Sunday, April 30, 2006
DIY vs. RIP - 4
The discussion over self-publishing continues at Slush-pile. There have been several good comments, and here is a sample of them:
Several people have talked about indie movies self-publishing.
I’m not sure how accurate this is. Film is different than print, but I think a fair generalization would be that in print the publisher has two main functions
a) Financial backing (the cost of printing the book)
b) distrobution (and we can lump marketing in here too)
Film is very expensive and every indie filmmaker I know personally or have read about gets financial backing. Often they cobble it from random places and maybe we can still call that self-”publishing,” I’ll buy that. However, none of them rely on themselves for distribution. It would be extremely hard. They all constantly are trying to get another company to give them distribution.
It’s not the case that all indie films have outside investors, not do all of them have distribution deals. “Primer” had neither – its maker put up the money and distributed the film himself, arranging limited runs at art houses....
Further to this point, it’s been interesting to watch the changing attitude towards another form of self-publishing: blogs. While a lot of people in traditional media initially scorned them, lately they’ve been sourcing them as well, for everything from news to fiction.... The point is once a model begins to work, which is to say attract an audience and display the potential for profit, respectability tends to follow.
We had a product (Harlequin-style romance novels for gay men) that we believed would be better pitched as a concept than any individual book. Thus, we created the website, brand, four novels (POD), and a marketing plan. Only then did we pitch agents (got one) and find a publisher (Warner Books). I know from my experience with other authors in a online writers group I belong to that this approach is not unique. So the commentator’s 99.9999 figure is silly and betrays a disrespectful and assured-of-my-own-preconceived-
beliefs-and-damn-the-truth attitude that is irritating at best.
I do get a bit testy when I see discussions comparing “POD publishing” and traditional publishing, because POD is a technology, not a type of publisher. POD allows any publisher, vanity, subsidy, or traditional, to produce books on-demand. I see that John Wiley, a well-respected traditional publisher, has POD services for low-demand books. Technically, the definitions are these: [click on link to see original post]
There’s a lot of really bad writing out there. A lot. Now, with good photography and Photoshop, tons of these books are coming out, and they look just like books that have vetted, edited, and paid for. The customer doesn’t know the difference. He picks up a book that reads like crap, and he thinks the book next to it on the shelf is just as bad. You read a few of these in a row, and it’s enough to make you swear off reading completely.
There are a few common threads here. The conclusions that can be drawn are these: the first is self-produced work is more acceptable in other fields, but comparisons are difficult.
These comparisons lose their force when film is being considered because film is so expensive to make (even low-budget video demands a certain standard of equipment and production). That said, the attitude of those who consume indie film or music -- that is, the attitude of the audience -- is simply different from that which exists for self-published writers. In the former case, people will be often be open-minded. In the latter, they are likely to flee.
This might change as the caliber of self-published writing improves. But the least likely field in which this might happen seems to be fiction. Of course, it is fiction -- especially literary fiction -- that is suffering most from the current atmosphere in publishing circles, because the prevailing thinking seems to be that literary fiction either is dead or should be funneled through the MFA and/or high-powered agent system. As a result, this is the group of writers most likely to be frozen out, and why comparisons between "writers" in the general sense are useless. When discussing this issue, commentators have to be clear: what group of writers, exactly, are you talking about?
What, then, is a writer to do? Well, I think one step that might be considered is either the one recommended by Scott Promfret or by Jeff and use self-publishing (including publishing online) as a step to something bigger. My main misgiving to this approach is that it seems to work better with mass-market than literary fiction. It's very important to distinguish between the two and not expect literary work to behave as product.
And it's also worth emphasizing again that the problem is not big publishing houses per se; it's the difficulty involved in getting their attention -- a difficulty that they've created through their "no unsoliciteds" policies. Theoretically, any self-published writer (or small press writer, for that matter) who is repeatedly rejected by the big houses but nevertheless achieves critical praise and sales will have achieved what he or she might have gotten in the first place. But why put writers through all this grief? This is a time in cultural history when major houses should be showing more flexibility rather than battening down the hatches.
And writers need to do their part as well: that means, to keep trying, not become bitter, and, above all, produce good work. Oh, and experiment more with form.
So, although any writer who is serious about a career will want both artistic freedom and monetary success, how that freedom and success are achieved is what needs to be thought of in new ways ... by all concerned.
Saturday, April 29, 2006
Making the cut
"diploma mill" is an apt description of all too many creative writing programs, which lure in students without much understanding of what a writer's life is like or how few people actually succeed in becoming published writers, take their money, and give them false hope they'll be among the lucky few.
Speaking of creative writing programs generally, my experience of them is that they're of extremely various quality in terms of what they're supposed to do: i.e., help an emerging writer. At their worst, they're filled with favoritism and back-stabbing. At their best -- well, they can be pretty good. But they tend not to address one of the issues raised in Green's post, which is the heartbreaking difficulty of achieving success .(And holding onto it, it should be added, since aging writers too frequently find themselves battling to stay in the game as the industry moves on to newer, supposedly more exciting voices.)
Instead, writing programs -- especially MFAs, which have become similar to junior leagues where agents troll for talent -- act as a forum in which to network. Perhaps this is why cannier, ambitious writers sign up for them. And that brings the logic of these programs full circle, to the kind of emotional/ethical nastiness that they sometimes engender. But all this only reinforces the importance of major publishing houses changing their policies on reviewing the work of emerging writers. In short, by refusing to even *consider* unsolicited fiction, the publishers have created a system in which MFA "farm teams" are essential. This is one of the few ways an emerging writer can get signed by an all-important agent. As such, they bear some responsibility for turning achieving career success as a literary writer into an elaborate game ... and an expensive one at that, for the writer who wants to break in.
Friday, April 28, 2006
Frank Moorehouse quoted in the Courier Mail:
"Literary prizes seem to me to be an idea borrowed from sport. In the arts, prizes tend to be a little bit inappropriate.
"There could be support for a broader base – for example, $10,000 to five writers to encourage a wider range of talent."
[Hat-tip to You Cried For Night]
Wednesday, April 26, 2006
Although the following article by Matthew Firth may seem at first as if it only applies to people interested in cultural comparisons between the United States and Canada, it's about much more than that. It's recommended to anyone interested in the dynamics between" small" culture and Big Culture (the capital letters are appropriate for the latter because, in its power and institutional hubris, Big Culture is analogous to Big Science).
In fact, this article by Firth is part of a larger debate. And, given that in some quarters the novel has been declared dead while in other quarters it is being transformed into a brand (Literature TM), this is a debate that has to take place in all countries:
It’s a national pastime in this country to differentiate between Canadian this and American that. Sports, culture, politics, history, climate, international diplomacy, guns, abortion, health care, social policy, dope smoking, sexual behaviours, etc. – the list goes on.
One of the few things I remember from high school was a Grade Ten history lesson on the "cultural mosaic" (us) versus the "melting pot" (them). Wouldn’t Miss Jewel (though I reckon she’s dead) be proud of me now citing this lesson twenty-five years later. Trite, maybe, but early on we develop biases when measuring us Canucks against them Yanks. And biases are like opinions, generalizations and assholes: ubiquitous.
But what of the micro press? Surely the noble art of smaller than small book publishing is above all this us-and-them stuff. There must be more similarities, you’d think, than differences....
To read the rest, click here
Tuesday, April 25, 2006
From the Little Professor:
On the couch
ANALYST: Lie back, relax, and tell me your troubles.
LITTLE PROFESSOR: I'm experiencing these...urges.
ANALYST [encouragingly]: Go on....
Click here to continue.
One aspect of writing in the form of a screenplay that interests me is while the idea of fiction -- such as a novel -- in this form is enough of a new idea that it's generally considered unacceptable, it has a long-standing tradition in satire.
Monday, April 24, 2006
DIY vs. RIP - 3
One of the commentators at Bookninja, TT, comments on the question of why independent productions (that is, creative work packaged and distributed by the artist) don't seem to be as viable in the publishing world as in the music business:
The music world has, for various reasons, become a place where all the interesting work comes from the independent world and the independent world is where the mainstream looks to. The publishing world isn’t like that at all, again, for a variety of reasons....
The sentence "the publishing world isn’t like that at all, again, for a variety of reasons" is an understatement. However, overall this is a very interesting comment. Developing a community -- that is, a passionately enthusiastic audience -- is crucial to developing an indie scene in any branch of culture. But then why assume that just because one doesn't exist for self-published work it never will? Maybe this criticism is a clue.
Developing an indie scene for self-published work is not meant to be an absolute alternative to mainstream publishing. Consider the music world analogy again: indie labels are not a replacement for major labels. For many bands, they're a stepping stone -- unless, of course, the indie label develops the marketing and distribution clout of a major music label.
The main criticism that should be leveled at major publishing houses at this point in time is that they have walled themselves off too much. They are creating a situation in which DIY publishing (sometimes called "POD" for published-on-demand books) is necessary.
And in any case, it's not always true that a community for DIY lit doesn't exist. There are some excellent sites devoted to DIY lit that are already creating the kind of community that TT describes above. (See nomediakings, for example.)
This phenomenon quickly leaves itself open to charges of DIY lit somehow being shallow and unsophisticated. For example, one literary genre that has succeeded in creating an indie community is science-fiction writing. But there's a lot of snobbery against science fiction -- some of it justified and some of it, well, snobbish.
What, then, about a literary form like poetry? More and more, it is finding a home for itself on the net -- in poetry blogs or online magazines. And all this, too, is very often DIY, or something close. How can the phenomenon of DIY poetry be explained?
As DIY lit grows in a specific field, so do the institutions around it. A more formal poetry community is also growing on the Net. For evidence of that, see this article from Publishers' Weekly. [Hat-tip to The Reading Experience.]
To return to the issue of the major publishing houses and their current strong tendency to inhibit submissions from lesser known writers: The common thread to all this seems to be that the publishing industry has to change ... and some of that change is going to have to come, however grudgingly, from the top.
Sunday, April 23, 2006
DIY vs. RIP -- 2
Unsurprisingly, there are as almost as many opinions as there are commentators, since this is a very general topic, and individuals have such varied experience of the self-publishing scene/the quality of work written by self-published authors. Furthermore, there is the larger question of the role that major publishing houses are playing in all this -- personally, that's the angle that interests me more.
As anyone with even partial knowledge of the writing trade knows, the publishing industry has been going through big changes over the past several years: some of these are the result of corporate consolidation, some are the result of the "post-9/11 literary reading crisis", and some are the result of the ongoing shift of our culture at large toward image-based, electronic media. All have these have received intelligent commentary. But as far as I know, no one has commented in a forceful, concerted way on the decision many major publishing houses have made to effectively freeze out all work that is not represented by an agent.
The following is from a variety of publisher web-sites:
- We are currently not accepting unsolicited manuscripts. Please visit this page again for updated information on our submission guidelines.
- Unfortunately [a list of seven imprints] do not accept unsolicited manuscript submissions. Any submissions received with sufficient return postage will be returned with a form letter.
- If you would like to have your work or manuscript considered for publication by a major book publisher, we recommend that you work with an established literary agent. Each agency has manuscript submission guidelines.
And these are taken from publishers that provide a contact link or FAQ section; several publisher web-sites provide no such information in an apparent attempt to discourage unagented authors from even thinking of approaching them. (And why in heaven's name would a writer ever think of submitting to a publisher?) This latter strategy of shoo-ing away pesky, lesser-known writers strikes me as downright creepy.
The irony of all this is that this new paradigm of the author/publisher relationship simply isn't recognized by the culture at large. I know at least two people serious about writing -- intelligent, gifted individuals whose main challenge is simply to finish their damn manuscripts -- who genuinely believe that once they've done so, they will partake of a ritual known to countless writers of generations before them: put the manuscript (or at least a few sample chapters) into a manila envelope, compose a punchy cover letter, and mail the project off. But that ritual is over now. It's dead, and the major publishing houses have failed to post its obituary.
[To be continued]
Saturday, April 22, 2006
I LOVE, YOU LOVE, WE ALL LOVE TECHNOLOGY
I'll try to fix it when I have time. In the meantime, if you'd like to read those particular posts please return in a day or two and hopefully they'll appear the way they should.
DIY vs. RIP - part 1
I’ve receieved a number of emails lately inquiring about the validity of self-publishing. It’s a well-worn topic and my personal perspective isn’t much different than everyone else’s. In the right conditions, handled properly, with realistic attitudes, self-publishing can be a viable business decision for certain people. But I don’t believe in resorting to it just because you think the mainstream publishing industry is comprised of meanies who aren’t smart enough to comprehend your art.
In addition to these queries about the validity of printing your own books, a handful of the emailers also wanted to know why self-publishing is so reviled. I think there are a couple of factors that contribute to the negative perception. First, there are undoubtedly snobs who look for a chance to sneer and chuckle. Elitist assholes exist in every industry so it’s absurd to think there aren’t folks in the publishing biz who love nothing more than an opportunity to pooh-pooh the self-published hoi polloi. Second, not every one, but some self-published authors invite the very ridicule they hate....
I'm lucky enough to spend a fair amount of time in the company of writers. I’ve been around bestsellers and the most beloved literary icons. And not once, not ever, have I heard these people introduce themselves as a “published author.” They meet a non-bookish person and they say “I’m a writer.” They don’t ever feel the need to include the published qualifier.
However, the type of person who gives self-publishing a bad name adores that phrase....For the people who invite the derision, their obsession with the ”published” tag makes all the difference in the world. And they don’t seem to realize how it’s a meaningless title when you bestow it upon yourself. If I go down to the YMCA and play a round of pickup basketball, then pay myself afterwards, does that give me the right to claim to be a professional athlete? If I form my own team, can I insinuate to friends that there’s no difference between me and Kobe?
The current mainstream method of selecting books for publication, editing them, and distributing those texts is archaic, ineffecient, ineffective, often ill-informed, and frequently unfair. I won’t deny that. But, it remains the system that we have. Does that system pump out horrendous books that are the literary equivalent of roadkill? Absolutely. Does that system overlook and ignore worthy authors and genius books in favor of celebrity crap? Definitely. Nevertheless, it is still the system we have and the system we all understand.
As a defence of the status quo, Slush-pile's argument is fine as far as it goes. But unfortunately the system is getting progressively worse -- it's a slow process that is taking place decade-by-decade rather than year-by-year (though recently it hasn't seemed that way). But publishing insiders don't seem to grasp the extent to which they are walling themselves off from emerging writers. At present, many major publishing houses don't even look at work by emerging writers; and by this, I don't mean they won't look at completed manuscripts (the manuscripts that used to end up in the slush-pile the blog takes its name from). Instead, the major houses are not looking at anything: no queries, no sample chapters, nothing. Instead, it all has to be funnelled through agents. And again, this is fine as far as it goes. Most serious writers these days either have agents or are looking for them (this writer included). However, just because the system is what it is doesn't mean we have to be content with it.
I suppose that no one is to blame and everyone is to blame: the publishers and agents, of course, are just people generally doing their best. In some cases, they probably deserve more praise than authors themselves, because they are performing a task that is frequently underappreciated. (Perhaps we could look more critically at the role book prizes are playing.) And if book sales are declining, ultimately publishers have to respond to that reality. Nevertheless, that is not what Slush Pile is talking about here. Instead, SP wants to distinguish between professionals and amateurs; people with real talent and wannabes. But here's the thing: it may be that in the current climate of literary world panic that the two groups are misidentified. And this, too, seems to be a trend that is worsening.
These days, the major houses are tending to publish not so much literature as Literature TM; the "brand" of literature; something that has literary aspects but also, on some hard-to-identify level, is overly removed from life, or else simply is not as good an evocation of life as the work lesser known writers are producing. For what it's worth, two of the best short stories I have ever read, bar none, are by unknown writers. Again, the role that literary prizes are playing in the contemporary definition of literary writing needs to be examined closely, because the prizes themselves are frequently not pure assessments of quality but adulterated by an entire host of conflicting interests.*
In short, what is happening in the literary world today may not justify the increasing trend toward self-publishing, but it helps explain it.
*(See Laura Miller, Jason Cowley or James Wood who present various points of view on this topic. See also the commentary that emerges in various trade magazines and newspaper book columns around the time big literary prizes are due to be announced.)
Friday, April 21, 2006
TRUTH MARATHON 4
RECAP: Paul is an ESL teacher in Toronto. He's just started a new job at a private language school, and is trying to get back on an even keel after his first, disastrous day at work (he was twenty minutes late for class -- a near-unforgivable lapse in the teaching industry). He is also under stress because of a phone call he received the night before regarding the state of his father.
EXT. THE PORCH OF PAUL’S HOUSE. THE NEXT DAY. EARLY MORNING.
Paul is exiting the house, dressed in his work clothes. On the porch is his bike, locked carefully with three u-locks (one for the frame and one for each wheel) to the porch’s wrought iron railings.
Paul has his bike helmet with him. Out of habit, he starts to put it one. Then he looks at his bike. He thinks better of this plan. He puts his helmet back inside the house, locks the door, and starts walking quickly for the bus stop that in turn connects to the subway.
INT. THE LANGUAGE SCHOOL. 40 MINUTES LATER.
Paul is in his classroom, doing some paperwork on the student roster when Jennifer, the head teacher, pokes her head in.
JENNIFER: Phone call.
PAUL: Oh. Okay. Thanks. [beat] Did the person say who they were?
JENNIFER: [without significance] Your dad.
PAUL: Oh. Great. [Sighs] Okay. I’ll be there in a sec.
JENNIFER: [cheerfully] Bye!
Paul “completes” his paperwork – that is, he looks at it for a few more minutes determined to get it done, but finds it’s very difficult to focus. Finally, he just gives up and slams his pen down and leaves his classroom.
The camera dollies in front of Paul as he walks down the hallway. It’s crowded with students. But he doesn’t look at them. Clearly, he’s preoccupied. He’s almost talking to himself under his breath.
One of his students spots him.
JAE-OK: [Friendly] Teacher!
PAUL: [distracted] Oh, hey. Hi. [To himself] Shit.
Paul keeps walking. We see Jae-ok give Paul a look after he’s passed.
INT. THE TEACHER’S ROOM. HALF A MINUTE LATER.
PAUL: [to Jennifer] Where is it?
PAUL: The phone.
JENNIFER: Oh. Right here.
Jennifer indicates a phone mere inches away from her. Paul looks at it uncomfortably.
PAUL: Could I take the call somewhere else?
JENNIFER: Um, well, where? Is Lucille’s office okay?
PAUL: No, no. Here. That’s fine. [He forces a smile.]
He picks up the handset.
PAUL'S FATHER [O.S.]: Paul, Paul! I hope I’m not taking you away from anything important!
PAUL: Well, I’m just on break right now. But I don’t have long.
PAUL’S FATHER: [all-understanding] Okay, okay! I’ll be brief!
PAUL’S FATHER: Listen, Paul, you’ve got to get over here!
PAUL: [clenching his teeth, looking at Jennifer who is right next to him, trying to keep his voice controlled] I told you, I’m working.
PAUL’S FATHER: [laughing] Not now, I mean after you get off! What time do you finish? Two?
PAUL: Daaad, this is a full-time job. Not until five.
PAUL’S FATHER: Oh, that’s a long time. But you can get here right after that, right? You can come here?
PAUL: I don’t have my bike today….
PAUL’S FATHER: Well?
PAUL: Well, to be honest, it’s easier to get from here to your place by bike. Taking the TTC is a pain in the neck. How about we meet tomorrow?
PAUL’S FATHER: [astounded] Tomorrow?! But this is important!
PAUL: Well, okay, if it’s so important, what is it?
PAUL’S FATHER: [dramatically] I can’t say.
PAUL: [despite himself] Oh, for fu--. [He catches himself and looks once more at Jennifer, who’s happily typing on a word processing program.] Look, Dad, if you don’t wanna say then I don’t wanna --.
PAUL’S FATHER: Don’t want to what?
PAUL: Never mind. I’ll do my best, okay? But I’m not making any promises. I’m under a little pressure here. We’ll see how it’s going when I get off work.
INT. THE LANGUAGE SCHOOL. PAUL’S CLASSROOM. END OF THE TEACHING DAY.
The few students who are still in the class are happily talking to each other as they exit.
Paul is taking notes in the textbook he’s teaching from.
MARTY: [knocking on the open door] Dude.
PAUL: Oh, hey, Marty.
MARTY: Hey, you busy?
PAUL: What? No, no. Just keeping track of my homework assignments.
MARTY: You’re a good teacher.
Paul doesn’t get it.
MARTY: Ah, never mind. Dude, listen a couple of us are going for beer and nachos. It’s something we do every Wednesday. Interested in coming along?
PAUL: [tempted] Yeah, sounds good. But I’ve got this thing.
MARTY: What? You’re not doing a fucking lesson plan, are you?
PAUL: [blushing] No. But I’ve got this thing …. I promised to meet a friend.
MARTY: [grinning] Is she hot?
PAUL: No. Just a friend.
MARTY: Ahh, tell the guy to wait. Or better yet, ask him if he wants to come. The more the merrier.
PAUL: No, no. That’s okay.
EXT. A RUN-DOWN ROOMING HOUSE, EVEN MORE DILAPIDATED THAN THE ONE PAUL LIVES IN. THE SAME DAY. CLOSE TO SIX IN THE EVENING.
Paul walks up the front steps.
CLOSE-UP. THE DOORBELL.
A sign, clumsily written, states: DOOR-BELL HAS CEASED FUNCTIONING
Paul knocks on the front door. No response. He knocks again – hard.
SFX: Flow of traffic in the background.
Paul knocks again, now pounding with the side of his fist. He bends over and opens the letter slot.
PAUL: [into slot] Da-aaaaad!
SFX: Some footsteps inside the house.
PAUL’S FATHER: [O.S. -- voice very muffled] Coming, coming. Hold your horses.
Slowly, the front door opens.
Paul looks at his father. He is in his mid-sixties. He has long grey hair and craggy features of someone who has imbibed some form of addictive substance too much. Whether this substance is liquid, powder, or simply of the mind – addictive thought patterns, the narcotic thoughts of the obsessive – is uncertain. Nevertheless, he looks like a recovered drunk. But he also has a strangely youthful energy.
PAUL’S FATHER: Hi, son.
PAUL’S FATHER: It’s good of you to come.
Paul doesn’t respond.
The two of them walk into the dim main hall of Paul’s father’s house. It is dark and thoroughly depressing: narrow with a pastel colored paint that is so covered with grime it is difficult to tell whether it was once yellow or green. A bag of garbage that should have been taken out of the house days ago. A non-functioning cuckoo clock.
PAUL’S FATHER: Are you thirsty? Do you want some tea?
PAUL: Sure, why not?
They enter the kitchen. It, too, is old and depressing. But it’s kept in relatively clean order. His father fetches a kettle out of the cubboard.
PAUL’S FATHER: [cheerfully] I’ve got this great root tea. Wanna try it? It’s good for your spleen.
PAUL: What the fuck is a spleen?
PAUL’S FATHER: You know – your spleen. Your gut.
PAUL: Oh. That.
PAUL’S FATHER: Don’t “oh, that” me. It’s a good question. Nothing to be ashamed of. Very few people really understand the functioning of the spleen.
PAUL: I guess they don’t.
PAUL’S FATHER: It’s what cleanses you. Healthy spleen, healthy body. Unhealthy spleen – well, you get the picture.
PAUL: [Looking at a kettle that needs washing] Is this healthy?
PAUL’S FATHER: It’s fine.
PAUL: [peering into its snout] It’s filthy, Dad. Look at all this weird shit inside it.
PAUL’S FATHER: They all get like that. It’s not filth. It’s minerals from tap-water. That’s why you should always distill water.
PAUL: What happened to your distiller, anyway? [beat] Your water distiller?
PAUL’S FATHER: I told you. Ian stole it. Fucker.
PAUL: Oh. Ian. That was the psych patient who lived here?
PAUL’S FATHER: Fucker
Paul just smiles.
PAUL’S FATHER: [suddenly impatient and putting the kettle down on the counter-top forcefully] Oh, to hell with this! I need to show you something important!
PAUL: Oh yeah. How could we forget that?
PAUL’S FATHER: Don’t be smart with me! You don’t know what’s going on, do you? You don’t know the forces that are changing your life!
PAUL: The forces that are changing my life are lack of money.
PAUL'S FATHER: Yes! Well! That's part of it!
Wednesday, April 19, 2006
TRUTH MARATHON, part 3
RECAP: After a rough first day at work, Paul arrives home, physically and emotionally exhausted.
He has one message on his answering machine. It’s from his mother, and the final sentence in it is somewhat mysteriously worded … something to do with her not hearing back for several days from her ex-husband -- his father.
Paul ignores the message and collapses on his bed, almost instantly falling asleep.
INT. PAUL’S BEDROOM. A FEW HOURS LATER.
Paul lies on his bed, sleeping fitfully.
SFX: Traffic outside his window. We hear this for several seconds.
SFX: [loudly] The phone ringing.
PAUL: [sitting bold upright, startled into being awake] Whamphh?
SFX: The phone continues ringing.
He gets up and grabs the phone, knocking the handset awkwardly off the cradle before picking it up properly.
PAUL: [mumbling] Hello?
WOMAN’S VOICE: Oh, hi, honey. Did I wake you?
PAUL: [still groggy] Oh, no, it’s okay. I just fell asleep for a few minutes. Really beat.
MOTHER: Oh, I’m so sorry! I didn‘t know!
PAUL: No, no, it’s fine. What’s up?
MOTHER: Oh, nothing. I was just wondering how your first day was…. Did you get my message?
PAUL: Oh yeah. Sure.
MOTHER: Have you heard from Dad?
PAUL: What? No.
MOTHER: Oh. He called me a few days ago and asked me to call him back. So I did. But he didn’t answer. So I left a message. But now he’s not calling.
PAUL: Yeah, well, you know … Dad.
MOTHER: It’s not as if I care! But he should call back. How will other people see him if he acts that way with them?
PAUL: I don’t know if that many people really know or care about Dad anymore. That’s part of the problem.
MOTHER: [starting] Well, I don’t --. [Biting her tongue] Anyway, if you hear from him, just tell him that I want to know what the problem is. That’s all.
MOTHER: And everything else? It’s okay?
MOTHER: You didn’t tell me how your first day was.
PAUL: It was fine. A little rocky at first. But then fine.
MOTHER: I’m glad to hear it. Well, I’ll let you get back to sleep, then.
PAUL: [without emotion] Yeah, sure. G'night.
Monday, April 17, 2006
On style and the canon versus style and the cannon-fodder
I think probably every serious writer prides him or herself on their style. Style, in the mind of the contemporary person of letters, is an inevitable offshoot of competence; to "write well" is itself a stylistic achievement. And then to write vividly and grippingly is an achievement beyond this.
The question of literary style is also of interest critically -- that is, for external critics as well as the critic within each writer himself; style is necessary, but too much style is simply off-putting. People who take writing seriously know that there always has to be a balance between simplicity of form and originality of language.
(Obviously, since I've devoted this site to a novel written in the form of a screenplay, my tendency on this project is to keep the style simple. But even in a case like this, I find myself fretting over word choice, since the screenplay-novel -- being a novel -- has to operate both as a guide to some "movie" -- a movie that only exists in the mind of the reader -- and also as a literary work.)
I'd like to riff on Wood's argument, however. Instead of taking issue with it (was Flaubert really the first? really? (-- but then, Wood is not talking about all style, he's talking about modern style)), I'd like to ask why it is the examples of great stylists that are used in critical essays are so often what could be termed the Canonical Usual Suspects: Flaubert leads to Beckett leads to Bellow leads to Updike ... it's a logical enough set of examples, but it's also a -- well, it's a predictable set. Always, when it comes to the form of academically respectable yet accessible criticism that Wood specializes in, the same big names. And always, no matter how contemporary the critic tries to be, a list of writers who really were in their heyday in the mid-20th Century. It must get tiresome for genuinely contemporary writers. (It must also get tiresome for writers in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, India, Kenya, etc., since these are countries that produce original novels in English, yet are almost always left out of the group of big name examples.)
And so a discussion about style inevitably becomes a discussion of the canon and how it is formed. As the vast majority of writers find out, the canon is a neo-conservative's dream: it, more than any other sphere of human endeavor, is ruled by an "invisible hand"; we must leave aside logical notions of what constitutes artistic achievement and accept the harsh truth that only a few -- a digestibly small few -- can ever be called to join the group of literary immortals. How many novels can a person read in one life-time? The size of the canon is necessarily small. Its nature is necessarily selective.
But what does that make all the writers who are nevertheless good? Are they just to be forgotten -- cannon-fodder upon the fields of culture? Not quite. There are of course canons within canons: feminist canons, immigrant-writer canons, gay canons, nationalist canons, satirical canons. So writers who have gotten to a certain point in their career and realized they will never be a big name can nevertheless console themselves with the thought that they will be remembered by a particular audience. And later, in posterity, who knows? The canon often is kindest to the dead.
But still ... the question of justice won't go away. Is it fair that certain writers are effectively forgotten? Or rather, since the fairness argument won't gain much traction at that level of the literary world where the most powerful people reside, is it good for writing that we tend to use the same rather tired examples when we talk about things like style? Isn't it time that the canon was revisited? Shouldn't influential critics like Wood be digging a little deeper for interesting examples?
Hat-tip to Maud Newton
TRUTH MARATHON - PART 2
RECAP: Paul, an ESL teacher, gets a flat bike tire on his first day of work. On a busy industrial street without frequent bus service and unable to locate a working pay-phone, he ends up running almost the entire distance. He finally arrives at his workplace, late for his morning class and bathed in sweat. In the hallway, he encounters Lucille, the school's director of education, and has an extremely uncomfortable moment. He tries to apologize and tell her what happened. Lucille, coldly furious, is not interested in his explanation. She simply tells him to get into the classroom and start teaching.
INT. THE CLASSROOM. ONE SECOND LATER.
Paul enters the classroom. There’s a moment of silence. The eyes of every single student settle on him, both expectant and assessing.
In his sweat-soaked shirt, his askew, barely knotted tie and matted hair, he looks as much like a competent teacher as a drunk undergrad looks like a trained professional. And something in Paul’s facial expression seems to acknowledge this. So many things have gone wrong already that it is almost as if the situation cannot be salvaged; on the spur of the moment, people have walked away from new jobs for less.
But teaching is a social profession. It's not as if Paul works inside a cubicle and has just had words with a hostile boss, and that is what the entire universe of his job adds up to. Other people are counting on him. He looks at the students. And, just as he himself seems ready to concede defeat, somewhere inside him -- somewhere visceral and pre-conscious -- he reaches a resolution. He body language changes, and becomes stronger and more confident.
PAUL: Hi, everyone. [Beat]. Well, um, sorry, I was a little late this morning. What happened was, I was riding my bike….
He pauses, looking at the students, trying to gauge how much of this story they actually comprehend.
PAUL: [Slowing down his speaking] From my home to here is very far. I took my bike here. [With body language, he mimics someone riding a bicycle.] I was coming here and suddenly – bang! – flat tire. There was glass on the road. A bad person put it there. Maybe a drunk person. Whisky person. [He mimics a drunk weaving around and then smashing a bottle on the ground. A few students laugh.]
PAUL: [Warming up] So I went over that glass. And my bicycle wheel – pow! – then – pshhh! [Mimics air leaking from a tire.] And I tried to phone. But the phone didn’t work. So I ran here. I ran almost two kilometers. [Mimics. More nervous laughter.] It was hard. And then I got here.
The students are now looking at him with more interest.
PAUL: And [stage whisper], Lucille, she was angry.
A few students laugh out loud.
PAUL: [mimicking her] "Why are you late? Get in there and teach!"
Several students guffaw.
PAUL: So I was late. I’m sorry. But tomorrow I’ll be on time. I promise. And you be on time, too, okay? … Promise?
Two students clap their approval. Then, in a moment, the rest join in.
Paul grins. He’s going to be okay.
INT. THE TEACHERS’ ROOM. THREE HOURS LATER. LUNCH-TIME.
Paul enters. By this point, he’s discarded his tie and straightened his hair.
Several other teachers are cramped into the small room.
PAUL: [to a red-haired woman at a computer]. Oh, hi. Jennifer?
JENNIFER: [turning] Yes?
PAUL: I’m Paul Northfield.
JENNIFER: Oh, hi. Nice to meet you. [Turning to everyone else in the room.] Guys, this is Paul.
A male and female teacher nod.
PAUL: [to Jennifer] Sorry. There was a kind of SNAFU this morning. I was hoping to meet you before classes started but it didn’t – uh, it didn’t work out that way.
JENNIFER: [brightly] Oh, no worries! You’re here and that’s the main thing! First class okay?
PAUL: [starting to answer] Gr—
MALE TEACHER: [who’s been overhearing] Hey, you’re the new guy, right?
PAUL: [trying to talk to Jennifer but also acknowledge him] Yeah.
MALE TEACHER: And you got a flat tire on the way here, right?
MALE TEACHER: [loudly] And you didn’t phone!
PAUL: Well, the phone was broke –
MALE TEACHER: [even more loudly and gregariously] Hey! Hey! You know something? I fucked up my first day, too! You know what happened?
PAUL: [Trying to politely resume his conversation with Jennifer] If you don’t mind, just show me the basics. Time card and stuff.
MALE TEACHER: [undeterred] I walked into the wrong school! There’s another language school on the second floor! They got the same room numbers and everything! I went to the wrong class and waited ten minutes before I figured it out! I got to the building with plenty of time to spare, so I wasn’t late like you, but boy, did I ever like an idiot! Glad to know I’m not the only one who messed up on his first day!
MALE TEACHER: [slapping him on the shoulder] By the way, I’m Marty!
PAUL: Oh. Great.
INT. THE LANGUAGE SCHOOL. LUCILLE’S OFFICE. LATER THAT AFTERNOON, END OF THE TEACHING DAY.
Lucille is at her desk, working on some papers.
SFX: knock on door.
LUCILLE: Come in.
Paul enters, somewhat sheepishly.
LUCILLE: [flatly] Oh, hi.
PAUL: Hi. I just wanted to say – uh, thanks.
LUCILLE: For what?
PAUL: for being understanding. About this morning.
LUCILLE: Oh. Okay.
PAUL: [clearly uncomfortable] So, anyway. Uh, see you.
LUCILLE: [a little sharply] So how was it? Today?
PAUL: [plastic] Good. Great. [Snapping out of it] I mean, it was fine. I got off to a rough start, but then it was good. They’re a good group of kids.
LUCILLE: [not smiling] Glad to hear it.
INT. PAUL’S HOME – A ROOM IN A SHARED APARTMENT. EARLY EVENING, JUST AS PAUL IS ARRIVING.
Paul’s room is very spare. On the wall, a poster of Olympic swimmers and another of runners in a marathon. A bookshelf. It’s filled books from his university days as well as some novels, travel books, a handbook on teaching, one or two volumes of philosophy. But above all, many books on history. His main interest.
In one corner, are three pairs of running shoes. Nike and Adidas. These look like the most expensive items in the room.
Paul picks up his phone – an old-fashioned land-line -- and dials the call answer code.
SFX: [computer voice] You have … one … message.
WOMAN’S VOICE: Hi, honey. It’s me. How was your first day? Everything all right? Call me when you get the chance. And how’s dad? Have you talked to him? I guess it’s none of my business, but he said he’d call me this week and hasn’t.
End of message.
Paul sighs. Then he falls on his bed, emotionally and physically exhausted.
Saturday, April 15, 2006
Friday, April 14, 2006
Economical with insight
In any case, the article is filled with sweeping generalizations. And there's a peevish tone just under its surface: the complaint seems to be that fiction is accorded an immortal worth but journalism isn't.... But, the author seems to feel, it is journalism that is more interesting.
It would be an interesting argument if it were made a little more gracefully (and with more examples). However, the assumption of it is simply wrong. Journalism is doing just fine in the literary marketplace. Non-fiction is booming. The journalistic writers who are quickly forgotten are the magazine writers who don't collect their work into book form, or -- a la Robert Fisk -- put it on the Internet.... Non-fiction has established it is, in terms of market share, the pre-eminent form of writing today. Why can't non-fiction and fiction co-exist in peace rather than be relentlessly subjected to analyses that call for the elimination of the "lesser" form?
As well, considering my own screenplay-novel point of view, The Economist author is plain unimaginative about the strengths of good fiction. It is not intended to outdo "rich bizarreness"; it is to show truths that journalism can't -- emotional truths, above all, and also social truths. Journalism, for its part, excels at telling factual truth. And it can express emotional or social truths, too. But it follows stricter rules. And that is one reason why fiction remains necessary. It is freer.
Hat-tip to Bookninja
Title Change: Truth Marathon
Of course, this decision, like the conditions on the back of a bus ticket, is itself subject to future change. And, like all things associated with buses, the installments might not come as frequently as people prefer. But I'm working on, ah, improving the schedule.
Wednesday, April 12, 2006
Tuesday, April 11, 2006
While I have to agree that ad hominem attacks have no place in serious literary criticism, to be fair to Naipaul the piece in question is an interview, not an essay written by Naipaul himself, and in this sense he should be allowed greater freedom to express whatever opinions he has. The truth is, writers (and, I suspect, editors and academics) indulge in this kind of conversation all the time. It's one of the dirty secrets of the literary world, and it's probably just as well that sometimes it's done openly.
More to the point, audiences tend to make connections between author and work on a subconscious level. Like it or not, when we read a writer, we have to be convinced that he or she has a certain degree of authentic connection with his/her material. I suppose the counterargument could be made that James is connected to his material -- it just happens his material focusses on the upper crust. But then, this is what seems to be bothering Naipaul: James, in his opinion, isn't interested in the dirt and sweat (the work and poverty) of life. In other words, Naipaul has a point of view about James and in the interview, he explains why. His main obligation as an interviewee is to be honest about how he forms his points of view, not follow standards of critical rigor. And we, as readers, are just as free to dismiss Naipaul's opinions. The problem is, Naipaul -- saturated with prejudice as he can be (you should read him on welfare recipients) -- is interesting. His points of view can seem perverse. But it is fascinating to read why he has them.
I think a more pointed criticism can be made of Naipaul in the following regard: as people who follow the literary scene know, Naipaul has declared the novel is "dead". There was a now-infamous piece on him in by Rachel Donadio in The New York Times which garnered him a lot of attention. And again, one could defend Naipaul as simply expressing an opinion; it is, after all, an opinion that, as Donadio makes clear, is shared by others.
But Naipaul is not simply a commentator -- he is a writer. He seems to pride himself more on his non-fiction than his fiction these days, but it was fiction that really made his star. As far as I know, he hasn't volunteered to give up his Nobel Prize.
A taste for non-fiction over fiction is very common these days. I tend to share it myself, both in the material I read and what I write. One major reason why I started the Screenplay Novel Manifestos site is because I realized I'd reached an impasse in my fiction writing and needed a new approach. On the level of the philosophy of literary production, non-fiction -- both memoir and journalism -- seem so much easier.
But can we therefore discard fiction altogether? The answer is no -- we not only are entitled to both, we need both. Novels, whether conventional or screenplay in form, are as necessary to the health of our culture as all the non-fiction on the world. This may seem logical enough, it may seem reasonable enough -- but the world of cultural production is neither logical nor reasonable, and it's impossible not to feel pity for all the struggling writers in the current climate who are in danger of not even being published.
Furthermore, when Naipaul declared the novel is dead, he did a Very Bad Thing: he attacked the very literary form that constitutes of the foundation of all fictional art we enjoy today: movies, TV shows, Internet games and interactive stories ... all these things spring to a significant degree from the humble, now-taken-for-granted novel.
You cannot understand the novel unless you understand fictional narrative. And you cannot understand fictional narrative unless you understand that it comes in many forms. The novel is simply an older (but not the oldest) form of it. No one in their right mind would say that fiction in the form of, oh, say a Law and Order script, is dead. Yet as has been pointed out here before, it is the printed-on-paper novel that, because it is relatively inexpensive to produce, allows the creative artist more real freedom than filmed and/or videotaped movie fiction and TV fiction.
By all means support the writing of intelligent non-fiction. As I've mentioned more than once, I'm writing a memoir myself, and good non-fiction interests me very much. But the novel -- no matter how its written -- is still vital. It's ironic that in an age when cartoonists can be perceived as blasphemous and arouse so much passion that people die, the novel can be given such short shrift (especially by a writer who prides himself on an understanding of the Muslim world, and should have a better grasp of the fact that ideas matter). And this is the ultimate irony of all: when Naipaul attacked the novel so categorically, he was, so to speak, blaspheming it. He was attacking something that is culturally holy.