The Dinner Party Disaster

I had always thought that the disastrous dinner party was a literary trope.  I’d never had one, you see, despite several years of entertaining on my own, with O Best Beloved, and, memorably, in a house shared with a dozen other people united by a love of foam sword fighting.

My canapes were, suffice it to say, wasted on them.

But everything has always run smoothly for me — until last Thursday.

Last Thursday the temperature soared from the beautiful 50 degrees it had been when I bought the ham to a sweltering 85 before I turned the oven on.  That should have been the sign to abort; we didn’t.  So maybe we deserved it when the cat hopped up onto the futon (where one of our dinner guests was going to sleep that night), meowed loudly to get everyone’s attention — aw, what a cute kitty! — and peed on the blanket.

She no longer lives with us. Or at all.

When the paralysis of shock wore off we sprang into action that can only be described as “inept.”  O Best Beloved grabbed the cat and shoved her (pointlessly) toward the under-appreciated litter box while I gathered an armful of cat piss up against my chest, saving the futon but dooming a good dress shirt.  And then we realized we were out of quarters.

If you’ve had your own laundry machine for a while you may not remember the boom-bust cycles of the piggy bank, but houseguests tend to empty it as you frantically wash everything in the apartment.  The idea of leaving a reserve dollar or two for emergencies had never even crossed our minds until we found ourselves turning to our guests, dripping with cat piss, to ask plaintively if they had any spare change.  Right in the middle of our own living room.

It was humiliating, it was brutal; it was followed by a busy fifteen minutes or so up to my elbows in soapy water and cat pee as I scrubbed the blanket by hand (we only scrounged enough quarters for a dryer cycle).  Things limped along from there only because one of our houseguests was already trapped into staying the night and the other was brand-new in town and desperate enough for friends to give even the cat-pee-blanket-quarter-scramble people as much benefit of the doubt as possible.

But on the bright side, I now know that authors aren’t making the dinner party disaster scene up.

The Sign of a Good Book Might Be That You Can’t Make a Movie Out of It

Some days my titles for these posts don’t even fit into Twitter.  True story.

Anyway, remember that list/flowchart of sci-fi/fantasy books from last week?  I got to thinking, they’ve tried to make movies out of a lot of those, especially the older ones.  Some were good and some were bad, but there’s pretty much a universal impulse to make movies out of old science fiction or fantasy titles — seriously; check out the list in ranked format rather than flowchart and run down it.  You have to get to #8 (the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov) before you find one that hasn’t been made into either a feature-length movie (often multiple versions) or a televised mini-series or both*.

But it’s important to note that a lot of people have never seen, or even heard of, the movie versions of a lot of these.  A 1998 Brave New World featuring Leonard Nimoy, seriously?

It happened.

A lot of the movies are just really, really bad, no way around it.  Totally forgotten because they were totally forgettable.  And I’m starting to wonder if maybe there isn’t something about good writing that makes for a bad movie.  The Lord of the Rings series were enjoyable books that made enjoyable movies; Ray Bradbury’s books were a little more thoughtful and made for a whole pack of really terrible movies.  Harry Potter, fine on screen; The Last Unicorn, beautiful and complex and utterly destroyed in its animated form.

I’ll think about it for a while and look for exceptions.  The Princess Bride, I suppose — wonderful movie, wonderful book.  A world of difference between the two, though.  Maybe a better thesis would have been “The sign of a good book might be how much you have to change, cut, or simplify to get a good movie out of it.”  That accounts nicely for the basically straight-to-screen translations of things like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings and the struggles people have had with Orwell and Asimov.

* Even that one’s questionable:  the Foundation series technically includes the various robot books, a couple of which have been made into films.  And there was a trilogy of Foundation movies in production that fell apart and were replaced by, fittingly enough, #1 on the list, the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

How to Generate Traffic (by Offending Everyone)

Wouldn’t it be nice if the most popular, successful articles on the internet were, say, stories about adorable puppies finding good homes?

Okay, those actually get pretty good traction.  How about relevant journalism exploring under-reported issues?  Or even just a well-told story?

Pretty much everyone loves puppy stories.

But the reality of it is that most people save their attention and especially their repeat readership for things that upset them.  Human nature, I guess!  People love to come back to articles like  a Gawker blogger’s insulting recap of her date with a Magic: the Gathering champion or Scott Adams’s misogyney (link is to Feministe‘s coverage, since Adams took the post off his own blog) and leave incensed comments, and comments on comments, and comments on the comments on the comments.  It’s all the adrenal thrill of righteous indignation without any of the risk-taking involved in actually taking action for an important cause.

So, sez I, why fight it?  If the ol’ blog’s struggling, just…get out there and offend a little.  Tread on some toes.  Seem insensitive.  Watch the numbers climb — remember, it’s all about the ad revenue!  Every tic in the “Page Hits” column is real money in the bank!  Only be careful — there’s a fine line between “retweetable” and “too ignorant to bother with.”  You’ll need to put some thought into your thoughtlessness…

  • Pick relatively mainstream issues.  Feminism?  Yes.  Religion and its role in social issues?  Perfect.  The purity of Arayn thought?  Not so great.  Sure, it’ll offend people, but it’ll offend them so much they’ll just go away, and the only regular commentors you’ll get will be neo-Nazis.  Not great conversationalists.  Reel it in a little.
  • Seem blithely ignorant rather than aggressively offensive.  Just pretend you don’t know any better.  You have to seem a little hapless, or people don’t get that teaching impulse that encourages them to leave long, wordy posts detailing the errors of your ways (which other people will then pick apart for errors as well).
  • Abuse evidence.  You should ideally pick a troubling thesis — “Children are Happier when you Beat Them,” etc. — and then back it up with facts that prove some other conclusion entirely.  Leave some glaring holes for people to pick out.  Odds are at least some of your commentors are going to need you to kind of put the ball on the tee for them — don’t make it too hard to spot logical inconsistencies.
  • Read and reply to comments.  Terrible advice, right?  No one should ever read the comments.  But you’ll need the space to post condescending replies.  Be sure to stress over and over again how it’s not your opponents’ fault that they’re wrong.  They’re just not as smart as you.
  • Don’t actually do any of this.  No one was taking this seriously, right?  (Right?)  You don’t want to be the center of a shitstorm of digital indignation.  Most of your traffic will get leeched by whatever bloggers pick the “story” up and pick it apart on their own site anyway.  And do we really need any more cynicism in the world of online writing?

I don’t know.  You tell me, down in the Comments section.  Don’t make me offend you first.

Steve Jobs: Grief Gone Viral

There’s a very understandable temptation to lead any Steve Jobs article with the wondering observation that right this second you are writing on a machine he created.  It has a dogmatic sort of appeal:  “Our Inventor, on Whose machine I write, hallowed be His name.”

Celebrity deaths are always a little weird.  There’s a subspecies of Ordinary Person that reliably takes every famous person’s death as a personal loss.  They make good sound bites, so the media encourages the frenzy and overcovers the hell out of the initial death, the life retrospectives, the memorial ceremonies and funeral, and so on and so forth.  We’ve been here before, so the news of impromptu shrines and wreath-layings at Apple stores around the world (to say nothing of the #iSad outpouring on Twitter) is in one sense just business as usual.

But in another sense there’s something very eerie about the immediately-trending grief.  The wave of slightly overwrought grief actually preceded the news cycle this time, in part because word of Jobs’s death broke late in the day on Wednesday — by Thursday morning you were behind the times if all you had was word that Steve Jobs was dead.  He was out; coverage of the reaction was in.

So there’s something William Gibson-esque about the speed and ubiquitousness of people’s Steve-Jobs-related grief.  The impact of his death rippled outward from cyberspace — much of it on Apple products — rather than happening on TV and in newsprint first and being regurgitated later by online sources.  By the time the news got there the story was already what people were doing with the information their iPhones had given them.

It’s a very ghost-in-the-machine sort of feeling, all these reactions to the omnipresent, electronic grief around us.  The original architect and visionary of digital wish-fulfillment — the man who wanted you to have everything you wanted in your hand, instantly — is now there as long as you want to wail and gnash your teeth about him, beamed live and ad nauseum to your iPhone or iPad or boring old desktop iMac.

The king is dead.  Long live the king, at least until you run out of batteries.

The Best Way for SF/Fantasy Fans to Waste Time EVER

This is the kind of thing the internet is really great at.

So first we have NPR’s listener-chosen list of the top 100 Sci-Fi/Fantasy books.  Because the world needs more lists!  Sure.  Why not.

Then we have SFSignal‘s flowchart of all 100 books and whether you, personally, want to read them.  I’ve posted the flowchart below, but it’s far too mighty of a graphic for this blog’s scale.  You’ll have to click on it or follow the link to blow it up to even readable-if-you-squint size.

And finally we have the fully-interactive version, where you can lose yourself in a maze of queries and pithy little tongue-in-cheek descriptions that leave you thinking oh I totally know what book this is going to be.  Do I really know what book this is going to be?  Oh it has to be the book I’m thinking of.  I’m so clever.

Or maybe it’s just me?

My personal favorite query from the interactive flowchart so far, from deep in one of the Fantasy > Series chains:

Off you go now.  Talk to you in an hour or three.  If you’re feeling really excited about this new toy come back and tell us; I suspect that a lot of my regular readers are going to have things to say to one another about the minutiae of the flowchart (Kushiel’s Dart as “alternate history,” for example — really?  “Alternate history” usually implies some re-interpretation of actual history, rather than just reinterpreting “sexual abuse from an early age” as “part of a feminist and sex-positive message” and setting it somewhere with bad French accents.)

…there, you see?  That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about.  Off you go.

An Alternative Theory of Prolonged Adolescence

It’s very popular right now to talk about the new generation and its prolonged adolescence.  The New York Times has hit on it; so has the Wall Street Journal.  And where they go the rest of the editorial pages can be assumed to follow sooner or later.

The basic summary (for the link-adverse) is that 20-somethings are immature children who live at home, avoid commitment to relationships or careers, and in general are maturing more slowly than the Baby Boomers did before them, or the Greatest Generation before that, and so on and so forth.

There’s probably some truth to that.  Even if we don’t take an economy that has less and less jobs for folks straight out of undergrad into account it’s probably safe to say that my generation isn’t always trying as hard as it could be.  There’s definitely some living with parents and bouncing from job to job rather than founding a career and so forth that goes on in my peer group.

But here’s what I’m thinking:

Why are we saying “maturing later” like it’s such a bad thing?  The alternative, after all, is “maturing earlier.”  Forty years ago you were expected to have a good start on a career by age 21.  Forty years ago you also probably started working, either in a cornfield or in the family business, at age 13 or so.

Eighty years ago you were probably married with kids and settling into a house by age 21.  You’d also, barring war, been at work since you could walk.

Are these really good things?  Are we sure that playing computer games or Ultimate Frisbee at college aren’t, rather than signs of a decaying moral state, signs of a state that no longer puts children to work?  I realize there’s some self-servingness to arguing that fuck you very much, my hardscrabble freelancing career is success enough for right now, but what would the world really have benefited from my going directly into actuarial sciences or whatever at age 18 instead?

Dad would be happier about his retirement prospects, I suppose.

I think it’s worth pausing to consider that if we’re maturing more slowly it’s because we’re also dying more slowly.  The pressure’s off a little.  Surely that’s something we can all get behind?

My Dirty Little Secrets

I don’t like babies.

There, I’ve said it.  I find pre-verbal children irritating and a little unsettling.  God forbid I should ever wind up in charge of one; I’m sure I don’t exude the love and support needed to keep the then-screaming-poop-bag from turning into a later-stabbing-people-with-prison-shanks teenager because it didn’t get the love it needed in childhood.

A baby (artist's rendition)

This is something in the order of a dirty little secret (bet you were hoping for something better when you read the title, huh?).  I’m also sort of unsettled by the notion of professional soldiers, and think we ought to be giving them counseling to help them make better life choices (like picking a career where you’re not trained to kill on command unquestioningly) instead of venerating them as heroes.

These are the sorts of opinions you can’t just casually drop at cocktail parties (and I know all about what writers can and can’t say at cocktail parties).  They go beyond good-natured misanthropy and smack of outright irreverence.  People can’t help but get unsettled when you stray from really broadly agreed on truths like “babies are wonderful” and “soldiers are doing the right thing.”

I like unsettling issues.  They make for good themes in faction (they make for less ideal non-fiction, mind you, unless you’re a professional pundit, which I strive not to be on this blog).  But while I mine them for content and watch for them in social interactions I don’t go out of my way to bring them up.

Outside of this post, of course.

Are you hiding your own dirty little secrets?  Will you share them here?  Or do you just want to send me pictures of your own squalling poo-bag asking HOW ANYONE COULD NOT LOVE THAT WIDDLE FACE?  I’m up for the challenge if you are.  Dirty little secrets that we mine in our writing!  Discuss.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,938 other followers