Archive for December, 2008


Congressional committees have revealed that executives of various banking and financial firms who ran them into financial disasters have already received over one billion dollars in bonuses and “expenses.” It appears likely that the various bailout plans will cost well over a trillion dollars, and it’s not even certain how effective they’ll be. In the meantime, states and local governments are cutting budgets right and left, because most states have constitutions that prohibit deficit spending, and most state politicians have an incredible aversion to maintaining reserves for hard times when state revenues are solid. They’d rather splurge or offer tax reductions. This idiocy, of course, means that when the national economy turns bad, matters get even worse on the state level, because the states don’t generally have recourse to deficit spending, and increasing taxes during economic bad times usually only decreases total revenues.

Here in the great state of Utah, for example, the legislature is talking about slashing the budget by over 20%, five percent since October, and fifteen percent next year. The single largest cuts will be in education, needless to say, despite the fact that Utah is dead last in per pupil spending on the elementary and secondary level, despite the fact that 13,500 new pupils are expected to enroll in school next year, and despite the fact that close to half of all public school funding comes from the state. In addition, the state junior colleges, colleges, and universities are projected to be required to cut close to a thousand positions, as well as eliminate a large percentage of part-time faculty. Needless to say, it doesn’t appear that the legislature has actually looked at the situation at most institutions, or at the findings of the state board of regents who noted that in times of economic down-turn, enrollments in college and post-graduate work go up. Nor does anyone seem to be noting that most state institutions already have full classrooms and faculty working overtime and beyond, so that, in many cases, there are neither enough teachers, classroom spaces, and time slots to accommodate existing students, let alone those who will be flooding the institutions next year because of a high birth rate and a lack of jobs for those without more education. At the same time, the universities are offering early retirement incentives, but the problem with these is that it encourages the loss of those professors with the most experience to offer, and, frankly, from what I’ve seen, most [but not all] work harder and longer than their younger “replacements” do. The same problems are occurring with police and fire departments throughout the state, which are freezing hires, and with prisons, which have already laid off employees. Likewise, the state is eliminating most spending on infrastructure improvements, which isn’t exactly reassuring, given the sad state of all too many highways, bridges, and mass transit systems.

From what I can tell and from recent news reports, similar problems are occurring across the nation. Given this trend, what I want to ask is: Why can we easily spend hundreds of billions of dollars to bail out reckless banks and brokerage firms, to rescue mismanaged auto manufacturers, but ignore education, public safety, and local infrastructure? Even under “trickle-down” economics, very little of the revenues generated by the various bailout proposals will flow to support these basic areas of our society.

Assessing Quality in Writing and the Arts — Part II

One of the greatest difficulties in assessing quality in the arts, particularly in fields such as writing, singing, and painting, lies in two related problems. First, a truly “objective” way of assessing excellence doesn’t exist. Second, because anyone with a basic ability in grammar can write, because anyone with a voice can sing, because anyone can pick up pencils or oils and paint, all too many otherwise intelligent individuals feel that they can accurately judge excellence in these areas and that their opinion has equal value in assessing excellence with the view of someone with great experience and expertise in the field.

My wife is a professional singer and a professor of opera, but she has gotten out of the habit of discussing her true evaluations of musical performances, except with other professional colleagues… or me. Instead, she makes generic comments. Why? Because most people think they can evaluate singing and will rave about a singer because he or she is attractive, charismatic, and has great stage presence, even while a good fraction of the notes sung are off-key, off-tempo, or even the wrong words. It may be good “entertainment,” but it’s not good singing. In the past, she’s tried to explain why performances weren’t good, or why a given work isn’t as good as another, but her evaluation is almost invariably dismissed as “a matter of opinion,” especially by those who have the least knowledge of music.

As I noted in Part I, the good professor was absolutely convinced that his views were superior to those of four different review sources and those of several hundred thousand readers. He may not like the books, and that’s his privilege. He even admitted he was not an expert in the field, but still asserted that his likes and dislikes were more accurate, as a measure of the overall quality of the books, than a considerable weight of well-informed and educated evaluation from editors to reviewers.

By comparison, very few people, or at least not without advanced degrees in physics, would even consider telling top physicists that their theories on wave states or quantum mechanics were wrong, but an amazing number of individuals without any real grounding beyond basic courses in literature, music, or arts have no problem in pronouncing their opinions, which isn’t a problem, and giving them equal value with experts in a given field, which is. This could be described as the “if I like it, it’s good, and if I don’t, it’s not” approach.

In fiction, in particular, this can be a significant problem. Authors always run the risk of alienating readers because of the subject matter they choose or the way in which they present it, and the emotional reaction overrides any sense of judgment on the part of readers who are offended, usually because the author’s presentation jolts the reader’s preconceived view of propriety or reality. This can also be true in music. There were actually riots after the premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and more than a few books, later acclaimed as excellent, have been banned in one locale or another.

Now, obviously, in a field where only subjective evaluation of excellence is possible, there are times where even a consensus of experts on what is excellent may not be totally accurate. There will also be questions, at times, about the degree of excellence, and I’ve certainly raised such questions myself, but, almost always, the judgment of long-time knowledgeable scholars and practitioners in a field in assessing excellence, not popularity, is superior to the opinions of those who do not possess such experience.

But… in the end, the fact is: Not all opinions are of equal value in assessing excellence.

Assessing Quality in Writing and the Arts — Part I

Recently, I had an on-line “discussion” with a professor who didn’t care much for the Spellsong Cycle. While I respect his opinion that the books did not impress him, I was less than enthused about his views that his assessment was far superior to other time-tested means of assessing quality for novels. Four of the five books received starred reviews from review sources such as Kirkus, Booklist, and even Romantic Times, which also gave the last book an award. The series also sold well, if not so well as the Saga of Recluce, and all the books are still in print ten years later. His counter to the issue of reviews was that he was amazed that any F&SF book received a negative review. This led me to thinking about the issue of quality or excellence.

Now… as many of you who have followed my thoughts for a time know, I’m not the greatest champion of reviews. I suppose my assessment of them is along the lines of Churchill’s view on democracy; they’re the worst way of assessing excellence, except for anything else that’s ever been tried.

Every year more than 1,000 new titles are published in the F&SF field. Kirkus reviews less than fifty of these each year and might award 10 starred reviews. Publishers Weekly reviews perhaps a hundred, Booklist, and Library Journal far less. Given the overlap, since some books may get reviews in more than one publication, it’s unlikely than more than 150 new titles get reviews. That’s fifteen percent. Of that number less than twenty percent get starred reviews or the equivalent, and again, some of those will overlap. So…something like 30 titles might get starred reviews. That’s less than three percent, which is a far cry from the idea that all reviews are raves. Almost all reviews are a mixed bag, where the reviewer likes some things and dislikes others.

Now… in the interests of fairness, it is also true that publicists do have the habit of excerpting the best lines from reviews for cover blurbs. Take a review that stated, “After a dull and pedantic beginning, the author finally reaches an exciting conclusion.” We all know what part of that review will appear on the cover, but that doesn’t invalidate the entire review.

As for the issue of negative reviews, in general, what’s the point? Readers usually want to know what to read, not what not to read. I’ve observed that most negative reviews are about books by best-selling authors or authors who have had past works critically acclaimed, where the reviewer is suggesting that the book being reviewed isn’t up to the author’s standards. Sometimes, I have disagreed with such assessments, but I think it’s fair to say that most reviewers don’t provide negative reviews just for the sake of trashing a book.

But…in the end, the plain fact is that the vast majority of titles published each year get no reviews from the major review sources, and only a few more get reviews from smaller specialized online genre reviewers.

Reviews, of course, are really the last step in assessing quality. The first, and most important step, occurs with the editor. The editor picks out what will be published and works with the author to improve it. It’s analogous to the peer review process in academia. Contrary to popular opinion, editors aren’t just interested in what sells, although what they buy for a publisher obviously has to sell. For example, my editor has been involved in the publishing field for some forty years, but also has a Ph.D. in Comparative Medieval Literature and has taught as a visiting professor at a number of universities, including Harvard. He’s edited several authoritative and widely acclaimed texts on the field, as well as a number of acclaimed anthologies. And it’s not just my editor. Virtually all editors who have any length of service have great ability to assess both quality and saleability, because it’s a competitive field. After the editor and author finish revisions, copy-editors enter the process, nit-picking punctuation, definitions, missing referents and the like. Then, of course, after publication, reviewers take their turn.

In addition, readers do “vote” on quality, or at least on appeal, and, if they don’t like a book, they won’t buy it… and that includes my books. Even after the success of The Magic of Recluce, when The Green Progression came out, it didn’t sell, despite favorable reviews. In fact, it may have been the worst-selling hardcover published by Tor in the 1990s. [To be continued]

Judging by the Wrong Standards… the Evolutionary Trap?

This past weekend, I went to two musical performances, a “Best of Broadway” touring show, featuring four singers who had performed a number of lead roles of well-known musicals on Broadway, and a fund-raising dinner performance by local university undergraduate music students. The Best of Broadway show received a standing ovation at the local city theatre. The student concert, to a limited and intimate audience, raised several thousand dollars.

Which was better? In terms of musical quality, there was no comparison, according to the experts who attended both concerts. I am NOT an expert, and those who are included two former orchestral concertmasters, a former music department chair, a former Ted Mack Amateur Hour winner — for those of you who are younger, think “American Idol” of the 1950s, a professional percussionist who has played with a number of first class symphonies, and, of course, in the spirit of full disclosure, my wife. The “Broadway” performers had better costumes and slightly better stage presence and charisma, but their actual singing and their arrangements left something to be desired, and were far inferior to that of the college students. Now… this is nothing new. I, and the professionals, have seen this time and time again. The vast majority of audiences key in on costumes, appearances, physical beauty, and presence… as well as the theatre setting itself. Alex Ross, the music critic of The New Yorker, has also commented on this, albeit dealing with comparing first class regional musical performances to New York performances that received great applause and were inferior, as well as noting the rise of standing ovations for performances that deserved tepid applause at best.

If these instances were limited to entertainment, we would merely have a problem of uneducated taste… but, alas… they’re not. From the experiences of the recent financial melt-down, it’s fairly obvious that all too many corporate decisions haven’t been made on the best of financial or economic grounds, but in terms of short-term profits. Likewise, it’s clear that far too many corporate CEOs are being selected on the basis of personality and charisma, image, if you will, rather than decision-making expertise. For example, the Board of Directors of General Motors has expressed confidence in the current CEO, despite the fact that the CEO has been in charge for years and that GM is in such financial trouble that it will require more than $20 billion to weather little more than a year. The same situation has afflicted a score or more of other companies.

In the educational area, again, scholarships and awards are largely awarded on the basis of grade-point-averages, regardless of the difficulty of the classes taken by the students, a slightly different form of image, but often image, nonetheless.

Recent sociological research indicates that younger women tend to be attracted to tall, dark, and “dangerous” men, and that men judge women’s attractiveness and appeal, across all cultures, largely by an unconscious relationship between waist and hip size and an equally unconscious evaluation of facial regularity.

All of these are examples of judging by inappropriate, largely inaccurate, or misrepresentative guidelines, and most of those guidelines come from evolutionary pressures. In the hunter-gatherer societies which comprise the vast majority of human experience and evolution, failure to make largely accurate instantaneous decisions generally resulted in adverse, if not fatal results. The problem today is that those kinds of judgments often don’t work, and certainly not well, in higher-tech societies. Just because a man is tall, charismatic, and friendly doesn’t mean he’ll make good judgments dealing with long-term complex situations. It may even mean that a man isn’t the best person for the position. Maximizing this year’s harvest makes great survival sense if you’re in a borderline food stock situation, as most early human cultures were, but it’s a lousy strategy for both corporations and agriculture in a world where corporate and societal survival depends on longer term social and economic stability. And evaluating ability by near-blind reliance on numbers is nothing more than a crude adaptation of seeing who’s taller and can run faster.

The question of whether our world can survive and prosper may well depend on whether we can adapt away from unconscious and sometimes blind following of our evolutionarily-derived decision-making processes before the cumulative results of recent bad decisions foreclose our options as a species.

Reflecting Minds

If one reads about the younger generation, those in the last stages of education or in the first stages of their working life, there are a fair amount of observations. There are those who believe that generation to be the brightest and most hard-working ever and those who deplore it as shallow and filled with self-indulgence… as well as a range of comments in between. Is there any way to reconcile that divergence?

I think so. I’d claim that this generation has perfected the “reflecting mind.” They are supremely able to reflect back simple facts and known applications, as well as deal with uncomplicated or routine or mundane tasks with speed — often only with the help of technology, however. Their reflexes and hand-to-eye coordination in general surpass earlier generations.

What they don’t do well, if at all, in many cases [Warning! This is a generalization that does not apply to a small and distinguished minority] is think and analyze. Nor are most of them able to learn from the experiences of others or from aural/oral communications.

More than a few educators — far more than those in my family — have noted that listening comprehension among students is markedly down. A doctor who teaches medical school has observed that even med-school students have trouble retaining material presented orally unless they take notes.

It’s not just listening retention. I’ve noticed something else as well, as have others in various fields, but one set of examples comes to mind. Although I’m required to proof-read the galleys of my books, they also go to proofreaders as well, and I’ve noted in the past few years, more and more proofreaders are asking me to clarify references unnecessarily. For example, in a forthcoming book, a pilot refers to a vessel by name. The proofreader requested that there be more identification, and that I show that the name referred to a class of ship. That would be fine if it had been 100 or 200 pages since the name was used, but I’d given that very description in some detail a page and a half before. Another proofreader wanted clarification of a point, requesting specific information — despite the fact that that same information ended one of the key chapters. My wife the professor has noted that even “good” students often cannot remember material presented in class lectures, discussed in workshops, and included in reading assignments.

Another example comes up in the Internet Database Forum, where readers ask me questions about books. All too often the younger readers ask questions about books of mine that they have read, when the answers were already in the books. Most of the time, older readers supply the answers even before I do; so it’s not as though the material is that obscure.

This non-thinking reflexivity shows up in other parts of society as well, such as in the stock market. Recently, crude oil prices have plunged, and consequently so have the prices of energy stocks — regardless of whether the company in question is even affected by the price of crude oil. Natural gas companies have seen their prices fall, even though natural gas prices have effectively stabilized and reserve stocks are declining. Pipelines, who get paid the same for transporting petroleum products regardless of crude oil prices, have also suffered stock price declines of roughly the same magnitude as oil producers. None of that makes any economic sense, but the computers and the techies react in nanoseconds.

It does make reflexive market sense, as noted by Henry Blodgett in an article just published in The Atlantic Monthly, where he notes that (1) the vast majority of stock trading is handled by younger people, well below 40, who have no historical memory and who react quickly, pragmatically, and instantly and (2) the greatest short term profits come from reflexively following the herd. He points out that the same kind of thinking was what triggered the real estate boom and bust. This is similar to jockeying for position among the lemmings as they rush to the ocean. You do just fine until everyone goes over the cliff.

In short, brilliantly reflecting answers back in a test-taking educational system prepares our students for quick answers and short-term decision-making. But it’s not doing them — or us — much good in the long run, because planning beyond the now requires an understanding of more than the present and the surface of the past, not to mention analytical and considered decision-making. Especially when such “brilliant” short-term decisions more often than not lead to long-term disasters.

Saving the Publishing Industry?

Certainly, times are tough in publishing. Editors and staff are being laid off. Some publishing houses have instituted acquisition freezes or slowed down acquiring new titles. Apparently, the majority of publishing firms have indicated that raises will be either minimal or non-existent. Overall, in recent months, book sales are down, and Borders Books is teetering on the edge on whether it will even survive.

Does the publishing industry need saving? Does it deserve it?

Obviously, as an author, my views tend to be influenced, if not outright biased, by my experiences and observations over the years, but I think that we do need a publishing industry, even if many of those in the industry have not looked to the future as wisely as they should have… as is clearly the case with many other industries as well.

The industry as a whole does have flaws, and these flaws have certainly contributed to the difficulties in which it finds itself, but not all the blame, or possibly even the majority of it, lies within the industry. First, however, the flaws I’ve observed within the industry.

Most editors I’ve observed over the years have great difficulty in balancing the demands of the marketplace with their own tastes, and often have even more difficulty in understanding that an excellent work that is not to their taste can exist and can in fact be published and be successful. And most editors who read that sentence will insist that it’s not true. It is. From what I’ve observed, the number of either critically acclaimed or best-selling books from first-time or unknown authors rejected by editors is far greater than those accepted by the first editor to whom they were submitted. In partial support of my observation, I would also note that the largest publisher of F&SF in the world started out as the smallest when it was founded more than twenty years ago, but has editors with by far the widest and most differing tastes of any F&SF publisher and is also one of the few houses to accept un-agented manuscripts. While agents do provide a valuable service, one aspect of that service is knowing what is acceptable to what editor, and this effectively simply extends the “taste restrictions” or various editors to the agents who are trying to sell new titles.

As I’ve noted previously, the major bookstore chains, facing pressure to increase/maintain profitability, have cut back drastically on smaller stores and outlets, particularly mall stores, and especially on mall stores in less affluent areas. This has increased short-term profits, but it has reduced book “impulse” buying and also reduced the exposure to potential new readers. Likewise, the growth of smaller “generic” genre sections in large wholesale-supplied outlets, such as WalMart and Costco, has restricted choices… and thus sales. The consolidation of the book wholesaling industry has reinforced this lack of selection — just think about all the airport “bookstores” that have the same display of books you’ve already read or don’t want to read.

There are a number of other factors, however, well beyond the control of the industry. One factor, once noted, but apparently forgotten, is the tax treatment of books in inventory in publishers’ warehouses, which effectively punishes publishers who hold larger inventories. This means that slow but steady selling books don’t remain in stock long and that even books that sell well over the years get reprinted more often and at a higher cost.

Another factor is that a lower percentage of Americans read fiction for pleasure, and many of those who do read fewer books, at least in part because Americans actually work longer hours than do people in any other advanced industrialized society. A related factor is that younger Americans read less and their reading comprehension, all the tests notwithstanding, is lower.

Yet another factor has been the inexorable and steady rise in the price of paper, leading to increased costs of production, and since paper is in fact the largest single cost factor in costs, it can’t be factored away by reductions in other costs.

And, of course, there is the obvious and large problem that, at the moment, people are worried about money and are spending less on many things, including books.

In the end, publishing will survive, but it will change. I have my doubts that ebooks or Kindles or the like will dominate the field, or not for a long time, and I don’t think self-publishing will ever be more than a small percentage of actual titles sold, simply because publishing does provide a decent service [but not outstanding, as noted above] of determining what is readable and popular enough to appeal to millions of Americans.

At the same time, it wouldn’t be such a bad idea if more leaders in the publishing field didn’t ask themselves more questions about how they could improve the quality of their offerings and not just their bottom line.

Money… Philanthropy… and the Arts

A few days ago I attended a memorial service for a friend and neighbor who succumbed to cancer after several harrowing years of medical treatments that eventually failed. The first impression he made on almost everyone was that of a curmudgeon, but behind that exterior was a practical and caring philanthropist, and several hundred people turned out for the memorial service. They didn’t come, for the most part, because he donated money to various local medical, arts, and educational institutions, but because he would not give money without giving his time and advice and physical support and presence as well. Because he did so, even though his name was never tied to a PR-style gift or donation, he touched people, not on a “mass” basis, but one-on-one.

His example, however, got me to thinking about all the people who give and give, of themselves, but who are seldom, if ever, recognized or appreciated because there are no visible dollar signs attached to their efforts. I’m not disabusing those whose philanthropy consists in whole or part of financial support of worthy efforts or institutions, but I am suggesting that we, as a society, tend to think of “philanthropists” almost entirely in terms of their monetary support.

But what about the teachers who, year after year, buy extra supplies and equipment out of their far from extravagant salaries so that their pupils will have a better education and who give of their time well beyond what is required? What about the volunteers who read to students or to those in hospitals and retirement homes? What about the doctors and dentists who spend weeks or months, at their own expense, treating the poor and underprivileged, either here or abroad?

Oh, I know, there is often recognition of “volunteers” on both the community and even the national level, but the distinction made between “volunteer” and “philanthropist” bothers me more than a little.

For example, take a teacher who spends five to ten percent of his or her salary on items used in teaching and for the sole benefit of the students. After thirty years of teaching, that teacher will have effectively donated not only time, but from $50,000 to well over $100,000 to the education of the students. Yet if a local business pledged $50,000 to a single public school, there would certainly be press and recognition.

A “volunteer” reads to students or patients for just five hours a week for, say, forty weeks out of the year. Assuming the value of this effort even at the minimum wage, that reading is worth more than $1,000. Most institutions will list a thousand dollar contributor on their “valued donor” list, but how many list such volunteers in the same way?

What I find equally interesting is that monetary gifts are, in themselves, useless. Fifty thousand, or fifty million, dollars in hundred dollar bills, or in a single check, doesn’t cure people, doesn’t aid or help people. What those gifts do is allow the institution to purchase goods or services that will help people. It’s those goods and services that count in the end… and yet we tend not to recognize those who provide such services on an unpaid and/or unrecognized basis, especially if they’re provided quietly and over time.

To me, this is just another aspect of the worship of financial gain, and the failure of all too many Americans, and perhaps others as well, to understand that amassing money, or even disbursing it, is not anywhere near the only measure of success, or even the full or accurate measure of success… or of philanthropy.

The Always-Wrong Answer

I just read yet another article on the need for education reform in the United States, with its semi-standard prescriptions of better teachers, more focused resources, higher standards, and greater accountability for teachers and schools. This particular article was written by a former CEO of one of the larger U.S. corporations, and he should have known better. In fact, most of the so-called reformers should know better, because almost all of their solutions fall into the “emperor has no clothes” category.

That’s because of the fallacious assumptions that lie behind their recommendations. I may not identify all of the faulty assumptions, but here’s my list:

All or at least most students want to learn.

All students can and should succeed.

The responsibility for student learning lies primarily, if not entirely, upon the teacher.

Formal, classroom-style education is the only way to success in a modern technological society.

First off, speaking as someone who has taught, and coming from a family with a long and broad line of very successful teachers, I can say that very few students actually want to learn if the subject matter is difficult and if they’re given almost any options or excuses not to learn. They talk about wanting to learn, but most don’t want to put in the work required. This is nothing new. It’s a fact of human nature noted all the way back to the time of Socrates. Most students would prefer to be spoon-fed just enough knowledge to obtain their goals.

Second, ALL students will fail at something, somewhere, if they try enough subjects, although the most able may not fail until they’re on the doctoral level in a subject not tailored to their background and inclination. A small percentage of students simply lack more than very rudimentary intellectual skills; a much larger number are good at basic subjects; from then on, the percentage of success will decrease as the difficulty of the subject matter increases. Contrary to popular and political opinions, this is not debatable, but a simple fact of the distribution of human abilities and intelligence.

Students vary greatly in their levels of intellectual capability, their ability and willingness to concentrate, and in their emotional maturity. Setting uniform standards penalizes both the most able and the least able and effectively limits excellence. Equally important, given the variability in student abilities, any system or curriculum designed on the basis of universal student mastery of skills is doomed to failure, either because some students will indeed be unable to master the subject matter and under current political conditions, that is unacceptable, or in fact the standards will be so watered down that they are meaningless, or students will be taught skills by blind rote so that they can pass the appropriate assessment tests. Educational systems — those serving large student bodies — with either excessively high or inordinately low failure rates are themselves failures.

Third, as I’ve noted in an earlier blog, if the teacher is solely responsible for a student’s learning, most students will take the path of least resistance and show little or no initiative. Since they will achieve little, more blame will fall on the teacher, especially if no meaningful adverse consequences from failure to learn fall on the student. The assumption of total teacher responsibility means that the student faces no adverse impacts for failing to learn and can take no earned personal credit for whatever learning is achieved.

Finally, just how many indifferent business school and college graduates, or drop-outs, do we as a society need? We need electricians, mechanics, information technicians and a whole host of professions requiring specialized on-the-job training or at least on-the-job internships. We also need people in service industries. Assuming that classroom education is the only effective form of education is a one-size-fits-all solution that serves no one well and packs too many high school and undergraduate college classrooms with high numbers of students who have little real interest in being there, and even less in learning.

The bottom line, in my book, is simple enough. If you design a system on faulty assumptions, it won’t work, or not well, and the vast majority of proposed educational reforms incorporate at least one of the assumptions I’ve listed above.

Why do they persist? That’s simple, too. It’s the Lake Wobegon syndrome: As a society we have to maintain that all children are above average in intelligence, initiative, and ability, even when it’s painfully obvious that they’re not. But until the “reformers” address their faulty assumptions, American education will face an increasing downward spiral, regardless of standards, legislation, and increased resources.

Ethics and Examples… Including Writing

A survey of almost 30,000 high school students in 100 randomly selected public and private high schools nationwide revealed that 64% of all students have cheated on a test in the past year, and almost forty percent did so repeatedly, while 36% plagiarized assignments from the Internet and 30% stole something from a store. These figures represent an increase of 5% over the past two years, according to the Josephson Institute, which conducted the survey. Most disturbing was the finding that 77% of the students believed that “when it comes to doing what is right I am better than most people I know.”

These figures not only indicate that American public behavior is headed in the wrong direction, but they also suggest that American students are very perceptive. They see misleading advertising on television and understand that it’s effective in selling products. They see unethical behavior in the financial community and note that those who practice it are rewarded with multimillion dollar salaries and bonuses. They read about or watch superheroes who aren’t bound by conventional law and ethics and reap the benefits, as do their creators.

They also see that the people who are the pillars of the community — the teachers, the firefighters, the police, the social workers, nurses, and others — aren’t nearly so well compensated as those who use their intelligence to game the system, regardless of the ethical implications and the adverse effects on others. They also learn that the highest test score counts, no matter how the score is obtained, whether from the high-priced cram school, the higher-priced private school, or outright cheating, and that those high scores are the passports to better colleges and graduate schools and high income professions.

And, alas, the writing community hasn’t done much better. Even in F&SF… and especially in its spin-off sub-genres, various writers and publishers have sold out, in the name of profit and popular entertainment, in order to boost sales in an industry historically plagued with low margins and profitability. Understandable? Yes… but at what cost?

As I noted sometime back, one of the main critics for The Atlantic Monthly effectively trashed F&SF because it didn’t have enough sex. Recently, The New York Times notable book list for 2008 included several novels with passages cited as possible contenders for The Guardian’s “Literary Review of Bad Sex in Fiction” award, at least according to Andrew Wheeler, and not only were such sex scenes bad, but exceedingly graphic. What exactly does the “sex quotient” have to do with the excellence, or lack thereof, of a book? Not much, if anything, but from the best-seller lists, it’s clear that “sex sells,” and it sells big time. Just look at the Laurel Hamilton books and others of the same ilk… and all those hurrying to emulate such sales success.

Now… I certainly understand the need to sell books in order to stay in business, but there are more than a few authors who manage to sell well without resorting to graphic descriptions of human plumbing. I’d also be the first to admit that, at times, in some types of books, a certain amount of sex is necessary to both plot and resolution, but its necessity is far less than all too many authors will insist. Writing sex has always been the fast and dirty way to avoid hard and honest writing, and, in that sense, using bad and graphic sex as a sales tool is only a half-step removed from misleading advertising. For that matter, so is writing “action at all costs,” whether in thrillers or in SF. Again, I’m not against action. I’m just against filling a novel with gadgets and body-counts and pages that might as well be printed in blood for the sake of thrills and pseudo-action that have little to do with either plot or character.

After all, if we blame the financial types for cutting corners in their fields, shouldn’t we look at our own field? Just because the costs aren’t so obvious, or so immediate, doesn’t mean that there aren’t costs. How many of those “cheating” students were hooked on meaningless action movies or graphic novels or books? Or F&SF erotica pumped out as romance? Or vampire sex and slash best-sellers? The message is exactly the same: Self-satisfaction and more dollars at any cost and don’t let ethics, excellence, and good taste get in the way if they’re not convenient.

After all, we are a society that values results, no matter unethically they’re obtained — just so long as we can claim legality… and sometimes, even that doesn’t matter.