Friday, March 9, 2012

A Profile of the Artist a'la B.F. Skinner

Been in a funk this last week or so. Moving slower, thinking slower, sleeping more. Reading B.F. Skinner's About Behaviorism as a reference for a novel-length manuscript I'm going to be touching up and completing sometime during the next couple of months, but my continuing travails with the previous novel make me wonder if it's even worthwhile.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

When I had the finished manuscript of The Zeroes on my hands in 2010, I set about trying to turn it into a distributed book. Publishers don't want to deal with writers directly (I can't wholly blame them), so they turn to independent literary agents to sift through the heaps of incoming submissions and pull out manuscripts that might prove valuable to them. (It is not a given that "good" and "valuable" have any correlation.)

The publishing world is a rigorously-guarded community protected by procedural moats, walls, and a kind of xenophobia. Literary agents are its gatekeepers, and they're averse to admitting anyone who's not already on the guest list. In order to keep out the riffraff, many agents employ the same confoundingly circular requirements as those employers who demand three years of experience for an entry-level position: they are uninterested in dealing with anybody who hasn't already been published, and a person can only get published by first dealing with a literary agent. The system undoubtedly saves a lot of time and prevents a lot of bad books from being published, but it also means that it's frequently the case that only celebrities and authors who were famous beforehand have any chance of seeing publication.

So I attempted to bypass them by doing it DIY, and now I've got a self-published book -- but no distribution or publicity. Literature isn't like visual art: a consumer can't just glance at it and immediately decide it's something he likes or wants to support. A 300-page book is a commitment that an author must convince his potential customers to take on, and people are (understandably) reluctant to indenture their time to somebody's story unless they have it on good authority that the expense will pay off.

A friend of mine who's in the business of public outreach suggested I send out a bunch of printed advance copies to reviewers in order to drum up interest among literate consumers. Unfortunately, my experience thus far has been just as disheartening as the summer-long ordeal with the literary agents. The consistent response from the lit mags and review blogs has been that they don't want to touch anyone's book unless it's being sent to them by a publisher. No exceptions.

I don't think it would be especially paranoid or inaccurate of me to observe that there's a vast, wide-spanning conspiracy trying to prevent me from accomplishing my goals. Nevermind that it's indeliberate and that they don't have it out for me as an individual (to them I am a nonentity), but these fuckers are all in league with one another, and they're all in the business of keeping me from getting through the gate.

I'm beginning to wonder why I bother. At any rate, I don't see any reason not to accelerate the book's forthcoming print release to the end of March/beginning of April as previously planned.

There are sometimes instances of an uncanny sense of alignment in one's experience. A work-related acquaintance to whom I lent the original review proof recently took exception to a line about nostalgia (and how it's a false joy) in an early chapter. Meanwhile, my own hapless adventures in trying to get this book published and read are coming to closely resemble the tribulations of its luckless, worn-down characters; and concurrent with these two circumstances is my sitting around and reading About Behaviorism to take my mind off things (though Skinner would eschew such an idiom) and ponder some of the details of this new manuscript.

Then I come across this passage:

The probability that a person will respond in a given way because of a history of operant reinforcement changes as the contingencies change. Associated bodily conditions can be felt or observed introspectively, and they are often cited as the causes of the states or changes in probability.

When a given act is almost always reinforced, a person is said to have a feeling of confidence. A tennis player reports that he practices a particular shot "until he feels confident"; the basic fact is that he practices until a certain proportion of his shots are good. Frequent reinforcement also builds faith. A person feels sure, or certain, that he will be successful. He enjoys a sense of mastery, power, or potency. The infant is said to acquire a sense of infantile omnipotence. Frequent reinforcement also builds and maintains an interest in what a person is doing. In all this the behavior is erroneously attributed to the feelings rather than to the contingencies responsible for what is felt.

When reinforcement is no longer forthcoming, behavior undergoes "extinction" and appears rarely, if at all. A person is then said to suffer a loss of confidence, certainty, or sense of power. Instead, his feelings range from a lack of interest through disappointment, discouragement, and a sense of impotence to a possibly deep depression, and then these feelings are said erroneously to explain the absence of the behavior. For example, a person is said to be unable to go to work because he is discouraged or depressed, although his not going, together with what he feels, is due to a lack of reinforcement either in his work or in some other part of his life.

Frustration is a different condition, which includes a tendency, often characteristic of a failure to be reinforced, to attack the system. Thus, a person who kicks the vending machine which has failed to deliver cigarettes or bawls out his wife who has forgotten to buy them is said to do so because of frustration. The expression "frustrated expectations" refers specifically to a condition produced by the termination of accustomed reinforcement.

A different kind of feeling is associated with the lack of an appropriate occasion for behavior, the archetypal pattern of which is homesickness. When a person has left home for the first time, much of the behavior appropriate to that environment can no longer be emitted. The condition felt may be similar to depression, which is said to be common in people who have moved from one city to another. It is called "nostalgia" literally, the pain generated by a strong tendency to return home when return is impossible. A similar condition prevails when one is simply lost, and the word then is "forlorn." A "lovelorn" person is unable to emit behavior directed toward the person he loves. A person who is alone may feel lonesome; the essential condition is that there is no one with whom he can talk or behave in other ways. The behavior of the homesick, forlorn, lovelorn, or lonely is commonly attributed to the feelings experienced rather than to the absence of a familiar environment.

Most reinforcements occur intermittently, and the schedules on which they are programmed generate conditions which are described with a wide range of terms. The so-called ratios schedules supply many good examples. When the ratio of responses to reinforcements is favorable, the behavior is commonly attributed to (1) diligence, industry, or ambition, (2) determination, stubbornness, staying power, or perseverance (continuing to respond over long periods of time without results), (3) excitement or enthusiasm, or (4) dedication or compulsion.

The ratio of response to reinforcements may be "stretched" until it becomes quite unfavorable. This has happened in many incentive systems, such as the piece-rate pay of home industries in the nineteenth century. The schedule generations a dangerously high level of activity, and those interested in the welfare of workers usually oppose it. It is not unknown, however, in daily life. A writer who makes his living by writing one article or story after another is on a kind of fixed-ratio schedule, and he is often aware of one result: the completion of one article is followed by a period resembling extinction during which he is unable to start a new one. The condition is sometimes called "abulia," defined as a lack of will power, or a neurotic inability to act, and this is often cited as the source of the trouble, in spite of the fact that this schedule produces a similar effect in a wide range of species.

Extrapolate from this what you will.

Went out around three last night to smoke a cigarette. Skies were clear. Orion had sank below the the western horizon. Arcturus was overhead; Vega was approaching from the east. Season's changing. We're on the up and up.

*Image up top lifted from Zack Henkel. Original source unknown.


  1. I had that one line in "The Zeroes" bookmarked. It was something like "Nostalgia is the falsest and most sententious of joys, and the people who enjoy it are the true suckers of this world." (Followed by the narrator explaining how he didn't care and he still felt it.) It was a really resonant sentence, one that I revisited several times while reading the book.

  2. Hah. I replaced "sententious" with "maudlin" in a revision. After the WRA (work-related acquaintance) said the line out loud to me, it started to bother me. I couldn't remember WHY I picked that particular word or what I was trying to get at by using it. I wonder if the piece gains or loses from the switch?

    (See, this would be why writers shouldn't be allowed to edit their final drafts whenever they please. IT MEANS THEY NEVER STOP PICKING AT IT.)

    And thanks :D

  3. Perhaps you should try the route less traveled? I found this comment on reddit, thought of you:

    :( How come John got a response when he spoke of your book but not me?

    1. So there may still be hope for hope!

    2. You should authorize a few copies for and use a few excerpts from those sweet sweet rants against consumerism. Tell them about how it's about the mostly miserable yet nostalgic human experience of the younger generations during 2000-2010.

      Since this book is essentially about US, why don't you ask people to put forth items of interest and/or nostalgia for them? If you re-edited for them you could gather a huge audience. Make a topic in r/askreddit titled something like: "What would you like to see in a book about the human experience of our generation?" then in the text tell how you'll try and edit as much as you can into your book. You could end up selling a fuckton... Of course you'd need to be able to explain what "human experience" really means and implies. Though, of course, that may not be your style.

      To answer your question about reddit... yes. You are missing a good bit. It has good and bad, but you can filter your default/frontpage subreddits to fine-tune your experience (and tune out the stupid subreddits).

      I don't know how this relates exactly... but I think you should have a look:

      Post anything or I figure I should just assume you missed this and try again on Friday.

  4. Not a bad idea, but I'm finished with The Zeroes. I'm not rewriting any of it. It's over. It's done. If things had gone my way, the damn thing would have been totally out of my hands a year and a half ago.

    I'm not sure I'm comfortable with the idea of crowd-sourcing ideas for my projects, either. It's basically the same thing as building a project around the results of a focus group test.

  5. I figured you'd say something like that. Nevertheless, I still think it's a good idea to try to gather an audience using reddit. If you don't want to, I could try for you.

  6. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm pretty sure Charles Dickens wrote a few of his more successful novels using a similar process. It would be a great way to obtain ideas you may not of stumbled upon otherwise; and as mentioned before, it is great for the publicity of your novel. You of course would be the ultimate authority on what would be included in the novel, so it's not like it would turn into a Wikipedia article, free for everyone to edit.

    I do have to say though, 90% of any feedback you get would probably be utter nonsense, and it would be a bit hard to manage. I can understand why you would want to hold back on doing something like this. Do what's best in your eyes. Either way, I am sure that plenty of us would be glad to read whatever you produce.