Short News, Struggling Scribblers Edition

Office in Small City by Edward Hopper, 1953
Office in Small City by Edward Hopper, 1953

Do your job. Electric Literature says writing is a jobeven if it doesn’t pay you as much as you wish it would.

[S]ometimes the money just isn’t there. If you are writing weird poems on a friend’s Tumblr page that only a handful of people will read, you can’t expect to be paid because there is no money being made. But if you are writing for, say, a big website that gets massive traffic, you should absolutely demand to be paid

I previously inked some thoughts on writers and rip-off publishers here.

“Should we always play it safe?” Barrelhouse has a great graphic essay on writers and writing.

File under Asylum, lunatics taken over the. Trumpkins swarmed the Goodreads page for author Laura Silverman’s latest book, inundating it with one-star reviews because she dislikes their clown prince of politics. Punchline: the book hasn’t been released yet — it’s still in copyedits. Allies responded with five stars to counteract the attacks; meanwhile, Goodreads lethargically removed the troll reviews. Silverman said the incident “scared me a lot, because they were taking it to the next level.” If it’s any consolation to Silverman, I wouldn’t worry about it affecting her career — that’s just another Tuesday for Goodreads.

Secondhand Adventures in Book Clubbing

"I found the descriptions of the horse to be, frankly, astonishingly beautiful, and yet disturbingly arousing."
“I found the descriptions of the horse to be, frankly, astonishingly beautiful and yet disturbingly arousing.”

Mrs. Kuhl and her friends have a book club. After a rather calamitous go at Emma Donoghue’s Room and at a loss for a title that would please all tastes, I suggested they read Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. The book had incidentally been selected for the One Book One Town program run by our library, which culminated in a presentation by Ronson at the local university last night. Mrs. Kuhl liked the book but one thing kept irritating her: Ronson’s claims of a uniform Twitter.

I identified both with Justine and also with the people who tore her apart. And I thought: We’re punishing Justine, gleefully punishing Justine, with this thing that we are the most terrified might happen to us.

At the presentation, Ronson repeatedly used the words “we” and “us” to describe the bullies who attacked Justine Sacco. During the Q&A portion, Mrs. Kuhl was the first to ask Ronson a question: What percentage of Twitter shamed Sacco? Ronson said he didn’t know, then continued to throw blame on everyone in the room, including himself.

Mrs. Kuhl’s question would be easy to answer if we had access to Twitter’s big data: simply set time parameters around the date (21 December 2013) and divide the number of tweeps using @JustineSacco or the #HasJustineLanded hashtag by the total number of users active that day. But as Twitter is cagey with its proprietary info, the best we can do is guess. The month before, Twitter said it had 232 million “monthly active users” (out of a total of 651 million accounts — the difference being a “dark pool” of inactive or barely active users); and there were an estimated 100,000 tweets about Sacco. If every one of those tweets had a unique author (and they probably didn’t), then only 0.0431 percent of active Twitter tweeted about her. That’s not “we” or “us.” That’s a very small, very specific group of somebody else.

Ronson also cited the fact that #HasJustineLanded was trending worldwide as proof of the monolithic nature of the shaming but Twitter’s bar for trending can be very low, sometimes as low as 500 or 600 tweets. Their algorithm for trending has more to do with time of day and the frequency over a short span rather than overall volume.

Twitter is not a homogeneous experience. A good example of this is black Twitter, something I rarely witness without trending hashtags (like when #Blackish was trending the morning of February 25th). Mrs. Kuhl, because of her love of all things Patriots, has some insight into that world via the Venn overlap of white and black Pats fans, but I never see it. I know it exists — and yet there is an entire universe of conversation happening out there that goes completely over my head.

That said, just because it’s a small clique doing the cyberbullying doesn’t mitigate the serious effects it can have, from losing a job to contributing to depression and even suicide. I’m glad for Ronson’s spotlight on the issue but his argument would be better served if he stopped using the collective “us” and started asking questions about the specific behavior or traits that lead to bullying. After all, when a bullet-ridden corpse is discovered in an alley, psychiatrists don’t throw up their hands and sermonize about how we’re all murderers.

The Mob Is Fickle

The Passive Voice is one of the few corners of the Internet where it’s worth reading the comments. In discussing a Salon interview with Jon Ronson, who wrote a book about survivors of social-media lynchings like Justine Sacco, a commenter referenced an attack on Andrew Smith. Smith, an author of YA books aimed at boys, was tarred and feministed after saying this:

I was raised in a family with four boys, and I absolutely did not know anything about girls at all. I have a daughter now; she’s 17. When she was born, that was the first girl I ever had in my life. I consider myself completely ignorant to all things woman and female. I’m trying to be better though.

I write about men and boys because I grew up with three brothers and I don’t know much about women and girls. I could freely say the same thing: my only sibling is a brother and my only friends growing up were boys, which is perhaps one reason why I mostly failed at dating as a teen; and as a married man what I know today about women wouldn’t fill the back of an envelope. But admitting that means I could just as easily be tied to the same stake as Smith, assuming anyone knew who I was.

This comes only days after another writer quit Goodreads in response to the Kathleen Hale brouhaha because — she was afraid of being stalked? A social-media assassination? I’m not sure; all I know is that even though both parties in the Kathleen Hale mess were female, somehow women are being targeted, and she was afraid it would happen to her.

(I admit the Hale story is bizarre in its mutual obsession; reading it is like watching Dracula and the Wolfman fight, although it’s enlightening that the profile of her troll — a physically sick or weak person working a monotonous, low-income job — fits that of many serial killers.)

A common complaint I read from agents and publishers is that many authors don’t have a platform before they show up on their doorstep with a manuscript. Of course, everyone can only offer advice on how to develop that platform in hindsight: just look at Trevor Noah, whose comedic work scored him The Daily Show gig while simultaneously inciting excoriation for jokes that fell flat years before anyone had heard of him. Twitter is chock full of Dalai Lamas who can tell us after the fact which gags Noah should have written and which ones he shouldn’t have, but in the long months and years of building a career, those same sages are always like Tenzin Gyatso in Tibet: absent.

Contrast Noah with Kristine Katherine Rusch:

Personally, I believe that a writer’s politics and religious beliefs (including beliefs about a favorite genre) should remain off-social media if at all possible, and that arguments in favor of one thing or another should be made in person, if at all.

I think it’s more important to incorporate your worldview into what you write and let the readers decide whether or not they want to read your work than it is to win an argument that will seem quaint fifteen years from now.

There’s certainly wisdom in restraint and choosing your battles, but advice like Rusch’s is a call to quietism and in any event impossible for those of us who straddle the worlds of nonfiction and fiction.

Thus we authors and writers, forced to develop our platforms, must also choose between self-imposed silence and abandonment of social media on one hand, of all-consuming insecurity like Hale’s on another, or of following the examples of Smith and Noah on a third, of trying to build the platform one day at a time, knowing that griefers lurk on the periphery, eager to burn the whole thing down the moment you drive one dissatisfactory nail into the wood. Or, in Smith’s case, of simply stating a truth about yourself.

Top photo by Caelio CC BY-SA.

Last Year to Start Next Year

Variety reports that Philip K. Dick’s 1966 novel Now Wait for Last Year has been optioned as a film, with production scheduled to begin Q3 2012.

With Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’s Michel Gondry having already drafted a script for Ubik (was there ever a better match between director/screenwriter and source material?), this news means my two favorite PKD novels will be coming soon to a nearby cineplex. Undoubtedly in Imax HD 3D Smell-O-Vision.

Don’t know much about PKD or the plot to Now Wait for Last Year? Here’s a book review I wrote a while back:

Philip K. Dick: Five Novels of the 1960s & 70s
Philip K. Dick
The Library of America (1128 pp, $40, July 2008)
Originally appeared in Black Gate #13, Spring 2009.

In Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, television celebrity Jason Taverner awakens after being attacked by an alien parasite to discover no one knows him. Without identification, Taverner must stumble through the police state his status previously allowed him to ignore, a world wherein the student riots of the late 1960s led to a Second Civil War and a totalitarian United States.

Of course, the very minute he leaves his hotel room Taverner drops into a vipers’ nest of fake IDs, snitches, and Gestapo. “Don’t come to the attention of the authorities,” ruminates the eponymous Policeman. “Don’t ever interest us. Don’t make us want to know more about you.” But Taverner can’t help it; his unique anonymity raises him to fame once more, only now in the sinister eyes of the police alone. And why not? “If you’re afraid you don’t commit yourself to life completely,” Taverner tells another character. “Fear makes you always, always hold something back.”

Not every one of Dick’s protagonists in Five Novels of the 1960s & 70s, chosen and annotated by Jonathan Lethem, is so self-possessed. Yet all live in malignant futures, each a distorted reflection in a shattered funhouse mirror. In the bleak Now Wait for Last Year, Earth’s government has aligned itself with Lilistar in a losing war against the ant-like reegs, a conflict in which withdrawal or a separate peace with the reegs will surely lead to occupation by the Stalinesque ‘Starmen. ‘Starmen agents hook the wife of surgeon Eric Sweetscent on the new drug JJ-180; one dose addicts completely and there is no cure. She in turn addicts her husband. Which then is the more terrifying — the reegs? The ‘Starmen? Or his wife?

Dick’s novels have a rough-draftness about them that wouldn’t be accepted in today’s publishing; Taverner’s assault by the extraterrestrial, for example, fades from Flow’s memory, the cause for his survival never explained or even hinted at. Some scenes have a tacked-on quality as if Dick were simply trying to reach his word count, but in the end they only add to the surreal flow of the narrative in which the reader can never be certain if what the characters experience occurs outside their own skulls.

Two readable yet otherwise average sixties sci-fi offerings, Martian Time-Slip and Dr. Bloodmoney, open the volume, paving a road toward the terminal inclusion, Dick’s masterpiece A Scanner Darkly. Much different in style and tone than his other works, more emotive with the cynicism cranked a hundredfold, Scanner, like the others, revolves around fear and drugs and the disabled, mentally or otherwise, and responsibility toward them. But the world of Scanner is the most dreadful, a modern, indistinguishable Los Angeles inhabited by freaks and heads, and narcs posing as freaks and heads, and freaks and heads posing as narcs. A rabbit hole beyond paranoia, a society superficially functional but made worthless with distrust. “What’s there really in this world, Bob?” asks one character. “It’s a stopping place to the next where they punish us here because we were born evil.” Drugs are solace from the policeman’s flagellation; and by book’s end an incarceration just the same. No parole from the penitentiary of existence.

Various political stripes — anarchists, liberals, libertarians — lay claim to Dick as one of their own but he belongs to no one. He was a Nixon-hating pill popper whose philosophy was anti-authoritarianism. His concerns were not about the structure of governments or the fairness of taxation but with the wheels and cogs of a person’s mind — of the reality specific to each individual, to paraphrase one of his talking taxicabs. Somewhere in the Erlenmeyer flask of Five Novels bubbles Dick’s antidote to our modern poison of conformity, to the dystopia he imagined in a thousand varieties. We live in a time where screaming SWAT teams kick in the doors of wrong addresses and everyone screams to vote for his guy and not the other and if you don’t do what the screamers say then there’s something wrong with you, something aberrant — you’re someone who needs his door kicked in most of all. It’s a future Philip K. Dick foresaw. It’s his world. We’re living in it.