Archive for November, 2008

Over-Visual Communications

In past blogs, I’ve commented, not necessarily in the most positive terms, about the explosive growth of anime and manga. Yet, to be fair, the art in the best of these and of the current graphic novels can be indeed inspiring and fascinating, not to mention eye-riveting, and certainly contributes to the genres’ popularity.

In large part, that growth, and the change in the creation of current “art” itself, is being driven and inspired by electronic technology. The entire process of creating visual images is changing. Once, all artists who created the artwork for book covers did actual physical paintings, usually in oils or acrylics, but whatever the medium, they created a static physical product. Today, more and more covers are created digitally. For example, I may have the only physical artwork that exists of the cover painting for my novel Ghost of the White Nights, and the only reason I have it was because my son persuaded the artist to print out a large copy on a design printer and sign it. Even artists who are skilled in the physical media, such as John Picacio, often create multiple physical paintings and merge them digitally

There are doubtless thousands of on-line galleries of electronically created artwork, but such artistic developments and their growth, however, are only one facet of an even larger change in American society… and possibly Western European and Asian cultures as well. With the development of visual communications media — primarily television, personal computers and image/texting cellphones — our means of communications have become more and more visual.

This encompasses all aspects of communication. Television news stories are illustrated with visio-bites. Computer-generated special effects enhance almost all cinema these days. Power-point displays/slide-shows apparently are mandatory for business presentations now. Going beyond art itself, even “texting” is evolving from written language founded on phonetically based aural communication to simplified visual text. Computer icons are replacing words in emails and instant messaging.

Unfortunately, there’s an aspect of this change that appears to be largely unnoticed. Visual communications are less than ideal for conveying complex ideas, ideals, and complicated transactions and situations, yet the comparative simplicity, speed, and appeal of more visual communications results in a continuing dumbing-down and over-simplification of matters, and pushes communicators toward communicating quickly rather than accurately.

If a political or economic concept can’t be expressed concisely and in less than thirty seconds, it doesn’t stand a chance. Nor does a business proposal, nor the idea for a new movie. This isn’t new. I had one of my novels turned down by a major producer some ten years ago, because, while it was a good story, it was “too complex.” But the trend is accelerating. I wouldn’t be surprised if at least some of the reason for the current economic melt-down was the oversimplification and dumbing down of the explanations of how financial derivatives actually work… because you can’t explain all the ramifications in 30 seconds, and it’s equally clear that those who were selling and those who were buying didn’t understand those implications.

I’m not saying that all types of visually-based or influenced communications are bad, but I am saying that, like anything, there are times when they’re appropriate and times when they’re not. At the moment, unhappily, most people, especially those who should know better, don’t seem to know the difference.

The Book World In Recession?

In overall terms, the world of books is rapidly becoming a scary place. Borders Books is teetering on the edge, with an anticipated report of poor sales in the third quarter of the year. While Borders is not the largest of the chains, it still represents a significant chunk of the retail book market, and no author, me included, wants to see something like 400 super-stores vanish. Nor does any publisher. Fall sales of virtually all new titles from all publishers have declined, and one major publisher has reputedly ordered the editorial staff to stop acquiring new titles, at least for a while. Some agents are reporting more difficulty in pitching titles to publishers.

Is all this just because of the economic slowdown? In some respects, I’d like to think that it is. Unfortunately, it’s not. The economic hard times are revealing a real weakness in the market for books, especially for fiction. As I’ve observed in earlier blogs, the modest increases in books sales have come more from greater sales to an ever-smaller percentage of the population, because the percentage of the population that reads is decreasing, and the greatest decrease is among the 16-25 age group. Likewise, historically the over-55 age group, particularly those who are college-educated, has had the highest reading percentage, and retirees, often steady readers, are economically harder-pressed and are likely buying fewer books.

But, there’s far more to the decline in book sales than these factors.

At one point, I’ve been told, there were over 1,500 Waldenbooks, B. Daltons, and small mall bookstores, often two in every mall. In addition, before that, there were individual paperback book racks in almost every drugstore in the country, and those racks were tailored to local reading habits, and often were located right next to the comic book racks. Both the mall stores and the drugstores allowed easy access, what’s called impulse book buying. While the more profitable small mall stores have been replaced by book superstores that are actually mall anchors, these stores tend to be more destinations for already determined book buyers than a source of impulse buying — and there are far fewer of them than there were smaller mall bookstores.

At one time, virtually no mall was without a bookstore, albeit a small one. Now there are hundreds of malls without any bookstores, and whole sections of major cities without bookstores, and most of the corner drugstores are long-since gone, and I don’t see many book displays in the generic drug chains that replaced them. Yes, many supermarkets, and even WalMarts, have book sections, but most Super WalMarts are lucky to have 20 F&SF titles, or for that matter more than 50 titles of any genre or mainstream fiction. In other supermarkets the selection is even more meager. Even the tiniest of Waldenbooks used to have several hundred titles in each genre [and I know, because I visited that store before it was closed].

By concentrating resources in book superstores, the book chains have largely eliminated what was effectively a feeder network that helped make books available to a larger segment of the population. It’s unscientific, but I’ve traveled most of the United States in the past fifteen years and found that very few malls in minority sections of most cities have bookstores. The bookstores tend to be concentrated in or near affluent white, higher-income neighborhoods. This is a great way to maximize an existing customer base, but given the fact that a considerable number of children in lower income areas will grow up to be higher-wage earners, it’s a very poor long-term strategy, and another example of our cultural mindset to maximize short-term profits, regardless of the long-term implications.

Add to that an educational system that tries to do too much with too little discipline, too few teachers and inadequate resources, and it shouldn’t be any surprise that effective reading levels continue to decline, regardless of what the school “tests” say, since more accurate Department of Education tests on college graduates show that almost 60% lack the capacity to read and understand a complex newspaper editorial. On top of that, regardless of the intellectual brilliance of students, the current teaching systems and the video culture have created a mindset where long-term concentration is difficult, if not impossible, for all too many students — and long-term concentration is definitely required for reading books.

So… I suspect that the majority of publishers [excepting mine, who has spoken out long and hard against these trends and taken steps to counter them] and book store executives will console themselves that the declining sales are merely a function of economic hard times. But those who believe that recent declining sales are all a function of lower income and higher unemployment are seriously deluding themselves.

When Information IS the Problem… Or… Living on the Margin

Last week the business section of several papers had headlines reading something like, “Retail Sales Plummet.” Because I’m an economist by educational background and training and also because I’m skeptical of scare-style headlines, I read the stories. The bottom line was simple. Retail sales dropped off about 2.8% in October compared to sales in October 2007. Now, the papers also had a graph that showed what appeared to be a convincing drop from one month to another — unless you read the numbers. The scale showed only the range of sales figures from $360 billion to $400 billion, or roughly ten percent of the total sales range — so of course a drop of nearly 3%, close to $12 billion, shows a “visual” drop of one third of the graph. Pretty scary — but it would have been hard to pick out that three percent drop on a graph that showed the entire $380 billion.

Needless to say, following the news story, which doubtless ran coast to coast, the stock market sank, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if more Americans decided not to purchase unnecessary goods.

All of this illustrates one of the greatest problems in a generally free market economy: everything literally rests on the margin… and much of what happens on the margin reflects popular perception. Since mid-summer for example, the price of crude oil has dropped from almost $140 a barrel to about $50, a decline of more than 60%. Did crude oil supplies increase by 60% or even 20%? Or did demand for gasoline drop by 20%-60%? Hardly. In fact, crude oil production has been cut, and demand for gasoline is down around 5% from last year at the same time. The same sort of marginal “tightness” and increased demand in housing was what fueled the housing boom… and a comparatively small, in percentage terms, number of defaults and lessened demand led to the subsequent bust.

A similar set of circumstances is wracking the stock market, if with slightly different mechanics at work. Hedge funds and private investors seemed convinced that the market would continue to rise, and they leveraged their investments through buying stock on margin and in various other creative ways. But when the market turned down, and investors in those funds wanted out, the hedge funds had to liquidate huge blocks of stock at whatever price they could, and prices headed down. That panicked more investors into selling… and so the cycle went. Then, because business outlooks deteriorated, a number of dividend-paying stocks cut or eliminated dividends — one financially solvent Canadian power trust even cut its dividend by over 70% — and the prices of those stocks deteriorated even more.

Effectively, on average, most pension and retirement funds have been cut between 30%-60% over the last few months, but especially in the last month. As more Americans saw their assets melt away, they further decreased their buying, and sales of large items like automobiles fell dramatically. Now the big three American manufacturers, who never understood that they couldn’t sell oversized and overpriced SUVs forever, are begging for a bailout from Congress.

In an economy as large as that of the United States, comparatively small changes in supply and demand, generally all on the margin, so to speak, can have enormous financial and economic consequences.

Now… when you add to that the scare tactics of the media, always in search of the next headline, small problems get bigger, and moderate problems become major… and that, unfortunately, is what is happening… and it will most likely get worse.

A Thousand Words?

“A picture is worth a thousand words.” How many times have you heard that saying? The problem with the saying, however, is that one seldom asks the necessary accompanying question: “For what?” I’m not being flippant. The value of any picture lies in its use.

A photo ID is far more valuable than a written description of the ID-bearer. In terms of showing straight “action,” a graphic novel can depict battle scenes in far greater detail than is easily possible in straight prose. But no picture can carry the rhythmic auditory impact of poetry or words set to music, and even pictures set to music have an impact different from words and music. As human beings we remember and re-create songs and lullabies. We don’t and can’t do that in the same way with visual images [unless you’re a professional entertainment sound designer].

Even more important, because words are symbolic as well as literal representations, and because words are the only way we have of expressing and conveying abstract concepts such as idealism, altruism, love, hate, friendship, and so on, words can do far more than pictures in affecting and changing both the course of individual lives and the direction of entire societies.

In terms of the underlying “worth” of various types of entertainment, the old saying of “you get what you pay for” holds true, if in a slightly different context. In general, cinema or graphic novels/manga are more accessible, and more sense-oriented, and if a quick rush of action or romance is what you want, they usually can provide it far more easily and, for most people, far more quickly than can a book. While a paperback book is comparable in cost, it also has a second “cost.” It requires active thought and reader participation, but, for that cost, can often [I won’t say always because there are bad books and bad readers, just as there are bad cinema and bad manga and bad viewers] deliver far more than mere entertainment and can leave you with greater insight or feeling, if not both.

In an overall sense, pictures tend to be “complete” in themselves. There’s little or no stimulus to consider beyond the image presented. That limitation may well have been one of the reasons why nineteenth century art led toward into surrealism, abstractionism, and all the other “non-representationalist” forms, as part of an effort on the part of the artists to engage their viewers beyond the image itself.

By comparison, a single word [except “yes” or “no”] is seldom ever complete, and sentences lead on to more sentences and more meanings and questions, often into the exploration of ideas and concepts. It’s no accident that generally the most advanced and most vital cultures have had languages with the largest vocabularies and greatest complexity in language.

So… just because a picture presents a particular image more completely than words, don’t assume that the picture is necessarily better. It all depends on what’s at stake… and, often, whether you want to look beyond the image.

"For the Good of…"

I was recently reminded of a pattern I’ve observed over the years in academia, when professors sneak to a chair or a dean complaining about the acts or behavior of a colleague, citing their interest “for the good of the students.” In no cases have such individuals actually talked to their colleague, even when the complainers are fully tenured and risk nothing, and in the majority of the cases, they don’t even know the facts surrounding their complaint. Their sole interest is not in the “good of the students” or solving the problem, but in creating trouble for a colleague.

The problem with this kind of behavior is that, unfortunately, it’s not confined to academia. Remember, there was a fellow named Hitler who engaged in genocide and created something called the Holocaust “for the good of” the Reich, the Fatherland, and the purity of the Aryan race. And there were some folks in the United States who seceded from the Union, for “the good of states’ rights,” otherwise known as the freedom to enslave others. We’ve recently had “ethnic cleansing” in what was once Yugoslavia and Rwanda, for the “good” of this or that group or culture. More than a few centuries before that, the Spanish inquisition and other functionaries of the Catholic Church tortured people to death in order to “save their souls,” all for their victims’ own good, of course.

In the United States, as a result of a single terrorist attack, we’ve endured all sorts of restrictions and infringements of civil liberties for our own “good” and security, even when subsequent acts by airline passengers, for example, have suggested strongly that repetition of the 9/11 methodology is highly unlikely to be successful a second time around.

Most recently, we’ve had the leadership of the Church of the Latter Day Saints pouring millions of dollars and thousands of volunteers into the effort to support Proposition 8 in California, in order to prohibit same-sex marriages, all supposedly for the good of the “traditional” family, which, for all the rhetoric, really makes no sense. If you’re concerned about family stability, shouldn’t you be for anything that strengthens families, even non-traditional ones? Besides, it’s not as though many same-sex couples are interested in undermining Mormon marriages, unlike the Mormon Church, which seems clearly interested in undermining same-sex marriages.

In all these cases, and doubtless hundreds, if not thousands of others, those who have professed to be “for the good” of something really weren’t. They were using the argument of “good” to oppose, if not to kill or destroy, that which they opposed, and most of those using the “for the good of” argument have in mind restrictions and punishments of others, and not solutions to problems.

I object strongly to this tactic. It’s hypocritical, devious, misleading, and unethical. If you believe something to be wrong, say so, and be prepared to explain exactly why it’s wrong, and why you need to destroy, restrict, or otherwise infringe on the liberties of others, and why there is no other better solution. There times when that may in fact be necessary, but I’d wager that those cases are very few indeed, especially compared to the number of times when “good” is trotted out to harm others.

The Future of Fiction? Its meaning?

Over the past few years, there’s been what I’d call a desultory, on-and-off debate, if it can be termed such, over the future of books, and of fiction. While few believe that either books or fiction in some form of print will vanish, it’s clear that changes are occurring, and those changes both reflect current trends in society and foreshadow future changes.

Over the past decade the number of fiction titles and the number of copies sold are up, but not so much as population growth. Other studies suggest that there actually may be fewer readers, but that those readers are individually buying more books, as a result of the growth of chain bookstores and on-line stores. This possibility is bolstered by the distribution of sales figures as well. With the exception of authors of block-buster works such as Harry Potter, The Da Vinci Code, and the top romances, most authors are writing more books, but the numbers of copies of each title sold tend to be lower. In the F&SF field, more than a few authors who used to be mid-list authors published by major houses are now being published by smaller houses, even while they’re getting quite favorable reviews and positive critical attention. Recent surveys also indicate that fiction reading has dropped off enormously among the 16-25 year old age-group.

What do these changes mean? For one thing, I personally believe that they largely reflect a change in personal entertainment preferences, and that change is driven, in large part, by the impact of technology on our lives and in the corresponding transformation of the nature of work. A greater and greater percentage of work has moved from physical labor to tasks requiring mental efforts or services with social interaction, if not both, and the hours worked have not decreased in the U.S.A., and in many fields, have actually increased significantly. I have heard more and more individuals say, time and time again, that when they get home from work, they’re simply too exhausted to be able to concentrate on a book, and like it or not, reading does require a certain amount of concentration.

Bookstores are also carrying larger and larger sections of graphic novels, anime, and manga. This isn’t totally surprising, given that younger Americans are a more video/visual entertainment generation, which also explains the growth of video/computer games. The concern that I have about this shift is that reading, fiction in particular, requires the reader to construct a mental image of the setting and the events, rather than merely to observe and participate, as is the case for visually-based entertainment.

Where will these changes in entertainment preferences lead society as a whole? Will they have that great an effect? Some preliminary studies suggest that the brain development of the video generation is different, but I haven’t seen any work that says what the change in development does to perception and behavior. Some differences that I’ve observed and that concern me are: (1) the younger generation seems to have a greater difficulty in visualizing or imagining things described only in words; (2) they have more difficulty in transferring skills learned in one application to a different application; (3) their writing skills, in general, are far weaker than those of earlier generations; (4) while constructing and supporting statements/arguments logically and factually has always been difficult for students, that difficulty seems even greater now than in earlier generations.

Even assuming that my observations are true and hold for a larger body of young Americans than I’ve observed, will they affect the future of the United States? How?

Based on history, one has to wonder. Certainly, a significant number and great percentage of our ancestors either could not read or never read fiction. In fact, the first recognized novel [Pamela, by Richardson] wasn’t even published until 1740, relatively late in the development of what we call civilization. And, generations ago, fiction was considered by some pillars of society to be frivolous and mentally damaging, just as video and computer games are by some today.

In the end, the question may not be about how many people are reading fiction, but who those readers happen to be, and what they take from it.

U.S. Fantasy in the World — Some Semi-Random Observations

Last week, I went to the World Fantasy Convention in Calgary [which was why there was no posting the previous Friday]. While I was there, in addition to talking to a number of American and Canadian writers, I also had the good fortune to meet with some Dutch and French fans and writers, among many others.

One of the French writers, who has been published in American F&SF magazines, made the observation that a very large segment of the French market in F&SF novels has been taken up by translations of American works, so much so that it was easier to write in English and be published by U.S. publishers and magazines than to be published in French. What’s intriguing about this is that it costs more to publish translated American fiction because of the linguistic differences. Any American or English work accurately translated into French will run at least thirty percent longer in French, and sometimes more than that. In my own case, most of my books translated into French come out in two volumes, and they’re not slim.

The same volume/translation problems also crop up with other romance languages, largely because American English has over three times the number of words as any romance language does, and that means that what is often a single American word requires either a phrase or a continuing simplification process in translation.

One of the Dutch participants observed that she preferred to read American F&SF in English, because the translations, even by respected Dutch publishers, leave something to be desired.

The German market for translating U.S. works literally boomed in the 1990s and the very early 2000s… and then almost totally vanished, so much so that my German publisher literally left the second half of Scion of Cyador unpublished, which has led to more than a few inquiries by German readers.

I was surprised, but pleased, to discover from an Israeli publisher that my Hammer of Darkness has recently appeared in Israel in Hebrew, which I did not know because U.S. publishers are rather slow about informing authors about foreign sales [perhaps because their parent companies like to hang on to the royalties longer?] and because I overlooked or did not see the single Google reference to it. But then, search engines aren’t all that good searching in other languages, particularly when I can’t speak or read the language in question.

All in all, a good conference… with good people… and lots of intriguing information.

Inspiration… and Teachers and Students

There are and have been quite a few teachers in my family, as far back as my grandmother, and they include those who have taught or are teaching at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and post-graduate/doctoral levels. Every single one of them, at one time or another, has been singled out as an excellent and inspirational teacher. And every single one of them who is still living is concerned about a trend in American education that has received very little attention.

Oh… there is a great amount of concern about the state of education and whether students are getting the education they need to succeed in an ever-more complex and technological society. There are the proponents and the opponents of more testing to ensure accountability. There are those who favor more inclusive curricula and those who favor a “back to basics” approach. There are those who push merit pay for “better” [I quote this, because to date, I haven’t seen any good and fair way to determine exactly what determines “better”] teachers, and those who oppose it.

But… while someone, somewhere, may have pointed out the trend I’m about to mention, if they have, it’s certainly been lost amid all the other “teaching issues.” And it shouldn’t be. It’s very basic.

The responsibility for learning has been quietly but dramatically shifted over the past two generations. Long years ago, when I was in school, and longer years ago, when my parents and grandparents were in school, the responsibility was very clear. Regardless of the circumstances, the student was the one who was responsible for learning, and the teacher was responsible for teaching. Today, everywhere I look, and everywhere the teachers in my family look, the responsibility for both has been placed on the teacher. Today, teachers must inspire; they must create the atmosphere in which children will learn; they must create a climate where student self-esteem promotes learning. Everything must be positive, despite the fact that, outside of school, life has a tendency to provide far more sticks than carrots, and that “life lessons” can be brutal.

It has gotten to the point where most students take little or no responsibility for learning, particularly if the subject is difficult or “boring.” I’m sorry, but learning well the basics of most disciplines can and will be boring. It takes practice and more practice. Everyone seems to understand that in terms of athletics, but it’s a point apparently lost in school and academics. Learning beyond the simple basics is work; work requires effort; and it shouldn’t be the teacher’s responsibility to provide the student’s motivation.

Whether this is the result of a media culture that spoon-feeds, simplifies, and dumbs down everything, or a tendency to over-protect children, or results from other societal factors is, frankly, secondary. What is being overlooked is that no teacher, no matter how good, talented, and inspirational, can be more than marginally effective when faced with large classrooms filled primarily with students whose motivation is not to learn, but to get through without working or to obtain good grades with the least amount of effort. And all the educational reforms, all the merit pay, all the “back-to-basics” movements, all the testing, and all the legislation will not improve education significantly until parents and society recognize that students have a responsibility for their own education… and act to instill that responsibility.

The actual will to learn has to come from the student, and until our society understands that — and acts on it by emphasizing that students are personally responsible and by letting them fail, horrible as that sounds, when they are not responsible — all of the other “reforms” will result in little improvement in the education of the majority of students.