Critical Failures

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Mike Daisey

Posted in Uncategorized by criticalfailing on March 27, 2012

Here are the facts, such as they are:

1. Mike Daisey is an American monologuist from rural Maine. His monologues intercut memoir and nonfiction.  He has a recurring obsession with the tech-capitalist pantheon: Jobs, Gates, Bezos — their triumphs and their failures and their intellectual seductions and their lies.

The title of his most recent show, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,”  calls back to Irving Stone’s heavily researched novelization of the life of Michelangelo. More than anything, he’s thinking about Jobs as an artist.

2. A story about capitalism is a story about lying. Maybe “obfuscation” is a better word, but I’ll get to that later.

3. Even the best of us are mostly interested in ourselves. The fact that Daisey is now the center of a scandal about lying is the logical conclusion of his work.

4. Daisey is a lifelong Apple fanboy who, at some point in early 2010, began work on a monologue about his favorite company. It would have a three-part structure: autobiography, biography (Jobs), and a section about Apple’s manufacturing practices based on a visit to Shenzhen, China.

5. In late 2010, I saw an early performance of “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” at a festival in Portland. It changed my life. I had never been a politicized person. For better or worse, I’m an aesthete, and it was through aesthetics that Daisey finally converted me.

6. (That, and through humor. He is a very funny man, especially in person — adept at combining his big mobile face with the stage lights to create a rubbery, shadowy self-caricature which he snaps out of a second later. The slapstick sweetens the pill.)

7. The most powerful part of “Agony/Ecstasy” is the limit it places on anger. Anger is certainly involved, but fundamentally the show is empathetic. Its characters — Daisey, the workers in Shenzhen, the audience, and Jobs — are doing our best. The system hurts us all. We sustain it out of fatalism and because it’s all we have. But if we see ourselves and each other plain, there’s hope that we can collaborate for some better purpose.

It imbued me with a sense that empathy is at the heart of good politics — that when it’s done right, it’s more difficult than anger, and stronger. This is a common sentiment. I know that, but I think one purpose of art is to show the truth of common sentiments. There are a lot of truths that we ignore because we’re sick of hearing them, or because we’re exhausted.

8. It’s not a struggle to understand why people do unethical things. It’s easy to understand. We are all capable of fucking up and hurting people. Given the opportunity, we are all capable of doing it on a grand scale.

9. Daisey performed the show for another couple of years, culminating in two runs at the Public Theater in New York. It was warmly reviewed and successful and it started a conversation about Apple of which Daisey was justly proud. One of the people who saw the show was radio host Ira Glass, who made the unusual step of commissioning a one-hour adaptation as a full episode of This American Life. In preparation, Glass had Daisey’s claims fact-checked. He also asked him whether the parts that couldn’t be fact-checked met journalistic standards. Daisey said yes, which wasn’t true.

10. The episode ran. Afterwards, Glass’ team uncovered holes in Daisey’s narrative — not in his research about Apple and conditions at Shenzhen factories, but in his personal story about visiting China. They contacted his translator, Cathy Lee, who dramatically downscaled most of his numbers (factories he’d visited, illegal union members he’d met) and denied that he’d met child laborers or people poisoned by n-hexane. She also denied a few other striking aspects of the story, such as the armed guards at the gates of Foxconn, and the fact that the injured man who Daisey quotes in the final line of his monologue had worked there.

11. Glass dedicated another full episode to debunking the story, during which the normally unflappable Daisey is reduced to incoherent excuses and sounds painfully pretentious and delusional. He has since said that his appearance was edited down from a much longer interview, though also that he didn’t sound much better elsewhere on the tape.

Since this would be a particularly stupid moment to stretch the truth, I should admit that I haven’t listened to the show. I’ve read the transcript. It was enough.

12. I didn’t seek out Internet response to the retraction, so it’s possible that I saw an unrepresentative sample. Nonetheless, I saw a lot of reactions. They were uniformly and passionately negative. People felt had. I felt had. There is nothing people hate more, and for excellent reasons, than investing emotionally in a story and then being told it’s not true.

13. Daisey has given his side of the story on his own site, in a couple of brief posts and also a recorded speech given a few days later in Georgetown. He has apologized, pointedly ceased to excuse himself or to cite his good intentions, and promised to make a public accounting of his facts and their origins. To many, his apology will be worthless, and I understand why. To me, it’s worth a lot.

In his speech, he also talks about how this happened without the line of bullshit that characterized his initial reaction. Here’s what I took from it:

14. It is true that he lied. He never met anyone, for example, who had been poisoned by n-hexane. He was asked whether he’d witnessed the fallout from this (entirely real) incident by audiences and interviewers. At a certain point, he began to say “yes.” I’m not going to dwell on the stupidity and self-destructiveness of this.

15. He concurs with Cathy Lee that he exaggerated his numbers.

16. There are also some things he stands by. Sometimes his memory disagrees with hers. Daisey is certain there were guns, for example. He is dead certain that he met at least one underage worker — among a group that he assumed, perhaps falsely, were also underage. He had been sure, but now is no longer sure, that the injured worker from the end of the monologue had worked at Foxconn.

17. With regard to this last category, I believe that Daisey is telling the truth as he sees it. I believe it because memories always disagree, and they disagree even more when the events in question are highly emotional.  I work as a legal proofreader; I’ve seen it happen again and again. It’s a widely accepted fact. I know that Glass knows this because he made a token mention of it.

It was disingenuous of Glass to place all of Lee’s word over all of Daisey’s — to assume that because Daisey lied about some things, he might be lying about anything. This is where the story crosses over from a retraction into something else.

In their moments of conflict, I believe both Daisey and Lee. I don’t know how to reconcile their accounts, but I assume that both of them spoke in good faith.

18. It’s been difficult for me to hear Daisey dismissed as a fabulist. He has lost control of his story, but he did not invent Shenzhen. Similarly, it is difficult to see people assuming that his intentions are purely narcissistic, that he can’t self-critique, that he didn’t believe the truth was good enough. I know he’s smarter than that. He’s spoken intelligently on the subject before. The fact is that he knew better and he still did what he did. And that’s something to think about.

19. When you critique real power, you have to be unassailably righteous. I think it’s clear by now that Daisey is not, but what really bothers me is the fact that nobody is. Meanwhile, the standards for power to remain in power are much lower. Power can ignore the truth without discrediting itself in the slightest. That’s its nature. That’s what it’s built on.

20. Following from this, no unscripted conversation with real power ever ends well.  Sometimes it’s subtler than this. Choose one or more: discredited, humiliated, calcified, or forgotten.

I don’t deny that Daisey self-destructed, or that Glass is an independent journalist whose intentions, like Daisey’s, were good. But it happens every time, and this can’t be entirely accounted for by the fact that the people with the loudest voices tend to be problematic people. Indeed, I’m not sure whether this last fact is a cause or an effect.

The genius of the system, once again, is that everybody’s intentions are good. We all think we know what’s best for everybody. The people who make up what I’ve called “real power” think so too. They’ve got a place like everyone else in the great human script: Change, but Not Much.

21. The best critique of Daisey that I’ve read came from a comment on Metafilter: Daisey’s show, while generally factual, had the effect of falsely suggesting that certain abuses (widespread child labor, for example) are easy to see, that anyone who shows up can see them.

In reality, that’s not true. The foundation of capitalism is the obfuscation of where stuff comes from. That obfuscation is built on more than distance. Daisey tried to pierce through the muddle, but apparently things weren’t quite as clear as he wanted them to be. He gave in to the desire to make it look clear, a decision which served only to discredit him and reinforce the fatalism of those he sought to reach.

22. Power lies. It is made of lies. You can’t reach everybody without simplifying the humanity out of the truth. It’s a common literary theme for obvious reasons, but it’s really Tolkien who puts it best. The Ring corrupts everyone. The best of us are not immune; in fact, the best of us are the most susceptible to its offer of an easy victory for the public good.

We see this in Daisey; as he acquired more cultural capital, he lied more.

23. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Again, if art exists to illuminate the truth of ideas we’ve learned to ignore, then Daisey has indeed triumphed as an artist.

24. Our heroes can inspire by negative as well as by positive example. It is helpful to watch the fuckups of people we identify with. It makes us recognize how it could happen to us. With this very much in mind, Daisey remains one of my heroes.

Poets wrote about my rights (four syllables each)

Posted in Uncategorized by criticalfailing on January 29, 2011

I would sound a battle cry
If I were not afraid to die

“The Last Bombed City” is the final track on the Indelicates’ debut album, American Demo. It is a World War I story, a straightforward first-person soldier’s ballad, but with assorted flash-forwards and bottomless crevices.

I slept in the mud all night
Shared with ra-a-a-gged boys
the pictures of our princesses
This is not the Roaring Twenties yet.

The song is a montage of propaganda, of “music halls filled up with wartime song,” plummy speeches from “gentlemen in wigs,” a patriotic cry of “God bless the warring nations/every soldier at his station!” — the narrator grown cynical (“The greatest war in history”/”That memory’s not ours; it isn’t mine”) but still repeating the words with a certain warmth and reverence. The song in general contains a blurry warmth, although the lyric, the raw piano backing, the intonations of Julia’s accent:

Hereafter, I’ll be a killer
And I’ll drink out my days in a century that’ll hate me forever

— are sniper-precise; nonetheless her subtle vocal gives him a flattered air, as if propaganda is the first praise and attention he’s ever received and he still, after all the chill of the trenches, finds it hard to resist.

The whole lyric pushes together and pulls apart at unexpected times. It’s definitely a strangely gendered creature, full of the androgyny of extreme youth. There’s one moment in which Julia, her voice overlaid with a murmuring susurrus, tells the narrator’s gang of beardless soldiers to

Lie back and think of England,
Lie back and think of England.

In her hands, this isn’t a broad joke. It is a joke, but it’s said with care and comes out plain, without bathos or hype. The drag vocal isn’t broad either. It’s vaudevillian, but played very straight, like Cait O’Riordan’s vocal on the Pogues’ “I’m a Man You Don’t Meet Every Day,” and to similar self-possessed effect.

I can’t help comparing “The Last Bombed City” to the Decemberists’ “The Soldiering Life.” Both are World War I stories, clever, campy, microcosmic, with a measure of what TV Tropes calls “Dissonant Serenity.” “The Last Bombed City” has an effect “The Soldiering Life” can’t match, though, a lasting ambiguity, a war fog.

That’s not even what the Decemberists are going for, I know. They just want to tell a story about a couple of soldiers in love, with some mood-play and verbal fun — and that’s the problem, and that’s my problem with the Decemberists as a whole. They spend a lot of time writing skillfully about historical and personal evils, but it always seems to be in the service of an artistic pose; there’s no obvious empathy with anyone involved, victims, aggressors, or enmeshed (relative) innocents. And my history with them is such that I feel a certain personal disloyalty running this kind of comparison, but the fact remains that I’m still waiting for anything they do to hit me like “Stars,” and I wouldn’t trust them with a Waco musical.

Ten things I like about NANA, and several more that I don’t.

Posted in Uncategorized by criticalfailing on September 11, 2010

Although I am a huge fan of Yazawa Ai’s earlier series, Paradise Kiss, I’ve never been able to make much headway into NANA — I managed to force my way through thirteen volumes before giving up, reading the latest and then looking up what happens in between. I find the whole series terribly pointless and melodramatic, drenched in pathos; its self-destructive characters, trapped in repetitive shames and pains and basing their lives on bad films, seem to me to need a good slapping, and I don’t see why it has to take several years of external time to make a simple baby.

In a way, of course, I’m really complaining about NANA being too realistic. The characters’ constant vacillation, their shallow-acceptances-that-are-really-denials, the way they bullshit themselves, and especially the way their public reputations (they’re musicians) stem from brutal, ill-informed readings of their flaws, the cracks in their armor, and their entirely innocuous pre-fame decisions — it’s all so plausible that it barely needs to exist in fiction.

None of this is helped by the characters’ constant and very stilted use of slang. It’s just hard to take the story seriously when the pregnant character is rarely “pregnant” and far more often “preggers” (man). My guess is that this isn’t really the translators’ fault; it’s very slangy language in the original, and like a lot of Japanese honorifics and gendered language, you can’t translate that into English in a way that doesn’t sound stilted. I can’t say for certain, though.

However, this post is about things I like about NANA — I think it’ll do me more good to point out what’s interesting about this book than to continue to dwell on its failures.

1. Plausible depiction of where major-label music comes from (oh g0d).
2. Yasu, the shaven-headed punk lawyer and token mature member of Black Stones, who’s a believable and engaging portrayal of subculture type cautiously feeling his way to a place in the majority culture without compromising his ideals — much.
3. Perfectly captures the dynamic between middle-level bands and their hardcore fans, who may well actually hang out with the band, become employed by them or even stay with them for the summer, but still manage to hold their music and performance as an ideal.
4. I like the wide range of romantic and friendly relationships in the book — from Nana and Ren’s stormy passion to Yasu’s level-headed but still loving partnership, to the romantic friendship of the Nanas themselves, which may or may not be simply founded in the mutual need to idealize something, and may or may not eventually save them.
5. Tokyo is not the sole populated area of Japan.
6. Takumi, the bassist of TRAPNEST, is a great deconstruction of the shoujo hero (as was George from Paradise Kiss before him). His flippancy and not-quite-total disregard for others are both charming and creepy. I suspect that a lot of rock stars have traits in common with Takumi.
7. NANA‘s major events, few though they are, are always very striking and well-told.
8. What is it about Yazawa that her characters are often casually bisexual, and that’s very nicely done, but the gay ones are always heavily stereotyped and often unpleasant? Is this an impression that would improve if I read Gokinjo Monogatari? Anyway, Ginpei is turning into her first decent gay character, despite being both.
9. I like Hachi’s family a lot. They remind me somewhat of families in E.M. Forster: problematic and somewhat stifling people, but you can totally see how they share genes, history, in-jokes with the hero.
10. Good treatment of trauma. There’s a big chunk of it at the current end of the series, and I love how everyone reacts to it in a perfectly in-character way — especially Takumi, who’s profoundly disturbed by what he’s seen, plays it off in a self-absorbed way, and refuses to let anyone else look at the nightmarish thing even if they want and need to.

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Characters of note: Kerr Avon and Roj Blake

Posted in Uncategorized by criticalfailing on May 15, 2010

Sometimes, you just wish Blake’s 7 would pull itself the hell together.  Its own writers patronized it half the time, and the whole tone of the thing changed from season to season. Characters were rewritten weekly. The universe always seemed to be getting smaller; remote political villains became the cast’s personal adversaries, and the effects of, say, an intergalactic war didn’t seem to have much effect on daily life.

And yet it rose above this, pretty much to the point where it’s my favorite science fiction series ever. There are better shows, but there are no shows in my experience more full of interesting lacunae, melancholy atmosphere, enormous sleeves, and that special kind of camp which is inextricable from the best drama.

Paul Darrow as Avon; Gareth Thomas as Blake.

Part of its appeal is certainly its BBC-in-the-’70s patina: fantastically excessive costuming, stage actors thoughtfully gnawing on scenery with an intelligent look in their eyes, and a permanent air of sweaty, half-tearful exhaustion. There is no money. What money there was was spent on leather pants ages ago. The guns look like hair dryers. We never see a Liberator hair dryer, but presumably they look like guns.

The men wear upholstery fabric. They’re much too human even to appear on Roddenberry’s Star Trek — their bodies are emaciated or pint-softened, their faces prematurely careworn and cast, as the faces of the English Seventies often seemed to be, from molds of minor Roman emperors. The women have an exaggerated quality to their features, like silent-film queens — particularly Jan Chappell, who has bigger eyes and longer arms and thinner cheeks than anybody. These are attractive people, but you might plausibly see them at the DMV. That sets the tone somewhat.

The series is initially about a revolutionary called Roj Blake, a rebel leader bent on overthrowing the fascist Federation (name no coincidence; Blake’s 7 takes a good deal from Star Trek, but refuses to be grateful about it). In a brilliant casting, Blake is played by Gareth Thomas, an actor capable of selling the worst dialogue and elevating the best, and also a man with a powerfully complicated and malleable face. In the space of a single scene, Blake can look anything from imposing to fiery to goofy, which is important when so much of the series’ subtext depends on his companions’ inconsistent faith in him.

Blake and Orac (in the background: Zen). They had a lot of computer friends, all of them voiced by Peter Tuddenham.

The rest of the initial cast are reluctant, world-weary criminals. In such company, Blake’s revolutionary spirit sometimes comes off as bleakly compulsive and dogged. In this group, he’s the one who must account for himself — indeed, in the early episodes, being a revolutionary is his quirk, like Vila’s cowardice or Gan’s strength. While he eventually seizes the group’s hearts and minds through sheer moral gravity, there remains a lack of automatic heroism to him, and a sense even of madness.

It stems partly from Thomas’ performance, partly from the writing, and certainly partly from the episodic nature of the series, which forces Blake to wrestle with the group every week as if the last week didn’t happen, and usually to have some distracting new scheme in mind — something, anything, that will lead to actually overthrowing the government, that will allow Blake to become something more than a shallow folk hero. Blake has more than a touch of self-aggrandization in him (“We did it! I DID IT!”), but there’s something in the semi-official idea that he was originally an engineer. Totalitarianism is narrow and thus wasteful, and so are heroes, and Blake doesn’t really believe in either. It is ultimately his concrete and even somewhat plodding thought, his distaste for the Federation, that makes him a good revolutionary, one who knows the dangers of getting caught up in the drama and hype.

One example of the Federation’s fundamental wastefulness is the way it creates men like Kerr Avon, Blake’s friend and foil. Initially, Avon seems to be the Spock of the series; he’s actually the Kirk, but it’s a little more complicated and sad than that.

Avon's first appearance; a less-than-imposing computer scientist desperate to cut a deal for his life.

Avon is the sort of character — antisocial, cynical, what TV Tropes calls a “Deadpan Snarker” — who becomes a fan favorite. This sexy archetype is played, however, with unusual realism. His disdain for humanity is not cute. He really doesn’t get along with the other characters. They critique him as crushingly as he critiques them, and often more aptly — he calls Vila stupid, which Vila plainly isn’t; Vila tells Avon he doesn’t understand people at all, which is true.

Avon becomes increasingly powerful as the series wears on. He rises from crew techie to Blake’s second-in-command, and eventually becomes the leader of the group. As his power grows, he acquires more trappings of sci-fi badassery — leather, studs, shooting people, kissing people who didn’t ask to be kissed.

Yet Avon can’t pass for an action hero. His basic appearance of fragility plays a role; difficult to be Han Solo when you look so clamped and glum. But so does the actual evidence of the eyes: despite his insistence that he ought to be in charge, Avon really takes any opportunity to follow, right up until the moment when he finally collapses into the captain’s chair. When someone else else shows even the slightest inclination to lead, Avon insults him ritually and then retreats to his corner, where he tinkers quietly with machines. He also invents new defenses for the ship. And meets intelligent rocks. And pursues personal vendettas. And solves murders. And plays board games, though he’s not alone in that; the crew of the Liberator spend a lot of time playing board games. Sometimes Avon seems to be the only crew member who does anything. Look at a first- or second-season battle sequence sometime. Dude is always running around. He works at least two stations. Blake just sits there.

And one of his last. I wish he were dual-wielding, but that's Tarrant's hand. One of the many great things about Paul Darrow in this role is that his expression is the same.

So there’s a sad, terrible irony in Avon. Leave him alone, and he’ll be a useful and rather happy man. But he lives in a dystopian space opera, and in a world split between the regimented/brutal Federation and the chaotic/brutal criminal world, there are only so many ways to get securely left alone– all of which are closed to him. There’s no way he’ll get anywhere in the Federation, which runs purely on charisma, glamour, birth, and social connections. And though the criminal world is better, it’s still rather similar, at least in that you need a personality gimmick to get anywhere. And what could Avon’s gimmick be? He’s not empathetic or humble enough to be a likable clown like Vila. He’s not politically engaged or martyrdom-prone enough to become a revolutionary like Blake or a zealot like Cally; he lacks Gan’s inoffensive nature, Jenna’s hard charm, Dayna’s or Soolin’s prowess in war.

What Avon is is subtle, frustrated, computerlike. His iconic first-season line is “I have never understood why it should be necessary to become irrational in order to prove that you care, or, indeed, why it should be necessary to prove it at all.” People with that kind of brain don’t do well in a world in which everybody is shouting.

So he becomes a brute, and a massively unsubtle brute. I’m not saying he’s a better brute because he has an excuse. On the contrary, he’s much worse; because he was not born a brute — because he was born a rather sensitive and retiring man, and learned brutality by imitation, out of desperation, at an early age — he becomes unstable and dangerous, and fucks it up for everybody. He’s too tone-deaf to brute right.

Blurry shot of the cast talking it out over coffee. This kind of thing happened a lot. Once they had margaritas.

In this way, he’s as odd a duck as Blake the rebel engineer: Avon the killer/programmer, a poseur among badasses, who becomes the biggest badass of all through sheer force of recognition that badassery is the only game in town, and promptly implodes, helpless, desperate. Cue cheery fourth-season end-credits theme.

And as above, there are a million reasons why a lot of this is accidental, inconsistent, and the happy result of sloppy writing, but that’s life. It might involve recycled monster costumes from Doctor Who, but it’s still a tragedy.

Colossi of the 20th midcentury talk character for your edification.

Posted in Uncategorized by criticalfailing on April 15, 2010

Ray Bradbury:

Q. I remember listening to a writer talk about her characters once. She said that she was the boss, and they were her puppets: they went exactly where she told them, did what she ordered them to do.

A. You can’t do that. That’s bad writing. They must write you. They must control you. They plot me. I never control. I let them have their lives.

Q. Is that leap of faith scary?

A. No, it’s wonderful fun. I love my characters. I trust them.


Vladimir Nabokov:

Q. E.M. Forster speaks of his major characters sometimes taking over and dictating the course of his novels. Has this ever been a problem for you, or are you in complete command?

A. My knowledge of Mr. Forster’s works is limited to one novel which I dislike; and anyway it was not he who fathered that trite little whimsy about characters getting out of hand; it is as old as the quills, although of course one sympathizes with his people if they try to wriggle out of that trip to India or wherever he takes them. My characters are galley slaves.

I consider these two more or less alike in dignity.  Nabokov comes off better here, but then he had all of his interview questions sent by mail so that he could compose replies ahead of time.

Nabokov said that sort of thing several times during the interviews collected in Strong Opinions. The quote in which he also manages to grievously insult Forster was just the one that came most quickly to hand. In general, I don’t suggest Strong Opinions to any reader who is at all burdened by literary aspiration or low self-regard.

A Little Fanwork Manifesto, pt. 2: Cosplay, drag, secret aesthetic radicalism

Posted in Uncategorized by criticalfailing on March 31, 2010

The material in the little fanwork manifesto had been on my mind for years, but it crystallized because of some Death Note cosplayers I found on DeviantArt.

What initially interested me about the group, besides their skill, was their disregard for context. Sometimes the shots were pretty faithful, but sometimes L was a geisha. The characters exist independently of the series. They have their own lives, separate from whatever they originally symbolized.

That’s common in fanwork, which is secretly pretty aesthetically radical. It deviates very much from the mainstream mode of reacting to art, which is still much more driven by allegory and stiff 1:1 interpretation than it wants to admit.

Of course, a lot of female fans of shounen anime, or any kind of similarly macho media, are aesthetic radicals in disguise.  They’re taking some intensely plotty show about men being violent and sweetly saying, “No, sorry; in fact, this is a series about the subtleties of the human heart.” Take a step back. That’s not deluded; it’s audacious as hell.

(And it’s even more audacious, by the way, if the series is not good. It requires an intense, willfully perverse creative passion to care deeply about crap.)

In the case of the cosplayers, the intense masculinity of the series also leads to some layered, funny drag. A favorite is a scene with L and B that borrows its iconography from Psycho — a woman impersonates a man who’s acting out a famous film scene in the role of a man who impersonates a woman; s/he threatens a woman dressed as a man who’s taking a woman’s role in the film.

It goes on. Women imitating male characters best-known for parodic imitation of other men, but who are here dressed in unconvincing drag, presumably imitating other archetypical male characters who famously wore unconvincing drag. Women impersonating male characters in convincing drag in which only a hand, made artificially large by proximity to the camera, supposedly gives away the subject’s gender.

You can have drag that’s multilayered in this way, and has this tone of mixed parody and sincerity, outside of fandom. But it would be a lot harder. You could achieve it by drawing on the images of famous men, or from earlier drag traditions, but the level of irony that would require would inevitably become the point — and this stuff is often witty, but its affection doesn’t seem ironic to me.

Is It Art?  Well, we can dismiss it if we want. Fans are widely held to have no thoughts, but only drives; we can draw on this false assumption, and simply say that they’re titillating folks while gratifying their own egos — which is doubtless a bit true, as it is of every artist.

But of course it is art. Cosplay is art. Fan fiction is art. Fanart is art. This is something upon which we should all agree before we continue. Some of it is bad — much of it is bad — indeed, as with any form, most if it is awful — and pretty much everything I said in the first part of this post  has a negative side as well, but it is nonsense to suggest that fanwork has nothing to say, and it is cruel and ridiculous to suggest that its creators are not conscious of being artists.

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A little fanwork manifesto

Posted in Uncategorized by criticalfailing on February 27, 2010

I’ve been told many times that fan fiction, fanart, cosplay and the like are not art; that none of them can possibly say anything; that artists who indulge in them do not progress and learn nothing; and that complete originality is the only measure of artistic success. There’s some wisdom in this, but I can’t agree.

I think the best way to start is to discuss what fanwork can do, and these examples come to mind. All of them are fiction-related, but hopefully the ideas work across the board:

1. Fan fiction, above all, comes from empathy with the characters, an understanding of the character as a personality separate from the work and from one’s own aims — which is a wonderful antidote to the lit-major idea that characters are little more than scalpels and levers. It changes how you write original fiction. Perhaps it’s not always for the better, as the more powerful the tool, the more disastrous the slip. But it certainly makes the act of writing more alive, more organic, and more amusing.

Sensitive interpretation is a skill that’s prized in actors and singers, but dismissed in writers for no good reason.

2. Fanwork is rarely paid for in cash. It is usually assigned a value anyway — often social capital — but  it comes closer than any bought work to being written solely for pleasure, which is politically impressive.

3. Fanwork, in intelligent hands, teaches us originality — by allowing us to observe close-up the boundary between the character we see and the character we write, and by bowing us before the understanding that every creative act has roots in earlier ones, and that’s how it should be, because we are involved in mankind, etc., etc., etc.

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Fourteen bendy snugglers in space.

Posted in Uncategorized by criticalfailing on January 22, 2010

New ongoing fiction project:

It is the group diary of some oddly contented clones.

Dem bones gonna walk around.

Posted in Uncategorized by criticalfailing on January 21, 2010

(As a sort of apologetic P.S. to my previous post: I am surprised to find, on a second viewing, that “Once Upon A Time” comes off somewhat worse and “Fall Out” significantly better. Only “I Helped Patrick McGoohan Escape” can express the breadth of my surprise and shame.)

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I am Prisoner post Number 2.

Posted in Uncategorized by criticalfailing on January 8, 2010

(I don’t agree with much of this post anymore.)

I’ve been reading Prisoner criticism. Most of it seems either to be the work of very fond, perhaps slightly defensive fans or people who hold the whole business in disdain. There are exceptions, of course (trust me, if we’ve ever had even the slightest contact, you are one) but generally it’s beginning to bear a disturbing resemblance to the cultural nimbus surrounding Morrissey. Lots of unequivocal praise. Lots of self-appointed pundits trying to counter the praise with “snark.” Lots of quiet people trapped awkwardly in the middle, wishing they could leave.

I don’t know much about Patrick McGoohan, but he seems to share artistic qualities with Morrissey. Intense dedication and self-belief; pleasure in silly jackets so long as they fit well, and most of all a very good eye for nasty little evils — the kind of eye that doesn’t even register bullshit, which gives its owner’s perspective a strange combination of piercing insight and self-impressed naivete.

The two men have produced work of similar strengths (unsparing display of talent; verbal wit; a guileless and fathomless sincerity which retorts sharply to Nabokov’s loathing of “sincere” as a positive critical adjective — these men are sincere precisely as Nabokov was arch, and if they couldn’t write like him, their command of the stage, of their bodies and voices, presumably exceeds his by a wild amount).

Most of all, a hatred of the “cool” sits behind both Prisoner and Morrissey’s writing. Coolness requires an intolerable remove. McGoohan is a class act, but he spends the series sweating and foaming, dressed like an idiot, lying in bed with electrodes strapped to his head, spinning around on a series of platforms.

I won’t force the Morrissey comparison any longer. Following: a list of complaints about the series — somewhat ritualized complaints, since on a basic level I think it’s a work of genius and that at least three episodes are proper, fancy art — not that I really want this generally acknowledged, because they’re currently too good as demonstrating that the perceived fanciness of art is almost entirely down to context.