Wednesday, August 30, 2017

I can't give you science, but I can give you Kurt Vonnegut

Sometime in the long-ago of this blog, I wrote about finding Peter Thorpe's Why Literature is Bad for You in the library at University of Illinois at Chicago and being fairly blown way by it. It made some fairly cogent arguments for why reading novels--the very thing we treat like they were vegetables for the brain--are actually not good for you. My only disappointment was that there weren't actually all that many arguments from logic, and none from real research. A fair amount of it came down to anecdotal evidence based on what a bunch of jackasses the professors he worked with who spent all their time with literature were. Still, it was kind of compelling based on my own experience, and I wanted more.

I haven't found any research on this since. I've seen a few assays into similar theses, like this one that says stories are bad because they're like religion and lie to us, and this one that says literature is bad for us because it addles our brains (kind of similar to Thorpe's argument). But really, it's not something I can find that researchers have looked at seriously. There was this story a few years back about how reading literary fiction improves empathy. But nobody has tried to study whether it makes us so empathetic, we fall for terrible ideas, which was Thorpe's argument.

I don't have any science to offer on the subject. But I have this wonderful passage I came across while re-reading Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions this week:

I had no respect whatsoever for...the novelist. I thought (the novelist) had joined hands with other old-fashioned storytellers to make people believe that life had leading characters, minor characters, significant details, insignificant details, that it had lessons to be learned, tests to be passed, and a beginning a middle, and an end.

As I approached my fiftieth birthday, I had become more and more enraged and mystified by the idiot decisions made by my countrymen. And then I had come suddenly to pity them, for I understood how innocent and natural it was for them to behave so abominably, and with such abominable results: They were doing their best to live like people invented in story books. This was the reason Americans shot each other so often: It was a convenient literary device for ending short stories and books.

Why were so many Americans treated by their government as though their lives were as disposable as paper facial tissues? Because that was the way authors customarily treated bit-part players in their made-up tales.

And so on. Once I understood what was making America such a dangerous, unhappy nation of people who had nothing to do with real life, I resolved to shun storytelling. I would write about life. Every person would be exactly as important as any other. All facts would also be given equal weightiness. Nothing would be left out. Let others bring order to chaos. I would bring chaos to order, instead, which I think I have done. If all writers would do that, then perhaps citizens not in the literary trades will understand that there is no order in the world around us, that we must adapt ourselves to the requirements of chaos instead. It is hard to adapt to chaos, but it can be done. I am living proof of that: It can be done.

Some of this is similar to Thorpe, only a lot funnier. Obviously, Vonnegut kept writing novels, so he only partly meant what he said here.

I've been writing for a while now, partly, I think, to give myself something to focus on in life so I continue to think life is worth living. But I wonder if I wouldn't take it more for granted that life is worth living if I just hadn't read so many stories to begin with.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Uncertainty is intellectually honest, but it's hard to write about

I was going to try to draw some lame connection between this post and writing in order to keep with my promise to make this mostly a blog about writing, but I might as well face it that this is a post about politics.

I can do a lame tie-in to evangelical Christianity, though

I've written before that nothing probably has as profound an impact on who I am now than the fact that I used to be an evangelical Christian. Over several years, I went from believing something completely and being totally committed to it to being more certain than I am of anything that it wasn't true. That's made me mostly skeptical about everything I've been into since. There's a limit to how into something I can get, because I know at some point, whatever the thing that I'm into is will end up deconstructing itself. Obviously, I'm this way about writing, even though writing was the thing I hit upon as my solution to a mid-life crisis several years ago. But just because I spend a lot of my time writing, reading, or working for a literary magazine doesn't mean I'm sure that it's a good way to spend my time. I'm not totally sure that too much literature isn't bad for you.

I definitely find there are built-in limits to my ability to participate in politics, too. I don't really feel like I fit in with any political community. Around liberals, I feel like a conservative, and around conservatives, I feel like a liberal. Much like when I was in church, I find the best way to be accepted is to not say anything about the doubts I have, or risk being shunned by the doctrinally pure set.

No political comfort zone

I was in favor of same-sex marriages at least a decade before the majority of America was. So a lot of Republicans don't like me. But I also think a cake maker ought to be able to decide what services he does and doesn't provide, and face the judgment of the community for it. So Democrats don't like me.

I think the government should invest on a grand scale in blighted inner cities--massive jobs programs, huge security mobilizations to make make the cities safe, top-to-bottom plans to make life better. If a kid in Baltimore going nowhere walks into an office somewhere and says he wants to turn his life around, there ought to be a thousand things to offer the kid. But I also think corporations should pay lower income taxes, since they generate jobs.

I think that America's prison systems are an ongoing affront to the values we say we believe in. I think kids who grow up in Baltimore grow up in a police state that seems intent on sending them to those prisons. I also think that blaming police for the inner city school-to-prison pipeline is lazy. Because we are too short-sighted to fully commit to improving Baltimore and cities like it, we throw police at them like band aids. Then we wonder why the band-aids sometimes fail us.

I think it's a given that everyone should treat transgendered people with respect, and that every opportunity to do anything in life should be open to them. I give nary a shit about the moral implications of becoming transgendered. I take people at their word when they say being transgendered is an expression of who they really are. At the same time, though, I realize that the notion that male and female might not be the fixed concepts we thought they were represents a radical shift, and it's one that's come upon us suddenly. I can understand skepticism. I can understand that society isn't willing to immediately invest scarce resources to accommodate everything this community wants, like reconfiguring the male-female public restroom system. And I can understand wanting to do an honest intellectual inquiry into what the effects to society might be of such a change coming so fast. 

I could go on, but the point is, on almost every political issue, I'm likely to have views that make nobody happy, or everyone unhappy.

Then came Charlottesville

In one sense, I'm very much in the liberal mainstream when it comes to the past few weeks. I don't understand why there are Confederate monuments (or, more troubling, military bases named for Confederate generals, although nobody seems to be talking about that). I'm happy to see them go.

But since Charlottesville, I've been noticing a trend among friends that I think of as liberal. I'm generally likely to come down in the liberal spectrum on racial issues. I read Ta-nehisi Coates. I have a black daughter. Most of Mrs. Heretic's students are black, and they become like family to us for nine months a year. But I find myself unable to get on board with something that seems to have become a common opinion among my liberal friends, almost overnight. This trend I'm not on board with can be expressed by this cartoon I saw on someone's Facebook feed the other day. It's a graphic representation of Popper's Paradox of Tolerance:



 This is in addition to the many "punch Nazis" posts I've seen.

I must have missed when the liberal consensus went from "hate what you say, but defend your right to say it" to "punch Nazis."

Not in our house

There's been a lot of verbal scrum since Charlottesville about the role Antifa played in the violence. Trump was attacked for saying he thought there was violence on both sides. There are videos that claim to show that one side or the other was mostly responsible for the violence. The LA times did an interesting report that pretty much just slapped down a bunch of brief eye-witness accounts, including far left, far right, and mainstream journalists. I'd say the bulk of evidence makes it look like the neo-Nazis were more aggressive and more organized about being aggressive, but that there probably really was violence on both sides. BuzzFeed reporter Blake Montgomery put it that "Conflict would start much the same as it has at other alt-right rallies: two people, one from each side, screaming, goading each other into throwing the first punch.” That seems to pass the smell test for me.

Nearly a year before Charlottesville, Peter Beinart of the Atlantic did a great piece on the rise of Antifa. He explains that what is troubling is the way that violence is being approved of tacitly by even mainstream people of the left, thus becoming normalized.

Such tactics have elicited substantial support from the mainstream left. When the masked antifa activist was filmed assaulting Spencer on Inauguration Day, another piece in The Nation described his punch as an act of “kinetic beauty.” Slate ran an approving article about a humorous piano ballad that glorified the assault. Twitter was inundated with viral versions of the video set to different songs, prompting the former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau to tweet, “I don’t care how many different songs you set Richard Spencer being punched to, I’ll laugh at every one.”

The same is true for some conservatives, of course, who may not themselves carry shields into parks, but who will chuckle if they see someone they hate enough being attacked. Violence is being winked at on both sides. Our president is guilty of it.

Beinart points out that the real problem with this normalization of violence on both sides is the erosion of "the quality Max Weber considered essential to a functioning state: a monopoly on legitimate violence."

Liberals were incensed that Trump pointed out that there was violence on both sides. Beinart rightly pointed out that Trump is wrong to imply there is a moral equivalency between neo-Nazis and antifa, but that doesn't mean he was technically wrong about there having been violence on both sides. Even if the other side did more of it than "ours" did, it seems to me that the primary job of liberal leaders is to lead liberals. That is, to make sure we aren't the ones responsible for this, that we aren't looking at vigilante solutions to dealing with the people we disagree with. I don't give a shit if we're not mostly to blame; I want us to be blameless. We shouldn't allow the possibility of murkiness to enter the conversation. This is especially important because, as Beinart pointed out, Antifa has sometimes expanded its definition of what constitutes an agent of intolerance to people wearing MAGA hats.

Instead of redefining what our own movement means, instead of setting our own agenda, we are simply criticizing Trump. That's all that liberal philosophy in America amounts to now: we're against Trump. We're so on board with criticizing him, we don't even care who we align with, as long as they are against him, too. We don't even have real leadership right now. We're still looking to Clinton and Obama, who last I checked are both now ex-politicians. There is just nothing at all going on in the Democratic Party to be excited about. I can't seem myself going to that church, so to speak. But there isn't another one for me to go to, either. I'm like one of those people who says he considers himself "spiritual" but just doesn't go to church.

Okay, I will make a quick lame tie to writing

If there is a link between my writing and my lack of a political home, it's this: when I see so many people feeling so certain they know the answers they're willing to torch the opposition, and I compare it with my own uncertainty, I feel like there must be something wrong with me. Maybe I'm the one who doesn't get it. Maybe feeling unwarranted self-confidence is the only way to be happy in the world, and that's why so few people seem interested in stories about characters who feel genuine confusion. Lately, when I go to write a story, I just scrap it, because I assume at some point that I must just not get it.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Having conversations about my own book

One of the reasons I made the financially disastrous decision to go to graduate school was just the anticipation of how enjoyable it would be to talk about books with other people who also loved them. It partially lived up to that hype, although I'd say the best conversations I've had about stories have been outside of graduate school. In any event, a deep talk about a story and how it changes the interpretation of what life means is one of life's greatest pleasures.

I've been sort of uninterested in my own book since it came out on Amazon in July. There are a couple of reasons why: I've found typos and other little errata in the book since that are embarrassing (even though I knew there would be mistakes). I decided I was going to forego paying for a review, and instead hope that I could convince a few reviewers to talk about the book for free, but I think I've failed, and I'm going to end up with not one single review from an independent book review site. Which is just part of the learning process for me, but is still kind of a disappointment.

Even though I wrote many times prior to the book coming out that I knew I'd be lucky if 200 copies were sold, it's still been disappointing to see how few copies have sold. I guess partly that's a blow to my ego. It makes me feel like my big moment of finally getting a book published is deeply invalidated by it mostly only selling to people who know me. (It hasn't helped that I've failed at doing the publicity things I needed to do, like get a review. Also, even the publisher has had issues: they can't find the guy who does the website, and so the web page hasn't been updated in ages. So what publicity I would have had from them has been null.)

Beyond ego, though, there's a personal reason I'm so disappointed by low sales. I like talking about books, and the thought of talking about the stories that meant so much to me I went to the trouble of writing them down is really why I started writing in the first place.

I have, it so happens, had a couple of conversations about the stories in the book. They were with my brother and my friend, so this wasn't that magical moment of hearing from a stranger in Duluth about how I'd touched their life and blown their mind. But both conversations still lived up to the hype I'd built up.

It helps that my brother and my friend are really good readers. My older brother is a lawyer; my friend is a recent Harvard graduate. They asked good questions, they saw things I didn't see, they got what I was going for in places.

My friend said he felt like many of the characters were resigned to their fate at the ends of the stories. I felt like if anything bound the stories together, it was that every main character found a way to snatch some kind of agency from fate, which is the opposite of being resigned. So we talked about that for a while. It didn't matter that we saw things differently; it was thrilling just to be talking about people who had only existed inside my head at one point in time. And at some point in the conversation, the feeling of how remarkable it was that these were my stories we were talking about just about knocked me over.

I'm likely to still feel a fair amount of disappointment about the book in the next few months. Again, this is going to happen no matter how much I've steeled myself for disappointment. But man, these little moments really do kind of make me think that writing isn't a total waste of time.
  

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

The best answer I have to give to the question I raised myself

I realize that much of this blog has been taken up in its three-year history by me trying to answer the very tiresome "why write?" question. It's not lost on me how tiresome this line of questioning is. Honestly, though, I don't indulge in it over and over to be theatrical. It's an honest, ongoing internal debate I have going with myself. I share my thoughts out loud just in case it resonates with another writer out there.

To question, to be as specific as possible, can be put in three parts:

1) What benefit do I hope to obtain or bring to others through writing stories meant to be published in books or literary magazines?
2) How likely is it I will see this benefit realized?
3) Are there other activities which, if I put equal time and effort into them, have a better product of  <benefit X possibility of achievement>?

To recap, a week ago, I was wondering about the relevancy question. If part of the benefit I seek to bring is to share some sort of wisdom I think I might have to impart, what good is it to share it in a format that is mostly ignored in the modern world? Does it seem ethical to write stories that examine the minutiae of romantic relationships or the psyche of first-world folks struggling to figure it all out when the news sometimes really makes me worry if we aren't near our Great Filter event.

This is, of course, just one aspect of the "why write fiction" question. But it's the one that's been on my mind lately, so here's what I've come up with in the last week to answer it.

Answer #1: You've got to do what you're good at

I read an article not too long ago by Bojack Horseman creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg saying that he intended to take the show in a more political direction in order to adapt to the new reality: 

“I think BoJack is definitely very much about kind of the burdens of being comfortable,” Bob-Waksberg told Indiewire. “I don’t know if those are the kinds of stories we’re going to be as interested in moving forward. I know I’m certainly less interested in exploring the small hypocrisies of rich liberals. 

“I’m not in the mood to poke fun at those kinds of people when there are real, real problems that we need to talk about.”

I understand where he's coming from, but at the same time, I couldn't help but be disappointed reading this. I get plenty of commentary on Trump from plenty of places. Not saying the creator of this brilliant show couldn't do it better (sorry, Karen--I know you're not a huge fan of this show), but why would he? That's like saying that because vegetables are the most important food to eat, you're going to stop making pizza. And Bojack is really, really good pizza.

If I feel this way about someone else's stories, I ought to give myself the same slack.

Answer #2: Soccer team theory

If everyone goes after the ball, you just have a mess of people in a big mass kicking each other in the shins. It's not an original metaphor, but it serves: here, of course, the ball is whatever the political issue of the day is. Yes, right now, everyone is gathered around the ball of whatever Trump said last night or what happened last weekend at some rally. But eventually, people will want to know about something else, and when that happens, you need to be in position.

Writing stories in this day and age might be like being a wing way off in the distance. I might only get in on a play or two. But it's better to do well on that play or two that are in my wheelhouse than to play the whole game at a position I'm not suited to.

Answer #3: The world hasn't always been like this

It's important for someone out there to have a sense of history. The news seems to only remember the last 72 hours, and this ends up having an affect on all of us. We have to keep some sense of where today's events lie on the long timeline of history. Writing stories that inherently take some time to write helps with this. In an intellectual fast-food world, it's important for people to eat slow cooking once in a while.
 

Answer #4: Politics isn't the most important thing in the world

We're all born into a weird world trying to make sense of absurdity. It's important to keep life going, so politics isn't something we can ignore, but honestly, if it takes up your whole life, I'm not sure that's a life that's much worth living.

There was a time when devout Christians in America mostly kept out of politics, believing that they were supposed to be in but not of the world. The fact that so many of us are now in on the left and the right with so much fervor is directly related to the increasing view on both sides of politics as continual confrontation. We could all stand to be reminded that the outcome of an election is not the most important thing in our lives. If that sounds like privilege talking, so be it. I don't think things will improve by revoking my own privilege to regard other things as more interesting and life-affirming than they really are. I think things get better by sharing that privilege. 


So that's what I've come up with. It's not a knockout answer, but it'll serve. Of course, there are many other reasons to wonder if writing stories is worth it than just relevancy. Money is one that I've been thinking of lately. This hobby takes more money than it gives, and maybe I ought to be doing something with my spare time to advance my family's position. But that's a post for another time.





Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The "R" word

With so much that's truly troubling going on in the world, a fiction writer wonders whether fiction is relevant. The news changes day-to-day, but stories take weeks or months to write, then weeks or months more to be published. A novel can take years to write and years to get to the finish line. By contrast, South Park, a show which takes hundreds of people to produce, managed to get an episode about the Trump election out about a week after it happened.

I realize that writing isn't an either-or thing. I can write stories and take a break now and then to write about events of the day, sometimes on this blog. I've done that now and again, although I try not to give into temptation too often to take on subjects other than writing.

The news is a mix of impending war and a president who won't take the political slam dunk of just saying neo-Nazis are bad. (Or he will say it, but add that there are lots of other bad people, too.) What the fuck is the point of the story I'm trying to write about the girl who falls in love with a performer at a Renaissance festival?

This is a question I've answered for myself before. But that answer sometimes seems kind of weak when compared to the urgencies of the time. Yes, there will always be news headlines that scream to take our attention away, and if we always paid heed to them, nobody would ever create art. But in a world where information moves so fast, it just feels like fiction writing is a slow answer. If my novel were picked up for publication today, even the next season of Rick and Morty would probably make it out before the book did.

There are responses to this, of course. Fiction can focus on that which is timeless, which would fill a niche in a world that is always thinking only of the last 24 hours. But it's hard for me to see that fiction is doing this effectively. Here's a tough question for those who would defend the relevance of fiction: when is the last time you can think of that a short story or novel figured prominently in public discourse? 

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

So far, I find Amazon and the business of books kind of confusing

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, my book of short stories is now available on Amazon. (See it here.) I thought we were just in the pre-order stage, because that's what it says on the book's information page. Amazon says the book does not really come out until September 8th. I ordered one a few weeks ago, just to see if it made the sales numbers change, and got a note that it would ship on September 8th. But two days ago, I got another message that it was coming this week. It showed up today. I'm wondering if someone fat-fingered 9-8 and 8-9 somewhere along the way?

Other odd things:

-The price of the book dropped 48 cents from a few weeks ago to now. It's now $16.51, which is a really weird price.
-It is now letting people post reviews, which it shouldn't be doing until the book officially launches. (There's a great review now. Check it out.)
-I signed up for Author Central and linked the book to my author page. This is supposed to let me see sales figures. But nothing is there yet. After a bit of research, I think that the figures don't show up until the book actually launches. As I've just said, though, I'm not sure if the book has launched yet or not. So I don't know when I can expect to see sales numbers.

Signs I've probably done things wrong:

-I was supposed to send the book to reviewers with plenty of time to spare before it launched. The preview copies got delayed a lot, and so I was already not sure I gave them enough time when I sent the book out last week. But if the book has now launched, then all the reviews will be late.
-I knew there would be errors, but it was a little disheartening to get a text today from a friend (whose copy also came today) that said, "Nice editing, douche, and this is just page two" along with a photo of a typo.
-Although I can't see my actual sales figures yet, I don't think they're very good. I can see that Amazon currently ranks the book 1,454,547th in the world. It was much higher a few weeks ago, but it was never that great. We'll see, I guess.

Really, my goals for sales are just not to embarrass my not-for-profit publisher. That doesn't seem it should be that hard to do, but clearly, I need to step up my game.

Monday, August 7, 2017

The downside of ability and the downside of advice

One of my roles at work for a long time has been to write a type of report we do that's typified by extremely bureaucratic, tortured diction and strange structure laid down by tradition. Last week, I attended a course on how to edit others in writing these reports. That class was a sign that I'm slowly becoming an expert on writing these terrible things, which is to say I'm now good at bad writing. I feel sort of like Chandler Bing when he was forced to care about the WENUS, yelling at everyone who screwed up the report that he also screwed up when he started his job.

During the class, I tried to memorize material and then forget it. I'm always worried that bad work writing will leach into my writing, which I want to be nothing like work writing. There was one moment from the class, though, that I thought might actually transfer outside the walls of work. When reviewing strategies for mentoring new report writers, the instructors warned us that the better the writer, the more that writer might resist corrections.

I can't argue the truth of this in the real world. The more we meet with success, the more we tend to ignore advice. There's probably a lot of sense to this. Lebron James probably ignored a lot of advice from coaches when he was young, because that advice was meant for normal people, not for Lebron James. Good writers probably cruised through their earliest writing assignments without much work and without really paying attention to what teachers told them.

I learned to write, initially, from reading, internalizing, copying, and then, finally, synthesizing what I'd read into my own style. That was good enough to get me a long, long way. But just like any pro athlete, I--and nearly all writers--hit a point somewhere along the line where I needed someone to tell me something to get me to the next level. Failure to adapt would mean being good and never great.

Obviously, whether I've made this switch from instinctual writing to writing refined by an expert eye is an open question, since I'm still struggling to break out in a more definitive sense. There are two mutually opposed truths I'm confronted with whenever I think of using advice to improve:
1) If my writing were really that good, it wouldn't keep getting rejected so often, so I probably need some advice, but
2) Most of the advice I'm likely to get is probably bad.

Advice: damned if you listen and damned if you ignore it

One of the only useful things I learned from the many writing workshops I attended in grad school is that if you put ten people in a room to talk about a story, you'll get ten different opinions on what works and what doesn't. The exact same thing that some people say needs fixed is what others will say is the strength of the story. Even when there is an opinion shared by the majority, this can often be the result of groupthink, rather than an opinion independently arrived at by several different people. Statistically speaking, most advice must be bad, because it's all over the place and it can't all be right.

What I'm getting at is that ignoring most of the advice you will hear isn't being truculent or haughty; it's a necessary trait a good writer needs to develop. But ignoring all that bad advice will get you in such a habit of ignoring everything you hear, you run the risk of missing the one critical piece of advice you needed to get you over the top.

How does one know which five percent of advice to listen to? I mean, if I knew that what the person was saying was good advice, then I probably didn't even need the advice in the first place, did I? I feel like knowing what to listen to and what to ignore is itself just another innate ability of a great writer, one that I either have or I don't. As I get near the end of my fourth year of my mid-life writing revival with only a handful of small publications and one novel I can't seem to get an agent to bite on, I wonder if I have this talent. I'm down here just getting by in triple-A ball, and I need a coach to tell me how to make it to the majors.

I don't want to be in a workshop. Ideally, I'd like to have one good writer who gets what I'm about, knows my writing personally, and can give advice that will make me the best writer I can be according to my own style and ability. He won't try to coach Steph Curry to be Shaq, or Shaq to be Steph Curry. He'll know what works in my writing and what doesn't, and give advice that suits me. This has been a characteristic of many of the great writing friendships in history. It's hard to find something like that, though.

The funny thing is, I thought I was paying all that money 15 years ago to get something like this.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Depression and the literary editor

I've written roughly a zillion posts about how writing, especially the rejection side of it, causes me to feel like shit bordering on depression. This week, I began to consider the extent to which my eight months as a fiction reader take a toll on my psyche.

Years ago, when I was trying to get published in Agni, one of the top literary journals out there and for which I was clearly kidding myself, I must have subscribed to their newsletter. Maybe I thought this would somehow increase my chances of publication. Whatever the reason, I've ignored it every time it has come, but for some reason chose to read it this week.

In a meditation called "The Sluice," Agni Editor Sven Berkerts talks about how he is liberated each summer when Agni stops accepting submissions for three months. "Closing the sluice never fails to deliver a bit of a body-shock and then, almost right after, a growing sense of psychological well-being....This is...because for a fixed period of days I know I'll be free of the remorse of saying no to hard-working writers."

Berkerts remembers his own writing life, the bundling of papers and postage and envelopes and trundling it all to the post office to wait and wait and wait for what was often bad news. His life as editor is therefore "tinged with guilt," because he is the bearer of bad news to hundreds of writers a week.

He attempts to wrap up by trying to clarify what Agni is looking for from writers--not very successfully, I thought, although it's not really his fault. I've never seen any magazine adequately answer the "what we want" question. It's an impossible question. The best answers I've read are more what they don't want--we're tired of stories in bars, for example. We're against stories in which children are raped. We generally don't publish stories written in second person. That's at least a little bit of a help. But nobody can explain what they want. Berkerts' attempt, "writers thinking things through from the ground up, using language that is free of the innumerable standard conformities," is a description of what we all know we ought to be doing, but doesn't tell us anything about how to do it. It's saying "we want writing we think is good."

I can't blame him for trying to end on a positive note. I've noticed in just eight months that being an editor/reader is tough on me psychologically. I give a lot of no votes, even though I say yes a lot more than I should, statistically speaking. I feel terrible about not even reading to the end many stories that I can tell were written with great affection, but which I can tell just don't have the juice.

The morose feelings aren't just because I'm dumping on somebody's dreams, though. I now have an entirely different way of looking at my own submissions. I'm the one putting one more task onto some volunteer reader somewhere. I'm the one flicking one more little spark of troubled conscience their way.

More than that, I now have a very visceral feel for the sheer numbers involved. It's one thing to know that 200 people submit for every story a magazine will publish. It's another to count to 200 one-by-one, reading a story for each tick. It's the difference between knowing a marathon is 26.2 miles and running one.

At my day job, I work for an organization with tens of thousands of people. Every day is like a major sports event in terms of the number of people there and the logistics necessary to take care of them. I occasionally get the sickest feelings. I think about all the food, all the animals slaughtered, all the fertilizer dumped, to feed all of us. I think of all of us excreting in various ways, all of the sewage we create. I feel incredibly superfluous, like if I were gone, it would make no difference at all, except to decrease slightly the demand for sewers and fertilizer. 

That's how being an editor makes me feel about writing. The supply of writers is enormous. Nobody needs me to write. Over the past year, I've become much more aware of both how much it sucks to say no all the time and how inevitable nos are. It makes the sting of a rejection actually worse, rather than better. It's a confirmation that I'm just another writer in the sluice.

I'm thinking of ending my volunteer stint as an editor at the end of the year. If I don't just end my writing career or my life first. Our summer break ended Tuesday. We got over 30 submissions the first day.


Wednesday, August 2, 2017

"American Bastards" is not a good translation of 미국놈

A few weeks ago, CNN, among others, fell victim to one of my least favorite examples of a human translation that reads like a computer translated it. The headline reads "North Korea state media celebrates gift to 'American bastards,'" the "gift" being the ICBM tested on the Fourth of July.

This is an example of a translator getting a little giddy. True, 미국 (pronounced mee-gook) means "America," or, in an adjectival sense, "American." And you can certainly find dictionaries that will tell you that 놈 (pronounced like the word "gnome") means "bastard." But there are two caveats. First, even in its pejorative sense, the word has never meant what we mean by "bastard," i.e. "an illegitimate child." That's just one of many pejorative terms one could use to translate the idea of the word as an insult. Others are: pigs, dogs, jerks, slime, etc. I really think some dictionary maker long ago picked "bastard" as the go-to translation, and people have been automatically following that for so long, we've come to believe that really is what it means. (For reference, the Korean profanity Wiki page, which had this term first on the list.)

Secondly, Koreans, just like us immoral Westerners, have been getting a little freer with their swearing in the last few decades years. Words that used to shock no longer do. "Gnome" just does not carry the hand-over-mouth level of resonance that "bastard" does. In fact, there are many senses in which the word doesn't even mean anything particularly bad. You can call someone a "good gnome," (착한 놈) which I would translate as something like "a good dude."

Merciless punishment to American imperialists!

One of the best South Korean movies of the past decade was called 착한놈 나쁜놈 이상한놈, or "The good gnome, the bad gnome, and the weird gnome." Its title for English-speaking audiences  was "The Good, the Bad, and the Weird," playing on the classic Western. That was the perfect translation, and it correctly didn't even include "gnome." In South Korea, the term is now used on television without it scandalizing anyone. That Gangnam Style song everyone was freaking out about a few years ago includes the saying that "a jumping gnome has a flying gnome above him," meaning "no matter how good you think you are, there's always someone better." Anyone who translated that sentence as "the flying bastard is above the jumping bastard" is an idiot.

Here's what Naver.com, my go-to English-Korean dictionary site, has to say about the word "gnome":


One might argue that North and South Korean dialects use the word differently, and that the word carries a stronger feeling in North Korea. Possibly this has some truth, but whatever meanings things have in the beginning, those fade over time. North Korea has been calling Americans "Mee Gook Gnome" for so long, it's lost a lot of its resonance. That's just the term they use now for us in certain contexts.

At the very least, a South Korea reading North Korean pronouncements about the U.S. does not think "bastards" when he reads 미국놈, which means an American reading a translation with the word in it is getting a different feeling than a South Korean reading Korean.


Cast out the invading imperialist American forces, who are the source of all unhappiness and suffering!
At its worst, the word carries a sense of dismissiveness--"punk" is far close to it than "bastard." I'd translate it just "Americans," or, if you must keep something pejorative in it, maybe "Yanks." Forcing "bastards" in there is heavy-handed. Not every translation needs something in English to account for everything there in the original. Putting it in there seems calculated to get a reaction, to make the text seem more derisible and ridiculous.

When CNN and others yuk it up at the crazed invective of North Korean media, it gives people the perception that North Korea is not rational, that they can't even form coherent sentences. Public discourse about this story was partially sidetracked by head shakes over the use of "bastards" (always in the headline and always in scare quotes), which meant pundits glossed over more important subjects. The only conclusions one can reach from reading "American bastards" are that either North Korea hates America so completely that war is inevitable, or that North Korea is so foolish we can afford to ignore them. Both of these assumptions have their own dangers.

If the Americans start a war of aggression, they will be the first destroyed! (This uses the term "gnome." Isn't it already clear from context that there's a negative connotation? Do I need "bastards?")