Archive for November, 2012

Julian Ruck versus Christopher Hitchens

Posted by on November 30th, 2012

Readers of this blog will be familiar with the author Julian Ruck, who has darkened our hallways before. Ruck now has a newspaper column, for the Llanelli Star, and has even promised to write – at some point – about myself and David Hewson, presumably because we were both outspoken about the failure of his ebook festival, long after he’d privately exasperated at least me with his offensive and unprofessional antics.

Anyway, he has his column. His latest is called “Why aren’t women funny?” – and you can read it online here. From the title, you can imagine that it’s awful, and it is. But you can then read the article “Why women aren’t funny”, by Christopher Hitchens, here. It is also awful, although at least it has, in common with most of his stuff, a little flair. Hitchens’s article was written over five years ago, and is reasonably well-known. Let us compare it with Julian Ruck’s article, published two days ago.

1.

Julian Ruck:

“ARE women funny?

One often hears women saying: “Oh, he’s a good laugh” or “He’s so funny”, but does one ever hear men saying the same thing about women?”

Christopher Hitchens:

“Be your gender what it may, you will certainly have heard the following from a female friend who is enumerating the charms of a new (male) squeeze: “He’s really quite cute, and he’s kind to my friends, and he knows all kinds of stuff, and he’s so funny … However, there is something that you absolutely never hear from a male friend who is hymning his latest (female) love interest: “She’s a real honey, has a life of her own … [interlude for attributes that are none of your business] … and, man, does she ever make ’em laugh.””

2.

Julian Ruck:

“So why then do women, who have all us men at their mercy, struggle to be funny?”

Christopher Hitchens:

“Why are women, who have the whole male world at their mercy, not funny?”

3. 

Julian Ruck:

“It’s probably just as well I suspect, because let’s face it, these days all we men have left, is our sense of humour. At least, when it comes to impressing the ladies.

Make no mistake, women have out-careered us, out-moneyed us and outsmarted us.

The thing is that women, have no corresponding need to “pull” men in this way.

They hold all the cards, whether men like it or not. A shapely bosom, a fine pair of legs and even a pretty smile (in that order) and we men are off with the fairies!”

Christopher Hitchens:

“Women have no corresponding need to appeal to men in this way. They already appeal to men, if you catch my drift.”

4.

Julian Ruck:

“Scientific research would have you believe that women have less expectation of a reward, which in this case is the punchline, so when they finally get the joke they are apparently more pleased about it. Yes I know, don’t we just love our modern “Cosmo” little insights!”

Christopher Hitchens:

 “”Women appeared to have less expectation of a reward, which in this case was the punch line of the cartoon,” said the report’s author, Dr. Allan Reiss. “So when they got to the joke’s punch line, they were more pleased about it.” The report also found that “women were quicker at identifying material they considered unfunny.””

5.

Julian Ruck:

“An average man then, has only one weapon left in his masculine arsenal — he sure as hell had better be able to make the lady laugh! If you can make ’em laugh, and I’m talking here about the peals of delight, head-back, every tooth on show, and deep-throated mirth variety, then nine cases out of 10, you’re onto a winner.”

Christopher Hitchens:

 “An average man has just one, outside chance: he had better be able to make the lady laugh. Making them laugh has been one of the crucial preoccupations of my life. If you can stimulate her to laughter—I am talking about that real, out-loud, head-back, mouth-open-to-expose-the-full-horseshoe-of-lovely-teeth, involuntary, full, and deep-throated mirth; the kind that is accompanied by a shocked surprise and a slight (no, make that a loud) peal of delight—well, then, you have at least caused her to loosen up and to change her expression. I shall not elaborate further.”

6.

Julian Ruck:

“I’m not saying there are no decent female comedians about the place, but there are without doubt, more awful female comedians than there are male, and like it or not the good ones are usually either boiler- suited or Jewish — or a combination of the two.”

Christopher Hitchens:

“This is not to say that women are humorless, or cannot make great wits and comedians … In any case, my argument doesn’t say that there are no decent women comedians. There are more terrible female comedians than there are terrible male comedians, but there are some impressive ladies out there. Most of them, though, when you come to review the situation, are hefty or dykey or Jewish, or some combo of the three.”

7.

Julian Ruck:

“Finally then, quick witted and incisive humour is I am told, a sign of intelligence, and many women (at least those of more mature years) still believe that appearing to be too bright can be rather off-putting to those men showing an interest as it were.

Either this, or men just simply don’t want women to be funny.”

Christopher Hitchens:

“Precisely because humor is a sign of intelligence (and many women believe, or were taught by their mothers, that they become threatening to men if they appear too bright), it could be that in some way men do not want women to be funny.”

_____________________

Ruck ends his piece with a plaintive “You decide.” All right – I will. I decide that, aside from being sexist and unpleasant, Julian Ruck is a plagiarist. I look forward to reading whatever he eventually writes about me – assuming, that is, I haven’t read it somewhere else before.

 

Amazon reviews

Posted by on November 2nd, 2012

It appears that Amazon has instigated a new policy on reviews: one that has seen many existing book reviews being deleted, and others being refused. This has, understandably, caused much consternation and discussion online. Here is an initial post on the subject. Here is a more recent one, which goes some way to explaining what Amazon’s new policy is:

“We do not allow reviews on behalf of a person or company with a financial interest in the product or a directly competing product. This includes authors, artists, publishers, manufacturers, or third-party merchants selling the product. As a result, we’ve removed your reviews for this title. Any further violations of our posted Guidelines may result in the removal of this item from our website.”

Taken at face value, it appears – put bluntly – that Amazon no longer accepts book reviews from people within the publishing industry. This is presently limited to accounts where the connection is made explicit (eg accounts that are linked to a specific author page), but presumably the spirit of it, at least, extends, and things may change. There are many things to say about this, but here are some initial thoughts.

1. Free speech.

This is not an issue of free speech, a term which is much abused and debased. Amazon is a private company that owns its own web space; it has no more obligation to allow you to speak on its site than I do to allow you to stick a sign up in my garden. It could conceivably become a free speech issue if Amazon controlled so much of the available reviewing space that it became impossible to review outside of them in a meaningful way. But that is not the case, and, if it were, there would be other discussions to be had. Presently, the idea this is a free speech issue is risible.

2. It’s unfair.

Yes, I would say it is. It seems to be completely over-the-top. Perhaps that’s simply because Amazon sells such a huge volume of material that any new algorithm intended to sieve it all will inevitably be blunt and cumbersome in its first few iterations.

As things stand, it flies in the face of conventional criticism, in which writers reviewing writers has a fine and long-standing tradition, and it makes the mistake of assuming that writers are in direct, one-to-one competition with each other. (We aren’t, although all of us are competing for time). Even worse is the troubling coda: “Any further violations of our posted Guidelines may result in the removal of this item from our website”. This is not only absurdly heavy-handed and misdirected, but clearly open to mischief. Finally, these measures are unlikely to stop abuse of the review system; they barely even make it difficult.

In short, if things are as reported, Amazon’s changes are a massive failure.

That said, kudos is still due to them for doing something. Because they didn’t need to, and I didn’t expect them to. Amazon barely break even (if that) on sales of physical Kindles and they lose money on heavily-discounted traditional ebooks. In the case of self-published ebooks, they take a tremendous cut for doing practically nothing (just hosting, basically). It shouldn’t matter to them which of those books sell as long as enough books sell; they get their cut regardless of the quality of the content or why a particular book makes the bestseller lists. So there’s no impetus on them to act even vaguely as gatekeepers, and I’m quietly impressed that they want to, however minimally and ineffectively.

It’s actually one of the reasons why the No Sock Puppets Here Please letter was directed towards readers. I personally had little faith that any forward movement on this issue would come from above – either retailers like Amazon, or publishers – as there was no reason for it to. Plus, I tend to favour grassroots-driven change over top-down movements. So I was pleasantly surprised at Amazon’s actions, at least, if not pleased by they way they acted.

3. It’s the fault of you bastards.

Some people have centred on this – that Amazon’s reaction is heavy-handed and self-defeating, and that this is the fault of both the people behind and signatories to the No Sock Puppets Here Please letter. There was certainly a lot of press coverage around the letter, along with the issues it raised, and it seems fairly likely that all of that was a motivation for Amazon doing what they’ve done. Since some people feel we shouldn’t have written the letter, it’s natural to blame us when Amazon do something else those people feel they shouldn’t do as an apparent consequence. Joe Konrath, as is to be expected, is annoyed. His latest blogpost, and his comments under, contain the following direct opposites of insight:

“Congratulations, NSPHP signatories. Because of your concerns about Amazon’s review policy and your ridiculous little petition, and the resulting media witch hunt, thousands of legitimate reviews have now been deleted. Good thing you brought it to Amazon’s attention. You should be very proud.

I was going to use a “one bad apple spoils the whole bunch” analogy here, but that isn’t appropriate, since that petition had over 400 author signatures. I think it’s more like tattling on a fellow student for making fart noises in class, and then the teacher making the whole class skip recess as punishment.

But let us all applaud Democracy In Action. You complained. Amazon listened to you. And now you’ve lost thousands of honest reviews.

If it makes you feel better, I’m sure a few sock puppet reviews were also deleted along with all the legit ones. So once again, congrats. You have killed an annoying mosquito using a nuclear weapon, collateral damage be damned.”

And:

“Amazon reacted to a bunch of holier-than-thou authors. I don’t like how Amazon reacted, but causality is key here.

Without the NSPHP hullabaloo we wouldn’t be having this discussion. But I’m very curious if anyone who signed that petition is applauding Amazon’s actions here.”

And:

“I’m not absolving Amazon. They screwed up. But they were responding to moral panic started by a few misguided morons who didn’t think things through but loved to point fingers and get their names in newspapers.

If I invented a time machine and eliminated three or four pinheads, we wouldn’t be having this problem. Which I still might so, as no on will mourn their erasure from human history.”

Yeah, well, good luck with that.

Also in those comments (and below John Rickards’s excellent piece) Barry Eisler invokes the Law of Unintended Consequences – presumably because, having waded through the free speech debacle, many of Joe’s audience will just be grateful for the merest flickering thought that someone around there has a clue what they’re fucking talking about. Similarly, Blake Crouch on Twitter comments to one of the people who signed the letter: “I’m pissed b/c your self-righteous bluster has cost me and many others good honest reviews. Thx for that.”

Chains of causation are complex things, and one of the interesting things about them is that, when we don’t think, our personal biases tend to dictate where we stop and point and say “it’s because of this”. If I wanted to, I could take this all the way back to Stephen Leather. After all, it was his admission on stage at Harrogate that he used sock puppet accounts that led to Jeremy Duns chasing and exposing him for what he was. That, in turn, led to the environment in which R J Ellory was exposed. John Locke’s revelation fed into that from an angle, but would probably have amounted to less in isolation.

Then, there were all the people who stepped up in support of these authors’ behaviours – I lost track of the number of “all authors do it” comments I saw online – and who also helped cause the letter. And then the letter itself, with the publicity around it (very little of it sought out, by the way; the story was already running). The bloggers who then picked it up and discussed it, including Barry and Joe, the latter of which boasts of his audience and influence. And so on.

Then finally, Amazon, taking the action they have.

(And us, obviously, now talking about it again. So it will go).

You can assign “fault” at any step along the way, and clearly, personal bias will come into it as no step is inescapably inciteful of the next. I don’t really see the No Sock Puppets Here letter in itself as being devalued because it may have helped to contribute to a dubious outcome. I see it more as pointing out “there is a wasp on your collar!” If the person then smashes themselves repeatedly in the neck with a hammer, that’s clearly quite bad, but the overly exaggerated response doesn’t mean there wasn’t a wasp there, and that it wasn’t worth pointing it out in the first place. So – if we need to apportion blame – I’d say it’s obviously Amazon’s fault.

Of course, I am biased. And people who are biased in other ways may well disagree, and find other ways to frame it.