Archive for July, 2011

Worth a Thousand Words?

A number of recent comments on my blog have taken issue with and exception to my statements suggesting that comics and graphic novels cannot achieve great intellectual depth of text, especially of the depth possible in books.  Some commenters have even insisted that comics and graphic novels are the equal of books in this regard.

No.  They’re not.   They never will be, and there are structural reasons for this having nothing to do with opinion, mine or anyone else’s.

Contrary to the perception of some, I do not “hate” comics.  And there are some things a comic and a graphic novel can do that even the best book cannot, but those attributes do not lie in the area of intellectual depth and complexity.

Art, even the best abstract and/or illustrative art, cannot set forth abstract ideas, i.e., those ideas which are conceptual and which do not have a basis in the physical world.  A single word concept, such as “peace” or “harmony” or “stasis” or…. [fill in the blank with any number of such concepts] can’t be easily depicted artistically, nor can art itself discuss or describe it adequately – especially without a great number of words [which tends to defeat the idea of a graphic novel].

Nor can art depict highly intellectual or complex feelings or conversations, again, except with the use of text-dense balloons, which, once more, would seem to defeat the whole idea of a graphic novel.

Art is also limited in depicting and/or explaining and describing the deeper psychological interplay within a character or between characters.  As a result, graphic novels are necessity confined to a shallower and a less nuanced interpretation/exposition of character and motivation.

Does that make the graphic novel “less entertaining”?  Not necessarily.  Entertainment value depends on the reader/viewer as much as on the media by which the story is presented.  A graphic presentation, because human visual channels predominate, is likely to be more appealing to those who are less interested in or less capable of absorbing straight text rapidly.  A graphic novel or comic is also likely to be more appealing to those with shorter concentration spans… and thus, for them, more entertaining.

But… should entertainment value be the only standard by which the excellence of presentation of a story is judged?  A three-minute rock song may be more enjoyable to many listeners than a five minute opera aria, but the aria is far more complex and requires far greater expertise to perform – and to appreciate – than the pop song.  A four-hundred page novel, if written competently, will have far greater depth than a graphic novel of the same length, if only because words are far more compact in conveying complexity.

I’m not against art, especially since, once upon a time, I aspired to be an artist and spent several years painting.  Much great art is far, far, superior to a great array of competently written novels – but great art and great writing are two very different fields, with different objectives. As a result, using art to tell stories tends to water down the potential greatness of both art and prose or poetry, and like all compromises, the result is less than either… even if the result is entertaining and “popular.”



Gobekli Tepe

In southernTurkey lies an ancient temple or religious site – Gobekli Tepe – dating to 9000 B.C., by far the oldest human structure discovered to date that was not a dwelling of some sort.  It predatesStonehengeby some 6,000 years. Limestone pillars, including megaliths up to ten tons, shaped with flint tools, set in circular patterns range from plain slab-like posts to more elaborate pillars, some with finely carved sculptures of all sorts of creatures, including lions, snakes, spiders, and scorpions, each sculpted as an integral but protruding part of a different pillar.  Although archeologists have only uncovered an estimated five percent of the site, they’ve found no evidence that the site was used as a dwelling place or where any cooking or food preparation was done.

So far, there’s little evidence to tell what people or culture created it, or for what exact purpose, except that it had to have had some overarching significance to those people, because it’s highly unlikely that a people would undertake such a massive effort to shape such stone with only flint tools without a purpose that lasted generations, if not longer.

 When I think of past human creations that have lasted hundreds, if not thousands, of years, I can’t help but contrast such creations as Gobekli Tepe, the pyramids, Stonehenge, the Acropolis, even the great cathedrals of Europe, or the vast complex at Angkor Wat with our current American culture, where even tangible goods can be obsolete in months, and where houses are often now being built to last only 30 to 40 years. 

The eras in which those incredible ancient structures were built were harsher times, and I have no doubt that the sense of purpose behind their creation was enforced by either applied strength or rigid cultural norms, so rigid that they would be totally alien to the vast majority of Americans, and yet… I have to wonder… what of wonder and permanence will we pass on to future generations?

 Much of what we have done of a permanent nature is less than constructive.  We’ve leveled mountains to pull out coal.  We’ve cut through cliffs and mountains to create roads so that we can travel between places with greater speed.  Even great engineering works, such as thePanama Canal, would fail in a few handfuls of years without constant maintenance.  The stone structures of the Incas have endured earthquakes that have flattened new buildings and homes.

 Nations in these modern times rise and fall in the blink of an eye.  It’s been said that theUnited Statesis the second oldest government in the same form in the world today – and the Constitution that created our government is little more than two hundred twenty years old.  The ancient Egyptian governments lasted thousands of years with little change.

 More than a few social scientists have theorized that technology enables, indeed requires, more rapid cultural, social, and even physical change in the world… but there has to be a limit on how fast that change can take place, if only because the physical and economic realities mean that we are limited in how vast we can built and create.  Of course, we’ve compensated by creating goods and structures that are ever more quickly built and then destroyed or discarded.  Am I totally out of date, or does it seem to anyone else that creating and buying a new cellphone every six to nine months is a bit excessive, especially if we’re talking hundreds of millions, if not billions, of discarded electronic devices every year?

 But maybe that will be the wonder we leave behind, mountains and mountains of discarded electronic corpses, leaching toxic metals and chemicals back into the earth.




Comic Con

This week in San Diego, Comic Con is taking place, where thousands upon thousands of people will flock to, at least ostensibly, pay their respects or show interest in comics and graphic novels – and no, I’m not there. The San Diego Comic Con (SDCC) is certainly not the only comic-based convention, but if past attendance figures are any indication, it’s the largest one in the world, with attendance well over 120,000 fans.  Of course, it’s not entirely about comics, and more than a few media types have billed it as a celebration of geeks and pop culture, but the heart of the convention remains the comic book [and its upscale step-sibling, the graphic novel], along with the big and small screen media spin-offs.


For all the hype, and even considering that there are more than a few well-known fantasy novelists there, the whole operation gives me pause… and that pause is not because the comic con celebrates pop culture, but because, first, it shows where pop culture is and where it is headed and, second, because both pop culture and this celebration of that “culture” are based on the exaggeration of image… and the fact that so many millions of Americans are so poor in imagination that they cannot or will not create images in their own mind.


Back in the dark ages, when I was a boy, there were comic books everywhere.  Even Isaac Asimov read them as a boy, but for the most part, comic books were for the young and those who lacked the mental and intellectual ability to read the printed word and visualize a world evoked by those words.


From what I can tell from sketchy statistics, attendance at the World Science Fiction Convention, while fluctuating by location, has been dropping, and has been as low as 4,000 participants in recent years. By comparison the first California Comic Con was held in San Diego in 1970… and drew all of 300 attendees.  Now SDCC tops 120,000, and some have claimed there are far, far more attendees.  To me, this trend is symptomatic  of the fact that the percentage of serious readers, even among college graduates, continues to drop, but media and comics are booming!


The problem, as I see it, with media and comics as popular culture – besides the fact that, for a time, books were once considered popular culture and now are not – is that the proliferation and consumption of prefabricated images dulls imagination and creativity.  Even among F&SF writers, there are more and more books about narrower and narrower subjects.  When the F&SF field publishes books like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies [a best-seller, no less] or Twilight and all its clones, and every possible permutation on vampires, zombies, and werewolves, including, believe it or not, My Life as a White Trash Zombie, how much room is there for something different from such narrow sensationalism?  Even if there is, how many writers have the background and imagination to write something different?


For well over two decades, experienced F&SF authors have been deploring the dearth of good readable science fiction. But you can’t write science fiction if you don’t know more than a little about science, and readers who don’t understand science – and there are more and more of those – won’t read it because they can’t understand it. The same, unhappily, is becoming truer and truer of any once-popular genre fiction with any depth, and I fear that those writers who attempt to combine substance and depth with a story outside the bounds of the sensational will become rarer and rarer.


But… long live the comic con.


Borders — The Inevitable?

The seemingly inevitable collapse of Borders has occurred, and according to news reports, sales of various individual stores could begin within a week. This unfortunate event, and it is unfortunate for the 11,000 employees who will lose their jobs, for the authors, the publishers, and the entire book and publishing industry, not to mention millions of readers, is the result of years of bad management, mismanagement, and, at times, apparently no real management.  And had anyone at Borders listened ten years ago, it wouldn’t have had to happen.


There are two aspects to the bookselling business that Borders repeatedly ignored, despite advice to the contrary from professionals at all levels in the field [including my comments in the past here, for all the good they did].  The first maxim applies to most retailing, and that is that to be successful, you have to expand or at least maintain sales levels at every outlet – not necessarily in every line of merchandise, but at each and every store. Sales drive success.  Period.  That also means you can’t sell what you don’t have, yet for the past five years or so, Borders has continued to reduce the range and the inventory of books carried, while expanding or maintaining non-book items [and taking a huge bath in recorded music].  For a bookseller, that’s idiocy.


Second, you have to understand your product and your customers. Yet, so far as I can determine, every CEO Borders has had over at least the past ten years has either been an accounting type or an executive from a field totally unrelated to bookselling.  At one time, according to my industry contacts, the head buyer at Borders for F&SF had been a hardware buyer specializing in hammers, with no experience in books.  By comparison, one of the most successful book publishing firms in the past generation has been Tor/Forge, which grew from a start-up to an industry giant in two decades – and it was founded and remains controlled by Tom Doherty, who began as a junior book salesman.  Although Tom is a highly literate man who can also line edit a book with the best, he understood sales… and it’s more than clear that the Borders CEOs didn’t.


Unlike almost any other commodity sold in large numbers in the industrialized world, books are unique in that each novel, even novels in a series by best-selling novelists, is different from any other novel.  The differences may range from rather minor to enormous, and the range between different books by the same author also differs greatly from author to author.  Successful booksellers know this.  Successful chain booksellers design systems that at least try to take this into account.  Borders’ systems were never as successful in this regard, and they often underbought, and then had to re-order, losing sales in the process because, simple as it sounds, they didn’t seem to understand that basic point that you can’t sell what you don’t have… or the fact that, on average for most authors, more than 50% of a new hardcover’s sales occur in something like the first eight weeks.


Borders also acquired Waldenbooks, at the time a successful and profitable mall store operation of some 1,800 outlets… and promptly began to try to run Waldenbooks on the big-box model.  When that didn’t work, they cut inventory, and did so in ways that were counter-productive.  For example, because a large percentage of mall store customers are impulse buyers, someone who enters the fiction section will generally look for the latest release by a favorite author or the first book in a series [or a stand-alone novel] if that reader doesn’t see the latest “favorite” book.  The “new” policy at Waldenbooks, forced by the accountants, was to carry the latest novel in a series and not much else, leaving the impulse buyers, particularly in romance, thrillers, and F&SF even more limited choices… and reducing sales.


Now… why should you believe my observations?  Because over the last fifteen years, I’ve physically visited almost 40% of all the B&N stores, more than 35% of the Borders stores [based on their largest number], and over 20% of the initial number of Waldenbooks.  I’ve walked the aisles and talked to the booksellers and customers… and still do… and I’d be astonished if any member of senior management at Borders has been in as many stores over as many years as I have been – and it was their business. There was essentially no difference between the store personnel in Borders stores and those in B&N stores, at least until the end, but there were enormous differences in corporate management.


It’s also fair to say that Borders was hampered from the beginning by a number of very bad policies.  First, although this changed somewhat in the last five to ten years, when it was a case of too little, too late, the initial store layouts of the Border’s stores resembled larger versions of small cozy bookstores.  That is fine for small cozy bookstores, but the larger the early Borders stores got, the harder it became to find books [and wayward children].  Then the initial Borders policy of separating hardcovers and paperbacks effectively depressed sales and irritated many readers. Borders locations were, generally, somewhat harder to find – and I know, because I was trying to find many of them with a rental car, a map, and telephone directions in city after city.


For all of that, I’ll miss Borders, and so will millions of readers, because there are all too many places in the United States where the Borders was the only bookstore with a wide selection, and the loss of such stores will become another factor chipping away at American literacy.  The loss of sales will likely cut short the careers of a number of low midlist authors whose sales were borderline, and it will certainly hurt the revenues of traditional publishers, but in the short run it will impact most all those hard-working booksellers who loved books and will now face a far grimmer economic future.




Fitting the Mold

 Just recently, a comparatively young British author, with several highly-praised and decent-selling fantasy novels, announced that she was leaving her full-time writing to become a chemistry teacher.  Her reason for doing so?  The pressure to write at least a book a year and to promote each book endlessly and enthusiastically.

More than a few other aspiring authors will doubtless shake their heads, perhaps even mutter under their breath  that the author in question is acting “spoiled.”  After all, aren’t authors in the business to write and sell books?  And writing and selling books requires producing regularly and selling.  Those are the conditions required by the profession today. Certainly, in other professions, such as medicine, law, dentistry, I’ve know those who left a profession because of the conditions exacted by the profession itself. Writing on a professional level isn’t any different… or shouldn’t be.

At the same time… writers come in all flavors, predispositions, with wide ranges of ability.  Some can easily write a good book a year, if not more, and others may labor for years to produce a good book.  Still others may labor for years to produce a barely publishable novel.  Unfortunately, as massive conglomerates have taken over the publishing business, and as tele-media hype has invaded the printed fiction market, the pressures on publishers, editors, and writers to produce more books – and preferably more of whatever sold a lot last time – has continued to increase.

On top of that, as the British author noted, writers are supposed to become one-person non-stop marketing machines to build their celebrity, despite the fact that the traits that make one a good writer are usually not the ones that make one a “good” celebrity. The problem with the current system is that it presses all writers toward being the same, creating similar, disposable, and soon forgotten entertainment.  By doing so, it makes it harder and harder for writers who don’t fit the mold to be successful financially, and that means that unique writers and books are becoming a smaller and smaller percentage of the market.

Frankly, I’m one of the fortunate authors, because I was able to build readership gradually, literally over more than a decade, in a way that is, from what I’m now observing, close to impossible for most newer authors.  These newer, and usually younger, authors face two sets of distinctly different pressures – first, to create something that sells well and that is distinctive, but not too distinctive or different and, second, to continue with the same “franchise” without losing the novelty that distinguished them in the beginning.  This is virtually impossible for any length of time.

To date, I’ve written four fantasy series, all in different “universes,” all with distinctly different magic systems and cultures, and all with more than one set of main characters and with individual books telling stories in different time periods. And, along the way, I’ve also continued to write and successfully sell stand-alone SF novels. Twenty years ago, that sort of approach was rare, but I certainly was far from the only author who did so.  Today, offhand, I can’t think of a single other younger author who does so, suggesting to me, at least, that such an approach has become even rarer, although there must be some who still do.  That there are so few doesn’t surprise me, not with the emphasis of marketing and hype, because, unless an author is well-known, trying to sell a new and different series or novel becomes more and more difficult, especially a second series.  It also doesn’t lend itself to media tie-ins of the sort such as A Game of Thrones. In the fantasy field, in particular, there are almost no huge best-selling stand-alone novels, and I can only think of a single writer who has had top-fifteen best-sellers in different fantasy series [although he didn’t create one of the best-selling series].

The problem with this market-driven approach to publishing is that it tends to reward “more of the same and faster please” rather than “better and different.”  And that’s a pity, especially when it leads talented authors to walk away from the field because they don’t fit “the marketing mold.”  It also rewards disproportionately those authors who are able to spin out one series endlessly and, to a much lesser degree, those who’ve been able to establish themselves as a “brand” apart from any specific work. 

And that’s why, unless matters change, especially in fantasy, we’re likely to keep seeing most authors tied to a single massive series.

When Education Doesn’t Help

In reading over the backgrounds of various would-be candidates for president, I came across one with an apparently outstanding educational background – college degree, followed by two different law degrees, government service, and later, election to Congress.  So how can such an outstanding individual, at least on paper, claim that global warming is a hoax?  I’m well aware that there are still some reputable climate scientists who have doubts about the human contribution to global warming, but the vast, vast majority of reputable scientists in the field have virtually all come to the conclusion that global warming is real and indisputable, even if they don’t all agree on the cause or causes. Every glacier in the northern hemisphere is melting away, as well as most in the southern hemisphere.  The northern polar ice is at its smallest dimension since records have been kept.


So how can a clearly well-educated individual dispute global warming?  Isn’t education supposed to allow one to look at all the facts and come to a wiser conclusion?


Not exactly.  A wide array of analyses and tests on brain and mental functions over the past decade has established that education usually doesn’t work that way because the majority of human beings are subject to a mental process called “confirmation bias.”  In the simplest terms, this means that virtually all of us tend to form our opinions first and then seek confirmation of those opinions afterward.  In practice, recent studies show it gets worse than that, because more highly educated individuals have access and exposure to a far wider range of facts and information – and then pick and choose the facts necessary to support their view.  In dealing with global warming, for example, they’ll pick the three studies out of a thousand that dispute global warming, and claim that those studies are the ones that count.  Precisely because such individuals are more highly educated, their convictions are even more unshakable than individuals who are less highly educated, and they’re generally unresponsive even to a massive weight of evidence.


The problem is even worse when such individuals deal with issues outside their fields of expertise, because they firmly believe that their expertise applies everywhere.  This is why often noted scientists or other professionals take strange positions in fields in which their expertise is limited or non-existent, such as attorneys in politics becoming “experts” in economics or environmental or trade issues,


I have to wonder how many of these politicians ask the simple question, “Do I believe this just because I want to?”  But, even if they do ask the question, I fear that their confirmation bias will tell them that they’re just analyzing the facts accurately… and that all those who disagree with them just don’t understand the obvious.  I mean… isn’t it obvious?



Lost in Translation

I recently read a review in The Economist of a new translation by the poet John Ashbery of Arthur Rimbaud’s Illuminations.  Rimbaud, of course, was l’enfant terrible of nineteenth century French poetry, but also a creative genius who died as a trader in Africa, never even knowing that Verlaine and others had published his various poems in book form in his absence.

One of the aspects of Rimbaud’s genius, according to the reviewer, was the way in which he used words, often choosing words with multiple and conflicting definitions, where each definition of the word imparted a differing but still relevant meaning to the line and the poem as a whole.  The reviewer also points out, that in some cases, because the English translations of the French words do not have such multiple meanings, that Ashbery was forced to choose between one of two or three English words, thus limiting the impact of the word or line as rendered in English.

As a writer, I’ve also come across similar problems in dealing with the translation of my words into another language.  The most obvious case was the Swedish translation of The Magic of Recluce.  I was initially approached by a Swedish reader who was also a translator.  He told me that the name “Recluce” did not translate into Swedish, and that the allusions contained in Recluce didn’t, either. We talked for a time, and then he later emailed me with good news and bad news.  The good news was that the alternative names he’d worked out for certain places in the Recluce Saga had been accepted by a Swedish publisher, and that the book would be translated into Swedish.  The bad news was that he didn’t get the translation assignment. [I did give him an exclusive interview, which he said he’d managed to sell.]  So, The Magic of Recluce appeared in Sweden and the Scandinavian countries as Larlingstid: Sarlands Historia… and I have no idea what the connotations and allusions of that title are in Swedish.

The problems in translation, unhappily, go well beyond the simple, because there’s more than the meaning of mere words to deal with. Terry Pratchett, for example, once said that a translator contacted him and complained that quite a number of terms and puns and other things didn’t translate into the language at hand.  Sir Terry is reputed to have said, “Don’t translate it literally.  Just make it funny!”  I pity the translator, but supposedly he did the job… and well.

And at times, a writer’s very outlook can’t be conveyed into another language.  When I was told that a Russian publisher had picked up the rights to several of my novels, my initial reaction was to say, “Please… no…”  But I followed the professional’s creed, smiled, pocketed the modest royalties… and winced in silence.  From what I can tell, the books did horribly, and that didn’t surprise me, from what I’ve learned about Russian outlooks and culture from a number of close Russian friends.  Interestingly enough, and far from surprising, the only readers I know who like the Russian versions are people who are bilingual in Russian and English.

At times, though, translations work marvelously well.  I know a mid-list writer who’s never had a smashing success in the United States, but who wrote a historical fantasy set in Turkey – and the Turkish edition was at the top of the Turkish best-seller list for close to a year.  It may have helped that the translation was done by a well-known Turkish poet [even in Turkey, it appears, poets can’t make a living on just their poetry].

Then there’s the English/American issue.  More than a handful of famous people and wits have deplored the fact that Americans and Brits, not to mention Scots, the Irish, and even Aussies, don’t speak the same language, even when we’re using the same words.  For some reason, it appears that I write in a form of English that appeals to certain people in all English-speaking lands, but appeals only to a handful of editors, even in the United States.  Perhaps the one area where my appeal to readers is as great, if not greater on a percentage basis, as in the United States is in the central and western reaches of Canada.  Can I explain why?  No… but I’m grateful, whatever the reason.

Based on observation and experience, I’d caution beginning writers not to agonize over translations. All you can do is hope for a good translator who can make your words work… and pocket the royalties with a smile.

“Winning,” Money, and Justice

In a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision [ Connick vs. Thompson], the Court ruled 5-4, essentially that the office of the District Attorney in the city of New Orleans did not have a responsibility to ensure that its attorneys were properly trained, and therefore, the city was not liable for unprofessional behavior on the part of the four attorneys who withheld and suppressed evidence that would have exonerated a man erroneously sentenced to death… and thus the city had to pay no damages to the man who had spent 18 years in prison.  Less than a month before Thompson’s scheduled execution, a private investigator discovered that prosecutors had hidden evidence that exonerated Thompson. Later investigations discovered that in 25% of the death penalty convictions during the tenure of District Attorney Connick as chief prosecutor, evidence was withheld or suppressed by the DA’s office.

New Orleans is far from the first city in which such abuses have occurred, but it does appear to have been the first in which they’ve been documented so thoroughly, and that documentation and the fragmentary evidence from other cities strongly suggests that all too often district attorneys are more interested in “winning” than in justice.  Unfortunately, the Supreme Court’s decision in the Thompson case also illustrates, to my way of thinking, how coservatives, from business executives to politicians to jurists, so revere the conservation of money for those who have it in large amounts, that they are willing to twist the law, and the federal budget to almost any extreme.  Don’t get me wrong – I’m equally willing to point out that the far left has for years essentially taken the position that all income effectively belongs to the government, and that government should determine what income levels are “fair” through the taxation system.  In addition, the far left has effectively endorsed, through its support of unbridled tort claims against business, the medical profession, and any defendant with “deep pockets”, that justice can be obtained merely through massive damage claims, despite decades of experience that shows that seldom, if ever, do malpractice claims resulted in expelling poor physicians from practice or in obtaining actual improvement of products and services.  What such tort claims do accomplish, in the majority of cases, particularly class action lawsuits, is to enrich the lawyers.

Both the liberals and the conservatives are wrong in focusing on money and/or winning, rather than on law or justice, because in focusing on winning and money, the justice system reverts to trial by combat, and in that combat, ethics and justice both lose to unbridled ambition and greed.

While the Thompson case certainly was about money, the Court did not, and likely could not, deal with the issue of whether the compensation Thompson had obtained from the lower court case was excessive.  The Court could, and should, have held that the previous case law and precedents required that the city of New Orleans had a duty to train its district attorneys to follow the law themselves, while noting that the compensation awarded to Thompson for their failure to do so was excessive.  Instead, the Court overturned those precedents. That decision was a clear indication that the U.S. Supreme Court, as presently constituted, is far less interested in justice than it is in making a statement about excessive tort claims, twisting the law to do so, and thus, in effect, legalizing the unethical and unprofessional behavior of local prosecutors who had themselves twisted, if not broken, the law.

In the Thompson case, the prosecutors broke the law, convicted an innocent man, and, after the fact, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that more than twenty years of case law did not apply, and therefore the city of New Orleans had absolutely no legal liability for failing to ensure that its attorneys followed the law. And if a local government cannot be held accountable, how can anyone be sure of justice?

Or is the Court decision merely an after-the-fact affirmation that in the United States, the pursuit of money and winning at any cost trumps justice every time?