Monday, March 10, 2003

South by Southwest 2003 XIV

Karl Deckard, Cory Doctorow, Maitresse Elise, and Jim Munroe: Why I Dig Working in the Cultural Gutter

Deckard is a senior game designer who has worked on Metroid Prime for Nintendo and Half-Life. Doctorow is outreach coordinator for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a contributor to Boing Boing, and author of Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. Elise is an adult actress and writer of erotica. And Munroe was managing editor of Adbusters before writing novels and making video games. Here is a rough transcript of the panel discussion:

Munroe: My name's Jim Munroe. I've written three novels. One of them is about another guy who goes to another planet to teach English. But when I'm at parties, I find myself saying I write novels. And I say it's science fiction-influenced stuff. I'm interested in my own tendency to sidestep that sort of stuff. I'm very interested in people who are involved in things that are not terribly highly regarded by society in terms of the arts.

Doctorow: I'm Cory Doctorow. I'm a blogger, a science-fiction writer, and I work for a nonprofit organziation called the Electronic Frontier Foundation. I write science fiction, and not just science fiction, but science fiction for Slashdot readers that will get published on the Internet. That can be seen as one step below self-publishing. It's considered scraping the bottom of the barrel. But if there's hope, it's in the trolls. Will someone care about the poor Slashdot reader? I write for them. You need to be involved in Internet culture to understand it. I'm fairly unapologetic about using terms and jargon that comes out of that milieu. I get surrounded by people at science-fiction conventions by people who wonder what I'm smoking.

Science-fiction writing doesn’t pay for shit. Roald Dahl sold his short stories one at a time for enough money to feed his family of four for a month. Asimov's pays about enough to feed a family of four for a meal. But occasionally, the New York Times discovers you and what you do. Fuck you gutter, the New York Times thinks I'm cool

Elise: Ive done a lot of things in the adult entertainment. I'm on this panel as a porn actress. I've done four adult videos. Two were bi and two were lesbian. I've done stripping. I write erotica. I've done the modeling. I've done the Internet.

I also have a Ph.D. in romance linguistics. The adult entertainment industry got me through school. When people ask me what I do, I say translation. That is one of my jobs. But that pays nothing. If someone's truly interested, I'll go into detail about what I do, but if it's just anyone, I'll say I'm a writer. If they ask what I'm writing, I'll say true-life adventure stories. I'm not ashamed, but sometimes you do have to protect yourself.

Deckard: I design video games. I worked on the PC game Half-Life and a game for Nintendo's console Metroid Prime. What is this gutter? Who are these people who look down on all of the careers were talking about today? And why do we care?

Munroe: The cultural gutter is just something I made up. I made up this idea of there being gutter genres. I've always been attracted to science fiction, but people generally remember the crappy science-fiction movie that they saw and stigmatize the genre as a whole. I'm drawn to the genre with the interest in defusing that as much as I can.

When I got involved in video games and started talking about video games, talking about them as art, I realized that I'm drawn to these genres because they have a basis that keeps drawing people back to them. Because I like violating these cultural norms, it’s a perfect place for me. For unconventional thinkers like Elise, instead of following a traditional writing career with a smattering of erotica, she did what she did.

When I write a science-fiction novel, I feel free. You get to write about robots, for Christ's sake. There's a fundamental fun element that draws me to it. I have a lot more freedom in terms of what I can do.

Elise: I've really been enjoying the BDS&M I've been seeing in the mass media lately. I don't mind the lesser stigma. My sister understands what I'm doing a little more. My parents appreciate some of the writing I've done, but they don’t know everything I'm doing.

It's a huge fantasy being a porn star. It's fantasy being a stripper or a dominatrix. You get to be a schoolgirl, a teacher, a nurse. My life is not boring.

Doctorow: Who are the people looking down their nose? And why does it matter? It only matters when it matters. I used to work at a science-fiction bookstore, and I used to hang out at the science-fiction library. "Speculative fiction" is one of those shame words. "It's not a comic, it's a graphic novel!"

When I was 12, it was a great place to hang out. But when I was 20 and applying to a writing program at York University, saying I wanted to write science fiction was fairly embarrassing. In Canada, much of the writing is supported by arts grants. And they don't award grants to genre writers. That can mean the difference between a writer having time to finish writing a novel or not having the time.

I like having the freedom to write about the things that excite me. You guys are my tribe, and it's not necessarily the case that this is weird. But in the larger world, there's a bit of disdain for such unbridled technology-related enthusiasm. Not having to be apologetic about being enthusiastic about technology is good and refreshing. The rewards of fiction writing are so slim that if you didn't love it there'd be no reason to do it. I'm glad to be in the gutter to write like I feel like writing.

Deckard: The kind of work I do I don’t necessarily want it to be talked about at dinner parties. I want people in cool smoky lounges and subway stations to talk about my work. That's my tribe. That's who you should be doing your art for: the people like you. There've been a lot of times in my life where I've noticed that there is definitely a "them" spoiling things for me. I don't know who they are.

I've worked in Seattle and in record stores for a lot of my time. When the Nirvana record "Bleach" came out, we all loved it. Then some jerk at Rolling Stone dubbed it the Seattle grunge scene. We were wearing flannel because it's cold and wet in Seattle. It's hard to keep creativity when you have to filter it through so many people.

Doctorow: Working in the gutter is working out of scrutiny. William Gibson got an honorary Ph.D. from the Rhode Island School of Design. William Gibson's start in the genre is actually pretty interesting. He used to draw single-panel comic strips for fanzines. We are all geeks under the sin. It's nice to avoid the scrutiny.

Elise: What we have in common is that we enjoy extreme fantasy. In the leather world, there's a huge crossover between the leather community, science fiction, games, and Ren fair. I consider myself to be a big geek in a big way. Put me in a costume and I'm happy. Is there a bigger stigma being a sci-fi geek or being a porn enthusiast?

Doctorow: Do we really need to measure? My pain is like… [He gestures with his hands.]

Elise: This isn’t about pain.

Munroe: If you're at a rock concert, it's cooler to know a lot about porn than it is about science fiction. Fantasy is an interesting thing. It's assumed that they're immature. A lot of people's enthusiasm for it and dismissed. Everyone has that inside them. We go on a binge/purge thing. We watch a couple of Hollywood movies and then we read a very important novel. You know how there are writers who are light, but filling? I like to think of myself as the falafel of science fiction readers. I enjoy it when someone says, "I don’t like science fiction, but I like your books."

Doctorow: I thought you were science fiction influenced!

Munroe: I'm over that. I've come to terms with that. The fantasy of it is its strength. The media is heaping attention on, say, Grand Theft Auto. But I feel like it's like it was with comics 10 years ago when Watchmen came out. 10 years later, people don't really think about comics the same way. The stigma remains. Because these genres are fantasy based, they slip towards the gutter. They may have a moment in the spotlight, but then they fade away. I think that's a good thing.

Deckard: It's not interesting to me that these people are pushing these things back into the gutter. That’s being driven by people who might not understand any of these genres. If you've never seen this film that you say is so bad, how do you know it's so bad?

Question: When you got into what it is you do now, did you have a community there to begin with that you felt supported by?

Elise: you know how they say if you're going to smoke pot, then you start heroin? If you become a stripper, the next step is porn. I didn't have any stripper friends, but being in the leather community, I was very comfortable. And I didn't start stripping under I was 31. My leather friends thought it was great. When I started doing movies, I had huge support. I don’t know if I'd want to move to Southern California and just do them with anyone.

Doctorow: Science-fiction writers in Toronto are really lucky. When I was 12, I was hanging out at the Spaced Out Library. By the time I was 16 and got to alternative school, I was in a writing workshop.

Munroe: I just met Cory a few years ago. I didn’t really have any contacts with the science-fiction community. I grew up making zines in the punk-rock community. I started self-publishing and ended up with a full-length novel. I published my first novel with Harper Collins, and it didn't work out that great, so I decided to self-publish my second novel. I wouldn’t have been able to do that if it weren't for zines. Self-publishing is OK.

Deckard: I basically grew up my whole life playing video games. I knew it was something I wanted to get into. In college I studied graphic design. It was a natural step to get into game design. I moved out to Seattle to work for Nintendo and did graphic design for their magazine and players guides. And then I got a job in game design.

Question: There's a good deal of economic force behind what you do. Yet you perceive it as being in the gutter?

Munroe: The economics are just an indicator for the appetites that exists for these things. The guilt that I'm performing is just a mirror of how socially as a society we aren't comfortable acting out these fantasies. We cordon it off.

Doctorow: If the gutter is just right, you have no scrutiny, and there's vibrant economic activity.

Elise: The money is a driving factor in the adult entertainment industry. But a lot of people go into it just out of curiosity.

Deckard: When my wife and I were talking about this, she said, "Haven't you already stepped up onto the curb?" Because video games do sell well.

Doctorow: The urge to transgress is the urge to step back into the gutter. They've mainstreamed Grand Theft Auto, but can they mainstream Journey Through the Cancerous Colon?

Deckard: Games are a much more family thing in Japan. It's not just little Timmy buying games. It's mom. And it's a bunch of games. It's the same for comics and porn. One section of the gutter that's not included here today is board games. Board games are huge in Germany. I end up having to import games and translate them so I can play them.

Question: I would argue that you're doing this to indulge yourselves. If you make money, great. But if you didn't make money, would you still be doing it?

Elise: I would still do it, but less often.

Doctorow: I started submitting science-fiction stories when I was 16, and I didn’t get accepted until I was 26. When I got my advance for the novel, I got a check for a three-paragraph piece in Wired. The check from Wired was $100 less than my advance.

Munroe: People aren't in this for the money.

Elise: There are people in it for the money in my field, and they're not happy.

Question: What do you guys think is the difference between the cultural gutter and the cultural leading edge? Historically, it's always been such. Bright interesting people find bright interesting things and then the broader culture caught on.

Doctorow: William Gibson writes about denuding the counter culture landscape. The last scene he saw get co-opted was punk. That took 18 months. Then came grunge. That took three weeks. Staying on the transgressive edge makes it harder to participate in the denuding of the counter culture landscape.

Question: Why are some things, like being a fantasy football player, accepted, while other things are scary?

Doctorow: I think people wear Star Trek tunics because they're proud. The signifier of a Star Trek tunic is "I am incredibly proud of being distant from your pop culture. Screw y'all."

Munroe: It's also a matter of not having a clue and not caring. There's nothing secret or attractive about the secret society of Star Trek.

Deckard: A lot of times, people don't care what those other people's opinions are. I've been a big skate punk since I was a little kid. People kind of look at us weird when we come up on our skateboards. I don't care what they think. It's kind of sad to see that lost. Just as grunge got big, you start seeing cheap skateboards in K-Mart and Target. All of a sudden it becomes less us. You do everything you can to make that not happen.

Doctorow: Then some bastard came along and made Tony Hawk Skating. Those bastard video game makers sucked out all the life out of skating.

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