27 March 2012

The Only Way to be Remembered is to Piss Off Everyone; Or, How to Win Fame and Alienate People

This week’s book is The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. The same Ayn Rand who is so well-known in the US that I’d rather assumed the rest of the English-speaking world would be aware of her as well, but whose work seems not to have made the jump into the socialistic murder-pit that is Peninsula of Peninsulas. Even the Czechs I asked, largely literary and capitally capitalist, were unaware. I have never felt so ethnocentric in my entire life. The sensation was so overpowering, so all-encompassing that I came dangerously close to experiencing an emotion. For those of you who are not familiar with the book, it is best known for two things. The one we’re going to talk about is the philosophy of Objectivism, essentially the idea that the market will handle all needs whatsoever provided that there is an incorruptible government which can enforce contracts, protect IP, and so forth. And no, I’m not going to talk about the other thing it’s known for. You know… that scene. Feel free to argue it in the comments, if you like, but I’m here for something else.

You will note, no doubt with an overwhelming mixture of shock, anger, and betrayal, that it is not an eBook. Apparently I’m not even trying to stick to the flimsy pretense of promoting my fellow Kindle and Nook guttersnipes and am just writing about whatever I read like the objectivist asshole Ayn has made of me. That (if I may say so) brilliant segue brings us to the thrust of the post, which is to talk about fiction, specifically novels, as a vehicle for the propagation of ideas or philosophies. This is a technique which was more common in centuries past, with things like Philosophy in the Bedroom and Candide taking up special places in our hearts (and, in the former case, often in that secret place near our beds where we put all the things we’re “not” getting off on). However, despite their taking rather controversial views, even (or perhaps especially) by modern standards, they raise none of the ire that Ayn Rand has managed to.

 I’ve contemplated this for a number of years, having read her other major Objectivist tome, Atlas Shrugged, in what ought to have been my formative years. Obviously my first thought was that the concept of a selfishness as a virtue was simply not something people could accept even as a possibility. This is reinforced by the fact that owning a copy of Atlas Shrugged was sufficient justification for being exiled from the dating world, as The Hairpin reminded us in a half-joking article (which is worth a read for the humor if not the insight). And yes, I do read The Hairpin. No, I don’t think that calls my masculinity into question. Well, you know what, I don’t need to justify myself to you with all that weird porn you keep in your bedside table and yes I saw it! Ahem. Anyway.

My point is, Philosophy in the Bedroom is usually (and wrongly, in my opinion) interpreted as a guide to committing dire sins against nature purely for the sake of taking mirthful glee in perversity; surely the idea that capitalism will cure what ails us is not a more repugnant concept than that for a society so obsessed with sexual restraint that at time of writing there are a dozen states with signs that say “good girls don’t” hung in the halls of their public schools? I think not. So I locked this  particular line of questioning up in my head, taking it out every so often to roll it over before getting bored and putting it back again.

When I began to study the history of philosophy after realizing I knew literally everything else in the universe that didn’t involve math, I found that Voltaire’s work with Candide, even more so than his more straightforward philosophy which was or ought to have been more controversial in itself, was not taken well by the body politic. It was, in fact, met with a notable degree of ire. What this tells us, apart from the fact that I am apparently content to draw conclusions from only a couple data points so long as the alternative involves some form of work, is that  we must, perhaps, look to the format. My suspicion is this: People get upset when they go into a book expecting a narrative and instead get philosophy, especially philosophy which disagrees with their sensibilities (which all good philosophy must, not just because its job is inherently to challenge the status quo but because the average person is so overwhelmingly wrong on virtually every subject that writing in agreement with them must of necessity involve monkeys and typewriters, or else the fetid Bard himself), they become rather outraged. This outrage lasts a few generations as one teaches the next to hate the things they hate, and then dies out because who actually gives a fuck?

The moral of the story is this: If you want to be remembered, piss off a lot of people. If you want to piss off a lot of people, write a philosophical fiction piece. If you want to write a philosophical fiction piece, get in fucking line because mine’s getting published first and there’s nothing you can do about it.

20 March 2012

People Will Accept Whatever Stupid Shit You Give Them; Or, Don't Prey on the Shittiness of Others

I’m probably not going to touch on a lot of non-fiction, but this time I am because it serves to teach a lesson. Great Captains Unveiled by B. H. Liddell Hart is ostensibly a work of military science meant to teach lessons through the lens of historical fact. I’m not going to say it doesn’t do that, necessarily, but in doing so it bestows a nearly deific status on the leaders it touches on. It’s simply bad history.

“But Gabriel,” you say, a sense of indignant disinterest rising in your breast, “who gives a fuck?” That’s an excellent question Reader Who Lives in my Head! To my eye, this should stick out as a very, very bad idea that will take your reader out of the work. However, my eye is clearly wrong because some of the most popular works of fiction do precisely this: See Dune, which did this at least once per book, creating the sort of epic power creep normally associated with horribly-run tabletop gaming, or the vast majority of anime (Yes I’ve been known to partake. Don’t judge.). Even something like Bones or Rambo has this same sort of inhumanly capable character that makes any real, plausible character seem quaint and tawdry. Truth be told, a really solid portion of Hollywood films, all the way from The One and The Matrix to A Beautiful Mind and Good Will Hunting employ this exact same trope of the impossibly awesome character. (No, don’t link me to the TVTropes name for that. Don’t do it. TVTropes is made by the devil to undermine all that’s enjoyable in the world.)

What does this demonstrate? It demonstrates that there is a willingness in the reader/viewer to accept characters which verge on deus ex machina personified, provided they can put themselves into the shoes of the character, or at least into the shoes of the character’s love interest or bff. Ask yourself why there is a pseudo-‘normal’ opposite-sex companion to every Dune Ubermensch. It’s not because there needs to be a crowbarred-in romance subplot, though that doesn’t hurt; it’s because people are willing to accept any level of absurdity so long as it’s their absurdity, an absurdity they feel some ownership in.

To be clear, this is not a license to write terrible characters. This is an observation on human nature. Don’t take advantage of this any more than you would take candy from a baby simply because the baby can’t fight back. Write good characters who aren’t irrationally capable, and allow people to experience them at a level deeper than “I wish *I* could kill everyone in the world with a single thought!”

06 March 2012

Art Requires Gay Sex; Or, Fuck Censorship in the Ass But Not in a Homophobic Way, Seriously

This post is going to focus on Lockpick Pornography by Joey Comeau, who happens to be my own personal Jesus Fucking Christ. It will also directly relate to the PayPal debacle which I haven’t taken a day off from yelling about in weeks. Normally I would link to the text, but it seems to have been pulled from absolutely everywhere so I'm linking to the Mr. Comeau's webcomic, which is also wonderful.

If you haven’t read it, Lockpick Pornography is an allegory on gender issues and civil rights. It’s also very gay and highly erotic in places. What this gives me a chance to touch on is the concept of explicit, titillating erotic material which is integral to the plot and the message of the work, but which nonetheless is not something many are going to ‘get off’ on and some will find outright off-putting.

You see, lately PayPal or possibly the credit card companies or the Illuminati or who-the-fuck-ever it is that actually pulls the strings on this sort of idiocy has been trying to force out 'erotic' material which relates to 'objectionable' topics. I will state unequivocally that there is no argument whatsoever that can be made to justify this, but that fact hasn’t stopped people from trying. The argument, as best I can suss it out, is that material which is objectionable has no place in artistic expression if it is titillating or explicit.

However, Lockpick Pornography teaches us the object lesson in that. I didn’t really get off on it, and if I’m being honest was a little disgusted in at least one place. I expect I'm far from alone on that, yet without the erotic content it absolutely could not have been as effective an allegory as it was. There's one scene in particular that was a MMF threesome with two biological men and a biological woman all struggling with their concepts of gender constructions in some form or fashion. It leaves nothing to the imagination, but the details of their coupling (tripling?) are absolutely necessary to illuminate the internal struggles they're all facing. Would the book have worked without it? Sure. it would have worked without proper nouns, too, if we're being hypothetical.

Now obviously gay material isn’t ‘objectionable’ anymore by the standards of the body politic or any of the more mainstream corporate overlords, but it was once, and may well be again if certain factions have their way. What it is, is unpleasant to certain sensibilities, in which way it is quite identical to bestiality or incest. If we begin to censor things because they are titillating to some and offensive to others we will destroy significant works of art, or else prevent them from being created in the first place. I was truly edified by this book, and yet if the standard of PayPal and co. was applied it would be forbidden to purchase on the internet, and indeed if I allowed my own distastes free rein I would have been deprived of the experience regardless.

There are lots of kinds of sex that lots of people don’t like, and limiting literature, erotic or otherwise, on that basis is an unforgiveable assault on the artistic community, and moreover one that is non-directional and unlimited. Everything worth writing is going to ruffle feathers. That’s what we do.

ed; Apparently Lockpick Pornography went out of print in preparation for The Complete Lockpick Pornography which appears to include a second story which may or may not be related.