Fall 2021 Reading Wrap-Up

I am a writer, and so I read. What have I read recently? Strap in. 

Thrawn: Greater Good, by Timothy Zahn 

I’m a longtime lover of Zahn’s work and, while I’m not invested in the Star Wars franchise these days, I will make an exception for him. His latest series in that franchise focus on a new origin for his fan favorite character, Grand Admiral Thrawn. The first trilogy of books was somewhat interesting, but largely existed as peripheral works to the TV show Rebels, which I haven’t watched. That did reduce my investment in the series some, although I found the second novel in that trilogy very enjoyable overall. However, his second trilogy allows him the freedom to play around with the kinds of world building and open ended tactical inventiveness that is fun to read and dig in to. Beyond that, we get to see a wide array of interesting characters at different levels of society all trying to play out their interests and balance them against the titular greater good. 

Beyond that, Zahn is playing an interesting game. In most of his novels we learn a great deal about his antagonists and follow a lot of the game from both sides of the gameboard. However, in this trilogy Thrawn’s opponent is hidden from view for 95% of the story, which gives it a different flavor. A warning – outside of Thrawn himself this novel has very few ties to the wider Star Wars galaxy. If you’re not a fan of the character and you’re looking for Star Wars, rather than just Thrawn, it may not be for you. 

For Crew and Country, by John Wukovitz 

This is another niche book. As a long time student of the Samar Island action during the Battle of Leyte Gulf, I try to read every book on the subject that comes out (which is about one every four or five years.) Crew and Country is a complete service history of the USS Samuel B. Roberts, from its commissioning to its loss in combat on 25 October, 1944. This is not really a good book for people new to the topic to read. (Read The Battle for Leyte Gulf by C. Vann Woodward or The Battle of Leyte Gulf: Oct. 23-26 1944 by Thomas J. Culter before this book if you’re not familiar with the story at all.) 

While Last Epic Naval Battle by David Sears or Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors by James D. Hornfischer are brilliant retellings of the story from the level of the normal crewman, and Hornfischer also goes deeply into the story of the Roberts, Wukovitz digs into that one specific crew to the point where you almost feel like you’re talking to someone who served with them. Every other retelling of the story presents the reader with a jumble of crazy events unfolding in parallel, which is understanding as that’s how a battle plays out. But in Crew and Country diversions from the decks of the Roberts are brief and this creates a very different atmosphere to the crews training, Crossing of the Line, service in the Pacific and final defense of Taffy 3. 

Perhaps it takes a person who’s spent a decade trying to learn new tidbits about a six hour period of history to appreciate this book. All I can say is, if that’s the case, you should try it some time. This book, and the men it pays tribute to, are treasures that you deserve to enjoy. 

When Christmas Comes, by Andrew Klavan 

I reviewed Klavan’s Another Kingdom trilogy some time ago. While I found the way he released and promoted that series very interesting, as a fantasy series and allegorical tale it was merely above average. Klavan is a good storyteller and master of the crime story (Werewolf Cop made that clear when I read it) but he never put in quite the research into the practical aspects of things like sword duels, armor and other aspects of medieval life to quite sell them when they came up in his story. 

But with When Christmas Comes, Klavan has returned to his roots. As a crime story, its suitably dark and gripping. Cameron Winter is a fascinating protagonist, with an understandable malaise about his character that both he and we hope to see dispelled. And the story is full of unsavory characters we can loathe as well as sympathetic ones we can attach to. If it has one major weakness it would be brevity. 

When Christmas Comes is a very noir story, with purple prose, a man with a solid moral core, and a lot of very nasty people around him. Those are both its biggest selling points and the thing I believe most detractors will dislike. That said, it’s not a wildly inventive tale. If you like an expertly executed crime story, this will not disappoint. But it’s not as inventive as the Another Kingdom novels or Werewolf Cop. I highly recommend it to fans of crime drama and character studies, and perhaps the casual murder mystery crowd. But beyond that, I don’t know as the story will have much purchase. 

Soulfinder: Demon’s Match and Black Tide, by Douglas Ernst 

Iconic Comics puts out a number of fun adventure titles but of all of them Soulfinder is the darkest, most mature and most interesting. In many reviews, these would automatically equate to being of the best quality. I do not believe you need dark or mature themes or even deep and interesting concepts to create an excellent story. In fact, adding these things to a subpar story can make it worse, not better. 

All that said, Soulfinder is probably the best comic Iconic offers, which I say as no slight to their other titles. Father Patrick Retter is an infantry veteran turned priest who gets offered the chance to take the ultimate blending of his skills – a position as one of the Vatican’s Soulfinder Exorcists. 

The Soulfinder narrative moves on multiple levels. Retter has personal relationships that range from close friendship to tense family ties. And there are demons. He has responsibilities to the parishioners at his church and presumably, at some point, his own matters of faith to consider. Also, demons. 

Ernst has put a lot of interesting things in the air and he juggles them quite well, delivering good stories and good characters while avoiding many of the common traps stories about exorcist priests often fall into. I know that Ernst is a devout Roman Catholic, a veteran and a widely travelled man. He’s done his research and brings a lot of knowledge and authenticity to the table. Retter and his allies are likeable people with a lot of good skills and good heads on their shoulders. It’s also nice to see a story that not only isn’t shy about matters of faith, but actively embraces them. That may turn off a small portion of the audience but even openminded atheists have read and enjoyed the series, so I find I can recommend it to anyone over 12 whole heartedly. Younger readers may find the themes and concepts a little over their head and the imagery unsettling. 

And that’s the reading round up for this essay series! We now move back to my next fiction project so, as is traditional, there will be a week off before coming back to the preface of the  

The Chappelle Solution

There’s really nothing I can say in praise of Dave Chappelle that hasn’t already been said. 

He’s funny, at least most of the time. He’s abrasive but if you can get past that there’s a lot to like about what he does. There’s definitely plenty to dislike, but there’s nothing wrong with him as a comedian. I will leave praise of Chappelle to others more qualified than I. Suffice it to say, I think he’s a good comedian. Unfortunately he’s part of a dying breed. As is my want for this latest series of essays, I’m less concerned with why this is and more concerned with what it means. So I’m not going to walk you through the long, slow, tortured death of comedy. Jerry Seinfeld gave a pretty good summary when he swore off performing on college campuses and there are certainly in depth examinations of the subject out there. To be frank, this is a subject I am by no means well versed in, so I will direct you to the work of Adam Carolla, who often comments on the subject. 

What I think is interesting is that, in his latest special The Closer, Chappelle actually offers us the solution to the problem. Then, sadly, he walks away from certain parts of comedy until such a time as people choose to employ it. For those who haven’t seen The Closer, the high points are this – Chappelle has often been accused of hatred for transexuals because he makes jokes about them. Chappelle met a transexual comic named Daphne, who enjoyed his work and wanted to emulate it. When Chappelle put out his special Sticks and Stones he made jokes about transexual people and got heat for it. Daphne chose to defend him. A widespread outcry on Twitter attacked Daphne as a traitor and a suck up for six days. 

At the end of that time, Daphne committed suicide by jumping off the roof of a building. 

The Closer is Chappelle’s carefully crafted, somewhat funny and viciously pointed response to the people who were so hard on his friend. Through the whole special he acknowledges that he is part of a tribe, namely black people, while Daphne was part of the tribe of transexuals, and they are very different groups. But empathy, he points out, has to go both ways. It’s when we reach the end that Chappelle plays his final card. 

“I’m claiming Daphne for my tribe,” he announces. “Comedians.” 

This is the essence of the Chappelle Solution. 

There are tribes we belong to by birth. Family is the first and greatest of these, and the tribe we owe the most to. But there are also tribes we choose. Dave Chappelle and Daphne both chose comedy, and in this they found comradery. Truth be told, all friendship is this principle writ small. After all, what are best friends if not a tribe of two people, forged through shared experience and an abnormally high tolerance for one another’s quirks? And this is a principle that can extend to the most difficult circumstances in life. 

Daryl Davis deradicalized hundreds of Klansmen, in spite of the color of his skin, because he found them where they were and made them his own tribe. Christianity conquered Europe by creating a new tribe that all Europeans could belong to. The key to all three of these approaches are compassion. Chappelle repeatedly stressed that he connected with Daphne by acknowledging that they were both dealing with profoundly human situations that were difficult to share but still worthy of sympathy and understanding. In this he reminds us of a profound lesson about how communities are held together. 

Jokes are a way to state hard truths and lesson the sting. They are a way to illuminate dark times and lighten the load. And yes, sometimes they are a way to tear down others in the most brutal and efficient fashion we can imagine. But that last class of comedy comes from – and here’s that word again – contempt. Many comedians today tell their jokes from that perspective, holding their fellow humans in contempt for decisions they see as foolish, backwards or just plain ignorant. There’s some room for that. But the thing that always made comedy so valuable was the compassionate comedy, that helps us grapple with hard truths and lights our way through dark paths. In The Closer Chappelle reminded us of that. Then he walked away, and comedy inched a little bit closer to the grave. 

Not before he left us with the solution, however. It’s up to us to decide how to use it. So once more I return to my premise for this series: If we wish for great art to thrive and grow once again we must set aside contempt and embrace compassion. Art elevates the human experience towards eternity. We cannot do that while we look down on humanity from the debased self righteousness. Climb upwards my friends. 

Joe Rogan and the Half-Truth Cult

The half-truth cult is everywhere these days and I did not choose Joe Rogan as its villain so much as he volunteered for the role. But before we dive into that topic, a disclaimer. Long time readers know I studied journalism once. I’ve been embarrassed of those who claim that career for the last decade or so, although not as embarrassed as they would be of me, I’m sure. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’ve long espoused the point of view that studying and writing nonfiction is important for the fiction writer. It sharpens and hones your prose in ways the average fiction writer rarely focuses on. 

But the modern journalist goes in the opposite direction. Many modern schools of communication focus on the importance of building a narrative as the most important task for a communicator. That makes a great deal of sense, as narrative is what most sticks with the audience. People can forget dozens of little details but still hold on to the core ideas and direction of a story. Ask anyone to tell you the plot of their favorite movie. If you record what they tell you and compare it to the movie itself you’re going to get two different stories. The person will inevitably invent things that weren’t in the film. The movie will include details the person left out. And the order of events is probably going to be different than what you were told as well. 

And that’s before we touch on any of the misquotes and flubbed names they make. 

But the core direction and theme of the story is going to come through loud and clear. That is the power of narrative. If you want to communicate something to your audience narrative is the best way to do it and journalism is a medium that is inherently concerned with narrative, so it would seem to be a match made in heaven. The problem is, journalists are dealing with the narrative of reality, which is a huge, sprawling mess of overlapping ideas, themes, directions and characters which resist most attempts to boil them down to something simple and easily digested.

Modern communication theory demands it be done anyway. 

The problem is, when handed to a human being, reality tends to get distilled down to what is most convenient rather than what is the most true. If you doubt that, try finding the drivers of the vehicles in a two car collision and ask them what happened. You’re going to get two very selectively edited stories. In theory, journalists are taught a number of methods to avoid falling into the trap of self-interest. In practice, we see these techniques in use very rarely. 

The recent reporting on Joe Rogan’s brief bout with coronavirus is a great example of this, which brings us back to the beginning. For those who missed this tempest in a teapot, Joe Rogan, the English speaking world’s biggest podcast host, posted a brief video to his Instagram reporting that he’d caught Covid. He recapped the treatments his doctor had recommended and reported they’d tried them all. Among them was the antiparasitic drug Ivermectin. 

Now, Ivermectin is a proven medicine devised for very specific purposes among the human population but which some doctors have experimented with using in a wide variety of other circumstances. Respiratory infections like the common cold being one of them. Since Covid-19 is a close relative of the coronavirus which causes the common cold, these experimentally minded doctors also experimented with using Ivermectin to treat the 2019 strain of Covid. 

There is also a blend of Ivermectin that can be used to treat horses for intestinal worms. 

As both Rogan and Covid are topics of some interest to the public, CNN chose to report on Rogan’s illness and mentioned that, among other things, he’d been prescribed the horse dewormer Ivermectin. Rogan has since considered legal action against CNN and vocally denied taking the veterinary blend of Ivermectin. Amid this controversy, CNN’s chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta went on Rogan’s show to promote his book on the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Rogan was understandably hard on CNN’s reporting and grilled Gupta in person wanting to know why his network lied. CNN has since defended itself through correspondent Don Lemon by pointing out that Rogan did take Ivermectin and it can be used as a horse dewormer, so they didn’t really lie. But I haven’t met anyone that really takes this defense seriously or views this as anything other than a deliberate attack on Rogan’s intelligence. The only question discussed is whether Rogan deserved the attack. 

This is more than an academic discussion of the eroding state of public journalism. It’s a clear indication of the dangers of half-truth. It’s very easy for someone crafting a narrative to fall into the trap of thinking they have control of all the variables and anyone bringing a different interpretation to the table must be wrong or even working against them. This temptation is doubly strong for a person crafting a fictional narrative. There’s a strong belief in the modern day and age that “fiction” means “divorced from reality.” That isn’t remotely true. 

There’s more to reality than narratives and an author who tries to write while ignoring this fact is going to lose his audience very quickly. Whether it’s a highly technical field like medicine or a very nuanced and subjective field like psychology, you need to put in work to get it right. Do a lot of research. Develop connections in the field and draw on them. Don’t be afraid to spend a little money to get the opinion of a reliable expert where appropriate. Above all, seek feedback. And make sure it’s something you can trust and take into account, or else people will quickly see that you’re either ignorant or deliberately ignoring reality to make your narrative. 

You can’t condescend to your audience like that – they’ll stop listening to you. If you can’t put in the work or you don’t want to listen to the advice you receive on a subject, you probably shouldn’t write it. But if you do, have care. It’s not far from there to the half-truth cult. There’s no saying you’ll draw the ire of an irritable podcast host of the stature of Joe Rogan but there’s no way to be sure. And from all I’ve seen, the experience is not a fun one. Better to avoid it all together. 

How the Collapse of American Comics Signals the End of Modern Media

A disclaimer: I have never been more than a casual fan of the American comic book scene. 

There was a time when that was fine. In fact, the world was full of casual comic book fans. Plenty of people picked up the occasional Superman, Batman or Spiderman comic and followed the adventures of the pulp picturebook hero of their choice. But only in passing. It was like tuning in to your favorite sitcom a couple of times a month. You didn’t really need to pay a lot of attention to it when you weren’t thinking about it but you knew you’d at least somewhat enjoy what you got when you did tune in. 

All of that has changed, and started changing in the 90s as “event” books took over the industry. A recap of the events, market forces and broader trends that led to the incredible insularity of modern comics is not the purpose of this essay. I’ve been a disinterested observer of the phenomenon and really, it’s been documented better by others. If you want a really broad, high level overview of this topic I’d suggest this pretty straightforward video: 

How Distribution has Saved and is Now Killing Comics 

Since I’m not really a business person my interest in the business side of all this comes from the ways it has warped the relation between artist and audience. Yes, this is one of my personal bugaboos. That’s largely because this aspect of storytelling is one of the least discussed in modern culture and our overlooking it has deeply, deeply damaged modern storytelling. I think comics is the perfect case study for this because it takes the flaws of modern media and really paints them in stark relief. 

Last week I talked about how I think changes in the feedback loop between artist and audience exacerbated the natural dislike many authors have for archetypes to the point where relations between them and their audience have been materially harmed. The spiral continues to grow out of control with no signs of stopping any time soon. The natural response to this is to assume that if we can insulate creator from consumer to some extent we can create a healthier story landscape. 

This is an understandable conclusion to reach. 

It is also wrong. 

If you’re familiar with the comics industry, even to the very limited extent you’ll be if you watch the video linked above, you know that nothing is more insulated from feedback than American comics. Comic books pass through the hands of two other entities before arriving in the hands of readers. Once they pass through Diamond Distributers and the local comic shop (LCS in industry lingo) the final sales figures are so far removed from what’s actually purchased by readers that they’re useless as feedback. The editorial staff is small and so busy with coordinating and creating storylines they don’t have much time to engage directly with customers. 

That leaves the writers and artists themselves. These are almost always people who have spent their entire careers writing or drawing. They’re good at their skill set but that skill set doesn’t include working with the public and, of course, we’ve already discussed why I think relations are deteriorating between this group and the audience. 

The result is an industry that essentially gives no weight to audience feedback at all. 

This industry is also in total freefall. In 2020 the entire sales numbers for the American comic book industry fell below that of Koyoharu Gotouge’s Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba. Comic lines like Super Sons, which were fun and new, and widely loved by general audiences, were cancelled arbitrarily to make room for a new creative team. Long running characters are constantly pulled from publication to make room for half-baked replacements. Interesting storylines have vanished and become tedious, repetitive lectures on the evils of society. All attempts to protest the systemic destruction of entertainment are met with ridicule. This goes beyond simple contempt for the audience. 

Insulating the creators from the audience has resulted in nothing less than the wholesale looting and rape of a cultural institution. 

This is disturbing because our cultural creators are growing more and more insulated from audiences. Again, these people have never been that good at staying in touch with their public. But streaming services aggregate everyone into a lump and make it difficult for audiences to express disappointment with a product. The entertainment press model is reliant on handouts and press events from publishers. Failure to give good press to any kind of mainstream entertainment results in the press getting shut out of future events and makes competing with compliant press institutions difficult. Individual commentators who speak out find their social media accounts suspended or banned. At the rate things are going, the rape of comics will play out time and time again over the next decade as one industry after another follows suite. 

There’s not a whole lot individual creators can do to counter this trend. All we can do is keep the basic lesson in mind: Feedback from the audience can sting. But if you cut it off entirely your art is fatally wounded. 

Why Critics and Writers Hate Archetypes 

A disclaimer before we dive in: This is not a universal law. Many critics and writers love archetypes, use or analyze them effectively and appreciate how they enrich stories. But a majority of them – not necessarily a large one but a majority nonetheless – seem to despise them. 

To oversimplify things, I believe this is because they see them as some kind of shackle. The curse of creativity is that it drives creators to try and do everything from scratch over and over again – assuming, of course, that creativity is your driving force. And I believe that many writers today are driven by creativity, not a desire to entertain or tell a story. The upshot of this is that writers seem to feel a need to not just ignore but actively reject all things that point to any aspect of the story than that which they desire. 

I keep coming back to this notion but it’s important. A storyteller is trying to manipulate the thoughts and feelings of their audience without the audience noticing them doing it. It’s something like a magic trick. Everyone knows a trick is being played but no one cares because the wonder and mystery is the whole reason you’re there in the first place. In this analogy, archetypes are like the documentaries that explain how magicians do their tricks. Once a magician’s trick is revealed it doesn’t have the same impact. 

Or so it appears at first glance. In truth, a well-executed archetype is more like a well-executed sports play or well told joke. Well versed audiences can appreciate the execution even if it isn’t quite as mysterious as it would appear to someone seeing the archetype for their first time. However many writers seem to feel a need to distance themselves from the archetypes instead. Rather than demonstrate their skills by executing on an archetype, they instead seek to subvert it. They will cut against it, diverting its natural story beats into other paths. 

Now there’s nothing wrong with subversion per se. However, in the modern age so many writers are subverting archetypes that this kind of behavior has become predictable. Worse, it hasn’t even moved into the realm of archetype itself, but rather remains a very shallow, surface level way to engage with archetypes. Heroes prove to be actually cowardly or performative. Thieves turn out to be motivated entirely by circumstance. Villains are just the heroes of their own stories. None of these subversions is ever explored with the depth or breadth of their counterparts because the point isn’t the exploration, it’s the subversion itself. Archetypes can become a crutch in the hands of a lazy writer but subversion in the modern era is just as bad. In some ways it’s worse. After all, in order to subvert an archetype you are still reliant on the archetype existing. The slow subversion of all archetypes has driven them out of the public consciousness to the point where they no longer exists to support the story. This would be fine if these stories had any other point than the subversion but for the most part they don’t. That leaves us with an empty shell of a storytelling landscape we really need to move past. 

Yet writers still languish in it. 

Critics are on the opposite end of this spectrum, they desire to understand what a storyteller has put forward. They are interested in the nuts and bolts of a story, with execution for its own sake, and typically evaluate archetypes through one of two lenses. First, as a layer of metatextual information the author shouldn’t be constrained by. Second, as something the author must outwit. Both attitudes seem to find their origin in the same place as the writer’s disdain for archetypes – the creator must be free to create, and archetypes are a constraint they must overcome in order to accomplish this. 

Like the writer, the critic is looking at the archetype as something that cripples the potential of a story. I’ve always found this perspective strange. But over the last five years or so I’ve slowly formed a theory as to why I think that it’s so common. 

I’ve spend more than two decades of my life doing theater in various forms and one thing I’ve learned from that experience is the importance of being in tune with your audience. If the audience laughs, you have to wait for them. Otherwise you will train them not to laugh when you make a joke. If the theater gets loud for some reason, you have to adapt to that. I once had to crank up the volume of a line with important exposition in it because a child in the audience started crying. As soon as their parents got them out of the room I had to reduce back to normal, so as not to break the illusion. And so on and so forth. This ongoing dialog between performer and audience is a vital part of delivering a good story. 

This dialog exists at a very abstract level in mediums where the audience and entertainer aren’t in direct contact. As media has expanded in scope and immediacy, and it’s gotten easier and easier for authors (or, in the case of movies and music, musicians and actors) to get more and broader feedback from their audience, to the point where it’s almost on the same level that a live performer gets from a live audience. With one exception. 

Even the largest venues accommodate only a few tens of thousands of audience at any one time. The Internet allows for an audience of billions. That’s far more feedback than anyone is really equipped to handle, delivered in a way that is both more immediate and more impersonal than comes during a live performance. I think that’s somehow poisoned the healthy feedback loop that exists in a good audience-performer dynamic. The unfiltered exposure to an artist’s personal life on social media certainly hasn’t helped. The forces at play in that situation are interesting but not really the point of this discussion. I’m more interested in the way all this mass exposure galvanizes creators against their audiences. 

This isn’t unique to traditional forms of entertainment or expression. YouTube and Twitch have created whole new mediums with their own massive celebrities and success stories, many of which have suffered incredibly damaging fallouts with their own audiences. The Spoony One, DarkSydePhil and Wings of Redemption are all cases of this that long time netizens are familiar with. By the same token, traditional forms of art and entertainment have produced many individuals that seem downright hostile to their own audiences. A list of comic book writers working at Marvel or DC in 2020 would be a great set of examples for that. 

And yet in mainstream entertainment, and Hollywood in particular, this kind of hostility seems particularly strong. You might say the writers and directors there hold their mainstream audiences… in contempt. And that brings me to my thesis this week. 

I think the modern rejection of archetypes is a rebellion against audience feedback. Audiences do not ingest stories in the way writers or critics do. They do not look at them in a vacuum and try and nuance out all the little details and dynamics the author was trying for, they add them to the vast library of existing culture already in their brains and see where they stack up. And, to stretch the analogy a little further, archetypes are how they catalog these stories. When audiences offer feedback on stories they often couch it in terms of these archetypes and the ways they didn’t get the aspects of the story they expected and desired. 

Now, it’s true that you can replace one aspect of a story with another and get an equally good and enjoyable story. The thing is, when that’s done successfully, audiences still tend to appreciate that. Look at Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho for example. That story subverted the whole dynamic of a typical horror story but still stands as a classic, beloved by critics and casual horror fans alike. But, as I’ve already said, I don’t think that’s what is happening right now. Now, we have stories subverting archetypes not out of a desire to tell a different story, but out of a desire to break free from the audience. 

Again, I think writers – and to a lesser extent critics – dislike archetypes because they see them as a kind of shackle. I don’t think that’s a fair assessment, just the one they make. As a result of the sudden deluge of audience feedback writers have experienced since the dawn of the Internet, authors have become more and more hostile to the feedback they receive. And the fact that said feedback often comes couched in terms of archetypes – which are primarily created by audiences to help them process stories – makes the natural hostility of the modern writer towards archetypes increase. The further the writer strays from normal archetypes with no clear direction in mind, the more he gets feedback on it. And the loop continues forever. 

The unfortunate reality underpinning this loop is simple. Entertainers cannot entertain without an audience. A creation that no one but the creator sees is not art, it is practice at best and indulgence at worst. The audience is a vital part of storytelling and artistic creation. But these are collaborative acts and as long as there is antagonism – whether born out of contempt or some other emotion – between the creator and audience then the arts will degrade, not grow. Perhaps our methods of feedback are inherently flawed. Perhaps both audience and artist need to seek a new way to reach this synthesis. But until both sides are willing to actually engage in a discussion with good will that’s going to be impossible. 

And to get there, I think hatred for archetypes is one thing that has to go.