Saturday, December 13, 2014

Age of Change

Change is neither good nor bad in itself.  Sometimes change is another word for waste.  These days it is often thoughtless, though it has its own momentum.

Humans are built for change.  Dealing with change--sizing up and seizing opportunities, foreseeing and responding to danger--is what our species does best. When the environment changes, we adapt.  It's why we're still around.

This ability is so much a part of our natures that we seek change.  As a species we spread out all over the world, sometimes compelled by circumstances but apparently very often because we like to wander.  We change our environment voluntarily. We are intensely curious, both mentally and emotionally.  We imagine a better place, a better future.

That and a superficial evaluation of technological change has tended to privilege change itself.  You can't fight "progress."  That may be true to some extent, but it's a self-fulfilling prophecy. Change that is danger to some is opportunity to others, and it is in their interest to augment the natural excitement that change inspires. Capitalism needs and fears change.  Large-scale change for the past couple of centuries has largely occurred when corporations could engineer it for profit.

As you get older, you have more experience with the vagaries of change.  So older people are perhaps more skeptical of change that sweeps society with the frenzy of fashion, the pressure of conformity and the opportunities to make a move, make money, make a name, move up in the world.  Maybe it takes older people to see the potential pitfalls, the costs of waste, the possible and probable consequences. And to have the security to say, no thanks.

On a larger scale these are attributes that are among those that make elders pretty good futurists.  It may seem ironic but evaluating change, keeping eyes open to consequences, is oriented towards the future.

This is not an argument for stasis.  Change involves risk, but benefits as well as drawbacks are possible, and no one can foresee everything.  Even in daily life, novelty perks us up, change can refresh, and it gives us another place to stand, another perspective, to appreciate and evaluate our world, both old and new.

Change is energizing, and can be intoxicating.  But it is not always better.  We need skeptics as well as risk-takers.  Slow absorbers and synthesizers as well as enthusiasts and early adopters.  People willing to resist the stampede.

Vision does not always mean a vision of changes to come.  Vision is also about evaluating consequences and interactions.  We need look no further than the spreading dead zones and huge floating islands of plastic garbage in our oceans, or to the climate we have irrevocably deformed, to realize this.

Friday, November 21, 2014

A Larger Reality




Ursula LeGuin made two different but related points, both vital, in accepting an award.

The first has to do with the literary legitimacy of science fiction and fantasy writers, and the importance of future visions to the future itself:

 "And I rejoice at accepting it for, and sharing it with, all the writers who were excluded from literature for so long, my fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction—writers of the imagination, who for the last 50 years watched the beautiful rewards go to the so-called realists.

 I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality."

The second point is the restraint on the freedom to write and on true authorship that's been growing a long while and has now reached nearly impossible proportions, not because of some fascist or even national security state, but because of the takeover by the institutionalized greed of capitalism:

Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between the production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profit and advertising revenue is not quite the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship. (Thank you, brave applauders.)

 Yet I see sales departments given control over editorial; I see my own publishers in a silly panic of ignorance and greed, charging public libraries for an ebook six or seven times more than they charge customers. We just saw a profiteer try to punish a publisher for disobedience and writers threatened by corporate fatwa, and I see a lot of us, the producers who write the books, and make the books, accepting this. Letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish and what to write. 

 Books, you know, they’re not just commodities. The profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words."

This is almost her complete speech--it's under six minutes in the video above, and the complete transcript is here.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

R.I.P. The Editor: Ben Bradlee

For a short time in the post-Watergate '70s, Ben Bradlee and I had something in common: we were both editors of a Washington newspaper.  Of course, fledgling alternative weekly Washington Newsworks was not exactly the giant, swaggering Washington Post.  We were the "Washington Outsiders" (as our promo said--I wrote it) in direct contrast to the insiders at the Post.  Though there was also another daily in town (the solid, well-edited Washington Star) the Post was the measure of all journalism in Washington.  They were all over the glamorous federal Washington, but their Metro section was weak.  So we looked for our stories there, as well as in the youth culture that the Post saw chiefly with bemusement.

Though I never met Bradlee, he was already an icon.  I'd been in Boston when the Pentagon Papers and Watergate were happening--my own stories on the 1972 Nixon campaign cited the Post's reporting before it permeated the political consciousness.

  Then when I was Newsworks editor, Bradlee's boldness was an unadmitted model.  My first news decision was reviving a story that had been held back because it might offend an advertiser.  Bradlee wouldn't be intimidated! I worked with the writer to make sure the story was solid, and we gave the advertisers a heads-up on its publication (They shrugged--they knew newspapers reported stories when they bought the ads.)

  Later I went after a national story which involved facing down some very important people, channeling Bradlee without realizing it.  My proudest moment now was how Newsworks covered the assassination of Chilean activist Orlando Letelier in a car bombing by Pinochet's secret police on the streets of Washington that also killed American Ronni Karpen Moffitt.  Jeff Stein did all the reporting (he's now a columnist at the Washington Post) all on his own, so except for a little text editing my role was as Newswork's Bradlee.  I put the story on the cover and gave it major play inside.  I worked with Jeff, with the art and production department.  The result was the best and most thorough coverage in the city.  Better than yours, Ben.  I'll bet you noticed.


Those who knew him are marking his death with their remembrances.  (For good example, David Remnick at the New Yorker.)  For everybody else, there's an apparently dead-on portrayal of Bradlee by Jason Robards in the classic film of All the President's Men.  For me, there was and is the example of a editor with courage and panache who stood for--and stood up for--a kind of journalism I believed in, and tried to do.  Sure, he had lots of faults and some lapses.  So did and do I.  But as a model, he was it.  May he rest in peace, but his restless spirit ever pervade American journalism.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Beginning of a Long Thought

"Recently, while moving my CD collection to new shelving, I struggled with feelings of obsolescence and futility...The tide has turned against the collector of recordings, not to mention the collector of books: what was once known as building a library is now considered hoarding."
Alex Ross
"The Classical Cloud"
New Yorker September 8, 2014

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Nothing But the Dream

Two interesting quotes from an essay on a writer I doubt I'd enjoy reading.

In the New Yorker (Aug. 25, 3014) James Wood is writing about James Kelman, a Scottish writer who writes fiction mostly about the working class in a particular part of Scotland.  Woods writes that Kelman's characters, while not engaging in flights of imagination or even deep thought, insist on "the play and the liberty...of the mind."  "More desperately, it's that they see privacy as the last unmortgaged, unindebted, unsold space, always on the verge of being invaded by the materialism of survival that tyrannizes the rest of life."

Well, as a kid in a working class culture, and then as a student being groomed for the middle class, I felt very much the same.  The privacy of thought, the resistance to its violation.  And this is linked to Woods' other fine phrase, about a story "in which hope and fatalism are evenly weighted, and only fantasy retains any dignity."

Yes.  There's a thread in my non-non-fiction writing fits for the past forty-plus years that plays with the various notions of "nothing," and with pluses and minuses that cancel out somehow.  It is finally only the writing, the fantasy, that has any certainty about it, though only in those moments of creation or initial inhabiting.  Or as I put it in a song that I wrote and have been singing (secretly most of the time) since the early 1970s...well, I keep them secret awhile long.

Friday, September 12, 2014

The Enterprise

"...when it comes to representing the outer world, no painting can compare to a window pane. This principle applies much more forcibly to literature, because there is no verbal equivalent of the window pane.  Words can describe things only approximately: all they do with any real accuracy is hang together, in puns, metaphor, assonances, and the self-contained fictions of grammar and syntax."

Northrup Frye
Creation & Recreation

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Leave-Taking

Tonight there's an orange half moon.  I suspect the color is related to the big fires burning to our north and east.

The piece of fiction writing I accomplished this summer was based on the day I left for college and the day I arrived.  Even since then I keep finding earlier versions of dealing with these days, in boxes, file cabinets and trunks.  Clearly it seemed important near the time (the first version written within months) and subsequently, and now, which I suddenly realize is pretty close to exactly a half century ago.

Apart from the language, there's the perspective of time, and the decisions of what to include (relevant information and memories, for example) that sheds light on that person--even if not deliberately fictionalized, now so remote in time as not to be exactly me as I am--and the meaning of those two days.

In going through the version I happened upon most recently and making some additions and changes to the "chapter" I wrote this summer, I realized that, even with the changes I may make in the future, this is basically the last version.  And the best.