No Bad Ideas

Last week Variety reported that HBO is developing a replacement for Game of Thrones: a counterfactual drama wherein the Confederacy successfully seceded. Suddenly everybody has strong opinions about alternate history!

“Confederate” chronicles the events leading to the Third American Civil War. The series takes place in an alternate timeline, where the southern states have successfully seceded from the Union, giving rise to a nation in which slavery remains legal and has evolved into a modern institution. The story follows a broad swath of characters on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Demilitarized Zone – freedom fighters, slave hunters, politicians, abolitionists, journalists, the executives of a slave-holding conglomerate and the families of people in their thrall.

My Twitter TL was awash in negative reactions, many of them authored by GoT fans. The sexy-time adventures of Dumblesticks the diddling dwarf? A-OK! But grays exiting the USA? NO WAY!

Wait a minute, you say. Isn’t there a popular what-if miniseries on Amazon Prime that posits an Axis victory over the US, based on an award-winning novel by Philip K. Dick that even has its own amazing album produced by Danger Mouse? Maybe HBO is trying to make a couple of Reichsmarks on the same sort of idea?

Nope! But don’t take my word for it — here’s TeenVogue, of all outlets, to piss on your Land O’Smiles:

To some, the existence of The Man in the High Castle effectively voids any initial criticisms people have regarding Confederate because they believe both shows are essentially the same. But to adopt that stance is to be woefully uneducated about the reality of how both events have been handled historically, in their nations and throughout the globe.

You see, the Germans are totally sorry for the Holocaust whereas Americans are like totally not sorry for slavery! That’s why a show such as Confederate is nicht gut! What are you, woefully uneducated? God!

To be fair, the reason why Man in the High Castle is well received and the mere suggestion of Confederate isn’t may be because the latter hits a little too close to home. After all, I’m unaware of any Nazis-win-the-war shows coming out of Germany. On the other hand, the fact that High Castle‘s point of divergence occurred more recently — there are still people alive who experienced the 1930s and 40s — suggests that familiarity isn’t the whole explanation either.

Now if you’ve just slid from the timeline where this blog is a one long string of poop emojis and you’ve never read my writing before, let me be glacially clear: the Civil War was initiated by bellicose and arrogant slave-owners for horrible, selfish, and stupid reasons. Outmanned and outindustrialized from the get-go, the Confederacy never had a chance of winning, and the fact the war lasted as long as it did is due less to any effort by the rebels than to confusion and Federal mismanagement early in the conflict.

That said, it’s certainly symptomatic of social-media’s outrage culture that the simple idea of a fictionalized southern secession drove folks to stuff the Internet’s complaint box.

Many of those instant-coffee Turtledoves seem unaware of the deep library of Civil War-based alt-hist literature already out there. How Few Remain alone spawned ten sequels. There’s Robert Conroy’s 1862. I can recommend Terry Bisson’s odd little novel, Fire on the Mountain. The most well-known is undoubtedly The Guns of the South. And most recently there’s Ben Winters’s 2016 novel Underground Airlines, nominated for several prizes. So many trees have been killed on the subject you need an entire page on Wikipedia to keep them straight, and I have to wonder if HBO, like Amazon, would be better off adapting and expanding an existing book rather than generating an IP whole cloth.

Among alt-hist writers, in fact, the what-if-the-South-seceded trope is so common it’s cliche. The first two alt-hist stories I ever wrote involved the Civil War. “Galveston” has Johnny Reb trying to enlist an independent Texas to the Lost Cause, while “Glorieta Pass” posits an underground abolitionist resistance in the post-secession territories. If those concepts sound familiar it’s because they are — I look back on those stories now and cringe at their banality. That recognition pushed me to write better stories.

But here’s the thing, a lesson that any true creative can tell you: It’s not the idea, it’s the execution. A monster terrorizing a group of people is the plot of countless schlocky horror movies but only one of those films is Jaws. For every million landscapes painted there’s The Starry Night. Every book or movie or artistic endeavor is, at it’s core, conceptually the same as something else, some other work.

Confederate hardly has a monopoly on iffiness. Hey! Wanna hear my pitch for a show about a bunch of inmates in a WW2 POW camp? It’s like The Great Escape only it’s a sitcom where the Nazis are a bunch of buffoons and the one guy goes, “I know nothing!” a lot! It’s funny because he’s fat and has a mustache! Ha ha!

And yet if you turn on TV Land or dig deep enough into your television’s channel guide, you can watch the execution of that concept right now, still in syndication years later.

The point is, it’s not so much the elevator pitch that matters, it’s how an individual work is rendered that distinguishes it. It wasn’t the ideas for my stories that stunk. It was my execution of them.

Personally I’m a hundred times more excited to watch Jordan Peele’s production of Lovecraft Country (which I reviewed here, BTW) than I am Confederate. Maybe Confederate will be terrible, in which case viewers will be sure to let HBO know. Maybe, like High Castle, it will be brilliant.

But it’s a little rich for dorks who nerd out over E.L. James-scribed Dungeon & Dragons fanfic to shut down an idea before it even steps across the drawbridge. It’s even more ignorant for some of those same people to be writers and artists. They ought to know better.

Open Loops

Office Politics by Shag. Copyright is his, illustration reproduced for discussion purposes only, please don’t sue.

Over at Electric Lit, John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats has an interview about his second novel, Universal Harvester, and his reliance on beta readers to provide “gentle reminders that I have to close loops” in his fiction:

There’s a scene where they’re editing video tapes, and originally there were cryptic labels on these canning jars that suggested something besides jam would be going into them — who knows what. Blood, or plasma, or whatever, right? It was creepy as hell, but you can’t plant that seed and never say anything about it again. You can’t. If I introduce something to the scene, I have to — at the very least — acknowledge that something has been left unknown there. I can’t just say something and never refer to it again … but the appeal of that is very strong and hard to resist.

I have to wonder if Darnielle is a Robert Aickman fan. Aickman wrote what he called “strange stories,” stories that aren’t horror and don’t always involve the supernatural but were intended to leave the reader unsettled, often via a lack of explanation or full context. This has given Aickman a reputation for being baffling, though this is an exaggeration; more accurately, the vitreousness of his work spans the gamut from dirty windshield to outright opacity.

Take, for example, his best known story (and for good reason), “Ringing the Changes.” It involves a pair of newlyweds — Gerald being much older than his attractive wife Phrynne — arriving in the small seaside town of Holihaven for their honeymoon. They arrive in late afternoon only to learn there is one night during the year when tourists most certainly should not visit Holihaven. By the story’s end it’s fairly clear what has transpired — there’s little confusion — though the motivations of some of the characters are oblique. Over and over, the townspeople chastise the owner of the hotel, Mrs. Pascoe, for accepting the couple’s reservation on that most notorious of nights. Why did she endanger her two guests? But they, and we, never hear a clear response.

It was so dark where Mrs Pascoe was working that her labours could have been achieving little; but she said nothing to her visitors, nor they to her. At the door Phrynne unexpectedly stripped off the overcoat and threw it on a chair. Her nightdress was so torn that she stood almost naked. Dark though it was, Gerald saw Mrs Pascoe regarding Phrynne’s pretty body with a stare of animosity.

A favorite visual artist of mine is Shag, aka Josh Agle. He’s well-known in tiki and mid-century modern circles; his paintings are populated by lithe women and dapper men drinking cocktails while spy jazz presumably plays softly in the background. But often his canvases also feature other, more inexplicable details, like anthropomorphic animals or sinister characters and scenarios. In an interview (which I can’t find now), Shag stated he likes creating ambiguous scenes in which full context is unknowable, thereby forcing the viewer to create her own unique narrative of what’s taking place inside the frame.

“Office Politics,” shown above, is a perfect example. The woman in the foreground carries a broken bottle, presumably to use as a weapon. But on whom — the man? The woman? Both? Meanwhile the other woman entertains the man with a puppet. But wait — the puppet is a pink elephant, a common symbol for drunken delirium (and a recurring motif in some of Shag’s paintings, most notably “Pink Elephants,” “Seek Help,” which he said was about him quitting alcohol). So does the puppeteer represent alcoholism and the broken-bottle woman sobriety, each vying for the man’s soul? There’s no wrong answer, and that’s the beauty of Shag’s work — he engages the viewer into a subjective experience. Two people can see the same painting and walk away with very different stories about it.

In college I took a drawing class in which I became fascinated with the concept of pareidolia — the phenomenon of the brain forming faces or other recognizable shapes and patterns out of random meaninglessness, like clouds. My final project consisted of a long scroll of paper on which I had quickly jotted hundreds of squiggly lines. Once the scroll was hung on the classroom wall, yes, I could see a few faces within the lines — though whether anyone else could, I don’t know.

When I discovered Aickman a few years ago, he helped ease my anxiety over open loops in my fiction, of tying every string’s end into an explicit, visible knot. It was OK, said Aickman, to leave things unexplained and let the reader connect the dots, even if the shapes created by those dots weren’t the ones I had intended. That designed pareidolia is something I have since resuscitated in my fiction: let the reader have his own interpretation. Maybe Aickman could work the same medicine on Darnielle for book number three.

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.

Don’t Hate Me Because I’m Not Beautiful

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My boys and I built our first garden behind the garage of our previous house. We never had a bumper crop of anything there; the corn cobs were tiny, the carrots shrimpy. The best we did is a couple of pumpkins one year in time for Halloween.

This spring I built three beds at our new house. Unlike our last garden, I was less laissez-faire with my investment: I watered and weeded and shooed away deer and squirrels. The results were mixed. While the tomatoes grew more than five feet high, they never produced a viable fruit; friends complained they had worms in theirs, and my pal Christina warned me that birds will eat them during drought — and we’ve been in a drought since June. I have fifty feet of pumpkin vines but no pumpkins. We harvested one solid crop of arugula and basil before the cucumber plants took over the bed and blotted out the sun.

And the cucumber themselves? I never knew cucumber plants grew so large or aggressively. The exclosure fence around the bed became a trellis which they promptly scaled and summited with their tendrils. A little research told me they are distantly related to pumpkins, which explains the similar broad leaves and steroidal growth. The fruits grow like the balloons of a balloon artist, beginning as tiny gherkins on the vine then inflating from one end to the other. We’ve been eating cucumbers in our salads all summer, minus the edible wax of the store-bought variety.

On Monday I clipped the last half-dozen from the withering plants. In each case I had left the fruit attached to mature a little longer as it had some odd disfigurement I hoped would go away: a kink in the hose here, an uninflated finger there. Finally I acknowledged I had to harvest them or they would rot on the ground. They taste as great, warts and all, as the model cukes.

But if I was selling cucumbers commercially, these ugly ducklings would have wound up in the garbage. In the European Union about 30 percent of food grown by farmers is thrown away because it looks weird, even though it is unspoiled and perfectly edible. That percentage is comparable to the amount wasted by the US and other nations around the world. Back in 2014 my friend Baylen Linnekin interviewed Maria Canelhas, a representative of the organization Fruta Feia (“Ugly Fruit”), which fights against food waste. Canelhas explained the EU regulations behind it:

These rules basically group fruits and vegetables into classes, depending on the size, colour and other appearance characteristics (such as stains on the peel). Regarding fruits, you have class “extra,” class I, and class II, and each of these classes have a minimum size, that’s determined by the calibration standards. On another hand, you have classes grouping fruits according to their coloring. Regarding vegetables, you also have classes that group them according to their size (minimum calibration) and colour.

So what happens is that consumers started to prefer fruits and vegetables from the class “extra,” class I, or class II with high calibrations. When noticing this trend, distributors and supermarkets started to buy from the farmers those classes only, leaving the others out. This explains the difficulty that farmers are facing trying to sell these fruits and vegetables, resulting in a huge amount of food waste. Nowadays, distributors and supermarkets aren’t buying the less appreciated classes, so consumers don’t have the choice to buy them, because this food isn’t even arriving on the market.

Not so coincidentally Baylen has a new book out tomorrow about how smarter government regulations would reduce this kind of waste and encourage sustainability.

Biting the Hand That Feeds UsBiting the Hands that Feed Us introduces readers to the perverse consequences of many food rules. Some of these rules constrain the sale of “ugly” fruits and vegetables, relegating bushels of tasty but misshapen carrots and strawberries to food waste. Other rules have threatened to treat manure—the lifeblood of organic fertilization—as a toxin. Still other rules prevent sharing food with the homeless and others in need. There are even rules that prohibit people from growing fruits and vegetables in their own yards.

Blurb writers John Mackey and Joel Salatin can’t both be wrong! I’ve already pre-ordered my copy, which I can’t wait to read while munching a gnarled-cucumber sandwich. Have you? UNSUBTLE HINT: CLICK HERE.

Update: Baylen goes into detail about ugly vegetables and American food waste in an interview with HuffPost, stressing the need for both laws and consumers’ expectations to change:

The regulations the USDA and EPA have established make wasting the “ugly” fruits and vegetables often times easier than actually picking them at the farm and trying to sell them. The government’s at fault there, full stop. But it’s also incumbent upon consumers to change their behavior and recognize that.

Laughing Last

I’m always amazed by the lack of awareness displayed by officials and executives when speaking with the press. Case in point: this recent interview in UConn’s newspaper The Daily Campus with UConn president Susan Herbst, who displays all the charisma of a Gila monster when asked about closing the satellite campus in Torrington:

Constable: There are those who argue the university set up the Torrington campus for failure, in terms of drawing down its faculty, in terms of drawing down its student enrollment and—

Herbst: Did you go the board meeting?

Constable: I didn’t have the chance to, because—

Herbst: Yeah, I think you need to talk to Sally Reis. Yeah. She’s been managing it, and she explained all that. And we have made tremendous efforts there in marketing all different kinds of apertures and venues. The demand is not there, and we did not set up the place for failure. And it is unfortunate that people use that kind of rhetoric, but I ask you to study the issues before you come here. You know, so, did you talk to Sally?

Constable: I’m merely asking the question.

Constable reiterates this conversation is for the graduation issue and is meant to be a transcribed conversation with Herbst.

Herbst: Yeah, so I would talk to Sally. Stephanie Reitz, did you talk to her about the issue at all?

Constable: Just looking for perspective, is all. So you don’t believe the university set up the Torrington campus for failure?

Herbst: Absolutely not. But I would not— yes.

Constable: That’s all I was asking.

Herbst: Yeah— probably better— yeah— I hope that in the future, you can look at all the university says and does and talk to the right people before you ask that kind of question.

Look at all the university says and does and talk to the right people before you ask that kind of question — I cannot count the number of times I’ve interviewed someone who has said something almost identical to me. Translation: Don’t challenge me, just parrot the official doctrine in our press releases. Rather than use the interview as a chance to confront the opposing narrative and articulate UConn’s argument for closure, Herbst swings for the reporter. I love how Constable throws Herbst a life preserver by stopping the interview to explain it will appear as a word-for-word transcription but Herbst ignores him in favor of tying more cinder blocks around her ankles. I can only imagine what her deputy chief of staff was thinking as he overheard this exchange, no doubt while trying to climb out a nearby window unnoticed:

Constable: The Co-op has been an institution at the university for a very, very long time. There were questions about its ability fiscally sustainable in the long term for some time. Looking at the Storrs Center bookstore location – folks over at the Co-op would say they were forced into it despite the fact that they knew it would put them in a position to make the fiscally unsustainable. Did the university make a decision that ultimately resulted in the Co-op not being able to remain its bookstore?

Herbst: No, and we have communicated a lot on this subject, yeah, we’re done. (Looking at deputy chief of staff Michael Kirk) You have anything to add?

Constable certainly asked loaded questions but, again, Herbst was completely oblivious to the opportunity to counter criticism. The real punchline is that Herbst coauthored a book on how mass media shapes public opinion. I guess if you can’t do, teach; but if you can’t do that either, then go into administration.

Owning Alexander

Colonial Williamsburg has pubbed a new book documenting the experiences and thoughts of black interpreters at CW. What is it like to consciously and willingly portray, five days a week, an African-American in the time of slavery? I can’t imagine the tightrope.

But encountering slavery in any manifestation can be awkward for black or white audiences.

Black guests are sometimes uncomfortable confronting what some consider a humiliating aspect of the past that should be forgotten, not memorialized. “Many people,” said Greg James, “don’t want to be reminded of people beaten, lashed, and currycombed… But would history be true without it?” …

Any person might judge the performance as too harsh a portrayal, or too understated. One minute an interpreter might be viewed as minimizing the cruelty of slavery; the next minute he or she might be viewed as exaggerating it.

Author and CW archaeologist Ywone Edwards-Ingram will lead a discussion of the book, The Art and Soul of African American Interpretation, at CW later today, followed by a signing.

I’m always intrigued by individual reactions to early American history and how, through a mix of celebration and criticism, we each make our separate peace with it, especially the awful parts. How do we integrate history into our worldviews? Which parts do we emphasize, which parts do we blur? So I’d much rather read Edwards-Ingram’s book than, say, another screed from an obnoxious academic telling us how we should feel about history:

Since the turn of the millennium, historians have lambasted the phenomenon of Founders Chic as a fundamental distortion of history. Placing the roles of specific, prominent individuals at the heart of sweeping narratives of the founding era meant that popular histories exaggerated the importance of individuals, at the expense of understanding the contribution of less-celebrated Americans or the role of broader societal and historical processes. Yet much of the reception of Hamilton, the hottest ticket on Broadway, seems to suggest that hagiography is acceptable, so long as it’s done to a catchy song-and-dance routine. It’s as if the only problem with Joseph Ellis, David McCullough and Ron Chernow is that they didn’t write to a hip-hop soundtrack.

I’m not sure when I initially became aware of Hamilton but my first reaction was, It’s like The Wiz but for early America! Mrs. Kuhl and I, both being history buffs living 60 miles outside of Manhattan, agreed to go see it, only to be stymied by the then $600 tickets (they’re now going for $1,000). At this point we’ll probably have to wait for the movie but my feelings for Hamilton haven’t changed. In either case, black artists took something that is white as hell — The Wizard of Oz, the years of the early Republic — and interpreted it through their own experiences. It’s an ownership of something that, in its original version, conspicuously excluded people like them. It’s their separate peace.

But to academics like Ken Owen at The Junto, there’s a right way and a wrong way to interpreting Hamilton, and liking the play is definitely wrong:

Hamilton appears to use history more as a comfort blanket than as a serious means to enhance popular understanding of the American Revolution. That is something I find particularly concerning, because Hamilton (and its race-conscious casting) has often been held up as an example of how to modernize Broadway, or how to shift popular discussion of the American Revolution in a more progressive direction. At almost every turn, however, the historical philosophies underpinning Hamilton prioritize the Founders Chic model. … Insofar as it does raise progressive questions, it does so in only the most muted way—and in a way that allows a casual observer to retreat to the same comforting, comfortable narratives they would find on the shelves of a Barnes and Noble.

Meow! There you have it: “progressive direction,” “progressive questions.” For all his complaints preceding this graf, Kitty Owen’s real grudge is that Hamilton doesn’t fulfill his political ends. To the academic left (which, let’s face it, is all of academia outside an MBA program), the correct perspective toward art is a Soviet one where singing and dancing is permissible as long as the rest is social realism. Later in the comments, when a reader notes that as art Hamilton encourages viewers to ask questions about history, Owens replies, “Are they getting people to ask the right questions, though?” The dummies in the mezzanine can’t be trusted to arrive at their own conclusions, Owens believes; the proper responses are the ones dictated by snobs like him.

Still, Owens’s opinions aren’t nearly as stupid as Lyra Monteiro’s, who whined that regardless of Lin-Manuel Miranda and the casting, “It’s still white history.” This is the same cretinism that would segregate black history to 28 days a year. Black and brown Americans own Alexander Hamilton just as much as I own Martin Luther King, Jr. because all of us live today in a world molded by those men. There’s no black history, there’s no white history — there’s only American history and how we as Americans individually come to terms with it.

Lest this post devolve into complete fist-shaking, Owens says one thing I do agree with, which is, “it is dishonest of [popular] authors to pretend that their work isn’t reliant on a broader community of [academic] scholars.” He’s right. I don’t hate academics; in fact, I’m thankful to them. I just wish many of them would drop their egotistical claims to being the sole proprietors of our stories.