The Screenplay-novel Manifestos

Less is more vivid

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Let's hope not

Grady Hendrix on the contemporary novelization:

The home-theater revolution may have wiped out a large part of the novelization market, but the lessons learned may wind up sustaining the genre. When DVDs first arrived, the studios quickly realized that they could get fans to "double dip" by issuing a bare-bones release of a movie and then following it with a "Deluxe Edition" loaded with special features. Now it looks like literary special features—expanded back stories, cut scenes, and deleted characters—might just make the novelization relevant again.

I'm not sure if the term needs explaining, but novelizations are novels based on movies (presumably that have been produced). They're marketing tie-ins, and part of the movie industry. And this is their ultimate irony: it's not so much a question of whether they're any good (couldn't say because I've never read one, though I did read some TV novelizations -- based on Sergeant Storm and Get Smart -- when I was a kid). Instead, what is tragic about them is they take a medium with great potential for individual creative expression, the book, and make it part of the
big studio machine.

That's the major problem with them on a theoretical level: they are not
artistically democratic. But that's exactly the characteristic we should be aiming for in our culture. We should be making books that function like movies, not making movies that curtail the function of books.

[See also this post at Wet Asphalt]

Monday, June 26, 2006


Celluloid Phoenix

Philip Marchand on the likely change from celluloid to digital cinema at theaters:

According to Pat Marshall, these issues are pretty well resolved. In five years, digital cinema will be the norm.If so, this will mark a new evolution in the movie theatre, which will exhibit not only movies but sports events and concerts. Wrestling fans will fill the seats when kids tire of Adam Sandler.

In a paper titled, "The future is here ... almost," Lichtman predicts an even more dazzling future for the big screen. "We should be embracing video games and bringing them to the big screen," he writes of one of the most formidable of all rivals to motion pictures. "Technology exists today for the playing of multi-player games on the big screen on an interactive basis. Over the next 12 months interactive bingo will be played on the big screen in England for cash prizes. People who never dreamed of walking into a smoke-filled bingo hall will be enthralled with the concept of coming to a convenient, clean theatre to watch a celebrity comedian host a big game and win money. Talk about a new revenue stream."

Ah, but the art of the cinema! What about those beautiful vistas of John Ford, those dark, moody images of film noir, those vibrant colours of Antonioni? What about the quality of the screen image? Can the digital image stand up to celluloid? "It's a brighter image," Marshall says.

"It's certainly crisper." University of Toronto film studies professor Andrew Keil points out, however, that the digital image "doesn't have the intensity that the celluloid image has."Film buffs talk in general of the "resonance" and "warmth" of the celluloid image, not to be duplicated by anything digital.

So what's your preference? Crisp and bright or warm and intense? Only a tiny minority of filmgoers, of course, respond to the strictly aesthetic qualities of a movie — the use of colour and shadow and framing and all those other film school desiderata. Certainly a younger generation, for whom digital is the norm, and who take rapid cutting and special effects for granted, is not going to care about digital versus celluloid.

"I don't put a lot of faith in the audience to tell the difference," Keil says. "I don't want to hold my own students up as a negative example, but we have gotten to the point, in our classes, where we show most of our film titles on DVD. When we do have a 35-mm print, I always make a big deal about it. Students will come up to me afterwards and say, `I couldn't tell the difference.'"

The issue is of interest to me personally, and of intense interest to film-makers.

When I still lived in Toronto, I was friends with someone who did programming for various experimental film nights. Many of these, like CineCycle, were usually run on shoe-string budgets, which meant small projectors. The result was something reminiscent of a high-school classroom, circa the 1970s; not so much in terms of overall quality, but in terms of one always being aware that what you were seeing on the screen was not "professional".

Yet many of these movies were very affecting. Furthermore, the avant-garde aesthetic that a lot of them employed was not, it turned out, "difficult"; a lot of techniques that used have been adopted by mainstream directors who shoot video and -- yikes! -- commercials. These more commercial directors glommed onto techniques pioneered by experimental film-makers who were supposedly eternally inaccessible to average movie-goers.

The experimental films I saw then could be sub-divided into many different groups. Two groups that stand out in my memory are the shorter films that experimented with the visual potential of film -- that is, the films that had to made with celluloid. (Some film-makers, like Stan Brackage, even used the celluloid itself as a medium; they would scratch and draw right on the film.) The other group was the movies that were about experimental narrative. These were often shot on video because its cost was so low, and allowed a longer movie.

In other words, celluloid allowed the film-maker visual creativity but
(generally) demanded a short movie. Digital allowed narrative creativity but demanded a compromise in terms of visual beauty. Ultimately digital began dominating the experimental scene -- probably because of the cost factor. Offered the choice, most experimental movie-makers accepted the loss of visual quality for the flexibility and ease digital provided them.

Digital cameras have come some distance since then. I don't know if they will ever equal celluloid, however. Celluloid is remarkable for its extreme sensitivity, although digital cameras can come quite close. (I'm speaking now as someone who shoots photographs, not a film-maker.)

Nevertheless, it would be a great pity if celluloid were to go. It would be a fitting irony if celluloid were to once again become the dominant experimental medium. I doubt that -- again, because of cost considerations -- but at some point celluloid with be re-embraced for its extraordinary visual

Unheroic, heroic

One shortcoming of lit-blogs is they tend to focus on Big Fiction -- which is fine, and understandable, but means that lesser-known writers remain perpetually marginalized. Therefore, for what it's worth, I've decided to periodically bring attention to online fiction that I think is worth reading. Below are some recent examples.

They are quite different from each other stylistically. And they deal with very different situations. But all of them share the same quality: emotional authenticity. Furthermore, since there's been some discussion in the lit-blogosphere recently about what, exactly, literature really is (and whether this something is any good), I think they help illustrate part of literature's essence. They are about real people. Or rather, since that phrase is a cliche, they are about unheroic people who nevertheless become heroic through their honesty. In other words, one quality that distinguishes literary writing from other forms of fiction is the action of becoming conscious of the truth about one's feelings ... and then telling it.

"Lookout" by Bobby Farouk, of MRBFK

"Rest Stop"
by Matt Bell, of

"Discrete Dainty Diva" by Ryan Kamstra of Standard Hostility Index

[Note: Bell's piece is a podcast. You have to click on the link and then listen.]

Friday, June 23, 2006


Book State, Book Province

David Thayer, noting that of the number of books published annually, only a small number (2%) are of existent manuscripts. It is an injustice, and the way to rectify the situation is clear:

We have the capability to ramp up production from 170,000 to 25,000,000. Certain aspects of the process need to be modernized, streamlined, and rationalized. Let’s take the book party. To accomodate this many titles, one continuous party would be organized. Each day 68,493 authors would be feted, lionized, heralded, and praised. Sure, a noon timeslot would be more coveted than one at 3am, but it’s a party, and who knows who might be awake at that hour craving something to read. The event could be televized, fed into the homes of those tired of watching CSI Miami.

25,000,000 books. Let’s not flinch my friends. This is big, bigger than big. We can build a Greater Lebowsky and use the state of Delaware and certain possessions and archipelagos for storage. They don’t mind. As we grow, they grow. Delaware from sea to shining sea, book capital of the universe.

However, consider the following: 25,000,000 manuscripts only includes those manuscripts that are *completed*. Speaking anecdotally, I know at least half a dozen gifted individuals whose main problem is procrastination. And one reason they procrastinate is because they realize (with greater clarity than I do) that there is, at present, no hope.

But they *would* complete these manuscripts if they realized getting published was a sure thing. When we factor in the potential number of manuscripts that would be complete under the auspices of such a project (let’s call it Operation Enduring Reading), then I think a more accurate figure might be 75,000,000 to 1,000,000,000. Hell, who knows? Let’s say 2,000,000,000 manuscripts just to be on the safe side.

Delaware isn’t big enough. Look north. Look to Ontario.

[note: Thayer responds: I was envisioning an expansist Delaware flexing its muscles or muscle as the case may be. Canada has great potential, but I’d look to the Northwest Territories for the Frozen Moment.]

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Reviewing, reading

The following is a nice, honest piece by Andrew Saikali on the process of reviewing, reading:

This is what happens when I don't take notes. Two months ago, I sat down to read Yesterday's People, a collection of eight short stories by Goran Simic. Born in Bosnia, Simic was already a noted author and poet when he immigrated to Canada ten years ago. I decided to write about these spare, haunting and haunted stories, many of them about life in Sarajevo in the mid 90s. But for reasons that now completely mystify me, I wasn't making notes, which would have been fine had I begun writing this immediately. Two months and three or four novels later, I began to write and I hit a brick wall.

While I remembered the images and the tone of the stories, damned if I could remember any names, or specific details. And the images that I did remember were beginning to blend into each other. I was in a haze. I had been immersed in that world. And then I was out. I had shifted through time and space into other worlds. I was in Jonathan Lethem's Brooklyn, then in Stephen Clarke's contemporary Paris, and most memorably I was amongst Balzac's characters in 1800s Loire Valley, as drunk on his words as I would be if I'd been one of his wine growers in the French countryside. The images of the Bosnian war had been overshadowed. I could never do them justice.

So I began to re-read. I cracked open Simic's collection and dove back in, revisiting the characters, and the horrors of war, and the resourcefulness and resilience of spirit that had moved me the first time.

To read more, click here.

( via The Millions with hat-tip to MetaxuCafe)

Writer Apartheid

I wrote the following post in February. According to my site counter, it's recently been making the rounds of the internet, so I thought I'd re-post it:

The following quote is taken from the Feb. 16 posting at Chekhov's Mistress. The post is about a book by David Kipen entitled The Schreiber Theory (link in quote), and, while it focuses the workings of the film industry, it has relevance for the topic of this site as well:

Like it or not, we avid movie fans subscribe to the
auteur theory. French for "author," this school of film criticism focusing solely on directors has permeated the industry since emerging about 50 years ago by critics-cum-directors Truffaut (who coined the term), Godard, Rohmer and others. David Kipen, in The Schreiber Theory: A Radical Rewrite of American Film History, says “auteurism has conditioned us to concentrate on the themes and motives common to a given director's filmography, all at the expense of those poor, obscure hacks who only wrote the damn pictures.”

He's right. Aside from Charlie Kaufman, I find it difficult to think of any writers whose work excites mention among the press or my friends in the same way a director would. Who says “Have you heard about Steve Zaillian's latest movie?” You might if you knew he's credited for writing Schindler's List, The Falcon and the Snowman, Gangs of New York, and Searching for Bobby Fischer....

Kipen's beef is not so much with directors, but with the institutionalization of the idea that directors are the dominant creative force in film. In fact, he duly acknowledges the collaborative effort of filmmaking, as critics of auteurism have always done, but wants to put writers - schreibers in Yiddish, the mother tongue of many of America's first screenwriters - back into the spotlight they deserve.

I'd take Kipen's argument -- and Bud Parr's commentary on it -- a step further. The irony of the movie industry is that while it is so culturally powerful, it has such a capacity to diminish the creative power of the individuals involved in it. The plight of the screenwriter is a good illustration of this. People with the ambition to become film-makers often find themselves in a situation where they have to compromise so much in order to get a project green-lighted, that the "auteur option" ends up receding endlessly from one's grasp. This despite the central place that movies occupy within our culture as a whole.

But then, it's all perfectly logical: the cost of making a movie is so high that of course compromises have to be made. In the publishing industry, a different economic dynamic is at work: because sales of literary fiction in particular are shrinking, the problem faced by the writer is not the cost involved in making a book (expensive, but nowhere near as prohibitive as a film), but the walls that publishers have built around themselves. Publishers these days have to perform an elaborate set of calculations in order to decide which "project" to green-light. PR people have gotten involved in editorial processes. Compared to screenwriters, the literary author finds him or herself involved in an cultural industry at the other end of the spectrum of mass popularity.

The great irony is that both figures -- screenwriter and novel writer -- fight an endless battle against marginalization. And, yep, therefore the point I keep hammering at: a need for new forms that merge the good points of each while sidestepping the really enormous costs of making a movie.

p.s. And for what it's worth, I received some interesting comments along the same lines from Eric Rosenfield of Wet Asphalt after posting a somewhat different piece at MetaxuCafe.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

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


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.


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.


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.



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


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

DIFFERENT CHILD: [especially enthusiastically] Hello!


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.

Breaking through

Patry Francis on breaking through:

1. You're probably bored with this dictum already, but I have to repeat it, because if you miss this one, nothing else you do will really matter: Write something good enough that people will pay money for it.
In other words, write for love. See vividly, listen intently, feel deeply, store it all up, and when it's ready to explode inside you, give it up. All of it.

I know it's a paradox, but that's how it works. Write because you want to give everything you have, and maybe the world will give back to you. That "maybe" probably sounds unfair. It is. File it under "working conditions."

2. Research like a mad scientist. There are virtually hundreds, maybe even thousands of literary agents out there. Some of them aren't even real bookselling agents. They're unscrupulous fee-charging sharks, whose business is making money off lazy writers' dreams. And yes, I mean lazy! With the abundance of warnings about these predators in print and on the web, I'm amazed that people still fall for their scams. Would you send your child out after dark in an unknown neighborhood? Of course not. Then why would you consider putting the work of your mind and heart into the hands of someone you know nothing about?


Monday, June 19, 2006

Denise Bukowski on the publishing market

This piece may seem like old news, but it is a forthright description of the realities of the publishing market.

1-sided luv

The following is a dedication near the bottom of Grumpy Old Bookman's sidebar:

'Reedin iz 4 geekz n sad ppl'

Itz troo: sad ppl still luv bukz eevn whn the ppl hoo m8k bukz 1/2 stppd luvin m

Saturday, June 17, 2006



Scott Esposito on reviewing:

The essence of Levi's argument seems to be that Vollmann writes too much and he doesn't write well. In support of this he trots out a couple of quotes from the first few pages of Europe Central and makes fun of them. Okay, that's funny, but I don't think it makes much of a point about Vollmann's writing.

Actually, I happen to agree with Levi that the telephone chapter of Europe Central (the part he quotes from) is pretty weak. Vollmann's books are huge and they could do with some pruning--the telephone chapter would have been one of the things I'd have streamlined.

However, I will say this much in Vollmann's favor: telephone communications are a theme running through all of Europe Central. Many of the key characters (e.g. Shostakovich) have their phone tapped, and the idea that the telephone as an "octopus"--a beast with several arms that can reach into anyone's home and grab them--is an important concept for Vollmann to establish up front. It sets the stage for the book. For instance, in one tense chapter a telephone is used by Hitler to grasp at a besieged general during urban warfare in Stalingrad. The idea that the State, as represented by the telephone, can always reach out and grab you is prevalent throughout the book, and the telephone chapter was Vollmann's attempt to set this metaphor up. However, this only becomes apparent once you've gotten into the book, so I can see how it would be confusing to most people when you open the book and it's the first thing you read. That's why with Vollmann, and any other author, I don't think it's fair to just pull a few quotes and render judgment.

Friday, June 16, 2006


David Thayer on lit-blog product placement:

Confession is good for the soul. That’s why after many months of masquerading as a lit blogger, and what a thin disguise it is when you look back on it, what with alien-abducted German tourists, rambling squads of market weight hogs, and ridiculous compound sentences, lederhosen, Emma Peel, Roman soldiers, the Battle of Costco, crime without yellow tape, an imaginary staff, macaroni recipes, it comes as no surprise to anyone that this is not a blog about literature, it’s an infomercial penned by a desperate cabal of indviduals eager to exploit globalization in a new and harrowing manner.

Let’s face it, you’ve been duped. Concealed in the text of each entry is the hidden message to buy things. Thirsty? You bet you are. Here are some of things you probably own as a result of reading this blog: Some blogs are worth reading for the information they provide....

Salon's "Literary Guide to the World"

Salon is featuring a "Literary Guide to the World". It is a series of articles written about the literature of particular countries (or smaller geographical locales), and is essentially a way for readers who are curious about the writing that has been inspired by these places to have a single resource to turn to.

My main misgiving about the project as it stands right now is its emphasis on "name" writers, and the assumption that they are privy to a degree of knowledge less well-known people possess. There seems to be an attempt to brand the project, and I think that emphasis on literary celebrityhood might ultimately hobble the project overall; knowledge of a country's literature springs from knowledge of a country itself, and while the choices Salon has made so far seem logical enough, there is something of a danger that we may end up getting the occasional literary quickie -- supposed expertise from famous people who do not know an area quite as well as some lesser-knowns do.

However, as I said, the project has gotten off to a good start and is worth checking out.

Here are links to two pieces that I liked in particular, one by Tom Bissell and the other by James Hynes. (Though a note to Bissell: I wish he'd also included Mary McCarthy's "Hanoi" -- an overlooked book that serves as a valuable counterweight to Michael Herr's brilliant but inadvertently war-glamorizing "Dispatches".)

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

The Indies

More on independent bookstores (this piece by Laura J. Miller, author of Reluctant Capitalists, a book that was reviewed, so to speak, by Tyler Cowan in Slate). (For my own response to Cowan, click here.)

(via Woods Lot)

"Chasing the Crab"

If you're a Canadian who's watched the CBC news, you probably saw Bill Cameron. He was a fixture on the network for as long as I could remember. And what was surprising about him was not his appearance -- he had the broad-shouldered, classic good looks of so many TV announcers -- but his wit and originality.

(It speaks volumes of the medium -- unfortunate volumes -- that while professional competence is of course mandatory, physical attractiveness, too, is an extremely valuable characteristic. But originality of mind is simply an option. We all know this and criticize the medium for it. It never changes, however. It never changes yet it should.)

Cameron died roughly a year ago. He had cancer. I recall my mother telling me about it, as a piece of news from back home. We both felt sad, because we both liked him. He was the sort of celebrity you develop a strong liking for. But all this is beside the point, because he was an author in his own right. And it turns out he kept a journal of his illness entitled "Chasing the Crab".

There are other people who've done the same thing, of course. And I suppose that my interest in his writing is magnified proportionately by the reaction that I used to have when I still lived in Canada and enjoyed what he had to say. But putting that whole complex of emotion aside (the complex of "how we know" people we in fact don't know), his journal is still very worth reading. Its last entry has been posted recently by Walrus:

The anaesthetic was lifting. The surgeon's face was two inches above mine, perpendicular to mine, as though he was preparing for a kiss. I'm pretty sure the conversation went this way:

"Can you hear me?"


"I know what this is. We'll do a biopsy but I've seen it before. Adenocarcinoma of the esophagus. Advanced. Aggressive, moves quickly. Your wife took some notes." He patted my shoulder. His face lifted away.

In the May sunshine, my wife told me what he'd said. It was difficult to absorb. My chance of survival less than 20 percent. Surgery to remove my esophagus. Before that, chemotherapy, radiation, a clinical trial to test a new drug. I could feel the iron walls of cancer clanging together around me, shutting down the rest of my life. I had a book half-written, grandchildren not yet conceived. The judgment was unacceptable, but how do you resist it?

Saturday, June 10, 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 mininalist. 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.

Friday, June 09, 2006

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.

[note: screenplay-novel FAQs can be found here.]

Friday, June 02, 2006

Mark Lamoureux's "On Becoming Human"

The following is from a post at Mark Lamoureux's <[[[[[[-[[[[0{:}0]]]]-]]]]]] website (incidentally, the title is pronounced "<[[[[[[-[[[[0{:}0]]]]-]]]]]]"). The post is entitled "On Becoming Human", and it merges a discussion of Lamoureux's youth and the breakup of his parents' marriage with a personal essay on the effect comics had on him. Highly recommended.

Sometime around my father's 45th year, he began seeing his childhood sweetheart. The problem was that he also had a wife and a child at the time. But the strength of those old memories that were once so dear to him and had been forgotten for so long was so great that they split his life in two. I watched my father and my soon-to-be stepmother travel a gauntlet of embarrassing nostalgia: they listened constantly to Buddy Holly and Patsy Cline records, watched nothing but old films from the 50's or films which dealt with 50's culture like The Big Chill and Back to the Future. The anthem of their relationship became the film Somewhere in Time, in which the protagonist wills himself into the past to woo an actress from a photograph with whom he is obsessed. They frequented those restaurants and stores around Connecticut that had remained relatively unchanged since the 50's. To a 12-year-old whose family existed in the present and had been disrupted, this behavior was beyond disgusting.

[Note: the post link will bring you to the May archives of Mark's blog. You then have to scroll down to the May 11 entry. You can't miss it.]