Tag Archives: Books

A Nebula Nominee

I’ve had a hard time writing much of anything lately, though I’m working on reviewing some books. I read this year’s Nebula nominees recently–or most of them, since from what I’ve heard about Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, it’s pretty much the same kind of deal as his short stories. I’m not sure I can deal with his trademark ecologically collapsed dystopias right now. I’ve written about Finch here before. I’m writing about Laura Anne Gilman’s Flesh and Fire now because what I have to say is short enough that I can actually finish the post.

This review is short because I bailed on Flesh and Fire a third of the way in. I’m not sure why this got a Nebula nomination–it’s a standard volume one of an Extruded Fantasy Product trilogy. (I’m not convinced that any series should be nominated for anything until it’s finished, unless each volume stands alone.) Judging from the first few chapters and a quick skim through the rest of the book the plot doesn’t go anywhere particularly unusual for the breed. But the details are off-puttingly weird.

In Flesh and Fire’s world, wizards own slaves. The protagonist is taken from slavery to become his master’s apprentice–it appears wizards all begin life as slaves as well as owning them. What’s strange is that the book seems to think we should like, or at least not detest, the wizards, and based on my skim-read there is so far no sign that this series is building to a takedown of the whole rotten system. This creeped me out.

The other oddity is the magic. Flesh and Fire features a wine-based magic system. The wizards (or “vinearts”) grow magic grapes–this is where the slave labor comes in–and produce “spellwine” which they have to drink to use. Presumably there are only so many spells they can cast in a certain period before they pass out in a pool of their own vomit. The book spends a lot of time setting up the mechanics of the system and if you’re not a big wine fan it makes for odd reading. Eventually I realized what this reminded me of: those mystery novels whose protagonists are slightly too focused on cooking or crossword puzzles or weirdly intelligent cats. They’re the cozy version of the men’s adventure novels that spend way the hell too much time on the technical details of submarines and submachine guns.

Flesh and Fire is an epic fantasy for people who really, really like wine. I have no idea what this says about the Nebula judges.

Links to Things

  • The amazing comics site What Things Do—which features complete stories by Sammy Harkham and John Porcellino, among others—is serializing What Am I Doing Here by Abner Dean. I was introduced to Dean’s long-out-of-print work by an article in Comic Art #9, and it floored me—it’s surrealism in the style of classic New Yorker cartoons.

  • Too Busy Thinking About My Comics is a blog I discovered from a link in the comments here. The author (I feel weirdly unsure whether it’s okay to use his name—he signed his comment here, but his blog seems to be anonymous) writes about superhero comics and British pop culture. Admittedly, those aren’t the kind of comics I read these days, but I have fond memories of Keith Giffen and J. M. DeMatteis’s Justice League and sometimes I still like to read about them. But It wouldn’t matter if I didn’t, because this is the best kind of criticism: sharp writing, and musings and insights that hook you even if you thought you didn’t care about the cultural artifact the writer is riffing on. I recommend “The Intrusion Of The Fantastic Into The Mundane No 1: The Thunderbirds Of Edinburgh” and “The Invention Of Loneliness: What Green Lantern Can Teach A Boy That Starro The Conqueror Can’t”, both of which managed to move me.

  • At the other end of the same topic, I once checked some of the later Justice League comics out of the library and my basic reaction was “What is this crap?” I couldn’t follow the Grant Morrison issues at all, and I speak as someone who mostly understood The Invisibles. It sounds like Justice League has now gotten about as dumb as it possibly can. But at least the MightyGodKing blog got a hilarious review out of the deal.

  • “Making Smarter Dumb Mistakes About the Future” is an article by Cory Doctorow about why so many old science fiction futures were so wildly wrong. It focuses on three common mistakes which Doctorow characterizes as “Like Today, But Moreso,” “Just Enough, And No More,” and “That’s Not Weird, It’s Dumb.”

  • The Believer chronicles ancient Roman poetry slams. Apparently they were pretty horrific deals. Juvenal classed them as health hazards.

  • A hectic calendar of literary competitions soon sprang up. At first, the Sebasta in Neapolis (Naples) was the most prestigious event, luring the Emperor Nero himself to compete before a crowd of thousands. The audience was not permitted to leave the auditorium during the thirteen-hour recital; it was said that a woman gave birth during the performance, and one old man feigned death so he could escape to the bathroom.

  • Finally, here’s a fascinating essay on scurvy, and how we gain knowledge, and lose it, and gain it back again.

Dino Buzzati, Poem Strip

Cover Art

Sometimes a book comes late to the party. It walks in bearing beer and waving a hot new album it’s discovered, to find that very CD blaring from the stereo and the guests already drunk. That’s Poem Strip, Dino Buzzati’s graphic novel retelling of the Orpheus myth. I gather Poem Strip was an important comic in Italy; according to one review it was the 1970 winner of the Paese Sera Best Comics of the Year Award. But in English Poem Strip made its first appearance in 2009, and entered like an aging swinger who’s never revised his mustache and still wears forty year old polyester bell bottoms.

Here’s the problem: Poem Strip is absurdly, distractingly sexist. Buzzati drew many pictures of women for this book, and most are at least half and generally some smaller fraction of naked, and even while ushering guests down staircases or staffing the front desk in an office they tend to pose as though for girlie mags. Derek Badman, in his review at MadInkBeard, speculates that these women were in fact traced from girlie mags. He also complains that some of Buzzati’s drawings are crude. I think we have to cut the guy some slack on the art; he was obviously drawing one-handed. It’s a lot like the often-adolescent and now mostly embarrassing underground comics of the 1960s; you get the sense that this is the work of a guy who’s just realized standards have opened up to the point that he’s allowed to publish sexy drawings, and in all the excitement has forgotten that sometimes it’s better not to.

Much of the early part of the book is taken up with a song from Buzzati’s Orpheus—here a rock star named Orfi—called “Witches in the City.” Orfi alternates paranoid ramblings about all the women he thinks are out to seduce him with chanted litanies of names—“Barbara Yvonne Leda Fiorella,” et cetera, as though implicating the entire other half of the human race. Not only are women sirens luring men onto sharp rocks, they’re all in on it together, man. I hope Buzzati got into therapy at some point.

It’s too bad Poem Strip is hiding behind this huge stumbling block, because there’s also a lot to like. Stylistically, it looks like a collaboration between Fredrico Fellini and Glen Baxter, colored with a limited palette. Buzzati references Fellini directly at one point, as well as Murnau’s Nosferatu, Arthur Rackham, and a number of other artists who he credits in his brief forward. He fits his style to the tone of the page, swinging from realism to expressionism and back and still managing to keep Poem Strip a unified whole.

You know the story (at least, you should). Orfi, despite his weird gynephobia issues, has somehow managed to keep a relationship going with Eura. Who dies. In case you hadn’t guessed, this is Euridyce. So Orfi follows her into the underworld, reached through a strange door in the Via Saturna. He’s met by a talking overcoat that at one point calls itself “Kruschevian.” An interview with the translator confirms that the overcoat is a reference to the Soviet premier but unfortunately doesn’t explain the connection. (I wish Poem Strip had a new introduction, or maybe some footnotes.)

Life, in the overcoat’s view, is like an ocean whose tides are set by death’s huge gravitational pull. In the afterlife, the absence of death creates a different emotional landscape. The dead can’t die again, can’t be injured and have no need for physical pain, so they have fewer things to fear. They have less to lose, and fewer reasons for sadness. With all of eternity to play with, anything can happen; life’s possibilities never close off. Knowing the answers to the ultimate questions, they have no sense of the uncanny. They have no need to pass on their genes to a new generation, so no need to feel passion.

To placate the dead Orfi sings to them about what they can no longer feel. This is the best and most substantial passage in the book. Buzzati illustrates an old man who “checks his mailbox for the hundredth time but there’s nothing there,” dried leaves on the wind forming “strange ghosts in the sky,” a bogeyman floating over the city. Every image gets at least a page to itself. The art here is mostly at the expressionist end of the scale, as much designed as drawn, and weirdly evocative. A thing that rises by the side of the road and reaches out to a traveler is depicted pretty much as a blob, but it’s scary as anything.

Finally, Orfi finds Eura, and loses her again—but not the way you’re thinking. This is where Buzzati kind of redeems himself in terms of gender politics. Usually this myth treats Eurydice like the rope in a tug of war. She dies, Orpheus drags her out from Tartarus, then she’s yanked back because of something Orpheus does. But in Poem Strip Eura refuses to follow Orfi out of the underworld at all. Eura doesn’t mind being in the afterlife. She’s in the right place. She’s dead.

And maybe, Eura hints, the afterlife isn’t a cold, passionless place after all. Love is not absent, and she and Orfi will be together again when the time is right. It’s Orfi who’s yanked away from the flatly prosaic afterlife to the land of the living. Poem Strip returns to the themes of Orfi’s song in the last few pages, depicting swirling storms and “turreted clouds of eternity.” the disturbing, uncanny world of the living goes about its business as Orfi stands in the Via Saturna, holding the promise of Eura’s ring.

Steven Brust, Iorich

Cover Art

Once upon a time Steven Brust wrote Jhereg, a lighthearted adventure starring Vlad Taltos, a human assassin and organized criminal living among the Dragaerans (basically long lived elves). Some of that book’s fans would have been perfectly happy to watch Vlad smart-assedly knife his way through a whole series of cookie-cutter sequels.

Luckily for the rest of us Brust was up to something more interesting. A couple of volumes later, in Teckla, the situation set up in Jhereg got knocked down and Vlad started asking himself the kind of hard questions fantasy crime lords can’t ask themselves and still end a long day of organizing crime with an untroubled night’s sleep.

If you haven’t read Brust, Jhereg and Teckla may look like nonsense words. They’re three of the seventeen houses of which all Dragaerans are members. The houses are a kind of caste system: every house’s culture embodies a piece of Dragaeran society (including pieces, like the criminal Jhereg, they’d rather do without) and every house gets a turn running the empire according to its own principles. The houses are named after Dragaeran animals, and the Vlad Taltos books are named after the houses1, and in each book Vlad has to think like a member of that house to solve a problem, and sees the world from its point of view. Vlad is touring the empire house by house, and his moral education progresses through what he learns along the way. (Jo Walton has written good introductions to the Taltos series and Dragaera in general at Tor.com.)

Iorich is the twelfth book in the series. The house of the Iorich provides Dragaera with its lawyers and judges, so here Vlad’s immersed in the legal system. He’s investigating why a friend of his has been arrested under one of those “technically on the books, but it’s not enforced unless you’re really obvious about it” type laws. Except she wasn’t obvious about it; she’s been arrested for reasons that are too complicated to explain in a book review, and are in any case spoilers.

When Vlad was a criminal, he saw the law as a barrier to evade. Now he discovers his enemies using the law as a tool to get what they want–even if what they want is contrary to the purpose of the law.

Let’s take a little side trip back to the real world. You often hear people complain that the law isn’t written in plain english. Why are the bills creeping through Congress a thousand pages long? Why do lawyers and legislators spend paragraph upon droning paragraph defining, in minute detail, the meaning of everyday words like “vehicle?” Everybody knows what a vehicle is, so why not just say “vehicle?”

Because it’s difficult to get people to understand what “vehicle” means when their self-interest depends on not understanding it. If the law did not carefully and precisely define what it meant by “vehicle” then every idiot hauled into court over a vehicle-related dispute would have their own argument as to why, in the case of their own personal vehicle-like object, the law didn’t apply.

Language is messy. Dry and convoluted legal language is a linguistic junk drawer organizer. It sorts the mess into neat little cubbyholes and reduces the wiseguys’ ability to interpret the document however they like.

But no matter how detailed and orderly you get, language is not computer code and people are not functions. It’s impossible to write a law so perfect that somebody can’t misuse or misinterpret it. Outlaw torture and sooner or later someone will write a legal opinion pretending that when they torture somebody it’s somehow okay. The law doesn’t prevent injustice; it just makes injustice harder to pull off. Which is why we need courts and lawyers and judges to keep an eye on each other. As Vlad’s lawyer puts it:

But, you know, there is making the law, and enforcing the law, and interpreting the law, and they all mix up together, and it’s people who do those things, and the people all mix up together. You can’t separate them.

Which is not to say that Iorich is a heavy tome. Like almost all this series, it’s written in First Person Smartass. (The source of this term is not clear, but it seems to be everybody’s first description for this series, and it’s useful for all kinds of books besides.) Vlad’s voice reminds me of Archie Goodwin’s from the Nero Wolfe novels by Rex Stout. (The family resemblance is enhanced by the loving attention with which Brust writes about food. Dzur, for instance, is organized around a meal at the most kickass restaurant in Adrilankha.) Iorich, like every other book in this series, is a just-one-more-chapter novel. I’m always disappointed when the chapters run out.

I’m not loving the cover, though. It kind of looks like a box of Dragaeran Frosted Flakes.

  1. Mostly. The book that takes place earliest in Vlad’s life is Taltos, and the word is that Brust plans a final, nineteenth, volume called The Final Contract. ↩

Paul McAuley, The Quiet War

Cover Art

The Quiet War thinks people are no damn good. It’s set a couple of hundred years in the future and citizens of human colonies on the moons of Saturn are evolving themselves into posthumans. This is a common theme in SF. One of the genre’s ongoing projects is an expansion of the definition of “human.” But most people back on The Quiet War’s Earth would rather not have their definition expanded, and the more radically posthuman colonists think unmodified humans are uncouth genetic throwbacks.

Late in the book one character talks about ring species. Ring species are unusual species which trick you into watching a creepy videotape and then, seven days later, jump out of your television. No, wait. Actually, ring species are species which live in a ring-shaped habitat. At the two ends of the ring are distinct species, so different they can’t interbreed, but in between are a series of interbreeding populations, each a little different, gradually shading into the two species on the ends.

The Quiet War sees humanity defining itself as this kind of continuum, othering the ends of the continuum, and declaring war.

The thing is, Earth and the colonies don’t know why they’re going to war. The powers that be—the monarchical families that rule earth, and the influential personalities who guide public opinion in the direct democracies of the colonies—think they’re going to war for revenge, for resources, for philosophical differences, or for control of the solar system. But at bottom, they’re going to war because even the leaders who have the people under their thumbs are themselves under the collective thumb of the mob… and the mobs hate each other’s guts.

No matter where you are in the solar system, humanity in The Quiet War gets meaner and stupider in the aggregate. And it won’t stop with one war: wipe out the people at the ends of the ring, and the people left in the smaller ring redefine the new ends as not quite human. Repeat the process long enough, and there’s not much of humanity left.

So, yeah, grim. And not necessarily what I needed to read coming out of winter. (Could we please have more SF about cool futures? You know, where most people are basically going to be okay? It’s not like an utter dystopia is a necessary prerequisite for conflict and drama.) It didn’t help that of the five point-of-view characters, four were, as far as I was concerned, villains.

But I still read the whole thing—enough to find out that, luckily, the single sympathetic POV character gets a happy ending, and most of the few other characters I cared about made it through all right. The Quiet War is a decent thriller. Paul McAuley’s prose isn’t earth-shatteringly beautiful—what I look for in prose are “I never thought of it that way” moments, the bits where some observation, word choice, or turn of phrase makes me think of whatever’s being described in a new light. But The Quiet War isn’t badly written, either; it’s what readers suspicious of highfaultin’ lit’ry stuff call “transparent prose,” and a better than average example of the form.

If The Quiet War has a problem, it’s that McAuley is sometimes too anxious to show us his research. Technical detail is good—this is hard SF, after all—but McAuley gave more detail than I needed, or cared, to know. A small, typical example occurs in a battle scene when a dead soldier’s body is frozen to be sent home. McAuley is careful to inform us that he’s frozen at two degrees Celsius. Why do we need to know the exact temperature? You could slim this thing down by fifty pages, and be left with a better book, just by cutting the excess technobloviation.

Sarah Caudwell, The Sirens Sang of Murder

Cover art, by Edward Gorey. Because Hilary Tamar is just that cool.

(Note: I’m posting about a mystery novel. I don’t reveal the killer, but it’s almost impossible to talk about a mystery novel without spoiling something. If you’re planning to read this book, proceed with caution.)

The thing that usually gets mentioned when people talk about Hilary Tamar, the legal historian/amateur detective who appeared in four novels by Sarah Caudwell, is that we never learn Hilary’s gender. You might assume from the emphasis placed on that fact that these books spend a lot of time teasing the audience. Actually, it’s the least noticeable or interesting thing about them. Most readers probably get a pretty good mental image of Hilary from his/her narration, even if it’s a different image for everybody. Hilary is big on literary references and hangs out in wine bars with a group of young British lawyers whose misadventures provide him/her with cases, so my mental image of Hilary looks exactly like Horace Rumpole.

Caudwell wrote books in the form of classical detective tales and the style of P.G. Wodehouse (with a little extra frankness about sex). They’re painlessly loaded with the lore of British estate and tax law. The Sirens Sang of Murder, the third in the series, is set in various offshore tax havens. The plot is driven by the absurd lengths to which British millionaires go to avoid taxes, and I actually managed to sort of understand the arcane legal contortions. Caudwell wrote the kind of books that make me feel smarter while I’m reading them.

The Sirens Sang of Murder is set at a specific point in time technologically: the solicitors’ office has just installed a Telex machine, sort of a telegraph hooked up to a typewriter. Michael Cantrip, one of the more airheaded regular cast members, is nuts about it and narrates most of his scenes through his voluble telexes. A few years later he’d have sent faxes, and later still emails.

At one point another regular, Selena Jardine is unhappy with one of the clues—a distinctive pen dropped at a murder scene. It’s old-fashioned, something out of an old detective novel, and she doesn’t find it remotely believable. “People do what books have taught them to do and feel what books have taught them to feel—it is curiously difficult to do otherwise,” observes Hilary. Selena thinks about crime as realistic modern police procedurals taught her to do.

In the real world, lawyers complain about the “CSI effect”, the assumption by jurors that forensic science works just as magically as it does on TV. Stories have power. Everyone sees the world through the filter of the stories they read and watch and listen to.

Sirens’s cast is focused on the financial shenanigans surrounding the Daffodil Trust. They’re looking for a realist motive, a motive that makes some kind of sense. They miss one obvious possibility because it’s intruded into their narrative from romantic (in the archaic sense) literature. The real killer has been reading different books.

We in the audience, as real people reading a mystery novel, can’t help looking at Hilary’s case through the lens of detective fiction—because, heck, it is detective fiction. At one point, a revelation pointed to one obvious suspect who appeared to fit all the clues, some of which had been laid very subtly, very early on. I knew he was a red herring. I hadn’t worked this out through a Holmesian deductive leap. I just had information that Hilary didn’t: I knew I was only two-thirds of the way through the book. What kind of crappy detective novel would reveal the killer with 80 or 90 pages left to go?

Links to Things

Here’s another list of interesting links I’ve collected recently:

  • Jo Walton, at Tor.com, on science fiction reading protocols:

    We talk about worldbuilding as something the writer does, but it’s also something the reader does, building the world from the clues. When you read that the clocks were striking thirteen, you think at first that something is terribly wrong before you work out that this is a world with twenty-four hour time–and something terribly wrong. Orwell economically sends a double signal with that.

    And an earlier essay on the same subject by James Gunn:

    Earlier in the essay, Delany refers to the fact that “the conventions of poetry or drama or mundane fiction–or science fiction–are in themselves separate languages,” and in other essays call the process by which one approaches and reads those languages as “protocols.” As I thought about it, I realized that good reading is a matter of learning the protocols and applying them with understanding and sensitivity to a particular genre: poetry, for instance, is not read with the same protocols as prose, or an essay, as an article, or a short story, as a novel, or any of these, as drama.

  • On the other hand, there’s this post from another writer in which “genre fiction” is pitted against “literary fiction,” and the Virginia Quarterly Review is held up as an example of all that is wrong with the literati. There are people who look down on genre fiction–David Langford finds one or two examples every month for Ansible–but hardly anyone listens to them anymore and it’s really time for genre fans to stop obsessing over it.

    But I’m linking to this particular post because, rather wonderfully, the editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review shows up in the comments to point out that the VHQ does, in fact, publish genre fiction. I think this is what the kids these days call “pwned.”

    Elsewhere, Rachel Swirsky explains the difference between genre as a tool and genre as a prophecy.

  • Ten ways to write badly. I only draw comics and write blog posts, but I must admit I’m guilty of the first half of rule 7 (“Write only when the muse moves you.”) Got to work on that.

    Additional rules for writing badly, the way I write badly:

    11. Adverbs are your friends.
    12. So are semicolons.
    13. Em dashes! Lots of em dashes!
    14. Interjections are so much better than actually organizing your thoughts.

    Too much of the time I spend revising blog posts is spent just cutting down on these four problems.

  • Much of the art in the Louvre is anonymous. Who made it? And what assumptions do we make about the people who made it, and why do we make them?

  • On a less tasteful note, this is what can happen when language changes.

Cory Doctorow, Makers

The cover art for the British edition, which looks so much better than the American cover.

One complaint I hear from people who don’t like science fiction is that it’s about ideas and not people. Given the amount of SF I read I obviously don’t agree, but even I think they sometimes have a point–about Cory Doctorow’s Makers, for example.

For me, Doctorow is a love-it-or-hate-it writer. His best book is Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town. Unlike his other novels, Someone is a surrealist fantasy. Maybe that helped. Writing about a guy whose parents were a mountain and a washing machine, Doctorow has fewer occasions for awkwardly wedged-in futurist polemics about technology, copyright, and geek culture.

In Makers Doctorow writes about lots of things–solutions to the obesity epidemic (which lead to new and worse problems), clever uses for RFID tags, amusement parks–but mostly about a new economy where 3-D printers and cheap computers let small startups compete with bigger companies, and how to transition from here to there. And Makers’s characters pontificate endlessly on these subjects, and as they do so they sound just like Doctorow’s nonfiction.

Makers doesn’t have characters so much as mouthpieces. Everything its characters say is a speech. Everything they do is a demonstration. Some characters are good examples who embody Doctorow’s ideas. Some are bad examples. None feel like people. I never was able to keep Lester and Perry, Doctorow’s two geek heroes, straight.

Makers is weirdly Ayn Randian in its style of argument if not its worldview. (Doctorow is similarly keen on the kind of economics currently and not always accurately characterized as “free market,” but while Rand dreamed of a world ruled by captains of industry Doctorow sympathizes with ordinary people and believes the best ideas come up from below.) One of the villains is a journalist the heroes call “Rat-Toothed Freddy.” Not only does he question Makers’s worldview, but like Rand’s villains he’s ugly and petty and makes his case as offensively as possible, with gratuitous personal attacks.

Freddy doesn’t learn anything because he’s the bad guy, and Lester and Perry don’t learn anything because as the book begins they already embody Doctorow’s ideals. The last we see of them it’s years later and they’re back to their old tricks. The only character who ends the story as a better person is the second villain, Sammy, a midlevel Disney executive. At one point Makers states “Lester came to understand what it meant to be responsible for people’s lives.” But that’s something we’re told, not shown. We don’t feel what Lester is feeling, and after his moment of revelation he acts pretty much the same. At the climax of the novel the “good guys” do the right thing, the thing that solves everyone’s problems, only because it gives them a chance to humiliate Freddy.

There’s a moment, somewhere around then, when Lester (or was it Perry?) has a brief flash of insight and wonders whether Freddy has a point. Then it’s gone, and he worries no more. Which is too bad. Sometimes, Freddy does have a point. He’s the only character willing to question Makers’s worldview, and there are questions Makers ought to ask of itself, and doesn’t.

How easy is it for people who’ve dedicated their lives to a company to pick up the pieces after their jobs blow away in a hurricane of “creative destruction?” Lester and Perry’s associates skip from job to job with songs in their hearts, but for some people the stress of having their cheese moved on them all the damn time takes years off their lives. How many little startups can the market support? (Maybe not so many, given how quickly the New Work implodes.) What happens to the people whose companies fail? What about health insurance? (There’s not much sign that Makers’s America has solved its health care problems.) In practice, much of the New Work produces tchotchkes, bric-a-brac and dime-store kipple–to borrow William Morris’s rubric, things neither useful nor beautiful. How liberating is the New Work if people are still just selling each other junk they don’t need and don’t really want?

On the other hand, I do admire Makers for making kipple look fun. Makers succeeds at one thing: celebrating making. Makers respects people who do things, and do them well, regardless of who they are.

Sammy’s salvation lies in coming up with an idea he cares about, and although the Disney corporation in general serves as a villain Makers allows its good-guy journalist, Suzanne Church, to be impressed by the pride and attention to detail of the people who build and rebuild Disney World.

Of course, the Disney workers have something the Makers don’t: stability. There’s an idea floating around, courtesy of Malcolm Gladwell, that to really master a craft you need to spend 10,000 hours doing it. (Which may be why I’m great at my job, but less great at the things I love to do when I’m not at work. I need to work on my attention span for my hobbies.) 10,000 hours is a glibly arbitrary number, but it’s true (even with simpler tasks like selling electronics, as Circuit City discovered, to their cost, after they laid off their most experienced employees) that you’re more likely to find expertise in places where people have the job security to concentrate on mastering their trade.

In Makers‘s New New Economy of laissez-faire, layoffs, and dizzyingly rapid boom-and-bust cycles, just surviving takes half of everybody’s energy. Energy they could be using to, y’know, make things.

R. O. Blechman, Dear James

Cover Art

Dear James is R. O. Blechman’s entry into the “Letters to a Young Something-or-other” genre which has sprung up in imitation of Rainer Maria Rilke. In recent years books have been addressed to young mathematicians, young activists, young conservatives, and young novelists. The McSweeney’s website offers “Letters to a Young Plumber” and although I have not investigated this phenomenon in detail it would not surprise me if someone had written letters to a young rat-catcher.

No one seems to be writing letters to old people. It’s sad.

Anyway. Blechman is writing to a young illustrator. Not a real young illustrator, in this case, so it feels a little weird when he compliments his imaginary correspondent on his latest gig. But the conceit frees Blechman to take a casual, conversational tone and the book is more fun for it. That probably has a lot to do with why the “Letters” format has been popular lately.

Blechman touches on all the stages of an illustration from idea to print, and wider philosophical issues about art (How do you juggle creativity with a day job? What’s the difference, if any, between high art and low? And why are we doing this at all, anyway?). One idea that will be obvious to most artists but new to some readers is that art is work.

Not everybody gets this. For instance, there are people who think writers just sit down and, y’know, write. (There are writers who thing people just sit down and write. Recently I came across a blog post by a writer who claimed writing wasn’t work, it was just typing. I made a mental note to avoid his books.) These are the people who end up self-publishing horrid first-draft novels about elven vampires and cluttering slushpiles with nonsense.

There are people who think cartoonists and illustrators just draw. Maybe they’re especially fooled by scribbly and deceptively simple art like Blechman’s… but he wrestles with his ideas, draws multiple versions of an illustration, worries about the best and clearest way to communicate what he wants to get across. In one case, even after an illustration is accepted by the New York Times, he decides he hasn’t done his best work, and before the deadline he goes back to the editor with something better. It’s a struggle, but he’s also having fun. Dear James manages to communicate both the struggle and the fun.