Category Archives: Writing

Creators Unite! The Industry Needs Us, Not Vice Versa

Author: notafish - Delphine Ménard Source: sel...

Author: notafish – Delphine Ménard Source: self drawn. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This morning, I ran across this little listing in a writer’s group I belong to on Facebook:

OMNIDAWN is currently reading for the BEST AMERICAN EXPERIMENTAL WRITING anthology (“BAX”). DEADLINE: November 15, 2013. READING FEE: “$9 for three pieces of writing or nine pages (whichever is fewer).”

This enraged me so much, I simply have to call BS. What’s the reading fee for, if not to pay for overhead, which includes paying the actual talent…you know, the writers?

I swear, there is a whole strata of publishers–and I don’t mean the big kids, they have their problems, but at least they understand they need to pay for the product they want to sell–that seem to think THEY are the important part of the industry. To these I have a message:

We DON’T need YOU. Not anymore, and to a degree we never did, we just got slowly conditioned to believe that US making YOU money while you scammed and screwed us was YOU doing US a favor. But that’s changing, and more and more of us are realizing WE DON’T NEED YOU.

And to my fellow actual creators:

STOP subbing to these markets. Exposure does not pay bills and costs the person making money off of our work NOTHING. If a market says they are a “for the love” market, those people don’t know what love is. Love is not exploitation. These publishers are making money on these publications, and asking us to do the most important work for free. THIS IS THEFT. THIS IS EXPLOITATION. STOP going along with it. Accept nothing less than at least a token payment or hard author’s copy (no ebooks), and do that ONLY for small markets who feasibly can’t afford pro rates. Be reasonable, sure…but don’t accept the lie that you need to let yourself be exploited in order to be a “real” writer.

If you’re just starting out, self-publish or post work on your own blog, with your own advertising and/or tipping/donation setup to make SOMETHING off of it and get “exposure” as well. REAL publishers and editors care about the quality of the work, and are looking for good writers, not writers who convinced someone else to put up a story on someone else’s website, or that someone other than yourself put it out on iTunes and Amazon. Please understand: in a world where one person can pretend to run any amount of ezines or electronic publishing houses with little cost to them, it doesn’t matter if you’re the one putting it out there to someone who actually CARES about finding new, good writers. It could always just be the same person, trying their own scam, so all that can matter is the WRITING.

Ignore those who say “any credit is a good credit when starting out”. That made sense in the print days, when you knew that if someone got published anywhere that meant real money was spent. Then the technology changed, and xeroxed/mimeographed zines undermined that basic premise. And from Charles Bukowski to Thomas Ligotti, without that new, even smaller press created by cheap printing/copying, some amazing writers would never have gotten their start. The “gatekeepers”, granted their status by virtue of their operating capital, wouldn’t have LET us read them.

Now, even better technology has made it FREE to “publish” a book or story. The “publishers” of digital markets have very little (if any) overhead, which means your “for the exposure/love” hard work is pure profit for them. From Huffington Post to some random ezine, if you’re writing/creating  for free, you’re getting screwed.

This is why so many tiny publishers and online magazines have popped up into existence, perfectly willing to use the underlying emotional belief that someone “giving us a job” is somehow doing us a favor, rather than making money off of US and therefore needing to pay their bill for services rendered. It’s almost free to “start a magazine” or “electronic publishing house”, and just like the exploitative corporations and bosses who purposely created this implication, these publishers are using us and wanting us to be grateful for the privilege of making them money. THIS IS WRONG. They are not only NOT doing you any favors, they are willfully exploiting you on all levels…emotionally/mentally, physically/temporally, and financially. Some will even go so low as to attack your status as a “true artist” for daring to even mention or expect payment…and they will then laugh all the way to the bank.

And since they aren’t paying you, you also have nothing to lose by saying “no” and submitting with someone who takes the work seriously. No credit with anyone who won’t pay for your work is worth having. The more writers and creators who realize this, who realize that “content”, aka stories and narratives in all media, is the only American industry left, the better for ALL of us. Whether it’s movies, books, video games, or hypertextual interactive media experiences, THEY NEED US. They can’t do what we do. They can’t even figure out what will “work” or be a “hit” versus a “flop”; that’s why they are so obsessed with remakes, franchises, and remixes, because all their bean-counting brains can parse is “what made money last time”. We NEED to start exploiting this powerful position. Nothing the modern economy creates makes real money anymore except entertainment, and the various publishers, producers, and corporations can’t produce that without US.

So stop acting like they are doing you a favor by condescending to make money off of your hard work. They aren’t. The last barriers to entry are slipping away; if you want to write, it makes increasing sense to self-publish. If you want to make movies, it makes increasing sense to stay indie and avoid the Hollywood “system”. The same is true of games, interactive stories, etc. Look at the indie scenes in any field and you find the exciting, interesting, good work. Sure, there are stinkers in there, too; but there is also a greater possibility of unique visions and original creative work, and thus greater art.

This, of course, scares the crap out of industries that have made a fortune from exploiting barriers to entry; not only did they have the cash, they controlled the industries through “gatekeepers”, so nothing they didn’t want to let through got out to the general public. The public and the creators have NEVER benefited by having such “gatekeepers”; all that has happened is the creators were forced to create crap or starve and the public never even got a chance to decide what was “good” or “bad” on their own.

And this applies to everything; musicians need to stop trying to “get a record deal”. You can do just as well with a good DAW and your own abilities as with any record company. You may need to spend a little money on equipment and instruments, and have to master some new skills, but that’s always been a part of music. What you don’t NEED to do is let those who want nothing more than to exploit your talent and inspiration run your world for you, making YOUR money and then leaving you high and dry when you’re not the hot property anymore.

In short (too late!): respect yourself and your work. Our allegiance is to ourselves and our art, and it is an insult to your very own SOUL to allow that self and art to be abused and exploited. We all deserve better, and the sooner ALL of us realize this, the sooner we will GET what we deserve. I’m not saying unionize (though that WOULD be a great idea); I’m just saying respecting yourselves and your work will go far beyond just yourself.

It will help us all.

Attitudes Within Artistic and Literary Communities

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 12:  Jars of peanut butt...

WE DON'T MAKE THIS STUFF (Image credit: Getty Images via @daylife)

I was having a conversation with Ted E. Grau and Simon Strantzas on Facebook and it led to a comment I wanted to explore. I believe that artistic and literary communities benefit the most by having an attitude that is free of capitalistic overtones. For example, authors should not see each other as being in competition. There is an purely economic reason for this, and there is a philosophical reason behind this. I know I will need to provide both, because not everyone is quite the idealist that I am.

Economic Reason

The stories we produce are not normal “products”, in the sense that no one else can ever write the same story for a lower price. In a very real way, every story, poem, or other work of art is priceless, because it is unique…there is no way for me to offer Mike Davis, the head honcho over at the Lovecraft Ezine, Joe Pulver‘s newest short story for a lower price. I can write a story with the same plot, and even the same characters (if Joe told me about the work first), but I can’t actually offer the same story without simply plagiarizing the story. Instead, I can offer my story, which is necessarily going to differ from Joe’s story.

Because of this, art has always enjoyed an odd status in the economic world. You see a single painting by a famous artist being sold for $15,000 and a single painting being sold by a guy on the side of the street for $15. This kind of variation will often have nothing to do with quality in any kind of objective way; many people may consider the sidewalk artist’s work to be consistently better than the famous artist. Instead, the pricing on work that people want goes up vastly, while almost all unknown artists work is often unsellable at any price at all. There is no relation between the prices of the two works. It doesn’t bring down the price of the famous artist’s work when the street artist sells a painting at all. If everyone and their dog started painting tomorrow, it would not bring down the quantity demanded for the famous artist’s work at all, but if everybody and their dog started flooding the market with peanut butter, the price would have to go way down to draw the now very low demand.

So when a new artist or author comes onto the scene, it does NOT truly affect the artists or authors who were already there. There are various fame-games within the fields, instead, and these are incredibly unpredictable using normal economic models. No matter how good a jar of peanut butter was, or how few the maker of that peanut butter made, or whether the creator of that peanut butter is now dead…none of that decides the price of the jar of peanut butter. So long as it reaches a base level of quality, below which people won’t buy it, the price is instead determined by a function of the demand for peanut butter and how many other creators of peanut butter are in the market. The competitors will have to undersell each other until they reach a point where they can just barely make a profit. This can only happen because all peanut butter is basically equivalent. This cannot happen with art of any kind, because all art is a unique good, a product that can only be produced by one person one time (though it can be copied after that…we’re talking about selling publishing rights, too).

So when an editor is deciding whether to buy your story or not, they are not comparing it with other stories in the same way as a shopper compares two brand of peanut butter. They can’t. Instead they are buying it or not based on a lot of factors. Some of these factors, such as name recognition, overlap with normal products, but most, such as the quality and content of the work, doesn’t. So while it helps us immensely to improve our own work as much as we can, it doesn’t help us to try to limit our competition.

Philosophical Reason

We are artists. We perform a mysterious and amazing function in the world. A book can change the prevailing culture. A painting can change a person’s life. So long as the artist is sincere, they are sharing their perspectives in a way that can never be taken over by so-called “normal” products. Historically, artists had patrons or were independently wealthy. Together with science, the work of writers, thinkers, and artists was shared with the world through various means, and that work literally shaped our world, bringing about the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, Modernity, and Post-modernity.

In light of all of this, and in light of the fact that the greatest of us are often not commercial successes within their own times, it seems to me that we simply can’t afford to allow any authentic art or literature to be silenced, and that is exactly what happens when we treat other members of our communities with hostility and competition. None of us can be sure which story or book or painting or statue or song or whatever will be the one that raises someone up and inspires them. All of us are necessary. While it is true there is plenty of what we would call derivative or cliched work going on out there in every field right now, it may very well be that representation of what we consider a cliched trope or device that survives the test of time. Any one of us could be the next Kafka or Van Gogh, and that means that we can’t play prima donna, we can’t play competition games. We need to instead help and encourage each other. We need to maintain the ideals of our community.

A scene is never so small that it can’t accommodate a new member. A scene is never so complete that it won’t be enriched by a new member.

Living up to my own words

I want to help support each and every artist, writer, and small publisher out there. Look at my blogroll to the left, and if your link, or the link of your publisher, isn’t there, please let me know.

Towards a Radically Subjective School of Art

A picture portraying poetry. Occitan : Illustr...

A picture portraying poetry. Occitan : Illustracion que representa la poesia. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Over the last few months, I have been producing new poems at a prolific rate, and I am approaching enough to create a worthwhile collection. However, one of the things I have noticed about most of my poetry is that it is extremely personal. Much of it has to do with specific moments and situations from my past, and some of it has to do with people with whom I have shared a deep connection, for good or ill. The question then becomes…should I publish such deeply personal work?

The appreciation of poetry, or any other art, is an odd thing, and people vary wildly in their tastes. I am almost omnivorous, myself, and am capable of enjoying and appreciating many diverse forms of art. That’s not exactly the point. This isn’t about enjoyment, per se. What I want to discuss is whether the genre of “personal” or “confessional” poetry really has a place in the literary world; in a phrase, should it be published? It is at this theoretical level that I wish to have this discussion. The question becomes: what is the proper subject of art?

It seems to me that, despite various theoretical schisms, movements, and schools over the years, many people still work from the point of view that art is attempting to explore, reveal, and express universal truths within the human experience. It can then be argued that there are very few truly “universal” truths about anything, and that, if anything, the most universal truth about the human experience is its idiosyncratic, extremely subjective nature.

To a certain extent, the “style” or “approach” I use in my work, both poetic and prosaic, is based on this philosophical stance; I focus on the radically subjective aspects of experience and attempt to bring out what it would “be like” to be in a particular, usually unusual, situation. In this way I attempt realism, though in effect it becomes a form of surrealism, because I feel that the radically subjective, when presented realistically, becomes the surreal. People’s perceptions are inevitably idiosyncratic and unique to them. The structures of our bodies and minds, though encompassing many similarities, are never identical. Every single one of us is living in a universe unique to them, expressed in categories, symbols, and objects that differ to some degree from those of the other people around us. Thus, the real, raw, and subjective account of any event will always be characterized and, to some degree, surreal. At least to others; my “real” is your “surreal”, and vice-versa.

To my thinking, all experience is rendered unique and worthy of artistic investigation and elaboration by the movement away from the objective. We do not live as a spectator to a movie, and literature/art that attempts to present life in that fashion is doomed to failure. It lacks a certain primal vitality, and for a very good reason: it lacks an agent. It invites the audience to perceive rather than participate. I believe that instead art should be an invitation to participate in a certain relation, which is revealed in some way by the artist. That relation may be of any sort whatsoever, thus the proper subject of art is anything, so long as it is presented in such a way that the relation is revealed and made accessible by the artist. In this sense, I do not mean accessible in the sense of “easy to read” or “easy to understand”; some relations are extremely complex, and I would argue that any truly human relation is necessarily complex, though that complexity may merely be implied, rather than revealed.

Some the simplest images when pantomimed, the classic “boy meets girl” for example, become profoundly complex when explored through a specific love affair explored in all its exactitude. Just compare Lolita to The Idiot. Both novels, of course, are “about” many things, but it is at least (at very least) an exploration of love. To some degree, one can say the great flaw that distinguishes the bulk of the clichéd and soulless “romance novels” and “romantic movies” out there stems from its lack of idiosyncrasy. In the attempt by Hollywood and publishers to create a “product” universal in its appeal to “customers”, by trying to hard to be “accessible”, they create only caricatures of human beings have caricatures of human relationships. It is the lack of the subjective that makes these “products” such artistic failures (although I doubt if many of them were ever considered “artistic attempts” in any real sense, so perhaps they aren’t failures).

So in light of this philosophy of aesthetics, I believe that the extremely personal becomes the universal. Thus the extremely personal, confessional forms of art are not only justified, they are a necessary niche within art, a place that we have to be willing to go, at least some of us. However, this is not an argument for “realism” in the sense of the mundane, quotidian, slice-of-life style prevalent in some corners of the artistic world, or rather, it doesn’t have to be limited to that. The fantastic is as approachable in this sort of extreme subjectivism as the mundane; what I am referring to is not the choice of subject for a given piece of art, per se, but a stylistic or methodological choice to create a work “from the inside”. My poems, in their apparent form and content, are “about” extremely idiosyncratic aspects of my existence, but I would argue that the eternal themes of art, the universal aspects of human existence, are instantiated within that extreme subjectivity.

In a sense, I am still arguing a type of realism, but I am also arguing a form of expressionism, or rather, I am saying that expressionism, taken to its natural conclusion, is the only “realism” that is truly possible. Other attempts to be “objective” end up either so bland as to reveal nothing, or privileging a particular view of reality as THE view, a type of bias that I consider the basis of propaganda, not art. I am making a metaphysical claim, as well as an aesthetic one, that such “eternal themes” as love, justice, good, evil, compassion, cruelty, life, death, pain, and so on only exist as the set of all instantiation of that theme. “Love”, and all other possible semi-platonic “ideas” or “forms” that art attempts to deal with,  exists as all of the experiences, acts, and expressions of love (or other idea) that have ever existed or will exist. So if we really wish to reveal truths about these universal themes, we must do so through revealing instantiation, or imagined instantiation, of those themes. That’s all we have. We can’t say anything about life, death, love, hate, or anything else without talking about the instantiation of those things within our experience. There is no “view from nowhere” that we can access to talk about fear, or justice, or even what it’s like to simply exist; there is only our own, individual, limited, and embodied view from ourselves.

Politics in Speculative Fiction

Over at SF Signal, a blog I think every fan of speculative fiction should read, they have an interesting round table on politics in science fiction. The question is:

Q: How should SF writers respond to the politics of their time, if at all?

The various authors responded in various ways, as one would expect. The industry is such that if you ask five writers one question you’ll get seven answers; it’s just the way we roll. However, the question led me to consider how I have dealt with politics in my work in the past, and how I intend to deal with it in the future.

Many of you might know that I have a history of political activism. I was involved with Free Radio Santa Cruz in the late nineties and did labor organizing, helped feed the homeless, and helped organize and run an infoshop, which is a combination library and event/organizing center for activists. Politics have been an ongoing issue for me…growing up poor, several years of homelessness, and generally being a weirdo have led to an acute awareness of how American culture, with its mythology of freedom and individuality, often acts to persecute and punish people for using their freedoms and acting as individuals.

However, in my fiction and poetry, I have always placed emphasis on the experiences of individuals and small groups. When politics and power dynamics are explored, it happens in extremely situated ways that do little to point out any specific, larger political or historical issues. The reasons for this tendency has varied throughout my writing life. When I was younger it was because I hated the way my fellow activists would use poetry and fiction (especially poetry) as an excuse to rant about politics and spew catchphrases. I feel that the art of poetry and prose shouldn’t be whored out to politics and movements; it ceases to be art and becomes propaganda.

As I got older, I also began to feel that the locus of political discussions, which always end up being about politicians, national policies, and ideological movements, is missing the point. People don’t live their lives on a national or international level, or over decades of historical and sociopolitical trends. They live one a day to day basis in small communities of affinity and care. I came to believe that the “big picture” is a symptom, but our true illness lives in our day-to-day lives…how we treat our families, spouses, parents, best friends, and neighbors. When I want to address peace I don’t want to talk about war, because war is too big, it’s too many people doing too many things. The “big picture” obscures the moments, the little bits of narcissism, greed, cruelty, and pain that, when added up, equal the wars and political issues. I don’t want to write about nations, I want to write about people, because people are what really exist; nations are a fantasy.

So when some poetry-slam-happy-hippie spends fifteen minutes “performing” their most recent poem about how awful capitalism is, it makes me want to retch…not because I am a big fan of capitalism (I’m not…taken to its logical conclusion it glorifies and rewards the worst behaviors humanity is capable of; the biggest winner is the biggest sociopath), but because talking about capitalism as a whole, whether in favor or against, is ignoring the real issues of empathy vs. self-involvement, greed vs. generosity, and the personal connections between people that can either damn or redeem us, here and now, with no Heaven or Hell necessary.

So, to my mind, the proper object of art is never going to be the “big picture”, but the little pictures that together make up the big picture. None of us can force our politicians to be honest, kind, or empathetic to whatever “other” or “enemy” has been picked out this week. But we can choose to be honest or lie, to be kind or cruel, and to try to see the world through the eyes of the “other” that the “big picture” is always striving to tell us we are to despise. The true object of art is people, not nations, because nations don’t exist, not really. They are an abstraction at best, a lie at worst. The worst moments of history have come about when people have forgotten they were people and given into the phantasm of the citizen. To whatever degree literature can be healing or constructive to our species, I believe that it is in pointing out the people and their real, lived connections; the abstraction of nations, races, and ideologies hides those connections or redefines them in terms of what benefits or harms the nation, race, or ideology. There will be an end to war when people refuse to be defined as citizens and refuse to see the “other” as citizens, as well. Our nations will become healthy when we, as individuals connected to other individuals, become healthy.

But at the same time, I am an embodied being, the product of my culture and the social and historical context within which I have lived. There is no way to avoid some political cast to my work, especially in light of how stringent modern ideologies have become. Simply by emphasizing empathy and relationships rather than power and wealth, I am declaring a political stance. By challenging the very notion of national identity, I am “unpatriotic” and by denying the existence of the “other”, the “enemy”, I am a traitor. So much of the identity of my country is based on who we hate, rather than who we love, that by refusing to hate I am excluded from what some would say is an important part of being an American. By refusing to turn life and death into a game, I no longer have a “team”.

This recently came out in my exchanges regarding the scandalous (or rather, they should be scandalous, but they aren’t) revelation of a picture of our soldiers urinating on the corpses of the “enemy”. To my mind, the dehumanizing of other people is unacceptable, regardless of circumstance, and desecration of the dead is one of the most dehumanizing and offensive things I can imagine. But apparently, to many people, this is a debatable issue. When our “team” does it, it’s different. Just like when we torture, or detain people without trial, or use secret evidence, or assassinate people. All of these things are horrible inhumanities when other people do it to us, but when we do it, somehow they become okay. By choosing empathy over nationalism, I have excluded myself from the “team”. And because of that choice, I also lost one of my oldest friends. She’s one of those that just can’t bring herself to judge the morality of soldiers…no matter what they do, she “supports the troops”. But armies, like nations, are abstractions; all that exists are people and what they do to each other, and these people who urinated on the corpses of their fallen fellow humans, are monsters and deserve to be called out as such.

In my stories it could be argued that everyone is a monster, or at least has the potential to be. Again and again, I return to the simple theme of empathy and the lack of it, again and again I return to the simple act of choosing to care…even when it makes no sense, even when the object of that caring doesn’t deserve it (whatever that means). In my world, the world inside my head and heart that I try to express in my work, everyone has the choice, every moment, to be a monster or a human, a demon or an angel. So in that sense, I feel that all of my work is political, while at the same time avoiding the language of political thought and philosophy. I am more interested in how one person treats another person than how a given nation treats another nation…but all those little choices, all those people, add up to The People.

Well, enough pontification. What are your thoughts, Faithful Reader, on the role of politics in science fiction, and indeed, speculative fiction as a whole? I’m eager to hear from you.