Blotter Paper

My quest to write the book that your kids'll have to read in eighth grade.

Suffering blogger brain freeze

Posted by R. H. Kanakia on August 29, 2014

Not sure what to write about today. Still making my slow way through The Three Musketeers. Thinking about reading some classic adventure novels after this, maybe Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea or Around The World In Eighty Days or She or Kim. Not sure. Haven’t really dipped my feet into those waters ever (except with HG Wells. I’ve read a bit of him. And Frankenstein, of course, though that’s more of a Gothic novel than an adventure novel.)

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It’s hard to describe the appeal of THE THREE MUSKETEERS

Posted by R. H. Kanakia on August 28, 2014

7190The appeal of The Count of Monte Cristo is simple: it’s an awesomely epic story. Every contour of it is just so outsized. The draconian punishment that’s inflicted on the Count for no reason; the tiny little missteps that seal his fate; the length and horror of his imprisonmnent; the size of his eventual fortune; the magnitude of his revenge.

Now, though, I am reading The Three Musketeers and enjoying it, but it does feel like a much smaller novel than The Count of Monte Cristo. Not just in length (though it is half the size), but in terms of scale and focus. Even though TTM deals with events of geopolitical importance (the conflict between the King of France and his first minister), nothing seems that serious. I mean, if all this stuff was a big deal, the musketeers probably wouldn’t be constantly getting drunk and fighting random duels and bollixing stuff up, right?

I think that most novels, not just adventure novels, succeed or fail on the basis of the world that they create. For instance, Tom Jones, which I just finished reading, had such a fascinating view of morality. The hero, Tom, was in TWUE WUV with his neighbor, Sophia, but he still can’t help cheating on her constantly. And all of his servants can’t help betraying him or stealing from him. And Sophia’s father can’t help brutalizing her. Everybody has remarkably good intentions, but they’re all slipping up constantly. Which is a different view of morality than most books present. In most books, your actions are a reflection of your essential character. If you steal from your benefactor, then that’s a reflection of some deep flaw inside you or within your relationship. But not in Tom Jones!

And it’s seeing people operate inside that world which is interesting.

Similarly, TTM builds a great world: you’ve got these drunken, oafish musketeers rumbling around Paris trying to uphold the honor of the king against the polished, spit-shined Guards of the Cardinal. And you’ve got D’Artagnan running around in the midst of it, not understanding what’s happening, but somehow very attracted, on an aesthetic level, to these musketeers.

Incidentally, I think that’s why lots of modern adventure novels fail. They think that what they need is to tell a new story in an old setting: their authors want to write what is, in essence, the further adventures of the three musketeers or the further adventures of Horatio Hornblower. When really what they need is to breathe to life a setting that feels as vivid as the ones that actuated the classics that they loved.

On a sidenote, there’s a translation of TTM by my favorite translator of Russian novels, Richard Pevear (well, half of my fave translator, since he translates the Russians in partnership with his wife Larissa Volokhonsky but he did TTM alone) and that was obviously the translation that I defaulted to. However, there is something really wonky about his translation of the book. For instance, on p21 Pevear writes:

…few gentlemen could lay claim to the epithet “faithful.” …Treville was one of the latter; he was one of those rare organizations…who had been given eyes only in order to see if the king was displeased with someone…

My eyes stumbled over that puzzler and I re-read it, trying to figure out what he meant by ‘rare organizations.’ And finally I went and bought a different translation, the Modern Library translation, which translates that same passage as:

…but few gentlemen could boast that of loyal, which constituted the first. Tréville was of this small group, and high among them for the rare combination of virtues that were his. Quick of eye and prompt of hand, he seemed to have been endowed with sight only to discern who displeased the King…

Which makes sense. I mean, come on, Dumas is not the most masterful prose stylist in the world. When you translate him, you just need to have the result make sense. So I’m reading the ML edition (translated by Jacques Le Clercq) instead. Sorry Richard.

 

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This is my blog post

Posted by R. H. Kanakia on August 26, 2014

I am in San Francisco. It is a paradise. It is objectively better than Oakland in every possible way (except cost and weather, but the weather is actually really good right now, because it’s Inverse Burning Man). I love it here. Almost as much as I love Palo Alto. But I could actually live here and still be semi-cool, unlike in Palo Alto. So maybe I love it more, because of that. I’m not leaving Oakland, though, don’t worry.

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Watched Django Unchained

Posted by R. H. Kanakia on August 25, 2014

What a looooooooooong, baggy movie. So unstructured. Basically just things happening. The entire first third of the movie is the bounty hunter Christoph Waltz and the newly-freed slave Jame Foxx are hunting down some three random guys who are pretty irrelevant to the main story. Pretty good movie, though, and there was something really fun and exuberant about it. So, in a way, I did enjoy its lack of structure. And not having a traditional structure and traditional plot does allow for some interesting effects. For instance, I thought the relationship between Leonardo DiCaprio (the evil slaveowner) and Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz was made pretty fascinating by all the stopping and starting and stuttering within the plot. You were never quite sure how dangerous Leonardo was. And, in the end, he turns out to be both far more and far less dangerous than you’d imagine.

I don’t know. I’ve been watching lots of movies lately, after having zero patience with them for years. It’s a major change. Not sure what accounts for it. I’ve also had less attention span for books. Ehh, these things are cyclical.

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Is anyone still writing alternate histories?

Posted by R. H. Kanakia on August 25, 2014

It feels like a bit of a sleeper genre, but I could also just be out of the loop. I remember that when I was growing up, it felt like there was quite a bit of it (most of it written by Harry Turtledove). But I feel as though I haven’t heard any buzz about an alternate history novel in a long time. Maybe the last one that I recall hearing about was Lavie Tidhar’s Osama. I’m not saying that it’s disappeared, just that it’s gotten less culturally relevant. I’m probably just out of the loop, though.

There was always something astonishingly daring about alternate history: the idea that you could change one thing and then everything else would be different. I’m honestly not sure that I buy it. My feeling is that the course of history is driven by impersonal economic forces. For instance, in the U.S. we had a war to abolish slavery. Most of the rest of the world did not have this war, and yet, by 1880 slavery had been abolished throughout the world.

Similarly, the US had a war of independence. New Zealand, Canada, and Australia did not have a war of independence, and yet today they are, functionally, free and self-governing.

And yet you have all kinds of counterfactual stories that claim that if there hadn’t been a Civil War, then slavery would still exist and that if there hadn’t been a Revolutionary War then America would be a British possession. To which I say, hmmm.

I have a good counterfactual, though. What if the Vikings had brought smallpox to the New World in 1,000 AD?

Probably 80% of the population of the New World would’ve died, just as in the 16th century. And the New World would’ve succumbed to political chaos and the resultant madness.

But the population probably would’ve recovered by the time Columbus landed, and then the conquistadors and later British and French invaders would not have faced a depopulated continent. There would’ve literally been two or three times as many people on this continent. In the face of that sort of resistance, it seems more likely that the Americas would’ve ended up more like Africa or India: a white minority ruling a separate and uneasily subjugated people.

For example, look at the Philippines. It was colonized by Spain at roughly the same time as Spain colonized the Americas. But the people of the Philippines aren’t nearly as white as the people of the Americas, and they don’t speak Spanish.

But, on the other hand, what’s the practical difference? Would life on earth look different if the Americas were more like the Philippines? Probably not. The ethnicities would be different. The GDP values would be different. But would life on Earth differ in kind? Would we be organized differently? Would we think differently? Would we have different values?

I don’t know. I’m not sure. I think that things would be different, but maybe not as different as we think they would be.

The writer of counterfactuals would probably say “yes,” though. And that’s why they do what they do.

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Does anyone still write alternate histories?

Posted by R. H. Kanakia on August 25, 2014

It feels like a bit of a sleeper genre, but I could also just be out of the loop. I remember that when I was growing up, it felt like there was quite a bit of it (most of it written by Harry Turtledove). But I feel as though I haven’t heard any buzz about an alternate history novel in a long time. Maybe the last one that I recall hearing about was Lavie Tidhar’s Osama. I’m not saying that it’s disappeared, just that it’s gotten less culturally relevant. I’m probably just out of the loop, though. 

There was always something astonishingly daring about alternate history: the idea that you could change one thing and then everything else would be different. I’m honestly not sure that I buy it. My feeling is that the course of history is driven by impersonal economic forces. For instance, in the U.S. we had a war to abolish slavery. Most of the rest of the world did not have this war, and yet, by 1880 slavery had been abolished throughout the world.

Similarly, the US had a war of independence. New Zealand, Canada, and Australia did not have a war of independence, and yet today they are, functionally, free and self-governing. 

And yet you have all kinds of counterfactual stories that claim that if there hadn’t been a Civil War, then slavery would still exist and that if there hadn’t been a Revolutionary War then America would be a British possession. To which I say, hmmm.

I have a good counterfactual, though. What if the Vikings had brought smallpox to the New World in 1,000 AD? 

Probably 80% of the population of the New World would’ve died, just as in the 16th century. And the New World would’ve succumbed to political chaos and the resultant madness.

But the population probably would’ve recovered by the time Columbus landed, and then the conquistadors and later British and French invaders would not have faced a depopulated continent. There would’ve literally been two or three times as many people on this continent. In the face of that sort of resistance, it seems more likely that the Americas would’ve ended up more like Africa or India: a white minority ruling a separate and uneasily subjugated people. 

For example, look at the Philippines. It was colonized by Spain at roughly the same time as Spain colonized the Americas. But the people of the Philippines aren’t nearly as white as the people of the Americas, and they don’t speak Spanish.

But, on the other hand, what’s the practical difference? Would life on earth look different if the Americas were more like the Philippines? Probably not. The ethnicities would be different. The GDP values would be different. But would life on Earth differ in kind? Would we be organized differently? Would we think differently? Would we have different values?

I don’t know. I’m not sure. I think that things would be different, but maybe not as different as we think they would be.

The writer of counterfactuals would probably say “yes,” though. And that’s why they do what they do.

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Plot is what separates human beings from animals

Posted by R. H. Kanakia on August 24, 2014

Just watched the 2011 film Drive. It was a quiet, stylish movie. But I also didn’t like it. Nothing in the film managed to match the inventiveness and style of the chase scene during the first five minutes. It’s like the opposite of every martial arts movie: they started with a tense, frenetic action sequence and then everything else was kind of ho-hum.

My main complaint was that the plot of the movie was so by-the-numbers. Oh, there’s a guy living next to a woman. Let’s have them engage in a quiet romance. Why? Oh, because they’re there. Oh, the woman’s husband is coming back from prison? Oh no! Oh, the husband slips back into his old ways? Oh, the husband gets caught up in something bigger than he can handle?

There was a sense of inexorableness to the whole movie that seemed to reduce its characters to pawns. They did not feel real to me, because they didn’t struggle against their fate. I always felt like if we really had a guy who was as smart and compassionate and ruthless as the Ryan Gosling character appears to be, then he’d be going about things in a much different way. He wouldn’t be so ‘Aw shucks’ and wouldn’t constantly focus on the tactical at the exclusion of the strategic. He’d have some grander vision for how to escape from this situation. 

But instead he sort of bumbles along, and always just manages to escape by being fast and, apparently, knowing how to murder people with whatever implement is near to hand. 

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Saw a huge Tumblr thread about introverts and party-going behavior that made me so sad

Posted by R. H. Kanakia on August 22, 2014

I already posted about this on Tumblr, but no one reads my Tumblr, so I am going to write about it here too. Someone wrote:

Okay but like. Here is what I have found. There are other introverted people at the party. So when you see your friend get that, “okay we’ve had a little too much friend time” look in their eyes, look around the room and find the other person who’s not talking to anyone or awkwardly hanging on the edge of a conversation and try talking to them. It’s awkward and difficult but it gets easier every time you do it. Your social skills aren’t set in stone. You can work on them! And maybe you’ll never be a social butterfly, but you can at least get to a point in your life where you’re not the clingy friend.

And then someone else reblogged and added:

I should add that if you are the social butterfly who dragged your poor shy friend to a big party it’s actually your sworn duty to spend the first 15 minutes after your arrival playing platonic matchmaker. Don’t just be like “Okay, I’m go talk to these ppl over here BYE” and leave your shy friend in the dust. Wander along, while you friend follows you, and find someone your shy friend can talk to, and maybe nudge them into speaking, and sneak away once they get a conversation going. You’re good at this. It won’t take that much effort. Do us proud, wingcitizen.

Reading these advices, I was shocked. Do introverts really think this way? I feel like there’s a profoundly cold idea of human friendship and of party-going behavior that is at the root of this advice. 

I don't understand this meme. To me, it'd be pathetic if they _didn't_ get hammered just because there were no girls. But then, there are many things that I don't understand.

I don’t understand this meme. To me, it’d be pathetic if they _didn’t_ get hammered just because there were no girls. But then, there are many things that I don’t understand.

I am no introvert, but if I went to a party with a friend, I’d be pretty annoyed if they spent fifteen minutes trying to fob me off on other people and then went along to do their own thing. Similarly, I’d also feel pretty annoyed with my friend if he or she just flirted around the edges of a party in a lonely manner instead of coming over to me and joining whatever conversation I happen to be in.

The whole reason you go to parties with friends is so that you: a) can use them as social proof to demonstrate that you are a normal person who has friendships and is not just a creepy loner; b) have someone to hang out with during the awkward interludes when you’ve got no one else; and c) can just generally enjoy everything more because you’ve got someone to talk to about everything else that happens while you’re there.

Whereas it feels like the two people above think of friends as people who get you into the door of a party and thereafter owe you nothing. Of course, I’m aware that most people on Tumblr are in high school, so maybe this is just a high school social dynamic at work (i.e. in high school you can have friends who you are close with but who don’t want to be seen too much with you when they’re in the company of other people…)

However, if that’s the case, then high schoolers should take notice: that is not cool! 

The whole way that going out on the town works is that you’ve got your 1-3 close friends who are you are ‘in it’ with, and you form sort of a temporary pact to roll together. Oftentimes the formation of this pact involves meeting at some kind of staging ground: sometimes a bar, but usually somebody’s apartment. And then you go places and do stuff. And sometimes that involves meeting other packs of people. But, in my mind at least, there’s a very clear distinction between the people you start the night with and the people who you meet during the night. You have a duty to the people who you start with. It’s okay to have other plans later on (as long as it’s clearly stated), but it’s not okay to suddenly ditch your people or to treat them like strangers. The implicit assumption, when you start the night with folks, is that you’re happy to spend 4-8 hours with these people.

Now that I think of it, though, there is another situation here, which is when you go to a party and you find that there’s only like one other person you know (and sometimes not even very well) and you glom onto that person and chill pretty hard with them until you start to wonder whether they’re maybe tired of you.

That situation, though, really consists of two separate types of situations. If the person you know is the host (or is the occasion for the party, is in a wedding or birthday, etc), then you cannot monopolize them. You’ve got to do your best to talk to other people, because you know that the host needs to make time for lots of people.

But if they’re just some other person at the party, then, in my opinion, it’s better to risk overstaying your welcome than to break from them too early.

In modern American society, the problem isn’t that we have too much intimacy and too much closeness: it’s that people are distant and their relations are superficial. And part of the reason for this is an excessive fastidiousness. People are afraid to talk about more personal things. They’re afraid to spend too much time with each other. There’s a sense that everyone is bustling and busy and no one has time to kick it. 

But beneath that outward bustle, there’s a desperate loneliness. Everyone wants more intimacy in their life. Everyone wishes they didn’t need to be so restrained. Everyone wants to break through the polite barriers. And yet we continue to end interactions too soon, right at the moment when something more might happen. And, I agree, that’s a pretty awkward moment, because it occurs when you’ve exhausted the list of things that people with your level of relationship have to say to each other. But I think that in all of us there is a constant struggle to move beyond the bounds of the things that we are supposed to say. 

If you go to a party and hang with someone for awhile, and then break away from them in order to engage in more polite mingling, then that’s fine and it’s safe. But, on another level, what’s the point? What’s going to happen? 

Sometimes I think that peoples’ model for finding friends is to just talk to lots and lots of people until they find someone who shares a conversational interest that allows them to talk for long periods of time without feeling awkward. It seems like the only time people feel safe in a long conversation is when it’s about some sort of subject matter. For instance, geeks feel comfortable talking for each other because they can talk about anime or Doctor Who or board games or whatever.

And that’s fine…but I don’t think that discussing our mutual love for the Fallout series is the only way of opening up and feeling intimate with people. 

Anyway, this has been a very long post. I’m not saying that I am amazing at these skills. In fact, many of these are things (particularly breaking conversations in too early and abrupt a manner) that I do way too often. And I’m sure there’ve been many occasions where I’ve imposed on people for way too long and bored the hell out of them. But…I mean come on. Meeting new people is terrifying not just for introverts. Its terrifying for everybody. But there’s also a huge upside: every time you meet someone, you have the potential to form a genuine connection, no matter how brief, with another human being. 

But if you go into every interaction with a defensive posture (i.e. with the idea that you need to do whatever you can to avoid putting any weight on your friendships or imposing on anyone in any way) then you reduce your ability to form those connections and sort of miss the point of the whole venture.

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The fallacy behind ‘depressive realism’

Posted by R. H. Kanakia on August 21, 2014

97557-94199Some friends and I were talking the other day (yesterday) about depressive realism, which is the demonstrably true fact that clinically depressed people have a better understanding of life’s odds than non-depressed people. That’s because human beings have a tough time with probability and we tend to consistently overestimate the probability of low-probability events and to discount the possibility of failure in cases where there is a small, but real, likelihood of failure.

For instance, most marriages succeed, but some of them fail. However, few people who get married ever think, “Oh, there’s a chance that this is going to fail.”

The depressed person, on the other hand, allows allows the possibility for failure. In fact, they’re obsessed with it.

Similarly, very few aspiring writers will ever sell a story, much less a book. And even fewer will make any sort of career out of writing. However, while most aspiring writers know that things are hard, they do not have any idea how low the probabilities actually are, or they wouldn’t do it. If anyone really understood what it meant to have a one in a hundred chance of success, they’d go and do something else. Depressed people understand that a one percent chance of success is pretty close to zero. Basically, the odds of success are usually pretty bad, and depressed people intuitively understand that because they think most things are bad.

However, the thing that depressed people underestimate is human resilience. In fact, we all do. How many times have you read a story or watched a movie that ended with the implied conclusion that nothing was ever the same for this person: the conclusion that their life was, basically, over.

We see that movie and read that story all the time.

But it’s not true. People bounce back from most things. Really terrible stuff can happen. Your loved ones can die, you can lose limbs, or you can experience shame and dishonor on an epic scale…and even with that, it’s more likely than not that you’ll eventually find some level of contentment.

So, really, non-depressed people are the beneficiaries of their ignorance. They might underestimate the odds of failure, but it’s alright because the consequences of that ignorance–they’ll suffer more failures in life than they would if they were more cautious–are actually not that terrible.

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Really happy to have sold* another story to a literary magazine

Posted by R. H. Kanakia on August 20, 2014

Just got word today that The Indiana Review wants to publish “Sunday,” which is a one-page story that I told in the form of a time-use chart. It’s impossible to describe this story. After TIR’s exclusivity period ends, I’ll put up a copy online, because you’ve got to see this thing: it is super cool.

TIR is a pretty decent journal, and I am very glad to be getting published there. After years upon years of submitting to literary journals with zero sign that anyone is reading, it’s nice to have broken in a little bit. It’s a bit different than selling to a science fiction magazine, since I know exactly who reads SF magazines. I have no idea who reads the Indiana Review. Probably not very many people.

It’s good, though, to be breaking in a little bit here, since I find myself writing more and more realist work (this story, insofar as it is a story, is very realist). I’m not unaware of the fact that much of my increasing hit rate with literary journals is because I’ve started sending them realist work. 

“Sunday” is also amongst my most-rejected stories. It’s accrued 31 rejections! I’ve never sold a story that’s had more rejections. That’s another facet of submitting to literary journals. Because of simultaneous submissions, you wrack up so many rejections. Right now, I have two pieces that have 53 and 51 rejections, respectively, and I have no intention of withdrawing them from submission.

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