Amazon Adopts GoodReads: “Never Go Against the Family, Fredo.”


By Shawn Stjean

An old bestselling book, from the 1970s, featured a hand controlling marionette strings in its logo, indicating how manipulation becomes second nature to those in power.  I’d like to offer an image that accords better with today’s book news.  For those of you whose talents lie more in visual analysis than in literary, look abstractly at the photo-logo above–ask yourself, what other series of upright oblongs, when stacked in series, topples easily with the right application of very little energy? (answers at bottom)

For us self-appointed oversight-eers, keeping an eye on the A-to-Z monopoly  has become something of a full-time hobby.  They’ve done self-published writers a lot of good with their CreateSpace program, and their big (and free-to-enter) Breakthrough Novel Award contest is currently underway, though the jury is still out on whether the KDP Select program is a boon for exposure of obscure authors, or a cheap parlor-trick designed to put Smashwords, Kobo, and Barnes & Noble out of business, by locking up the new talent into an exclusivity contract for months at a time (see more on the pitfalls here and here).

And now they’ve added GoodReads to the “family,” as GR co-founder Otis Chandler put it in this announcement on their blog.  Immediate reactions (only within the last few hours) from the membership have been mixed, to put it mildy.  They range from a sense of outrage and betrayal, to genuine enthusiasm. Many of the concerns mention money as the primary motivation behind such a merger, and echo the sentiment that Amazon has become too big, grasping for anything and everything it can chew and swallow.  Others are comparing AZ to Wal-Mart, and still others wonder what will become of AZ’s own Shelfari.  So what will this mean for the “Good Guys'” mammoth independent sharing site many of us have loved for years now?  Will AZ influence the reviews on GR, now that their interference in their own reviews, taking thousands off their site arbitrarily and without explanation, has become legend among authors?  Will GR become a venue for sales that profit the corporate bean-counters?  Will the planned integration of GR with the proprietary Kindle platform mean some books will become “more available,” “better-rated,” or suddenly more popular than others?  Will the Listopia voting scheme be affected?

It’s hard not to be happy for Otis and Elizabeth, if they are indeed doing well out of this deal.  Capitalism pays off the smart and good folks who’ve worked hard sometimes, as well as the ruthless and backstabbing pirates (when you link to their photo, you’ll agree its not possible to cast them in the latter role). I’m going to assume that what they’re claiming is true: that they think this will improve the experience for the membership.

Personally, as a small publisher/indie author, I’ve felt safer with GR out there before today, as if there still weren’t an offer AZ could make that I couldn’t refuse.  Havens still exist, of course: Lightning Source, for one, though they don’t host e-books.  Problem is, those that do are not in the strongest position: Barnes & Noble’s Nook series of electronic readers, though a stellar bunch of devices, is looking like a financial e-albatross.  Smashwords is already in bed with Amazon, too.  Don’t even bring up the audiobook market.

“Divide and Conquer”–the old strategy has turned itself inside-out, has transmogrified into “Combine and Conquer.”

Is it time yet to go to the mattresses? (if that film reference isn’t familiar, you might be able to just catch The Godfather on Netflix, before Amazon absorbs that, too.



Sweat Always Rises to the Top: The (Not So) Strange Case of Halestorm


By Shawn Stjean

We all balance the everyday need–and when I say need, I mean, it’s as vital as oxygen, man–for internal satisfaction, with the fantasy/desire for external validation, which is more like Strychnine: anything more than a small, stimulating dose can kill you pretty quick.

If you were to survey the vast majority of young artists of any stripe out there, pining for their big breaks, which factor is the most important aspect for success, what would be their answer?  Raw Talent?  Promotional Genius?  Connections?  A Lucky Lightning Strike?  Synchronicity with the Stars?

Undoubtedly, each these things plays their role.

Now ask the older–more experienced and supposedly wiser (which often only means having failed longer,) folks–do they know any better?  There is some reason to suspect they do, because they may have discovered that, for the vast teeming mass of creative people, success comes by degrees, in the slow unfolding of years, and through the undervalued virtues of consistency (showing up, on time, always, and doing your work) and continuity (your work holds to a vision that lasts, a vision that includes constant improvement).  That would make Perseverance, for most of us (unlike the “lucky” ones,) the master value.

If the work achieves both quality and quantity (stories, paintings, songs, poems, and so on,) how can it fail to eventually get noticed?  And does this means you’re bound for glory and riches?  Not necessarily–you may be living off your losses, for all of your life.  But that’s still living–doing what feeds your soul–which, when you think hard about it, is a damn sight better than many people ever come close to.

Take Pennsylvania-rural rock band Halestorm, anchored by siblings Elizabeth and Arejay Hale.  They’ve been playing since they were ‘tweens, living out the fantasy of millions of American kids who have said, “Let’s start a band.”  Talk about launching young–their Dad, Roger, originally played bass for them!

And they didn’t just start it.  Fifteen years later, outside their loyal fan base, many still haven’t embraced them–just yet–even with the Grammy win for their single “Love Bites (So Do I)”.  Lzzy is the first woman to stage a Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance category coup.  All this while touring at the rate of 200+ live shows per year.  Hard Rock?–how about Hard Work?  But I personally discovered them, as many will, the old fashioned way–scanning my local radio stations, when “Freak Like Me,” arrested my spinning of the dial.  No word of mouth, no posters or TV shows (okay, so I’m an older guy and not as in-touch with the music scene as I once was, and I missed them on late night circuit.  The Leno, Fallon, and Kimmel performances span several years–not exactly a press junket.)  But now that I do know, they’ve got me for life–I’m very loyal.  What does that tell you?  Diversify.  Get that EP, charcoal drawing, audio book, your signatures and footprints, out there in every place that will bear the content.   Remember, there was a time–not very long ago, in the grand scheme–when nobody had heard of Evanescence, E.L.Doctorow, or Joss Whedon.

Metal isn’t for everyone, so if the video link below isn’t to your taste, let me try to explain the appeal: aside from a return to the rebellious spirit, energy and edge like a scalpel, and imaginative lyrics that many of us have seen all-too-seldom in the mainstream, over the past two decades–the legacies of groups like Dio, Blue Oyster Cult, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest–the bass-heaviness and guitar-string-straining that define the performances is elevated by Lzzy’s voice, the kind you won’t find being lip-synced at the SuperBowl, the range of which she controls from softly crystalline, to ragged and frighteningly close to cracking the windshield.  This is high-decibel stuff, so dust off the old Carver amp and Cerwin-Vegas stashed in the attic, not that Ipod dock with its sub-par-girlie-woofer.

Everyone with a favorite band–and who doesn’t have 3 or 4 of them?–knows that it’s not the pop singles that enjoy a few months’ airplay that endure (like “Love Bites?”), but the B-sides from the depths of the albums, known only to those who bought it or saw the show, and took the time to dive to the bottom.  The Strange Case of. . ., (nice allusion to Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde,) Halestorm‘s second studio album, used only about 1/3 of the songs composed in preparation for it.  To me, that speaks to a commitment to excellence.  Let me share just a few resonant lines from “Daughters of Darkness”:

We’re all survivors somehow
We just broke out the pack
And I don’t need no dog-tag
My name is on my back

We can turn you on, or we can turn on you…

Daughters of darkness, sisters insane
A little evil goes a long, long way
We stand together
No, we’re not afraid
We’ll live forever
Daughters of darkness
Daughters of darkness

So what does this rock-and-roll-rebirth tale have to tell us other artist-types, say, in the Authorship biz?  Hey, the same balls-out, back-to-our-roots barbarism applies.  We all admired creators who put it on the line, and left nothing in the tank at the end of each performance, whether it be a slam poem, short story, chapter, or novel.  If the passion is preserved, and craft carefully matured, and you DON’T SELL OUT–the fame and fortune will take care of themselves.

As for Halestorm, Thanks to You for helping keep us all young. . .

Official Site:



They Will Not Thanks Us—Generation Y Can’t Stay in School Forever


By Shawn Stjean

When is the last time your kid genuinely thanked you for the drive to school/a friend’s house/a social or sporting event/part-time job? Because if he or she is not thanking you now, it sure won’t happen later, when the mini-van trips are all over.

In general, millennials of the so-called “middle class” are deprived of the rituals of youth in America, which toughened previous generations.  The school bus stops these days at every house for a pickup, rather having little Dylan make the trek of a block or two to a common bus-stop, where swaggered actual (not cyber-) bullies, cranky at their own failure to get/maintain their own set of wheels, and willing to take it out on whomever looked vulnerable.  They were teachers too, in their way–they modeled bad behavior, taught who we didn’t want to be, and the price of admission was their company.

And when the bus actually arrives at school, today’s lads and lasses dismount only to board a vicious cycle dressed up as a merry-go-round, and underneath, the corroding machinery works something like this: the administrators inherit a shrinking budget less-and-less reflective of our society valuing education, which leads to “differentiated learning,” (the semi-literate bully might appear next to you in class now, rather than being tracked into a room with other low-functioning brutes.)  They’ve got bigger class sizes, less homework, shorter readings–or maybe no readings at all, because the teacher is reading the book aloud, leaving many free to stare out the window.  She’s got challenges of her own, because when the phone on the wall rings, or someone runs the old “I gotta go pee” ploy, or a girl who’s been out for eight weeks with mono needs catching up, or the e-mail light blinks constantly with parents demanding to know why Brittany–a real treat to have around–isn’t getting her “A”. . .well, then, old Teach just has to soak it up.  Nothing three glasses of a middling Chardonnay after 4 pm won’t help her repress, until she burns out on weekend grading, while never finding time on Sunday for better lesson plans, meanwhile absorbing pressure to “keep standards high” while somehow not flunking anyone.  She doesn’t even have the power to throw Christian a detention anymore, as he whips a pencil and happens to catch Peter (a boy with a diagnosed and legitimate learning disorder, who used to have an IEP, but they’re much harder to get this year) in the ear, drawing extended screams, but no blood.  So the flinger gets written up for it, twenty minutes of class time get wasted, and the administrator gets to try another case of “The Lesser of Two Evils.”  Will his parents support a suspension, or at least a series of DTs, and ground him during his tenure at home, or will they take his word that he didn’t mean it, and pressure the school to keep him on because he’s already behind? (that trip to Florida between the winter and spring breaks probably didn’t help.)  And to give them their due, they’re both working, and ultimately Christian can’t be trusted home by himself–he’s got an undiagnosed case of painkiller addiction, and chronic pain-in-the-ass.  So the Big Wheel of administrator-parent-teacher creakily slows down long enough for the lad to jump back on, and keeps on turnin’.

How did this get to be the way we all roll?  It’s easy enough for the principal to blame the economy, the parents this generation of poorly trained teachers, and the teachers a non-supportive administration.  It’s a Mexican stand-off now, not a carnival ride.  So does it really matter–or is the real issue what we’re going to do about it?  Start blasting, and hope to be the least-unlucky-hombre in this tepid triumvirate, or lower our weapons long enough to see where the real loser has skulked off to?

The kid doesn’t have the vocabulary, so he doesn’t know the operative word–complicity–but he does know the concept. He understands, deep down, that he’s not exactly doing his best, either–and why should he?  Every time he lowers the bar a notch, someone unaccountably offers him a boost to get over it, and it’s not long before he’s looking down at the floor for the standards and expectations everyone’s paying lip-service to.  Terms like Excellence, Achievement, Breadth and Depth, Pride–they mean only so much to a fella who can’t remember his girlfriend’s phone number, despite texting her 22 times a day, because it’s saved in his Contacts.  Hell, he doesn’t remember his own number.

Oh, the computers play their part, too.  Because when you cut three-and-a-half teaching positions, but acquire three hundred touchscreen terminals in the same five-year period (hoping the community won’t notice the former, as they ooh-and-ahh over the latter,) well, you better use the things.  The students will need the keyboarding practice, anyway, in an age where “all thumbs” is actually a skill, and half the jobs they’ll be qualified for involve this new form of coal-mining: checking people out as they run up their credit cards for new possessions, big and small, new services, needed and unneeded.  Unless there’s a bar-code reader at the counter.

Oh, not my Chelsea!, I can hear some of you declaring.  She’s going straight to college to become a professional!  What kind, I’m wondering?  Well, we haven’t figured that out yet.  But she’s going–this Fall.  No break.  Of course she hasn’t thought up a major to declare, because she’s had enough of school–she really has–and instead of wasting her parents’ second mortgage or retirement funds, she ought to be out there–in a crummy apartment with leaky pipes, taking public transportation to work, eating substandard food, yet still living life here in America with free speech to complain, fresh water to drink, and rights many people in the world can only dream of.  It’s those years of deprivation, out from under one’s guardians, that make young folks appreciate the rest of it.  And it shouldn’t take a war that decimates both their generation, and the population of another nation with a different skin color, religion, or economic ideology from our own, to evoke that appreciation.

Now in the old days, she could work her way through a series of jobs, eventually gain a toehold and some maturity through making her own mistakes and creating her own triumphs, meet a partner, start a family of her own.  Not anymore, and again, you can only take the “blame the economy” game so far.

See, instead, she’s persuaded to take a different path, to endure 4-6 more years of “higher education,” with ample Spring, Summer, and Winter Breaks, but no real relief.  She changes majors three times and the actual college twice, meanwhile signing over student loans–in addition to Mom and Dad’s contribution–that will keep her in payments until she’s 55.  And those payments, depending on where she went to school, will take a lot of choices out of her hands along the way.  Now she has to take work as somebody’s “administrative assistant,” (Heaven forbid we call a secretary a secretary!,) even though she’s come a long way in the Brains department, and she’s pushing 30 now.  Because the Bachelor’s degree she cobbled together in between partying is about worthless in the job market of 2020, and the Master’s she’d like to earn at night will cast 100 grand, and she’s not sure about the gamble.

Somewhere in here, in between dropping her divorce papers in the e-slot (lawyers are still doing well, but the USPS is defunct) and feedings of her three-year-old, Chelsea gets upset.  Really upset.  And by now, she’s self-aware enough to realize she’s not just sad, or lonely, or menstruating–she’s angry.  Pissed.

Why?  She’s had every advantage.  So many, in fact, that she never had to go to summer school to make up that gym class she blew off nine times in tenth grade, never had to repeat the eighth grade even though the “D”s she got in three classes were as munificent as the gifts of the Magi, never got suspended for calling her sixth grade teacher a “bitch” right to her face–Mom got her counseling instead.  Never got called on showing up in class high, never did most of what little reading and homework was asked of her, never had to walk home after school.  Never had to count cell-phone minutes or texts (or pay the bill for them,) never had her allowance withheld, never had to stay home from a prom, never picked up a check (eating out-food 2-3 times a week).

So, again, why the anger?  Because, plain and simple, everything she was supposed to learn before she was twenty, under relatively easy and supervised conditions–from how to track a bank account, to how to sew, write a business letter, read a tax rule, do a real job interview, and apologize sincerely when she’s wrong–she’s now having to learn herself, a decade late, the hard way.  It’s always the hard way, now, because if she can’t do it, someone else with more degrees, fewer recent scars, and who is still young enough to live with her parents (28 or so,) will do it instead.

She missed out on the one advantage that can’t be bought, substituted, calculated, synthesized, or replicated: she never had to choose.  Because choosing always means losing something, leaving something behind, and valuing the other thing enough to sacrifice for it.  Instead, she was fed fat on the absurd idea that every previous generation of human beings on the planet was weaned off, in childhood: that you can’t have everything.

Forgive us, kids, we felt guilty.  ‘Cuz we f—–d things up for you, and we knew it.  We knew the coming world was tough, tougher than we’d ever had to survive ourselves, and in meaning well we hoped to insulate you from the worst.  And somehow the worst just became the bad, and the bad the uncomfortable, and the uncomfortable the inconvenient.

Too bad–ol’ Chelsea could’ve done alright for herself.  A few bumps and bruises aside.  They would have saved deeper cuts, later on.

So if your youngster is thanking you for that ride now, (you’ve raised her to at least be polite,) enjoy it–it won’t last.  We knew it back when we were young (there was a T-shirt, remember?) No one rides for free.


The Con of the Coin: Shouldn’t Batman Go Independent?



By Shawn Stjean

One of the unsung virtues of independent film is that, as miraculous as any production seeing the light of day is in the first place, they rarely suffer from the Hollywood strain of sequel-itis.  Thankfully.  It seems that barely two, let alone three or more, entries into a successful franchise can bear the weight of sustained storytelling.  Give a series enough rope, and it will begin to show inherent contradictions, and self-deconstruct.  For the sake of coherence, I’ll confine myself mostly to the most fully realized of the three 21st century Batman films, The Dark Knight, while referring obliquely to its excellent predecessor, Batman Begins, and its pale follow-up, The Dark Knight Rises.  Together, a half-billion dollar story to make.

Since Batman’s first appearance in comics in 1938, readers have grown accustomed to a self-made hero, one who traveled the Earth learning from the best instructors, honing his body to Olympic-athletic condition, and his mind to that of a world-class detective.  In stark contrast to Superman, then, the Caped Crusader’s thematic popularity consists in the realization of the everyday potential of normal human beings. In the conclusion of the recent film trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) loses his position, his fortune, his butler and friend, and for a time, even the use of his body.  But, it doesn’t matter to police commissioner Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman,) because of the symbolism: “anyone could be Batman.”  However, this sentiment runs counter to nearly all the major signs in the previous films–as Carmine Falcone rightly put it, Bruce Wayne is “the Prince of Gotham.” Christopher Nolan does not present us, visually or narratively, with a democratic hero.  Contrarily, this Batman is truly a feudal knight, in that he’s not only the inheritor of a seemingly endless fortune, but, like the military itself in any age, he relies far more on technology and its exclusivity than on human ability.  His adversaries (villains) are less fortunate.  In fact, THE THREE MAIN CHARACTERS OF THE DARK KNIGHT FALL ON A CONTINUUM OF GOOD TO BAD BASED ON THE LEVEL OF THEIR INVESTMENT IN THE WHITE, CAPITALIST SYSTEM.  The richer, the better; the less material wealth, the greater the evil.

Beginning with the hero himself, among Batman’s other problems, he must contend with vigilantes inspired by his own image, but without his vast resources for support.  They masquerade and attempt to bash criminals in home-made versions of his high-tech body armor (developed at Wayne Enterprises from scratch—a very conservative estimate might put this suit, rubberized muscles and all, at one-hundred thousand dollars.)  When the real McCoy rescues one of them and warns him to stop, the humiliated imitator angrily demands “What gives you the right?”  Batman’s reply: “I’m not wearing hockey pads.”  Two resonant lines of dialogue, which might paraphrase: “If you’re not privileged with a Batmobile, Batcomputer, and a combat-surgeon-turned-butler for a nurse, your only right is to be safely escorted to your day job.”  In a world where we can suspend our disbelief over the constant jumping off rooftops, Batman’s later, willing destruction of his own bat-radar system to satisfy the ethical demands of Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman,) a priceless and unique invention which merely invades the privacy of citizens on cell-phones, is among the most unbelievable premises we are asked to consume.

Next, the film conjures and disposes of a half-dozen minor villains, not coincidentally all minorities/of ethnic descent: Gambol, a black gangster-type; Lau, a Chinese mathematics wiz; Maroni, an Italian Mafioso; and the Scarecrow, a homosexual readily identified by visual cues.   This leaves the struggle for power in Gotham City to be fought exclusively among white patriarchs.  Harvey Dent, a conspicuous (“White Knight”) if unpedigreed double for Bruce Wayne, has half his body burned by the Joker, and thereafter adopts a two-headed coin, scarred on one side, to decide whether to support good or evil in any case.  The suggestion here is that money is morally neutral, depending on its use for its value.  This is, in fact, a luxurious position.  To quote Oliver Stone’s black corporal, King, from Platoon, “You gotta be rich in the first place to think like that.”  Director/Writer Nolan insists Dent suffer a more tragic demise than the other rogues: a clean-cut, politically ambitious, right-wing, upper-middle class WASP, he deserves better.  What a waste that, because of partial immolation, he should turn his back on a career as agent for law-and-order.

And lastly, the poor folks.  How did such an anarchist as the Joker (Heath Ledger) come to be?  He explains to Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) that his wife had been attacked and her face disfigured: “We got no money for operations,” so the husband mutilated himself  in sympathy.  Rejected in horror because of his inability to provide the conventional solution of plastic reconstructive surgery, he turns to destruction (“Dynamite is cheap,”) and crimes like extorting the mob–“If you’re good at something, never do it for free.”  But he does do it for free, and the glee.  If Batman stands for defense of the established order, the maintenance of the status quo, the Joker stands–archetypally, and in this film–for chaos and the rejection of systems.  He amasses his loot into a Marxian unfinished pyramid—the apex missing  (a figure familiar to film buffs from Blade Runner, and which represents the base power structure of working proletariat supporting the upper classes by their labor, further oppressed by the military, church and schools, and the government) which he proceeds to burn down, to the horror of the assembled spectators.  Once captured, the police find no labels in his clothes (no Armani or Gucci or even Bill Blass as Bruce Wayne would own.)  He’d apparently like to hide his true identity, but he’s also refusing to support the marketplace—very un-American.  And as a white man whose face has been reinscribed in bleached “whiteface,” (thus only “playing” white,) his “evil” seems very non-specific: the robbing of banks and demolition of a hospital, not to mention murder—none of these is as bad as his betrayal of capitalism.

As for the later sequel, neither Ra’s al Ghul, Thalia, nor Bane shows any interest in established wealth–when not pursuing utter chaos and destruction, they redistribute property and power to the lower classes.  This third entry redresses the subtextual racism of its predecessor, but amplifies the classism: Socialism=Evil (and false socialism=even worse.)  Catwoman (Anne Hathaway, who issues Bruce a dark, Marxist warning about “liv[ing] so large, and leav[ing] so little for the rest of us,” seems more interested in stealing a new identity and start for herself, which she eventually gets—again, by accepting proprietary Wayne Enterprises tech–and becoming Bruce’s traveling companion, essentially “selling out.”

The three films not-so-subtly endorse the values of consumer capitalism by casting their hero in the role of billionaire by day, and. . .what do you know?, billionaire by night.  This Batman is the sum of his parts: the toys, the cave, the computers, the vehicles.  His most worthy adversary, a working class victim of an industrial accident incarnated as a grotesque clown, by his refusal to buy into bourgeois principles even with unlimited wealth in his grasp, is written off by everyone as insane.  After all, who would burn a giant stack of money but a madman?

Because indie films, like the productions of self-published authors and unsupported artists of all types, are not themselves “sold out” to the formulas and packaging of the marketplace, they can “afford” not to promote the dominant cultural values it patronizes.  Meanwhile, Hollywood, always quick to imitate its own success, and with no public outrage or boycott of $10 seat prices, exacerbated by the intermixture of TV-type commercials with its theater trailers, continues to chronicle for us the adventures of another billionaire industrialist: Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man, who got his start as a crusader against stereotypical Arab terrorists.



2013 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award–500 Move on to QuarterFinals

by Shawn StjeanImage

Apologies, I know this is last year’s graphic.

LINK to remaining competitors:

The 25 Semi-Finalists will be announced on April 16. This is an exciting contest to follow, as it: 1) helps keep Indie Writing in the public eye,  2) it will presumably throw a lot of light on to previously obscure writers who advance, and 3) (unlike many other “contests,”) it’s free to enter–thus very democratic!  This is more important than many realize, as the profits on unknown books can be so modest, that their creators will decline any form of promotion that bites into those profits–(for example, one would have to sell 10 copies of a $2.99 e-book to break even on a $20 contest entry.)  So the ABNA is kind of the U.S. Open for Authors.  Congratulations to all moving on, and also to everyone who entered and put themselves out there!

Keep Cultural Literacy Alive!

Issues for Indie Authors: The Flexibility of Women Readers


By Shawn Stjean

I’ve been teaching literature and critical reading/writing at the University level for twenty years, and one thing seems clear to me on the subject of gender: girls are much more open-minded about what they read, view, and listen to, than boys.  This is partially due to necessity: most of the writing, and art in general, in our Western culture is historically androcentric, or “male-centric,” if you will.  And I’m not just talking about non-neutral gender phrasing, disingenuously assuming “he” is the proper universal pronoun.  I’m really thinking of male modes of discourse and storytelling legitimized by default, and women’s marginalized by default, as “chick-lit/flicks,” “melodrama,”  “sensationalism” (or worse.)

One of the more complex and rewarding texts I’ve used repeatedly is Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 masterpiece Apocalypse Now.  Literary and pseudo-historical in a way that anticipates much of the film of the past 30 years, I use it to encapsulate many of the most enduring truths of the American experience of the Vietnam era—though lately I’ve preferred Oliver Stone’s biopic of Le Ly Hayslip, Heaven and Earth (1993.)   But not because anyone can’t hack Coppola’s opus.  The violence, torture, gore, depraved indifference to human life, the appalling ignorance of the invaders to the culture of indigenous peoples—none of these has ever disturbed a female student enough to voice an objection.  Of course, the brilliant narrative, sound, characters, and visual spectacle more than compensate for the discomfort of viewing AN.

In stark contrast, when I assign a modest amount of material by or about women—Chopin’s The Awakening for example, and of course, Heaven and Earth, are both gems—the male students often exhibit ill-concealed contempt, and (at least passively) decline to engage.  This rigid refusal—not inability—of males to adapt to anything resembling a feminine text, seems to come at such an early age in our ultra-competitive, aggressive society, that by the ‘tweens, it can only be reversed through a slow and relentless process of reeducation of the few willing volunteers.

Women readers—or cultural consumers, if we expand to include visual and aural media—can’t afford to overlook the vast bulk of material out there that is ill-designed for them: action movies, sports programs, adolescent sex-comedies for all ages, home-improvement programs, horror, westerns, sci-fi, heavy music of all kinds.  And it should go without saying that not all women enjoy the celebrity showcases, the cooking, dance, and craft shows, and soap operas designed for them.  So what’s left?

My point is that, if a writer—male or female—wishes to reach a wide audience, then rather than follow suit with the dominant culture, it might be wiser to plan and compose with an audience of women in mind, thereby creating a product that women don’t have to adapt to—or at least bend and stretch so far to enjoy, or pretend to.

Some possibilities:

–refuse to use women characters as throwaway items: victims, prostitutes, weak-minded girlfriends, evil harpies.  Conversely, if deciding to use a female lead, consider that there are many types of strong women whose strength is not defined primarily (or exclusively) by sexuality—we have enough Circe types out there!

–envision the interior life of women characters (we often get relevant psychological insights into the minds of men—but what in the world are are the ladies thinking? Even the literary giants have neglected to wonder (consider Hamlet vs. Ophelia)

sex in writing is generally laughable anyway, but rather than spending your time trying to devise the latest euphemism for penis, why not at least try on the woman’s POV?

emotions are not easy to write about, but we all have them.  Many writers shy away, as in life, from revealing any raw feelings or even humanistic values.  I’m not talking about sentimental writing.  There’s a fine line.

–rather than thematically celebrate the triumphs of competition, the forced separation of weak from strong, how about some explorations of the virtues of cooperation and nurturing?

–Not all good writing is linearly organized—not all “reason” is logically-based—not all “reality” is something that can be seen with the eye or touched with the finger—not all lifelike dialogue is sequential or even “about” anything—not every detail has an immediate reason for appearing—not every smile means happiness—not every tear is a reason for shame–not every motivation is conscious—not every whisper of the intuition is born of fear—not every friend will give something back, and yet may still be worth having–not all women characters are “dirty, double-crossing dames” or innocent princesses!


Hystery in the Raving, or a More Proximate Truth? Stone’s Untold History of the United States


The attacks of 9/11/2001, not unlike the  ambush at Pearl Harbor, indeed marked “a day which would live in infamy,” in that it was the single day in an entire century in which a war was fought on U.S. soil, in which we could feel what it was like to be Vietnamese every day in the 1960s, or Korean during the 1950s, or Russian or French or British during the 1940s.

This is the direction one’s thoughts can take, when viewing Oliver Stone’s new series.

Filmmaker Stone is best known for his feature films, like Talk Radio, Natural Born Killers and most recently Savages.  But his television series Untold History of the United States, makes his brand of left-wing social criticism accessible to the widest public yet.  Untold History centers its revisionist narrative on the succession of U.S. Presidential administrations of the 20th century—as a device, it works, though even Stone seems unable to escape the idea that history equals big events like war, and big entities like government.  But the service provided is that every episode offers a radical shift in focus and interpretation of these entities.  For example, unlike the usual telling of The World War II Story, as if it were a Hollywood movie that every schoolchild was required to view, Stone argues that it was the Russians who actually defeated Hitler’s Nazis in WWII Europe, losing ten people for every soldier lost by U.S. Forces.

Each episode consists of a montage of Stone’s narration, documentary footage, still images of government documents, and recordings of voices whose authenticity one can never be sure of, so startling are some of the statements (some of Lyndon Johnson’s profanities and verbal contempt, for example, would never air in a more tender age).  Statistics are offered at their most dramatic (unlike the count of American dead so famously etched in the monument in Washington D.C., the claim of well over 3 million Vietnamese casualties during the same war there would be difficult/impossible to verify.)

To use them as exemplars, among the revelations of episodes Seven and  Eight:

-Gorbachev made serious overtures to deescalate the arms race that Ronald Reagan insisted on ignoring, in his egomaniacal infatuation with power of the SDI (Star Wars.)

-The CIA’s rise to power after WWII, and its active support of tyrannical regimes—often disguised as democracies– throughout the world, has probably done more to destabilize international relations than all the forces of Communism over 150 years.

-Despite the rise of a hagiography following his death several years back, Richard Nixon was indeed as bad as we always thought.

As he approaches the present, the filmmaker seems justly excited about the treatment of living generations by recent leaders—he makes no bones about claiming that history repeats itself today, and that we are just as vulnerable to fraud and manipulation, by those in power, as our forbears.  Perhaps even more compelling than this, at least to those whose grasp of history is best done through individual biography, we are given glimpses of what contemporary figures—like President Obama, and Osama Bin Laden—were up to, in their younger days.

Stone’s place in the American consciousness seems to be as the voice that never allows us our complacency about what we’ve been told by authorities, nor have investigated for ourselves.  His film, JFK, played a significant role in legislation of the JFK Assassination Records Collection Act and the expansions of the Freedom of Information Act in the 1990s.  He has consistently targeted the mass media as an inadequate filter and delivery vehicle for information, acting as it does either in collusion with the government, or in willful ignorance of its cover-ups.

Implicit in every viewing ought to be the assurance that Stone is inviting, challenging, even demanding his viewers to look deeper into matters for themselves, to do their own thinking—not necessarily to swallow his version whole, either.  That would be an equally irresponsible swing of the pendulum from the sanitized, jingoistic version of the place of our nation in the world that we all accepted as children.  I personally would not even recommend the series—which is excellent–without this vital disclaimer.