Posts by Dr. Boli

GEMS OF WRITING ADVICE FROM IRVING VANDERBLOCK‑WHEEDLE.

You should always write the first thing that comes into your head, because in my experience there isn't going to be a second.

When you write fiction, always ask yourself, “Have I got the most out of my plot?” So far I’ve got forty-six novels out of mine.

Pay attention to how you start your morning. I find it helps to get up on the right side of the bed. If I get up on the wrong side of the bed, I hit a wall. I’m not being metaphorical here.

Tension is what makes narrative happen. You need to have an unanswered question that the reader wants to see answered. For example, my readers have told me over and over that the question in their minds when they were reading my books was “When is this book ever going to end?” That’s tension.

The first question young writers ask me is “How do you get published?” My answer is always the same: set your sister up with an acquisitions editor and let nature take its course. It worked for me.

Sometimes students ask me, “Is it necessary to suffer for your art?” I say no. I have always believed that the purpose of my art is to make others suffer.

When aspiring writers ask me how to deal with writer’s block, I have a ready answer: plagiarism. Many writers are not aware that all novels from more than 95 years ago are out of copyright in the United States. This can be a great timesaver.

“Write about what you know” is sound advice, but it is also necessary to write what will sell. This is why so many writers lead second lives as part-time costumed superheroes.

When people ask me for advice on style, I always say, “Avoid the passive voice.” This sends them scurrying off to figure out what the passive voice is (I have no idea myself), and I can finish my latte in peace.

FURTHER OBSERVATIONS ON ART CRITICISM.

Judith Slaying Holofernes, by Artemisia Gentileschi

Our previous observation on art criticism provoked an interesting discussion between two frequent correspondents. Since the original article was very short, we repeat it here:

The next time you read a glowing review of some work or exhibit by a contemporary artist, train your critical eye on the critic. Ask this probing question: How much of the rhetorical skill of the critic is applied to excusing a lack of technical skill in the artist?

To this “von Hindenberg” responded with a proposed method for distinguishing art from goofing off:

My favorite set of criteria to determine whether something is ‘art’ or not is

1. Did it require technical skill or at least effort to create?

2. Does it attempt to convey a message or elicit an emotional response?

3. Is it aesthetically pleasing?

If a thing hits two out of three criteria, I’ll agree that it’s art. Whether or not it’s good art is another question entirely.

“The Shadow” replied with a question about von Hindenberg’s criteria:

I would question whether something that doesn’t even try for criterion 3 is art.

…to which von Hindenberg replied with another question:

Would you consider a performance that deliberately makes the audience uncomfortable and even unhappy in order to make them consider a subject not art? A sculpture or painting that is deliberately unpleasing for the purpose of sending a message can be art.

Here Dr. Boli was tempted to make a snide remark. A sculpture or painting that is deliberately unpleasing for the purpose of sending a message, he was about to say, is an editorial cartoon, not art.

But it seems useless to debate what is and what is not art. A definition of “art” that excluded most of what we could find in a museum of contemporary art would be uselessly contrarian; it would simply prevent us from talking about what is going on in the artsy world without inconveniencing the denizens of that world one little bit. It seems to Dr. Boli that von Hindenberg has pointed the way to the only useful distinction: “Whether or not it’s good art is another question entirely.”

This means, however, that we would have to abandon his three-point plan for identifying art, because it is clear from the most cursory glance at the art world of today that the only one of those criteria anybody cares about is the second: “Does it attempt to convey a message or elicit an emotional response?” To speak of technique at all is embarrassing. To speak of aesthetics is to imply that aesthetics can be judged. The message is everything. Take a look at any art criticism today: how many times will you see words like “issues,” “transgressive,” or “marginalized” used approvingly to describe what the artist is accomplishing? If the artist is giving voice to the marginalized, the artist is doing all that can be done in art.

These seem like lazy excuses for bad art. Dr. Boli observes that people who are actually marginalized generally seem to put a great deal of effort into the technical aspects of their art. The ones who get by on lazy excuses are mostly the spoiled middle-class kids who could afford to go to art school.

But the assumption that the message is the important thing has seeped so far into our collective mind that it is difficult for us to think of art in any other way. Even von Hindenberg tells us that “A sculpture or painting that is deliberately unpleasing for the purpose of sending a message can be art.” Now, much depends on what we mean by “unpleasing.” If we mean that the subject can be unpleasant, like Gentileschi’s Judith Decapitating Holofernes, then the point is well taken. But if we mean that the unpleasant subject can be treated without caring about how it looks, that is a different matter. Again, the idea that aesthetics should be ignored or defied for the sake of the message seems lazy to Dr. Boli.

Think of Picasso. Guernica is horrifying, but it does not ignore aesthetics. On the contrary, Picasso agonized over the aesthetic decisions. Should there be any other colors than greys and steely blues? He tried them, but they didn’t work. Guernica is certainly a painting with a message (in that way it seems unusual among Picasso’s works), but the message is conveyed through the aesthetics.

In spite of occasional great works like Guernica, Dr. Boli believes that the emphasis on message over form in art has been almost universally destructive. It has created a culture in which we no longer teach artists technique: we teach them to write grant proposals. They learn to plan a work of art by asking, “What do the stupid inferior yokels who never look at art need to be told?” That meaning is almost always implied, at least, although the question is seldom phrased that way, because if it were we could see the absurdity of it at once.

It is time, Dr. Boli believes, for a rebellion against the tyranny of the message in art. It is time for us to refuse to judge a work favorably simply because it says something we agree with. Instead, it is time to insist on technical proficiency and aesthetic judgment. Our rallying cry will be the principle of Oscar Wilde: All art is quite useless.

From DR. BOLI’S ENCYCLOPEDIA OF MISINFORMATION.

Bloomsday.—According to a study conducted by unpaid graduate students at the Duck Hollow University School of Literary Statistics, 78% of the people you meet on Bloomsday will claim to have read Ulysses. The remaining 22% of the people you meet will identify the novel being celebrated as Finnegans Wake, which they just adore.

LETTER TO THE EDITOR.

Sir:

The world was appalled last year to learn that Elon Musk had passed Jeff Bezos as the richest man in the world. What has become of our civilization? Musk contributes nothing to our society except cutting our dependence on fossil fuels and advancing the frontiers of science. Bezos gives us consumer luxuries right on our doorstep!

We all know that the United States government grants no titles of nobility. My petition to amend the Constitution to drop that ridiculously archaic prohibition has so far fallen on deaf ears. A friend of mine suggested that maybe I should put it in writing or something if I’m going to circulate it at Gallaudet, but if those people can’t hear me shouting at the top of my lungs, whose fault is that? However, the American people have always had it in their power to grant the one title of nobility before which all other titled nobles grovel: I speak of the title of Richest Man in the World. For countless centuries men and women vied for titles of nobility based on ancestry or accomplishment, but it was left to our glorious republic to discover the one true source of human nobility: money.

Once we understand this principle, we must immediately grasp the vital importance of seeing to it that our honors are conferred only upon the worthy. We are Americans: we grant our titles by spending our money. We have it in our power to make sure the right man is ennobled. I personally pledge to take all the discretionary income I used to waste on local businesses and spend it on luxury goods from Amazon.com. Who is with me? Who will sign the pledge to buy nothing from Elon and everything from Jeff? Enough of us working together can reverse this injustice. Enough of us working together can make Jeff Bezos the richest man in the world once more.

Sincerely, Habakkuk Barton,
President & CEO,
The Barton Carton Co., Inc.
Makers of fine shipping cartons and mailers

AN OBSERVATION ON ART CRITICISM.

The next time you read a glowing review of some work or exhibit by a contemporary artist, train your critical eye on the critic. Ask this probing question: How much of the rhetorical skill of the critic is applied to excusing a lack of technical skill in the artist?

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THE STORY OF CANABEER.

My father built this brewery with his own hands. That is to say, he hired a bunch of non-union Slovenians to do it, but it was his idea all the way. And then he started brewing Canabeer from his own secret recipe. He himself came up with our famous slogan, “The Taste of Pure Adequacy.”

All the time he was alive, my father kept his recipe a closely guarded secret. He wouldn’t even tell it to me, his own son. “The time will come,” he would always say. “Now run along and do your homework.” He kept saying that till I was 54.

But finally the sad time came when my father knew he didn’t have long to live. On that memorable day, he called me to his bedside and told me, “Son, my time has come at last, and I’m leaving the brewery in your hands. You’re going to have to be the guardian of our sacred brewing tradition. So get a piece of paper and a pen, because I’m going to tell you the secret recipe. No, that’s a thermometer. I said a pen, you moron. Got it? Okay. Here it goes. There are only three ingredients. It’s barley, hops, and wa——”

And then he died.

What could I do? I had two of the secret ingredients, but they were useless without the third. So I found the top brewing experts in the world, and we set to work to find that missing ingredient. Was it barley, hops, and watermelon? That tasted a little odd, and the seeds were offputting. Barley, hops, and wasabi? The survivors considered that experiment a failure. Barley, hops, and wart of toad? I’ve been trying to forget that one for years. Barley, hops, and walrus? That one wasn’t very successful either, and who knew those animal-rights people cared that much about walrusseses?

And then, one day, purely by accident, we hit on the third secret ingredient. Man, were we slapping our foreheads! It was so simple! I won’t tell you what it was, because it’s still a secret. But it goes into every last can of Canabeer, the purely adequate macrobrewed beverage with only three ingredients, the last one of which is a secret.