Today I’m interviewing writer James Curcio. I know James through Twitter, which also led me to his always thought-provoking blog, Modern Mythology. When James recently proposed that he and I exchange guest posts, I was delighted by the idea and knew his interview would represent a unique viewpoint and way of looking at art and writing than I usually take.
EC:I know you've got a variety of different interests and have worked on projects that deal in various media... James Curcio: Yeah. Really the only “multi-media” bridge I haven’t crossed yet is feature film, and that’s not for lack of trying. Soon?
EC: What do you think the outlook is for multimedia art and writing in the future? I’ve written several articles about this on modernmythology.net. I’d point people’s attention to this one for starters.
But let me also pick up where I conclude that piece, that I think the future of media is actually moving away from the idea that the medium defines the message. Yes, some things work better in one format than another, and you have to figure out what works best in which medium. There are different ways to tell different stories across different platforms. That should be self apparent, right? But the thing that attracts us to all of them is the same.
EC: So, did the common thread, myth, jump out at you as you were looking to see what connected your work, or did you set out to explore this particular area/theme from the beginning? JC: You predicted where I was going with that. When I took a hard look at the core of what attracts us to stories - and I don’t just mean the stories that we entertain ourselves with, or the stories we learn from, or the stories we tell each other, or tell our children as a warning - but all of these things, the binding glue was myth. They are all myths.
But something funny happened to the word “myth.” It came to mean something that is untrue, though the origin of the word, mythos, doesn’t necessarily imply that. So, while I don’t bog down my other creative work with a philosophical analysis of myth, I wanted to take the time to really get into this and share some of the gristle with other creative people. That’s how The Immanence of Myth came about.
I think it’s really unfortunate that so often in school, we may be taught how to use the tools, or how to critique, but no one asks questions like “why are we doing this in the first place?” And I’m not talking about money. Speaking of: I’m happy to say that we’ve already got two college level classes that I know about with the book as part of their core curriculum for next year. I hope to see more of that.
I'm looking to create a perspective on the production of media that isn't nearly so compartmentalized. That's why I began focusing my efforts several years back on myth as the common thread, rather than talking about writing, or about music, or about comics... Even though I've worked on projects in all of those mediums. It's not about the medium, it's about the message. I guess it's a question of the format that you thinks is best to talk about that, and maybe give some examples. You know, the humor of it is probably lost on some, but I'm especially fond of a “gonzomentary” web series we’ve been working on that deals with a lot of the issues facing the modern artist in a very farcical or satirical way. EC: Ah, the medium is the message. Or the 'massage' - read that book by McLuhan in college in a Media and Society course. Interesting stuff! You approach literature or art from a different angle than I do, and one that I think would be interesting to my readers. I've needed to take more of a commercial approach. But I'm very interested in other angles and have always loved the 'art for art's sake' mentality, even if it won't put any food on my table.
JC: And here I thought I was being original! Well, no. I've never been very concerned with originality, thank God. I’m more concerned with being genuine, though it is hard to say what that is. Actually, I want to be clear about this. I don't at all believe in “art for arts sake.” I go into this far more in depth in The Immanence of Myth - probably more in-depth than people with short attention spans would like. I think art, and education for that matter, have done themselves a disservice by saying “we're other than the world of business,” which of course brands itself as being pragmatic. Through posturing in that way, it’s almost like “the ivory tower” legitimizes the stance that business is practical and art is bullshit. I think we all know it is quite often anything but. Can we get past this myth that those that are rich have all earned it through hard work, and the poor are all lazy and deserve what they get? The “financial meltdown” showed that to a lot of people who I guess were hoodwinked before. I was never taken in by that myth. It is cruel spirited and awful on so many levels. Let me provide a little snippet from The Immanence of Myth on this subject:
There is a misconception within the myths perpetuated by capitalistic culture, which claims that art and philosophy are useless endeavors — at best, a mental exercise, at worst, an activity for criminals and dilettantes. Even arts organizations that demand the arts behave well in business terms are tacitly buying into this myth, such as NEA chairman Rocco Landesman, when he said “Look … you can either increase demand or decrease supply. Demand is not going to increase. So it is time to think about decreasing supply.” (Peter Marks, Washington Post, February 13, 2011).
Though inarguable within the context of business, this view forgets that all of the great periods in human history, leaps of progress in terms of science, mathematics, and other disciplines that produce more tangible results, have occurred side-by-side with paradigm shifts in the arts and philosophy. It is impossible, and irrelevant, to definitively argue which came first. How can that be quantified? Art and philosophy, without trade, commerce, and application, is sterile and masturbatory. Similarly, trade and commerce is brutish and myopic when it isn’t applied with the sensibility that comes from in-depth philosophical and artistic debate. Both are crucial to cultural evolution, but only when applied together, and the cultural value of art cannot be comprehended from within the valuation system of commerce.
This misconception is one of the dangers of prevalent capitalistic myths. It is possible that it has actually further divorced these two currents, modern art rendering itself a theoretical, navel-gazing reflection upon its place as separate from the profane world of markets and commodity. This, in part, came about through the hands of the art world as a reaction to its position within a world defined by corporate and capitalistic myths, an “art world” arises which in many cases consists of happenings where nothing happens, of canvases painted white, and music performances where nothing is performed.
This is not to say that there has been no value produced, for instance, by John Cage's 4'33", but there can be little argument that this movement in art has unintentionally furthered the capitalist myth that art is purely masturbatory. Conceptual art seems in a sense to merely be a revolt against the capitalistic or at least industrial idea that every thing, every action must have a purpose. Where does this revolt lead?
EC: So you believe that the artistic world may be cutting potential audiences by marketing itself as anti-commercial Culture with a capital c. I do feel that free or inexpensive art or literature is a good way to reach potential customers (readers, listeners, whatever.) What are your thoughts on e-book pricing? JC: I play several instruments, and have produced or co-produced quite a few albums over the years. I mention this because I’ve discovered, as many musicians have, that offering your music for free is, for better or worse, one of the best ways you can market your music. The fact is that there’s such a glut of content out there that it’s a real competition just to get people’s attention in the first place. Charge an entrance fee on top of it, before they are dead sure they want to pay the price of admission, and you may as well shoot yourself in the foot, if not the face. However, this does seem to work a little differently with books. I offered up a free eBook version of an earlier version of a book, and managed to track over 50,000 downloads. Hot damn! I thought. What if I made that book just a $1? Surely at least 10% of those people would pay a dollar for something similar? Sadly, I discovered this was not at all the case. Not even 1%. So clearly, though I was taken in by Cory Doctorow’s stance that offering your book for free online is good advertising, there’s something else at work here. You would have to be totally insane to write because you want to get rich. But if we can’t find a way to “monetize” our passion, or our addiction, then we’re going to die like hobos on the street. I don’t have the answer, but for now, I’m giving away free chapters of my books as eBooks, and trying to keep eBook prices low... around $3 for short novels and $5-8 for books like the Immanence of Myth, which is 250,000 words. That is of course when I have any say in it. Publishers and sometimes distributors set prices. EC: I had to smile at your “short attention span” comment. My attention span is decent, but life gets in my way. I had to read your snippet three times because my teenage son and I (it's spring break) were having a discussion on his texting bill and he kept derailing my train of thought. And the cat keeps walking across my keyboard.
JC: Yeah. It is true that life constantly “interferes” with the creative process or even our attention span. Here's my thing: you said that despite a more pragmatic focus, it's still a supplemental income. I wrote a piece on Modern Mythology a little bit about writers block, basically saying the idea is b.s. If you're blocked, why write? Do something “useful” for a change! I'm half kidding but what I'm getting at is that our motive isn't financial - we hope to “buy” our time to be able to not be entirely distracted, so as to have the “right” to write or record music or perform or whatever our passion is.
I've been giving a lot of thought lately trying to figure this out, to look more at the “message” I'm trying to convey in the media - you know, why am I doing this, why have I committed to it even to the point of accepting that it might be the death of me? That's a big deal because I'm not being entirely hyperbolic. I mean it better be a worthwhile message to be worth that, right? I think... I'm not sure but I think that the basic message is for people to allow themselves the right to be more themselves. And to really be genuine in that message I can’t just say it. I have to live it. Let me tell you, sometimes it is very hard, but I’ve done my damndest. People need to not hide, downplay, gloss over, or outright lie about what speaks to them and who they are. Don’t hide for your boss, your mom, your lover, your friends. Sure, we frame things different for different people. But we have to embrace our life and “love it violently” as crazypants Sheen said. “But it’ll get me fired!” “But they won’t love me!” Then, forget those people. I’m serious. And by this I don’t mean don’t be professional, or just pee all over your computer at work because, you know, screw it. I just mean: be yourself. It amazes me how terrified so many people are of that simple thing. This is no huge revelation, like no one has said this before, but there seems to be an incredible lack of this kind of genuineness in life. I think it comes out most from a sense of play. Creativity demands we refuse to allow a certain part of ourselves to “grow up.” I think we have to hold on to that with our dear lives, because it is our life. Interestingly enough, there’s a lot of research being done that we learn best through play. Obviously animals play to learn how to hunt and so on. Yet we sit around in these stolid classrooms and soul crushing factories. I just don’t get it. Some people get the sense - like it seems you did - that I'm about “art for arts sake” or that I need to grow up or get more hard-minded about business. The truth is, I've written plenty of proposals and business plans in my day, I’ve been involved in quite a few media businesses, and profit is a worthwhile means to certain ends. But those ends are an increased sense of play and creative exploration - and struggle - rather than more profit. Drucker's maxim holds true: “profit is a means, not a motive.” Many people in this world have lost sight of that and it's plain disastrous. I don’t mean figuratively. I mean it’s destroying the planet, or at least, our place in it. EC: I did get that impression about you. That's because you're a serious artist and I was making an assumption - the writers I tend to meet who consider themselves Artists (usually writing in the lit fic vein) give genre writers flack about commercial fiction. That's merely an observation, since it doesn't bother me...to me, writing is about serving readers and literary fiction and genre fiction both serve an important purpose.
JC: That's a fair assumption to make, about literary fiction and genre fiction. And you were probably reacting to a rant I put out about genres - but my gripe isn't so much the usual resentment I think some “literary” authors feel because genre fiction often outsells them and it's “crap” - it's with the idea that genres and the categories that we apply to things actually have any kind of reality. Don't get me wrong, genres and categories serve a purpose. They can serve an absolutely necessary purpose. But they're still invented. It's the same thing you get where a discipline will take an issue and consider it “off limits,” as if it somehow doesn't apply to them because “that's a matter for anthropology, not psychology!” I've been wrestling with the genre issue a little with my most recent novel, Fallen Nation: Party At The World's End, which I'm now looking to shop to agents and publishers. It falls somewhere between “dystopian near future sci fi” and “urban fantasy.” I wonder at what point these labels just become so absurd that we can let up with it already. I know when I start talking like that some people think it must be because I'm unfamiliar with marketing or business, but quite the contrary, I've spent altogether too much time reading marketing reports and niggling about demographics. I think it is a potentially dangerous thing because as you said it's about serving readers, and there's a point at which publishers may think they know what people want more than they actually do when they're overlapping these genre ideas over what is actually motivating people. At the same time, I know not to write any of this as the lede in my query letter. And if past experience is any indicator, it won't ultimately be a query letter that gets me talking to the right person at the right time. It'll be a random conversation at a party or even an interview. I've never had much luck painting by the numbers, though for some odd reason I find myself trying from time to time when things get rough, as if that approach is suddenly going to yield new results. Let me give an example, to really reply to what you said. I agree that one of the primary purposes of writing is about serving readers. But you can't undervalue the value of writing itself, in terms of self discovery, in terms of its therapeutic benefits. What's interesting to me is that many authors say that if you're just writing for yourself, that's fine, but don't publish. However, the times where I've tried to write for an audience and focus on that, a lot of people tell me that it doesn't ring as true to them as some of my other stuff, which I may have produced with no intent of making it public at all. It's a very odd thing, to me. In fact, I try to keep up with agent and publisher and writer blogs as much as possible but I'm finding that I really can't intentionally follow any of their advice, or if I do, I do so at great peril to my own work. Because people can tell. It sounds cliche, but it shows. Yet again the most important thing ultimately is to be true to yourself, whatever the hell that means.
Yet, at the same time, audiences want something that's familiar enough that they don't feel like they're being taken too far out of their comfort zone all at once. It's a very odd dance, and I will say that if I'm going to err on one side or the other I'd much prefer to err on the side that leaves them feeling uncomfortable rather than bored. EC: I was thinking about what you said about how we buy our time as writers. If I weren't making any money with my writing, I think I would feel guilty about spending this much time wrapped up in it. But I'd still do it, even if I weren't making money. I'd just feel guilty. I think you feel that you're hearing from some quarters that you're an idealist and aren't being realistic. I don't think idealism is counterproductive. The only problem is that you're opening yourself up to getting hurt in the process. JC: Well, there can be no doubt. Cynicism and idealism go hand in hand and I am inarguably both. But I also think that you have to stick to your ideals - I mean the ones that really matter - because without that, what do you have? I'm no William Wallace. But I'd rather be William Wallace than Babbitt. I think Hunter S Thompson was very much about this kind of idealism, about showing “the lie” to people. There was to my mind no greater idealist than him, and no greater patriot. Yet many of the things that he stood for in the mainstream mind seem very un-American, because people have lost sight I think of the responsibility that comes along with freedom. He kind of got stuck as this caricature of himself, and that was partially his fault I guess. I don't fashion myself to be like Hunter S Thompson. I'm my own person with my own experiences and my own voice. But I do have a lot of respect for what I see as his goal, in this respect. So yeah, I have that kind of idealism and it does screw me over sometimes. It'd be a lot easier to “get with the program” in any number of ways. But I don't think I could live with myself if I did.
EC: Changing gears back to your work...You've characterized it as future dystopian with some urban fantasy influence. What's your inspiration for your latest book? JC: See? I’m trapped in a web of my own words! But, no. I do think those genres are accurate enough. This book was in many ways returning to some of the oldest themes for me. I wanted a way to allow people an entrance into some of more scholarly ideas in the Immanence of Myth that’s much more exciting, and at the same time to provide some cultural commentary, about the pathologization of mental illness, about our moral and cultural hypocrisy, and so on. The story is about a group of young adults that get locked away for a prank that goes too far... they get off with an insanity plea, so the story begins with them in the mental asylum. They all go by the names of different deities... Dionysus, Loki, Jesus, that kind of thing. And at first they are just kind of their call signs, but one at a time they start taking it seriously and believing, to one extent or another, that they are the present incarnation of that God. Whether they are or not is of course never answered. Being housed in flesh, they are demigods, and can die like anyone else, so there’s no real litmus test of whether they’re actually demigods or just batshit insane. Or is there a difference?
When Loki springs them from the asylum, they form a band, and just happen to be in the right place right time kind of thing. It becomes a tipping point for a country already sliding down the hill. So I suppose you could say revolution is a theme of the story too, but that is all happening more in the background. That’s not what the story is about. The story is about the characters, and their exploration of what it means to be... well, to be them. Demigods or not. As I said, I’m looking to partner with an agent or publisher that understands where I’m looking to go with this project. But in the meantime you can pick it up through Lulu as a PDF eBook or paperback. And of course The Immanence of Myth has already been picked up by Weaponized, and will be on Amazon in July.
Thanks for the interview, James!
Have you got any questions for James? Thoughts on profit being a means and not a motive for art and writing? How about staying true to your writing instead of trying to write for a market (and find a publisher/agent?) Thoughts on myths as the appealing, connecting core of all stories?
James Curcio creates dystopian propaganda for a generation of disenfranchised hedonists, intellectuals, and drug addicts. Rumors of being a key member of a harem of feral lesbians are slightly exaggerated, however. This propaganda is fed by a fascination with the overlap of narrative, psychology, philosophy, systems theory, and of course mythology, which seems to be an almost pathological fixation of his. Previous brain-washing agents have taken the form of novels, essays, scripts for comic and films, musical albums, soundtracks, podcasts, live performances, and installations. They were distributed to the eyes and ears of an unwitting public through the internet, print, and social media subversion. Now, in a move that may telegraph some kind of psychotic break, he’s acting in the world’s first Gonzomentary. He's also worked as art and content director, web designer, SEO assassin, sex ninja robot assassin, and once made an egg stand on its end with the force of will alone.