Entertainment vs. Edutainment: The New Pulp Narrative

In my wild opinionated youth, I was something of a disdainer. Where other readers and writers widely explored what certain genres had to offer; I tended to stick with the first thing that brought me in the door. I liked Star Wars, and never found another sci-fi world that interested me until I read Heinlein. Star Trek was fine, but I didn’t want to converse with nerds about it, so I held it at arms length (yes, the irony of that is breathtaking. It was a different world then). And after reading Tolkein at age 11, no other fantasy write would ever do.

I tried the mainstream ones. Raymond Feist’s work I found dull and lifeless. Robert Jordan had an interesting take before he drowned it in a sea of skirt-smoothings and braid-tuggings. And Martin… Well, we will not speak of Martin. The only other author I held in Tolkein’s tier was Frank Herbert, and even his series got silly before it ended (I’ve never cared for the expansion novels. They don’t have the same feel. The intensity and insight isn’t there).

But there was another side of Fantasy that I haven’t explored until recently. I speak of what is known as “Sword & Sorcery” or “Blood and Thunder”, i.e. the Pulp side of things. And as I have earlier written, I have found prose craftsmanship and strong storytelling in the works of Robert Howard and Fritz Leiber. They may have been Low Art, as these things are defined, but that doesn’t mean they were garbage. Quite the contrary.

The moral quality of art is something of a bugaboo. On the one hand, to the extent art and aesthetics are tied to Philosophy, they are tied to some pursuit of Truth, which has moral considerations. On the other hand, art as a transcendent experience does not fit neatly into the finely-ground gradients that ethics and politics create. There is something to the experience of watching say, Trainspotting, that exists even if you come to deplore the ethos limned therein. Aesthetic quality and moral quality are related but distinct.

And the Pulps, generally speaking, inhabited a moral universe. There may have been gradations between darkness and light (Conan and The Grey Mauser are certainly no Paladins), but overall there was an awareness in each story of who traded in deceit and corruption, and who was honest and forthright. Justice, a Cardinal virtue, involves not just fairness but also honesty, the keeping of ones word. The ability to tell the truth and do as you have promised has always been admired, and it’s opposite reviled, across culture. Human society does not function without it. Violent pulp heroes tended to be those who could and would do that.

What isn’t found here is preaching. Pulps were not interested in subverting, inverting, or otherwise altering the moral awareness of their readers. They acted upon the moral universe common readers were familiar with. The need for art to be at odds with culture, something I’ll talk about in another Ruskin-related post later on, was not present. That was the secret of the pulp’s success, as chronicled in J.D. Cowan’s Pulp Mindset, which I’m currently reading on Kindle.

So far I’ve read Cowan’s summary of pulp history, and how it differed as mass entertainment from 20th century litfic. It has its repetitive moments (you are unlikely to forget how Cowan feels about OldPub, as he calls it), but overall it functions as a discussion of what pulp is, and its overall aesthetic. So it is of use to writers of genre fiction, especially if they want to avoid the politicized slapfights that have plagued SFWA, The Hugos, and suchlike. I look forward to reading the rest.

Rabbit Riot, or The Mystery of the Missing Micro-Press

In the last Shallow & Pedantic podcast, I went off on an extended tear on a literary podcast that I used to listen to with great interest, but stopped. I removed the section from the finished product, but I’d like to address it now.

A while ago, I became the kind of guy who Listens to Podcasts by discovering the Dead Rabbits. The reference to old Irish street gang (upon which Gangs of New York was based) intrigued, as did the young-scrappy-and-hungry vibe. More than a podcast, they were a Press, a Reading Series (whatever that might be), a will-to-publish. And listening to them gave me a sense of the headspace of Sarah Laurence-grads who wanted to write The Great American Novel, or at any rate who wanted to carry the torch of literary culture into the new era, whatever that might mean. It was inspirational, in the sense of “Hey, what’s stopping me from doing this, too?” I listened even when I didn’t care particularly about the topic. I even bought their first release, Brian Birnbaum’s Emerald City, on Kindle.

And then, quite suddenly, they vanished.

Which happens. Economics is not the friend of tiny lit-fic presses. But then they were back. Exactly the same, now calling itself Animal Riot. The people didn’t change, the books didn’t change, the About pages didn’t change, but the name did. Even the Dead Rabbits Reading Series, which pre-existed the press and the podcast, was retroactively renamed the Animal Riot Reading Series. A cursory googling reveals no news story or explaination for the change, but old episodes of the podcast have had their introductions edited, and there, at least, it is acknowledged that they are operating under a new name.

So I’m not crazy, I haven’t slipped into an alertnate universe, and I’m not suffering from the Mandela Effect. They really did call themselves Dead Rabbits, and now are not.

Why? Some legal injunction, perhaps? There are other podcasts calling themselves Dead Rabbits, such as Dead Rabbit Radio, which puts itself out almost daily. They started in the spring/summer of 2018, whereas the Dead Rabbits/Animal Riots started in November of that year. But podcasts having the same name is nothing new. There are about a million podcasts called “Whatever“, which is why I’m probably going to change that name to simply “The Content Blues Podcast”. But I will let you know when that happens.

A better lead comes in the form of a NYC bar known as The Dead Rabbit, which deliberately crafts an atmosphere redolent of the street gang, and has published a mixology/history book with graphic novel flavor. The owners are two immigrants from Belfast, and are known to be litigious regarding use of the Dead Rabbits name, according to this article on Recalled Comics.

The Dead Rabbit bar in New York City (below) is famous for its cocktails and has used the “Dead Rabbit” moniker since 2012 for comics strips (related to the New York gangs) in their cocktail menus and books (some of which have been CGC graded).

Image released a Dead Rabbit Ashcan in Spring 2018 and later that year released the series with #1 hitting the shops in 2018-10-03. The NY bar owners (DRT Group LLC) had their lawyers send a cease and desist notice to both Image Comics and Forbidden Planet on the 22nd of that same month.

However, Forbidden Planet apparently did not respond, and Image apparently asked for more time but went ahead and published #2 anyway in early November leading to DRT group lawyers filing lawsuits against both in the New York courts claiming $2 million from each in damages.

The series was quickly cancelled in late November 2018 and the comics recalled (although too late as most would have been in collectors’ hands at that stage) and traces of the comic were removed from Image and Diamond’s websites.

recalledcomics.com

Now, this was over an unrelated comic book. But, given that Dead Rabbits/Animal Riot and The Dead Rabbit bar both call NYC home, and given that the bar publishes books related to the brand, one can fashion a theory that the bar sued the press, and the press, having even less resources than Image Comics, ceased-and-desisted in the same way. I have no evidence that proves this theory, but it does fit the facts.

The Lesson: Make your own brand.

SubStack, Marketing Lamentations, and Cover Design Refreshes

There’s a new publishing platform out there called SubStack. I heard about it on Twitter. It looks cool, it’s free to use, and it’s got a bunch of features like MailChimp that cost extra on WordPress (the number of things this blog doesn’t have because I don’t feel like shelling out for a WordPress business account would stagger the imagination. The stumbling block is huge. It’s why I podcast on Spreaker). I thought it might be a good place to put some content that isn’t really for UJ or, some stuff I’d like to showcase.

The idea is similar to Patreon: get subscribers in the door, and they pay you for content. Visually, it looks a lot like Medium. I have had a hard time with both, and I don’t really know why. I can publish the stuff, but no one reads it. I’m not one of the big names SubStack boasts of. I have, at present time, no name at all, despite damn near 20 years doing various kinds of blogging. For some reason, I’m just not getting it.

Perhaps I’m just too esoteric. Perhaps I haven’t managed Marketing. Certainly when I try to read about SEO, my eyes glaze over. Everything that’s not conceptually obvious seems out of my reach. There’s a trick that I’m missing, some step beyond. I look at the names of people who have tens of thousands of subscribers at $15/month and I don’t know who any of them are. They all seem boring or the same Connected Elect as already write for big publications. I’m sitting in the middle of the Information Superhighway, watching the same Mack Trucks run me over, bragging about how light and nimble they are.

The curse of this age is that anyone can get their stuff made, but only a curated few get their stuff seen. Everybody has a way to put video on the internet, but only Superhero tentpole movies, featuring characters decades old, made by international megacorporations, seem to matter. Having a blog today is like having a UHF station back in the 70’s: Yeah, you’re doing it, but no one cares.

The practical upshot of all this is that until I figure out how to grow an audience, expansion into anything else is absurd. And there I confront the reality that the kind of art and story I like, that interests me, is not the sort of thing that jumps out of the Internet and screams “Pay Attention to Me!” Screaming “Pay Attention to Me!” is necessary but also stupid. And that would put me in the camp of the Intellectuals, except I hate them even more, because they don’t merit the title. They all write like ad-men and Buzzfeed interns.

And that’s why the place is called Content Blues, in case you should be wondering. I create Content, and I have the Blues about it.

But that sort of defeatist groaning only takes you so far. This isn’t an online suicide. I’m not done.

Click image to buy on Amazon.

What’s this? Something that’s been published since 2018, the Year of the Three Novellas. A good novella, eight chapters, clean narrative, third-person focused. It starts with a reference to Blade Runner and it uses an Alien encounter story to explore the Philsophical problem of the Ship of Theseus. It’s not as erudite as The Devil Left Him, or as creative as The Party At the Last Tomorrow, but I might like it best.. Like a lot of my work, it’s pro-human, as despite my well-documented moral cyncism as regards the capacity of my species, I am and always have been firmly on its side. I am human; I prefer human to other forms of life, and am unbearably wearied by those who do not.

Why am I talking about it now? Simple: I made an elementary change in the cover: I improved the font.

Orignal cover on the left.

The book bills itself as an “Existential Sci-Fi Monster Tale”, and the original font just did not suit that theme. It looks too comic, too chunky. A void is a place of emptiness, therefore having the letters fill up so much space feels wrong. I went through scores of cover designs during and after the writing and editing of it. What I went to press with had the right image, and so I probably didn’t want last-minute self-doubt rabbits gnawing at my purpose.

The beauty is, I can revisit these decisions. Will the new cover excite any interest? I’ll do a price-reduction on Amazon next week and see. Hope is just another word for nothin’ left to lose.

New Shallow & Pedantic Podcast: Brust & Leiber

The Brust of the Lieber Fitz-Gerald Shallow & Pedantic

We indulge in some Edmund Fitzgerald Porter and wax on about two creative fantasy authors that we’ve introduced each other two: Stephen Brust and Fritz Leiber. In the process, we hit upon why Andrew doesn’t like cross-world fantasy, whether sci-fi and fantasy should be distinct, and stumble upon the Universal Field Theory of Creative Decline. A long and ramshackle episode, but fun.
  1. The Brust of the Lieber Fitz-Gerald
  2. We All Shine On
  3. Mike Gets the Good Mike
  4. The Philosophy of Horror
  5. Graphic Novels Should Not Be Movies

As you can see from the episode list, this is our longest episode to date. We ramble along quite nicely, thanks to some excellent porter, and give Stephen Brust and Fritz Leiber some shout-outs for being creative, witty worldbuilders and writers. We’re also up on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Deezer, and YouTube, with iHeartRadio pending.

The Saucy Nugs Guy and The Treachery of Rhetoric

This became a minor meme boomlet for a few days last week:

Obviously, the first response, the intended response, is laughter. A political meeting is a ridiculous place to discuss what pub food is called. On top of that, you can pull/impose a “commentary on the absurdity of our politics” if you’re in the mood.

But as I’ve written before, irony does not translate to mass media, so the first thing that came to me, regardless of intent, is the fact that his argument is completely sound. “Boneless chicken wings” is an absurd nomenclature, dreamed up by marketing drones and refined in focus groups (who the hell willingly sits in a focus group? Where do they find these people? Do they pay them?). As a piece of corporate communication, seller-to-buyer, it’s effective: This will be like a chicken wing, but it won’t have a bone in it. It’s still nonsense. We could call it something else, and people would still eat them.

Rhetoric works best when founded in truth, so people ran with #saucynugs on Twitter. He’s become the Saucy Nugs Guy. He has gone viral over something ridiculous, and possibly initiated a minor cultural change. Was this his goal? It doesn’t matter. It has gone out into the world, and people have made it what they wanted. A joke becomes an idea.

So while the rhetorical devices SNG employs in his speech are both cliched and comically out of place, that actually makes it entertaining to listen to, selling the argument. I came away from this not only convinced but but determined never to use the term “bonless chicken wings” again. At the same time, a tossed-off line that was intended as humor has become his Official Cultural Designation, for no better reason than euphony.

This could take off. Not suddenly, but slowly, if the memeing of the term reaches an inflection point. It depends on wheter people are willing to actually say “Saucy Nugs” in public. They might at first, if only to display meme-awareness, and then out of simple habit. When the term appears in carryout menus, even ironically, then victory will be at hand.

Let’s make it happen. Of all the nomenclature-related disputes of our age, this one makes the most sense.

I Don’t Care If Cuties is a Good Movie

It seems that people have been left by their education unable to put values in the correct order. People who consider themselves intelligent and sober are defending twerking 11-year-olds for no better reason than to annoy conservatives, because apparently child exploitation doesn’t count if it’s done on the set of a movie in France.

Let’s just go ahead and stipulate that the film is well-made. Hell, let’s stipulate that the overall message is something on the order of “sexualizing children is bad and we shouldn’t do it.”. Let’s say it merits the Palm d’Or it’s now guaranteed to get.

It still sexualized kids in order to make it, and is therefore bad and shouldn’t have been made.

Let’s talk about values. On the one hand, there’s not exploiting children in real life. On the other, there’s making art. Which is more important? Think hard.

Just in case you need me to spell it out for you, Art has merit as an expression of ideas, or as entertainment. Entertainment isn’t bad, but it’s a lesser good than expressing ideas or values in a truthful way. And both of them are lesser goods than living out your values with choices and actions.

Charge of The Light Brigade, entertaining as it may be, is thus diminished by the number of horses that were injured or killed in the making of it. We prefer that the safety of living things not be sacrificed to make a military potboiler. That shows values out of proportion. No one says “Hey, let’s give Harvey Weinstein a pass because he bankrolled Tarantino’s filmography.” That’s ridiculous. Art does not excuse crime.

Charge of the Light Brigade, 1936. A trip-wire was used to make horses fall down at an appropriate moment. 25 horses died as a result. Eroll Flynn was so enraged at the ill-treatment of the horses, he nearly physically attacked the director.

A movie that salaciously depicts girls dancing inappropriately is thus not excused by the quality or truthfulness of its message. It’s still bad to do that. It should not be done. Everyone seemed to understand the importance of preserving the innocence of pubescent children when Stranger Things happened. And they weren’t being sexualized by the show they were on.

For the record, I don’t think most people defending this film is doing so out of a wish to normalize the sexualization of children. It’s just a pattern they’ve fallen into. A piece of risque art is made. Conservatives and other groups make a big noise about it. Therefore, they must be Phillistines who just Don’t Get Art. Don’t you see, you knuckle-draggers? Don’t you see the Nuance and the Bold Look it takes, you Satanic-Panickers, you?

Very filmmaking. Much Art. Wow.

And again, let’s say it’s all those things. That’s still not good enough to justify what is done to produce it. The industry that has a long and savage history of exploiting adult women (and men) does not get the benefit of the doubt when it comes to children. Maybe back when Free Expression was still argued as a Primary Good, you could have slipped this one by. But we don’t live in that world anymore. We haven’t for a while now.

Therefore, I do not care. To the void with it.

Rimbaud Dreams of War

Jean Artur Rimbaud wrote strange prose-poems in the Belle Epoque. He was an exceedingly odd duck: not ostentatiously wierd like Van Gogh, but the sort of man who could drop everything and spend his final years as an arms-dealer in North Africa. He’s kind of like William Burroughs, except his stuff is short enough so that I can digest it in one go, rather than get tired of not understanding anything and chuck the book a the wall (how many times have I tried to read Nova Express? At least three. How many times have I got farther than 20 pages? I do not know).

I find his strangeness appealing perhaps because he is not dogmatic about it. Poetry works best when it is a process of discovery, of the writer overhearing himself. There’s a tradition as old as Pindar to the effect that poets are prophets; speaking truths they themselves dimly understand, throwing words together in a disciplined kind of way because it feels right. A purely right-brained approach.

Now, no artist actually works this way. The stuff gets edited. It is shaped. It is messed with. This is itself part of the process, so that you leave your own interpolations at the door and get to the Real Thing. How do you know you have the Real Thing? If you have to ask, you don’t have it.

So here’s War, part of the Illuminations collection:

When a child, certain skies sharpened my vision: all their characters were reflected in my face. The Phenomena were roused.–At Present, the eternal inflection of moments and the infinity of mathematics drives me through this world where I meet with every civil honor, respected by strange children and prodigious affections.–I dream of a War of right and of might, of unlooked-for logic.

It is as simple as a musical phrase.

Jean Artur Rimbaud, “war” The Illuminations, pg. 133

That’s it. The whole Madness. It is not analytical. It is not concerned with understanding, only with experiencing. It is an irruption of Id-sense, Id-longing. Might be the phenomenon Huxley was getting at in The Doors of Perception: certain folk have a spiritual sensitivity that can lead either to Enlightenment or Insanity. In times past the old boy might have become a monk or mystic and offered prayer-poems to whatever Deity would have him. Perhaps a martyr or a passionate heretic, if the cards played out right. Instead he became a pieta to the more erudite segment of nerds.

Still, there’s something to the economy of expression, something I’ve written on before and probably will again, as it’s never been something I could master. My sentences flow like rivers, like dams breaking. And so do some of his. But he doesn’t have eighty of them together. I am the more concerned, it seems, with not being misunderstood.

Notes on Ruskin: The Absurd Rule

Much of Ruskin’s On the Nature of Gothic involves a pre-Marxist critique of industrialization. I’m not sure if it qualifies as being From the Right, as I’m not certain of Ruskin’s politics, but it reads very Romantic, which is at least half a Reactionary movement. The old-school Romantics and Goths gazed back at pre-modern “natural” conceptions and the light footprint man had on Nature with longing. Rationalism and Enlightenment were, in their eyes, as tyrannical as they were liberating.

But so too are the critiques. There is much to sympathize with in Ruskin’s dislike of the Grand Standardization that industrialization entails, but he arrives at conclusions that boggle the mind. For example, he advocates regulation of industry in order to preserve human invention, human art. He creates three broad rules for this:

1. Never encourage the manufacture of any article not absolutely necessary, in the production of which Invention has no share.

2. Never demand an exact finish for its own sake, but only for some practical or noble end.

3. Never encourage imitation or copying of any kind, except for the sake of preserving records of great works.

John Ruskin, “On Art and Life” pg. 20

Let’s not spend any time arguing about how such a schema would be practically enforced, as that’s the least of the difficulties with it. We could get lost in haggling about such terms as “necessary”, “noble”, or “imitation”, and even if we agree on what exactly Ruskin meant, we might not agree to be bound by them. This is the problem many 19th century texts leave us with.

But in his examples, he constructs a thing I have noticed many times among those who establish a strong rule, and implement it strongly: a rule yielding absurd results. And by “absurd” I mean widely divergent results among things of minor variation. You see it often in the self-flattering exceptions our Modern Puritans make for their particular prejudices and bigotries. I will refer to it as The Absurd Rule:

So again, the cutting of precious stones, in all ordinary cases, requires little exertion of any mental faculty, some tact and judgment in avoiding flaws, and so on, but nothing to bring out the whole mind. Every person who wears cut jewels merely for the sake of their value is, therefore, a slave-driver.

But the working of the goldsmith, and the various designing of grouped jewelry and enamel-work, may become the subject of the most noble human intelligence. Therefore, money spent in the purchase of well-designed plate, of precious engraved vases, cameos, or enamels, does good to humanity; and in work of this kind, jewels may be employed to heighten its splendour; and their cutting is then a price paid for the attainment of a noble end, and is thus perfectly allowable.

Ruskin, pg. 21

We have thus created a rule under which jewels may be used to adorn objects, but not people. This has nothing to do with the nature of jewels, objects, or people, and even less to do with the goals and results, but the way cut jewels are created. It’s a highly specific distinction being made, and the results is quite strange. And in any case, jewels are going to be cut.

And let me stipulate that I understand his distinction: between creative and monotonous work. I even agree with the criticism that monotonous work is degrading to the human spirit. But the center of our value should therefore be on the humans who do the work, not the objects. The market for jewels and the market for plate, vases, and other goods are the same market, that of having beautiful things. If there’s no reason why someone can’t both cut jewels and make fine plate – and evidently to Ruskin, there isn’t – then we can simply create a rule allowing workers time to work on stimulating projects, and not spend all their time on dull repetitive work. That pus the humans at the center, rather than the objects, and does not anathemetize something (wearing jewels) that carries almost no moral value.

One finds the correct solution by focusing on the primary value.

Caligulia Fights Dinosaurs on a Spaceship

No, not really. That’s the sort of click-bait stuff that everyone talks about as the Almagamation of Awesome, but no one actually reads. And with good reason. Juxtaposition for its own sake usually hides a paucity of narrative. Instead, an authorial update to announce progress.

First, I have in fact, completed a thing long talked of The Meditations of Caius Caligulia. Which is to say, I have completed a rough draft. I consider it a skeleton about which meat can be hung. I need to do some more deep diving into Virgil and Lucretius and Ovid before I can flesh out the Un-Mad Emperor’s thoughts and story. But it’s done. The sixth Chapter, On Conquest, will appear in the October issue of Unnamed Journal. The final chapter, On Death, will appear sometime over the winter, with the complete volume.

Second, I have also completed a rather long short story, Cantilever Jones Runs Hot, set in a space opera galaxy of my own devising, a universe that goes under the name “Gods of the Sky”. There’s a good few stories set in this universe, including two previous Cantilever Jones stories, and some Death-emperor vs. Star Buddhists expositions. I’m building the universe in shorts, with an eye towards a novel. I’ll probably put a collection out sometime next year. This story will also appear in the October UJ. The story clocks in at around 7,000 words, which is borderline a novelette. It can be frustrating when you’re trying to get a story finished, but also exciting when it keeps taking on a life of its own. But when your hero is trying to survive a battle he didn’t create on a jungle planet inhabited by velociraptors, you just go with it.

Anyway, I will be moving on to other projects shortly. Watch this space for publication details, and enjoy some cover art concepts while you do.

Chadwick Boseman’s Death is a Reminder of All That We Do Not Know

I’ve never seen Black Panther. I think the last MCU movie I saw was the first Avengers. This is due to indifference. I’m not big into Marvel, and only slightly more into DC (the last DC movie I saw was Dark Knight Rises, which doesn’t count). That whole journey went right by me. Don’t take it personally.

So I don’t have anything to say about Chadwick Boseman as an actor. I’m sure he was good, or at least good enough to play the lead in the only comic book movie to get an Oscar nomination for Best Picture (what an antiquated term. No one calls them “moving pictures” anymore. Why don’t they call it Best Film?). I’m not here as a critic.

But that Twist. The fact that he’s been fighting Stage3/4 colon cancer since 2016. That he gave those performances, fought his way through Panther, Infinity War, and Endgame while undergoing chemo, catches the heart somehow. And sure, acting in a film is not storming the beaches of Normandy. But it’s not manning a checkout line at Safeway either. They pay you to do it because it’s work.

Above and beyond Bosments’s suddenly-apparent nigh-superhuman toughness, however, sits the fact that such a secret stayed hidden. Granted, Hollywood is good at hiding things. But health ain’t always exactly a secret. If Betty White had the sniffles, the internet would shut down for a day in pre-emptive mourning. But Black Panther had butt cancer and not even the 4channers knew.

That’s the lesson. Whoever you know, whoever you don’t know, whoever you hate, whoever you love, they’re carrying things that no one but God and their general practictioner know about. Things that are not spoken of outside of the four walls of their homes. What you see of a person – any person – is no more than what they show you.

That’s why The Man said Don’t Judge. Not because we’re incapable of judging, but because the full content of a human soul is hidden from us. We need most desperately to remember that in these supremely judgey times. For we are fragile, and our time is short.

Requiscat in Pace Æternam.