Saturday, October 31, 2009

Work Habits (Writing nests redux)

As I said, I tend to spend most of my writing time in public places such as cafes and libraries. But when I'm home on the weekends, the reading and especially the research end of this operation continues apace... and that means a but of a writing nest. At some point, I fell out of the habit of writing at a desk. The large horizontal surfaces leant themselves to stacking. And stacking is the enemy of organization (I think I read that somewhere.) My preferred spot is a well-lit chair with a bookshelf nearby loaded with the books I need to be able to reference on a whim. Since we turned one room into a properhome library, I've plunked my chair into that room and arranged my most frequently used reference books and style manuals nearby. With NaNoWriMo starting tomorrow, I felt it was imperative that I have everything arranged and ready to go so that I can sit down and start to really generate some pages without the necessity of stopping to hunt down a reference book. Speed-noveling aside, this is generally a good writing habit to be encouraged anyway. (Incidentally, the only reason there are empty shelves in the photo is because the rest of my father's library has not yet arrived. I recently doubled my shelfspace to accomodate them.)

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Brain Food

My Friend Elspeth (you may remember her as the inspiration for this post) wondered aloud recently about why writing her dissertation makes her tired all out of proportion with the physical exertion of the seemingly simple task of sitting down and putting words on a screen. I looked into this a long time ago and discovered that the brain is apparently the body's prime consumer of glucose. According to Popular Science, over 75% of the glucose that gets used gets used by the brain to create neurotransmitters. These levels fluctuate, but the harder you think, the more glucose you need to fuel the thinking. Write that book! Feel the burn! My fellow NaNoWriMo participants should take note and lay in a stock of healthy snacks or we're all going to go up a size during the month of November.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

How to Find Your "Writing Nest" - wikiHow

Of course, as you know, I write in a public place most of the time. Nevertheless, at home I have a writing nook. The Engineer calls it my "nest" which is why I found it inordinately funny when my friend Denny pointed me to this article. In all, there's some good advice here and it bears the hallmarks of an article written by a writer who was procrastinating something else they were supposed to be writing. (When I do that, I call it blogging... ahem.) It all seems so obvious, but it's the sort of thing that people ask me about sometimes, so... here ya go! Enjoy! How to Find Your "Writing Nest" - wikiHow

Kerouac is a verb?

Note: I had to write a new bio for the NaNoWriMo site and decided that playing it straight wasn't any fun...


Two years of journalism school taught me primarily that it wasn't the kind of writing I wanted to do. I ended up in art school for awhile before dropping out to climb mountains and Kerouac my way across the country.

I wrote some poetry until I had my poetic license pulled for trying to smuggle bootleg limericks across the border. After I got out of the Writers Bloc, I dabbled in political blogging and techwriting. The love of a good woman rescued me and now I help run a local writing center while I sell my first novel.

I placed 18th overall (out of over 10,000 entrants) in the 6th Annual Writer's Digest Short-Short Story Contest (published by Trafford Press) with the story "Armageddon Interruptus". This is a humorous romp through the difficulties of staging a proper apocalypse, the difficulty in finding a properly pale horse, practical accountancy and daylight savings time.

(An appalling amount of that is actually true.)

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

We're all mad here...

Call the guys with the butterfly nets, because I think I lost my mind. In the euphoria of polishing off the last niggly editing details on The Palimpsest, I made a decision of the sort that one simply would not make under normal circumstances. Yes, I woke up to find my hat in the ring of that internet writing phenomenon uttered with fear former novelists wearing the latest in straightjacket fashion as National Novel Writing Month, aka "NaNoWriMo". National Novel Writing Month sounds innocuous enough until you realize it's not just a month when we celebrate those of us benighted enough to ignore Lewis Black's sage advice -- it's also a sort of marathon. The funny funny pranksters at NaNoWriMo have challenged the citizens of the world to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days or less. Write one novel in one month and you "Win". . . a Jim-dandy .PDF certificate and a badge to put on your website.
Really? All that work for that? It's an awfully nice certificate. And there's also satisfaction in a job well done. "Well" done, Scottie? Okay, a job quickly done, but done nonetheless. Did they specify if this includes post-contest psychological counseling, and/or rehab for caffeine addiction? No, but I would certainly hope some sort of group discount can be negotiated by participants. You're already talking to yourself.
As I am a man of my word as well as my madness, I will finally be putting words to the page on the project I refer to as "42 Lines" starting bright and early Sunday morning. No outline, just my ego, my laptop and a pile of accumulated research that's waiting for me to boil it down into novel form.
"Tell everyone you know that you're writing a novel in November. This will pay big dividends in Week Two, when the only thing keeping you from quitting is the fear of looking pathetic in front of all the people who've... had to hear about your novel for the past month. Seriously. Email them now about your awesome new book. The looming specter of personal humiliation is a very reliable muse" -NaNoWriMo welcome email.
Good advice. Masochism is a writer's best friend, after all. To keep myself from changing my mind, I'm posting it here for all to see. Maybe some good will come out of this. I plan to average 1,800 words per day, which is a decent output and actually a little low for me when I'm under a full head of steam. I only need 1,667 to hit the mark, but I want to create a bit of a cushion to cover the contingencies. Good Lord willing and the creek don't rise (as my dad would say) at the end of the month I should have a credible rough draft of my next novel. Assuming I still remember how to read by that point. If you've a mind to do so, you can find me at the NaNoWriMo site under the name Pages2Type.

The Week From Hell

Is now the winter of our discontent? Is it the best of times and the worst of times? Is the end nigh? Don't listen to the literary alarmists, it's not the end of days, just time to watch text go from page to screen. Time catch up on the state of technology after the Week From Hell Literary agent and blogger Nathan Bransford summed it all up for us as the week everything in publishing changed and stayed the same. He also unfortunately called dibs on all future puns on the Plastic Logic "Que" eReader, so I'll have to throw away that limerick I wrote. Ah well. NPR's "All Tech Considered" considered the eBook today. Robert Seigel described them (quite accurately, I think) as something that looks like "an etch-a-sketch for adults". The story is a thoughtful and thorough State of the Tech piece that I admired enough to repost in case you missed it. Unfortunately, the NPR media player cuts the story and the interview afterward with tech journalist Omar Gallaga. It's interesting to note Gallaga's summary that most eReader buyers are older "voracious" readers, which tips the "It will take a generational change" argument on it's ear. I'll see if I can track down those statistics.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Movie Adaptation

The other morning, the Engineer threw a magazine at me. It was the September edition of Writer's Digest, and it had apparently been languishing far too long on the dining room table for her taste.

We were on our way out the door, so I stuffed it in the backpack (which is very similar in many respects to "putting it away") and headed off to the cafe to do my morning writing. After I finished writing my five pages, edited a couple dozen and wrote a blog entry likening my character to Bugs Bunny, I opened the magazine. In the back of my mind, I was noodling with my ongoing series of posts on "Cultural Cross-Pollination". I've already done Commedia del Arte, Playwriting, Role Playing Games, Kinetic Text and Cartoons. I either needed a good hook for talking about movies or I needed to just let it lie fallow for a little while.

How movies can, should or should not affect our fiction writing is a bit of a poser, I don't mind saying. It's a big topic for one thing, and for another, I've already touched on it a little bit. Then it hit me... exactly like a rolled-up magazine left too long on the dining room table. In WD and just about everywhere else that writing is discussed, the ability to write "visually" is discussed, dissected and otherwise touted as one of the hallmarks of marketable writing. In the "MFA Insider" column, author Joshua Henkin posited that movies and television and the onslaught of "Write more visually" advice from writing books and magazines have cumulatively eroded our willingness to create introspection in our stories. To prove his point, he gave a writing exercise that entails going through your story or manuscript and highlighting everything that can be filmed in one color (action) and everything that cannot be filmed in a contrasting color (internal dialogue).  In "too many" stories, there would be an imbalance -- the external story would outweigh the internal struggle of the characters, the parts that cannot be adapted for film.

I'm not sure he's right. For one thing, recent and upcoming movies are challenging what's "Filmable". Where the Wild Things Are takes us into the lengthy interior monologue of a young boy at war with himself. Assuming they don't screw it up The Road will be a challenging movie of silences and bleakness where the characters never refer to one another by name.

Has visual media cracked the whip of visual writing? More to the point, have novels been overtaken by authors who would be better suited writing screenplays?

I undertook his experiment with my own manuscript and without compiling exact statistics (there's a limit to how much free time I have) I think my writing is about even. Between the "filmable" sequences and the internal dialogues, I was looking at a pretty decent balance of colors. While there are extended action sequences, I temper that with the fact that my characters are pretty brainy and have a tendency to live inward.

Speaking of "filmable" writing, Paul Levine is an entertainment attorney and agent who represents a lot of screenwriters as well as authors. At PNWA, he told a full room that aspiring screenwriters should write the book first. Movie rights were easier to sell with a publishing contract to back them up and getting a screenplay over the transom at the moment was almost impossible without that. The other editors and agents on the panels all agreed. Hollywood wants a sure thing now more than ever. This is why we're seeing sequels and adaptaions packed cheek by jowl on the marquee right now. Hollywood wants someone else to play taste-maker, to vet the stories for them, to see them succeed in another venue before they plunk millions of dollars into a film project.

To bring it back to novel writing, I used to wholeheartedly agree with Henkin on the impact that visual media has had on writing... for better and worse. And I still do to some extent. But talking to Levine, I got the feeling that there was a bit of the tail wagging the dog -- that movies are following print as much or more than it goes the other way around. Films are delving into territory that was long thought impossible to bring to the screen. Introspective movies are elbowing for room alongside the usual action and adventure. Rather like you will see in my screenpla... um... novel.


Scott Walker Perkins writes literary thrillers and novels of suspense woven from the threads of history. His current novel is The Palimpsest and he is working on another tentatively titled 42 Lines.
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Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Rabbit Problem

I have a rabbit problem. Not in the garden, in my books. And if your characters are as capable as Jack Reacher or as smart as Sherlock Holmes or as beautiful as a fashion model... or in anyway presenting themselves to you as nearly super-human, then you have a rabbit problem too.

Legendary Warner Brothers animator Chuck Jones also had a rabbit problem. He was possessed of a set of characters with the ability to bend reality to their whim in order to triumph over what seemed to be overwhelming odds. And at the head of the pack was a rabbit named Bugs.
"Golden Rule. Bugs must always be provoked. In every film, someone must have designs on his person: gastronomic, as a trophy, as a good-luck piece (rabbit's foot, which makes as much sense as a rabbit carrying a human foot on a key chain), as an unwilling participant in a scientific experiment [...] Without such threats, bugs is far too capable a rabbit to evoke the necessary sympathy." -Chuck Jones "Chuck Amuck"
Take the above quote and insert "Sherlock Holmes" or "Jack Reacher" or "Calvin" from Calvin & Hobbes in the place of Bugs and you'll see the problem that Conan Doyle and Lee Child and Bill Watterson have faced every time they sat down to write.

If you can take your lead character(s) and insert their name and gender into the above quote, then you're in the Radio Flyer wagon with Arthur, Lee, Chuck and me, staring around at the sea of rabbits. Welcome aboard!   The blonde kid with the tiger is in charge, so don't smart off.

If a drama is derived from ordinary people in extraordinary situations, is it worthwhile to examine the extraordinary person in the extraordinary situation? Of course it is. It's just a matter of how you go about it.

The first thing to remember is Chuck's admonition that the supremely-capable character acting unprovoked will elicit very little sympathy from the audience. The corollary to this is that watching someone who is smarter than the subject matter waltz through the story is boring to boot. The Rabbit has to meet a challenge worthy of his efforts and attention or I'm not going to read your story and most of the editors I've met won't either.

Incidentally, if your character is so talented and capable in every realm and situation, I humbly submit that you need to rethink the decisions that led to your writing a novel about Superman. (Unless you really are writing a novel about Superman, in which case good luck and Godspeed because I'm as big a geek as as the next guy.)

There's a trap that catches just about every writer early in their writing career: It's insanely easy to create a fantasy alter ego that is everything we ever dreamt of being. And because as a breed, writers tend toward the bespectacled introvert more than the opposite (there's a fine line between being stereotypical and merely archetypal) when granted godlike powers, we can make manikins of words that are smarter, faster, and better than any human being could ever hope to be.

There are degrees of extraordinariness and I should take a moment to poke some holes in...

Contrary to what detective novelists and television have taught us, a genius IQ does not automatically come with a detective's badge, Oriental lineage doesn't come with a black belt in the local martial art and very few CIA employees ever get issued a Glock and a license to kill. Those things are all cliche's. That's not to say that there aren't any genius PI's, Japanese kids trained in Ninjitsu or CIA hitmen in the world, just that there's a fine line between stereotype and archetype and in a fictional setting the scales are too often tipped toward the wrong side of that equation. (mixed metaphor alert!)

The cliche has a place in writing and life and we should treat them in the manner that they so richly deserve: subversion. Playing against audience expectations is part of the fun of writing the extraordinary character.

Drag your Rabbits out of their element. Give them a reason to get involved and then challenge them by forcing them to act in a realm beyond their expertise. Play them against themselves and keep doing it or you're going to end up running afoul of Chuck's Golden Rule. At which point, you might as well lobotomize your rabbit and let the hunter catch him.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Here There Be Wild Things

One more Wild Things post and then I'll move on to other topics, I promise.

Something I forgot to mention (I was reminded by a friend on Facebook) is that the source material for the movie included more than just the Caldecott Award winning picture book. It also included the story Max at Sea by the masterful Dave Eggers, which he has since turned into a novel (which I cannot recommend because I haven't read it... yet). Eggers is credited as cowriter for the screenplay.

Of course, Mssr. Eggers is almost absurdly talented: not only has he contributed to The Onion, he co-founded McSweeney's and has won numerous awards, including the Pulitzer.  

You can read Max at Sea here at the New Yorker (click).

As is his habit, Eggers is astoundingly brilliant in the guise of a pre-adolescent boy. If you haven't read Egger's A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius you don't know what I'm talking about, but you should and then you would. It's no wonder previous attempts at the movie failed, they didn't have Eggers on staff. Every movie should be so lucky.

Also also... yesterday, I mentioned that Lasseter took a stab at a cartoon of Where the Wild Things Are. It's on YouTube (linked below). Lasseter, of course, went on to Pixar where he probably produced or directed every movie the company ever made that you actually liked.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

A boy pretending to be a wolf pretending to be a king

I loved Where the Wild Things Are. It was my favorite book as a child. Sendak, along with HA Rey, Richard Scarry and a little-known fellow named Charles Schultz were my earliest artistic muses. I spent hours and hours copying their works, trying to unlock their styles and create my own curious monkey, Busy Busy World, Wild Things island, and Peanuts Gang.

I've written extensively about how I feel about movie adaptations of beloved books. And though I approach any movie adaptation of a beloved book with trepidation, I stand by what I said back in July: "No matter how far afield a two hour Where the Wild Things Are movie takes a 48-page children's book, the impact that this seminal book had on my life won't be undone."

But this is Where the Wild Things Are.

A couple of years ago, I heard a great interview with Maurice Sendak. He mentioned all the attempts to get this book onto the screen that ultimately failed. Even John Lassiter of Pixar fame did a test version for Disney and they couldn't make it work. At forty-eight pages, but only nine sentences, Sendak left a lot of silence for us to interpret the book for ourselves. And the interpretations have been diverse.

There have been many who thought it inappropriate for children, that it somehow condoned acting-up and being a wild thing. Sendak was amused by this interpretation. Most people don't get that the story this book tells - mostly in pantomime - is that even after this kid has been a little monster throughout the entire book, his mom brought him dinner anyway. Even though moms yell and send them to their room and might even get mad and punish, etcetera. Sendak thought it was an important lesson for children that yes they need to behave, but even when they're at their worst, their moms still love them. At the end they're still a family.

The movie is made by a man who "got it" and written by someone else who "got it", the incomparable Dave Eggars. It holds tightly to Sendak's themes. It doesn't change Max. It doesn't change the Wild Things. It doesn't water down the raw intensity of what it is to be a boy at a certain time in life.  It fleshes out Sendak's pantomime. It keeps the dangerous edge that the book had, this little boy pretending to be a wolf, pretending to be a king.
If you've read the book I feel that I cannot really spoil this movie for you. But SPOILER ALERT nonetheless because there are details below.
Spike Jonez gave the movie a modernist, hyper-real look that's hard to describe. There's a documentary air about it, with lot of handheld-cameras. The lighting is realistic, not glossy. Natural lighting without the Hollywood gloss. Jim Henson's creature workshop built the Wild Things, so they're on set and the boy is obviously interacting with physical specimens. The CG special effects are constrained to the faces and some of the super-human jumps and the like. They remain supportive of the story rather than overpowering them.

Max is a little monster, but he's really just a little boy looking for control over something. Anything.

His sojourn among the Wild Things has a vision quest feel to it. He's journeying inward and there is danger there, his hold on them as their king is tenuous at all times and you feel it. Every scene reflects his inner chaos and his relations with his family. Each Wild Thing is a facet of the boy's personality with the most dangerous and mercurial of the lot, Carol, masterfully brought to life by the actor in the suit (as are all the monsters) and the voice of James Gandolfini. Underlining the metaphor is that Max holds sway over the wild things by his fingernails. He can guide them, he can cajol them, he can sometimes get therm to expend their efforts in creative and wonderful ways, but he ultimately only controls them by the barest margin. At all times there's the threat that he'll lose control and they'll consume him.

Jonez brings the sense and sensibilities of a real kid. Throughout the movie you can feel Sendak moving behind the scenes. This movie is the book and it's not. It's everything the book was, plus. It's ultimately a tale of a kid who lives mostly inside his head, with few friends and an older sister who is taking the first steps into adulthood, down a path that young Max isn't ready to follow. She is leaving behind a younger brother who is feeling the sundering of what you get the impression was a close relationship at some point, lost playmates spinning apart in a family that's spinning apart in the wake of the loss of his father.

But Jonez lets you infer a lot from very little and I found it very artfully done. The parts of the movie that take place outside Max's external world are few and just enough to let you see the glory and tragedy of being a little boy. Max Record, the boy who plays Max is fantastic. He carries off the role of a boy who simultaneously hates what's happening to him and around him and hates his lack of control over himself and the events that shape him. His beleaguered mother is brought to life in few short scenes and artfully so. A woman trying to raise two kids, hold down a job and find a life and happiness for herself.

In the contractual terms of any vision quest, there is self-awareness dawning slowly throughout the movie. Max grows up a little, realizes the tightrope he walks, but not all things can be resolved. Not every side of him will suffer the bit and bridle. And Max attains some understanding of himself, of his family, of his creativity, of his ability or lack thereof to contain and control his monsters. And in the end he has to get in his little boat and come back. Mom gives him a hot meal and they are a family, Wild Things and all.

Is this a kid's movie or a movie about a kid? I don't know. I don't have a kid. The child Scottie would love this movie, though. He wouldn't catch all the undercurrents or the metaphors, but it's the right kind of scary and the good kind of dark to trip the same triggers that Labyrinth found when I was my nephews' age. Kids movies don't have to be happy. The best among them have multiple threads that give the kids something and their parents something and then the kids something to come back to and find when they see them again with their kids. I think Where the Wild Things Are aspires to the latter realm. And it's not for me to say whether or not it attains it. But as a boy who has been a wolf, a king and a wild thing, I loved it for it similarities to the book as well as its differences.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Finding Meaning

I try not to be didactic, but I believe that everything I write should be about something. That there should be deeper thematic elements at work than unmasking the killer, uncovering the conspiracy, defeating the badguy.

My plots are spun from the way that history has been carved up and commodified, bought, sold and stolen to the level where the black market in antiquities is second only to drugs for the amount of money generated.

There's plenty of fodder there to create a rippin' yarn, but not a memorable one. It's the characters and the characterization that make a story memorable. And much though I deplore the cultural commodities market, there's much more that a book needs to be about before I feel it's a good one. Because it's not enough to thrill a reader, I want them to think too. And if you don't empathize with a character, you will forget about them as soon as you close the book and put it back on the nightstand. Which is why a lot of what I write about here is about characterization.

Back in February I posted an extended meditation on what it meant to feel empathy for someone. Not the knee-jerk appearance of empathy like a bartender making sympathetic noises while letting a patron bend his ear, but actual empathy. Luckily for writers, I find that it's easier to empathize for a fictional character than it is with a real human being.

Empathy requires a certain amount of imagination and active listening skills to discover what the other person is up to beyond what you can see. In reality this is tiring and time-consuming, so we revert to surface impressions as an act of psychic self-defense. Understanding of what's behind the mask is easier in fiction because the writer shows it to you. In a book or even a play, I can show you the inside of a person's head. Even in a biography (a well-written one at any rate) there's greater scope to our understanding of the individual than we ever get in real life. And until our society shifts to allow extended soliloquizing, I suppose that's not likely to change.

The easy social framework of archetype and stereotype simplifies our daily interactions. At work or school, in traffic, or in the supermarket, we tend to skate across the surfaces of people, only troubling to dig beneath the surface for the sake of loved-ones and friends. Not so in fiction. In the fictional realm, a writer that skims the surface of characters is doing a disservice to the reader. Which brings us back to giving stories meanings deeper than the plot. Empathy is the handmaiden of complexity. And if my books are about anything, it's that most of our problems are the result of an insufficiency of empathy and a lack of complexity in how we view the people around us. Across generations, across the aisle or across the table, so much of the tumult in our world comes from reacting to an understanding (or what we laughably call 'understanding') that fails to scratch beneath the surface impressions.

My novels tend to be charged with social and religious themes and I purposely put people whose social and/or religious viewpoints conflict at the same table to deal with them. Because if all our artists, writers and filmmakers show us is people in conflict over these issues and never people of opposite views finding common purpose... what hope do we have?

There's no way to type that without sounding absurdly PC and quite possibly namby and/or pamby, but there it is.

While we might take advantage of archetypes and definable characteristics in our writing, I think it behooves writers to always remember that character runs deeper than plot. Literature is our one chance to step outside ourselves and take a trip inside someone else's skin. Be it Holden Caulfield or Atticus Finch, you're stepping outside yourself, viewing the world through another set of eyes. Even if you're borrowing the skin of Robert Langdon, you are outside yourself for the moments you spend in his world. Let's make the trip worthwhile.

Once upon a time in a fool's paradise...

There once was a little cottage on a little island in Puget Sound. It sounds more posh than it is, this little house was a fixer-upper. Some poor fool at some distant remove painted it battleship grey, the better to fade into the morning fog that sometimes rolled across the island and hid the houses and trees from view. One day a writer and artist (in short, a fool) and his lovely bride moved in and said "What a sad little house tucked away in a forgotten corner of a foggy island. I shall make this house cheerful, surround it with gardens and fill it with books and create a happy home." And so it was. And so it continues, this work of making a fool's paradise among the fog-shrouded trees. The house is a curmudgeonly old thing and it has resisted. It once dropped a ceiling on the fool's head, but he shrugged and turned the room into a library, and as everyone knows, this simple act imbues a house with a soul. Over the years, the house and the fool have mellowed. Gardens have sprouted and books have found shelves. New windows have given the home a bright-eyed look and insulation has made her warm as the old grey shingles have turned a cheerful yellow. So if you wonder where I go when I'm not here, don't worry. I might be stuck under a pile of cats and unable to reach the computer. Or I might be writing or puttering in the garden. But I'm probably just taking a weekend to cheer up my house, my fool's paradise...

Friday, October 9, 2009

TED Talks -- Erin McKean Redefines the Dictionary

I just referenced this lady and her TED talk in a comment on someone else's post over on Facebook and I thought I'd share it more widely because this is one of the most beautiful speeches on the English language I can readily think of. If you're not familiar with Erin Mc...Kean, you should familiarize yourself with her. You really owe it to yourself. I'm pretty fussy about language but her enthusiasm and her arguments are really difficult to reject.
"Love makes things real -- If you love a word use it, that makes it real, being in the dictionary is an artificial distinction."

Thursday, October 8, 2009


About a month ago, I started a ritual of posting a picture every morning of my morning coffee ritual. Similar to the "Project 365" meme, this is very specific. If you want to share a cup of coffee with me on any given morning, join me on Daily Booth and post your photo response. (Free membership required, instructions for posting on the site) I love the idea that the internet can join us all in a global kaffeeklatsch. There are very few problems that cannot be solved over a steaming mug of Joe. If nothing else, these little rituals help get a writer through his day... This morning's Mugshot (And PSA) Writing causes wrinkles. They never tell you that in school, so consider this my PSA. Beware the wrinkles of writers! Had a dear frind of mine who happens to be a photographer tell me once that it was "okay for guys to look craggy" in our publicity photos. Love it. (Good thing too.) In other news, the New York Times validated my lifelong approach to education: NYT - How Nonsense Sharpens the Intellect

An Odious Little Book

Last week was Banned Books Week and mine was not the only blog taken over by the topic of banned and challenged books. Christine at Stacked posted a book review of one of the most reviled books in history and mounted a compelling defense of keeping it in print and on the shelves.

Of course, I am talking about Mein Kampf by Adolph Hitler.

The intellectual courage it took for her to review such a book is astounding. During banned books week, she took on a book that almost everyone agrees is the vile product of a twisted mind, the elucidation of a twisted ideology that literally broke the world and began the march toward the holocaust. I had to read Mein Kampf in college and the thing that struck me most about it is how boring the whole thing was.

Hardly one of Hitler's firebrand moments.

And that is the dangerous face of evil. Hannah Arendt, reporting for the New Yorker on the Trial of Adolph Eichmann, wrote of the realization that evil wasn't a radical force, or a transcendent philosophy, it was the banal and efficient daily application of a horrible ideology. An evil force of bookkeepers backed up by the might of the Wermacht.

I've already posted my defense of keeping both extremes of the political argument in print and readily-available for readers despite the fact that one side or the other makes my blood boil. For better or worse, his is the map of modern political dialogue (or screaming matches as the case may be) and to make it disappear would be to lie about who we are and how we communicate... and how we don't.

But what of Mein Kampf? Surely if any book deserves the "Banned" stamp, it is this one.

This is where it gets sticky. It's easy to rally around a book we love, but how do we argue for a book that we hate? At what point do we cut it off? I don't know. There are some ideas, some philosophies, some books out there in the world that even I think should be suppressed. But where do we draw that line as a society? As I see it, the biggest problem with banning a book like Mein Kampf is that it doesn't make it go away, it drives it underground. It adds a titillating context to reading it that changes the way your mind accepts or rejects its content.  

This is banned, censored, someone doesn't want me to read this... 

Back in my Borders days, we carried Mein Kampf on the shelf in the German history section. At least once every few months, a German citizen visiting our shores would come into my bookstore and for a copy of the book to take home with them. Because it was banned in Germany--it still is for all I know. They were so intensely curious about it, wanted to see it; most of them bought a copy. Between college students slogging through the thing for a class and the German visitors, it's a wonder we ever had it on the shelf.

As my grandparents’ generation dies and then my parents generation follows them, the realities of the world that went to war pass from living memory to the pages of books. There is an erosion when this happens, sharp edges get knocked off and we forget the details. There will one day be no one left to tell us the story with the horror in their voices of having lived through it; no more war crimes trials and extraditions of aging Nazis; no more unremarkable accountants standing before the assembled masses, horrifying us with the blandness of their evil. And there will be no more neighbors, grandparents, or art teachers, as I had growing up, who will show you the numbers tattooed on their arms and witness to you the reality of the camps with hushed voices and tears.

Without the written record, without the evidence on the shelves of every bookstore, we will slowly lose our horror. The names Elie Weisel and Simon Weisenthal and Anne Frank will become dusty and cobwebbed names on the flaking spines of books in an unregarded section of your local library.

6 million killed in the camps. The numbers are too great to grasp, too evil to contain. How long before the greatest atrocity in human history is regarded as an anomaly even by those that aren't among those who deny that it happened. Already it's viewed by too many as something that could only happen once, Hitler was evil, a malign spirit from a medieval morality play, the devil incarnate, somehow separate from the human race. If he wasn't human we don't have to accept that a human being did such a thing... or could do it again.

I'm not the first to say it and hopefully I won't be the last, but it's already begun, the myth of Hitler has overtaken the historical. Hitler has devolved into a caricature, a name thrown around in arguments to vilify your enemy’s position and with overuse any metaphor weakens.

The greatest lie we tell ourselves is “We will never forget” and the second greatest is “It could never happen again”. Which is why I believe that the speech that needs the most protection is so often the speech that scares us the most.

Scott Walker Perkins writes literary thrillers and novels of suspense woven from the threads of history. His current novel in progress is The Palimpsest.
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Tuesday, October 6, 2009

For the record, I must confess that I sometimes get free coffee. And the occasional odd waffle. Can't say as I've been getting a lot of free books since I left the bookselling biz, but who knows what the future holds? From the Silicon Valley Insider, I received this free warning that bloggers are being targeted by the Feds for taking the internet-equivalent of payola. (They gave it me for free, though... heh)

Friday, October 2, 2009

An Incomplete Map

The dawn of this country spawned many pithy quotes and axioms, sayings that embody the spirit of this country, many of which cannot be reliably attributed to an individual. There were just too many erudite people wandering around at that time to be sure. Regardless, the one I quote most often is has to be "I hate what you say, but I will die for your right to say it."

I came on here last Sunday and gave my defense of challenging literature. (Literature is supposed to be challenging.) It is easy to defend something that exists in the nebulous realm of fiction because it is easy for reasonable people to divorce the actions of Holden Caulfield and Kilgore Trout from reality even as we acknowledge their satire and latent messages about our reality.

Yesterday someone reminded me that some of the most challenging books out there aren't sold in the literature section.

Recent years has underlined how truly divisive political speech can be and how quickly it can change the nature of the debate from issues to namecalling. The partisans stand behind barricades constucted of paper and ink with provocative titles like Stupid White Men and Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and/or Liberal Fascism and Arguing with Idiots.

When the aforementioned Stupid White Men came out, I was manager of a large bookstore in the Seattle exurb of Bellevue, WA. At least three times a week, I was hauled downstairs to answer the complaints of someone complaining about the latest political screed. Because Bellevue tends to trend in the conservative direction, the complaints were generally of Michael Moore or Al Franken (though Anne Coulter racked up quite a few because this is still the west coast, after all).

At the end of the day, it was easy to want to just chuck the entire "Politics" section in the bin. It was even easier to convince yourself that removing the grit from the gears would actually improve things... and that's part of the dangerous slope that becomes slipperier the farther you travel along it. Far funnier to re-label the entire section as 'Fiction' and pretend you didn't know who did it. (Not that I would ever do such a thing... ahem.)

To challenge a book -- to ban it or attempt to ban it -- is to try to craft a culture in which only one viewpoint gets to be aired. A one-sided debate is not a debate, and to silence the extreme elements is to stifle those who would speak more reasonably. To chuck Michael Moore in the bin is every bit as dangerous as pitching Glenn Beck, no matter which one you ultimately agree with. Every book is an historical document. From the thrillers of Tom Clancy to the best of Kurt Vonnegut, each book reflects the world in which it was generated. Political books are documentation of the width and breadth of American political and cultural thought. To remove any of them would be to have an incomplete map of our cultural landscape. To draw a map of the middle and scribble in the left and right margins "Here there be dragons."

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Scoops, Digital Deliveries, Bestselling Pie, and the iPub

Scoops I scooped the New York Times! Well, sort of. This morning they posted a story about hybrid books and the blend of video, audio and dynamic text and the impact of these add-on features for books. You may recall that I've been meditating on this for awhile now, focusing on the same titles that the NYT article did today, plus a few I unfortunately don't have the sources to have known about. The story did add two dimensions to my ongoing thoughts on the topic, however...
  1. We're not going to get away without an egregiously cutesy name for the hybrid books. I'm at ease with "digi-novel" but can we vote before the things get pegged withe the unfortunate moniker "vooks"?
  2. Please tell me that someone is going to talk Jude Deveraux out of her madcap plan to add perfumes to "use all the senses". The perfumery is already intrusive enough on the planes and in offices without adding scents spewing forth from our e-Readers to put us in the moment that Lord Rand ravishes the bounteous Lady Kate.
Digital Delivery Hometown technology news site TechFlash has mapped the current and future market for e-books and e-readers. The graphic alone is fascinating. The market is already a bit complex and it's obviously about to get even moreso. Sony and Amazon you already know about, but there's also the upcoming Plastic Logic reader (tied to Barnes & Noble and touted as the 'Kindle Killer') and Apple's iPhone and much-ballyhooed tablet. Of course, the Big Four aren't the only players in the game. There are plenty of other e-book providers. You could possibly even include Google's Android, but that avenue is currently more about delivery of content and software rather than hardware, so I don't think of them as competitors in the e-reader market. A digital WalMart with a cheap e-reader could potentially still blow the whole thing out of the water. Of the Big Four, however, only the Apple products are probably ready to do color and video (And therefore digi-novels) right out of the box. But they're more of a convergence devices, platforms with ready-made delivery systems for ebooks, music (or a simulated beer-drinking game if you want one - see embedded video) rather than strictly an e-reader. Incidentally, this is where I think the market will eventually end up - with little to distinguish between an e-reader and the Acer AspireOne netbook I'm currently typing on. The lifespan of the e-book reader as a boutique device seems limited with Barnes & Noble and Google Books beginning to deliver e-books in a cross-platform mode. Are we about to experience a four-way war for the e-book ala VHS -vs- Betamax or more recently HD DVD -vs- Blueray? Only time will tell, but the sooner a dominant langauge or technology emerges, the sooner we'll see the market stabilize and prices for readers begin to drop. Bestselling Pie According to Neil Gaiman, if you spend a year on the New York Times bestseller list, your editor has to bake you a pie. (Congratulations, Neil!) A digital pint from the iPub