We don’t live in the best of all possible worlds. This is a Kafkaesque time. The television sparkles with images of despicable political louts and sexual harassment reports. We cannot look away from the pictures of furious elements, hurricanes and fires, from the repetitive crowd murders by gunmen burning with rage. We are made more anxious by flickering threats of nuclear war. We observe social media’s manipulation of a credulous population, a population dividing into bitter tribal cultures. We are living through a massive shift from representative democracy to something called viral direct democracy, now cascading over us in a garbage-laden tsunami of raw data. Everything is situational, seesawing between gut-response “likes” or vicious confrontations.
To me the most distressing circumstance of the new order is the accelerating destruction of the natural world and the dreadful belief that only the human species has the inalienable right to life and God-given permission to take anything it wants from nature, whether mountaintops, wetlands or oil. The ferocious business of stripping the earth of its flora and fauna, of drowning the land in pesticides again may have brought us to a place where no technology can save us … Yet somehow the old discredited values and longings persist. We still have tender feelings for such outmoded notions as truth, respect for others, personal honor, justice, equitable sharing. We still hope for a happy ending.
ence the indispensable silver lining, the lovers reunited, the families reconciled, the doubts dispelled, fidelity rewarded, fortunes regained, treasures uncovered, stiff-necked neighbors mending their ways, good names restored, greed daunted, old maids married off to worthy parsons, troublemakers banished to other hemispheres, forgers of documents tossed down the stairs, seducers scurried to the altar, orphans sheltered, widows comforted, pride humbled, wounds healed, prodigal sons summoned home, cups of sorrow tossed into the ocean, hankies drenched with tears of reconciliation, general merriment and celebration, and the dog Fido, gone astray in the first chapter, turns up barking gladly in the last.
Razors aren’t just for shaving. In philosophy, a razor is a rule of thumb that allows for the elimination (the “shaving off”) of unlikely explanations.
The most famous is Occam’srazor (sometimes written as Ockham’s razor), named after William of Ockham, (1288-1348), an English friar, philosopher and theologian who reckoned “Entia non sunt multiplicanda sine necessitate”, which translates as “Entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity” — in short, the simplest explanation is most likely to be correct. This is exemplified by the phrase, “If you hear hoofbeats in the night, think horses, not zebras.”
But William of Ockham isn’t the only one with a razor. Here’s a few more you might like to consider, some serious, some not so serious…
Hume’s razor: “If the cause, assigned for any effect, be not sufficient to produce it, we must either reject that cause, or add to it such qualities as will give it a just proportion to the effect.”
After 21 years of MMP elections, I’m surprised at the number of people who don’t really understand the options available for a coalition government.
So here they are, in less than 300 words …
The party giving support gets seats around the Cabinet table.
They are bound by cabinet collective responsibility (call it CCR for short). What that means is that once an issue has been decided, no Cabinet minister can publicly disagree or criticise.
Under a formal coalition, smaller parties might gain the power and influence of a Cabinet position, but they’ll struggle to differentiate themselves from the governing party simply because they can’t speak out about Cabinet decisions .
Confidence and supply:
“Confidence and supply” means the support party will support the minority government in motions of confidence (do they still have public support) and their budgets (supply of funds to keep them going). They may do so by either voting in favour or simply abstaining.
This allows for support parties to have ministerial positions within the executive, but outside of Cabinet, freeing them from cabinet collective responsibility.
Support ministers can’t criticise government policy in their own portfolios, but they’re free to hold independent views on any other issue.
This is simply a promise not to vote against the government on either confidence or supply.
This is the option minority governments fear because the support party can use its leverage to negotiate every piece of legislation the governing party wants to pass.
There. Simple, isn’t it? And all in just 270 words (including these).
“An endless nightmare. I think the verdict would be ‘Oh don’t read that horrid book.’” First released in monthly serial form in 1897, and published in 1898, the book still in print today. It’s spawned seven films, a TV series and a particularly famous radio broadcast directed and narrated by Orson Welles.
This author’s enquiry letter was rejected by 14 agents. The fifteenth took a closer look at the book, and it was published in 2005. It debuted at #5 on the New York Times Best Seller list within a month of its release, went on to #1, and foreign rights were sold to over 26 countries. Sales to date: 17 million copies.
In the author’s own words: “I knew that [book name] couldn’t possibly be successful. It was a first novel, and nobody reads first novels. It was a first novel about a fish, so who cares?” His publishers reject the 100 pages submitted, so the author starts again. The hardcover spends 44 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list, sells 20 million copies worldwide, and becomes a blockbuster film directed by Steven Spielberg.
“We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. They do not sell.” The author’s fourth novel, but his first one published. It began life as a short story, but he tossed it out. His wife retrieved it from the garbage and told him to finish it. Sold a million copies in its first year.
“An irresponsible holiday story that will never sell.” One of the many rejections of this children’s classic that went on to sell 25 million copies. Much loved by President Theodore Roosevelt who wrote he had “come to accept the characters as old friends.”
“I rack my brains why a chap should need thirty pages to describe how he turns over in bed before going to sleep.” Now a classic but still a challenge at 1.5 million words, it’s divided into seven volumes.
After writing for eight years and receiving 200 consecutive rejections, this book becomes a publishing sensation and wins a Pulitzer Prize Special Citation in 1977 and became an eight-part television series.
“An absurd story as romance, melodrama or record of New York high life.” First published in 1925, the book received mixed reviews and sold poorly. It’s author died in 1940, believing himself to be a failure and his work forgotten, but the book has since become a literary classic and is regarded as one of the great American novels.
Rejection slips are part of a writer’s landscape. All authors get them at one time or another, and they usually reflect the opinion of one particular reader — often an over-worked junior employee — on one particular day. You should never take them too seriously. Fortunately, all of the following authors persevered. If they hadn’t we may never have heard of them — or their best-selling books.
Can you identify who, and in some cases, what book, got rejected?
This author finally landed a book deal after five years of continual rejections. Total sales of her books now exceed $2 billion. Only William Shakespeare has sold more books, and he had a 400 year head start.
The author’s agent received 12 rejections in a row. The 13th took it, but only after eight-year-old daughter of the company’s chairman asked for the rest after reading the first chapter. When submitting the second book, the author was told to get a proper job as there was no money in writing for children.
“I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years.” This controversial book was first published in France, to great acclaim. The English-speaking publishers who originally turned it down (one of whom is quoted above) went on to sell 50 million copies of it.
“Too different from other juveniles on the market to warrant its selling.” This was one of the many rejection letters received by this author, but the doctor had the last laugh. He’s now the 9th best-selling fiction author of all time.
“The girl doesn’t, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the ‘curiosity’ level.” One of 15 rejections before this book, originally titled “Het Achterhuis” and published in Dutch, found an English publisher – and sold 25 million copies.
“Our united opinion is entirely against the book. It is very long, and rather old-fashioned.” One of a number of rejections for this classic. It was finally published with a print run of 3,000 copies, but only 50 of them sold during the author’s lifetime.
“I haven’t the foggiest idea about what the man is trying to say. Apparently the author intends it to be funny.” Legend has it that part of this novel’s name came about after 21 other publishers had rejected it.
Lester Dent was the real name of the author almost all of the Doc Savage novels. (They appeared under the pen name Kenneth Robeson, a creation of his publisher.) There were 181 of them in total, published between 1933 and 1949. Dent wrote 159 of them. An average of ten a year for 16 years.
Dent died in 1959. His books are still in print, having sold well over 20 million copies, but these days he’s perhaps best known for The Lester Dent Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot. In it … well, here’s the introduction in his own words:
“This is a formula, a master plot, for any 6,000 word pulp story. It has worked on adventure, detective, western and war-air. It tells exactly where to put everything. It shows definitely just what must happen in each successive thousand words.”
It’s an interesting and entertaining read in its own right, but I’ll let you explore that for yourself. Here’s Michael Moorcock’s
summary of the Dent method:
“First … split your six-thousand-word story up into four fifteen hundred word parts. Part one, hit your hero with a heap of trouble. Part two, double it. Part three, put him in so much trouble there’s no way he could ever possibly get out of it. Then … you must never have a revelation of something that wasn’t already established; so, you couldn’t unmask a murderer who wasn’t a character established already. All your main characters have to be in the first third. All you main themes and everything else has to be established in the first third, developed in the second third, and resolved in the last third.”
You can check out Dent’s first Doc Savage, The Man of Bronze, in a variety formats on Faded Page, “an archive of eBooks that are provided completely free to everyone.” Just click here.
It’s over a decade old (2004) but a Slashdot post by acclaimed sci-fi author Neal Stephenson (left) is worth repeating:
“ … a while back, I went to a writers’ conference. I was making chitchat with another writer, a critically acclaimed literary novelist who taught at a university. She had never heard of me. After we’d exchanged a bit of of small talk, she asked me “And where do you teach?” just as naturally as one Slashdotter would ask another “And which distro do you use?”
I was taken aback. “I don’t teach anywhere,” I said.
Her turn to be taken aback. “Then what do you do?”
“I’m…a writer,” I said. Which admittedly was a stupid thing to say, since she already knew that.
“Yes, but what do you do?”
I couldn’t think of how to answer the question—I’d already answered it!
“You can’t make a living out of being a writer, so how do you make money?” she tried.
“From…being a writer,” I stammered.
At this point she finally got it, and her whole affect changed. She wasn’t snobbish about it. But it was obvious that, in her mind, the sort of writer who actually made a living from it was an entirely different creature from the sort she generally associated with.”
But rather than leave it at that, Stephenson goes into a more detailed analysis:
“… once I got over the excruciating awkwardness of this conversation, I began to think she was right in thinking so. One way to classify artists is by to whom they are accountable.
The great artists of the Italian Renaissance were accountable to wealthy entities who became their patrons or gave them commissions. In many cases there was no other way to arrange it. There is only one Sistine Chapel. Not just anyone could walk in and start daubing paint on the ceiling. Someone had to be the gatekeeper—to hire an artist and give him a set of more or less restrictive limits within which he was allowed to be creative. So the artist was, in the end, accountable to the Church. The Church’s goal was to build a magnificent structure that would stand there forever and provide inspiration to the Christians who walked into it, and they had to make sure that Michelangelo would carry out his work accordingly.
Similar arrangements were made by writers. After Dante was banished from Florence he found a patron in the Prince of Verona, for example. And if you look at many old books of the Baroque period you find the opening pages filled with florid expressions of gratitude from the authors to their patrons. It’s the same as in a modern book when it says “this work was supported by a grant from the XYZ Foundation.”
Nowadays we have different ways of supporting artists. Some painters, for example, make a living selling their work to wealthy collectors. In other cases, musicians or artists will find appointments at universities or other cultural institutions. But in both such cases there is a kind of accountability at work.
A wealthy art collector who pays a lot of money for a painting does not like to see his money evaporate. He wants to feel some confidence that if he or an heir decides to sell the painting later, they’ll be able to get an amount of money that is at least in the same ballpark. But that price is going to be set by the market—it depends on the perceived value of the painting in the art world. And that in turn is a function of how the artist is esteemed by critics and by other collectors. So art criticism does two things at once: it’s culture, but it’s also economics.
There is also a kind of accountability in the case of, say, a composer who has a faculty job at a university. The trustees of the university have got a fiduciary responsibility not to throw away money. It’s not the same as hiring a laborer in factory, whose output can be easily reduced to dollars and cents. Rather, the trustees have to justify the composer’s salary by pointing to intangibles. And one of those intangibles is the degree of respect accorded that composer by critics, musicians, and other experts in the field: how often his works are performed by symphony orchestras, for example.
Accountability in the writing profession has been bifurcated for many centuries. I already mentioned that Dante and other writers were supported by patrons at least as far back as the Renaissance. But I doubt that Beowulf was written on commission. Probably there was a collection of legends and tales that had been passed along in an oral tradition—which is just a fancy way of saying that lots of people liked those stories and wanted to hear them told. And at some point perhaps there was an especially well-liked storyteller who pulled a few such tales together and fashioned them into the what we now know as Beowulf. Maybe there was a king or other wealthy patron who then caused the tale to be written down by a scribe. But I doubt it was created at the behest of a king. It was created at the behest of lots and lots of intoxicated Frisians sitting around the fire wanting to hear a yarn. And there was no grand purpose behind its creation, as there was with the painting of the Sistine Chapel.
The novel is a very new form of art. It was unthinkable until the invention of printing and impractical until a significant fraction of the population became literate. But when the conditions were right, it suddenly became huge. The great serialized novelists of the 19th Century were like rock stars or movie stars. The printing press and the apparatus of publishing had given these creators a means to bypass traditional arbiters and gatekeepers of culture and connect directly to a mass audience. And the economics worked out such that they didn’t need to land a commission or find a patron in order to put bread on the table. The creators of those novels were therefore able to have a connection with a mass audience and a livelihood fundamentally different from other types of artists.
Nowadays, rock stars and movie stars are making all the money. But the publishing industry still works for some lucky novelists who find a way to establish a connection with a readership sufficiently large to put bread on their tables. It’s conventional to refer to these as “commercial” novelists, but I hate that term, so I’m going to call them Beowulf writers.
But this is not true for a great many other writers who are every bit as talented and worthy of finding readers. And so, in addition, we have got an alternate system that makes it possible for those writers to pursue their careers and make their voices heard. Just as Renaissance princes supported writers like Dante because they felt it was the right thing to do, there are many affluent persons in modern society who, by making donations to cultural institutions like universities, support all sorts of artists, including writers. Usually they are called “literary” as opposed to “commercial” but I hate that term too, so I’m going to call them Dante writers. And this is what I mean when I speak of a bifurcated system.
Like all tricks for dividing people into two groups, this is simplistic, and needs to be taken with a grain of salt. But there is a cultural difference between these two types of writers, rooted in to whom they are accountable … Beowulf writers and Dante writers appear to have the same job, but in fact there is a quite radical difference between them—hence the odd conversation that I had with my fellow author at the writer’s conference. Because she’d never heard of me, she made the quite reasonable assumption that I was a Dante writer—one so new or obscure that she’d never seen me mentioned in a journal of literary criticism, and never bumped into me at a conference. Therefore, I couldn’t be making any money at it. Therefore, I was most likely teaching somewhere. All perfectly logical. In order to set her straight, I had to let her know that the reason she’d never heard of me was because I was famous.
All of this places someone like me in critical limbo. As everyone knows, there are literary critics, and journals that publish their work, and I imagine they have the same dual role as art critics. That is, they are engaging in intellectual discourse for its own sake. But they are also performing an economic function by making judgments. These judgments, taken collectively, eventually determine who’s deemed worthy of receiving fellowships, teaching appointments, etc.
The relationship between that critical apparatus and Beowulf writers is famously awkward and leads to all sorts of peculiar misunderstandings. Occasionally I’ll take a hit from a critic for being somehow arrogant or egomaniacal, which is difficult to understand from my point of view sitting here and just trying to write about whatever I find interesting. To begin with, it’s not clear why they think I’m any more arrogant than anyone else who writes a book and actually expects that someone’s going to read it. Secondly, I don’t understand why they think that this is relevant enough to rate mention in a review. After all, if I’m going to eat at a restaurant, I don’t care about the chef’s personality flaws—I just want to eat good food. I was slagged for entitling my latest book “The System of the World” by one critic who found that title arrogant. That criticism is simply wrong; the critic has completely misunderstood why I chose that title. Why on earth would anyone think it was arrogant? Well, on the Dante side of the bifurcation it’s implicit that authority comes from the top down, and you need to get in the habit of deferring to people who are older and grander than you. In that world, apparently one must never select a grand-sounding title for one’s book until one has reached Nobel Prize status. But on my side, if I’m trying to write a book about a bunch of historical figures who were consciously trying to understand and invent the System of the World, then this is an obvious choice for the title of the book. The same argument, I believe, explains why the accusation of having a big ego is considered relevant for inclusion in a book review. Considering the economic function of these reviews (explained above) it is worth pointing out which writers are and are not suited for participating in the somewhat hierarchical and political community of Dante writers. Egomaniacs would only create trouble.
Mind you, much of the authority and seniority in that world is benevolent, or at least well-intentioned. If you are trying to become a writer by taking expensive classes in that subject, you want your teacher to know more about it than you and to behave like a teacher. And so you might hear advice along the lines of “I don’t think you’re ready to tackle Y yet, you need to spend a few more years honing your skills with X” and the like. All perfectly reasonable. But people on the Beowulf side may never have taken a writing class in their life. They just tend to lunge at whatever looks interesting to them, write whatever they please, and let the chips fall where they may. So we may seem not merely arrogant, but completely unhinged. It reminds me somewhat of the split between Christians and Faeries depicted in Susannah Clarke’s wonderful book “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.” The faeries do whatever they want and strike the Christians (humans) as ludicrously irresponsible and “barely sane.” They don’t seem to deserve or appreciate their freedom.
Later at the writer’s conference, I introduced myself to someone who was responsible for organizing it, and she looked at me keenly and said, “Ah, yes, you’re the one who’s going to bring in our males 18-32.” And sure enough, when we got to the venue, there were the males 18-32, looking quite out of place compared to the baseline lit-festival crowd. They stood at long lines at the microphones and asked me one question after another while ignoring the Dante writers sitting at the table with me. Some of the males 18-32 were so out of place that they seemed to have warped in from the Land of Faerie, and had the organizers wondering whether they should summon the police. But in the end they were more or less reasonable people who just wanted to talk about books and were as mystified by the literary people as the literary people were by them.”
The full post — of which the above is just an answer to one reader’s question — is here.
And if you’ve not read Neal Stephenson, you’re missing a treat. I particularly enjoyed Snow Crash, Cryptonomicron and Reamde.
A few weeks ago I mentioned Bath Spa University’s Novel in 25 Words competition, (sorry, entries are now closed), that paid the equivalent of £20 (NZD$35) per word. Pah! That’s small change. Fancy earning US$200 (NZ$270) per word? You’re going to have to do a bit more work for it, but not much.