher. Unlike a traditional publisher whose success or failure derives from how well your book sells, the POD publisher will make a profit regardless (albeit a smaller one). The good POD publishers are honest businesspeople and will give you what you have paid for (iUniverse has treated me extremely well), but simply because the product they produce has a pretty cover and is well-bound does not absolve you of the responsibility for putting the best book you can write (and edit, and proofread) between those covers. And you need to set realistic goals for putting your work into published form, to know what you want to achieve and are trying to achieve, and to be prepared for the consequences of what you are doing.

It's all up to you.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

The Failure of Rage

Death has been big in the news lately. First and most publicized has been the passing of pope John Paul II, and tucked neatly in the same few days Prince Rainier of Monaco. And on April 9, 2005, the well known radical feminist and anti-porn crusader Andrea Dworkin died at the age of 58. Now, I never met Dworkin, and so far as I know she was never aware of my work, but I think it is safe to say the two of us wouldn't have gotten along.

The reasons for my guess are multiple. First, I reject many of the basic assumptions Dworkin made about both the human condition and the nature of human beings. I reject her argument that human relations are strictly political and power-based, and I reject the Marxist idea that human beings are defined by which groups they belong to (in the case of radical feminist ideology, male and female, particularly), which I believe has crippled modern feminism. But it must be said in Dworkin's favor that she cast enough of a shadow that her death and probable legacy have brought out in me a few introspective moments, which I will attempt to elaborate on here.

As is usually the case with controversial lives, the details of Dworkin's feelings and opinions can sometimes be hard to pin down, and doubtless they changed as she aged, as they do for all of us. Some accused her of arguing that all heterosexual intercourse was rape, for example, though she denied having said this. She also denied that the Canadian ban on pornography commonly thought to be influenced by her and fellow anti-porn crusader Catharine MacKinnon wound up banning her own works. To be fair, I won't dwell on such specifics, since I have not researched them adequately, and since the details of them are not really relevant to my thoughts here.

Beyond her politics and reputation, though, I think it is safe to say after reading even a sampling of her work that Andrea Dworkin was defined by her rage. It permeates her writings, just as it permeates radical feminism. She was angry, and despite a reputation for shyness, seldom hesitated to tell us how she felt.

To be sure, Dworkin had a lot to be angry about. The history of humanity is filled with brutality against women, and one of the most prominent features of today's world is that on many parts of our planet, it actually seems to be getting worse, though this may well simply be a feature of the fact that the general methods of oppression have become so sophisticated. Nonetheless, the simultaneous efforts among a wide variety of religious groups worldwide to eliminate the rights of women should provoke us into rage, as should the modern growth of slavery, including sexual slavery that preys on the most vulnerable. We should be enraged by the tolerance of extremes of poverty and social decay that strike women and children hardest, even as the governments of the developed world freely sell weapons that frequently contribute to and even cause genocides like the one being largely ignored in Darfur, where rape is simply another weapon.

But since it was her defining feature, we should now ask ourselves: what did Dworkin's rage accomplish? Can we point to her work and her life and say they were successful? This is not merely a question we should ask of Andrea Dworkin, of course-- it is a question we should all regularly ask of ourselves. In Dworkin's case, I think her legacy is likely to be seen as a mixed bag, something Susie Bright seemed to indicate in her own comments on Dworkin's death. To be sure, Dworkin's attitudes about pornography, sex and the erotic were defined by her rage, but as Bright notes, she did at least talk about the subject before others did, giving it some level of intellectual attention that it had never had before.

But here her contributions ended. Rage had brought Dworkin to porn, but it got her stuck there too. Again and again she said the same thing, making the same assertions, using the same flawed, simplistic assumptions about men and women and sexuality. She really did seem to believe that pornography does only one thing (encourage rape), that it exists for only one reason (encourage rape), and all men are alike in their sexuality, all working together in a social construct designed to rape, humiliate, and control women. Actual research into sex crimes and sexuality was only useful to Dworkin when it supported her rage, regardless of its quality as science, and this led her, in circumstances both tragic and ironic, to reject modernity itself and ally herself with social conservatives who saw and continue to see all sex as sin and pornography as a foot in the door for their desires to restrict freedom generally, and the freedom of women in particular. In the end, Dworkin's efforts alienated far more feminists than they attracted, even as many of her legal efforts against porn were rebuffed as unconstitutional.

Here, I think we can learn from Dworkin and her life. As an example of distilled and unrepentant rage, she can teach us about anger and its effects. In the early days of modern feminism, rage was commonplace, and I think it had its place in that context. Women were actively discriminated against, and that discrimination was so pervasive and so institutionalized that very public rage was needed to jar society out of its complacency and to point out that by the standards of freedom and equality America had fought to protect in the Second World War, women were being cheated. As the comfortable post-war society of the 1950's aged, and as the birth control pill found its way into American life, the sudden appearance of protesters in large numbers, yelling in their anger and frustration, could and did effect some very real changes. Dworkin's early work came in this environment, and as Bright noted, it did cause discussion about pornography in a new way. Rage, then, has its place; to feel it is natural, as natural as our sex drives and our need for love. There are few more effective calls to action, few more effective ways to get people to pay attention. For this very reason, in fact, much (but not by any means all) of my upcoming novel Portent was written in a state of advanced rage.

But in the end, rage does not build anything; in the long run it is destructive, not constructive. We can see this in Dworkin's efforts against porn, which were mostly just thinly veiled efforts to harm men by branding all of them as rapists or their accomplices, which naturally led most men to reject her ideas as nonsense. She did not seek a compromise with men, the overwhelming majority of whom are not rapists and who seek, as most women do, the love of a good partner; rather, reading Dworkin's work leaves the impression that she felt all things male need to be destroyed, and the notion that women might enjoy and appreciate men and many aspects of their sexuality was seen as treason in her war. And so her message became only the rage, never building anything, never offering us a better world, never offering us meaning or hope.

This is the tragedy of Andrea Dworkin. It seems to me likely that Mackinnon and others will carry on her campaign, and that they, like her, will do so fueled by rage. For the rest of us, however, and certainly for me, there is a different and more positive lesson Dworkin can teach us. Rage has its place, and it must be given its due. But just as there is a time for rage, there must as well be a time to step back from it. I know that rage will come for me again, as it does for us all, but it need not consume us as it seems to have consumed Andrea Dworkin. Others, like for example John Walsh, deal with a rage no less intense than Dworkin's, but they manage to turn it into something positive, something that adds to the quality of the human condition rather than detracts from it. As I face my own life and my own rage, I can only hope to do the same.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Real Horror Movies

Once in a while, I find myself in a hotel, and since most hotels have cable TV, I get the chance to watch things I wouldn't ordinarily watch. Such was the case recently, when I took a look at the apocalyptic zombie movie 28 Days Later. Now, I must warn the reader that some spoilers lie below, so read on at your own risk.

28 Days Later is part of a subgenre of moviemaking that includes such end of the world films as The Omega Man (which must have been like a wet dream for future NRA president Charlton Heston, running around an abandoned city with a machine gun shooting at anything that moved) and The Quiet Earth, combined with the classic zombie film, best typified by Night of the Living Dead and its zillions of knock-offs.

In brief, the plot of 28 Days Later is as follows: Violent anti-vivsectionists break into a primate lab where research is being done on a virus called "Rage". They release an infected chimp, get infected, and spread the disease off camera. The virus seems to be a rather nasty combination of rabies and ebola, spreading through blood, with the effect of making the victim homicidal. We must suspend our disbelief a bit here, since any disease that acted as quickly as this one does would be fairly easy to contain in a country with an advanced public health infrastructure like Great Britain, given its apparent incubation period of about a minute and the fact that its symptoms are so hard to miss. But back to our story...

28 days later Jim, our protagonist, awakens from a coma to find that the virus has infected most of the population, effectively ending civilization in England and presumably the world (outbreaks in New York and Paris are mentioned).Jim joins up with some other uninfected folks and for a while he fights the hordes of the infected zombies while trying to remain uninfected himself. Eventually, he joins with a lady pharmacist and a father and daughter to locate the source of a radio message that promises hope, and they flee London for the countryside.

What they find is a group of about a dozen soldiers who have barricaded themselves in an old English manor house, hoping to hold out until the infected all starve to death. For a brief time there seems to be hope, but then the movie takes a darker turn, as the despairing soldiers have been promised women by their commander in order to maintain hope and discipline. Apparently they have given up on the future and figure they might as well spend the rest of their lives at least getting laid, even if it's with a young teen girl. The later part of the movie focuses not on Jim fighting the infected, but on Jim fighting the soldiers, who decide to kill him since he won't join in their little rape-a-thon (the girl's dad is already dead, having become infected and then getting shot).

Responses to this turn, if we may judge by the reviews for the movie over at Amazon, are mixed. To be sure, it is an unusual twist for a zombie film, which typically thrive on their black and white ethics (kill or be killed), and many horror film fans were disappointed by the movie's lack of explicit gore and its shift in attention away from the zombies. But I found the plot twist, and indeed the depiction of "Rage" as a disease, to be quite interesting. Rage, as we can see in the astonishingly violent world of today, is indeed infectious. What distinguishes the "infected" of 28 Days Later is that their rage is depicted in such a physical way, screaming and vomiting blood and all. Rage is ugly, and to manifest it physically the way this film does is a fascinating allegory.

But rage is not the most terrifying thing about 28 Days Later. The infected zombies are in fact not terrifying at all; they are sick and dangerous, and there are certainly some scary moments when Jim and his comrades are fleeing from them, but what makes this film most horrifying is the behavior of the survivors, particularly the soldiers.

British soldiers are among the best trained in the world, notorious for their discipline, and when the soldiers first appeared in the film I felt a natural sense of relief. They represented hope, organization, and civilization, all of which had been lost in the chaos of the epidemic. But as I noted above, this quickly turned sour as they made their intentions clear. These men were in fact much more frightening than the zombies, because the evil they intended could not be blamed on a virus but was rather a basic part of their being human. And most of all, it was so believable, their behavior.

In today's world soldiers occupy a fairly exalted place. There are people out there like Osama bin Laden who really do want to kill millions of us, who want to destroy civilization, and soldiers are quite correctly seen as a part of our defense against such monsters. We need soldiers, as anyone who has ever witnessed the use of the military in response to natural disasters can attest. But it is important as well to remember that soldiers are human too, and that they are trained to kill, and that war is never as ethically simple as a zombie movie. By virtue of their weapons and training, soldiers possess very real power, and it is an unfortunate fact of history that human beings with power are inherently corruptible.

We combat this danger with laws and tradition. In the United Stares and Britain, the military is supposed to be under civilian command, and these civilians are, in theory at least, elected officials. And there is no doubt that the militaries of both countries do not, by and large, currently present a threat to their own populations, as the militaries of nations without the rule of law often do; the situation becomes even worse in societies where the rule of law has broken down and the streets are ruled by armed gangs. But the recent Abu Ghriab scandal, no less than the My Lai massacre, demonstrates that none of us, even the soldiers of the most professional armies in history, are immune to the corrosive effects of violence and the sense of power that comes from controlling a weapon.

We need the military, and to be sure the majority of our veterans deserve our compassion and our respect (two things our current administration often seems loathe to give them) but to worship the institution as flawless and to overlook its very real failings is to court disaster. If anything, the need for firm ethics is strongest in wartime or other times of stress, because these are precisely the times when the abuse of power is most likely. And so we should, I think, take the plot twist found in 28 Days Later as a warning; the time to be most careful of our own behavior, and the time to demand the best behavior from our armed forces is not in times of peace when things are easy, but rather in hard and frightening times, when armies of zombies are at the gates, or when the far more frightening monsters are flying airplanes into buildings.

If our military does not hold itself to high ethical standards, we will quickly find that the country they are supposed to defend will not be worth defending.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Safe Art

Recently, the arrest of a high school student in Kentucky has garnered some media attention over the question of free speech and artistic freedom in America today. Now, as I write this essay the facts of the case are less than clear to me, but the gist of the story is that this young man has been accused of violating a Kentucky law that forbids "terroristic threatening" (and no, I'm not making up the term "terroristic threatening"). The student says he wrote a story about zombies taking over a high school, while the police say his writings contain no zombies but actual threats.

In any event, given the recent pronouncement by the new Attorney General that he does not consider the distribution of obscene materials to be protected by the First Amendment, a lot of people, myself included, reacted quite strongly to the idea that an American could be arrested for something he wrote.

Art, of course, can provoke people; this is indeed one of its purposes. And so it is universally true that repressive societies and governments seek to control art, which is the real reason the Attorney General's latest anti-porn campaign is so unsettling. We in America are accustomed to seeing ourselves as a free society, one in which citizens may, within some very broad limits, write and say pretty much what they please. The assumption is that we are responsible enough to handle our own affairs, and that the country is stronger if we do. This is, of course, only an assumption, and there are plenty of people who don't think it's true. Many (but not all) forms of Christianity, the most common religion in America, are in fact based on the opposite argument: no one can handle their own affairs, because all humans are in a fallen, sinful state.

These two attitudes have a profound affect on art. Both appreciate art, mind you; the difference lies in what type. And here we come at last to the subject of this essay: Safe Art.

Safe Art is just what it says it is. It's art that won't get you into trouble. It's sure to elicit a smile and a nod from your teacher, from your friends, from your colleagues. If you're technically skilled at your art form, it can and often will win you awards, applause, and praise. You'll get favorable reviews and people will have no fear recommending your art to their kids and acquaintances. You can produce Safe Art and carry it in public and have no fear or shame, and indeed, being in proximity to it and referring to it often can even get people to remark on the high quality of your character.

Most artists, understandably, are safe artists. Most art is safe art. It fits conventions and stays within boundaries. The Harry Potter novels offend a few people (mostly for religious reasons), but really very few, and most of us wouldn't be bothered to see one of J.K. Rowling's books in the hands of one of our kids. Only the very paranoid see kids (and some adults) pretending to be wizards and believe that these fans are actually trying to practice magic or summon demons or monsters. It's harmless fun.

Harmless. Safe. Safe Art.

And so it is no surprise that the Attorney General isn't planning to prosecute J.K. Rowling. Her art is safe, representing no threat to him or the power of his government or his belief system. What makes it safe, of course, is that it doesn't challenge the conventions of the society that consumes it, and so Safe Art has a lot it can tell us about the beliefs of a society. That Harry Potter does not directly challenge modern versions of Christianity or other organized religions makes it safe. That it does not address political issues or challenge capitalism or socialism makes it safe. That it has little, if any, sex in it, and no homosexuality, makes it safe. And that it is violent, but only so violent and then ultimately only against "bad" characters, makes it safe.

Now, don't get me wrong. I have no objection to Harry Potter, and the fact that Rowling, a novelist, is apparently richer than the Queen of England (plus, Rowling earned her money, rather than inheriting it), delights me to no end. There are times when we all want to simply enjoy a piece of good, safe, art, and Rowling has the writing talents to produce just such art. A lot of writers do, in fact, and their work fills the bookstores and no one objects.

But then there is the other kind of art. Dangerous Art. Like Safe Art, this stuff lives up to its name; it is in fact its mirror image. Where Safe Art respects and even supports cultural mores and boundaries, Dangerous Art defies them, often deliberately, sometimes actively seeking out the most offensive way possible to do so. Such art is routinely banned and burned, and is the sort that most people will deny enjoying, even if they secretly do. It is the art that all too often brings the artists themselves under suspicion, an irrational response that Matt Cheney answered quite well:

"I'm not saying anything new here, I know. But if anything is going to combat is idiotic, fascistic paranoia that continues to explode around us, it may be our willingness to stubbornly and loudly repeat things we already know: That thoughts are not actions; that writing is a form of imagination, not terrorism; that fiction is not reality; that it's entirely possible for a perfectly nice and harmless person to write really dark, disturbing stories."

Dangerous Art is the art that people like the Attorney General will always target, because it threatens them, their power, their authority, and their fears. In another time, Harry Potter's magic content would have branded it Dangerous Art, and Rowling would, like Galileo, have been forced to recant her work or face death. Dangerous Art is the art that takes no prisoners, that provokes, that offends to make its point. This is the art that pushes the boundaries. I've been asked at times why in my own work offensive sexual themes play such a strong role, and the answer is simply that sex is the single most powerful tool any writer in modern America has to make people sit up and take notice (I could have used violence, but violence is considered a positive thing by American culture, and we have long been desensitized to it). The Nobel Committee, when awarding that prize to John Steinbeck, recognized the truth about Dangerous Art when it said:

"But he had no mind to be an unoffending comforter and entertainer. The topics he chose were serious and denunciatory, as for example the bitter strikes on California's fruit and cotton plantations which he depicted in his novel In Dubious Battle (1936)."

I'm no John Steinbeck, not by a long shot. But I do recognize what he did and why. Because it is not the Safe Art that pushes us forward. It is not Safe Art that challenges injustice, not Safe Art that frees slaves or emancipates women or preserves liberty or that truly challenges us to be better human beings tomorrow than we were today. It's the Dangerous Art that does that, because Dangerous Art takes chances, embraces new ideas, and most of all because Dangerous Art is not afraid to tell hard truths. It's not afraid to proclaim that the emperor has no clothes.

And in the end, it is the Dangerous Art that is most often remembered. It is no small irony that the Bible, that haven for so many who cling to Safe Art and seek to repress other forms of human expression, is in fact one of the most dangerous books ever written.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

The State of Science Fiction

Recently, in response to Matt Cheney's review of New Worlds: An Anthology, Michael Moorcock took exception to what he regarded as Mr. Cheney's preference for the more "conventionally written" science fiction stories in the collection and added that he found the review "condescending". Mr. Cheney then responded, and this has had the fortunate effect of bringing others into the discussion (always a good thing), as can be seen at the SFSite boards here.

Now, I haven't read the anthology and so am not qualified to discuss it. But reading Moorcock's e-mail reminded me of an article I read not long ago by Brian W. Aldiss in the Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, Volume 119 Number 3, entitled "Oh No, Not More Sci-Fi!" In his article Aldiss raises the question of the current state of science fiction much as Moorcock does in his e-mail. Moorcock gives his position as follows:
"The reviewer picked out three of the most conventionally written stories for praise (they are indeed good stories) and clearly believes that the unconventional work by the likes of Ballard, Aldiss, Sladek and many others, which remains some of their very best, is somehow inferior to later, more conventional, work. I feel obliged, on the part of the authors, to object to the reviewer's tone, which reflects the prevailing conservatism of so much of the sf community. It's no surprise to me that the majority of sf is no better today than it was some forty years ago. Indeed, with a few great exceptions, it has become essentially a reactionary genre mostly read and written by a characteristically conservative community with little serious interest in confronting modern issues or of developing literary techniques able to reflect contemporary reality."

Science fiction, this argument seems to be, is hampered by its lack of experimentation, its unwillingness to take risks, to innovate and to confront rather than simply entertain, and as a result it has stagnated. Aldiss in many ways seems to agree with this assessment.

"Science fiction is stuck in its fin de si├Ęcle phase. A parallel case is what some see as the end of pop music's creative phase. That faithful reporter of the science fiction scene Locus: The Magazine of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Field shows what has happened. In every issue we are treated to people roistering, writers, fans, artists, publishers, editors, all mugging together for the camera. Here are the stars of a cut-rate culture, attending more and more conventions, clutching more and more awards.

"... Do none of these Locus folk work? Are they forever having a Wonderful Time? Is there no place or time where a writer sits alone and attempts to find a way to convey plausibly the hard truths of existence? Or can partying and adulation occupy a whole lovesome lifetime?"

Both Moorcock and Aldiss raise a valid point, for certainly much of science fiction is simple entertainment, and innovation is often seen in creative worldbuilding or exciting plot twists rather than creative new attempts at style or in efforts to confront the difficult, changing truths of the modern world. Much of it is escapism, pure and simple, and I think this is one reason that conventional literary criticism often has such a hard time taking it seriously.

What neither Moorcock or Aldiss address, though, is the question of why, and while both acknowledge the existence of science fiction that does innovate and challenge, both imply that such work is very much the exception. These two points seem to me to be related, in that the science fiction culture of fans and Cons and escapism that they are critical of is simply the most public and most commercial side of the genre, which Locus, as a reporter of the commercial side of science fiction and fantasy, naturally focuses upon. The success of franchises like Star Wars and Star Trek, which provide us with a alternate universes often more pleasant (and certainly more ethically simple) than our own, especially in this frightening age, has I think naturally drawn many other science fiction storytellers into the escapist mode. It's big business, escapism, and people are clearly willing to pay a lot for it.

But we must be careful, too, not to get drawn into the trap that the most visible part of the picture is necessarily all of it. Yes, many science fiction fans love their Cons and their ability to escape for a time into another world, but this does not preclude them from being able to recognize and appreciate challenging literature; one may thrill over the Federation's triumph over the Borg and still be able to appreciate the powerful cautionary message of Orwell's 1984, for example. And there is well done, experimental science fiction out there, such as (to give only one recent example) A Coffee Cup/Alien Invasion Story by Douglas Lain, which appears in a recent issue of Strange Horizons, an online magazine that frequently publishes such fiction. As well, there are science fiction authors willing to take dramatic risks to make a point, who are willing to write ethically and intellectually challenging works. They aren't the most obvious in the genre, but they are there, often hidden in small fanzines and published by small presses, and just as you are challenged by reading them, often you are challenged in simply finding them. The effort, in my experience, is frequently worth it.

Science fiction, like all literature and all storytelling, evolves. Moorcock and Aldiss give us a snapshot of a moment in that evolution, a branch of it. But I should hope that they can see that the culture illuminated by Locus and the focus on entertainment alone are only a part of a much larger and richer whole that continues to draw writers of considerable talent into its fold, because it often gives them a vehicle to innovate and to challenge in a way that "traditional" literature does not.