Can you legally use a historical classical music recording in a video or book trailer?

I have previously blogged about “fair use”  in copyright law, and mentioned there in passing that both law and jurisprudence are much more permissive about short textual excerpts from long written works than about, especially, audio or images. If you want to use a Beatles song (or a Rush song) for a book trailer, you’d better pay the licensing fee (which can range from reasonable to astronomical) or be prepared to fight a lawsuit. (Noncommercial music theory/appreciation videos, which include an element of scholarship or criticism about the music itself, tick off a couple more boxes and are comparatively safe. Even so, veteran record producer Rick Beato has suffered DMCA takedowns for some of his marvelous “What makes this song great?” episodes on YouTube.)

But what about a classical piece of music — and specifically, a composer who has been dead for over 70 years? The music itself — i.e., “just the notes, ma’am” — is without a doubt in the public domain. But what about a historical performance? Say, you’ve decided a theme from a Beethoven or Bruckner symphony is just what you need for a book trailer.  It is quite easy to find an online source for a performance by, say, the Berlin Philharmonic under Wilhelm Furtwängler from the 1940s — for example, this gem here. Better still: in Europe, recordings that old have passed in the public domain.

Under German law, the copyright term for recordings which were made prior to January 1, 1963 has expired, meaning they have entered the public domain. Recordings taken after that date were given extended protection in 2013 and thus cannot be digitized. Aware of this rule, I only undertook to upload recordings which were taken before the 1963 date in order to fully comply with the law. Despite that precaution, the process that followed presented a number of unexpected challenges[…]

The 1963 cutoff date would imply that, for instance, Herbert von Karajan’s 1962 Deutsche Grammophon recordings of Beethoven’s nine symphonies are now in the public domain, at least in Germany (and the rest of the EU, presumably).

However, as discussed here at great length, the situation in the US is rather different. Audio recordings were treated very differently from other media, and public domain for them effectively did not exist in the US (except, of course, if the artists themselves placed the work there and the composition was not otherwise copyrighted). Only very recently was a form of public domain established (following a 3-year transition period to end in 2021) for recordings prior to 1922.

1923-1946 recordings will have an effective copyright term of 100 years (95+5), and 1947-1956 recordings a 110 year term (95+15). Recordings made between 1957-1972 will go into the public domain in 2067, as previously.

For so-called “orphaned works” (i.e, works for which no copyright owner can be located or identified, e.g., the record label is long out of business and nobody else picked up the rights at auction), the new law

Includes provisions to allow non-profit streaming of recordings which are verified to be out-of- print. This is a start …

But we are still out of luck for our hypothetical example. So what are your options?

If you have a specific reason to use that historical recording, you may need to go through the process of buying the license rights.

But if any decent performance of that specific piece of orchestral (or choral) classical music will do, then your options are basically:

(a) Try to locate a modern recording released under a Creative Commons license. (That would usually be an amateur orchestra.)

(b) Try to locate a “library music” recording for purchase from a site like PremiumBeat or Pond5. Such sites work much like stock photo sites: you pay a onetime fee, and the recording is a “work for hire” from a copyright point of view: once you’ve paid the fee, you own the recording and may do with it as you please. (Usually, this is a non-exclusive license: exclusive licenses will set you back more money.)

(c) Produce your own synthesized version using digital music production software. This requires at least some musical skill though, and the result may sound, well, “synthetic”, but this may actually be quite OK for a book trailer.

(d) If you have some experience conducting, assemble a pickup orchestra from a local conservatory and produce your own amateur recording. (This is hard work but not as hard as it sounds, since typically you could limit rehearsals and recordings to a short excerpt of the whole work.)

(e) As a last resort, find and buy a piece of library music that is similar in mood.

Solo instrumental or chamber pieces are much less of a challenge, since you are more likely to find it under (a,b), while option (d) — hiring one or a few students from your local conservatory to play a couple of takes for you to record — is much more practical than for something that requires a whole symphony orchestra. And of course, if it’s a solo piano, violin,… piece and you can passably play the piece yourself, recording yourself and (if need be) cleaning up the recording a bit in GarageBand or Logic Pro may be the simplest and cheapest option of them all.

Black Friday Promotion: Novel “On Different Strings” just $0.99 from Tuesday through Saturday

In honor of Thanksgiving as well as a cover refresh, my first novel, “On Different Strings” will be just $0.99 starting Tuesday 1 AM through the end of Saturday.

Set in a fictional US college town, it is a tale of second chances after broken hearts, of cultural and other differences being bridged by music, of heartbreak, and eventual redemption. Campus insanity and administrative Kafkaism figure along the way.

“A genre-busting love story” (Bookhorde.org)

“A love story, a detective mystery, a musical journey. You need this book!” (Pat Patterson)

 

Eerily prescient 1907 poem by Stefan George: “Der Widerchrist”

This poem was written in 1907 by the German symbolist and “national renewal” poet Stefan George. It is as if he was prescient about what would happen in his own country in 1933. Or perhaps he simply understood a timeless truth about human nature: the attraction of a charismatic flimflam artist or ideology, and how they can lead a nation astray and asunder.

Those who have read Peter Hoffmann’s priceless biography of the Stauffenberg brothers Berthold and Claus will be aware they were both members of Stefan George’s inner circle. And indeed, Claus would countless times refer to this poem whenever Hitler [y”sh] was being discussed.

Here is Peter Viereck‘s verse translation, and below that follows the German original.

The Anti-Christ
He comes from the mountain, he stands in the grove!
Our own eyes have seen it: the wine that he wove
From water, the corpses he wakens.
O could you but hear it, at midnight my laugh:
My hour is striking; come step in my trap;
Now into my net stream the fishes.
The masses mass madder, both numbskull and sage;
They root up the arbors, they trample the grain;
Make way for the new Resurrected.
I’ll do for you everything heaven can do.
A hair-breadth is lacking – your gape too confused
To sense that your senses are stricken.
I make it all facile, the rare and the earned;
Here’s something like gold (I create it from dirt)
And something like scent, sap, and spices –
And what the great prophet himself never dared:
The art without sowing to reap out of air
The powers still lying fallow.
The Lord of the Flies is expanding his Reich;
All treasures, all blessings are swelling his might . . .
Down, down with the handful who doubt him!
Cheer louder, you dupes of the ambush of hell;
What’s left of life-essence, you squander its spells
And only on doomsday feel paupered.
You’ll hang out your tongues, but the trough has been drained;
You’ll panic like cattle whose farm is ablaze . . .
And dreadful the blast of the trumpet.

Stefan George’s original:

DER WIDERCHRIST
Dort kommt er vom Berge · dort steht er im Hain!
Wir sahen es selber · er wandelt in Wein
Das Wasser und spricht mit den Toten.‹
O könntet ihr hören mein Lachen bei Nacht:
Nun schlug meine Stunde · nun füllt sich das Garn ·
Nun strömen die Fische zum Hamen.
Die weisen die Toren – toll wälzt sich das Volk ·
Entwurzelt die Bäume · zerklittert das Korn ·
Macht Bahn für den Zug des Erstandnen.
Kein Werk ist des Himmels das ich euch nicht tu.
Ein Haarbreit nur fehlt und ihr merkt nicht den Trug
Mit euren geschlagenen Sinnen.
Ich schaff euch für alles was selten und schwer
Das Leichte · ein Ding das wie Gold ist aus Lehm ·
Wie Duft ist und Saft ist und Würze –
Und was sich der grosse Profet nicht getraut:
Die Kunst ohne roden und säen und baun
Zu saugen gespeicherte Kräfte.
Der Fürst des Geziefers verbreitet sein reich ·
Kein Schatz der ihm mangelt · kein Glück das ihm weicht ..
Zu grund mit dem Rest der Empörer!
Ihr jauchzet · entzückt von dem teuflischen Schein ·
Verprasset was blieb von dem früheren Seim
Und fühlt erst die Not vor dem Ende.
Dann hängt ihr die Zunge am trocknenden Trog ·
Irrt ratlos wie Vieh durch den brennenden Hof ..
Und schrecklich erschallt die Posaune.

 

What, exactly, is a “correct” classical performance? And how do music editors correct typos? Bach’s Fantasy and Fugue for organ, BWV 542

No, I won’t go into the manifold questions of interpretation here, and on the whole debate pro/con “historically informed” performance. What do you do when there is even no agreement on what the correct notes are?

The other day I heard somebody play Liszt’s piano arrangement of Bach’s Fantasy and Fugue in G minor for organ, BWV 542. The Fantasy happens to be one of my two favorite pieces ever in the entire organ literature (the other being the Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582), so I’m very familiar with its twists and turns.

So I was struck by two “mistakes” that stuck out like sore thumbs:

(1) in one of the solo recitativo bits of the Fantasy, the pianist hit a loud F natural where I’d always played a D (and as the last preceding chord was Bm/D, the F made no harmonic sense to me), and

(2) he played the final chord of the fantasy as G major rather than G minor. (Such a “Picardy third” — ending a minor-key piece on a major triad — was still the norm in Bach’s time, as minor thirds were still considered mildly dissonant. Bach himself, however, would end minor-key preludes in the Well-Tempered Clavier on minor triads to indicate the fugue was still to follow.)

Google Scholar is your friend then, and it turns out not only is there an entire academic journal called Bach, but that a long essay in it had been dedicated to the source provenance and variant readings of exactly this piece.

William H. Bates, “J. S. Bach’s Fantasy and Fugue in G Minor, BWV 542: A Source Study for Organists”, Bach 39(2), 1-88 (2008).

Turns out that no original manuscript has been preserved, but the piece has been transmitted through multiple first- and second-generation manuscript copies by pupils of Bach, their pupils, and by an anonymous copyist at a royal library. [*] What’s more: for the fugue, they appear to derive from at least three different source versions: an original, Bach’s later emendation, and a version transposed to F minor. Dozens of minor discrepancies exist.

For the fantasy, of which appears to have been substantially only one source version, there are “only” three outright variant readings in the notes. Aside from the final chord noted in (2), they are a comparatively trivial change at bar 42 and the one noted in (1):

PastedGraphic-1

Thus the mystery is solved. The score I have, a Dover paperback, is a reprint of the BG (Bachgesellschaftedition, or Bach Society Edition, b. above) — which is followed in many classical organ recordings. The Liszt piano arrangement I heard was based on a different source (a. above) — it seems that the source material (c,d) had a oddball “E” (presumed transcription error) which had been editorially corrected in two different ways:

a. consistent with a later occurrence of the phrase in bar 44 (a fourth higher), which is the choice made by the Bärenreiter and Breitkopf & Härtel editions;

b. consistent with the preceding chord (Bm/D), which is the choice made by the Bach Society Edition after 1900 (originally they printed the E).

Also, I learned from this article that the Fantasy and the Fugue appear to have been entirely separate compositions, which (because of their compatible keys) were paired by custom, sometime after Bach’s death. This offers a clue as to the “Picardy third” mystery: as minor thirds were still considered mildly dissonant in Bach’s time, final movements of minor-key works still customarily ended on major triads, though Bach would often end a minor-key prelude on a minor third if there was another movement to follow.

“The lonely lives of classical music scholars”, you say? Maybe that too, but also, for this scientist and amateur musician:

(a) a sobering observation on what exactly constitutes “authenticity” in classical music performance;

(b) an interesting parallel with great literary works from the English Canon hat were only printed after the author had passed away.

 

[*] Unlike for works like Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565, there is ample internal and external evidence that J. S. Bach was the author of BWV 542.

Valkyrie Day post: “The Tenth Righteous Man”

Sixty-four years ago to this day, a German general staff officer named Claus Schenk, Count von Stauffenberg led an attempt to assassinate the Führer (y”sh) and effect regime change. His attempt was the last of many, and failed through a minor coincidence. The former Bendler Street in downtown Berlin, where once the plotters worked, is today known as Stauffenberg Street: a memorial to the German anti-nazi resistance stands there now. The biography by McGill U. historian Peter Hoffmann makes for fascinating reading.

Many had tried and failed before Stauffenberg: three came within a hairbreadth of succeeding, as he himself would.

The “lone wolf” carpenter and master clockmaker Georg Elser managed to install a powerful time bomb behind the speaker’s rostrum at the hall where his target was scheduled to give an annual memorial speech for the ‘old comrades’ who fell in the attempted 1923 “Beer Hall Putsch”. (Elser had gone to work at a quarry so he could gradually purloin the required dynamite.) Only a last-minute  schedule change because of predicted foul weather thwarted the attempt: the bomb went off twelve minutes after the speaker had left, and killed at least a dozen people.

Later, two general staff officers succeeded in smuggling a time bomb aboard the Führer’s personal plane, disguised as a gift of liqueur from one general staff officer to his colleague in Berlin. The detonator failed, presumably because of the cold weather: the plotters were able to extricate their own bomb and go undetected.

The third, the attempted suicide bombing by Col. Rudolf Freiherr [=Baron] von Gersdorff, was unique in that, if it had succeeded, it would have been a ‘decapitation strike’ against nearly the entire apex of the Nazi state. I wrote a fictionalized version of this incredible tale as the first story in this anthology:

(the entire story appears in the preview). It is a classic illustration of the adage that history can be stranger than fiction. In brief: an exhibit of captured Soviet armaments had been organized in Berlin (at the building that today houses the German Historica Museum). As an additional morale booster, the grand opening was to be attended not just by the Führer himself but by Goering, Navy commander Adm. Doenitz, and SS-chief Himmler. Gersdorff (the intelligence officer of Army Group Center) managed to get himself assigned as the senior guide to the exhibition, and carried two captured British time bombs in his pocket. He set off the fuses and started guiding the VIPs on their tour, expecting the fuses to go off, killing his guests and himself. However, whether from boredom or through a long-standing habit of throwing wild-cards into his schedule and movements, Hitler left the exhibit after a few minutes. Gersdorff was quite willing to die but not to throw away his life for nothing, and thus excused himself to a bathroom where he managed to defuse his two bombs just in time. Unbetrayed by his comrades even under the vilest tortures, Gersdorff survived the war and lived to tell the tale, and to become the founder of Germany’s largest volunteer ambulance service.

[He had actually] offered his services to the Bundeswehrafter the war, but was blackballed as a ‘traitor’, being as he had sworn personal allegiance to the man-monster he had tried to murder. By our lights, he had merely tried to defend ‘against all enemies, foreign and domestic’.

[…]Gersdorff was no plaster saint: he loved the good life, particularly horseback riding, and appears to have taken the trappings of his aristocratic background for granted. On the other hand, noblesse obligewas clearly no mere phrase for him, but an ideal for which he was prepared to pay the ultimate price.

He was not merely a nobleman in title. More importantly, he was a man noble in spirit.

The myth of the starving composer

A friend of mine was told that, basically, “you’re not Beethoven and you’re never going to make a living at composing, so stop already. Besides, even Beethoven starved”. Aside from the proper answer being Sierra Tango Foxtrot Uniform or (in Yiddish) Golf Kilo Oscar Yankee, let’s address the enduring (and pernicious) myth of the starving artist/composer.
A writer https://goinswriter.com/die/ blogs about it here, particularly focusing on Michelangelo — whose fortune in today’s terms would have been in the millions.

The most damaging myths are always those with a grain of truth in them. It is undeniably true that few if any of the great composers of your were able to make a living directly and exclusively off composition — but that didn’t mean they starved, or that they could not make a living in music!

Let’s start with (to me) the greatest of them all, J. S. Bach. As explored in great detail in Christoph Wolff’s scholarly biography, the surviving financial evidence suggests Bach’s income stream made him solidly middle-class, or even upper middle class, by the standards of his day — and all of it was related to music. His main incomes were as an organist, then as a Kapellmeister (music director — the modern concept of a conductor emerged only later), then as the Thomaskantor (music director and assistant principal of the St. Thomas High School in Leipzig). Some of these jobs included composing duties — Bach wrote several years’ worth of weekly church cantatas.
He had respectable secondary incomes as a private keyboard tutor (for which he was in high demand), as what we would today call a “consultant” on church organ construction, and even as an agent for the Silbermann family of harpsichord and fortepiano builders. (The instrument he was representing them for was an early fortepiano — giving the lie to another myth, that playing Bach on the piano is somehow inappropriate.)
But would Bach have been able to feed and house his large family on intermittent composition commissions? Or from publishing his works? The economics of the day didn’t work that way. Copyright as we understand it today didn’t really exist. (Nor did the modern conception of plagiarism, by the way — composers borrowed thematic material from each other, from folk tunes,… as a matter of course.) Music printing was a laborious and costly process that involved engraving by hand on copper plates, and only a handful of Bach’s works were printed during his lifetime. (The Art of the Fugue appeared posthumously but Bach arranged for, and subsidized, the publication while he was still alive — he clearly intended this Mount Everest of absolute music to be his artistic testament.)

So could he live well? Yes. Could he live well off music? Yes. Could he live solely from composition? No, but the very concept of a full-time composer did not exist in the day.

But what about Mozart, you say? Mozart actually made quite a bit of money off music. He had wealthy admirers, he was a keyboard virtuoso since childhood, staged operas that not only will endure when today’s richest Broadway composer will have been forgotten but were popular in their day,… and indeed ghostwrote music for wealthy would-be composers. (This is the true origin of the “Requiem” story. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Franz_von_Walsegg) On the flip side, he was a spendthrift and thus perennially in debt, though his fortunes appeared to have turned around when he caught what appears to have been [http://doi.org/10.7326/0003-4819-151-4-200908180-00010] a streptococcal infection and died — again, there was no king or queen safe from that at the time.

Beethoven, to greater or lesser degree, was able to live primarily off composition. Despite his by all accounts volcanic temper and cantankerous personality, he had rich admirers. But crucially, as discussed e.g. in Jan Swofford’s biography, he would subsidize his “serious” output with volumes of song transcriptions and “bagatelles” (short, easy, inventive piano pieces playable by amateurs) that his publisher would pay good money for. Yes, even that “artiste’s artiste” would write unabashedly for the masses sometimes! (It is a measure of Beethoven’s genius, to me second only to Bach, that even these throwaway pieces contain some real gems of invention.)

Liszt gained fame and fortune as a legendary piano virtuoso (a “rock star” of his day whose “groupies” engaged in embarrassing displays) before retiring to focus full-time on composition of works more profound than the flashy showpieces he had written for his own use. Chopin, aside from a concert pianist, taught piano lessons to the rich and famous of his day for what are princely fees by any standard. Mahler never gained the esteem he has now as a composer during his lifetime, but held one of the most prestigious conductor positions of the day. (That he had to convert from Judaism to Roman Catholicism to get it is another story.) Bruckner, whose symphonies I have only recently started appreciating, enjoyed fame as an organist during his lifetime. The list is endless.

In fact, until the modern era, the performer and/or practical music educator was the norm among composers, and the full-time composer the exception. Pianist and organist Anthony Newman, in an interview in Keyboard Magazine that I read as a teenager, actually argued that classical music started becoming a sterile art form precisely when composers were no longer primarily performers.[*]

As we have seen above, the “starving artists” weren’t all that starving (some, like Handel, indeed got rich); the Great Composers, for the most part, were professional performers first; and the Professional Composer is a comparatively recent phenomenon that coincidentally (?) coincides with the decline of classical music as a living art form.

We are now living in an era where skilled amateurs can put their music, writings, or other creative works in front of a global audience for comparatively modest investments. The challenge now has shifted to bringing it to the attention of people, to make it stand out from the crowd. Conventional agents and publishing houses are increasingly becoming redundant or even irrelevant to the process, though I can see the role of a publicist transforming, rather than disappearing.
However, the “YouTube/SoundCloud economy”, where you compete less for money and for people’s attention and time, in some ways will be an interesting throwback to aspects of yesteryear’s composers. Bands today often don’t make any real money off albums due to illicit downloading and the overheads of legacy record labels — it is in live shows that the real money is nowadays, as people are clearly still willing to shell out money for “the live experience”. Had Bach or Handel lived today, they would probably each have millions of followers on YouTube (and have millions of people illegally downloading their music) — but Handel got rich staging his own operas and oratorios then, and would likely have to do so now. Bach would likely be able to travel in style from one sold-out-in-hours gig to the next — but he likely would be touring if he wanted more money than a faculty appointment could provide. Of course, once they got famous in our fictional world, a billionaire with good musical taste would be willing to bankroll them, but I can’t see Handel giving up the stage. Bach perhaps, because as much as he loved the good life, this deeply religious man ultimately wrote for an audience of One.

I would counsel my friend to “Keep calm and carry on”.

[*] The case of Jean-Philippe Rameau is somewhat peculiar. He first gained recognition as a music theorist (his Treatise on Harmony is a milestone in the field to this day) and considered himself a music scholar first and foremost. But he worked as a church organist for over two decades after succeeding his father, and ultimately gained fame as an opera and ballet composer, conducting his own works. Ironically, the greater ease of printing a book (rather than sheet music) in the age before digital typesetting may have contributed to his early reputation.

Fiction writing fact-check: Can Catholics ever marry non-Catholics in church?

No, this is not a religious screed, but a fact-checking item for something likely to come up when writing romance novels or romance subplots in other fiction genres. (It has come up in both “Winter Into Spring”, and in two works in progress.)

Full disclosure and disclaimer: I am not a Christian and hence am an outsider to intra-Christian doctrinal disputes. The following text attempts to summarize the actual situation in canon law (see also Canon Law Made Easy) and makes no value judgments. It is assumed in the discussion below that the partner does not convert to Catholicism — otherwise, there is no difference with a Catholic marriage other than the conversion itself and all it entails.

Otherwise, the RC Church distinguishes between two broad categories:

• “mixed marriage“: the other partner was baptized in a way that the Catholic church recognizes as such. This is the case for the mainline Protestant denominations (Anglican/Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian,…) as well as for the Orthodox Churches. The latter are a special subcase because they are not considered “heretic” but merely “schismatic”, and broadly have the same understanding of marriage as a sacrament.

• “disparity of worship“: the other partner belongs to a non-Christian religion, or to a Christian denomination but never underwent baptism in a way recognized as such by the RC Church. (For instance, LDS/Mormon baptism is not recognized; or the partner may have been raised Baptist but never have undergone adult “Believers Baptism”.)

“Disparity of worship” (Canon 1086) is a “diriment” (separating) impediment in canon law: any such marriage is considered null and void unless a “dispensation for disparity of worship” is obtained.

In contrast, “mixed marriage” (Canon 1124) is merely a “prohibitive” impediment: if, for example, a priest were to marry a Catholic-Lutheran couple without dispensation, such a marriage would be “illicit but valid“. That is, the marriage is forbidden unless a “dispensation for mixed marriage” is obtained, but if the priest were to marry them regardless, the couple are considered married. [Jewish law has a similar situation for a marriage between a cohen — a male direct descendant of the first High Priest Aharon/Aaron — and a divorcée or a female convert to Judaism: the marriage is forbidden by the Torah (Lev. 21:7) but if it were to take place regardless, the parties are married in every respect.]

What is a “dispensation“? In plain English, if a rule is imposed merely by ecclesiastical law rather than by (the Church’s understanding of) natural or Divine law, then in cases where its application would create a hardship, the rule may be relaxed ad hoc by “competent authority”,  “for just and reasonable cause”, while it still remains in force for the community at large. In this context, ‘competent authority’ generally means the diocese in which the marriage is taking place.

We have already mentioned two types of dispensation related to marriage: “mixed marriage” and “disparity of worship”. A third that may arise in this context is “departure from canonical form” (Canon 1127), i.e., with a non-Catholic clergyperson (co)officiating at a non-Catholic marriage ceremony. This sample application form illustrates all three forms of dispensation. (The same sample form also states that for Catholic marriage by a priest or deacon, but at a venue other than a Catholic church, a simple request in writing suffices and no dispensation is required.)

For both “mixed marriage” and “disparity of worship” dispensations, the Catholic partner has to undertake in the presence of the sponsoring priest and the other spouse to do everything in their power to raise the children as Catholics.

So what does all this mean, “brass tacks”?

(1) Roman Catholic with a member of a Catholic Church of Eastern Rite (Uniate, Greek Catholic, Maronite,…): from a Catholic POV this is a Catholic marriage in every respect. Subtle issues of “jurisdiction” may arise.

(2a) Roman Catholic with (Greek/Russian/…) Orthodox Christian in an Orthodox Church and ceremony: this is considered a valid marriage even ifythe Catholic partner did not petition for “departure from canonical form”.

(2b) Roman Catholic with (Greek/Russian/…) Orthodox Christian in a Catholic ceremony: in principle “mixed marriage permission” is required before the priest or deacon will marry you, but the marriage is valid even if he married you without permission. (He may be in hot water with his superiors though.)

(3a) Roman Catholic with Anglican, Lutheran,… or other mainline Protestant, by a Catholic priest or deacon in a Catholic Church: “mixed marriage permission” is required, but the marriage is valid even without. Increasingly, as in this sample application form , the reservation “with disparity of cult granted as a precaution” is added.

(3b) Ditto, but in a Protestant church or secular venue, with a Protestant minister officiating: both “mixed marriage permission” and “departure from canonical form” are required, otherwise the marriage is invalid. One recent high-profile case was the marriage of the Dutch Crown Prince, presently King Willem-Alexander (Dutch Reformed) to the Argentinian Princess Maxima (Catholic). This case also arises when a brother, father, or uncle of the Protestant partner is a practicing minister of that denomination and wishes to (co-)officiate.

(4a) Roman Catholic with non-Christian or certain special cases (Baptist who never underwent adult baptism, LDS,…), by a priest in a Catholic church: “disparity of worship” dispensation is required, or the marriage is invalid. This dispensation is generally harder to obtain, for obvious reasons.

(4b) Ditto but at another venue, with an officiant other than an RC priest or deacon: both “disparity of worship”  and “departure from canonical form” dispensations are required.

Summary in Table form

RC with: in RC church in non-RC partner’s place of worship
Eastern Catholic Like RC[*] Like RC[*]
Eastern Orthodox mixed marriage dispensation, otherwise illicit but valid canonical form dispensation, otherwise illicit but valid
Baptized Protestant mixed marriage dispensation, otherwise illicit but valid canonical form dispensation, otherwise invalid
Others (LDS, Baptist without adult baptism, non-Christians) disparity of worship dispensation, otherwise invalid both disparity of worship and canonical form dispensations, otherwise invalid

[*] subtle “jurisdiction issues” may arise that are beyond the scope of this post

Chesterton’s parable of the fence

The British writer G. K. Chesterton is probably best known to the general public as the author of the “Father Brown” series of mysteries. Among English-speaking Catholics, he is also well known as an apologist for their faith. Agree or disagree with his views, friend and foe recognized his intellect.

In one of his apologetic works (“The Thing”, quoted here, and discussed here from a different religious perspective) he coined an interesting parable:

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious. There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease. But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion.

Meaning no disrespect to Chesterton’s splendid prose, allow me to paraphrase and elaborate in plain(er) contemporary English.

Suppose you are walking along a road and see it blocked by a fence. Is your first impulse: “this fence is oppression! We must tear it down!” Chances are you are a left-liberal “progressive” — especially if you flip 180 degrees to “we must keep the fence, and saying otherwise is hate speech!” after being told that the fence was erected by or at the behest of one of your mascot groups.

Is your first impulse rather, on seeing or suspecting that the fence was erected by the state: “down with the state! down with the fence!” Then, if told that the fence was erected because there was a cliff behind it, or quicksand: “it is my dog-given right to drive off a cliff or into quicksand if I choose to do so, and the state has no business making such a fence!” Chances are you’re a doctrinaire big-L Libertarian. (A more sensible libertarian might advocate tearing down the fence but putting up warning signs, saying “proceed at your own risk”.)

Or is your first impulse that the fence is sacred just because it has always been there, and we must not question why? Chances are you are a reactionary.

Or, finally, is your first thought: “Hmm, that fence wasn’t put there overnight by leprechauns. We must find out how that fence came to be and why. It’s quite possible that the fence was built for reasons that are no longer relevant, and that we can safely tear it down; it’s also possible that the fence is still sorely needed. Until we have a straight answer to this question, let’s not mess with it.” That is what it means to be a conservative. Not to be afraid of anything new, not to oppose reform or evolution —  but to go about it cautiously and thoughtfully, and mindful of the Law of Unintended Consequences.  A conservative with libertarian sympathies (like myself) may err on the side of allowing people to make their own mistakes rather than “protecting them against themselves” — but still would not tear down the fence unthinkingly. I might be more rash, if I were alone on a desert island. But in the immortal words of John Donne:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

 

 

 

False dichotomies and art education

In Hyrum, Utah, an art teacher at an elementary school has been fired for showing two artworks featuring female nudity to fifth- and sixth-graders. The artworks in question (images somewhat unsafe in some workplaces) are “Odalisque” by François Boucher (a partial nude) and “Female Nude” (a.k.a. Iris Tree) by Amedeo Modigliani (which features full frontal nudity).

I am torn here. On the one hand, I do not consider artistic, tasteful classical nude paintings to be offensive at all and have even written a long blog post about Renoir’s models. On the other hand, know your audience: it would not occur to me to display this type of painting to elementary schoolers in a very religious community, be it LDS or Orthodox Jewish—and the teacher ought to have displayed better judgment. On the third hand, the school’s reaction — firing the teacher where a friendly admonition would have done the job just fine been quite adequate — is a classic example of “shooting mosquitos with a cannon”. Especially since the material came from the school’s own library collection.

derp to full potato

There are those who try to present the treatment of sexual matters as a false dichotomy: either Old Order Amish or Teen Vogue’s “teenage girl’s guide to [back door breaking and entering” (barf). Those of us who seek a sensible middle ground will be called libertines by one side and prudes by the other. Be it as it may: false dichotomies are a beloved cheap trick of propagandists everywhere.

If you believe (as I do) that sex is something beautiful to be shared and enjoyed between people who love each other; that pleasuring your partner is a skill worth acquiring for your partner’s sake as well as your own; but that sexuality is not something to be “hung out in public”  in and out of season; then you will run afoul of jaded hedonist “sophisticates” and neo-Puritans alike. As the Iron Lady put it: being in the middle of the road means you will get hit by the traffic from both sides.

This polarization extends to fiction, by the way. “Contemporary romances” increasingly are either very explicit for the sake of being explicit (if those same books were marketed as erotica, this would at least be “truth in advertising”) or (for certain religious markets) squeaky-clean at a level where even a kiss on the mouth is considered too racy. I personally do not mind even very graphic scenes if they move the story forward or deepen the characters, but in most situations, I do believe that it is best to leave something to the imagination, that usually “less is more”, and that usually off-camera, or at most soft-focus are as effective as technicolor, or indeed more so. As for how “spicy” to paint an amorous relationship in fiction: I would go by what feels authentic for the characters and their environment. A romance in which two students at a Northeastern liberal arts college spend four years hand-holding and kissing each other on the cheek until their wedding day would generally be very implausible unless you came up with a very convincing backstory. At the same time, in some very religious milieus, a couple getting physical on their first meeting would be equally preposterous. “Don’t throw the reader out of the story” applies to these matters as well.

 

On consciously and unconsciously knowing

 

A Facebook friend of mine, very articulate, a sharp thinker, and with multiple academic degrees in “hard” subjects, was discussing his frustration with only speaking one language, and even so, “don’t ask me about the rules of grammar. On good days, I know what a gerund is.”

Now his written communication is always flawless in spelling and grammar, so he clearly knows how to apply grammar — which illustrates the difference between knowing something and knowing the words for it. Or, if you like, between having internalized a skill and being able to explain it.

Richard Feynman, in “Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman!” recalls how his father taught him that knowing the name of, say, a species of bird in several languages still doesn’t teach you anything about  the bird. That is true enough, of course, except for one thing — if I know what the bird is called, I can go look it up — trudge to the library for the Britannica or a handbook of ornithology when I was young, or just search in Google or Wikipedia nowadays.

I write a fair amount of highly technical nonfiction in my day job — well enough that I’ve been asked to teach others — and frankly didn’t consciously know any of the grammatical rules until I realized I was able to teach people how something was done, but not why. “This is how it goes, it just sounds wrong otherwise, don’t ask  why,” isn’t how thinking people like to be taught. Consequently, I was forced to hit the textbooks myself just so I could “tell people what the bird was called so they could look it up”. I imagine this is a similar situation to people who are self-taught as jazz or rock musician but need to go learn theory just so they can be more effective teachers.

In an interview shortly before he passed away, the legendary jazz trumpeter and bandleader Miles Davis reminisced about a meeting with Jimi Hendrix, planning a recording session that sadly never came to pass due to Jimi’s untimely death. He recalled mentioning a “diminished seventh chord”, and Jimi looking blank. He then took his trumpet and arpeggiated the four notes — Jimi of course immediately played the chord that he’d never known the name of. In fact, Jimi would have stared the same way at the mention of a “major-minor chord”, a.k.a. “dominant seventh-sharp ninth chord” — even though it’s nowadays often referred to as the “Purple Haze chord” or “Hendrix chord” due to its prominent use in one of Jimi’s best-known compositions.

Hendrix “spoke music like a native”, but didn’t consciously know the grammar, if you like — he just could apply it in his sleep. A very different intuitive musician, Evangelos Papathanassiou — world-famous among electronica and soundtrack lovers by the Greek nickname Vangelis — had classical piano lessons but never properly learned to read music: blessed with a prodigal ear and memory, he could reproduce what his teacher showed him just fine. While he apparently took some college classes in music (as did his more meditative German college, Klaus Schulze), he kept an intuitive, “feel” attitude toward music his whole life. When an interviewer in Keyboard magazine asked him how he composed, he answered tellingly: “it’s like breathing: if you think about how to breathe, you choke”.

Now while some of Vangelis’s more ambitious compositions (such as “Heaven and Hell”) clearly draw inspiration from Western classical music (Klaus Schulze even wrote a brief orchestral fugue in the studio version of “Ludwig II”), it would be hard for a musician to “function” in the classical world without the musical equivalent of “knowing your grammar”. (To be sure, at least one famous classical organist needed to learn most of his repertoire by ear — Helmut Walcha had been totally blind since age twelve — but he surely knew his theory, and taught for many years at the Frankfurt Conservatory.) Likewise, in some of the more ambitious, through-composed realms of jazz and progressive rock, a thorough conscious knowledge of music theory is a great asset—though you may be able to get by just fine with an unconscious one, as long as your fellow band members are comfortable learning by ear.

Conversely, knowing the rules without being able to apply them in real time may get you a job as a critic, but won’t get you far as a musician — or a writer.

 

 

Abstraction layers and learning

The other day I heard an interview (in French) with electronic music megastar Jean-Michel Jarre (who is, incidentally, the estranged son of film composer Maurice Jarre and the ex-husband of actress Charlotte Rampling).

Paraphrasing one segment of the interview from memory: “Some people tell me that electronic music is abstract. On the contrary! Especially with analog instruments, it’s visceral, hands-on. I twist this knob or push that pedal, and I immediately hear the sound change in response. It’s classical music that is more abstract! They play off a score, which is an abstract representation of the music.”

Bingo. To borrow a term from information technology, the score is one “abstraction layer” above the music. A jazz music “lead sheet” would be one more abstraction layer above: it specifies the lead melody, the chord progression, and the meter — and the details on how to translate the progression into notes are left to the performer!
The next higher abstraction level is sometimes seen when experienced musicians are jamming together, and all the lead player needs to say is “slow 12/8 blues in G minor”: everybody else knows what to do and fills in the details on the fly, according to their best musical judgment. (Fixed chord progressions like “the blues” as improvisational frameworks are not a recent invention: suffice to mention “La Folia” in Renaissance and Baroque contexts.) An Indian raga is, likewise, a meta-structure for improvisation.

A paradigmatic example of abstraction layers in information technology — one that many readers will be familiar with — are network addresses. Individual network cards have a permanent, unique “MAC address” or “hardware address”, six bytes in hexadecimal notation: something like 4c:33:73:9d:40:42 We do not use such addresses directly to send Email or access web servers though, since everytime a server or even network card would go on the fritz, you’d have to update directories.
So one abstraction layer above that, we have the numerical addresses of the form 123.45.67.89. These can be defined manually on a device, or (this is what happens in most home WiFi networks) assigned using a DHCP (dynamic host configuration protocol) service. You replace a server or swap out a network card? Update the DHCP configuration table, and you’re good to go.
But if you moved to another provider, you’d still have to change addresses. Or you may have so much traffic that you need to deploy multiple servers, and load-balance traffic between them. Which is why we have yet another abstraction layer above that: the more conventional, human-readable addresses like www.pjmedia.com or www.berkeley.edu A domain name server (DNS) keeps track of which name corresponds to which number (or knows which other DNS to ask if it can’t resolve the query from cache), and hence you only need to deal with the “link”: you can leave the concrete details on how to translate this into an actual connection to the “abstraction layers” below.

The above puts me in mind of the laments of a friend of mine (a college lecturer in a humanities subject) about the atrocious writing of his students. Effectively, he says, the students have only learned the English language by imitation: they parrot words and phrases, rely on their spelling checker to fix spellings (sometimes coming up with unintentionally hilarious malapropisms as they do so), and often display a disregard for grammar and syntax that has non-native speakers like myself flabbergasted. The thing is, grammar and syntax are abstraction levels above the words: they can be learned by immersion — but that would have to be by “neural network training” from a very large corpus of high-quality written text. (I frankly didn’t know most of the grammatical rules in English consciously — but could apply them just fine on autopilot, as I’d been a voracious reader from a young age. Only when I found myself needing to explain edits to scientific papers — and of course learned that “it sounds wrong otherwise” is not an acceptable answer to thinking people — did I end up hitting the grammar and usage books.)
Prose style and essay structure are, of course, yet further abstraction levels above. But the problem is much broader than language: at one research institution where I was a guest faculty member, I saw distressing levels of learning by imitation in the lab — newer grad students basically being shown “this is how it goes” by the older ones. Now if this is just a matter of “kickstarting” then this is fine — the real problem was that only a few had any desire to actually understand what they were doing. (This became painfully clear when they attempted to write a paper — which in practice usually boiled down to compiling tables and graphs as required, and the professor or his amanuensis writing the actual paper—or rewriting the sorry excuse for a manuscript so thoroughly as to qualify as writing from scratch.)

Pretty much everybody who lives near a Jewish community has heard of Chabad (a.k.a. the Lubavitch movement): Chabad (חב׳׳ד) is, however, originally the Hebrew acronym for a much broader concept: the three levels of understanding. This is how I see them outside a religious context.
D (ד) stands for the lowest layer: da’at ([factual] “knowledge”)
B (ב) stands for the layer above: bina (“insight”) or, if you like, analytical understanding. That which is required for the higher “abstraction layers” of learning.
Ch (ח) stands for the highest layer: chochma (“wisdom”), or, if you like, synthetic understanding, creativity. The levels of “meta-insight” that allow you to apply the structural principles of that which exists, for creating something new.

Our current educational system effectively sacrifices insight on the altar of creativity (or, worse, the students’ self-esteem) — while at the same time, perversely, ensuring that students only have quite shallow knowlegde by declaring a kind-of war on memorization at exactly the ages children most easily learn by rote. The end products are students that have never progressed beyond some nuts-and-bolts knowledge picked up by imitation—and even that is not to be taken for granted.

The system stunts students while claiming to empower them, and it boosts a brittle, hollow self-esteem that shatters on the first contact with reality. It “creates a desert, and calls it peace.” Or self-esteem, “or something”

Origin of a famous literary put-down: not Balfour

 

I remember seeing the following priceless put-down in a review:

There is much here that is new, and much that is true. However, the true stuff is old hat, and the new stuff is false.

This appears to have been a paraphrase. Winston Churchill, in Great Contemporaries (London & New York, 1937) p. 250 quotes Arthur Balfour as having said:

…there were some things that were true, and some things that were trite; but what was true was trite, and what was not trite was not true…

Did Balfour actually say this? A similar phrase, in a different context, appears in an 1877 theological tract called “The Down Grade” by the English Baptist preacher Robert Shindler, published in his friend and mentor C. H. Spurgeon‘s journal The Sword and the Trowel (March 1887, p. 122):

But commonly it is found in theology that that which is true is not new, and that which is new is not true.

Tthe “Prince of Preachers” Spurgeon was legendary in his day and remains influential in Baptist circles to this day. It is quite possible that Balfour read the tract and absorbed the original phrase from there.

Happy Chanuka!

 

Who first said: “We must keep an open mind, but not so open that our brains fall out”?

I have heard the quote in the title attributed to all sorts of people, ranging from mathematician Alan Ross Anderson to Mark Twain to Prince Charles [OK, the sophomoric jokes write themselves]. But who really said this?

Quoteinvestigator did the legwork and also cites another article researching the origin of the quote.

Let us keep our minds open, by all means, as long as that means keeping our sense of perspective and seeking an understanding of the forces which mould the world. But don’t keep your minds so open that your brains fall out! There are still things in this world which are true and things which are false; acts which are right and acts which are wrong, even if there are statesmen who hide their designs under the cloak of high-sounding phrases.

— Walter Kotschnig November 8, 1939

Now, who is Walter Kotschnig? This American academic and diplomat of Austrian-Jewish origin has a fairly detailed bio in the German-language Wikipedia, but none in the English version. A brief summary:

He was born in the historical town Judenburg in Steiermark/Styria, Austria as the son of a school principal. The town name is first documented in 1074: it was an important commercial center at the time and, as the name suggests, had a significant Jewish community (which was expelled in 1496). During the Third Reich, there were attempts to change the “embarrassing” name, but a decision was postponed until after the “Endsieg” (final victory), which thank G-d never came.

Kotschnig started his university studies in nearby Graz. As he became ill with tuberculosis, he was briefly cared for by an American relief organization based in the Netherlands: the experience made him passionate about international collaboration. Upon obtaining his doctorate in political science at the U. of Kiel, Germany in 1924 and marrying (to psychologist Elinid Prys), he took a position with the International Student Service in Geneva, and from 1927 until 1934 served as secretary-general of the organization. Subsequently, he worked for the League of Nations (the interbellum predecessor of the UN) as director of the High Commission for German Refugees. In 1936 he emigrated with his family to the USA, where he took up teaching positions at two of the “Seven Sisters” women’s colleges, Smith College and Mount Holyoke. In addition, he published scholarly papers on education policy planning. He became a US citizen in 1942, published a book with proposals for democratic education reforms in formerly fascist countries, and in 1944 was involved in the planning of the Dumbarton Oaks conference, which was the cradle of the UN. In 1947 he became the head of the International Organizations desk at the US State Department, to eventually rise to the position of Assistant Secretary of State (1965-1971).

At any rate, on November 8, 1939, he gave a speech at Smith College in honor of the upcoming Armistice day, where he made the above remark. The manuscript of his speech has been found in his collected papers at SUNY Albany.

The speech was later reported on in an article in the Smith Alumnae Quarterly [“Chapel and Assembly Notes”, Vol. 31(2), p. 153 (1940)] where the quote first appears in print in that form.

Tim Farley in his article does, however, note an earlier quote in a Yale Law Journal article by law professor Max Radin, “On Legal Scholarship,”  http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/791732  ) that may have been a direct inspiration.

[Practical gentlemen] have a number of bitterly sarcastical comments on persons whose minds are so open that their brains fall out.

Radin may have borrowed it in turn from somebody else, but Kotschnig is clearly the first documented person to use the quote in substantially its present form.

 

If it keeps on raining…

 

 

The other day I heard a strange and wonderful cover of a blues classic, performed by Tool vocalist Maynard James Keenan’s second band.

A delta blues purist might get an even bigger stroke than they would from Led Zeppelin’s famous version. But precisely because of the change of context, and Maynard’s emotional yet understated delivery, the song hit me like a hammer.

The original was written about the 1927 Great Mississippi Flood, the most destructive river flood in the history of the USA, which made hundreds of thousands homeless. Many of those were black, and joined the Great Migration from the agricultural South to the industrial cities of the Northeast and Midwest.

But the metaphor of a levee about to break speaks to me on a number of levels.

There is the general sense that insanity and inanity in the political system and the popular culture have reached a level where the rest of us feel like we are drowning in derp and d-baggery. Exhibit, well, T: My Beautiful but Evil Space Mistress’s article on the left’s long post-election tantrum.

At another level, the Harvey Weinstein scandal (and another shoe about to drop) show that the depravity of some beacons of popular culture has risen to such levels that even with the help of a fawning, compliant press it can no longer be contained. “When the levee breaks, you’ll have no place to stay.” Not that it came as a great surprise to anyone familiar with the inner workings of certain industries.

My friend “masgramondou” comments here on the peculiar “bootlegger and Baptist coalition” (or is that a CAT coalition: cads and Tumblristas?) that has arisen in an attempt to change the subject. (Mayim Bialik learned the hard way what happens when you deviate from the party line.)

At a third level, one sees something more hopeful. The ever-increasing shrillness of the would-be opinion makers and virtue signalers in politics, media (but I repeat myself), academia, and popular culture are causing ever more of us to “cut the cord” and tune them out entirely. Too many alternatives are available nowadays, and if none are to our liking, the entry barriers to creating our own have never been lower. (The flip side, of course, is the ever greater challenge to stand out from the crowd of creators.)

Are we at a tipping point, and is a return to sanity near? “And grace and good sense will be found in the eyes of G-d and man” (ומצא חן ושכל טוב בעיני א׳ ואדם), as it says in the Grace After Meals. May it happen speedily and in our days.

Media bias: nothing new under the sun

 

Forsyth, Frederick. The Outsider: My Life in Intrigue (p. 111). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Judging from all the chatter about “Fake News,” one might think media bias is a wholly new phenomenon. Of course, there is nothing new under the sun.

I have earlier blogged about Frederick Forsyth’s autobiography “The Outsider,” specifically on how he reinvented himself as a pioneering thriller writer after his journalistic career came to an abrupt end. (The Day Of The Jackal to me still stands as perhaps the greatest thriller ever written.)

Forsyth never went to journalism school (he’d probably snicker at the thought): his formal training was as a jet fighter pilot! He had instead learned the craft on the job as a cub reporter for a regional newspaper, then decided to try his luck in London. By coincidence, the Reuters deputy bureau chief in Paris had just returned home with a heart condition. As this was a time of great political turmoil in France following de Gaulle’s decision to withdraw from Algeria, the agency needed a replacement urgently. The polyglot Forsyth spoke French like a native and thus was hired basically on the spot.

Forsyth credits his boss in Paris, Harold King, with teaching him the value of professionalism and objectivity even on a subject where your own passions are palpable — such as de Gaulle, whom both men admired.

In this spirit, Forsyth relates a telling anecdote for those who think manufactured press conferences with planted questions are a recent innovation:

“I had turned twenty-four, and in January attended the now-famous press conference in the Elysée when de Gaulle vetoed the British application to join the European Economic Community. It was a huge slap in the face to British premier Harold Macmillan, who, in Algeria in the Second World War, had pushed de Gaulle’s claims to be the sole leader of the Free French.

His conferences were no press conferences at all. He simply planted five questions with five ultraloyal senior pressmen in the audience, memorized the speech he intended to make in reply, and also memorized the placements of the five so-called questioners, because he could not see them. Harold King, in the front, was awarded a question to ask.

Later, Forsyth became the Reuters correspondent in East Berlin. I won’t detract from his many humorous tales of that period, many of which feature unintentionally comic behavior by the Stasi and regime officials. Pride of place is given to the press secretary of the East German Communist government, who acted as a de facto censor for the foreign press. Forsyth discovered that Kurt Blecha was, in fact, a former Nazi who underwent a “conversion” in a POW camp and now served the competing brand of totalitarians.

At Christmas, Easter, and on his birthday, I sent him an anonymous greeting card at his office. It was bought in East Berlin but typed on a machine in the West Berlin office of Reuters, in case my own machine was checked. It wished him all best, with his Nazi Party membership number writ large and purporting to come from “your old and faithful Kameraden.” I never saw him open them, but I hope they worried the hell out of him.

He tells of a few amusing amorous capers, one of which made it quite advisable for him to get back to the West. After another stint in Paris, he obtained a job with the BBC.

I learned quite quickly that the BBC is not primarily a creator of entertainment, or a reporter and disseminator of hard news like Reuters. Those come second. Primarily the BBC is a vast bureaucracy with the three disadvantages of a bureaucracy. These are a slothlike inertia, an obsession with rank over merit, and a matching obsession with conformism.[…]

The upper echelons of the bureaucracy preferred a devoted servility to the polity of the ruling government, provided it was Labor, and it was.

After various assignments, the BBC sent him to Nigeria to report on the developing civil war and the secession of what became the short-lived Republic of Biafra. Here, Forsyth became an eyewitness to an unfolding human tragedy — his collected dispatches were later published in book form as The Biafra Story.

The BBC toffs were in lockstep with Whitehall (the Foggy Bottom of the UK) and the Wilson administration: they sided with the predominantly Muslim, pseudo-democratic, feudal regime of Nigeria against the predominantly Christian Igbo people who populated Biafra. (In this respect too, nothing new under the sun.) They repeated the propaganda of the Nigerian dictatorship as gospel truth.

Every journalist will know that he may have to report what a dictatorship is saying, but must make plain early on that it is the government talking, not him. This is the “attribution”—the words “according to the Nigerian government.”

Forsyth reported what he actually saw, and that did not go down well:

What I had actually done was point a Colt .45 at the forehead of my reporting career with the BBC and pull the trigger. It was not out of mischief but naïveté. I was trained by Reuters. I had never covered a controversial story in my two years with the BBC. I did not realize that when broadcasting for the state, a foreign correspondent must never report what London does not want to hear. And that is what I had done.

Forsyth was recalled to England, and then resigned from the BBC to continue reporting as a freelancer.

Every day, the horrors of Vietnam were copiously reported, but that was an American mess. Nigeria was a very British one, apparently to remain clothed in secrecy.[…]

For the record, there were no starving children visible at that time. They would appear later, and the ghastly images of them, splashed across the world’s media, would transform everything.

This happened after the blockade against Biafra had been enforced for a while. The Igbo grew their own sources of starches, but for protein were basically dependent on imports:

 It is a fact that an adult needs one gram of pure protein per day to stay healthy. A growing child needs five. The native population had always raised a few chickens and some small pigs for their eggs and meat. Other than these, there was no protein source and, unperceived, the hens and pigs had been consumed. The traditional protein supplement had always been fish; not river-caught fish but enormous quantities of Norwegian-imported dried cod called stockfish. These rock-hard sticks of cod went into the family stew pot, became rehydrated, and served as the family protein ration. For nine months, no stockfish had entered the surrounded and blockaded enclave. The meat/milk sources were gone. The national diet was now almost 100 percent starch.

And hence kwashiorkor made its appearance. Forsyth and others reported.

I did what I did, not in order to do down the Biafrans—far from it. I did it to try to influence the Whitehall argument that continued intermittently for the next fifteen months until the final crushing of Biafra, with a million dead children. The argument was between: “Prime Minister, this cannot be allowed to go on. The human cost is simply too high. We should reconsider our policy. We should use all our influence to urge a cease-fire, a peace conference, and a political solution,” and “Prime Minister, I can assure you the media reports are as usual sensationalist and grossly exaggerated. We have information the rebel regime is very close to collapse. The sooner it does, the sooner we can get columns of relief food into the rebel territory. Meanwhile, we urge you to stick with the hitherto-agreed policy and even increase the support for the federal government.”

Guess which path the Whitehall mandarins chose? Worse, through a sleight-of-hand, they actually armed the Nigerian regime while professing neutrality.

Another early lie was that no weapons at all were being shipped from Britain to fuel the war. The key word was from, not by. In fact, the supplies were coming from British stocks at the immense NATO weapons park outside Brussels, and thus technically from Belgium. They were then replaced by shipments from Britain to Belgium.

And thus, slowly but surely, Biafra was crushed to death, even as the famine became an international humanitarian cause célèbre. Forsyth tells at some length of the aid efforts by Catholic and Protestant aid organizations —including an improvised air bridge that is estimated to have saved over a million lives. A secular relief effort that started in France would later (1971) rename itself Doctors Without Borders.

On another occasion, the war hero Group Captain Leonard Cheshire VC was asked to go to visit, be shown around Nigeria only, and return to peddle the official line. He duly went to Nigeria, but then refused not to go to Biafra. What he saw on the second visit so shocked him that he came back and denounced the official policy. He was immediately smeared as a gullible fool.

It was pretty standard to smear every journalist who expressed disgust at what was going on as either a mercenary, arms dealer, or [Biafran leader] Ojukwu propagandist, even though a million pictures are rather hard to dispute. No massive humanitarian tragedy, save those inflicted by nature herself, is possible without two kinds of contributors[: perpetrators and enablers].[…]

Starting with Sir David Hunt’s biased and flawed analysis, which was adopted by the Commonwealth Relations Office, taken over and intensified by the Foreign Office, and cravenly endorsed by Harold Wilson and Michael Stewart, what happened could not have happened without the wholesale and covert contribution of the Wilson government. I remain convinced of it to this day.

Nor was it necessary to protect some vital British interest, and what interest merits a million dead children? Britain could have used its huge influence with Lagos to militate for a cease-fire, a peace conference, and a political solution. It chose not to, despite repeated opportunities, pursuing Hunt’s conviction that Biafra must be crushed no matter the cost, but without ever explaining why.

That is why I believe that this coterie of vain mandarins and cowardly politicians stained the honor of my country forever, and I will never forgive them.

Frederick Forsyth was a journalist not just with a brain and a heart, but with a kind of raw moral integrity and intellectual honesty that made it impossible for him to continue in that profession, as he was “blackballed” upon his return to England. Looking for a way to support himself, he struck gold as a fiction writer, almost single-handedly establishing a new kind of tightly factual thriller.

Many journalists were presstitutes [sic] and mediatamites [sic] in Forsyth’s day — nothing is new there. What has changed is more that they morphed from high-class courtesans to pathetic streetwalkers—and that the tools to expose them are more readily available to those of us who want to hear what really went down.

RIP Jerry Pournelle, 1933-2017

The great Jerry Pournelle, political scientist, technological visionary, prolific science fiction writer (often in collaboration with Larry Niven), and computing pioneer all in one, just passed away after a brief respiratory illness. He had appeared at DragonCon only days earlier.

I’ve been following Chaos Manor on an off since it was first a print column in BYTE magazine, back in the Early Tertiary era of computing. The online version has a serious claim to being the world’s oldest blog.
Novels like “Fallen Angels” (with Niven & Flynn) or “The Mote in G-d’s Eye” (with Niven) would have made the reputation of a lesser man. But aside from being a prolific science fiction writer, he was also a compelling thinker and technological visionary. Even with half his brain zapped by radiation treatments, he could still out-think most soi-disant “intellectuals”. Pournelle suffered no fools intellectually, but by all accounts was a generous and solicitous human being in private.
Here is a taste of Jerry Pournelle in his own words. (He was, by the way, apparently the first writer to write a published novel entirely on a [then primitive and monstrously expensive] personal computer.)

HOW TO GET MY JOB

The question I get most often, both in mail and when I speak, is, “How do I get your job?” Usually it’s done a bit more politely, but sometimes it’s asked just that way. It’s generally phrased differently by computer audiences than by science fiction audiences, but both really want to know the same thing: how do you become an author?

I always give the same answer: it’s easy to be an author, whether of fiction or nonfiction, and it’s a pleasant profession. Fiction authors go about making speeches and signing books. Computer authors go to computer shows and then come home to open boxes of new equipment and software, and play with the new stuff until they tire of it. It’s nice work if you can get it.

The problem is that no one pays you to be an author.

To be an author, you must first be a writer; and while it’s easy to be an author, being a writer is hard work. Surprisingly, it may be only hard work; that is, while some people certainly have more talent for writing than others, everyone has some. The good news is that nearly anyone who wants to badly enough can make some kind of living at writing. The bad news is that wanting to badly enough means being willing to devote the time and work necessary to learn the trade.

The secret of becoming a writer is that you have to write. You have to write a lot. You also have to finish what you write, even though no one wants it yet. If you don’t learn to finish your work, no one will ever want to see it. The biggest mistake new writers make is carrying around copies of unfinished work to inflict on their friends.

I am sure it has been done with less, but you should be prepared to write and throw away a million words of finished material. By finished, I mean completed, done, ready to submit, and written as well as you know how at the time you wrote it. You may be ashamed of it later, but that’s another story.

The late Randall Garrett, one of the most prolific writers of the Golden Age of Science Fiction, used to have a number of rules, many of them scatological. One of them was that no professional writer ever got anything from formal courses in writing. I think he was wrong, in the sense that a good formal introduction to the rules of grammar and spelling can be extremely useful; but he had a point, which is that there aren’t any secrets to be learned from creative-writing courses. If the only way you can force yourself to write that million words of your best work is to take a class in creative writing or attend a writers’ workshop, by all means do it; but do it understanding that the good comes from the writing you do, not from the criticism or theory or technique taught in the class.

May his memory be blessed. The science fiction field and the blogosphere are truly a poorer place without him.

 

Genesis of a masterpiece: “The Day of the Jackal”

I just finished reading Frederick Forsyth’s memoirs, “The Outsider“, on the way home from a business trip. Forsyth is a superlative raconteur and the book a treasure trove of anecdotes and insights, as well as offers a window into what makes him tick.

It somewhat surprised me that his ambition had never been to be a writer — his boyhood dream, growing up during WW II, had been to become a fighter pilot, and against daunting odds he was able to do his (then still mandatory) military service in the RAF and to qualify on the de Havilland Vampire jet. But I was outright astonished to read that

    • he wrote “The Day of the Jackal” — a thriller that redefined the entire genre — in no more than thirty-five (35) days;
    • that it was the first novel he ever wrote;
    • and that the published text is unchanged from his first draft.

 

It was, however, another case of Renoir’s famous quote: “This painting took me five minutes, but it took me sixty years to get to the point I could pull that off”. Forsyth, at the time, had over a decade experience as a practicing journalist, first for a rural English newspaper, then as a foreign correspondent for Reuters and the BBC. He had learned there to write clear, concise, publication-ready copy on short notice: before the days of word processors, this meant scribbling an outline or a rough draft on paper, then typing the finished copy on a telex machine or dictating it over the phone to a typist/transcriptionist at the London office.

He had also learned, in his journalistic work, to research his subjects ahead of time (since deadlines needed to be met), and to develop “deep background” human sources for aspects of his reporting. (For instance, he would befriend forgers and underworld figures that taught him tricks for acquiring a false passport or a cover identity that his fictional protagonist would apply in the novel, and likewise learned how to acquire an untraceable sniper rifle.)

Originally, the essentials of the plot had come to Forsyth eight years earlier, when he was reporting from Paris during the turmoil following De Gaulle’s decision to withdraw from Algeria and the several assassination plots by the OAS that this triggered. (The one that opens the book is historical and came closest to succeeding.) He had then come to the conclusion that the OAS was so well-monitored and riddled with informants that the only way such a plot could succeed would be if the OAS hired a complete outsider, a very skilled professional assassin with great impersonation skills. (As Forsyth had lived in a less than luxurious area of Paris, near several dodgy bars that were OAS hangouts, he had a feel for the human dynamics in that organization.)

Especially in a first novel, the protagonist often includes a piece of the author. While on a moral plane, Forsyth and his fictional assassin couldn’t be more different, they both like the good life, and enjoy physical thrills like car racing — Forsyth did his military service as a jet fighter pilot, and later in life developed a taste for high-risk sports such as car racing, scuba diving, and parachute jumping. “The Jackal”s linguistic skills and mildly chameleonic abilities also mirror Forsyth’s: he had graduated high school fluent in  Spanish, French, and German, all of them learned by immersion during extended stays abroad. (In fact, it was the French that had gotten him the Reuters job, as they were suddenly a correspondent short in Paris when they most needed one.) As he points out, he thus picked up slang and gestures that one does not pick up in school. At the same time, his ability to slip into what he calls “my Bertie Wooster persona” (after P. G. Wodehouse’s fictional dimwitted aristocrat) served him well: he would pretend to be a British tourist with a few words of atrocious French or English, and people around him would wrongly assume he did not understand them and discuss matters they would not normally share with outsiders.

So when Forsyth found himself penniless and blackballed after returning from Africa, had to decide how to make a living again, and decided he was going to try his hand at writing, he was able to pound out the story in record time.

As he tells it, what he had no idea of was: how one gets a book published. He naively submitted his manuscript to four publishers in succession, without synopses and without hiring an agent—after three rejections, TDotJ was still lingering in the slush piles of the fourth. He did not engage an agent, as the idea did not occur to him.

Then Forsyth had one of several great strokes of luck in his life: at a dinner party he was introduced to one Harold Harris, whom he was later told was the chief editor of Hutchinson Books (presently part of Penguin Random House). Upon going home, Forsyth wrote a 3-page synopsis of his novel, invited himself to Harris’s office as “a good friend I know socially”, not as “a novelist desperate to get published”, and talked Harris into reading the synopsis.

Unlike the slush pile readers (“what’s the point? De Gaulle is alive, so we know how your book ends”), and probably thanks to the synopsis, Harris understood that the book wasn’t about the ending but about the cat-and-mouse game between the Jackal and the French police. He asked to read the whole manuscript: Forsyth raced back to the fourth publisher and sweet-talked a janitor into retrieving it from what turned out to be the reject pile, as Harris considered it unethical to read a manuscript currently under consideration with another firm.

After the weekend, Harris asked for 1-page proposals for two more books, as he wished to sign a three-book contract. Forsyth thought of what he could distill from his journalistic experience, and came up with concepts (not yet finished plots) for what became The Dogs of War and The Odessa File. The rest is history. Very unusually for a novel, TDotJ was published as it appears in manuscript, without further editing. Forsyth acknowledges that Harris could have taken serious advantage of a rookie writer, but clearly was too much of an old-school gentleman to even consider doing so.

By an additional stroke of good luck, Fred Zinneman came to London shortly later to film a project that fizzled out, was given the book to read by an agent who had appointed himself to represent the movie rights of the book, and upon reading it decided this was going to be his next movie. Forsyth makes much of his lack of business acumen: at any rate, he never got rich off the movie, as he sold the rights for a UKP 20,000 lump sum (about US$600K in today’s money). It did, however, drive more sales of the book and helped make Frederick Forsyth a household name.

“Chance favors the prepared mind,” as Louis Pasteur would say about serendipitous discoveries. Likewise, Forsyth was able to make the most of the breaks he got primarily because he had acquired unusual skills relevant to his writing, appears to be blessed with an encyclopedic memory, and had honed his writing craft in a nonfiction field.

On Google and doublethink

The new Google slogan has been unveiled today (hat tip: Marina F.):

wip-google

For those who have been living under a rock: Google fired an employee for having the temerity to write a memo [draft archived here][full text here via Mark Perry at AEI] questioning the “diversity” (what I call “fauxversity”) and “affirmative action” (i.e., reverse discrimination) policies of the company. Said employee had earlier filed a labor grievance and is taking legal action. Now quite interestingly, here is an article in which four actual experts discuss the science underlying the memo, and basically find it unexceptional even though they do not all agree with the author on its implications. One of them, an evolutionary psychology professor at U. of New Mexico, has the money quote:

Here, I just want to take a step back from the memo controversy, to highlight a paradox at the heart of the ‘equality and diversity’ dogma that dominates American corporate life. The memo didn’t address this paradox directly, but I think it’s implicit in the author’s critique of Google’s diversity programs. This dogma relies on two core assumptions:
  • The human sexes and races have exactly the same minds, with precisely identical distributions of traits, aptitudes, interests, and motivations; therefore, any inequalities of outcome in hiring and promotion must be due to systemic sexism and racism;
  • The human sexes and races have such radically different minds, backgrounds, perspectives, and insights, that companies must increase their demographic diversity in order to be competitive; any lack of demographic diversity must be due to short-sighted management that favors groupthink.
The obvious problem is that these two core assumptions are diametrically opposed.
Let me explain. If different groups have minds that are precisely equivalent in every respect, then those minds are functionally interchangeable, and diversity would be irrelevant to corporate competitiveness. For example, take sex differences. The usual rationale for gender diversity in corporate teams is that a balanced, 50/50 sex ratio will keep a team from being dominated by either masculine or feminine styles of thinking, feeling, and communicating. Each sex will counter-balance the other’s quirks. (That makes sense to me, by the way, and is one reason why evolutionary psychologists often value gender diversity in research teams.) But if there are no sex differences in these psychological quirks, counter-balancing would be irrelevant. A 100% female team would function exactly the same as a 50/50 team, which would function the same as a 100% male team. If men are no different from women, then the sex ratio in a team doesn’t matter at any rational business level, and there is no reason to promote gender diversity as a competitive advantage.
Likewise, if the races are no different from each other, then the racial mix of a company can’t rationally matter to the company’s bottom line. The only reasons to value diversity would be at the levels of legal compliance with government regulations, public relations virtue-signalling, and deontological morality – not practical effectiveness. Legal, PR, and moral reasons can be good reasons for companies to do things. But corporate diversity was never justified to shareholders as a way to avoid lawsuits, PR blowback, or moral shame; it was justified as a competitive business necessity.
So, if the sexes and races don’t differ at all, and if psychological interchangeability is true, then there’s no practical business case for diversity.
On the other hand, if demographic diversity gives a company any competitive advantages, it must be because there are important sex differences and race differences in how human minds work and interact. For example, psychological variety must promote better decision-making within teams, projects, and divisions. Yet if minds differ across sexes and races enough to justify diversity as an instrumental business goal, then they must differ enough in some specific skills, interests, and motivations that hiring and promotion will sometimes produce unequal outcomes in some company roles. In other words, if demographic diversity yields any competitive advantages due to psychological differences between groups, then demographic equality of outcome cannot be achieved in all jobs and all levels within a company. At least, not without discriminatory practices such as affirmative action or demographic quotas.
So, psychological interchangeability makes diversity meaningless. But psychological differences make equal outcomes impossible. Equality or diversity. You can’t have both.
Weirdly, the same people who advocate for equality of outcome in every aspect of corporate life, also tend to advocate for diversity in every aspect of corporate life. They don’t even see the fundamentally irreconcilable assumptions behind this ‘equality and diversity’ dogma.

[“Jeb Kinnison” draws my attention to another article.] I just saw in an essay by Christina Hoff Sommers [see also video] on the AEI website that the National Science Foundation [!], as recently as 2007, sent around a questionnaire asking researchers to identify any research equipment in their lab building that was not accessible to women. In 2007. Seriously, I don’t know whether whoever came up with this “go find the crocodile milk” policy was gunning for a Nobel prize in Derpitude

 

derp seal

or trying to create sinecures for otherwise unemployable paper-pushers, or trying to divert bureaucratic energy into a Mobius loop that would minimize interference with serious decisions.

But on a more serious note: even before I saw the “paradox” remarks, I could not help being reminded of this passage in George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four”. The protagonist, Winston Smith, retorts to his mentor turned inquisitor:

‘But the whole universe is outside us. Look at the stars! Some of them are a million light-years away. They are out of our reach for ever.’
‘What are the stars?’ said O’Brien indifferently. ‘They are bits of fire a few kilometres away. We could reach them if we wanted to. Or we could blot them out. The earth is the centre of the universe. The sun and the stars go round it.’
Winston made another convulsive movement. This time he did not say anything. O’Brien continued as though answering a spoken objection:
 ‘For certain purposes, of course, that is not true. When we navigate the ocean, or when we predict an eclipse, we often find it convenient to assume that the earth goes round the sun and that the stars are millions upon millions of kilometres away. But what of it? Do you suppose it is beyond us to produce a dual system of astronomy? The stars can be near or distant, according as we need them. Do you suppose our mathematicians are unequal to that? Have you forgotten doublethink?’ 

Precisely: doublethink. Thus it is possible, for example, that certain biological differences between men and women, or between ethnic groups, can be at the same time out of bounds for polite discussion,  yet entirely taken for granted in a medical setting. I remember when Jackie Mason in the early 1990s joked about wanting an [Ashkenazi] Jewish affirmative action quota for runners and basketball players: nowadays, that joke would probably get him fired at Google, while a sports doctor treating top athletes would just chuckle.

The root of evil here is twofold:

(1) the concept that even correct factual information might be harmful as it might encourage heresy [hmm, where have we heard that one before?];

(2) considering people as interchangeable members of collectives, rather than individuals. If one considers the abilities of a specific individual, then for the case at hand it does not matter whether the average aptitudes for X differ significantly between groups A and B, or not. (There is, in any case, much greater variability between individuals within a group than between groups.)

I would add:
(2b) overconfidence in numerical benchmarks by people without a real grasp of what they mean.

Outside the strict PC/AA context, it is the fallacy in (2b) which gives rise to such pathologies as politicians pushing for ever-higher HS graduation or college enrollment rates — because they only see “the percentage has gone up from X to Y” without seeing the underlying reality. They are much like the economic planners in the (thank G-d!) former USSR, who accepted inflated production statistics of foodstuffs and consumer goods at face value, while all those not privileged enough to shop inside the Nomenklatura bubble knew well enough that they were a sham. Likewise, those of us educated in a bygone era realize that the “much greater” HS and college graduation rates of today were achieved by the educational equivalent of puppy milling:

  • the HS curriculum has for most pupils been watered down to meaninglessness;
  • supposedly “native-born and educated” college students often are deficient in basic arithmetic and reading comprehension;
  • a general education at the level we used to get at an Atheneum or Gymnasium [i.e., academic-track high schools in Europe] nowadays requires either a college degree or an expensive private prep school.

But simplistic numerical benchmarks are beloved of bureaucrats everywhere, as they are excellent excuses for bureaucratic meddling. As Instapundit is fond of remarking: the trouble with true gender- and ethnicity-blind fairness — and with true diversity, which must include the diversity of opinion —  is that “there isn’t enough opportunity for graft in it”.

PS: apropos the calling the original author of the essay names that essentially place him outside civil society, a must-read editorial in the Boston Globe by historian Niall Ferguson. His wife, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, knows a thing or two about what real hardcore misogyny looks like, and how useless the Western liberal left is facing it. Moneygraf of the op-ed:

Mark my words, while I can still publish them with impunity: The real tyrants, when they come, will be for diversity (except of opinion) and against hate speech (except their own).

PPS: the Beautiful but Evil Space Mistress weighs in on the controversy and applies some verbal ju-jitsu.

P^3S: heh (via an Instapundit comment thread): 3r06ultwiy725dfbgce3gelzczdktgliwnw8-aldmx0

P^4S: Welcome Instapundit readers!

P^5S: Megan McArdle weighs in (via Instapundit) and reminisces about her own early years in tech.

Thinking back to those women I knew in IT, I can’t imagine any of them would have spent a weekend building a [then bleeding-edge tech, Ed.] fiber-channel network in her basement.

I’m not saying such women don’t exist; I know they do. I’m just saying that if they exist in equal numbers to the men, it’s odd that I met so very many men like that, and not even one woman like that, in a job where all the women around me were obviously pretty comfortable with computers. We can’t blame it on residual sexism that prevented women from ever getting into the field; the number of women working with computers has actually gone down over time. And I find it hard to blame it on current sexism. No one told that guy to go home and build a fiber-channel network in his basement; no one told me I couldn’t. It’s just that I would never in a million years have chosen to waste a weekend that way.

The higher you get up the ladder, the more important those preferences become. Anyone of reasonable intelligence can be coached to sit at a help desk and talk users through basic problems. Most smart people can be taught to build a basic workstation and hook it up to a server. But the more complicated the problems get, the more knowledge and skill they require, and the people who acquire that sort of expertise are the ones who are most passionately interested in those sorts of problems. A company like Google, which turns down many more applicants than it hires, is going to select heavily for that sort of passion. If more men have it than women, the workforce will be mostly men.

She explains how she then moved into a field — policy journalism — that is also heavily male, but that she found she could get as passionate about as her former colleagues about [then] bleeding-edge technology.  Passionate enough, in fact, that she did it for free for five years (under the blog name “Jane Galt”) until she was hired by a major national magazine on the strength of her portfolio. Passion combined with talent can move mountains—or, if you pardon the metaphor, shatter glass ceilings.

P^6S: in the libertarian magazine Reason, David Harsanyi: By firing the Google memo author, the company confirms his thesis and “The vast majority of the histrionic reactions on social media and elsewhere have misrepresented not only what the memo says but also its purpose.” In the same magazine,  Nick Gillespie adds that “The Google memo exposes a libertarian blindspot when it comes to power: it is not just the state that wields power and squelches good-faith debate”.

P^7S: now this is Muggeridge’s Law in action. (Hat tip: Marina F.) I was certain this was satire when I first saw it…

 

Literary-friendly entertainment fiction: the “progressive rock” of books

 

 

I had an interesting discussion with the Beautiful but Evil Space Mistress about more literary sci-fi and its sales potential the other day, and was reminded of this when I heard the audio of a Coldplay concert last night.
My daughter had attended live and went gaga about how this was the best concert she had ever heard. Having listened to about 2 hours worth of Coldplay, I can hear why this band is popular. It’s definitely a cut above today’s pop music — which is, of course, damning with very faint praise. It also has a few clever harmonic touches — but they are added in, for my taste, homeopathic doses, and smothered in pop cheese and endlessly milked hooks. (I was actually surprised they had a live drummer: the drum parts are so monotonous to my ears that I was convinced they were using a drum machine with very good samples.)

But apparently, that is as much musical sophistication as you can add and keep a mainstream pop audience nowadays. Sgt. Pepper era Beatles, or ELO in their heyday, are far-out progressive rock in comparison — heck, so is even Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys! But here’s the point exactly: they know their market, and they produce exactly what the market wants. If they are at all disaffected musically, they are suffering all the way to the bank.

All this has a parallel in fiction. Allow me to explain.

In pure entertainment fiction, everything is secondary to “the meat and potatoes” of the genre: in military sci-fi or space opera, for example, those would be a strong, sweeping plot, protagonists you can root for, credible antagonists, lots of action, and the like.

And no, that does not mean “dumb” fiction: plots and characters can be very complex, and about certain special interests that are central to their chosen bailiwick, genre writers and their fans alike can be detailed and obsessive to the point of “weaponized autism”. So if, say, Larry Correia geeks out about guns, or David Weber about orbital mechanics, that is not just tolerated but expected. (Never mind the level of painstaking detail seen in police procedurals and the better techno thrillers.)

But for anybody who is well-read, the prose in many works of genre fiction can be irritatingly pedestrian, if not outright “dumbed-down”. This is especially true of the American market: a few recent contemporary romances I read for “market research” seemed to have been deliberately written at an 8th-grade reading level. British readers seem to expect somewhat more polished prose.

At the other extreme, in pure “literary fiction”, one can often be forgiven for assuming that entertaining the reader is an afterthought at best. Writers of such books are often academics or academic wannabes, and peer approval is more important to them than anybody actually reading their book for pleasure.

There are writers that are trying to steer a middle course: combine entertainment mainstays with prose that those who love the language for its own sake will find pleasant to read — and if some readers need to look up a word on their Kindles, well, so be it. Often such books have philosophical, sociological, and/or spiritual themes running through them. “Literary-friendly entertainment fiction”, if you like. Dave Freer and Brad Torgersen are examples in the sci-fi field. Yet discussions with, among others, our BbESM suggested that the market for “literary-friendly entertainment fiction” is limited.

The musical equivalent of “literary fiction” would be contemporary classical music — which for the most part has no mainstream audience, and is written by academic musicians for academic musicians.

The Freers and Torgersens (and up to a point, Lois McMaster Bujold) would be like progressive rock: music that tries to retain some of the accessibility and energy of rock and pop music while also seeking a broader musical horizon. Now the best bands in that genre — take Yes or ELP in their heyday, or Genesis before they turned pop, or Rush and Dream Theater in a somewhat harder vein — have rabid and faithful cult fan bases — but “cult” is the operative word. I am sure the three guys in Rush made a ton of money over the years by building up a like-minded audience and reliably delivering the goods to it — but aside from airplay for “Tom Sawyer” , “The Spirit of Radio”, or “Limelight”, their mainstream appeal is always going to be limited.

There are artists with “two-track” outputs: nice tuneful pop songs or rock anthems for the casual listener, and more profound work for the serious aficionado. There’s a couple Jimi Hendrix or Led Zeppelin songs that everybody knows, for instance, but they only scratch the surface of what these artists could do. Similarly, there are fiction writers who bankroll their more serious output with occasional crowd-pleaser offerings. Some people would call this “selling out”, but the “two-trackers” are basically following in the footsteps of Ludwig van Beethoven (!): he would write reams of bagatelles (short, inventive piano pieces playable by amateurs) and song arrangements to pay his bills and stave off the creditors, while he worked on the symphonies and piano sonatas that earned him his place in the pantheon of classical music.

Sarah Hoyt seeks a slightly different course (like her acknowledged literary guiding light, Robert A. Heinlein). Yes, there are philosophical elements and literary allusions in works like Darkship Revenge — and not always in small doses, mind you —  but they are blended in subtly, carefully mixed in with the “meat and potatoes”.  Similarly, Lois McMaster Bujold (possibly my favorite living writer in any genre) has deep psychological material in her novels, but makes sure not to skimp on the things that Baen’s target audience wants in a novel. In music, this would be a “progressive pop” approach, with Coldplay at the more timid edge and Steely Dan at the more daring edge.  (More experimental artists like Frank Zappa would actually derive quite a bit of their appeal from extra-musical factors, such as shockingly bawdy lyrics.)

What does all this mean for a writer? The answer will, of course, be different for those trying to make a partial or complete living off our pens, and for those of us for whom fiction writing is a labor of love rather than an income stream. Robert Heinlein used to quip that his favorite five words in the English language were “pay to the order of”, and until late in his career made sure to write books that are easy to read on the surface — but that reveal several layers when read in depth.