Tuesday, July 17, 2007

In defense of Harry Potter

I am looking forward to the last Harry Potter book. That's becoming the kind of statement to polarize those to whom it's delivered: either you'll be gleefully anticipating the release date and happy to be reminded that the wait is almost over, or you now think I'm a pathetic man-child and have stopped reading, shelving me with all the other Potter readers, between Peter Pan and Michael Jackson.

On Digg, the big debate is whether those looking forward to the last Potter installment are in for the time of their lives, or whether they should - I'm serious - grow up and read more Thomas Pynchon. (Don't these detractors even have a sense of irony?)

This then breaks into a sub-debate: should everyone be asked, in the nicest (or, failing that, most insistent) possible way, to FOR THE LOVE OF GOD not post spoilers for the last book, or should the Internet become the hotzone for an orchestrated campaign of willful noise, so as to drown the actual spoilers in a haze of erroneous static?

(The answer is obviously the second option. It's attainable, immensely fun, and it pays sly homage to Real Books like Pattern Recognition and Cryptonomicon. Which - hey! - is almost liking Thomas Pynchon, right?)

From Time to the Washington Post, there's a sense of resignation: well, the kids like their wizard-stories, are YOU going to be the one to tell them they're not written worth a damn? This whole "magic moment" of the worldwide release date detracts from the singular pleasure of reading as insular comfort, but whatchagonedo? Another nail in the coffin for Proper Storytelling.

(I'm sorry the Post's Ron Charles lost his enthusiasm some way through the distractingly bombastic Volume 4, I really am: it meant neither he nor his daughter got to experience the truly gripping subtle malice of the next volume, in which clandestine machinations replace brightly-signposted plot points and an air of conspiracy, counter-subterfuge and grinding torment permeates that wouldn't be out of place in James Ellroy's Underworld, USA trilogy. But I'm more sorry because it meant we had to suffer through his nauseatingly highbrow thoughts on the Death Of Reading, as delivered by the talented Ms. Rowling. Spare us.)

And here's the thing: We've heard it all, and we don't care.

Reading Potter for the writing is like watching Rope for the editing. Nobody who's given it a moment's honest attention is pretending like these are any masterpieces of style. The writing in Harry Potter is never outright bad, but it sure as hell doesn't sparkle. We know this; we're over it, and truth be told, it might be better that way. It remains to be seen whether JK Rowling has any kind of writerly flair with which she might illuminate the word-to-word experience of reading her books; if so, she's earned the right to give it a go. But the workmanlike composition of the Potter books (to be charitable) shows a dogged determination to hinge a book on plot and character, a resolute determination to take it back to the old school and write stories. The plainness of Rowling's literary technique is what gives the books their universal appeal. Lament if you will, but you're missing out.

And what are you missing? Why, you're missing the thrill of taking the book home at the ordained date and reading, and this is the other area in which the detractors will howl and cry: "but the hype is destroying what it means to read a book!"

I'm just as worried as you are by the suggestion that this unprecedented level of pre-release buildup will do for the literary world what Jaws and Star Wars did for movies: dumbly club them into a blockbuster-or-bust model of release practices. But I don't think that's going to happen, and the reason is very simple: we're not made that way.

Look, the human animal operates in ways that are hardwired into our being. We know this, just as we know that one of the main ways this principle manifests itself is in our capacity to follow and enjoy narrative. You can't cheat the deepest levels of the psyche: we can't help liking a story that resonates, and we can't help dismissing one that rings false. The degree to which we'll dismiss depends on just how egregious an offender we're dealing with (which explains the desperate desire for a followable story to emerge in lame-duck continuing narratives like Jericho or The Ultimates), but the bottom line remains: we like good stories, and if we connect strongly enough, we'll stay with it. The "blockbusters" that are going to destroy reading aren't going to work en masse because they won't all be very good.

Which is why the world will be filled, on Potter 7 Day, with adherents young and old, opening and reading the books for the first time: to themselves, to each other. We'll be sharing a narrative, but we'll also be engaging in it on a solitary level, just as we've done for as long as we've told stories.

And that much-ballyhooed "magic moment", that globally-shared first read that somehow unleashes a cosmic dark power to devour the solitary magic of reading? That's just a byproduct. We just want to get to it before someone spoils it for us.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Up-And-Coming Cliches Vying For Your Frustrated Mindshare!

With ridiculous naivete, I always sort of thought of the English language as having formed its quotient of cliches already and being done with it. That in one fell swoop, a life could hang in the balance before you had time to have another think coming; that the best I could do to keep up with current affairs was to bemoan the nonsensical shift to, say, having another thing coming (for which I will, doubtless unjustly, thank Rob Halford a whole great fucking bunch).

That the closest we'd come to inventing new and infuriating cliches would be, say, abandoning the proud heritages of various old axioms, discarding, say, try another tack's seafaring roots for the still-functional but inelegant trying of another tact.

I honestly grew up thinking that we were about done coming up with whole new cliches. That characters in movies had got company since before my arrival and would continue to do so, despite my vocal protestations, well after I had bade farewell. (After all, if they'd wanted to kill me, I'd be dead already).

That the best we could do was mangle the old cliches, or perhaps scatter-gun them into new and interesting fields; so that while the literary world of the 1990s had its own problems, popular music was filled to overflowing with doe-eyed misanthropes standing on the outside looking in and volatile nihilists who just needed someone to save me from myself.

Of course, two things happened to wake me from this delusion. The first was, well, thinking about just how many of the above had originated, if not during my awareness, at least during my lifetime. And the second, of course, was the Internet.

Thanks to the Internet, everyone's a writer (even me!), and because everyone's a writer but not everyone can write, there's a huge groundswell (should that be italicised?) of new and infuriating cliches emerging into common parlance - and then some! (That one I'm fond of).

And because everyone's a writer (even me), I will now share a few of the new and happening phrases that I could quite happily go to my grave without ever hearing again.

- Under The Hood/When The Rubber Hits The Road. Lamentably, this first phrase pretty much never refers to the actual book promising to unmask the KKK, nor the fictional book promising to unmask America's shadowy superhero superclass. Instead, both are used when taking a good hard look at the workability of a (tech-related) product.

Strictly speaking, of course, under the hood refers to exploring the inner workings of a product (usually a piece of software), with the subtext being that while software (which patently does not have a hood) is inherently geeky, cars (which do have hoods, or bonnets here in England And Dependencies) are inherently cool and manly and physical and sexy.

Thus the lazy tech journo who promises to go under the hood of Windows Vista is inviting you, rather preposterously, to see him as a grease-stained, gruffly-grinning Tom Of Finland type (only straight) who's been tinkering with the oily nuts and bolts of this new product and is here to tell you how to make 'er purr when the rubber hits the road. (Stupidly, he may well say this; the only place you will never hear when the rubber hits the road used is when talking about actual tyres and the tractional properties thereof. Also, where the rubber hits the road, despite still referring to a chronological point in a product's workflow or lifecycle, is equally acceptable).

- Out Of The Box, meanwhile, is what you can expect in the immediate first stages of using a product for the first time. If I, for example, were to purchase a game download off popular online-only game store Steam this afternoon, and then download it, and then run the installer, my experience from that point until, say, my first game-over screen, could be described as how the game played out of the box, despite my never having removed anything from any box of any sort.

This, then, is similar to the above in its cloying attempt to make a cute analogy between the informational and the material, and is slightly less egregious only because it doesn't come vacuum-packed with the added connotation that "geeky" could ever equal "hands-on and manly".

Before moving on here, it's worth noting that particularly sloppy journalists will use under the hood and out of the box with a fairly high degree of interchangeability, which is always a good sign of just how entrenched a cliche has become.

- The inherent hilarity of sexual violation. I don't intend to become too precious here. Let's face it: I'm writing a fun little rant about overused turns of phrase. I am not here about to end the world's rape crisis problems.


I think some of you are overrating just how great rape is as a metaphor for any ill you can think of. Look, put it this way: if your Xbox 360 pulled a three-rings last week, and you'd gone at it with a screwdriver, and then found that you had just invalidated your newly-extended warranty - well, that's fine, you're annoyed now. But try this thought experiment: imagine that your sister, or mother, or girlfriend or wife had been the victim of actual physical sexual assault. Then imagine that your response to the above tale of nerd-rage ground zero was to tell her, "man, Peter Moore totally raped me this week!" See if you can picture her appreciating the well-turned overstatement-for-effect of your little wordplay there, champ.

And of course I don't need to pretend like I'm addressing both men and women here. Nerds can carp all they like about how their hobby is ready and willing for the ladies to step in and join the fun, but the fact is, you all know you're playing in a boys' club. That's why anal rape has become the nominal extension of the whole "when I am mildly hard done by, that is akin to being raped" paradigm.

Try, for example, this actual printed quote from actual foremost bastion of American videogames reportage, EGM:
Hey, Mr. Madden, you see that blood trickling down the leg of folks who bought the 360 version of your game? Well, that's from the ass-raping publisher EA just gave them, as fans were forced to pay extra money for content (like historical stadiums) that has been included in the current-gen editions for years. Apparently, making 87.3 gazillion dollars annually just wasn't enough.

I mean, seriously. I repeat: this isn't off some kid's website, this is out of the pages of what passes in the gaming world for a respected publication. Look, how about this one:
The new Ratchet and Clank game, Size Matters, is made for portable, on-the-go gaming. But it quickly became apparent that if I'd paid money for this game, my walking would be curtailed by the viscous, potentially-staining mixture of blood, fecal matter, semen, and inadequate amounts of lubricant oozing from my distended anus.

That was me. By the standards we seem to be using nowadays, I seem to be the best writer EGM has never had. I'll be waiting by the phone!

- Ever. And. EVER! ...Often preceded by ridiculous, non-Guinness categorisations: "Best Photo Of A Seabird In Mating-Flight EVER!"; "Hottest Guatemalan Beauty Pageant Contestants You Will EVER SEE!"

If the "EVER!" isn't pathetically easily-won, it may instead be utterly impossible to quantify: "Best Desktop-Organisation App For Macintosh EVER!"; "Messiest MySpace Page EVER!"

And in either case, the "EVER!" user may choose to self-identify as a fan of ridiculous hyperbole, or may just choose to showcase their unique degree of familiarity with arguably our age's most-referenced television series: "Oldest. Joke. Ever."

Of course, the horrible, terribly overused "Words. Organised. Like. This. To. Make. A. Point." thing isn't restricted to Simpsons fans, and I think it may also be something of a hallmark of Joss Whedon enthusiasts, but because I'm not big on character-arc porn, I couldn't tell you anything about that.

Finally, let's just pay deference to the fact that you can't possibly have uploaded the "Best. Cloud. Pictures. EVER.", for the simple reason that someone in 2097 might upload some better ones. I mean, obviously.

- Hardcore Gamer. Is there anyone on this Earth who would actually own up to the term film buff? For me it conjures images of David Halliwell in a smoking-jacket holding forth on discussions he had with Sir Alec and Dickie A. back in the good old days; but because I don't know what David Halliwell looks like, in my mind he looks kind of like Rolf Harris with a bigger, fuller, altogether fluffier beard. I don't know why.

Anyway, so film buff is a stupid, stupid term, and we can all agree on that, and nobody who could vaguely lay claim to satisfying the criteria for a film buff would ever call themselves a film buff. The only guy who calls himself a film buff is the guy who got Sky Movies cause it was cheap with Sky Sport, and every once in a while when there's no fucking yacht racing on, he watches Gladiator, and when he feels it move a little bit even though there's no women onscreen, he cries a tiny little tear. That's who calls himself a film buff.

So does that guy have an equivalent in the brave new world of New Media? Oh, of course he does. It's the hardcore gamer, a fellow who adopted this sobriquet a whiles back and subsequently ran it into the ground with his stupid lit-up PC casemods and his stupid all-night LAN parties and his stupid online games with their stupid headsets so the hardcore gamer could tell you things you didn't know about your racial lineage and sexual orientation. Thanks, hardcore gamer, you sure are a dick!

And because he's so vocal within his little community (on account of nobody listening to him in the real world, y'see), the hardcore gamer has become a hugely lucrative demographic. I, a grown-up (the above couple of paragraphs notwithstanding), cannot read media communiques from any of the people that make games I might like to start and never getting round to finishing (ah, Half Life, truly you're the Great Gatsby of crowbar-fetishisation) without them evoking this silly demographic.

You have the regular folks, and you have the suckers who'll buy games merely to play them all the way through so they can bitch about them. This latter demographic is better known, across all levels of the industry, as the aforementioned hardcore gamer demographic, and they must be appeased at all costs! Woe betide anyone who tries to make a game that's engaging or innovative at the expense of incensing the hardcore gamer by leaving out the subplot where you have to collect the twenty-thousand mystical geegaws to unlock the special ending!

Of course, it's neither here nor there that people who self-identify as hardcore gamers are dicks - lots of people are dicks, and I'm not here to try and change that. It's the simple fact that by letting this stupid term become such an integral part of the discourse, you're taking the lazy road to the hell of cliche, and you're also giving a bad name to unlistenable strains of rap and/or punk, unwatchable strains of pornography, and uncompromising strains of politician. And is that what anyone wants?

- Broken. "Google is broken." "Old Media is broken." "MySpace is broken". What could all these complaints mean? Could it refer to some sort of corporeal rift that is cleaving these non-physical properties in twain? No, of course, it's just the nerds being cute again. We've come full circle and once again are legitimising things by ascribing unto them a physical presence.

Instead of specifying what is at fault with an entity, it's becoming de rigeur to refer to it as broken, shorthand at once for "in dire need of fixing" and "beyond repair, at least by the nincompoops charged with such an endeavour". You can see how making one word refer both to "needing repair" and "beyond repair" may cause problems.

So that if someone were to complain that, say, Facebook was broken (which they would, often and vocally), they could be referring to anything from the site being housed on a server that was temporarily offline (broken in the sense that it has had its physical integrity compromised) to it having slowly slipped into a culture that, it appears, nobody in the world finds agreeable (broken in the sense of, "why oh why won't someone fix this fucking mess?"). Or they could even be saying that it had been broken, ie hacked, and that the immeasurably valuable data housed by Facebook is now common property (I'm still getting my head round why this would matter).

What's key about all these examples is that they're such quintessentially geek-pretension hallmarks. You'll never see a Good Housekeeping trip under the hood of Kenwood's new range of blenders, or hear anyone talking about how well Bodum's new percolator strains a cup o'joe right out of the box.

Folk on the Interwebs like to boast about how they're rushing leaps and bounds ahead of traditional communications, creating new pathways for interaction as soon as they're required both technologically and linguistically. But really, if we're just inventing a whole new bunch of stupid cliches in which to express the same old stupid debates in new trousers... isn't that just six of one, and...