AI-written fiction: a solution in search of a problem?

(Promotional video from Sudowrite)
Do AI writing programs fulfill any real market need?

So-called artificial intelligence (actually a misnomer, but we’ll let that slide for our purposes here) has recently been turned to the task of fiction writing. It is now possible to use AI writing tools like Sudowrite to create large bodies of text that can meet the minimal requirements for stories.

This is especially true in genres like romance, fantasy, and fanfiction. Self-published works in these genres have been posted online in large quantities, and are therefore readily accessible to AI bots that scrape and mine content for AI predictive modeling. These genres also rely heavily on repetitive tropes, which further facilitate AI predictive modeling. It isn’t hard to predict what comes next, if the same thing always comes next.

Let’s put aside the question of whether or not AI-authored fiction that meets some minimal standard is possible. Let’s allow that it already is possible.

Instead, let’s consider the question from another angle: does AI-authored fiction meet any discernible market need? Or is this a solution in search of a problem?

There are some tasks that humans don’t perform as well as software, and which humans don’t even want to do.

Take, for example, calculations involving many rows and/or columns of numbers. Even with a calculator and an adding machine, this is a tedious chore that is highly prone to error. That’s why we’re all grateful that we have programs like Microsoft Excel and Apple Numbers.

The first mass-market spreadsheet program, VisiCalc, hit the market in 1979. While not as good as the latest, 21st-century version of Excel, by the early 1980s VisiCalc had largely eliminated the need to perform tedious calculations by hand.

No one—before or since—has complained about “the machines taking over” where spreadsheet software is concerned. Nor has anyone ever claimed that spreadsheet programs don’t fulfill a genuine market need.

Now let’s pick an example closer to the hearts of writers. There was a time when writers who didn’t want to type their own manuscripts had to hire someone else to do it for them.

That meant hiring a typist. The most expensive (and comparatively rare) option was for a typist to sit in a room with the writer while he dictated aloud. More commonly, the typist worked from tape recordings or handwritten documents.

Prior to 1990 or so, manuscript preparation was actually a real problem for most writers. Imagine, in 1985, preparing an 80,000-word novel manuscript for submission to a half-dozen publishers. Self-publishing wasn’t an option in 1985. Amazon was a decade away; and a quarter-century would pass before the Kindle would  be invented. Everything that was published had to be submitted to a publisher first. On paper.

I prepared college term papers of a few thousand words back in the 1980s, using nothing but paper, a typewriter, and correction fluid. I found that difficult enough. I can’t imagine preparing the manuscript for an 80,000-word novel that way.

The digital revolution, which includes many AI components, changed all that. Everyone now has convenient access to word-processing software that would have been astounding in 1985. And if the writer doesn’t want to type, speech-to-text software programs like Dragon Dictate can even obviate the need for hitting the keyboard. Dictation software would have seemed like alien technology in 1985!

I’m sure that back in 1985, there was a small cohort of typists who made their living preparing manuscripts for novelists. I’d also bet that such work was low-paying, tedious, and no one’s idea of a dream job.

Software, in other words, does a better job than humans of getting words from a writer’s head into a manuscript format that can be consumed by others. Nor are many people clamoring to serve as low-paid scribes for writers. Once again, you’re going to have a hard time finding Luddites or complainers. No one would deny that digital tools improved the process of manuscript preparation.

But now let’s consider the prospect of turning over the conception and writing of a novel—the actual creative work—to a software program.

Let’s return to those AI-written novels and stories. And—once again—let’s leave aside the question of whether or not a minimally passable product is possible with AI.

The first relevant question is: can AI do the job better? I think the answer to that would have to be a resounding no.

I’ve read some of the fiction texts written by AI in recent months. I’m mildly impressed that software can regurgitate and recombine human-generated stories scraped from the Internet, without completely bungling grammar and syntax.

That allowed, the imitative nature of these stories is clear within a few paragraphs, and immediately recognizable as something written by AI. Every AI story I’ve ever seen is a pale imitation of one that you’ve seen a gazillion times on sites like WebNovel and Wattpad.

Why? Because this is where the AI-generated stories are coming from.

Not every reader will be familiar with Wattpad or even the process of writing fiction. But everyone has experienced the following:

You’re having a problem with your electricity, cable TV, or Internet service. You call the electric company or your cable/Internet provider for help.

A pleasant-sounding female voice answers your call. Then you realize, with a sinking sensation, that you have fallen into the virtual clutches of an AI chatbot.

The AI phone attendant can respond to your questions, after a fashion, but she cannot really understand your problem. She is simply following a series of pre-programmed routines. For that matter, there is no “she”. There are lines of computer code written to fool you into believing there is a “she” there.

Software is incredibly useful for certain intense, narrowly constricted tasks, like adding a list of one hundred four-digit numbers. What software can’t do is tell you what those numbers mean, how you should use them to make a decision about your family’s budget, or the next product line you should introduce at your company. For that, you need human intervention—probably your own knowledge and experience.

Software is largely incapable of integrating and interpreting complex data from diverse sources, and completely incapable of engaging in anything resembling the human process of thinking. My guess is that this will always be the case.

Want proof? Is there any one of us who would rather talk to an AI chatbot than an actual person when we call a company with a pressing problem? Have you ever called the cable company, gotten on the line with an actual human attendant, and asked to be connected to an AI chatbot instead?

Of course you haven’t. Because you know that the AI chatbot is ultimately a sham. Although the phone-answering AI chatbot can fool you initially, it really isn’t adding much value to the process. To get anything done, you’ll need to talk to a person.

Nor is the AI phone-answering chatbot really adding much that is even new, beyond the most superficial level. Back in the 1990s—possibly even the 1980s—there were automated phone menus that enabled you to push “1” for the sales department, “2” for technical support, and so on. The phone-answering AI chatbot is yet another example of an AI solution in search of a real-world problem.

If artificial intelligence cannot improve a process, in the same way that spreadsheet programs can improve the process of large-scale calculations, then what is the point of involving AI at all? More often than not, AI simply gets in the way.

Some people are infatuated with artificial intelligence, and believe that it always adds value. But technology can be superfluous, and even a hindrance, if it isn’t suited to a particular task. How many of us would seriously want to take an F-16 to work, rather than commuting in a comparatively low-tech Honda or Toyota?

At present, the world faces many acute shortages. There is a shortage of cheap, environmentally friendly energy. In many areas, there are shortages of medical personnel. Since the COVID pandemic, there have even been shortages of willing restaurant workers.

But one shortage the world does not face? The world faces no shortage of mediocre, barely passable fiction. Just check the Internet. The Internet is already overflowing with imitative, uninspired fiction that no one wants to read.

This is about economics as much as it is about art. As anyone who has ever tried to make a living with novels can tell you, the marketing/selling of fiction is an uphill battle. Even novels by traditionally published, brand-name authors require dedicated and expensive marketing campaigns. The same is true of the best self-published fiction. It doesn’t sell itself. It has to be marketed.

Is there any point, is there any fulfillment of a genuine market need, in filling the Internet (and perhaps, in some cases, the virtual shelves of online bookstores) with AI-knockoffs of Wattpad novels?

This is why I say that AI-written fiction represents a solution in search of a problem. Yes, I understand that some techno-utopians will consider the idea of an AI-written novel to be irresistibly cool for its own sake. The journalistic class, moreover, is presently infatuated with the concept. Various online publications have been hyping AI writing tools for months now.

But how many of us are interested in consuming the resultant products—the novels themselves? Which would you rather read: the next John Grisham or Stephen King novel, or something scraped from the Internet by a bot, and recombined with a software program?

Until you can come up with a satisfactory answer for that question, you can’t convince me that AI-written fiction fulfills any real market need.

Boy George: the non-controversy of the 1980s

Sometimes the past provides us with a lens for better understanding the present.

In the spring of 2023, Anheuser Busch launched an online marketing campaign that featured Dylan Mulvaney, a transgender social media influencer, as a spokesperson for Bud Light.

This resulted in a backlash and a boycott, with real financial consequences for the company.

But the backlash was predictable. The Bud Light/Dylan Mulvaney campaign did not take place in a vacuum, after all.

In recent years, many corporations have placed biological men in spaces allocated for women. Sports Illustrated has selected multiple transgender (biological male) models for its annual swimsuit issue.

Even Playboy has gotten into the act, thrusting female-presenting, biological male models before its heterosexual male readership.

The idea here seems to be that if you show heterosexual men enough transgender women, eventually they’ll start seeing them as indistinguishable from biological women.

This follows the twenty-first-century pattern of blunt-force culture warfare, something I’ll return to shortly.

But let’s get back to the Bud Light debacle.

It seemed to me that all sides were losers here. Anheuser-Busch was certainly a loser. Bud Light sales tanked, as Bud Light drinkers turned to other beers. The company’s stock value declined, too.

Alissa Heinerscheid, the Anheuser-Busch marketing vice president who had championed the Dylan Mulvaney campaign, was forced to take a “leave of absence”. That’s code in the corporate world for “fired”.

Did LGBTQ people benefit from this? Not really. Anheuser-Busch had just made them cannon fodder in its efforts to promote one of its products.

But our topic here is the 1980s, so I’m going to discuss some gender-bending controversies from the 1980s.

Or rather, gender-bending non-controversies. As it turns out, the 1980s were sometimes gay, and sometimes gender-fluid, too. But in ways that weren’t as deliberately confrontational as what you see in the present.

In 1982, I was 14 years old. My parents had just sprung for a basic cable television package, and it included MTV, then a brand new channel.

MTV played nonstop pop and rock videos. I was an immediate fan.

MTV introduced me to lots of new musical acts. I would subsequently buy the albums of some of them, which was exactly what the corporate minds behind MTV had intended.

On the American popular music scene, the early 1980s was the era of the Second British Invasion. Everyone who was big in youth music during that time seemed to speak with a British accent. MTV greatly facilitated this influx of British pop and rock acts.

One of these was a group called Culture Club. The lead singer of Culture Club, Boy George, appeared to be female. Boy George wore makeup and baggy feminine attire. He wore his hair long and in braids, in a distinctly feminine style.

Boy George’s mannerisms were feminine, too. He didn’t sing in a high-pitched falsetto; but his singing voice was high enough to pass for that of a woman.

Some time elapsed before I even realized that Boy George was not a woman. Sure, I sensed that there was something about the female-presenting singer that was atypical. But I was initially fooled.

Boy George is an extreme example, but he wasn’t the only popular musician in the 1980s to tinker with notions of gender norms. There was a whole subgenre of rock music called “glam rock”, in which male musicians took on deliberately androgynous appearances. This started with David Bowie in the 1970s. By the 1980s, groups like Motley Crue and Ratt were wearing makeup and quasi-feminine hairstyles. Women got into the act, too. Annie Lennox of the Eurythmics wore short hair and masculine business suits.

Culture Club, featuring the gender-fluid Boy George, was enormously popular in the early 1980s. In the fall of 1982, the group’s breakout song, “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?” reached the number two position on the US charts.

The term “transgender” wasn’t common in the early 1980s, but that’s what Boy George was. He was a man who presented as a woman in public. At the very least, he was a drag queen.

Suddenly, the gender-fluid Boy George was in front of millions of impressionable young people, every time they turned on MTV. And practically all adolescents and teens watched MTV in the 1980s.

If we cast the 1980s in terms of the present, the next logical question might be: when did the backlash start? Where were the alarmed parents, taking to microphones in town hall meetings throughout the country? Where were the calls to boycott cable companies that included MTV in their basic packages?

We didn’t have the Internet in the 1980s, of course. But we did have CNN, network television, newspapers, and radio. There were certainly political and social movements that went “viral” during this period, like the Nuclear Freeze campaign, or the Save the Whales Movement.

But here’s the thing: there was no backlash against all of this gender fluidity on MTV and thoughout popular music. Many adults were aware of Boy George. He was too large of a cultural phenomenon to escape their notice.

In 1984, People magazine ran a cover article about Boy George, with the words, “kids are getting his message”. Yet the adult authority figures of 1984 were notably unconcerned. Boy George did not become a flashpoint in a 1980s version of the culture war.

Was this because the 1980s were more liberal? Hardly. Keep in mind that the 1980s are remembered for their conservatism, and not without reason. Politically, this was an era that belonged to Ronald Reagan in the United States, and Margaret Thatcher in the UK. In many of our institutions, members of the World War II generation still occupied positions of leadership.

A group that called itself the Moral Majority was very active, too. This organization, led by evangelical preacher Jerry Falwell, took very public positions on matters of sex and propriety. For example, the Moral Majority constantly campaigned against convenience stores that sold magazines like Playboy and Penthouse. Hotel chains that offered pay-per-view pornographic movies in guest rooms were put on boycott lists.

And yet, the Moral Majority and its various imitators didn’t care about Boy George, the gender-fluid, female-presenting lead singer of Culture Club.

I don’t ever recall hearing an adult fulminate against this man who dressed up in female attire to sing for young people. Not even once.

But the tolerance of Boy George’s gender fluidity went beyond the adults. What about that most maligned of demographics: young, heterosexual males? You may have been told that the 1980s was an era of “toxic masculinity”. Not in regard to Culture Club, at least, it wasn’t. As a teenage boy in 1982 or 1983, your decision to listen to Culture Club—or to ignore them—wasn’t seen as a statement on your masculinity. 

Boy George held back nothing, and still, no one on the right cared. In 1983, he was asked in a television interview whether he preferred men or women. He replied, “Oh, both.” In a 1985 interview with Barbara Walters, Boy George elaborated further, stating that he had had both male and female lovers.

And still, there was no call to shield American children from this bisexual, gender-bending singer who made absolutely no bones about who he was and what he was about.

But why were conservatives so blithely tolerant of Boy George and all this public gender fluidity, in the most conservative era in recent history?

Because other things were different in the 1980s, too. Tolerance went both ways. No one on the right insisted on making Boy George and gender fluidity points of confrontation, because no one on the left did, either. Nor did the people who ran our schools, media outlets, and Fortune 500 companies.

I was in high school during the first half of the 1980s. My teachers were certainly aware of Boy George. Yet none of them suggested in class that maybe some of us should change our gender identification because this famous singer appeared to be doing so. Teachers in American grade schools weren’t making such arguments, either.

Nor would a marketing executive at Anheuser-Busch in 1983 have been foolish enough to troll the company’s core demographic by making Boy George a spokesperson for Bud Light. Bud Light commercials of the 1980s were designed to appeal to the beer’s mostly male, mostly blue-collar customer base. Bud Light ads of that era featured the humorous canine character Spuds MacKenzie, and real women in swimsuits. Some Bud Light marketing campaigns even made use of both in the same ads.

Nor did Boy George—or any of his fans—demand that we pretend Boy George was an actual woman, just because he presented as female in public. In fact, Boy George—who is still around—has publicly taken issue with the contemporary pronoun police.

Back in the 1980s, Boy George wanted to do his thing; and his thing was flamboyant, gender-bending, and bisexual. He didn’t demand that you change your ideas of gender and sexuality in order to accommodate his ideas or his choices.

The main strategy in the culture wars of the twenty-first century seems to be not persuasion, but staking out positions that are practically guaranteed to be inflammatory, then daring the other side to knock a chip off one’s shoulder.

As someone old enough to remember the 1980s, I can report that in regard to most matters, people were a lot more laid back and tolerant then. There was an acceptance of diversity, but it was also understood that diversity went both ways. Boy George represented one kind of diversity. As did the predominantly heterosexual, rough-edged culture of the typical Bud Light drinker. What Alissa Heinerscheid, the now fired marketing VP at Anheuser Busch, dismissively called “fratty” culture.

This sense of moderation on all sides was why Boy George never appeared in a Bud Light ad in the 1980s, and he never incurred the public disdain of Bud Light drinkers. Even as many Bud Light drinkers happily sang along with Karma Chameleon when that song came on the radio, as it so often did.

‘Cancel culture’ in Spanish

Below is a (true) story worth listening to…from someone other than me.
This video is in Spanish (one of my lifelong interests), so those of you who have *not* studied the language can feel free to skip it.
This is an account of how the citizens of Spain had to deal with the challenges of freedom of speech following the death of the dictator Francisco Franco in 1975. You’ll recognize some parallels to many of our current debates in the English-speaking world.
I follow a lot of the Spanish-language YouTube channels. Many of the same debates we’re having in the English-speaking world at present are playing out in parts of Latin America and Spain now, too.
I’ve even heard a word for “to cancel someone” in Spanish: the verb ‘funar’, which originated in Chilean Spanish.
Anyway, if your Spanish is up to the task, listen to this gentleman’s talk. It’s a little long, as YouTube videos go, but well worth your time.

 What was a 1980s latchkey kid? 

A latchkey kid is a child or early teenager who is “home alone” for a few hours each day after school. This usually happens because parent(s) are working, and therefore unavailable.

The latchkey kid phenomenon is closely associated with the 1980s, and the generation of Americans born between 1965 and 1970-something. (The so-called “Generation X”.) That said, this was not the experience of everyone who was a school-age kid at some point between 1980 and 1989. Similarly, the generation that grew up in the 1980s was by no means the first—or last—cohort of young people who spent time alone after school.

All those disclaimers aside, we can speak meaningfully of the observable phenomenon, even if it is less than universal, and not strictly confined to the 1980s. The latchkey kid was a definite 1980s trend, owing to some unique circumstances.

Working moms, aka “career women”

In the third decade of the twenty-first century, the word “career woman” sounds quaint. Some might even find it sexist. Of course women have careers, you might say. And you’d be right, if we’re talking about the 2020s.

But four decades ago, things were different…and changing. Millions of upper- and middle-class women were entering the professional, white-collar workforce for the first time. 

The concept of women doing paid labor wasn’t entirely new. Working-class women had long performed paid labor outside the home to one degree or another, usually out of simple necessity. And don’t forget Rosie the Riveter, who filled the vacuum in the male workforce during World War II.

There was also a long tradition of women working in specialized professional careers, especially teaching. (Almost all of my elementary school teachers were women.)

What was new in the 1980s was the mass entry of women into private-sector careers traditionally reserved for men. This is why you heard so much about the “career woman” in the 1980s. This really was a new dimension of female employment, and at an unprecedented scale.

These were also the women who were the young and early middle-age mothers of that era. Their children typically got home from school around 3 p.m., several hours before the end of operations in the typical white-collar workplace.

The result was millions of latchkey kids.

Economic uncertainty

At the same time, a struggling economy had led to high levels of unemployment in the early 1980s. The economy improved as the decade progressed, but unemployment in the United States peaked at 10.8 percent in 1982!

This economic dislocation was dramatized in the 1983 movie, Mr. Mom, starring Teri Garr and Michael Keaton. In the movie, an out-of-work automotive engineer becomes a stay-at-home dad. His wife, meanwhile, becomes the family breadwinner, accepting a high-profile position in the advertising industry. Hijinks ensue, as Dad the Engineer attempts to cope with grocery shopping, housecleaning, childcare, and other traditionally “female” tasks.

Mr. Mom is a comedy; and as would be expected of any movie made 40 years ago, it is largely dated now. Nevertheless, the film serves as a time capsule of the economic anxieties—and realities—of the early 1980s.

As manufacturing took a hit, some traditionally masculine careers (what could be more manly than automotive engineering?) went into decline. Jobs involving computers, marketing, and other forms of white-collar “knowledge work”, were beginning to rise in importance. Many of these careers appealed to women.

Small families and broken homes

The 1980s latchkey experience was also affected by recent demographic changes. The 1980s was, compared to the decades before and since, a decade of small families. By the time the first GenXers were born in 1965, the postwar Baby Boom was petering out. The World War II generation was done with reproduction and childrearing, and that burden increasingly fell onto the shoulders of the Baby Boomers themselves. Most of the Baby Boomers opted for smaller families.

Once married, the Baby Boomers divorced in record numbers, causing divorce rates to peak in 1980. The so-called “broken home” was another reason for the latchkey kid phenomenon. Divorce compelled many mothers to enter the workforce.

My latchkey kid experience

But what if both of your parents were happily married, and gainfully employed? That was my situation.

I was twelve years old in 1980. That same year, my mother took a job as a contract administrator at a local defense contracting firm. The company made the fuses that went into Cold War-era weapons like the shoulder-fired TOW missile and the Hellfire Missile System. 

I spent several hours alone each afternoon, between the time when school let out, and when my parents arrived home from work (usually between 5:30 and 6:00 p.m.)

Learning to entertain yourself without technology

What to do during that time? Homework? Surely you jest. There were a few other kids in my neighborhood, and I got along with them. But we could only hang out so much until we grew tired of each other.

How about TV? Afternoon television in the early 1980s was a wasteland for adolescents and teens. Cable television was just taking off, and nothing worth watching aired until the evening, when adult audiences were tuned in.

Most of the afternoon programming on the non-cable networks consisted of either cartoons or soap operas, neither of which was of much interest to a twelve-year-old boy.

Nor did technology offer much in the way of engaging entertainment. The Internet and cell phones were still decades away. Video games were in their infancy. (Think “Pong”.) If someone had uttered the word “iPad” to me in 1980, I would probably have assumed it had something to do with personal hygiene.

That left latchkey kids largely responsible for entertaining themselves. This was especially true on rainy days, and during the winter months, when it was distinctly unpleasant to hang around outside.

Most of us learned to entertain ourselves in various ways. I became an avid reader, and began dabbling with writing my own articles and stories.

I also immersed myself in various hobbies: coin collecting, stamp collecting, and angling. In the summer of 1978, my grandfather had introduced me to bass fishing. I acquired back issues of Field & Stream and Fishing Facts, and read them all cover-to-cover. By 1981, I knew more about developments in fishing than my grandfather did.

Ironically, this was just about the time that I dropped fishing for other, “cooler” pursuits. But I can still speak knowledgeably about the differences between spinning, spincast, and baitcast reels. I could give you a solid introduction to bass fishing in Midwestern and Upper-South lakes and rivers. (The basics of fishing, I’ve since discovered, really haven’t changed that much since I went fishing with my grandfather.)

The net effects of the latchkey kid phenomenon

All this time alone gave me the ability to ignore the crowd, zero in on an objective, and take a deep dive. I have resisted the modern obsession with cellphones and social media, the compulsive need to be constantly connected, and in constant communication.

Spending so much time alone, at such an early age, taught me to keep my own counsel. I don’t need that much approval from others. I really don’t care what most people think, either about me, or about what I’m doing.

This self-containment has obviously given me the advantage of independence. I have many, many faults; but being a joiner, a follower, or a bandwagon-rider is not among them. I never met a rule, group standard, or authority that I couldn’t challenge.

But all that independence and self-containment has a downside, too. The crowd can be a sinister mob, but that isn’t always the case. A thriving society cannot subsist solely on the uncoordinated activities of lone wolves. There are situations in which being a team player, marching in line, and having a willingness to be led by others are necessary and desirable.

I recognize this principle abstractly, but I don’t feel it in my bones. I’ve never been able to switch off my independence instinct for anything beyond a short-term, provisional basis.

My corporate career was notably lackluster, partly because I bristled at being ordered around. Nor did I naturally aspire to becoming the boss—the core motivator of most underlings. I have never wanted to take orders…or give them.

Oh, and I’m over the age of fifty and single. That might suggest that I have some commitment issues.

A final note on the latchkey kid. The term itself seems to be a retroactive one. Although my research tells me that it existed in the 1970s and 1980s, I don’t recall ever hearing it in those years, either in the media or in daily conversation. Nor do I ever recall anyone describing himself as “a latchkey kid”. The definition and analysis of the phenomenon have mostly come later. Back then, being a latchkey kid was simply what a lot of us did.


The dark secret of my (former) diet soda addiction

Pepsi has raised the prices of its soft drinks by more than 15% in recent months. A 12-pack of any of the company’s chemical-infused, acidic canned liquids now runs around seven dollars in the Cincinnati area. Coca-Cola products are priced at a similarly extortionate level.

We’ve been trained to crave sodas for at least three generations. My grandfather was a fan of Coca-Cola. He was one of those World War II servicemen to whom Coca-Cola aggressively marketed its products. He was never without his supply.

World War II-era Coca-Cola ads

My grandfather was congenitally opposed to any form of diet cola, though. He drank only the original formula, with real sugar. But then, a Coca-Cola in his day was a rare treat, something to consume after hard hours of labor. In that context, the sugar boost was a feature, not a bug.

Subsequent generations started drinking sodas to fulfill their basic hydration needs, and that led to a demand for diet colas. One of the first of these was Coca-Cola’s Tab. Marketed mostly to women, Tab was the forerunner to Diet Coke. 

1982 Tab ad

My mother drank Tab. Back in the 1970s and early 1980s, she always had a carton of Tab on the floor of our kitchen pantry. Tab had a heavy saccharine taste, but it was—in my opinion, at least—vastly superior to Diet Coke, which Coca-Cola debuted in 1982. Continue reading “The dark secret of my (former) diet soda addiction”

A visit to historic Madison, Indiana

Today I scratched another town off my Indiana bucket list: Madison, located in the southernmost portion of the Hoosier State, along the Ohio River in Jefferson County. 

Madison is less than two hours from the east side of Cincinnati, so the drive was not arduous. I went with my dad, who is a native Hoosier from southern Indiana. He had many anecdotes about how much the area had changed since the 1960s. Since I was not born until 1968 myself, I will have to take his word for it.

A view from Madison into Kentucky

The charm of Madison, though, is that much of the town’s original 19th century architecture has been preserved. Throughout Madison’s central historic district, you’ll find baroque Victorian mansions and narrow brick row houses that will make you think you’ve just dropped back into the 1800s.  Continue reading “A visit to historic Madison, Indiana”

The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps

The period between the two world wars was the golden age of the pulp fiction magazines. This was a time before television, or (of course) the Internet. Entertainment options were limited. (Heck, they barely had radio in those days.) Many people therefore turned to magazines that specialized in quickly written and fast-paced stories of romance, western adventure, crime, science fiction, or horror.

What happened to pulp fiction? The pulp magazines weren’t the victims of television, as is commonly thought. They were the casualties, rather, of the cheaply printed paperback. Modern paperback books were first introduced in 1935, but they really caught on during and shortly after World War II. The paperback completely changed the publishing and bookselling landscape, much as Amazon would about sixty years later. 

Some of the original pulp content is still with us, of course. Horror fans who adore H.P. Lovecraft may not know that favorites like “At the Mountains of Madness”, “Dagon” —and most other Lovecraft stories—were originally published in Weird Tales, a pulp magazine founded in 1922. (Note: Weird Tales technically still exists, though its format has undergone some modifications; the magazine has a site on the Internet.)

A cover of Weird Tales from the H.P. Lovecraft era

I’ve read and reread Lovecraft’s oeuvre  as much as I care to. So when I was recently in a mood to do some reading off the beaten path, I decided to indulge in a bit of vintage pulp crime fiction. 

Or actually, quite a lot of vintage pulp crime fiction. The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps contains forty-seven stories and two complete novels. Writers represented in this collection include well known names like Raymond Chandler (1888-1959) and Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961). There are also plenty of stories by writers who are long forgotten. 

The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps

Why read pulp fiction? Well, you probably already watch pulp television. 

I’m a longtime fan of pulp TV, in fact. During the 1980s, I regularly tuned in to action television shows like The A-Team, Knight Rider, Airwolf, and the original MacGyver. These shows were all escapist television, with plots that roared out of the gate like a 1981 DeLorean or a 1987 Toyota Supra. 

My favorite was The A-Team. An episode of The A-Team kept you on the edge of your seat. Each episode ended with a blazing gunfight, in which no one was usually killed or seriously injured. The A-Team made absolutely no attempt to provide any sort of messaging on social, political, or philosophical issues. The other aforementioned 80s-era pulp TV shows were done in a similar vein.

An iconic combat scene from The A-Team

Most of these shows did not age well. For nostalgia’s sake, I recently tuned in to a few old episodes of The A-Team and the original MacGyver. In the MacGyver episode, the eponymous hero found himself in the Soviet Union, where everyone conveniently spoke English. The Russians even spoke English with each other. I managed to sit through about twenty minutes of this. Life is too short.

The same might be said of the stories in The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps. You can detect the literary and storytelling skills at work; but you can also tell that you’re reading fiction produced in a different era, when expectations were very different. My 1980s pulp TV shows did not have to compete with Netflix. The writers whose work is collected in The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps did not have to compete with Michael Connelly or Lee Child. 

The stories in The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps are interesting as artifacts of the pulp era, in the same way that a Ford Model T is an interesting artifact of automobile technology in the 1920s. But as entertainment for present-day audiences? Keep in mind that some of these stories are more than eighty years old. You had might as well ask me if I would like to use a Model T for my daily commuting needs. 

I suspect that this massive tome (more than one thousand pages in print) is so massive for a reason. The editors knew that the phrase “your mileage may vary” would be very applicable here.

Dashiell Hammett, 1934

What about their usefulness for writers? Those of us who write fiction are always thinking of a story in market analysis terms, after all.  

I wouldn’t recommend that any twenty-first century writer try to imitate the style of these stories, exactly. At least a quarter of these tales contain plot holes that you could drive a Model T through; and almost all of them contain hackneyed dialogue. (“He’s on the square!” “The place looked swell.”) 

And oh, the eyebrows that will be raised among the finger-wagging social justice crowd. While these stories aren’t intentionally sexist, they are the product of a different time, when ideas about men and women were different. They overflow with gendered terminology that would make any writer the target of an online pitchfork mob today (“honey,” “doll”, “sugar”, “dame”, etc.). 

The female characters in these crime stories are mostly props. But then, so are most of the men. These stories are all about plot, plot, plot.

And that is where this book may be instructive for writers who have found themselves too immersed in navel-gazing literary fiction. The writer who suspects he is spending too much time on flowery descriptions and internal monologue may learn something valuable here: how to get to the point, or to the plot. The pulp-era writers were certainly good at that, despite their other shortcomings. 

The Bengals’ defeat, and curious expressions of fan (consumer) loyalty

As some of you may know, the Cincinnati Bengals lost the AFC championship game to the Kansas City Chiefs last night. 

This morning, my personal Facebook feed, heavy with Cincinnati residents, was filled with professions of fan loyalty, like the one above: “Still my Bengals.” 

Others were professing their “fan loyalty” in more abstract terms. Some declared that they would stick with the Bengals no matter what.

And here is one of the places where I can’t connect with the rabid spectator sports fan: this concept of team loyalty.

If you find spectator sports enthralling, that’s one thing. The fact that I don’t find them particularly entertaining is a mere matter of preference. 

Similarly, we all enjoy different television shows and movies, different kinds of music. I don’t happen to be a fan of country music. This doesn’t leave me shaking my head at the preferences of country music fans. 

But then, most country music fans aren’t making public declarations of fan loyalty when their favorite artist fails to win a CMA award. Only spectator sports fans do things like that.

A professional sports team—the Cincinnati Bengals, the Kansas City Chiefs, whatever—is a corporation that sells an entertainment product. No different from Sony Pictures or Netflix. Fans of entertainment companies are more accurately called consumers.

If you enjoy an entertainment company’s product, so be it. But it’s important to remember where you stand, in the big scheme of things, before getting too invested in this fan loyalty concept.

Take Joe Burrow, the Cincinnati Bengals’ 26-year-old quarterback. Joe Burrow has a 4-year contract worth over $36 million. And—of course—a beautiful girlfriend with a widely subscribed Instagram account. Rich young celebrity athletes with beautiful girlfriends are nothing new, of course.

More power to Joe Burrow. I’m sure he’s talented and that he’s worked hard. But it’s somewhat self-deluding—if not foolish—to think that this man needs your expressions of loyalty after he loses a game. 

And he certainly isn’t reading your Facebook feed. Continue reading “The Bengals’ defeat, and curious expressions of fan (consumer) loyalty”

Challenger disaster +37 years

I was a senior in high school on January 28, 1986. The explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger occurred that day at 11:39 a.m., EST.

The explosion took place just 73 seconds into the shuttle’s flight, and killed all seven crew members. Among the dead was Christa McAuliffe, a Massachusetts teacher who had been a guest astronaut. 

That year I had a part-time job in my school’s cafeteria. I was operating a soda machine in the lunch line when the students began filing in, talking about what had happened. This was one of those national tragedies that was announced in classrooms, rather like the assassination of JFK, when my parents were in high school.

The Reagan Administration had been hoping to revive interest in the U.S. space program, as well as to inject some life into math and science education. (Even then, there were concerns that American students were falling behind their global counterparts in math and science.) The presence of teacher Christa McAuliffe on the mission was a key part of that effort. McAuliffe’s inclusion would have been a good idea, perhaps, if not for what happened.

Christa McAuliffe in 1985

I’m not going to exaggerate, and say that the Challenger disaster depressed me for a month, or anything like that. I was sorry for the loss of life, of course. But in 1986 I was a self-absorbed teenager, and this was a faraway event. 

The disaster did have a sobering effect on me, though. At my present age (I’ll let you do the math), I am acutely aware that life is fragile, and that bad things happen to good people. I wasn’t as aware of this in 1986. Continue reading “Challenger disaster +37 years”

The Beatles in Hamburg, and ‘The Cairo Deception’

As many of you will know, I recently wrapped up The Cairo Deception, my 5-book World War II series.

One of the final chapters of the book depicts the Beatles performing in Hamburg, West Germany in December 1962. (I won’t go into more story detail than that, so as to avoid spoilers.)

This is actually true. When I discovered this lesser known piece of rock music history, I just couldn’t resist putting it in the book, as an Easter egg for Beatles fans.

The Beatles both resided and performed in Hamburg from August 1960 to December 1962. The Beatles’ Hamburg residence took place shortly before they became a global phenomenon. The band also performed at a music venue in Hamburg called The Star-Club, as described in Postwar: Book 5 of The Cairo Deception. 

The Beatles of the Hamburg period involved a slightly different lineup of the band: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Stuart Sutcliffe and Pete Best. After the group returned to England at the end of 1962, Sutcliffe and Best left the band, and Ringo Starr was hired on as the new drummer.

Click here to view THE CAIRO DECEPTION series on Amazon

Dress standards of the WW2 generation

The above photo from Historic Photographs showed up in my Facebook feed. It is captioned, “This impeccably dressed woman shopping for groceries with her son. 1945”

My maternal grandparents were of the World War II generation. My grandmother would have been a few years younger than the woman in the photo. (My mother was not yet born in 1945, so she was younger than the child in the stroller; but my mother’s arrival in the world was only a year away.)

My grandparents always dressed up. They dressed up for church, of course, as well as for social engagements. But they also dressed up for airplane flights and doctor’s appointments—which I never understood.

Their basic idea seemed to be: if you are going to be in the company of strangers, look sharp. 

I am a child of the 1970s and a teenager of the 1980s. I landed in the corporate world in the early 1990s, just as “casual Friday” and (even better) “business casual” were becoming fully entrenched. My standards of dress are therefore decidedly less exacting than those of my grandparents. 

I will confess: much as I admired my Greatest Generation grandparents, I have no desire to emulate them in this regard. Being now self-employed, gym clothes are my default attire. (I should note, however, that I do actually go to the gym.)

Nevertheless, it’s interesting to observe that about seventy years ago, adults had very different ideas about the way one should present oneself in public. 

A date that will live in infamy

Although a formal declaration of war would not come until December 8, it was on this day, 81 years ago, that World War II began for the United States. Naval forces of the Empire of Japan launched an unprovoked attack on U.S. military facilities at Pearl Harbor. More than 2,400 Americans died in the aerial bombardment, and another 1,000 were wounded. Continue reading “A date that will live in infamy”

Norman Rockwell Thanksgivings

In honor of simpler, saner times in America, here is a look at some of the Thanksgiving-themed paintings produced by artist Norman Rockwell during the mid-20th century.

Wherever you are, dear reader, I hope you enjoy the holiday with family and/or friends.

Be safe, and beware that second slice of pumpkin pie.

‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ on Netflix

I watched All Quiet on the Western Front, which dropped on Netflix on October 28.

This movie is visually stunning and emotionally draining. It’s a war epic of equal magnitude to 1917 or Saving Private Ryan. The producers did not cut any corners. The period details in this film are meticulous. It must have been very expensive to make.

All Quiet on the Western Front keeps you glued to the screen for all of its 147 minutes. The characters are not particularly memorable; but they’re human enough to make you empathize with their plight. You get a real sense of the misery and terror of World War I combat.

As viewers, we are more familiar with films about World War II than World War I. This is partly because filmmaking was still in its infancy when the First World War ended, but also because World War I offers less inviting subject matter. 

World War II offers clear moral lines and, therefore, endless opportunities for redemptive movie plots. For all of our lives, the Nazis have been the personification of evil in the Western imagination, and not without reason. The Japanese imperialists, who raped and pillaged across Asia, were not far behind. The war to defeat them is widely viewed as worth the cost.

World War I, though, not so much. Few people can succinctly state what World War I was really about, because people were unsure at the time. Almost all historians agree that World War I was a wasteful endeavor in both resources and human life. 

Nor did the Allied victory in World War I fulfill its promises. World War I was not the war to end all wars, and it did not make the world safe for democracy. World War I gave us the Soviet Union and global communism. World War I paved the way for Adolf Hitler, the Nazis, and the carnage of World War II. 

All Quiet on the Western Front is therefore bleak, as movies about World War I tend to be. You’ll be enthralled by this movie. You may or may not enjoy it.

There is little in the way of subplot. There is no romance. There aren’t even any female characters. This is a somewhat narrow story about men at war in Europe in 1917 and 1918, with an emphasis on a handful of German soldiers. If you’re looking for a sprawling, diverse cast, with lots of complex, interwoven storylines, you’ve come to the wrong place.

Nevertheless, this movie is worth the 2.5 hours it will take from your life. It really is a well-made film. 

9/11 + 21 years

I still remember 9/11/2001 like it was yesterday. 

I was working at Toyota’s corporate headquarters in Erlanger, Kentucky that Tuesday morning. The weather was sunny and pleasantly autumn-like. The previous weekend, I had attended my 15-year high school class reunion, and had a wonderful time. All was right with the world, or at least all was right with my little corner of it.

When the first plane hit the World Trade Center, most of us assumed that it was an accident of some kind. Then the second plane hit. Then came the news of an airliner striking the Pentagon. 

We now knew that something horrible and coordinated was underway. Like everyone else in my office that morning, I set my work aside, and turned my full attention to the news.

My father was still only in his fifties and still working at the time. The previous day, he had flown to Las Vegas to participate in a trade show. I called my mother to make sure that he was all right. Of course he was, as he was on the ground in a convention center in Nevada when the attacks were carried out. 

But thousands of other people weren’t so lucky. They were either at the wrong place at the wrong time, or their loved ones were.

I’m occasionally surprised to meet young adults who either weren’t yet born on 9/11/2001, or who were barely alive and unaware of the news at the time. But then, it has been twenty-one years, hasn’t it?  

Nearly three thousand innocent lives were taken on 9/11/2001. Many of those people would still be with us today. The anniversary of 9/11 should therefore be a solemn occasion, and a day to remember those we lost that day…even if it has been 21 years.