11.6.20

Dialogue: The only thing worth being is idle and rich


So what is it?

What's what?

What do you want to be when you grow up? Actor, businessman, artist, footballer. What is it?

Well, I'm nearly 50 so I think if I was going to grow up I already would have. But, no, none of those, all those jobs suck.

Well, what do you want to be, then?

Oh, there's only one thing worth being.

Being?

A member of the idle rich, of course. Everything else is nothing but a job. I don't care if you're a general, a president, a movie mogul, a famous writer, a rock star, a successful Hollywood actor, or a pro-golfer with ten majors under your belt – all of those things are nothing but stinking jobs.

And jobs are bad? 

All paid work is degrading.

All of it? 

Yes.

Even, say, running a charity for crippled orphans? 

Degrading – going on your knees all day begging the idle rich for money, that's the true heart of running a charity, or running for office for that matter. More people than you'd think spend their days begging the idle rich for money. Professional panhandlers in sharp suits abound.

But aren't the idle rich...um...morally degraded parasites?

Commie.

You called?

But I can't disagree. But the reason the idle rich are considered degenerate swine...

Because they are.

Don't interrupt, like I was saying the reason they are degenerate swine is because not everyone is a member of the club. If everyone was idle and rich there'd be no problem.

Except that we'd all starve to death and no one would take out the garbage.

True. We'd need fully automated luxury space communism first. Basically that's what FALSC is, elevating everyone's wealth until we are, for all intents and purposes, idle and rich.

Do you think it would be good for us? I mean if everyone was bone idle? And their every whim was met for the asking?

Well, the attention economy would take over for those who need the vigour of competition to motivate them. But whatever psychological problems FALSC might kick up would be minor compared to the problems want and lack of fulfilment cause now. Do you really think working in an insurance company for 40 years is less psychologically damaging than getting what you want? Or being a poor, single mother who isn't exactly sure where the money to feed her kids is coming from next week? FALSC is a paper cut. Our current society is a maniac with two chain saws. 

Even if I grant that, though, how do we get there from here? 

Hey you asked me what I wanted to be, not how I planned to get there.    

2.4.20

Any job you want

Unhappiness is doing a job you don’t like, and worse being denied a job you do.

I’m not talking here simply about everyone wanting to play football or be a Hollywood actor. Plenty of far more mundane fields are saturated. There are a hundred university students majoring in architecture or marine biology for every job available in those fields.

So is that it? Do we throw up our hands and simply say ‘the market rules’, and if the market says that only one person in a hundred who wants to be an architect can be, then the other ninety-nine have to lump it? 

That would depend on your view of what society is for, I suppose. Is society meant to create winners and losers, where the winners become god-level rich, while the rest make do (or not)? Or is society a way of maximising human well-being? The greatest good for the greatest number or the masses as fodder for the ubermensch?  

I’m in the maximising human well-being camp, but if that really is our goal then, so far, we’re doing it wrong. And clearly, if society is a method for maximising human well-being then not being able to do the job you want is a bad thing. Doing work we don’t like is detrimental to mental and physical health

A universal basic income (UBI) would partially solve this problem. Many more people could pursue their dream profession without having to worry about economic ruin. 

But a UBI isn’t going to let anyone who wants to become an astronaut or an airline pilot. Any job that requires large scale infrastructure is still going to be rationed. That problem can’t be solved by anything short of luxury space communism (ie the Star Trek economy).   

But a UBI also wouldn’t solve the problem of job satisfaction. Does it matter if you get to be a musician if no one but your dog ever listens to you play? What point is there in writing papers about your local marine ecology if no one ever reads or acts on them? 

The attention economy would, in this scenario, partially replace the money economy. 

But many jobs don’t need the attention of others, a beautifully flowering garden is all some of us need to be happy. For them a UBI would be sufficient. 

I still believe ‘any job you want even if no one ever knows about it’ is a hundred times better than the alternative, ‘any job you can get or go starve in the street’.

So that’s one argument for UBI, and a better one for luxury space communism. If you ask me, an economy where everyone gets the job they want can’t come soon enough. 

10.3.20

Dialogues: MFA (Author)

Are you going to do an MFA?

Nah, they don’t teach the right stuff.

What? Like how to write? You get to spend two years perfecting your craft, what could be better than that?

Like how to be an author. Writing is easy, all you need is desire, time and something to write with, being an author though…Lovecraftian nightmare. 

What’s the difference?

Authors are published and paid, writers tend to the obscure and unpaid. 

So nothing to do with relative artistic merit, then?

Nothing at all. There are plenty of good writers and scads of awful authors. It’s the world we live in.

So an MFA should be about turning writers into authors? Not perfecting their writing?

Well, you could spend an hour or so in the afternoon worrying about good writing, I guess. But yeah, if a university wants you to pay through the nose for an MFA then it has to help you get paid.   

So what should they teach?

You mean if I was running an MFA with the goal of producing authors not writers?

Yeah

Every day you’d have to write a new query pitch. We’d take great books, genre books, bestsellers, trash and treasure, and we’d write elevator pitches, pitch letters, and synopsis. Pitch The Hobbit, pitch To the Lighthouse, pitch Jurassic Park, pitch Harry Potter, pitch Mansfield Park, pitch the bible, pitch your grocery list, pitch your favourite TV show, pitch your aunty, pitch what you had for lunch. After two years you’d be able to write a pitch for anything. We’d do field trips to literary festivals and sci fi conventions to practise our elevator pitches, we’d literally pitch random strangers in elevators. We’d pitch on social media, we’d terrorise twitter and inundate instagram. We’d be 100% 24/7 pitch monsters. 

Sounds awful.

Yeah, it's sales and it is awful. Reduce Nostromo to a hook and 200 words? Disgusting, shameful really. But making money always involves some sort of pain and degradation. And that’s why most writers will stay writers forever. They’d rather be obscure than go into sales.   

Anything else?

Oh sure, there's way more to being an author than just being able to convince an agent or publisher to take you on. Let's see, oh right, I'd teach them how to spot the signs that your publisher or agent is about to go broke and abscond with all your money. Every author has got one of those stories. Then there's how to work with unreasonable editors and book designers, marketing flacks, and journalists. You can avoid some of that misery by going independent – the main difference there is having to pitch the audience direct. So social media marketing, working conferences, mailing lists, oh there's tons of stuff you have to be good at if you want to go independent.

Dear god.

Blogging, tweeting, instagramming, even (hold your nose) facebooking, and being able to instantly jump on whatever new platform might come along. Pressing the flesh, hand selling, kissing babies, being nice to complete jerk offs because you need a review, hell, it's like being a politician. 

Hell is right. I think I'll stick to writing.

Many do.   

9.12.19

The Worst Writing Advice in History

I did the best advice, see below. Now for the worst, to whit:

"All you have to do is write a good book."

Really?  I mean, really?

Ah, let me count the ways in which this is a pile of steaming horse crap, beloved though it may be by writers, editors and other industry professionals the world over.

Look, I get why they love this line. It's like a free get out of gaol card every time they get pigeonholed by some desperate, sweaty wannabe at a convention who wants 'The Answer!'.

"Write a good book," they say. "The rest will take care of itself," they say. And then they wave to an invisible someone on the other side of the room and make their getaway before the wannabe can drag the real truth out of them.

It sounds so reasonable! So wise! So simple! And so, so wrong.

Let's take the obvious and most meta exception. The universe? she is lumpy, yes? By definition nothing good, bad or indifferent ever happens 100% of the time. There are always exceptions. This means that some good, even some great books have gone unpublished in the past and will do so again.

There is no magic drift net trawling the hard drives of the world's aspiring writers capturing the 'good books' and wafting them gently to the inboxes of appropriate editors. No, there's slush piles, and contests, and brief conversations at conventions and festivals, and MFAs, and workshops, and your third cousin's best friend who happens to be a cookbook editor at Random House and maybe she can slip your manuscript onto the desk of the appropriate person, pretty please? I'm begging you!

And likewise some truly awful books have made and will continue to make it to print. We've all picked up a book, read a few pages and asked ourselves, "How did this get published?" The answer, lumpy universe.

So, I think we can agree that simply writing a good book is no guarantee of being published. (And being published is no guarantee of sales either, as every book marketer knows to their sorrow. (I once read a stat suggesting 8/10 books published by major publishers take a loss, which seems crazy high to me? Anyone confirm?))

There are thousands of manuscripts scuttling through the undergrowth of the literary ecosystem looking for a publisher today. One or two might find a home. With any luck they will be a couple of the good ones, but, statistically speaking anyway, it's iffy. But never, in any universe, will every good book be published.

The other thing that irks me about the "Write a good book" canard is that it suggests that every poor fool of a writer who can't get a publisher is to blame for their own failure. And, certainly, there's plenty of blame to go around. Writers have to sit down at the banquet of failure and tuck into their fair share. God knows I've written a couple of books that no one would ever publish, and I knew it. Practically the first thought I had when I finished them was, "Well, no one's ever buying that off me, then."

I would contend these books are 'different' rather than 'bad', but your milage may vary. (If you're curious)

But plenty of other writers have written perfectly good romances, crime noir thrillers, sci fi epics, and so on, that could be published, that might even sell well if they were, but never will be. Fiction – novels, stories, screenplays, or any other variety you care to name (even writing ads) – is a saturated and intensely competitive market. And competition must always have its worthy losers.

But no one wants to tell the worthy losers the truth. No one says, "Oh lots of people are talented, lots of people are busting their hump, most of them will fail anyway. And by most I mean 99.8%."

I'm not sure why. It is too tough?

I guess they don't want to discourage the next J K Rolling (even if she was only ever published because an agent's 8 year old daughter pulled Harry Potter out of the slush pile and insisted her mother read it).

But someone needs to say it. So I did.

17.9.19

Automation and Art

I’m a decent writer. I can write a readable novel, full of relatable characters doing interesting things. My short stories are sharp and funny. I can even cobble together a poem or two. I’ve done well enough in competitions, and had enough positive feedback from readers and publishing pros (including sales) to be reasonably sure of my own ability.

So great, right? Good news. Fame and riches await!

Better yet, there are thousands of other people out there like me – all good writers. Maybe even a few great ones still waiting for their time in the sun.

Best of all? There’s paying work out there for literally dozens of us. Dozens!

Uh, yeah…

Thousands doesn’t fit very well into dozens, does it? Bye bye fame and riches.

When I talk to people about this sad phenomenon I suggest that 1 writer in 500 will succeed. By which I mean 1 in 500 will eventually sell some of their work, maybe some short fiction to a magazine, get a novel published, or sell a screenplay. But even that 1 writer in 500 doesn’t get to be a full time pro. For that you need to take all those 1 in 500s, squish them into a new 500 and take 1 of them again. That’s your pro – the full time writer who can maybe (on the back of a lot of hustling) make a middle class living from writing alone.

Do the same again and divide by ten if you’re talking about getting rich. There’s a reason almost everyone knows who Steven King and J K Rolling are.

So why do so many people chase such a tiny market? And it’s not just writing fiction. You could say the same thing about acting, art, or music. A lot of guys can shred guitar. Very few of them have recording contracts with Sony.

And that’s the answer – Sony Music, Random House, Penguin, etc. In other words, mass media.

Think of a tribe on the savannah. A tribe might be made up of 70 to 80 people on average. Every tribe needed its own singer to sing the songs of the ancestors, its own storyteller to tell the tales of great hunts and battles and romances, its own artist to paint the animals on the sacred cliffs.

But mass media means that one person can now supply stories or music or art to millions. In our pre-media past it would have taken thousands and thousands of artists to meet the same demand.

Automated reproduction has preemptively disemployed almost all the artists ever born. They inherited a vocation, burned gene-deep into them by a thousand generations, and technology has rendered them mute and inglorious.

So that’s all a bit tough on all those frustrated artists out there, but it’s a good thing for everyone else, right? It means they get access to the best possible stories, music and art. They’re not stuck with whatever the birth lottery might have spawned in their tribe of 80.

And it’s much fairer for the best artists. They are now properly rewarded for their excellence. In the pre-media age, when every audience was captive, the hacks got the same rewards as the geniuses.

All true. But a hard truth to swallow for the preempted.

When people talk about robots stealing jobs I often wonder why they don’t talk about mass media? Printing presses, recording, film, and photographic reproduction stole the jobs of most traditional artists long ago. After all, what is a record player (or even more so a DAP) but a robot who sings?

10.9.19

What is art?

Might as well get this blog going by tackling one of the thorniest questions possible. So here we go:
Art is a mediated representation produced with artistic intent.


Mediated Representation

Something that is mediated has passed from an external source, usually via the senses, and been apprehended by an observer.  

A work of art is an externality that has been mediated by the psyche, and then reproduced as an intentional artistic representation.

In this way a drawing of a building produced deliberately as an artistic work is art, the architectural representation of a building may be art, while the plan of an actual building is not art (the plans have been mediated by the psyche and reproduced as a representation, passing the first two tests, but if there is no artistic intent either at creation, presentation, or afterward they are not art, they are blueprints - see Intention).



Intention 

The difference between an artistic representation and a documentarian representation lies in intention.

A police photographer takes photographs with no artistic intent. He wants to gather evidence not to create art. But if he, or someone else, placed his crime scene photography in a gallery, deliberately displaying his evidentiary images as art, they would then be art.

Marcel Duchamp's Fountain is a classic example of this. A urinal is just a urinal until you give it a name and put it in a gallery. Every urinal in the world has been mediated and represented (in porcelain, sheet metal, brick, etc), but without artistic intent they remain only urinals.

The intention of the artist makes art art.



Technique is Irrelevant

Think of the ways in which you have heard art described: ‘deep’, ‘profound’, ‘shallow’, ‘significant’, etc. What the apprehender of art is describing is not the artwork, but its effect upon them. ‘It left me cold’, ‘It made me cry’, ‘It made me want to stage a revolution’, etc.

These descriptions always refer to way in which the apprehender was affected. No one, except a student interested in the how, or a critic acknowledging a great artist as a master craftsman, is going to describe how Van Gough painted his Sunflowers. They will tell you how the paintings made them feel, which is, after all, what we usually want to know. We may ask: what emotional reaction did it elicit? What did it make you think of? Did it change your views? Or at the most basic level: did you like it? Few of us would think of, let alone ask, about the brush strokes.

The technique is irrelevant to the apprehender, only his response to the art is important. Technique – as an end in itself – is therefore irrelevant to the artist.



Art or Great Art?

Great art moves people greatly. In its deepest form art is cathartic and, at its most powerful, transformational.

This is the test of art, that it intentionally makes the apprehender feel and think. The greater the art the greater its intentional effect upon the apprehender.

Artistic controversy erupts when a work affects some deeply but not others. Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles is a classic example. To some people it is a marvel of depth and colour that affects them at a profound level, to others it’s just a lot of spilled paint.



Transformation and Catharsis

Great art is transformational and cathartic.

Blake represents the transformational power of art in his Marriage of Heaven and Hell. When the Angel is touched by the divine spark of art he is transformed into a Devil named Elijah who can now apprehend reality.

Aristotle tells us the significance of drama is catharsis. When Medea, betrayed and abandoned, wreaks her terrible revenge, the emotional transformation of the audience purges the destructive animus, releasing their negative feelings and restoring them to equanimity. In this way Euripides can be seen as a kind of proto-psychologist using art to beat a path toward enlightenment and peace.



How to Create Art

How does an artist learn to move an audience? Two paths appear obvious: the study of other artists’ work, and the study of nature.

To elicit fear, think of something fearful in nature: a predator, a volcano, a disease. These things give the artist insight into how to create fear of different kinds. The fear of being hunted, the fear of being helpless in the face of overwhelming events, the fear of the unclean.

In art stretch back to the beginning of English literature. Beowulf has great scenes of terror as Grendel bursts into the Hall, and the Dragon ravages the countryside. The dread at the end of the poem as the poet contemplates the fate of Beowulf’s clan following his death is palpable.

There are endless further examples in both art and nature.



Conclusion

Artists intentionally create mediated representations – from nature, experience, knowledge, and other art – to be consumed as art: thus making art.

Great art intentionally affects the apprehender deeply, invoking catharsis and transformation.