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Saturday, September 21, 2013

How We Decide: Trolling Goodreads

This book was pulled by its publisher because it was plagiarized and contained fabricated sources. This is the second book of Lehrer's to be recalled by the publisher for plagiarism, the first being Imagine: How Creativity Works. (Pretty fucking ironic title, amiright?) He has only "written" three books, so two out of three is pretty bad. He was fired from his New Yorker gig for self-plagiarism as well. (Basically, he was recycling content like a lazyass, although he also lifted from Malcolm Gladwell.) For some reason, publishers keep thinking it's a good idea to throw money at this asshole, even though there are allegations his most recent book prospectus was plagiarized too.

Jonah Lehrer is an unrepentant serial plagiarist who has stupid and ugly glasses. I will never read this book because the publisher has recalled it, and because I hate Lehrer's face. How's that for your author behavior, bitch?


This is my most recent review on Goodreads, which is in response to the change in Goodreads policy concerning reviews that primarily talk about author behavior, not the content of the book. Previously, the policy had been that reviews that spoke negatively about author behavior - I will not read this book because something the author sad or did - were removed from the main book page, but were still visible to friends. For those that don't use Goodreads, if you look up a book, all your friends' reviews are listed first, then those by people you follow, then the "community reviews". This last category was where your review would not show up.

As controversial as this approach was, I thought this was a reasonable approach, in the end. I had some problems with implementation, which were two-fold. First, it was applied to reviews that didn't actually violate the policy, such as David's oft-deleted review of The Giving Tree. That was just pearl-clutching about naughty words in a children's book review (though David does note that Shel looks like the devil. Shel does though.) And second, Goodreads didn't alert anybody when their reviews were hidden. It's possible they do now, but I kind of doubt it. I've always been careful at least nominally to talk about a book when I'm also shouting about some damn thing going down on Goodreads - such as this review, or this one - so I haven't had any hidden reviews. At least the last time I emailed Goodreads about whether I had any hidden reviews, which was their really shitty, opt-in solution to their problem, as far as I'm aware.

I can in many ways understand the policy to hide reviews. There are a lot of ugly, often stupid conflicts between authors and reviewers out there today, and in managing a social network, trying to cool down the rhetoric makes sense to me. So you note that such-and-such author is a jackass, fine. But that review was kept to your friends (or followers, I think), or to people who want to seek out these hidden reviews. (For example, there is a round-up of hidden reviews in The Hidden Reviews Club on Goodreads. You're welcome.) This policy wasn't my favorite, but I could live with it because it sought to split the difference between people using Goodreads to note to themselves a book that they didn't want to read, and keeping the book page from filling with unread dismissals. If only they could keep the book pages from filling with "pre-reviews" which are useless to me, but then just because they're useless to me, doesn't mean someone else can't find value in them, I guess. Anyway, point being, this policy didn't silence reviewers, it muffled them.

But now, apparently, whole shelves are being deleted, along with all their reviews. A friend noted her due-to-author shelf had been deleted, along with a large number of reviews that didn't actually violate the new TOS. The policy was implemented like swatting a fly with a hammer, with no nuance, and certainly no warning. A lot of people are crediting this change in policy to the actions of Stop the Goodreads Bullies and their allies, including STGRB themselves. (And I urge you not to directly visit their site, as they are known doxxers and assholes. Round up here if you want the story.) I find this unlikely; I imagine Goodreads is as sick of them as everyone else is. I believe this change is in response to irresponsible posts such as this one in Salon that asks, "Did a writer get bullied on Goodreads?" The short answer is no, a debut author did not get bullied on Goodreads, as the lame appended ETA in the article notes. (Also, a really brilliant piece of citizen journalism that documents that whole stupid mess can be found on Three Rs. You're welcome.)

So, in the spirit of plagiarism, which is the one I wrote this review in, I'm going to quote extensively from Mike's comment in his review of Mein Kampf, which is a two-line dismissal of Hitler's manifesto that focuses on the author's behavior:

Let me step back and say: I seriously, seriously doubt that the moronic TEH-BULLIES! crowd had anything to do with the new policy. I do imagine that this is an attempt to craft rules which prevent the flaming wars which emerge at a vibrant social network predicated on asserting one's opinion. I would disclose that I've met, and liked, and really trust/like the person who really trusts/likes, one of the GR staffers. But even if I didn't know and trust this person, I'd probably be inclined to think that--even as (cue the Pet Shop Boys) making lots of money is a goal--the site hasn't gone and isn't going through some radical shift to be an eden for the self-published or the major bookselling reich. (For the record, I don't think Amazon is the devil, either.) 

In other words, I take the new policy's intentions at their word: to try to refine and enhance community engagement with one another. 

But I wrote this review for three reasons. 

One, a regulation or a strong opinion is like a dare to me. I take enormous, childish or child-like delight in fucking with rules and rule-keepers and firm believers. This really was like my late-night calls to 1-800 numbers, or my tendency to screw around in institutional emails -- it's FUN.  

But, two, there's a reasonably sincere philosophy behind the cat-calling and game-playing. I think rules work best when least intrusive, when most responsive to community engagement. I think communities are stronger when its members constantly mock, abuse, test, tease the rules which ostensibly govern us. And I think this is most wonderfully embodied in online networks with serious, smart, engaged, funny, rule-breaking, opinionated members like this site. Community rules tend to bubble up, and shape discourse. I think that isn't just preferable to imposition from above. I think it makes more sense to what you're trying to create or facilitate. If you want a vibrant social network, keep the TOS concise, minimally invasive, and unambiguous. Otherwise you will spend ALL of your time regulating the TOS, and members will spend an inordinate amount of time leaving in a huff, or flagging and demanding TOS attention, and... (I also think *practically* rules DO emerge. The community defines its standards, and upholds them. Such regulation is more fluid, sometimes more heated, sometimes plain rough. But such regulation is an emergent property of social networks.) 

Three, as many have pointed out, in the feedback section as well as in other places where debate about the new regs rages, the imagined neat line between an attack on an author and a book-centered attack is not a fixed boundary, and it will be devilishly hard to put the fences up reliably, consistently, fairly. I think the new regs are categorically fuzzy and confusing -- and see point Two.

I think Mike pretty much nails it here.

But back to Lehrer, and How We Decide. There are eleventy million books out there, which is [11ty million minus a couple thousand, give or take] more books than I will ever in my lifetime read. We have to parse the millions for their worthiness to pass under our eyeballs; we have to decide what we think is worth not just our attention, but our hard-earned dollars. I'm not going to read another Orson Scott Card novel, for example, because that guy's anti-gay bullshit is horrible to me. (And hey, I even liked Ender's Game.) You don't have to agree with my reasons, but a lot of people out there do. It's valid to compartmentalize the author's views from the creative output, something I have to do all the time when I pick up historical works by, say, fascists or assholes. (TS Eliot represent!) But it is equally valid to say: I will not read this book because I don't want actual money going to actual people who are actively working in the world towards ends I despise. Or even just, fuck what the writer said on Twitter.

So I get that Goodreads is trying to work some spin against some really fucking shitty journalism, but this is the wrong fucking call. I recently did an interview about my experience on Goodreads, in which I said that the site changed my life. It did. I love how my fellow goodreaders have challenged me as a reader and as a person. But, again, I'm dealing with high-handed, badly considered bullshit policy choices that seem to correct the wrong problems. There was a lot of howling when Amazon bought Goodreads, and I predicted that the policy changes that drove me off the site would be incremental. I'm not bailing yet, because I believe still in the community, but I keep considering my line in the sand. (Implementing downvoting, for sure.) I'm hoping I don't just end up like the frog in the boiling water, accepting an escalating heat because, frankly, the idea of leaving makes me miserable. This policy change makes me miserable too.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

World War Z: Wherein a Zombie Nerd Comes to Terms With the Film Adaption

Of course when I started seeing trailers and reading descriptions of the film adaption of Max Brooks's journal of the zombie apocalypse, World War Z, I immediately jumped up onto my high horse and started penning angry screeds in the comment sections of Reddit. (Just kidding. I don't use Reddit.) Why in the hell were they even calling this movie World War Z if exactly nothing was taken from the book but the title? The book World War Z is nerdy and wonky, very much what a serious military history geek would write about the zombie apocalypse with CNN on mute in the background. So, maybe the individual voices were a little same-same; Brooks's take was refreshing in its long, global pan, broken out from the locked room scenarios of so many zombie narratives. Instead of the usual how will we survive tomorrow, it was a consideration of how society - societies - would respond to such a threat.

Admittedly, the book is a little bloodless - the snap gone out of recountings because we know the raconteur has survived - and I was expecting changes. Much of Brooks's book simply wouldn't work on the screen. I did have some fantasies about the film being about the soldier's narrative. He pops up at least three times in the book, moving from the Battle of Yonkers - which is actually beautifully narrated, and a pretty biting criticism of the ways military tacticians refuse to adapt to changing realities - to a West Coast enclave, and then back out through the flyover states, reclaiming this grand America. The zombie herds like buffalo, the consideration of the in-fill towns and the feral domestic animals, the drudgery and mud-covered victories: all this would have worked on the screen. Alas, no mas.

World War Z, the film, opens with a languorous morning flipping pancakes and only occasionally tense domesticity. Gerry Lane is an ex-CIA investigator, clearly still in the recovery phase of adjustment to stay-at-home dad and unemployment. His kids are moppets, and while I think it might be indicted that his wife is a professional of some kind, this isn't lingered on. The New York setting and the traffic snarl action pieces reminded me of Will Smith's I Am Legend, but the New Yorkiness and generally elegiac tone is absent from the movie. Pitt's Gerry Lane seems like someone who would be better played by Tom Cruise, whose asshole Ethan Hunt routine from the Mission Impossible movies might register stronger than Pitt's surfer insouciance. Much as I generally like Pitt, here he lacked an edge that made his supposed backstory anything but narrative justification. I was in the CIA, like, I guess.

From here, the movie bops around the zombie apocalypse, running set pieces with the thinnest of narrative fiber between them. Some of the set pieces were honestly thrilling - like the zombies swarming over the Israeli wall, or some of the stuff in North Korea. Some of them felt like hey, what about an outbreak on a plane??? I felt twitchy about a wasted David Morse vamping through a toothless mouth prosthetic about Jews and how they never forget, although the chatty Jurgen Warbrunn - one of the few characters (sort of) from the novel - explains a little better what looks like unvarnished antisemitism in Morse's explanations of the Israeli response. I liked the look of the androgyne Israeli soldier tasked to escort Lane out of Israel, but there wasn't much more than a look to her character. All in all, the movie was the kind of contentless flash-bang that can be fun in the dollar theater on a Sunday, but will likely diminish on the small screen to the point of boring.

Rather than just complain about fast zombies, because honestly, that's maybe the lamest criticism one can level at the zombie narrative, my complaints more have to do with the lack of viscera. (Seriously, I've been trolled one too many times by people exclaiming that fast zombies aren't really zombies, like the taxonomy of imaginary creatures isn't flexible enough to include a little sprinting.) But really it was the lack of guts that got me, because whatever other societal jibber jabber zombie narrative might capture, they can thrill because of entrail-rending zombie bouquets, the mob ripping someone limb from limb. They're about physical fear, body horror, our fear of the inevitably declining meat-sack we all live in. It's not about the fear of death, but of decomposing life. Blood splatter was notably absent in World War Z, which seems a crying shame.

But that's not even what I want to note about this movie. What I want to talk about is Gerry Lane's wife. I've noted before that zombie stories deal with domesticity in a weird way, and the housewife, as the embodiment of domesticity, ends up bearing the brunt of the weirdness. And maybe I should just take a minute to define terms. Yes, obviously, Lane's wife is working outside the home, and Lane himself is playing emasculated parent to her harping worry. There's a quelling quality to their marital interactions: you shouldn't want to go back out into that manly, war-torn landscape, Gerry. No, no, of course I don't. I'm using housewife as a shorthand term for the straight, white, middle class momming set, working or not, who regularly are the focal point of the Mommy Wars, the cultural wars, and apparently, now the zombie wars. The housewife is a category more mythic than actual, but she's got teeth like any other monster, and sometimes she sprints.

But when the fit hits the shan, it's Gerry's war skills that nurture domesticity. Gerry mansplains to the Hispanic family that they have to move to be safe in crisis, and they don't listen, bringing moppet count up to three when their son takes the advice they don't. By the time the Lane family makes it to the aircraft carrier, Mrs Lane is in full on helicopter mom mode, hissing at Gerry and the UN dude that they should take their conversation about zombies outside lest they upset the children. I punched my husband at this point in the film - in the arm, jeez - why wouldn't she want to know wtf was going on? Fair enough, don't freak out the kids anymore than you have to, but given that they were pretty much unconscious in every scene from here on out, maybe you have a shred of curiosity about anything but making sandwiches? Why would a professional woman just wring her hands and push her sleeping babies' hair out of their eyes? You're in danger of getting chucked from the relative safety of the carrier, why don't you offer up whatever hastily sketched skills you have?

Mrs Lane's story reaches a nadir when she calls Gerry in a panic while he's on a dangerous op in North Korea, the squeal of the phone alerting the zombies to their locale. Pro life tip: set your cell phone to buzz when in the zombie apocalypse. (Also: cell phones work?) His world-weary decision not to tell her that her domestic panic got a lot of good men killed - good men! - just exhausted me. Broads, man, amiright? Don't text me right now because I'm in a v. important meeting. Mrs Lane ends up as this tragic impetus for action, inert and often interfering, but without agency or motivation beyond the cheesy invocation of family. Someone smacks down Gerry near the end when he invokes it right back - I watched the thing that became my wife kill my children - but this is a weird conversation, bros ruminating on their obligations that are little more than luggage. Think of the children! Because that's all we can do!

I don't know. It's late, and I'm tired, and maybe I'll be back to bloviate tomorrow. I thought WWZ: the Movie was fine when people were running and screaming, but it wasn't much more than that in the end.

Oh, and also, the scene where Gerry pops open a Pepsi machine and the cans all rolled with their labels out cracked my shit up. Pepsi: The Choice of the Undead! Pepsi quenches your thirst for brains.

A Kind Voice

I'm going to be interviewed on the Internet radio show A Kind Voice tomorrow at 6pm CST. The blurb:

New host, Eden Blackwell, is joined by popular Good Reads reviewer, Ceridwen. The two will explore the website and discuss actual good reads, personal connections to books, and the fun of searching for that next great read. 

Should be a good time, as I'm always happy to talk books. Apparently you can even call in!

Friday, September 13, 2013

Zone One by Colson Whitehead: The PASD Isn't Even the Past

Maybe it was just a matter of the timing of my read because the tenth anniversary was last week, but I feel like this book was a 9/11 novel. I don't mean to be reductive - there's certainly other stuff here - but there's this thinly morose elegy for New York going on, cut with something less combative than sarcasm and more emotional than irony. I spent the fortnight leading up to 9/11/11 - a stutter of a date - narrowly avoiding public commentary, while committing a series of glancing asides with friends. Where were you? 9/11 in public has been rendered cinematic, that famous long-shot of the towers burning is maybe too restrained for Michael Bay, but it certainly lacks the ashy situated experience of the day, all phone calls and slowly dawning horror. One thing that kept popping up in my conversations of rememory was the almost whispered question - do you remember the people jumping, falling from the towers? Do you remember the reports of the smack of their bodies hitting the ground? Do you remember the footage? It's gotta be out there somewhere, not that I want to see it again, but it's been collectively wiped from our retinas, an eye rub that seeks to dislodge the sleep-ash of the nightmare. But it's been ten years. We've stuttered into our new normal, the uneasy and easy everyday of a world walking on. 

Zone One follows with an intimate third person a character called Mark Spitz. He's not the Olympian Mark Spitz, his name instead a post-armageddon macabre joke about his relentless averageness. Whitehead tosses off a lot of incisive, tending towards over-wrought descriptions of other characters and places, but his lead is so blank, so lacking in affect that you feel the chill of loss despite the semicoloned literary style. The action of the book takes place over three tight days, but the true incidents are lappingly recounting in flashback, the scum of the blood-tide peeled back layer by dried layer. Much of the supporting cast could dissolve into quirk-fests if it weren't for constant reminders of the sources of these quirks, the almost laughingly named disorder PASD - Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder. PASD when spoken aloud sounds like "past", a sometimes funny, always awful double entendre. 

Mark Spitz - and this name is never familiarized to Mark, nor do we ever learn his given name - begins the book cleaning out "stragglers" from the titular Zone One, which is a section of Manhattan barricaded from the rest of the island by the reforming government of the US and cleared of the more active skels. (This set-up is not dissimilar to the set-up for 28 Weeks Later, though the colonial and family psychodrama aspects are much more understated.) The zombies are Romerian (Romeroian? Both of these are ugly adjectives; I apologize) - shambling, biting, unintelligent and relentless - but for a small percentage of stragglers - the undead frozen in tableau, unmoving, unblinking. Mark Spitz and his sweeper team work through the grids of this zone building by building, opening the closets, shooting the active skels and casually trying to divine the mysteries of the stragglers. Why here, bent over a copy machine? Why in a field flying a downed kite? Are these the actions that defined their lives, or just a burp of a recording set to pause at a random frame?

The social rules of survivors recounting the trauma of Last Night are meticulously cataloged by Mark Spitz. There's the Silhouette, for those to whom no connection was felt; the Anecdote, suitable for large groups and the more long-term of the short-term traveling companions; then there is the Obituary, told only to the intimate, though not without rehearsal. This declension of the narratives of trauma reminded of my fortnight of 9/11 recountings this year. I was getting ready for work when I got a call from my sister in Midtown after the first plane but before the second, and then a gush of extraneous details; a friend tells of the ash beginning to fall on Brooklyn; another relating only the tersest of details. I don't know if I'm allowed to quote from the bound galley I have, so please know that this may not be in the final draft, but, "At their core, Last Night stories were all the same: They came, we died, I started running." The towers were hit, and then they fell, and where we were at the time is both intimate and immaterial. 

Then there is the New Yorkiness of this book, a resident recounting his mixed irritation and affection for the cityest of American cities, carefully prodding nostalgia that at any moment might stir and bite. And when it does, put it down with a bullet. There's a lot of that insular provincialism found in any person writing about their hometown - a running gag where Mark Spitz refers to Connecticut, where he spent a bad part of the interregnum, always with a damning adjective: damned Connecticut, hated Connecticut, abhorrent Connecticut; or a one-line dismissal of the Midwest which had me both laughing and bridling. Critically elegiac, the love/hate of the before that did not prepare for the after. Sometimes this doesn't work, and I found myself boring through a description of the family eatery, its essayish tone slipping to droning, too many meanings, too much memory. But I see your point. 

There's the stink of the inevitable all over this story, and if you're paying attention at all, you will know how this three days in Zone One is going to end. This is not a spoiler, but a statistic: 100% of people have died, except for the living, who will likely succumb to statistics just like the rest of history eventually. Despite the zombies, this is not a genre exercise, not really. There are no hat-tips to conventions of the zombie narrative, no attempt to science up the zombies or ruminate on causes. Ten years later, it's just a done deal, something to recount while picking through the mess, the carrion body of historical fact. Even then, zombies carry with them certain inexorable truths in their rotten bones into this literary landscape. Reflection is a sad, useless business, self-serving in the abstract and distracting in the specific. But reflection is also compulsive and necessary in our human states: silhouette, anecdote or obituary. What does it matter where I was? It simply matters that I was. We pick up and shamble on.

(An ARC of this book was provided to me free of charge by the publisher, but no conditions were put on my review. Fyi.)

Monday, September 9, 2013

Revival, Volume 2: Winter isn't Coming; It's already Here

The second volume of Revival is not quiiite as awesome as Revival, Volume One: You're Among Friends, but some of that is just the inevitable settling that occurs when reading a series which starts with such a bang. Revival, Volume Two: Live Like You Mean It collects issues 6-11 of the ongoing Revival series, which details the travails of the town of Wausau, Wisconsin in the days and weeks after a discrete number of their dead get back up. 

a figure digs through snow to get at the frozen earth of a grave. it is snowing in the foreground

These reanimated people aren't cannibal shamblers, and the reanimation does not appear to be contagious. Although the setting, art style and dialogue is naturalistic, there's an edge of the supernatural: rural noir, Midwestern Gothic. While the revived seem mostly unchanged, some are still...twitchy, and everyone is on edge. The town is quarantined; various jurisdictions jockey; locals sandbag the Feds; religious leaders attempt to score points; scumbags attempt to profit. You know, the usual with a civic trauma. 

This second volume sinks into the boredom and profiteering of the quarantine, with minor revelations punctuated by lots of wheel spinning, both literal and metaphoric. Winter is deepening. I wasn't real enamored of the meth brothers and their theatrics - it felt like too much of a red line under a point - but the several conversations between two central sisters, the weird, dumpy religious lady lit up with her faith, the Hmong woman's monologue - all of this worked in the strange, understated, deflected language of my Midwestern people. 

cops talking at a roadblock

Fuck it, Tim Seeley is my new boyfriend.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Goodreads Killer: Kicking Down

Not so very long ago, a site came online called Stop the Goodreads Bullies. I would urge you not to google this site right now, and I'm not going to link to it, but I am going to note its name straight up. Fuck Voldemort. I'll name the blog that shouldn't be named. They claimed they were taking a stand about the big meanies on Goodreads who had the temerity to write bad reviews; uppity bitches and all. The very first posts on the site were a series of profiles of Goodreads reviewers outing their real names, the names of their spouses, editorializing on their parenting skills, and, in at least one instance, noting the places they lunched, avowedly so they they could “get a taste of their own medicine”. This, friends, is a direct threat to readers, and more specifically on female readers (which they all were), offering up personal details of people to silence them with the possibility that psychos might call them at home. Which, again, happened in at least one instance.

Now, while I wasn't targeted by the STGRB freaks in their initial outing, many of the people targeted were my friends, and I was afraid for them. Due to swift action, STGRB ended up scrubbing their site pretty fast of the most egregious and probably legally actionable content. Also, they were forced by a national organization against school bullying to take down the banners they had festooned all over the site. Unfortunately, the post I had that detailed the screencaps of their most terrible shit has gone down, but I saw all this stuff with my own eyes, and if my google skills were better, I could find documentation. (ETA: There's a round-up of dozens of blog posts about STGRB and their tactics here.) There's a lot wrong with STGRB's tactics and philosophy, but one of the biggest problems is that it reduces the critical dialogue to personal threats. When I say, "I don't like your book," the response "I know where you live" is a critical non sequitur with teeth. I've fought with all kinds of readers about interpretation. I hate with a white hot intensity when people say that Lolita was complicit in her rape, for example. But a rebuttal of that nonsense that hinges on the other person's address is no rebuttal at all.

So while I wasn't targeted, seeing these posts scared me, because I know I'd be on the list eventually. Pretty much any woman who says anything in public is going to have to deal with rape and murder threads, from lobbying for Jane Austen on currency, to being a Labor MP, and daring to support said Austen money, to criticizing video games. I guess what I'm getting at is that there's a scope creep inherent in any "outing" enterprise, and there are real world consequences of said outing. Mostly I practice security through obscurity, because while I may be one of the top ten reviewers on Goodreads, I'm not harboring any delusions of my wider influence or importance. Thank Christ I'm not actually famous, because just a little fame will garner me rape and death threats all day. And get this: I'm just a fucking person

Which is where I am at the start of my read of The Goodreads Killer. I'm kind of irritated just at the outset because this book is serious fucking click-bait, absolutely designed to get people like me - highly placed Goodreads reviewers - to download this shit, read it, and snark. It angers me that I'm doing just that, because while I think The Goodreads Killer is kinda brilliant in its ability to get me raging on the Internets, which will no doubt translate into click-throughs and downloads, it's not actually any good, you know? I'm not even kidding when I say my husband and I just spent about an hour arguing about this book. My initial reaction was so personal, so fuck you, that I'm glad he talked me down, but be it known that those feelings thrum though this entire review. I am not a lit-crit machine or a blurb generator. This is an emotional response. 

Some fucking tosser goes down to the river to burn his self-published books because critics, is confronted by a smelly dude, and told to go see some Red Headed League or dire consequences. He and league guy talk about how critics are RUINING ARTISTS with their HONESTY AND BULLSHIT and eventually set on plan where self-pub dude is going to kill the critic Bryan. There's an interlude at this point involving Mr. Writer getting what I think is a reverse cowgirl from a secretary, but the physicality is weak, and maybe it's just a regular cowgirl. Frankly, I've read better sex scenes in monster porn. Also, I skipped every single word of the excerpts from writerman's novel, because who gives a shit, seriously. Bad examples of "good" writing, if that's what they are supposed to be. Writer psycho hunts down the critic and kills him in a full on abattoir. The end. 

After giving my husband this run-down, his eyes lit up in little hearts. "That's brilliant!" he exclaimed! "He's like totally baiting you with breaking the fourth wall and that set-up is amazing!" 

"Sure," I said, hedging towards the back door so I could smoke contemplatively in the ridiculous late-August heat. "But it's not like one thing in that book was intentional. He believes what he's writing, I think, even if there's this half-assed satirical gloss." 

"When have you ever given a shit about intentionality?" I style for a minute, refilling my glass. 

"If this had been written by Vernon D. Burns, I'd know exactly where I stand in terms of latent misogyny and general fuckitude, but that's not where we are. Michel Foucault in the essay "What is an Author? speculates: 

Our culture has metamorphosed this idea of narrative, or writing, as something designed to ward off death. Writing has become linked to sacrifice, even to the sacrifice of life: it is now a voluntary effacement that does not need to be represented in books, since it is brought about in the writer's very existence. The work, which once had the duty of providing immortality, now possesses the right to kill, to be its author's murderer, as in the cases of Flaubert, Proust, and Kafka. That is not all, however: this relationship between writing and death is also manifested in the effacement of the writing subject's individual characteristics. Using all the contrivances that he sets up between himself and what he writes, the writing subject cancels out the signs of his particular individuality. As a result, the mark of the writer is reduced to nothing more than the singularity of his absence; he must assume the role of the dead man in the game of writing.

The author becomes a self-annihilating particle, a trademark logo at the edge of the interpretation, receding into the distance, stripped of personhood and imbued with categorical insight. But here the author murders the critic, laying his inevitable annihilation on some twat in Surrey or whatever. Readers don't wreak the author; the author wrecks himself, because he should and does cease to exist in the work. If he doesn't, he's a self-insert looking for a reverse cowgirl from fangirls."

"Whoa," my husband said. "There's no way you actually quoted that shit to me, plus this whole conversation thing is kinda trite, don't you think? A little obvious and playing for the cheap seats?"

"Sure," I say. "But it's my fucking review. Look, I get that there's some wiggle room here of interpretation, and maybe this is supposed to be a mordant satire of whackadoos who think that it's okay to kill people because they drank some haterade about a book..." My husband breaks in.

"But what about the prologue!!" He yells!! (This is the only part he's read.) "Obviously he's funning. He's joking around about his revenge fantasies. How many times have you read a review you hated because you thought it was wrong?"

"Every day? I hate reviews every day. But you know what I don't do? Fantasize about getting cowgirls and then murdering someone. I imagine writing brilliant fucking retorts and then posting them. Sometimes I go so far as to write them, only I never post them. Because if I can't bring myself to like a review, I'm not allowed to comment." 

"How is this different? How is posting a hater review different?"

"Fuck, I don't know; maybe it's not different. But I see a difference between what I feel like are my personal codes of conduct and and what is acceptable. While I think punitive shelving is lame, I don't really care if it goes on if it doesn't cross the line into threats. And while I think bagging an author's appearance is lame (and usually gendered), I think that's hella different from posting their address and entreating fucking lunatics to 'give them a taste of their own medicine'. Which would be what, exactly? Strongly worded email? At the place I fucking lunch? I don't think so."

"You're back on STGRB, conflating them with the 'pro-artist' group in the book."

"You bet my ass I am. Also, you are going to be so mad I'm putting words in your mouth, again."

"I love you, babe."

"I know. Anyway, all I'm saying is that this book is shitty on multiple levels, and maybe it's trying to be clever, and maybe it isn't, but because it's so fucking shitty I can't actually ascertain said cleverness. And I'm pissed I'm writing the review right now, because I'm in a house of cards of click-throughs and likes, where I feed off this bullshit to stay up in charts, and he eats my hater push, and it's like a dance of the douches. I feel like a douche."

"You should write that thing about Stephenie Meyer that you said because I kept calling this 'brilliant'"

"Oh yeah! So, I think the birthing sequence in Breaking Dawn is fucking terrifying, but that book is a nuclear disaster, and I wouldn't call a minute of it intentional. Meyer managed to hit a third rail there, managed to touch on something that I felt was profound, but I wouldn't call it good, and I don't think she planned it. She was writing from her lizard brain. Which is right where The Goodreads Killer is coming from. It might have hit me in a sweet spot because I'm one of however many people on Goodreads who gives a shit about shelving arcana and reviewer/author politics, but I think it's mostly an accident, and I don't like what I think it's saying."

"Reading is a passive event. It's undertaken in interstitial moments, alone, and it's accompanied by musing and dreaming. That this one book reached out, whether intentional or not, and shook you personally where you live is a notable thing. It's a fascinating, unintentionally brilliant thing. It's a fourth wall breaker that can only work for a specific number of people, and that you are member of that demographic, and that you read it, is really something. It's a brilliant use of social media marketing bait. It doesn't even matter that it sucks. If it were good, it wouldn't have the same effect."

"Yup. But still it sucks." 

I'm going to dispense with this scenario while I grope to a coda. I am able to see why my husband thought the whole click-baiting, sloppily meta fourth-wall thing was neat, but then he works in advertising, so that sort of thing appeals to him. And I'm not in any way saying that the author of this book is threatening me personally, or that I think it's some kind of incitement to violence. I'm not new to the concepts of damaged narrators or satire, thank you. I am also not clutching my pearls over cowgirls - forward or back - and I love well done goopy gross-out body horror. But I am way too close to the target of this little "revenge fantasy" - in fact I am the target, categorically speaking - and I have seen ideation like this result in real world consequences often enough for me to think it's not fucking funny. 

My boy Freud observed that some jokes are masked aggression, and here the mask has slipped, and the anemic "just kidding" appended to the proceedings figleafs over some very misplaced rage. This is the "kicking up versus kicking down" distinction that Patton Oswalt makes in his essay about rape jokes. This book is kicking down. I don't think reviewers are inviolate, and there's a lot about Goodreads reviewing culture that I find tiresome. There is super fertile ground here to say some pointed things about all kinds of fascinating topics: anonymity, publishing trends, even the concept of citizen reviewing. Instead this reads like a petulant screed by a psycho who has some serious issues with women. I feel like I do after hanging out with racist family members at the holidays, putting up with a series of ethnic jokes that are as tired as they are hateful. Just kidding! Har har! No you're not. And that I don't find them funny doesn't make me humorless, it makes me a person with working empathy.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Look, Fred, a Zombie Kangaroo: How Green This Land, How Blue This Sea

So, as I mentioned in my review of San Diego 2014: The Last Stand of the California Browncoats, I've been reading Newsflesh novellas as my big end of summer hurrah. While Browncoats corrected a lot of the things I don't like about the Newsflesh world, being as it is an outbreak story unconnected to the events of the trilogy, How Green This Land, How Blue This Sea hit every single thing I don't like about Newsflesh, and then added a couple more, just for fun. This was a Scooby Doo episode, and not in a good way. 

The first thing I thought when I read the synopsis for How Green This Land, How Blue This Sea, a Newsflesh novella set in Australia was, are there going to be zombie kangaroos? Because lol, that's pretty much what anyone thinks about when they think about Australia right, Scoob and gang? I'm on record as digging it when non-Americans write about America kinda broadly, because you can get some interesting parallax views that I would have never considered, being inside the boiling, melting pot myself, but this kind of adventure tourism based on the laziest of national stereotypes is much more suited to Saturday morning cartoons based on a talking Great Dane and his highass friends. I can't even say anything about the Australian national character, but I'm going to call bullshit on Mahir's mansplaining, the rabbit-proof fence, and the zombie kangaroo national preserve. Givez-moi un break, sheila. Here's some hot Vegemite down your pants. 

Mahir Gowda, After the End Times blogger who was my favorite from the novels and tea-drinking Brit, goes to Australia to...something. Check out the zombie kangaroo preserve and hang out with some weirdos? Motivations are murky. He meets up with some new End Times bloggers, apparently hired after the events of the trilogy, who hew to the exhaustingly dumb character traits of blogging platforms in the zombie future. Blah, blah, Irwins are always on camera poking things with sticks, etc. Fictionals are dreamy and write poetry and Newsies something about truth and justice or whatnot. I have never ever bought the blogging trifecta outlined in the Newsflesh novels, and because it's been a year since I've read them, so much of the world building stuff has slipped for me because it didn't make any sense to begin with. At the time, I was willing to accept what I felt were dumb, impossible reactions (socially speaking) because I'd been boiling in them for hundreds of pages, but the river had sped on, and my foot went into something less to my liking and slipped. 

Apparently Australia has a much more loosey goosey attitude towards the six hundred billion blood tests necessary to fucking do anything ever in the rest of the anglophone world (which we've only really ever seen the UK and North America, so whatever about China, Africa, or the rest of you lot.) Mahir eye-bugs about having a picnic; there's a lot of bush-piloting around and Coke-drinking; zombie wombats and some taxonomy about kangaroos. What really set my teeth was Mahir's final speech to a group of semi-rioting outbackers about how they should totally cherish their kinda bullshit freedoms because the rest of us are so busy spooking at Muslim terrorists zombies that our lives are shit, but he wouldn't want to live somewhere with zombats, because security. Also, please get me some tea because I'm British, you see. 

Just, ugh, this is so the kind of thing an American would write thinking they were being all thoughtful narrative about our paranoid security state - down to the polyamorous relationship that isn't remarked on in any real way, but just kinda sits there as a thing. We just gutted the Voting Rights Act and DOMA, and one of those things is a shitshow, and the other is great, but I'm sick of zero sum games of rights and freedom and security. I'm sick of reductionist bullshit and other countries as allegory, because other countries are not our allegories. Look, Fred, zombie kangaroos! Bah. 

Well, phew, that was something of a rampage, and I feel like I need to pull out of my death spiral a little before I conclude. The thing that garnered this annoying, plot-arc-less story the extra star was a couple of brief asides about Georgia Mason as she is during the last novel. (I'm seriously trying to avoid spoilers here, and, fyi, there are spoilers all over this novella for Blackout, so if you haven't read the series and don't want to be spoiled, don't start here.) Mahir got into the philosophy of the mind stuff that I thought was squandered in Blackout, even if the treatment was kinda cursory and topical. Two stars. Also, kinda fuck this book.