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.

Antisocial Media

Diogenes by Jean-Leon Gerome, 1860
Diogenes by Jean-Leon Gerome, 1860

It’s not unusual to hate LinkedIn.

The biggest complaint, of course, is the endless tidal surge of e-mails and notices it vomits into your in-box, a result of LinkedIn’s strange blacksmithery wherein a CV-posting site has been hammered into a shape wanted by nobody except management consultants and listicle-writing malarkey gurus. What started as a competitor to Monster.com and HotJobs has mutated into a kind of business-centric Facebook, a misshapen chimera of a job site too incompetent to help users actually find a job but well placed to poke you into sending pre-scripted junk mail about work anniversaries. In that sense I hate LinkedIn as much as the next person.

But what really frustrates me is its structural prejudice against freelance and gig-oriented careers.

LinkedIn is made for nine-to-fivers, for people who have regular jobs with HR departments and second interviews and responsibilities that can be reduced to bullet points and executive summaries. It’s complete shit for writers and artists and other project-based doers and makers (we’re called “creatives,” apparently). Sure, you can list articles you’ve written, only to learn LinkedIn automatically orders them by date of publication. This means that book you wrote a few years ago will be buried by all the little stuff you’ve written since, whereas you might actually want to showcase the book at the top of the column.

Worse, you cannot add an image to accompany that publication, so you can’t even post, you know, the fucking cover of the fucking book you wrote. Contrast that with the Work Experience areas where clock-punchers can input all sorts of pictures and videos and presentations to describe their duties at Acme Widget.

I know freelancers who have completely deleted their LinkedIn accounts in frustration. I haven’t gone that far yet; instead, exasperated and angry, I have stripped my profile to the basics and walked away.

As an alternative, last week I established a profile on Contently, which is a marketing company that advertises access to 55,000 creatives to generate content for said marketing. I suspect the 55,000 freelancers are actually mannequins in the shop window and any real work is performed by in-house staffers, but regardless Contently does have a nice GUI for displaying freelance work. You can add URLs, edit the headlines and story descriptions, add images, and rank stories however you please. You can even upload PDF scans of print clips, which is good for me since many of my favorite clips are no longer online (and the PDFs download and display quickly too). The easiness and attractiveness of the site is definitely a rabbit-hole: I wrote more than a hundred articles for Dig and Calliope alone, all of which I could scan and upload. For now I’ve added 14 greatest hits, with more to come as I jump-start my writing career once again. Forward always.

Recently my buddy Eric and I were discussing why the culture of Instagram tends to be generally nicer and more kid-friendly than, say, Twitter. He pointed out that Twitter weighs all input, whether it’s a piece of original news or an insulting response, as equal whereas IG demands that users contribute unique content, with commentary on that content being secondary. This means it’s easy to fire off an insult on IG but it’s also easy to control and destroy it, while the process of posting an image is itself a barrier (albeit not insurmountable) to trolls and haters, who add nothing. And yet that same hierarchy of content means you would never use IG as a go-to source in a breaking-news situation as you would with Twitter.

I have no idea what good will come of making my Contently profile; there’s no networking element like most social media so it sits there, cold and isolated.

That’s all social media in a nutshell: imperfect. Facebook is 10 percent pictures of your nephews and nieces and 90 percent “I can’t believe so-and-so posted that;” Goodreads a madhouse where contact between authors and readers is resented; and Twitter a news service and public forum co-owned by a Saudi prince that likes to ban women’s rights groups. Each platform is capricious and opaque, useful in some senses and completely unreliable in others. A best-case scenario would be an assignment from Contently; but it’s probably better to expect nothing because all of the promises of social media are empty.