I realized my favorite thing about living in South Korea. And I don’t even think it’s a South Korean thing, as a hold over to being a country not the size of the USA thing. Like if I lived in Ireland or Italy, I suspect I’d encounter the same thing. It was also what made me like living in Queens, NY. I know, Queens!
Anyway, what I like is that the city where I live, Pohang, retains the quality where a single pedestrian who is probably elderly determines how the city is designed. It’s like if you took Betty White and made her a metric unit that measured urban accessibility. Okay, maybe not Betty White, maybe Jane Jacobs, but you get the idea.
Pohang is a kilojacobs city in that every neighborhood is self-sufficient. Within an easy walk of my house I have access to hardware stores, stationary stores, delis, grocery stores, a traditional market, and restaurants. It was something Joe Mitchell talked about in post-war New York where every neighborhood was a self-contained village. This single pedestrian is accommodated in other ways as well: lots of parks with places to sit down, a robust bus system, and cheap taxis. This is vastly different from the USA where the unit of urban measure is a family with an automobile, and therefore things can be spread out, the supermarket here, the school there, and your entertainment way over there. Public transportation is treated as a charity to be given to the unfortunate, and not as a tie that binds the city together.
Now, I am talking about a small city. I have no idea how Seoul compares, although even there I think it would conform to the model of Queens, NY as opposed to Detroit, MI. And like I said I don’t think this is necessarily a Korean thing, some kind of “Wow. Confucianism dictates that you treat your elders with so much respect!” bull shit, as it is related to country-size. The USA has “Settling This Vast Empty Land” as a foundational myth, and it shows in most of our cities.
Fortunately for me, Korea’s foundational myths don’t seem to effect urban planning all that much.
It starts like this:
I’m back home visiting the States and out and about as it’s generally when I have a social life. I try to cram in as much time as I can visiting everyone I know. Invariably I’ll meet someone I don’t know and it comes out in conversation that I live in South Korea at which point they’ll slip into a script where they mistake things they’ve heard about South Korea for knowing something about South Korea. It’s like they can’t help themselves, and they have to tell me right now about one of these four things:
1. North Korea and/or the Korean War. It’ll be about the war if it’s an older guy because that’s the war the guys my dad’s age remember from when they were kids. MacArthur will get mentioned. If it’s a younger person they’ll go on and on about North Korea cribbing from Vice documentaries.
2. Asian Sex Tourism. This is always a younger guy and he’s incapable of not sharing everything he knows about sex tourism. I find it best to back away from these people and leave them as quickly as possible.
3. Plastic Surgery. Mostly women bring this up. And they may or may not bring up foot-binding as well. This is what I term an obsession with an obsession. And you can generally throw a wrench in the works by asking them if they think getting braces is plastic surgery. At least with this one I can have a conversation.
4. Dog Eating. Not as common as the above three, but still on the list. As with the Korean War and sex tourism when someone starts down this road I can actually see their eyes gel over as the obsessional script-worm burrows through their psyche and erupts from their mouth.
Here’s another one to file under Captain Obvious is obvious…
There are people I like, people I admire, people I feel are extremely insightful and worth listening to, but if I follow them on Twitter I know that they would drive me annoyed. How do I know this? Because I have done exactly that. I have followed these people, read their Twitter feeds, and become annoyed by their floodlighting. Of course, I probably have a low personal threshold for what is and isn’t floodlighting. Some folks might not mind things I do. Some folks default to hugs. I default to distant nods and maybe a handshake because anything beyond that is inherently suspicious. Other folks might operate their twitter like a traffic cop, muting people for a bit, listening for a bit. I don’t have the will, patience, or time to do that with the attention required. So what to do?
Answer: Follow other people who follow those people you like, and rely on that first group to filter the latter. And so far it’s worked pretty well. The folks I admire and find insightful remain so without drowning me in their moment to moment tribulations, squeegasms, and would-be stand-up routines.
I doubt it will come as any surprise that I have atheistic tendencies. If anything I’m an atheist that believes in mythology, or if I want to be pretentious and pretend I’m an Italian New Wave film director, “I’m an atheist with a nostalgia for religion“.
Mythology’s the stories we surround ourselves with and which shape our perceptions of ourselves and the world we live in. So, yeah, there’s Greek Mythology with Zeus and all that, but there’s also Christian mythology, and national mythology (like the Myth of the Frontier if you’re an American). Religion not only supplies one of these mythologies but builds a scaffolding around it in the form of texts, rites, community, personal practices, or shared references. When I say someone’s Culturally Catholic, Culturally Muslim, Culturally Buddhist, etc. it’s referencing their ability to navigate that mythological framework.
I joke about nuns. My buddy jokes about the Talmud. My other buddy answers his dad’s phone call with “as-salaam alaykum” while we’re sitting in a bar eating pulled pork sandwiches.
Some folks might see all this as hypocritical or cynical, but I find it all healthy and in its way respectful. Where it comes from is a maturing of religion away from one thing and towards another, a cultural identity, and more and more as I encounter ex-Mormons I wonder how long we are away from having people say “Yeah, I’m Culturally Mormon, but I drink coffee and support gay marriage.” Or they’ll sit over a beer swapping “war” stories about their missionary year. From a devout perspective they’ll be outside the fold, but from their own place it’ll be the framework they’ve inherited and can share, and as more and more people leave the fold, find life outside to be pleasant, and stay on good terms with their family and friends inside the fold, I won’t be surprised to see people saying culturally Mormon as a way of acknowledging their experiences.
I give it a decade. By which time we can all wonder about the Cultural Scientologists and puzzle out what their deal is.
In my last post I talked slight crap about fan fiction. And after a few moment’s reflection I thought, “Well, shit, have I really even read much fan fiction?”
So I sought some out.
I did a Google search for Firefly fan fiction and came up with gold. That’s been my reading material for the past two days. And beside the Craiglist personal ad aspects of some of it (erotic pairings of Book & Wash, Mal & River, and Jane & everybody), I think I’m getting a better handle on what it is in fan fiction that grates on me. But before I tell you that, let me say that reading these stories has made me realize that the thing I don’t like about fan fiction is also the thing I need to learn how to do.
Back to what bothers me about it – it’s the immersion level of the work. And this is where I think it overlaps with a genre hang-up I have. I don’t enjoy being so deeply immersed in a story. Sure, I love when I’m immersed in the act of reading, but extreme moment to moment story immersion feels confining. I feel drowned by a writer that describes everything, every moment, every thought of a character’s life. Yeah, that’s hyperbole, but with some books it feels that way. It feels that the writer is holding my hand and directing what I can or can’t pay attention to while they monologue about the movie going on in their head.
But the thing is for fans of shows, fans that would want to write about their favorite show, and a good number of genre fans that level of immersion is what they’re after. They want to be deep in the paracosm on the moment to moment level. It’s not a bug, it’s a design feature. And that’s something I need to learn.
So today’s piece of writer enlightenment:
The thing you dislike in other books is the thing you need to learn for yours.
Goodreads has a 5-star rating system. I find it pointless to give a book a less than 3-star rating. If you don’t like the book that much, why keep reading it? (Although I did give 1-star in a fit of pique to a SF novel a few years back, likely because acquaintances raved about it.)
If a book gets 3-stars that’s my way of saying it was okay, and I liked it enough to finish it. 4-stars mean I liked it enough to recommend. 5-stars mean it was great, and I hope to reread it some day.
But over Christmas I just finished reading Iain Banks’ A Song of Stone. It was so unenjoyable, but he’s a writer I like so much that I couldn’t drop the book.
So now 2-stars means this book stinks but I finished it out of brand loyalty.
I’ve got these students, smart kids, but you ask them a question and they can’t answer it. Not because they don’t know the answer, but because they don’t think the question is the question. They think the question is a trick, a distraction, from another unasked question. And what they’re trying to figure out is the answer to that question.
Maybe you don’t do the same. I know I certainly do.
Someone asks you a question and you respond to some other, imagined question. Not what was asked, but what you imagined was asked. And sure, some people are Machiavellian assholes all too eager to trap people and get them all mixed up. And yeah, some of these people are teachers, and they’ll boast about how clever they are and stupid/gullible their students are. But those folks are something else entirely. Very rarely is life like some deathtrap dungeon of spiked pits and pendulum scythes (at least it hasn’t been so far). Instead life is rather straightforward. Better to answer the question asked than respond to the one from the imaginary conversation going on inside your head.
Every now and then the debate over reading genre classics pops up and rears its ugly head. On the one hand you have folks who feel we’re losing a literary heritage and forgetting too many old great books as new great books get published. Mike Swanwick had a recent blog post to that effect. The genre was once smaller, you could read everything in it, and stay on top of it. It was easier not only to find the firsts in a genre, but also the outliers. Having a hungry curiosity for this stuff is good.
On the other hand you have the opposite position of just knowing what’s current, which in its extreme form might resemble this five year old blog post from Karen Traviss about not needing to read to be a writer. (I don’t know if Traviss still agrees with that blog post, but I’ll keep it until I learn otherwise because it’s useful.) In its milder form, it’s not needing to read every alien invasion story ever, but just those in recent years in order to see how alien invasion stories are being told now in this era.
There’s also a third hand, which shows up in the comments of Swanwick’s post, stating that the “classics” might not be so classic and why navigate through books dripping with the prejudices of their eras. This too is a valuable point, but my reading of Swanwick’s post is one not so much telling writers to know their history and cling to it, but to sift that history and find the gems in it, the outliers as he dubs them, or the books lost in genre’s shadow like the ones I mention here and here.
However there are ways to reconcile these three arguments when you keep these guidelines in mind:
1. Read only what you enjoy, but cultivate a curious and complex palette that enjoys challenges.
2. Make your own genre history. Lots of stuff gets lost in the margins or ignored because it doesn’t tidily fit in with someone’s imposed narrative. Bring these works to light.
3. The early work in a genre has more immediacy than subsequent iterations. It can sometimes be as fresh as more recent works.
4. As far as knowing your genre goes, once you’ve read the initial spark, focus on what’s been done with it in the past decade. But…
5. Always remember there are likely more amazing books that you haven’t heard of than ones you have.
Politics won’t harm a writer’s career. It’s talking crap about the genre and “loving” it insufficiently that do you in.
Their enthusiasm for writing doesn’t match their enthusiasm for talking about their enthusiasm for writing.
When someone asks what your tastes are and all you do is hold up your hands and say, “Gah! Who the fuck knows?”
People that talk about “geek cred” should probably see an analyst to resolve their middle school hang-ups.
Fruit on the bottom. Hope on top.