Raymond Chandler chose a career of writing like a mercenary picked up a weapon. At age 45–an oil executive recently drummed out of his high-paying job for his drinking and philandering binges–he decided to earn a living by making stories, and he pursued that goal with a new discipline and order. He read one pulp magazine after another, noting structure and absorbing style. He enrolled in a writing class, where he dutifully produced essays and stories according to prompts and assignments. Steadily, over the course of years, he moved from pulp fiction hack to successful novelist to Hollywood screenwriter. After his death, he became one of the most well-recognized American writers of the twentieth century.
There isn't an artist, living or dead, who ever frustrated, confused and inspired me as much as Jack Kerouac did. Yes, I crossed paths with him precisely when I needed to, as a disaffected youth obsessed with consuming words and creating meaning. Yes, the passage of time has tempered my feelings for him, and given me a more realistic perspective. But, still, that fascination and affection - it lingers. It always will.
Commemorating the life and work of an individual by carrying around a towel for a day is a little bizarre. But an individual who leaves behind such a unique legacy deserves no less a unique tribute. Which is why Towel Day seems well-suited to honoring the memory of the late Douglas Adams.
Adams, the author of several books including The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, died quite suddenly in 2001 at the age of fifty. At that time, I was not much more than a geeky fan saddened that the man who had written books I had treasured since I was thirteen had so prematurely departed the world. As the years pass, however, I gain a deeper understanding of what was really lost - namely, a vibrant, exploring, creative mind dedicated to technological optimism, the power of science, education and ideas, and the capacity for and responsibility to human progress.
What's with the hating on the fact J.K. Rowling gave Harvard University's commencement address?
"It's definitely the 'A' list, and I wouldn't ever associate J.K. Rowling with the people on that list," says senior Andy Vaz. "From the moment we walk through the gates of Harvard Yard, they constantly emphasize that we are the leaders of tomorrow. They should have picked a leader to speak at commencement. Not a children's writer. What does that say to the class of 2008? Are we the joke class?"
Sure, makes sense. Except for the fact that J.K. Rowling, a former single mother who didn't have the privilege of a Harvard education, used little more than her own wits to build a media empire and can now buy and sell your 22-year-old ass ten times over because she's one of the richest women in the world. Maybe you don't feel you can look to her as a leader. But surprise - the world has more types of people in it than male Harvard grads. To less-privileged women in particular, Rowling's example is a powerful one, and the fact she was invited to give Harvard's commencement speech sends a message beyond campus boundaries - it says that women like her can not only be honored, but their opinions can be listened to. Dismissing her accomplishments, and claiming that being addressed by her is beneath you, is showing a profound and embarrassing ignorance about the realities of modern life and society.
Yeah, there's a joke here. And it's not Rowling.
In case you missed it, Waxy has a fascinating story of the lost Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy sequel computer game.
Plus, Neil Gaiman just posted the introduction he wrote for an Adams biography:
I think that perhaps what Douglas was was probably something we don’t even have a word for yet. A Futurologist, or an Explainer, or something. That one day they’ll realise that the most important job out there is for someone who can explain the world to itself in ways that the world won’t forget. Who can dramatise the plight of endangered species as easily (or at least, as astonishingly well, for nothing Douglas did was ever exactly easy) as he can explain to an analog race what it means to find yourself going digital. Someone whose dreams and ideas, practical or impractical, are always the size of a planet, and who is going to keep going forward, and taking the rest of us with him.
I have occasionally shared with people my strategy of appearing nice and pliable, because it's so much easier to get away with things. If they don't see it coming, they can't stop it, you know? Apparently, Marjane Satrapi ascribes to a similar philosophy:
"It is better not to look like what you are; it is better to look like a bourgeois woman because then all the doors are open for you and then you can just go and make hell. That is much more exciting."
The inimitable Anthony Bourdain has outdone himself with his most recent blog post straight from Tokyo. For the record, I think his "rather notorious" karaoke rendition of "White Wedding" would be a very welcome addition to a future show. Are you susceptible to online petitions, Tony? I'll happily start one.
David Bloom, one of the writers of the British film Donkey Punch, has an entertaining essay up over at the Guardian about his Sundance experience, from smooth-talking LA producers to boisterous American audience members.
He also reiterates a good (if flippant) point about the state of writers in Hollywood:
The next morning the publicist hands me our press schedule. I search for my name. Nothing. What is going on here? Doesn't anyone want a photo of the writer? And everyone knows how much I love pancakes, especially those really thick ones with the fresh blueberries and the Grade 1 Vermont Maple Syrup, just like they serve at the "directors only" pancake breakfast.
And for the first time I realise what the American writers' strike is all about. The indignities that we writers suffer. Let's be clear. This is not about pancakes. This is about respect!
All humor aside, he's right. This is a very simple and fundamental truth underlying the WGA strike. There has never been much respect for writers in the film industry. Only stars - and directors who can make themselves stars - but hardly ever writers. And that also underlies why the strike was necessary, because the only time we seem to notice, and respect, them is when they're gone.
Obviously, the bottom line here is: show your solidarity! Buy a writer some pancakes!
AbeBooks profiles authors with tattoos. Despite the somewhat unimaginative title, this is a fun, link-heavy look at the intersection of the worlds of tattooing and literature. How did I not know Dorothy Parker had ink?
Dogmatika wraps up their Henry Miller week
In youth's one appetite, both for raw experience and for books, is uncontrolled. Where there is excessive hunger, and not mere appetite, there must be vital reason for it. It is blatantly obvious that our present way of life does not offer proper nourishment. If it did I am certain we would read less, work less, strive less. We would not need substitutes, we would not accept vicarious modes of existence. This applies for all realms: food, sex, travel, religion, adventure. We get off to a bad start. We travel the broad highway with one foot in the grave. We have no definite goal or purpose, nor the freedom of being without goal or purpose. We are, most of us, sleepwalkers, and we die without ever opening our eyes.
With my recent submergence in all things noir (there is in fact a Noir Monday review coming later today, never fear), including both film and print, I've lately picked up some interesting tidbits, such as the 45 Calibrations of Raymond Chandler by horror author Peter Straub:
He invented a first-person voice remarkable for its sharpness and accuracy of observation, its attention to musical cadence, purity of syntax and unobtrusive rightness of word order, a metaphorical richness often consciously self-parodic, its finely adjusted speed of movement, sureness of touch and its capacity to remain internally consistent and true to itself over a great emotional range. This voice proved to be unimaginably influential during his lifetime and continues to be so now. Real earned authority sometimes has that effect.
I believe I've posted this in an earlier blog incarnation, but it's worth posting again.
Also, I discovered an interview with Judith Freeman, who recently published a new biography of Chandler (I mentioned it before here). Not only does she cover the discussion of who Chandler thought was the best Marlowe on screen (like Chandler, I think Bogart was great, but not the best) - but she drops a some news I somehow missed seeing elsewhere:
It’ll be interesting to see what Clive Owen does with the role in an adaptation of Chandler’s Trouble Is My Business, to be directed by Frank Miller.
A Philip Marlowe novella directed by Frank Miller and featuring Clive Owen? That could possibly be fantastic, although IMDB says wait until 2009 for it.
The Guardian book blog sings the praises of radical, unapologetic Restoration author Aphra Behn, and wonders what she would think of today's women writers:
On a previous blog on literary time travel, Aphra Behn was mentioned as someone whom it would be an adventure to visit. But what if we could bring her here, to the present, just for the day? What would she think of a traipse around the bookshops and the writing of noughties women; booksellers' tables groaning under the weight of pastel book covers that, far from defying convention and questioning and confronting, actually conform to the oldest patriarchal conventions?
I'd like to think that her answer would be so bawdy and cutting that, even today, it would be unprintable.
A new biography of Raymond Chandler focuses on his intense relationship with his wife Cissy, as well as his later loneliness and depression. Reviewer Richard Rayner notes that: "Chandler is so much a part of the furniture that we tend to forget how great he is." Isn't that the truth. I still think it's the mark of writing "detective" novels that's always kept Chandler out of the elite ranks, not any deficiency in his writing.
As you may have noticed by the interruption of your regularly-scheduled Daily Show episodes, there's a writers' strike going on in the media industry these days.
As far as direct, immediate consequences for myself goes, I couldn't care less about all this. The only TV shows I watch regularly are well-worn episodes of Law & Order and Mythbusters. Occasionally, I catch a Daily Show rerun myself. Other than that, sorry, not interested.
This situation, though, is not about me. It's not about you, either. It's not even really about those extra four cents per DVD the writers asked the studios for. It's about the future ownership of, distribution of, and compensation for digital media. Because someday here soon, it's ALL going to be digital media. And the studios are scrambling to keep a stranglehold on their unfair dominion over it instead of working with its creators to develop new ways of distribution and compensation.
Hey, studios - guess what? Not treating well the people who make the product you sell is not only ethically wrong, it's very bad for business. If this strike continues, and American television audiences are deprived of original programming for months at a time, you who rely on television are going to see just how bad for business that can be. And if you can't figure out a way to do business within the new media paradigm - which means instead of trying to weasel out of paying content creators for their content, you develop new ways for content to be sold - then you're already dead. And you've already lost.
Support the writers: Teresa Jusino has put together some action items and a sample letter for public use. Also, picture from United Hollywood.
Plus, Hollywood wrote you a letter.
There is a fantastic interview over at Kottke with Cory Doctorow about copyright, copying, and culture:
You know, there's no solution that arises from telling people to stop using computers in the way that computers were intended to be used. They're copying machines. So telling the audience for art, telling 70 million American file-sharers that they're all crooks, and none of them have the right to due process, none of them have the right to privacy, we need to wire-tap all of them, we need to shut down their network connections without notice in order to preserve the anti-copying business model: that's a deeply unethical position. It puts us in a world in which we are criminalizing average people for participating in their culture.
Of course, it's nothing exactly new from him, but it's well worth saying and reading again.
"Myths and legends die hard in America. We love them for the extra dimension they provide, the illusion of near-infinite possibility to erase the narrow confines of most men's reality. Weird heroes and mould-breaking champions exist as living proof to those who need it that the tyranny of 'the rat race' is not yet final."
I recently finished re-reading Sunshine by one of my favorite authors, Robin McKinley. She's one of those authors that, happily, has stayed a favorite author as I grew out of adolescence and into adulthood. Since I hadn't read any of her books in a while, I decided to do some Googling to see if I had missed any McKinley-related breaking news. Lo and behold, here she is blogging.
I really love to read my favorite authors blogging. Sometimes, I even love to read blogs by authors I'm not crazy about. Because they're still writers, and their blogs generally have an extra something special other professionals-turned-bloggers don't. Neil Gaiman's journal was one of the very first blogs I kept up with regularly. Sometimes, author blogs proved unique opportunities for me to see currents events as filtered through a talented voice, as was Poppy Z. Brite's journal during Katrina.
I think I'll now have to search out all of the other author blogs I'm missing in a new mass RSS-feed adding. If you have any suggestions, feel free to leave them in the comments.
Back to McKinley, though - I recommend picking up one of her books if you haven't already and have any leanings towards fantasy material. Her books are consistently notable for strong, intelligent, complex heroines, and a beautiful, rich vocabulary and tone. Highlights:
- Beauty - A lovely retelling of Beauty and the Beast. I have large portions of this book completely committed to memory.
- The Blue Sword - A classic girl-hero fantasy story. There's an extensive preview of this at Google Books.
- Deerskin - A little intense, since it retells an old fairy tale that involves incest and rape. But it's very well retold.
Jack Kerouac's On the Road turns fifty. Enjoy a moment:
"What do you want out of life?" I wanted to take her and wring it out of her. She didn't have the slightest idea what she wanted. She mumbled of jobs, movies, going to her grandmother's for the summer, wishing she could go to New York and visit the Roxy, what kind of outfit she would wear -- something like the one she wore last Easter, white bonnet, roses, rose pumps, and lavender gabardine coat. "What do you do on Sunday afternoons?" I asked. She sat on her porch. The boys went by on bicycles and stopped to chat. She read the funny papers, she reclined on the hammock. "What do you do on a warm summer's night?" She sat on the porch, she watched the cars in the road. She and her mother made popcorn. "What does your father do on a summer's night?" He works, he has an all-night shift at the boiler factory, he's spent his whole life supporting a woman and her outpoppings and no credit or adoration. "What does your brother do on a summer's night?" He rides around on his bicycle, he hangs out in front of the soda fountain. "What is he aching to do? What are we all aching to do? What do we want?" She didn't know. She yawned. She was sleepy. It was too much. Nobody could tell. Nobody would ever tell. It was all over. She was eighteen and most lovely, and lost.
Spoiler Alert: There will be no specific Deathly Hallows spoilers in this, but if you're still working your way through the final volume, you may want to avoid it anyway because I refer to aspects of the entire HP series, including broad elements of the last book.
I was only a few chapters into the final book of the Harry Potter series when I started to wonder in earnest what the series would have been like if it had gone in an entirely different direction. It's something I've thought about before, as the books first started grow darker and more intense. But the Deathly Hallows, saturated as it is with epic danger and self-awareness of its impending end, takes the darkness and intensity to a new level. I enjoyed reading it, as I have the earlier books. But it made me seriously question if I wouldn't have enjoyed it even more if it hadn't gotten so, well, serious.
Perhaps it's because I don't take Harry Potter extremely seriously in the first place. I understand to many that's blasphemy, but the truth is that J.K. Rowling is not a fantastic writer. I do think she's a fantastic storyteller, which can be very different thing. Rowling's characters are often one-dimensional, her prose often uninspired. But her tales are still involving and fun, and they resonate a deeper, common mythology. I think there is a very good reason her books have mushroomed into the huge media empire they have - they're already written like blockbuster movies, already plugged into the way people think about and interact with modern media.
Which is fine. Who minds a little mass-media, merchandised entertainment? At least, as long as it doesn't try to be anything else. I have the impression that somewhere along the line, the popularity and importance attached to Harry Potter caused it to move away from its more humble and sincere beginnings. I have very much the same opinion about the most recent Star Wars movies, except they were more horrible than anything Rowling's done (so far).
I think that in the reaching towards epic greatness, the Harry Potter books lost a lot of their initial charm and originality. I think that I would have been perfectly satisfied with a series of stories about going to school at Hogwarts, unraveling wizardly and adolescent mysteries alike, and dipping into danger, but never drowning in it. I think I would have enjoyed more imagination and less angst, more characterization and less rehashing of themes.
But then again, it's hard to say that for sure, isn't it? I still did enjoy the entire Harry Potter series, and I'm certain I'll share them with my daughter as she grows older. I'll probably even re-read Deathly Hallows before the summer is done. I just know that as I do, I'll keep wondering what it could have been.