The purpose of art is to delight us; certain men and women (no smarter than you or I) whose art can delight us have been given dispensation from going out and fetching water and carrying wood. It's no more elaborate than that. — David Mamet

by John Buchan

A collection of club stories by the author of Greenmantle and The 39 Steps. Lots of familiar material in Buchan is familiar because he wrote it first and then everyone re-used the story material; even when you know where things are headed, these genial stories are good fun.

I read them because I want to understand framing stories. You’d think that frames would make stories less exciting; for example, you know that Marlow survives his adventure in the Heart Of Darkness because here he is, on the deck of a yawl becalmed in the Thames, spinning yarns for the Director and the corporate Attorney. Yet Conrad’s story certainly moves. So do Sherlock Holmes’s Adventures, and they’re pretty thoroughly framed as well.

Buchan has a knack for letting the characters who told previous stories offer remarks and advice to those who come later. Again, that’s a trick you wouldn’t expect to work. It does.

Published in 1928, this is also a memoir of the very last moment when London could view itself as the absolute center of the modern world, a place where the good fellows at the club were only resting from labors that might include leading a regiment, spending years behind enemy lines, negotiating a treaty, writing a new edition of Quintillian, or becoming a revolutionary Muslim prophet.

I’m working on a big set piece about Narrative Automata for ACM Hypertext next month in Prague. In practice, I’m writing a small book about narrativist games, storytelling entertainments, hyperdrama, and recent hypertext narratives.

I’ve got a few queries for my colleagues.

  • Is there any academic review or survey of narrativist games?
  • Has any critic other than Emily Short looked at Iain Pears’ Arcadia as a hypertext, or with an awareness of the history of electronic literature?
  • Same question for Joanna Walsh’s Seed, with the further question of whether Seed should be read as a response to Arcadia?
  • If you’re interested in narrativist games, what games would you want to find in the bibliography?

Travel and food tips for Prague are also most welcome! Want to meet up? Email me.

Here’s the abstract:

Festival of Narrative Automata

CRITICAL THEORY FOR FUN

Hypertext research has been deeply interested a narrative, and literary hypertext fiction has enjoyed a long and happy relationship to this conference. The literature of Critical Theory, on the other hand, is famously opaque, and our Balkanized technical literature on new media storytelling has grown provincial.

Daring yet accessible experiments in non-sequential interactive narrative have appeared in unexpected places – in theaters, in experimental novels, and especially in narrativist role-playing games. These narrative automata exhibit considerable sophistication in the frame of simple models of computation. Much of this work is a lot of fun while demonstrating remarkable theoretical depth. In contrast to the cheery hero journeys through depopulated landscapes that long dominated computer games, this work is notably dark, emotionally complex, and introspective.

Jun 17 9 2017

SummerFest 2017

The summer festival of artisanal software is under way. Lots of great professional software for writers and thinkers, all at terrific (but sustainable) prices and all 25% off.

I’ve already stocked up on Take Control books.

SummerFest 2017

by Rachel Ferguson

An impressive experiment that approaches magic realism, in 1936, written with style and sympathy. Vere and James Buchan are twins. They have an older sister who, they quickly learn, is not as bright as they; in time, they appreciate that there’s something wrong but don’t know what. Their mother, a widow, is unhappy and unreliable; their grandmother is clearly a monster, but that doesn’t really explain anything. Something very bad happened in grandmother’s house in Lowndes Square, long ago; now it’s 1916 and Vere, a modern girl, is determined to find out.

A lot of this is very well done. Vere and her twin brother are immensely engaging. Vere gives us buckets of exposition, but they're so sweet and true we don’t mind. And then there’s the element of Fantastika, the bits of magic realism that float through Vere’s London.

Rachel Ferguson would eventually become a reclusive and bitter conservative, and here already you can see the seeds. Vere likes the theater and she likes actors, and we wind up with a big set piece deploring the state of the stage generally and the decline of musical comedy specifically from its late Victorian heights. This novel was published in 1936; in the years immediately before, New York saw the first run of Porgy and Bess (Gershwin), Anything Goes (Cole Porter), Face The Music (Irving Berlin), Ziegfield Follies (Josephine Baker), and Jumbo (Rogers and Hart). Harburg and Arlen wrote “It’s Only A Paper Moon” and much else. In London, Rise and Shine had Fred Astaire, Noel Coward’s Tonight at 8:30 was at the Phoenix, Ivor Novello would open in Careless Rapture. The theater is always in trouble, but if this era makes you go all James Forsythe, the problem isn’t on stage.

But that’s just a cloud on the horizon; Ferguson is largely forgotten—I found this through a review in TLS premised on her having been forgotten—but Very and James are exquisite.

by Christopher Butler

A skeptical but intelligent survey of postmodern thought. Butler assumes that postmodernism is over and concludes that, overall, it lost its argument with liberal realism while teaching important lessons about gender, identity, and power. He is, interesting, quite sympathetic to postmodern literature while clearly well out of sympathy with much postmodern art; I’d have liked a bit more discussion of architecture and (especially) cinema, where Louis Menand’s article on Pauline Kael seems very much at odds with Butler’s emphasis on politics rather than anti-formalism.

Conventional

The Mass. Dems had their convention this weekend. Ed Markey told us again that “Democrats don’t agonize, they organize.” This was always untrue, but this year it’s preposterous.

Hint to Democrats: when you’ve got an audience of 5000, committed and active and almost all of whom have paid good money and gotten elected in order to be delegates, respect them enough to tell them something new, fresh, and important. And no doubt it’s a dandy thing to represent Worcester, but really, once is enough.

Jun 17 1 2017

The Big Sleep

by Raymond Chandler

This is one of the great mysteries of the 20th century, and perhaps one of the most enigmatic. A dying old man, a former general who made money in oil and who had daughters far too late, believes he is being blackmailed. His elder daughter is working on her third divorce, and the general rather liked son-in-law #3, a rakish mobster whose thorough unsuitability rather appealed to the general’s humor. A plot-driven adventure that, characteristically for Chandler, pays remarkably little attention to the details of plot; everyone cares deeply what’s going on right now and they behave as if everything makes sense, and we go right along. A brilliant portrait of the America that bred Trump.

May 17 31 2017

40th Reunion

This weekend, we went back to my Quaker college for our 40th reunion.

Terry Eagleton says:

The puritan mistakes pleasure for frivolity because he mistakes seriousness for solemnity.

Does the puritan mistake seriousness for solemnity, or solemnity for seriousness? Email me.

May 17 22 2017

Hair And School

Twin sisters, both sophomores at the local charter high school, decided they’d like to braid their hair this year. Hair extensions are against the rules, but so is hair “more than 2" high”. That makes it hard or impossible for black students to have braids, or indeed to have long hair, unless they use hair straighteners -- something many decline to do on political and historical grounds.

So there I was on a Sunday in 2017, standing outside a school building and protesting rules against long hair alongside the ACLU, NAACP, ADL, and plenty more. It’s almost 50 years since Hair opened. The attorney general warned the school that its rules were discriminatory; Sunday, they held a closed meeting to suspend the rule for the rest of the school year.

Here’s a paragraph from the (unsigned) announcement the school sent to parents this morning:

Of course, despite the vast importance of the Uniform Policy on the performance of our students, the policy must comport with our long-held commitment, as stated in our Parent Student Handbook and on our website, to offer the same advantages, privileges and courses of study to all students, regardless of race, color, sex, gender identity, religion, national origin or sexual orientation.

First, the sentence is ungrammatical. You can’t have importance on something; it’s important to something.

Second, “comport with” is an old and unsatisfactory construction. “Comport” is a synonym for “behave” and it is normally transitive: “The girls comported themselves with dignity.” While the construction used here is old, it’s not being used for clarity or concision: it’s being used because it sounds pretentious. That’s likely why the school (which has existed only since 1998) boasts of its “long-held commitment.” (The nearby Malden High School goes back 160 years, and I expect Malden schools in general date to Michael Wigglesworth’s tenure as minister in Malden in the late 17th century.)

Third, the composition is flawed. There’s no help for the laundry list at the end of the sentence: it’s legal boilerplate. Nevertheless, the writer knows it’s coming, and should have planned for it. Instead, the first half is larded with unnecessary parentheticals and lists.

Fourth, the statement asserts that the Uniform Policy has “vast importance.” Simple importance would have been plenty to assert; “vast” importance simply calls attention to the weakness of the claim, for which no evidence is offered and which seems wildly improbable. Does long hair prevent people from learning history or calculus? Does short hair help one’s grammar?

Fifth, the statement is un-American. We hold some truths to be self-evident, and one of those truths is that a student’s appearance and beliefs do not conflict with superb intellectual performance. The sentence grudgingly compromises something of “vast importance” in service of other goals, but in fact we have no reason to think that any compromise is necessary, that changing the uniform would have any important effect, or indeed that reversing the policy might not better serve the school’s goals.

Later, the school writes:

You should know that we categorically rejected an order from the DESE [ Massachusetts Elementary and Secondary Education], which was influenced by media reports, to cease all disciplinary actions associated with our entire Uniform Policy. We believe that following this directive would have disastrous consequences on our ability to create the structure and equity central to the success of our students, and that it would fundamentally alter the nature of the environment you chose for your children.i

Again, our prepositions stray: you might expect consequences for something, but not consequences on something. In accord with “vast importance”, we here face “disastrous consequences;” what catastrophe, precisely, might follow upon a high school student’s poor fashion choices? Schools with no uniform policy whatsoever somehow manage to get through entire weeks without massive loss of life.

by Drew Davidson and Greg Costikyan, eds

A nicely varied assortment of intelligent essays about the design and distribution of contemporary tabletop games. Greg Costikyan has a superb discussion of the ways that production, marketing and distribution shape games today; for example, it’s very important that game components by light in weight because the publisher, not the retailer, pays the freight. Chris Klug has a memorable not on the dramatics of rolling dice, and Richard Garfield contributes a number of sharply-observed design lesson from poker.

Malden Sketch Group

Our little city has a charming little sketch group that meets weekly for figure drawing. There’s an annual show in a local office lobby where (unfortunately) they’d rather not have any figure drawing because people these days are prudes. Oh well.

It’s fun to hang out with real artists.

Bottom-center is a sketch I did on a curb in Wellfleet, MA.

by Lev Grossman

Rereading the conclusion to Grossman’s The Magicians because I reread The Magician King for craft, and to figure out why Grossman’s crack-house magic scene seems so compelling and fresh. I still think my original impression was sound.

When seven years of epic struggle and the release of untold magic energies (at terrific personal risk) restore lost Alice to life, all she can manage is the request for a glass of Scotch with a single large ice cube. The Magician pours his neat. Neither really wants the whiskey.

May 17 12 2017

Espresso

The web editor Espresso from MacRabbit is back in a new edition. If you do much CSS, you need it.

Interestingly, they’ve adopted the Tinderbox model for upgrades: free updates for a year, then you buy an upgrade with another year of free updates. Sustainable software matters.

by Sarah Koenig et al.

Shittown

This fascinating original audio novel describes an unpleasant small town in Bibb County, Alabama, home of John B. McLemore. John repairs antique clocks, worries constantly about global warming, police corruption, racism, tattoos – and everything. He has 120 acres. He has a maze on his land that you can see in Google Earth. One day, he calls This American Life and pitches a story – this story – which is lovingly crafted by the creators of This American Life.

It looks like I may be curating a micro-festival at Hypertext ’17 in Prague, July 4-7 2017, on Critical Theory for Fun.

Recent years have seen a remarkable efflorescence of daring yet accessible experiments in nonsequential interactive narrative. In contrast to the famously opaque literature of Critical Theory, much of this work is a lot of fun while demonstrating remarkable theoretical depth. In contrast to the cheery heroic romances that long dominated computer games, this work is notably dark, emotionally complex, and introspective. Our Balkanized technical literature on new media storytelling has grown provincial, and a number of the observations on which it depends are likely mistaken.

In other words, just from worrying whether the wedding is on or off, a person can develop a cough. there’s a ton of good, accessible research into how narrative works, thoughtful work that’s not encrusted with striated and problematized terminological fablulae – and that research is published in, of all places, the tabletop game world. (Computer games will figure in this as well, and of course hyperdrama, print fiction, literary hypertext and interactive fictions.)

More anon. In the mean time, do you have something I should see? Don’t be bashful. Doesn’t matter if its old, or incomplete. Email me..