A lot of people will tell you writers should keep their political beliefs out of their books, but the collision of art and politics can lead to sublime works. 1984. The Prince. And Minnesota lawmaker Matt Dean calling Neil Gaiman a “pencil-necked little weasel who stole $45,000 from the state of Minnesota.”

First, a digression. I’ve never like the phrase “pencil-necked.” I didn’t even know what it meant the first few times I heard it. His neck is yellow? It can be used to complete Scantron forms? That’s just confusing.

Anyway, Gaiman responds at length here, setting the facts straight (he was paid $33,600, not $45,000–and he donated this fee to charity) and raising the point that a Republican is complaining about a professional being paid a market rate for his skills and expertise. Good times. Excellent times. Yet another reason it’s a bad idea to pick a fight with a writer: as it turns out, they’re usually pretty good at convincing the world that it is in fact you who is the idiot.

Soon thereafter, Dean apologized. Because his mother made him.

A writer could not have written an outcome so grand. Well, okay, he could have. But his readers would call it unbelievable because grown men don’t call other grown men names and then say they’re sorry after their mom gets mad at them. That’s just too good to be true.

This may come as a surprise to anyone who can’t read, but writers have problems. Here’s how one man treats them.

The TL;DR version: Barry Michels is a Jungian psychologist who treats Hollywood types in unusual ways. Phil Stutz, his mentor, uses this motto to treat his writers: “KEEP WRITING SHIT, STUPID.” Michels, meanwhile, advised one of his patients to kneel for one minute before writing and entreat the universe to help him write the worst sentence in history.

I loved that. I thought that was so great I tried it myself. Just once, mind you, and once is not a habit. Once will not get you results. Still, it was fun.

These guys employ a lot of weird techniques. A lot of them sound like nonsense. But I think to some extent it doesn’t matter what the techniques are. The very existence of an outwardly-imposed structure is going to help a lot of writers get over themselves and write. A blank page is infinite. But if you put some structure on it, some walls and roads and ladders, suddenly it’s a whole lot easier to navigate. By eliminating possibilities, you put yourself that much closer to the solution.

But really, check out that article. It’s strange and hilarious stuff.

Over at BigAl’s Books and Pals, a fairly prominent book blog, Al posted a review of The Greek Seaman, an indie novel by a woman named Jacqueline Howett. Al enjoyed the story, but wound up giving the novel two stars, put off by its numerous typos, errors, and tangled sentences.

In response, Ms. Howett exploded like a grammatically-challenged Hindenburg.

I’m not gonna criticize her any further–there are already 300 comments doing just that, as well as some 50-odd one-star reviews added to her Amazon page following the viral, Twitter-fueled dust-up–but the ensuing dogpile reinforces one of the internet’s most basic axioms: no matter how big a dog you think you are, the internet is a pack of millions. Do you know what a million bites to the ankle can do? A million bites to the ankle could take down an AT-AT. Turn that force on a normal person, they will be reduced to a fine red dew.

Don’t give the pack a reason to start nipping. All you can do is go hide in your den until they go away.

I’m pretty sure the M. stands for Motherfuckin’, because Banks is a god among men.

I just started reading his stuff within the last few months and am now terribly angry with my past self for not having read it sooner. In order, I’ve read The Wasp Factory, The Algebraist, and Excession. Excession is several books deep in his Culture series–the far-flung future setting of most of his sci-fi–but, for reasons that can only be chalked up to out-and-out insanity, many of his early novels have been out of print until just a few days ago. My copy of Consider Phlebas, the first Culture novel, showed up yesterday; I haven’t done much but read it since.

As for why these books were out of print till so recently, I can only imagine we live in a Bizarro Universe where wild adventure, colossal imagination, and the best sense of humor in the genre (fuck it, one of the best in literature–among living novelists, Banks is right there with John Irving and Michael Chabon) somehow fails to ignite the interest of enough readers to keep his backlist churning. I don’t remember everyone on earth suffering massive head wounds, so Bizarro Universe it is.

Some writers are such good storytellers their books are like cannons that blast you through the novel so fast you can’t slow down until you slam into that last page and you close the book, dazed and pained, and for the first time you realize just how much momentum had been sweeping you along.

Banks is that way. And it’s not just his plotting that makes him so incredible, either. It’s his whole sensibility: that life is violent and absurd and ironic and most often being run by forces far beyond our control, but it’s also thrilling and funny and fun; however weak and tiny his characters may be inside the incomprehensibly vast societies and the universe surrounding them, there’s still meaning and value in their individual struggles.

In some ways, that’s the definition of the entire genre of the novel; like M.M. Bakhtin says, we’re not gods or heroes, we’re just normal chumpy mortals who can’t help but fail at whatever grand trial is before us–and the results are often as funny as they are tragic.

For all this, though, I’m always a little disappointed when I reach the end of a Banks novel, and not just because it may be a while before I get to read the next one. His plots are huge and crazy and fun, but they seem to be big shaggy-dog stories or wild goose chases, too. Sometimes the underlying narrative gets lost. When the big wrap-up arrives, the bulk of the characters’ adventures don’t seem to have much to do with it at all.

I don’t quite know how to describe the feeling I’m left with: it’s not that all these episodic adventures were a waste of time–the feeling’s not that harsh at all–but I’ve got this vague uneasiness that those episodes just don’t add up to all that much, either.

Neal Stephenson’s books often feel that way, too. Maybe it’s no coincidence that he’s got a lot of the same humor and excitement and imagination as Banks and usually can’t quite pull things together in the end himself. Next to the mountains of things they do well, a not-wholly-satisfying ending can’t put a major dent in their books. They’re just too goddamn good.

As I write this, I can’t wait to get back to Consider Phlebas, and when I checked up on Neal Stephenson only to find he’s got a new book out this fall–a space opera!!–I’m swearing with joy. These guys are the guys who get me excited about literature with every page I read.

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