Ancient cover: ψυχή or Psycho?

Here’s a rather random thing I discovered while listening to Spotify. I’ve been re-reading The Iliad this week, and I thought I’d see if there were any ancient Greek music reconstruction albums on Spotify. In my searches, I found a set of albums by the Petros Tabouris Ensemble. So I put these on to play in the background as I read.

One track that appeared on multiple albums (under different names) caught my ear. It had a short melodic line that was teasingly familiar to me. Have a listen and see if this reminds you of anything:

Petros Tabouris Ensemble – Bacchants’ Longings (Vakhon pothi) (Spotify link.)

[If you don’t have or want to try Spotify, you can also hear a decent sample of this track on Amazon.]

After a couple of listens, I realized what I was recognizing:

Listening to these two tracks back-to-back, I have to conclude that it’s not just a coincidence. If it were just the snippet of melody, perhaps. But the entire rhythmic texture is there, too. I don’t know if it’s a clever homage or covert cover (in one of its versions it is about the Bacchae, after all) or if it’s a sneaky theft, but I haven’t seen any reviews of the Petros Tabouris Ensemble that point out this connection. I think it’s a kind of marvelous conflation of the ancient and the modern. Of course, maybe Bernard Hermann is the one who modeled his theme on a Greek folk song, but I haven’t seen that mentioned anywhere, either.

Gamification of Literature

[Here is another post that I originally wrote for The Missouri Review‘s blog that I’m archiving here. Check out the TMR’s new website!]

Great Gatsby for NES (Start Screen)

A few news items have popped up this week about Simon Meek and his company’s plans to release adaptations of literary works for game consoles — a version of the spy novel The Thirty Nine Steps is currently in production, and Meek mentions Wuthering Heights and Crime and Punishment as future candidates.

Meek is quick to say

that he’s not trying to make game versions of these stories; instead, he’s using gaming platforms and game-building technologies to create adaptations of the books:

“Players enter the stories through the events that take place in that story, and at that point experience the story from the inside out,” he explains. “We place them in the world in which the story is set, and are using a combination of original art and games engine to create some truly stunning environments. Add to that audio design and original composition, and the world of the book is brought to life. On this stage, we then let the player progress through an array of media that is directly taken/reinterpreted from the book.” [Source]

These may not be “games,” but he still refers to the audience as “players” and elsewhere emphasizes the interactive nature of this new “experience” of the book. They may not be games in the sense of having a set of rules and victory conditions, but they are clearly being modeled on virtual worlds and the principles of game-based narrative (that is, variable or conditional navigation through a set of planned environments/encounters).

Now, I don’t have a problem with this idea on its face. It’s just one form of adaptation of out many. It will reveal its own artistic strengths and make its own artistic sacrifices as theatric, cinematic, graphic, and all other forms of adaptation do. I have some concerns about the concept that I’ll mention, though, with the understanding that I want to remain open-minded about how successful the actual execution might be. My main concern lies with the idea of experiencing the story “from the inside out.” First of all, is that actually any different from how we experience narratives in printed text? Do we feel alienated from the narration? Do we feel “outside” of the book because it’s just words on a page? If we’re hypothetical members of the generation that doesn’t read for pleasure, maybe text is alienating and foreign, and the idea of reconstructing a world in your imagination as you’re reading is burdensome and undesireable. But I still cling to the hope that such an experience of reading is hypothetical (and if this is a genuine cultural crisis — our kids don’t have the imaginative skills to make reading “work” — then I doubt that adaptations like this would do anything to solve that problem; if anything, they would seem to provide yet another form of “prosthetic” imagination, if you will, that frees you from the necessity of visualizing the story-world and its characters yourself).

In fact, this “immersive” experience of the book as 3d-rendered graphical world is actually more likely to put you at one remove from the characters, compared to what you would get from the text. In the text, point of view can collapse so that you share and inhabit the points of view of the characters (and not always just one at a time, but often in sophisticated and complex layerings). I can’t envision how this game-style version of the narrative can provide many point of view options besides a free-floating camera, that maybe becomes first-person occasionally (I don’t get the feeling from Meek’s descriptions that you would actually play as characters, but maybe you will). To my mind, this management of “the camera” (or however you control the point of view) adds an additional layer of mediation to the story — it puts you at an added remove from what would be “narration” in the text. It emphasizes the way in which you are outside of the text, the way in which you are a spectator, rather than drawing you inside in the way that narration can.

Promotional photo for Hitchcock's PsychoAnother issue with this is that if control of point of view is suddenly ceded to the reader/player, that removes a major aspect of the artistic craft of the original. Film adaptation is already more limited in the kinds of points of view it can present, but it has its conventions and artistry in managing point of view. But if the idea is that I can observe the scene from any angle, if I can choose to look at whatever I want to look at, then a fundamental change has occurred in the nature of the art I’m looking at. It ceases to be the experience of precise selections and composition by the artist and becomes something like an architectural exercise. It ceases to be Hitchcock framing the looming Bates house in a low-angle shot (looming only because of that choice of angle) and becomes you the tourist with a camcorder wandering around the Universal Studios backlot. [If I were more familiar with The Thirty Nine Steps, I’d use a more appropriate example from it, but I’m not, so I won’t.]

One could counter-argue that this freedom allows the reader/player to become an artist themselves, to create their own cinematography for their individualized adaptation. And sure, maybe that’s true. There are musicians that have made all the individual tracks make up a single recording available for fans to make their own remixes from, and there’s certainly value in that kind of creative experience. But it would be a mistake to overlook or understate the value that’s lost, as well. Perhaps the positive side is that people playing with “directing” their own version of the book through one of these game interfaces might develop a greater appreciation of the very challenging arts of cinematography and film editing, when they see how far short their own initial efforts fall. But I’m not convinced that this experience necessarily does much for furthering appreciation of point of view in the text, which is really a very different kind of technical challenge (despite the fact that so many creative writing texts lean on the cinematic metaphor as a crutch to describe point of view — to the ultimate disservice of their students, I suspect).

And that brings me to my last point, which is the naivete that I think is present in the assumption that books need “saving” through digital enhancement. I’m curious and intrigued by the idea of these virtual world adaptations, and I do think there’s something compelling (if not necessarily revolutionary) about the idea of transforming stories into these kinds of architectural constructs that can be navigated at will. But there’s a revolutionary streak the rhetoric here (the article I’ve been quoting from, for example, is ridiculously entitled “The Reinvention of Literature”), that seems totally unearned. Meek really rubs me the wrong way when we’re told:

Meek says he doesn’t like that electronic books still have people reading printed words on white pages that need to be turned. “Which doesn’t make any sense in a digital world,” he tells me. These electronic books are still too rooted in the form that gave them birth, the physical side of the media, he believes.

To me this sounds a bit like music industry people in the early days of MTV suggesting that music videos are the future of music consumption: why would you want just boring old music when you can have music and images? (I’m not sure if anyone actually argued this, but if they did the analogy would hold.) We’re already seeing a trend for e-books to be “appified” for the iPad generation, filled with links and embedded video and background sound effects or music that plays while you read specific scenes. And I’m not opposed to such aesthetic experiments, but I don’t think they’re the next step (much less a necessary one) in the evolution in literature. After all, if we really felt that text alone was insufficient, almost all our books would be done in the style of Illustrated Classics or graphic novels. Most audiobooks would be dramatizations performed by casts of actors rather than single narrating voices. But it has not been so. Meek may be bringing something interesting to the world of digital, game-like entertainments, but I don’t think he’s revolutionizing literature by any stretch of our apparently stunted imaginations.

Digital model of the Bates house from Psycho

P.S.: Anyone interested in a game that is literally about navigating a literary text should check out “Silent Conversation,” a lovely, atmospheric browser-based game by Gregory Weir. I think Weir achieves something far more aesthetically compelling with his particular approach to digital adaptation than it sounds like Meek will manage, even if does just boil down to an advanced version of concrete poetry.

[Hint for “Silent Conversation”: if you just want a quick experience of what the game is like, I recommend that you do the brief tutorial (which you must do to unlock the first set of other texts), and then do William Carlos Williams’ “XXII” and Matsuo Bashou’s “There is an old pond…” so that you can then unlock and play through “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” The prose texts are quite interesting in their own way, but they’re pretty long and best tried after doing a sampler of the poetry.]

Also, for laughs, literary gamers might also enjoy the retro parody The Great Gatsby for NES or Moby Dick: The Video Game.

600,000 Characters in Need of an Audience

Child writing with crayon.

[Here’s another post I wrote for The Missouri Review, which I’m going to reproduce wholesale here.]

GalleyCat reports that 45,000 kids between the ages of 5 and 17 are signed up this year as participants in National Novel Writing Month. I’ve started several times over the past two weeks to write something about NaNoWriMo, but always stopped because A) there has been so much polemical discussion of NaNoWriMo in the blogosphere this month that there seems to be little more to add to the discussion, and B) I don’t really know what I think about NaNoWriMo. I find myself vacillating wildly between positive and negative responses. At this point, I would tentatively say that I think NaNoWriMo probably does have a positive effect at the level of individual participation (that it is a “good” experience for people to have), but that as a collective force and (nascent) institution it does indeed project some problematic and troubling values concerning the nature and function of art.

But rather than rehashing what some of those questionable values are — which has been done many times elsewhere, most especially in Laura Miller’s controversial piece — I want to look briefly at the question of audience, which GalleyCat’s statistic put me in mind of. Miller asked who’s going to read all these novels, and a lot of the negative response to her has replied “Who cares?” You write your novel for yourself, the argument goes, and participation in NaNoWriMo is essentially an exercise in self-esteem building and personal achievement. This, one could argue, makes the act of writing not about “art,” per se, but about accomplishment, which is similar to how the fad of marathon-running has made those events no so much about athleticism but about ticking off personal checkboxes. And, of course, whenever someone argues that whenever the seriousness of an endeavor has been diluted by the mass participation of “tourists,” cries of elitism are sure to follow (and I use the word “tourist” quite deliberately here — the problem is not amateurs vs. professionals; it’s people who take the art/sport/hobby seriously for its own sake vs. those who only want to fulfill short-term, personal goals, or those interested in advancing the state of the field [and, as it were, being resident in that field] vs. those who just want a diversion from the mainline of their lives [who want to visit, but aren’t really interested in risking or investing anything in it]).

All of this is merely a long-winded way of saying that if your answer to “Who’s going to read all this work” is “Who cares,” then that is, at heart, a denial of the communicative purpose of art (which is one of the troubling values associated with NaNoWriMo). But this, too, is not really what I want to talk about. I think it’s rather easy for many of us who think of ourselves as serious writers to slip into that “Who cares?” mindset just because getting an audience is so hard. The more you begin to feel like nobody out there wants to read your work, the more tempting it becomes to dismiss with a contemptuous wave of the hand the whole idea of seeking out an audience. If I can’t really see a “them” for me to write to (or for), then maybe I am better off thinking that I’m writing just for “me.” [A variant on this is the feeling that one is only writing for other writers, an attitude endemic to creative writing programs, and, indeed, to literary journals as well.]

I have a stock lament that I often wind up presenting to students in my fiction workshops (though it cannot be easily characterized as inspiring or empowering) that culminates in the complaint that the only venues for fiction (especially long-form fiction) are essentially national. Are you an amateur musician? You can play at an open mic night. You can play at large family gatherings. With even slightly above average talent, you could well play a paying gig somewhere locally. If you’re a visual artist, there are fairs and fleamarkets (if not galleries) where you can share your work with your community.

But local venues for writers are much harder to come by. Open mic nights can work for poets and perhaps writers of short shorts. You can circulate your work to your family and friends, but it is in the nature of reading that even this most intimate audience can feel awfully distant (as compared with the immediate reward of playing a few songs in the living room after Thanksgiving dinner). Really, if you want to be read, you have to be submitting to literary magazines and publishers who are mostly all drawing from a nationwide (if not global) pool of submitters and trying to reach a nationwide (if not global) pool of readers. That’s a very competitive field to wade into. Perhaps the only harder fields to break into are screen and television writing.

[An aside: there are certainly some niche genres that support primarily local or regional audiences, such as certain veins of historical fiction or mysteries (set in your hometown!), and I find writers and publishers who have tapped into that kind of audience rather fascinating.]

This seems a very dispiriting proposition. If you gave an otherwise disinterested person the choice of an art form to learn, there are so many more arts that offer the real possibility of modest but meaningful reward that it’s hard to picture that student selecting writing as the one to learn and practice. And thus my heart breaks a little bit to think of all those adolescent authors putting hours and hours into their NaNoWriMo manuscript, with no outlet for it other than a loving parent here and a generous teacher there.

But maybe I’m wrong. Outside of perhaps a handful of metropolitan environments, I do seriously doubt that local venues for nurturing local would-be novelists will ever be very significant (other than as quid pro quo workshops and writers’ groups — I’ll read your book if you read mine). However, the internet has given us a new version of the “local” scale. You may not be able to sell your novel out of the back of your car at a real world fleamarket (although some people do, or so I’ve heard), but you can post it for free or cheaply to any number of online publishing markets now. I know that fan fiction communities have been vibrant and supportive (and populated with ordinary readers, not just writers willing to read each other) for a couple of decades now. Perhaps other, less genre-bound online writing communities are just as engaged (though I haven’t encountered many).

So I turn the question(s) over to you: Who is your writing for? What venues do you have for your work besides the traditional, national markets? Is there a future in “local” writing, and what does “local” even mean in a digital world?


Two addenda:

1.) I wonder if the internet doesn’t foster a somewhat false sense of limitless audience. It’s easy to go to some amateur musician’s YouTube video and see all the comments on his or her song (even if a fair number of those comments are less than kind), and thus it’s easy to imagine that if you put anything up on YouTube, you’ll get an audience (even if it’s an audience mostly of hecklers). But of course most of the videos we tend to see on YouTube are the ones that already have an audience of some kind. Someone’s linking to them or they’re being bumped up in the search rankings through other sorts of viewership. We tend to see the stuff that’s being seen, naturally. But there are plenty of videos going unwatched on YouTube, plenty of stories going unread on blogs and fictions forums, plenty of e-books going unsold. The idea of massive internet audiences is largely the product of confirmation bias.

2.) I was going to add a question at the end along the lines of “Would you be more likely to send your child off to music lessons or…” and then realized that “writing lessons” doesn’t really work, because there really isn’t such a thing. There are writing camps and kid’s writers’ groups, and maybe those are roughly comparable to the idea of taking lessons on an instrument. But the idea that we don’t really have any well-established or customary institutions for engaging kids with writing in the same way that we have for music or drama or the visual arts probably says something significant about our culture’s attitude towards writing and what it is (and isn’t) good for. Creative writing is either schoolwork or entirely self-directed. I think few kids experience writing (relative to other arts forms) in other ways. But, as above, I’m happy to be proven wrong on this perception.


The Missouri Review

I’ve been making a few posts to The Missouri Review‘s blog recently (and hope to keep doing so throughout this academic year), and I figured I might as well quasi-recycle those posts (at least by linking to them) here. So, without further ado:

“The Role of Literary Publishers in the Digital Age” (from Sept. 29, 2010), wherein I consider how the digital publishing affects both writers and publishers of literary fiction (long and short), nonfiction, and poetry, and propose I mini-manifesto for what the role of literary journals should be in the new environment.

“Medium and Message” (from Oct. 22, 2010), wherein I respond to a Nobel laureate’s words of caution about the literary quality of e-books.

More Site Redevelopment

In the Spring of 2010, I switched the site over from Drupal to Joomla. The Joomla experiment was interesting, but as a CMS, it remained complicated and abstruse in a way that was initially intriguing but eventually came to be discouraging (and the theme-building and plug-in making community for Joomla seemed to me to be a bit overly commercialized compared to other platforms).

So, given that I’m administering several WordPress installations for other people, I figured it makes sense to go ahead and set this site up with WordPress as well. Hopefully, this will also reinvigorate my posting frequency as well!

Top Chef Medieval: Cannibalism for Kings

Fava beans...

Here’s another striking episode from late in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum Britanniae:

Cadwallo was so filled with grief and anger at the loss of his comrades that he refused to take any food, lying ill instead in his bunk. At first light on the fourth day a great yearning seized him for some game to eat.

His nephew Brian was summoned and Cadwallo told him what he longed for. Brian took his bow and quiver and started off across the island. If only fate would bring some wild beast in his way, then he would take some of it to the King for food. He wandered all over the island [of Guernsey] without discovering what he was looking for. He was greatly concerned at not being able to gratify his master’s wish. He was afraid that Cadwallo’s illness might end in death, if he was not able to satisfy the King’s yearning. He therefore tried a new device. He opened up his own thigh and cut off a slice of the flesh. He made a spit, cooked the meat, and took it to the King, pretending that it was venison. The King accepted that it was game. He ate some of it and so restored his strength, wondering that he had never tasted such sweet-flavoured meat before. When his appetite was satisfied, he became more cheerful and brisk, and within three days he was quite well again. (271-72)

[from Lewis Thorpe’s 1966 Penguin translation, The History of the Kings of Britain.]

...and a nice chianti

It’s interesting to note that this taboo violation doesn’t appear to have any negative consequences: indeed, Cadwallo’s remarkable return to health seems to recommend the treatment. We might wonder if there is a link between this moment and Cadwallo’s later genocidal savagery in attempting to wipe the Angles from the face of Britain: “He was so determined to wipe out the entire race of Angles who were in the lands of Britain that he refused to spare the womenfolk or even their little ones of tender age. He inflicted hideous tortures on all whom he found” (277). However, Geoffrey certainly doesn’t draw out a connection here, and we seen plenty of other genocidal kings in the Historia (even Arthur), and this behavior is not presented as being nearly as monstrous as we would think of it today. So it’s very hard to argue that this episode of cannibalism has any tinges of the wendigo-like taint that is found in many cultures.

I don’t have much more to say about this episode, but those interested in the topic might enjoy this essay by Karl Steele on the motif of human flesh being the sweetest meat.

Naming Our Gear

So, I was reading Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum Britanniae and came across this passage:

Arthur himself put on a leather jerkin worthy of so great a king. On his head he placed a golden helmet, with a crest carved in the shape of a dragon; and across his shoulders a circular shield called Pridwen, on which there was painted a likeness of the Blessed Mary, Mother of God, which forced him to be thinking perpetually of her. He girded on his peerless sword, called Caliburn, which was forged in the Isle of Avalon. A spear called Ron graced his right hand: long, broad in the blade and thirsty for slaughter.

[from Lewis Thorpe’s 1966 Penguin translation, p. 217]

Firstly: a spear called Ron? What’s next? “And then Arthur put on his noble boots, Bob and Terry.”

Secondly: I’ve always been somewhat fascinated by the tradition of giving weapons personal names, so frequently seen in chivalric romances and Norse sagas. Someday I’d like to do some actual research into the topic, but in the meantime I wonder what the state of this custom is today. Do soldiers name their weapons? I know of artillery pieces that have names, but I don’t know about rifles and sidearms.

On the civilian side, I know plenty of people who name their cars, and some who name their houses. Some musicians name their instruments (though it seems a honor accorded only to certain types of instruments — guitars, certainly, but pianos… less commonly). What else do we name?

Well, computers and “smart” electronics — usually because we’re asked to. Your iPod prompts you to give it a name (mine: “Trumpy,” after the alien in the movie Pod People of MST3K fame). For networking reasons, you have to give your computers names (mine: various Flannery O’Connor characters). So we might expect to see this trend continue even beyond devices that require you to register them with a name. Will we be naming our smart phones? How many people already refer to their devices by their “name,” rather than saying “my iPod” or “my laptop”? I don’t know any, myself, but I’m sure they’re out there.

Anyway, this might be yet another element that blends geek cultures. An old classmate of mine once critiqued another’s choice of network password — the name of an obscure Lord of the Rings character (and this was in the days before the movies) — by saying “Any hacker worth his salt will know a great deal about Tolkien.” It’s fascinating to me that there is this strange confluence of tech culture and medievalesque culture. Bestowing totemic names upon our most valuable tools is just one more example of that cross-over.

Rat-Powered Hurdy-Gurdy

One of my ambitions (whenever I find myself with about $3,000 to burn) is to own and learn to play a hurdy gurdy (to add to my collection of instruments that make many listeners flinch). As such, I often find myself browsing You Tube for clips of people doing unconventional things with this medieval instrument. One of my favorites (and one of the first hurdy-gurdy clips I found on You Tube several years ago) is this fantastic performance by Matthias Loibner:

But today I stumbled across a clip of hurdy-gurdy innovation that, while not musically terribly practical, is absolutely brilliant. The rat-powered hurdy-gurdy:

I haven’t heard of the group Rosa Crux before, but judging by some of their other clips, they seem to be half experimental, half performance art, all with a metal sheen. Intriguing.

Buttery Abscesses

I was listening to Dr. Mark Crislip’s daily “A Gobbet o’ Pus” podcast (which currently consists of material from last year’s blog posts), and he had a line that I feel absolutely compelled to share. Apparently, colonies of Streptococcus anginosus, which can cause abscesses in the lungs, are said to smell like buttered popcorn. This is because they produce the chemical diacetyl:

What is cool is that the reason it smells like buttered popcorn is that diacetyl is one of the compounds that gives butter that butter smell, and chardonnay that chardonnay taste. Next time you have that fake butter spread, think to yourself, “I can’t believe its not Strep anginosus!

I can’t wait to find an occasion to deploy that line, though I might have to make friends with more doctors and biologists if I want to actually get a laugh…

You subscribe to the Gobbet o’ Pus podcast here, and check out Crislip’s other two excellent podcasts, the Persiflagers Puscast (reviewing the monthly infectious disease literature) and the Quackcast (excoriating supplements, complementary and alternative medicine).

Today’s Disgusting Tidbit of Milton Lore

From The Book of Memory, by Mary Carruthers:

Metaphors which use digestive activities are so powerful and tenacious that digestion should be considered another basic functional model for the complementary activities of reading and composition, collection and recollection. Unlike the heart, no medical tradition seems to have placed any of the sensory-processing functions in the stomach, but “the stomach of memory” as a metaphoric model had a long run. Milton, his biographers agree, mentally composed a store of verses daily, which he then dictated to a secretary. […] And Milton’s anonymous biographer, speaking also of his mental composition, remarks that if the poet’s secretary were late, “he would complain, saying he wanted to be milked.” (207)

I now want to write a poem/song and title it “Milking Milton.” (Actually, I like the title “Milk Me, Milton!” better, but that sort of gets the quote backwards…)