Thursday, October 1, 2009

Pus and the Pekinese: a bedtime story

“Daddy, can I stay up until Mommy gets home?”

“Now, Finn, you know I said that’s too late.”

“Please!”

“No. You know how you end up. You won’t get enough sleep and then you will be tired and cranky tomorrow. And you have preschool tomorrow so you know you really need your rest.”

“Ok. I guess.”

“Now go to sleep, Finn. I love you the mostest most.”

“I love you too, Daddy. … Daddy, can you at least tell me one more story? Please?”

“Ok. One more story but then you have to go to sleep.”

“I will I promise.”

“What story would you like? Another Dr. Seuss? Or Where the Wild Things Are? Or maybe The Wingdingdilly?”

“No. I don't want a story from one of my books.”

“No?”

“No. I want a forbidden story. I want a banned story. I want something mysterious.”

“Oh really? Forbidden, banned, and mysterious… Hmm…”

“Do you know any stories like that?”

“I might know a few.”

“Can you tell me one? Please please please?”

“I suppose I could. If you promise to go to sleep right after and not ask for another story or try to cheat your way into staying up until your mother comes home.”

“I’ll go to sleep I promise. You know how I need my rest.”

“I do indeed. Now, have I ever told you the story of Pus in Boots, the Gross Domestic Shorthair?”

“You mean Puss in Boots?”

“No. That is the version of the story that they printed in books. The clean version. The real story is of Pus in Boots. The only cat ever to have 13 lives.”

“13?”

“Yup. Now, where to begin …”

“The beginning?”

“No, Finn, that would be ridiculous. Pus in Boots lived such a long time. With 13 lives he was practically immortal. I don’t think any of the scholars even know when the beginning of his story was.”

“Really?”

“Really. Pus is a very special cat. You know, they say that he even went on adventures with Binns Cairo.”

The Binns Cairo?”

“The Binns Cairo.”

“Wow. Can you tell me that one? About Pus in Boots and Binns Cairo?”

“Maybe another night. I think I will start you off with the Tale of Pus and the Pekinese.”

“Oh ok.”

“You’ll like it. I promise. It’s forbidden and banned and mysterious. And it all begins one typical evening in the city when Pus is scrounging around Union Square …

… Though he was Lord of the Square, hell, Lord of all Lower Manhattan, Pus was growing tired of the City. Yes, he had all the rats and mice he could kill, pigeons aplenty to fill his belly, and all the scraps and human garbage to feast upon, but there was something missing in his life. And so, he resolved, at least for a time, to leave. Pus began by walking uptown, towards the Bronx, towards Westchester County, Upstate, even.”

“Upstate? That is a long way for a cat to walk. Where was he going?”

“He didn’t know where he was going, Finn, but he kept on walking. And if you walk long enough, you end up walking a long way…

… Pus met many friends along the way and slept anywhere he could. He slept in boxes and dumpsters, in trees and church basements, in bus shelters and once on top of a mailbox. He met three ferrets in Midtown arguing with each other and the world about Heidegger-“

“Ferrets? I love ferrets. Can we get a ferret, Daddy? Can we can we please?”

“I wish, Finn. But ferrets are illegal to keep as pets. And Mommy and Daddy don’t need to be breaking any more laws just because ferrets are awesome and you want to play with one.”

“Ok. I guess. If it's the law.”

“And Pus also met a hallucinating squirrel in Central Park who swore that he was sharing consciousness with at least a dozen humans, several felines in heat that let him crash for an evening or two, and one particularly nice older gentleman named Rupert Felix that could actually understand him. They had long and interesting conversations in the evenings in front of a roaring fire somewhere in Adirondack Park. But that is a story for another day. Because eventually, Pus just went back to walking.”

“Pus did a lot of walking.”

“He did. But that’s how he saw so many things and had so many adventures. You can’t have adventures staying in once place, Finn. And you know cats can't drive….

… One day Pus came to a palatial mansion; a castle, really.”

“A castle! Like with a moat and a drawbridge and a dragon and knights and ghosts?!?!”

“Not exactly. It was an American Castle. It didn’t have a moat or a drawbridge, just a fancy wrought iron gate and mile long drive way through manicured grounds that included a lake, a mystical forest, an English garden, a hedgerow maze, and three monstrous works of terrible modern art involving steel and glass and used tires. But there was a fancy pentagram summoning circle made out of solid gold built over the bones of all the men who had worked on the house like the architect and the contractor and the carpenter and the plumber and electician and all the laborers.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

“That’s kinda spooky.”

“A little. Because, you see, the man who lived in this castle, Juilan Ix, was a dark wizard.”

“A real wizard?”

“Well, during the day he was CEO of the Cavendish Group but that was only during the day, he was really a necromancer. Especially at night. And when there was a full moon his magic powers were especially strong. And the necromancer’s familiar, was the most evil animal imaginable. A Pekinese. A damn, vile, frilly, yappy, spoiled Pekinese bitch named Duchess Natalie Millicent Veronica van Hoek.”

“I hate her already.”

“Me too. Anyway, it was a Tuesday when Pus slipped through the wrought iron gate, past the guards, and sauntered his way up to the castle. It was night and there was a full moon.”

“Oh no, the wizard!”

“Don’t worry, Finn. This story isn't called Pus Fights the Dark Wizard. It’s Pus and the Pekinese.”

“Are you sure the wizard doesn't hurt Pus?”

“I’m sure. Pus is a smart cat. He knows which humans to stay away from. And, you know, Pus has a little magic of his own.”

“He does?!”

“When he needs to. After all, he’s been alive for a long time. He lived with the Egyptian pharaohs for a while and learned all the secrets of the Egyptian Mysteries.”

“Oh ok. Then I guess I’m not worried.”

“Good. Because I wouldn't want you to be worried about Pus. He is the hero, after all….

… So Pus was wandering around the acres and acres that surrounded the castle, pausing to speak with the interesting animals in the forest and ignoring all the boring ones. There were deer and coyotes and voles and badgers and one surly wolverine. And the story he kept hearing was ‘Stay away from the Duchess Natalie Millicent Veronica van Hoek. She is pure evil.’”

“All the animals were afraid of the Pekinese?”

“A little. Or, at least, they didn’t want to cross her path. Especially if she was angry. And she was always angry when her master was performing his ritual magic, which he was tonight because of the moon.”

“Ooh. Is there going to be a fight?”

“Are you sure you haven’t heard this story already?”

“Yes. I’m sure.”

“But how did you know about the fight?”

“It was a guess.”

“Oh, well if it was just a guess…”

“It was. It was.”

“Ok. Well, Pus, was a cat and everyone knows that cats are curious. And mischievous. And he was hungry. So he decided to head up to the castle to see if he could find some food to steal and eat. He figured that the animals were all exaggerating about the Pekinese and that they were more afraid of the necromancer who was known to sacrifice animals for his blood rituals. Pus, a master thief and the original source of the term cat burglar, snuck into the castle without trouble and made his way to the expansive kitchens where he ate three Alaskan King salmon flown in fresh daily, a brook trout and a rainbow trout from the lake behind the castle, and three and a half Mallomars because they were all that was left in the box. While eating his fourth Mallomar, the one he didn't get a chance to finish, the Pekinese pranced into the kitchen towards her 24-karat gold food dish. At first she didn’t see Pus and since he was quiet she didn’t hear him but Pus wanted to see why all the interesting animals in the mystical forest were so afraid of this little yappy dog, so he jumped from his vantage atop the kitchen island into the 24-karat gold food dish making a huge mess and such a clatter that the Pekinese nearly jumped out of her snobbish skin. There was a fight. The end.”

“The end? The end? How is that the end? What happened? Who won the fight? Was there lots of biting and scratching and yowling and kicking and running around a making a huge mess of the kitchen and the rest of the rooms of the castle? Did Pus win the fight? Did he hurt the Pekinese badly? Why is she so evil? Did he put her into the castle dungeon and lock her up and throw away the key to the wolverine in the mystical forest who took it back to his ancestral homeland in Canada?”

“Yes. And then Pus took a nap because he had such a full belly. And when he woke up he went back to walking.”

“And what next?”

“That is another story for another night, my Finn. Now you need to sleep before your mother gets home and gets upset with both of us for staying up so late telling stories.”

“Oh. Ok. Well. That was a good story and I guess it was forbidden and banned and mysterious. So thanks, Daddy.”

“Of course, Finn. Now sleep tight. And don’t let the zipperumpazoos bite.”

“Goodnight, Daddy. I love you.”

“I love you too, Finn.”

taking a bad idea and adding technology: hybrid books vs. transmedia storytelling

So last night I read this article in the NY Times and it got me thinking about hybrid books and how they are a terrible fucking idea. At least for the present. At least in the way they seem to be currently conceived. Especially since they could be the basis of a new transmedia storytelling.

Hybrid books are books with additional video or web content. Seems simple enough. And I will agree that instructional books and how-to books would clearly benefit from the inclusion of little video demos. Fair enough. But if the demo vid is on the internet and the book is in your hands, how does that make it a hybrid book? Doesn't that make it an instructional book and instructional videos that happen to be about the same thing? How is that new? Or news?

The fact is, technology is behind the times as far as this idea goes. Until I can get the whole deal - text, image, video, music - all seamlessly integrated in one device (and I do mean seamless) I don't see what the value is. Or what the development is. There have been videos on the internet tangentially related to other artistic works for years. Transmedia storytelling may be novel and not yet mainstream but it isn't new.

That said, hybrid novels are a terrible fucking idea. Just plain bad. The concept of a hybrid novel or short story or whatever, is that the text can be meaningfully supplemented by taking a break between chapters to watch a video on the internet. One assbag in the article goes so far as to say that “It really makes a story more real if you know what the characters look like.” Know what they look like? What the shit eating horse fuck is that? What kind of imaginationless fuck can't do that in his own goddamn mind? Hasn't one of the continual criticisms of adapting books to film been that reduction of every reader's unique idea of what a character looks and sounds like to one seemingly canonical claim? That somehow because it is in the film that is the way it is even if there are infinitely more ways of interpreting the text to suit the individuality of each reader? Are we so lazy and pathetic that we can't even wait for a film adaptation to tell us what a character looks and sounds like, now we need a Youtube quality video between chapter 3 and 4 to tell us we have been seeing the wrong guy in our head this whole time?

Now I completely understand the value of film, of short film, of any narrative in any form of media. What I don't get is why they need to be included in the book. Why can't there be unique stories told in unique ways that best fit each medium that build upon each other and inform each other but still manage to stand alone? Take a central story and then have a book, a graphic novel, a series of short films, multiple still images, and a soundtrack or two developed. That is some transmedia storytelling that I could get behind. That is a disruption of linearity that I could be interested in. But short videos on the web that you have to put down the book (even the ebook because your Kindle can't handle this shit) in order to access and that don't even move forward the plot half the time? Are we so worried that our kids aren't reading anymore?

Because really, to me, it seems to come down to two issue: 1. people aren't reading as much as they used to, 2. controlling the brand.

Yes, people are probably reading less that they used to and there are all kinds of studies some of which I have read and some that I have not that prove this and draw all manner of conclusions from it. I though, am of the camp that not all reading is good reading, that if kids are watching good films or good television, or playing well crafted video games, then who cares that they don't like reading the stale books that outdated English departments claim are "classics"? Reading good books is good. Reading bad books is a waste of time and brain cells. And putting videos into books isn't going to make them good and thus worth our time. Videos alone will not save the industry.

And the social networking ideas to allow for collaborative authorship that the article mentions - that is one of the most insulting things to a readers intelligence that a publisher could invent. "Hey kids, guess what? You know how you guys like doing things? Well we are going to let you pick the name of our main character's best friend's puppy!!!" If you are going to go for collaborative authorship that is not the way to go. First off, a collaborative original text just makes for a terrible book. Just look at any story that 20+ people try to write together with no one willing to concede their own great ideas on behalf of the work as a whole. So I understand why publishers think that letting the audience (not community) have a role in "collaborative" projects to "be incorporated into minor characters or subplots". But that is just patronizing. The road to collaboration lies with fan fic (not that I am the biggest fan) and with user generated responses across various media. If you want to involve your readers you can't treat them like second class citizens. At this point they won't be satisfied with minor roles and subplots, they have had too much control over telling the stories of their own lives to settle for scraps from the master's table.

And 2: control. Rare is the case when one individual is a talented enough artist that they can not only write a great novel, but they can pen the story boards for the video segments and direct and star in them, they can compose and perform the musical accompaniment, and so on. Rare is the case indeed. So an effective transmedia story, a work that encompasses text, and video, and sound and so on is likely going to be a collaborative project of many artists working together towards a coherent whole. If this were the case of these hybrid novels perhaps I would not hate them so. But as far as I can tell, it is a case where publishers have gained rights to a novel and they want to make sure that no one else (read: no user generated content) can put out the video segments or the music inspired by the novel. It's a preemptive strike. It is a matter of controlling the brand, the product, and the cash flow. I am opposed to this kind of control in all its forms. Now much user generated content is terrible. Not everyone who likes a particular book and feels compelled to comment and react in some form is equally artistic. But a publisher just looking to cash in on the kids and their Youtube fetish before the boat sinks isn't helping anyone either.

Ideally a work is kept open and open-ended. Published under a creative commons license, derivative works would be legal and a community would thrive around a work producing new story lines, video clips, paintings and digital images, music. Each giving rise to new and more creative output. Much of it might be terrible. But not all of it. And just because it is produced does not mean it has to be accepted as canon. These communities are self-regulating.

And if an author wants more control over canonical works in different media or wants to guarantee professional quality work (the author should be the one to decide not the publisher) then the author should collaborate with the artists able to translate his/her vision into new media. But again, each different media form should be able to stand on its own. No one wants to see a 90 sec video clip that doesn't make any sense on its own and has only the barest relationship to a book that they are reading. Put effort into the video. Make them more than supplemental or tangential or throwaways. Make the videos tell their own story in a way that the text cannot. The are innumerable things that a story on film can show that a story in text cannot (and vice versa). Use each medium to tell a portion of the whole story with overlap and interplay. But don't force video clips into a novel just because it might entice some readers away from the television for a few minutes. That isn't new or novel. That isn't creating a sustainable transmedia storytelling platform. That is just the last gasp of a failing system.