When I was in high school, there was great concern about the war of misunderstanding -- more marked by gaps than conflicts -- between science and humanities. Which had more authority, which was more “real,” which was more prestigious, which could get all the money. Over the decades this dichotomy has been eroded and overwhelmed by technology, even the humanities. As for science, it has ventured into traditional humanities fields like religion and history. Everything is up for grabs. That’s the Zen of Physics.
Boundaries, value inclines, and how they change -- not just becoming different but also moving around the planet -- has become a huge dancing puzzle. I see bits and pieces everywhere. For instance, the “cowboy” mystery series called “Longmire,” based on a set of givens developed by Craig Johnson, has split into two genres: the book and the vids.
Johnson writes a familiar easy-going sort of world, very much the way ordinary folk in the West like to see themselves. His books go in and out of the Valier library all the time. Doing catch-up (because I only knew the vid series), I read the anthology composed of his annual Christmas short stories, “Wait for Signs.” Each had a clever little premise, explored with brand-name vehicles and clothing to keep us located.
One story managed to make a sheep joke polite by using bits of local tales about “flock quitters,” the kind of destructive leader ewes who mislead gullible lambs into leaving their herders and taking the owners profits with them, and about “markers” which help keep track of all those wooly backs by including some that are naturally black -- or in some circumstances those that have been dyed bright red.
The genetics for the tendency to stay with the flock and genetics for fine wool don’t always go together, so those (like my relatives) breeding for wool quality keep them in fenced fields. Meat sheep live in flocks. Johnson’s story revolved around a mutated color marker in the wool that looked like a Petunia, so that was the name of the sheep. She was a flock quitter who wouldn’t stay put. The solution, of course, is conversion to supper, the same as mean cows.
In another story, Johnson managed to make pop mysticism about Native American symbols and determined black bears into a funny story that wasn’t dirty so much as cloacal -- there’s a great horned owl stuck down a porta-potty and a bear who’s paying too much attention.
In order to escape Manhattan presuppositions about the way the world works, I look for Scandinavian or Australian stories, so it seemed natural for Longmire himself to be played by an Australian, Robert Taylor. I didn’t realize until I looked him up that Lou Diamond Phillips is Filipino with a Cherokee grandmother, but I’ve taught kids who were Blackfeet/Filipino mixes, so I don’t scoff. He’s small for a Standing Bear, but he’s an excellent actor. The series uses the best of the Master Indian Actors, mostly from Canada where there are repertory theatres and training opportunities, specifically for First Nations people.
What I want to point out is that the media -- the contrast that has developed between the expectations of people who read cowboy mysteries and the expectations of those who follow the same characters as vids -- has changed the content. For instance, the print readers overlap with romances in which sexy young women take men’s jobs and fall in love with their big handsome competent bosses. But the people who will marathon streaming film series, will follow much more political and visual content, playing landscape off against political machinations. And they will tolerate female love-objects who are mature and independently competent.
A different kind of value schism has developed in platforms for free-lance writers. The techies, who write the codes and envision what the platforms should do, are like high school kids who play chess. They are high-achievers in terms of strategy and pattern, but they are nerds. When the goths and the terrors or even the queer folks come around, the techies get a little freaked. They are “nice” people whose folks read The New York Times and don’t even know that VICE exists. But the real content energy is in the VICE stories about crime, breaking stereotypes, taking risks, telling it like it is. Edge stuff. The only accurate Blackfeet stories I’ve seen -- the ones about disappearance of women and trafficking of kids.
Many techies are California Asians, that is, suburban computer geeks whose laser focus on achievement means they can’t detect anything a laser doesn’t detect -- which is cultures. There is a huge culture gap between those who read intelligently and widely and those who write because they assume that will bring them acclaim and maybe even as much wealth as a computer platform coder.
Writing is not what they think it is. Sex is not what they think it is. Violence and suffering are not what they think it is. Far more multiple, far more schismatic, often working as much against conformity as with it. Different kinds of writing with different kinds of content -- haiku about season change and sadness, unsparing grisly war or crime detail, explanations of how microbes interact, immersive fancy writing about coming of age (by far the most likely content for beginning writers) need tech support quite unlike bells and whistles for business hustlers.
It's not the subjects that give value. When my mother died, I wrote an essay I thought was brilliant and certainly made me feel better, and I sent it to Ms Magazine because that’s what I read at the time. They sent me back a patient but rather exasperated rejection. Did I realize how many essays about dying mothers they got? Hundreds and hundreds.
When I wrote a biography of my “famous” cowboy sculptor former husband after he died (Bob Scriver), the problem was opposite. (Check out Google Images.) There is a whole genre of this writing and it is expected to always be the same: a recitation of virtues that make the art work more valuable. I wrote a lot of description about how it felt to create the sculptures and how it was seized by opportunistic wheeler-dealers who organized auctions rather than running galleries. It WAS published, but almost accidentally, by people who cared nothing about cowboy art.
At the moment writing is like a gold strike. The pick and shovel explorations, the sifting of the gravel, is done by the writers. But the money has always been made by those who sell the tools and back the grubstakes. Writers desperate for success will pay a lot. Not earn a lot. And they will not be managed according to improving their writing because having a manager means you must earn enough money for two people’s careers.
Actual success is unpredictable, because it’s about the culture, the receivers whether they are readers or watchers. If they are girls who want to know how to go out West and snag a husband, that’s one thing. If they are seasoned Canadian film stars old enough to worry about opportunities for their grandchildren, that’s different. No one knows how to market to an assortment, so they aim at market research: numbers. Counting heads. Because the money all comes from advertising and that’s what makes sales numbers. It’s also the way our political system works, not by insight or reasoning, but by commodification.
Counter to that, readers and watchers respond to content according to their own hearts and goals, sometimes surprising even themselves. Personally, I’m finding all the wisdom and meaning on the dark and dangerous side of the street. But then, I’ve always been a bunch-quitter with red hair.