Thursday, August 9, 2012

Musing On The Masters

One of the most interesting thing coming out of my Masters studies in creative writing is that I am learning just how... off-centre my expectations were. I figured okay: I'm a working writer. I want to refine my writing, and understand the process a bit better, and I'd like maybe a qualification that might give me some credibility if I want to do more teaching. (Which I probably will, as Jake goes on becoming a better, more sophisticated writer. The schools show no signs of being ready to handle someone who can read far better than most adults, and write narrative fiction with an advanced-adult level grasp of the technical usage of English. Ergo, he's gonna need a bit of outside guidance, and if I'm going to help him, I might as well see if I can find a way to convince the Education Department - or anyone in a similar position - to pay me to handle that kind of thing.)

The more reading I do, however, the more it becomes apparent that University English departments really aren't set up to handle this kind of thing. Look at it this way: if you want to write, you're doing it for an audience. Simple as that. And for most of us, that means we want to be published, and preferably, paid.

Now, every working writer will tell you immediately that if you're going to be published and paid, you have to know the audience you're writing for, you have to know what the marketplace is doing, and it sure as hell helps to know the publishers and the industry too. In other words, the creation of a novel isn't an isolated, writer-alone-in-the-ivory-tower experience, and if you try to treat it that way, you'll probably never get into print. (There's a word for people who write precisely what they like, and expect the audience to magically appear. It's a technical term. In the industry, we call them "wankers".)

I'm not saying you don't create, as a writer. I'm also not saying that you shouldn't write something that you actually enjoy writing. In fact, you pretty much have to enjoy it if it's going to be worth anything. If you hate writing the piece, believe me: your audience will know. The trick is to find a section of the market with which you can enjoyably engage. And so, my buddy Birmo writes explodey books that hover between SF and techno-thriller, and though I've never bothered to ask him, I'm absolutely certain he gets a kick out of doing it.

But the approach taken by English departments, which have been dominated by Literature studies for about a thousand years (You think I'm kidding. You're wrong. The first universities identified as such were founded around the beginning of the second millennium CE. They taught law, rhetoric -- and the study of the classic Greek and Latin literature.) is almost exactly the reverse. You can sum it up with a famous quote from Jacques Derrida: "There is only the text!"

Derrida, of course, is the famous post-modernist/deconstructionist French ur-masterbateur who has bestrode the literary theory scene like some kind of deranged colossus for the last forty years or so. And he has a point. When you're analysing a text, there's not a lot of value, ultimately, in trying to second-guess where it sits in what may be a very foreign cultural context. You'll never know exactly what the writer was thinking. (Even the writer doesn't. That's post-modernism for you!) You'll never know precisely what the work meant to its audience... and if it's old enough, (cave paintings, anyone?) you may know jack shit about the audience for which it was intended. So you study the text.

But that's pretty crippling, in a lot of ways. It's fine for constructing theories and analyses, but it's not much good for creating new work. And, well... isn't that what "creative writing" implies?

There is a very real problem here. It's like a hole in the middle of all the theory and research. Here I am, looking into the way in which Lit Theory of Genre can be used to enhance the production of genre-based fiction... and I'm told that if I want to look at the effects of the publishing industry -- well, that's not English. That's Publishing Studies. Oh, and that powerful community of committed and engaged people who have turned Steampunk from a bunch of books into a huge fan movement with music, costumes, bands, games, movies, conventions, etc? Ummm... no. We don't know what to say about them. If you tell us that they have an influence over the creation of new fiction in the genre... most likely we're probably going to have to cover our ears and go "la la la la la!" VERY VERY LOUDLY until you go away.

My Prof is one of the good guys. He acknowledges and recognises this gap, and he's encouraging me to find ways around it, and to reflect on its effect in my work. But it's getting challenging as hell. It would be nice if I'd just, say, decided to discuss changes in the symbolic meaning of the Catholic Church across Twentieth Century literature, and used that discourse to generate a piece of fiction of the appropriate length which re-constructed that symbolism in a different fashion. That would have been simple.

Also, it would have been fucking boring. So now I'm reading in genre theory, publishing studies, reception theory, and a whole bunch of other shit, and once again, the project is threatening to get Out Of Hand.

Must restrain myself. Do a PhD some other damned time.

A Bit Of Random Cooking

But before that, a whinge.

Why is Google Chrome turning into a piece of shit? I stopped using Firefox because it got big, slow, stoopid, and stopped efficiently loading web pages. I've been using Chrome since not long after it launched.

I didn't get rid of Firefox, though. I've seen all this shit before, and I've long ago learned that having a back-up browser is useful. And sure enough, lately Chrome is starting to suck. It won't handle Yahoo Mail any more, for example. Just... fails to load. Or if it does load, it won't actually do anything. And even this blog -- five minutes of pondering and fucking around, waiting for it to load. I got bored, so I opened up Firefox, hit it with the URL, and bingo: open and ready to work within seconds.

No. It's not the browser history and temporary files. I clear those routinely. Nope. It's simply that times have moved on, and Google Chrome hasn't moved on with them, while Firefox has done so. Guess it's time to switch browsers again, eh?

And now, the cooking.

Bitter cold day today. Snow on the range, rain down here with sleet and hail, and evil, dark winds from the southwest. I wanted something warm for the troops. I figured I'd maybe do some kind of vol-au-vent by way of a change. Unfortunately, there weren't any vol-au-vent cases available, and I didn't really feel like frigging around with a bunch of puff pastry to make them.

So, fuck it. I went to the bakery, bought four nice, big, crusty white rolls. And it went from there.

Two chunks of salmon, no skin. Three ripe avocadoes. A couple of shallots/green onions/whateverthefuck. A handful of fresh basil. Black pepper in quantity. A little salt. A little balsamic vinegar. Some slices of Gouda cheese.

Gently fry the salmon with garlic and a little butter. Don't crisp it up, and don't worry if it's still pink in the middle. It ought to be that way. Add pepper.

Now, chop your shallots into wee slices, and coarsely chop up the fresh basil. Put 'em in a bowl. Halve the avocadoes, and cube them. Dump the avocado flesh into the bowl. Add more pepper, add some salt, and add a couple tablespoons of balsamic vinegar.

Is the salmon more or less cool yet? You don't want to add it to the mixture if it's too hot. Avocado is nicer when it hasn't really been cooked. While you're waiting for the salmon to cool, cut the tops off the rolls, and pull out the bread in the middle, leaving a nice, crusty, bready shell behind. (You can take the bread from the middle and dry it out with the microwave to turn it into breadcrumbs. Or you can eat it. Or you can... I dunno... put it in an envelope and post it to someone at random in the phone book. Why not?)

Now, chop up your salmon into chunks the size of those avocado cubelets. Throw the salmon in with the avocado, basil, etc. Stir it all up, and check the seasoning (vinegar, salt and pepper) for taste. If you're happy, spoon the mixture into the bread rolls to fill them up. Put a slice of Gouda over the top of each, and put them in a hot oven until the Gouda is all melted and bubbly.

For added credit, put the cut-away tops of the bread on the same tray as the rolls while they're in the oven, and when you serve these up, use a big, decorative goddam toothpick to nail those now-crusty lids back onto the rolls, over the top of the cheese.

Rich, tasty, fresh, and full of good nutritious stuff. Serve it with a decent green salad, and a glass of sauvignon blanc.