Archive for the ‘On Books’ Category

desolation of smaug hobbit peter jacksonThe only element of any real interest in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is the question “What went wrong?” and even that is a pretty dull question because the answer is clear enough: the money people wrapped their fingers around the neck of this movie and strangled it to death.

By saying this, I am not trying to absolve Jackson of his responsibility. He signed the contract, cashed the check, and put his name on the film.

But Jackson was faced with formidable challenges in making Smaug. The biggest challenge was how to manage the legacy brand that he had created through Lord of the Rings, in which the safest route to profit was to deliver basically the same goods in basically the same package, even if those goods had grown a bit stale (ie, the preferred approach of the money people).

Jackson also had to keep his eye on the huge non-English-speaking and/or non-Western audiences for The Desolation of Smaug, since spectacle translates more easily than dialogue, and since special effects are less likely to cause cultural offense than stories or characters.

Jackson decided (or was asked) to pad out a book that would have potentially made one good film into three movies, with a total running time pushing eight hours. And while we’re at it, let’s note Smaug is the middle of the three films, with no natural beginning or end to help give shape to the story.

But with all that said, I’m surprised by how badly Jackson flubbed Smaug considering how well he managed the earlier Lord of the Rings films, in which he balanced character with action, drove the story through both internal and external conflicts, and gave shape to the overall plot.

The Desolation of Smaug is a plodding, tedious, frantic mess. I think the main culprit is the decision to expand the book’s story rather than edit it down. All the padding – particularly filming events that occur off the page in the book – destroys whatever dynamic tension the story arc in the Desolation of Smaug might have achieved and gives us a jumbled collection of scenes instead.

These scenes are not driven by situation, since the situations in Smaug are so many and so various that the connections among them quickly become lost; and these scenes are certainly not driven by character or emotion, which means the talents of at least two very good actors – Martin Freeman as Bilbo and Ian McKellan as Gandalf – go entirely to waste, with what moments of real human feeling they sometimes find soon swept away in the general noise and hubbub.

The result is a whole-movie version of what happens when actors find themselves stuck in a play that really doesn’t work. They fall back on acting bigger, louder, faster to cover up a lack of sense.

In the case of Smaug, this bigger-louder-faster extends to the action sequences and special effects, which are fine as far as they go, but they turn the film into just a roller-coaster ride: viscerally thrilling at times but empty of meaning.

I don’t have a problem with entertainment being entertainment, and businesses working to cash in big by selling to big audiences, but films don’t have to be as desultory as The Hobbit is to earn money for their investors. Joss Whedon’s The Avengers demonstrated that last year. Peter Jackson proved it with his Lord of the Rings movies. Entertainment can excel as high craft, without aspiring to or needing to achieve the goals of art. Craft is a worthy goal. Unfortunately, Smaug isn’t craft. It’s crap.

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Back in the summer, I posted a photo of the view out my bedroom window. Another season, another photo. Same tree!


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cropped-pgm-photo-02.jpgOn Thursday, the journal Science published a study (Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind) that found people scored better on tests measuring empathy, social perceptiveness, and emotional intelligence after they had read literary fiction than after they had read popular fiction or rigorous non-fiction.

This result cheered members of the literary community and confirmed an idea that I’ve long argued using anecdotal evidence, which is one of the most important functions of literature is to strengthen emotional intelligence.

This function also explains why literature is the only art included in core educational curriculums. The ability to accurately read the feelings of other people is perhaps the most essential skill for living in social groups, and living in well functioning social groups is one of our key adaptations as a species.

So all this is good news — which I greeted with considerable apprehension and unease.

Part of my unease comes from having observed that people who read literature don’t go about the business of becoming better people as often as they go about the business of bragging how they are better people because they read literature.

The Science study is likely to encourage the bragging folks to keep bragging about their exceptionalism; and exceptionalism is fundamentally at odds with the work of empathy, because exceptionalism encourages you to see yourself as different from others while empathy encourages you to see yourself as the same.

The Science study is also likely to reinforce certain class divisions that run right through the middle of literary reading, in which appreciation for literature is used to signal your membership in a high economic status group (ie, rich people read Shakespeare) or in a high social status group (ie, Bohemians read difficult or experimental fiction).

The use of literature as a signal of status is particularly pernicious because it actively works against the whole purpose of reading books, which is … reading books.

Instead, the status-signal readers are interested in reading “classes” of books. They read “literary” fiction not “genre” fiction or “popular” fiction, and so they look for books that conform in obvious and expected ways to these classes, in order to embrace them or reject them — even before they read them (if they ever read them).

In this world, “literary” is a synonym for “quality” and “genre” a synonym for “trash”. The problem with this is that a great deal of tedious, uninspired, self-important, plodding work is praised and a great deal of inspired, insightful, subversive work is ignored.

Now telling the difference between the two can be fiendishly difficult, especially because a truly original book is often indistinguishable from a hot mess on first encounter.

But it is the encounter that is essential: the active, engaged conversation between book and reader.

If the results of the Science study encourage more of this, all to the good. If the study just encourages more sniffing at cocktails parties, then the world will roll on much the same as before.

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UntitledLess than a week after it was released, Grand Theft Auto 5 has earned more than $1 billion in sales and reignited the debate about its rampant violence. The news coverage of the game’s more appalling details strikes me — a person whose reaction to the typical video game controller is confusion and boredom — as disturbing.

But my bigger question is this: What makes the violence in Grand Theft Auto 5 different from the violence in other works of the imagination?

For example, Breaking Bad is a cultural phenomenon which has millions of Americans rooting for a man who cooks meth, manipulates his friends and family, kills adults as well as a child, and is in possession of a machine gun which is likely to figure in the show’s finale.

Macbeth is a monument of English literature which draws audiences of refinement and taste to watch the slaughter of kings, friends, innocent women and children, and soldiers while somehow persuading them to suspend judgment of the man who is the agent of all this slaughter.

I suppose the great difference among these works, if you can establish the difference, is that Grand Theft Auto 5 celebrates violence for the purposes of entertainment, while Breaking Bad and Macbeth explore the nature of violence to demonstrate its consequences.

The point of the video game is to be a criminal and win, or at least escape any consequences for your bad behavior. Macbeth, of course, doesn’t escape consequences in the Scottish play. And we are guessing that Walter White, who already exists in a self-created hell, is likely to suffer more before the show finishes at the end of the month.

But I’m not entirely persuaded by this argument I’ve just made. Part of my doubt is that I’m not sure you can demonstrate that the violence in Grand Theft Auto 5 is of a different kind than Shakespeare’s.

Defenders of the game claim that it is a satire, which would turn the game into social commentary, although social commentary on the level of Brett Ellis’ American Psycho perhaps.

At this point, then, we are required to decide if Grand Theft Auto 5 is a satire done in good faith (ie, “we’re serious about our message”) or bad faith (ie, “we’re pornographers looking to protect our revenue”). And making that judgment is about as slippery a task as a critic could assign himself or herself without helpful emails provided by Edward Snowden.

I’m also not persuaded because of this question: Would Grand Theft Auto 5 or Breaking Bad or Macbeth be as popular as they are WITHOUT violence?

For example, would you really want to watch a play in which Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth talk about their frustrations with their lives and careers, while playing the polite host to King Duncan and making sure he likes the brie and that his room is comfortable? Not really.

The violence is an essential part of Macbeth‘s appeal: appealing, I think, to the dark impulses the human race all feels but which we as social animals need to suppress. These impulses also need an outlet however, and imaginary violence is a much better outlet than actual violence. Grand Theft Auto 5 is a more direct outlet than Macbeth, but this only makes it different in degree. Not different in kind.

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Breaking Bad season 05Since I am perpetually behind all trends in popular culture, I am just now discovering that Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad is as purely addictive as the crystal meth his anti-hero Walter White cooks on the show.

I’m also just discovering how Breaking Bad has so magnificently balanced its “entertaining” and “serious” elements, which is another way of saying – broadly – that it has succeeded as a narrative built on character and situation as well as a narrative based on plot.

Before I get around to solving the problem of how I’m going to watch Season Six when I don’t have cable, let me throw a few semi-organized thoughts at you.

Breaking Bad Season Five: Addicted to Story

All stories are driven by conflict. And to vastly over-simplify matters, these conflicts fall into two broad categories: interior conflicts, which tend to emphasize character, and exterior conflicts, which tend to emphasize plot.

In its early seasons, Breaking Bad placed greater emphasis on internal conflict. Walt is a high school chemistry teacher driven to cook crystal meth because he fears he will die of lung cancer and leave his family penniless; and while the mechanics of working in the drug business are explored, more time is devoted to the conflicts Walt’s illness and the lies he tells to hid his business cause in his family, and then to conflicts Walt’s wife’s discovery of his profession cause in their marriage.

This balance begins to shift in Season 3 as Walt’s involvement in the drug business deepens, and he is increasingly threatened by other criminals and by law enforcement agents. The latter half of season four delivers a rush of pure narrative delight as Walt scrambles to kill his former business partner, before he kills Walt and his family; and the story barrels into the shows of Season Five with Walt declaring he wants to build his own drug “empire”.

It would be hard to over-praise Breaking Bad for how beautifully it manages its story, like a thoroughbred running the best race of its life, hitting all the beats, managing the minor cliffhangers of a commercial break and the larger cliffhangers of each episode’s conclusion.

Add to this “the mob meets MacGyver” elements, as Walt applies his Mr. Science skills to eliminate one threat after another. And top it off with a question: how does Vince Gilligan make story lines that sound ridiculous when you describe them to your wife so convincing and affecting on screen?

Walter White: Lured by Vanity, Enthralled by Winning

One answer is Bryan Cranston’s Walter White, who Vince Gilligan describes as a person who begins as Mr. Chips and who ends as Scarface, but who I think is much more interesting than Scarface.

Walt doesn’t really want money, although he begins cooking meth as a way to pay his medical bills and provide money for his family after his death. What Walt really wants is agency and recognition.

This becomes evident fairly early in the show, because Walt quickly makes enough money to take care of his family, but he is more concerned about his image as a nice but feckless and impoverished cancer-stricken dweeb than by the practical problem of how he is going to launder a half million dollars in cash.

Walt craves success then, and even more importantly, the recognition and respect that come with success. This is one of the reasons he keeps getting lured back into the drug business, because only there is his success – as the well-paid maker of the world’s best crystal meth – recognized.

It is also in this world that Walt’s intelligence and (as it turns out) decisiveness is acknowledged. He’s driven in part by desperation. He has to kill his business associates before they kill him. He has to elude the DEA. But the more often he wins, the more he likes it and the more he doesn’t stop to count the bodies that are piling up on route to his next victory.

Only when his wife shows him the pile of money he’s amassed, literally as big as a Mini Cooper, that he retires – right at the end of season five. What was Walt chasing? What were all those deaths worth?

We’ve Been Seduced by the Monster Who Is Walter White

This is a popular opinion and it’s true. Walt is a monster. The list of murders he’s committed prove it. So why are we on his side?

Part of the answer is that Walt wants what most people want: to be self-sufficient and respected. Part is that we humans are social animals who chaff at the restraints our societies put on us even as we embrace them, and stories about criminals or seducers or other people who break the rules are a safe way to dream away our frustrations with society’s restraints.

But a greater part of the answer is perhaps the loveliest fact in all narrative art. The social purpose of story and character, the moral purpose of literature – regardless of medium – is to teaches us empathy.

Story asks us to inhabit the lives and experiences of the characters on which it turns its powers, and to understand them, even if we don’t like them – even if in the end we are right to condemn them. Macbeth, Milton’s Satan, Humbert Humbert, Walter White.

It’s a great paradox of narrative art that rooting for bad guys can make us better people. But it can. At least when the bad guys are creations as brilliant as Walter White.

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amazon is the devil?When a federal judge ruled that Apple was guilty of conspiring to fix the price of eBooks last week, the lamentations began.

Commentators declared this would lead to the destruction of the traditional publishers and the ascendance of Amazon as a monopolistic hegemon, which would use its vast market powers to homogenize and commoditize our reading culture. Also, frogs would rain down from the sky.

But I don’t think any such thing will happen. (Well, the frogs might.) Here’s why.

The Traditional Publishing Model Is Not Essential to Reading Culture

The traditional publishers think they are essential to reading culture because they were essential in the past and because (I’m quite sure) they are sincerely devoted to their craft.

But the only two actors who are essential to reading culture are writers and readers.  Publishers are … or were … a necessary intermediary between the writer and reader, back when printing books and getting them into the hands of readers were complicated, expensive operations.

Now these tasks aren’t necessarily complicated or expensive. There are plenty of new ways, many more than before, for writers and readers to connect. And as long as you have writers and readers, you’ll have a reading culture. Before I discuss why, however, let me make a semi-related point.

Good Books Have Always Been Bad Business

This is not to say you can’t make money from serious books or serious literature. You can. The problem is you can’t make enough money consistently to turn the proposition into a sustainable business.

This leaves publishers with two choices. The first is you have a huge company in which the blockbusters in popular genres subsidize the “serious” books. For publically traded companies, this is the only option because they will be punished by the markets if they lose money.

The second is you have a small company, privately held, in which the owners see themselves as patrons of and missionaries for writers as much as they see themselves as business people, and their financial goals don’t extend too much beyond avoiding bankruptcy.

The recent obituary for Arthur Rosenthal of Basic Books described this dynamic nicely when it said he “let his taste in nonfiction and his quasi indifference to profit margins guide him as a publisher”.

Now Amazon is making the lives of people who work within the huge company model a living hell. But it is making the small company model so easy that anyone with a computer and internet access can become a publisher.

Writers of Serious Books Are Adapting. Amazon Is Helping Them Do It

One of the assumptions in much of the recent wailing over Amazon’s victory is that only serious books are real books and only serious publishers are real publishers.

No one was fretting that the Dan Browns of the world would disappear because they knew they wouldn’t.  A hegemon Amazon would still publish Dan Brown because he makes a lot of money.

The commentators did worry that a hegemon Amazon would ignore the serious, unprofitable books. Well, maybe. But maybe not.  Amazon has demonstrated an almost pathological indifference to earning a profit over the years.  This would make them a perfect publisher for the Virginia Woolfs of the world. And perhaps they would like the prestige of a having such writers under their imprint?

But if not, Amazon has given writers the tools to directly publish and promote their own books. Amazon’s print-on-demand model allows small publishing companies to produce print books with very low overhead costs. Kindle Direct allows people to publish eBooks at basically no cost.

Everyone has a chance. Including the serious writers and important voices who are getting overlooked right now by those old gatekeepers of the reading culture, the traditional publishers.

The Government Doesn’t Just Punish Price Fixing. It Also Punishes Monopolies

Finally, remember that it is not only illegal to fix prices. It’s also illegal — not to become a monopoly, as it turns out talking to my FTC lawyer friend — but to use monopoly power to stifle competition. And the government departments that are aiding Amazon by ruling against Apple, so some people claim, are the same departments that would force Amazon to change its business practices or break up if it did.

We can’t risk that harm, you say? Well, under the legal system of the United States, you generally can’t punish companies because you think they will break the law. You have to wait until they actually do.

In the meantime, I encourage everyone to seize the new opportunities. They’re good fun. And you might make some art, or some cash, too.

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Rainy Window, June Summer Evening

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birds from the garden of earthly delights

Plenty of birds. Where are the bees?

Wife: Don’t you think it’s time we told Son #1 about sex?

Me: No.

Wife: He’s going to overnight camp this summer.

Me: Good. He’ll learn it there. It will be like “Porky’s”.

Wife: I think we need to tell him ourselves.

Me: This sounds like a dyslexic “we”.

Wife: I don’t understand. Although that’s nothing new.

Me: You’re seeing the “w” in “we” upside down. It’s actually an “m”.  As in “me”.

Wife: Well, he’s your son.

Me: Thank you for that confirmation.

[Wife looks at me for a long time while I pretend to read the book I’m holding.]

Me: Oh all right all right all right.

[Son #1 and I go round the corner to the neighborhood bar and grill and order cheeseburgers. The food arrives.]

Me: So Mom says I have to tell you about sex.

Son #1 [watching basketball game on TV and eating]: Unhuh.

Me: So, you know what sex is?

Son #1 [still watching basketball game on TV and eating]: No.

Me: Your friends haven’t talked about it?

Son #1 [still watching basketball game on TV and eating]: No.

[Here I think this is totally excellent — I don’t have to work against misinformation — until I realize I don’t know how to start. I puzzle over this problem for some time.]

Me: Ever wonder why teenagers stand around on street corners and smash their faces together?

Son #1 [looking away from basketball game, but still eating]: As a matter of fact, yes.

And then I’m off to the races, and I cover…

  • First base
  • Second base
  • Third base
  • Home run
  • How you can get a girl pregnant
  • How you can’t get a girl pregnant
  • Basic contraception
  • Homosexuality (it’s fine)
  • How the other person has the right to say “no”
  • How you have the right to say “no”
  • A long list of sexual activities that, depending on the age at which Son#1 engages in them, I will kill him if I find out.
  • Comprehensive question & answer review of all the information above.

Frequently during the talk, I repeat the phrase, “I’m not making this up.”

[We go home and I report all of the above to wife, figuring I am about to be richly praised for my work.]

Wife: You didn’t talk about masturbation?

Me [somewhere between antagonized and outraged]: I think he can figure that one out himself.

Wife: He might think it’s wrong.

Me: Give me a f%*&ing syllabus next time.

Wife: Don’t you think we…

Me: Oh all right all right all right. [I go downstairs and stick my head in Son #1’s room.] It’s okay to play with it. Just close the door.


For three years after this, Son #1 always said “no” whenever I asked him if he wanted to go around the corner to the neighborhood bar and grill, get a cheeseburger, and watch a ball game.  Recently, he told me he said “no” because he didn’t know what other kind of weird crap I was going to spring on him and didn’t want to find out. Makes perfect sense now that I think about it.


The personalities of the characters in this dialogue were exaggerated and intensified for dramatic purposes. “Wife” is actually a much milder and more reasonable person in real life.  “Me” is pretty accurate, unfortunately.


Despite the previous disclaimer, I am apparently still in Chateau Bow Wow for this post.

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Kindle Fire

I am not a myth!

I don’t have a dog in the fight between Amazon and big publishers over eBooks – I’m just an irrelevant bystander — but I do think I can tell when someone is trying to sell me a bill of goods.

At least that’s how I felt about parts of “The Seven Deadly Myths of Digital Publishing” by Bill McCoy, which appeared on the Publishers Weekly website today. However, I agreed with other points in Bill’s argument and overall found the article well worth reading. Here are my notes:

Tablets and Large Screen Smartphones Are Transforming Digital Publishing

McCoy says that new devices along with new universal coding standards will allow electronic publishing to offer “highly-designed illustrated and enhanced digital books” as well as greater reader interaction and social engagement. He also believes that the differences between reading content on an eReader, a mobile phone app, or a website will be reduced, where as currently they are distinct formats. All of this will allow the eBook’s success to expand beyond their current domains in “novels and linear non-fiction”.

All this is interesting and cool and thanks to Bill for sharing. My problem is that his article implies that Amazon (the monster elephant in the room he doesn’t name) is vulnerable because they are reliant on a proprietary and outdated E Ink platform: that is the Kindle.

Which would be true if Amazon hadn’t launched the Kindle Fire in September of 2011, and wasn’t continuing to roll out enhanced versions at a fraction of the cost of an iPad ever since.

Plus, considering Amazon has a pretty decent on-demand video streaming service already live, I’d say they are thinking about how to deliver content through their own website.

Now this doesn’t mean that Amazon will be more successful seizing the opportunities of the future than big publishers; but I do think it shows that Amazon sees those opportunities as clearly as Bill does. And Amazon sure doesn’t look like it’s behind the curve.

Authors Still Need Publishers

On this one, I’d say Bill is on thin ice. If not swimming in open water. Anyhow, he makes several points. That writers will need publishers for their expertise in editing, cover design, typography, and marketing. That publishers can evolve into new roles as multi-media / multi-platform “producers” of content in collaboration with writers. And that publishers can find a role organizing communities around authors and readers interested in the same topics.

Well. Expertise is editing, cover design, typography, and marketing is not limited to publishers and there are an enormous number of experienced freelancers out there (many of whom used to work for the publishers’ until they were outsourced).  Literary agents have marketing skills and are at least as well positioned, maybe better positioned, to be creative collaborators with writers, not mention their business managers. And none of these folks are going to demand 90% of a book’s net revenue as compensation.

As for community creation, is a publisher going to want create a community around a topic in which they aren’t the dominant publisher? And if they are the dominant publisher, are people going to believe that community ISN’T a form of advertising run by a big company for which they are working as unpaid copywriters?

I ain’t sure.

Now Bill is right that authors still need publishers. But the authors who need publishers most are the unknown ones – ie, the ones least likely to make them money. Will Stephen King still need a major imprint in five years? Maybe not.

And Let’s Not Forget About Amazon’s Huge Sales Pipe

Last summer, Forrester research stated that 30% of all online shoppers begin with Amazon to research products. Not Google. Not Bing-Yahoo. Amazon. Yikes.

Why? Well, people know they can find a lot of stuff they want to buy, at reasonable prices, with convenient shipping on Amazon. Getting them to change their habits and say, buy eBooks direct from a publisher platform, is going to take some major heavy lifting – most especially, offering some new product or service of such compelling value the people have a good selfish reason to switch.

Otherwise, publishers can innovate eBooks all they want. But they are still going to need to sell a lot of them through Amazon, because that’s where readers want to buy them right now.

And Let’s Not Forget About 70% Royalties and the Power of Social Media to Bypass All the Old Gatekeepers

And while I’m walloping away at Bill – who is doubtless a nice man and doesn’t deserve it – let’s not forget about 70% net royalties from eBooks published through Amazon versus 10% give or take from publishers for print books. With those numbers, authors could sell fewer total units of just eBooks at a lower cost through Amazon and still make more money. Ouch.

Plus, social media can be a highly effective way to market books, but publishers really can’t do it for authors. Who would you rather follow on Twitter? Dan Brown or the marketing assistant assigned to tweet about Dan Brown books at Doubleday?

So Pete, You’d Never Sign a Contract with a Traditional Publisher Then, Right?

Are you kidding? In a second. I am one of the unknowns in desperate need of their help. I love you, Doubleday, you big beautiful handsome company you. Call me!

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