Shameless Flogging

What would you do if the world kept ending, and you were the only one who knew it?

That's my brilliant editor's tagline for my new short story "Strange Matter", available now in SCI PHI JOURNAL #3. My pitch was China Syndrome meets Groundhog Day, but his is better.

"Strange Matter" is the hardest sci-fi tale I've written so far, and it includes plenty of food for thought--both technical and philosophical.

I've recommended Sci Phi Journal before, and not just because they publish me. The reason I submitted my story to them in the first place is because they're a much needed platform for stories that entertain while holding to high standards of speculative thought. I encourage you to give them your support--not because they deserve it, but because you'll get top shelf entertainment and a rigorous mental workout.

Thanks for indulging me, and happy Christmas!


Servile Art vs. Liberal Art

First, I want to thank Daddy Warpig, Remi, and Dorrinal from Geek Gab. They made co-hosting the show one of the most entertaining and rewarding experiences of my fledgling literary career. My hat's off to their listeners for keeping me on my toes with thought-provoking questions.

On to the main topic. I joined a conversation over at John C. Wright's blog about how to adequately pay writers (which is, as you'd imagine, a subject of great interest to me).

Taking a page from Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper, I argued that the value of writing is beyond material compensation.

I was somewhat surprised that other commenters found this claim controversial. On further reflection, my failure to clearly distinguish my position from that of groups like Authors United (who argued incoherently that books aren't consumer goods), probably didn't help the audience's disposition.

To start again on the right foot, I agree that books are commodities subject to market forces. An equally vital observation is that writers don't produce books; publishers do. (Some may object: "What about self-published writers?" Note the dual job description. When an indie writer writes, he's a writer. When he publishes what he wrote, he's a publisher.).

So the question at hand is, what's the writing itself--the creative act--worth? As usual, Aristotle points the way to an answer. He distinguished between work done in service to something else--the servile arts, and activities performed for their own sake--the liberal arts.

Since servile work is all about utility, it's pretty straightforward to appraise the results and compensate the worker accordingly. (If I produce a pair of shoes, my compensation should be based on the fair market price of shoes.)

But dispensing a just reward for art performed as its own end gets tricky. Oscar Wilde declared that art is useless. A Modernist filtering that statement through his utilitarian bias would conclude that art is therefore worthless. In fact, he'd have it backwards. There's a good reason that wage slaves live for the weekend, and that industry keeps churning out labor-saving devices.

In the words of philosopher Peter Gibbons:

Everything that makes life worth living comes directly from intellectual and contemplative pursuits--activities performed during leisure time. The vast majority of people need to work to finance their free time, but the means used to attain something derive their value from the desired ends. Therefore the servile arts are subordinate to the liberal arts.

If the intellectual pursuits responsible for art, culture, and the things that make human life, well, human exceed the value of servile work, how can we adequately compensate the dreamers and music makers?

We can't.

As a product of the intellect, art is informed by a spiritual principle. Since no material reward can match the value of a spiritual good, applying the shoe standard above results in a false analogy.

Not even trying to reward artists for their art is a manifestly unjust and culturally suicidal non-option. The only thing for it is to embrace the tension and do the best we can. Casting off our grey materialist shackles and acknowledging the invaluable worth of art will sweeten whatever we as consumers can offer artists, even if it's only a widow's mite.

Not convinced? Consider the art of a society based on the idea that men are defined by work:

And the art of a society informed by the belief that men are defined by reason and free will:

I'm content--grateful, even--for my IPs to be rewarded according to the market value of the media they appear in. I'd gladly write for free (in fact, I spent the last several years doing just that). I've done my job if my stories entertain someone; not necessarily if he's gracious enough to toss a dime in my hat (though I won't spurn his generosity).

This post shouldn't be read as a program to increase royalties or justify government regulation. It's a plea for artists and patrons of the arts to ask big questions. What makes life worthwhile (insert obligatory Conan quote)? Do people live to work or work to live? Is the worth of work (and the man who performs it) based solely on the monetary value of what's produced?

Human beings are free, rational beings. It follows that the more intellectually informed and freely performed a deed is, the better it exemplifies human nature, and the greater its worth in human terms. Note that there's a matter of degree here. All work done by humans is at least partially informed by reason and performed with free will.

So it isn't just artists whose work is invaluable. To some extent, it's everybody's.


Geek Gab

I'm scheduled to appear on the Geek Gab podcast hosted by the geektastic Daddy Warpig!

In case you don't know (for shame!), Geek Gab is an internet radio show hosted by the Alpha Geek himself, Daddy Warpig. The show's format is simple. Our gracious host discusses games, movies, comics (anything and everything in geek culture) with a select panel of guests. We'll also be taking live questions from the Twitter and chat room audiences, so if you've got any burning questions for me, don't hesitate to ask.

Geek Gab airs on YouTube Sunday nights from 7PM-8PM Eastern. I'll be joining the festivities on December 28. Hope to hear from you!

Update: my Geek Gab appearance has been moved up to Sunday, December 21st at 7PM EST.


We Don't Need No Education

I've come across a number of articles by professional authors that deal in part with how much, if any, formal education is required to write professionally. (Specifically, should aspiring authors take creative writing classes, pursue English degrees, attend writers' workshops, etc.?)

The consensus seems to be: "Get educated enough to know proper grammar; then ditch academia and learn the rest by writing."

This advice contradicts the message touted by the host of elders, media figures, and educators charged with guiding me during my formative years. I've always believed that their efforts were well-meant. I've since learned that they were wrong and my more experienced colleagues are right.

Like most writers, I displayed a love of reading from a young age. I produced my first crude short stories in grade school. By the time I started high school, the idea had dawned on me that I might pursue writing as a career.

My enthusiasm began to fade as I slogged through the advanced English curriculum. The creative writing class I elected to take smothered the feeble remnants of my aspirations.

I bet this sounds familiar: being forced to read dreary novels like The Scarlet Letter and The Catcher in the Rye by teachers who worship "literary" fiction and scoff at speculative fiction. That kind of environment was pretty disheartening to a kid who was then devouring the original series of Dune novels. The unstated yet clear message was that sci-fi and fantasy were for childish philistines.

Though I tried to like the literature my creative writing teacher foisted on me, it never did take. So I eventually gave up on the assigned reading, regurgitated the requisite number of interpretive short stories, and coasted by with a B minus, certain that writing was the last thing I wanted to do for a living.

By popular demand, the teacher did say we could write one spec fic story at the end of the semester, but he got behind schedule and rescinded the promise. It's a shame too, because one guy in my class was really good. He'd led the revolt against the interpretive fiction monopoly, and he kept working fantastic and sci-fi elements into his stories through the cunning and brilliant use of surrealism, schizophrenic narrators, etc. Before the class ended, he broke down and submitted a full-on high fantasy short.

I should've followed my classmate's example. Instead I muddled along under the false belief that speculative fiction is somehow less worthy than "real literature". But despite my teachers' best efforts, it turns out I'm a writer. Sometimes I wished I weren't, but I finally accepted that there's nothing I can do about it. I also accepted that I write science fiction and fantasy; not nihilistic "realist" claptrap about vapid twits coming to terms with their disillusionment.

How much education does a writer need? I learned 99% of the grammar and spelling that I still use by eighth grade. If not for high school English and creative writing, I'd probably be ten years further along in my writing career than I am now.

Once again, Pink Floyd shows us the way.