Daily Archives: May 9, 2012

My Schadenfreude Phaser is Set to “Meh”

People are (rather gleefully, I suspect) sending me this story about conservative writer Jonah Goldberg getting dinged for the jacket flap bio of his latest book, which incorrectly states that Goldberg has been twice nominated for the Pulitzer. In fact it appears he’s been twice submitted for consideration, which involves no special skill other than filling out an application and sending the $50 fee. When called on it, both Goldberg and his publisher said “whoops, that’s an error” and backtracked on it, both suggesting it was an innocent mistake.

Well, it’s definitely a mistake. I’m not sure it was “innocent” in the sense of “unintentional,” although it might be in the sense of “non-malicious,” since no one gets hurt when Goldberg overinflates his accomplishments. But as publishing sins go, it’s pretty venial. It’s not like plagiarism.

Also, from a certain pathetic point of view, it’s not an actual lie. It’s stupid, and it’s something you can get called on so easily that it’s foolish to do it. But just as Bill Clinton wanted to parse what “is” is, Goldberg appears to have been hanging his hat on what the word “nominated” means.

In this case Goldberg seems to have been using the word “nominated” in the sense of “proposed for consideration,” which if you’re a word dork who hauls out the dictionary every time someone points out you’re using a word in a non-conventional manner, is not incorrect: Goldberg’s publishers did propose him (and/or his work) by filling out the forms and sending along the money. Goldberg’s initial response to being called on his use of the word “nominated” in at least one of his various bios — “Nominated by the Tribune syndicate. Never said I was a finalist. There’s a distinction” — makes it clear that’s why Goldberg went with the wording.

And in his defense, he’s not alone. I’ve had people proudly note to me that they’ve been nominated for a Pushcart Prize (again, by a publisher sending in an application) or for Hugos or Nebulas (by a member of the voting pool offering a recommendation and/or submitting their name or work on the initial nominating ballot) or for other awards. Again, in a strict dictionary sense, they’re not wrong. It’s a nomination — they or their work has been named for consideration.

In the practical, real world sense, however, it’s totally incorrect; the common usage of the “nominated” when in comes to awards is those works that have made a short list prior to the naming of a winner (or, in the case of the Pulitzer and a few other awards, noted as being part of the final selection pool after the award is announced). What’s more, I rather suspect a large number of the people who announce their work is “nominated” in the dictionary sense are well aware that people who see the word in the context of award immediately go to the “short list” meaning of the word. Which is why they use it at all — or at the very least allow it not to be corrected.

This is, incidentally, why it doesn’t pay to be a dictionary dork if you don’t understand that dictionary definitions are descriptive, not prescriptive; you can be literally correct about the definition of a word, but still be contextually wrong and look silly in the real world. I mean, look: I’m pretty certain at least a couple of people nominated Fuzzy Nation for the Best Novel Hugo Award this year. If I went around saying it was nominated for Best Novel because of that, I’d have my ass handed to me. And rightly so, because it’s not correct, even if by the dictionary definition I’ve been nominated. The dictionary is not your friend in situations like these.

Why didn’t Goldberg correct this until he got called on it? You got me. I don’t buy that Goldberg was unaware of the notations. He probably didn’t write his jacket bio copy (I don’t write mine) but he almost certainly got jacket proofs, and it’s incumbent on him to correct errors. This would have been an easy fix. The obvious answer is that he didn’t correct it because he didn’t want to or that he genuinely believed that it wasn’t a big deal to say “nominated” when “submitted for consideration” was more correct. Maybe to his audience it doesn’t matter, or he didn’t believe his audience would know anything about the Pulitzer process. Which may be correct since he was ultimately called on it by another journalist. It was still kind of dumb of him.

My problem is that I can’t work up a real sense of schadenfreude on this because, really, it’s just kind of amateur hour. I’m no fan of Goldberg, who strikes me as a slap-dash researcher and whose political rhetoric runs the gamut from “fatuous” to “shallow,” but the dude’s been in the grown-up publishing world for a couple of decades now and has shipped hundreds of thousands of books. You’ll likely never see me write these words in the context of Goldberg ever again, but he’s better than this sort of penny-ante silliness, or at least he should know better. It’s like watching an NBA player trip over untied shoelaces. It’s not as much fun as it could be.

Horse Sense From Indiana Senator Richard Lugar

Who was defeated in his primary last night. It’s on the subject of his primary opponent and the value of bipartisanship. I’m going to quote a big fat chunk of it here. For those of you who want to see the whole thing, it’s here.

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…If Mr. Mourdock is elected, I want him to be a good Senator. But that will require him to revise his stated goal of bringing more partisanship to Washington. He and I share many positions, but his embrace of an unrelenting partisan mindset is irreconcilable with my philosophy of governance and my experience of what brings results for Hoosiers in the Senate. In effect, what he has promised in this campaign is reflexive votes for a rejectionist orthodoxy and rigid opposition to the actions and proposals of the other party. His answer to the inevitable roadblocks he will encounter in Congress is merely to campaign for more Republicans who embrace the same partisan outlook. He has pledged his support to groups whose prime mission is to cleanse the Republican party of those who stray from orthodoxy as they see it.

This is not conducive to problem solving and governance. And he will find that unless he modifies his approach, he will achieve little as a legislator. Worse, he will help delay solutions that are totally beyond the capacity of partisan majorities to achieve. The most consequential of these is stabilizing and reversing the Federal debt in an era when millions of baby boomers are retiring. There is little likelihood that either party will be able to impose their favored budget solutions on the other without some degree of compromise.

Unfortunately, we have an increasing number of legislators in both parties who have adopted an unrelenting partisan viewpoint. This shows up in countless vote studies that find diminishing intersections between Democrat and Republican positions. Partisans at both ends of the political spectrum are dominating the political debate in our country. And partisan groups, including outside groups that spent millions against me in this race, are determined to see that this continues. They have worked to make it as difficult as possible for a legislator of either party to hold independent views or engage in constructive compromise. If that attitude prevails in American politics, our government will remain mired in the dysfunction we have witnessed during the last several years. And I believe that if this attitude expands in the Republican Party, we will be relegated to minority status. Parties don’t succeed for long if they stop appealing to voters who may disagree with them on some issues.

Legislators should have an ideological grounding and strong beliefs identifiable to their constituents. I believe I have offered that throughout my career. But ideology cannot be a substitute for a determination to think for yourself, for a willingness to study an issue objectively, and for the fortitude to sometimes disagree with your party or even your constituents. Like Edmund Burke, I believe leaders owe the people they represent their best judgment.

Too often bipartisanship is equated with centrism or deal cutting. Bipartisanship is not the opposite of principle. One can be very conservative or very liberal and still have a bipartisan mindset. Such a mindset acknowledges that the other party is also patriotic and may have some good ideas. It acknowledges that national unity is important, and that aggressive partisanship deepens cynicism, sharpens political vendettas, and depletes the national reserve of good will that is critical to our survival in hard times. Certainly this was understood by President Reagan, who worked with Democrats frequently and showed flexibility that would be ridiculed today – from assenting to tax increases in the 1983 Social Security fix, to compromising on landmark tax reform legislation in 1986, to advancing arms control agreements in his second term.

I don’t remember a time when so many topics have become politically unmentionable in one party or the other. Republicans cannot admit to any nuance in policy on climate change. Republican members are now expected to take pledges against any tax increases. For two consecutive Presidential nomination cycles, GOP candidates competed with one another to express the most strident anti-immigration view, even at the risk of alienating a huge voting bloc. Similarly, most Democrats are constrained when talking about such issues as entitlement cuts, tort reform, and trade agreements. Our political system is losing its ability to even explore alternatives. If fealty to these pledges continues to expand, legislators may pledge their way into irrelevance. Voters will be electing a slate of inflexible positions rather than a leader.

I hope that as a nation we aspire to more than that. I hope we will demand judgment from our leaders. I continue to believe that Hoosiers value constructive leadership. I would not have run for office if I did not believe that…

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Thoughts?

North Carolina and Amendment One

I’m not particularly pleased with the outcome of the North Carolina Amendment One vote last night, but neither am I particularly surprised. And as I noted on Twitter last night, my impulse to tut-tut North Carolina voters is well tempered by the fact Ohio’s voters put their own rather odiously bigoted marriage amendment into their constitution a couple of years ago. People living in glass houses need to pull the beams from their own eyes, as they say. Of course, I did vote against Ohio’s marriage amendment when I had the chance, so in that respect my conscience is clear. My point, however, is that people who want to snark off about North Carolina as just another redneck southern state should note it’s not just the south where this is all still in play; remember that four years ago voters in California, where non-Californians often assume sodomy is high school elective, voted anti-same sex marriage bigotry into their own Constitution.

As Ana Marie Cox notes in the Guardian, all of this is a rear-guard action on the part of bigots and the oft-unwitting and well-meaning accomplices of bigots, many of whom who would be appalled and offended at the idea their vote for encoding bigotry into their state constitution constitutes an actual act of bigotry on their own part, because they don’t hate anyone (sorry, guys. It does). But I think pro-same sex marriage folks underestimate how long it will take to tear down all this constitutional nonsense short of a pro-same sex marriage (or at least pro-equal protection under the law) Supreme Court ruling that will affect the entire nation, which I don’t think anyone should count on any time soon, hopeful projections in the direction of Anthony Kennedy notwithstanding. Yes, nationally half of the US now supports same-sex marriage, but remember that half is not evenly distributed and that the majority of the older people who are against same-sex marriage will not die off as quickly as you hope.

Five years from now the majority of Americans will support same-sex marriage; ten years from now the large majority will. But ten years from now it will still be against the Constitution of North Carolina for same sex couples to get married (and Ohio’s, too). I’d like to be wrong, but I doubt I will be. It’s harder to repeal a constitutional amendment than a law. The bigots know this. This is why the bigots do what they do.

It sucks for gays and lesbians that in places like North Carolina, and Ohio, and even California, all that can done at the moment is to assure those of them who would like to marry those they love is to tell them that it will get better. I shouldn’t have to get better. It should be better. But you work with what you have in the real world, and in the real world, what gays and lesbians in places like North Carolina and Ohio and even California have is the future. Let’s get working toward it.

The Big Idea: Mark Teppo

The Mongoliad, Book One (there will be two more) was put together by what could only be called a supergroup of seven science fiction and fantasy rock stars, including Hugo-winning authors Neal Stephenson and Greg Bear. But it’s often hard enough getting just one writer to figure out where a tale is going; what happens when you try to wrangle seven writers at the same time in the service of a single story? Mark Teppo, co-writer and chief writer wrangler for The Mongoliad, gives us insight into the process (hint: It may involve bladed weapons).

MARK TEPPO:

Sure, The Mongoliad trilogy started out as the justification the writing team used to explain why they hit each other with swords as often as possible in the name of research. (Yes, there is a team; it is comprised of Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, Erik Bear, Joseph Brassey, E. D. deBirmingham, Cooper Moo, and myself.) And what better way to justify this research than to collaborate on a rip-roaring adventure epic that posits a secret history of medieval Europe? We invented a martial order–Ordo Militum Vindicis Intactae, the Knights of the Virgin Defender—and we set out to make them as real a part of history as the conspiracy theories regarding the lost Templar gold of the 14th century. We wanted to bring back the joyous pulpiness of weekly serials while accurately portraying the very rich history of Western martial arts.

That was the basic plan, but along the way, we formed a company whose goal was to realize a new paradigm in publishing methodology, and to promulgate an argument that transmedia empires could be built using small, highly agile teams that could shift direction quickly and efficiently based on customer need and reaction. Do more of what the fans like; less of what causes them to make the ‘meh’ noise. It got very Big Picture very quickly, as you can imagine, and getting lost in that landscape was entirely likely, but we kept our heads down. We never lost sight of one simple—yet very central—narrative question: “What happens next?”

I’m ostensibly in charge of the writers’ room, but as anyone who has spent any time in the company of writers knows (especially when writers have been given the “go!” sign to make things up), being in charge means I’m the guy who makes sure the coffee pot is full and there are enough snacks. Sure, sometimes I would dangle a shiny plot point for someone to glom on to, but mostly, it was like directing a cattle stampede. You spook them in one direction, and then get the hell out of the way. I make it sound chaotic and terrifying, but it’s really quite glorious to watch. The room turns into a self-perpetuating machine that spews ideas out on a logarithmic curve.

However, at the end of the session, we’ll always come back to the basic rule. What’s the story? Where does it go next? Planning ahead was a sucker’s game because with a team like this, plans change. A lot. It’s like micro-managing a vacation getaway down to every minute that you’re away, and then never getting out of your home airport because some heavy weather has rolled in. All that work gone to waste. But it wasn’t the planning that was wasteful. It was the time spent planning. Time you could have spent writing the story—the next page, the next scene.

Once upon a time, during the traditional visit to the local bakery after a rousing morning of banging metal sticks together, Neal offered the following during a lull in conversation. “I have this idea,” he said, “A monk walks into a bar . . . ” And he went on from there for a few minutes. When he was finished, there was a pause, and then someone asked: “And then what?”

Neal mulled that over for a moment and then shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess we should find out.”

That was two and a half years ago. In that time, we’ve produced a nice door-stopper of a trilogy; we’ve strewn story seeds across two thousand years of narrative; we’ve written a screenplay, two game narratives, and an entire iconography that we’re stealthily inserting into every era of history.

At our most recent writers’ meeting, I pulled the rug out from under the team. After the usual hour of kibitzing and waving swords around, I quietly erased the chalkboard and wrote two numbers: “4” and “5.” I got the room’s attention and said, “Everything you’ve been working on for the last few weeks is now on hold. We’re changing direction.” I wrote some explanatory notes on the board as I talked; then, I put the chalk down, dusted off my hands, and offered them a smile as I got out of the way. “Now, let’s talk about what happens next.”

For the next two hours, the room was a raucous cacophony of ideas. And they’ve only just gotten started . . .

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The Mongoliad, Book One: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt (pdf link). Visit Teppo’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.