I wrote down everything I read and began writing my own first novel...

This blog aimed to contrast what I was reading in in 1975-79 with the same month, week and day, 30 years later in 2005-2009. I'm leaving the blog up in archive mode, blogging in real time on Live Journal--and still writing novels.

Lynne Murray's Live Journal and Bride of the Dead Blog

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Write Stuff in 8 Words from Tony Hillerman

Rest in peace, Tony Hillerman. This NY Times piece by Marilyn Stasio ends with the essential eight words from the man himself.

“The name of the game is telling stories.”

Thursday, October 23, 2008

"Quality" Lit and the Zombie Factor

I should preface this rant with a conversation I had with a friend describing a book she was reading--beautifully written, complex characters, multi-layered relationships, resonant with current affairs and worldview.

"Um, are there any vampires or flesh-eating zombies?"
"Sorry, then I'm probably not going to read it."

It used to be murder that I required in fiction, but now it's a rare book that gets my attention unless it goes beyond death to spin a yarn on the dark side, mapping that undiscovered country.

This brings me to a recent article on the latest trends in the publishing industry (no zombies there, but I'm always curious about the publishing business). Unfortunately the article totally focused on a narrow spectrum at the top New York Magazine.

For every Pretty Young Debut Novelist who snags that seven-figure prize, ten solid literary novelists have seen advances slashed for their third books.

Of course, back in the boom nineties, the corporations themselves were pumping up the expectations of midlist writers.Consider Dale Peck. His first novel, Martin and John, came out in 1993 to excellent reviews, and by his third book, in 1998, he was, by his own account, wildly overpaid. Books, he says, “were like Internet stocks, getting enormous advances without demonstrating any moneymaking whatsoever.” Having rarely sold more than 10,000 copies, he took up with superagent Andrew Wylie, developed a reputation for being a “diva,” and pretty soon couldn’t sell a book to save his life. Until he started specializing in genre fiction—first children’s books, then horror. Last year, Peck sold Body Surfing, a thriller about demons exiting people through sexual release. He’s now splitting $3 million with Heroes writer Tim Kring to produce a trilogy of conspiracy thrillers.

Peck sees an increasingly hostile environment for the kind of books he used to write. “When you get $100,000 for a novel,” he says, “you want $150,000 and then $200,000, so when they pay you $25,000 for the next one, and my rent is $2,500 a month, what do you do? The system works just fine for commercial fiction. But for literary fiction, I think we had a nice run of it in the commercial world.”

The experiences of the "quality lit" authors described in the article don't bear much resemblance to any of the authors I've met in the genre fiction realm. Many of them had larger sales, received tiny advances and were dropped by their publishers. In case you hadn't noticed, there's a class system in literature. Chip on my shoulder, who me? Sour grapes--not exactly. I wouldn't trade my life for anyone else's even though I've taught myself to write by reading and writing, and I seem to be a slow learner! I couldn't live the kind of life one would have to live to build a literary diva career. It's hard to network with a chip on your shoulder and I'm always better off holing up with my words.

At the risk of sounding like the Sour Grapes Wine Tasting tour, I gotta say that the "quality" books they describe sound tedious rather than tempting. It's not so much a gender thing. The books I read these days are mostly written by and aimed at women, but gender is only part of the story. There's a caste system involved that sets off an alarm in the aforementioned chip on my shoulder. (Who knew the chip had a microchip and the microchip had a Caste System Proximity Alert Buzzer?)

The books that do interest me are dismissed as beneath the notice of the elite publishing crew quoted in this article. If you chopped the cash numbers drastically and upped the sales figures, some of the writers' experiences sound like those of authors I've known--all genre authors, mostly female--the ones who lost their contracts for insufficient sales.

The sentence that angers me most is the throwaway statement that "the system works just fine for commercial fiction." They are too contemptuous of commercial authors to even examine how the industry really affects that "lower sort" of fiction. Let's tell the huge percentage of mystery novel writers who have lost their contracts because they didn't meet unrealistic sales goals that "the system works fine." No one is offering them a few million dollars to slum in the horror field. I'm not speaking myself here--I'm not sure I'd be a good collaborator. But I know several very well-qualified, hardworking (non-Diva) authors who would have been happy to collaborate in the sordid commercial field.

Sorry, but the longer I contemplate this, the angrier I get, so enough on THAT topic.

However, the violence of my own reaction to this whole "pity the poor quality author forced to whore in genre fiction" gave me some insight into how living as an invisible person in this society has stirred up dark emotions that require books that feature flesh-eating zombies, blood-sucking vampires and girl exorcists. I shall however avoid Mr. Peck's thriller with the orgasmo-demons. If someone has contempt for what they are writing, I'm not going to argue with them.

My own experience in the publishing industry has been totally and completely in the genre world. I started writing them when I did the math and found that 80% of what I read was mysteries. Now it's fantasy/horror, so I'm writing that.

The second longish quote from an article in
the New York Times spoke to the fact that many of the writers in the horror and horror-ish line are now women.

In recent years, though, women — perhaps emboldened by the success of the florid vampire novels written by the pre-Jesus Anne Rice — have been claiming a much larger share of their genre birthright, even devoting themselves, in many cases, exclusively to horror. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say they’re writing fiction that uses the traditional materials of horror for other purposes, because novels like those of the wildly popular Laurell K. Hamilton or the Y.A. phenomenon Stephenie Meyer don’t appear to be concerned, as true horror should be, with actually frightening the reader. (Rice wasn’t, either.) The publishing industry has even cooked up a new name to brand this sort of horroroid fiction, in which vampires and other untoward creatures so vividly express their natural and unnatural desires: it’s called “paranormal romance.”

Unreadable as most of this stuff is (at least for us males), there’s a certain logic to this turn of pop-cultural events, in that we the reading public no longer share a clear consensus on what constitutes abnormal, or indeed scary, behavior. In the unlamented prefeminist world, women were themselves so routinely marginalized as “different” or “other” that perhaps it’s not such a stretch for them to identify, as many now seem to, with entities once considered monstrous, utterly beyond the pale. And, further, quite a few of these monsters, notably the vampires, are beautiful, worldly and unstoppably strong — which makes them useful vehicles for empowerment fantasies.

A measure of doubt, or at least ambivalence, about what should terrify us isn’t necessarily a bad thing for a writer. Times change, as do the shapes of our fears: it’s probably just as well not to be too sure where the real threats to our bodies and souls are coming from.

"Unreadable" by males????? Okay, I'm not going to examine that topic at all. I've ranted way too much already. Return with us now to those library-obsessed days of yesteryear--

September 21 to October 21, 1978 I read (or at least started to read):

Books I didn't finish--
The Dragons of Eden, Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence by Carl Sagan

The Portable Dorothy Parker, Dorothy Parker
note: Sampled

The Anatomy of Swearing by Ashley Montague

The Women's Room by Marilyn French
- Irritable note (I guess I was crankly 30 years ago in Oct as well!): Poorly written and overpriced at $2.50 paperback. I got about 5 pages into this--what a rotten book. Even now the angst aspect doesn't appeal much to me.

On the other hand I did finish--
Louisa May, A Modern Biography of Louisa May Alcott by Martha Saxton
note: v. good

Inside Las Vegas by Mario Puzo
My recollection was that this was an illustrated book--not a lot of copy but many pictures. My note then: poorly done. Doesn't quite make it to 4th rate, but bettter, I now realize than the novel for which this was the reseeach prologue (Fools Die) that one really sucked.

The Laughing Policeman by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo

Closing Time, the true story of the "Goodbar" murders by Lacey Fosburgh
note: very finely written

September 21 to October 20 2008 I read:

Blood Noir by Laurell K. Hamilton
There's a somewhat interesting plot in this one, particularly if you skip the sex scenes (unless you want to read them for comic relief, I find them cringeworthy without being evocative).

Re-reads this month

Dracula by Bram Stoker
Re-reading the classic reminds me how much more slowly life moved in those days, and to what degree vampires were linked with fear of women's sexuality, and the helplessness of watching loved ones waste away and die (a much more common experience back then). As the NYT article above suggests, vampires have a different meaning in some modern texts.

A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare - 1599 by James Shapiro