Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Friday, January 12, 2007

The Dufus Dollar

I know it's old news but the whole Laurell K Hamilton rant thing (wherein, for those who do not know, she has a rare old rant about "negative fans" laying into her on her own forum, or telling her how much they hate her recent books at signing sessions, then goes all Crazy Lady who treats her characters as real people and Genius Author whose books are too good for the likes of you) passed me by and when I finally got round to seeing the fallout -- on Scalzi's blog for example -- the conversation had pretty much moved on. Anyway, so I read what she said, then Scalzi's post about evil-wicked-witch-flying-devil-monkeys (or shit-flinging screech-monkeys or screeching howler monkeys or whatever the phrase was... look, I can't remember off-hand... oh, go and read it for yourself), and I sorta thought to meself, well... if she's telling readers who wanna whine in her face at how they don't like her books anymore --- in fact they don't like her anymore -- cause she used to be, like, really cool and her books used to be really well-written with plots and everything, but she brought in this arduer/ardeur/ordure/whatever malarky, and now it's all just boring boring boring sex, and too many pointless characters, and spelling errors because she's not getting edited properly and blah blah fuckin blah... if she wants to tell those people to GET A FUCKIN LIFE AND STOP READING THE FUCKIN BOOKS THEN, well, I'm down with that.

See, here's the thing. The whole signing session jiggery-pokery, that's, like, an event for folks who want books signed. Now, at the launch for VELLUM, pissed as I was, I wasn't too inebriated to clock that a couple of the folks getting books signed were dealers who'd cottoned on to the Dutch Tulip Craze brouhaha over the bound proofs and wanted to get in on the action at the ground floor. When someone comes up with multiple copies of the book, along with (at least) individual copies of every magazine or anthology you've ever been in, including one from waaaaaaay back, and wants them signed, lined and dated but not made out to them personally, you know they're not there as a fan. They may or may not have read it. They may or may not like it. They may never read it, or if they do they may, in fact, hate it. Whatever. They're there because they're looking at your work (for some crazy reason) as an investment, a potential collectible that may increase in value if the indications of potential success are correct.

Now, there's a part of me that thinks, well, yanno, the books are actually there to be read, motherfucker. I'm not here getting cramp in me hand and wasting valuable drinking time just so you can make a few bucks. But, at the end of the day, books are indeed products, and a dealer's investment in you is a mark of faith, so another part of me, a part which values that faith, appreciates it, that part kicks in and says, hey, so this person ain't here for the love of my work, but at least they're an ally in my goal of world domination. If they want to take out shares in my signature, so to speak, from a purely money-motivated perspective (which I think is kinda daffy), well, that's fair enough.

But the point is this: even those dealers are valuing the books, if only as a commodity to trade. Now, in the LKH rant, she talks about readers coming up and directly expressing how little they value the books. I'm not going to quote but clearly what's got right under her skin is a few people waiting in line, book in hand, to say, to all intents and purposes, this book sucks, or even, you suck. We can pussy-foot about the issue, rationalise about potential misperceptions, but it doesn't really matter. Whether this is actually meant as a compliment but actually turns into an unconscious criticism of a change in direction ("We really like your movies, Mr Allen, especially the early funny ones"), or as a respectful but intentional critique ("you know, I hate to say it, but I think you've gone a bit off-track with this one, cause yer early stuff was superb but this just doesn't work for me at all, and I really wish you'd go back to writing the way you used to"), or as a deliberately hostile and insulting reproach ("you used to be good, but this book is a pile of shit"), it is still expressing a devaluation of the book that's being signed. That person is coming up and saying, hello, I'd like you to sign this book for me, despite the fact that I actually don't really rate it at all.

So why the fuck do you want it signed, motherfucker? Why the fuck are you buying it in the first place?

Yes, it's entirely possible that LKH is exaggerating the tactlessness of the phraseology, or being a bit brittle and precious in the face of a fan who's simply lacking in certain social graces. But at the heart of it, this is about the egoplop (the inverse of egoboo) of someone actually making a concerted effort to tell you, to your face, personally, that they are buying your work in spite of its lack of value to them. And I don't find her scenario in extremis ("I hate this book and I hate you for writing it") actually that unimaginable.

Now part of what makes this egoplop so, well, ploppy is that the signing session is otherwise, for an author, all about the egoboo. Oh, sure, ye can pretend to yerself that meeting the fans is about connecting to them as individuals but there's an unavoidable status differential between the writer and the fan in that situation. It's like a goddamn line of people paying homage to your work, to you. They're not going to come up and say, hey, I hear you're a big fan of Delany; I love his stuff; have you read PHALLOS? You're not really meeting them as individuals on that level. No this is an event of artificially heightened egoboo. For some writers it's even uncomfortably so. I can't say I don't puff up if someone says, hey, yer book fuckin rocks, man. But in a lot of ways, that sort of praise makes me squirm. What can ye say but, shucks, thanks? What can ye give back to someone who gives you that egoboo when there's no time to really talk, to bring out of them what they do that's cool, that would make you say to them: hey, man, that fuckin rocks!

So the signing session becomes this little bubble of egoboo, and whether you're grounded enough to feel kinda awkward and bashful that people are coming up to you (to you!) to say cool things about your work, or whether yer an arrogant tosser that expects that sort of tribute as your due, or whether indeed (as is, I suspect, commonly the case) it's kind of an ungodly mix of the two, with the arrogant tosser locked up in the back of your head and the grounded, humble self who's simply grateful that someone likes yer stuff guarding the cage door with a big pointy stick and smacking at the arrogant tosser when he gets too uppity -- shut up, we're not a genius -- however you react to that egoboo, the whole situation is such that someone coming in with a big fat dollop of egoplop to lay on you... man, that's gonna be a right fucking turd in the punch bowl.

Hello, I hate your book and I hate you for writing it. Can you sign it?

Why, thank you! That's a lovely turd in the punch bowl! Here you go, mate.

Aside: Q&A sessions don't quite have that same thing, because it's an audience/performer relationship, so the egoboo comes from getting good questions and giving good answers, people demonstrating savvy with yer book and you being interesting in response. In a Q&A session, I'd say, a pointed question is pretty cool. You can easily imagine some reader who thinks you've gone off-track wanting to find out why, where you're going in future, all that sort of shit. No problem. Fundamentally, the writer is there to give good interview, and good interview comes from pertinent questions, whether the slant of them is positive or negative. And, personally, I much prefer the sort of event (like in the Paradox Club in Warsaw) where afterwards that status relationship is abandoned entirely and you just mingle and talk about whatever shit comes to mind. Then you really do get to meet the readers as individuals, as equals. Which is cool. But these are not the set up we're talking about here. Here we're talking about an event so fundamentally egobooic in nature that it seems just, well, kinda churlish to piss on the parade. How do you respond to that churlishness?

Hello, I hate your book and I hate you for writing it. Can you sign it?

You hate my book? So, uh, why exactly are you buying it again?

I think that's a perfectly valid question. It may not be a business-savvy question. It may not be the sort of question an author would actually want to ask that person. Hell, I can easily imagine an editor or agent or bookseller or any number of people with investments in that work, standing behind the author, slapping them upside the head and saying, shut the fuck up, dipshit, and let them buy the fucking book. Suck it up. You're a writer. You gotta roll with the blows, take the negative criticism. Don't argue with the customer, and so on, and so on. It's all part of the One Big Rule in which the author must never, under any circumstances, bite the hand that feeds them. This means editors, publishers, agents, reviewers and fans.

And Scalzi's right, in that respect. Going off on a rabid rant at your detractors is going to make you look like an asstard and just rally them to the cause of mockery and mob howling-screechiness. LKH falls into this trap with the self-justification a la Anne Rice, the "you just don't get or can't take the edgy wonderfulness of my work" schtick. I've never read any of her fiction so I have no basis other than this rant to judge it by. Unfortunately, she makes a good job of presenting herself as a victim of her own success and the sycophancy that engenders, a writer who, in the face of uncritical adulation, has lost their ruthlessness in self-critique and, with the sales figures that come from huge success, has become too powerful a cash cow for an editor to risk alienating with that red pencil. Add to that the "my characters are people to me" and LKH only succeeds in suggesting that her detractors may well have a point. I think this is a shame because that puffed-up defensiveness is a bad (over)reaction to the egoplop, but if you strip it away, there's another reaction to the egoplop which is actually not so crazy.

Hello, I hate your book and I hate you for writing it. Can you sign it?

You hate my book? So, uh, why exactly are you buying it again?

But we're not meant to ask that question, are we? Not even quietly, politely, in a tone of genuine confusion, as a sincere request for information. We're writers. We know what side our bread is buttered on. We know you don't argue with reviewers, don't piss off editors, don't push your agent needlessly (though note the "needlessly" caveat there) and you don't ever, EVER, EVER rock the big fat boat of fandom which is sailing in with oodles and oodles of money to dock in the harbour of our bank accounts (oodles... heh... aye, right!... but ye know what I mean). No, that person is a customer, and at that signing session, why, you're a service sector wage slave to their whims. They want to drop a turd in the punch bowl, you're meant to wipe their ass with a smile and wave them on their way.

Fuck that shit.

Lo, I come as SF heretic! Lo, I come to ask the unaskable! Yea, verily, and to give the fucking obvious fucking answer! Why would someone go to an LKH signing session, wait in line, and ask her to sign her latest novel while simultaneously expressing a deep hatred of her recent work, a hatred so profound that it extends to a bitter resentment of the writer herself, a resentment so extreme, in fact, that this person has clearly felt the need to express it, personally, face-to-face, at such an egobooic event, oblivious to the fact that this is, in no small way, like going to the author's birthday party and dropping a turd in the punch bowl? Why would they do this?

Because they're a fan, for crying out loud. Duh!

Not because they're a fan of LKH, I mean, but because they have that peculiar aspect of the fan mentality which is all about devotion, loyalty, completism, continuity dependency, mythos immersion. I know that attitude well, btw. I'm not excluding meself here, not standing on a "writer" side of the fence and pointing at the weirdos on the "fan" side. I just think there's a rather obvious facet of fandom which, hell, actually emerges as an explanation on the Scalzi LKH thread but which is not mined fully, to my mind, for its ramifications.

So, the reason those LKH haters are still buying her work, or borrowing and reading it, or reading the reviews, or hanging out on the forums to bitch about how shit it is now, or going to her signing to put a turd in the punch bowl: it's because once upon a time they thought it was the best thing since sliced bread, and being fans -- which is to say fanatics -- the devotion, the loyalty, the completism, the continuity dependency, the mythos immersion, the whole deep and profound investment in the franchise is of such a power that it takes a truly heinous act of hackery to turn them away, to stop them, once and for all, from continuing to -- if nothing else -- hope and pray that the glory days might come again. The more hardcore the fan, it would seem the more heinous that hackery must be, because if yer hate is turd-in-the-punch-bowl deep and you haven't just walked away in disgust, then by fuck, but you must have been a devout acolyte.

Me, I can understand the casual disgruntlement with low-level bitchery, the disaffection that wasn't enough to stop me from watching a few seasons of Buffy regardless of how I thought they'd long since jumped the shark or just plain lost it. At points, some of that old sparkle shone through but, frankly, for much of the later seasons I though Buffy was pretty sucky. It was on telly though, it was brain candy, and, hell, I never quite thought it was the sheer blinding brilliance that some of me mates accorded to it. Were I to approach Joss Wheedon at a signing session I would tactfully express my admiration for Angel and say nothing of the suckiness of the soap opera episodes of whiny Buffy's love problems. In fact, I might well pick out some of the later episodes -- the musical, or the episode where Joyce dies -- as two of the best of the whole run, as great TV, period. But I just never had enough invested in the show to ever want to bitch to him, face to face, about how dreadful the whole Evil Willow storyline was, to my mind, how Adam was just cringeworthy, and so on. It's no skin off my nose, really.

But we're not talking about whiling away an hour of an evening, watching a dodgy SF show cause, well, it's on, so what the fuck, why not? This is about the type of emotional investment in a franchise that results in continued support despite a conscious knowledge -- nay, a vitriol-laden resentment -- that said franchise has long since become a steaming pile of dogshit, unworthy of such adulation. This is about throwing good money after bad. This is about -- in line with the concept of the "Pink Pound" -- the Dufus Dollar.

OK, so I apologise for any offence that term may cause. I swithered between the too-offensive "Dumbass" and the too-neutral "Devotee". "Dufus", I think, is a not-so-dismissive term, the sort of insult given with a wry shake of the head to a mate who keeps getting back with the ex who's put them through the wringer three times now and shows no sign of not, yet again, making their life a misery. A dufus is not a cretin, a moron, a dumbass -- just an otherwise sensible person who has, perhaps through naivety as much as foolishness, fucked up, allowed themself to be royally reamed. A dufus is a patsy, a schmuck. In fact, maybe this should be called The Schmuck Buck.

So what do I mean by the Dufus Dollar.

I mean the money that so many people paid to see the last two Star Wars movies despite coming out of Episode None and wanting to burn every piece of memorabilia they ever owned in a funeral pyre of childhood dreams. I mean the money that so many people paid to see the last Matrix movie despite falling asleep in the second one during the interminably turgid pseudo-philosophical bullshit and sitting awed during the action sequences at just how great the CGI was in reducing everything to the uninvolving artificiality of bad computer game graphics. I mean the money that I won't be paying if Peter Jackson's next movie clocks in at anything over one and a half hours because I don't go to the cinema to be bored to fucking tears, thanks very much.

Star Wars Episode None: The Phantom Plot sucked. I learned my lesson. I didn't go to see either Attack of the Clowns or Revenge of the Shit. I have no intention of ever spending any money, time or willpower on the steaming pile of excrement George Lucas has made of the thing I once loved.

Matrix 2: Revulsion sucked. I learned my lesson. I did not go to see the last one and, again, have no intention of ever making any effort to see it. Life is too short to waste on pointless drivel that spews out stoner wank randomly interspersed with crappy SFX set pieces that belong in Mortal Kombat 10.

King Kong sucked. A bloated and boring lobotomy of a movie that might just be salvageable if every single scene were edited down by to half the length. Given the clear symptoms of blockbusteritis Jackson is exhibiting in the wake of The Lord of the Rings -- which at least had the excuse of being based on a tedious and turgid doorstop of a book wherein the protagonists spend one million fucking pages fucking climbing up a fucking mountain -- and given the reuse of the shallowly unreconstructed trope of the "degenerate race" (which leads me to suggest the monicker of "Foremost Racist Director of our Day" for Jackson and to expect his next project to be an equally blithely thoughtless remake of Birth of a Nation), I have now also learned my lesson with Jackson and will not be spending my hard earned cash on his next venture, not without a surfeit of rave reviews from reliable sources.

But what of those who don't learn these lessons? Yes, you know who you are. Don't give me that benefit of the doubt crap. Sure, there are reasons and excuses, and it's not incomprehensible that you'd give some leeway here or there after maybe only one steaming pile of shite. I'm not advocating a knee-jerk dismissal of a writer or director's entire future canon on the basis of one turkey. But I would suggest that when you throw good money after bad like that, when you trudge ungaily along to the cinema to see Solaris 4: Ressurection, knowing full well that Solaris 2: The Quickening was shit and Solaris 3: Rise of the Robots was even worse, then you are spending the Dufus Dollar.

And when you stand in line to buy the latest LKH and get it signed by the author despite the arduer/ardeur/ordure/adieu-to-good-writing thingy (whatever the fuck he/she/it is) having sent the series into a downward spiral of plotless pornoccult potboilery, well, maybe the exchange should be something like this:

Hello, I hate your book and I hate you for writing it. Can you sign it?

You hate my book? So, uh, why exactly are you buying it again?

Because you used to write books I love and I'm hoping you'll do so again. I mean, come on. Why are you writing books I hate now?

Uh, because you're buying them. I, uh, thought you liked them.

Because it's a good bet that LKH likes her own books. It's a good bet that at every point in the chain she's getting positive feedback from those with too much invested in her as a business to say, actually, honey, this book sucks; we hate it. And it's a good bet that the ultimate validation comes from those who are spending the fucking money on them. So of course she brings up her sales figures as a defence; that's a big-ass pile of people all sending a crystal clear message that they want what she's offering, that they're happy to pay hard cash for what she's selling. So, uh, they must like it, right? They wouldn't just be buying them in the vain hope that one day she'll go back to writing the way she used to, would they? Clearly, LKH does not understand the Dufus Dollar, the market force of misguided faith. Poor dear.

The sad thing is, in a way, shorn of all the egoistic puffery and rantiness, there's a pertinent point hidden at the heart of that screed, where she tells her "negative fans": if you hate the books, don't bitch at me; just don't buy them, don't read them. If only! If only people would give it up -- just let it go, people, just step back from the steaming pile of arduer/ardeur/ordure and walk away. If only people would stop giving George Lucas money, please for the love of all that's holy, please! If only people would spend their money on -- I dunno -- Morrocan Black instead of the Matrix 3s of this world, cause I'm reckoning ye'd probably get a more engaging experience from the former. If only people would look at the listings of the latest overblown schlockbusters involving people running away a lot (and I mean a lot) from, oh, dinosaurs or savages or giant leech-monsters or explosions or Martian war machines or killer bees or electricity-come-alive or screeching howler monkeys or whatever, and say, you know what, I'd rather buy a powerdrill, carry out a self-lobotomy and have done with it, cause this guy's last movie sucked wet farts out of dead pigeons and I'm not gonna be suckered by this shit again. What do I look like, a fucking dufus?

If only. But until you -- yes, you... there at the back, wearing the thingumy with the whatchamacallit on it... you -- until you (OK, OK, you and I... nobody's perfect; I saw Alien 4 in the cinema, for shame) stop throwing a fucking budget at these motherfuckers, sending money to them by way of the bookshops or cinemas and the publishers or studios, then the money men will continue to tell them, yeah, yeah, this is fucking great, fucking awesome! Man, you should see the returns we're pulling in on this! People love your stuff. Just keep right on doing what you're doing. Which is whatever the fuck you want to, as long as it sells.

You know, as much as I suspect the critics are right, that LKH has joined the ranks of those whose head Jeff's Evil Monkey will, one day, one day, collect for crimes against literature, I've gotta say, the fact that she comes out with the "If you don't like them, don't buy them," attitude earns her a few brownie points from me. Her bafflement at the attitude of "negative fans", her defensive rantings -- man, if she was a true hack she'd know fine well about the Dufus Dollar, and she'd just keep her mouth shut while she laughed all the way to the bank with her bags full of the stuff. Or try to get even more.

-- Don't worry, she'd say. Just stick with it, and you'll see where I'm going. I mean, you love the mythos, right? And you've bought them all so far? You're caught up in the continuity? So just hold on a bit longer. OK, you didn't like this one; you'll love the next. It's all going somewhere. Trust me. Just keep buying. Don't look at the man behind the curtain. Actually, uh, don't look at the steaming pile of shit that's right in front of the curtain. Just. Keep. Buying.

Then she'd turn aside and whisper quietly, with a grin:

-- Dufus.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's an interesting take on her "rant" -- one I haven't seen before.

"You have to go through hell to reach heaven."

11:15 pm  
Blogger Gigi said...

After reading thru the whole shitstorm myself (what, a couple of weeks back?), something that bothered me about the blog community's reaction to LKH's rant has been given shape and its own reality. You nailed it, and I can finally close that mental cupboard.

12:11 am  
Blogger Unknown said...

Hal Duncan >>> Chuck Klosterman.

3:40 pm  
Blogger Joe said...

Love Vellum and Ink but am now far too scared to ask you to sign them or any or to get you to autograph any of my body parts now :-)

7:33 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I disagree totally - Matrix 2 was my favorite. I guess it must have tickled my Calvinist funny bone. Oh and about the other thing you brush on - has anyone else noticed how all authors of vampire books seem to go mad after a while? Okay, Stoker had an excuse with the syphilis and all that, but as for the rest of them...

Jim Steel

10:31 pm  
Blogger Ian Sales said...

Maybe those people who didn't want you to sign their copies of Vellum to them personally didn't fancy having their names spelt wrong, or the word "Bollocks!" in their collectible first edition :-)

9:35 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Ian: But "Bollocks!" is proof that it's not fake. People can look at it and say, "Is that really Hal Duncan's signature?", and then they'll see that it says, "Bollocks!" and say, "Yup. Definitely Hal Duncan."

Jim: I know you have a sick and twisted sense of humour. I didn't realise just how sick and twisted. Matrix 2 indeed!

Joe: Don't worry. I'm perfectly affable in real life. And I like signing body parts...

"Hmm... do you have a scalpel I could borrow?"


Chris: Yeah, to me it means something if it's a mate personalising it. Just a mark doesn't do anything for me.

o_flo: Point is, you're just funding their career as a horseshit manufacturer for your own profit in that situation. If you're down with that, no worries, but then you don't exactly have the aesthetic high ground. It's hack versus huckster.

sara: Not read Chuck Klosterman but after a brief interweb search... yeah, sounds like my kind of contrarian.

7:38 pm  
Blogger SJB said...

Boohoo!!! Not fair!!! I didn't get bollocks written in mine. Does that mean it wasn't Hal that signed it???

I know by the time I got Debs to corner him at Nottingham I had a few gins, but I swear it was him????

Damn. ;)

8:01 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A lot of good points you make, but there's one that sticks with me (what do you know, it's the one I disagree with. Funny how we work like that).

I found it passingly odd that you rather eviscerate poor dead Tolkien's work so, especially since you used so many similar epics in Vellum. I think (and here I go, stuffing words in your mouth and down your throat; feel free to tear them out and slap me about with them) that it stems from, well, how to put it? A misexpectation, really, of Lord of the Rings.

It's not a particularly good high fantasy. It's true that the protagonists, ah, "spend one million fucking pages fucking climbing up a fucking mountain," as you put it. But most epics do that. It's kind of a convention, really, that they have to be long and borderline tedious.

Seems to me that Tolkien didn't write a fantasy so much as craft an epic tale to be put alongside things like the Odyssey and the Aeneid. "I sing of arms and a man," and "Tell me, O muse, of that ingenious hero who travelled far and wide," and it just goes downhill from there in terms of excitement, with a few bumps and dips where Dido kills herself and Polyphemus bashes a man's head against the ground until the brains blow out in this orgiastic surge of violence and gore.

It's the method of telling the tale, of course. Audiences back then didn't have newfangled things like books and interblags to occupy themselves with, so they just sat along and listened to whatever blind man happened along with a good story. And the good stories had everything: blood, sex, death, gods, men. Lots of men. Lists upon lists of men. It goes on forever, sure, but if you really think about it, if you stop translating for a moment and imagine all these heroes... damn. It's pretty impressive.

But you can't have constant action and battle and sex all the time, or you get... well, The Matrix Revolutions. Or any typical action film that's a great mind-number and doesn't even try to make you think. It's a ton of sugar; it tastes good and it makes you hyper, but you aren't going to remember it the next day. Rhythm and meter and structure and humanity are the meat and potatoes of these epics; the battles are salt. Added flavoring.

If Vellum didn't have the epics, the tie-ins and twist-ins and warping of time enough to make a Calabi-Yau manifold cry, I'd have read it easily. It would have been nice. I wouldn't have stopped halfway through, said "What the hell is this? Never again," and then in spite of my best efforts pick it up again and enjoy the hell out of myself.

It would have been tasty-sweet sugar. I like meat and potatoes.

Of course, I don't think Tolkien was an Ovid or a Homer, but I think he tried damned hard, and for a 20th century guy to put out that sort of story is pretty damn impressive.

In my opinion.

Then again, I think translating Latin is fun.

It's about a journey, I think, in the end. Not where you're going. Not where you're coming from. Just traveling along, navigating between Scylla and Charybdis, hoping your crew doesn't mutiny or a god doesn't get pissed. Hoping a guy doesn't try to steal a ring, or some dark riders don't get hold of you. And epics, like life, can be generally uneventful.

This is highly disorganized, but I hope you can get my general idea.


12:55 am  

Post a Comment

<< Home