Friday, May 30, 2008

ENDER'S GAME, by Orson Scott Card


In contrast with the book mentioned in the last post, which took around three weeks to finish, ENDER'S GAME took me all of three days. I'm guessing it's the stripped-down, plot-centered nature of this book that compelled me to charge through it so quickly. While DEATH IN HOLY ORDERS seemed to use the plot, for the first several hundred pages, as a vague center to a series of character musings and backstory, ENDER'S GAME hones in on the events in one character's life almost to the exclusion of all else. There are places where the narration pulls close to another character (mainly in a few chapters focused on the protagonist's sister, Valentine, and the side story she's involved in), and each chapter does start with a brief conversation revealing the views shared by some of the supporting characters regarding the protagonist's development, but these are mere adornments of the core story arc. If DEATH IN HOLY ORDERS is a tapestry composed of an interweaving of multiple threads, which reveal the story when viewed all together, ENDER'S GAME is a single steel cable running from point to point.

ENDER'S GAME tells the story of Andrew "Ender" Wiggin, a brilliant child selected to command Earth's forces in a war against an alien species called the Buggers. The story starts with Ender as a six-year old, as he is brought to the Battle School to begin his training, and most of the plot follows Ender as he is put through one grueling test after another. We spend a lot of time inside of Ender's mind as he thinks through the challenges, and the book focuses on this almost to the point of excluding everything else. There is very little description of setting, hardly any text focused on fleshing out the world Ender lives in. We don't learn what the food he eats is like, or what the bathrooms look like, or even what Ender himself looks like with any great detail (hair color, eye color, height?). But this thinking through of challenges is pretty compelling stuff. It had the power to turn this book into one of the most successful Sci Fi novels ever written, and to bring in a wide audience that doesn't normally dabble in the genre, or read much to begin with.

And that makes me think of parallels with other books well-loved by people who don't identify as bookish--SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE by Kurt Vonnegut, POST OFFICE by Charles Bukowski, JOHNNY GOT HIS GUN by Dalton Trumbo, are all examples that spring to mind. The authors do manage to squeeze their own voices into the text, but the text of all of these books is so simple, and so focused on action, and so stripped of extensive description or language, that they seem fundamentally distinct from much literature. Hemingway also works with what seems like plain and direct speech, but his writing isn't direct in the way these other novels are. He spends a lot more time hinting at things, giving you ideas wrapped in shrouds, as if the ambiguity will endow his subjects with profundity. He wants you to come to conclusions that he's hinting at, but these other author's tell you plainly what they mean. And they don't tell you much else. You sometimes get the feeling of being in a clear tunnel passing through a wash of fog when you're reading these types of novels. What the author presents to you is clear, but sheds little light on the world in his novel that exists outside his words. Depending on who you are and how you read, you might automatically fill in the rest of the world with your own ideas. Or you might wonder, every now and again, what lies in the swirling mist.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

DEATH IN HOLY ORDERS, by P.D. James


I was working on this book for a few weeks. It's another detective novel, but different in a few important ways from some of the others I've written about here. While many of the other detective books I've mentioned have a very direct, action-oriented approach, this book goes heavy on thought processes and backstory. The thought-to-action ratio swings dramatically around page 350; it seems almost like James knows she has to wrap things up, and therefore focuses in on the facts. The chapters themselves are short, 3-7 pages usually, but there are a lot of them. Narration is third person, with a scope of knowledge limited to one character at a time and remaining loyal to that character throughout the course of the chapter.

All in all, it was a decent book. The main character, detective Dalgliesh, wasn't especially interesting for me, but I appreciated the setting (an isolated Anglican theological college on England's east coast), and found the British-ness of it refreshing.

What I feel most compelled to talk about now, though, is the "easing-in" period I have with so many books. DEATH IN HOLY ORDERS works as a good example. I read a chapter here and there, put the book down and let it lie for a few days, then picked it again and read another few chapters. For the first week or so, my relationship with the book was pretty casual; the prose didn't capture my attention, it didn't pull me in and draw me along with the plot; I wasn't compelled to spend a lot of time with it. But as I got farther in, say around 80 pages, I began to feel more comfortable with the author's way with words, more interested in the character's themselves. I'd developed a familiarity with the setting and story, a curiosity regarding the unfolding of events. It took a while, but my affection for the book grew. Finally, coinciding with the book's plunge into a more action-oriented approach near the end, I gorged myself on the story, finishing the last 100 pages in one sitting, laying on the couch and reading without cease until my eyes blurred, reluctant to stop even for a quick trip to the bathroom. At this point, my mind preferred the reality held within the pages of the book to the reality of the actual world all around me.

A lot of books are like this for me. They require repeated administrations before their addictive qualities take hold.

I wonder if it's like that for other people.

(The other common experience I have with books is a more immediate connection. I pick them up and tear through them in great chunks, finish them off in just three of four sessions of reading. I'm reading a Sci Fi novel right now that falls in with this group.)

Another thing I wanted to draw attention to is the level of commitment that reading a book like this takes, and how that compares to the commitment required for other entertainment pursuits. DEATH IN HOLY ORDERS is more than 144,000 words long, which is on the long side for a pulp novel (another detective book I wrote about on this blog, TERROR TOWN, is just shy of 59,000 words). If the average reader can get through 200 words a minute, this book demands about 12 solid hours of reading time. If you read for an hour a day, it'll take nearly two weeks to finish. That's an ongoing commitment, merely for the sake of entertainment. I feel like people are becoming less likely to make that sort of commitment today. We're distracted enough, and the pace of our lives is fast enough, that even a two hour movie can seem daunting. To focus our attentions on one story for two weeks--and to do it just for the sake of fun--it's hard for me to imagine that people will continue to be willing to do this. Modern society is moving us away from the patience, thoughtfulness, and mental endurance required for the enjoyment of novels.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Internet Literary Journals

Why don't I submit stories to them? I guess the answer lies, in part, in my own biases. I prefer reading on paper to reading on a screen, and I'd rather have my own writing in physical form, instead of electronic representation. I like having a book or a journal in my hand, being able to take it with me wherever I am, free from the tether of a powercord. And books feel more permanent to me than websites, which shut down as soon as the owner stops paying fees.

Even so, I do feel that electronic journals will be a growing part of the literary world in the years to come. They're cheaper to publish than their paper-based brethren, with less size-related limitations. Also, the venue itself has it's advantages. In today's world a lot of the reading that people do takes place online, usually when they're at the office, avoiding work. (A lot of living in general seems to take place online today, which I've got my own biases against.) Another bonus, online journals don't cost the reader any money (with a very few exceptions).

So I guess I ought to just embrace this new reality, and start fishing for online publications to submit to.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Reducing Internet Dependency

In the post before last I mentioned the effects that distractions like email and text-messaging have on concentration, thoughtfulness, and general mental activity. Since then I've been trying to reduce the amount of time I spend on the internet. It's only been a few days so far, but I've already noticed a few things.

First of all, I've noticed that the vast majority of what I do on the internet is trivial, and unnecessary. I don't get a lot of pleasure from it, either. Usually I'm just trying to occupy myself. I end up surfing through blogs and other websites, looking up things on Wikipedia, and checking and rechecking my email. Sometimes I sit there in front of the computer, browser open and fingers poised over the keyboard, desperate to think of something worth looking up. I have the feeling that I'm not alone in this.

So why do I spend any time in front of the internet at all, if it doesn't seem fun or worthwhile? I think the way I tend to perceive the internet, as a virtually limitless source of information, makes it hard to turn away, especially if boredom seems like the alternative (never mind the fact that a lot of the info available on the internet is dubious, and a lot of the worthwhile stuff is really hard to find). But that leads me to another thing I've been noticing: boredom can be more productive than surfing the web.

That might seem hard to believe, but I think it's true. Whereas a week ago I would have kept a steady pace through the web while killing time at work (which is usually where I am when I'm killing time on the internet), this week I've instead turned away from the screen and, literally, just stared at the wall. Strangely enough, staring at the wall forced me to think about things, to ponder, to imagine, and to remember. To keep from being bored I had to use my thoughts themselves to entertain me. I had to be creative, I had to produce my own distraction. It's surprisingly enjoyable, and productive. I've had some good ideas for stories in the past few days.

Maybe that's what a lot of it comes down to: passively taking in information or actively using your mind. I viewed the internet as a limitless fount of knowledge, but I rarely feel like I've learned anything important after spending an hour on it. Meanwhile, spend an hour in quiet contemplation and chances are I've come to a few conclusions about a few different things. An hour of internet and I'll feel distracted, dissatisfied, agitated. An hour of quiet contemplation, I'll feel peaceful.

Go figure.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Poets and Writers, Maintaining the Slow Mind


The current issue of PW has a few articles that tap into some of things I've had on my mind recently. The first article is titled WAY, WAY TOO MUCH INFORMATION, and it talks about our constant immersion in information, how it's getting more intense and harder to avoid each year, and how our ability to be thoughtful is suffering as a result. The author, Frank Bures, offers some statistics that illustrate this concept: distractions of email and text-messaging effectively rob 10 points from a persons functional IQ; watching the scrolling message at the bottom of the screen on CNN reduces memory retention by 10%; when a person attempts to perform two tasks at once, that person's brain activity is only 56% of what it would be if each task was tackled individually. In effect, the flood of information and the fast pace of life today are making us more distracted and less intelligent people.

I feel like I notice this in my own life, and I feel like this degeneration of my capacity for thoughtfulness really got a lot worse when I moved to San Francisco. I find it harder to maintain mental peace and clarity here; I'm constantly nagged by the thought that there are things going on that I should be taking advantage of, that I need to be creating and producing more. These nagging thoughts don't really motivate me to go out and do more, but they do make me less calm and capable of thoughtfulness on a general basis.

I don't think I'm alone in this, either. And I feel like I've noticed a particular degeneration of thoughtfulness in a lot of the writing I've been reading, too, ESPECIALLY in regards to the writing I read on the internet, in peoples' blogs and online literary sites. I read a few blogs on a semi-regular basis, and a lot of those authors are posting hundreds of words every single day. They talk about their lives, and their lives seem to include a lot of time spent checking emails, reading other peoples' blogs, updating their facebook and myspace accounts. The most extreme of these types of people seem so affected by this distraction and subsequent loss of brain-capacity that their writing takes on a dramatically stripped down, plain-spoken, simple (even shallow) form. The bulk of their sentences follow the same patterns. Their diction is reduced to a few hundred words.

(On a side note, this type of writing seems to make a lot of other authors go absolutely apeshit. Click here for an example.)

Later in the PW issue, there are three essays written by three different Editors at three different Lit-Mags. The second two editors (Stephen Corey of the Georgia Review, and David Hamilton of the Iowa Review) both mention the perils of haste and distraction. Corey has a particularly poignant statement about it:

"If I were allowed to say only one thing to other writers in 2008, speaking both as editor and as writer, I think it would be this: If you are truly serious about doing distinctive work that will make its mark, slow down.

"A great poem or story or essay is not a line on a vita, a selling point in a job interview, or a ticket to tenure. Any person who writes one great poem or story or essay per year for twenty years will take his or her place on the short list of the finest writers of all time. SLOW DOWN."

Reading that meant a lot to me. With all this haste and distraction I'm suffering, partly because of the way of this modern world and of the way of San Francisco and of my mind itself, it meant a lot to me to have someone I can respect stating that speed and production aren't paramount. It's nice to have someone reinforce and remind me about what's actually important.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Regarding Blogging part 2


My last post talked about how blogging encourages the blogger to write often, and doesn't reward him for putting a lot of time and energy into each post. One of the side effects of this, I think, is that it tends to move people toward writing about themselves and their lives. You don't have to do any research for your post if you're posting about yourself, you just write about what's happened to you since you last wrote. I think this works well with our current cultural obsession with personality and celebrity. You can start a blog and treat it like your personal Reality show, continually updating your audience with the new things you've done and had done to you.

The problem with this for me is that I don't like reality shows, and I'm usually uncomfortable talking about myself and my life. On this blog I have posted a few "diary" style entries, talking about things I've gone through and my emotions and all that, but each and every time I felt embarrassed and silly for having done so. I feel like using myself as the subject is a way of buying into that cultural obsession with personality and celebrity, which I perceive as a rather shallow and demeaning interest. The people on these shows willingly exploit themselves for attention, knowing that they will be represented in a way that can't possibly communicate the entire complexity of who they are. The audience isn't interested in the details of their lives--it's curiosities are much baser than that--so the people who seek celebrity willingly reduce their humanity for the sake of fame. Using myself as the subject of my writing, in a forum presented primarily to an audience of people I don't know and will never meet, feels uncomfortably close to that same sort of pathetic celebrity-pursuit.

And yet I'm still drawn to the idea of blogging. I still want to have a chance to communicate with the wider world, and that's why I haven't given up on this blog entirely.

In an effort to keep away from that uncomfortable ground of celebrity pursuit, I've recently turned the focus of this blog toward some of the books I've been reading. I thought that if I used something besides myself for the subject of the posts (books in this case) it would allow me an opportunity to communicate without exploiting myself. I've had mixed results with this so far. Maybe I'll write more about them later.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Regarding Blogging

I've had this blog set up for more than a year now, and I've never really managed to get rolling with it. At best I've managed 6 posts a month. I have no idea how many people are even reading it (though I assume it's not many) either, because the Google Analytics page I set up for it doesn't seem to be working. According to Google, I haven't had a single hit in four months, and yet there was a lonely comment or two during that time, so somebody must have been reading. Even when I started another blog where I knew how many people were reading, and saw that number increasing, I lost interest pretty quick.

I think that part of the reason blogging hasn't held my interest is because of the type of writing it encourages. Timeliness holds a lot of weight in the blogging world, and timelessness has no place. Every post gets a date stamped on it, and the older the post, the less likely people are to read it. Also, each time a new post is published every other post gets dropped down another notch. After you reach a certain number of posts, your oldest posts get shuttled to a whole 'nother page. You won't even see them unless you dig. There isn't much sense of staying power. You could write a definitive statement on Dante's Inferno, spend a year gathering info and framing your thoughts, and it'll be perceived as less worthwhile than a video of yourself burping the alphabet posted on the following day.

What that means is you're encouraged to post often, but you're discouraged from spending a lot of time on what you post. Freshness is rewarded, good writing and thoughtfulness are not.