Wednesday, September 30, 2015

When tree flakes make governments quake (it's Banned Books Week!)

Somehow or other I managed to release Consequence during Banned Books Week, the American Library Association's annual celebration of the freedom to read -- this year that'd be Sept 27 - Oct 3. So I had a good look at the books on Wikipedia's list of books banned by governments (as opposed to the site's list of books that are challenged by miscellaneous groups and agencies).

Bans on books in this list for their supposed "obscenity" just make my eyes roll. Not that such bans aren't foolish and narrow-minded and culturally reductive. It's just that thinking of, say, Joyce's Ulysses or Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales or the Fifty Shades... books as obscene in the age of ubiquitous online pornography strikes me as more than a little bit futile, dated, and out-and-out silly.

Here are books that stood out for me in Wikipedia's list:
  1. Rights of Man (1791), Thomas Paine
  2. The Jungle (1906), Upton Sinclair
  3. The Grapes of Wrath (1939), John Steinbeck
  4. Animal Farm (1945), George Orwell
  5. El Señor Presidente (1946), Miguel Ángel Asturias
  6. Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), George Orwell
  7. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962), Alexander Solzhenitsyn
  8. The Gulag Archipelago (1973), Alexander Solzhenitsyn
  9. Burger's Daughter (1979), Nadine Gordimer
  10. July's People (1981), Nadine Gordimer

What do these books have in common? What I see is that these are books that were banned because they made governments or social elites worry about their grip on power and privilege.
  • Thomas Paine's Rights of Man was banned first in the U.K. (which charged the author for supporting the French Revolution); then in Tzarist Russia following the Decembrist uprising in 1825. The monarchists worried when Paine's ideas -- particularly that "a general revolution in the principle and construction of Governments is necessary" -- circulated among the masses.
  • Similarly, Animal FarmNineteen Eighty-FourOne Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and The Gulag Archipelago offended and threatened post-Tsar autocrats in the U.S.S.R.
  • Upton Sinclair's The Jungle -- which portrayed the exploitation of immigrants in industrialized U.S. cities and the horrors of the early 20th century meat-packing industry -- struck the autocrats in East Germany as "inimical to communism." Whatever that might mean, exactly.
  • Nadine Gordimer's Burger's Daughter and July's People threatened the apartheid South African state by critiquing its brutal institutionalized racism.
  • In The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck gave a clear-eyed view of how California received refugees from the collapsed farming communities of Dustbowl-era middle America: inhumanely and selfishly. (Sound familiar?) In any case, the people of Kern County didn't like how Steinbeck portrayed them.
  • Miguel Ángel Asturias, in El Señor Presidente, described the dictatorship of his native Guatamala so incisively that the country's autocrats prohibited its publication for thirteen years.
Books -- black ink daubed on bleached tree-flakes -- are more powerful than their constituent parts might suggest. They have been used to great effect to expose ugly truths about power. The examples above are just a tiny fraction of a very long list of books that have guided and strengthened people in resisting constraints on their self-determination. For those who wield power, this has been and continues to be a problem. For the rest of us, it's something closer to salvation.

I think it's a happy coincidence that my novel makes its debut during a week when readers consider the written word's power to overturn an intolerable, seemingly implacable status quo. The characters in Consequence would likely agree.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Hanging friends' art in fiction
Robert Redford, the Weather Underground, and why we read books
Surveillance and power through fiction and fact: Max Barry's "Lexicon"
Banned books week: Joyce's Ulysses

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

CONSEQUENCE has arrived

(I can't tell you how much I've wanted to type that blog title ... for a very long time.)

And it's so: Consequence is available now!

Readers can find my debut novel online, on the shelf at selected stores, and by special order at any bookstore in the U.S. The book is available in paperback and e-book formats.

Here again is the capsule description:
San Francisco activist Christopher Kalman has little to show for years spent organizing non-violent marches, speak-outs, blockades, and shutdowns for social and environmental justice. When a shadowy eco-saboteur proposes an attack on genetically engineered agriculture, Christopher is ripe to be drawn into a more dangerous game. His certainty that humankind stands on the brink of ecological ruin drives Christopher to reckless acts and rash alliances, pitting grave personal risk against conscientious passion.
Online vendors include Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Apple's iTunes store, Kobo, and Smashwords. Amazon and Barnes and Noble sell Consequence both as a paperback and an e-book.

Most any bookstore in the U.S. (and many abroad) can special-order Consequence in paperback if they're not already carrying it: please ask!

If you're in the East Bay -- and can't hold out until my launch party on October 18th (RSVP on Facebook) -- you can find Consequence on the shelf at Diesel Books, Moe's, any of the three Pegasus stores, or Books Inc on Shattuck @ Vine.

In San Francisco, try Modern Times or Books Inc at Opera Plaza.

Wherever you are, if you read Consequence and like it, please consider posting your review and rating on Amazon and Goodreads -- or wherever you like to post about what you read -- and sharing it with your social networks.

Here's what some early readers thought:
“I couldn’t put Consequence down! Masover vividly evokes San Francisco’s radical sub-culture in this tautly authentic and finely-crafted novel. Consequence asks thorny, essential questions about personal responsibility and the role of violence in movements for social change.”
—Sam Green, Academy Award-nominated director of The Weather Underground

Consequence is a great read, full of building tension and excitement, written by someone who really knows the activist scene, with its moral dilemmas and its ideals. But this isn’t just a book about activists—Masover writes about conflicts central to the human situation.”
—Starhawk, author of The Spiral Dance and The Fifth Sacred Thing

“. . . exciting . . . a great read . . . reminiscent of The Monkey Wrench Gang.”
—Scoop Nisker, author of If You Don’t Like the News, Go Out and Make Some of Your Own
Let me know what you think of the book: here in the comments, on my Facebook page, or by posting a private message from my web site. I'll be posting some of my ideas about Consequence over the coming weeks, and would welcome your questions.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Hanging friends' art in fiction
It's a book! CONSEQUENCE coming in October [...]
Pre-apocalyptic fiction: The Jaguar's Children by John Vaillant

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Hanging friends' art in fiction

As I wrote some years back, an eco-saboteur in my forthcoming novel, Consequence, got his nom de guerre from a twentieth century painter: Marc Chagall. In short, the inspiration came from Paris par la fenêtre, a painting dated 1913.

Earlier this year the author Peter Heller spoke during a reading at Diesel Books in Oakland about a artist friend of his who -- he only realized after he'd drafted much of his second novel -- bore a more-than-coincidental resemblance to The Painter's protagonist.

I suppose there must be writers who are strictly word-people, but I'm not one of them (and, apparently, neither is Peter Heller). The walls of my apartment are covered with paintings, drawings, silkscreens, pastels, prints, and multimedia installations by artist friends I've known and loved for all my adult life (and, in one case, for a solid chunk of my childhood as well).

The work of two artists dear to my heart make cameo appearances in Consequence. In Chapter 19, both pieces are hanging in a (fictional) gallery/café called the "Paint and Palette" near San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. Here's Christopher, the novel's protagonist, out on his first proper date with Suvali, a medical school student he met only a few weeks before:
She was beyond beautiful. Christopher looked away, taking in the art on nearby walls. A leering figure with the president’s face caught his eye. The painting depicted a man standing in a fiery landscape strewn with bones, dressed in a monk’s robe and shouldering a pennant decorated with a blood-red cross. St. George, he realized as his gaze returned to Suvali. She was staring into her tea.
And here's The Triumph of St. George, painted by Matthew Felix Sun, depicted as it is hanging (even as I type) in downtown Berkeley's Arts Passage:

Back to Consequence. Near closing time at the Paint and Palette, Christopher finds himself staring at the art again:
The crowd in the café had begun to thin. Christopher looked up into a cloud of vellum wings, strung on nylon lines suspended from the ceiling. “Like a kelp forest from below,” he observed. “I wonder if that’s what the artist had in mind.”

Suvali followed his gaze. “It reminds me of the aquarium in Monterey.”

“I haven’t been there for years,” he said. “Do they still have that cylindrical tank, the one full of sardines? Or anchovies, maybe? Flashing around and around, like silver bracelets.”

“They do. It’s hypnotic, isn’t it?”

He watched her stare into the slowly spinning artwork.
The cloud of vellum wings doesn't refer to a specific work, but to a gorgeous body of installations by Oakland artist and longtime friend Leah Korican. Here's a detail from one of these:

Any work of art -- written, painted, sculpted, photographed, played, sung, or danced -- bears relationships to art that has preceded it. An analogous relationship might be said to apply to works of political activism. The community of San Francisco activists depicted in Consequence is naturally entwined with a community of Bay Area artists whose work reflects, refracts, and reframes today through lenses aimed at before and beyond.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Pre-apocalyptic fiction: The Jaguar's Children by John Vaillant
Craft and art: erasure and accent
Allusion in fiction

Thanks to Matthew Felix Sun for both images in this post; and to Leah Korican for permission to include detail from her installation at Kehilla Community Synagogue in Oakland.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Facts vs understanding in GMO propaganda wars

When is reporting the facts a hindrance to broad understanding and informed, participatory democracy? That's actually not a hard question to answer. A common circumstance in which facts fail to enable understanding is when they lack (or obscure) context.

Eric Lipton reported on 5 Sept 2015 for the NY Times, in an article titled Food Industry Enlisted Academics in G.M.O. Lobbying War, Emails Show, that:
Corporations have poured money into universities to fund research for decades, but now, the debate over bioengineered foods has escalated into a billion-dollar food industry war. Companies like Monsanto are squaring off against major organic firms like Stonyfield Farm, the yogurt company, and both sides have aggressively recruited academic researchers, emails obtained through open records laws show.

The emails provide a rare view into the strategy and tactics of a lobbying campaign that has transformed ivory tower elites into powerful players. The use by both sides of third-party scientists, and their supposedly unbiased research, helps explain why the American public is often confused as it processes the conflicting information.
The article goes on to describe Monsanto's "longstanding partnership with academics, including "Kevin Folta, the chairman of the horticultural sciences department at the University of Florida"; and research funding provided by Organic Valley, Whole Foods, Stonyfield, and United Natural Foods Inc. to "Charles M. Benbrook, who until recently held a post at Washington State University."

There's fodder for critique in what these two rather different examplars (dept. chair vs. staff researcher) of industry-funded lobbying imply about the weight of (i.e., the investment in) pro- and con- arguments being funded by GMO-producers vs. organic food producers. "False balance" is a thing in journalism, and I'd say that Lipton's article and its attention-grabbing headline are smothered in it.

The author describes two avenues of influence on public discussion and regulation of GMOs, and in early paragraphs of his article (quoted above) implies that they have equivalent effect. This rhetorical device casts an illusion of evenhanded objectivity, even though the evidence published in the article's sidebars skews in prevalence and impact to show that biotech recruits and deploys academics to shill for its industry with a far heavier hand. The article itself states, albeit 85% of the way through its ~2600 words:
[...] the opponents of genetically modified foods have used their own creative tactics, although their spending on lobbying and public relations amounts to a tiny fraction of that of biosciences companies.
(Bold emphasis added.)

But I'm not going to dwell on that oft-criticized aspect of journalistic sleight-of-hand. I'd rather take a step back and look at what's being argued.

Without prejudice as to their validity or centrality, here is a catalog of the concrete concerns about genetic engineering in agriculture that this weekend's NY Times article references, mostly superficially (italicized text is quoted):
  • the safety of their [Monsanto's] products [genetically modified seeds, as well as pesticides and herbicides]
  • whether herbicide use has surged [in concert with increased planting GMO crops], and that some of these herbicides may be unsafe; or whether data relating to herbicide use on genetically engineered crops is being misinterpreted
  • whether new [genetically-engineered] crops, more resistant to pests and disease, are helping to feed the world
  • whether GMO technology helps farmers compete
  • whether the EPA should tighten the regulation of pesticides used on insect-resistant seeds
  • whether organic milk, produced without any G.M.O.-produced feed for the cows, [has] greater nutritional value
  • Do GMOs cause cancer?
The article didn't attempt to answer these questions. It's hard to object to that: the length of a newspaper article arguably doesn't permit inquiry that deep.

On the other hand, the author failed to raise deeper, well-known issues around genetically-engineered crops that any reporter worthy of an NY Times byline, anyone who did an hour's research with a search engine, could have called out. With some follow-up sleuthing, s/he could have -- as Eric Lipton failed to do in the published article -- analyzed or quoted sources commenting on more substantial and complex questions -- such as these:
  • How does GMO agriculture encourage or discourage monocropping, and what impact does that have on land productivity, herbicide use, and soil sustainability?
  • How do GMO crops influence use and costs of farming inputs (seeds, fertilizer, energy, machinery, water) and what short- and long-term effects does this have on sustainability of soil, farms, and family farming?
  • How does GMO farming affect biodiversity and the relationships of plant, insect, and animal species that influence or are influenced by the production of food for human consumption?
  • How do the economics and legal constraints of using patented seeds affect farming, farmers, and farm communities?
None of these are easy questions. None of them have simple, certain, one-sided answers. And it's not a journalist's responsibility to settle questions like these in an article reporting on how debate of contested issues is being skewed by self-interested, deep-pocketed partisans.

At the same time, none of them fits a sound-byte as closely as "Do GMOs cause cancer?"

And there's the problem: sound-bytes selected by a journalist to create an illusion of responsible inquiry, when in fact his selection dumbs down a complicated set of issue. That's the real fault of articles like the one published on Saturday. And when dumbing-down is overlaid with "false balance" illusions of objectivity, watch out! Such articles contain components of responsible argument, but they undermine responsible consideration by masquerading as standalone analyses.

Even if a single newspaper article can't tell a complex tale in toto, nothing should prevent responsible journalists and newspapers from raising relevant issues and challenges with references to earlier or companion reportage, to citation of books and films, or to other treatments of a complex issue that are necessary to the background and context of a single, more narrowly-focused piece of reporting.

Is that asking too much of print media? I don't think so. The role of the press in a democracy seemed important enough in the late eighteenth century to protect its freedom in the first amendment to the United States Constitution. That protection remains in place today. So it doesn't seem far-fetched to expect the press to meet responsibilities that merited that fundamental level of protection in the first place. Is it quaint or naive to expect the Fourth Estate to transcend mere entertainment, steer wide of obfuscation, and rise to a role of trustworthy presentation, synthesis, and critique of issues whose resolution cries out for engagement of the body politic? Not unless you're a nihilist.

Reporters like Eric Lipton and news media like the NY Times should be applauded for exposing the sordid and stifling influence of money in politics, whether funds are funneled through PACs or university campuses. But halfhearted context-setting, false equivalence, and papering over central questions by focusing on fluffier sound bytes is as much of a disservice to responsible debate as hiring academic shills.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Asking the wrong questions about GMOs for disinformation and profit
Monoculture v complexity; agribusiness and deceit
Mutant food: agribusiness vs. everybody else
Broken food chains

Thanks to dbking for his image of the facade of the Newseum in Washington, DC, posted on Flidkr and shared via Wikimedia Commons.