March 27, 2015

Cleaning Up Your Potty Mouth

The Clean Reader app can remove profanity from eBooks if you choose. Apparently, there’s an adjustable setting for how much you want the app to “clean” the text you are reading. You know, so the lowest activated setting would only pick up the F bombs, whereas the highest setting would grab every single bit of profanity. My understanding is the app would then, if possible, alter the text displayed accordingly. So “goddamn” would become something like “goshdarn”.

I think you can see why this has upset people. Especially writers.

Me? I have a mixed take on it.

On one hand, personally, I just think it’s dumb and sad. I mean the app came about after a father got worked up about his daughter encountering a “dirty word” in a book and he didn’t want to talk to her about it. That’s just terrible parenting. Not talking about something doesn’t make it not exist. You’re not doing your daughter any favors there, bud.

But America has this weird hang-up about profanity that I’ve never been able to understand. Especially in relation to our entertainment. We seem to be totally okay with brutality and violence but go apeshit over a dirty word or someone touching a breast intimately. I just can’t wrap my brain around people who critique things like, “Man, I was really loving that gruesome serial killer thriller until the FBI agent with the potty mouth showed up, had enjoyable consensual sex with the lead police offer and ruined the whole thing. One star!” I mean, to me, this is that politically-correct coddling so many people were accusing everything to do with trigger warnings of being. It’s unnecessary and it’s not helpful.

That’s how I feel about it personally. Yet, what say do I have over it? I mean really? What say?

Because it comes down to one thing. Is your copyright being violated? If it’s not thus ends your say over it. Period. You don’t get to decide what people do with your work or how they choose to experience your work or display your work once they own it, if those choices don’t violate your copyright.

The people who choose to use the app still have to pay for your book. Then they get to choose whether or not to activate the clean up function. What does that leave us with? Section 106 of the copyright law provides the copyright owner the rights to:

  • Reproduce the work in copies
  • Prepare derivative works based upon the work
  • Distribute copies of the work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership or by rental, lease, or lending
  • Perform the work publicly
  • Display the work publicly

With my layman’s understanding of the law, it seems like the only possible point of contention would be “derivatives” based on your work. The designers of the app are arguing that they’re not violating copyright because all they’re doing is providing the reader a means to alter how the work is displayed, not altering the file itself. So the same way it’s not a copyright violation for another eReader to allow you to change the font and the text size, how the work is displayed, the app giving the reader the ability to clean up your dirty mouth isn’t either. Assuming the app sticks around and doesn't die after 95% of writers demand their work not be sold through the service, I think it’s going to prove to be one of those areas where copyright law is going to have to be updated to address the digital age. To me, I would think that if there’s a lot of profanity in the book then running it through the Clean Reader app could technically generate a work that was different enough that it could be considered a derivative, but I don’t know.

But here’s the thing.

When does that notion of derivative work run over the top of the fact that after someone has paid for your book, then whatever they want to do with that is their business as long as they’re not violating your copyright. If they want to hook their computer up to a projector and read your book in 100 point font on their living room wall, that’s their business regardless of how mad you are at the projector for allowing them the means to do it. If they want to cut all the pages out and use your book to wallpaper their bathroom, that’s their business no matter how much you might have a moral or artistic problem with scissors. 

Or is that a derivative work if they wallpaper out of sequence?

March 23, 2015

Trigger Warnings

Every time I see Neil Gaiman’s Trigger Warning on a shelf, I shake my head. Not only is he thoughtlessly missing the point of a trigger warning but what a distastefully unnecessary way for a best-selling author to cheaply get press for their short story collection, especially when they absolutely do not need it.

Trigger warnings began in feminist circles as an informal act of compassionate courtesy and a way to acknowledge experiences with which the rest of the society would rather not be bothered. Why? Because women quickly discovered that when you gather a large and disparate group of them together, even if it’s only online to discuss your favorite science fiction stories, the one thing the majority of them will have in common is experience with violence and sexual assault, and all the terrible things that follow in their aftermath. Now, just stop right there and think about that for a minute.

I’m serious.

Stop and think about that for a minute.

Each year there are about 293,000 victim of sexual assault.

Each year nearly 5 million women will experience violence at the hands of their partner.

That’s why we informally have trigger warnings.

It’s about our relationship to and acknowledgement of someone else’s pain and trauma. It’s about people who have experiences that we previously didn’t even discuss, standing up and saying, “Hey, I’m right here. You need to account for me.” It’s not about ideas that challenge us, things that makes us a little uncomfortable, or, this one really gets me, things that make us “squirm.” I mean, come on, and let’s be honestly here. 6th graders talking about penises and vaginas squirm, and probably giggle. A 20-year-old who was assaulted last semester has a panic attack. The conversations we should be having, especially in the wake of things like Ferguson for example, is how to acknowledge someone else’s terrible experience when it runs so counter to the experience most of us have and how do we address those wrongs meaningfully. It’s all about empathy and the default setting for our empathy, unless actively challenged, is based on our class, race, and sex. (So, it should come as no surprise then who tends to dismiss the notion out of hand.)

The idea that a trigger warning is about political correctness and censorship is ludicrous. Political correctness is an attempt to adjust something so it causes no offense. This isn’t about being offended, this is about not being traumatized. Censorship is when you are forced to strike something from your book, film, album, or teaching materials because some outside body is attempting to control your means of expression and the spread of an idea. No one who supports the notion of a trigger warning is suggesting not teaching or talking or printing the types of things that would require a trigger warning.

The fact of the matter is that every single day we are given warnings about potential experiences for a variety of different reasons and yet we don't complain. When you’re driving on the way to work, the roadside is full of signs. When you’re sticking popcorn in the microwave, warnings are printed on the back of the bag. When you go out and order food, the menu displays which dishes are extra spicy and hot. When you see a movie, the rating and the text accompanying it gives you an idea what to expect. When you watch broadcast television, you are given a similar warning at the beginning of the program and sometimes even after the commercial break.

The issue with trigger warnings has solely been in relation to college students, yet it's been treated and responded to like there was a suggestion of implimenting some sweeping change for all the printed word. If there was a serious suggestion by a publisher or a company to apply trigger warnings to the entirety of books then I missed it. I think this all has to do with this American mindset of toughening kids up and the same old generation gap nonsense that will probably never fully go away. You know, what I mean, “Back in my day…” or “Kids now just don’t…” or “That’s the whole problem with this generation…” That’s a knee-jerk thought process that’s hard to break without effort. I know that I can be guilty of it as I get older. Unfortunately, the millenials seem to be on the receiving end of this more than anyone else has ever been. Which is a shame. Not to say that they don't have flaws, they do and every generation does, but I have real high hopes for these kids.

Furthermore, people tend to have this skewed view of life and learning on a college campus. Despite recent changes, academia still remains largely an insulated legacy culture and that legacy culture still tends to mostly be white guys who’ve never had to deal with racism, sexism, violence, or sexual assault. Hell, when people talk about how trigger warnings would affect the “canon,” they tend to be talking about work that largely comes from other white men with a similar set of experiences.

"Women’s issues” have never been something that colleges deal with well. The first women’s studies course wasn’t offered until 1969, and the first women’s studies program not until 1970. If colleges had their act together, things like the Cleary Act would have never been necessary. If the college campus were actually capable of addressing sensitive and traumatic issues on their own with, you know, “common sense”, they would not be facing renewed Title IX pressure from the federal government to address what clearly tends to be the institutionalized tendency to look the other way. Whether we’re talking about Sandusky or the recent revelations about sexual assaults on campus, the university setting does not have a great track record for dealing with sensitive and traumatic things. And these issues are always brought to light by students. Not administrators. Not staff. And not faculty. Students.

So the idea that a university adminstrator or a professor totally has it covered when it comes to deciding what is and isn’t traumatic enough to warn a student about so they can make an informed decision about whether to take or remain in a class is dumb. The administrator is there to administrate and the professor is there to teach. Neither is there to be a therapist.

Out in the real world, an adult has total say over what books they read or what films they go see. A college student does not have that same say about the materials they have to study. However, college students do have some say in their own educational process. The whole reason schools have codes of conduct, for example, is due to college students being active and engaged in that education process. So, if students want to come forward en masse and demand trigger warnings in their syllabuses so they can make decisions about their classes, how is that wrong? If a student has to take a 200 level English class with 4 different sections and the instructors get to pick the books and the theme, a student who is a victim of domestic violence, let’s say, should be able to look at those class syllabuses and say, “You know what? I’m not taking that one.”

How is that wrong?

It’s not unless we make it into something else. It’s not unless we make these outrageous leaps. It’s not unless we’re so caught up in our sense of artistic importance that we can’t deal with what’s actually taking place right now.

We want a nation of young people who are considerate of the pain and suffering of others. We want a nation of young people who are active and engaged with the institutions that affect them. We want a nation of young people who can make informed decisions for their own wellbeing.

Or at least I do.

Clark Ashton Smith: A Critical Guide To The Man And His Work

Clark Ashton Smith has long been my favorite of the Weird Tales triumvirate. So it’s refreshing to see him finally emerge from out of Lovecraft and Howard’s shadow with so much of his work being reissued and thoughtfully discussed. There’s a lot to like in Behrends’ Clark Ashton Smith: A Critical Guide To The Man And His Work. The book hits everything it should: Smith’s life, his poetry, the different story cycles, his stand-alone works, and his reoccurring themes. It’s a very thoughtful and well-researched nonfiction work. Without a doubt, Behrends knows his Smith

However, I had some issues with it. First, the Amazon synopsis describes it as “a substantial examination of his life and work”. However, the opening chapter on Smith’s life is a mere 25 pages of a 220 page book, less actually if you only look at the biographical facts contained in those 25 pages. The supplementary essays would have been better served worked into the book itself rather than tacked on to the end where they seem more an afterthought to raise page count. Furthermore, the “virgin” essay was pointless and unnecessary without a greater discussion of Smith’s love life for appropriate context. And this book certainly was not the place to include a story of Smith’s that Behrends completed.

But the worst offense, I think, is for a second edition of a nonfiction book released by an actual publisher to contain a single typo. And this book has several, which absolutely undercut any claim of critical authority for me.

March 20, 2015

Scavenger Hunt

Was a huge Christopher Pike fan when I was a teenager. Recently, I decided to go back and re-read some of his work to see how it holds up. I started with Scavenger Hunt because I remembered it the least of all the books on my shelf. Happy to say that Pike's work holds up very well. Except for the lack of cell phones, the book doesn’t feel dated at all. He still offers great characterization of teenagers/young adults. The story is fast-moving and tense with a couple of good scares and some creepy bits.

Falls short for two reasons. First, there’s a muddled bit of plotting in the middle where the characters just realize things spontaneously. And, secondly, the ending was a little flat: a tad heavy on the new age feel and too much expository dialogue to info-dump toward a neat conclusion. But, overall, was a really fun read and everything I remembered/wanted his work to be.
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