The Quality of Writing

I’m sorry I’m monstrously late with this.  For some reason I seem to be sleeping till well past 8 am — my normal waking time being around 6 — and I have no idea why.  And then there were errands and stuff which inevitably get pushed to Sunday morning, since Dan and I and the remaining cretur in the house have things scheduled through Saturday.

Anyway, so, yesterday I had an interview for Sean Sorentino’s Wrong Fun podcast (out soon!) and it got me to thinking.

One of the things that came out was that the Puppy Kickers kept saying that we’d nominated “bad quality” stuff.  My normal stuff for that is to shrug my shoulders and say “de gustibus non est disputandum” or to quote mom in one of her more pungent moments “Tastes are like things, everyone must piss with his own.”

But to the extent that “Quality” is defined by established literary critics, yeah, they’re right.  The problem here though is that the type of quality defined by literary critics and the “quality” that makes a reader read the book, get excited, go out and hand sell to all his friends are completely different things.

This is where we get into the “Taste” of the elites, which is what literary critics define as Quality.

Until round about WWI when the wheels came off European culture (and in that strata, American taste always molded itself on European taste, starting before the revolution) “high culture” and “proper taste” which defined “quality literature” involved the author making sure the upper classes knew he was one of them.  That is, the story would be full of literary references, to either classical literature (a lot) or to various artists and writers which had become hallmarks of high culture.  (Shakespeare or Chaucer, not “quality” or high class in their own times, but rendered more difficult and therefore more rarefied a taste by the change in language.)

Then the wheels came off.  There was some insurgence and some of this type of thing before then, mind, but it was after WWI that self-loathing became the hallmark of the upper classes in Europe.  Then, because they were still the elite and (in their own eyes) the taste makers, the mark of rarefied good taste became the nostalgie de la boue.  Where Shakespeare and his like had written about kings and queens or at least Lords and Ladies, increasingly the “modern” and cutting edge literature bypassed even decent middle class who were despised as bourgeois and concentrated on ne’er do wells, the criminal element, the lowest of the low in morals more than in money.  Alternately it concentrated on the corruption and bankrupt morals of the noveau rich, the noblemen, those that could be seen as winners in life.

This is what Agatha Christie in her Miss Marple books more than once characterizes as “Unpleasant people in unpleasant circumstances, doing unpleasant things.”

This trend, roughly akin to an adolescent reveling in writing things that upset his parents, as communism became an established thing and the USSR reached out tendrils of propaganda to the west, turned into a mess of set-pieces, the “international realism” of socialists, about as artistically relevant as the national realism of the fascists.  It became set pieces to the point that you REALLY need to question your cultural assumptions to get at the truth.

The “literature” of this type has given us the exploited mill workers, for instance, living in horror and squalor.  While this is absolutely true when compared to the conditions of our time, those mill workers didn’t get the chance to live in our time, in the conditions of our time.  They had the choice of living off the land or going to the city and living in factories.  Life on the land has been painted with the soft tints of the romantics and the glorious tints of the early Marxists, but if you actually LOOK at the industrial revolution going on before our eyes in China or India, you realize people are coming to the cities and getting factory jobs because life is BETTER there than in the rural fastnesses they come from.  Sure, their lives as industrial workers would horrify American workers, but they’re relatively good for what they have available.

In this sense, the literature of that time did its job which was to sell a socialist future (though most of the authors who were trying to write quality were probably unaware of what they were doing or how the dictates of “quality” came from a self-hating and often outright traitorous elite.)  It shaped even the minds of those who are naturally suspicious of socialist tripe.

Then the wheels came off again, as in, the Soviet Union fell.  I know it’s hard for people now to believe it, but back in the eighties just before the fall many people believed the USSR life quality was roughly equivalent to the US’s, or perhaps a little better.  “There is no unemployment” was something we all heard.

When it collapsed it took with them the taste of the elites, as it took with them the vision of the communists who had become sort of, sometimes openly (in Europe) the patterns of the high culture.  (I don’t know, consider some of the hats that have been fashion in the past.  Fashion is always crazy.)

For a while communists went around looking lost.  Umberto Ecco referred to them as “defrocked priests” who have lost their vision of paradise.  And then … And then they decided we just hadn’t tried it hard enough or well enough.

But by the time they found this “new vision” (these doomsday cults never admit they were wrong, you know) they had given up on the idea of the proletariat conquering the bourgeoisie and rich, and had instead turned into sort of missionaries of victims and wounded people.

Instead of social class meaning what it meant to Marx, which was entirely economics based, it now meant “group vaguely aligned through some (usually natural) characteristic.”  So we have the oppressed class of oh, gay people who come from all backgrounds and regions and who face differing levels of acceptance from family and society, but who are deemed to be all equally victimized, and as such to need equal intervention from the elites to make them whole. Then there are racial groups, so factionalized that at some point we’re all going to become a race of one.

The elites took to this new way of viewing society like ducks to water, partly because you don’t actually need to do anything to help anyone anywhere.  Like Marx, who mistreated his illegitimate son from the woman who was somewhere between an indentured servant and a slave to his family, even as he preached social revolution and the triumph of the lower classes, they can simply preach acceptance and talk about how poor victims suffer without bothering to notice that their neighbor is unemployed and surviving on cat food.  If you ask them about this particular instance, they’ll tell you that, well, come the revolution he will have a job and food…  Meanwhile they’re working for the greater cause of bringing about the revolution.

And thus, more dreary than the “quality” that consisted of unpleasant people doing unpleasant things, we have the taste makers hailing the new “quality” which consists of “fighting patriarchy” or “white hegemony” or whatever latest crazycakes lens is applied to society.  Yep, the people with the power are accusing other people of keeping them down because they have a vagina or can tan or whatever.  (And the proof of this is the Dolezals of the world who find great rewards in pretending to be victims.)

Which brings us to “literature” by which you must understand I mean the stuff literary critics like.  That is inevitably what follows the rules of victimhood and points out some new victimhood or other.  Mind you, it’s not very fun to read, but it’s “quality” because it follows the taste of the elites and strokes their ego, same as references to Greek and Roman Myth used to.

And then we come to science fiction.  Science fiction was not “literature.”  Even if Heinlein made it more respectable, the actual literary critics still hate literature.  Those who write literary science fiction often deny it’s science fiction at all to get into the club.  Which is a little pathetic and makes me think of people with black ancestry “passing” in the time of discrimination.  Or, of course, Rachel Dolezal.  Because you will never be of them, and you have to deny what you are to PRETEND to be of them.  And yet they aspire to this.  (Of course, for some of them this means college posts and such, so…)

Which brings us to —

For the longest time, I’ve said that quality is personal, taste is personal.  But I’ve noticed a certain trend among those things the practitioners of what we’ll call human wave.  There is a quality of its own.

To me — note to me and note the elusive kind of thing it is, which might hit me but not you — “quality” fiction is that which portrays humans with such accuracy the characters impress you as people you know and the stories become part of you almost as if you’d lived through them.

To the extent that telling stories is part of what makes the human animal human — and there’s some evidence for this, both in passing on knowledge and in cultural binding — the stories that mimic reality (though making sense, which reality doesn’t.  Yes, stories must make sense) to your back brain enough that you find yourself in a situation and you think “Oh, this is like so and so, in such and such story” are the best.

Pratchett had that touch.  Though he wrote fantasy set in what we know is an imaginary world, his stories resounded with truth more than the truth itself.  That more true than truth quality made him, to my mind, the best practitioner of our craft in recent years, and possibly we shall not see his like again in my lifetime.

And that, to me, is quality, and what should be getting the publicity benefit of awards: and thereby bringing new readers to the field.

The rest, politics, markers of “elite” all that are the games rich (or at least upper class) people play to convince themselves they’re above the common run of humans and that their taste is more elevated than ours.  (Aristos should think deeply of their desire to be elevated.)

As for us, we’re a rabble with keyboards, an undisciplined peasantry, who refuses to bow and doff our hats to their “superior” taste.  Because we’ve read it, and honestly, the tulip craze makes more sense.

We have a “quality” all our own.

Ça irá!

226 responses to “The Quality of Writing

  1. Jagi Lamplighter had an interesting series of posts on Superversive Blog where she interviewed a shrink friend who studied Jungian personality types, who was arguing that people had misunderstood Jung and hence Myers-Briggs.

    Anyhoo, the friend was trying to explain how anybody could like the kind of crap that currently wins Hugos and Nebulas. The problem was that although she could explain what the writers might have been trying to do, and I could picture liking a story along those same lines if it had been written and executed well… she actually found the crap stories in question “charming.” And they weren’t. I wasn’t really clear how “charming” could exist in the same zip code as those particular examples.

    People can argue about whether they like Tolkien or Dragonlance better, and I may disagree a lot with their taste but I will understand what they like. Aesthetic principles, genre, register of language, all that stuff is taste.

    We are getting to the point where there is nothing I can even understand as competent completion of a story, and yet the thing is praised. I realize this has happened before, but most of it is forgotten crap that doesn’t affect me.

    • Some people would find “If You Were A Dinosaur, My Love” charming as a perfect wish fulfillment.

      No, not the fantasy about the dinosaur. The perfect iconic hate crime with the perfect iconic perpetrators.

      • It’s when you suspect that the fantastical elements in the story are not one of authorial design, however quirky, but authorial ignorant incompetence. Now, when it comes to human nature, there’s an element of “people” (non-gengineered, not-aliens) “just don’t act that way” for values of one’s own local knowledge. I can (teeth-gritted) give authors a pass for this. I expect my lefty compeers in skiffy fandom to do the same (oh, stop laughing. It’s an “ought” not an “is”) for the stories I prefer.

        Where I draw the line is seedy red-necks swilling gin, and trying to save a gold-fish in lemon-lime soda. And that’s separate from the issue that skiffy fiction has demands of its own. You can write bad poetry that’s clicheed with a galloping clunky meter, and you can write bad sonnets that go acba in iambic hexameter.

        Or to put it another way: Goblin Emperor introduced Alien Society Pronoun and handled it consistently and in used it as a real spec fic story element. Ancillary Sword did not. I like the kind of story (we-have-met-the-aliens-and-they-are-us space opera) far more than I like emo-middle-aged-women-political-fantasy. But the latter was indubitably better written AND better SF.

        it’s not only a question of taste, but of a decision that elite tribal signaling trumps writerly craftsmanship.

  2. You missed a bit in that Miss Marple paraphrase:

    “Unpleasant people in unpleasant circumstances, doing unpleasant things, and not even apparently enjoying them very much.”

    In one book, at least, Miss Marple goes on to point out that in her day, all those “unpleasant things” tended to get labeled sin, but at least the sinners were having fun. The literary characters she was reading about seemed to be going through motions of thing because it was expected of them. Anyone who’s ever had to suffer through a painful, joyless sex scene in a modern “literary” novel where the writer is trying to be “edgy” knows what she’s talking about.

  3. Then there are racial groups, so factionalized that at some point we’re all going to become a race of one.

    Gee, I thought we were all one race already.
    The Human Race

    Unless A$$#ole is a race, then put me down as a racist (though many would describe me as such, I’m sure)

    • If Asshole is a race, then I’m entitled to some legal protections.

    • I took this the other way: that we’re going to have a race for each and every person.

      If this happens (and we seem to be going that way), we would come full circle, and might actually be able to realize the full impact of Ayn Rand’s statement, “The smallest minority on earth is the individual. Those who deny individual rights cannot claim to be defenders of minorities.”

  4. Your whole point about soft-pedaling the conditions of our forebears really hits home. I am doing an historical novel set in 12th century Japan. I have studied the culture, literature, and history extensively over the last 20 years. So, I am no novice when it comes to the period. I knew things were bad. After all, the median age was 28, and that wasn’t just because lots and lots of women died in childbirth. Still, I was utterly flabbergasted when I discovered that estimates place 70% to 80% of the population as suffering from beriberi. We can’t know for sure, but the same estimates predict that as much as 50% of the high mortality rate is attributable to this disease.

    We don’t even think about these aspects of earlier times. Of course, the lack of modern medicine is a no-brainer, but there is so much more than that. Sanitation facilities, diet, oral hygiene. All of these areas of life were deficient by our standards. Yet, all this gets whitewashed by authors. Of course, I do the same thing. I don’t really want to take the time to emphasize how bad things were because I am afraid that it will pull the reader out of the story, and it detracts from the other things I want to tell him. Still, it is something that we who write about historical times should really be cognizant of.

    David

    • The invention of agriculture traded a vastly reduced quality of diet for a much improved and predictable quantity of diet. And hence a much greater population of people able to reach breeding/fighting age.

      The fact that most counties have seen startling rises in average height over the last 50-100 years is a sign that (finally) the country’spopulation is able to feed itself properly

    • Feather Blade

      OTOH, if you are writing a novel set in the time, you don’t have to emphasize how horrible it was, because your characters, not knowing anything different, would see… well, not ~nothing~ wrong per se, but things just being the way things are.

    • Yes [excited]! Beri beri – lack of B1 – due to way too much polished rice in the diet. I read up on that when studying B1 and its use for some people with CFS.

      That would explain the cult of death – live quickly, buy into stereotypes, die young – because that’s going to happen anyway.

      Thanks for writing this.

  5. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

    For books (and loads of other “created” items), Quality implies standards.

    A Quality Computer Program can be judged by standards such as speed of operation, amount of errors generated, etc. Generally objective standards that you can measure.

    For non-fiction books, the objective standards can be accuracy, timeliness, etc.

    However, what are the objective standards for works of fiction?

    IMO there are no objective standards for fictional works and when people talk about Great SF/F, the Best SF/F, or Quality SF/F they are expressing an opinion.

    Which is why I prefer to say “I really enjoyed that Book” rather than say “That’s the Best Book Written”. [Smile]

    • Paul, You ask the question, “However, what are the objective standards for works of fiction?”, and like Pilate do not stay for an answer. I contend there are objective standards for fiction, although objective measurement may be much more difficult. If I can get some time and energy to spare I intend to write something up about that. Meanwhile consider Bonnie Hammer’s checklist. She was the person behind, Burn Notice, Royal Pains, and In Plain Sight when she was at USA network.

      To wit: “Today when considering scripts, Hammer and her team ask a routinized series of questions: Does the show have a fun sensibility? Does it have a “blue sky” tone of hopefulness? Does it revolve around an “aspirational,” if quirky, lead character with a moral and ethical center?”

      Not comprehensive of course, but those are elements that will likely not lead you astray.

      • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

        Perhaps it’s better to say that nobody agrees about “Standards for Quality Fiction”. [Smile]

        • Close enough, but I still intend to tilt at that windmill even if I’m putting in too many classical references :).

          • As anyone who reads me knows I have nothing against classical (or Shakespeare) references. I just think it’s a weird way to evaluate lit. Better than what we now have, mind.

            • My fiction writing career went on a 40 year hiatus to be resumed in a couple of years I hope. It’s a long and pitiful story about how somebody who grew up on Heinlein, Asimov, Zelazny, and Sturgeon found out that stories without the right messaging didn’t cut it with publishers in the 70’s. Something everybody here probably well understands. Right now it’s mostly business writing while I make a living trying to keep America safe.

              At the moment my wife’s the author in the family. See her stuff at http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=ntt_athr_dp_sr_1?_encoding=UTF8&field-author=S.T.%20Gaffney&search-alias=digital-text.

              • I found that out too, so I put in some “right messaging” which is proving a right bitch to edit out for the reissue. But even what I did wasn’t ENOUGH.

              • I hope you SAVED all the stuff that “didn’t cut it with publishers in the 70’s.”

                Now go out there, polish it a bit (in case you need to – do NOT over-improve and take the life out of it), and SELF-PUBLISH it.

                Those editors were wrong; and your writing probably has the power of discovery – get it out there. IMNVHO

                • I was talking to husband about that, and the 15 or so finished or almost finished novels in diskettes. Oh, sure they’ll need serious edits, but….

                  • Alicia, I do have it, but it’s short stories–that was supposed to be how you broke in to SF back then. A lot of the stuff still works, but some would need updating as current technology is slightly different from what I envisioned back in ’75. In any case I have my Amazon account, and intend to take advantage of it when I get the chance. Thank God for Amazon! I never did Baen because I had personal reasons for disliking its founder. I know I shouldn’t hold a grudge, but we humans can be like that.

                    • Most of my works are short, too. Remember to bundle them into collections for the economy minded reader — those seem to sell better.

      • Feather Blade

        Hm. That’s a good checklist, and explains why those shows are enjoyable to watch.

      • That’s probably what kept us watching things like Burn Notice – it matches our outlook. Moral and ethical center – what a concept.

        I don’t have TOO many classical references, or biblical ones, but I have a few – because that’s the way I view the world. I hope I find enough readers who are interested. That and characters who actually live with real world problems along with the rest of the stuff in their stories.

  6. A couple of quick thoughts

    1) Apropos “come the revolution he will have a job and food…”
    – Come the revolution, we’ll all drive Rolls Royces
    – But I don’t want to drive a Rolls Royce
    – Come the revolution you’ll do as you’re bloody well told

    2) And in re the cultural elites and their references, it is worth noting that PG Wodehouse’s books – particularly the Jeeves ones – have cultural references up the ying yang. They are an extra layer of humour that you only get if you recognize them and how they are generally being twisted, taken out of context or otherwise abused.

  7. That is, the story would be full of literary references, to either classical literature (a lot) or to various artists and writers which had become hallmarks of high culture.

    This reminds me of the character in the Belisarius series. I’m blanking on his name but he’s the blind giu in the late books who sent the dispatches that everyone fawned over. He got high marks in Grammer and rhetoric in part because of the number of classical (for that time) allusions he could drop into a passage.

    • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

      Calopodius. What’s interesting about the dispatches that he was famous for was that he left out the “classical references” for the ones he wrote for the common soldiers. [Smile]

    • The classical references only work if everyone of a particular class can be expected to have studied the same subjects, classical history and myth, and of course, Latin. The classical references and of course the references to biblical scholarship are class indicators more than anything else.

      • Cultural literacy is important.

        • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

          Yep.

          There was a conversation in Ringo’s Tavern about his (and a co-writer) Bolo book “The Road To Damascus”.

          I commented that the title was a “spoiler” for what happened in the book and some posters didn’t understand what I was talking about.

          They had no idea of what a “Road To Damascus” experience was.

          IE An Experience where a person realizes that they are “In The Wrong” and have to change sides/behavior.

          Apparently, it was too “religious” to mention in Public School. [Frown]

          • Blond_Engineer

            When asked at a job interview if I was willing to work weekends, I replied that I preferred not to, but that I understood if the ox was in the mire. I got confused looks and had to explain what I meant.

            • Free-range Oyster

              Made the mistake of allowing for that in an interview a couple of years ago. We were “short-handed” every weekend for almost a year, and when I finally put my foot down and said I wasn’t going to work Sundays any more (the pastor was about the only one at church who recognized me at that point) they took me off the schedule entirely. Never fired me; for all I know I’m still on the books there…

  8. c4c

  9. I have read “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair (long time passing, probably college, maybe HS). Yes, it seemed really bad, but those of that time obviously (by their numbers) preferred city life and factory jobs to farming. I can say they were wrong to do so, as anyone can, but not with conviction. They knew what they knew, and I know that I don’t know what they knew.

    I do know what I have liked, and that I’m likely to like what those authors also wrote and will write. I recently found Firefly on Direct TV, totally by accident, and am enjoying it as those who knew of it when it was new, did.
    Great fun. Fun is what I like.

    • In my latest book – (which is now on Kindle for pre-release order) I have two young women going to Newton, Kansas to be trained as waitresses in the Fred Harvey company in 1884. One of them is a sturdy young farm girl who is absolutely reveling in how much more pleasant, interesting and well-paid it is to work 12 hour shifts six days a week, waitressing (with room, board, work clothing, hot water, gas lighting, laundry service and, a travel pass on the railway) then working on the farm where she grew up.

      • Were you inspired by this famous urban legend?
        “Farm kid’s letter home describes life as a Marine”
        http://www.snopes.com/humor/letters/marines.asp

        • *giggle” No, although I knew of several variations of that letter…including an Aussie version.

        • FWIW, My mother remembers that men who served in WWII gained weight because they were eating better, and the marksmanship thing is close to the truth. Remember finding my father’s medal in a junk box because he didn’t consider it worth anything. It was just shooting. My nephews did pretty good not only at the range, but in survival training.

      • having helped stand up a mfg. facility in China where many of the people there are right now making the decision whether it is better to live as a subsistence farmer or move (or sneak) into the big city and live as a ‘menial’ factory worker… I got to see people making the same decisions again and I completely understand why. Most of the progressives who glorify Mother Nature grew up away from her and don’t know what a bitch she can be.

        • What time I spend on my uncle’s farm I spend mostly as a spectator and a guest, I watched the old folks doing stuff but they usually didn’t ask me to do much, even though even the little I sometimes did was, shall we say, somewhat illuminating (blisters…). But my three male cousins (much older, even the youngest of the brothers is close to ten years my senior) did work there when they were young, and from what little I have heard them talk about it they do NOT have fond memories (that was during late 50’s and early 60’s, and uncle hadn’t modernized so things were mostly done the same way they had been done since about the 20’s). 😀

    • the Jungle is part of what I was referring to. DO NOT BUY IT. A lot of it was bullsh*T with the purpose of promoting socialism.

    • One thing to remember about things like “The Jungle.” They were written to forward an agenda. In Sinclair’s case it was Socialism. Add to that to the fact that the stories Sinclair wrote about came from bar fuzz and from people who, just maybe, were willing to exaggerate for a good story to cadge a drink and you have to take “the Jungle” with more than a grain of salt. Look if things were really as bad as Sinclair says there would have been all sorts of food poisoning in Chicago, NYC and other cities. Try finding stories about that in contemporary newspapers.
      The same sort of thing goes on about all that stuff we hear about all those oppressed workers in the 19th Century. Almost all of which was written by people that didn’t actually talk to, spend time with, factory workers. or for that matter never actually visited the factories. Look, for most of the 19th Century the mills and factories were small and the owners, by and large worked in them. As did their families and relatives. Do you really think that you can get away with oppressing your relatives. To say nothing of the fact that labor was short as people quit and went off chasing the latest gold rush or whatever and things just don’t look like the oppression that the Progs like to tell us about.

      • BobtheRegisterredFool

        He was aiming for socialism. We got the Pure Food and Drug Act.

      • “Look if things were really as bad as Sinclair says there would have been all sorts of food poisoning in Chicago, NYC and other cities. Try finding stories about that in contemporary newspapers.”

        Food poisoning? With symptoms distinguishable from the cholera that came from a faulty sewer system, or exposure to horse shit? Or TB from crowded conditions and unpasteurized milk?

        Nowadays, food poisoning stands out from the background because it’s rare and the background is so low. Then? Not so much.

      • Well, you see, WE have the advantage of them. They believed in the perfectibility of man, or claimed to, and had never suffered under a socialist government. They could see evils in Capitalism, but were unable to foresee how bad a socialist government, with government power and force of arms and all the Best of Intentions (TM) no matter what the subject people thought, they being dumb brutes after all. We have the history of the 20th Century to learn from. They do, too, but conclude the leaders were not smart enough or were somehow prevented from “Doing It Right” by EVILE FORCES.

        • Reality Observer

          Honestly, I cannot give them that excuse. They had the example of post-revolutionary France right in front of them.

          • They had it, but they could not see it. Mark Twain, who was an early Progressive late in life, not only believed but helped to spread the demented idea that the Ancien Régime was worse, not only in the aggregate but day by day and year by year, than the Terror.

            • By that time he hated God and man both, thoroughly. From that perspective Twain wasn’t far wrong. Cixin Liu captured that mentality perfectly with Ye in Three Body problem.

          • When the Gods of the Marketplace had such promises?

            As I pass through my incarnations in every age and race,
            I make my proper prostrations to the Gods of the Market Place.
            Peering through reverent fingers I watch them flourish and fall,
            And the Gods of the Copybook Headings, I notice, outlast them all.

            We were living in trees when they met us. They showed us each in turn
            That Water would certainly wet us, as Fire would certainly burn:
            But we found them lacking in Uplift, Vision and Breadth of Mind,
            So we left them to teach the Gorillas while we followed the March of Mankind.

            We moved as the Spirit listed. They never altered their pace,
            Being neither cloud nor wind-borne like the Gods of the Market Place;
            But they always caught up with our progress, and presently word would come
            That a tribe had been wiped off its icefield, or the lights had gone out in Rome.

            With the Hopes that our World is built on they were utterly out of touch,
            They denied that the Moon was Stilton; they denied she was even Dutch;
            They denied that Wishes were Horses; they denied that a Pig had Wings;
            So we worshipped the Gods of the Market Who promised these beautiful things.

            When the Cambrian measures were forming, They promised perpetual peace.
            They swore, if we gave them our weapons, that the wars of the tribes would cease.
            But when we disarmed They sold us and delivered us bound to our foe,
            And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: “Stick to the Devil you know.”

            On the first Feminian Sandstones we were promised the Fuller Life
            (Which started by loving our neighbour and ended by loving his wife)
            Till our women had no more children and the men lost reason and faith,
            And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: “The Wages of Sin is Death.”

            In the Carboniferous Epoch we were promised abundance for all,
            By robbing selected Peter to pay for collective Paul;
            But, though we had plenty of money, there was nothing our money could buy,
            And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: “If you don’t work you die.”

            Then the Gods of the Market tumbled, and their smooth-tongued wizards withdrew
            And the hearts of the meanest were humbled and began to believe it was true
            That All is not Gold that Glitters, and Two and Two make Four —
            And the Gods of the Copybook Headings limped up to explain it once more.

            . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

            As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man —
            There are only four things certain since Social Progress began: —
            That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
            And the burnt Fool’s bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire;

            And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins
            When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins,
            As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,
            The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!

      • Look if things were really as bad as Sinclair says there would have been all sorts of food poisoning in Chicago, NYC and other cities. Try finding stories about that in contemporary newspapers.

        Go find a period book of household formulas. There you will see methods such as detecting adulterated foods and removing rubble from your city water. Even reading up on period industrial-scale soap making gives points on how to check that what you’re buying is the authentic article.

        Or read some old accounts of “skippers” in the meat. If you have to look it up, it’s best not to be eating at the time. Then consider how botulism got its name.

        • BobtheRegisterredFool

          Then there is all the stuff we now know is prohibitively toxic, that was used carelessly. Like Scheele (sp?) green baby things.

          • Lye, for example. My aunt used to make it, and then store it around in whatever container happened to be empty. I don’t know how common it actually was, but I was told scary stories of kids dying from drinking it accidentally (presumably to make sure I wouldn’t drink anything I hadn’t asked about of when I spend time on the farm, I started staying part of the summer there when I was about four and did go until sixteen). She wasn’t overly careful with things like rat poison either, and rat poison and similar stuff was needed because they didn’t have a fridge until the early 70’s, and even after that a lot of the food was kept in a cupboard next to the front door and all kinds of vermin did get there regularly.

        • There is a town in the ham-producing region of Virginia named Skippers for just those critters. According to my mother, some folks actually considered them a bit of a delicacy and actually sought out the infested hams. *shudders*.

          It’s also one of the worst places in the state for getting speeding tickets, as a poor town on the NC/VA border, where the speed limits drop suddenly, they figured out pretty quick that they’re an easy source of revenue.

    • Reality Observer

      The thing you have to remember about “The Jungle” is that Sinclair was deliberately writing about the worst case.

      Yes, they did happen to some of the immigrants – but only a very tiny fraction of them. (That does not mean their lives were days of roses and honey – just that the conditions for the vast majority were not the horrors that his “hero” went through.)

    • I grew up hoeing corn and dropping fertilizer by hand not because we didn’t have better, but because my father believed every boy should have to hoe corn and drop fertilizer. That was how it was done in my father’s childhood, and how it was done in Upton Sinclair’s era.

      It’s not fun. Neither is picking cotton or topping and cropping tobacco, or loading and unloading hay bales, or any of the other manual jobs. It’s hard, it’s hot, it’s cold, and it’s boring. Moderns have a hissy about anything that shows slaves singing in the fields, but they, and whites, did this and played word games because they were bored out of their skulls.

      Now, if you had your own land, it was boring but at least you had the opportunity to do better. It was harder if you were a tenant farmer, a man who had his own tools and mules but no land; and harder still if you were a sharecropper, who was essentially a laborer working for “shares” of the harvest. If you got caught by the company store, you’d never get ahead. Combine the effort involved in manual farming with the problems of not owning farmland, and taking a job in a factory is a better deal.

      • … singing in the fields …

        Another reason, besides boredom, is to establish a rhythm for the work. If you watch Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, there’s a scene where the peasants are planting rice, singing a very rhythmic song (with some people keeping time on percussion instruments), and the people planting the rice are doing so on the beat. Keeps them in sync with each other, and makes a tedious task slightly less tedious at the same time. Same reason why militaries the world over have marching songs: to establish a rhythm for the march, because when you have a rhythm you can keep up whatever you’re doing longer.

      • That’s because you didn’t have to keep your eyes peeled for the little brown asps that were the same color as the leaf litter on the ground. Nothing like watching your friend’s mom drop dead in front of you to sharpen one’s attention.

        If western tech and western civ really are tools of the patriarchy: opress me! Please.

  10. I read stories for entertainment and every blue moon a bit of catharsis. I don’t read for truth. If I want Eternal Truth I’ll read the Bible.

    • Didn’t mean that kind of truth. I mean reading more true to life than life. WHILE being fun, of course.

      • Athena Hera Sinestra is out there somewhere. I stopped reading a series when the characters did something that they wouldn’t do. There was no acknowledgement that what they were doing was wrong. Everyone was peachy about it. I thought about it and asked hubby about it and then got rid of all the books.The characters were true anymore.

  11. Reblogged this on The Arts Mechanical and commented:
    There’s really only one standard of quality in writing. Do enough people want to read it that it pays. All else is irrelevant.

  12. A bas la rue de la maisons des publicateurs! A les tumbrils avec les editeurs, les literateurs, les critiques, les poseurs! Liberte’, Egalite’, la chance pour les artistes vraiment de la gens!

  13. C’est vrai. “Mon Dieu! La! C’est tout gratis! Ne tirez pa! *whispers* Ma Marie, avons-nous gardons ce vieux drapeau?”

  14. Chien! Chat! Jambon! Hinky Dinky parlay voo!

    • Jambon , jambon , avez-vous entendu parler ?
      Où vous étiez ?
      Le tour du monde et je vais à nouveau
      Qu’est-ce que tu vas faire quand tu reviens ?
      Prenez un peu de marche par la voie ferrée

    • My French girl friend was true to me,
      Parlay –
      What? You mean I can’t sing that here? PG-13? Really?
      Okay.

      • Chevaliers de la Table Ronde
        Goutons voir si le vin est bon

        Goutons voir, oui, oui, oui
        Goutons voir, non, non, non
        Goutons voir si le vin est bon

        J’en boirai cinq ou sixe bouteilles
        Et encore ce n’est pas beaucoup
        chorus

        Quan’ Je meur, je veux qu’on m’enterre
        Dans une cave ou il y a du bon vin
        chorus

        Les deux pieds contre la muraille
        Et la tete sous le robinet !

  15. Don’t know if any of you were unlucky enough to see the recent ghastly film version of Sinclair’s “There Will Be Blood,” about a psychotic oilman destroying everyone around him, but if you need a filmstrip guide to “What Is Agitprop?” it works. Beloved of the critics, of course, and bombed in the theatres.

    • My biggest problem with “There Will Be Blood” was that there wasn’t any kind of consistent plot thread. We just saw a series of vignettes surrounding this one character with nothing really shown in the way of development. I enjoyed it, mostly because I got a kick out of watching Daniel Day Lewis slathering the scenery with A-1 and going to town. But I’m glad I didn’t spend any money on it.

      • My biggest problem was that the title gave away the ending.

        Actually, no. My problem was that the title gave away the only interesting part of the movie.

        • There was no PLOT! No conclusion or resolution (kind of like life – who wants to read life?).

          • Only when life is a part of something like a memoir with a neat ending, and then we are told how the protagonist got there (that is how I got married, became a writer, chose military career, became a successful horse jockey, started and grew a million dollar business, won the gold medal in Olympics and so on). When you use the neat culmination as the end figuring out, and then telling how somebody got there the whole thing can start to look like an actual story.

            • Give the readers who bothered to finish SOME reason why they won’t look back and have to make excuses to themselves.

              I am, obviously, not a fan of the ‘it happened so I should write it down’ school of ‘writing.’ To me, that it happened is only the first step. The thinking about what happened, the massaging into a message about life – which should be the impulse for writing in the first place – has to be there.

              Tell me why I should CARE.

              I think that’s what separates writers from wannabees, the ability to drive the point home.

  16. “More true than true” describes some things well. I once sent a CD or two by ‘Da Yoopers’ to a friend who was more aghast at the songs than amused by them. Yet for me, it was largely a case of, “I know people like that.” In fact, I recall Ma glaring at the radio with a look that ought to have melted it when she first heard Rusty Chevrolet and all but growling, “I drove that car!”

    I grew up in central/northern Wisconsin which is ‘close enough’ to the Upper Peninsula of MI that all the local references made sense and there was no language barrier. It does, however, weird out $HOUSEMATE (who grew up in Houston, TX) that in a severe (stay HOME, stay INSIDE) blizzard, I am wont to crank My Car Won’t Go.

    • I have a younger sister who now lives in the UP. She sent me a CD by Da Yoopers. Not to my taste, but I can see the humor. It falls into the same category I use for Redd Fox and Jerry Clower.

      • The band has changed members significantly over the years and I find the first two or three albums are the ones with the better ratio of good tunes to.. lesser entries. But yeah, it is likely very regional humor – and it might depend on how well off one is or was. If you didn’t spend some time driving junk, Rusty Chevrolet, for example, just sounds silly. For other it’s a “Yeah, been there” kind of thing.

        A fellow I knew some time ago complained that Dilbert wasn’t funny. But having had a job in engineering type setting at the time (No, this is not a “recovery.” A real recovery looks like 1985, not 2015. *grumble*) it wasn’t ‘funny ha-ha’ but a “You are not alone” sort of thing. There is a fair amount of truth in the claim “Dilbert is a documentary.” And yes, I do tend to think of salesmen as being as sleazy as portrayed – from bitter experience.

        • Argle bargle and a gasoline gargle, missed a tag after the song title.

        • One can not even guess how many employees have search their employer’s employee directory on the assumption that Adams HAD to work for the employer.

          (At the moment, utterly impossible. He left employment for full time Dilberting.

        • Salesweasel is one word… sort of like damyankee.

        • And some people don’t read SF and F. That’s what dilbert is, right?

          I’ve never been an engineer nor worked for corporate America but I find Dilbert hilarious.

        • Well, given the others I mentioned, I categorize it more as “shared experiences,” rather than “regional” humor, but there’s a lot of overlap. The CD I was given was a Christmas one – don’t know where that falls in their chronology.

          And, yes, Dilbert is often hilarious, and usually rings true. At my third job out of the Navy (around 1983-1985), we had a company cafeteria. The engineers were told that we couldn’t talk about anything technical during lunch after one salesman sold a customer some “this’ll be a product in about ten years” research he’d overheard two engineers discussing.

  17. Here’s the thing about “the nominees weren’t any good.” It cuts both ways. This year I expect the CHORFs to be blatant in their block-voting – to counteract the evil puppies block-voting, which ruins the Hugos – and unless the numbers change substantially over the year, they stand a good chance of sweeping the nominations. Of course, they have also established the precedent that voting “No Award” is an acceptable choice when nothing on the ballot is any good. If everything they nominate is of a caliber with Ancillary Noun, I have no problems with not having a Best Novel Hugo this year.

    • I fully expect Anita Sarkeesian to get nominated in at least three categories.

      • Free-range Oyster

        You know, there was a bit of fooforah over some SJW accusing those who sought a remedy for puppy-related sadness of being tools of the GamerGate crowd. It got a little attention in the GG Twitter discussion, but didn’t get much active response. If they nominate her, especially in multiple categories? You might see some serious GG involvement. *shrug* Or maybe not. I have enough trouble predicting the individuals I know well; thousands of individuals with no hierarchy or command structure mean all bets are off. Time will tell. For now, keep writing and reading and sharing. Oh, and keep your powder dry.

    • It was exactly the conclusion of others that “the nominees weren’t any good” that first inspired Sad Puppies.

  18. YES, quality over quantity in nearly everything, including literature. I buy Weber and Ringo and Pratchett (now gone, sadly too soon) and Modesitt Jr. and everyone else, not because they crank out a book a month but because they generate a GOOD (or even GREAT) book whenever they can.
    Ideally, I’d make more money so I can buy more books (and C-rations and so forth). However, I’ve been a desk jockey in the corporate armies before, and hated it; wifey remembers the paychecks fondly, but insanity is doing the same thing … so now I’m a 1099 contractor (liked your column on those, by the way) and trading income security for actually enjoying what I do. We’ll see if the reputation gets me more hours, which verifies the approach…
    Anyway, love your blog / posts / hopefully books soon; perhaps we have to learn to moderate the societal madness before things get better.

  19. And there is style.

    Because this made me think of “Style is the Rocket

  20. Those who write literary science fiction often deny it’s science fiction at all to get into the club. Which is a little pathetic and makes me think of people with black ancestry “passing” in the time of discrimination.

    Exactly. And as you point out, they’ll never really be accepted into the club.

    • But this time when they make the approved mouth noises and perform the mandatory obsequiations, they’ll totes be welcomed into the elite club of literary elites.

      Like the true believers explaining away the fall of the USSR and all the subsequent exposures of the massive systemic failures there, if they don’t believe “Those other times they did something wrong – this time if we do it right it will totally work” it would undermine their entire world view, and they would turn into Reagan voters, or Larry, or something.

      • And now I picture them as Bullwinkle, “Watch me pull a rabbit out of a hat.” And all us Rockys (and Rockettes?) keep telling them, “But that trick never works.” And soon they say they just need to get the right hat.

        But they don’t see us as Rocky, but more as Boris, which isn’t right at all. We’re simply not that mean/evil (I like to think that we’re above the mean, but that might just be an inflated ego) and certainly not that incompetent.

    • Christopher M. Chupik

      What annoys me especially is when literary types write SF which uses tropes as old as dirt and the mainstream critics praise them for how daring and original they are. Shows what they know.

  21. Most of the time, I’ve found “good” books to be rather boring (I’ve finally given up on Dickens, as he managed to make fishing a body out of the Thames boring), yet the enjoyable books make me think … just not in approved fashions. After finishing a Tanith Lee book today, I’ve been thinking about medical ethics, virtual reality, Pygmalion/My Fair Lady, Frankenstein/Ugly Duckling — nope, nothing too interesting here.

    • I like books that make you think, too.

    • Dickens is not usually to my taste, but I can see why people like him and why he got rich. (And dang, he wrote in every genre.) But he was not considered literary in his own day; he was a popular hack. He almost was forgotten and denigrated, but Chesterton brought him back to public notice practically by force of fanboy will.

      • He almost was forgotten and denigrated, but Chesterton brought him back to public notice practically by force of fanboy will.

        This is not true at all. Dickens was hated by the critics for a considerable time after his death, but he always remained popular with the public. George Orwell observes, somewhere or other, that there were several Dickens characters who were so well known that a music-hall comedian could impersonate any of them, and a working-class audience would instantly get the reference.

        What Chesterton did, at most, was to accelerate the process by which Dickens made the jump from pop culture to capital-L Literature.

    • A Tale of Two Cities is pretty good.

  22. Christopher M. Chupik

    And on the other side, you have folks like Damien who seem to think that the quality of a story’s prose is of greater importance than plot or character or enjoyment.

    • Like Chuck Wendig’s Star Wars tie-in novel?

      Haven’t read it, but I’ve heard people compare it to the Eye of Argon. Which tells me that he was trying really, really hard.

      • Eye of Argon had a decent core of a plot buried under the thesaurus, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Star Wars: Aftermath has a decent plot trying to get out from under the wibbling and wobbling TIE fighters. But I’ll never find out, because the author’s atrocious language has put me off reading it. (And the book’s atrocious language doesn’t help.)

        • Matthew L. Martin

          I read/skimmed Aftermath, and I was more annoyed by the small, petty and unpleasant tone of the story than the less-than-deathless prose. But then, I can count on my fingers the number of adult Star Wars novels I haven’t read, so my standards may be skewed in several ways. 🙂

          • Christopher M. Chupik

            Alas, Wendig is writing the whole trilogy. I’m sure we’ll be getting blamed for whatever befalls those books as well.

          • As Alan Dean Foster, Timothy Zahn, Pat Wrede and Greg Bear have all written Star Wars fanfic, sorry, tie-in novels that were quite entertaining, one wonders what the publishers were thinking.

            It will turn out to have been some species of CHORF tribalism no doubt.

      • You mean, “If You Were a Rancor, My Love?’

    • And are lying when they say that, or they would worship John C. Wright. The most important thing, as Pedo-Phil let escape, is the politics of the author. “Reading is the most inefficient way to determine the quality of a book.” Yeah.

      • “Reading is the most inefficient way to determine the quality of a book.”

        Whiskey Tango Photon-Torpedo?! What does he propose, gas chromatography? Beta radiographs? Listening to SJW’s opine on things they’ve never bothered to actually read?

          • As stupid as the first two are, at least they are ever so slightly less stupid than the last. Ouch.

              • From a comment on the link: This is the same guy who tried to argue that reading about how to do physical activity from a book was just as good as actual physical training. So, in his mind if he read a book on how to run a marathon he was just as good as a person who has actually run a marathon.

                Oog. I have an alleged coworker who seems to have the idea that if he sees what a solution is or might be, that’s enough and somebody else can/should actually do the physical activity of enacting it and producing the actual desired effect. My favorite reply to his nonsense is, “I’m not stopping you.” He doesn’t like it, but too damn bad. He doesn’t get to weasel out of the job he’s supposed to be doing – try though he might.

            • Comrade, at this rate, we will have to take away your membership in the Union of Soviet Writers!

            • No, ouch is when he gets the sideways f*cking with a frozen swordfish he’s begging for.

              Stupid on that level should be painful, and I have a long list of ideas….

        • figuring out the author’s stands on things, and you know, if the author is a downtrodden minority. No, seriously. He said that. Someone got screen shots. I’ll try to remember to link it when I’m at the other computer.

      • What infuriates me is that, in fact, they did. The man had a cover spread on Locus. One can find laudatory reviews by some of the same people for (IIRC) in one case the SAME book… Back when he was a bombastic evangelical atheist.

        Before he converted to Catholocism, was outed for having WrongThink, and – most critically – before Puppy-kickers needed an excuse to disqualify some of the best short fiction of 2014.

  23. …is not strained. It dropeth on the earth like a gentle rain.

    • Get out of my head 😀 I was trying SO HARD to be good, and now you’ve done it…

      • The Other Sean

        I managed to resist, too. For once, I did not pun. It was so hard, almost physically painful, but I was good.

    • Except when it goes “splat” and sort of quivers apologetically before dissolving into a puff of remaindered dust, to be blown here and there by the winds of fate or whimsy until it disappears into the great mercy known as “the deleted files bin.” Unless by some off chance a gust of academic mischief lifts the flattened bits and wafts them into a classroom, to be studied until the last hint of what might have been life drains away under the weight of a ton of theses.

      Um, yeah, it is past my bedtime. Why?

      • Unless by some off chance a gust of academic mischief lifts the flattened bits and wafts them into a classroom, to be studied until the last hint of what might have been life drains away under the weight of a ton of theses.

        Oh yes.

        I think there are too many people in academics who are twisted to go looking for any mangeled scrap of refuge to proclaim and place under analysis — either out of desperation at finding some new ground or out of pursuit of some cockamamie ideology.

      • I’ve had to shovel theses for a living. Unpleasant, malodorous, unsanitary…. Ohhhhh, you said theses.

        Much worse.

        • I suspect if I were both force-fed and also overdosed with laxatives, I still would not produce nearly as much BS as some literary (litter-ary?) or “academic” types. I do NOT wish to run this experiment, thanks.

  24. Just to pile on regarding farming vs factory. My friends who decry China’s labor policies the most all have iPhones and imagine that the workers are slaves. Somehow they can’t imagine that people could choose crappy factory work over crushing subsistence farming. To be fair, I dont think they know what farming really is. I’m trying to get my property ready for a 3-4 acre garden and its brutal work and I have all the toys my ancestors couldn’t dream of. If I was some Chinese (or early 19th century American farmer) I cam see why they flocked to the factories, it really is a better life for them and their families. I really don’t understand why this is so hard for lefties to understand.

    • I really don’t understand why this is so hard for lefties to understand.

      Probably because they have never done actual manual labour, or lived in actual poverty, or even lived in close quarters with people who had to do either of those things. The only suffering they are personally acquainted with is Angst and Weltschmerz, and so they think that’s the worst there is. And they know that they would just die if they had to work in a factory instead of having Angst and Weltschmerz.

      • See the early scenes in Star Trek: Insurrection of a pretty rural village where the kids play in the haystacks and the adults wander around “making the most of every moment” while doing a little light gardening. I suspect that more than a few Leftists believe that’s what subsistence farming actually is.

    • My friends who decry China’s labor policies the most all have iPhones and imagine that the workers are slaves.

      And yet they buy the phones anyway, thus yet again proving what incredible hypocrites and all-around douchebags they are.

      “My phone is made by slave labor… but look at all the features it has!” 😛

      • Christopher M. Chupik

        That’s okay. They’ll use their slave phones to start a Twitter hashtag to show how concerned they are for the workers plight.

        • Yep, right after they tweet about how they’re attacking “rich capitalists” with the “#OccupyWallStreet” tag.

          (Long ago, I commented on many OWSers using iWhatevers, wearing designer jeans, and so forth, and one replied on how they needed their phone to communicate their protesting. Unfortunately I wasn’t “on the ball” at the time, or else I would have asked what was MLK’s twitter name, what was the Livejournal handle for Rosa Parks, or the FB group for the young black men performing sit-ins at segregated lunch counters. I imagine the silence would’ve been deafening.)

  25. — “quality” fiction is that which portrays humans with such accuracy the characters impress you as people you know and the stories become part of you almost as if you’d lived through them. —

    I have never before put it that well, nor have I heard it put that well by anyone else. Bravo!

  26. Don’t know about quality, but the draft of the third WWI/Interwar novel is done!

    Now back to the equally cheerful topic of the General Crisis of the 17th Century . . .