Indie Authors Defiant: What Are We, and Why, and Who Wants to Know?

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By Shawn StJean

In part this post is a response to my friend Emily McDaid’s ruminations awhile back, Why Do We Do it?, http://emilymcdaid.com/blog/12/why-do-we-do-it and to anyone feeling a similar crisis of spirit over your chosen, unremunerative path.

I’ve been teaching English for 22 years, and every Autumn I find myself reviewing whether I think it’s still worth it–okay, so I’m a bit early–it’s been a tough year. 

My best students are often the most concerned about their grades.  I always tell them, “Do your best, and the grades will take care of themselves.” To me (who was a college student myself for 10 years,) this referring them to a higher standard seems so clear.  But from the undergraduate perspective, and given the pressures and competition of the job market out there, I can empathize with their concern. 

Now, as an Indie author, try this one on for size: “Do your best, and the sales and reviews will take care of themselves.”  Seems hard to swallow, right?  Yeah–now we can really feel my undergrads’ point-of-view. 

‘Cuz writing is no more about making money than going to college is about grades.  College is about learning, making friends, drinking too much, sleeping in the wrong bed, finding out excuses won’t work anymore, doing your own laundry, not eating right, throwing a frisbee, flirting, and. . .learning.  Writing is all of that, too, and more (I’m fairly certain they still offer courses in writing, so it’s no coincidence.) 

Writers have a higher standard to uphold, and that makes us a bit freakish.  The Amazon reviews will be unfair, the good ones mysteriously vanish, sales slump or never start, favors go unreturned, the blog doesn’t get enough hits, it never ends, and it’s all so much damn work. 

You aren’t writing for fame and fortune.  You aren’t.  If those things are in the cards for you, they’ll come like the pot that boils, unwatched (I love to mix metaphors.  Take that, corporate editors!)  You’re doing it for a dual-higher purpose.  One: You’re doing your mite to keep literacy alive on our small planet.  Once we lose it–the ability to communicate at a level above the blurb, to ponder our purpose in words, to think in other than cliches, to access the records of our own fitful past, to force those dormant neurons to fire into life so that our heads actually hurt from the brain growing, a useful pain very few human activities can produce–once we lose those, we’ve lost civilization.  And we don’t want to find out what replaces it–worse, we don’t want our children to find it out for us. 

Purpose Number Two:  You’re writing because you are a freak.  Somehow the latent and preposterous belief that everyone possesses–that, deep down, you really are special, a unique if garbled snowflake–is actually true.  Why else would you pursue such a pathetic risk-vs.-reward-ratio, against all the common sense that pushes most of the human race to their toolboxes, spreadsheets, trucks, plows, cubicles, and secure paychecks, every day?  Face it: you’re a mutant, an X-Man.  There’s a screw loose. 

And you can think of your reward for reaching toward a higher standard this way: When there’s an errant nail sticking up above the hardwood floor, will the carpenter raise the entire floor to meet it?  What will he do?  That’s right–he’ll drive it down, to the level of all the other nails.  It better have a hard head.

But my feeling is, if they’re going to beat on your head anyway–and they will, ‘cuz everyone’s a nail–you might as well go down hard, and bend, or work your way out again, your best way. 

 As Thoreau once insisted, it’s not enough to be a philosopher, or even found a school and think better, if you can’t live according to your wisdom.  And if realizing that pursuing money is not going to improve your life, but will actually hinder your progress, isn’t one of the first steps in reaching a higher standard, then what in Hell is? (I paraphrase).  

To put it another way: 

If you’re a freak like me, Wave your flag 
If you’re a freak like me, Get off your ass 
It’s our time now, To let it all hang out 

So shout if you’re a freak like me, Don’t apologize 
They can’t hold you down, You were born to rise 
It’s our time now, to come out    -Halestorm

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Humanism Lives Long, And Prospers: Star Trek Continues Review

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 By Shawn StJean

Who says it takes a hundred million dollars to do Star Trek right?

Under the wing of Farragut Films and Dracogen Investments, Vic Mignogna and crew have launched the second episode of their wonderful fan webseries, Star Trek Continues.  It takes place during the final three years of the original five-year mission that ended prematurely when the network cancelled Star Trek in the late 1960s.

All due respect to the rebooted mega-budget studio feature films–sorry, but this is where it’s at: no one is going to get resurrected by “Necrotic-Tribble-Cross-Superhuman DNA,” either.  That kind of technobabble/solution nonsense is for fans of Next Generation and its ilk.

I screened the just-released second episode in the webseries, “Lolani,” with a smile on my face the entire time.  This reaction was part nostalgia, part admiration, and part gratitude for Vic and the gang who’ve devoted themselves to continuing a great tradition of truly humanistic storytelling, even amidst the most technological setting.  I thought it bettered the excellent first episode (featuring the return of old nemesis, Apollo, reprised by Michael Forest).

As with the original series, the episode “Lolani” takes a local incident and extends it not only to allegorical proportions, but retains the Trek romanticism while it resists succumbing to the sentimentalism of dozens of silly imitation shows over the years.  An Orion slave girl, taking advantage of a dispute among her recent purchasers, kills the new owner who would have raped her.  The Enterprise rescues her from the drifting Tellarite vessel, and she proceeds to enchant the crew (Kirk included, naturally) with her pheromone-enhanced wiles.  The rhetoric of gender relations undergirds the script, and the threat of female power remains inescapable, but the story somehow escapes radical feminism and balances its themes in a way that would have made Gene Rodenberry proud.

The episode also does an excellent job creating moral ambiguity: given the laws of the Federation and perhaps even the Prime Directive, the crew is forbidden to interfere with her return to the slavemasters who sold her.  And yet, she gives a face to the thousands still under the thrall of the homeworld’s patriarchs.  Lolani herself, like so many women characters in literary fiction, remains a mystery until the end: part liar and manipulator, part sincere and helpless girl, worthy of the genuine love one crewman gives her.  Of course, the Captain wouldn’t be Kirk if he failed to make a pass at her along the journey.  In fact, many of the old tropes are present for the fans: the Vulcan mind-meld and neck- pinch, for example.  I have to admit to being disappointed that Kirk’s shirt wasn’t ripped during the fight scene–but then again, with a budget smaller than that of the original 45-year-old episodes, and adjusting for inflation–well, those things aren’t cheap.

The scripts of the old Trek were the reason for its longevity among fandom, and this tribute series follows suit.  While some may find the style hokey, I personally applaud the refusal to give in the cynicism and parody that invests so many of today’s remakes.  The production values: sets, costumes, special effects, music, lighting, and even a few stunts–really cannot be faulted by any reasonable viewer.  Some may wish for more professionalized acting, or folks who more closely resemble the original cast members–but naturally this would defeat the purpose of a fan-series, being both cost-prohibitive and elitist.  No one in the troupe’s ensemble cast fails to deliver competence, anyway, and guest stars like Sci-Fi vets Erin Gray and Lou Ferrigno are always welcome.  Naturally, such pros also deserve the thanks of fans everywhere for their contribution to keeping the Enterprise flying.

Visit the Official Site:

http://www.startrekcontinues.com/

And Kickstarter page:

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/125377036/star-trek-continues-webseries

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Book Review: Write the Body–Post Rock Limestone Caryatids by Rachel Creager Ireland

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By Shawn StJean

Surely for not the first time in history, modern feminists proposed, forty years ago, that genuine women’s writing follows patterns that would seem alien to male readers: perhaps circular or spiral–or at least non-linear, non-phallic, and non-formulaic (this lack the greatest source of readerly anxiety: a defeat, though not a disappointment, of expectations).

Beginning with its title, one clearly not designed to enhance marketability (what genre is this?  Sci-Fi? Chick-Lit?  Naturalism?,) Ms. Ireland’s debut novel fits the non-pattern.  Although the setting eases us in–human beings living on the eve of the 22nd century, insulated, born into robotic nurseries and raised into cubicles and having contact only through computerized avatars via sanitized social networking and virtual sex, their bodies slowly falling to atrophy while the world outside slowly recovers from the human virus, in remission.  Meanwhile, privileged children are genetically modded and sponsored into Matrix-like docility/productivity as adults. Fans of political allegory and films like Neill Blomcamp’s Elysium or District 9, or anyone who’s ever simply slaved away in the human ice-cube-tray of an office building, should find plenty to satisfy their sense of satire here.

The plot, however, spreads its legs, so to speak: between a wealthy runaway escaping a controlling father to seek a free birth for her child, and a woman who abandons the cubicle life, following the death of her sister and loss of her infant niece to the state “corporocracy,” to go into the wilderness with an attractive, seductive politico-religious zealot.  One of the defamiliarizing aspects of the book is the consistent splitting of our attention back-and-forth, toward an eventual convergence in the great yonic center of our country, the Kansas prairie, the culmination simultaneously the most common and most miraculous of events.  Écriture féminine, indeed.

Male readers, especially, or any conditioned in the mode of phallogocentric writing, should not expect to find chase-and-gunfire narrative lurches and jerks, progressing hurriedly to an all-too-predictable climax.  As one of the protagonists learns in the company of natural childbirthers, patience, and release of control, form much of non-technological existence.

And the writing, at the paragraph and sentence level, frequently bares its beauty in a range from scatological to sublime, though in the least pretentious of ways.  One could read many passages as the journal of a writer who has herself plumbed both the mysteries and fears of homo sapiens childbirth, and the macro-birthing process of Mother Earth. Ireland could become one of the few legitimate woman naturalists–though this is only one of the book’s several modes–a tradition dominated by males in America since the 1870s.  (A scan through her author’s blog, http://veronicasgarden.wordpress.com/, will confirm this.)  “If Maeve were the only human alive, the only tragedy would be human, that is, that Maeve would be the last to witness to such immense beauty; yet this world would go on being beautiful, to itself, for itself, without suffering any loss.  It was somewhat reassuring to Maeve to know that the world was really that big, that her little human sufferings, meaningful as they might be to her, were really a very small part of the whole.”  Norris or Crane or Dreiser–all appreciative of the ironic scope of androcentrism that defines our species among the animal kingdom, would agree.

Buy it on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Post-Rock-Limestone-Caryatids-ebook/dp/B00AWE6B8O/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1366041370&sr=8-1&keywords=post+rock+limestone+caryatids

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How To Milk A Dragon: Jackson’s Desolation of Smaug Versus Tolkien’s Hobbit

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By Shawn StJean

About a year ago, I posted some cultural criticism comparing Peter Jackson’s adaptation to J. R. R. Tolkien’s source novel in the first part of his second film trilogy, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.  My analysis arrived at the conclusion that the film, from the perspective of an American viewer at least, and despite its considerable achievement as escapist spectacle, does not merely drag out Tolkien’s book for more profit.  It fundamentally alters Tolkien’s children’s novel, in order to support a cultural endorsement of violence against “lesser beings,” and even subtextually endorses the War on Terror.

I’ve held off on writing up the second part for a month or so now, because this is not a review designed to evaluate the latest film, The Desolation of Smaug, for the purposes of recommending it to theatergoers.  Rather, this cultural analysis aims to interrogate some substantive departures Jackson makes from Tolkien, and to see where they, and the general tenor of the film, lead.

As long as he sticks close to Tolkien’s original material–and he often does–Jackson can’t produce too much to disturb the average thirteen-year-old (which is good, considering that millions of children below that age will have seen it by now, under the law.) The MPAA rating states: “Rated PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images.”  And what exactly is the nature of “fantasy action violence,” and how would a twelve-year-old define “fantasy”?  A ten year old?  Eight?  Given what follows, I’m not sure the film shouldn’t have been rated “R.”  But then again, how many ten-year olds received human-target-based Rated M video games this holiday season from their families?

The “Barrels Out of Bond” adaptation parallels, in Jacksonian idiom, the distended flight of the dwarves and Bilbo from the Orcs in “An Unexpected Journey.”  Adding the elves Legolas and Tauriel to the show, the same bashing of non-human skulls is enhanced by bow-and-arrow strikes to the head and face for several minutes, and at extreme close range, along with the usual decapitations and garden-variety impalings of orcs.  Combined with the spider scene earlier, one wonders what age children should be barred from viewing, for the sake of a peaceful night’s sleep.  The importation of Orlando Bloom’s character for the nearly sole purpose of killing, in various spectacular ways, seems an especially egregious alteration of Tolkien, given that children have no way to distinguish CGI-slaughter from the real concepts of battle and death.  Legolas even, unaccountably, turns his bow on his friend Tauriel at one point –in order to reinforce his dominance over the female 1, one supposes.

Bilbo, of course, Jackson turns into a swordsman as good at dispatching enemies as any of the dwarves–this is a particularly telling change from the novel, as viewers are meant to identify with the everyman protagonist.  I don’t mean to suggest that killing giant spiders (who would most certainly kill you, a la The Incredible Shrinking Man) is suggestive of violence against humans, though Jackson–in an otherwise brilliant cinematic device–allows Bilbo to hear English words from them, by putting on the ring.

The premise that Smaug could be turned into a Weapon of Mass Destruction by Sauron–who has yet to manifest himself as a threat–seems particularly resonant in this decade of government-fostered nuclear anxiety, both real and invented, the like of which has not been seen since the 1960s.  A common scholarly interpretation back then was that Tolkien’s LOTR, with a great alliance (elves, dwarves, hobbits, men) against an axis of evil (orcs, Sauron, Saruman) and vying for a weapon of power so great that it would corrupt anyone who used it, functioned as a political allegory for the WWII/Cold War period, with Tolkien implicitly arguing against the use or at least expansion of nukes, even as “deterrents.”2  In 2014, of course, the alliances have changed, but the principles remain the same: We have It only for good, but if They get It, only evil can result.

Such proactive thinking must underlie the role of the White Council.  Gandalf’s reconnaissance mission to the tomb of the future Lord of the Nazgul (at Galadriel’s prompting) leads him into a direct confrontation with the disembodied Sauron at Dol Guldor.  Knowing this for a trap, he nevertheless dismisses ally Radagast beforehand on a pointless errand.  This seems uncharacteristically hubristic of the wizard, who spends most of his time setting pieces on the board in defense of Middle Earth, not actively participating, and then mostly as a non-combatant advisor.  “We must force his hand,” before he regains his full strength, Gandalf insists to the Brown wizard.  Again, as in the first film, the implication that we had better heed the greater wisdom of those with power, and that power equals wisdom, shines through here.

Thus, some of Tolkien’s non-intellectual minor characters have, paradoxically, been tamed and de-powered by Jackson.  Bard, willing to bend the rules and smuggle the dwarves into Laketown, functions as the sole and ineffectual voice of reason against stirring up the dragon, contrary to both the mob and the corrupt government (cf. John Proctor in The Crucible, Brody in Jaws).  Even the sane shapeshifter Beorn, though he professes a dislike for dwarves because of their greed and androcentrism, admits to supporting their doomed errand solely because he hates orcs more.  We have to wonder if Jackson isn’t working at cross-purposes here, since these brief pauses for warning can’t possible compete with the epic splendor of violence that follows.

The Smaug chase sequence and climax of the film is, unfortunately, drawn out to a fatiguing degree.  Since western dragons are an archetypal symbol of greed, Tolkien appropriately pitted Thorin’s desire for the arkenstone against it.  Leaving Kili, Fili, and Ori behind because no individual can be allowed to jeopardize the quest (the CIA’s old “big picture” argument) proves that Thorin has been corrupted, just as the ring is corrupting Bilbo into lying.  But there is further irony in the fact that this run-away-from-the-fire-breathing-dragon business had to be convoluted to an effective 45 minutes of screen time in order to make the trilogy-formula work for the studio (read “ticket sales”.)  The dwarves are allowed to show some spontaneous ingenuity here, in navigating the mazes of the lonely mountain, Erebor.  That is good, since Jackson requires credible descendants of those who built such an underground city, just a generation previous.

The film continues Jackson’s tradition of amplifying violence, on every level: from the personal to the communal.  Bottom line, Tolkien’s songs and comical scenes (such as Gandalf’s incremental introduction of the dwarves to the gruff Beorn) have been replaced with extended chases and gratuitous killing (the wood-elf-King’s lying to and beheading of a captive orc jumps out as an example).  The sad thing is, this is no unique malady of Peter Jackson’s, but epidemic to our culture.  Are we really so addicted to profit–commercials in movie theaters, merchandise tie-ins, multiple releases on DVD and Blu-ray in extended editions–that we’re afraid to produce a simple children’s story that is appropriate for children?  Or are there darker forces at work here?

Notes

1. As important as I think it for young people to see strong female characters onscreen, Jackson’s introduction of she-elf Tauriel into an admittedly very male-centric narrative accomplishes nothing outside of the male-copy mode.  “You fought well today,” the wood-elf monarch deigns to appraise her, but, like Ophelia, she is immediately forbidden a romantic connection to a male above her station by an imposing father figure.  So with seemingly nothing else to do, she develops a romantic interest in “tall for a dwarf” Kili.  Both Tolkien’s and Jackson’s own handling of dutiful-but-secretly-rebellious daughters Eowyn, and Arwen, in LOTR, was far superior to this obligatory and disappointing character abuse.

2.  Tolkien famously rejected the interpretation of political subtext–as all allegorists inevitably do.  Allegory by design insulates the artist from charges of subversion.

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