The art of low expectations

First, a word of explanation after my long absence.

In the past six months, my health has broken down for various periods in various ways, which the McStudge (having requested copies of the relevant reports from my personal tormentor-imp) found most amusing in a small way. Normally he, or it, depending how you look at things, turns up his nose, or its disgusting proboscis-type appendage, at anything less than the damnation of millions and the destruction of nations; but the suffering of an individual, especially if pointless and unedifying, makes a pleasing appetizer or between-meals tidbit. But enough about the McStudge, or I shall be carried off to the suburbs of Gehenna on the resistless wave of a single run-on sentence.

During the spring, my trouble was simple depression for the most part; I could not frame to write anything, and though I started various blog posts with the best of intentions, the impulse always ran out in a general fog of despair and futility before I got anything half finished. Part of the trouble has been that my Beloved Bride lost her job through no fault of her own, her employers having shut down their Calgary office, and then, when she seemed certain to get a new job, that employer went out of business also. The reason for this deserves a short but angry digression.

According to the rules prevailing in Calgary, business properties as a whole are expected to pay a fixed share of the city’s budget every year. For many years the bulk of those taxes were paid by the tenants of expensive downtown offices – oil companies, banks, and the like. Then, thanks largely to the stupidity of higher levels of government, our oil industry collapsed, leaving millions of square feet of empty office space, and nobody to pay the taxes thereon. To compensate, the city raised the tax rate on all the surviving businesses. And when some of those went out of business, it raised the rate again – and again – and again. The average business-tax increase was 32 percent for 2019 alone, and many firms are paying triple what they paid just five years ago. All this culminated in a full-fledged tax revolt earlier this year, but not before thousands of small businesses had gone to the wall, my B. B.’s old and new employers both among them.

Wurst restaurant in Calgary, with sign: ‘PROPERTY TAXES – 2014, $74K – 2019, $208K’

An example of The System at work. (My Beloved Bride was not employed here.)

To the best of my knowledge, this method of setting taxes was last used in the late Roman Empire, and played a considerable share in causing the fall of Rome. Each town and district in a province was set a fixed tribute, to be collected from whoever had the ability to pay. In the declining days of the empire, it sometimes happened that one citizen had to pay the entire tribute due from his town! Some Romans escaped this ruinous system by fleeing right out of the empire. Millions more stayed put, but when the Goths and Vandals invaded, they did nothing to defend themselves; they would rather be ruled by barbarian kings than Roman tax-collectors. Calgary has not had a barbarian invasion – yet – but a lot of business owners have been fleeing from the city, and we now have the highest unemployment rate of any major city in Canada.

All this takes a toll on one’s health, mental and physical, and my Beloved Bride has had a hard time of it. I have done what I could to help, or at any rate, what I knew how; but it left my mind in no condition to write anything. After months of this grief, we took a holiday to save our sanity. We spent most of a week in Penticton, B.C., among lakes and beaches and orchards and vineyards; also among Elvis impersonators, who were having a festival there at the time. We came back rested in body and refreshed in spirit, and I promptly caught pneumonia. My doctors prescribed antibiotics, which caused my gout to flare up. They then prescribed prednisone for the gout, which caused me to become narcoleptic – I generally passed out two or three hours after taking my morning dose. There was nothing they could do for the prednisone, except wean me off it slowly – it is dangerous to stop taking that drug suddenly. These things cost me the whole month of July and half of August. I stopped taking prednisone last Monday, and today was the first day I felt well enough to write.

So now you know where I have been, and why.

One of my many unfinished tasks is to draw some maps for the Magnificent Octopus, and the Orchard of Dis-Pear, and various other works in process. I have scribbles and scrawls and scraps, but nothing suitable for reproduction; and as Tolkien observed long ago, if your story contains any substantial amounts of travel, you have got to start with a map and then write the story to fit it – it won’t work the other way round.

I should like to post my revised and cleaned-up maps here, as I get them done; but I have a shyness about it. Just now, thanks to the gaming industry, the world is flooded with pretty-pretty fantasy maps, ‘painterly’ in quality, rich in saturated colours and quasi-pictorial renderings of terrain, and often very poor in the actual information that one wants to get out of a map – visually impressive, but not particularly legible. (George R. R. Martin set a deplorable fashion, by the way, when he published his maps of ‘Westeros’ without any scale, and then wrote about 5,000 pages of turgid text without ever mentioning how many miles it was from hither to yon, or how many days it took to get there. This is inexcusably lazy; but that is a rant for another time.)

Anyway, my own maps are not pretty or painterly, and I don’t generally work in colour, and I am rather afraid that my 3.6 Loyal Readers (if you are still there and still reading) will give them a resounding raspberry. So I am going to start off with a map by a Famous Name, the worst piece of work I could find. Then your expectations will be duly tempered, and I shall have nowhere to go but up.

In 1870, at the height of the Franco-Prussian War, every newspaper in the world was full of breathless reports about the Prussian invasion of France and the siege of Paris. The immortal Mark Twain contributed his own unique burlesque angle to the story, by hand-engraving a ‘Map of the Fortifications of Paris’ for the public to follow the proceedings by. The map was published in his own Buffalo Express (and other papers) with glowing ‘blurbs’ and reviews, written, of course, by Twain himself. Some of the blurbs:

I have seen a great many maps in my time, but none that this one reminds me of.

It is but fair to say that in some respects it is a truly remarkable map.

I said to my son Frederick William, “If you could only make a map like that, I would be perfectly willing to see you die – even anxious.”

And my personal favourite:

My wife was for years afflicted with freckles, and though everything was done for her relief that could be done, all was in vain. But, sir, since her first glance at your map, they have entirely left her. She has nothing but convulsions now.

And here it is, in all its hand-gouged glory, Mark Twain’s map:

I hope to do better than this. God have mercy on my soul if I do worse.

On political correctness

Morals consist of political morals, commercial morals, ecclesiastical morals, and morals.

—Mark Twain


Here I am not trying to deal with the familiar claim that freedom is an illusion, or with the claim that there is more freedom in totalitarian countries than in democratic ones, but with the much more tenable and dangerous proposition that freedom is undesirable and that intellectual honesty is a form of anti-social selfishness. Although other aspects of the question are usually in the foreground, the controversy over freedom of speech and of the press is at bottom a controversy of the desirability, or otherwise, of telling lies. What is really at issue is the right to report contemporary events truthfully, or as truthfully as is consistent with the ignorance, bias and self-deception from which every observer necessarily suffers.…

The enemies of intellectual liberty always try to present their case as a plea for discipline versus individualism. The issue truth-versus-untruth is as far as possible kept in the background. Although the point of emphasis may vary, the writer who refuses to sell his opinions is always branded as a mere egoist. He is accused, that is, of either wanting to shut himself up in an ivory tower, or of making an exhibitionist display of his own personality, or of resisting the inevitable current of history in an attempt to cling to unjustified privilege.

—George Orwell, ‘The Prevention of Literature

The term ‘political correctness’, which began (and justly so) as a term of abuse, has been embraced by a legion of liars as a justification for their lies; and it has been made so fashionable that nowadays, in most polite circles, it is considered an insult to accuse someone of not being politically correct.

The usual excuse made for this is that political correctness is about not offending people’s feelings unnecessarily; that anyone who opposes it must therefore want to be offensive, and that, you know, is a Very Bad Thing. This characterization of the issue is one of the Big Lies of our time, as a variation of it was in Orwell’s time. The real issue, now as then, is about the desirability, or otherwise, of telling lies.

If Joe Bloggs wishes to say that two and two are four, or that Paris is the capital of France, or to make any other straightforward and uncontroversial statement of fact, he is working on a level where political correctness does not even come into question. What he says is correct, without any modifiers, or else it is in error. The moment you add a modifier to that adjective, you are moving away from the primary issue of truth vs. falsehood, and into secondary matters which may be in plain conflict with it. [Read more…]

M. T. on ©

Only one thing is impossible for God: To find any sense in any copyright law on the planet.

—Mark Twain

I reply:

Mr. S. L. Clemens believed that copyright ought to be perpetual, and that it required uncommon stupidity to think otherwise. He liked to say, in tones of surprise and personal affront, that every other kind of property was eternal, but copyright alone was confiscated by the government at an arbitrary date.

Which ignored the fact that patents are also ‘confiscated’ after shorter terms than copyrights.

And the fact that real estate is liable to confiscation after a term as short as one year, if you fail to pay your property taxes; and likewise with mines. [Read more…]

Publishers and pies

Self-styled publishing industry pundit Michael Kozlowski, whose foolishness is exceeded only by his bad manners, had this nugget of conventional wisdom to offer in the comment box of an article on The Passive Voice:

Indie authors are for the most part very lazy. They spam out e-books without any regard for quality and think quantity is better. I have noticed over the years that if you mention the e-book industry declining they will always say “its [sic] because we don’t want/need an ISBN” and then they will defend the indie movement.

If indie authors really wanted to be taken seriously they would buy cheap ISBN numbers and be counted. But that takes a few hours worth of work, something they aren’t willing to do.

Indie authors for the most part are lazy, incompetent and have no regard for the self-publishing movement.

I found that I could not let this go unchallenged. My reply follows:

OK, Kozlowski. I wasn’t going to waste my time commenting on your drivel at its original location, because I have a pretty strong suspicion that disapproving comments are ‘curated’ out of existence. But you’re here, so I’ll have a bash.

We ‘indie’ authors are so God-rotted lazy that we actually start our own publishing businesses. We not only write the books; we hire editors and copyeditors, commission cover art, arrange for wholesale and retail distribution, handle our own promotion and PR, and not only that, we, unlike you, actually engage with our end customers, the readers – a section of the food chain that your part of the business is still barely aware of and never listens to. And we do all this on our own time and our own dime, without anybody paying us an advance. [Read more…]

Told by an idiot, No. 6

The self-publishing industry has allowed anyone with a computer and a small amount of money to call themselves authors. Not long ago, I read a fascinating article in the New York Times (unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find it when I did an Internet search) that questioned whether self-published authors should be called published authors. Rather, the article suggests, they are book writers who have their books printed. There is, I believe, a significant difference between authors published by traditional houses and self-published books in that the latter lack the processes that we can count on to ensure a minimal level of quality, both of content and style.

—Dr. Jim Taylor, ‘Are Self-published Authors Really Authors or Even Published?’

How glad I am that a sane, sensible, and official person has weighed in on this important issue. It is manifestly obvious that a self-published author is no author at all, and that a self-published book is not published. And since a book must have an author, it is surely evident that a self-published book is not even a book. What it is, I cannot say: a new variety of spam, likely.
[Read more…]

Characterization by M. T.

I called upon Dr. Ellis with the air of a man who would create the impression that he is not so much of an ass as he looks.

—Mark Twain, ‘Letter from Steamboat Springs’ (1863)

Why are dragons afraid of Americans?

The chief business of an essayist — I speak here of the kind of essayist that I occasionally manage to be, and that better men than I are sometimes reduced to when not at their best — is to tilt at windmills. The second greatest delight such an essayist can know is to tilt at a windmill, in the full knowledge and expectation that it is really a windmill, and that he shall end by making a quixotic fool of himself, and discover in the heat of combat that it is only a giant after all. [Read more…]

Reject yourself! (Mark Twain on quality control)

There are at least two schools of thought about editing and revision in self-publishing.

One (exemplified, perhaps, by Dean Wesley Smith) says that you should write as much content as you can and publish it as soon as it’s done. This results, I suspect, from taking Heinlein’s Rules far too seriously. Folks, they’re not the Gospel according to St. Robert; they’re one man’s opinion, and a very unusual man he was. ‘You must refrain from rewriting except to editorial order’ is fatal advice for a self-published writer, because, in the nature of things, that editorial order will never come. (It did Heinlein great harm, too, in his later years, when his editors stopped trying to argue with him.)

The second school of thought, which I have seen well expressed by Joel Friedlander, is that you ought to take every bit as much care with editing and revision as if you were a conscientious publisher printing someone else’s work. [Read more…]

Mark Twain on publishers

This is possibly my favourite bit out of Mark Twain’s autobiography. He was advising Ulysses S. Grant not to publish his memoirs on a royalty basis, but to enter into a contract with a subscription publisher:

I pointed out that the contract as it stood had an offensive detail in it which I had never heard of in the ten per cent contract of even the most obscure author — that this contract not only proposed a ten per cent royalty for such a colossus as General Grant, but also had in it a requirement that out of that ten per cent must come some trivial tax for the book’s share of clerk hire, house rent, sweeping out the offices, or some such nonsense as that. I said he ought to have three-fourths of the profits and let the publisher pay running expenses out of his remaining fourth.

The idea distressed General Grant. He thought it placed him in the attitude of a robber — robber of a publisher. I said that if he regarded that as a crime it was because his education was limited. I said it was not a crime and was always rewarded in heaven with two halos. Would be, if it ever happened.

‘Advice to a Young Actor’, by Mark Twain

YOUNG ACTOR. — This gentleman writes as follows: “I am desperate. Will you tell me how I can possibly please the newspaper critics? I have labored conscientiously to achieve this, ever since I made my début upon the stage, and I have never yet entirely succeeded in a single instance. [Read more…]