Should Writers Care What Critics Think? [Article]

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Writing fiction is tough, teaching about writing is straight-forward, but critiquing about writing is as simple as one’s willing to make it. Despite that last bit of inflammatory bait, I often do find critics to be a very important, if not a mysterious aspect of the writing ecosystem. Even though writers put a great amount of effort being readers themselves, book critics are one of the few groups of people out there who are actually willing to obsessively read anything any writer or author puts out anymore. They’re the only ones parsing and dissecting a piece of fiction or non-fiction for any biases, literary meanings, or political leanings that the author might be projecting in their paper bound tombstone of textual art. This level of attention to detail can’t be sanely justified without the person being given an opportunity to talk about what they thought about the book to somebody. Whether it’s done via one-on-one with a friend, a starred rating on Good Reads, or as a book review columnist for the New York Times is none of my business. However, as a hopeful writer and author, myself, I often contemplate the evolution of the critic and how that eye for critique is often trained at novels from the past as much as novels being produced in the present.

Maddie Crum’s “12 Classic Books That Got Horrible Reviews When The First Came Out” is a great analysis and a compelling piece of insight into how critics often get it wrong when guessing what books ought to be worthy of our time and praise. Most of the books mentioned on the list are, as of this date, firmly a part of major literary canon as well as being taught in several schools and universities across the Western World. However, there’s also the flip side to that coin as presented in John Glionna’s LA Times Article “Mark Twain: Inexcusable Racist or Man of His Time?” This article presented as a counterpoint and a piece of reinterpretation of a 19th century pro-abolitionist, and anti-slavery activist whose controversial, but ultimately acclaimed novel Huckleberry Finn is still read and presented as a piece of anti-racist literature.

I’m not here to debate the merits of the critics stated above me, but simply provide a perspective using the two examples.

These sets of critiques (or “opinions,” if you’re inclined to feel technically correct while being truthfully dismissive) often reveal a source of perceived inconsistency. That inconsistency which often –rightfully–  frustrates the particular kind of author and reader that’s looking for a definitive “yes or no” in terms of whether such a book is worthy of anyone’s time.

The truth of the matter is that critics are human; and like the writers who bring in their own baggage of personal history and experiences into account when producing their fiction, critics, too, suffer from historical biases of their own. Most critics worth their salt, come into the fold with an academic background, or at the very least a knowledgeable backlog of past novels and writers. That academic and historical background has its own baggage to unpack. Critics have no choice in the matter when having to compare a book to not only the current zeitgeist, but also history, culture, and previous books already written. It’s the only way they can measure themselves in the face of backlash and scrutiny. This analysis also applies when revisiting older pieces of work or authors decades or centuries after their books and lives have long since been recorded. Literary figures have experienced falls from grace as well as being lifted up as misunderstood paragons. Conversely, current authors experience the same level of ups and downs in the critic sphere of publishing.

These roller coaster interpretations in the literary world and the critics who run them shouldn’t be seen as a possibility, but simply an inevitability. As an author or writer, once you put something out there and the critics get a hold of it, how they interpret the work and its intentions is simply out of your hands. And much like history is in the business of interpreting and re-interpreting past events, so too will critics recast and reclassify authors and books in a different light well after the author and their original readership is long dead.

However, this shouldn’t be thought of as something at all negative. Critics can bring a newfound understanding of an author that provides context, and historical perspective not yet considered, as well as help in bringing in new fans into the fold after an authors death. It can also help in bringing exposure to a current author whose work remains obscure.

The Critic is neither good nor evil, but simply serves as a function in the literary sphere to interpret stories and give a simple “yea or nay” on whether the book is worth picking up. A single critic and its audience is a microcosm of a particular kind of reader. A fantasy critic and their audience would never give a five star review to a slice of life novel, much less be inclined to read such a thing. Nor is a feminist critic going to have anything good to say about the James Bond novels. And while we’re at it, no male-supremacist is going to like The Handmaid’s Tale, either. In the end, authors should instead view critics with a certain level of respect, but with a hefty dose of ambivalence. Easier said than done. However, when facing the possibility of any author having to face down a brigade of anonymous one star reviews on the internet, or a twitter-led hate campaign, having thick skin appears to be a must.

Austin By Night Got A Review [Link]

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Kind of late news, but it’s cool to know someone is reading! Has some definite, fair criticisms; but overall a decent review that you can read here. Once I finish my novel, I hope to get back to this series again at some point. Although, I’ve recently begun to consider possibly turning it into an audio series….

Maybe. We’ll see! Check out the first twelve chapters of AbN here, and expect another Cashier Confessions short later this week!

Sincerely,

Philip Hauser

Infoquake: An Infodump of Epically Crap-tastic Cyberpunk [Hard Drive Archive].

Author’s note: I wrote this book review way back in 2012 on a website that — thankfully — no longer exists because it sucked, but a few articles (like this one) seemed worth preserving. I was pretty harsh when I wrote about this debut novel and it didn’t help that there was a small wave of reviewers that agreed with me. However, the sequels are actually really good and make up for this first novel. Definitely worth a read if you’re into cyberpunk.

Dystopia and Cyberpunk are a bit of a favorite of mine. If you looked at my favorite authors list, a good seventy percent of them have at the very least dabbled, successfully I might add, in either one of each genre. I’ll even go so far as to say that even those who can even be considered, post-cyberpunk writers, like Richard K. Morgan, have done a pretty good job of maintaining and keeping this small niche of a sci-fi sub-genre relevant. The Aughts (2000s) especially had something of a boom period in cyberpunk novels (though in terms of film and television, it’s been practically a desert), which is still continuing today. Though that’s not to say that all were really that good.

Infoquake, part of the Jump 225 trilogy, was published in 2006 and written by then, new author and former dot-com entrepreneur, David Louis Edelman. This book was certainly pimped out on most of the major sci-fi blogs at the time, like io9 and amazon.com as being the new gold standard in post-cyberpunk science fiction. So, of course, like a cocaine addict, who desperately needed his new fix, I snatched it up in the hopes that it’d give me that sweet Neuromancer high I’d been looking for. I’d been jipped however, since the hit was laced with sixty percent Splenda.

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Infoquake: awesome cover, mediocre novel.

Infoquake, which takes place 300 years after a devastating post-singularity war between man and machines, the world as we know it, has turned into a series of corporate fiefdoms vying for control. In this anarcho-capitalist future these companies also participate in the manufacturing and selling of nanotech and biological enhancement applications known as “biosoft” or “bio/logic” that is used to help people with a number of mental and physical tasks in an individual’s day-to-day. Also, not only is most of the population wired up to their eyeballs in nanotech and bio enhancements, but it’s also operating on a wireless network known as the “data sea” that can be accessed anywhere, over multiple channels, as well as other planets within the solar system.

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Yeah, I don’t see how this could end badly, either.

Now, before I even get into the main story-line, I have to personally take issue with how this nanotechnology is introduced in the novel. Firstly, after Edelman establishes that humanity almost went extinct at the hands of killer machines, why would the population even agree to wanting to go back to letting machines regulating their lives, again. Granted 300 years is a long time, but not long enough I’d imagine for people to decide that injecting themselves with tiny machines that can regulate their bodies is A-okay, now. Especially since there’s the potential for somebody to hack these devices and make them stop your heart from beating, or control your mind, or turn you into a nano-infested rage-zombie. Shit, America is less than 300 years old and we’re still arguing about whether we even need a federal government or not, after being ruled over by a very centralized England, at the time. And if that weren’t enough, none of this nanotech is being regulated at all, by any agency, with any clout whatsoever. Because Edelman seems to think, with his libertarian worldview, that the world is in no need of any government oversight. I’d like to see the survivors of a grey-goo or terminator-like future agree with him when they’re the ones hiding in abandoned subway tunnels, eating rats and avoiding harvester drones, patrolling a blackened sky.

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I’m David Louis Edelman: and I’d prefer that the Invisible Hand determine the viability of our species’ survivability.

Our hero is Natch, a handsome, ambitious, biosoft entrepreneur. A man who seems to suffer from severe bi-polar disorder since he operates on three settings: angry, really angry and manic-depressive. He’s a twenty-something future yuppie, who wanders around his spacious office condo, barking orders at his assistants Horvil and Jara, while basking in his own greatness, trying to claw his way to the top of the biosoft market. His favorite thing to complain about is how small his luxurious office condo is as he sits and sulks, as Jara tells him that his place is actually much better than most flats in the city. But, oh no, Natch will have nothing of that. “It can always be better, bigger” he states as he goes off on another speech that they need to be working harder and that Jara and Horvil aren’t trying hard enough to get their nanotech products up and running. Did I mention that this little shit’s small business is being bankrolled by his dad? Oh yes, when you first read the two discussing the matter of Natch’s business, you’ll wonder why his father didn’t just leave Natch to die on some rock in the middle of nowhere.

Though it’s funny that I mention that because that is almost what happens to Natch, as his origin story is linked to being the sole survivor of a terrible biological attack as a baby, on a lunar colony. Natch later suffers the oh so painful life of a boarding school student as most of the children pick on him for being small…or something. Anyway, according to Edelman, Natch may or may not have set some kid’s face on fire out of anger, on a camping trip, but whatever, it’s supposed to be character development, I guess.

However, that’s of the major flaws that this novel has, especially when it comes to its characters. Edelman seems to try to give Natch some tragic backstory about being a survivor of a terrorist attack and getting picked on in school, but it comes off as the author trying way too hard to get the reader to sympathize with Natch and unintentionally making him out to be more of an ungrateful asshole. Patrick Bateman and Hanibal Lector do not need backstories for us to sympathize with. They’re evil and so is Natch, and Edelman should’ve just owned up to that and ran with it. Not that it would of helped much, but it would’ve made Natch a little more interesting. Sometimes having that mystery makes a character all the more compelling, instead of unearthing every possible piece of a character’s past. That’s how Lucas ruined Darth Vader, for most Star Wars fans. The other characters, Horvil and Jara, don’t seem to be written any better. Horvil is depicted as a very likable, but docile programmer, who seems to roll over at every command that Natch gives him. While Jara tends to spend most of the novel wallowing in her own depression while having fantasies of giving Natch a rim job (I guess it’s true, that neurotics tend to gravitate towards one another, though this sounds more like Stockholm Syndrome to me). There is also the government official who is head of the Center for Wellness, who despite his dickishness, actually has some good intentions of trying to regulate the biosoft market, because of its obvious potential of being abused. But, of course, Edelman depicts this government man as a villain who wants to secretly steal everyone’s freedoms and Natch’s ability and social license to be a sociopathic asshole in the business world.

After a few stunts performed by Natch, that would’ve gotten any normal person a twenty-year jail sentence or a billion-dollar bonus as a Goldman Sachs CEO. He is called in by Margaret Surina, a sort of more cuntish (if you’ll excuse the phrase) version of Natch, to improve and launch a new product by her company, while fighting off several corporate fiefdoms that will kill for a chance to steal this new technology for themselves.

From this point on it’s an Ayn Rand, neo-liberalism, wank-fest. Full of pompous speeches by Natch and several backroom business dealings, as Edelman tries to sell the idea that the Surinas and Natch’s of the world are the real masters of the universe, while the government is some form of pure evil that eats babies on the weekends (all this, despite the fact that Natch — a free-market true believer — is clearly the real asshole of the story).

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“Hey kids! I’m here to teach you guys the coolness of EXTREME FUTURE FREE-MARKET ECONOMIES!!”

Of course this new technology has far reaching, unintended consequences and it’s use of the inter-galactic wireless network makes this new biosoft all the more dangerous to humanity if put into the wrong hands. This leads the author to tack on some lesson at the end of the novel, that technology isn’t bad, people are, but they don’t need policing (what?) speech, but by then I was pretty much just trying to get myself to the finish line and not even bothering in understanding this oddly self-contradictory logic.

Though I have to give Edelman some slack, since this was his first book, I can’t believe he dropped the ball on this one. To his credit, he did have some interesting tech ideas and concepts, as well some interesting depictions on how a post-singularity, post-geographical society might work. However, the man got too bogged down trying to make us like his hopelessly unlikable main character, didn’t bother to develop his other characters and tried to make this book his personal soap box about how his ideas on economics and zero-government are great if only somebody will listen to me rant. This book could’ve used a lot more subtly and whole lot less preachiness and exposition. I hear that the sequels to Infoquake are much better, but the first book might have just turned me off from them for good. 2006’s Neuromancer this is not.

 

Game Review: Syndicate [Hard Drive Archive]

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Author’s note: I wrote this not-so-nice review back in early 2013 as a facebook note. The fact that I mention both Gamefly AND Block Buster in this same article probably dates this piece a considerable amount. Also, as a bit of an ironic twist, I ended up actually buying this game three years later for less than five bucks at a second hand shop, and I’ll still occasionally play it when I can’t bother to fish out my copy of Perfect Dark 64.

The Syndicate series is a bit obscure in the video game world, even by cyberpunk standards. Though most people, myself included, were barely out of their diapers when the first game came out in 1993, I did in fact manage to play their sequel Syndicate Wars on the PC. By the way, good luck finding a copy of either, unless you want to pay Ebay over one-hundred dollars and use DOS-box to run the damn things. And much like its two predecessors, the new game can be just as hard to find as a rental if you don’t have a GameFly account. I almost had to beg the only Block Buster store within fifty miles to reserve a copy for me. This massive inconvenience alone, no thanks to the (but largely enviable) burgeoning online mail-in rental industry could be a topic I could post an entirely separate thread about, but I digress.

Syndicate, the reboot to the 1990s cult favorite, tells the story of a corporate-dystopian future where — no surprise — corporations have become the new nation states. The game is a First-Person-Shooter, shown to you through the perspective of Miles Kilo (the surname, no doubt a clever reference to the Executive Producer’s favorite pastime). Kilo works for Eurocorp, one of the major conglomerates that control the world in this dark anarcho-capitalist future. Your protagonist at the start of the game has been implanted with a Dart 6 brain chip — the latest in corporate wet-ware — which allows the player to see the world in a digitally augmented reality state. This device also allows you to remotely hack terminals, as well as humans who you can then either control them in order to turn them against their allies or force them to commit suicide.

You’re then teamed up with the very sociopathic, Merit, whose pastimes include: shooting innocent civilians, blowing up buildings, and talking about how awesome the female scientists’ racks are. Another supporting character is the inventor of the Dart 6 chip, Lily Drawl, who is supposed to be Kilo’s moral compass throughout the story even though she has no qualms watching you put holes in the bodies of other people at close range.

The acting, as well as the story, seems phoned-in. Kilo, I’m sure for budget purposes, remains the silent protagonist who has to be strung along by the other characters otherwise he’d probably just sit there. Merit’s voice actor sounds crawling on lips drunk, which interestingly enough makes his stupid antics in the game almost plausible. Lily Drawl’s voice actress seems to be the most competent, but doesn’t give a whole lot of range for you to feel invested in her emotionally. Even the writer for this game, Richard Morgan, cyberpunk author of Altered Carbon and Market Forces, doesn’t seem to be trying.

The story itself is pretty basic: a lone man, who has worked for corporations his whole life, has a crisis of conscience after a job goes bad and is now being hunted by the very people who’ve worked with him his entire career. True to EA form, the game also has a conclusion that is open-ended enough to warrant a sequel, which is required by law nowadays in the video game biz, apparently. It’s a story-mode so paint-by-numbers predictable, it could’ve just been a list that Morgan had to check off as he wrote the script. Whether you’re a Chomsky-leftist or a hard line Ayn Rand acolyte, there’s very little intellectual-wank-material to be had here.

As far as the gameplay is concerned, you’re still getting a half-way decent shooter. However, if you were an old fan of the previous games RPG elements, you’ll be severely disappointed. Most of the squad-based tactics have been taken out and replaced with you working with an NPC to complete mission objectives. Even my favorite aspect of the series, which was the economic management of your corporate enclaves and the upkeep of R&D for your trench coat assassins has been completely tossed out. Though to make up for this, the player can earn cash or experience points that can be put towards augmentations that give you certain perks like X-ray vision, optical-camo or faster cool-down times in between using abilities. The guns are stylish, but nothing you haven’t seen before in any other FPS, with the exception of two: one that can shoot through walls and another whose bullets can track a target around corners. You won’t be able to travel to wherever you want to either like you did in the previous games, but will only be whisked away to exotic locals if the story permits it. The game is much more linear, shootier and turns the hacking mini-games into single-click, wait-’em-out-before-they-shoot-you-out time crunchers.

When I was playing this game however, there was one game that kept coming to mind whenever I attempted a cyber-brain hack or a corporate infiltration (which was able as subtle as a shotgun shell through a door and I’m not kidding about that), that game being Deus Ex 3 (or Deus Ex: Human Revolution if you insist on it). Syndicate not only was trying to make you forget all about the previous, much better versions that came before it, but also the fact that a much better cyberpunk game from last year was still on the market. It had all the aspects of a Deus Ex game, without the open-endedness of the story-line or gameplay. Though it might be fairer to state that Syndicate is probably the best sequel that Perfect Dark 64 never got, it doesn’t even have repertoire of choice in weapons and gadgets that justify the label. It was almost depressing playing this game as it tried to so hard to impress me. Trying so hard to awe me with its graphics, trying to so hard to pull my heartstrings with Kilo’s tragic past, trying to throw as many flashy explosions and sleek skylines at me as humanly possible. It was like a younger, less competent child, attempting to outdo their much older, smarter and beautiful sibling, and like any good parent I was going to validate Syndicate’s need to feel special. However, I could only bring to give it just enough attention so that it may feel just a little less hopeless about its disposition all the while giving Deus Ex the preferred treatment behind Syndicate’s back. I probably shouldn’t go into parenting.

The Disaster Artist Is A Love Letter To The Young & Struggling Artist [Article]

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The first thing that can be said about this film is that The Disaster Artist cannot really be understood without seeing The Room first. At the same time, The Room also can’t be fully understood without reading the Disaster Artist.

I saw The Room sometime in the year 2010 when I was still in college. It had taken me awhile to get around to it, but by that time any self respecting American pop culture buff was being required to watch it as a right of passage. I became obsessed with that movie and my fandom can be proven by the two videos that I posted lauding both the film and the tell-all book that surrounded it.

The Room has been quoted as being the “Citizen Kane” of bad movies, but I’d argue that it may also go down in history as the height of transgressive cinema of the early 21st century. It was a perfect storm of bad acting, cinematography, and writing despite having an incredibly simple plot: a soon-to-be-married woman trying to hide an affair from her fiance. It was also under absurd management by being also produced, directed, written, stared in as the main lead, and solely financed by the man who became the enigmatic legend behind The Room itself: Tommy Wiseau.

I was one of the few crazy enough to buy a signed copy of The Disaster Artist when it came out in the fall of 2013, and I was even most ecstatic when the book got adapted into a film. Now that all that exposition and self-indulgent fan nostalgia diary nonsense is out of the way, I can finally tell you how good the movie actually is. But first…

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Proof that I ain’t no liar!

The Disaster Artist follows the author of the tell-all book and friend to Tommy Wiseau, Greg Sestero as it takes place five years prior to the making of The Room. It starts with the then struggling 19-year-old, Greg, a self-conscious actor trying to make it in Los Angeles, meeting Tommy Wiseau in the same acting class together. The movie starts off in the same way that the books does and more or less follows their journey together ending at the night of the premiere of Tommy’s film.

Throughout the movie you see the struggles of both aspiring actors. For Tommy, a man who is clearly much older and less talented, becomes the fodder for the audience’s second-hand embarrassment as he blunders and fails through the grueling and punishing process of being rejected by Hollywood along with his eccentric wardrobe, mumble vampire accent, and ego-inducing shield of self-denial. Greg is juxtaposed as the too-self-aware, but slowly succeeding actor who initially latches onto Tommy’s relentless optimism and finds that positivist attitude to be the push he needed to succeed.

However, this is short lived as both men reach a brick wall in their budding careers as actors (Tommy’s fall coming much sooner than Greg’s) and are forced to realize that they may never be able to make it in Hollywood. It is then that the bizarre seed is planted inside Tommy’s mind to simply create and star in his own film and have Greg be cast as a major co-star.

It is here that we then see the main focus of the film and the book come to life as the audience becomes enveloped in the behind the scenes look as to how this production beat all the odds and managed to even see the light of day at all.

For fans of the Disaster Artist, they get a taste of the book’s major highlights in the film such as: the insane first encounter with Greg meeting Tommy, the funny-but-embarrassing script readings in the Italian restaurant, the big move to LA, Tommy’s flame out and eventual writing of the screenplay, The Room’s funny and perverse actor auditions, The Chris R show down, Tommy barking orders at crew members while naked and doing a sex scene on set, the production crew mutiny, Greg’s falling out with Tommy, the insane ad campaigns, the lying, the manipulations, the rejections, the redemption, and eventually the premiere itself.

For fans of The Room, they also get proper fan service with the actors in the Disaster Artist re-enacting real scenes from The Room verbatim all the way down to the sets and costumes, which gives the film an added authenticity to the source material as well as a meta vibe to the whole experience.

Overall, it conveys the essence of the book. However, having said that, the film does have it’s problems. Firstly, since it’s only ninety-minutes long, certain parts from the book had to be cut, but it also made the film come off as being incredibly rushed. For those like myself who read the book, it felt like whiplash watching whole chapters being condensed to minutes or even seconds on screen while being forced to endure the film’s need to hit the hyper-drive button as quickly as possible in order to move on to the next plot point. I also thought that it didn’t provide a good enough transitional period for the audience to slowly see Greg’s growing resentment over Tommy and his ego alienating Greg, while Tommy’s jealousy over Greg’s “Hollywood success” becomes an even larger wedge in the friendship. Greg’s depiction in the film is also too optimistic during the filming scenes of The Room, lacking the self-awareness that was made clear in the book as Greg describes in detail how much he grew to hate being on set with Tommy and knowing that The Room would go on to become a massive flop in theaters (well before it’s eventual rise into cult film status).

These issues can be ignored, but what obviously can’t be denied is the influences and forces that guided Greg, Tommy, The Room, The Disaster, and film adaptation. At it’s core, both the book and the film are a lesson in the struggles of making it as an artist in today’s modern world and the unintended consequences of never giving up on one’s dreams. As a writer, I often find myself wondering if my work will ever be recognized, far from the worries of any established artist wondering if they’re being taken seriously or treated as a joke after hitting that lucky, one-in-a-million chance of getting famous. However, as Tommy and Greg soon find out, whether it’s success, in film, art, or writing fame is earned for reasons and circumstances that often out of one’s own control; and with that fame comes with it it’s own kind of baggage.