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October 29, 2006

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When Books Don’t Sell – 1

Laura Miller is a journalist who frequently writes reviews for Salon. For my money, she’s one of the best literary journalists around. She has a direct, unaffected yet highly intelligent style that usually gets to the heart of the matter.

Recently, she wrote a column entitled “Rank Insubordination” on the New York Times list of the best American novels of the last quarter century. Or rather, she wrote on the compilation of literary best-of lists generally, and the fact they raise as many questions as they answer. (Miller’s conclusion was while a single best-of list may have made sense a few decades ago, the reading public has become so diverse that what is really required is a series of best-of lists; a recognition that standards are not absolute, and have become more varied as reading audiences have become more diverse.)

I wrote her an email in response to this piece. I agreed with the column and its conclusion, so what I focussed on instead was my own opinion that part of the problem with achieving diversity in literature was that the major publishing houses were now walling themselves off from emerging writers. That is, emerging writes who don’t have an agent.

I can’t remember exactly how I worded my argument, but it was along these lines. This question of how the major houses process (or refuse to process) work by lesser-knowns is connected, I think, to the question of canon formation … which in turn is what lists like the NYT’s effectively influence. Furthermore, the fact that major publishers are not looking at any work by emerging writers has received almost no critical attention. It seems to me the lit-world’s equivalent of the Patriot Act: shave off a few traditions and liberties here and there … what’s the big deal?

Essentially, what has happened is this: the major publishers have killed the slush pile. You know the slush pile — it was that means by which an emerging writer could submit his/her manuscript to a publishing house. There, it would be read by a junior editor with negligible influence over final publishing decisions. But at least it offered a small ray of hope. And it is this hope that generations of writers have clung to during the early phases of their career. Once upon the time, the slush-pile was “just how things are done”. Well, those days are gone now, at least as far as the big houses are concerned.

And this change has gone unannounced: some houses simply pretend that no one is interested in submitting to them and evade the issue altogether, but a few major publishers will state clearly at their webites that they simply will not consider unsolicited work. This doesn’t mean they will consider a cover letter and a sample chapter (this was the way it worked until just a few years ago). It doesn’t mean they will consider even a cover letter and CV (this is how some agents work). It means they will consider … nothing — nothing that does not come through an agent. But here’s the thing: many agents do not consider unsolicited work these days either. The Catch-22 is obvious.

In any case, all this is a lead-up to the email correspondence Miller and I had.

When I wrote to her, she was kind enough to reply. Here is the beginning of what she said:


About 175,000 new titles are published every year in the US. In fiction alone, a new work is published every 30 minutes. Even writers who do manage to get published by a major house often find that their work gets no press attention at all and vanishes as if it [never] existed. Even writers who are well reviewed find that their books go largely unsold. At every stage of the process, there is an supply that vastly exceeds demand. More books are reviewed than can be read by the average reader (assuming that reader choice is distributed over the field of possibilities); more books are published than can be effectively reviewed; more books are shopped by agents than can be published; more manuscripts are submitted to agents than can be represented by those agents.


I think it would be fair to say that what Miller wanted to do was offer me a reality check. She does not know me, and is being kinder than many arts journalists would be by simply acknowledging my email. From her point of view, it’s possible that I’m a decent writer (I described my work in so little detail that she had to assume I write fiction). It’s also possible I’m an untalented crank. In either case, my argument, that the big houses need to change their ways and at least offer that sliver of hope to emerging writers, was, she felt, beside the point. The main thing to think of was the reality of the book market today: it is saturated with new books, and starved of enough readers.

She continued:


Books, especially fiction, are unfortunately
something that many, many people want to write and relatively few people want to read, at least not in commensurate amounts. (See last year’s NEA survey, “Reading at Risk.”) People tend to point their finger at the part of the process where the book they’ve written has gotten stuck. If it doesn’t make it to the agent, it’s the agents’ fault; if it doesn’t make it to a publisher, it’s the publishers’ fault; if it doesn’t get reviewed, it’s the press. But, in reality, the whole system is overloaded. Everything that most people dislike about the system really derives from this fact. If people were as enthusiastic about reading (or rather, buying) books as they are about writing them, the industry overall would not be in the poor economic situation it’s in now.


Again, fair enough. But already there is more than one way to consider the current crisis in falling sales of literary fiction. (I’m going to go into alternatives in a later post.) For the time being, though, I think it’s worth pointing out that probably everyone — from industry insiders to the the most obscure writers — agree that the goal of literary publishing remains finding the best possible work. And so the question arises, is the current system of relying exclusively on agented work going to bring out the best?

Agents are an extremely varied group: some of them are wonderful and committed to good writing. Others are woefully incapable of recognizing anything except marketable pap.

Underlying the agenting business are two essential factors: the first is that the top agents are often already too busy to consider work by emerging writers — that avenue of approaching a major publisher is closed, too. (And if at this point you’re asking, well, why approach a big house? Why not publish with a small one? The answer is, writers who are serious want to make a decent living. Small houses are almost saintly in their devotion to the cause of literature, but are too often squeezed out by the muscle of the big houses.)

The second factor is agents are unregulated; even real estate agents have to meet more stringent professional standards before they can go into business. Some agents are outright charlatans, and, for writers, it is very much a case of caveat emptor. The agents that publishers will listen to are the ones worth doing business with. They are the ones the publishers refer to with the adjective “established”. But they, unfortunately, usually fall into the the group described above: the very, very busy ones who themselves don’t consider unsolicited work.

In the end, the result for writers who are outside the loop is extraordinarily frustrating. And if it turns out that some of these writers are worth giving at least a reading to, well, that may not be the way it works out in reality. Luck has become an increasingly important aspect of getting your foot in the door. (Speaking for myself, I’ve had several tantalizing close-calls. And I think my work is worth at least consideration: I have both a completed memoir and a working draft of a screenplay novel.)

The history of culture of rife with examples of writers, artists and musicians who were either under-recognized or unrecognized in their life times. The filtering system by which those we consider talented are distinguished from those who are, so to speak, clogging up the drains of civilization, has never been perfect. Why assume the the current system of almost entirely walling off major publishers will lead to continued publishing of the very best manuscripts available? If nothing else, the majors should return to giving emerging writers a small chance: if a return to the classic slush-pile is too much to ask for, they should at least allow emerging writers to submit cover letters and sample chapters.

It’s not too much to ask.


faqs — july 06

September 28, 2006

Screenplay novel FAQs

What is a screenplay-novel?

It’s a novel. But it’s written in the form of a screenplay.

How did you get the idea of writing a screenplay-novel?

Over time, it dawned on me that I treated movies the way I treated novels: I would appreciate their stories in a similar way, and talk about them afterwards the way a person might talk about a novel. In fact, I do this more often with movies … mainly, I think, because nowadays movie-watchers vastly outnumber novel readers. There are many people you can have a conversation with about a particular movie, even a very serious movie. It’s a lot harder to do that about a particular book, especially if it’s literary.

 

One “aha” moment for me was reading the published screenplay of “Out of Africa“. My wife had a copy of it, and it was lying around the house. I live in South Korea, and these kinds of scripts are enormously popular here. They’re marketed as an English learning tool (English script on one page, with Korean-language “key points” on the other). But as I read the script I found I really enjoyed it in and of itself. And then I thought, if this works as a book form of an existing movie, why wouldn’t it work as a book form of a movie that’s never been made? In other words, why not use the same combination of stills and script?

And then there’s the creative process involved: Unless writing autobiographically, I like imagining scenes as if they were in a movie. My imagination seems to naturally work that way.

Has this idea been done before?

There’s a long tradition of writing satire in the form of a screenplay — you know, some imagined scene, for example, some inane conversation in the White House. And there is a tradition of teleromans in some countries. These are basically comics made of photographs, not drawings.

But there are no examples of a literary novel written in screenplay form that I’ve seen. At least, this was true when the idea first came to me. Since then, people have given me examples. One was a script by Michael Turner entitled “American Whisky Bar”. I haven’t read the book, so I can’t comment on it. But some time after it was published, it was produced by CITY-TV and Bruce McDonald as a live television drama. I saw that broadcast. The broadcast was really more like a 1950s-style televised play than anything else. So I don’t know if it qualifies.

Personally, I think people will come up with other examples and this will turn into a long-running debate over who was first. And I doubt it will ever be satisfactorily resolved. Instead, what I’d like to emphasize is I’m calling for the screenplay-novel to exist as a distinct form of novel. In other words, I’m hoping that many serious writers will adopt this way of writing novels — at least, for some of their work.

So it’s a good idea because it’s new?

Ideas aren’t good simply because they’re new. I might be the first person to invent chocolate-flavoured cheddar cheese. That doesn’t mean it’s worthwhile. Instead, I think this idea is good because it has the potential to work. It solves problems for the writer, and solves problems for the audience. It’s quicker to produce and quicker to read, yet at the same time, it keys into people’s imaginations. It is a very effective way of creating the vividness necessary for a story to “work”. At least, this is how it works for me. Some people don’t feel the same way. For them, it’s not a particularly evocative way of writing. They need more description — both of the environment and of interior consciousness. I understand this. Because the screenplay-novel is stripped-down, it seems to have certain inherent shortcomings, one of which is less physical description and the other which is the apparent disappearance of interior consciousness.

The first quality can still exist in a screenplay novel. As in a regular screenplay, there is no necessary restriction on the amount of physical description that exists. There are simply conventions; screenplays tend to be very minimalist. However, a screenplay-novelist doesn’t have to follow this convention. He or she can include as much description as he or she wants.

Evoking interior consciousness is more of a problem. Interior states of mind don’t “disappear” in a screenplay-novel. Instead, they have to be evoked mainly by the characters’ dialogue. (This is one reason why I tend to use more description of gestures, facial expressions and tone of voice in my dialogue than you’d find in a regular screenplay.)

The screenplay-novel form is not perfect. It has strengths and weaknesses. But let’s be honest: the traditional novel has inherent short-comings, too, not the least of which is its decreasing popularity.

Call the screenplay-novel experimental literature. But it’s experimental literature with practical aims.

I’ve read other screenplays, and they’re a lot different from yours. Why?

Those aren’t screenplay-novels, they’re screenplays. They are meant to be produced into movies. What I’m doing here is a novel meant to be imagined as a movie.

But it’s just words. What I like about movies are the pictures.

Books can contain pictures, too.

Why don’t you just write a regular novel?

I do. I have. But recently I have become interested in this approach to — this form of — writing. It’s a method of writing that works for me; that re-inspires me after years of increasing frustration with traditional literary techniques.

So you hate traditional fiction?

No. When it is well done I admire it just as much as I ever did. I have gone through cycles, of course: there have been times in my life when I hardly read it at all. And there have been other times when I read it a lot (Korean literature has been a recent inspiration). But generally for me, something in much of the traditional fiction that gets published these days has withered. I have trouble maintaining interest in it. This does not mean, though, that I have lost interest in fictional narrative overall, since movies, too, are a form of fiction.

If I were the only person who felt this way, I’d blame myself. But many people, including sophisticated people who have invested considerable energy into establishing literary careers, seem to feel the same way. So I think the main problem does not rest primarily with any one individual; it rests with contemporary fiction itself. Or to be more accurate, it rests with the contemporary institutions of fiction.

Why is this? It’s not as if literary fiction has gotten worse in its totality. There is a lot of good writing out there, and often — usually when I read something by someone unknown — I will be strongly impressed by it. Rather, the problem seems to rest with the fiction that is being chosen by the big publishing houses, the most powerful critics, and the prize committees. Supposedly this should be the best of the best. Unfortunately, a lot of contemporary work that we are told is great is lifeless or false.

Sure. But that’s just a subjective opinion. I don’t agree.

You’re right, it is subjective. Unfortunately, the readership of literary fiction has been declining for years, and recently this decline has become alarming. By all means, read traditional novels, and, if they move you, venerate them. But we have to face the larger cultural reality. We have to think in new ways.

So why don’t you just watch movies and TV?

I like movies … TV I’m not so sure about, although there are good programs out there.

The problem with movies and TV is this: they cost a lot to produce. No, let me rephrase that — they cost an astronomical amount. Apart from the indie movie scene, which tends to be perpetually marginalized, no one individual can make them. They are group efforts, and while this gives them some strengths, they suffer from the near-inevitable tendency of group creations to lose any singular voice. And it’s the singular voice that has to survive. It’s the individual consciousness, not the group, that maintains contact with life.

And this is one of the great strengths of books: because they’re relatively cheap to produce, they can still be made by individuals. (The contemporary trend toward “packaging” a book is pernicious on so many levels, as the Kaavya Viswanathan incident showed. If this scandal will be enough to stop the general trend to package books and turn even them into bland, committee-made products remains to be seen.)

Mass culture, with its converging technologies such as TV-receiving cell phones and ubiquitous WiBro reception, keeps moving more and more toward post-literacy. We are in desperate need of narrative forms that both can reach an audience but also allow the artist to retain his or her individuality. The screenplay-novel is a way of “writing a movie”.

So you’re suggesting we just give up? That because mass culture is so pervasive we are obligated to mimic it?

The screenplay-novel is not a selling out. Think of it this way: there are good movies. There is good TV. In other words, both mediums are capable of producing genuine works of art, despite their group-made natures. If you write a screenplay-novel, you should try to make something that also has artistic merit. Obviously, it won’t have the linguistic, descriptive power of great novels. But it will have the capacity to stir people’s imaginations.

And when reading a screenplay-novel, all people have to do is allow themselves to read it as a director might. This is one of the broad-based effects that movies have had on the modern mind: it is possible — even natural, it sometimes seems — to think “cinematically”. In other words, our minds have already been conditioned to imagine narratives as if they were movies. Maybe everyone doesn’t do this. But many people do, and they do it effortlessly. In this sense, we are all directors now.

The trick is to be a good director — an auteur, if you will. Remember that the best movies and TV are often made in opposition to mass culture. The screenplay-novel is another way of doing that.

But what about reading? If everyone is “being a director”, won’t reading suffer even more?

People are still reading lots these days. The trend among readers, however, is to buy more non-fiction than fiction.

What’s wrong with that?

Nothing in the sense that non-fiction has always been popular, and now simply is more so. However, we still need fiction. It’s not a luxury. It’s a necessity, as well. Cultures rise and fall based partly on the stories they tell themselves.

I think screenplays suck. Traditional novels are more interesting to read.

Then read traditional novels. But consider the possibility that the screenplay-novel idea is a relatively new one, and part of your antagonism to them may be the result of being conditioned to read fictional narrative one way and not another. Remember that: the screenplay novel is just another form of narrative.

stills 22 — july 06

September 28, 2006

STILLS WITHOUT SCRIPTS — 22




haemi – july 06

September 28, 2006

해미 읍성, 여름에, Haemi Fortress, Summer (an ultra-short)



EXT. A SMALL KOREAN VILLAGE. AN EARLY SUMMER EVENING, MID-WEEK.

A WESTERN MAN is walking down the city’s main street. To his left is the historic site of Haemi Fortress. He has a peaceful expression on his face, but from his body language we can tell he’s lonely.

VO: Those were the days before I met you.

SFX: A light breeze.



EXT. THE INNER COURTYARD OF THE FORTRESS. MOMENTS LATER.

The Western man sees a group of CHILDREN. They are giggling and playing with each other. Then one of them spots the man.



CHILD: 의국인! [Foreigner]

SECOND CHILD: [sing-songy] Hello!

MAN: [smiling] Hello.

ALL CHILDREN: [gleefully] Hello! Hello!

MAN: [speaking slowly] Can you speak English?

The CHILDREN suddenly start to giggle uproariously. But their amusement is more a symptom of shyness than desire to carry the game any further. They run away, still laughing.

The MAN continues walking. He makes his way through small, sad, empty streets.



INT. AN EVANGELICAL CHURCH. TEN MINUTES LATER.



The MAN enters. He is somewhat surprised to see a CROWD OF WORSHIPPERS. They are very involved in their prayers.

The MAN walks cautiously forward.

A MIDDLE-AGED KOREAN MAN spots him.

CUT TO: CLOSE UP of MIDDLE-AGED KOREAN MAN.

MIDDLE-AGED KOREAN MAN: 하느님! 하느님이 자를 사랑하습니다! [God! God loves you!]

EXT. A STREET. MOMENTS LATER.

The MAN is walking by himself again. He looks even sadder than before. A DIFFERENT CHILD spots him.

DIFFERENT CHILD: [especially enthusiastically] Hello!

beat.

V.O.: I don’t know what it is was about that kid’s voice. It got to my heart more than any church or religion could…. I heard that cheerfully demanding, pip-squeaky voice and all I could think of was another day when the sun was setting — a hotter day, and happier, too.


5

September 28, 2006

Hurricane Season Returns

 

[a summer re-run]


As the hurricanes of post-literacy sweep their way (and not for the first time) over the levees of literature, we are left to ask one simple question: how will we — we poor lit-types — survive? For it is up to us to figure this one out! No mercy for us — no indeed! We who have set ourselves as guardians of some of the finest traditions of culture have been revealed to be fools who ignored the most obvious warnings … self-absorbed fools; monomaniacal fools, capable of simultaneously obsessing over one set of problems — our writing — while ignoring another: the gathering electronic storm.

Yes, yes, the hurricane, it was foreseen. And not just a week beforehand. It was foreseen forty or fifty years ago! Sharp winds gusted through our living rooms! Powerful breezes sucked back the drapes, fluttered the pages of an open book, and sent shivers over our skins! And the cause of it the eye of the mindless storm sat in front of us, a seeming zone of peace, the television!

Well, some will say, be careful how you apportion blame! Was it this small invention, a mere electronic box, that could have triggered the horror and the death that now floods the world of literary publishing? (The corpses lie everywhere: the creative writing MFAs, now draped in plastic sheets, their manuscripts soaked and illegible in the toxic water.)

Its true, its true! The book was in trouble its levees were weak long before the television set! Remember the typhoon of 1931? Remember the movie?

We must remember the old disasters! Not because they were worse than the new disasters, but because they put it all in a little perspective! We writers (the ones who still survive) are dehydrating on the floor of the stadium, pacing how we drink from what might be the last plastic jug of water we receive for a very long time! And wasnt it just yesterday (or a few years ago) that it was all about the twin towers? Wasnt it only recently that 9/11 was the real cause of the malaise in literary fiction?!

Who knows? Were shell-shocked! We cant think straight! But think we must! Yes, we writers have lost very little compared to the ones who have been devastated beyond comprehension: the distraught parents, the orphaned children, the uninsured and the desperate!

But please dont dismiss us literary types huddled in a corner as self-absorbed! We not only are aware of the greater suffering around us, but wish to document it! And in our state of tender sensitivities, please do not insist that the only valid way to do that now is through an article through non-fiction! Dont you see?! Thats how we were traumatized in the first place! Were novelists, dammit! Indulge us! We are not asking for a gargantuan handout! All we want is the ability to make literary art!!

A bas les demandes sociologique! Down with an insistence on constantly being factual! We realize there is a crisis! The Millennial Century has already shown it is quite adept at producing crises! But don’t tell us that’s all we can write about! Allow us our scrap of creativity!

We will think in new ways! We will try to anticipate the next storm! Why not new forms, new techniques? Perhaps the levees and break-waters can be strengthened! And so we will do our best, we writers of a literature that seems impractical! We will attempt to be — well, we attempt to be novel! We will write books that read like screen-plays! We will use pictures, drawings, unveiled autobiography! But please, please … listen to us as we speak: a moment of indulgence a small gesture of understanding…..

We want shelter! We want to build a new house to live in!

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Various

Kristen Nelson on things not to do when querying an agent.

Jennifer Jackson on healthy perfectionism.

Matt Bell’s new home-page of online short story links.

Rodney Welch on fashion porn.

Amnesty International on proportionality and war crime.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

How Can We Read in an Age of Images?

My essay “How Can We Read in an Age of Images?” appears in the most recent edition of The Quarterly Conversation. Here’s the opening:

Typically, a litblog’s traffic pales in comparison to image-based sites. For example, I recently came across one image-based site called The Sartorialist. It’s based on a grabby idea: just a series of snapshots of people who are in some way well-dressed, with commentary underneath. And then when I looked at the number of profile views the site had received, I–well, I blanched with envy.

Even more heavily visited, of course, are the big name sites with enough corporate dough behind them to generate high-octane buzz. Otherwise sensible newspapers such as The Washington Post or The Guardian have blogs that deal with literary subjects. But while these latch onto the cool of the blogosphere, they do not partake of its democratic nature. Therefore, you, dear reader, are supposed to visit these sites, but they will not visit you.

And then there are the “bloggish” big-money sites. These are not even blogs at all–they are homepages attempting to manufacture their own street cred. An example of this is a site I recently saw put together by the BBC for a white hip-hopper. Attention-grabbing, for sure. But its grabbiness proceeded precisely from its use of image, and its images were effective because they were assembled by well-paid designers.

In any case, the question of the power of the image–the great seduction of looking–is one that litbloggers have to wrestle with….

Click here to see more.


I’m still making my way through the issue. But I’ve already found several good pieces in it. Well worth reading.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Various

Rodney Welch, Steve Mitchelmore and Mark Sarvas on Gunther Grass.

Sidney Blumenthal on Bush’s leadership.

Ed on the graphic novel vs. the snobs.

Robert Nagle on the next terrorist threat: snakes!

Scott Esposito on Liesl Schillinger.

STILLS WITHOUT SCRIPTS – #25

 

DIE HAPPINESS — excerpt one

 

At the beginning of the 21st Century, against a backdrop of political and military catastrophe, questions of what art is, what art can do, and what art should do acquire new importance. But the irony is that, precisely because of the crisis that is currently unfolding across the world (the crisis of failing and corrupted Western power), these questions seem trivial and beside the point. After all, there is a deep-seated human tendency to view art as secondary to the needs of daily life. More precisely, because art is secondary to essential needs, humans tend to think its importance evaporates.

But that just isn’t true. Art — and by this term I mean all culture, from literary novels to fine art to movies to pornography to advertising to reality TV — molds our thinking. It even molds our perceptions, or, as they say these days, our hard-wiring. It is both one of the major sources of human folly and one of the best hopes of its salvation. The problem, though, is that when we talk about art, there is not one kind, there are several. Some are traditional in their narrative, some experimental, some are socially engaged, some are based on the authors own experience, some spring from the imagination.

What follows are a series of excerpts from a novella I wrote and then videotaped several years ago. (The tape was never broadcast, but I have copies available for any publishing/broadcast professionals who might be interested.) The monologue is entitled DIE HAPPINESS, and on the surface its the story of a love triangle a contemporary, sort-of, kind-of love triangle.

It’s about Nils, a failing artist, and his encounter with Bitte and Hilde, two exchange students from Germany. Hilde is the nice one, Bitte the sexy one. But both are conspicuously decent; they are educated, after all, and they are German. And to be German sums up so many of the contradictions of the 20th Century — the capacity of civilized people to do astoundingly monstrous things, of course. But more than that, the sins of the German nation were also the sins of economic progress; one aspect of mid-20th Century history that is rarely discussed is not just the failure of the nearby European states to put a stop to Nazism, but their start-and-stop, occasionally-winking complicity with it. Nazism served the goals of some people in some other countries — namely, it was an effective means of stopping socialist revolution from starting in Germany and spreading across the continent.

To be German, then, is to be both linked to a terrible historical crime but also aware of a historical over-generalization. More than Germany was guilty of the murderous racism that ultimately engulfed Europe, and more than Germans made deals with the devil. As the history of collaboration shows, the Nazis found “willing executioners” in many lands.

But the novella DIE HAPPINESS is not about the Second World War. And it’s not about its aftermath. It’s about the mid-1990s — a time when the stock market (but not the job market) was roaring, when the most recent war in the Middle East had been the techno-krieg of Gulf War One, and when a popular dance club tune was Prince’s “1999”. If the ideology of mid-20th Century democracy was defeating fascism, by the late 20th Century the ideology had become … no ideology! Hey, whadd’re talkin about anyway, egghead? Have a good time!!!

The ideology, in other words, was happiness….

Who could have thought that happiness, too, had its dangers?

DIE HAPPINESS

The adequate moderating of emotion may not sound like the most thrilling topic, but it’s a timely one. We live in a world which is headed towards disaster — what kind of disaster, we don’t exactly know. It could be nuclear, it could be pollution-caused, it could be the social instability and resource-depletion which will inevitably result from overpopulation. Or it could be war … simple, old-fashioned, never-ending war.

There are so many big things on the verge of going wrong that we deal with them by not thinking about them. Or rather, since that’s a cliché, we think about dealing with insoluble problems by sublimating them; our fantasy life is dominated by this kind of pseudo-reasoning. We’re subconscious extremists. We believe in bold actions, and violent and romantic either/ors. It’s hard to approach the beast of Global Complexity without reducing it to something that can be overcome in a showdown with a gun, or, at very least, a yelling argument like the kind you see in a drama on TV.

But the world is filled with grey areas. And grey (as we, demographically, grey) is good. It’s subtle. However, subtlety is borne of self-control, and to a large extent self-control feels unnatural to a modern soul. It isn’t, it seems, heartfelt. And this is too bad, because sometimes what’s constrained is deeper than what’s expressed. The trick is in not allowing your constrained feelings to eat away at you; not letting them destroy your capacity for happiness.

In the fall of ’95, on Thanksgiving weekend, I met a couple of exchange students from Germany. Their names were Bitte and Hilde, and they were adorable. Meeting them, I felt, indicated that my life was finally taking a turn for the better…

 

[more to follow]

 

All rights reserved. Copyright 1997,1998, 2006 by Finn Harvor

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Ca Dao

Rick Green on John Balaban and Ca Dao (folk) Vietnamese poetry:

In 1971 John Balaban went to Vietnam to record ca dao, lyric poems passed down orally through generations. Guided by a sympathetic monk, he traversed the war-torn southern countryside, capturing some five hundred ca dao on tape. Most of these poems had never been written down, not even in Vietnamese. In Ca Dao Vietnam: Vietnamese Folk Poetry Balaban presents forty-nine of these stunning, crystalline lyrics in English translation.

The introductory essay suggests that the unassuming, mostly anonymous ca dao are quintessential expressions of Vietnamese culture. “Agrarian dynasties with a cultural continuity of millennia have left few monuments more enduring than the oral poetry and song known today as ca dao.” Linguistic and formal analyses show ca dao to be both ancient (perhaps many thousands of years old) and endemic to Vietnam. In this, they differ from Vietnamese literary poetry, which borrows heavily from Chinese tradition.

As Balaban states in the introduction, “Ca dao are always lyrical, sung to melodies without instrumental accompaniment by an individual singing in the first person…The range of ca dao includes children’s game songs, love songs, lullabies, riddles, work songs, and reveries about spiritual and social orders.” They are informed by a keen, rural sensibility which sometimes appears in brilliant nuggets of folk wisdom.

I am a Mo Village girl.
I wander about selling beer, chance to meet you.
Good jars don’t mean good brew.
Clothes well-mended are better than ill-sewn.
Bad beer soon sends you home.
A torn shirt, when mended, will look like new.

Many of the poems take love as their subject, but patience and duty generally overrule passion. Buddhist notions of karmic destiny foster a romantic quietism and the necessary social coordination of village life makes the fulfillment of individual desire something less than a priority.

[more]

Friday, August 11, 2006

Michael Allen Interview: Part 3

 

Q: Is part of the problem with novels that they are overpriced? That is, when they are compared to, for example, the price of a movie DVD, buyers simply don’t feel they’re “getting their money’s worth” with a book?

A: I don’t think novels are overpriced — not remotely — provided they deliver what the reader wants. Consider the queues forming at midnight for the latest Harry Potter — a book which the UK booktrade sold at a discount!

No one in the queue would have minded paying the full whack, but, courtesy of clueless marketing, they didn’t have to.


Q: And if price is a factor, what can publishers and writers do to change this? In other words, what can they do to offer book-buyers “more”?

A: It’s not a question of ‘more’, it’s a question of better. The whole point of the novel is that it tells a story. The right story, told in the right way for a particular audience (e.g. Harry Potter again) exerts a powerful grip on the mind of the reader. And at the end of the book, the reader is conscious of having undergone a powerful (and ultimately pleasurable) emotional experience.

All that writers and publishers have to do is produce the right kind of books for the various audiences which we know to exist. It’s not an impossible task, but it does require intelligence, hard work, and PRACTICE.

No one can do the job straight out of the box. After that, it’s all down to circumstance, fate, karma, randomness, chance. See my essay On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile.

The problem with many novels at the moment is that they are not written for readers so much as to glorify the author. And, unsurprisingly, not many people want to read a book which says ‘Look at me! Aren’t I clever!’

 

Commentary: Allen’s comments on the marketing of Harry Potter are worth keeping in mind. And they also have an interesting implication: if the book trade was willing to discount these books — which already had a guaranteed audience — does that not sugggest an acceleration of the trend over recent years (or decades) to bank too much on a select number of blockbuster titles? In other words, since the discount is a profit-loss, it is in effect more money into the Potter franchise’s marketing budget; apart from this particular “investment” being unnecessary, would it not be too much to ask that some more time, energy and money be put into all books that are published (taking into account the varying resources of each publisher)?

Allen is at his strongest when he comments on the marketing/business side of publishing. I suppose where I part company with him is in his strong emphasis on populist writing. It seems to me that there is already an enormous pool of writers out there perfectly willing to give the audience what it wants, entertainment-wise. And I’m skeptical that the emotional experience of reading a Potter book is the sort of emotional experience writers in general should aim for — just as the emotional experience of a well-made-but-formulaic studio movie certainly doesn’t represent the end-goal of all movie-making.

Ultimately, given the stress the publishing industry is under, there will be an increasing pressure on writers to produce marketable product. This may mean attempts to turn literature itself into a form of genre (that is, formulaic) writing.

Personally, I think the publishing industry, which includes many selfless individuals who need to be given great credit for the work they do to try and keep the ideal of good writing alive, would do well to experiment not so much with dumbing down literature, but publishing new forms of it … as well as good traditional novels.

 

Thursday, August 10, 2006

STILLS WITHOUT SCRIPTS – #24

Non-mediated Accounts

Natalie d’Arbeloff on Mid-east bloggers:

To read non-mediated accounts of what life is really like in Beirut and Baghdad and Palestine and Israel, go to the bloggers on the ground. Thanks to Velveteen Rabbi for the link to Mazen Kerbaj (Beirut). There’s Rafah (Gaza), riverbend (Baghdad), Allison (Israel). This item from (“American Jews call for ceasefire in Lebanon”) is not one you’ll find in the mainstream media.

Maybe if bloggers worldwide get to know each other as human beings, beyond the glut of received opinions, ignorance and misinformation, there might be a chance, eventually, for peace based on genuine friendship, across the barriers of geography, culture, religion, ethnicity, nationality and the politics of revenge.


(See also the fascinating/bizarre photos from “The World’s Biggest Sand-sculpture Festival”.)

A House in Negril

Geoffrey Philip on agents and The Biz:

Agents control publishing and the majority that Ive met are in the business to make money. They make their living off the 15% (and upwards) commissions. They have to eat. Realistically, they are the final arbiters of who and what gets published. 95% of all publishers nowadays will not accept the work of unagented writers. Money is the force behind what agents do. In this respect, book agents are no different than any other kind of agent–they sell things: books, cars & pork bellies. For many of them, especially the younger ones, its just one of the things that they can do or will do in their lifetimes. If selling books works out, they can retire (before they are 35!) to a beach (it really doesnt matter which beach) with their Blackberries (or whatever new gadget is in vogue) and drink mojitos (or whatever new drink is in vogue).

If selling books doesnt work out, they can take a long vacation to a fashionable beach somewhere where they can meet and network with someone whos been there and who can give then some tips on selling It really doesnt matter, for even if that doesn’t work out, they can always move on to something else.

I know. I’ve met them on the beaches of Negril or overheard their conversations that sound like “Sonny” in The Apostle when he rattles of his talents, “I can speak in tongues” and the other “gifts of the Spirit” as merely some of the things that he can do to make a profit for the church: “It’s pay before you pray.”

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

More

re: Michael Allen — see also Simon Owens’ interview with Allen at Bloggasm.

Michael Allen Interview: Part 2.

 

Q: You’ve also said that generally speaking novels would do well to be shorter. Why do you think this?

A: Can I refer you to my four-part essay on The Problem of Length, published in December 2004. Here are the links:

part one

part two

part three
part four

 

Commentary: The discussion Allen has on length covers both the marketing and aesthetic reasons for writing novels that are either long or short. (Although the discussion is about books generally, its real focus is on the novel; non-fiction, presumably, is not as prone to fashions in length as fiction is — fiction, after all, is the skirt of the publishing industry.)

This discussion is a must-read. Allen begins with a history of the novel, beginning with the Victorian novel — a form we automatically associate with great length. Allen shows that in fact the long Victorian novel was driven by market demand, and makes a strong case for believing this was in large measure because of the influence of one man: Charles Edward Mudie.

Mudie owned many libraries. These were privately-run enterprises. (A person subscribed to the library — paid a fee, in other words — and was entitled to borrow books from it rather than buy them outright; the analogy with ebook services is not hard to draw.) Because Mudie’s libraries were plentiful, this gave him considerable power as a consumer. There were cases of his buying a novel’s entire print run. As a result, he dominated the book market, and his taste had a strong influence on what publishers published. For example, as Allen describes, Mudie realized that he could make a greater profit from dividing novels into three sections. As a result, the “triple decker” novel — the long Victorian novel as we commonly think of it — became popular. And so, commercial demands had a noticeable effect on the form of an artistic medium.

Allen continues by illustrating how changing economic circumstances played a significant role in the length of the novel. During the Second World War, paper was scarce; novels became shorter. The length of the average novel fluctuated for a variety of reasons, not all of them economic, but as Allen shows, it is a mistake to think novel-length is merely the result of pure artistry.

Allen continues in following parts of his essay to argue that the novel should, ideally, be short(er). There are sound reasons for this, he says, the primary one being that a short novel places less demands on the reader and forces the writer to tell his/her story directly, instead of allowing the impulse for meandering and unnecessary description to take over. In other words, short novels not only read better, but tend to be better written.

Allen allows that there are exceptions to this rule, and he cites the example of Neal Stephenson. I can’t personally speak on Stephenson’s work, but agree that the preference for shorter novels must always be, at most, a very general rule, and each work of fiction should be judged on its own merits.

[Just as an aside, a while ago Eric Rosenfield posted on the merits of short literary magazine, One Story.]

FAQs link

For a post that describes what this site is all about in frequently-asked-question form, click here.

To see the screenplay-novel Truth Marathon, click here.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Team-work vs. solitude: or the medium and the artist

 

The following was recommended to me by Robert Nagle of Idiotprogrammer. It is from The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Cinema. The original post is highly worth reading. But what struck me in particular was Murch’s comments on how visual artists once worked by necessity as part of a team when painting in fresco but how they eventually were able to work solitarily when painting in oils. Murch extends this comparison with how visual/text artists (if one could call a movie-maker that) work now again in teams when making movies.

This, though, might change once more. Movies (and art that possesses some of the qualities of movies) are in the process of adopting digital technology.This technology once more allows the creator more individuality of expression, in part because digital technology allows more solitude.


Some of the greatest, if not the greatest triumphs of European pictorial art were done in fresco, the painstaking process whereby damp plaster is stained with pigments that bond chemically with the plaster and change color as they dry. One need only think of Michelangelo’s frescoed ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the pictorial equivalent of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.A great deal of planning needs to be done with fresco, and the variables — like the consistency and drying time of the plaster — have to be controlled exactly. Artists needed a precise knowledge of the pigments and how they would change color as they dried. Once the pigment had been applied, no revisions were possible. Only so much work could be done in a day before the plaster applied that morning became too dry. Inevitably, cracks would form at the joins between subsequent applications of plaster, so the arrangement of each day’s subject matter had to be chosen carefully to minimize the damage from this cracking.

There was more, but it should be clear that for all these reasons, fresco painting was an expensive effort of many people and various interlocking technologies, overseen by the artist who took responsibility for the final product.

The invention of oil paint changed all this. The artist was freed to paint wherever and whenever he wanted. He did not have to create the work in its final location. The paint was the same color wet as it would be dry. He did not have to worry unduly about cracking surfaces. And the artist could paint over areas he didn’t like, even to the point of re-using canvases for completely different purposes.

Although painting in oils remained collaborative for a while, the innate logic of the new medium allowed the artist more and more control of every aspect of the work, intensifying his personal vision. This was tremendously liberating, and the history of art from 1450 to the present is a clear testimony to the creative power of that liberation — and some of its dangers, which found their ultimate expression in the 19th and 20th centuries, with the emergence of solitary and tortured geniuses like Van Gogh.

The nature of working with film has been more like painting in fresco than oil. It is so heterogeneous, with so many technologies woven together in a complex and expensive fabric, that it is almost by definition impossible for a single person to control. There are a few solitary filmmakers — Jordan Belson comes to mind — but these are exceptional individuals, and the films they make are geared in their subject matter to allow creation by a single person.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Michael Allen Interview: Part 1

 

Michael Allen is the man behind Grumpy Old Bookman — a litblog that almost certainly is in no need of introduction. Recently, he was kind enough to consent to a short interview. I am posting the interview this week. Although it is short, I’ve decided to divide it into three parts, since the responses Allen gives are interesting enough that they deserve deeper discussion. (I provide commentary below, but invite further comments.)

 

Like many of the better litbloggers, Allen is opinionated and informed. And at least some of what he has to say is controversial; he has, for example, argued that the novel may very well wither away and become a marginal art form — an argument very different from the one made in recent years by, for example, Jason Cowley, who argued the exact opposite (or rather, argued the novel retains its central place within the culture). He has also argued that it is meaningless to distinguish between literary fiction and what is commonly called mass market or genre fiction.

Whether one agrees with him or not, Allen is raising serious questions that need to be discussed. It is unlikely in the extreme that book sales — particularly fiction sales — will increase in the short term. (This is an overall statement; obviously some titles will do well individually.) The literary publishing industry currently seems trapped by inertial forces. It would be healthier by far if more change and experimentation took place.

For writers and publishers both, a lot is at stake.

Q: You’ve said the novel may end up being a very marginal form, like poetry. Why is this? Because of mass media? Or is it because of some characteristic common to many contemporary novels?

A: It must be 20 or 30 years since Gore Vidal (among others) started to point out that, by and large, young people do not read books. They watch television and movies, and nowadays they have iPods and videos on the internet.

Certainly here in England there are figures published occasionally which show that only about 50% of the population reads books. If all that is true, and I believe that it is, then one has to remember that any future decline (or increase) in interest in novels starts from a modest base. Reading novels is not a universal habit, whereas watching television is something done by (at a guess) 95% of the population.

My reasons for thinking that interest in the novel is likely to decline are twofold. First, there is so much competition. Consider the situation in the late nineteenth century. Nearly all the population could read (at least in England), and there were books and newspapers. But there was no radio, no recorded music, no TV, no movies. Outside the big cities, even theatres were rare. So the novel had little competition.

Today, every passing year brings new advances in technology in the entertainment business. Ever more sophisticated devices are created, and it is not too far-fetched to suggest that, within a few years, we will have virtual forms of entertainment which include the viewer/audience as a participant. Against such sophistication, the novel begins to look pretty dull as a source of emotion. (Just as poetry now seems dull to most of us.)

Second, people who write and publish novels often seem oblivious to the medium’s strengths (such as they are), and produce novels which even today few people actually want to read. This trend will continue for as long as people go on believing the kind of nonsense which is taught on Eng. Lit. and MFA courses.


Commentary: There are several issues here. There are two I’d like to focus on. The first is the role played by the institutions of literature, in particular university English departments and libraries.

In May of this year, Allen remarked that several decades ago, because of the very good library system that existed in Britain at that time, a novelist could count on selling roughly 2,000 copies. This may sound like awfully small beer in today’s hype-addled cultural marketplace, but it was a sales figure that allowed publishers to make a small profit — in other words, to avoid the fate that befalls many titles today, which is to actually lose the publisher money.

Leaving aside the endlessly complex question of what, exactly, good writing is, focusing on the manner in which it is marketed and distributed is essential if the sustainability of publishing generally is the goal. Contemporary book marketing seems to have left the library system out of the equation. This is too bad, because the old system Allen describes above has tangible benefits the publishing industry — especially at the smaller levels — would do well to pay attention to.

The disadvantage, of course, of libraries sustaining book sales was that the library system also limited the number of sales that could occur; obviously, if libraries are sustaining book sales, that means most of the books bought are read by borrowers. Libraries these days have instituted a payment scheme whereby authors receive a small monetary rebate for the books of theirs that are borrowed through the library system, but it’s a paltry amount. So a system in which libraries effectively sustain many publishers is not enticing to a modern mentality, which is obsessed with the big score. But these days book sales — especially literary fiction sales — are falling so drastically that even the small number of book sales a well-maintained library sytem can guarantee are not bad at all. At the very least, they protect publishers from bankruptcy, and they allow writers the kind of environment they really need in which to grow as artists — an environment in which they don’t feel constantly ignored.

English departments, too, could assist by organizing and developing curriculums that didn’t just focus on the canon or the modern conception of the canon (which may turn out to be wrong). They could help augment a library book-buying system by teaching x-number of small press books, for example.

But then, this brings us to issue number two, and the main point raised by Allen — if young people are so distracted by TV and iPods that they’re not reading at all, what is to be done? Would a beefed-up library/English department system really help in the long run if it existed in a post-literate culture in which only a small percentage of the population really cared about books anymore?

Here I think more experimentation — experimentation with audio books, with reading-as-performance, with new forms of narrative — is in order. It’s time for literary culture to recognize that what a culture like ours produces is narratives. How these narratives are “delivered” is secondary to the quality of the narrative itself.

Perhaps an essential part of what defines literature is simply that it is a narrative that is truthful about how life really is. Look at what popular culture is producing these days: it’s entertaining, but it’s only a series of unreal fantasies — of having magic powers, of being incredibly tough and good at fighting, of being unusually good looking.

In a sense, the book (or audio book, or videotaped reading) is more necessary than ever. People now live in a cultural environment in which they are literally saturated with the pop cultural narratives of action movies, porn and video games. We need counter-narratives to provide psychological and cultural alternatives to these ways of experiencing our reality.

 

4

September 28, 2006

TRUTH MARATHON — character sketches: Paul

 

Drawing: Finn Harvor

[Note: the above is how I conceive of Paul, one of the main characters in my screenplay-novel, TRUTH MARATHON.]

 

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Site links

For a post that describes what this site is all about in frequently-asked-question form, click here.

To see the screenplay-novel Truth Marathon, click here.

Ecstatics vs. Ecclesiastics

J F Quackenbush on the creative process:

There is a difference to be elucidated between the Ecclesiastic writer and the Ecstatic writer. This division has to do with the nature of fascination and Ecclesiastics and Ecstatics are cut from all cloths, exist in all classes, and perdure in all history. An Ecstatic is one who believes in the power of fascination to impart some sense of immediacy on the work. The Ecstatic believes that work must fascinate first. The Ecclesiastic is one who looks down his nose at immediacy and fascination. He is more concerned with doctrine and the nature of convention, and believes that the work of its own merit will draw the reader if the reader is worthy of the work. It is better to be an Ecstatic than an Ecclesiastic.

Gnosticism

Waggish on the graphic story “The Veiled Prophet”:

This cosmology is a gnostic one in that the eternal world reveals itself subjectively and in pieces. Yet David B. seems ultimately concerned with the idea that it is precisely the illusory world that allows we as people to exist and to survive. Every incursion of the Real destroys us. Merely to touch the Real, as Ziska does at the end of “The Armed Garden,” is enough to blind one. People exist in the space between the Real and nothingness, condemned to see the world in lies and misunderstanding, and it is those fictions that form our very existence. Fictions keep the Real at bay, though it remains a constant presence.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Hurricane Season Returns

[a summer re-run]


As the hurricanes of post-literacy sweep their way (and not for the first time) over the levees of literature, we are left to ask one simple question: how will we — we poor lit-types — survive? For it is up to us to figure this one out! No mercy for us — no indeed! We who have set ourselves as guardians of some of the finest traditions of culture have been revealed to be fools who ignored the most obvious warnings … self-absorbed fools; monomaniacal fools, capable of simultaneously obsessing over one set of problems — our writing — while ignoring another: the gathering electronic storm.

Yes, yes, the hurricane, it was foreseen. And not just a week beforehand. It was foreseen forty or fifty years ago! Sharp winds gusted through our living rooms! Powerful breezes sucked back the drapes, fluttered the pages of an open book, and sent shivers over our skins! And the cause of it the eye of the mindless storm sat in front of us, a seeming zone of peace, the television!

Well, some will say, be careful how you apportion blame! Was it this small invention, a mere electronic box, that could have triggered the horror and the death that now floods the world of literary publishing? (The corpses lie everywhere: the creative writing MFAs, now draped in plastic sheets, their manuscripts soaked and illegible in the toxic water.)

Its true, its true! The book was in trouble its levees were weak long before the television set! Remember the typhoon of 1931? Remember the movie?

We must remember the old disasters! Not because they were worse than the new disasters, but because they put it all in a little perspective! We writers (the ones who still survive) are dehydrating on the floor of the stadium, pacing how we drink from what might be the last plastic jug of water we receive for a very long time! And wasnt it just yesterday (or a few years ago) that it was all about the twin towers? Wasnt it only recently that 9/11 was the real cause of the malaise in literary fiction?!

Who knows? Were shell-shocked! We cant think straight! But think we must! Yes, we writers have lost very little compared to the ones who have been devastated beyond comprehension: the distraught parents, the orphaned children, the uninsured and the desperate!

But please dont dismiss us literary types huddled in a corner as self-absorbed! We not only are aware of the greater suffering around us, but wish to document it! And in our state of tender sensitivities, please do not insist that the only valid way to do that now is through an article through non-fiction! Dont you see?! Thats how we were traumatized in the first place! Were novelists, dammit! Indulge us! We are not asking for a gargantuan handout! All we want is the ability to make literary art!!

A bas les demandes sociologique! Down with an insistence on constantly being factual! We realize there is a crisis! The Millennial Century has already shown it is quite adept at producing crises! But don’t tell us that’s all we can write about! Allow us our scrap of creativity!

We will think in new ways! We will try to anticipate the next storm! Why not new forms, new techniques? Perhaps the levees and break-waters can be strengthened! And so we will do our best, we writers of a literature that seems impractical! We will attempt to be — well, we attempt to be novel! We will write books that read like screen-plays! We will use pictures, drawings, unveiled autobiography! But please, please … listen to us as we speak: a moment of indulgence a small gesture of understanding…..

We want shelter! We want to build a new house to live in!