Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Impossibility of Jacket Copy

The human brain, when you start to think about it, is really fucking weird. Or rather, just about all of it would make sense, if not for the fact that, far too much of the time, we have very little control over what it does and thinks. This is not a post about “Yeah, I'll just have one more drink and then call it a night,” and then three hours later you're a pharmacist in Tijuana filing the 501C(3) paperwork for your parrot rescue organization, though I suppose it's connected, but rather about how powerful and permanent certain triggers are in making decisions. It's about how we develop our own systems of sorting the vast amounts of information in the world and how powerful those systems become and how difficult (perhaps miraculous) it is to break out of those systems, even when you know how restrictive those systems are and even when you know that you are personally and powerfully affected by other people's systems. So, of course, this is a story about jacket copy.

Jacket copy is the stuff on the outside of a book publishers put there to get you to buy the book. They usually compose some combination of blurbs, summary, and author biography and one could argue they are one of, if not the most, difficult forms of human expression. I mean, all you need to do is take a vastly complex work of literature, identify both its artistic heart and its most marketable features and smash them together in a hundred word statement that is both honest and effective. And do it on a deadline. While you're writing copy for like, twelve other books. And you're an intern. The reason jacket copy tends to be cliché ridden nonsense, is because it is impossible. And it gets harder when you really think about how readers read jacket copy. But this post isn't about jacket copy, this post is about a particular experience my brain had with some particular jacket copy, and why my brain, in that moment, with its systems totally failed. (Or was still right, but in the wrong way or for the wrong reasons, because, spoiler, I did read it, and I did not like it, but not for the reasons I thought I would not like when I thought I would not like it from this blurb.) (If this were simple it wouldn't be fun.) (Hey, man, this is post-post-modernism. Everything is uncertainty in parentheses.)

Here's how that particular jacket copy opens: “Jake Whyte is living on her own in her old farmhouse on a craggy island, a place of ceaseless rain and battering winds. Her disobedient collie, Dog, and a flock of sheep are her sole companions, which is how she wants it to be.” Here's how my brain with its systems reacted: “Fuck that.” Don't get me wrong, I loves me some meditative fiction (The Death of Virgil if you're looking for a masterpiece of meditative fiction) but there is a particular kind of meditative prose I absolutely can't stand and if there is a chance some of that meditation happens in the context of a sweater and a cup of tea, I go from can't standing to actively fleeing. (Nothing against meditating mid-sweater-and-tea, but for some reason the prose that usually describes those moments just grates on my inner ear.) And when I scanned down to the big sum-up, it actually got worse as the closing key words are “stubborn hopes, unexpected beauty, and hard-won redemption,” which made Josh's brain go: “Oh yeah, totally fuck that.”

Then I saw the book pop up on The Millions most anticipated list and its description of the book hinted at something far darker, far more abstract, and far more interesting than what was implied by the lines quoted above. The galley was still at the store so I filled in the middle: “But every few nights something—or someone—picks off one of the sheep and sounds a new deep pulse of terror. There are foxes in the woods, a strange boy and a strange man, and strange rumors of an obscure, formidable beast.” Now that is the kind of neo-horror existential crisis I can get behind. Sure it's still jacket copy, but I've read enough of it that I can (usually) sift through the jargon to get a sense of things. Add in that another bookseller friend started reading it and so, I read it.

There's an analogous problem, probably more relevant to poetry, but with some general applicablity, that I call “Bukowski's 10% Problem.” I love Bukowski. Not soft-spot-for-my-youth love him, like actually, respect him as an artist, but about 10% of every Bukowski collection is utter garbage. Ten percent of his poems are what his detractors accuse his oeuvre of being. When I find a new collection of poetry that intrigues me at the bookstore, I flip to a random poem and read it. If I like it, I keep going. That's how I discovered Brian Turner, James Tate, Karyna McGlynn and Kevin Young, among others. That's how I've discarded dozens more. But what if some, or all, of those discarded poets have Bukowski's 10% problem? What if pretty much all poets do (Except Mary Oliver. She is just terrible.) and whether you like poetry or not (as most people seem to not) depends on whether or not you happen to have formative encounters with selections from the 10%?

The wrong blurb. A bad cover. A recommendation from your friend with terrible taste in music. The mood you happen to be in when you first encounter the book. How old you are when you try to read it first. Given all the barriers, it is almost a guarantee that you will not read the perfect book for you. The odds of that perfect book making through all the gates are essentially impossible. Or at least it would be, if another statistical factor didn't compensate.

Connecting with great literature isn't impossible because the world is filled with great literature. If you haven't found a great book, it's because you either, actually had no interest in finding a great book or you didn't really look. Which is not to say that every book you pick up, even every book you pick up with an optimistic perspective, will be a good book. Every now and again you're going to try (and perhaps even finish) a total piece of shit. (It reminds me of something Anthony Bourdain once said when asked about his worst meals. To paraphrase he said, “If you eat to avoid a bad meal, you'll never have a great meal.” Not quite the same thing, but I think it's such a great idea I decided to cram it in here anyway.)

The awful thing about traditional publishing is the disconnect between the person who writes the book and the personal who sells it. The great thing about traditional publishing is the disconnect between the person who writes the book and the person who sells it. That disconnect allows for assessment, description, and discovery. It means that whatever gets to potential readers is a discussion not a statement, it is an opinion of some distance, it is an open and direct attempt to connect with readers rather than an open and direct attempt to connect with an artistic vision. Yes, every cynical thing you've heard about blurbing and publicity are true AND every person who blurbs and publicizes loves books and is working their assess off for not much money, generally in very expensive cities, to transfer that love to everyone else. Some times it works, sometimes it doesn't, and some times that other thing happens where phenomena beyond our control conspire to create something we could never imagine.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

What is at Stake in the 2014 Elections?

Despite the media's 2016 myopia, there is a lot at stake in the 2014 mid-term elections and there are ways that it could turn out that could shape American politics and policy for the foreseeable future, in both good and bad ways. Here is what's at stake.

Any Chance for Meaningful Legislation: The fact that any meaningful legislation passed at all since congressional Republicans instituted the “Fuck Obama” strategy is a minor miracle. If we get to have future historians, they might look back at Obama as one of our most productive presidents. The problem of course is that he inherited a situation that required a TON of meaningful legislation. The country needed healthcare reform, it needed Wall Street regulation, it needed a massive infrastructure program, new gun purchasing regulation, climate change policy, immigration policy, a higher minimum wage, etc and so the threshold for legislative success was set much, much higher by the 2008 collapse than it normally is. But there is still time. I know not all of that is going to happen, but with every shift from Republican to Democrat in Congress, the potential for action increases slightly. I'm not arguing for a Congress that would just rubber stamp Obama's policies, but for a Congress in which the tantrums of one party are not so powerful.

The Role of the Tea Party in American Politics: The Tea Party came to power in the United States because Fox News lied about the Affordable Care Act. Not a single fucking thing the Tea Party rallied behind had a shred of legitimacy. Obamacare was not an assault on personal liberty. There were no death panels. He pushed for no legislation on guns or religion or whatever. Everything that could have been rational policy debate was amplified to hysteria and so we ended up with a bunch of hysterics in Congress and state legislatures. And those democracy lovers decided they loved democracy so much, they gerrymandered their states at unprecedented levels to make sure only democracy lovers like themselves get elected, because democracy is about making sure your guy wins.

Since then, those elected by the Tea Party, have, shock of shocks, acted hysterical in Congress, but they might have finally done more damage to themselves than their gerrymandering can protect. The important thing here is that relegating the Tea Party to a footnote of history does not require the House changing hands. All we need are a few of the Tea Party Republicans to be replaced by either Democrats or moderate Republicans to empower Boehner to finally start completely ignoring the crazy uncle at the dinner table. Ten maybe. Maybe as little as five depending on how other elections turn out is all that would be needed to greatly diminish their influence. But if they hold onto those seats, not only do they get to demolish productivity for another two years, they begin to entrench themselves as incumbents, build seniority in the House, and, soon chair committees. Think about that for a second.

The Very Soul of the Republican Party. There's a good reason why the Republican party hasn't offered much in the way of tangible policy initiatives in the last few years: Their philosophical base is obsolete. Don't get me wrong, there are still quite a lot of Americans that, for various reasons, subscribe to free market capitalism mixed with fundamentalist or conservative Christian ideology, but with the continued (but painfully slow) social liberalizing of the country, it's continued (and somewhat faster) diversification, that number is diminishing every year. Add in the 2008 Wall Street collapse and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the scandal over NSA spying (which is an Obama policy but absolutely stems from Republican security and foreign policy ideas), and the tepid recovery all of which either are the direct result of or greatly influenced by Republican ideology, more and more people are seeing the absolute failure of Republicanism to cope with the modern world.

Given how few people voted for Republicans in 2012, 2014 could present an ultimatum to the Republican party. Change or die. Adapt your philosophies to the modern world (which might not actually be possible, but that's another debate) or fall into utter irrelevancy. Which, for the record, I'm not sure would be a good thing. I'm not a huge fan of Democrats either and though I would like to believe a fractured and irrelevant Republican party would allow for a liberalizing of the Democratic party or create space in our politics for an actual liberal party or more room for independents of all political beliefs, most likely it would mean corporations just focusing even more on Democrats and an entrenching of mainstream moderate Democrat policies, which really are mainstream moderate Republican policies (thank you Bill Clinton), which, since I've got you, are not going to stop global warming or end poverty.

A State Level Do-Over. The less discussed, but probably far more important impact of the 2010 election madness happened on the state level and plenty of states, including my home state of Maine, are very much looking forward to correcting the error of their ways. Tea Party state legislatures and governors should almost get a plaque for the damage they've done to their states, whether it is flushing money down the toilet in an attempt to discover welfare fraud or dismantling mosquito control systems or attacking unions (You know, the guys that invented the fucking weekend) the Tea Party has been a wrecking ball at the state level. 2014 will be many state's first chance to clean house. Which, of course, doesn't mean they will.

And a bonus thing NOT at stake in the 2014 mid-term election: Obama's Legacy. Barack Obama became President with two inherited wars, directly after the greatest financial catastrophe since The Great Depression. In his first term and a half, the American healthcare system has been reformed, a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was created (thanks, Elizabeth Warren), Don't Ask, Don't Tell was abolished, the American auto industry was saved, Osama Bin Laden was killed, the War in Iraq ended, credit card reform was passed (thank you also, Elizabeth Warren), fuel efficiency standards were boosted, and more, all while being the most insulted and disrespected President, perhaps in our nation's history, (Just imagine for a second, the shit-storm that would have happened if a Democrat had shouted “You lie,” at President Bush.) and all while the opposition party made defeating him their single most important policy goal. In short, given the context of his administration, Obama has actually been an almost miraculously effective President. (Nancy Pelosi also deserves a lot of credit for this as well. Harry Reid, not so much.) Whether or not he is able to accomplish anything more in the rest of his second term, Obama's legacy is secure. Yes, it will be one of unreached potential, but it is not his potential that went unreached, but ours.

The mid-term election is probably the best argument for and against representative democracy. The sluggish turn out in mid-term elections confirms that citizens in general, simply don't have the time and commitment to governance required for effective direct democracy. At the same time, our long term thinking is utter shit and if there isn't a headline bashing us in the, well, head, we don't turn out even though EVERY SINGLE ELECTION IS THE MOST IMPORTANT ELECTION!