The Way of the Word

28. June 2010

Are You a Reader or a Consumer?

I know people who take four books with them when they go on a two-week vacation.

I know people who boast that they have more than 20 books on their to-read shelf.

I know people who think that one of the most convenient features of e-readers is that you can read faster, because you no longer have to waste time turning pages.

When I travel, I take one book (or perhaps two short ones) to read on the bus or train or plane. Because when I travel, I have other things to do with my time. If I want to spend my vacation reading, I don’t need to do anywhere. I can save that money.

I currently have 18 books on my to-read shelf. I’m not proud of it. It’s more a testament to my lack of impulse control. I prefer to have fewer books on my to-read shelf, because when I have a lot, I feel pressured into reading faster, to work the pile down. (Note that I use the term “work.”) Also, I tend to be less patient with a book if I have a lot of books I still need to read. It needs to pay off faster, or I’ll put it aside partly read, pick up the next one and don’t look back. (It’s for that reason that I always only check out one book at a time from the library.)

About the speed of reading, I don’t have an e-reader, so I wouldn’t know about that. I don’t really care, though.

The funny thing about the three statements with which I lead in is that I heard them all in the last few days. Just as I put a John Steinbeck novel back on my to-read shelf with the intention to read it later. The reason? Those 18 other books I have mentioned above.  The thing is, the main reason why I read Steinbeck is his writing style. That means I not only need to but actually want to take my time to read his work. To savor it.

I can’t do that if I feel pressured by so many other books that clamor for my attention. Instead, I get some of those out of the way, some books that I can burn through (as I call it) quickly, before turning to something that I want to savor.

Now, I consider myself a passionate reader. It’s my #1 choice for how I spend my spare time. I even admit that there was a time when I always tried to burn through as many books as possible — the “so many books, so little time” approach to reading.

That was back when I was a teenager.

My reading habits have changed since then. In a way, they have matured, and diversified. As a teenager, I wouldn’t have read anything by Gore Vidal, for example (“Gah! Literature! Quick, get me a Star Trek tie-in!”), and I definitely wouldn’t have gone anywhere near a book about graphic design. As my statement about John Steinbeck implies, I no longer read just to read as many books as I can physically manage, but for other reasons. Not just to be entertained, but to enjoy the process of reading, to enjoy the craft of other writers.

In short, I no longer simply consume books.

That seems to make me an endangered species. If you look at the current literary marketplace, everything is geared to get people to read less, and consume more. Everything is driving towards the convenience in the reading experience. Carrying books on vacation is too heavy? Take the e-reader, you can carry a thousand books to read at your holiday destination. You won’t have to bother looking at any sights. Just keep your face glued to the screen. And if you get bored with the books you’ve downloaded, you just delete them and download some more.

(Am I the only one, by the way, who believes that Amazon should offer the Kindle at cost? Because that device is only a tool to generate more turnover for them. Just as book publishers should consider subsidizing other e-readers.)

And if you want the book experience without having to, you know, actually read, you can always get an audiobook. You can listen to it while driving. Instead of, you know, paying attention to what you actually should pay attention to, like driving and traffic and all that dull stuff.

(I’m not as down on audiobooks as that sounds. They aren’t for me — I get more easily distracted from things that I hear than things that I see, so I can be better immersed in reading than being read to. But the convenience factor makes them potentially dangerous. Just like I want drivers to pay attention to traffic instead of their cellphones, I want them to pay attention to traffic instead of an audiobook. If anyone tells me they aren’t paying attention to the audiobook they listen to while driving, then why do they have it on while driving?)

Books are a consumer product. That isn’t new. They have been consumer products at the very least since the introduction of affordable paperback novels. Heck, the pulps were cheap, disposeable consumer literature. The problem is, however, that these conveniences turn everything into cheap and disposeable consumer literature.

What does that mean in practice? More formulaic writing is one consequence. We already see that in bookstores: the shelves are full of books that are all the same. All written to cover the latest hot topic. All written according to the same supposedly proven formula. Mass market fiction, true to its name, becomes less and less original, and increasinly formulaic. The “if you’ve read one, you’ve read them all” syndrome. We’re already there, to a certain extent, and if writers have to write with an eye towards the increasing reader convenience in consuming their product, it will only get more so. At the same time, book consumers will spend less time reading any particular book. They have so many books to read and so little time… So anything that doesn’t deliver right away gets tossed aside for something else.

That’s good news for publishers and for booksellers. Online booksellers, at least. Not so much for writers. Face it, writer: in the brave new world of publishing, it’s increasingly unlikely that people will read your new book all the way through.

People who still read are increasingly becoming consumers. The quick fix, the “so much to read but so little time” approach. The actual reader, who savors the experience, is turning into an endangered species. What you need to decide for yourself is whether or not that is a good thing. If reading becomes a throwaway activity, instead of improving the quality of your life — then the long-term implications aren’t good.

I admit that as a writer, I was never very fond of how the brave new world of writing and publishing has been described by others. Now I’ve reached the point where, even as a reader, I dread what is coming.

23. June 2010

Made of Fail Backstory: The Forest for the Trees

We have a nice scandal here in Hamburg. I’m afraid I can’t find a link in English, so you’ll have to take my word for it — or have this German text translated.

Bascially, the story is this: the Hamburg borough of Wilhelmsburg is going to host the Internationale Gartenschau (IGS) in 2013. That means, of course, that they are going to build an event park in that borough. Theoretically a good thing.

If only…

The problem is that they want to set the park up in a forest. The forest had been created in 1983, from funds that had been freed up when Hamburg did not get to host the IGS. There are 4,500 trees there. The IGS plans to chop down about half of them to build their event park.

Let me repeat: the International Gardening Show plans to cut down over 2,000 trees in a park/forest, in order to build a park.

If that isn’t Made of Fail, I don’t know what is.

18. June 2010

Review: Despicable Me

USA 2010. Directed by Chris Renaud and Pierre Coffin. Voices by Steve Carell, Jason Segel, Miranda Cosgrove, Dana Gaier, Elsie Fisher, Russell Brand, Julie Andrews. Runtime: 95 minutes

Gru is a supervillain. He’s moderately successful at it and enjoys doing wicked little things just to stay in practice. But when someone upstages him by stealing the pyramids, he realizes that he needs to step up his plan for the crime of the century: to steal the moon. Sadly, that won’t work without a shrink ray. Annoyingly, Gru’s most irritating competitor Vector steals said shrink ray from Gru. But Gru discovers Vector’s weak spot: he loves cookies. And his suppliers are the three orphan girls Margo, Edith and Agnes. In order to penetrate Vector’s fortress, Gru adopts the girls – and gets more than he has bargained for. Because now, in addition to preparing the crime of the century, he has to deal with being a father. Which is something for which he isn’t ready. The situation he finds himself in continues to spiral out of his control until he has to decide if he wants to be the world’s greatest supervillain, or a father.

If you go into this movie expecting a new Incredibles, you will be disappointed. Despicable Me is very much a children’s movie, far more so than that animated superhero movie. The main adult characters, Gru and Vector, are still very much childlike in their own ways. And while the rivalry between Gru and Vector is the driving force of the movie, the real heart lies in the developing relationship between Gru and the girls. Children will also love Gru’s Minions. Most of the movie’s humor seems to come directly out of Loony Tunes cartoons. What child will not love the scene where Gru, after Agnes has been cheated out of the fluffy unicorn, vaporizes the offending carnival stall? Let’s face it – haven’t we all wished for a dad who would do that? Or wished to be the kind of dad who could do that? Coolest dad ever, seriously.

Most good animated movies also work on a second level: they entertain the adult as well as the child. Despicable Me delivers on this score. I saw the movie with a completely adult audience, and there was a lot of laughter. For adults, the fun lies in the absurdity of the situations and the designs. It lies in little offhand snarks that a child won’t understand, such as when the Bank of Evil is subtitled “Formerly Lehman Brothers.” It lies in the sympathy the adult audience feels when Gru desperately tries to find funding for his latest scheme, only to be told that he’s too old and too soft. Or the question whether or not Vector’s design is based on a certain software mogul. (If the cookiebots don’t make you laugh, you have no soul.) In some cases, such as Vector’s Loony Tunes defenses, the laughter is nostalgic. But whatever the reason, Despicable Me is a very funny movie even if you’re an adult. And even an adult won’t be too annoyed with the Minions. An adult, however, will definitely wonder where they have seen some of the character designs before.

I saw the 3-D version of the movie. There are a few scenes that were obviously put in to show off “Lookkit us, we’re 3-D!” (like the rollercoaster scene). Generally, however, the 3-D works very well and actually serves to enhance some of the scenes.

In summary: Despicable Me is a fun movie that the entire family can enjoy.

Verdict: Very recommended

13. June 2010

Workblog: Made of Fail – Sales Pitch

Today’s Made of Fail (Sales Pitch) is loosely based on a true story. Yes, really. As bizarre as it seems.

It was inspired by an article in a local daily newspaper. According to that article, a man had written (and apparently self-published, or published through a vanity press) a book with erotic stories. He was deeply in debt and figures that if he could sell 30,000 copies, he would be in the black.

The problem was that nobody was buying his book. Par for the course in self-publishing. So he decided to engage in some promotion.

His idea of promoting his book was to get in touch with the acquisitions dept. of a major German supermarket chain. He told them that unless they bought several thousand copies of his book to sell in their stores, he would inform the press of — honestly, I have forgotten what it was.  It was something utterly trivial that everyone already knows anyway. It was roughly on the level of the threat Craig uses in today’s strip.

Of course he was arrested. That was last year. Early this year, that man was tried in a local court and convicted.

To think that people wonder where I get my ideas…

A word about using S-Mart, which is probably trademarked by Sam Raimi. Yes, that’s the supermarket chain where Ash from the Evil Dead movies works. I used them once in season one, as a sign on a store window that Don walks past, as a little nod to the movies. I like them a lot. When I cast about for a name for the supermarket chain that Craig calls in today’s strip, I decided to use them again. I figure they are used to dealing with all kinds of morons, and I hope Sam Raimi won’t sue me. It’s meant in good fun.

7. June 2010

Workblog: Made of Fail By the Numbers

Filed under: comics,general,Humor,Uncategorized,Webcomics,workblog,writing — jensaltmann @ 09:51

To date, I’ve uploaded five strips. I’ve drawn 18. I’ve scripted 28.

I had just finished an Amy-centric storyarc and was about to script another done-in-one with Amy and Don —

I stopped. I couldn’t use those two. I had just used Amy extensively, and I certainly use Don a lot. So I had to rethink the strip I wanted to do, because the other two (Ben and Craig) certainly deserved at least equal time, didn’t they?

The problem is that I really love to write Don, because he’s such an irredeemable, ignorant, arrogant a$$hole. He’s fun to write. So I’m afraid I tend to overuse him. On the other hand, I have problems finding things for Ben to do, which implies that I probably underuse him.

It made me curious just how often I had used the various characters in season 2. Maybe I’ll do a count for season 1 someday; I was only interested in season 2 because that one’s still in progress.

The results surprised me. It turned out that I use Don and Ben equally (9 strips out of 28, each), and Amy shares equal time with Craig (14 times each).  Mefisto shows up twice (no surprise, he’s usually difficult to fit into anything — but I love drawing him), and season 2 had 10 extras sharing the stage. (One of which I’m thinking of expanding into a semi-regular like Mefisto).

One of the consequences is that I can now be relaxed about giving Don some more facetime.

Who are your favorite Made of Fail characters?

5. June 2010

Made of Fail Changes Hosts

Filed under: comics,general,Uncategorized,Webcomics,workblog — jensaltmann @ 08:47

My webcomic Made of Fail used to be on Webcomics Nation. Today I decided to move it over to a competing service, Drunk Duck. (If you’re a reader, please update your bookmarks.)

There are a couple of reasons for this. One of which is that I’m not too happy with some of the functionalities on the Webcomics Nation site. Mind you, I also have issues with the Drunk Duck site, but for the moment at least I feel better off there. What I will miss on Drunk Duck is the calendar-based archive that Webcomics Nation had. What I missed on Webcomics Nation was a functioning counter.

Eventually, I’ll need to think about launching a Made of Fail website. But so long as my readers number in the low 2 figures, it’s not worth the effort.

2. June 2010

Backstory: Made of Fail – I Quit!

When I do a Made of Fail strip, I try to stay away from politics. There are several reasons for that. One is that what’s important and topical in my country might be totally incomprehensible in yours. Another is that there is simply too much Fail in politics; I would be unable to keep up. The third and most important is that I prefer “personal” fails. They are more universal, and therefore funnier. The neighbors with the noisy sex life? I’m sure everyone can relate.

That said, sometimes I simply can’t resist to use something political/topical for a Made of Fail strip. The airline security fail a few days ago is one such things. The situation made the news all over the world, so I felt everyone would get the joke. There are a few topical Fail strips coming up that I believe I managed to make comprehensible. If not, there’s always this Backstory blog post to explain things.

That said, today’s strip is a topical strip about a very recent event in German politics: on Monday, Germany’s president Horst Köhler resigned from his office. Basically, he said something about war that’s pretty much known by everyone with a brain. Public reaction as, “Don’t diss the troops!” To which his reaction was to step down because, basically, “I don’t get no respect and I don’t need the grief.”

Wow. Talk about classy –not. Rather, talk about a political personal Fail. Which is why I felt the need to interrupt the two-parter I had originally intended to conclude today and bring you a parody of presidency fail.

By the way, due to technical reasons, the above link is a dynamic link. If you’re reading this after Wednesday, June 2, please use the date-select on the webcomic to find today’s strip. Thank you.

I conceived of and produced I Quit within one single evening session. By my standards, that’s fast — I usually need at least two evenings to produce one strip.

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