09 June 2015

The Grinder Needs a New Blade

Really chunky link sausages today...

  • The New Republic has printed a worthwhile transcript of the discussion between the ineffably polite Neil Gaiman and the equally ineffably polite Kazuo Ishiguro on the "genre problem" in contemporary fiction. The most telling comment — among many that come very close indeed to actually criticizing someone, but step back from the brink — may be this one:

    [Ishiguro] I don’t have a problem with marketing categories, but I don’t think they’re helpful to anybody apart from publishers and bookshops.

    at which point Mr Gaiman's next words wrench the conversation to one of Mr Ishiguro's novels of a few years back.

    I'm going to suggest that this is, in the end, the entire problem with genre labelling. It is not there for the writers, or the editors, or even the readers. (Whether it's helpful to librarians is a very mixed question; does To Kill a Mockingbird belong "shelved under" Teen, or Literature, or Americana, or Historical Novels?) It is there, instead, for devotees of 1970s management theory that treats every book as primarily a collection of thin sheets of pulp within a certain standard set of form factors (disregarding the occasional outliers) that must be sorted based upon a soundbitish description of the incidental ink on the pages that was created, in all probability, by someone who had not read that incidental ink.

    Logistics are important, but they are only an easily measurable aspect of business success, and a frequent barrier to business success and/or cause of business failure — not a cause of business success. But because it's easier to point to and compare numbers (even when they're not ultimately meaningful — like fine gradations in SAT scores), it's also easier to get promoted on the basis of those numbers. This is particularly problematic when, as in publishing and every other aspect of the entertainment industry, there's a quantum-mechanics-like barrier between understanding the motion of a billiard ball and understanding the motion of an individual electron initially found in that billiard ball (since there's a nonzero probability that said electron will not end up in the same place as the billiard ball).

  • And on a related note, Frances Wilson describes, and perhaps laments, the niceness of contemporary literary reviews. She fails to note what reviews have become (and this directly relates to the conversation between Messrs. Gaiman and Ishiguro noted above): Thinly disguised marketing pieces in a culture in which authors are discouraged from ever criticizing other authors lest their own works suffer the same fate. There's a certain emperor's-new-clothes flavor to all too much of modern reviews, and in particular to failures to engage with bad underlying assumptions (e.g., "Napoleonic space navies" continuing to be a viable leadership/management structure when the newest spaceman recruit knows far more about just about everything, other perhaps than tying knots, than does any Napoleonic-era captain, if only due to modern education systems; hell, he probably knows more about why a ship floats in the first place, from third-grade science class!).

    Reviews are not just adjuncts of marketing. Those who believe they are are living in their own little self-delusional world. Indeed, the credibility of reviewers who neither dislike many (if any) works nor explain cogently why (or even explain cogently what distinguishes two works they praise on different days) is about the same as paid spokescreatures on late-night TV and infomercials selling the latest essential product/service.

  • Speaking of Napoleon: A bicentennial €2.50 coin is upsetting the French. I definitely want one.
  • I've been made aware that there's been some criticism (from a Usual Suspect in such things) of my comments last entry on E Pluribus Hugo. Since I haven't seen the actual comment, I'm relying on a third party's summary: Apparently, by comparing Hugo voting to a poll tax, I'm an unsophisticate who thinks there should be no eligibility requirements and that everybody gets to vote on everything. Not so much; indeed, my fundamental criticism that one doesn't choose "best" through a popular vote should have been a hint.

    As my actual discussions indicate pretty clearly, the problem with poll taxes is not eligibility requirements; it is the proclamation that those who have been closed out by the poll tax are nonetheless represented and somehow bound by the results of that poll. In the good ol' post-Confederacy, that meant that polls taken in Alabama represent per force the opinions of all citizens of Alabama — even those barred from the polls. In speculative fiction fandom, it means that polls taken via the WSFS's mechanism with "memberships" are proclaimed by the WSFS and understood by everyone else (especially marketing dorks who don't make an effort to understand the system) as representing "all of fandom." And that's my objection in this sense: The overstatement of representation and the meaning of the results. Too, the Hugos (even in apparent "landslide" voting) are no more a "mandate" than was the result of the 2004 Presidential election, in which the victor garnered slightly less than 21% of the potential votes. This is all bound together with the rest of the system... and tweaking to prevent a particular variety of abuse assumes per force that there's nothing fundamentally wrong with the system.