Thursday, April 14, 2005

Attack of the Rubber Tomatoes, or Why Dan Brown Sucks

It's a bestseller and... is truly awful writing. I'm talking about The Da Vinci Code, of course. From the very first sentence, one knows one is in for an excruciating plodding experience. I decided to take a look after seeing it mentioned as a favorite book in umpteen personal ads, and a neighbor had a copy to lend.

I found this excellent analysis/review in a blog:

Language Log - "The Dan Brown code"

Now, I love good pulp fiction and lightweight movies and TV and cheesy pop songs, etc, but despite their lack of life-changing substance, they are at least built around good craft. This sentence from the review sums ups my sentiments about this awful book exactly:

"...he writes like the kind of freshman student who makes you want to give up the whole idea of teaching. Never mind the ridiculous plot and the stupid anagrams and puzzle clues as the book proceeds, this is a terrible, terrible example of the thriller-writer's craft."

w3rd. I have no problem with the ideas presented in the book...they probably would have made an interesting article, or an hour on the History Channel. It's the bad writing that I find astounding. Like I said, I love good trash. This is bad trash.

What I find is the most important about books and getting people to read, is that it promotes discussion and the exchange of ideas. Sometimes, after reading such books, I personally find myself searching deeper into the topic, finding differing opinions etc. but that is just me.

Good point. It's one aspect on which to judge the value (if not the craft) of entertainment. I also understand that some take guilty pleasure in Brown's "attack" on the Roman Catholic Church establishment. Not being Catholic, let alone Christian, this is not part of the Da Vinci Code experience for me. Even if it were, Brown's craft is so execrable as to dominate any possible virtues. Delivery matters. When bad actors mangle Shakespeare, the excellence of the content is obliterated. Or, to put it more viscerally, it is difficult to enjoy the smell of chocolate when someone is farting in the room.

But dont lock some of us in with idiots if we liked the book, BB, it doesnt matter if you have an intectual mind or no, everyone has their own preference for books that take them away for a moment.

Of course. I'm sure some would find my own taste in trash questionable. But there are measurable qualities of why some writing is particularly bad (one would think this counts for something, as we profess to care so much that our children learn to write well). People may eat and enjoy crap chocolate like a Hershey bar, but there are reasons that a Lindt bar is measurably better. Still, Hershey's may do as well as any other for some.

The review I linked to is excellent precisely because it examines exactly how Brown's writing is bad, sentence by sentence, the choices which the author made, and alternatives that are better. You can catch a fish by understanding their feeding behavior and tricking them into getting hooked. Or you can drop a stick of dynamite in the water. Both will get you fish. I find the thoughtful method far more interesting.

The Bridges of Madison County
Yes, another awful one... that one I looked at its first page in a bookstore and instantly put it back on the shelf.

Another popular writer, Anne Rice...
Actually, I liked her first 2 or 3 in the vampire series...what I consider an example of good pulp. As opposed to Dan Brown, Ms Rice actually creates convincing and intriguing characters, and her whole development of the vampire themes (which are really human themes) is fascinating.

Although I agree that there are better companies that make Chocolate, Please cut Hershey's some slack okay...Milton Hershey was a philanthropist and if I remember made through Hershey Foods goes to support Milton Hershey School for disadvantage kids. So although, there is companies out there that make better chocolate, there is more than one reason to buy from Hershey Foods.

Hershey's has also kept a whole community in jobs. If you have ever visited the area you will know just how important that company is to all those people who work and make their living in that town not just at the factory but also at the tourism that has been built around there. So just by calling the chocolate "crap" you demean it for all those people who have jobs because of the existance of that company...

C'mon, dissin' a product is different than dissin' everyone who ever was in some way associated with that product. Hershey, whatever redeeming qualities they may have (and I'll pass for now on all the hidden unfounded political assumptions in your comment), makes cheap low quality junk food. People buy junk food, that's why they are in business. I will eat peanut M&Ms in a pinch, and they are crap too, doesn't mean that I'm crap. Calling Hershey's chocolate is like calling Taster's Choice coffee or Jack in the Box great dining. It's crap, but there's a market for crap.

What is troubling to me about this string of conversation is this: why label as crap that which someone else enjoys? It implies that the other person has inferior tastes in chocolate and literature. It spoils another person's joy and pleasure without enhancing yours in any way, that I can see. And further, BB isn't saying this is merely his opinion, he's saying it's a fact: Hershey's is crap. Ya don't like the stuff, don't eat it.

Ah, which brings us to the discussion:

Why be critical of anything?

First off, I am sorry if anyone takes personal offense from my opinions, I don't intend to be unkind (except perhaps to Dan Brown). The question one has to ask is if there is any point in EVER judging quality and setting standards. I'm of the opinion there is; it's ridiculous to say all things are equal, as long as someone likes it or has some use for it. To say that there are no qualitative differences is to reduce everything to mediocrity; it diminishes our capacity for striving for improvement, and in fact leads us to accept mediocrity. The more mediocrity is allowed to become the norm, the less people even know that there is anything different possible.

Take mass produced produce, for instance, such as the tomato. C'mon, 95% of tomatoes that end up on store shelves have little if any flavor. The quality they excel at is that they are easily mass produced. The fact is they taste like *crap*. If a person never knows what a real tomato tastes like, they will assume that is how tomatoes taste. They may decide that they simply don't like tomatoes, or that crappy-tasting tomatoes taste good.

What some may take exception to is my polarizing into "good and bad." That is a justifiable point; as I often argue, the world is a continuum, things are of many shades, never just black and white. However, one can make assessments based on the dominant qualities one cares about, and decide if something mostly fails or mostly succeeds. To take the tomato above, it succeeds well on its ability to be brought to market, it fails miserably on its complexity of flavor and sugar content. If one thinks the dominant quality to evaluate is mass production, then it is a GREAT tomato. If one thinks the most important quality to evaluate is taste, then it is CRAP.

Some things have more than one quality that is important to consider, and on some things, there is much less consensus on just what to consider important qualities. For instance, the sports car enthusiast values performance over comfort, and road noise may not factor at all into what they consider a high quality car, whereas someone who values comfort will give road noise a high priority. However, they probably would agree that a car that needs a major part replaced after 5000 miles is crap.

There are, for instance, good and bad:

  1. Governments
  2. Sex
  3. Environments
  4. Relationships
  5. Acting
  6. Singing
  7. Athletes
  8. Etc.

While we may differ on what makes up our judgement about the above list, the fact is that we DO judge, and we'd all rather have what we consider good than what we consider bad. It is ridiculous to say one shouldn't make critical judgements, that it's ALL good.

In this thread, I have made my evaluation of the book based on qualities I consider important, not simply on whether it provides some mindless pleasure (it doesn't for me, but I certainly understand that it succeeds on that level for others). Among those qualities are:

  1. use of language (hopefully pleasurable, but at least not painful and difficult)
  2. development of believable rich characters
  3. plausible plot (at least one where the holes don't take one out of the immediate enjoyment of the story)

The review I linked to is specific about how Brown fails on these counts. I will cut writers slack if they fail in one area, but really deliver in another. What I am doing then is considering the whole, deciding which qualities are most important in this particular case. I've read some pulp where the use of language is very pedestrian (but at least not painful), but the author's ideas, plots, and/or characters are very satisfying. The problem with The Da Vinci Code is that it really fails miserably all around, except in serving as a vehicle to exposit some ideas and facts about the history of the Catholic Church, secret societies, etc. But:
  1. the language is crap
  2. the characters are crap
  3. the plot is crap
For some, these factors may not impede their enjoyment of the book; it still entertains them enough to be worth the time and the cover price. Regardless of their enjoyment, these qualities CAN be evaluated and critically compared, and we CAN recognize the difference between mediocrity and excellence. It's not that there shouldn't be junk food and junk entertainment, but let's recognize exactly where it succeeds and where it fails. If we fail to be critical, then we slide ever more towards accepting mediocrity as excellence; we simply will fail to recognize and cultivate excellence; everything will become a rubber tomato.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Comparison Voodoo - Excelling in a Field of One

One of those annoying feel-good nationalistic phrases one always hears:

"America is the *best* country in the world!"

The truth is, the people spouting such nonsense don't have a clue what they are talking about. What they are really saying is "I need to feel a sense of superiority!" Rather a defensive attitude, dontcha think?

But to get back to the actual words they use, "best" is a comparative; you can't be best at something without comparing yourself to someone else. So, to be a real argument, two things must be in place:

  1. There must be a field of candidates to compare
  2. The must be a standard of comparison, so that we have a means to evaluate the candidates and rank them against each other
If you look at the reasoning behind such nonsensical statements (actually, there is no reasoning there, but for the moment, let's assume there is), the field of candidates is, in effect, a field of one, with a few patsies thrown in to take the fall. To display their hidden "logic":

"America is the *best* country in the world!
(which consists of America, North Korea, Rwanda, and Egypt)"

These people have never done a true comparison with, well, comparable countries: the other industrialized democracies in the world. Now, there is nothing preventing them from doing so, and perhaps coming to a legitimate conclusion that the United States is indeed the best, based on some standards they choose. But their agenda, as I stated above, isn't really to do a critical comparison, in order to, for instance, see if there is something we might learn to improve our quality of life. They simply are grasping at a way to feel good. Understandable, yes, but such needy self-congratulation obscures realistic self-reflection, and is ultimately an obstacle to tackling our very real problems.

What follows is a post I wrote in a public forum in response to one such presumption of superiority:

- - - - -

Poster: But I stand by my opinion that ours is as good as it gets.

I'm asking, on what do you base your opinion, other than:

  1. it works for you
  2. our system is better than, say, North Korea, Rwanda, or Egypt?
Have you considered, in forming your opinion that "the one-of-a-kind democracy that we enjoy here in the United States is an ideal combination of socialism and capitalism," countries such as:

  1. Australia
  2. Canada
  3. England
  4. Belgium
  5. The Netherlands
  6. Denmark
  7. Sweden
  8. Norway
  9. Germany
  10. Switzerland

Do you think our current winner-take-all 2-party electoral systems are better or more democratic (perhaps defined as better representation of the views of the electorate, and a more diverse political dialogue) than the systems in these countries such as proportional representation and ranked choice voting?

Do you think our shielding of the president from any real questioning and debate is superior democracy to the weekly question session the British Prime Minister must put in before the House of Commons?

Do you think our non-guaranteed vacation of any kind is better than 6-8 weeks of guaranteed paid vacation?

Do you think our superior levels of violence, incarceration, and state murder (death penalty) are indicative that our society is a superior blend of socialism and capitalism?

When I hear people voice opinions such as yours, I'm curious as to the basis of those opinions, as they don't seem to be born out by any facts.

Another thing to consider is the formation of our democracy. Certainly it was a great step forward, and superior to the British system it came out of (though not perhaps superior to the systems of the many more indigenous people's systems that existed at that time). However, it included slavery, excluded women, and was hardly democratic. It reflected the culture of the time, which you would agree is far more ignorant than we are now. Though the United States led the way, consider the fact that all other democracies have been formed since that time, and 1) have been able to learn from the mistakes of other democracies and, 2) were formed closer to modernity, and thus should be increasingly a better adaptation to modern society (not always the case, as we can see with the Weimar Republic). Though our system has changed, that growth has not always been healthy (the growth of the institution of the corporation, for instance) and it is a slow process to break away from old institutions. Certainly one has to ask if more recently formed democracies are better adapted to modern society and thought than ours.

Though I understand the desire of people to "feel good" about their countries and cultures, I think that becomes a problem when that need is assumed to be the equivalent of critical self-examination. It is possible to both feel good while being critical, something I know from my own collaborative experiences in the arts. I wish we, as a nation, would learn how to do so.