Friday, June 26, 2009

The Plagiarism Allegations Against Chris Anderson

Though you might have trouble finding it now that the round the clock coverage of dead celebrities has flooded all media of any kind, earlier this week Waldo Jaquith of the Virginia Quarterly Review discovered several instances of plagiarism in Chris Anderson’s new book, Free. I’ve been looking forward to this book for a few months now, having read The Long Tail back in February.

I’m not all that interested in going back over something others have done better, but I do want to briefly note something. Anderson and other Web 2.0 figures vociferously defend the right of creators to mash-up other works and create new
things out of them. When remixing video/audio, it isn’t often that one is really accused of plagiarism; no one is trying to pass off the actual rapping of Dr. Dre as their own. Yet when writing, such a mash-up doesn’t signify the input of others in the same way, something I struggled with in May when I tried to do something by barely rewriting a couple of dozen articles about the Kindle into several sustained arguments. I included links as a sort of citation, but only because I was so uncomfortable with the process.

Anderson’s book is not a scholarly work, but that doesn’t mean he should be excused from citing his material appropriately. That said, I think the argument could be made that he was ‘sampling’ the work of others and integrating it into a larger whole that makes a different, or perhaps just broader, point. Maybe I can put it better another way.

Imagine this: rather than printed text, let’s say that Anderson is making a video. He uses the same pieces he is accused of plagiarizing in his video, but instead of taking them from other printed texts, he instead uses clips of the authors giving a speech where they say the same things. Why is this not plagiarism too? Does the fact that someone other than Anderson would be on video enough of a citation?

In fact, plagiarism is a broad term. For instance, were I to do something in one of my graduate classes like Anderson has done here, it would be considered plagiarism. As would me downloading an essay off the web and turning it in as my own work. But the latter is outright fraud, while the former could be characterized as merely careless. Inadvertent plagiarism shouldn’t be excused, but it likewise shouldn’t be considered the same crime as deliberate copying. Even scholarly, uncited copying was rampant for years and years until the attitude toward citation became a norm.

This is an unfortunate situation, and to his credit, Anderson has owned up to his error and been quite apologetic. Yet I worry that with all this negative coverage, people will be put off of what could be a book full of good points. The mere fact that Anderson didn’t use quotation marks when he should have does not render his argument null and void. He was wrong, but it might not be as bad as it’s being made out to be.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Mirror Universe: Shards and Shadows

I intended to write a blow-by-blow review of each story in this book, but I find myself unable to summon that sort of effort. In fact, I’m not really sure what made me seek Shards and Shadows out after all these months; perhaps something to do with upcoming DS9 books tat take place in the Mirror Universe, perhaps a lack of genuine passive fun when it comes to my reading pile. But what I do know is that despite some failures, the collection of short stories is worth your time.

Two years ago, Pocket published six short novels that took place entirely within the Mirror Universe, as depicted in such memorable Star Trek episodes as 'The One Where Evil Spock Had a Goatee.' The experiment was a success, and shortly thereafter this collection was announced in order to tie up some loose ends and expand the universe. For instance, Margaret Wander Bonano explains how Captain Kirk acquires the Tantalus Device that allows him to disappear people, all the while fleshing out the character to seem more than the raging mad
man he was depicted as in the episode.

Stories that take place later during the Klingon/Cardassian Alliance and the Terran Rebellion set the stage for some of what surely will follow in the upcoming DS9 book The Soul Key. Susan Wright pits Intendant B’Elanna Torres against Kes in a psychological, telepathic battle. Keith R.A. DeCandido tells an interesting epistolary story about the politics and scheming of the Alliance command. Jim Johnson follows Keiko Ishigawa and her adjustment to life as one of the top commanders in the Terran Rebellion.

This isn’t to say that all these stories are good, Johnson’s is a story we’ve seen a million times with someone set up to look like a traitor even though we know she won’t be because she’s the hero, but they do weave a broader tapestry of the universe and blurs the line between the good/evil division that the DS9 episodes reduced the struggle to. Other stories miss the mark entirely, like Michael Jan Friedman’s ‘The Traitor,’ which focuses on Luc Picard who was so uninteresting in The Worst of Both Worlds and has an ending that renders the entire story pointless.

And while I understand that the fiction-only characters have a following, stories like James Swallow’s ‘The Black Flag’ about the mirror equivalents of the Vanguard crew and Peter David’s next tale concerning New Frontier are too insular to really work here. And where cameos of characters might work on television, the medium of print doesn’t handle the tossing out of names for their own sake so well. I might have been more interested in Pennington than in a Reyes with a laser eyeball. (If you have no idea who these people are or why you should care, then I think you understand my problem with these stories.)

Though it has been praised by those I respect, I found the worst story of the collection to be Dave Stern’s ‘Nobunaga.’ First of all, I hate stories that end up as a dream, simulation, etc. Secondly, and this may not be a fair criticism, but with the ending of Age of the Empress depicting the resurrection of Archer, I wanted to see the story picked up from there. Instead, we get nothing more than a couple of sentences to bridge the rift, not to mention an Archer that much more resembles the one from our universe than the one depicted in In a Mirror, Darkly.

There are stories that really work well here, like Wright’s and DeCandido’s, some that are just fun like Mack’s and Christopher L. Bennett’s, and a couple that just didn’t really work for me. Nothing lives up to the tall bar that Mack set with The Sorrows of Empire, but the collection does succeed in fleshing out the mirror universe, making it a place that really calls for more stories to be told. This book rekindled an interest in the fiction line that I felt was fading fast, and now I am looking forward to picking up some of the newer releases.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Chris Farley Show

No one was more surprised than me to see a biography of Chris Farley show up on the several of the Best of 2008 lists last year. Like a lot of people, I was a fan of Farley in the loosest sense; I enjoyed him on SNL and will admit to laughing quite a bit at Tommy Boy, but for the most part he seemed like a one-note comedian. I was surprised to find out just how talented and therefore tragic his early death was by reading The Chris Farley Show, an oral history of sorts compiled by Farley’s brother Tom and professional writer Tanner Colby.

I picked up the new paperback copy two weeks ago and flipped through it, surprised to see that the majority of the text was made up of compiled quotes from interviews with those close to Farley. The book is structured into three sections, called acts, which follow a fairly predictable pattern. Act One leads up to Farley joining the cast of Saturday Night Live, Act Two deals with the struggles with addiction and sobriety, while Act Three chronicles the decent into addiction that ultimately killed the man. Predictable a
s this may be, the different perspectives provided by using the actual voices of interviewees rather than the clinical voice of a traditional biography offer real feeling in insight not just into Farley, but also into some of the well-known people who knew him.

Farley wasn’t a stand-up comedian, but rather an improvisational actor, something that shouldn’t really surprise anyone who has followed some of the more successful casting choices on SNL since. Yet what isn’t so widely known is that almost everyone who knew him thought that he could have made a fine actor, even be an Oscar contender, if he could just find the right vehicle and get his act together. I had not heard that David Mamet had written a script for Farley based on the life of Fatty Arbuckle, only to see the project wind up forever in limbo due to Farley’s inability to get insured due to his drug problems. Since finishing the book last week, I have often wondered what such a movie would have been like. And with Jim Carrey winning a couple of Golden Globes, it doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to imagine Farley being honored as well.

Farley’s struggles with his weight were a source of his comedy yet painful for him at the same time. He struggled with wanting to break free of the roles he seemed confined to, where ‘everyone always laughs when Fatty falls down,’ and into something more complex and fulfilling. Such a struggle is commonplace among such actors, yet the book illustrates his feelings with such emotion tat it is hard not to be moved.

Tom Farley is the force behind this project, and he should be commended for the frank portrayal of his brother’s life that is shown in this book. Things aren’t whitewashed at all, and a nuanced picture of the life of Chris Farley shines through. Different people remember events differently, and both voices are heard. This is especially true with regards to the famous Chippendales scene with host Patrick Swayze. Its popularity can be testament to it being a success, but many like Chris Rock argue that it demeaned Farley in a way that surely led him further into addiction for a skit that had no real comic payoff beyond laughing at a fat man.

Unfortunately, Farley seems to be viewed as another John Belushi, a SNL star who just couldn’t escape his addictions. But as The Chris Farley Show demonstrates, he was much more than that. For those interested in reading a compelling story of misunderstood man told in a unique way, the stars have aligned for this is the book for you.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

‘The alarm bell of anxiety’ that Alfred and Enid Lambert hear ringing on the first page of The Corrections will ring for the reader as well throughout the first 12 pages of Jonathan Franzen's much-hyped third novel. The belabored metaphors suffusing these pages and the hysteria of an episode in which nothing more happens than the mailman comes to the door will make even the most forgiving of readers wonder, ‘Should I actually read the next 540 pages of this?’

The answer is yes. Not only does the novel immediately improve, but the realization that Franzen probably intended the difficult beginning comes quickly, when Chip, Alfred and Enid's feckless middle child, is introduced. Fired by the college where he taught for sleeping with a student, Chip relocates to New York City where he takes up part-time legal proofreading, writing for an arts monthly, and begins work on a screenplay entitled ‘The Academy Purple,’ which opens with a six page
monologue. ‘My idea,’ Chip tries to explain to his girlfriend as she's leaving him, is ‘to have this 'hump' that the moviegoer has to get over. Putting something off-putting at the beginning, it's a classic modernist strategy. There's a lot of rich suspense toward the end.’

It seems too obvious to be a coincidence — the hump at the beginning of the screenplay reflecting the hump at the beginning of the novel, especially as the care and control that Franzen exerts over his characters, their relationships and the locales they inhabit in the remainder of the novel becomes apparent. Nothing else in the book is as clunky as the opening pages.

There is not much plot to The Corrections: Enid, the social-climbing, prudish, delusionally optimistic matriarch, wishes to reunite her family in the fictional midwestern city of St. Jude (St. Louis) for one final Christmas. The enthusiasm of the other family members for a holiday together is muted.

Alfred, afflicted with Parkinson's disease and increasingly addled by dementia, is too concerned with his weakening mind to pay much attention to Enid's plans. Irascible and emotionally distant, the principled, repressed man is left confused and only occasionally lucid; he struggles constantly to comprehend what's around him, but it's an effort he's growing weary of, a mental state artfully and disturbingly described by Franzen.

The Lambert children are wary of returning home for their own reasons. Gary, the eldest son, a banker, is married to the beautiful but manipulative Caroline, who refuses to travel to St. Jude and wages war on Gary through their three sons, bribing the boys with Broadway tickets and computer games to stay home with her in Philadelphia. Chip, who impulsively flies to Lithuania with the ex-husband of his ex-girlfriend to start up an Internet fraud scheme, is seeking to avoid what he sees as the multiple failures of his life. Denise, the youngest child, is a hip, tense, talented, workaholic, sexually confused gourmet chef, whose separate affairs with the owner of the restaurant she works for and his wife get her fired. None see time spent together as the means to alleviate any of those issues. That all three are in St. Jude by Christmas morning is surprising to Enid and the reader until he/she realizes that for the book to work a final gathering of the family is necessary and therefore inevitable.

Franzen's ability to craft over 500 compelling pages out of this small domestic drama is a credit to his skills as a novelist. He manages, with the novel's relatively small cast of characters and minimal storyline, to cover topics as diverse as consumerism, the restaurant business (though not altogether accurately), the love-ha
te tension of intimate relationships, the collapse of Lithuania's political system, metallurgy, the stock market and cruise ship culture.

The book's only distracting flaw is a lengthy bit about Axon Corporation, a biotech firm developing a 'revolutionary' treatment for brain disorders and mental illnesses. Gary and Denise attend an investment luncheon given by the company; there's a video, and a painful question and answer session. This portion is a too-blunt bit of social commentary, and a not very original one. The trend to medicalize quirks of personality and moods, and consumers' willingness to be medicated, has been thoroughly examined many times before, and as a central theme of the novel, fails to resonate.

Franzen's commentary is more effective, his satire more cutting, when embedded in a character's activities o
r opinions. Enid, expecting an elegant, sophisticated experience on a cruise up the East Coast, is confronted instead with people wearing T-shirts marked with sayings such as ‘Old Urologists Never Die, They Just Peter Out.’ Her resentment — ‘It rankled her that people richer than she were so often less worthy and attractive’ — is double-edged. Enid wants to be those people even as she reviles them.

The real success of the novel, though, lies not in the commentary but in the characters — Alfred and Enid are especially alive. They evolve, in the course of the novel, from being caricatures of Midwestern suburbia to bein
g fully realized people, with a complexity and dignity rare in fictional characters, even as their progression diverges dramatically. Alfred declines to the point of needing a nursing home; Enid reveals a capacity for self-awareness and growth not hinted at in the book's beginning. The remaining Lamberts and the other characters are less-finely drawn, although each has a distinctive voice and perspective not likely to be confused with any other character. Franzen’s only real misfire is that the denouement seems to implicate one character as responsible for the ills of the others, and with his removal from the playing field, everyone else’s life gets remarkably, if perhaps coincidentally, better.

Near the end of the novel, Chip has an epiphany. He realizes why no one, including himself, liked his screenplay: He'd written a tragedy instead of a farce. 'Make it ridiculous,' he says to himself. It seems like another insight from the screenplay into the novel, perhaps one Franzen had himself in the early drafting process, a reminder that to read the story of the Lambert family too seriously is misguided.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Push Man by Yoshihiro Tatsumi

Japanese culture, at least here in the west, seems to be portrayed as fairly monolithic. When the current lament of lazy youth is heard, it refers to the seemingly inability that Magnavox or some other company will have in maintaining their cutting edge efficiency. Perhaps for this reason, the stories of sewer workers and prostitutes’ husbands in Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s The Push Man are so shocking; we see a side of Japanese society that obviously exists, but is almost always hidden. In a culture of conformity like Japan, an individual can be more lonely and isolated than one can imagine.

The sixteen stories here are consistent in their style. Many are set in an industrial Japanese city and feature a mostly-silent man who works in a factory. For example, in the first story, ‘Piranha,’ a factory worker comes home to his wife, and she tells him she wants a million yen to start her own business. He reads in the newspaper about an insurance payout when a bus rolls over, and the next morning he thrusts his arm into his machine. He gets a million yen as compensation for the ‘accident,’ and his wife is happy. He now stays home while she works, and entert
ains himself by buying some piranha fish. Soon she starts complaining about him sitting around all day looking at his fish, and threatens to leave him. He becomes furious and grabs her arm, forcing it in the fish tank. When he lets go, it is covered in blood, and she leaves him. He kicks over the fish tank and goes searching for a new job at another factory, this time one especially for the disabled.

All of the stories are dark in tone, showing people hurting each other, failing to communicate, cheating, selling themselves or having their hopes dashed. It is often sexual desire or the duplicity of women that cause men to rush into disaster. However Tatsumi is not a misogynist. The men's downfall stems not only from women, but also from their own lust, aggression and stupidity, and so the author is an equal-opportunity misanthrope.

Like all Japanese comics, they were originally printed to be read from right to left, but as editor Adrian Tomine explains in the introduction, such a layout is usually met hostilely by Western audiences, so Tatsumi rearranged each panel to be read in the traditional Western way. This works fairly well, as the frames are all independent of one another, yet I think I would have preferred to read it in the original layout. I disagree that Westerners are inherently hostile to the format; take a look at the Manga section of the bookstore the next time you’re there.

I decided to read Tatumi’s work because I realize that I have almost no knowledge of Eastern comics and wanted to rectify that. However, instead of reading authentic Japanese comics, I got the Americanized version that doesn’t help me gain any insight into how the comics are laid out, a particular research interest of mine. I suppose I will have to seek out an education in Eastern layout through another artist.

Tomine edited this book as well as others, expected to be released by Drawn & Quarterly once a year. While I enjoyed this collection, the brevity of the pieces coupled with reading them in a condensed timeframe caused a bit of overkill. In the second collection, Abandon the Old in Tokyo, the stories are more substantial, and I am looking forward to that.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Reading List: May 2009

Last month I decided that rather than merely list all the books I had read, I would also make a strong recommendation that readers of this blog go out and pick up a copy of what I considered the best of the lot. Fortunately, the book I picked last month I had previously reviewed. However, I didn't have a chance to review Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo because I finished it right before I had two big projects due in school.

The book succeeds due to Larsson’s two protagonists -- Carl Mikael Blomkvist, a reporter filling the role of detective, and his sidekick, Lisbeth Salander, aka the girl with the dragon tattoo -- who make this novel more than a run-of-the-mill mystery: they’re both compelling, conflicted, complicated people, idiosyncratic in the extreme, and interesting enough to compensate for the plot mechanics, which seize up a bit as the novel begins to resolve itself. Knowing that Larsson was able to complete two sequels before his death in 2004 is exciting, for I am not ready to let these characters go.

On the school front, I shall spend the next few days revising a document for my thesis that I should have finished months ago. Then I'll start planning the actual outline and hopefully will be able to get started writing sometime towards the end of the month. This said, never underestimate my laziness nor my ability to get distracted by just about anything.

The month of May saw me finish 34 books and/or graphic novels, and this is what they were:
  • 100 Bullets: Dirty by Brian Azzarello & Eduardo Risso
  • Replay by Ken Grimwood
  • What the Gospels Meant by Gary Wills
  • Superman: For Tomorrow by Azzarello & Jim Lee
  • All Star Superman, Volume II by Grant Morrison & Frank Quitely
  • Sin City: That Yellow Bastard by Frank Miller
  • X-Men: Endangered Species by Mike Carey, et al.
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
  • Pieces for the Left Hand by J. Robert Lennon
  • The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick
  • X-Men: Messiah Complex by Ed Brubaker, et al.
  • Ultimate X-Men, Volume II by Mark Millar, et al.
  • Sin City: Family Values by Miller
  • House of M by Brian Michael Bendis & Olivier Copiel
  • Over a Torrent Sea by Christopher L. Bennett
  • Green Lantern Corps: Recharge by Geoff Johns, et al.
  • Ultimate Spider-Man: Double Trouble by Bendis & Mark Bagley
  • Genesis by Bernard Beckett
  • True Enough by Farhad Manjoo
  • Ultimate X-Men: Ultimate War by Millar & Chris Bachalo
  • Green Lantern Corps: To Be a Lantern by Dave Gibbons & Patrick Gleason
  • Sin City: Booze, Broads, and Bullets by Miller
  • Decimation: X-Men: The 198 by David Hine & Jim Muniz
  • Summer Blonde by Adrian Tomine
  • Superman: Last Son by Johns, et al.
  • Swamp Thing: The Curse by Alan Moore, et al.
  • Ultimate X-Men: Return of the King by Millar, et al.
  • The Element by Ken Robinson
  • Ultimate Spider-Man: Legacy by Bendis & Bagley
  • Shortcomings by Tomine
  • Green Lantern: Tales of the Sinestro Corps by Johns, et al.
  • Ultimate X-Men: Blockbuster by Bendis & David Finch
  • The Best American Mystery Stories 2005 edited by Joyce Carol Oates
  • Star Trek: Strange New Worlds 10 edited by Dean Wesley Smith
Not hard to see that the bulk of the readings for the month, and the year to date for that matter, are graphic novels or collections of individual issues. I am still slightly interested in Marvel's Ultimate line, but the interest is waning. To be honest, I don't think I was more than moderately satisfied with any of the collections I read this month from either DC or Marvel, except maybe House of M. I'm also hoping to read some long form fiction, read 500+ page novels, this summer since I am finished with my coursework.

As always comments and queries are strongly encouraged. I hope to post here much more often over the coming month, yet we know how such vows have gone in the past.