Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Truth is Like Multiple Unicorns

Owl is in the habit of believing whatever she reads is the sovereign truth. Pandas are being gored to death by unicorns, fine, unicorns are just having ‘technical’ difficulties with their horns, fine, unicorns are actually working for Panda immortality with PETA, yeah okay. Sometimes it is hard to reconcile all of these truths but Owl does it anyway. There are multiple unicorns. However, sometimes even believing in multiple unicorns is not enough.

Last week, Owl found this Economist article on China’s response to the Egyptian riots. Namely China has clamped down on reporting so that it focuses on stranded Chinese and the instability rioting has on daily life. Commentary on how this is a fight for a new government is eliminated or downplayed. Search results redirect you to a government warning or articles that deal lightly with the topic. Owl was horrified. The evil government! The innocent people who don’t know what their government is up to!

Then Owl read the comments. In brief, The Economist has an agenda when it writes about China. Chinese search engines do indeed generate articles on the Egyptian riots. Chinese commenters pointed out they’d been involved in heated and deep online discussions about Egypt. In fact, they are able to access this article.  

Such is the strength of the printed word that now Owl is thoroughly confused. Her instinct is to believe the article. She does not think the commenters are lying, but perhaps they are part of an elite who can hack the censor. Does the average citizen have the same access to news? The Economist is a well respected magazine. It would not be full of lies and slander. 

No lies and slander here.
Owl sent an inquiry to her friend Kate who is living in China. This is her response:

Economist is a little bit full of crap - I tend to think that a lot of what they write on china is pretty hysterical and ooga-booga, like OHHH the CHINESE they are COMING FOR US!!!!! Which may in some ways be accurate but it just isn’t the full story, it's very one sided. Not that Economist is the only one guilty of it, NYTimes is no better, much less CNN etc. WRT Egypt, AFAIK it's just on Weibo that you can't search for Egypt, and even so last I heard you could still search "Egypt," just not "埃及“. Also, they only blocked search results, but not actual postings about Egypt. Also, AFAIK Baidu can still search Egypt riots…That said, official news media in China is focusing on the rioting, violence and anarchy more than anything else. Most people I've encountered in China are pretty conflicted about the government - on the one hand many of them recognize how much good the CCP has done for the country in such a short span of time, lifting millions out of poverty and developing huge cities in only 30 years. On the other hand, they are deeply cynical about the CCP and realize that they have no say and no voice, and are blocked from information via the "great firewall" and other kinds of censorship...and recognize the abuses of the government, and their powerlessness against it…

What frightens Owl is that if she’d read the print magazine which has no commentary, she’d never have thought to question the article. How can you question when you don’t even know what you don’t know?
And even when she read the commentary from Chinese people, living in China, Owl did not fully believe it. She had to ask someone whom she knew personally and trusted. What happens when people have no Kate?

Owl figures they must read. That’s what she does. Clearly it is working well for her. Owl wonders about business leaders who make deals with foreign companies, politicians who shape policy, and intelligence officers who provide these politicians with information. These people shape the world. These people get to declare war. Owl hopes they have far more comprehensive reading material, far less biases than she does, and the ability to question everything they read. It would be a tragedy if bad information led to a war and civilians and soldiers went up in flames because of some erroneous report.

Actually, Owl had a high school teacher who followed several major news networks to avoid the problem of bias. He would bring in clips from CNN, the BBC, the major French networks, and Al-Jeezera.

Owl admires him. He also reads the news until it explodes out of his ears. Owl has other interests like sleeping in or partaking in pie. She is not interested in giving these up to spend more time reading the news. Worse, Owl admits, even if she spends a lot of time reading the news or puzzling out all the layers of complexity that make up a full story, there is no proof that when push comes to shove she will remember the layers of complexity and act on them instead of the simple facts that are served up to her on a silver platter as the Sovereign Truth.

Recently Owl’s cousin from India asked her when America became independent. Owl floundered. Owl had vague memories of all of her history classes where her teachers promised her the only date she’d ever have to remember was July 4th, 1776. She also remembered her teachers telling her to be canny because July 4th wasn’t independence. Owl struggled. She knew July 4th was important because people eat hot dogs and fireworks and Owl always eats too many hot dogs and gets sick, but why? Why so many hot dogs in July? Owl prayed no one would shred her passport. Owl decided July 4th meant independence and she was hallucinating the part about being canny.

Owl consulted yahoo answers and saw that other people wanted to know when America gained its independence. Owl felt comforted. She wasn’t the only one! Then she thought about that again and stopped feeling comforted. She also noted that the answers to the question fell into three categories:

(1)   Shock and outrage. Tell me you aren’t an American. What are our kids learning these days? Idiot!
(2)   July 4th, 1776, duh!
(3)   It’s up for debate. July 4th, 1776 was when America decided it was independent and gave the memo to Britain, a.k.a. The Declaration of Independence. Sept 3, 1783 was when the Revolutionary War ended, the Treaty of Paris was signed and Britain accepted the memo. January 14th, 1784 is when the Continental Congress ratified the treaty officially establishing the United States as an independent country.

Owl will let you guess which two answers were the most common. (Owl also finds it psychologically interesting America celebrates the day it decided it was independent, not the day of actual independence.)

Owl is left with an uncomfortable realization. Despite the amount of time she spent studying history in school, despite the immense effort her teachers took to impress upon Owl that the truth has multiple layers, what Owl remembers years later is the simple facts, the ones that have been repeated over and over until they are embedded in the canon as the de facto truth, so obvious they can not be questioned.

American Independence. July 4th, 1776. Duh!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The World Explained by a Couple of Squished Oranges

Owl’s family is full of doctors, engineers and business people. Owl spends family reunions pretending she has grand plans for a financially solvent future. The only exception is Owl’s aunt who went off and got a master’s degree in Hindi literature.

The last time Owl saw her aunt, Owl had a grand epiphany. Compadre! Ally! Owl and her aunt would spend all future reunions blissfully discussing literature and cultivating their souls.

Owl’s aunt was probably relieved that Owl had grown out of the standard Aunt greeting—‘Did you bring me a present?’ ‘Is it good to eat?’—because she poured out some chai and settled in for some serious book chat. Only—

Owl had never heard of any of the writers her aunt mentioned.

In fact, Owl never thought about the literary landscape of India. She didn’t know it had one. She’d heard stories about how few opportunities there were outside of doctoring, engineering, and civil servanting. She imagined Indians who wanted to write shut that up in some closet of their soul and soldiered on through life as best they could.

Owl realized her conception of Indian literature is as follows:

[1000 A.D.] Gods and sages with mystical powers roam the earth. When they die their bodies turn into the texts of the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Upshinads, the Vedas, and um, other stuff?
[1913] Tagore wins the Nobel Prize for his poetry. Tagore is probably another god who was a bit late to the party. 
[1990s] A breed of English writing Indian authors such as Kiran Desai, Andruhati Roy, Vikram Seth and Rohinton Mistry hit the bestseller lists. Children of the gods? Possibly.

Owl was embarrassed. This is her understanding of the literary world.

America—The literary bread bowl.
Britain—The mother land.
Australia—mini Britain minus the classics plus some aborigine folktales
Canada—L.M. Montgomery, Alice Munro
Spain/Latin America—What Owl had to read in Spanish class
Greece—a country that hasn’t produced any writers since togas became passé
Italy—see Greece + Italo Calvino. Owl frequently mixes up Greece and Italy.
Russia—Eleven really depressed writers who all look up to Papa Pushkin
France—FREE LOVE, and um, Montaigne
Germany—Hesse & Mann, Nietzsche doesn’t count since he was crazy
Japan—Manga, Haruki Murakami, Tale of Genji, haiku, pillow books
China—Pearl Buck, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, assorted philosophers, books on why Mao sucks
India—see previous explanation
Middle East—Arabian Nights, cryptic poets
Scandinavia—sagas nobody reads, disturbing psychological thrillers everyone reads, cute books about moomin trolls
Korea—Bad manga
South Africa—J.M. Coetzee
Nigeria—Chinua Achebe

Everywhere else: NON-EXISTENT

The book world according to Owl
Originally Owl wanted to make a cartogram so that each country would be proportionally to the number of authors Owl had read or heard of, but when Owl plugged her data into the cartogram software, America and Britain turned into two massive blobs and all other countries disappeared. The map liked like two squished oranges.

The book world as explained by oranges
Owl would like to imagine this is solely because Owl speaks English and a smattering of Spanish. But when Owl was in high school a teacher told her 90% of the books published in the Democratic Republic of Congo are written by Western authors. Owl had a spastic attack. If someone grows up in DR Congo, either they’re reading books where DR Congo is never mentioned or it’s a place filled with heathens and barbarians.This must have an excellent impact on the psyche.

Owl remembers reading several British classics as a child. African and Eastern countries were never mentioned, or if they were, they were strange and backwards places full of idols. (Latin America never made it in unless an author wanted one of their characters to get rich quickly). Since many of Owl’s relatives pray to said idols, she found these descriptions upsetting and decided British authors were a very ill mannered breed. Owl's psyche had several tantrums.

What Owl found most troubling however, was that Asian and African countries never appeared in her history books at school. (Owl learned about Latin America because of Spanish class.) Owl knew the Asian ones had histories at least because her parents came from them and would occasionally tell her stories about emperors but somehow these emperors never made it into her textbooks. China was a couple chapters on communism. India’s Gupta empire was reduced to one page while the Dark Age of Europe was about half the book. It was even called the Dark Age, the period where Nothing Happened and Owl still had to learn about it for several semesters.

As for Africa, well, Owl has a very hazy notion that Africa was filled with tribes and then decimated by imperialism and slavery. If this was totally inaccurate she would not be surprised.

Owl asked her teachers about this omission. Her teachers gave her confused looks. Some of them said it was a tragedy. Others cited the Palmer (A History of the Modern World, the standard text for AP European History) argument, these countries had no influence on the shaping of the modern world and therefore they have been left out of the curriculum.

Owl understands that one can only pack so much information into a curriculum. It is not possible to teach or to read about every single culture that has walked across the face of the planet, but when it comes to the population cartogram, China and India are the two squished oranges on the face of the map. 

Legit Cartogram*
Given the number of times these countries are appearing in the news, their overwhelming numbers in terms of population and their exploding economies, Owl is a little frightened when she realizes that her education—the education most of her peers had—did not prepare her to deal with a non-Western-centric world. What Owl finds particularly disturbing is despite the fact India and China had civilizations that endured for thousands of years she, her classmates and her teachers, accepted that yes, these two countries were not relevant to the modern world.

90% of the books Democratic Republic of Congo publishes maybe from Western authors, but that does not mean Congolese writing does not exist, or that other countries do not have their own literary cultures. Owl went to a Korean bookstore the other day. On the bestseller table she found translations of The Kite Runner, Harry Potter, and a couple dozen other bestsellers that were originally written in English. But the rest of the bookstore was filled with Korean authors. Owl has never read a Korean author. Owl can’t name a single Korean author. 

One of the easiest ways to understand a culture is to delve into its literature. For example, the Bhagvad Gita (Owl recommends Stephan Mitchell’s translation) may have been written thousands of years ago, but for many Indians it still serves as a moral foundation that informs everything from personal to business ethics.

Owl is challenging herself to read books from as many different countries as possible. Owl would love your recommendations. Bonus points if the work is a translation.

Note: Owl is aware that she's mixed up all other countries in a most deplorable fashion, but she begs you to forgive her. She's read at least two or three times as many American books (she isn't even counting British ones here) than books from all other countries in the world combined.

*Legit cartogram source.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Care and Keeping of Beta Readers

From time to time people will ask Owl to read their writing. In general Owl is flattered. Very few people want Owl’s opinion on anything. Owl is delighted to be a beta reader, the person who reads a rough draft and gives feedback. Beta reading offers, well, anyway Owl believes beta reading is a noble calling. The beta reader is a writer's most supportive ally and can be the difference between making a piece and breaking it.

However, much like doctors who are asked for drive-by diagnoses at cocktail parties, Owl’s inbox is beginning to fill up, and she has noticed that like many other noble callings, beta readers have no unions and very few people speak up for their rights.

For example, in college Owl lunched with a young gentleman who wanted a poetry critique. Owl read his poem and could not make head or tail of it except for the distinct impression that it was somewhat less than Nerudian in quality. 

When she offered up her feedback, the young gentleman treated her with a cold stare. Owl humbly admitted she didn’t know much about poetry. The young gentleman made disapproving noises. Owl broke out into a sweat. The young gentlemen made a few choice comments about Owl's reasoning abilities.

Classic case of beta reader abuse. Owl never lunched with the young gentleman again.

The following is a list of six rules for the care and keeping of your beta reader. Rest assured Owl has broken all of them. She is nothing if not a hypocrite.
[Note: All of this assumes that your beta reader is a relatively sane and kind individual. If that is not the case, Owl recommends getting a new beta reader. You can find them at certain coffee shops. It helps if you offer to buy them a sandwich. Beta readers like sandwiches.]

1)      Say thank you.
Saying thank you is tantamount to putting on your pants. People don’t notice when you do, but they sure as hell notice when you don’t.

Owl once beta read for a couple of people who did not say thank you. Owl remembers their names. Owl knows where they live. Owl is waiting for the writing gods to smite them down with giant shit-hammers of doom.

Summoning the giant shit hammers of doom.
2)      Become one with the fact that beta-reading is a good deed.
Oftentimes writers will toss manuscripts at Owl with the air of one conferring a great favor. Owl understands. It takes a great deal of effort to write a manuscript, and a great deal of ego to believe what you produce is worth reading because most writing isn’t. (Owl believes this category includes James Joyce and Herman Melville. And Shakespeare. Owl thinks Shakespeare should be disemboweled for writing Romeo and Juliet.)

Long story short, even if you’re the reincarnation of Jane Austen, Owl can drum up at least ten other things she should be doing instead of beta reading: purchasing work-appropriate socks, investing in the stock market, polishing her own work.  

Beta reading is an art form that requires tact, care, and analysis. It takes roughly fifteen minutes to read a short piece and form a gut impression. It takes hours, sometimes days, to figure out how to translate the impression into constructive criticism wrapped up in encouragement.

A beta reader is giving you their time and their attention. This is a gift. Do not forget that.

3)      Don’t argue with your beta reader.
Owl is actually not interested in hearing why her feedback is wrong, why she’s a stupid reader, or why the next draft will render her feedback useless. She’s not even interested in hearing this diplomatically.

Odds are your beta reader will spend more time and effort reading your work than any editor or the general public. It’s better to hear the criticism from your beta than receive a rejection that reads: “If this piece had XXXX, we would have accepted it. As it is, sorry.” Owl reports this from the frontlines of bitter experience.

You don’t have to agree with your beta reader, but don’t waste their time arguing with them. They don’t want to hear it, and you have better things to do like revise your piece.

4)      Reciprocate
If you have time to write fifty seven pages, you certainly have time to read fifty seven pages. To write is to labor, to be lonely, and to be afraid that no one will ever read your work.

Be generous. Support your fellow writers. Share the love by beta reading.

5)      Respect your beta reader’s time.
Don’t send your beta reader your first draft. Send them your best draft. Don’t send your beta reader multiple revisions, send them your best revision. Make sure any revision is substantial enough to warrant a reread.

If you want a pat on your head for writing, show the piece to your mommy. If your mommy is like Owl’s and thinks writing is hazardous to one’s health, get a gerbil. Gerbils are pretty good at unconditional love and they don’t take up much space.

6)      Send a thank you note.
A beta who gives nothing but praise is loved and utterly useless. A beta who gives criticism risks the relationship but may be the best thing that ever happened to your writing. You want your beta to be faithful to your piece, not you. 

Once you get your beta’s feedback, send them a note. Thank them for the insights that were the most helpful (this can only help your beta become a better beta reader) and thank them for having the courage to tell you things you didn’t want to hear. Your beta worries about hurting your feelings. Your beta is a nervous wreck until they get a reassuring e-mail that you will not descend upon them with the forces of Mordor. 

Owl remembers putting one writer’s story through a paper shredder and then spending the rest of the evening curled up in a miserable ball. The writer called Owl up and showered praise and gratitude upon Owl.

Owl is now said writer’s servant. If the situations had been reversed Owl would have crawled into her kitchen cabinet and stayed there for a week fashioning beta reader voodoo dolls. Don’t be Owl.

Writers, be good to your beta readers. They do their work out of love. Pay them in kind, and they will spend hours ripping apart your work so you can rebuild it into something winged and shiny. Treat them badly, and best case scenario, they will vanish into the ether. Worst case scenario, they will tell you that you are God’s gift to writers and there is nothing you can do to improve, and you, you will believe them, hook, line and sinker.

That's when you are doomed.