Saturday, March 30, 2013

Adventures in e-Publishing

Or “The Anti-Epic”

The other day, in my Creative Writing class, I gave a mini-lecture on the importance of conflict in a story. The following story is replete with conflict. The imperial army of tradition publishing is at war with the upstart rebels of e-Publishing who are, at once, a valiant force for democracy and a populist movement pushing mediocrity. Our protagonist is waging an inner struggle between a hero and an antihero: The hero is a dreamer bent on overcoming significant obstacles to achieve a nearly unattainable goal. The pathetic, unlikable antihero cowers when faced with risk and fails to achieve the necessary motivation to become what he claims to want to be. External complications provide additional conflict in the form of a wonderful wife, child, and job which simultaneously enrich the protagonist’s life and dissuade him from taking a plunge that could put them all in jeopardy. And then there’s the postmodern element wherein the reader actually comes into conflict with the text itself: The protagonist simply might not be good enough to succeed at his chosen task, but the reader needs to evaluate that and it’s nigh-impossible for a writer to write something better than he can write in order to juxtapose that against the protagonist’s meager skills. (Say that sentence aloud three times fast, and then tell me it’s not “meta.”)

That’s plenty of conflict.

The problem with this story is that it lacks plot. Our hero/antihero, desiring to become a full-fledged Writer with a capital W, cannot decide whether or not to publish a novel as an e-book. Fearful of making a catastrophic mistake which will jeopardize his chance to have the novel picked up by a literary agent and sold to a major publishing house (or a very small publishing house, which would still be cool), he waffles like Jean Valjean trying to make up his mind about turning himself in (which goes on for-fricking-ever in the novel and about two minutes in the musical). He attends a meeting of a local writer’s group where a woman who works for an e-publishing company, selling her services to aspiring writers seeking to circumvent the traditional structure, rails against the injustice of the publishing business and the superfluous-ness of literary agents. He discusses the idea with the professional editor he hired, and she reminds him that there is still a stigma against self-publishing, despite what someone with a vested interest in e-publishing might say. He reads about novels which begin as e-books and become wild commercial successes. He talks with a literary agent who laments the “sea of mediocrity” in the e-book world. He reads some e-books and, though some are decent, others can’t even demonstrate proper spelling. He is unsure of his course.

So our protagonist decides to set out on a journey. That’s how these epic tales really take off, right? Only he is hesitant. “I’ll only go as far as Rivendell,” he thinks. “Or maybe just to the edge of the Shire.”  He decides to make some of his short stories available on the Kindle. His editor confirms that this is unlikely to threaten his chances to publish his novel in a more traditional way. He thinks of it as an experiment, an effort to learn if e-publishing is enough to consider as an alternative to another round of query letters. 

Click here for the story.
He posts one. It turns out to be very easy. It is free. The process is like a gentle walk through the rolling hills with Hobbit homes built into them. The story is written in first person, and our protagonist worries people will mistake the character for his own voice. He knows he needs to give readers some basis of comparison.

Click here for the story.
He posts another. It's a better story, so he hopes more people will read it.

He makes an author page on Amazon. This is even easier.

The End.

Where is the resolution? The climax? Hell, there wasn’t even any rising action. He had a litany of problems. He dipped a toe into these icy waters, but not enough to truly address the issues presented at the beginning of the story. What happens next? Does he quit the job he loves in order to pursue his writing dream full time? Does his wife leave him because he’s clearly lost his mind? Does he try to e-publish and fail miserably, ending up a pathetic, broken man? Does someone knowledgeable sweep in and leave an insightful comment on his blog which propels him down the proper course, or perhaps down some dark and twisted way that leads only to tragedy? Or do spammers alight on this post to try to sell him over-priced sunglasses, women’s handbags, potentially toxic herbal penis enlargement pills, or the chance to bet on obscure foreign sports in online casinos? Or does his life continue as though none of this has occurred?

There’s a lesson here, too. Conflict, though vital, is not sufficient to create a satisfying story. There must be action. A character who cannot decide what to do cannot generate enough of a plot to fill a novel. At best, he only produces short stories.

Monday, March 25, 2013

The NRA Is the Biggest Threat to 2nd Amendment Rights

Your friendly neighborhood liberal gun-owner previously posted about the pro-gun lobby's self-defeating tactics and my skepticism that the NRA has anything but their own short-term financial interest in mind when they take such a hard-line, absolutist view of the 2nd Amendment (Read here: Stupid Faulty Reasoning on Gun Registration Infects my Facebook Page). Here's even more blatant evidence that the NRA is too strategically inept to defend the 2nd Amendment:

"Gun Lobby Bombards Newtown Families With Robocalls Against Gun Regulations"

That's right, they're sending robotic messages to the families, possibly the young siblings, of the children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary, trying to garner their sympathy for the gun industry ("gun manufacturers will leave the state and take away 'thousands of jobs'"). Are you kidding me? That's sick. 

Universal background checks (you know, that "well-regulated" part of the 2nd Amendment?), cross referenced against a beefed-up list of those who are diagnosed as mentally ill with the potential for violence, and increased funding for mental health treatment: These things will not prevent every shooting, but they'll save some lives at the cost of a minor inconvenience for responsible gun owners and a loss of some profits for gun manufacturers who are doing quite well, thank you very much. Profits that come from crazy people who shouldn't have guns in the first place! This is an opportunity for responsible gun owners to stand up and distance themselves from the kind of 2nd amendment absolutists who would rather put AR-15s in the hands of child-murderers than risk any reasonable regulation (the kind described in the 2nd Amendment they claim to love). 

Look, gun guys, I know you're scared. I know fear can make people do stupid things, even heartless things (like calling the families of a horrible tragedy and asking them to make another one possible in order to protect business profits). Please, please at least consider the possibility that the number one threat to your right to own a gun comes not from an urban liberal, and not even from the next crazy killer (there will always be the next crazy killer), but from your own intransigence on the issue. Gun laws will change. The majority of voters are not with you, and some politicians care more about voters than special interest money (if money can't be turned into electoral victory, it's only good to the most dirty politicians) so think clearly about what you want and what you'd be willing to give up to get it. A few extra minutes in a gun shop waiting on that background check in exchange for a safer country and a preserved right to keep and bear arms?  Jump at that deal!

Saturday, March 02, 2013

We Can’t Achieve Equality through Disdain

We need a new word. I’ve noticed a preponderance of a phenomenon that is something more specific than racism or sexism. Unless someone can think of something catchier, I propose a German-style mash-up to get at the heart of the idea. Let’s call it “equality-through-disdain.” And let’s put an end to it.

Black History Month has come and gone. The Violence Against Women Act has finally passed out of the House and will be signed into law again. Over the last month, I’ve engaged in arguments about both. At first, I was completely flummoxed. Who could possibly be against Black History Month? What would motivate anyone to oppose The Violence Against Women Act? As I’ve been repeatedly told by conservative friends and the right-wing punditocracy, my liberal brain is just too na├»ve and too closed to comprehend the opposition’s point of view. If I could only open myself up to modern conservatism, walk a mile in those expensive loafers, I would see that the other side makes a persuasive case. So I tried to be persuaded. Instead, I found a kind of contempt born of resentment and masquerading as virtue: Equality through disdain.

The first revelation that came out of my attempt to understand the conservative positions was that the opposition to Black History Month and The Violence Against Women Act was not, in fact, two separate arguments, but one. Black History Month, I was told, divides us. It forces us to focus on one portion of our population. This division is unhealthy. If we could simply teach History, I was told, rather than any particular group’s history, then we would be better off. Similarly, The Violence Against Women Act divides us. It forces us to focus on …well, on a majority of our population, but a slim majority. This division is unhealthy. If we could simply focus on preventing violence against everyone, then we would be better off.

This argument is wrong factually, and it’s wrong morally. I’ll let you decide which of those is most important.

Factually, Black History Month does not make us focus on a portion of our population. An historian cannot tell the history of Black America without telling the history of all Americans. It’s a lens. Eight months of the year, schools teach “American History.” It’s the story of the (predominantly white, male) leaders who accomplished noteworthy things. Depending on your point of view, it’s the history of the winners or the history of the oppressors. Both those labels are loaded, and both are true. Black History Month provides us with an opportunity to reexamine our nation’s history through the lens of an oppressed people. That can be the story of striving, of overcoming obstacles, of breaking through seemingly impenetrable barriers. Or it could be the story of atrocity upon atrocity. Too often, in our schools, it’s the false story of an anodyne version of Martin Luther King Jr. who didn’t say anything that would still challenge us today. Still, the willingness to reexamine our history so that it’s more than the story of military battles and electoral victories is not divisive. It’s more inclusive.

Now, the conservatives I argued with said, “Why not Mexican American History Month? Why not Japanese American History Month?” (One wrote, “Why not Jamaican History month?” Um, two reasons come immediately to mind. First, Jamaica is a sovereign nation, and we generally don’t teach the history of other countries for a solid month in an American History class. Two, Jamaican Americans are Black.) To this I say, “Absolutely!” Why shouldn’t our history be taught in a thematic way, focusing on various groups who made contributions? Perhaps, if we are bound to the idea that history must be taught chronologically, we could divide Black History Month throughout the year. And we could sprinkle the stories of other groups in, too. And do you know what would happen? Unless a history teacher had figured out a magical way to rush through all of American History in nine months, when things had to be cut, they would almost inevitably decide that those stories would end up on the cutting room floor. Is this racial bias? No. It isn’t. I can say that categorically. History teachers, regardless of their races or racial biases, have to pick and choose. There simply isn’t enough time in the year to teach all the relevant material. It’s an impossible job. So they teach about leaders like presidents because presidents are important for students to know about. They teach about wars because wars are important for students to know about. They struggle to teach students about persistent institutions because concepts like “slavery” or “Jim Crow” or “Civil Rights” are abstract and difficult, and not limited to a day or an election or a year. Are those concepts essential to understanding American History? Absolutely. But they aren’t easy to teach or understand. Events like Black History Month aren’t evil mandates. A history teacher can choose to ignore Black History Month or she can attempt to spread it throughout the school year. Black History month is a gift teachers can choose to accept; it gives teachers permission to take the time to put things into a different context.

Similarly, the argument that The Violence Against Women Act only helps women is patently false. About four second of research reveals that the VAWA protects the victims of spousal abuse even if they are male, and increases funding for law enforcement programs which target abusers, even if those abusers are female. One could argue that the title of the bill is the problem. "The Violence Against the Victims of Domestic Abuse" would be better. For that matter, "An Attempt to Prevent Domestic Violence and Increase Penalties for Abusers After-the-Fact" would be much more accurate. The acronym AAPDVIPAAF is a bit unwieldy, though. The concept behind the actual title of the bill is largely correct, though; the vast majority of domestic abuse cases involve victims who are women. If that fact is divisive, the fault lies with the domestic abusers. 

[Side note: This false argument is not the reason the VAWA languished in Congress for so long. Opposition to the VAWA was politically toxic for its (uniformly) Republican opposition, and those politicians are all smart enough to know that the bill strengthened protections for victims of demostic abuse regardless of their gender. They didn't oppose it because they hate women. The story that my conservative friends seem to have missed is that the newest version of the bill extended protections to victims of domestic abuse who were LGBT, illegal immigrants, or Native American. The Republicans who opposed the bill had almost unanimously voted for it before those groups were added. Their much touted “War on Women” wasn’t focused on promoting the domestic abuse of most women. It was focused on cutting the funding for women's healthcare clinics if those clinics also provided abortions, or on making women undergo unnecessary medical procedures to shame them out of getting abortions, or on making medical doctors say patently untrue things to patients who might be considering abortions, or making women wait longer and longer to have an abortion while also limiting how long they could wait to have an abortion. Really, the “War on Women” was about abortion. Until the women being beaten up were illegal immigrants or Native American or gay. Then the “War on Women” extended to them, too. Make of that what you will.]

Now, the moral counter-argument in favor of Black History Month and the VAWA might seem to be obvious. The story of African Americans should be taught. The victims of domestic abuse should be protected. But it goes a lot deeper than that. The people who opposed Black History Month were, in my experience, uniformly white. The people who opposed the VAWA were uniformly men. That’s not to say that a black woman couldn’t oppose either one. It’s just that her arguments would have been different. I’m also not saying that the people who opposed Black History Month or the VAWA were overt racists or sexists. Instead, they were practicing a kind of unconscious racism or sexism that comes from the dangerous combination of good intentions and hurtful ignorance born of unacknowledged privilege. On the good intentions side of the ledger, they want everyone to be treated equally. That sounds great. Who is against equality? But, if you are a white male, your ethnicity and gender are rarely acknowledged. Nobody says, “Good for you, overcoming the obstacles that come with being white and male.” So, in a perverse way, it seems logical to these folks that we will achieve equality when no one acknowledges the race or gender of anyone else, either. In essence, the reasoning goes, if one person is not allowed to be proud of being white, the others should be prohibited from being proud of being black. If one person cannot enjoy the history of male oppression, another shouldn’t be allowed to gain confidence from the gains of feminists. Sounds fair, right?

But that’s not equality. It’s disdain. Oppressed people take pride in their categorizations because they come from a category which has, historically, overcome oppression. White men don’t get to take pride in their history of overcoming because, as a group, we haven’t had to overcome in the same way. So, for white men to try to deny anyone else the ability to be proud simply because we can’t be proud of our white-ness is another kind of oppression. The way to morally level the playing field is to lift people up persistently and systematically. The goal should be that being from any group other than white men is not a hindrance and hasn’t been for so long that the relationship between the oppressed person and their descendants diminishes with time. I can be proud of my ancestors’ struggles against poverty in Ireland, the anti-Semitism they survived in Eastern Europe, the second-class status they weathered here in America. It will be a marvelous day when a woman’s experience of sexism is just as removed from her life as I am distant from the hardships my immigrant ancestors faced, and when a black person is just as many generations removed from any experience of racial prejudice as I am from my ancestors’ experiences fleeing the Nazis. But we’re not there yet. (And don’t get me started on poverty. Americans aren’t even allowed to discuss the struggles they face due to our wide and growing income inequality without someone screaming “Class Warfare!” and mixing up socialism and communism while frothing at the mouth. Poor People’s History Month must be in July, because we don’t focus on that at all.) A white male telling anyone else that they shouldn’t have their experience recognized in a special way is just articulating a rough translation of “I still don’t get it.” 

Black History Month has come to an end, and now the Voting Rights Act is before the Supreme Court. The most likely outcome is that Section 5 will be invalidated. That’s the portion that says that specific parts of the country with a history of racial segregation have to check with the Department of Justice before they can change their voting laws. Now, a very good argument could be made that this section is unfair to those parts of the country, and should therefore be expanded to every state and locality to prevent things like racial redistricting or voter ID laws that target minorities. Another worthwhile change would be a recognition that most, if not all, voter laws are now motivated by political partisanship rather than race (thought race is sometimes a means to a partisan end), so perhaps changes in voter laws should be run by the Department of Justice to make sure they don’t favor a particular party rather than a particular race. But those were not the arguments made before the Supreme Court, and those will not be remedies the Court will consider. Instead, the Court will uphold or strike down Section 5 based on the argument that institutional racism is now so distant in the history of Shelby County, Alabama (the plaintiff) that the law no longer applies. But according to the Huffington Post, “The most recent census found that the city is 63 percent black, but the majority of the city council’s seats are held by white politicians who live in largely white sections of town.” One of Shelby County’s residents, Jerome Gray, said, “Listen, it’s plain to see that when Shelby County decided to take up this fight, they didn’t ask anybody who would be in a position to know if there are still real problems.” 

This attempt at equality-through-disdain isn’t limited to something as toothless as Black History Month, or even something as important as the VAWA. It goes all the way to the heart of the argument which may decide if some people maintain their enfranchisement in a democracy. So the next time someone says, “Why do we always have to focus on our differences? Why can’t everything just be the same for everyone,” please tell them that differences diminish in importance when people are lifted up, not when the simple acknowledgment of difference is treated with contempt.