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An issue, knowledge, David Means and perfunctory prose, AI in writing

Saturday 1/6/24

An issue you have--or I have, or they have, or that exists--is that you have the most real person in the least real business where nothing is real as in legitimate. Compounding that issue is that that person also has the most ability in that business. Compounding that further is that the other people in that business, who require that things be this way for them to have what they do and what they want, all know it. Additionally compounding the problem is that no one is stronger or more principled than that one person. So that creates a situation, doesn't it?

In "Big Bob and Little Bob," Schubert, Quiet Riot, and the Civil War are important aspects of the story which are threaded throughout it. In order for them to be used as they are--deployed so effortlessly--one would need to know a great deal about all three.

It's deep knowledge, but used effectively in a non-burdensome, let's-do-a-lecture way. It comes naturally and is used naturally. And it's not, "Here's a factoid, aren't I impressive," either. Some of what pertains to Schubert has to do with his personality and the gatherings that his friends would have in a kind of celebration of him, but more what he represented to them. So it wasn't this fawning tribute thing. It was a way for people who liked each other to be together and be conscious of how great that was, like they were giving thanks, but without having to say it. It's great when something is understood by all and each person knows it. Then you partake, right? With gratitude.

There's this other sort of motif about Antietam, which was an especially bloody battle even by Civil War standards. The battle could be heard sixty miles away. Big Bob is a Civil War scholar. Each time Antietam (pronounced An-tee-tum, incidentally) comes back in the story, it does so in this different key of meaning. And when we see it the last time, it lays you out. It really does. Because of the progression and what we, the readers, know about this battle, which is done so skillfully that we don't need copious amounts of words. We feel like that knowledge has become our thing. Is our thing. And that just happened somewhere along the way of the story. It's one of those pieces of information that instantly feels personal, that it's this thing that you know now that other people don't. That you want to tell them about.

Now, this is before we get into the whole knowledge about the mysteries of life behind the veil and revealing all of that to readers stuff. Which no one is going to know and be able to show. What I'm saying, though, is that people who write know nothing about anything. They don't know about architecture or jazz or painting or kinds of fish or solar systems or sports or whatever it might be. These are all things you can use. If you know them. What do they know? Their navels, but not even in some accurate, honest way. They know about being in an MFA program. What do they read? Shitty writers that they were told to read by other shitty writers and what their cronies in their subculture read. It's just the same shit. They don't even read interestingly with fiction. I can guarantee you that none of these people would read something like To Walk the Night, unless they learned about it from me in these pages. I have everything at my disposal. My fingertips. Ready to go in service of my art, if it's warranted. What do you think these people know? If you're one of these people, next time you're reading whatever by one of your fellow whatevers, keep an eye open for anything that is not about writing, being a writer. For any reference to anything that's not some other book or story. When do you ever see it? Let alone with command and authority? Naturalness. Ease. You practically never do.

I just listened to the first thirty seconds of David Means reading a short story of his called "Two Nurses, Smoking," from The New Yorker on their site. I was curious. It's bad. The story is predictable, devoid of life. It's very obvious when someone doesn't have a lot to work with and they're trying to stretch what little they do have right from the start--stretch it into something bigger than what's there. I wanted to hear what its author reading it sounded like, though. It sounds like someone working with nothing but trying to make it come across as deep by going so s...l...o...w...l...y.

It's just so boring. You wouldn't hold anyone's attention with this. You'd put them to sleep if only they weren't annoyed. These writers are always trying to compensate in some form or other for what they are not and what they don't have. You're barely into the story at all, too, and this guy has a nurse digging her toe into the concrete. It's not wet concrete. She's digging her toe into it, though? That means penetrating the surface. If you put a toe or a finger against something so that the toe or finger bends or is pressed back--which is what I assume he means--you're not digging into it. To dig into something means you've penetrated a surface or at least altered it by pushing it down, but that second one is still off unless you do something else by way of qualifier, however subtle.

Words mean things. This is just basic. Remember when I talked about taking a reader out of a story? This is taking them out. You're making them stop and go, "Wait..." He doesn't know this. Editors at The New Yorker don't know this. Why is this in there? Why wasn't it addressed and fixed? Can you not tell? Do you not know what the words mean? Are you not operating with care?

And these two nurses are just standing there, on a smoke break, and we're told that if you were driving by--driving by!--in what would have to be your car--unless we're talking a golf cart--and you paid close attention, you could read some deeper meaning here about their relationship from their body language. As you're driving by? So I'm bored, there's nothing here anyway, and on top of that, you've taken me out of the story twice in the first few lines. And if I paid close attention driving past? It doesn't work that way. To say "paid close attention" means there's a time component, unless it's something like a magician doing a magic trick in a flash, who is essentially challenging us to try and figure out how he does it. You can pay close attention to what is outside of the car driving down a road, but you can't pay close attention to a single tree on that road, because you pass it in less than a second. You wouldn't say to someone in the passenger seat, "Pay close attention to that tree," as you drove, but rather, "Look closely at that tree." They're different. This is how words work.

How bad do you need to suck at writing? is what I end up thinking when I read this by David Means, or have it read to me.

David Means is a replacement-level writer doing replacement-level writing (who of course was going to be given a Guggenheim because, again, that's how it works, and there's nothing real here).

Do you know why he's doing the present tense? Because there's no life in this story. You know that right away. He's trying to give it the illusion of life with the present tense. So that it's not this dead, still-born thing, which is what it is. He's covering up. Arranging deck chairs. Because he doesn't have enough of them. He's not working with enough.

Let's further consider the opening of that story, okay? If you took AI, and said, "Hey, computer, I want a scene with nurses, that's meant to be deep and has description which is supposed to be all symbolic, can you do that for me?" the computer would spit out something like this, but without the aforementioned fuck-ups.

Because it's token, right? Perfunctory prose. It's a beginner's idea of what writing is, what a story should sound like. I don't care about what his age is or the awards he's been given. We know why all of that happens. Or anyone who reads these pages does. This is novice writing. There's no progression into an art. It's all outside of the art--gesturing in an art's direction. But it's isolated from it. Separate. He's made no advance in that art.


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