Internet content mill, 250 words at a time

It has now been one whole year since the first quarantine measures were put in place here in Ontario and elsewhere across North America. I don’t have much new to say about this unwelcome anniversary, at least nothing I haven’t already said in previous scattered posts on the pandemic. I have not had much inclination to write about the pandemic or the politics surrounding it for a while either, and I’ve done little writing overall in this forum over the last few months, focusing instead on some of my ‘official’ academic research and writing for publication. Or at least, focusing as much as possible with two small children in the house and the brain scramble that accompanied our long winter lockdown. I don’t know how much academic social science writing you, the reader, may have encountered in your lifetime, but it is generally not the best. Too often it is stilted, rife with run-on sentences, neologisms, and jargon. I know and say all this because I have written many things that fit this mold exactly. I find it’s just as fun and rewarding to write this way as it is to read it, which is to say, not very much at all. So I have tried hard the last few years, with some luck maybe, to avoid the formulaic argot and style of social science writing. Sometimes that feels impossible when drafting something for publication, and maybe it is. This blog helps because I can write whatever I want here, even if I mostly fall back on the standard long essay format, albeit with more humor and venom than I would be willing to include in a peer-reviewed article for a journal, and without the disruptive presence of endless citations.

But my point here is not to once again dissect the inner workings of the writing process, especially as it pertains to a niche genre of academic social science writing. That would be intensely boring, for both you and me. Instead I want to present three ideas for place-oriented pieces of fiction. I have only rarely tried my hand at this kind of story-focused writing but the pandemic has given me the chance to ruminate on these, and also to watch a lot of tv and movies. I have determined that the ideas I present below are no worse than most of the content that gets onto streaming services and broadcast tv, since a lot of that is boring, repetitive, derivative, or just plain bad.

I may never have time or inclination to develop these ideas into anything more, so I release them here into the world. But I am doing so in a format that is familiar and easy for me: the 250-word abstract, like you would find at the beginning of an academic paper or that you might submit to a conference organizer, even if the work isn’t done yet and the abstract is merely aspirational. This is also practice for me as I am currently in limbo between a few major writing projects, with little energy or inspiration to jump into the next one at the moment. Focusing on narrative story (and using the ABT method that I forced my undergrad thesis students to march through weekly in fall 2019 and winter 2020) helps to structure an argument about a problem and its resolution and the content that supports it, and to streamline the content you muster to support that argument. Doing it in a short abstract of only 250 words also means focus is necessary to keep it to only the most important, central elements of the story. If anyone wants to use these short abstracted treatments, have at it, just give me a credit somewhere. And if you turn one of these into a successful Netflix series or something, credit me as a best boy. Money would also be good if you make some, but I also will work with at least one of these and maybe write something for real and see where it goes. All three are focused on a story set in a distinctive place or kind of place, which anchors the narrative and provides (in my mind at least) not just a kind of stable atmosphere and setting to ground and bring the characters and story to life, but actively participates in the unfolding and resolution of the narrative tension. What does that mean? I don’t 100 percent know, to be honest, I just know that when the place is clearly defined, the world is built more effectively and the story is better and more engaging. So go with it.

Third World

Bedford is a deindustrializing Rust Belt city, down on its luck and struggling to reinvent itself. PrimeCorp is a global real estate investment firm led by a hotshot entrepreneur who sees the upside in Bedford’s spectacular but underused riverfront and its diverse population of hardworking strivers and grinders. When PrimeCorp pitches a public-private partnership to redevelop several downtown city blocks as an international tourist destination, Bedford city council jumps at the chance to put their town back on the map and move up the urban hierarchy. The resulting project promises to flip the idea of redevelopment on its head, turning a large section of the city’s crumbling central business district into “Third World,” an all-inclusive resort/theme park/reality-based experiential adventure space. New high-rise condo towers, an exclusive hotel, a zip-line course, and an artificially heated beach sit alongside squalid alleys, ramshackle housing, and a sweatshop cranking out plastic souvenirs. It’s easy to forget that it’s all constructed, and Third World’s rich and poor alike are actors working for GlobalVillage Inc, a limited liability corporation managing PrimeCorp’s staffing needs. While tourists flock to take advantage of Third World’s posh amenities and to ‘slum it’ on scripted poverty tours, the locals working at Third World start discussing unionization. GlobalVillage, PrimeCorp, and city council counter by importing workers from Latin America and South Asia, raising tensions until a delicate political alliance, an unlikely love triangle, and a hydraulic mishap bring Third Worlders to the barricades and launch them and Bedford into an uncharted future. 

I have cultivated this idea for a very long time. Inspired by the excellent Julian Barnes novel England, England and my own sense of what desperate and stupid ideas political and economic leaders in a city on the decline might embrace, I imagined this one as a kind of ‘best laid plans gone awry’ story. A tale ripe for the telling if one could do it the right way, i.e., without just mocking those stuck in a crumbling city with a limited horizon, and with some sense of political nuance and the right level of comic absurdism. Also, Bedford is clearly Windsor here, but I wouldn’t want to set it in a real place, just a place that’s almost exactly like a real place.

The Corridor (or, Dead Souls University)

Peter had embraced his role as the university’s Associate Vice President for Student Experience, Learning Environment Innovation, and Entrepreneurial Visioning. The university needed young blood with fresh ideas, especially if it was going to successfully weather the potential breaking point it faced: stagnant student enrollment, a poor reputation, financial difficulties, political pressures, and a terrible football team were all exacerbated by the pandemic. At a senior managers’ meeting one fall morning, following a discussion of disastrous freshman enrolment declines, Peter explained that all they needed to do was recruit more “students” for online classes. While not bringing in much new revenue, it would keep the university from falling outside the “enrollment corridor” established by the state for its mid-sized regional colleges and incurring stiff funding penalties. Peter’s fellow managers nodded approvingly at his exaggerated air quotes around the word “students” and no further questions were asked. With help from enterprising Computer Science students and faculty doing groundbreaking AI research, Peter ensured that classes all over campus had their fair share of international students – or at least that student numbers, names, assignments, and even emails filled out class rosters and professors’ inboxes – and even the football coach got a few new walk-ons to improve his team’s GPA. The university’s remarkable turnaround brought Peter acclaim and the promise of greener pastures up the higher education food chain, but also attracted the attention of a young English professor who couldn’t understand why so many Chinese students were suddenly interested in 19th-century Romanticism.  

It has been a very long time since I read the excerpted version of Nikolai Gogol’s unfinished novel Dead Souls, but the premise has always stuck with me: a low-level bureaucrat in early 19th-century Russia goes around the countryside collecting dead serfs from property owners looking to unload themselves of a tax burden between infrequent censuses, intending to mortgage the collateral he has collected and thus build a fortune on the detritus and remainders of a failing social, political, and economic order. Sounds like the contemporary neoliberal university to me! While I have long poked fun at and railed against the paternalistic managerialism of university governance, its gleeful acceptance of all variety of faddish best practice, and the resulting corner cutting and budget slashing, the pandemic inspired me to imagine a university truly unhinged in its desire to move up the rankings and an administrator who embodies all that is both broken and necessary in higher education administration. In other words, Chichikov but as a university associate vice president. I envisioned this as a kind of epistolary novel perhaps, comprised of meeting minutes, emails, texts, Microsoft Teams transcripts, poorly drafted student essays, and budget documents. I would almost certainly write this one were it not for the fact that I will probably have to wait until I retire to find the time, and also I did not want to give anyone in university administration any further bad ideas. Ha ha, I’m kidding, I’m kidding … but for real though, this one could actually happen and I would not be surprised in the least.

Abortion County, Kentucky

When she was just 19 years old, long before she had made it in Hollywood, Eliza Cunningham had an abortion. While the decision had been difficult for her at the time, it was made all the more so by the challenge of getting to the lone clinic performing the procedure, making it through the gauntlet of anti-choice protestors outside, and keeping it secret from her conservative and religious family in rural Kentucky. Tired of acting and wanting to become more politically active, Eliza returns home to embark on an ambitious plan to widen access to abortion and other women’s health services in her native Walker County, Kentucky. Though they are proud of local girl Eliza’s acting accomplishments, many (but not all) of the residents of Walker County don’t take kindly to her interest in opening a new state-of-the-art abortion clinic. But money talks, and Eliza and project partners Dr. Louise Randle and Dr. Anandi Patel drain Eliza’s considerable fortune to build a clinic meeting the state’s stringent licensing and medical requirements, set up ride shares and transportation for women visiting the clinic, and – most importantly – buy a majority of privately-held land in the county to ensure limited access for anti-choice protestors. Low on funds but working hard to keep her clinic open and accessible, Eliza must also face her family, her past, and her nemesis, the fiery and charismatic preacher-turned-county judge executive Bud Mullins, who sees shutting down the clinic as his stepping stone to the governor’s mansion and beyond.

This one is more of a potential drama than the previous two stories, and the most open-ended in terms of the direction it could take toward its resolution. I am not myself all that interested in medical dramas, but I got this story idea during the 2020 election cycle as friends and relations in Kentucky noted they had received postcards from Democratic voters and volunteers in California and elsewhere on the coasts imploring them to do the right thing for America and to vote for Joe Biden and Amy McGrath. McGrath raised a lot of money for the DNC but ran an absolutely piss-poor campaign against unpopular but apparently unbeatable incumbent Senator Mitch McConnell. I don’t think the postcards helped (neither did the DNC backing McGrath over progressive candidate Charles Booker in the Democratic primary), and it smacked of exactly the kind of “coastal and Beltway elites coming in to tell you how to run things” that is often but not always a caricature of the mainstream of the Democratic Party. But enough partisan politics! I thought to myself after seeing these postcards online, well, what if the rich Hollywood-connected liberal elite actually did do something right for a change? Like maybe, spend their money not on obnoxious and ineffective postcards for the DNC but on building an accessible abortion services provider in a state where there is currently one place to go to get a safe, legal abortion, and that’s only if you can get a ride to Louisville and take a good chunk of time off work, in addition to all the medical and social obstacles that the Commonwealth of Kentucky and anti-choice activists have put in place. Buying up the county to keep protesters off the clinic’s front porch was the pivotal part of the story for me. Anyway, this one is perfect for at least a five-season run on Netflix or Amazon, and there would be a real chance here to portray a rural place in a complex and nuanced way, but the lead character Eliza must be played by Susan Sarandon, and only Matthew McConaughey can play Bud Mullin.

Elvis Vs. Drugs

This is not meant as shade on Elvis, but I came across this video on a late night YouTube binge a few weeks ago and was left wondering, why is there no biopic film or series about Elvis Presley’s last years? Maybe there is, but I don’t know that any such thing exists, at least not in the proper form. It practically writes itself: his lengthy Las Vegas residency, his grueling tour and recording schedule, a shattered cultural icon descending into a kitschy parody of himself, and a literal shit ton of drugs. I won’t even take credit for this idea, just someone needs to do it up right as a limited 6- to 8-part series.