One rather unexpected side benefit from my whole recent computer meltdown fracas is that I’ve found myself in possession of a Palm Pilot — an m125 Palm Pilot, which if I follow the Palm Pilot nomenclature correctly is sort of their “Accord” model: Not exactly a Kia, but not as full-featured as a Beemer. I got it for free, so what do I care — for free, the Accord model suits me just fine.
I got it because my mother-in-law won it in a sweepstakes sponsored by Philip Morris (now called Altria, presumably on the theory that it’s okay to blacken the lungs of your customers if your company’s name sounds like that of an affordable import sedan) and sent it along to me to see if I could make heads or tails out of it. Then Krissy let slip that I had gotten a new computer, and mom-in-law started angling for the old one (as soon as it’s been fixed, of course). That had in fact been my plan, and mom-in-law was so excited to hear that that she gave me the Palm Pilot in exchange. And there it is: The one verifiable story in the history of the world of smoking having a positive benefit for a non-smoker.
I have to say that I don’t see too much point in Palm Pilots or most other PDAs, which by and large are a $400 solution to an 89-cent problem, which is — “give me something to write this note on.” Functionally speaking there’s very little a Palm Pilot is good for that pocket-sized spiral notebook can’t do. PDAs are beginning to correct this by getting more and more tricked out — the latest Sony PDA basically has the same processing power as the desktop computer I owned in 1998 — but again the functionality for this $600 beauty (it takes notes! It plays music! It takes pictures!) can be replicated with a spiral notepad, a portable CD player and cheap camera for a total outlay of $50, tops. No, you won’t look as cool, but you’d have an extra $550, which you could use to buy some Manolo Blahnik pumps. And then you would look as cool. Odd how looking cool ultimately requires a stupid expenditure of money.
Which is not to say I won’t use the Palm Pilot. I’m going to New York in a couple of days to meet with clients and publishers; I might as well use the Palm Pilot to stash my notes and directions and phone numbers. Normally I’d use a little notebook, but seeing as one of those would set me back 89 cents (not counting the pen) and the Palm Pilot was free, the Palm Pilot is surprisingly the economical answer in this case.
I have found one entirely useful activity for the Palm Pilot, which is as a storage device for e-texts. In addition to my own book (which I figure it would be useful to have a copy of on hand, seeing as I’m meeting with my publisher), I’ve also downloaded The Innocents Abroad and Mont Saint Michele and Chartres from Project Gutenberg, which is devoted to publishing public domain works online — not that they’ll be getting any new public domain material anytime soon, thank you very much Bono Act (note to self: Make sure that after I die, all works enter the public domain sometime before my grandchildren are in danger of physical decrepitude).
There’s some nicely delicious irony in the fact that the most useful activity I can think of for this bit of 21st Century technology is for it to hold 19th Century works of literature. But then again, why not? There really are worse things than for a pixellated Henry Adams to get a new life on a Palm Pilot. Free literature on a free PDA! It doesn’t get any better than that.
On the subject of writing (and, very loosely, literature) a reader sent me an e-mail yesterday letting me know that while he enjoyed Old Man’s War, he had a couple of suggestions about the story that he thought would make it even better, which he then proceeded to provide to me. It was basically all I could do to keep from chewing off the inside of my cheek.
It’s not this guy’s fault, mind you. I understand that he was genuinely trying to be helpful, and I appreciate that he liked the story enough to offer suggestions on how it could be improved. The intentions are good and I wouldn’t want this guy to think I thought he was out of line for making suggestions, or that he should be stomped to death by 40-foot fighting robots for having the temerity to question my prose.
But having said that, “constructive criticism” drives me up a freakin’ wall. To be entirely honest, I like criticism of my work to be generally unconstructive. I don’t mind if, say, you you tell me my dialogue stinks and is unrealistic, but I do mind if you tell me my dialogue stinks and the way to fix it is to do A or B or C. When I had Old Man’s War out to beta testers, I asked them to catch grammar, spelling and continuity errors, and to tell me what they liked and didn’t liked about the story. But I also specifically told them not to offer suggestions on how to fix things. Why? Because I didn’t want to hear them. It’s enough for me to know if you think something’s not working in the writing. It’s my job as a writer to figure out how to fix these problems — or not, since something you might see as a bug in the writing is something that I might see as a feature.
Of course, this little quirk of my writing character comes across as arrogance, and I cop to that. I’ve always been arrogant when it comes to writing; I remember back as a first year student in college getting into trouble with my Art History TA when I refused to participate in classroom peer review of other students’ papers. I refused on the grounds that inasmuch as the other students weren’t actually qualified either as English or Art instructors, any comments they might have would be of questionable utility to me and therefore a waste of my time, and because if I was going to have review other people’s work and basically do the TA’s job, I wanted to get paid. This position assured me of getting reamed by the TA when it came time to get papers graded (I think I ended up getting a C- in the class), but I didn’t care about that. And, irony of ironies, as soon as I’m done with this Whatever, I’ll be starting an article on the Dada movement and getting paid nicely for it. So we can see how the battle of the C-minus-giving-TA vs. my youthful arrogance eventually panned out.
But aside from the question of my arrogance (or at least only tangentially related to it) comes the question of the critic’s competence. Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion, and speaking as a professional critic, I’m all for people expressing their point of view. You don’t need to be a professional musician to know you like a particular piece of music, or a professional writer to know what you like and don’t like about an article or story. Lots of creative people seem to think that that only their peers are qualified to criticize, but that’s just a stupid defensive measure creative types pull out of their ass when they don’t want to admit that being criticized simultaneously stings and deflates the ego.
While everyone’s competent to express an opinion about whether something works, it doesn’t stand to reason that everyone is in a position to suggest how the piece might be improved. Independent of the specific critic, there’s no reason to believe that the piece would be improved if, say, different plot branches were utilized, or if certain motivations were explored, or whatever. The end result of these changes could be worse piece, or better one, or simply one that is equally bad in a completely different way. Changing something is not implicitly equivalent to improving something. Back around the Murmur era of things for REM, people complained that they couldn’t understand Michael Stipe’s lyrics. But if they could would the music have been better? Not necessarily; Stipe’s maddening mumble was part of early REM’s allure. Murmur might have been better if you could hear what Stipe was saying; but then again, it might have been worse.
Then there’s the matter of personal competence as it relates to making suggestions about writing. No offense, people, but most of you aren’t professional writers or editors, and that does make a difference. When Patrick Nielsen Hayden comes to me with specific suggestions about what needs to be done to punch up Old Man’s War (as he’s already told me he will), you’re damn right I’ll listen; he’s Senior Editor of Tor and in that capacity knows how to shape text so that it’s both successful creatively and has a shot in the marketplace, and those are two things I want the book to be. Were another working novelist to offer unsolicited advice on a plot point, I would likewise listen attentively. These people have the real world experience that convinces me they know what they’re talking about.
Short of those categories, however, I’m liable to ask myself how much you know about the dynamics of writing professionally, and if the answer I get is “not much,” I will then ask myself why I should be listening to your specific writing suggestions. Doctors don’t listen to suggestions from their baker on how to perform surgery (or if they do to be polite, they don’t usually take them very seriously). They listen to doctors. Likewise, it it comes to the nuts and bolts of writing, I go to writers and editors first. Yes, I realize this goes back to the whole “arrogance” thing. But, you know, look — I’ve been writing professionally for well over a decade now. This is what I do. Financially speaking, this is all I do. This is my day job. When it comes to writing, I’m pretty confident I know what I’m doing (most of the time).
I do try not to be stupid in my arrogance. When I was writing my astronomy book, I had a couple of friends with PhDs in astronomy look over some early chapters, on the principle that they, being doctors of astronomy, were eminently qualified to tell me if and when I had my head up my rectum (it wasn’t, mostly). And I’m not saying that non-writers can’t have excellent suggestions about the craft of writing; they can and do, both in a general sense and specifically relating to my work. I’m not even saying that I don’t sometimes ask for advice from non-writers, or writers who are not yet professional writers; I’ve done both, and my writing is better for it.
What I am saying is that if you’re not a writer or editor, and you offer me specific writing advice without prompting, you should know I’m going to consider the source in evaluating how useful the advice is to me. Please don’t be too offended if my estimation of its utility ultimately differs from yours. I do appreciate the thought, honestly. But this isn’t one of those situations where it’s only the thought that counts.