A Return to the Buggy Whip Business, Installment 4

Often in this space, I talk about the economics of music as though they don’t matter. This is, largely, because in the abstract, general sense, they don’t. But in the last couple of weeks, a handful of things have happened that made it apparent that, despite my evangelical stance that the world in which the record-selling industry is a much, much smaller part of the music business, and that availability to everyone everywhere contingent only upon effort (the necessary amount of which grows smaller with every passing year), there are some real, good-things-affecting side effects that are occasionally somewhat difficult.

The big news, even to people that don’t look at the music business with anything but the most glancing eye, was the judgment to Pharrell and Robin Thicke that “Blurred Lines” sufficiently ripped off Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give it Up”1 that it should account for several million dollars of revenue for the family of Marvin Gaye. This is because copyright law is a total cock-up.

This is about the money involved in music, not about the ethical problems of copyright, but, in in case this is your first hearing about it, come down to this: copyright exists so that someone has a chance to capitalize, financially, on an idea. The original conceit being that it took you time and effort to come up with the idea – time and effort that, given that the idea only exists at the end of the process, you were unlikely to be directly compensated for – so you should be the one to have the opportunity to make money on it before anyone else does. Under its original, sustainable position, it was meant to have a relatively-short statutory period, at the end of which the idea became a part of the public stock. The story of how it came to be a multi-generational, heavily-policed guardianship is long and, frankly, not terribly pertinent to the thoughts contained here2, except insofar as to say: it no longer makes any rational sense, but most people don’t think about it, so if some of what follows seems weirdly anti-family, rest assured that I am not, I am just opposed to the nature of intellectual property as it exists right now.

The upshot of all of this is that, as I’ve said, there used to be a lot more money in the sale of records. People had to go and buy an object, and that object was only freely-distributable as copies of itself, which, due to the limitations of technology, were somewhat-degraded. Now that there is no money in the sale of records, due to their being much less centralized sale of records and the ability to disperse albums (via both digital copying and the much-more-efficient streaming) basically means that a copy doesn’t even need to be sourced, let alone actually procured. The courts, long lobbied by a flush and cash-friendly music industry, have all of the entrenched pathways to side with the music industry and are generally-disposed to side with the former big-record-people.

In the press, this was presented as two thoughtless pop stars3 stealing from the family/legacy of one of American music’s greatest heroes. After all, given the choice between assigning yourself to Team Robin Thicke or Team Marvin Gaye, who could possibly choose Robin Thicke?

The idea, that was presented (although, it must be noted, largely not agreed with) was that we cannot allow people to steal intangible elements of music from older music. This case, while probably not directly planned by the legal arm of the old-record-dudes was something of a boon: what other opportunity could there be to establish a citable precedent that pitted a beloved institution against a lame-o skeezebag (Robin Thicke, not Pharrell.)? So now they have their precedent: the ability to affirm the copyright of je ne sais quoi.

Historically, the record-selling industry response to a downturn in record sales has been to change a format – this enables them to make new money without having to make a new product. In the current environment, that’s functionally impossible – the problem is that digital music, while it does have a format, doesn’t have a controllable inventory, and therefore there’s no real way to force them to buy the same songs again4. This, then, is a legally-sustained way to generate income via lawsuit (or forced settlement, since the precedent here is so clearly and unilaterally anti-artist and pro-business) for old material without needing to sell anything. You just need to find someone willing to complain about a similarity, and a lawyer to back them. This is a genuinely frightening piece of the law, and the only thing we can hope for is that the appeal works, because otherwise a lot of people that would manage to succeed without playing the game exactly the right way are going to find themselves in an extremely precarious position.

At the moment, it’s Marvin Gaye’s family that stands to gain. But the use of that as a cover for the machinations that will lead to the end result of the decision are, at best, pernicious. There are few bodies of humans in the world that have proven themselves, repeatedly and over time, to be less trustworthy than the people that govern the record-selling industry. Even people that don’t spend any time thinking about it know that stories abound of labels not paying what they should, of making even the “should” part of payment an anti-artist joke, and of generally dealing in the most underhanded and financially-disastrous way possible when it comes to the people that are, at least in theory, generating the content that they need to sell to continue to do business. So how long is it going to be before such a judgment is granted to an old-guard dude that is then, for whatever reason available, possible, or trumped-up, intercepted by whatever label figures out how to do it first?

Evidence for the fact that it’s only the formerly-massive corporate system that does this kind of scrambling comes, ironically, from the closure of indie-focused (and Pitchfork-affiliated) retailer Insound. That seems paradoxical, but it’s worth pointing out that this closure of a music retailing service you never used happened in 2015, years after the mass-closure of physical record stores. Insound never had what could be considered a commanding share of the music-retail market (even the online kind), and it still took this long to fold up. This is probably helped somewhat by it being one of the links that features in every Pitchfork review, but it also says that there is still enough of a market to keep multiple sources afloat. Insound, for the unfamiliar, focused on selling actual physical media as of their closure. They were a download platform for awhile5, but focused on other areas when the download game became more difficult to compete in. They were sort-of nebulously extant: they didn’t have the self-publishing aspect of CDBaby, which acts as much as a fulfillment house as it does as a store,and they weren’t as self-directed as Bandcamp.

It’s probably Bandcamp that created the holes in Insound’s market share that made it necessary to fold up shop. And, even if it wasn’t, there’s nothing that Insound offered that isn’t covered by the redoubtable Bandcamp – an ability to manage your social presence, band info, and shop in one dead-easy tool is a real game-changer, and Insound lasted a few years into Bandcamp’s reign, which speaks of it being more successful by channelling small-time records to the widest possible audience, rather than by trying to force something larger-scale onto an audience that doesn’t really exist to serve it. Another part of the record-selling industry existed to serve a need, something more direct came along and made the first thing no longer necessary, and now we have a better connection, a better source, and an easier-to-use tool to communicate personally, physically and economically with bands.

This is, because of Insound’s relative size and lack of vituperative corporate bitterness, a useful object lesson in the way things could go if it weren’t for the amount of noise that the corporately-motivated wing of the record-selling industry is capable of generating, which is what its relatively-minor passing is doing here. A retailer whose business model started out useful – even laudable – was replaced by a much better model. The people who know to look for the kind of small-time records Insound was largely in the business of providing are probably all savvy enough to find Bandcamp, where you can order records, or CDs, or downloads6. And there it goes, not suing anybody or crying out loud in the press, just folding up their small business like so many have had to as things change. I’m not saying I’m happy they’re out of a job (I’m never happy when anyone is out of a job, let alone a bunch of people who wanted a thing and then went out to try to make that thing happen), I’m just saying that, since it was apparent that there was no longer a place in the market for them, they blamed neither the artists nor the fans for its demise. It’s a shame that it happened, but it’s also pretty hard to get misty-eyed over an online retailer.

It is, however, much easier to get misty-eyed over the retirement of a major figure in my record collection, Rob Crow. Rob spent twenty years what would pass for the trenches if rock music were actually a war. At least half a dozen of the bands he was in made fantastic records7, and chief among them were ONAT all-time favorites Pinback. He ran his career in what is, basically, an exemplary and, it must be said, non-exploitative fashion. He had no particular major-label affiliations, he developed his bands’ fanbases by playing for them, and by making them aware of his records, mostly. The mostly comes because he embraced television, appearing on The O.C., and allowing a couple of his songs to do the same. At the time, this seemed silly8, but given that it never really re-directed his output, it seems pretty harmless. Thirsty, but harmless. He may have tried to capitalize on what his band was, but he never tried to make his band something else so he could capitalize on it. And now he’s retiring, for lifestyle reasons mainly, and while it will be sad if it sticks and there’s never a new Pinback album, it sure is hard to begrudge somebody for trying real hard and admitting that the engine is out of gas.

By only sticking to what he was able to do and what came naturally, Rob Crow built a career of success by just about any measure. They actually succeeded beyond most measures – their OC affiliation led to a bunch of people that show up to their shows to hear “Fortress,” but that also never really managed to derail either their music or their presentation thereof. The connection here is: this is what people fear when they talk about how terrible the world would be if everyone made music by their own means. Twenty years of pretty-good records, with a couple of bona-fide great ones in the mix, followed by a dignified, planned end.

That’s what happens when you build your output on a for-real audience and don’t try to shortcut it by throwing money at it. That is why it’s hard to decry the loss of the ability of larger, non-music-affiliated entities to throw money at things. Good fucking riddance.

Now we just have to get them to stop suing people for intangible nonsense. But that’ll come, as well.

1 the details of the reasoning for this judgment were somewhat hilarious, as the case involved a bunch of untrained people scrutinizing sheet music, and ending with the judge agreeing that, while the song did not take chord progressions (which are uncopyrightable) or melodies (which, while copyrightable, are the thing that’s easiest to verify with sheet music), but rather the “feel” of the song, thus implying that Marvin Gaye officially holds a copyright on vibe.
2 it has a lot to do with Disney, although Mark Twain figures into it more prominently than you might think.
3 one of whom, Robin Thicke, is generally both credited with the song have an unsavory subtext and is, generally, poorly-considered, which probably has some effect on the public reaction, but it’s sort-of beside the point. Let it stand here: I do not like “Blurred Lines,” I am annoyed by Robin Thicke, and I am less interested in defending his music than in protesting this particular point.
4 the hard maximum on annoyance in that regard is the need to purchase a conversion program, of the sort that proliferated while iTunes was selling only copy-protected music.
5 they were noteworthy for awhile for being one of the first DRM-free download stores, but this still isn’t a piece about our cockamamie intellectual property laws.
6 you can also order cassette tapes. I’m not usually a dude who complains about cool-kid band trends, but the cassette thing actually affected me, as a number of bands whose output I liked were making cassette-only releases, which meant that if I wanted to hear the music, I had to buy the stupid format. This seems to be dying down except among certain crowds (none of which are crowds I’m particularly involved or interested in), so I’m happy to see it go.
7 another half dozen made pretty-good records. He was in a lot of bands.
8 although The O.C., having presaged a vogue for the rich-teen-soap-opera that goes on to this day (albeit with it now more likely to have monsters in it than, say, Tate Donovan), has been rehabilitated critically somewhat, so it’s no longer quite as dumb-seeming as it was at the time.


On Literariasty, Part 2

The literary establishment is simultaneously swearing off of associations with genre elements, and also chiding members of their own establishment for not being literary enough. Genre fiction is, at the same time, fighting for a place at that table, while the whole thing is called out for insufficient diversity in a way that holds everyone culpable for their own entrenchment.
Part of the problem, here, begins with the idea of “genre” as something that is both self-limiting and exclusionary. Something can’t be “literary fiction” if it’s “fantasy”. And while “othered” genres can often hyphenate (“fantasy-romance”, “alternate history-fantasy”), they’re still going to be open to ceaseless debates about which of the hyphenates it really belongs to.

This is the result of the long-held conception of genre as a color, rather than a hue. At their base, all stories are a fantasy – they are all imaginary extrapolations on a world where something that doesn’t actually exist or happen manages to exist or happen. Smeagol, Buck Mulligan, Wiglaf, the Wife of Bath, Iago (the conspirator), Iago (the talking parrot) – they all came equally out of someone’s head and behaved in a way dictated by the imaginings of someone else.

This is not to say that all genres are meaningless, or that the idea of compartmentalization is a bad one, just that all fiction is made-up1. That is the color is fiction. Genres are hue – it is meaningful to say blue even if it’s cerulean, and meaningful to say cerulean because something is blue, even though all blue things are not cerulean and all cerulean things are not blue. Sometimes a work has dragons in it, but is still primarily literary, at the same time that sometimes a work with literary characterizations or vocabulary are fantastic, even if you don’t see any dragons anywhere.

The way to deal with this is, ironically, to examine the people that simply don’t care. Michael Chabon was singled out in the first entry, but it is also worth noting, for the sake of this argument, that a lot of his mucking around is pretty deliberate, and also that I don’t think he’d be doing anything remotely different if he were accepted by a different crowd.  But he’s inside the establishment, so let’s look at an example that exists outside of it.

Terry Pratchett wrote, or co-wrote, something like 80 books2. Somewhere on the order of a third of them are various pieces of fantasy (largely YA stuff), of which The Bromeliad and Johnny Maxwell series are particularly beloved, but are not going to be mentioned as much here. The bulk of his work, and, indeed, one of the finest literary achievements ever created by a human mind, is the fiftyish-volume Discworld series.

The Discworld books are all contained on the same fantasy world. There are the associated complement of elves, dwarves and wizards3, there’s spells and vampires and demons and polytheistic deities that actually, physically exist. This is not to mention the anthropomorphization of Death himself. The effect is that it’s a fantasy world much like the one implied in Dungeons & Dragons – everything exists and is an option. Indeed, the series’ humble beginnings are as a more-or-less straightforward parody; the first few books deal with fantasy novel tropes. But as it began to take on literal weight, it also took on metaphorical weight.

The individual books of the Discworld series tend to actually, despite their fantastic backdrop, take place in other genres entirely. The Rincewind novels are adventure stories about an inept wizard, the Watch stories are murder mysteries (or, in later installments, high-intrigue crime procedurals), the Witches novels are as close to “pure” fantasy as it got (albeit a peculiar breed of meta-fantasy), and the Death books are most of all about the nature of stories themselves – folk stories, mainly, but also hero’s-journey-type stories4. (They also present as horror stories, which are the actual genre they’re meant to be included in.) The later additions to the world are even more genre ambitious:  the Death stories were eventually replaced by stories of Death’s granddaughter5, and are stories of othering while remaining completely human, the Moist Von Lipwig stories are, somewhat dizzyingly, science fiction stories6. But most importantly, the Tiffany Aching books are, themselves, literary fiction (albeit through the device of fantasy – the books are still about a witch who hangs out with faeries).

While it’s true that the people who are drawn to Terry Pratchett’s fiction are, generally, fantasy fans7, Terry Pratchett appeals to a much broader set of people than, say, your average Piers Anthony (his rough contemporary) fan. He has a huge representative body of fans that are queer, that are women, and that are people that want to enjoy the swords/spells/goblins stuff but don’t want to deal with the extremely problematic (or, at the very least, running the risk of problematic) nature of a lot of that fiction – people read Terry Pratchett, in short, because the literary value (character honesty, a focus on internal lives and the human effects of the action) is much higher than the average for any given fantasy novel.

For a specific age range – an age range I find myself in – about half of the Serious Grown-Up Readers spent time in, on or around Discworld. Singing Terry Pratchett’s praises isn’t giving due to someone who was under-praised or unheralded. It’s not so much that he was seeing the future – it seems unlikely that this perfectly-sensible approach to genre fluidity is ever going to be adopted by the Powers That Scowl, as they’re unlikely to relinquish the idea of propriety as Not Belonging to Silly Books About Gnomes until they’re dead (the PTS, not the Silly Books themselves) – as he was silently making an argument about the damage that can be done when you disregard ideas because of their hue.

Because, ultimately, that’s what’s happening here. Questions of something being sufficiently or insufficiently literary are ostensibly an attempt to present certain ideas as having more inherent “value” than others, but it is, directly if not specifically intentionally, also an attempt to silence the ideas of people whose idea of “value” is different from that held by the people that don’t connect personally, emotionally or intellectually of the notions put forward by the people that would elect themselves guardians of that particular barrier.

Terry Pratchett’s work itself is about gatekeepers – people that are at the border between law and lawlessness (The Watch), the border between reality and unreality (The Wizards), the border between the order of human life and the chaos that would disrupt it (The Witches and, ultimately, Tiffany Aching) and the border between life and non-life (Death), etc. – and the peril that comes with failing to take into account the content of the idea and the idea-holder before you take into account the form of the idea or the idea-holder.

There are bad books in every genre. There are several hundred thousand books published every year, and it’s probably fair to say that most of those books aren’t particularly interesting to any given person, but to dismiss such an enormous proportion of them simply because they are the wrong hue is to discount the experience and communicative urge that ended in their creation. To bar work due to the paranoiac fear of othering that provides the very engine of its creation is to bar the creation itself, and there’s no way that should stand.

So read The Buried Giant, and read The Goldfinch and, by god, read Twilight and The Fault in Our Stars and read whatever it is that you think is made by someone that’s trying to speak to you. There’s literally no reason not to. The worst that can happen is that you’re exposed to a bad idea, and what use is knowing what’s good if you build such impenetrable walls against what’s bad that there’s never any reason to put that knowledge to use. If they’re bad, don’t finish them. You’re mortal. The only thing you can do when someone peculiarly tall and thin comes to pay a visit to you is the best you can do.

And Terry Pratchett didn’t live so that you could guard yourself against things that were different, or even uncomfortable.

1 this becomes even more apparent if you’ve ever had an argument about whether any piece of fiction was or was not a constituent portion of a genre.
2 the reason this isn’t a hard number is twofold: firstly, some of the Discworld ephemera beggars a definition of what, precisely, is meant by “wrote or co-wrote” (there’s atlases and cookbooks in there, which have his name on them, but I have no idea how much of the writing he is even being given credit for), and secondly the number of things that are unpublished or in-process could be one, or it could be much more than that.
3 there is more than the associated complement of luggage.
4 the best of the Death novels (which is also the best of the Discworld novels) and, indeed, one of the best books ever written by anyone in any genre, is Hogfather, which is about Christmas, the nature of fate, Death, what folk stories are, why we tell them, the existence of monsters, the difference between scary monsters and blustery monsters, and what it means, exactly, to believe in something.  
5 it’s complicated
6 they are very particularly old-style  science fiction stories about philosophy and the human components of science, in addition to being about scientific developments in a fantasy world. They’re extremely high concept, and they’re also the easiest books to start with if you’re looking for an entry point.
7 actually, in the U.S. among people between the ages of, say 25 and 40 or so, the progression is, almost every time: Sandman leads to Neverwhere leads to Good Omens (the book on which Gaiman and Pratchett collaborated) to Discworld. A significantly-high percentage of Discworld enterers also come in through Small Gods, which shares a religion-based theme, and probably for that reason is also the book most likely to appeal to Neil Gaiman fans in the first place. This is how I got there. It’s somewhat different in England.


On Literariasty, Part 1

Earlier in the year, Kazuo Ishiguro accompanied the publication of his long-awaited Buried Giant with avowed assurances that it absolutely was not a work of fantasy. This comes after, in the middle of last year, a somewhat-protracted1 debate managed to, somehow, spring up over whether or not Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch was serious enough literature to qualify for winning the Pulitzer. And in the background of both of these arguments is the still-ongoing (and, honestly, probably long-time-ongoing) debate about the place of Young Adult literature in the grand literary scheme2
.
These two things are not unrelated. The community of Serious Thinkers About Books are, traditionally and generally, the slowest to change, and the most resistant to paradigm shifting. This is creating a problem, because the culture at large has embraced a very different paradigm.
Nothing in this paragraph is going to come as news, but I’m going to lay it out to set up the next part: in past generations there has been a strict, intractable divide between “high” and “low” culture (or rather expressions of culture: art, conversation, even food). Since the advent of, basically, the internet, people have been able to hear a great many more opinions, and thus it has become easier to find communities of people who not only agree with you, but are willing to defend the thing that you like in such a way that can make it apparent that it is worthy of being taken seriously. Before this access, the idea of what was “good” was limited to the output of the people that were holding the “serious” opinions – the critical and media outlets were able to canonize by their own consensus, and since they were largely of a piece demographically and geographically (that is to say: most literary criticism came from educated people in New York, most music criticism from youngish people in New York, and most film criticism from even youngerish people in Los Angeles3), the dividers between “high” and “low” were easy to maintain. As people were able to communicate more effectively, and as the available outlets for a “professional” (i.e. published) opinion proliferated, these dividers became harder to maintain, especially as the advertising/subscription dollars that keeps the critical system alive became increasingly focus-marketed to people who were coming to any given outlet to find an outlook that they started out simpatico with in the first place.

Since the audience fractured increasingly, the fields where the high/low distinction mattered most were the ones that had to scramble the hardest – I’ve talked extensively in this space about the effect it’s had on the organs necessary to convince people which record to buy, and here it is hitting books4. This, of course, means a circling of the wagons and lots of re-emphasis of what it is, exactly, they’re standing for.

And so Donna Tartt has to come under attack for being insufficiently literary, and, to avoid being painted in the same way, Kashuro Ishiguro has to blatantly insist that his work, full of dragons and shit, is by no means fantasy, regardless of how little sense that actually makes. This is funny. Existentially and literally funny.

Literary fiction is a genre – it has its own vocabulary, its own set of expectations, its own set of tropes. It has a set of organs that exist for its reportage and commentary, it has its own fanbase. And now, with the No True Scotsman exclusion of Tartt and the insistent “I’m one of you despite my outfit” protestations of Ishiguro, it has proof of its own heterodoxy. While it’s trying, vainly, to struggle with the idea that it, as the High form of fiction, should be beyond such petty genre-labelling, it’s basically blind to the fact that that’s exactly what happened. It’s funny because instead of this being a result of staring into the abyss, it’s just more proof that there never was an abyss in the first place.

See, it doesn’t matter if the powers that be accept that Donna Tartt is literature, and it doesn’t matter if Kashuro Ishiguro gains some fans among people who really like to read about dragons. Because what’s going to happen is that people will ignore the people telling them not to, not that people will stop buying the books. We recently came through a stretch of time where the biggest-selling book on the planet was an adaptation5 of a piece of fan-fiction, that a whole lot of people (for whatever reason) decried loudly and incessantly.

It stopped nothing. It didn’t stop people from buying it, it didn’t stop people from enjoying it, it didn’t stop people from reading it.

And a whole lot of those people aren’t not going to read more books. Books that they will support by buying them, or talking about them, or whatever.

A book is an investment of your time on a level that is hard to duplicate. A season of television is longer than a book, but is divided into installments and consumed so passively that that becomes a moot point. Reading a book requires pretty much your whole attention for somewhere between four and twelve hours, give or take. It is, therefore, something that people don’t want to guess wrong about – the median person that reads books (75% of people) reads 6 books a year6, meaning that they’re going to spend a couple of months on whatever it is they choose. Even allowing for the 15-a-year “average” number, that’s still almost a month of total time. When something is that resource-intensive to consume, people tend to make decisions that are more in line with the things they are comfortable with, rather than to take a risk on an unknown quantity.

Further compounding the inability of people to mobilize behind their “high” opinions is the idea that those opinions come further fraught with the idea that “liking” it is fallacious. The pathetic fallacy, the second-most-annoying idea to come out of Chicago’s New Criticism, is potentially useful for some sort of objective measure of a book – if you can figure out what objective is – and states that the way the book makes you feel is ultimately unimportant to the quality of the book.

The thing that makes this view problematic is the same flaw that is causing the literary establishment to lose the ground they didn’t really earn in the first place – dividing artistic experience into the idea of “objectively good” and “objectively bad” denies the idea of there being a functional reason for art to exist in the first place. To treat “good”-ness like it’s mass or velocity is to deny the very function of artistic expression in the first place, which is that it’s a way to communicate beyond, say, direct, high-efficiency communicative language. And to deny that there is an emotional component to this reception is to deny the ability of figurative written language to communicate beyond its words. In short, the view that everything is present in the text reduced the entirety of the communicative experience to only that which is present in the text – if it’s all in the text, the text is all there is.

This is not to reduce the entirety of the literary establishment7 to the text-worshippers, but merely to point out that, with Barthesean text-worship as the end result of the notion of an objective literary standard, that it is the thing that most contributes to people not listening anymore. The social component of this is that it comes at a time when there has – not coincidentally – never been a more vocal cry for diversity of representation in both characters in books and in the ranks of authors themselves. The established attitudes toward “respectability” have, by means of their existence8, boxed out authors that aren’t, well, identical to the people forming the establishment9. The cry for representation is met with received much better than the arguments against “genre-ness” – I don’t think I’ve ever encountered the opinion of anyone who was actively against representation, even if they’re against it passively (by not making the effort to diversify their reading, say, because of their need to stay within the bounds of what is “acceptable” as literature).

Genre fiction – and especially the genre about which I, the writer, am most passionate, science fiction – has its own representation problems that are not only related to the representation problems of literary fiction itself, but also compounded by being built on some pretty questionable foundations. As a case in point, the World Fantasy Award (which is not only given to writers that are fantasists in any sense) is presently a bust of genre-codifier H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft was a virulent, frothing racist, and his work is inextricably intertwined – and, as the redoubtable China Mieville points out, in many ways powered by – his work itself10. In short, literary establishments of all stripes have this particular problem, and it’s much bigger than the genre of literary fiction.

It is the case, however, that by being spectulative, and largely focused on the experience and vagaries of “othering” – fantasy and science fiction both run largely on stories of being somehow dramatically exposed to a culture or set of cultural expressions that are different from one’s own, or elseways being thrust into a world of unfamiliarity and constant reminder of one’s difference11 – genre fiction is largely more penetrated by diverse writers. It’s worth noting the difference in reception between Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay, or David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, and Ishiguro’s Sleeping Giant, or Colson Whitehead’s Zone 1, in the sense that the first two were sniffed at, but not rejected as literature – Kavalier and Klay particularly was seen as “literature about lowbrow events”, where as Zone One was “a zombie story told as though it was literature”. This is not even addressing the fact that Margaret Atwood had to vehemently deny the “science fiction” tag (preferring the admittedly-useful “speculative fiction”) in an attempt to be taken seriously, while Cormac McCarthy’s decidedly post-apocalyptic The Road takes some argument to even be considered a work of science fiction12.

As people are increasingly able to find the work that speaks to them specifically – that communicates with whatever their own “othering” experience, they are increasingly less-likely to believe the orthodoxy of the establishment. And as the readers become more open to things that were heretofore disreputable, so too do writers, motivated as readers themselves, as well as participants in the cultural discussion around reading, feel the call to expand into “genre” concerns, and further erode the hold that the traditional idea of “respectability” possesses, which only causes the fingers that are the manifestation of that hold to try to clutch tighter on what is sure.

So what we have here is a problem of entrenchment with seemingly no easy solution. Literary fiction, as the gatekeeper to consensus respectability, is unlikely to move their own barriers to admit works of genre, and any number of genre writers are equally unlikely to stop desiring the acceptability of the literary establishment. In part 2, I will talk a little bit about the door we have already been shown. Stay tuned!

1 it must be said here: all of these debates are among the literarian community, a community that is 1) very small and 2) not worth spending any more time in than necessary. So when I say words like “big” and “protracted” and “avowed”, or really anything related to the reception or perception of any of the works received here, is presented to-scale, and that’s why it doesn’t really seem like a big thing is happening. It’s pretty big, but it’s also confined to a group of people that isn’t very big.
2 i.e. whether, say, John Green deserves to be praised in the same way that, say, Jonathan Franzen does.
3 generally, but effectively.
4 well, here it is hitting books in a major sort of way. This argument has actually been a part of book-adjacent culture for basically as long as I’ve been aware of book reviews.
5 and heavy plagiarization. The problems with Fifty Shades of Grey have little to do with its stated subject matter – I don’t actually care what you people read to arouse yourself – and almost everything to do with the fact that it arose out of a community where the work itself was much more communal – where people contributed character ideas, editing help, and all sorts of other feedback-y things, as well as creating the framework, medium of distribution, and fictional world for the work to exist in, all of which was not only flouted, but outright breached when E.L. James went “professional” with it. Oh, also, it ends with Ansatasia conceiving a baby and using it to trap Christian into abandoning the BDSM lifestyle and being all “normal,” which means that all of the arguments w/r/t its advanced statements about sexual fluidity and openness are actually just misreading the lurid details of someone’s domesticity fantasy, which includes some extremely reductive characterrizations in and of itself.
6 the average person reads 15, but the median is the better number here. I read 100 or so per annum, which raises the average considerably, and when you figure there’s a regular curve distribution, that 15 average stops being at all useful. Since 6, which is way lower than the average, is also the median, it would seem to make statistical sense to use it.
7 book reviews are great. I like ‘em. The people that write book reviews, and most of the people that write actually-good books, are not really the people that are rejecting the idea of genre fiction, or of representation, or of any of the other things that are currently dismantling the establishment as it stands, that’s the hangers-on who aren’t secure in the amount they are adding to the discussion, and so would rather receive credit for who they are (i.e. having the “right” attitudes and thoughts) rather than what they’ve done (i.e. putting the work in to create their own attitudes and thoughts).
8 the question of “intentionality” is beyond the scope of this piece.
9 this, actually, is also a piece of evidence that, despite the implication of “objectivity” in the previous paragraph, it is actually only part of the problem: if there was no identity politics at work, there wouldn’t be the kind of homogeneity of author and character that we’re currently plagued with.
10 The WFA-granting body is currently in talks to change it, because of its status as such a hateful object to people that are, theoretically, being given an award by it. My favorite solution is the change.org petition currently circulating to have it changed to a bust of the great Octavia Butler who, in addition to her own unassailable contributions to great science fiction, also has a fantastic profile.
11 not for nothing are the readers most closely associated with genre fiction adolescents, and specifically the bullied and otherwise-outcast.
12 this is also leaving aside entirely the notion of “hardness” as a feature of science fiction, or of “high” vs “low” (or, honestly, there are a million different fantasy subgenres. It’s as ridiculous as heavy metal in that regard), which are generally even further biased towards exclusion, believe it or not. Talk to a dedicated “hard” science fiction writer and you’ll get it. Or watch Party Down. The character that Martin Starr plays is a pretty accurate representation of what you’d be dealing with.


Reasons to Look Forward, Part 2

Spring! Guys! The weather is above zero – sometimes dozens of degrees above zero – there is visible grass and stuff, the mountains of plowed snow are less mountainous. It’s spring! It’s time to start believing that the world can, in fact, be a good place! In that spirit, and in the spirit of general positivity, and also in the spirit of fortune-telling, let’s talk about some records that are due to come out! I did this five or so months ago, in October, and it went pretty well1, so let’s try again, with spring in mind.

Lightning Bolt – Island Empire
If there’s one thing I love2 it’s a crazy two-piece rock band. Lightning Bolt are one of the foremost practitioners (along with The Body and Japandroids) of that very art. Their last record, Oblivion Hunter, was good, if not quite reaching the heights of the mighty Earthly Delights or Hypermagic Mountain, but the lead single (“The Metal East”) suggests that this is going to be another monster.
WHY YOU, THE READER, SHOULD BE EXCITED: Noise rock is probably due for something of a moment – it’s bubbling right under the current shoegaze revival, in fact – and, Lightning Bolt have been carrying the torch for it for the last fifteen or so years, so at the very least it’s a way to get in the doors before the rest of the cool kids follow. Also: it’s going to rock an awful lot, and don’t you need that in your life?

Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly
So far we’ve heard two songs. One was the not-actually-good (but Grammy-winning) “i”, and the other is the quite-good “The Blacker The Berry”. The release of “i” made this a much more interesting anticipation: “i” was Kendrick’s first misstep, and was also wildly popular. It created a very real bit of texture from the previous perception that Kendrick was incapable of that kind of inconsistency. Still, there’s no real chance that there won’t be something on the record worth hearing, so it’s impossible not to continue looking forward to it.
WHY YOU, THE READER, SHOULD BE EXCITED: Well, at the very least, it’s poised to be the most important hip-hop release of 20153. But also, Kendrick is moving a more crowd-pleasing direction, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, even if “i” is, really, pretty bad.

Jon Spencer Blues Explosion – Freedom Tower – No Wave Dance Explosion 2015
I am pretty much incapable of not being excited about a new JSBX album, and I feel like everyone else should be too. That title isn’t doing it any favors, but I’ll allow it anyway.
WHY YOU, THE READER, SHOULD BE EXCITED: BLUES EXPLOSION!

Ludacris – Ludaversal
Ludacris is an unfairly-slept-on rapper. He plowed a wide row of hits in the early oughts mainly by being funny and coming up with good choruses and a couple of great videos. His craft, however, was always pretty strong – his verses are assembled pretty well, he never overreaches for his beats. He’s basically low-key delivered an all-time-great portfolio out of clowning. “Good Lovin”” was a pretty good advance single, and the mixtapes between Battle of the Sexes (his last studio album) and Ludaversal have been pretty impressive, so there’s no reason to believe that this isn’t going to be yet another consistent delivery.
WHY YOU, THE READER, SHOULD BE EXCITED: Because it’s hard not to like Ludacris, and because if we all just admit that he’s great, people will come around on him for longevity reasons. The only way to get non-hip-hop fans to agree on a rapper is to keep him around long enough that they admit to liking it.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress
I suppose alternating Silver Mt Zion and Godspeed records is literally all I could ever ask for, honestly. Godspeed have such a high quality-control standard, and their records are uniformly incredible, so there is no reason not to think this will be another bright spot.
WHY YOU, THE READER, SHOULD BE EXCITED: Because your life is insufficiently epic in scope, and Godspeed is here to help.

Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld – Never Were the Way She Was
Colin Stetson, inveterate saxophone weirdness generator, and Sarah Neufeld, inveterate violin weirdness generator, are married4, but have never released a record together. That all changes with the really stupidly-titled Never Were the Way She Was. Since each of the performers’ most recent studio work is basically the best of their career (Stetson’s New History Warfare Vol. 3 and Neufeld’s Black Ground, which followed the also-phenomenal Hero Brother), this collaboration should be absolutely fantastic.
WHY YOU, THE READER, SHOULD BE EXCITED: Because you don’t own any violin-and-saxophone albums, and you probably should rectify that situation.
Prurient – Frozen Niagara Falls
And, finally, the venerable Prurient. He’s been evolving more and more into a techno-type artist, coming a pretty long way from his days among the metal masses. Still, though, this record will sound like Prurient, and while it probably won’t be as good as Bermuda Drain, there’s a fair shot it will be at least as good as, if not better than, Through the Window. And that’s enough to make it a reason to look forward.
WHY YOU, THE READER, SHOULD BE EXCITED: It’s like noise music you can almost kind of dance to! What could be more exciting?

And all of that is not counting the still-forthcoming Kanye album (no release date yet, so lord only knows when we should start looking forward to it), or the Inventions album (which will probably pretty good, but really). There’s also a couple of pretty-cool tribute albums (Glen Hansard’s Songs: Ohia covers EP, and Jessica Lea Mayfield and Seth Avett’s Elliott Smith album), and some left-field possibilities on the way from the recently-reunited Blur and Action Bronson (in what counts, because of how weird labels are, as his debut). So there could be so many reasons to be happy even when the novelty of seeing the sun has worn off!

1 I was also mostly right! Especially about the quality of the Wu-Tang album* and the non-existence of the HEALTH record.
* it suuuuuuuucked
2 not only is there more than one thing I love, but the rest of this sentence isn’t even true
3 it’s likely to be this over the Kanye album among hip-hop fans, if only because there’s a chance this could be the end of the Reign of Kendrick.
4 they’re also Canadian. Big year for acts from Canada.


Who The Fuck Would Listen to This: Rebel Heart

No musician producing work within my lifetime has been so vexing to me as Madonna. I was born in 1983, a month and a half or so after her self-titled debut album, and so my entire life has been lived in a world with a Madonna swirling around in it. And, in the 31.5 years since, I have been completely at a loss to feel anything but annoyed by Madonna’s music1.

My rise to “Dude Who is Actively Aware of the Music He Wants to Listen To” is basically coincident with the rise of Madonna as critically-respected. Put another way: the time I was most likely to listen to a critic was also the time that that critic would further be likely to try to convince me, through reviews or whatever, that Madonna was worth my time. I never really agreed, although I devoted more time than I probably would have otherwise2 to trying to understand. Later, when Music came out and a lot of people seemed dead-set on loving it for real, I remained just as unmoved and just as baffled.

But Who The Fuck Listened to This isn’t about me. My relationship with Madonna is one of bafflement, but my relationship with lots of pop stars is about bafflement. Pop stardom3 is a weird thing. The existence of stardom is objective – someone is either extremely famous or is not extremely famous, and while there are probably definitional arguments about where the margins of the term are – is Beck, winner of the most recent Album of the Year Grammy and, therefore, the recipient of pop music’s highest honor, a pop star? Is Selena Gomez, currently moving units of a bafflingly-huge single now a pop star by transferrence? Or she still just an actor with a lucrative sideline? Or are the two even not mutually exclusive in the first place – there can be no real doubt about certain people’s place among the ranks of the pop star.

(Obviously one of those people is Madonna.)

But the reception to pop stardom is entirely subjective and is, in fact, a matter of some contention. The conversation around deservedness is one of the weirdest artifacts of the pop music environment – this person deserves their sales-based success, that person doesn’t deserve theirs. The embedded ideas here are of reward for effort (the ability of people to get famous through hard work and humility) and general meritocracy (that if something sells a bunch of albums, it must be because all of those people are considering their purchase and deeming it worthy or not worthy of their attention). The fact that album-sales can be driven by lots of things that are entirely and unmistakably extramusical never seems to enter the thoughts of the deciders.

The result is a simultaneous embrace and rejection of the swing of public opinion where pop stardom is concerned. If a horse that you’ve backed is rewarded with hits and fame and album sales, it is a just world in which popular opinion is correct. If the same hits and fame are granted to someone that you don’t agree with the disposition, product or general mien of, then the system is flawed and people are irrevocably dumb. Most people have absolutely no problem holding both of these ideas in their head at the same time, which seems really weird to me4. But it seems to stem from holding opinions about popular music that aren’t particularly considered – which most people do, and which seems to be serving the world just fine – and instead tweaking some version of an “accepted” opinion. This is the system of which Madonna was the foremost recipient.

Madonna is – and I mean this not as an attack upon her music necessarily, although her music is awful – great at advertising. She’s often lauded for her long-lived ability to spot trends or get people talking about her or whatever, but what that really is is advertising. The purpose of advertising is not to convince you of some essential quality about a product – after all, the difference between one widget and the other (or one pop song or another) is largely cosmetic – but instead to get the name of the thing into your head, so when it’s time to make the purchase, you know what you’re looking for. We, as thing-buying humans, have a really hard time not conflating “primacy” with “superiority” – it’s scientifically called familiarity bias. Thus, the more familiar you are with something, the more you think of it as good. This eventually takes over other cognitive paths in such a way that the only requirement for a song to be pleasing is your familiarity with it – we’re rewarded, neurochemically, for the feeling of a song that we know and think of as somethign we “like.” Since the familiarity eventually outstrips the critical faculty, “like” becomes “don’t hate.” This is why everyone reading this can probably think of a song they didn’t like when it was in their lives all the time, that eventually became more important as a signifier of that time than as a piece of music in and of itself. Madonna thrust herself into public, largely naked and squirming (or, charitably, writhing, albeit never actually dancing) for long enough that she herself became a familiar commodity5.

Her music itself more-or-less came, invariably, right after major dance music trends. Her first couple of records are generally partying on the corpse of disco, but her monolithic third album True Blue steps away from club music entirely for radio-style dance music (the mid-eighties were a really, really weird musical time, and that distinction probably meant more in 1985 than in any other year in the history of recorded music). After True Blue established the Madonna Brand, she made a trio of “more-personal” records, with Like a Prayer basically representing the end of her reign of chart-topping terror, and then the Erotica/Bedtime Stories6 slump that also roughly coincided with her showing that, in addition to not being able to sing, she also couldn’t act.

But they continued to sell, because by that point – starting specifically right about the time of Like a Prayer, if the historical record is to be believed – people were arguing in favor of Madonna, and her inability to make compelling music was a symptom of a callous, unable-to-understand public, despite the fact that her records were selling like hotcakes. Because the non-musical portions of the Madonna Brand were so imagistic and visually-focused, the idea that the music was “better” than whatever it was they expected came as a pleasant surprise, which enabled Madonna to operate from the status of “underdog” – after all, she was selling a bunch of records and was mostly famous for her lechery-friendly music videos, so if the music wasn’t music to drool into a bucket to it must be ok.

But even the music itself was less written or composed than assembled as part of the selfsame image – she had a way of picking a producer who was capable of making music that sounds very of its minute, which is also part of what made it surprising. She didn’t have any one sound – Madonna’s creaky, low-rent disco necrophilia is not the same as Like a Prayer’s faux-Princeisms, which is itself also different from Bedtime Stories’ trad-pop inoffensiveness – so her real musical talent turned out to be an ability to apply herself to basically any kind of dance-oriented pop music, a quality that makes her success both an organic part of herself and her reach, and also extraordinarily difficult to duplicate. It was also not a permanent way to operate.

Erotica showed that the ability to continue to get mileage out of eighties-style radio dance-pop was basically at an end (it sold half what Like a Prayer had, and that led to the ballad-heavy, torpid record. The gambit worked in the short-term7, with Bedtime Stories making up some of the sales lost before Erotica, but it also placed Madonna in the position of being thought to be a spent force, incapable of producing as she had. She was, in short, an underdog again, and that left her in a position to come up with something that reinvented her sound in a way that captured the market based on surprise once more.

The upshot of all of this is that she developed an elder-statesman quality in the late nineties that resulted in a pair of albums – Ray of Light and Music that were her most breathlessly-received, selling 31 million copies between them, yielding hits and critical acclaim and rewards8. She seemed unstoppable, indomitable. And then she stopped being an underdog, and she started floundering.

Music’s follow-up was, in contrast to the previous records’ slobbering press reception, the wanly-praised (when it was praised at all) American Life9. Moving a bare fraction of the records that Music did (actually, it didn’t even sell as many records as the sales dropoff between Ray of Light and Music, which says more about the astonishing saturation of Ray of Light than it does about American Life), it seemed to have the ability to position Madonna as the underdog again, as Bedtime Stories had previously. But the follow-up, Confessions on a Dance Floor, didn’t really pay out, and then the record-selling industry basically fell apart, and that did not bode well.

A phenomenon like Madonna is a difficult one to create and maintain – the marketing-focus and the drive can start with one person, but it takes a lot of backing to create the repetition necessary to make it happen. By being so focused on the advertising/repetition/image creation end of her own craft, Madonna made an attractive investment for labels, who didn’t have to worry about the music any more than she did, since it was never really the point. She made a lot of money for Warner Bros, which encouraged them to keep promoting her, which meant she made them more money. Eventually, starting ten or so years ago, it became almost completely impossible to sustain the kind of fire that powered a Madonna album – the monocultural unification required for her to assemble the producers and tracks that would make the record sound like a distillation of the current pop music environment no longer existed, and so her records became more fractious, and leaned harder on the personality of Madonna herself. That became difficult because, for all of Madonna’s charisma as a performer and Person Who Says Stuff in the Media, she’s a deeply unpleasant person, prone to saying things to cause outrage above all else and, of course, also can’t sing. Still.

So by the time of Hard Candy, which was more notable for being the last album on her Warner Bros contract than for any particular musical virtues10, the ability to galvanize people around their opinions on Madonna was basically gone. 2008 was something of a low point in music promotion, as the Powers That Sell hadn’t yet switched their whole focus to singles as quickly as the Powers That Buy had (that is to say: people were already buying individual songs, but the record-sellers were still pushing whole albums), which made it even harder to generate a career out of nothing but marketing buzz.

The follow-up to Hard Candy, MDNA, yielded a minor controversy in the form of a dust-up with Deadmau5. It had a Super Bowl appearance behind it, and took a social-media approach that would have been novel if it hadn’t been the same approach used by every fucking band without label support (seriously, you have somebody right now in your Facebook feed that is promoting their band with it. It’s not only ubiquitous, but it barely even counts as a strategy), or if it had worked at all11. If, however, the goal of American Life was indeed to scorch the earth for an entirely new crop, that worked, because it outsold it almost 2:1.

And all of that was to explain how it is that Madonna, formerly a regent of American Pop Music, became the subject of a column devoted exclusively to albums that are so inessential, so meaningless, so actively, aggressively unimportant as to make it difficult to conceptualize someone listening to it.

A twenty-year-old who is becoming aware of Madonna would have been born shortly before the Ray of Light/Music hot streak, and thus has only known post-resurgence Madonna. Since the records are obviously pitched at an audience that is increasingly-far-away from both the age of Madonna and the age of her original fans. If MDNA showed nothing, it’s that whatever audience would exist organically for this kind of thing has basically evaporated, leaving the pursued audience essentially ignorant of what she’s doing, and the loyalists unserved by what she’s doing, which means that Rebel Heart is basically bereft of any kind of inherent audience.

And the music is, of course, not doing the album any favors. This is already a very long piece, so I’ll skip the deep analysis. The music is as beside-the-point as it is on any Madonna album. It’s a reasonably simulacrum of radio EDM, a genre that she just isn’t as well-suited for as she was for radio disco thirty years ago. It also sounds weird: for all that Madonna has never associated herself with a single mode of working, we the people have a pretty good idea of what her delivery is and where her voice goes, and it just doesn’t match up with the sounds she’s paired with now12.

The producers are a pretty predictable set – the fact of Madonna being Madonna means that people won’t turn her down when she knocks. Mostly it’s Diplo, who has apparently completely lost his god-damned mind, as evidenced by the fact that he has produced a good song in quite some time. Avicii does what Avicii does. The most (qualifiedly) interesting song is the Kanye-West-produced “Illuminati”, which also means that Bjork (who wrote “Bedtime Stories,” of all things) is no longer the lone case of “a genius that, for whatever reason, gave material to Madonna to mangle”.

Look, the music has never been the point with Madonna, and it really, really isn’t now. She’s also lost most of her headline-grabbing ability, although not her willingness to try, which means that we’re getting something a lot more human – and a lot more thirsty-seeming – out of Madonna. That’s even kind of interesting, even if only theoretically, but in practice there are about a hundred things that just make it sad.

So we come to the question this piece set out to ask: who the fuck would listen to this? And the answer is: I have no Earthly idea. I started out talking about how Madonna has been a baffling continuing presence for the entire time I’ve been choosing my own music to listen to, and I have to come back to it here. I would imagine that Madonna loyalists would be into it, maybe? But it doesn’t sound much like Madonna, and I can’t understand why someone would be a Madonna loyalist in the first place. It’s probably going to #113, and presumably each of the people that buy it is going to listen to it once. But with no single penetration, and some fairly-disastrous response to some leaked demos, I can’t imagine where it goes beyond that.

Maybe she’ll stop making new records and retire to Vegas, like Cher (who, honestly, probably deserved the career Madonna got) did. That’d be pretty cool.

1 with the following exceptions: there was a period of my late-adolescence where I quite enjoyed the song “LIke a Prayer,” I enjoy the Madonna covers on Ciccone Youth’s The Whitey Album, and I like the end of Alien, where Sigourney Weaver sings “Lucky Star” while she’s preparing to go into hypersleep, even though it manages to imply that “Lucky Star” is as deathless and eternal as the goddamn alien itself seems to be. Luckily, the alien died, and so, too, did “Lucky Star,” which, come to think of it, was also covered pretty compellingly by Ryan Adams’ band The Skylarks. Caveat emptor.
2 admittedly, most of the time spent listening to and considering Madonna was through the medium of her music videos, which at least had other reasons to be compelling.
3 I mean this term in a pretty literal way. It’s used here to mean “stardom conferred upon one primarily due to the performance of popular music”, rather than the somewhat more rigid construction that would include, say, Rihanna, but not for genre-bound reasons, Bono.
4 I don’t mean to imply here that my opinions are all, or even mostly, internally-consistent. They mostly very much are not.
5 This approach, when it happens in other ways, is actually not all bad, although it rarely results in music as aggressively, tremendously terrible as Madonna’s. Billy Joel has a similar effect – he was just always there, until eventually nobody could really hate him because there was always something in his catalog that made you pleasantly disposed toward him.
6 helped, presumably, by the giant non-album hits she had in “This Used to Be My Playground,” which sort of premiered Bedtime Stories’ slowed-down, bored-up approach and in “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina”, which was already a part of Evita, but, in the Madonna version at least, also sounds of a piece with the concurrent Madonna records.
7 to tie this into the autobiographical information at the top, Bedtime Stories was the first Madonna album I was aware of at the time of its release. The “Take a Bow” video remains one of the most dreadful expressions of the form, and the song itself is, in all likelihood, the worst song to hit #1 at least in my lifetime, if not possibly longer.
8 this is the aforementioned period in which I came into the picture – I lived far away from record stores, so had to read about a lot more music than I was able to hear, and this was just before the internet entered my life in any real kind of way, so magazines were the way to go, and I consumed them obsessively for the better part of a decade. I read more glowing reviews of Ray of Light than just about any album I can think of, which did nothing to make me think of it as anything other than terrible.
9 if you remember American Life, it’s for its execrable title track, which got the most press at the time for being the song on which Madonna “raps,” a move which, ten years on, looks less like anything musical, and more like a way to control the conversation about the album – if you rap terribly and make the lyrics a self-parody, there’s no way anyone will talk about any other song. It is, in its way, another piece of the advertising track upon which the Madonna train advances.
10 “4 Minutes” was not as objectionable as many Madonna singles, but this had more to do with Timbaland’s production and the presence of Justin Timberlake than anything Madonna was doing.
11 it is weird to describe an album that moved over half a million copies as a non-success. The scale of the record-selling industry is still insane, even when it’s lost most of its legs.
12 perhaps an under-reported aspect of her late-nineties/early-oughts resurgence was that her voice was pretty well-suited to post-big-beat dance music – it’s loud in a limited range, which is basically what they’re looking for. People that have major success as singers for EDM-style pop music tend to have wider ranges and dynamic ranges other than “foghorn” – think Sia on “Titanium” or Ellie Goulding on “I Need Your Love”. It probably would’ve behooved Madonna to go in a more Rihanna-esque direction – her voice has similar problems*, although it must at this point be said that since Madonna can’t actually sing most of the questions about what she should be doing with her voice are somewhat moot.
* insofar as Rihanna’s voice has problems, they’re basically about her range, which isn’t very wide. Interestingly to this argument, Rihanna also has had huge hits written by Sia and, separately, produced by Calvin Harris. This footnote is so long, so I’ll table this for another time.
13 in probably the most 2015 thing ever, its hardest competition seems to be the soundtrack for the television show Empire.


Things You Could Be Given

So. James Patterson is offering, for a whole bunch of money, the opportunity to go watch a bunch of dudes straight-up execute a copy of one of his books. While I am generally in favor of execution-style destruction of any of J.P.’s work, this is particularly ridiculous. It did, however, get him a lot of press. I mostly pay attention to this stuff, and I couldn’t tell you whent he last time he actually had a book out was. So while it remains inexplicable to me why someone would pay a bunch of money to witness the execution of a novel, it is evident that, as publicity stunts go, this one would be pretty cool.

So, because I am a generous-hearted individual, I have decided that I will help the authors of the world by offering them things they, too, can allow their fans to do by giving them great big gobs of money.

Neil Gaiman
Neil is clearly worried about the time-crunch under which he operates, famously only allowing people to book him for speaking gigs that pay absurd amounts of money because, of course, he can’t bear the thought of not being able to write (unless you pay him a bunch). So clearly this couldn’t be anything nearly as time-consuming as a trip out to the desert. So in exchange for a couple of wheelbarrows of greenbacks, Neil can send you a handful of really interesting rocks, and a poem about the ethnocultural value of really interesting rocks, and a bird that will try to steal the rocks from you, and also a heart made of something that looks like paper but seems a little too warm to the touch. Plus a copy of all of his non-comics work, except for Don’t Panic and Angels and Visitations.

Kelly Link
For Kelly’s, all of the money wouldn’t work. If you’re the right one, you can agree to pay a price that you won’t be able to name or even remember, even though it might be obvious unless it’s impossible to notice at all. You will be told to find the tree that is the furthest away from any other trees, and in the tree you will see something. It might be a woman, but it almost certainly isn’t any woman you’ve ever met or will ever meet. Even though your eyes water and you can’t remember where you are, you’ll be given something that feels definitely alive and told that you must keep it with you, always. You will put it on the shelf and sometimes think about it, and wonder if it is the thing responsible for your good fortune, and wonder if maybe it’s holding you back, and wonder if maybe if you just looked at it and saw it you wouldn’t understand better what it was doing, but you will never open it up, and you will not even notice that you’ve never married, although sometimes people will comment upon it and it will seem odd. Plus a copy of each of her books, of course.

Jonathan Lethem
If you pay exactly the numerically-correct amount, the exact right amount, Jonathan himself will come pick you up, in a sensible sedan, and take you on a guided tour of a city he’s never been to, explaining the deep local historical significance of many places somewhere that isn’t quite here, after which he will fly you to Brooklyn, and give you exactly the same tour again, only this time it will actually make sense, and you will retroactively apply the information to the first city, and use the code to find the secret to always finding something interesting to say, as well as a voucher good for each of his books, even Amnesia Moon and She Slid Slowly Across the Table.

Helen Oyeyemi
For the price of all of your money1, Helen Oyeyemi will send you a cat, and then the cat will die. And then the cat will come back, and every night, the cat will die again. And every morning you will see the cat again. And you will love the cat, and the cat will love you, even though you can never touch the cat. Sometimes the cat will lead you to things, and some of these things will be important, but always you will be home before the cat dies again. Always you will be home before the cat dies again.

Coulson Whitehead
By agreeing to the special price, your prize will be to receive access to the other people that have paid for the experience. They will somehow be both insistent and insouciant as they manage to explain how you were correct to pay the price for this event, and also how you should be commended for your ability to consider things perhaps more independently than other people. There will be a great many of these people. When the last has spoken their piece, you will be given the opportunity to join them. If you accept, you will have eternity to figure out why you are a member of this group. If you deny, you will never understand them. And you will also receive all of Coulson Whitehead’s previous books.

Jennifer Egan
At random, one person will receive a note in their book that starts off a list of things about themselves, some of which are true and some of which are not, and the last of which is a set of instructions for how to get the next part of the letter, unless it’s not and it’s actually a recipe for a cheese souffle, unless the cheese souffle is the next part of the letter, in which case it’s very important that you remember the best souffle you’ve ever eaten, but if you can’t  there’s nothing to worry about, since it was never actually a recipe to begin with, and although you will never meet them, there’s someone else who has exactly the same not-recipe as you, because this has happened before, and it will happen again.

Alice Munro
To anyone that asks, Alice herself will come and reveal, ghosts-of-christmas-style, the reactions of seven strangers to your death. The cause, time or place of your death will not be revealed. Some of these strangers will know people that you know. Some of them will know each other. You may encounter some of them before your death, or you may not. What this teaches you is your own to decide, even though it’s unlikely to give you any real answers.

Michael Chabon
For a princely sum, Michael Chabon will travel backwards in time, figure out what your eleven-year-old self would most like to do with a clear-skied warm Saturday in June, then figure out how best to tailor that experience to adulthood. The day will end with having a SWAT team break into where you are sitting and ritually destroying the new James Patterson novel, because why mess with a perfectly good idea?

1 Helen Oyeyemi deserves all of your money.