I ran into this passage from Brian Eno recently and I haven’t been able to get it out of my head.
“Stop thinking about art works as objects, and start thinking about them as triggers for experiences.”
There’s more to it, but the gist is that art is not a thing so much as something that happens. The experience of ‘art’ is what you, as the recipient of it brings to the table. This is something I’ve been thinking about for a while now, but I could never find the words to express it, which, as a writer, is both maddening and embarrassing.
I have a hard time seeing books as art. I tend to see them as machines, as well (or poorly) crafted devices. Engines through which ideas churn, full of nuts and bolts and creaking hinges. Things better described in terms of craft than of art.
Some of that, I think, is because like most writers I’ve learned to pick books apart. Dissecting them more often than experiencing them. It’s a rare treat to find myself lost in a book, to look up after a few hours and realize I haven’t tried to analyze it for structure or turns of phrase.
But I think there’s more to it. Culturally the only books we tend to see as art are ones that fall firmly into the Literary genre. We rate books with multiple stars and upturned thumbs the way we rate restaurants. We confuse criticism with critique, a poor experience with shoddy craftsmanship. How many 1-star reviews are “Why isn’t the ebook cheaper?” or “The main character was a bad person” or “There was too much swearing”?
The simple fact that Amazon, a company that will sell you a 55 gallon drum of lube, is now the de-facto keeper of our cultural cachet is mind-boggling.
When you talk to writers about books, conversations invariably turn to sales, outlines, process. Number shit. Angry, angry number shit. Seriously, you’d think we were all living our lives in data mines chipping out chunks of raw ore with our Excel picks. Get past all that and, sure, we’ll tell you what we like about a story, what we think works, why we think it does or doesn’t. But that can take a while.
And readers? Readers, those blessed, blessed masses. Those unknowable voices in the dark. I don’t know who the hell most of you are. But I am thankful for every last one of you crazy fuckers who takes a chance on my fiction. Really. You are amazing and I can only hope that I give you a satisfying time when you do.
But I don’t really know if I actually connect. Most of your thoughts are hidden behind multi-star reviews, or occasionally, single-star reviews. If you put in any kind of review at all. I don’t know what you’re not telling me. Like trying to glean the motives of suicides from the survivors, I don’t really know what motivates you to pick up my books, or what it is you like or don’t like about them.
To be clear, this is not a fault. You don’t have to tell me a goddamn thing. You don’t owe me a goddamn thing. I don’t expect anything of you. Hell, I don’t even expect you to buy my books and am honestly, and pleasantly, surprised when you do.
But when was the last time people talked about how a book made them feel?
I don’t mean, “I didn’t like the protagonist.” I mean, “It made me feel like that time I was in summer camp and down by the river I watched the dragonflies flit around the reeds and then Mary-Anne Phillips dared me to jump in and I had a crush on her so I did and I lost my swim trunks and was mortified the rest of the week as kids kept pointing and staring.”
You know, feelings.
I know that replacing an easy to gauge 1-5 star system with, “Yes, but how did you feel about it?” isn’t feasible. But this isn’t about numbers, or ratings. It’s about what did a story bring up for you? You. Not your best friend, not your book club. YOU. What did you experience with it? Did it make you feel anything? Angry? Sad? Joyous? Wanting to dance around in your living room naked in unbridled glee?
I gave a copy of a draft of DEAD THINGS to a friend of mine before it was published and when she read it she said of the protagonist, “He really pissed me off.”
That’s gold right there. Not just for me, because that’s how I had intended to write him and it was nice to see that she picked that up, but also for this idea that we can talk about stories based on how they make us feel. She got angry. Not at me or at the book. She was aware enough that his actions, as a fictional character, were making her angry with him. She was invested.
I call that a win.
And so I would invite everyone to think about how a piece made them feel. Whether you rate it on Amazon or not, or mark it on Goodreads or toss it in the trash. I don’t care if you never tell me.
But I think that if more of us put some thought into what experience art, whether it be a painting, a poem, a novel, a badly lettered request for oral sex scribbled on a bathroom wall, makes us feel, I think that will make us better. Better at what, I don’t really know. Better people? Better readers or writers or critics?
I think mostly it’s that I want to live in a world where we experience art, rather than just see it.
Interesting post by Tobias Buckell today on survivorship bias, the idea that a lot of people are only looking at the successes in publishing and not heeding the lessons of the failures. Like the lesson that there are a fuckton of failures.
It’s an interesting read and has some excellent points for anyone embarking on a writing career, whether that’s self or traditional publishing. Pretty much any endeavor where success is lauded and failure is hidden, actually. Writing, art, starting a business selling absorbent towels made of cat hair, whatever. There’s some good raw data, something that’s sorely lacking in these discussions.
One of the things I find particularly interesting about this isn’t just how so many people don’t see the data and so develop a huge blindspot, but rather how many people DO see the data, but flat out choose to ignore it.
On the one hand, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. We need confidence. We need to look at this mountain we’re trying to climb and say, “Yeah, I can do that.” If you don’t have a certain amount of bravado about the whole thing you’re GOING to fail. Guaranteed.
But on the other hand, going in with the belief that there’s no way you can possibly lose is how Vegas casinos make their money. Confidence is a good thing, a necessary thing. But being an idiot about it is a good way to lose your shirt.
We all learn different lessons at different stages. And sometimes we need to get smacked in the face with those lessons before we learn them. But go in completely blind when you don’t have to, and you might not learn the lesson at all. Or worse, you might learn the wrong one.
So pay attention to the failures. Know the risks you’re taking. Know that you’re more likely to fail than not.
And then go do it, anyway.
It’s that time again! Noir At The Bar L.A. is comin’ at ya like a money shot in a 3D porn film.
This time we’ve got a gang of out-of-towners. Seth Harwood (Jack Wakes Up, Young Junius), Joe Clifford (Wake the Undertaker, Junkie Love), Tom Pitts (Piggyback) and Dan O’Shea reading from his debut novel Penance. Plus, our very own Eric Beetner will be reading from and selling special limited editions of his book CRIMINAL ECONOMICS.
As usual Mysterious Galaxy will be on hand to sell you some books.
We’re at The Mandrake (2692 S La Cienega Blvd Los Angeles, CA 90034 – between Venice Blvd and Washington Blvd) from 8-10, Sunday night, May 26th.
So come on out and listen to some kick ass crime fiction, get your drink on, and maybe shank somebody in the parking lot.
Well, it doesn’t really speak. More controls my thoughts with its dark and dangerous dreams, filling my head with ideas both wondrous and foul… or is it fowl? I recall seeing a lot of ducks, lately.
No matter! For The Magic Fez of Picking Random Things Out Of has been employed!
I had planned on sticking the names of all of the people who entered to win a copy of DEAD THINGS onto little scraps of paper and shove them into the hat.
That didn’t work. THERE WERE TOO MANY OF YOU. For which I am truly thankful. So glad the book has caught your interest.
Maybe next time I should try a top hat? Or a bucket?
So instead I just wore the Fez and went to random.org and the Internets told me what to do. See?
Sadly, I can’t give everyone a copy.
If you won a copy I’ve already contacted you and gotten your mailing information. If you didn’t, fear not! There will be another giveaway soon… ish. Couple months maybe?
Of course, if you are so inclined, you can always pick up a copy from one of the fine purveyors of books listed here.
Thank you all very much for entering. Peace out… or whatever it is you wacky kids say these days.
The L.A. Times Festival of Books is upon us! Like a ravening beast it wails and snarls across the land, consuming all in its cavernous depths!
Wait. No, that’s different. Which reminds me, I have to go feed a thing I’ve been keeping in the garage.
Anyway! The Festival of Books is this weekend on the USC campus. THOUSANDS of people show up for this thing. All there to celebrate reading. That’s pretty fucking awesome.
AND I WILL BE THERE! Wandering around in a drunken stupor most likely. But also signing at The Mysterious Galaxy booth (#368) on Saturday at 2:00pm. Lots of other writers will be there, too. Here’s the list (warning: .PDF)
Hope to see some of you out there.
Boy, yesterday sucked monkey balls, didn’t it? We all know why, so I won’t go into it. I’m tired of big, televised tragedy. My thoughts are with the people of Boston, the injured and the families of those who died. The Boston Marathon is an international event and it’s hit a lot of people.
An important thing to remember in times like these is that there are always far more people wanting to help than hurt. Whether it’s a bomb at a marathon, a sicko with a gun, a guy who aims his car at a crowded bus stop. There are ALWAYS more of us than there are of them. We can’t always do much, but we’re there. Don’t forget that.
And so here are some pictures of a baby covered in French bulldog puppies to make us all feel better.
Man, I been waking up to Internet kerfuffles all month. Been in a pissy, ranty mood and, you know what? I’m tired. All this shouting and RAWR and BLERGH and stuff.
So I’m gonna do something that makes me feel better. Give away some books.
I got five copies of DEAD THINGS sitting here that need to find a home. Want one? Here’s what you gotta do.
1) Follow me on Twitter. My handle’s @sblackmoore. 2) Tell me you want in, either on Twitter or here in the comments. Either’s fine.
I’m running this from now until next Friday, the 19th. I’ll pick five people at random by sticking their names in The Magic Fez of Picking Random Things Out Of.
In the past I’ve kept this limited to people in North America because of shipping cost, but fuck it. This is open to the whole world. BECAUSE YOU ARE WORTH IT, ZIMBABWE.
A few days ago an article appeared in the Harvard Business Review by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic titled Seven Rules for Managing Creative People.
In the article he suggests that managers do things like “Pay them poorly” (updated, actually, to “Don’t overpay them” – more on that update in a bit), and says things like, “The worst thing you can do to a creative employee is to force them to work with someone like them — they would compete for ideas, brainstorm eternally, or simply ignore each other.”
I am, arguably, a creative person. I write books after all.
More relevant to this topic, though, is that for the past 20+ years I’ve worked in software development managing small (2-3 people) and large (40+ people) teams across multiple continents at companies ranging in size from chaos-ridden start-ups to Fortune 500 corporations.
That’s right. I am Bill Lumbergh. I am Michael Scott. I am Dilbert’s Pointy-Haired Boss. In other words, I’m the guy he’s writing this article for. And as that guy I have a few thoughts about it summed up thusly:
Interestingly, the HBR has changed the title to Seven Rules for Managing Creative-But-Difficult People, along with a couple of changes to the article itself saying:
Editor’s note: We updated the headline on this post April 10 to reflect that its intent is to discuss a small subset of people who happen to be both creative and difficult to work with; not to imply that all creative people are difficult. We regret the error.
I don’t buy that for a second. The corrections don’t actually change my assessment. In fact they make it worse. Nowhere in the original article does it state or imply that he’s talking about “difficult” people. And if that’s really his position, then he’s saying that creative people are difficult. Period. His points are the same, and his clumsy sleight of hand trying to take some of the heat off of himself (“No, no! This is about difficult creative people, not all of you real creative people.”) doesn’t help.
The First Fatal Flaw
His basic assumption in this article seems to be that “Manager” and “Creative” must naturally be at odds with each other. He starts with and carries throughout an Us vs Them position. It’s a mentality that is built upon the idea of conflict within the workplace. It’s also incredibly insulting. You know who it’s insulting?
“Manager,” it says, “you are a dull, lifeless chunk of existential flotsam, though it’s unlikely you know what that even means, having never been able to grasp the rudimentary basics of philosophical thought. You can’t understand those wacky creative people because your superior, right-lobed brain is full of facts and tasks and things that must be done!”
He appears to believe that “creative people” are somehow other. They’re not. You’re not. They’re the same people. I understand he means “people in a role that is defined largely by the generation of ideas”. But isn’t that also CEOs? Isn’t that also business analysts? Isn’t that software architects, or QA testers, or project managers? It is all of those things.
The kind of workplace that he is talking about here, one in which there are “creative people” and, by extension, “not creative people” is one that suffers from too much compartmentalization. Separating one from the other does the whole organization a disservice. A lot is demanded of everyone in a company. They all have to be creative people.
My job, your job, his job, is important from a standpoint of everyone knowing what piece of the puzzle we have to fiddle with, but it doesn’t help when you block off potentially important insights from each other. No, you don’t want the guy from accounting running your ad campaign, they have different roles and different skillsets. But someone in QA might very well have some excellent things to bring up to the software architect. But Chamorro-Premuzic’s approach would negate that communication. Which brings me to
The Punch Clock Problem
“The worst thing you can do to a creative employee is to force them to work with someone like them.” Really? Why in the hell would you want to do that? Has he not heard of collaboration? Actually, yes, he has. At least he uses the word a little further down. But he and I don’t seem to share the same definition.
“…they would compete for ideas, brainstorm eternally, or simply ignore each other.”
This really is the root of the problem with this whole article. There’s an underlying assumption that people can’t collaborate because they will inevitably eat each other in some kind of Lord of The Flies scenario.
Aside from saying far more about Mr. Chamorro-Premuzic’s psyche than I ever wanted to know, this is the same kind of thinking that leads to punch clock management, the idea that people are sheep that need to be herded and tracked on a strictly task-oriented basis. To hell with independent thought. Fuck actually accomplishing anything. Screw results. Why make your employees actual partners in the business you’re trying to create?
An organization built on this idea of Us vs Them is, at best, myopic and at worst doomed. Sure, you can keep a company going with that thinking. Thousands upon thousands of companies work that way. They’re doing just fine. Their employees might hate them, they don’t do much in the way of innovating and when the shit hits the fan they’re going to have a hard time re-adjusting to new realities, but they’re perfectly functional companies.
You know what they’re not? Creative.
They can’t turn on a dime because no one has the ability, mind-set or authority to change a direction. Ideas languish in people’s heads because they don’t have the avenues through which to express them. They are so focused on keeping people in line and ordered that they’re not able to improve anything. Outdated processes? Can’t change them. New business opportunity? It’s not your department. Time-saving efficiency? Run it through committee.
Punishment Is Its Own Reward
Here’s my favorite. “Pay them poorly,” or, as the editors of the HBR later changed it to, “Don’t overpay them”. For an “international authority in personality profiling and psychometric testing” Mr. Chamorro-Premuzic really needs a refresher on how not to piss people off.
He sums up his philosophy as, “The more you pay people to do what they love, the less they will love it.” He even has studies. I’ve seen some of these studies. These studies are dangerous.
The problem is that he seems to conflate people doing what they love with people doing what they love FOR YOU. Developers, writers, artists, may all code, write or draw because they love it. But they are NOT doing it for YOU because they love it. They’re doing it for you because you are PAYING THEM to do it for you.
Kudos and attaboys are all nice and well, but you can’t cover your rent with them. And if as an employer, you want the kind of people who are willing to be starving artists because they’re cheaper, then not only are you are an exploitative asshole, but you’re an idiot. Stupid people hire stupid people. Think about it.
How about this instead? Pay them what they’re worth.
Because if you’re not then what you’re doing is bargain hunting. Don’t try to rationalize that you’re somehow looking out for their mental well-being by not cheapening their art. That’s bullshit. You’re looking to get inexpensive labor. You’re looking to cut corners because of your bottom line. You’re looking to bring in someone young and talented and then burn them out before they catch on to your ruse. And if you’re the sort of manager to do that, see that comment above about stupidity and exploitation.
On The Other Hand
All that said, I do agree with a few points. Sort of.
“Only involve them in meaningful work” and “Don’t pressure them.” I’m on the fence with these. His thing here seems to be saying that creatives are special snowflakes that must be kept out of direct sunlight lest they melt. Something I don’t agree with. They’re creative, not children. “Don’t constrain your creative employees; don’t force them to follow processes or structures.” Well, no. You’re still a manager, right? You’re still running a company, handling a department, whatever. Processes are important. At least as soon as you get out of the garage-band stage of a company.
How about this? Don’t constrain your employees with STUPID processes. And that applies to everybody. If it’s inefficient, takes too much time, causes confusion or doesn’t do what you need it to do, ditch it. The problem there is not the employee, it’s the process.
“Make them feel important.” Well, hell, shouldn’t EVERYONE be made to feel important? After all, AREN’T THEY? If they’re not, then why the fuck are they still working for you?
“Surprise them.” Okay. I guess. “Creatives love complexity and enjoy making simple things complex rather than vice-versa.” Is it my imagination or does that sounds like he’s describing a particularly inquisitive puppy? I hear creatives like having a nice, warm blankie to snuggle up in at night, too. Maybe if you paid them more they’d be able to buy one. Enough with the condescencsion.
“Spoil them and let them fail.” Absolutely! EVERYONE in the organization should be allowed to fail. That’s how we learn. That’s how we make things better. That’s how we find out if our ideas have merit. If they keep failing, well, that’s a different matter.
Everything else he lays out in that article sabotages that point. None of what he suggests actually gives people the freedom to fail.
But it does a hell of a job setting them up to fail.
Got Bioshock Infinite the other day. I finished it last night. I am not a fast gamer. Brevity of the experience aside, it’s got me thinking about stories in games, as story-driven games tend to.
Not all stories make good games just as not all games make good stories. When you get them mixed together in the right proportion, an engaging and fascinating story with equally engaging gameplay, which is not as esay as it sounds, you get something really amazing.
Sadly, Bioshock Infinite wasn’t it. It was close. Really goddamn close. Lots of great ideas, really well implemented. But just not taken far enough.
In case you don’t know what the hell I’m talking about, Bioshock Infinite is a game. A sequel to Bioshock and Bioshock 2. Even though the dystopian setting here is a city in the sky, rather than at the bottom of the sea, and it’s at a time of pre-Apocalypse for the city, rather than post, it’s still very much a Bioshock game.
It gives you morally questionable situations (though not necessarily choices – more on that in a second), a fascinating and eye-popping setting, a world that is as morally reprehensible as it is beautiful in scope. It’s challenging in spots and I don’t mean in terms of gameplay so much as in terms of story. There are spots where, if you’re like me, the story will make your skin crawl. Especially in the first fifteen minutes where it picks up a particularly Shirley Jackson-esque vibe.
In terms of gameplay here’s a caveat, and I know some gamers who will rant and wail because of this, I tend to play on easy settings because I don’t really care much about a gaming “challenge”. I’ve stopped playing games partway through or resorted to cheat codes in order to get past a particular spot just so I could finish the goddamn thing and see what happens next. If the game is punishing me for not being “good enough” I walk away.
I want three things in a game. I want to experience the story. I want to do cool shit. I don’t want the game to get in my way.
With Bioshock Infinite, I got numbers 1 and 3.
The skylines were cool. There should have been more of them. The Order of The Raven was really fucked up and disturbing. There should have been more of it. The asylum made my skin crawl. It was too short. The themes of racism, though well done and scattered throughout the game, felt like they were cut just a little too short.
One of the things that worked really well with the first two Bioshock games was a sense that the city of Rapture was huge. An impressive feat considering how claustrophobic the setting actually is. But I came away with a sense that the thing that was stopping me from exploring the whole place was a crumbling infrastructure, not just arbitrarily imposed invisible walls. The first act of Bioshock Infinite is like that. And then it isn’t. Once you get to Battleship Bay, it feels like being shuttled into consecutively smaller boxes.
And then there’s the ending.
On the one hand, I liked the idea. I liked it a lot. Especially the final scene.
On the other hand…
Objectively there are holes in it. I’m still parsing through some of them trying to figure out if they’re really holes or not. They go through some fascinating logical twists that whether they make objective sense or not, still mostly work. Leave your disbelief at the door and all that. And hey, I’m the guy who writes about thugs coming back from the dead and necromancers who talk to ghosts, so who the fuck am I to talk?
But the biggest problem is the lack of choice. There comes a point where all you have to do is sit back and watch a series of cut scenes that still require your input, even though the only input is one thing. Open a door. That’s it. That’s all you can do. Might as well just put a sign there that says, “Press Enter To Continue”. There’s no actual engagement.
Early in the game you are given one of those morally questionable choices Bioshock is known for. It involves a baseball and where you throw it. Only it doesn’t really matter. It’s a good narrative device, but it’s really the only one. There are a couple of other places where you’re asked to choose something, but as far as I can tell they don’t appear to change the outcome, the story, the gameplay, or much of anything else.
With the original Bioshock, your choices had an impact not just in how certain things happened in the game (saving versus harvesting the Little Sisters and what you got out of each choice), but also in the denouement of the game (freeing the Little Sisters, taking over Rapture, getting stabbed to death by a horde of pissed off toddlers, etc.). Here, there’s nothing. One inexorable drop to a single, final conclusion.
And for a story that has choice, infinite choice, as a central theme, especially as you approach the end, it kind of falls flat.
Of course, maybe I just didn’t make the right choice. I kind of doubt it, though, since there are very few places in which the player can make choices.
As a story I think it works. As a game, I think it stumbles. I didn’t want a different story or a different ending, or even a different game. I just wanted more of what they were selling.
Every few days… hours, sometimes, over on them thar Twitter feeds the discussion about writerly pay pops up. It seems to swirl around two major camps. “Do it for art!” “Do it for money!” Only when you dig into it, the art folks tend to say, “Well, yeah, getting paid would be nice,” and the money people tend to say, “I mean, if I hated writing I wouldn’t really do it, so, yeah, art’s good.”
In other words, we’re all saying the same goddamn thing.
Yes, writers should get paid. Sometimes they don’t. If they’ve been promised pay and they don’t get it, that’s bad. And the people doing it to them should be jailed. That’s breach of contract, right? Or fraud, theft, etc. etc.
But if writers actively make the choice to not be paid, there’s nothing wrong with that. Submit a story to a non-paying market and guess what? You’re not getting paid. I’ve done it. I still do it.
Case in point. Of the 24 pieces of fiction on that page, I’ve been paid for six of them. The most I got was $500.00 for one piece, which is pretty goddamn good. The rest? Bupkes. I knew that going in and money wasn’t the point.
In other words, sometimes I’ve written for money. Sometimes I’ve written for art. Sometimes I’ve written because I’ve been bored and there’s only so much porn and videogames one guy can handle in an afternoon.
Art and commerce are strange companions at the best of times. When you’re writing you can’t really worry about the money. You have to focus on the work, not the end result. But once you’re done and try to get it out there, then it turns into business.
And that’s where we run into trouble. What’s fair pay? What are unrealistic expectations? Does the writer set the price? Does the audience? Art is uncompromising. Business, not so much. Business is a constant negotiation between buyer and seller and the seller doesn’t always win. It’s not cut and dried.
We can all agree that money is a good thing, but there are as many varying answers to the money debate as there are people talking about it. Everybody’s career is different. Everybody’s situation is different. Everbody’s success is different. For some, writing is their sole means of support. Others have day jobs. Some have more than one.
What works for you is not necessarily what works for anyone else and vice versa. It’s all trial and error. Oftentimes more error than trial. That’s business. That’s the way it works.
All I think I can add is to try everything. Write for love. Write for money. Do work-for-hire. Self-publish. Sell a book to a traditional publisher. Try Kickstarter. Do poetry slams. Stand in front of a bunch of drunks in a bar and read crime fiction.
Some things will work. Some things won’t. But you won’t know until you give it a shot and see what sticks.