Month: March 2018

A Very Cool Thing Is Happening In St. Louis

I’ve been mentioning this in various places for a few days now. Time to explain what is going on. Here’s the announcement, official and everything, about Left Bank Books‘ new science fiction/fantasy author series.  This has been in the works for some time and the kick-off event is April 18th.

I’ve been working for Left Bank Books for about six years, give or take, and during that time I’ve been able to influence our science fiction and fantasy section. Modest improvements, some worthy titles that might otherwise have gone unnoticed, and for the last three years I’ve been hosting the monthly reading group, Great Novels of the 22nd Century. This year I’ve been able to start something new with that, but you should come by if you can and find out.  We do some terrific titles every month, first Wednesday, 7:00 PM in the store.

This author series, however, is a bit of a dream come true. A dedicated author series. If this goes well, the future will bring more of the same and even better. We have a sharp, talented events coordinator who has been magnificent in pulling this all together and of course my coworkers are excited and ready to see this take off.  But in order for it to fly, to go to the stars, we need to show attendance. We need people to come out for these events, so we can demonstrate that this is a viable, vital program. So here is the shameless plug and the request for the favor of your presence.

We’re partnering with Archon, our local SF convention, and hoping to turn this into a rich, fascinating, on-going event series that brings in great writers, offers readers of fantastic fiction a chance to come together more often, and will go to the support of this amazing literature. I’m proud and pleased to be part of this and I’m hoping that whatever small influence I may have will induce you to show up and see the show.

For the full schedule of our premier events, go here.

Thank you and see you there.  Ad Astra!

Ol’ Time Deaf & Blind

Recently I had one of those exchanges which can be intensely frustrating, more so for the thoughtful participant than the antagonist, who often seems to feel that ramping up the frustration of the deponent constitutes a “win.” Never mind the substance of the argument.

It was over the question, now almost continually asked, “How can those self-proclaimed christians support Trump now that_____?”  Fill in the blank. Of course, most of these are rhetorical, “gotcha” memes that do not seem to really want an answer.  The answer is not all that complicated. A few weeks ago a friend of mine relieved me of the burden of trying to over-analyze the question by pointing out, in a marvelous example of applying Occam’s Razor, that the question assumes all the wrong things. They support him for the same reason anyone supports “their guy.”  They’re partisan.  There’s no mystery, it’s not rocket science, and we who might legitimately wonder about the conflation of theological militancy and dubious standard-bearers often jump down rabbit holes of historical, theological, and psychological analysis.  Much to the mirth, I imagine, of those we seek to understand.

For the majority of evangelical and/or fundamentalist supporters of our current president, this answer is more than sufficient. We who lean a bit more to the left do the same thing, albeit perhaps less dramatically, excusing lapses we may decry in our elected officials when they aren’t “our guys.” The simple fact is, purity of ideology and private life are chimeras not to be found. No one, on either side, will ever meet that standard and we are wasting our time and energy hoping for one.

(I’m not altogether sure I would trust someone who appeared to meet those criteria. I want my leaders human, thank you very much, warts and all. Saints tend to have or develop agendas that are eventually at odds with human needs and, if convinced of their specialness by undue popular acclaim, stop listening when they start acting on such beliefs.)

But there are a couple of instances where the question has ancillary aspects that drift back into the office of the analyst. One, the biggest possibly, has to do with the leaders of such groups who loudly conjoin a biblical spin with support. Of course, they’re ridiculous, but the problem is, people listen to them, and here we do see the source of the original question.  The answer remains the same—they are partisan and they have agendas, usually along the lines of condemning homosexuality, ending abortion, and bringing back some kind of Mosaic aesthetic to apply to civic and private life. This is as political as you can get, but they wrap it in the sugarcoating of “god’s will”and sell it along with the hundred dollar bibles. There’s no way to tell how many of their adherents actually act on their preachments and I believe they are in the minority, just very, very loud, but it cannot be denied that there is an element of perhaps very cynical theological redaction going on. How can they support this guy out of one side of their mouths when they claim to be christians out of the other? More to the point, when they make the argument that this is wrapped up with supporting their guy. As I said, like anyone else, they’re partisan and, like most people. they compartmentalize. How can they preach that this guy was chosen by the lord to do whatever it is he’s going to (presumably what they hope he will do) and gloss over the incompatibilities over things they would never hesitate to condemn someone who is not their guy for doing? Because they are opportunistic shams who are more worried about their own power an influence than anything genuinely christian.

Now a couple of things happen when I say something like that. The first is a lot of people assume I’m talking about them when I’m not.  The label has an unfortunate effect of categorizing people of many different philosophical and personal attributes into a single group. Just as terms like “conservative” or “liberal” do. We use these labels to define what we’re talking about at the moment, unfortunately casting too wide a net and causing defenses to rise where none are needed. One consequence of this is a lot of people will start making the “well, they’re not real christians” argument, distancing themselves. Since what we’re talking about has far more to do with political partisanship than actual religion, this is unfortunate, because it’s just one more wall between people.

What to do? If someone insists on self-identifying that way and then claiming they vote in accordance with that identity, how does one deal with it without acknowledging the problematic aspects of the issue?

If you start engaging with someone over these questions by delving into what the bible actually says and how it might not be what they think it is, you discover a couple of things right off the bat that makes it either a very short or a very frustrating encounter. Firstly, your conversant may not know thing one about what you’re talking about. They have not read the bible. Not all of it, not nearly enough of of it. (I am speaking now of averages; there will always be someone who does not fill this description.) At best they have studied the parts they’ve introduced to in church. After all, those are the “important” parts. Secondly, you run into the problem that this person probably, maybe, did not come to his or her belief by a reasoned process. Which is why when you start examining the bases of their belief, they are completely at sea, and react as if threatened. Because you are threatening them.

However and for whatever reason they have come to this place, they have staked their identity on this ground and to suggest it might be sand is very, very, very threatening.

It’s not your place to tell them they’re wrong.

The best you can do is offer—not impose—more information. Or walk away.

However, when someone steps up to willingly engage with you over this and makes a show of being open to dialogue, things change.

In the encounter I mentioned above, two things were thrown at me that I found no way to deal with effectively because they represent a mindset that a priori rejected my arguments. The first that I am “misguided” and the second that I am “rebelling against god,” which is the sole reason I fail to swallow his counterarguments.

I’ve written before about how I feel that those gentle busybodies who knock on your door to bring you the good word, without intending to, are very insulting. Because in order to presume to do that they have to make certain assumptions, one of which is that you must be stupid. That something  this important just never occurred to you to think about ever before. No, they do not consciously think this, but when confronted by someone who informs them that, no, I have considered all this and chosen a different path, they conclude that you either misunderstood something or you’re in league with the devil. The discourse runs aground on the shoals of mutual incomprehension because the places you’re arguing from are wildly divergent. If you stand your ground, I suspect they think you think they’re stupid. But at some level where space for being able to acknowledge the possibility of a different view should be, something else has filled it and communication is subsequently made far more difficult.

But the judgment that I am stupid is wrapped up in that “misguided.” Clearly, I am not getting something, which is so simple and so self-evidently true a child ought to pick up on it. Because, conversely, I can’t possibly have a worthwhile point. No, of course not. That would be impossible, since it appears to  contradict the convictions of your conversant. He didn’t seem to even register those points where I agreed with him (and there were) because I kept insisting, I suppose, that there were doctrinal problems with some of this. So I’m misguided.

And I am misguided because I’m rebelling against god. I have to be. The only reason I would argue along the lines I do is if I were angrily rejecting a god I know in my heart is really there. Because that’s the only way you can rebel against something, is by rejecting the authority of something real.

This is a fallback assumption, which is one of the reasons we see the logical absurdity that atheists worship Satan.  This is flung at us with no hint of irony.

The existence or nonexistence of god aside, this is a human inability to consider the possibility of Other Views. Even to dismiss them.

But I made the observation that, no, I am not in rebellion against god. If anything, I am in rebellion against people who insist that I’m misguided. I suppose this was ignored because, on some level, the notion that people and god can be separate in the sense that I meant is inconceivable. To be in rebellion against god’s messengers must de facto mean I’m rebelling against god.

Loops within loops.

So extract god from the core question and we come back to—they’re partisan.

(This is not, in fact, inconsistent with this brand of christianity. They are stuck in the Old Testament with all its punitive constraints and vengeance and parochial judgment. You can tell because they go all Levitical on you to defend their presumed moral superiority. Yahweh is a partisan god. Look at the jeremiads against “foreigners” and the instructions on how many of another people the Israelites ought to slaughter. He is a blood-soaked deity who has chosen a Side and promised to bless these people if they do what he says. This is partisanship.  It is not at all inconsistent, given the rhetoric about building walls, reinstating intolerances, banning programs that award benefits to people Yahweh would have had put to death. He’s their guy the way David was.)

I uttered two words that sent my opponent into eloquent condemnation—doubt and skepticism. Since he felt I was misguided, I realized he saw no utility in either of these, at least not when it came to religion.

This is not confined to religion. I want to stress this. The kind of filters in place I perceived are by no means an exclusive attribute of this view. Many people simply do not want or cannot manage to think everything through. It is perfectly human to want something, some core of philosophical reliability that goes without saying and need not be questioned. To believe is held up as a virtue. Whether it is or not, it seems to be a very human necessity. When that core is called into question…

But I would like to say this: you cannot be misguided if you are open to differing opinions and always on the hunt for questions that need answers. You can certainly wander down side roads, into cul-d-sacs, blind alleys, but if you’re still looking, it doesn’t trap you. You can only be misguided by a guide who does not have your interests in mind. Gurus, prophets, stump preachers, pseudoscientists, psychics, charlatans of all stripes who all share one thing—the desire to capture you into their scam (whether they feel it’s a scam or not) and make themselves feel “right” by the headcount in the hall.

And, really—you can’t be in rebellion against something you don’t believe exists. But then a lot of people find it difficult to separate out an idea from an actuality.

But as to how all those “good christians” can support Trump? Partisanship. They may or may not be good christians, but they are definitely dedicated partisans.

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.