Laurence Tennant

Brilliant Ideas

The Cultural Network

Facebook’s ‘+1’ is extremely limited. I can ‘like’ Justin Bieber, but I can’t do a whole lot more to distinguish myself from all the others who also dig him. I can’t signal my outstanding music taste by showing off the accurate ratings that I’ve given to his albums, or catalogue the rest of my music collection on Facebook. There’s no way to review stuff and get the message out to people who really want to hear my remarks.

That’s why I need social cataloguing sites like IMDB, Librarything, Shelfari, Rateyourmusic, and Discogs. They cater for those who are obsessed with recording and publicising just about every cultural experience that they ever partake in. Such websites are also occasionally useful for more casual users who simply want to remind themselves that they loved SCARY MOVIE 5 and need to check out Kanye’s new album.

It’s highly inconvenient to have to make accounts on about 5 different sites to keep track of all the cultural stuff that you do. WHAT IF these movie, music and book catalogues (with ratings et al.) were combined into a single social network and dating website?

Facebook + IMDB + Goodreads + Discogs + OkCupid = ?

Well, who wouldn’t want the following:

In short, Cultural Network © 2011, me. Any employees of Amazon – almost certainly the only company with a big enough cultural database to be able to kick this off – are welcome to strike a deal.

I believe that the potential for this idea is endless, for in today’s consumer paradise the kinds of cultural phenomenae that you consume inform your buying preferences very accurately, meaning that the Cultural Network can sell your private data onto shady advertising corporations, which renders it a highly profitable endeavour, meaning that the Cultural Network can reinvest huge amounts of money back into itself, giving it the resources to hire an army of lawyers and achieve regulatory capture, allowing it to destroy its inferior competitors and monopolise all cultural thought…

Anyway, thanks to the domain troll sitting on culturalnetwork.com, it appears I can continue procrastinating about this idea until the domain expires on 2018-01-23

The SchadenFreudian Slip

In Oxbridge we suffer from the ‘Week 5 Blues’. It is the crushing feeling of nihilistic despondency that a young person – who should really be ‘living it up’ – feels after four weeks of solitary study.

Yesterday, I was chatting to somebody who signed off by saying: “I hope Week 5 is getting to you”. This struck me as a fine example of a ‘SchadenFreudian Slip’ – when one’s enjoyment of another’s suffering is accidentally manifested. Although she denied any ill-meaning, she had subconsciously given away the fact that she was experiencing Week 5 Blues, and wished agony on me too.

Why are Fantasy/SF books so long?

Yawn. How did I ever have the time for these? When I was 13, I used to devour fantasy fictions. I must have become disenchanted during my late-teen years, because yesterday, I picked up The Farseer Trilogy – one of my childhood favourites – and its plodding pace caused me to fall asleep in the library. And yet I recall staying awake for a continuous 40 hour session as a child in order to finish the series. It felt so gripping at the time, and I remember stepping back into real life with an impression of having participated in something life-changingly epic. Nowadays, fantasy lit seems to me to be unsubtle and SLOW, and just as I’m getting into it, some little thing like tactless racial characterisation tends to give me literary apoplexy.

Although the books seem far from awful to me today – they even contain some neat little quotes that hit on far more complex ideas (“That is the trick of good government. To make folk desire to live in such a way that there is no need for its intervention.”) I just don’t have time to keep track of a sprawling 700 page Middle-Earthian narrative any more. Astonishingly interconnected plots about auspicious village boys? No thanks! Dragons? No thanks! That means even A Song of Ice and Fire gets booted out of my Great Western Art Canon.

So why are Fantasy/SF books so long? If we hypothesise that most adults in the Western world work 9-5 days, eat some meals and hopefully do a little exercise, they then possess only a few hours of spare time every day. Nevertheless, fantasy authors are presumptuous enough to publish gargantuan narratives that require months of an average person’s life to finish, when most writers make do with a good 200-300 pages. Are bored pubescents, then, the only market for fantasy?

Well, fantasy often depends on us identifying with the underappreciated hero-protagonist, and the longer the book, the more this process of identification can be maximised and prolonged. In The Farseer Trilogy for instance, we follow Fitz through multiple near-deaths, through journeys to foreign kingdoms and through swashbucklingly arbitrary battles. He develops powers that none of the other characters understand, but that we do! We get more cosy with him the longer that we read and share his experiences.

Moreover, reading is difficult in the modern world. Food, computer games, talking to attractive people – these are generally much more stimulating activities than reading fantasy novels. So we feel that we are doing something legendary when we spend the time to plough through 700 pages of goblins and dragon eggs and high political intrigue. The epic act of actually reading such digressive nonsense parallels the heroic travails of the bastard-peasant-boy-narrator. When I was 38 hours through my Farseer Trilogy reading campaign, I truly believed that I was achieving something as epic as Fitz’s single-handed penetration of enemy fortresses. Second by second I was battling through bleary eyes and tiredness. The quest of finishing the novel appeared to me as paramount as the task of saving a fantasy kingdom. If I’d closed the book, the motley kingdom would have vanished at once, forcing my Herculean reading journey to be time-consumingly restarted later.

A short fantasy novel would be like a half-finished adventure; it would elicit disappointment of the order that one would feel if Frodo and Sam had done the sensible thing and kicked back in Rivendell while paying eagles to air-drop the ring directly into Mt. Doom. Practical and sensible ideas aren’t sufficiently epic; by definition, the only things that can be epic are non-viable undertakings like slogging to Mordor, reading the entire Wheel of Time without losing your mind, or caring about a single character in the obscenely bloated Malazan Book of the Fallen. The more convoluted the quest, the more challenging the reader’s task of keeping track of thousands of characters, geographical features, diplomatic relationships, rebranded dungeons and dragons classes, castle architectures, magic rings, swords and monsters. Thus length is a necessary AND sufficient component of the fantasy novel.

P.S. I’ve been informed that this is the real reason why fantasy books are so long.

P.P.S. Terry Goodkind. I thought that your fantasy novels were godawful when I was twelve years old, so I cannot imagine how many negative stars I’d require if I had time to reappraise them now.

In fact I have a suspicion that I might actually enjoy your books as uproarious send-ups of fantasy’s absurdities. The irony of a Randroid being named ‘Goodkind’ is funny enough for me.