Category Archives: Reviews

Mad Men

There’s a moment in Apollo 13 where Tom Hanks is giving a tour of NASA to some visiting dignitaries. He takes them past a room that is filled with the components of a computer. “Look,” he says, “this computer now only takes up an entire room!”1

It’s a cloying line. It’s not the type of thing that would have been said back then. Rather, it was something that the screenwriter put in the mouth of Hanks because he knew it would amuse a modern audience, most of whom probably had more powerful computers sitting atop the engines of their cars, let alone their office desktops. It’s a look into the eyes of the audience, winking, and saying, “Look how backwards things were then!”

Which brings me to Mad Men, the new series on AMC that I was eagerly awaiting. It had a lot of things going for it, I thought. Naturally, as an ad man myself, I thought the show worth checking out. Involved in the project was an executive producer from The Sopranos, a show I have recently come to admire during its rerun on A & E. Most of all, the decision was made to set the show in 1960 – the golden age of advertising, when Madison Avenue could do no wrong, and the men who wrote copy were gods.

And how annoying, then, that the first episode of the show was littered with those winks to the audience to show how backwards and unenlightened we were back in 1960. Start with all of the lines about cigarettes, which were just coming out of a period when four out of five doctors recommended one brand over another. It’s a shame, too, because there was one great moment that said everything that needed to be said about cigarettes in 1960. In the scene, the members of the ad agency meet with tobacco company honchos to discuss what to do now that they can no longer say that cigarettes are good for you. The tobacco baron lights up a cigarette, which is immediately followed by a flare of lighters and puffs of smoke that fill the room, making the rounds like a burning fuse, until the air is thick with haze. That was probably the best moment in the program.

Similarly, the attitudes toward women were so overdone that the liquid boiled off and the remaining gooey mess stuck to the inside of the pot. We’re not so much reminded of the fact that men were all chauvinist pigs as we are bludgeoned.

Then there’s the moment when the Creative Director is asked if he’s decided to take the account of a young presidential candidate who served in the Navy and it turns out to be, ho, ho, Richard Nixon! This would have been a great bit if it had been written a little differently, but I was so tired of the winks at the audience by then that I just rolled my eyes.

I guess my big problem is that I had high expectations for the show. I saw a documentary about how it was created and staged, and painstaking attention was spent on getting details right, from hairstyles to the kinds of toys and appliances that appeared in homes. Why, then, wasn’t the same attention paid to the writing, which to me was filled with tin-eared references for us denizens of the twenty-first century to point and laugh at.

Better to stick with more natural sounding dialogue and let the audience judge the irony of the “complicated machine” that turns out to be an IBM Selectric typewriter. Nyuk, nyuk. I could almost feel the writer jabbing in the ribs on that one.

So Mad Men didn’t make a real good first impression on me. There were a couple of things they did do right, like the drinking, that wasn’t as over the top, and the use of a stripper who was a Marilyn Monroe size 8 as opposed to an anorexic Kate Moss size 0 was a nice detail. I didn’t like it that much, but I might be willing to give it another episode or two before writing it off. After all, there’s only so many other things from that time period that they can point out for us to laugh at… right?

He got a home improvement loan to build a…. FALLOUT SHELTER! Hilarious!

Hmmm. Well, maybe not.

Listening: “Karn Evil 9” – Emerson, Lake and Palmer (Return of the Manticore)

  1. There’s a similar clunker in one of my favorite movies, Almost Famous: “It’s called a Mojo. It sends pages by telephone and it ONLY TAKES SEVEN MINUTES A PAGE!” Chortle!
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Book Review: “God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” by Christopher Hitchens

This book is nothing more than a collection of old myths and legends propagated by believers in Science. Many reviewers of this book even go so far to claim that there is intelligent design in its writing.

I am here to debunk all of that. Everyone knows that books were created when there was an explosion in the shop of a man experimenting with creating an automated printing press. When the smoke had cleared and Johannes Gutenberg was walking through the charred remains of his shop, he found that the explosion had created a perfect hardbound copy of The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. It made sense to him that this happened, as all of the elements were there to create the book… ink, type, paper, even a manuscript for a blueprint. All that was needed was a cataclysmic event to bring everything together.

Ever since then, books have been evolving on their own, using natural selection to meet the demands of the market. Hitchens claims to have written God is Not Great…, but there are records showing that early drafts of this book were attributed to, alternately, Sylvia Plath, Jack London, Sydney Sheldon, and Stephen King. In fact, scientific records show that the origins of this book can be traced back to Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens.

Thus, this book is nothing more than a cruel hoax that has gotten out of hand. I don’t believe for a moment that it was written by Christopher Hitchens. In fact, I don’t even believe that Hitchens exists.

Rejection and Writer’s Support

This threatened to become the world’s longest comment so I decided to post it here as opposed to sapping someone else’s bandwidth.

Cindy over at A Writer’s Diary posted an entry that discusses her anguish over giving a book a negative review. Her contention is that since she’s down there in the trenches, too, she empathizes with the authors over their struggle to get words on page.

This presents a number of interesting initial questions that I will not deal with in this entry. However, before moving on to my main point, here they are – just for the sake of floating a possible meme:

1) “Those who can’t do – review.” True or false?

2) Should novel writers review novels? They are qualified in the sense that they are experts in the field. Yet, they are going to pick up on things that nobody else would in the process of reading a book, perhaps criticizing for things an ordinary reader would miss (witness my own criticism of Stephen King’s Bloat, for example). That in turn poses this question:

3) Should the duty of reviews be left to readers who don’t novelize? I have trouble reading novels for enjoyment because I either pick them apart or turn green with envy. Perhaps reviews of books should be left to people who are the purest audience, those who read for enjoyment and aren’t involved in the writing process.

However, the issue at hand is whether Cindy should remove the negative reviews of books she has posted on her web site. Their removal is probably a done deal at this point since she made this entry yesterday, but here are my arguments against her doing such a thing.

First, I subscribe to the PR/Advertising theory that there’s no such thing as a negative review. If someone took the time to write it up, it meant something to him or her – even if it was simply a paycheck from a magazine. As my daughter now says every five minutes, “It’s all good.” That negative review is still a mention of book and author, or another hit for a search engine to find (the only exception to this rule might be a review that contains the phrase “I wish I could get the six hours I spent reading this book refunded to me”).

Second, a negative review isn’t negative when one explains why they felt the book was flawed or “didn’t do it for me” (as Cindy says she did, given her word count limitation). I once learned something from the most savage review I’ve ever received in my writing career. I had to look beyond the witch hunt tone of the critic, but once I did, I saw some valid points; I did have some trouble imagining how computers would be used in the future (I corrected this in the PH novels), and my characterization was thin (this led me to discover that in my quest to edit the book down by 20% per Del Rey’s request, I chopped out everything that didn’t advance the plot – namely, characterization).

Third, I am convinced that reviews do not make sales. Word of mouth does. How else would you explain the fact that the PH novels got the best reviews of my career, and yet were my worst selling books ever? The two of them combined did not sell as much as my previous worst-seller.

Fourth, negativity aside, there’s a chance that the author won’t see the review. Some agents or publishers insulate their author’s fragile ego from such things (I speak from experience – I always got clippings of good reviews, but I was always the one who found the bad ones – Editor: “Hmmm, why don’t you send me a copy of that?”). Further, the World Wide Web is a big place. Unless they’re doing really deep egosurfing, they may not find it.

Finally, even if you don’t believe that there is no such thing as a bad review, you have to accept that bad reviews are a part of the writing game – just like rejection slips.

I think that is one of the dirty little secrets of writing that nobody talks about. We all bolster each other up when a rejection slip comes. But what about rejection after the fact, in the form of a negative review? Perhaps it’s because, in the eyes of a writer’s peers, the act of Getting Published is the Be All End All – your name in print, game over. But it’s actually the beginning of a new game. It’s an interesting double standard and a fascinating anomaly, that.

Those are the general reasons for leaving the reviews up. Now here are some that are a little more personal, from me to Cindy:

1) Your reviews are as much of you as your WIP is.

2) If you can’t be honest with yourself enough to write a negative review of someone else’s book, how can you be honest enough to write your own book?

3) In spite of all the effort, there really are some truly dreadful books out there. I’m sure they got into print because a desperate editor on deadline said, “I need one more title for May of 2005, and I’m going to take the next manuscript that’s coherent and in proper form.” There’s no other way to explain some of the howlers I’ve read – or started and never finished. And you, Cindy, in taking on the mantle of reviewer, have taken a tacit vow to protect us from them. Or in the words of someone’s uncle, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

So my advice is not to censor yourself. I know your heart bleeds for these authors. There IS a lot of work that goes into the process of being published, and anyone that survives the lonely hours of writing, the rejections, the endless rounds of revisions and everything else it takes to get words published deserves a gold star on their paper.

Unfortunately, life isn’t always fair.

NP – iTSP (Marillion, “Warm Wet Circles”)