The Amateur Web

A few weeks ago, I read an article (that I can no longer find) on the end of the amateur web. The author was talking about how he was trying to do a routine sprucing up of his personal blog, changing the theme and the design elements and so on, when he suddenly realized that it was no longer fun, no longer the easy tinkering that it used to be, now that he has to make sure it looks good not only on every browser and OS but also on every mobile device and app that readers will use to access your site. Writers, he concludes, should stick to writing and leave the design, upkeep, promotion and marketing to the professionals. This is the solution that sites such as Medium offer, and his prediction was that more and more writers will embrace these solutions and gradually abandon their personal blogs.

As I was reading this, though, the more pressing question on my mind was, “what do we have to say, anyway?” Amateur journalism is certainly a thing that exists, and the power and reach of amateur opinions online has been widely praised (and criticized). Most amateur writing on the web, though, is not journalism, or advocacy, or even substantiated opinion. Most writing on the web is, in fact, nothing but the barely coherent musings of people who feel that they have something to say but are not entirely sure what it is. (There are of course exceptions: as a rule of thumb, the more focused a site is, the less expansive an area it targets, the more it has to say. This also has exceptions.) I have written before (as have others, and better, which is basically my point) on how much of our online presence essentially boils down to identity performance. We all -with varying degrees of effort; you might not feel like you’re doing this, but only a little self-reflection should be required to see it- construct and project an image that reflects only what we want others to see. For most of us a successful performance is one that we wear as a second skin, comfortable enough that we never have to take it off. The difficulty arises when it no longer wears snugly, when it begins to suffocate us, when the dissonance between the mask and the confusing mess within begin to grate.

There exists, as an antidote that is always available to the writer, the obsessive honesty of Hemingway or the nearly fetishistic transparency of Karl Ove Knausgård. It is the cost of this antidote that frightens me, because of course Sartre’s statement was quite incomplete: Hell is not other people. Hell is what you see of other people through their masks, and hell is also the fear of what might be behind your own.

In defence of Chetan Bhagat

Photograph of Chetan Bhagat, Novelist, while h...

Chetan Bhagat-Image via Wikipedia

So the man isn’t really a good writer, all right? I mean, he can string sentences together in a perfectly competent manner, but you would never read a passage from his books and think it came from Rushdie or Roy, for instance. But nonetheless, it rings throughout with- and I hate using this word, but for once I mean it- authenticity. Now, there currently exists in the front sections of most Indian bookstores rows of perfectly authentic (Indian) writing that also happens, alas, to be unreadable excrescence in many cases (I would have said most, but I couldn’t bring myself to try out a larger sample size, and saying most would be intellectually dishonest.) But Chetan Bhagat manages to pull off authenticity and still not grate, which is a rarer achievement than you would expect. Of course the fact that most conversations are in fairly colloquial “Indian English” means there’s at least one thing “wrong” in most paragraphs, but you only have to tune out your pedantic inner self a little, not stuff red-hot pokers up every possible orifice until it finally stops screaming.

Authenticity, however, isn’t even the main thing that makes him worth defending. The reason he is unambiguously a “good thing” to happen to this country is that he is a reasonable man, in the most obvious sense of the word, who also happens to be enormously popular. I’m not really familiar with his political positions in any detail but his books- books that literally millions of Indians who have read practically nothing else of a similar length in the English language- pushes mostly secular, liberal, universalist views on a populace that cannot by and large be described using those words[1]. I have no idea how much of an impact he’s having, if at all- I do know that the man sees himself as more than just a writer, perhaps as an activist of some sort, and I remember articles mocking him for his “pretensions” when what he does, essentially, (at least according to that reviewer) is sell pulp- but every bit counts, right?

[1] Do I sound like a tool here? I’ll admit that it sounds classist to paint such vast swathes of his readership with the same brush, but I’m pretty sure it’s applicable to a good portion of them.

RaceFail 09

I blame John Scalzi for turning me onto this(even though he did try pretty hard not to even mention what he was responding so angrily to), although I’m surprised that I’ve never even thought about the larger issue before. The larger issue being racism and diversity within the world of SFF. Obviously, I’ve thought about racism in literature per se -being a post-colonial Indian I have no choice in the matter- but I rather thought SFF was largely immune to it. turns out, not, at least according to most of the participants in this very, very ugly discussion. I’m not weighing in myself-this is far too complicated a topic for me to draft a quick response to, and I’m content with not taking it on as a personal crusade- but I will link to a few posts, with commentary.

  1. The one that started it all- an open letter to Elizabeth Bear from Seeking Avalon. It essentially complains about the mistreatment(I don’t know if that’s the right word, but I do think Seeking Avalon will probably scream at me for the apparently trivial description whatever I put 🙂 ) of a black character in one of her books, and extends the trouble to various other characters and works. This post makes sense, although there are a whole bunch of oblique references, and if you go to any of her other posts, be warned that she can be a bit…well, I can’t really think of a better word than bitchy. Pissed?
  2. A much more sensible and relevant-to me, that is, because I’m an Indian and so is she- article by Deepa D. All of her points are absolutely spot on, which is disturbing-I never truly thought my identity was so…fragile before I read this. However, I would like to add that I disagree that it HAS to be. The vast, VAST majority of books I read are by non-Indian writers, but there’s certainly a plethora of Indian Writing in English, that is of objectively high quality, as determined by most people that care about rating books. A significant portion of the school curriculum in English as well as the university programs in English(right? I don’t actually know about this bit, but I know I have readers that can educate me, so I’ll let this stand for now) is INDIAN WRITING, about Indian people in Indian settings(although not necessarily all 3 at the same time). Cultural/racial confusion is likely, which is certainly a situation that must be corrected, but not inevitable. I think. 🙂
  3. A follow-up post by Deepa, addressed mostly to white people, but serving to meet some of the more common objections by anyone.
  4. A state-of-the-argument post by the editors of Vector Magazine, in the UK, and why it matters. Has a lot more links, for those who care.
  5. Possibly should have been first: the post by Elizabeth Bear that somehow started this whole thing. To be honest, I don’t actually see what was the problem with this. Especially because EB seems to be a really, really bad target for a “RACIST!” attack.

The problem, of course, is that there’s literally hundreds of other people who’ve been talking about this, and most of them aren’t very polite. I’m not sure what this post is really meant to accomplish, except introduce the whole thing to people who might not have heard about it and solicit ideas from those better informed on the literary criticism side of things I just thought I’d write about this since I’ve been reading random blogs for over an hour. Anyone sufficiently interested should find the links on this page a decent starting point…or of course, there’s always google.

PS: And of course, there’s all the vernacular language literature that we should be catching up on, but I’m hardly in any position to preach about that- I don’t think I’ve read a full Malayalam novel that I didn’t have to learn since, I don’t know, 8th standard, and I haven’t read anything at all beyond pamphlets or the occasional newspaper in my mother tongue since 10th. Which is shameful, I know, but…ah, actually, no buts, when I get back home, I’ll try and read at least ONE full length novel in Malayalam. Anyway, I believe THIS discussion is contentious enough as it is without worrying about that.

PPS: Is it a sign of how thoroughly confused/converted I am that I’m not getting the urge to scream “racist” at virtually any of the posts that the vast majority of people, even the relatively moderate ones, scream “racist” at? Or just how much the entire discussion sucks?

Quote of the Week: On Writing

I have 2 choices,really. Both about or related to Science Fiction and Fantasy.
“This is the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain.”

Ursula K. LeGuin, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”

and,

“I write softcore nerdporn for elf fetishists, and you’re standing between me and my beer.”

–Scott Lynch

Somebody tell me which should go on the sidebar,quick!

Monday Thoughts

I so want to see this movie: Let the Right One In.  Why am I running into so many vampire references all of a sudden?

Based on the works of Roald Dahl

Based on the works of Roald Dahl

From Tales of The Unexpected.Lots more after the link.

Actually wrote a poem. I can’t remember the last time I did that. Unfortunately, also made the discovery that I can only really write poetry if it’s actually about real, personal, emotional experiences.  Aside from not leaving me a wide range of topics to write on, it also means that I’m unlikely to ever show it to anyone.

Just had an Idea

Which I’m sure has been tried before. I want to write a fairly linearly played-out novel-or an outline, more likely- and then start rewriting it in reverse chronological order, trying to keep as many of the surprises or twists or whatever hidden for as long as possible, but without altering the plot/storyline(as far as possible). It would also have to make sense, although I have no problem writing only for relatively smart people. Can something like this work? More generally, are there many(any?) books that are laid out in this fashion, the narrative going only backwards in time as the novel progresses? I don’t mean the whole start at the end, cut to the beginning(or middle), and then proceed linearly from there shtick, which is pretty common. Anyone have examples?

Right now, though, I’m way behing on mugging for ADSP. Thank God it’s only day after. Not helped by the fact that I found a whole cache of Meg Cabot ebooks(ah, another secret exposed to the world. Yeah, I read Meg Cabot. Happy?) on esnips.com. If you’re interested, it’s not hard to find; just search. The next few days are going to see me enveloped in a world of implausible romantic tales created for the fantasies of lonely (or not; no offence if you happen to like it 🙂 ) teenage girls. I’m TWENTY, by the way!!! No longer a teen! And I didn’t get to do ANYTHING!!! 😦

SF Writing Results: Fan-fiction

Only one prize this time, and since there were so few entries I did the judging myself.Forgive the “pseud-putting” comments, as most people in the insti would call it. Just trying to go with what everyone else did. 🙂

The fan-fiction prize goes to Aswin Krishna for his short story Overwatch:

The Half-Life universe was a very good choice for this contest, because the “canon”, the original games, has several unexplained parts and scope for filling in, which led to better coherence between the story and what came before it. It follows the pattern of the canon in narrative structure, as well: the entire story is told from a single point of view, the plot is strictly linear, and even at the end, some questions are left teasingly unresolved. The writer demonstrates a great degree of familiarity with the original source, and weaves an entertaining tale without taking any excess liberties with the material.

I honestly didn’t get the ending, but I liked it all the way till there, and the somewhat “sudden” and unexplained ending seems to be in the “spirit” of the games anyway. I haven’t played them, just heard lots and read up on wiki, but this IS meant to be what happens between the 1st and the 2nd,right? The victory of the Combines, I mean. Maybe if I’d read up on it before I’d read your story, I would have been better prepared for the ending. 🙂

Also, the On-the-Spot event is tomorrow and then again on Saturday. Slightly nervous over turnout, and whether people think my topics stink. Wish me luck!!!

SF Writing Results: Short Sketch

That’s in,too, so I’ll finally have these up at the Shaastra site soon. Here goes:

Astronaut 26 3
Record Button On 28 2
Lijo 25 4
When he was a Cockroach 24 5
The Ironic Ambush 19 8
The Superhero who could not fly 21 7
Zatheran 24 5
A Chat with my AI Program 22 6
The Last Rites 29 1

Yes, I have points and all that. 🙂 . This is what the judge had to say about the winning entries:

  1. The Last Rites, by Amey Asgaonkar and Archana Paranjpe:convincing/compelling: Concept – 7
    whether it draws you into its world/whether you find it exciting or moving: Atmosphere/Immersion – 8
    whether you feel the characters come alive as real people:characterisaion – 7
    whether you feel you have learned something, gained some insight, been amused, or enjoyed reading it: Effect – 7

    I liked the premise of this work, as well as the fact that it creeps
    up on you at the end instead of being flashed in your face at the
    outset. I also found the paradox of Superman’s long lost home
    being his nemesis also interesting. The story proceeded well and
    you really got a feel that this is the sort of thing Supes may
    actually say if he were feeling particularly defeatist. I found it
    poignant, and the fact that it provoked some emotional reaction in
    me is probably the reason I enjoyed reading it.

  2. Record Button On, by Vinayak Sapru:
    convincing/compelling: Concept – 6

    whether it draws you into its world/whether you find it exciting or moving: Atmosphere/Immersion – 7

    whether you feel the characters come alive as real people:characterisaion – 8

    whether you feel you have learned something, gained some insight, been amused, or enjoyed reading it: Effect – 7

    While the concept of this story wasn’t particularly unique, the ending premise was funny enough to add something to it. The dialogue (monologue?) was reasonably written and well paced, and the insertion of atmospheric text cues for sound effects did well to add to the mental imagery evoked by the story. The character was suitably interesting enough, and again, the little twist at the end did a lot to save the gory melodrama that the story threatened to descend into towards the end. I did find it amusing, and I was satisfied by the atmosphere introduced.

  3. [No Title] Astronaut.doc, by Harshvardhan Krishnamoorthy:
    convincing/compelling: Concept – 7
    whether it draws you into its world/whether you find it exciting or moving: Atmosphere/Immersion – 6
    whether you feel the characters come alive as real people:characterisation – 6
    whether you feel you have learned something, gained some insight, been amused, or enjoyed reading it: Effect – 7

    The premise of this story is probably what saved it from the others. While not unique, it was compelling and well executed, which is an important aspect of concept execution. The story and atmosphere was plausible, though I feel it is important to avoid an excessive jargonisation of speech patterning, which, while suited to the story, can lead to glassy eyes.  Nevertheless, it probably provided the least simplistic moral tale available, and evidence of a thought process that has gone into concept execution is apparent.

And that’s it. Congrats and sorry, people. Now, I have to give this whole thing to the webops guy to put on the Shaastra site. Also, will miss the Golden Jubilee Conclave, I think, no invites and I hardly think I can bug my core like they told me to 😦 . Have more shaastra work anyway. And apparently, public holidays don’t apply to D and C slot profs, so have that as well.

SF Writing Results: Conventional

They’re in! They were in a few days back, actually. These were the entries I shortlisted(in no particular order):

  1. “Ip Op”, by Siddharth Sareen (“Ip Op.doc”)
  2. “Kratos”, by Lakshmi Priya Gopal (“New Document.doc”)
  3. “Big Red Button” by Arun Chaganty (“scifi.doc”)
  4. “Stone of Sisyphus” by Amey Asgaonkar (“stone of sisyphus.pdf”)
  5. “Ralph’s Simulation”, by Mathew Syriac (“Ralph.doc”)
  6. “Youngboy” by Anand Natarajan (“Youngboy.pdf”)
  7. “21 Minutes” by Rahul Jaisheel (“21 minutes.pdf”)

Personally, I thought all of them were quite decent- in stark contrast to the VAST majority of the entries. Yeah, I’ll edit out that part when I put this up on the Shaastra site. 🙂

And the results, as decided by Cory Doctorow:

The winner is “Big Red Button” by Arun Tejasvi Chaganty: Congratulations
on encapsulating so many different contemporary anxieties —
outsourcing and the future of labor, the tension between spirituality
and and technology, education and its discontents — in a short,
Frederic-Brown-esque story that nevertheless manages to have an actual
person in the midst of it.

The runner up is “THE STONE OF SISYPHUS” by  Amey Asgaonkar: The choice
of Albert Camus as imperial bureaucrat in an alternate French empire is
demented and inspired. Madcap poli-sci humour abounds here. Like all
alternate history, this is a deeply contemporary story — a little
slapstick, but nevertheless great work.

Third prize goes to “Ip Op” by Siddharth Sareen.

First time I sent him the entries he only gave me the first 2, and selected the third after I mentioned that we had three prizes to give away. His last message was the shortest email I’ve ever received, just three 2 letter words: “Ok, Ip Op” 😀 . Man, he’s efficient!

I’m giving quite a bit more prize money to this than to the other 2 categories(because of the quality of entries, the judge and the number of participants), so I’m thinking the split will be 1500,1000 and 500 bucks for first, second and third. The other category results aren’t in yet, but everything should be ready within a few days.  When I have the whole thing I’ll probably put it up on the Shaastra site. Keep watching this space!

Writing

I know I’m far too young for this part, but I want to write a story with a major character “who drifted through high school, went to community college, dropped out and had a kid, then years later matured enough to return to school, got a degree (in physics, gargoyle studies, bootyology, whatever) and then saved the world.” Of course, purely for personal ego-fulfilment, I’d also want to have a major character who’s “special”, just like in every other SF/F/anything story I’ve ever read. I want to have morally ambiguous characters whose morals are ambiguous enough that readers never know who to support… and I still want a “happy ending”. I have no idea how I’ll accomplish that… maybe by having chapters from everyone’s viewpoints, “heroes” and “villains” alike. I want to write a novel that would pass the Bechdel Test if it was made into a movie, and fulfil as many other conditions mentioned after the jump as I can. I want nonlinear story-telling that you don’t have to read thrice to get. Twice, if you’re not too smart, but not thrice unless you’re really stupid. (Where MY definition of stupid is,say, anyone with an IQ below 100, and really stupid is below 90, which is slightly elitist and not the conventional definition. I think.)

Also, at some point I want to try my hand at writing an actual story that is neither Science Fiction nor Fantasy, which is something I haven’t done since middle school. But I highly doubt I COULD write a comtemporary novel, so this will have to be a short story, at best.

In other news, the entries are rolling in for the conventional category, but still far too few for both Short Sketch and Fan-fiction. I’m considering extending the deadline by say another week for both of those categories, especially since the judges for those don’t have any problems. I’ll decide after seeing the total entries by midnight. I just finished the “dry run” for the On the Spot event, and have just been told that I DO only have one vol, so THAT’s going to be a problem. 😦