Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Are More People Trying to Sell Books Than Buy Them?

The eternal whine of editors, agents and others whose business has them dealing with aspiring writers (usually, dealing with them as little as they can possibly get away with) is that there are more people writing books than reading them, and trying to sell them than buying them.

Of course, this is just a whine. But it does seem plausible that the ratio of would-be writers to would-be readers has shifted dramatically in the direction of more writers and less readers this past century, and especially these past few decades.

Not long ago I suggested two reasons for this:

1. People are reading much, much less, preferring other media for their entertainment.
2. Even sticking with the strictly legal they have more, and more convenient, options for accessing reading material totally free than ever before, from everything ever published up to the early twentieth century on Gutenberg (thank you public domain!), to self-published fiction on sites like Wattpad and Inkitt.

However, I think there is a third reason worth adding, namely that a great many people whose creative inclinations have little to do with fiction as such are writing short stories, novellas, etc., because this is easier than working in the medium they really want to be working in. Fan fiction is an obvious case. (They might prefer to make a Harry Potter fan film--but settle for writing a story instead because they lack the needed resources.) Still, it is not the only case. (Your chances of seeing your idea for a big-budget action movie come to $300 million life on the big screen are so slight that even traditional publishing looks plausible by comparison--and so what might have been a screenplay is rendered as a novel instead.)

Of course, such material has had its audience, but it is a residue of excitement over other media, and for the creator second-best, while perhaps not even that for the audience. While the frustrated filmmaker is so driven to create that they will do so in another medium when their first choice is unavailable, the audience does not necessarily share the impulse--especially with so much other such content out there, skewing the ratio of creator to audience again.

Saturday, June 19, 2021

Remembering Jack London's The Sea-Wolf: What Passed for Argument on the Ghost

I have had occasion in the past to remark that Jack London, while not forgotten (Harrison Ford starred in a major feature film version of The Call of the Wild just last year) seems to be remembered as a writer of adventure stories about animals, and not much else--and that, as has generally been the case when prominent writers of yesteryear were downgraded by the Jamesian-Modernist-postmodernist critics ill-disposed by their prejudices to appreciate their virtues, we are the poorer for it. Contrary to what some may imagine given the portion of his work that gets the most attention these days, much of London's most important writing was actually about the specifically human animal, and that not merely out in the wilderness, but in the social world--as seen in his important early dystopia The Iron Heel, Martin Eden, or The Sea-Wolf, even incidental bits of which prove memorable.

In the particular bit I have in mind at the moment, the hero of The Sea-Wolf, literary critic Humphrey Van Weyden, who through an unexpected twist of fate finds himself stuck aboard a ship of seal hunters headed out to the northwest Pacific, has occasion to think about how his shipmates look at the world, and discuss it among themselves. Typically arguing over "childish and immaterial" topics, their manner of arguing "was still more childish and immaterial," not least in that there was "very little reasoning or none at all" to speak of in their dialogue. Rather there was only "assertion, assumption, and denunciation." For instance, they would "prove" whether or not a seal pup was born able to swim simply "by stating the proposition very bellicosely," then in the face of any opposition, apt to take the form of a similarly bellicose counter-assertion, respond with "attack on the . . . judgment, common sense, nationality, or past history" of the person who disagreed, with a back and forth continuing in this fashion ad nauseam.

Of course, it is worth noting that the seal hunters as described here were the most marginalized of people, utterly deprived of education and culture. Alas, in this supposedly most educated age in history, social media, and the media generally, consists of little but such "assertion, assumption, and denunciation," usually on topics far sillier than any Van Weyden was likely to hear of during his sea voyage.

What are we to make of that?

The Reputations of Military Thinkers: Wells, Tukhachevsky, Triandafillov

Back in the interwar era figures like J.F.C. Fuller, Basil Liddell Hart and Giuilio Douhet envisioned small, high-tech forces (small mechanized armies, small air forces) delivering swift knockbout blows to the enemy, making interstate warfare cheap and painless compared to the horrifically costly, prolonged, grinding-to-the-breaking point total mobilization-mass army-campaign of attrition experience of World War I.

Their expectations could scarcely have been further from reality, but they have never ceased to be hailed as the giants of their era, and their theorizing about mechanized and aerial warfare still referenced and consulted today.

By contrast other contemporary observers saw the matter much more clearly. H.G. Wells, for example, saw that the little high-tech forces could not, would not, be instruments of decision. Instead air war, while massively destructive, also proved totally indecisive in his classic future history The Shape of Things to Come--an insight for which he is given virtually no credit. Even more far-sighted were the major Soviet interwar theorists, Mikhail Tukhachevsky and Vladimir Triandafillov. Both realized that the next war would be both high-tech and massive in scale--and were completely correct on that score, while again getting no credit for the fact.

Why are the theorists who were so wrong put on a pedestal, while those who got it right have been nearly ignored? I suppose one reason is that mainstream opinion slights H.G. Wells as anything but the producer of a few of his early science fiction novels--mostly because it cannot abide the rationalistic, socialist ideas he espoused, with this likely contributing to the eagerness some seem to display in ruining what remains to him of his reputation. Where the Russians were concerned access to their ideas seems to have been limited by the vagaries of the Stalin era, the scarcity of Russian-language skills in the Anglophone world (don't believe the crappy movies telling you the world is full of polyglot geniuses--it's not, by a longshot), and the contempt for all things Soviet (and Marxist) do not seem to have helped, with all this reinforced by the reality that by the time the ideas of these writers were better known the familiar history had become well-established. However, it seems that there is something more here--namely the fact that where Fuller and Hart and Douhet held and fostered in others the hope that technological advance could make industrial-age war an economical, viable enterprise for policymakers, Wells, Tukhachevsky, Triandafillov called out such thinking (Triandfaillov criticizes Fuller by name in his book), with the offense the more keenly felt because that notion of "winnable" major war has not lost its hold on the minds of theorists, even as the illusion of cheap and easy war is shown up again and again.

In an age of regionally catastrophic conflicts and intensifying great power enmity, there is no exaggerating the danger of that illusion, and the pernicious idiocy of its indefatigable promoters.

Has Cooking in One's Own Kitchen Actually Become a Status Symbol?

I don't watch much TV these days, and much of that is a matter of reruns on "classic" TV channels. This is mainly a matter of habit and familiarity, and frankly because the older stuff is in many ways more to my liking where casual, "easy" viewing is concerned.

Still, running across newer shows I have been struck by how much time people--well-off, glamorous people--seem to spend in kitchens, cooking.

Of course, kitchens and the food prepared in them are, as much as anything else, an occasion for conspicuous consumption. Please observe, the producers of such scenes seem to say, the spacious, handsomely paneled, tiled and grouted kitchen unit, with its island counter and French door refrigerator. Please observe the locally sourced, organic ingredients, among which there is an abundance of healthy vegetables--for we are nothing like those gauche carnivores, heaven forfend! (I find myself recalling a line from The Great Gatsby: "Daisy and Tom were sitting opposite each other at the kitchen table, with a plate of cold fried chicken between them." Today writers would be far less likely to present folks like Daisy and Tom consuming such fare.)

However, along with the conspicuous consumption of goods is a conspicuous enjoyment of leisure. For here are our overclass protagonists with all this time to prepare elaborate meals from scratch--which preparation testifies to all the time they had in which to become (apparently) gourmet cooks, in contrast with the poorer, more harried and exhausted and time-strapped people who have little recourse to opening cans and cartons and packages, and throwing things in the microwave.

Of course, that does not stop the better-off from chiding the less affluent for their imperfectly healthy ways--but then the better-off generally seem to think that sanctimonious lecturing is (yet another) perk of their position.

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