Picking Nits

To some, this may sound petty, but others will know what I mean.

Back when I worked in photography, one of the things that separated the amateurs from the pros had to do with Finish. I did lab work most of my career, what was referred to as “finishing.” Now, at its most basic, this was simply processing the film and printing the pictures, but there was so much more to it than that simple description suggests. Because we weren’t just supposed to print someone’s photographs—we were supposed to make them look good.

And that required a lot of practice, more than a little experience, a bit of expertise, and, most importantly, what that idea meant. Often the difference between a snapshot of Long’s Peak and a photograph of it was largely a matter of how the image was presented. How it was processed, printed, was it then mounted and framed, had care been given to the balance of values across the range of tones, had anyone retouched (this is more to do with printing from negatives where the advent of dust could play havoc with an image and required a patient hand with a fine brush to repair) it, and finally had the printer treated the image with the respect and imagination it merited. As much as the original image itself is a work of art, the production of the print is itself a matter of artistic accomplishment.

What does this have to do with writing and publishing?

I’m glad you asked that question.  In its own way, just as much.

The other day I was handed a self-published book and started reading. I stopped less than two pages in.  (Before you wonder, this had nothing to do with my job, this was a book sent me by a friend.)  Why did I stop? Was the story horrible?

I have no idea. Because the “finishing” was bad. Poor typography, the page layout was not good, and there were transfer artifacts evident throughout. By that I mean the thing was not proofed after it was set up and so paragraphs that should have been indented were not, italics that should have been there was not, special characters were replaced with some kind of word processor code. Correctable mistakes having to do with appearance remained in the product to mangle the reading experience. In short, it was physically unpleasant.

But the writing was not good either. Not so much that the sentences were poor, but many of them were in the wrong place, paragraphs were crammed with whatever the author thought of to put down next in line, and later did not go back to put them in the right place.  Jumbles of sentences and ideas that may or may not have been necessary to the story but in the configuration on the page did nothing but cause bafflement and headache trying to do the editing that ought to have been long before the cover art was even considered.

Which was actually pretty good, that cover art. As if a pretty wrapper could compensate for the amateur mess inside.

The book had been released into the wild too soon.  It needed more work.  It needed “finishing.”

This is an aspect of the whole self-publishing phenomenon I do not understand.  When I worked in photography there were many people I knew who were gleeful amateurs who did their own processing. They had fun. They derived pleasure from printing their own pictures.  None of them would have dreamed of putting what they did in their basement up in a gallery to pass off as professional work.

But there are authors who think nothing of assuming, because they can now get their work between covers and find a way to distribute it, that this somehow makes them equal to professionals who publish through traditional houses. There is a false equivalency based on poorly understood standards.  It is one of the things I find most depressing about the self-publishing industry.  Through this mechanism there is little to require the wanna-bes to do the work necessary to make a good product.

Am I nitpicking? Michelangelo said “Trifles make perfection and perfection is no trifle.” Nits are like dust spots and they spoil the finish.

And it’s not like this is hard to see.  Go into a bookstore and pull a book off the shelf, something published by Harper or FSG or Putnam, Macmillan, Simon & Shuster, and open it up and look at the page. Look.  Does what you just paid money to produce match what you see in terms of font, layout, pagination?  And it is not like this should be that difficult to correct anymore.

Time-consuming, yes.  Just like rewriting and editing are time-consuming.

You can’t rush good finishing. If you do, it will show, and people will be put off by your work.  And if they’re put off, they won’t read it, and then all the work you have put into it will be for nothing.

I needed to get that off my chest.  Thank you for your patience.

Cherokee Street At Night

Growing up, one of the places I used to go regularly, with my mother and grandmother, was Cherokee Street. That was where the Dime Stores were, the Woolworths, shoes stores, jewelers, a place called Western Auto, which would be like today’s AutoZone (they sold Western Flyer wagons, imagine that), and assorted clothing stores (like Fairchild’s).  As you walked further east toward Jefferson Avenue, it grew less kid-friendly, less polished, less…I’m not sure. We rarely went that far, restricting ourselves to the four blocks that contained the old Cinderella Theater building. I never attended it when it was still a functioning movie house, but they kept the facade. It’s famous locally, for a fire in the middle off a brutal winter so cold the water froze in curtains as it hit the building.

Time works on all things. A lot has changed. I haven’t been on Cherokee Street in over twenty years. The other night I worked an event at what is now 2720 Cherokee, an event space which appears to be two of the older stores (one I think was the old S.S. Kresge five-and-dime), and had a chance to look around a bit. It has changed. But it’s still pretty vibrant and amazing. It will require a leisurely walk-around some weekend. The traces of what I remember as a child are there, easy to find. But the new looks fascinating.


Le Guin

Of all the things I thought I would be writing about today, this is not one of them.  Of course I knew she was unwell.  Of course I knew how old she was.  Of course I know all journeys end.

Still, the impact of such endings can dislodge and shock. Because it is difficult to envisage the world continuing with such an absence.

Unlike others, I have read relatively little of Ursula K. Le Guin’s work. The Dispossessed, The Lathe of Heaven, Wizard of Earthsea, The Word For World Is Forest, The Left Hand Of Darkness…a handful of others, short stories. Enough to start a long change in trajectory for my own work and, more importantly, in my apprehension of this thing we do called “science fiction.”

So I want to talk about that instead of reviewing a biography and a bibliography others will more ably do.

Le Guin never wrote the expected. She published in the magazines, her novels came out with the SF label on the spine, some of the covers suggested that a reader might find something like all the rest of the books around them inside. And indeed there was that—interstellar settings, outré physics, aliens, exotic locations. But then there were the bits that refused to sustain the standard pattern.

“I didn’t know Fomalhaut II had all those people besides the trogs,” said Kethro, the curator.

“I didn’t either. There are even some ‘Unconfirmed’ species listed here, that they never contacted. Sounds like time for a more thorough survey mission to the place. Well, now at least we know what she is.”

“I wish there were some way of knowing who she is…” 

Early in the pages of Rocannon’s World we read that exchange and it is a promise and warning that what will follow, for decades, was all about learning who we are. Le Guin took the potential of what we call science fiction to unbury the many selves of sentient life and hold not one but many mirrors up to us. To tell us, over and over again, that who we are is more important than what. That sounds banal, certainly, because after all, isn’t all fiction about that?

Of course, but not in ways that can delineate the artificial from the organic, the applied from the emergent, the structural from the holistic the way science fiction does. Too many things are too often taken for granted, left unexamined and therefore unquestioned, in most literature, and we’re left with portraits that, while often insightful and clear, go only so far in examining the limitations of selfhood, of identity, of the ramifications of social, biological, and technological fabrics that comprise context.

Read The Dispossessed and you see this potential in full flower.

But it is a constant throughout her work. It might be said that her work was always concerned with the problems of self-expression in relation to dynamic systems, be they natural, technological, political—in fact, all three as an amalgam. The interconnections between the self and the community drove her narratives, and intentionally or not she sought balance.  (I think intentionally, oh yes, fully.)

Much has been written and debated about the impact of the Sixties on, well, everything, but within SF in particular it seemed to have been a period of enormous ferment, regeneration, and experimentation. Most of it was ephemeral and soon vanished from memory, as with almost all SF in any given period. Le Guin entered the field with all the appearances of a writer of the Old School, but there was something going on in her work that, quietly and irresistibly, infected what came after. She exemplified, through her writing, the euphemism “the personal is political.”

Getting to know another, really knowing them, is a supremely political act.  It changes everything. Its changes you, them, the context in which this discovery occurs. Being open to such knowing is to be vulnerable, and that leads to unknown possibilities. If all we look for in others is what we already have, then we never know them, and so we preserve ourselves against the possibility of change, of growth, of the pleasures of otherness. That, too, is a deeply political act, the choice to not look, to not know.

To not see.

The Left Hand Of Darkness is entirely involved in this kind of seeing. It is a story of blindnesses and veils and the necessity of seeing anew.

After Le Guin, it is impossible to understand science fiction as less than the most deeply political of literary forms.

It is also impossible to dismiss it as nonliterary. In Le Guin, the range of possible ways of seeing others is expanded beyond any probable comfort zone. She expanded her vision so much that the boundaries that had kept SF neatly barracked cracked and fell open. Oh, certainly she was not the only one, but her assault on the limits of literary convention were all the more effective because they were so pleasurable to read, and once read, impossible to forget. Her work altered your perspective.

After Le Guin, there is no going back to previous standards.

After Le Guin, it is impossible to pretend that change can be forestalled, that the world is complete, that the self and the community can be kept apart to mutual benefit, that politics is ignorable, that others are not us.

After Le Guin, really, the universe is bigger, richer, livelier, more dangerous…and not at all what we might wish to expect.

She was amazing. She amazed.


Post Christmas

So it’s the 26th. Digesting, relaxing, contemplating.

Saw my parents. Wished good cheer to each other and others.

This morning, I went to the gym, paid taxes, other errands. Lunch. Then looked at some of the images from the last few days. It has been a hell of a year. We have come here, to the verge of 2018, unsure of some things, comforted by the people still with us and close, and at least willing to face what  challenges may come. A mixed bag, as they say.  (Whoever “they” are—I suspect different “they” for each saying.)

Per Mr. Gaiman’s sage advice, I made some art. Till I have something more to say, I will share it with you.  Be well.  See you on the other side of the sun.





Difficult Books

Change of angst.

I saw one of those clickbait surveys, 200 “difficult” books, that challenge you by offering titles to select and then rating your score. I took it because it’s amusing to see what the zeitgeist thinks is worthwhile literature, and this one was better than some, but several of the titles gave me pause, thinking, that’s a difficult book?

I wonder what criteria are being used, other than perhaps page count and venerable authors.  Also, what do they mean by “difficult”—conceptually challenging or just a slog?  I mean, certainly Atlas Shrugged is a “difficult” book, but not the same way Ulysses is, or even the same way Oliver Twist is.  Ulysses requires some intellectual acumen on the part of a reader, some familiarity with history and literature, a bit of theology, and an ability to recognize human foible in any of dozens of various guises.  Atlas Shrugged merely requires a strong stomach and a lot of patience. Being tone deaf to good literature would help as well. And of course what the latter has to say about the human condition vis a vis economics is meaningless drivel compared to the portrayal of class abuse in Oliver Twist.  Telling the difference and knowing why the one doesn’t stack up to the other would be a good start to determining what qualifications one is using for “difficult” reads.

But it’s a good question, what qualifies as a difficult—in this case, read a challenging—book.  And by challenging I mean a work that forces you to think about the text and risk change by having read it deeply and honestly.

Admittedly, there are some novels which are merely difficult through obscurantism. They’re hard because the writer didn’t have much to say but didn’t want to admit that.  They usually don’t last past the life of the author. Sometimes they don’t last past the initial print run.  But the difficulty of the structure and the sentences and the fog of pseudointellectual posturing is in these instances little more than a guarantee of early extinction.

The problem is, sometimes a really good work bears some resemblance to such work. It becomes easy to overlook the real virtues of such novels because audience for them is harder to find.

Take Moby Dick by Herman Melville. Disclaimer: I do not care for this novel. I find it difficult to enjoy the sentences. When someone pointed out to me that it has really funny parts, I was surprised.  The torture of the sentences prevented my ever seeing that, but I was willing to be shown. I’ve been through again, recently, and I’m prepared to admit that it is a Great Novel.  But it is seriously difficult.  And part of the difficulty is that Melville loaded his sentences with multiple meanings, subtext, and unpleasant reality.  It is difficult because what it has to say is difficult to say in such a way that the meaning will get past the innate cultural barriers to recognition.

But it survived because that recognition is to be found and eventually people found it and the impact was enormous.

It bears multiple readings.  Unpacking it takes time. Such a book demands the two things modern readers seem to lack the most:  time and patience.

But going through that list of 200 “difficult” books what I found mainly were books that are long and involved and in some instances convoluted (Gravity’s Rainbow, Infinite Jest) and books with Reputations. The latter are the kinds of books you might find on readers’ shelves, but rarely read.  They know somehow they should read them, but they just haven’t.  And may never.  Because…well, they’re hard.  They reward patience, necessitate experience, require a bit of preparation, and yield nothing to casual taste.

It put me in mind of some of our recent teacup typhoons in science fiction.  Why struggle to understand something that makes the brain sweat when all the thrills and reassurance that you are smart can be found in the shallower waters of quicker reads?

Well, the answer is unsatisfying to a particular kind of reader.  You read the hard books because they make you more.

I won’t say “better” because I don’t know quite what that means in this context (or whether that sort of judgment has any place in talking about literature), but the expansion of the psyché is a real thing and it is only achieved by constantly taking on the difficult.  Only by doing so do you reach a point where you can discern the real difference between something like Atlas Shrugged (dense but superficial, and in many ways fraudulent) and a Gravity’s Rainbow (dense but meaningful, expansive and revelatory).  But more to the point, a book like Atlas Shrugged will not change you—if you are open to its message, all it will do is pacify your doubts and reinforce your prejudices, without ever challenging you to think about people or history in a different way, while the Pynchon cannot help but call into question pat beliefs and unsettle comfortable preconceptions.

So when such lists are constructed, it’s worth asking: how will these books make me different or new?  How well do they tell the truth?  How much do they expose about self-deception, deceit, and the lies of the world?  That’s where the “difficult” part is.

A thousand pages of froth changes nothing.  It just takes a long time to get through.

Annual Pose

Okay, so maybe this is going to be a thing. I think I put my vanity in a box and on a shelf because I don’t wish to be vain. I am, somewhat. I am saved from being an ass about it by being basically too lazy to really  attend to it, at least to the extent of making myself an object of derision. But it’s there, I admit it.

Most of my vanity has to do with the interior. I want to be a certain kind of person. I wish people to see the kind of person I’m trying to be. And I want what they see to be genuine. Maybe “vanity” is the wrong word, since too often it attaches to matters of surface only. And maybe I use that word to caution myself to pay attention to what matters.

In any case, I work at maintaining certain standards, both physically and mentally. I am not as successful at any of it as I would like to be, but it’s the journey, right? Whatever.

I turned 63 this year. I cannot quite get my head around that. In another generation I would be two years from falling into an actuarial expectation of being dead.  I would be spent, replete with health problems, fading.  When I was a child, 65 was the age at which people died.  Today?

But that’s not even the weirdest part.  The weird part is the history that I have personally lived through, knowing it as history, and being in a position to represent some of that history.  The other weird part is that, intellectually, I still see myself as somewhere around the mid to late 30s.

As I say, weird.  However, I’ve been posting annual updates like this–not as regularly as perhaps I should, but I see now that it might be a useful thing.

So. This morning, after coming home from the gym, I asked Donna to take a couple of pictures.



I’m weighing in at round 160.  I no longer bother getting on a scale.  I go by how well my clothes fit and how out-of-breath I get running down the street.  (Yes, I occasionally break into a sprint when I’m walking the dog, just because.  I can still do three blocks at a good run.)

The hair is thinner, grayer, the wrinkles a bit deeper, especially when I’m facing into the sun.

I feel tired a great deal of the time.

But aside from working out regularly, I work a full-time job, still play music, and I’m still trying to make the best-seller lists.

And chores.  Don’t forget chores.

But–most importantly–I still feel like I have options.  “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

A writer.

A photographer.

A musician.

A friend.

Someone people might possibly be glad to know.


The thing is, how to know when or if any of that is achieved?  I have to be comfortable in my own skin first.  And my skin is…

Well, not, perhaps, for me to say.  But I have every intention of sticking around long enough to find out.

So this is 63.

Let me post another photograph, to follow, of something maybe a little more interesting.  (Remember, one of the things I want to be is  photographer…?)  And leave off with something more abstract to contemplate.

Thank you all for putting up with me all this time.