Some uncomfortable home truths

I read a lot of ‘long form’ journalism, mostly in the several periodicals I subscribe to and via RSS feeds that tempt me with links to articles, but I never gave much thought to where the texts come from, or under what conditions they are produced. I suppose I thought that writers (“journalists”) wrote them, editors acquired them and put them into publications, and readers like me read them and pointed other like-minded people to them, and so over time those texts became bricks in structures of what people thought and knew… which is a rather lovely but quite naïve/Pollyannish cartoon of a more complex reality.

James Pogue’s They made a movie out of it: the decline of nonfiction in the IP era, in the Jan-Feb 2020 issue of The Baffler, is an arresting corrective to the simplistic naïveté sketched above, and brings me abruptly into some of the grim realities of 2020.

It all has to do with “the rights” that attach to purchase of an item of Intellectual Property. Here’s what I didn’t know:

We are now in the mature stage of a book-to-film boom that is quietly transforming how Americans read and tell stories… Almost all written works that achieve prominence today (and many more that don’t) will be optioned… The emergence of streaming services from Amazon, Netflix, Apple, Disney, and even Walmart has driven a demand for writing on a bulk commodity scale at a time when the business of publishing—especially but not only in the world of magazines—has largely abdicated its responsibility for paying writers an amount that would secure a decent life.

Still more insidious:

…the book-to-film complex is bolstered by two imperatives that now govern our nonfiction almost without exception: foreground story as an ultimate good, ahead of deep personal insight, literary style, investigative reporting, or almost any other consideration that goes into the shaping of written work; and do not question too closely the aristocracy of tech and capital that looms over us, the same people who subsidize the system that produces America’s writing.

We live in a time when our writing finds its audience not through the publishers and journalistic outlets that commission writing, but through a handful of unregulated monopolies that siphon off most of the revenue this work produces and that are almost entirely in control of its delivery to its eventual readers…

…clicks and shares—today’s true determinants of the value of a piece of writing…

Hollywood has begun to morph into a business designed to develop content that fits easily into delivery systems designed by Amazon, Netflix, Apple, and Google, and that it was their entry into the market for IP that kicked off the book-to-film buying frenzy. They run the market, and from my desk, it looks like it is the same people who wrecked American writing—by colonizing the ad dollars, by seizing control of how books get delivered, by deliberately designing highly addictive devices and streaming services that pulled our attention away from writing and toward phones and forgettable, mass-produced Netflix shows—whose tastes and desire for palatable content I now get told my writing ought to be serving.

All this makes me more cynical about how “it” all works, but probably won’t diminish my use of Netflix and Amazon as (re)sources in the gratification of desires and the feeding of my appetites for textual and visual material.

Perhaps what ‘all this’ should do is encourage me to make more conscious and systematic use of what I read and see, via blog-form rediffusion and other forms of reflective writing. I’m experimenting with a reading log (essentially a daybook to keep track of texts I spend more than cursory time upon) and looking back through the last year of RSS feed stuff noted via Zotero (but mostly just marked as notable and not generally followed up).


The term ‘revenant imagery’ seems handy for bits of déjà vu that resonate in memory. Thus:


My first thought when this came up on the computer screen was “absolutely The Duchess from Alice in Wonderland!” in the Tenniel illustration. And sure enough the retrieved Google image is almost perfect:

liquid Form

I’ve been thinking that I should explore water in its liquid phase, but I want to avoid the clichéed stuff of falling water and flowing streams, and address more directly the forms and the energies within. This morning as I was reading Christopher Williams’ Origins of Form: The Shape of Natural and Man-made Things―Why They Came to Be the Way They Are and How They Change it occurred to me that these two photographs were about the same thing, which might be sketched as ‘fluid dynamics’:


Shubenacadie sediment post-processed

(the original image of the latter was much less dramatic)
Shubenacadie sediment

and here’s another Shubenacadie River sediment shot,
taken at the same time and reprocessed today for dramatic effect:
Shubenacadie sediment


Twenty Meters of Rocks: Revisiting the Same Spot Multiple Times (Ole Henrik Skjelstad) is a lovely meditation on Place, with 17 quite stunning early-morning photographs of sunrise from a Norwegian beach. They are ‘landscape photography’ and so in a different realm than what I experience looking down at the rocks on the 30-odd meters of the Drift Inn beach that I frequent, but the point of seeing different things with each return is beautifully made. I see the Usual Suspects again and again, but they are subtly different every time:



It doesn’t work the same way with ice in the Drift Inn ponds, which are never the same from visit to visit, but the locale keeps drawing me back to see what might be new. At the moment the ponds are dry, so we’ve been exploring other water margins. This froggy being exemplifies:


Bestiary and Exegetical Sketchbook

I’m making a space to accumulate material for a future Blurb book, continuing from WYGIWYS, at and expecting that it will include the work I’m beginning to do with Adobe Draw. Just how it will be laid out and organized, and how its workflow will look, will take some experimenting. The basic idea is to develop an effective means to display what I see and to record the process of learning to refine the initial outline sketches into something like elegance.

At the moment there’s almost nothing there, but I’m working on it. Meanwhile, two of yesterday’s images:

(a large-mouthed frog, perhaps?)

(and this one appears to be a rather grumpy Persian kitty swimming under water)

Flowers Cove

This one probably should have made it into WYGIWYS:


It was taken in the White Rocks Extension of Flowers Cove, Newfoundland, in mid-August 2019. We did hundreds of photographs there, in a magical landscape of limestone and thrombolites. A few more of them:







daunting graphic skills

Here’s an example of what I aspire to in clarity of line and presentation:

(Clemens Habicht, in Jan/Feb 2020 Atlantic, pg. 82)
(Ida Tarbell, pioneer of investigative journalism)

…but no idea how to get to such fluency. I have been working with Adobe Draw on the iPad, using the iPencil as a tracing tool with some success (see back at Drift Inn from a fortnight ago) but the next step to interpretive drawing is a high one. Two more examples, working from


And yesterday the Brown Truck brought Raymond Briggs’ absolutely brilliant Time For Lights Out (“an extraordinary exploration of old age in words and pictures”) and I ran across this illustration about halfway in:

I ought to know how to do this sort of digital collage, and I think I almost do, but once again getting to fluency is daunting.


Some of my most off-the-wall thinking happens as I’m waking up. A few days ago Therianthropes guard the bridge between the risible and the numinous bubbled to the surface and I managed to write it down before it went off into the stratosphere. This morning it occurred to me that there was a map to be drawn of the territory of the Risible and the Numinous, on either side of the Ot River (think: Buda and Pest…), having squares and streets and buildings associated with people and movements. The Surrealists surely inhabit the land of the Risible; William Blake and Emanuel Swedenborg and Charles Peirce hang out in Numinous territory, along with Leonardo and Michelangelo (despite the questionable proclivities of the latter pair). Most Cubists are denizens of Risible (though Picasso has moved back and forth), and cartoonists like Robert Crumb and Kliban and Gahan Wilson are to be found in especially disreputable parts of Risible territory, where the tattoo parlors are and punk musicians hang. Some of my photographs definitely belong in one or the other:

3ii1812crop 1i1872adj
are obviously Risible, and

6xi1812 Wass066trac
might make it to Numinous. And what of
(the lattermost from Roger Caillois’ collection)?

I think these might be guardian therianthropes on the bridge:

Saltus beach hands up

So I’m starting to gather up waypoints and toponyms for this possible map, along the lines of (but of course less glorious than) maps of Terry Pratchett’s Ankh-Morpork: