Archive for October, 2013

“Literary” Fiction

Recently, an article in New Scientist cited a study that showed readers of “literary fiction” displayed more empathy than did readers of “popular” fiction.  After the wave of nausea, disgust, and anger passed, I couldn’t help but think how great a disservice the  English-speaking “literati” have done to both authors and the reading public by making an artificial distinction – that supposedly represents quality – between popular and/or genre fiction and so-called literary fiction. This disdain seems to be less pronounced in the United Kingdom than in the United States, but that’s my view as an outsider to British literary circles.  Unfortunately, this distinction is reinforced by a goodly number of the F&SF publishers, possibly because they really don’t want it known that the distinction is artificial and that there are “literary-quality” genre books.  Heaven forbid, people might not read any F&SF book if they thought they might have to think, or perhaps it just makes marketing that much simpler.

Personally, I think most readers know exactly what they want to read, and even what type of book suits their mood at a particular time.  Despite the labels and marketing hype and misleading cover blurbs, experienced readers find authors who appeal to them. 

I have no problem with observations about the quality of writing, provided those observations are accurate and based on the words of the author, but I have a huge objection to automatically categorizing fiction on the basis of either genre or popularity. It’s definitely true that a great amount of best-selling “mainstream” fiction, i.e., popular fiction, does not present great depth and sophistication, and the same holds true for much of genre fiction – but not all of either is without depth and great skill in writing.  Just look at the consternation when everyone discovered that J.K. Rowling had published an “adult” novel under a pseudonym… and that it was considered rather good.

 Margaret Atwood, whether she will ever admit it or not, writes science fiction in a literary style, but it’s still science fiction.  So does Gene Wolfe, but Gene’s work is considered F&SF, while Atwood’s is literary fiction. There are more than a few F&SF titles published every month that, in terms of style, sophistication, and depth, meet every so-called “literary” criterion.  Yet, particularly in the United States, it seems to me, the literary establishment cannot seem to bear the thought that a genre writer, or a popular writer, might actually exhibit some skill while actually telling an entertaining story with depth and an exploration of life and meaning beyond the tried and true tropes that still seem to shackle so much of so-called literary fiction.

Despite the disdain of genre fiction, particularly F&SF, by American “literati,” more and more ideas and approaches from F&SF are turning up in so-called mainstream fiction, and, likewise, more “literary” approaches to writing are appearing in F&SF.  Both are very good developments;  it’s just too bad that all too many members of the self-proclaimed [if quietly and in a falsely self-deprecating manner that ostensibly denies such membership] American literati don’t understand that.  They’d do far better to concentrate on celebrating good fiction, regardless of labels.


Many years ago, I went to Washington, D.C., as a junior legislative director for a U.S. Congressman.  At that time, all or at least the vast majority of budget authorizations and appropriations bills were being passed by both House and Senate before the end of the fiscal year.  Several terms passed, and I became the staff director for another congressman, and the fiscal year was shifted several months to the present system because Congress was having trouble passing appropriations on time.  More years passed, and, after more time as a Congressional staff director, and then as a Director of Legislation at EPA, and a stint with a D.C. consulting firm,  I left Washington.  By then Congress was failing to pass quite a number of appropriations bills and relying more and more on stop-gap continuing resolutions.

We’re now to the point where, for the past three years, Congress has been unable to pass any individual appropriations bills and has lumped everything into a continuing resolution, or several sequential resolutions. And this year, Congress couldn’t even pass something like that on time and shut down a good-sized chunk of the government for half a month.  At the same time, the annual federal budget deficit has ballooned, although, as a result of a slightly improved economy and the cuts forced by the meat-ax of the “sequester,” the deficit has dropped considerably this past year.

And in another three months or so, we’ll likely go through another version of the same manufactured crisis.

Still… I have to ask, what gives?  When I left working for Congress more than thirty years ago, computers were in their infancy and most Congressional offices relied on electric typewriters and hand calculators.  So did most government agencies.  But everything got done, generally on time, if sometimes at the last moment.  Congress currently passes more legislation than it did thirty years ago, but accomplishes less of substance, and it argues over absolutely everything, or so it seems.

The Congress can’t seem to agree on much of anything, but then, from all the polls I’ve seen, and from talking to people everywhere, this lack of agreement in Congress seems to reflect a lack of agreement among those who elect members of Congress.

So is it really the fault of Congress?  Or is it ours… and it’s just much easier to blame the people we’ve elected when we insist that they follow the majority in their state or district, or we’ll remove them from office?  

Beyond The Impasse

Although Congress is apparently deadlocked, all members of Congress do agree on one thing.  Someone else should pay for it.  The far right wants the poor to pay… by cutting their benefits, access to insurance and various other assistance.  The left wants the richest to pay, and those in the middle want anyone else but the middle class to pay.  Those who are more affluent are tired of paying the largest share of taxes, and they want tax cuts.  Various industries want tax subsidies, and when one industry gets a lower tax bill than another, that is indeed a goody, regardless of the rationale. The same is true of tax breaks for individuals, for whatever reason.

This is likely the road to disaster, because what gets paid for will be decided by the votes bought on the extremes.  Despite paying the lowest tax rates in almost a century, the upper one percent will fight and bribe anyone they can, legally, of course, through contributions, to keep unrealistically low tax rates low, and to lower them more, if possible.

 The poorest Americans will vote where they can for programs that often provide better benefits than those enjoyed by the working poor holding down two jobs or more.  Those in the middle, if recent events are any indication, will get more and more upset at stagnant wages and higher costs of living and are likely to throw their lot in with the one percent… which will only maintain or increase the current deficit and make the increasing numbers of the poor and working poor angrier and angrier.

Corporations and businesses under pressure to post or increase profits will continue to lobby against any program or law that adds costs to their doing business and will likely press for anything to keep labor costs low, which is why they keep hiring part-timers and oppose the ACA.  The problem there is that the corporate tax rate is so riddled with loopholes that a huge percentage of large businesses don’t pay anything near the statutory rate.  In fact, the U.S. has just about the highest corporate tax rate on the books… and close to the lowest actual tax revenue, thanks to the loopholes.

Pretty much everyone in Congress seems to ask, publicly at least, “How will we pay for what we’ve done and want to do?”  But beyond that, nothing gets done on reducing long-term federal spending because each side insists that its programs are sacrosanct and its constituents are already paying too much in the way of taxes.

Right now, of course, the Republicans are blaming the President, just as two terms ago the Democrats were blaming the previous President.  What both parties publicly ignore and what the public somehow seems to forget is that the President can’t authorize or appropriate anything.  That’s up to Congress.  No one else.

Years ago, the Supreme Court declared that the President must spend what Congress orders spent… and the Administration must collect the taxes legislated by the Congress, or not collect them if Congress has legislated tax breaks.  This mess is Congress’ doing, not President Bush’s and not President Obama’s… and a good first step toward fixing it would be to recognize just that.   

The Price of Freedom

The other night I was discussing the problem of gun-related deaths and violence with some friends. One declared that he saw no need for gun owners to have fifteen or fifty bullet magazine clips or high caliber long range sniper rifles. The other immediately asked, “How many domestic murders have involved sniper rifles or expensive specialty firearms?” Off-hand, none of us could think of any, although I’m certain that there must be some. Then we wondered about background checks… and something else struck me – the underlying issue behind much of what has polarized the political system.

It’s actually pretty simple… and appalling, and I’ll get to it in a bit, but first, a few observations in the way of background. Two generations ago or so, in the United States, there weren’t near as many abortions as there are now, for several reasons. First, abortion was essentially illegal, as well as morally condemned, and unwed motherhood disgraced both the mother and her family [not the father or his family, for some reason]. But there were a great number of “shotgun” weddings and “premature” births involving recently married couples. Likewise, despite the outbursts and spectacular recent killings, the murder rate is at fifty year low, but accidental deaths from guns tends to track the number of firearms in circulation. For all that, the rate of deaths from firearms in the U.S. is almost twenty times that of the average of other industrialized nations, and the reason is very simple. Most of them simply don’t allow the number and range of personal firearms that the U.S. does. With over 300 million firearms in private hands in the U.S., banning or eliminating them is a practical impossibility. So what else can be done to reduce gun deaths? Stricter background checks? The Newtown shooting wouldn’t have been stopped by that, nor by the checks most are proposing. Nor, most likely, would the Aurora theatre shooting . Far stricter standards would be necessary, standards at which most Americans would balk.

Now… add the issue of the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare. What has the far right up in arms is what they see as a denial of freedom, the fact that the goal of the ACA is to require everyone to have insurance. Without such insurance more than 30 million people will not have equal access to health care, and quite a number of them will die, or die earlier, from such lack of access [and the rest of us will pay for expensive partial care for those who don’t, but that’s another issue].

There’s a pattern here, and, as I said above, it’s pretty simple… and brutal. The freedom to have guns, to have abortions, and to refuse to require to insist everyone have health insurance – and for other “freedoms” as well – results in a far higher level of deaths in our society than would otherwise be the case.

To maintain the degree of freedom that we apparently insist upon means that we will incur, as a society, a great number of deaths that would not occur if we were less “free.” And the associated question that goes with that is whether those costs are willingly being paid by those who largely incur them – the poor, the uneducated, the innocent victims, often just bystanders, of shootings – or whether those costs are being foisted off on them by those who cite their need for “freedom,” because, like it or not, the freedom to bear arms or have an abortion, or not to have health insurance imposes costs, often in lives lost, on others. So does the “freedom” to hire part-time workers instead of full-timers.

In short, the price of these kinds of freedom is paid in blood, often the blood of innocents, and more often than the price is not paid by those who lobby and tout such freedoms, but by those who don’t have the advantages of those who insist on the need for those freedoms, yet I don’t see this argument being raised, except in the case of abortion. Why not in other matters? Aren’t the lives of those already born as valuable as those of the unborn? Either way, it’s a double standard that continues to go unrecognized.

The Stalemate – American Political Terrorism

The current political stalemate between a U.S. House of Representatives dominated and, in effect, terrorized by the far right and the U.S. Senate and the President is a clear indication, at least to me, that the ultra-conservative elements in U.S. politics have more in common with the Taliban than with Thomas Jefferson or Alexander Hamilton. The far right opposes the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, and has decided that, since it has been unable to prevail through the normal legislative process, it will do whatever it takes, no matter what the cost to the country and the world economy, to destroy the ACA.

In taking this stance, the far right has abandoned any pretense at principles in the pursuit of what they conveniently call principle, but which is a stand on a single issue, and nothing more, because the only principle behind opposing the ACA is to establish that access to healthcare is determined solely by economic status and  resources. Not only are the ultra-conservatives willing to destroy the economic well-being of both the nation and the world economic system to establish this “principle,” but they’re effectively bent on subverting the underlying basis of the Constitution [which they cite continually and erroneously] if they don’t get their way, despite the fact that they are in the minority. In effect, they’re demanding rule by the minority effectively outside the accepted and legal structure of our system. That makes compromise by the President and the Democrats impossible without establishing the fact that any law can be negated by a minority of members of Congress who are willing to risk destroying the system if they don’t get their way. 

In that sense, they’ve established that they’re not politicians, but political terrorists, because their actions place their “principle,” one that is not accepted by the majority through established process, above the common well-being, and they are willing to create great suffering to get their way. That’s not politics, but terrorism

The House Majority leader, John Boehner, claims that he doesn’t have enough Republican votes to pass a continuing resolution, at least not one that doesn’t defund or delay the Affordable Care Act, and the President suggested that Boehner bring up such a “clean” resolution and see.  Boehner, so far, has refused, saying that what the President demands is unconditional surrender, while the President has pointed out that giving in to the demands of a minority that cannot muster the votes to obtain what they want through the normal legislative process is blackmail, and he isn’t about to be blackmailed.

If the President gives in to the far right, it will establish the precedent that political terrorism overrides the will of the majority.  If he doesn’t, he risks great economic catastrophe on a world-wide basis and long-term higher costs for everything in the United States. 

This stalemate isn’t about federal spending.  It’s not even about Obamacare.  It’s about political terrorism and the entire future of the United States.   

Accountants…and Other Finance Types

In Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Jack Cade proposes killing all the lawyers, a passage that has been debated, interpreted, and re-interpreted a number of times, but which is most likely based on the English dissatisfaction in the fourteen century with the legal profession’s use of its skills to bolster the position of the gentry over the peasantry and middle class. The American legal system has not yet reached that nadir, since it appears to be equally willing to litigate on behalf of anyone, that is, so long as its healthy fees are paid.  There is, however, another profession whose excesses have gone less noticed…and whose “successes” have contributed greatly to the sad state of both the American economy and society.

I refer, of course, to the accountants, those bean-counters extraordinaire who know the cost and price of everything and the value of nothing.  Nor do they understand, unhappily, business or, for that matter, economics. I don’t think it is coincidental in the slightest that all too many of the CEOs of failing companies that in fact collapsed, including Borders Books, were accountants.  Calling in an accountant when a company is in trouble is like prescribing blood-letting for a victim in traumatic shock from loss of blood.  One of the “cost-saving” tricks ordered by Borders was to return inventory to publishers in order to gain credit to purchase new releases.  Let’s see… reduce the variety and depth of what you have to sell… and you think that’s going to do what?

On my last book tour, I signed at a bookstore where the events manager informed me that “management” had informed him that he could no longer order additional back-stock for authors who were doing signings.  This is typical of accountant-idiocy.  First, at least at my signings, a healthy percentage of book sales, sometimes as much as 50%, comes from the sale of new copies of older books – that is, where back-stock is available – largely because potential new readers prefer a less expensive paperback and won’t generally buy a new hardcover of an author they haven’t already read. Second, unsold books are returnable.  Third, they’ll likely sell anyway, if over a longer period.  Fourth, a percentage of those readers who bought paperbacks will return and buy more books.  In short, there’s very little downside and a considerable upside, but the accountant only sees an immediate cost-outlay. 

This sort of short-sightedness isn’t just something that affects bookselling.  What about the CEO of J.C.Penny who tried to rebrand the store by eliminating coupons and sales in the middle of the great recession? When Penny’s greatest appeal to its core market was just those sales and coupons? That, of course, just caused sales and revenues to plummet further and faster.  And then there are all those accountants who’ve decided that hiring two or three part-time employees to replace one full-time employee to save a few dollars is the way to go, but don’t think about whether all those part-timers will have enough money to buy the goods and services that keep the economy going. Then there was that former giant of the accounting field, Arthur Andersen, which certified the accounts of Enron… and then saw itself litigated into oblivion.

In 2006, the great and revered management consultant Peter Drucker made the point to a conference of CEOs that “No one, but no one, in your company knows less about your business than your CFO.”  Despite Drucker’s observation, the number of CEOs with an accounting or finance background is at an all-time high, and so are profits… but sales are flat, and good full-time jobs are down. 

Coincidence?  I don’t think so.

Thoughts on E-books

A reader recently complained about the $10.99 price on the electronic version of The One-Eyed Man being too high, but the retail hardcover price is $25.99,  and the discounted on-line hardcover price is $16.85 [as I write this].  So why do some readers consider a price of $10.99 so expensive for a just-released book?  Buying a currently published book should be about the story, not about the format.  Rare books are another question, I fully grant.  But, in fact, the amount that a reader pays for the story put forth in electronic format is about the same as what another reader pays for that story in a hardcover.  The price differential is the difference in cost of how it’s presented.  Those people who insist that ebooks should be hugely cheaper because the electronic costs of production are so much cheaper are confusing the cost of physical production with the costs of creating the story itself, including… ahem… paying the author, and getting that story to the point of physical production.

I’ve read enough self-published “stuff,” as well as enough manuscripts from writers and would-be writers, to say that all the work that’s done by publishers between the writer’s turning in what he or she thinks is a finished novel and when a final product is delivered does greatly improve the work, and at times turns something nearly unreadable into a gem.  Even those writers who could handle all those details benefit, because they take time, and they also take contacts and skill. I’ll grant that there are some writers who can produce finished work and who also have the technical skills, or can muster others with those skills, to self-publish a credible product. But such authors are very, very far and few between, and many of them have learned to do so through their experience with the publishing industry… and the time spent doing such tasks is time not spent creating the next book, and that’s another cost that’s often overlooked.

The demands for lower ebook prices don’t consider another valuable service provided by publishers. They greatly reduce the time and energy required to find a readable book.  Now… I’ve heard some writers and readers claim that there are sites on the internet that will or could do that as well. So far, I haven’t seen a single one that does.  I’ve seen many sites that comment on what the publishers do, but second-guessing what someone else has done is easy.  Plowing through thousands of self-published books and analyzing and reporting on them is anything but… and I suspect the economics of doing that will limit those who can do that, especially those who could do it well.  As for reader reviews… forget it. Most reader reviews are either by fans or by those who hate a book, and few of either are that valuable to a reader unfamiliar with an author… and how can a reader unfamiliar with a self-published author tell which is which?

There’s another side to ebooks as well.  They save on storage space for apartment dwellers or others with space issues for storing hardback or paperback books. For some people, this is a great advantage.  So why do readers who seek the latest IPhone ap complain about a format that provides advantages and is actually cheaper than the hardback format that doesn’t?  And a novel in e-format is cheaper than the latest movie, or close to it, and offers the advantage of being able to read it again… and again. And costs the same, or less, than the paperback format once the paperback is released?

Just a few thoughts…

What ACA/Obamacare Reveals

Over the past weeks and months, I’ve encountered more and more examples of people either losing jobs or having their working hours cut so that their employer would not have to pay health care benefits as a result of the requirements of the Affordable Care Act.  And like many people, I’m beginning to get outraged – but not at the ACA. I’m outraged for another reason, one based on the interplay of economics and human nature.

Let us assume you have a business, one with employees, and that you provide a service or produce some physical goods, or perhaps both.  To be successful, any business must bring in more income than what it costs to provide the goods and services that generate that income.  Those costs include what you pay for raw materials, equipment, office supplies, heat, power, rent or mortgage payments for whatever property you need, parts, taxes, permits, fees for accountants, legal services …and wages and possibly benefits for employees.

If a business owner needs a lawyer or an accountant, the owner is going to have to pay more for someone with those skills and credentials.  If the business needs a mechanic, the same is true.  The only levels of employees whose wages are not “protected” in some way are those whose skills do not require specific training or credentials or those who are professionals in fields where there are substantial numbers of unemployed individuals, such as graduate academics. No one protests, or not too loudly [and if they do, few listen] about what it costs to hire a lawyer, a plumber, an accountant, a computer programmer.  But almost every business owner I know complains about the costs of lower-paid individuals, and they complain even more when the government raises those costs, through either the minimum wage or something like ACA/Obamacare, and all too many of those same business owners do everything they can to keep wage costs low for those individuals.  The same is absolutely true of state colleges and universities, with their reliance on low-paid clerical and security staff, and poorly paid teaching assistants and adjuncts.

What this shows, quite clearly, is that, at least in the United States, a sizable chunk of business, higher education, and at least certain parts of government are quite willing to squeeze everything they can out of those employees lowest on the totem pole, whether by hiring double the number of part-timers, or avoiding providing the benefits paid the higher-compensated full-timers, all the time protesting that paying living wages and health insurance for those lowest-paid employees will put them out of business, yet expecting someone else to provide health care, either government or other employers and workers [through higher health care premiums]. And, again, for the most part, those who complain the most are those most insulated from the lack of affordable health care, which, like it or not, translates into the availability of insurance for those low-paid workers.

Yet at the same time, we, as a society, make no distinction between those individuals who work hard and cannot afford health care and those who hardly work.  As a society, we have effectively determined that no one can be denied health care, even those individuals who are clear and total freeloaders.  Is that willful blindness… or hypocrisy… or some combination of both?

Interestingly enough, I also don’t see anyone asking questions on the other side of the issue.  Why should we have any interest in preserving businesses and institutions that can only survive by exploiting people who are working hard to that degree?  Or is it that we all want everything so cheaply that we don’t really care about those people?  And why do so many people vote for politicians who support that view?

Other Worlds

The other day I was talking with people at a wedding.  The majority of them were Republicans, and all of them opposed the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare.  What floored me wasn’t so much that they opposed the ACA, but the grounds on which they opposed it.  One man told me that anyone who couldn’t afford health insurance was covered by state Medicaid.  Another person insisted that if someone couldn’t afford health instance, she didn’t want to pay for it.  When I pointed out that all of us are already paying for the uninsured through higher medical prices to cover unpaid emergency room and hospital care, she said that they could go to InstaCare, as if local acute care clinics didn’t have the same problem as hospitals and emergency rooms.

 While my wife and I are fortunate enough to have health insurance and in a position where we cannot be denied coverage, we both have seen and continue to see the array of problems.  There’s the college student born with hydroencephalitis, who works minimum wage jobs and cannot get insurance nor meet the criteria for Medicaid.  There are the scores of self-supporting college students who have injuries or long-term health problems whose parents refuse to include them on their own health insurance, or whose parents themselves have no insurance. There are the Walmart employees whose hours are capped so that they cannot have health benefits.  There was the wife of a friend whose cancer treatments were not covered by his company’s health insurance policy and who died because the cancer spread while they tried to raise money for a deposit demanded by the hospitals in order to prove they could pay for the treatment.  Or the full-time retail employee who did have health insurance, but was hospitalized, required surgery, and even after insurance, still ended up owing, as a result of deductibles and exclusions, more than most of his yearly take-home pay. I could give a very long list, and not one of those I listed would be either a so-called welfare queen or deadbeat.  Beyond that, my list wouldn’t begin to deal with all the problems faced by the over 40 million Americans without health insurance.

 I can’t begin to solve these problems, but I am very much aware of them, and we’ve helped where we could, yet most of the people to whom I talked at that wedding refused even to acknowledge that such problems exist, almost as if they occurred in another world.  I’m seeing more and more of this, especially in recent years, and the current Congressional impasse over the federal budget reflects, I believe, the growing trend of Americans – and perhaps those in other industrialized countries – to deny what is happening outside their “world” – or their “bubble,” as the comedian Bill Maher terms it.  The problem with such denial is that compromise is impossible when people in different worlds refuse even to acknowledge the events that are happening to others because those events, and even facts, don’t fit into their own world.

 Put in another way – we don’t need space travel to find other worlds;  there are more than enough alien worlds right here on earth, even if no one wants to admit it.