The Collapse of the American English

 

03262015-Kingdome_01By Shawn StJean

Perhaps my accompanying photos are a trifle hyperbolic.  Perhaps.  It’s a truism among our global neighbors that Americans (by which I mean U.S. citizens) expect everyone, everywhere, to speak English.  The corollary, of course, is that most refuse to learn other languages, such as Spanish, even when the utility of doing so is abundantly clear.  But a looming problem for our culture in the 21st century seems to be that Americans increasingly decline even to learn English–at least beyond the 3rd or 4th grade level.

This level, supported by weak resources in the slang of the moment, proves sufficient for basic writing and speaking, but does not carry us far into the realm of critical thought and communication.

I choose the word “collapse” for my title, rather than “decline,” because I mean just that–what used to be a language with hundreds of thousands of specific, nuanced and descriptive choices has and continues to converge and impode into fewer and fewer.  With the recession of traditional print media in the face of digital dissemination of what can charitably be called information, even simple affirmations like “Yes,” “certainly,” “definitely,” “acknowledged,” and “no doubt,” in the most extreme example of private text messaging, have all been replaced by a single letter: “K.”

Need this be a bad thing?  After all, what’s more efficient than “K”?  Doesn’t that free us up for more important, or at least more, activity?  Before answering, let’s look at some other casualties in this war for the space in our brains.

Examine the following short list of commonly used expressions, and you’ll realize that either they are purposefully and even defiantly vague, or that one word takes the place of many–indicative of the digital age we live in (compression, homogenization, and subtle loss of nuanced information):

“Do” replaces the verbs/actions “try” “give” “accept” “participate in” “contribute to” “tolerate” “clean.”  As in “I don’t do Christmas.”

“Go” travel/venture/explore/pedal/fly/walk/hike/swim/jog and even “communicate something uncomfortable,” as in “Don’t go there.”

“huge” /big/large/important/significant/influential/knowledgeable/enthusiastic.  “I’m a huge fan.”  In my ear, this sounds ridiculous even on the face of it.  We all speak in meaphors of one degree or another all the time (“collapse” is a minor metaphor when not speaking of a physical structure,) but the above expression equates to saying the gushing adorer is an abnormally large person (or ventilating device.)  One might as well offer to wave oversized palm leaves, ancient-Egyptian style, at the object of worship.

“way” very/much/far/long (“This license is way out of date.” “This sauce has way more garlic than the recipe calls for.”)  This one in particular disturbs me because it deomonstrates we aren’t just discussing slang here.  “Way” has been adopted not just in common speech, but by professional writers.  It has infiltrated the language in a permanent, um, way–ahem–manner.

“You’re all set.”

“It’s all good.”

“basically”

“it’s all about”

“comes into play”

“deals with”

“back in the day”

Of course, words are invented, repurposed, and recombined all the time.  I must be overracting.  Aren’t these replacing archaic usages?  We’ve got “tweet.”  And “text.”  “Sick,” “diesel.” Oh, and “literally” can apparently now mean just the opposite, “metaphorically”–I mean, does it really matter?

“[   ] is a thing.”  Ah, yes, thing–the one catch-all noun when people grasp for a word and cannot find it, the very expression of inarticulateness, has become an official word to describe a fad, trend, icon, object of buzz or gossip, popular occurrence or consumer good, news item of the day, or week.  We had all those expressions, and they all relied upon small distinctions.  At this stage in human (d)evolution, we needed “thing”?

Okay.  Let’s say I’m right.  So the language is imploding.  What’s at stake here?

Many will not miss the subtleties that have dispersed into ether, I imagine.  Then again, it’s difficult to miss something you never knew you had.  What about the millions of unborn youngsters who will grow up with effective working vocabularies of a mere few thousand words?  Will they write poetry that amounts to more than a colorful tag on a railroad bridge?  Will they read it?  Will they understand the U.S. Constitution, even as they are called increasingly upon to “defend” it?  Will the historical records of the 19th and 20th centuries begin to sound as impenetrable as Shakespearian solilioquies do to us?  And I’m not talking about the kind of missing material in a contraction: to anyone but a fiction-writer or screenwriter, the distinction between “I’ve” and “I have” is not great.  One might use it to distinguish among charaters who are high-born or low-born, for example.  For the rest of us, it’s merely a convenience.

George Orwell warned writers not to compose in cliche’s.  He claimed, essentially, that writing in the pre-digested shorthand phrases of others leads to thinking in the pre-digested shorthand phrases of others.  Other signs that your thinking has been compromised: Do you find yourself regularly Googling information that you could remember with just a bit of effort?  Are you trusting that information (or that from Wikipedia, Mapquest, Siri, or the CBS Evening News) enough to act upon it or pass it on to another human being without double-checking it?  Are you cut-and-pasting that information (either in written or verbal form) without rephrasing it?  My overall point here is there exist vital differences among raw data, information (processed data), and intelligence (interpreted information).  And yet many of us are not bothering to recognize them.  Not because we lack the cognitive ability, but because we lack the critical tools and the will to use them.

A brief [ mostly harmless] experiment should serve here.  Raise your hand if you like music.

That should include most of you, one hopes. If you like music, you have probably in your time looked up some song lyrics.  In the old days, we read them out of LP album covers–which meant the source was the band’s record label, presumably direct from the songwriters themselves, which meant little chance of transmissional error.  Nowadays, we all know where song lyrics get found.  Dozens of websites cater to this need; even Google has gotten directly into the act through their search engine.  Look up a song or two that you know intimately, but the performed and recorded lyrics of which are not 100% crystal-clear by listening. I can guarantee you that, as transcribed onto your website of choice, you will not be long in discovering blatant errors in those lyrics which materially alter their meaning.  Furthermore, and more appallingly to me, you will discover upon cross-checking that most, if not all, of the alternative websites repeat that same error.  Which means, of course, that they are all “borrowing” from each other, and profiting off both you and the songwriters with little regard for the truth.  Now, if the stakes here seem low to you, import your experiment to the television news programs.  Jon Stewart had a running bit on his incarnation of The Daily Show dedicated to proving that not only do major news outlets shamelessly plagiarize from each other, but they do so in unedited cliche’s.  Again, in the old days, we might double-check their intelligence in what used to be called printed newspapers.  Umm.  Except. . .

One of the great virtues of written language is its precision, yet increasingly written English begins to resemble spoken English, even in widely disseminated and professionally published print media.  And spoken English begins to resemble colloquial English.  Don’t think so?  Ask an octogenarian (someone born roughly during the Great Depression, as of 2017) if their parents would use the word “cool” as part of their everyday discourse.  Nowadays, try to find someone who doesn’t.  Not that I think “cool” has done the language any great harm.  As far as I can tell, it was first used in America, in its modern sense, by Emerson in the 1840s–which probably means it dates back even farther and derives from the British.  But this word may prove the exception rather than the rule.  As it is, it conflates a much more typically detailed appraisal of a person, event, or object.  A girl who might once have been variously described as “tolerant,” “forgiving,” “loose,” “free-thinking,” “substance-abusing,” or “not a nag” is now simply “cool.”

Of course, one might argue that simple is better; the fewer moving parts in a machine, the more reliable it is likely to be (read “mousetrap.”)

I doubt the sustainability of that argument.  Another, more insidious example: “fewer” vs. “lesser” (or less).  Almost no one but your English teacher bothers with this one anymore.  Here’s why: who cares if your supermarket checkout line reads (correctly) “fewer than 12 items” or (incorrectly) “less than 12 items”?  Can’t we just dispense with one of these?  Well, we could.  Except one of them refers predominantly to individual items and people, and the other refers objects in bulk or concepts.  That is, “fewer people are finding jobs their college degrees prepared them for.”  NOT “less people.”  Because those people are individuals, not some vague statistic.  There’s less forest, which means fewer trees.  There may be “less opportunity.”  There may be “less rain this year” or even “less cod in these waters.”  But if there are unaccountably “less people,” we had better start looking for them.   And reevaluating the value we place on human life.

I’d like to conclude with a different, and more familiar example; possibly the mostly commonly transmitted text message in English:

Where R U

It (or some variant) is quick, servicible, doesn’t cost much effort to send, or–hypothetically–to answer.  And yet this message has probably caused more misunderstandings and needless arguments than most.  Why?  It’s laden with ambiguity (or even what deconstructors call “undecideability”).  In the absence of voice intonation, facial expression, pronunciation, linguistic context, primary and/or secondary punctuation, and so on, the receiver must interpolate those for herself.  Here’s how that might go, in response:

“None of your damn business.”

“Uh oh, he’s saying I’m late again.”

“Did I promise to be somewhere right now?”

“I’m at Main Street and Vine”

“She really wants to know Who am I with, and What am I doing?”

“I left an hour ago.”

Texts and tweets may count portability and quickness among their virtues, but they certainly cannot include clarity in that list.  Even among intimates, this message is as likely to lead to a dispute as an informative reply.  Another aspect that’s missing, and increasingly missing from written communication especially, is any sense of formality, professionalism, or what used be called politeness.  Now, you may say, “Well, that’s just a text message.”  Sure.  But ask yourself how many e-mails you have received without a greeting, a signature, an identification of the sender or introduction, or even so much as a rudimentary spell-check?  Did you answer them?  If you did, you, as are we all,  are complicit in the process of collapse.  Compare these two e-mails, typical of what I, as a college professor, have received from freshman students:

[2007]  Dear Professor:  I’m sorry I missed class last Tuesday and Thursday as my grandmother died.  I misplaced my copy of the syllabus.  Can you tell me what we did in class so I can make up the work?  Thanks, Kayla

[2017]  I missed class last week would you tell me what I missed

Neither one of these qualifies as polished, professional communication–especially from a writing student–but I think you’ll agree that the former has a few lingering virtues to recommend it, which have gone glimmering in the latter.  In fact, were I to delve deeper into my records of the past, we’d find that the students of the 1990s had bothered to include my actual name; that the excuses were often more inventive and frequently included such touches as offers of doctor’s notes; that a request to meet in office hours was not unheard of upon missing a week’s worth of training; that the student might have actually acquired class notes from  peer before writing; that the student would bother to identify which of the four classes I teach she was enrolled in.

I’m not sure that the degradation of the language–as slow and inevitable as abuse of the atmosphere that has summoned the effects of global warming– will contribute materially to the collapse of the society, the culture, or possibly even our civilization.  But I don’t fancy it helping.  It’s perhaps predictable that as our planet becomes more overpopulated, as more wealth becomes concentrated into fewer hands, and as such factors demand a parallel dynamic of information becoming the province of fewer people (collectors,) the rest of us will not find encouragement to strengthen our language skills beyond the consumer sphere (that is, you and I only need know how communicate well enough to work and buy and perhaps sell a bit.)

As for writing, a culture’s written language is the primary repository of its history.  Without a sense of history, it cannot evolve.

The solution?  Same as it’s always been, and the advice is good not just for writers, but for anyone who wishes to grow their brain and live up to something approaching their potential: READ.  Read anything.  Comic books, advertisements, editorials, romance novels, cereal boxes, movie credits.  Some are better than others, obviously.  Personally, I recommend Hawthorne, Hemingway, and Wharton, along with Carl Sagan for those whose tastes require something a little more contemporary–here was a man who knew a bit about large-scale collapse–but that’s just me.

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“Avengers Resemble. . .”: Marvel’s Mega-Series, What the Kids Are(n’t) Reading, and Political Allegory

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Review by Google“>Shawn Stjean

Marvel Studios has achieved something almost frighteningly big with its 21st-century film releases, Avengers: Age of Ultron only the most recent: not merely a franchise, but essentially an ongoing TV-type mega-series, with a cast of hundreds and a monetary value inestimable.  No longer content to re-boot and re-hash origin stories, filmakers can now rely on a continuity that allows story and character arcs to develop over years.  And that grandmaster of the long game, Joss Whedon, as he has done with all the other shows he’s run, has got all the pieces in motion and can pass the baton to whomever shares the vision.

Fans of Buffy and Angel would have to be dim not to recognize Whedon’s trademark setting of the “Big Bad” behind the scenes, scheduled to emerge 2/3 into a “season” as a major threat to the small group of heroes, while discreet episodes detail the rise-and-falls of minor bad guys all witlessly advancing a grand scheme.  Themes are also put into place, some of which resonate indefinitely (see the excellent final season of Angel), and some of which seem abortive or merely fun.  Avengers 2, for example, deploys a consistent but confusing array of Judeo-Christian religious allusions.  Perhaps a Jim Starlin could suss them into something coherent–recall he’s the creator credited with the Thanos/Warlock death-and-resurrection mythology that Whedon has anticipated–so I’ll leave that task to him or others like him. And the Avengers is also a family drama.  More pertinent today would be to trace some political implications of the elements in this latest sequence of films especially.

Students in first-year college English courses become familiar with Jonathan Swift’s method in “A Modest Proposal,” in which he bitterly attacked both the British and Irish gentry, nearly three centuries ago, for their roles in the starvation of the Irish working class.  In outlining a plan requiring the Irish to eat their own children as a solution, Swift employed enough levels of irony to take a four-hour night-class to unpack, and Whedon follows suit.  Keep in mind that the point of political allegory is not only to insulate the social reformer/artist/critic from counterattack by distancing her from the social criticism (“It’s just a kids’ movie,”) but to tell two stories at once: on the literal level, the Marvel Universe contains a host of “enhanced” individuals who struggle with their abilities, each other, and their enemies; on the figurative level, these characters face the moral ambiguities that we all face every day, of living in the most politically and technologically powerful nation on the planet.

Turns out that the small-screen extended narrative structure works well for social criticism, which has always been deplored as “bad art,” going back to ancient Greek tragedy.  A series of interlocked stories allows the social critic/artist to diffuse the attack, both time-wise and target-wise.  Marvel’s favorite theme is government abuse of power, and SHIELD stands in for whatever agency you like to hate, or all combined (FBI, CIA, NSA, ATF, and so on.)  In Whedon’s Firefly, they called it the Alliance.  Character mouthpiece for these attacks has by default become Captain America, a man frozen in ice at the end of WWII and awakening to a world where technology threatens constantly to supplant human values of liberty and justice.  “This isn’t freedom,” he insists to Nick Fury in The Winter Soldier (a subtitle hearkening back to investigations into Vietnam War crimes in which American veterans testified,) referring to SHIELD’s hovering platform that murders “hostiles” from orbit, in a clear nod at the US unmanned drone program.  Cap will complete that unfinished statement in Age of Ultron, as Fury’s helicarrier rises to evacuate the imperiled civilians of a floating city: “This is what SHIELD was meant to be.”

The reform agenda may be as mystifying to some as the religious elements.  Subtle touches like casting Robert Redford (who portrayed Watergate investigative journalist Bob Woodward in All the President’s Men and the betrayed protagonist of Three Days of the Condor, among other anti-establishment vehicles) as the puppetmaster World Councilman, though a neat bit of irony for those in tune, will be lost on the young.  Mark Twain, a virulent social critic in the late 19th century, was deplored by some contemporaries as “selling out” by covering up his artistic reform with low humor.  Above all, these films chronicle action.  And let us never forget that mega-corp Disney pulls the strings, to the tune of billions of dollars.

At times, though, Whedon’s/Marvel’s criticism becomes pointed, as when Ultron himself declares “Men always create what they fear. . .Invaders create Avengers.”  Aside from a cheeky reference to another of Marvel’s super-groups, I can’t help but hear in that the director referencing the unending cycle of violence that has come with America’s involvement in the Middle East.  Though the reference could apply, for all I know, to the destruction of the Alamo–endless revenge cycles are a very old story.   But not a subtle one–nor is the free-fall collapse of a skyscraper visually linked to the 9/11 collapse of the World Trade Center.

Contrary to Cap, Tony Stark would like to see machines take all work out of human hands, whether it be robotic weapons for the military, or the Avengers themselves: “I see a suit of armor around the entire world,” he announces in Age of Ultron.  Naturally, he’d hold all the codes, because at bottom he’s a fascist who doesn’t believe in deciding by referendum.  Instead, he keeps his own counsel and custody of the tech–which makes him and Nick Fury uneasy allies–and relies on personal charm to persuade Bruce Banner to help him create Ultron (in the future, watch for him to work his seduction on Peter Parker.)  Echoing Neville Chamberlain’s doomed vision of “peace for our time” after his 1938 meeting with Hitler, Stark can’t see his own God Complex, creator of a Frankensteinian metal army in his own image.  Opposing him, temperamentally and verbally, is Steve Rogers, extending his deep misgivings about secret agendas into this episode:

“How can you beat that?” challenges Stark, implying some threats are too imposing to be met with anything less than equally destructive force.

“Together,” affirms Cap.

Stark scoffs openly.  “We’ll lose.”

“Well then, we’ll do that together, too.”

From the audience’s perspective, it’s hard not to align with Cap’s self-reflexive naivete, his belief in democratic principles, and he has the right of it.  If we really do live in a republic, then we can’t relinquish moral decisions to machinery, whether of government bureaucracy or armed soldiers; “Ultron thinks we’re the monsters.  This isn’t just about beating him–it’s about whether he’s right.”

Ultron (Iron Man’s doppelganger) insists we should, as humans, evolve.  Is he right?

After all, we’re willing to let the supposedly better-informed tell us who our enemies are, direct evidence be damned; we’re willing to allow them to kill them for us, a few civilian casualties be damned; we’re even willing to let machines execute the so-called criminals without charge or trial, and our leaders brag out of television screens about it.  Never mind all the thousand little tasks machines daily take out of our hands, so that we may do worse mischief with them, or let them lie idle, or tap endlessly on cell phones.

The trouble with mechanistic thinking is that it can’t account for certain equations.  As Dostoevsky wrote, “2+2=4 is a very fine thing, but sometimes 2+2=5.”  And that’s Humanity for you–illogical, emotional, idealistic, cynical, intuitive–at our best, more than the sum of our parts.  But Stark’s robot AI, as obsessed with building ever-more-powerful anthropomorphic bodies as Iron Man himself with upgrading his armor, can’t see such distinctions.  “Ultron can’t tell the difference between saving the world and destroying it.  I wonder where he gets that from?”  Yes, abandoning freedom in defense of security–it would be as pointless as eating one’s own children.

Artists like to play disingenuous or directly disavow the political implications of their work, of course–a more famous case being J.R.R. Tolkien denying that The Lord of the Rings was not a re-(pre-?) telling of the nuclear denouement of World War II (his stated defense was that his good guys didn’t use the Ring of Power.)  Joss Whedon, famous for his Whack-a-Mole interview responses, would no doubt evade likewise.  But, in a sense, readers matter more than artists.  The values of Marvel Comics and films still make it through to the kids, however clothed: It’s disastrous to keep secrets from your friends, or to do a bad act in a service of a good ideal;  people can change, albeit painfully; and loving someone sometimes means having to push them off a cliff.

We might anticipate where all this is heading–we’ve witnessed, in spite of a visible concern for civilians in the way, a vast amount of property damage follow in the Avenger’s wake, especially the Hulk’s.  In 2016, the next Captain America fim, entitled Civil War, will likely dramatize the governmental response to this, with Stark and Rogers’ antagonism boiling over: “I don’t trust a man without a dark side.”  “Maybe you just haven’t seen it yet.”  The theft of Wakanda’s vibranium stores (stripmining of natural resources) prepares us for blowback from Wakanda in the upcoming Black Panther film.  I also wonder if the Scarlet Witch’s addition to the cast might bode some shades of House of M and Avengers Disassembled.   Asgard only knows that Marvel has an embarassment of riches in macro-event-mythology, to draw from.

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Sniper-Think, Killer Narratives, and The Loss of Presence

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By Shawn Stjean

No cultural phenomenon could better support the U.S. government’s interminable “War on Terror” than the current wave of sniper hagiographies on screens and in bookstores in 2015.  It’s not surprising, given a public forced to accept drone strikes as some kind of moral and even righteous activity.  But I say, hey, let some of those shooter-turned-writers cash in on their experiences–they earned it better than the guys who sent them into harm’s way.  But it’s all killing from a distance, isn’t it–presidents have been doing it since long before the Mexican and Indian Wars of the 19th century.  And now the average guy can do it vicariously from his armchair, raising a glass to “Reaper” or the next one, as he flips the page on yet another patriot claiming to be “the one” who got Bin Laden.

Partially because I was a Marine long ago, and knew several snipers, and received a fair amount of long-distance weapons training myself, I devoted a good portion of my novel Clotho’s Loom to a sniper narrative, in order to show its dehumanizing effect on the shooter.  Hey, these guys have red blood like the rest of us: some are as decent as anyone you’ll ever meet, some are relentless fools.  But let’s not kid each other–what they do is not heroic, and not anything a mother or father should want sons and daughters to aspire to.  Thirty-three confirmed kills may sound cool on your video game board at 17 years old.  If you’re older than that, it should start to bother you.  At best, it’s a necessary battle tactic; at worst, murder.  It sure ain’t fighting fires.

But I’m not really here to talk politics.  Like a submarine story, there’s no denying the inherent suspense in writing about military adventurism on the ground.  And a novel ought to present the story, and let the reader judge.  The problem is, biographies and pseudo-biographies and autobiographies like the present ones aren’t confined by that limitation. So by definition, the “pro” position gets articulated, while the rest of us with hesitations stand mute.

No, then, I’m really here to point out the underlying lack-of-thought process that is echoes in our everyday lives by the sniper mentality, which is: Get More Distance.  And how to do that?  Simple: Better Technology.

Wait! you might say, what about skill, discipline, commitment? True, but the rest of us are living a diluted version.  We have the distance, in spades.  The rest?

Think about it.  We have: headphones with artificial rhythms insulating us from the natural rhythms of our respiration, LCD screens blocking us from our views of the world and each other, mirrors distorting our sense of self-worth, drugs and alcohol deflecting the pain, noise between us and the silence or our own thoughts, texts saving us from lengthy telephone conversations, telephones saving us from inconvenient visits to friends and family, two tons of steel, glass and airbags between us and the next driver, navigation systems telling us which way to steer, calculators doing the math for us, Google searching for us, virtual dating and break-up by text, contact lists remembering numbers and even names for us, long-distance college classrooms taught by God-knows-who, kevlar and rubber cushioning our feet from the grass, an average 38-minute commute between home and job.  Cameras digitize our faces to keep our loved ones apprised of our appearances.  Tattoos and piercings take the place of scars.   We do our best trash-talking online [ahem].

And 7000 miles between us and the wars.  So many that we don’t think about them for days at a time.

From my list above, half of the items did not exist a generation ago.  A century ago, almost none.  In 1915, you visited with your people if you could, wrote them letters if you couldn’t.  And you wrote “I miss you,” because you really did–no technology dulled the pain for you, because that kind of pain is normal, it’s healthy, and it’s designed into us at the genetic level in order to help us keep our priorities straight.  And in those days, if you wanted the land or the resources or the lives of another country, you had to send tens of thousands of your own husbands and fathers and sons, with a very real probability you’d never see them again, over there to either take those things, OR decide they weren’t worth the risk and violence after all, and come home or stay in the first place.

We’re all snipers now.  Most, risk-free.  Are we heroic?

You’ll be a better hero to your kids if you hug them when they need it, and scold them or grab them by the shirt-collar when they deserve it, and put up with the discomfort-level, either way.  A text and emoticon just keeps you too far away.

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GoOgle glAss–Look Where You’re Going, Masses

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By Shawn StJean

Ah, maybe I’m just paranoid.  Hell, it’s not like Star Trek has EVER successfully predicted future technology run amok before {cough, cough cell phones, body scanners, lasers, cough, cough}. . .

So jack in, and Go Ogle  in public today (ogle Dutch,  frequentative (oogen  to make eyes at, derivative of oogeye (compare Low German oegeln, German äugeln )  : To look impertinently or stare in an inappropriate manner at something or someone

But be careful where you point that thing: or don’t be surprised when a POV-video of you getting your lights punched out turns up on YouTube.

Really Deep Beneath the Weave (my running baldness joke)–New Interview: Laurie vs. Shawn

http://lauries-interviews.blogspot.com/2012/11/clothos-loom-by-shawn-stjean-interview.html

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Very impressive promotion on Shawn StJean’s novel today, including a GIVEAWAY you may want to enter. She’s got an interview, excerpt, full bio, the works. . .
Someday someone will “like” that baldness joke. . .

Cowboys and Indies: Amazon and Monopoly in the Free Market

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poster for High Plains Drifter

The last few years have been a revolutionary ones for book publishing—five centuries shackled to the mechanical printing press are over. Yet, with all that free-for-all, a new sheriff was bound to come to town, to corral the anarchy. One of the largest distributors and retailers of both physical and e-volumes has aided, but not unequivocally endeared itself, in 2012, to the largest, most sensitive group of content providers: self-publishers, and “Indie” authors.

It’s no more a secret that Amazon.com would like to be the default sales engine for books, than that Google wants to be the default search engine for the internet, Microsoft Windows wants to be the default OS for PCs, and Intel the default hardware manufacturer. It’s all too easy to forget that ITunes (and Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords, and your local library, and many littler guys,) Bing, Linux, and AMD make great products/provide great services, too. Why so easy? Well, we as consumers are so busy, we’d just like a nice comfortable place we can be sure of, in many aspects of our lives. Everybody loves having a go-to restaurant, or saloon: “Ahh, that’s one load off my mind.”

For the record, and from this consumer/content-creator’s perspective, at this point I think Amazon has it about 75% right. Remember when they were just books and movies? But, in their apparent quest to be and sell all things to all people (just look at the logo, with its arrow from “A” to “Z”,) they must necessarily do a lot of experimenting. Some of those attempts, as in any general store, fail to produce the expected or hoped-for results.

So, first take a paragraph to give them their due: they have certainly provided a valuable opportunity for authors (not all of them first-timers, and some extremely talented) to bypass the stranglehold of the traditional, brick-and-mortar publishing establishment–whose time had certainly come. Amazon’s KDP Select Program, which currently balances a modest exclusivity agreement with attractive royalty terms and good exposure schemes, deserves particular praise.

Now, the not-so-good: I was lately asked, in an interview, if I’m afraid that Amazon will try to gain a monopoly on ebooks. My response was that, in order keep relative parity with a self-regulating market, they will have to play fair with creators and consumers. I still believe that, today—but apparently, some of us may have to put it to the test, ourselves.

I have heard a few, varied, and repeated charges against the giant bookseller, ranging from shorted royalty payouts (a serious problem, if true,) to frustration with the arcane ranking system that no one seems to be able to adequately explain (but which is clearly sales-driven to a large extent. Unless one is a best-selling author, I don’t consider unknown variables in ranking to be too bothersome. My own rises and falls several hundred thousand places, every week.) The current experiment I’d like to focus on is the “review-policing” that has recently caused an uproar on message boards and blogs.

I don’t have to cite the experiences of others (just “Google” it—sorry, Blekko, I jest). I personally had two 5-star reviews taken down. For a first-novel that was published only two months ago, this is fairly devastating—those reviews are hard to get. And for all the wide and sundry types of promoting we self-publishers do, reviews are really our lifesblood. I received a belated, boilerplate e-mail from Amazon informing me that “during a quality review of the Kindle catalog, we determined that one (or more) of the reviews associated with your book does not meet the Amazon General Review Creation Guidelines.” Upon consulting these guidelines, and in considering the seven reviews I had up at the time, I could glean no clue as to which guidelines had been violated. In even the most broad interpretation, I can at least say that the reviews, as a group, were not targeted consistently. My attempts to complain, and requests for restoration of the seemingly random victims, have gone ignored. I was even able to track down one of the reviewers (who had been provided with an ARC, but who also had officially purchased a copy, as had the second reviewer whose text had disappeared,) and convince her to re-post with best-guess modifications. This was summarily removed within several minutes, obviously by a ‘bot. Is this person then banned from reviewing my book?

Furthermore, I had a reader (whom I have never met, but is a friend of a friend) denied a posting because, even though he has an Amazon account, he had not purchased the book from them. Does this mean that the thousands of people who downloaded it for free will be denied, as well?

If this doesn’t seem like a big deal to some (“oh, just wait for more good reviews,”) that attitude would be misconceived. I worked very hard at producing a nontraditional, non-formulaic novel that some will love and some will hate. That’s fine: I wanted no compromises, and Clotho’s Loom is certainly not for everybody. But the wrecking of my average (I had four 5-star reviews, one 3-star, and two 1-stars) is not just a blow to my fragile, writer’s ego—in fact, to me the positive-biased spread helps confirm the book’s legitimacy to my target audience of potential readers. But going to a much more dismal review distribution has effectively put, in the short-term at least, a stake-to-the-heart of sales. Let’s face it: it’s quicker and easier to scan a few two-sentence condemnations, and assume you’ve run across a hack who couldn’t find a “real” publisher, than to actually read the generous sample provided. And that smarts.

Assuming this all gets straightened out, not just for me, but for all the authors out there (a BIG assumption,) it troubles me because it may be symptomatic of the slide toward monopoly. I was already bothered by the fact that links to external blogs are disallowed on product pages—this seems needlessly restrictive, as blogs are many writers’ primary promotional channel. ITunes has alienated a lot of potential repeat customers with its (some say) fascistic Digital Rights Management protection. I personally paid nearly $40 for books I cannot read, because I don’t own an IDevice. It strikes me that the review-policing we’re seeing, across town, is really the same kind of problem: designed in intent to protect consumers and creators, what happens in practice is that Amazon/ITunes actually dictates what gets read, and how, and to some extent by whom. Too much control, which can be called a form of greed. Remember, I started out by calling them a distributor and a retailer. Publishers and authors own the texts and rights. And just as we had to bow to the conditions of the people who “managed” the printing presses for 500 years, or to the railroad barons, so too now we’re in the position of negotiating our rights with the new technology-holders.

The difference is, there are now a lot more choices for us.

When we sing America’s praises (which many equate with capitalism and the free market, as much as basic human rights,) one of the things we’re endorsing is the value of competition. I certainly was, until recently at least, willing to put all my horses in the Amazon stable: I’m currently producing an Audiobook edition (to be sold on Amazon-owned Audible.com) and a mass market paperback for Createspace (also a creature of Amazon.) I’m continuing research on the alternatives, and there are some very viable ones out there. I’m particularly interested in watching the extreme potential of the audiobook marketplace over the next several years, as no single contender has yet risen to dominate it (entrepreneurs, take note.) There is no better way of sending a message to a corporate entity whose practices one deplores, than to not only withhold one’s money, but to redistribute it to a competitor.

So how badly does the sheriff want my vote, for re-election? Or will it be shoot first, answer questions later?

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Clint Eastwood and Chief Dan George in The Outlaw Josey Wales

Casting Call–Miscellaneous Characters–the Old Man and the Young

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Martin Sheen as Nexus Wyrd’s blue-collar father, Lambert

Before I reveal my pick for the major male character of William Wyrd for my hypothetical film production of Clotho’s Loom, there remain a few minor characters that fill important supporting roles.  First is Nexus’ father, Lambert.  An uneducated but nevertheless sharp, liberal influence on the heroine, Lambert undergoes minor adventures of his own in the course of the novel, and provides it with a pure, moral voice.  Famous from his breakout role as Captain Willard in Apocalypse Now, later as the president in The West Wing, Martin Sheen has shown such a flexibility throughout his career, and lately seems to be featured as a father so often (even onscreen to real-life sons Charlie Sheen and Emilio Estevez,) that I think we should get in on the privilege.

I know little of Days of Our Lives‘ Dylan Patton, and even though he’s now about twenty years old, he just looks like James, Nexus’ adolescent neighbor, and helper, to me.  His line, “Because I hate the bastards,” is one of my favorite in the novel.

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Dylan Patton as James