The Ear-Body Problem: The Failures of Cory Doctorow’s “In Real Life” Exemplify Common Storytelling Delusions and Fallacies.

 

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Reading the comic “In Real Life” by Cory Doctorow and “Anda’s Game,” the story on which the comic is based, I’m reminded constantly of the Fallacy of Composition – the misconception that something true for one part is true for the whole – on multiple levels, from the plot which seems to apply the Fallacy of Composition to real world problems to the clichéd story which follows beat by beat the clichés within a genre I call the Workshopped Story. I make no claims here that Doctorow legitimately came from the workshopping system, but this story so thoroughly exemplifies the clichés of stories born from that system, the connection is irresistible.

Doctorow actually evokes the Fallacy of Composition directly elsewhere when explaining how science fiction diagnoses social problems (whether or not that’s a valid claim about science fiction is an argument for another day, but to narrowly isolate the function of science fiction to this highly cerebral, emotionally-stripped endpoint valuation hints at many of the other problems with “In Real Life”). In presentations with his partner in creating the “In Real Life” comic, the artist Jen Wang (and I’m not heaping any blame here on Wang, despite her role in essentially co-writing the comic, because she compensates for story failures with lovely art), Doctorow says an ear doctor can look in a patient’s ear and understand, based on this limited information, a lot of facts about the body as a whole. His point is that the sci-fi writer, in the diagnosis business, need not explore the whole society if one piece of technology is a sufficient metonymy, but the Fallacy of Composition comes in when assuming every other part of the body works the same way as the ear, to use ear ache medicine to treat migraines, for example.

This Ear-Body Problem is intrinsic to the workshopping system. If something works well with Hemingway, it must work well with all kinds of writing everywhere else on the much more complicated spectrum. If something doesn’t work within the Hemmingway model, it must be a malignant anomalous growth to be excised, like a bodiless ear that suddenly grows an eyeball and the doctor trained in ears-are-the-only-body-parts philosophy interprets this eyeball as a cancerous tumor. More relevant in the creation of the Workshopped Story genre are the three cliché pillars: “write what you know,” “find your voice,” and “show, don’t tell.” These are not problems in and of themselves, just as a body still needs an ear, but the problem that leads to cliché, boring, lifeless, ugly, lazy stories within this genre is assuming that these clichés are all there is to storytelling.

Keep in mind, to avoid the Fallacy of Composition myself, I intend this as an object lesson for some intrinsic misconceptions about storytelling and not as a critique of “In Real Life”/“Anda’s Game” necessarily, so to say, “‘In Real Life’ is a boring panoply of clichés that undermines its aesthetic value in at least three different ways, not least of which is sentiment drowning in didacticism,” etc., and you could disagree with me, and that would be fine. We’d both be right. Maybe the Workshopped Story genre is your favorite. To assume everyone feels the same way I do about a story would be wrong and hypocritically undermine my point.

However, the story is stunningly infused with Fallacy of Composition on nearly every level. The whole plot of the story is based on this fallacy. What works in Arizona must work in China as well (the settings are different in the comic and the short story, so I’ll use the settings of the comic for simplicity’s sake and because “In Real Life” is an offensive title, but in reference prose ugliness, I’m talking just about the story). Here’s the Fallacy of Composition as plot (spoilers): Anda encounters exploited Chinese workers while inside of this virtual world, she assumes the same sort of strike that works in Arizona will work in China, it doesn’t work, and she learns lessons about making assumptions – except in the end what works in Arizona actually does work in China, everything ends happily despite her presumptiveness, and the Fallacy of Composition is apparently the mechanism for worldwide salvation.

More importantly, the story seems so irresistibly demonstrative of two of the deeply flawed clichés that so thoroughly infect creative writing education – specifically “Write what you know” and “Find your voice” – its failure shows the failure of this system. (The third pillar of workshop cliché, “Show, don’t tell,” hardly seems relevant here, as Doctorow seems to ignore it needlessly.*)

The creation of art involves optimization of stimulation, and for storytelling that is optimization of empathetic stimulation. Far more important than rules of any kind, this involves recognition of various seemingly paradoxical factors pulling against each other – including the Threshold of Familiarity, situating story elements between the overly familiar and overly unfamiliar, as I will discuss momentarily. Writers determine this subjectively given recognition of these mechanisms and optimize stimulation through a complicated array of techniques. In the workshop system, this complexity somehow turns into “write what you know” and “find your voice” because these clichés have worked enough times to seem like absolute rules – the ear medicine did seem to cure the migraine. This technique substitutes factors like accuracy of voice for any other aesthetic value. I call this trick the Framing Effect. Take anything – beautiful, interesting, or otherwise (and often it’s otherwise) – and frame it in uncanny displacement of the object, action, etc., and this endows the story element with some measure of stimulation. This is a light shift into the stimulating middle ground of the Familiarity Threshold away from the too familiar end of the spectrum. It’s one of the easiest ways to trigger stimulation, so if you tell susceptible, unexperienced writers that this is such an important technique in storytelling, you will get a lot of false positives – so many false positives that it births a (boring, lazy) genre.

However, the most potent factor in making “write what you know” work is the easy way in which it triggers empathy. Triggering empathy is the core of the work of fiction writing, and the easiest way to do this is to focus on voice accuracy. If you use your own voice accurately and you are a human (a method as effortless as using the Framing Effect), empathy is an automatic result. This does not require the writer to give the character anything interesting to do an is even less likely to lead to any genuinely stimulating dangers (why submit yourself to any dangers). If you use the accurate voice of another (slightly harder), empathy is still an automatic result. Accuracy in this case is just a method, not a solitary value. It get results because it is designed that way, but that’s such a narrow sliver of the spectrum limiting what stories are.

Doctorow to his credit at least avoids the most effortless method of voice creation and accurately channels the voice of a twelve year old girl (presumably), but he undermines the potential value of his sole aesthetic stimulator monumentally in at least three ways:

1) He subordinates empathy and all other aesthetic values to politics and lesson learning. The most massive violation the story’s aesthetic is the most obvious. The deadliest storytelling tendency (if a character’s life is important) is to moralize or politicize, but politics seems more important to Cory Doctorow than storytelling anyway. I could tell him, “Your story was ugly, sloppy, and boring,” but he’d likely be more concerned about whether or not I got the message about exploitation. To make a story didactic is to remove a story to its farthest degree away from its empathic aesthetic core. It becomes a cerebral exercise, not an emotional stimulator. This tendency contradicts the barrier-destruction necessary for empathetic stimulation and instead creates a barrier of condescension since the writer presumes he is teaching us something we don’t already know. For most potent effect in the business of triggering empathy, a character should be able to live outside of the author’s overt conscious control. Overt conscious control undermines stimulation because it is offputtingly condescending and manipulative, triggering instead a resistance to manipulation. I hope most writers know this already. My purpose is to use “In Real Life” to exemplify common delusions, but I haven’t encountered many fiction writers who still believe, like Doctorow, political commentary is the primary purpose of fiction. Plenty of critics still maintain that the purpose of fiction is to teach lessons, advance political positions or communicate meaning with emotion as a secondary effect but cerebral argument and teaching us what we don’t know is the more legitimate business of the critic, so this difference in perception is understandable. In my experience, no serious fiction writers whose business is emotional stimulation would favor didacticism over emotional honesty – except Cory Doctorow apparently.

2) Every moment is a cliché. A lot of time is spent in discussions of creative writing in why so-called literature is superior to so-called genre because genre is clichéd, but why is cliché so bad? Considering the Familiarity Threshold, in order to optimize stimulation, a story element shouldn’t be too familiar (as determined by each individual writer/reader) or too unfamiliar. This is the root of the assumption that genre must be inferior to literature since the name implies genre is generic, overly familiar. However the Workshopped Story born from the “write what you know”/”find your voice” clichés – which itself was presumably born from superior so-called literature – is arguably far more generic than the sci-fi and fantasy dismissively called generic. More accurately, the generic elements in so-called genre are essentially shorthand for elements for which stimulation is unnecessary but they provide a framework for more thorough exploration of the possibilities of the imagination. Also, they function as mechanisms for interesting characters to do interesting things within an otherwise predictable framework. The new technology turning evil may be unsurprising in a sci-fi story, but the imaginative quality of the evil technology and the characters fighting it make or break the story. Fantasy characters going on a quest is unsurprising, but the quality of the characters and the imaginative originality of the creatures the heroes encounter can make or break the fantasy story. The core of a good story is human acting free of overt conscious control of the author, but this human doesn’t have to be a literal human, and these activities don’t have to be realistic activities. Some people find the lack of realistic activity and literal humanity off putting and a barrier to empathy, but that is how taste works. There is no universal superiority or inferiority implicit in that. The Workshopped Story genre comes in a smaller number of varieties than the dozens of dozens of sci-fi and fantasy stories possible – I count around three or four versions. Here is a popular standard story structure: a character within an entirely normal setting has some vague past trauma which leads to present insecurity, the character encounters something new and mildly challenging to make him or her question assumptions, conflict is purely internal and revealed through show-don’t-tell Hemmingwayish icebergs, the character has some mild epiphany leading a mild emotional change, and essentially nothing happens externally. Beat by beat, this is far more predictable than most sci-fi. Part of the problem with Cory Doctorow is that he self-defines a science fiction writer, and defines sci-fi so narrowly/poorly as predicting the present, revealing significant social problems in our world today, giving no value to what I would considered the much more important value of sci-fi: character and imagination. “In Real Life” is devoid of imagination and laid out in predictable beat-by-beat paint-by-number progression of the Workshopped Story genre. It does contain some superficial sci fi and fantasy elements: the game Anda plays seems like science fiction though it is very a common sort of game familiar to anyone of a certain age, and those unfamiliar with this type of game may score more stimulation on the familiarity spectrum. However, in the short story, the game squanders the imaginative possibilities of this sci-fi framework by just making the game a Star Wars type – monsters are even called Chewbaccas. In the comic, the game is more fantasy-based, but still devoid of imaginative elements. We get a tiger, and that’s about it – not even a very interesting-looking tiger. From a purely subjective perspective, I would have forgiven a lot about this story if the monsters had been interest. I love monsters that much. Give the tiger two heads. Give the tiger horns. Give the tiger a sweater, anything beyond the blandly normal. I’m not a gamer, but I’ve seen the monster designs in games, and they are impressively imaginative. I have difficulty accepting that any game would leave a tiger as a plain, unadorned tiger. The story seems so dedicated to the Workshopped Story genre in which realism is absolutely necessary that putting effort into imagination might have betrayed the genre, yet it still betrays realism by making the game far blander than any real game would be.

3) Doctorow undermines any sense of legitimate risk at every turn. Risk is not an absolute necessity of storytelling as long as the writer compensates for releasing the potential tension by providing some other stimulator, beautiful imagery, euphonious prose, complicated characters whose complete lack of motivation makes them interesting, anything. Just look at Samuel Beckett for great stripped of morality, risk, motivation, forward progression, change – the story teller’s standard tools for stimulation but he compensates for this void of risk with beautiful language and amazing characters. Most writers short of Beckett’s genius should understand risk as an essential tool. Risk is often mild in the Workshopped Story genre, but a well-made story need not ramp up risk to ridiculous levels. It need not be the standard mortal danger of fantasy or sci fi. Or take for example another standard story with the workshopped genre: the character dealing with a much more extreme experiences like rape, abortion, coming out of the closet. A good writer can turn much more mundane risks into high tension: losing a friend can feel life ending. But what risk does Anda face? She makes reference to mild bother of males in gaming which she solves mildly by entering the blandly named virtual world occupied only by girls – mild problem solved mildly. The problem structurally in optimizing these mild risks the massive displacement intrinsic in the virtual reality gimmick. There is a lot of mortal danger and killing with in the game, but this is never elevated to legitimate sense of risk. This sort of virtual world second tier removal can still work quite well. I happened to read this at the same time I was watching Sword Art Online which is so much better at stimulating despite being set in a virtual world, “In Real Life” might have seemed unfairly lazy in contrast, but Doctorow even strips the risk from the story elements he clearly cares more about: the plight of the gold famers in China. Anda befriends a gold famer in the game, she feels bad for him, but what does she ever risk? She barely knows Raymond, and we barely know Raymond. Furthermore, Raymond’s problem is that his job sucks, he works too long, and he can’t get insurance for his back pain. That’s unfortunate, exploitation is wrong no doubt, but beyond that, so what? Not to sound heartless but based purely on what Doctorow gives us, waitresses I’ve known in the U.S. have it just as bad. This is not to say that real Chinese workers have a better life than American waitresses, but Doctorow’s workers hardly seem to have a worse life. Doctorow failed to convince me otherwise. If he only cares about political awareness and not about storytelling, his storytelling weakness has failed him on both fronts. Anda then hears about her father striking which seems in the story portrays a risk free political action. Anda then decides she should condescendingly inform Raymond that unionizing is a thing. She does some light research, convinces him to organize and make demands of his bosses, and he gets fired. Finally, we get risk. This poor guy we barely knew at least had a job, but now he has no job and medical problems. Anda, despite not really knowing this guy, ruins his life through her condescending presumptions. Finally, Doctorow seems like he knows how stories work. But then in the biggest are-you-kidding-me moment for me, the other workers unionize in Raymond’s honor, and we’re left assuming Anda’s twelve-year old wisdom has saved them. Raymond gets a new job elsewhere, so happiness for everyone. Even giving Doctorow the benefit of the doubt, if this is what happens when a writer values lesson-learning over all other values, perhaps there is some legitimate value in the lesson, perhaps a moral we cause to tell us what we ought to do and ought not to do, but what is that lesson? What is that moral? Twelve year olds really can teach Chinese people how to better their lives by unionizing? If you ruin someone’s life when he buys into your condescension, don’t worry, he’ll be fine? Even by the standards of didacticism and realism, this is a failure.

This story reminds me so much of the stereotypes of millennials who have been so sheltered from danger they have a warped any sense of what danger means, but at the same time they have access to all the information in the world, and this has caused a swelling of know-it-all tendencies coupled with the moral righteousness devoid of the wisdom that comes with legitimate risk. No wonder a bland Workshopped Story genre is so popular with this generation. I pray this is only a stereotype since stereotyping is another species of the Fallacy of Composition, so let’s just get of the Fallacy of Composition entirely. I pray instead that storytelling in the future is born from the more substantial value of pure irrational empathy.

*I fear Doctorow demonstrates why creative writing educators should teach students “Show, don’t tell.” In my own writing, I recognize “Show, don’t tell” and choose to ignore it because it is not a universal rule, but ignoring it should be worth a beautiful sentence or practical story advancement in the end. As the extraordinarily sloppy following line demonstrates, editors/writing teachers seemingly neglected to drill in “Show, don’t tell” (or the problems with passive voice and verbs in participle form and so many other issues): “The kids in the sweatshops were being exploited by grownups, too. It was why their situation was so impossible: the adults who were supposed to be taking care of them were exploiting them.” I certainly don’t think “Show, don’t tell” should be an absolute rule, but there is value for beginning writers to understand how this works, perhaps at least recognition that statement of obvious abstractions is both condescending and devoid of beauty.

Boodlepax vs the Robot Conveniences (comic book rough draft)

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Here is a rough draft of a comic book I wrote for #30DaysofSummerStories. Since this is the official part 20 of the 30/day 20 of 30, I’m obliged by rules (entirely imposed by myself) to share it. So please enjoy.

Boodlepax vs the Robot Conveniences

ONE

Panel 1 (full page): Boodlepax (a tiny, monstrous creature who looks like a horned barn own with big, wide, sympathetic, frightened, monstrously scaled eyes; no mouth; arms that seemed made a dozen connected squeaky balls with tiny, barely functional claws at the tip of each) stands at the bottom center as if posing for a school photo. To his left/our right is a full body picture of a disinterested, handsome dude present only to demonstrate that Boodlepax is only shin high.

Caption 1:                   Boodlepax was born a Living Nightmare. His favorite dreaming boy abandoned him long ago which made him very sad. He has worked most of his adult life as a Hell Torturer. Hell liked to employ needy monsters of any type. Stereotyping didn’t bother Hell. But Boodlepax loved humanity and never wished any harm on anyone. He was mostly very kind and wanted to uplift humanity. He decided to be a super hero. He was very tiny compared to humans and had no powers. The right mix of guilt and good intentions can turn anyone into a super hero.

Caption 2 (with an arrow): Actual size of Boodlepax compared to normals.

TWO

Panel 1: Boodlepax in his school picture pose but now with a cape.

Caption 1:                   Boodlepax started with a cape. He presented himself to the world as if the cape’s presence alone would draw superhoic necessities to him. Nobody noticed. Nothing much happened. He needed a villain.

Panel 2: Boodlepax surrounded by the Robots Conveniences (standard robots of any type).

Caption 2:                   He noticed a lot of humanity purchasing Robot Conveniences at the Robot Store which seemed to be enslaving their will and attention. He decided to destroy the Robot Conveniences.

Panel 3: Boodlepax holding a giant wrench and facing a single robot.

Panel 4: Boodlepax in the aftermath of having hit a Robot Convenience to no effect except the vibrating wrench causing Boodlepax to vibrate comically.

THREE

Panel 1: Boodlepax staring at the robot with a sword lodged in it (implying Boodlepax was responsible for the stabbing).

Panel 2: The same set up except the robot now has a second sword lodged in it.

Panel 3: Boodlepax holds a .45.

Panel 4: We see the aftermath of Boodlepax having fired the .45 to no effect except the trails of Boodlepax comically flying backwards from the gun’s force.

FOUR

Panel 1: Boodlepax in his school picture pose next to a giant blue rabbit. Proportions indicate that the rabbit is much, much bigger than a human being.

Caption 1:                   Boodlepax decided to employ a junior sidekick, a giant nautical rabbit called Ingypoo. His history as Living Nightmare and Hell Torturer meant he knew a lot of interesting monsters.

Ingypoo:                      I am a super hero! You shall call me Tuba Toothpaste! Tremble before me! O ye lowly masses!

Boodlepax:                  Please stop. Just follow my lead.

Caption 2: Ingypoo struggled to understand humanity and human languages. Boodlepax wanted to tell him that Tuba Toothpaste was a terrible super hero name. Just call yourself Ingypoo. Be yourself and the world would love you. These are lessons he would one day teach everyone.

FIVE

Panel 1 (full page): Boodlepax and Ingypoo standing before a street full of humans with their Robot Conveniences.

Boodlepax:                  Just beat up all these robots for me.

Ingypoo:                      Will do, boss.

SIX

Panel 1: (full page): Boodlepax and Ingypoo in the same positions, but now the whole page is red, implying Ingypoo has painted the world red in obliterating the bodies of all the present humans.

Caption 1:                   Ingypoo had a bit too much enthusiasm for super hero work and no compunction against blowing human bodies to bits and pieces.

Ingypoo:                      Everybody’s dead, boss. What next?

Boodlepax:                  Oh. Well. That’s not good. How bout we stop being superheroes now.

SEVEN

Panel 1: Boodlepax sitting on his bed staring into the distance.

Caption 1:                   A few days later.

Panel 2: The same shot of Boodlepax. Ingypoo now appears to his left/our right.

Ingypoo:                      Hey there, guy.

Panel 3: The same shot.

Ingypoo:                      So guess what I found out. Remember how I killed a ton of people the other day? Turns out those robots they bought were suicide robots. It’s this scam so they can kill themselves and still get insurance money. So I did all kindsa good for the world. Like a super hero. Right?

EIGHT

Panel 1: Same shot.

Ingypoo:                      Okay. Bye. Buddy. Partner. Boss. Call me? Yes? No? Okay, seriously, bye now.

Panel 2: Boodlepax, alone again.

Panel 3: Same shot as Panel 1, Ingypoo present again.

Ingypoo:                      Did I forget to mention I can bring people back to life? I’m, like, very magical. I’m talking insanely magical. All those people I killed, I can totally bring them back to life if you’d like. Just let me know. Yes? No? I’ll take your silence as a yes. Boom. Done.

NINE

Panel 1-9: Various slaughtered and rabbit-exploded humans pulling together, waking, coming back to life, etc.

TEN

Panel 1: A crate labeled “Robot Conveniences: Suicide Model. Return. Damaged.”

Panel 2: A wider shot of a human standing next to this crate.

Panel 3: The same human, head bowed, hands in pockets, walking along past disinterested crowds.

ELEVEN

Panel 1 (full page): The same human staring at a sunset.

TWELVE

Panel 1: The same as panel 3 from page TEN, anonymous human walking alone in a crowd, head bowed.

Panel 2: The same human stands before Boodlepax on the crowded street. They stare at each other a moment.

Panel 3: Boodlepax walking in the crowd the opposite direction, mirroring the anonymous human but traveling to the left of the panel. He is now alone.

Panel 4: The same crowd, no Boodlepax

Panel 5: Ingypoo bounces in as if following Boodlepax. He is chained to something off panel to the right.

Panel 6: Ingypoo bounces to the left again, revealing that he is hauling a tank even bigger than he is.

Panel 7: The bouncing progresses, now with only the tank visible.

Panel 8: Now only the crowd.

Summary of current #TwitterFiction, Pinterest, and Facebook stories (the Too Many Bodies edition)

Here is a brief summary of the stories I’m presently firstdrafting on Twitter, Facebook, & Pinterest. They are all great, & you should love them.

Twitter

#ThisOneSummer (#TinyHotel): Angel Kamminer-Moorhead wakes up one morning to see the air is filled with thousands of tiny floating bodies seemingly frozen in time (it reminds Angel of the ecstatic moment in the middle of a bridge suicide when finality meets regret). She is staying with her family (her mother and two younger siblings) in the Glass Mountain Lodge over the summer along with the Tone family and her best friend Misery Tone. Misery only cares about expressing her disgust at everything and elevating the importance of her own secrets. Angel only wants to learn “Happiness is a Warm Gun” on her guitar alone. She secretly pretends to be a great rock star with the tiny floating bodies as her audience. She is fascinated by a wooden overlook that appears to be floating in the middle of the blue sky. She calls it The Heaven & assumes it must be very interesting & enlightening & a palliative for all that gutterally ails her.

#MolochtheLoveless (#MotLo): Moloch the Loveless believes he has a hate curse, meaning everyone must hate him to a murderous degree upon meeting him. Others claim it’s just because of his terrible personality. Moloch’s interlocutors often become so hatefilled they stab or beat Moloch to death, but the murder doesn’t stick. Moloch, who is nominally a scholar in Canaanite & Mesopotamian religion, is sponsored by a mysterious group called The Foundation who speak in multiple voices secret admonitions about the true mechanisms of the universe. They can also create chaos monsters.

#BodyanAcreBig (#BaAB)(#TinyHotel): Packer Seen & Eely Caballus are trying to dig up Eely’s father’s dead body which is surprisingly difficult considering the body is as big as an acre. Eely claims her father (Baab Caballus) was some sort of angelical creature called a Cathedral, but her mom (Pinkie Caballus) claims he was far from angelic. Packer is aiding Eely in this exhumation because he is in love with her, but Eely claims they are secretly half siblings–a perfect lie, Packer assumes, because this makes him functionally her labor slave in matters concerning their supposedly shared father. However, it turns out Eely (at least according to her selfperception) lacks the capacity to lie, a condition of her half angelical birth; her dedication to truth leads others to supplicate themselves in worship of her. But Eely wants to lie & have the complex variety of love that comes as a consequence. She finds the capacity to lie via dedication to theater. To now fill her days with the ecstasy of mendacity, she reshapes her whole world as a theater. She even builds a wooden replica high school next to her (relatively) real high school, & makes her supplicants lay in a grave that used to be the football field.

#Metacarpals (#BlueFingers) Asher Jacobson has worlds inside his ten fingers. He is the son of a scholar in Judaism who takes his family to the same river island every Summer. While graffitiing heroes & monsters (in a sanctioned manner–he’s a good kid mostly), he meets & instantly falls in love with a girl whose name might be Nelly (but is really Eely Caballus). She invites him to a theater across the river called the Crown. Asher can’t sneak out (the river island is accessible only by boats captained by snitchy fishermen), so he wishes for the river to freeze in the middle of Summer. When he gets his wished for miracle, he runs across the ice but falls in. In his near drowning/freezing, he develops swelling blue fingers. His whole firearm grows gigantic. He discovers his hand is made of opaque lapis lazuli & sees the civilizations inside each finger. As his cold & analytical father develops a containment unit for his continually swelling forearms, Asher realizes he can see the worlds inside his fingers if he keeps his eyes closed. Here are the ten worlds:

1)Left pinkie: a seemingly medieval world where the (truthfully kidnapped & plopped down) settlers wear white crusader cloth & live in stone hovels. Giant creatures called Cathedrals (because their upper halves are literal cathedrals) rise from the ground & gobble down settlers like nobody’s business. The settlers create a golem with a plaster & stone body covered in blue Hebrew flame letters. He also has a head made of a giant, head-sized pearl.

2)Left ring finger: a postapocalyptic world of obliterated cities where the Dreaming Ice on one end meets the Dreaming Sand on the other. In the middle is the Painted Nautilus, a giant shell as big as a museum with humanity’s artistic remnants stored on the inside. He has hundreds of tendrils like dangling seaweed, seven of which have special powers: 1)to impregnate; 2)to make plants grow; 3)to turanything it touches to water; 4)to meld; 5)to animate the inanimate; 6)to laserblast (because why not?); 7)to raise the dead.

3)Left middle finger: a suburban world full of angsty high school drama: Fader discovers his body descends into half shadow in a manner that mimics the moon’s phases. This makes Fader an outcast & a bigtime weirdo. When he prays for deliverance from his affliction, the literal moon (the size of a hot air balloon) craters down outside his bedroom window. It turns out that the literal moon is covered in giant mouths & travels around via prehensile tongues able extend several hundred feet. Whenever the literal moon snatches something up with his prehensile tongue & swallows it, Fader grows stronger.

4)Left pointer finger: a world of abandoned amusement parks where teens tackle ghosty mysteries with the aid of an entity called the Ball of Owls. He’s searching for a mysterious mirror entity called the Tail of Rings responsible for the pervasiveness of ghost activity in the abandoned amusement park world.

5)Left thumb: a clean & modern city porcupined by searchlights & patrolled by a superhero called the Messianical Chalicothere who is a literal chalicothere with the superheroical capacity to shoot blue lasers from his brain out of a sigil in his forehead (because why not?) & he’s able to enslave animals & infect them with his same superheroical laser blasting condition. Thus, an army of laser-cannon-enabled forest animals patrol the city enforcing, via merciless laser slicing, their own form of justice. The people are so terrified of this chalicotherean justice, no one dares commit a crime.

6)Right thumb: a world of moors & castles & lonely wandering maidens. These lonely wandering maidens were manufactured as living dolls by Peter Porpentine who has an addiction to refusal of affection. He’s from a species of porcupines who trained themselves to shapeshift, but physical aberrations are considered mental disorders. Peter Porpentine turned his porcupine spines into vampire teeth. But unlike the cool vampires, no one is interested in being bitten by him or scared enough to run away.

7)Right pointer finger: a westworld of ghost towns separated by endless stretches of unsettled frontier. Straight Razor George Pastor patrols the interstitial wastes as if born from the desert itself. He has a massive brown burlap head — or mask or whatever — proportional to his body like a balloon to a string, with stitched on eyes & nose & mouth. His left forearm is a giant straight razor & his right forearm is a giant gun that shoots exploding fish (because why not). He can’t hardly ride his horse like a proper cowboy because he can’t hold the reins, but he’s real good at blowing stuff up. He goes from town to town searching for & obliterating robots called the Circuit Riders.

8)Right middle finger: outerspace. Neptune is a dude. Future cities orbit Neptune who is a bit of a prick, but he is a planet & he’s nice enough to let future cities orbit him, so there’s that.

9)Right ring finger: a flying carpet world where everything must fly of necessity since the world is inside a column with no ground. Buildings have to be built on the world’s walls, & the primary commerce is in objects endowed magically with flight. Ali Sard is a market thief who carries with him a sentient bag of marbles named Bobble Marmalep who, when thrown, enacts a sort of Chaos Theory in Ali’s favor. Since Bobble Marmalep is silent & immobile (& hardly even qualifies as sentient), Ali has to gather him up again after every save.

10)Right pinkie: the river island where Asher met Nelly. He must witness the narrative leading up to the ice river crash over & over hoping at least once he’ll make it to the Crown & his destiny with Nelly.

Pinterest:

#HangingViolet: the story of Evelyn Eeny, a reluctant & mostly crazy ghost hunter. In college, Evelyn & her friends Bird & Sara stay overnight in a haunted building on campus, a building where a piano teacher’s daughter (Violet) supposedly hanged herself & stuck around ghostishly to haunt folks. After having all fallen asleep, Evelyn & the others wake to find a body (a legit nonghost body) hanging in the stairwell, its lower half missing. Cut to postgraduate years & Evelyn is full on crazy. She chooses to be homeless to avoid hauntable spaces & only goes inside to do her job (she’s a ballerina & her ballerina bosses indulge this behavior because she is very, very good). While reading some newspapers from her homeless blanket, she realizes two recent news stories–a Limb Lopper on the loose & an outbreak of a new disease mimicking the symptoms of polio–might somehow be related. Since this is only a gut feeling, Evelyn goes to Bird who’s now a private detective (or just a crazy person who thinks he’s a private detective). Bird says he only takes on detective adventures in a team that must include a strongman. To find a strongman, Evelyn goes to a nunnery & meets Sister Mary Michael, a demonologist & jolly lady so jolly she decides to delight Evelyn, a Michael Jackson fan, by introducing herself as Sister Mary Michael Jackson. Sister Mary, who also happens to be brilliant, discovers one-armed copyright lawyer named Eugene Monsterpillar whose girlfriend was beheaded, just like her own piano playing father was beheaded years before. Eugene tries to distract the intrepid & mishmashed detective team by suggesting they investigate his prosthetics supplier Ken Champion. Meanwhile, Evelyn’s straight up crazy brain is spotting ghosts all over.

Facebook:

#CatchAlltheRadiantAnimalSouls (#CARAS)(#TinyHotel): Pinto Naroma discovers the existence of Radiant Animal Souls when his friend Buck tries to shoot him to death for no clear reason out alone in the woods but shoots a tiny tree frog named Pooja instead. Radiant Animal Souls are tiny invisible creatures, various types of real animals, trained by the angelical Salvation Wolves to take a bullet for their assigned protectees. After his little sister Phoebe kills herself, Pinto inherits her Radiant Animal Soul, an Eohippus named Sevastopol. Pinto is also in love with a girl named Melanie Gellar whose Radiant Animal Soul, a giant cave bear, bullies Sevastopol too much, so one day Sevastopol gets fed up, evolves into a Chalicothere, & kills the cave bear. So now that Pinto knows Radiant Animal Souls are transferable, he decides to steal a new one for Melanie. He & his dumb friends Gerald & Luke make a plan to rob Hyde Pastor who, according to rumor, has a whole collection of big cats.

#ColonyoftheHorizontalTree (#CoHT): Colony Colcolson in his younger days was in love with a girl named Melanie Gellar who supposedly died, but he knows she was actually kidnapped by the sky people. He goes on a quest to get her back & discovers a massive valley near the Kingdom of Jamal where Horizontal Trees can detach & become a flying mechanism by which a traveler can go anywhere. The traveler must collect the 13 Marmaleps, half squirrel/half rabbit creatures (who mostly look human) endowed with amazing powers & crippling psychological dysfunctions. Colony has gathered 8 of the 13 Marmaleps with the help of several friends (including Harlan Lime, an expert in tiny floating kingdoms). However, Unicorn God, the King of Jamal, has half the team in his dungeons. Now the Marmaleps & their golem army must plan a daring raid to free their friends (by poisoning the favorite food of the unicorn army: tiny floating kingdoms) & escape on the Horizontal Tree. Here are the 1st 8 Marmaleps:

*Apple Marmalep: A manic depressive record store clerk who causes others to grow or shrink depending on his mood.

*Bobble Marmalep: A megalomaniacal bag of marbles who manipulates chance & causes chaos.

*Cobblestone Marmalep: A socially anxious stormcloud (clearly in love with Colony).

*Dogpaddle Marmalep: A television-headed teleporter afflicted with randomness & poor communication skills.

*Epilepsy Marmalep: hummingbird who projects physicalized dream monsters.

*Far Marmalep: A clumsy matter manipulator who has the bad habit of blowing up planets (she claims she encountered Melanie Gellar in her travels & she’s presently being turned into a planet).

*Garfield Marmalep: A narcissistic disembodied lung with gravity manipulation powers (& he claims to be the leader of the Marmaleps).

*Harbinger: A future-predicting, cynical, & manipulative golem maker who is mostly kind & caring to her subordinates (& claims to be the leader of the Marmaleps).

Liking as an Overvalued Commodity

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Often when confronted with the pervasiveness of “liking” in the present culture, from the very small (Facebook posts that must receive a “like” as the highest measure of affirmation) to the way-too-big (valuing a presidential candidate’s “likeablity” over any other more significant virtue) I think of Willy Loman’s obsession with his sons being “well liked”–not that they are good people with fulfilling lives but that they are merely “liked” by others. It’s meant to seem to the audience like the delusional misconception of a man who never lived life well, but I worry about our culture becoming like Willy Loman; we all know how Willy Loman ended up.

In my experience, a particularly worrisome example (in that it worries me about the future of literature) was in my MFA program: a majority of our time was spent on “I like this”/”I don’t like this” conversations and on the equally useless “I don’t get”/”I don’t understand” conversations. Liking and understanding are two commodities that barely register a blip in any decent greatness measure, yet little time was spent outside this realm, and these workshops are run by people who should know better. I even had one workshop leader who took a vote on how many people liked a story. When the vote was roughly half, he proved only that the workshop was populated by human beings. In the preMFA era, great works were born from tumult and passionate resistance from groups of people with deep knowledge and love of one another, the sort of love that comes paradoxically with a concomitant measure of disdain, but throw a dozen disconnected strangers together and no wonder critique has the superficial pointlessness of a Facebook feed.

Don’t get me wrong: liking is valuable, granted, but it is a value so lacking in power and durability it requires hit after hit. It’s why the Facebook feed goes by so fast. It’s why likable novels get consumed in much larger numbers (I think of the way my wife burns through endless romance novels but she’d never profess any passionate love for them). It’s why likable songs get played on repeat. They have to be to get the same high. When the temporary buzz wears off, you hit until there’s nothing but used up husk remaining.

A more substantial and durable love is based on risking being disliked, unsettling, or displeasing. It provides the sort of high that only needs one hit to work but still we crave a constant return.

Conventional wisdom you might hear from educators is that liking lacks significance because it’s only doxa level truth, truth only valid to the individual. A wiser student seeks a truth valid to all. This is great for science and politics and rhetoric, but art (fiction included) is all doxa. It needn’t conform to any truth outside the individual. The real issue is liking is a weak stimulator and the easiest stimulator to elicit and measure and so the province of the lazy. Hence why I call it a comforting stimulator. Snuggling in a teddybear mountain might make you feel happy but the sort of happiness that preludes a nap.

I’m the last one to argue for the total elimination of likability as a consideration. It’s a nice component and perhaps a starting point of any valuable experience. You have to like someone on a first date to even contemplate marriage, but any married person knows liking is such a small component to the more complicated, sometimes hate-filled, but ultimately more rewarding experience of marriage. Likewise, if you dislike a book from the beginning, why continue reading it? But I doubt Thomas Hardy in the composition of Jude the Obscure ever said, “I better tone this down, or I’ll bum out all my readers.” He was more interested in piercing hearts and haunting readers, leaving readers with a sort of masochistic guilt of loving the emotional abuse of death and heartbreak and despair. I doubt Allen Ginsberg ever read the early drafts of Naked Lunch and said, “Sorry to break this to you, Bill, but I doubt it’ll get a thumbs up across the demographic spectrum.” Burroughs was more interested in plumbing the terrible depths of souls and exploring new possibilities of what literature could be. Likability is the last thing on his mind.

I first came to the realization of how little my reading comfort mattered after reading The Fixer by Bernard Malamud. The things that happen in the book to Yakov Bok, a falsely jailed victim of antisemitism in Tzarist Russia, are so unforgivable and horrifying that I yearned for some redemption or exoneration, soldiers swooping into save Yakov and blow away the Tzarist pricks, but the level of torture Yakov endures would require some Inglourious Basterds level revenge. When no such redemption occurred, I was left hating the book. Then I had the revelation: I love the book because it wouldn’t let me go.

Don’t take my choice of examples the wrong way: this is no Great Works Initiative argument. I’m talking about a personal experience that could happen with any type of book. Too often literature is split into oversimplified dualities — the false notion literature requires deeper devotion than superficially pleasing genre fiction, for example — that fail to capture the true complexity of the reading experience. Genre fans know well (better even) the love/hate intensity of fandom. Nerds, by definition, are more likely to describe what they love in terms of loving than liking. For example, Harry Potter fans would never claim to like the emotional torture of the mass good-guy-slaughtering that ramps up as the books progress, but it’s hard to imagine loving the books without this essential ingredient.

This became an issue in a recent book group conversation about the French graphic novel Beautiful Darkness. It’s a massively unsettling book about a dead girl rotting in the woods and the tiny creatures who once populated her body (or mind) now liberated and forced to survive in the woods. Most are unprepared, too dumb or innocent, or too prone to succumb to the worst of human nature, and most fail horrifically in this test of survival. Other members of the  reading group disliked the book for its unsettling qualities, for its lack of answers or redemption or resolution. The group groped for metaphors to explain the tiny creatures, embodied personality traits and so on, but I would consider easy conformity to such metaphors a flaw. I loved the book precisely for its unsettling qualities and its resistance to easy answers.

But this is not the sole province of indie comics; I didn’t really like the other indie comics we read (Essex County, Blankets, Daytripper) for their easy metaphors, for overly comforting endpoints (epiphany, catharsis, resolution, etc.) and characters who failed to elicit much emotion either way. The rest of the group felt the opposite on every point (hence the irrelevance of liking and complete subjectivity of value). For example, Daytripper had a gimmick that could potentially illicit discomfort (and thus passion) but the discomfort is undermined by inorganic arbitrariness and easy conformity to metaphor, leaving little to attach to but a character who may be unlikable but hardly interesting enough to illicit any emotion at all. In other words, it didn’t work for me the way it worked for plenty of others.

Likewise, the comic I nominated for the group as the greatest permutation of the form was The Infinity Gauntlet, a story so quintessentially Marvel Comicsy, all their movies are headed towards it. Marvel Comics is at its height of popularity and thus, set in too many simplistic competitions with so-called deep/serious work, is often accused of the sort of weak likability of superficial crowd pleasing. While I could argue this is rarely ever true of Marvel Comics (a long and complicated argument I’d love to have with you one day) this is certainly not true with The Infinity Gauntlet. The hero of the story is a genocidal maniac. Every conventionally heroic moment (from the conventionally heroic supposed heroes opposing the true hero) ends in death and helplessness. The bad guy/hero is so complete in his victory that when the reversal comes (because of course a reversal will come) and the conventional good guys win, it seems like the only thing that can defeat the villain is deep rooted insecurity and the inevitability of hero victory within the form, turning the villain into a tragic hero and justice into injustice. There’s little simple or superficially pleasing about it. In a great story like this, liking and disliking are flavors working with or against each other to enhance the overall greatness of the piece while more substantial commodities that risk displeasing through intensity have a greater capacity to forever haunt a reader’s life.

The Principles of Particulate Stimulation (a Theory of How to Make and Understand Art)

I developed the system/concept I call “particulate stimulation” as, I hope, a practical tool for fiction writers – a way to understand the internal mechanisms of fiction’s interaction with the reader – but I believe these concepts are applicable to all the arts and to serious criticism as well (since I have yet to encounter a critical strategy that approaches the arts in this way).

In short, the concept rests on the notion that the primary, irreducible value in fiction (or in any experience of the arts) is in the direct stimulation of the reader (viewer, audience, etc.) that breaks down the barrier between self and other. This is an essentially irrational, gut-level act, so the irrational and the gut-level understanding of fiction (and other arts) is favored as a primary value. I call this value “primary” and “irreducible” because it is the first value to consider – whether or not it is the greatest value is up to the individual – and it is the one value that remains once other values are eliminated. If one were to ask “Is this piece of fiction (etc) good?” and “Why is it good?” one might name a large number of possible values, but if one were to say “Without this value, could this be good?” or “In the history of fiction (or art), has an example of a good work existed without this value?” and eliminate values in this manner one by one, the only one remaining would be stimulation. For example, values such as meaning, reflection of philosophical/social concepts, or universal model of behavior might be cited as a story’s source of value, but could a story be valuable without any of these? Yes, of course it could. However, could a story be valuable devoid of stimulation? Unlikely. So, in the practical sense of optimizing this irreducible value, the writer then considers them secondary. The role of meaning or social reflection, for example, becomes a secondary function to how these factors optimize stimulation.

The writer must also understand how the drive toward stimulation and the irrational breakdown in barriers between self and other meets the contradictory drive to eliminate stimulation (I simplify these forces below as “The Gut” and “The Mind”). To load a story with excessive emotions or completely irrational oddities, for example, might meet with the mind’s resistance to emotions and oddities, including the complex array of mental mechanisms designed for this resistance (such as subordination and categorization). To optimize the stimulation, the writer must strategically recognize these mechanisms for resistance and craft accordingly – to evade the gatekeepers, in other words.

This concept was designed to compensate for the massive deficiencies in my own creative writing education in which teachers would rely on superficial truisms or false universals without the capacity to explain or justify them. It was like teaching a cooking class by naming all the pots and pans but giving no clear understanding of flavors and the interaction between flavors. Following clichés like “show, don’t tell” might make a story more snappy, but why? I never got a good explanation, so I had to come up with one of my own: concrete imagery engages the gut while abstract narration engages the mind.

That being said, here is a simplified list of various factors to consider in understanding Particulate Stimulation:

Overview:

The Mind: Designed to eliminate stimulation (e.g. danger, discomfort, etc.) through:

  • Subordination (creating a hierarchy to organize the chaos)
  • Abstraction (elevation into the undying ideal)
  • Turning the irrational into symbols/metaphors
  • Categorization/Separation (favoring the safe over the dangerous)
  • Resolution of mystery

The Gut: Seeks stimulation (food, sex, mortal danger, etc.) by eliminating barriers between self and other (leading the reader to vicarious experiences):

  • Danger/fear
  • Rage
  • Desire
  • Gratification of physical needs (food, sex, etc.)
  • Unresolved mystery
  • Happy feelings (to a lesser extent)

Comfort/Discomfort: Though the mind seeks elimination of stimulation, one type of stimulation it accepts is comfort.

The Mind: Comforting stimulators:

  • Brief bursts of stimulation:
    • Conflict resolution
    • Mystery resolution
    • Fulfillment of desires
    • Epiphany
    • Catharsis (the false notion that art exists solely to eliminate stimulation)
  •  Function often as coda to end a story
  • Often mistaken as the main point of the story

The Gut: Discomforting stimulators:

  • More sustained source of stimulation throughout a story
  • A majority of the value is in optimizing discomfort
  • But also doing so without the mind rejecting the text (in its need for comfort)

Imagery:

The Mind:

  • Favors abstraction.
  • Concrete imagery is subordinate to abstract ideas.
  • Images stand in for or “mean” something

The Gut:

  • Parataxis: The juxtaposition of two seemingly unrelated image without a directly stated connection.
  • Dislocation (the surrealist version of parataxis): Disconnected images dislocate the viewer/reader from the present world, create a dreamlike effect

Characters:

The Mind: A character:

  • Stands in as a universal model
  • Represents the human condition
  • Learns a lesson so we can learn a lesson
  • Leads to vicarious catharsis
  • Resolves paradoxes.

The Gut:

  • Driven by irrational desire
  • Full of unresolved paradox
  • “Negative Capability”: “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”—John Keats

Repetition:

The Mind:

  • Mechanical Repetition:
    • Copies must be exact to eliminate possibility of failure/danger
    • This creates a diminishing return as stimulation reduces with each copy)

The Gut:

  • Organic Repetition:
    • Another stimulating irrational paradox: both unique and of a pattern
    • Repetition of some patterns while remaining individual (as with any living being) indicates the presence of life without overt mental control
    • The rule of threes: 2 occurrences might be coincidences and 4 verges on mechanical repetition, so 3 indicates the presence of life.
    • The most pleasing music has been historically based on a 3 part pattern

Nintendo :oR: Multiply the Screaming by Millions

Image 

(for 2100)

 Benny gave birth to Nintendo because she hated everything, but Charlie hated everything too, so they could hate everything together.

 Charlie made or modified all those Easter dresses  because she never wanted anyone to wear them (all the unworthy and jealous legions) (and Benny was the only one who knew this about her intent) only to sit on dummies in museums made just for Charlie’s legacy so Benny could be there hosting tours and say, “Ha ha, you dumbass. This is not for you. You’d make a dress like that stink too bad to wear.” Benny would be there with her every afterschool in the little shop Charlie made out back of her house, and Benny would be fiddling with a little needle and string like anything she did did anything to the dresses, but at least she’d get to say, “These are the dresses we made,” and feel a little less like she lied it. When the other kids called her weirdo, she always had the future worship of Easter dresses from God’s own patterns to laugh at those fools in secret.

 Her greatest addition to the birth of Nintendo came from a mask given to her by providence. In her honest history she’d only confess to biographers on her deathbed, she stole the Nintendo mask from a girl in shop class everyone hated, Greta, the girl who tinkered with all the rejected machines like she cared and believed in something (idiot), and everyone on the planet made fun of her for it (everybody may’ve made fun of Benny and Charlie likewise, but at least they weren’t as low down as Greta).

 Benny: “What’s this dumb machine you’re making, Greta?” This machine was a mask Benny put on (because why not?) that covered her face from forehead to chin with a flat mirrored surface like Cobra Commander.

 Greta: “It’s a mask” (because maybe she thought obvious statements weren’t a total waste of time).

 Benny: “Why would you waste time making machine masks?” As she spoke, she saw (the mirror was one sided) a pixilated face like old fashioned videogame faces appeared on the mask and spoke with an autotune voice.

 Thus, Nintendo had a forgotten third mother (but once Benny made the mask hers alone, Greta was so gone forever from this business she’s hardly even worth mentioning) and the mask now was only something she found by chance in the middle of nothing. The magic of Jesus delivered the mask via thunderbolts of heaven to facilitate their destiny to go hardcore apocalypse on all of existence (or whatever). That’s around the time Jesus magic let her find the rainbowcolored Tasselactor wig in an old abandoned grown over park below an arch of chipped off gold like Jesus, in his cultural closemindedness, got the whole leprechaun gold and rainbow set up backward.

 Then Benny saw the Easter dresses Charlie turned into drag dresses in her free time. The Easter drag dress Benny put on first to model was blue like Easter egg dye and patterns, like Paas made dresses, so it became the Paas Dress in their personal legends. It hung fine at the top but pooled below her like the whole thing melted into puddles (like fitting ever mattered for anything).

 Charlie: “You’re too small to be a drag queen. Maybe I can corner the market on a line of short-and-small drag dresses.”

 Benny: “Close your eyes.” Benny reached into her bag to pull out the Cobra Commander mask and rainbow wig. “Open your eyes.” But this greatness got no response at first. “What’s the matter?” The face came up the happy pixilated face on the blank mask, the electronic voice. “Don’t you think I’m pretty?” She stroked the long straight rainbowcolored hair. “My name is Nintendo. I always wished to be a real girl, and here I am.”

 Charlie laughed.

 In this manner, Benny became famous.

 Because Nintendo in this personal legend embodied all the most awful qualities of popularity and popular music (compounded with Benny’s conviction to delight the only one who knew the joke) she became the most famous pop star on the planet.

 When Nintendo was a brand new creation, she played drag clubs where Charlie sold dresses. Soon she was in local papers and on talk shows as a musical oddity where she had to relate her origins anew to each interviewer.

 Nintendo: “I was born a Nintendo. I wanted to be a real girl. If you dream hard enough…” And so on. It was that easy.

 It was pop music created by people who hated pop music and hearts and love (Benny, at least, hated all music and made music only to show people they should hate themselves). To Benny, Nintendo’s music and the amount of people who loved it, nothing but hilarious. The songs weren’t hard to make, mostly beat presets in the too complicated computer system what’s-her-name put in the mask for no good reason. Add this to repeated uplifting pithy aphorisms in her computer voice like, “If you dream hard and your heart is big, you can have anything you love come true, true to you, true to you,” that sort of thing, random blather (like hearts and truth ever mattered for anyone but idiots and dumbasses).

 Charlie plugged away at all the Nintendo dresses for every show she got booked in which seemed like every show that existed. She was there for Benny all that summer (like they’d always been there for each other’s summers).

 Until she wasn’t.

 Charlie: “I got this offer to go to Paris.”

 Benny: “Why would you want to go to Paris? It’s awful.”

 Charlie: “I kind of want to study design. Some people say my designs are good.”

 Benny: “Who’s ever said that but me?”

Charlie: “A lot of people. Teachers. Then there’s also the people who offered to pay to send me to Paris. They kind of think my stuff is good.”

Benny: “They’re just having a joke on you, right?”

Charlie: “But you told me my dresses would be in museums one day.”

Benny: “When people stop sucking and we make them better.”

Charlie: “By doing what? Making fun of them?”

Benny: “By making them want to be like us. You and me represent the only non-sucking portion of the population.”

They had the whole summer before Charlie decided Paris was stupid (because of course she would, right?) (because anything like that had to be stupid, right?) but Charlie disappeared a lot (like a crazy person who just goes off and leaves loved ones for days) (it could only possibly be insanity). It started with the off and on no shows like Benny might expect her to be at a fitting for a pop festival Benny planned to destroy or a press junket or whatever where idiots would write her lies, but soon Charlie was only a void. She stopped being a real girl and became Benny’s eternal waiting.

Nintendo then went on stage in the same battered Easter dresses as always, including some nights the overworn Paas Dress from Nintendo’s birth, torn in secret absences never to be known in the mystery of Nintendo’s origin, but all the songs became about the awful inevitable failure of loving anyone, and her fans loved it because they’d had their heart broken like this, in the simpler but more incredible ripping away that leaves an unhideable hole, a heartbreak more intense and acute than any other possible pain, and Nintendo, as the hate monster she’d become, embodied all they needed. Nintendo didn’t hide her feelings, and her fans were people who couldn’t hide their feelings, who wanted to hurt along with others in the intensity of their openness, especially with the most open sentient computer who even had clothes disheveled by her misery.

But then Charlie came back.

Benny: “Where did you go?”

Charlie: “I don’t know. I go places sometimes.” She had a girl tagging along like some stray she picked up, face obscured by black hair, toes turned inward like eternally curled into shadow. “This is O. She’s going to be my assistant.”

Benny: “Your little orphan can go away. No one will be offended, and everyone will forget it happened.”

Charlie: “You’re having me make a lot of dresses. I need a hand.”

Benny: “When’d you find time for charity cases? You encounter a lot of crystal babies in whatever magical world you got kidnapped to?”

Charlie: “Okay, to be honest, as long as you promise to drop it, I’ll tell you where I go. I go to motels sometimes. I just find a motel and check in and stay there alone for days. I don’t tell you because I just want to go to motels, and I don’t tell anybody. But I go because, I don’t know, it’s quiet, and I meet people who don’t know me. I met O there and taught her a little bit about sewing. She seemed like she wanted to learn.”

Benny: “I can learn to sew.” (Why hadn’t she thought of that before?)

Charlie: “Don’t worry about it. You’ve got your thing. You’re the pop star. Go be the pop star.”

Benny: “I’m only that because you thought it was funny.”

Charlie: “Yes, you’re hilarious.” (There was no mirth, only tones of some new girl who sneaks off to motels and teaches random little bitches to sew.)

Benny wanted to walk away, but it would be so far and weird. They were on the stage for that night’s show, and the stage was covered in giant rainbow-colored stuffed animals, so big even the feet were taller than Benny. The rest of the theater was empty but Benny and Charlie and that new girl (who seemed to suck away any presence anyway like black holes). The empty sound of some machine click echoed. That girl remained (despite stares supposed to make her have multiple heart attacks) (she was only some lump of black hair, silence, and nothing but still refusing to be anything but solid).

Charlie: “We’ve got to go work on your outfits for tonight. You’ve got to practice.”

Benny: “I never practice. Because I hate it. We both hate it.”

Charlie: “You can’t hate all of it. I think the Easter drag dresses are great.”

Machine click echo.

Benny: “Me too.”

Charlie walked away with that girl. Off to sew. Or whatever.

But Benny had nowhere to go (alone and made microscopic by gratuitous animals) so she went to the sewing room and made her silence as offensive as possible.

Charlie (like everything was suddenly okay again): “O and I bonded because we both had dreams of being crucified in bloody and terrible ways. There must have been a thousand screaming voices in those dreams.”

Benny doodled O’s burning corpse on the fake set list for tech as she babbled vague lyrics for the nonsense she’d sing tonight (something about burning love and burning hate and crucifixion) (she hoped/wondered/didn’t care if crucifixion lyrics offended delicate ears) (something like, “hope you enjoy your crucifixion” (or whatever, didn’t matter)).

Benny: “Dream as in ambition or night vision?”

Charlie: “Why would we have ambition to be murdered?”

Benny fiddled with a flat pincushion pushing the pins through until they made a nail bed on the other side (she could make things as good as anybody made them) (they always called her the creative type) (creativity is a good name for things like nailbeds for torture).

Benny: “How’d you know she dreamed that if she’s a mute?”

Charlie: “What makes you think she’s mute?”

Benny: “I guess it’s only that she seems so, I don’t know, lacking in something.”

Charlie stepped out a moment to get whatever sewing stuff people like her needed, and Benny put her miniature nailbed down in front of O.

Benny: “Charlie said to put your hand on this hard until blood comes out. For sewing.” Benny grabbed her hand when she failed to respond, but O resisted. “Come on. She said it’s to fulfill a dream.” But Charlie came back before she could bring this creativity to completion. “We’re just bonding.”

Then later over the radio she heard about the Greatest Pop Star on the Planet Contest, created by the Electric Youth, an organization that does some stupid nonsense for pop music and some dumb charity for kids (like at this point in history anybody but Benny needed charity). She would win the contest, and Charlie and O would see her glory and bow down in supplication begging forgiveness for the great crime, whatever that great crime was.

So Benny ordered Charlie to make the dress the world’s greatest human would wear, and Charlie complied without complaining and brought her little grunt worker along.

Charlie: “O had a great idea for a dress for the Greatest Pop Star on the Planet contest.”

Benny: “Sounds terrible.”

Charlie: “You haven’t even…never mind.”

Charlie turned away, and Benny was sick of that sort of turning away, how dare she? Like she’s the one to be offended. She couldn’t let her get away with it.

Benny: “What is it then?”

Her real voice was always more innocent and desperate than she wanted it to be these days (like that fake Nintendo vulnerability had become a virus corrupting her real vocal chords).

Charlie: “Refurbish the old Paas Dress from back when we started.”

Neither one said a thing then or made a move to leave (though every muscle of everybody seemed ready to flee like prey animals). Charlie sat down to sew because all the shows gave her too much work to do to just up and leave like that (like lazy cowards). Then she started chitchatting (like that was something they still did).

Charlie: “Supposedly your big competition is this girl out of Korea called Met Gala, haven’t had time to look her up.”

Benny: “Why would you? This music is terrible. If I win this contest, I’m only winning at being terrible.”

Charlie: “There was a time when you liked some things. Remember that?”

Benny: “Yes. I remember that.” And Benny let her sew in peace (and left the room because she was the only one who had the power and right to leave).

For the Greatest Pop Star on the Planet contest, the whole stage was set up like a mini-Hoover Dam made of woven funhouse mirrors making all performers big and weird behind themselves.

Coquettish Korean teen pop star Met Gala was the first night headliner. She was a flaming black wall, six feet by six feet. When she approached the mic, the overwhelming sound, nearly blowing out the speakers, was a dozen screaming voices. The background music was still the regular pop beat. Here and there the mechanical beat would break and dulcet background refrains would counterpoint a “yeah yeah” but mostly the screaming.

The audience went nuts like this was the greatest thing, and Benny measured it against her own dumb audience (like screaming people can be anything but stupid).

Benny: “Oh God, not this crap again.”

She made sure Charlie could hear her jaded and highly intelligent dismissal for some reason.

Nintendo called her Greatest Pop Star on the Planet Contest song as the second night headliner “The Single Sustained Note of Resurrection to Mend All Broken Hearts,” and in the elaborate costume Charlie and O designed to win the whole contest based on the refurbished Paas Dress from their beginning, Nintendo entered, played one note on the piano, let it reverberate for a good three seconds, and she left. There was no way to compare the audience reaction to Met Gala’s (because Benny wouldn’t give them that power).

Charlie: “What the hell was that?”

Benny: “Exactly what I said I was going to do in the title.” Benny gave a smirk Charlie couldn’t possibly see (but she should know it was there anyway) (because she was her and they were them). “Sorry if they didn’t stare at your dress for forever. I know how long you and what’s her name worked on it.”

Benny and O gave each other death eyes (at least Benny assumed O was giving them back under that black hair) (Benny could hardly tolerate weak people who hid their faces that way).

The final headlining act of the Greatest Pop Star on the Planet Contest was the river. The concert organizers gave no indication of what this meant, but everyone presumed they meant the nearest river, the Nagsissy.

On the night the river was supposed to perform, the cameras were trained on the Nagsissy River, waiting for anything. After hours of waiting (audience silent and tense like any great moment in music where silence leads to some even greater ecstasy) part of the river lurched from its banks like a worm lifting and wiggling its head out of a hole (the crowd gasped). Half a mile of the river jerked out of its banks and onto a nearby city street, jerking forward like a worm, knocking cars aside. Its head was a thousand writhing tendrils of water. It arrived at the stage for the Greatest Pop Star on the Planet Contest and took up the whole stage, tail trailing out the door. Its music was a thousand screaming voices, deep bass rumble screaming, the sort of voices that get right inside of you and vibrate all your matter away to replace with its own being, far more intense than the flaming wall or anything else possible in music. The audience degenerated into spasms of ecstasy, frothing at the mouth, eyes rolled back, orgasming simultaneously.

It was clear who won the contest.

Benny: “Please. Give me a break.”

Benny, wearing her Nintendo mask, watched from atop a sheer silvery mirrored Hoover Dam wall behind the screaming river. Charlie came up behind her.

Charlie: “You don’t have to do this.” She had come to apologize for what she did. “I don’t know why you’re acting like this, but killing yourself is stupid.”

Benny: “I am not Benny. I am only Nintendo.”

Charlie didn’t laugh like she was (maybe) supposed to.

O was with her, and she approached like she was going to save her from suicide and everything would be better, and everybody would be great heroes forever, but they were all too dumb to realize maybe Benny wanted to be alone and watch her own embarrassing uselessness play out on stage below. O reached out a hand to lift Benny up, but Benny jerked too hard and pulled O off the side of the wall, and down she fell (to death if Benny remained lucky) but Benny tried to stand up, lost her footing likewise and fell.

The damndest thing was Charlie didn’t reach out a hand for either one. Not even an arm jerk of a deep need to save her friend like her lifelong friendship wasn’t even worth instinctive responses.

Benny and O fell together through nothing. Maybe they were going to die together, break into a thousand bloody pieces indistinguishable in the final mess of carnage. An amazing final pop star act that might be the only way to equal the river.

But, no, they fell safe into the river water that covered the stage now. (Maybe Benny knew that would happen. Maybe Charlie did too.) (If that made anything okay, who knows?)

The audience in spasms of ecstasy followed the plummeting Nintendo into the river to take their ecstasy to the only possible place, inside the body of their new god.

Hundreds of people drowned.

It was the greatest pop concert ever.

Despite everything, Charlie went to Paris. O disappeared and nobody cared that the whole world forgot about her.

Benny only had herself now and nobody ever knew she was Nintendo. The Nintendo mask, once it hit the water, became no longer usable forever, and Benny didn’t even try to fix it.

She prayed every night for the sun to fall into the ocean and for all the world to die precisely the way they wanted to and deserved.

The Importance of William Carlos Williams to Fiction Writers: Letting Go the Need to Mean Something

Diego Max

As a fiction writer, I consider William Carlos Williams the most important twentieth century American writer. This is a statement likely to meet with much disagreement, and perhaps isolating the statement to the second half of the twentieth century might turn the competition into a no contest, but there is no reason to isolate a poet’s influence to poetry. He’s just as important to fiction and theater. His importance is best summed up in the statement “No ideas but in things,” the letting go of ideas as the central value of literature and with them all those persistent Greek infinities indelibly inserted as central literary values for centuries: the supposed ideals by which literature and all beautiful things were to be judged; the structural goldenness that tied literature to nature’s order; the timelessness and universality literature was meant to achieve as if relating to another human regardless of different setting were some secondary function to all humans conforming to generalizable features; components like imagery subordinated by mechanisms like metaphor and representation to concepts outside of the text itself. Williams’ “No ideas but in things” and all its connected implications represented a sea change, letting go of all those old, worn out, unnecessary notions. Letting go of ideas meant literature didn’t have to be subordinated to concepts; images didn’t have to be subordinated within metaphors to abstractions. Images could then be images for their own sake, for the stimulation of their beauty or ugliness. What they mean could then be secondary. A red wheelbarrow doesn’t have to mean anything other than itself. Letting go ideals meant questioning how these ideals were created. Beauty, the good, perfection – these weren’t manifest by some eternal force outside of the perspective of humans (and Christian European males most often accessing supposed objectivity to justify their subjective ideas of the universe’s functionality, subordinating anyone outside of their group as outsiders, servants, fools, or savages). “No ideas but in things” localized ideals subjectively within humans and their varied concepts of perfection opening up multiplicity of possibilities. This, as significantly, meant letting go of the need to be perfect, closer to the Japanese concept of beauty, wabi sabi (hence why I’m qualifying Williams’ influence to twentieth century America – he was more an adamant propagator of this concept than an originator). Letting go of the old structural ideals so important to the Greeks led to the innovation for which modernists are most commonly given credit, and this might close-mindedly limit the perception of Williams’ influence on fiction since the collapse of poetic meter might seem irrelevant to fiction, but the dissolution the ideals at the source of this development marks Williams as iconoclast regardless of genre. Letting go of timelessness meant literature could be about the present moment; letting go of universality meant both letting go the notion that universality is possible and narrowing focus on interaction between writer and reader. Instead of writing something for all people at all times, an impossibility only the arrogant can believe is achievable, the writer now needs only to write for one person at one time. This is one of the major points Charles Olson focuses on in “Projective Verse” and credits Williams and Ezra Pound for their developments in this direction. Olson is credited with being first to use “postmodern” to refer to literature, and “Projective Verse” in 1950 essentially inaugurated postmodern literature (though postmodern literature is most often discussed in a very limited way based on some concepts by a handful of French philosophers catching up to Olson about twenty years too late and making claims that only ever worked well with a small portion of postmodern fiction—no wonder Williams gets lost in that). Frank O’Hara’s “Personism: A Manifesto” is another important essay in postmodern poetry which gives significant credit to Williams – O’Hara says only Walt Whitman, Hart Crane, and Williams are “better than the movies” – though O’Hara’s importance is too often limited to promoting spontaneous composition, something O’Hara identifies at the beginning of that essay as an irrelevant distinction compared his apocalyptic, if smart ass, attack on universality.

Williams, the avuncular family doctor with his quiet and simple poems, seems like an odd figure to place at the top of this revolution, hardly ever as aggressive in his promotion of it many other revolutionaries, but it’s there in his poetry. “The Red Wheelbarrow” perhaps receives too great a place as masterpiece since its importance is too easily isolated to its structural innovation and its strong use of concrete imagery – its “red wheelbarrow,” “rain water,” “white chickens,” and so on – but as important as adapting the structure and imagery of haiku (and more important when considering fiction) is the concept of how imagery works adapted from haiku, taking the essential content of poetry from metaphor to parataxis. Metaphor traditionally requires imagery to be subordinated to something outside of itself, concrete or abstract; it either represents or means something and has much less importance than the thing it represents or means (in I.A. Richards’ terms, the vehicle must stand in for the tenor). This is also how we frequently understand fiction: a realistic piece must either represent something “real” accurately or some convenient generalization/false universalism called “the human condition”; something imaginative must function as metaphor for some abstract concept or some real human experience other than what the imaginative piece directly depicts (Alice’s experience represent childhood experience, for example). With parataxis, the value of the imagery is the imagery itself. Williams said he wrote “The Red Wheelbarrow” because he saw a wheelbarrow and thought it was beautiful. The readers can certainly feel in what “depends” on the red wheelbarrow, as the first line certainly invites them to do, but for Williams, it was the wheelbarrow itself, and for other readers, that’s all it has to be. It can be as many things as there are readers, and this approach breaks from the classical concept that ideals are set outside of the reader. A better place to see the way parataxis works is in “Spring and All” which starts with “By the road to the contagious hospital” and then presents images of a winter landscape where new plants are preparing to grow. This might easily be read as a metaphor for the abstract concept of regeneration, but Williams presents only the images. Whether or not the abstraction is necessary is up to each individual reader. The value is in the beauty of the juxtaposition, sickness next to rebirth and no philosophizing to guide the reader’s reaction. Likewise, fixating only on timeless and impersonal poems like this may make his influence unclear on later postmodern poetry in which confession and tying poems to the present moment are mechanisms by which poets reject the old ideals, but one need only look at Williams’ great epic Patterson, a palimpsest of fragments that are very personal and bound to a particular time and place. Patterson is essentially most of the seemingly contradictory strands of postmodernism in one book.

Isolating this influence to just Williams is, of course, a convenient over-simplification since so many other American and non-American writers have been integral in promoting this concept. It’s a centuries-old taken for granted truth of art in Asian cultures. There are plenty of European writers who might take this same position of importance. I would nominate Tristan Tzara for his vigorous attacks on reason and tradition (identifying Williams and Tzara as the American and European figureheads of this revolution, promoting similar concepts in very different ways, might more clearly unify the development of the so-called “postmodern” fiction, poetry, and theater, for the sake of simplification). Other American writers who are candidates for this position include Ezra Pound, for example, helped adapt Ernest Fenollosa’s ideas of how Chinese language – as an interplay between images instead of a subordination to abstractions – in a highly influential (if somewhat inaccurate) way, but Pound was too thoroughly married to ideas in much of his work to function as a consistent anti-idea iconoclast. Wallace Stevens, likewise, made similar statements about the relationship between ideas and things, but struggled to accurately understand Surrealism. However, the factor that might alone make Williams’ the most important American poet of the 20th century is biographical: Stevens can’t claim the same legacy of mentorship. From the Beats to the Black Mountain Poets to the New York School to the San Francisco Renaissance to countless other poets beyond, Williams directly mentored and inspired younger poets who went on to mentor and inspire many generations after them. The spiritual children of Williams are so numerous that it’s hard to name a single significant American poet who started publishing in the 50s and after who was not connected back to Williams by at most two degrees.

The poet who more often gets the credit as most important twentieth century American poet is T. S. Eliot, and isolating focus to the first fifty years might make the contest somewhat even. Ask anyone in the poetic establishment in the 1940s, it might seem ridiculous to claim some obscure provincial poet like Williams could have the same impact as the great champion of High Culture and indirect founder of New Criticism, but starting in the mid-50s, when Williams’ spiritual children came of age and started publishing in overwhelming masses, it might seem equally ridiculous to think that High Culture and New Criticism were ever considered the eternal standards of great literature. True, Eliot is important in challenging traditional form in his poetry and criticism, but Williams’ impact is equal in this realm through his direct mentorship of young poets, giving his flavor of anti-traditional form a longer impact. The problem with Eliot’s legacy as significant influence is he’s too thoroughly married to the subordination of old. His mission was to save high culture from destruction by finding some way to represent the fragmentation. In this way, Eliot would always be tied to the past, always retrogressive, making him less and less important for the forward progress of poetry. One way in which Williams is most significant is shifting poetry from metaphor to parataxis, but here’s a metaphor describing Eliot’s place: it’s like an armada of Greek ships got shattered to pieces, and Eliot’s plan is to keep patching the ships together. This may seem inspirational to other survivors who wish to retain the integrity of Greek structures and seem to have few other options, and they might start patching boats together too, but a survival plan like that has diminishing returns; soon the fragments will cease to function as proper sailing vessels. Meanwhile, Williams, who was perhaps part of that armada’s original disintegration as well, has found an island where he’s growing crops and raising children. Eliot’s line is bound to die out, and Williams’ line is bound to thrive.

This whole claim is based on a concept I have taken for granted, that moving away from ideas is the natural development of literature, but the arts seem to leap forward starting with the visual arts, then poetry, then fiction. Any visual artist who places ideas, high culture, or representation as a central value would seem old fashioned today, but that has been true for 150 years. For poetry, that has been true for about one hundred years. For fiction, that has only been true for about fifty years. William S. Burroughs most aggressively promoted this concept in fiction (see, for example, his piece “Apocalypse” which summarizes this concept most effectively: “everything is permitted because nothing is true,” etc.). Whether or not Naked Lunch was the beginning of postmodern fiction is up for an unnecessarily complicated debate since “postmodern” as a term is so poorly defined, inaccurate at its core, and overly fixated on relatively recent developments in fiction and criticism; regardless, Naked Lunch marked a major break in the old concept of what fiction could be and opened up countless worlds of possibilities. “No ideas but in things” has been slower to catch on in fiction as so much of it seems fixed forever in the nineteenth century. Likewise, much of what followed Naked Lunch relied heavily on gimmickery. I would never bemoan the fun of gimmickery, but it’s not built for the long haul and collapses easily under its own weight since its bones are so brittle, but the alternative has offered little to replace it but rehashing Flaubert. Somewhere beyond the same old Victorian novel and the weak gimmickery is the gloriously irrational future of fiction.