The Only Question Worth Answering

The only question worth answering is this one: How soon are we going to turn things over to women to run?

In fact, given the state of affairs of the past seven thousand years or so, the question actually is this: Shall we turn the world over to women this afternoon, or shall we give ourselves until sometime next week?

I have a couple of good reasons for bringing up this topic, and, frankly, I think that getting on with it is absolutely necessary. That is, if women actually would take us up on the deal. Women are pretty smart, and they may not accept any such offer. They have a pretty clear understanding of human behavior, mainly because they give birth to humans and raise these human children more or less by themselves. So they immediately gain that firsthand experience into human behavior, which by and large is not a pretty picture. You know, the whiny baby stuff, the me-first stuff. It can’t be easy turning such raw material into a halfway sensible, reasonably competent, socialized member of our species. I have known men in their sixties who are still pretty much in the diaper stage of human social interaction. Maybe you know them, too.

The other reason is that, no matter how you look at it, women are still pretty much regarded as second-class citizens in this world (where they even are citizens), and so they gain insight from that, as well. It’s my old rule: if you really want to know how things are going, don’t ask the manager or the boss: he or she will simply cover his or her ass and say everything is going fine. This is how it’s done in a kick-down, kiss-up hierarchy or bureaucracy. If you really want to know how things are going, ask the workers on the assembly line or the ones digging the ditch. And get ready for an earful. However, given the fact that most women are the ones basically working on the assembly line every day and therefore know the facts about how things have been run so far, maybe the world is more trouble than it is worth as far as many women are concerned.

Still, this line of thinking brings me to my first reason why women should be running things: they give birth to us. Therefore, they have dibs. The hand that rocks the cradle and so forth. If only we could have this situation take place in an environment that really nurtured and supported moms (rather than nurturing and supporting, say, pathologic Wall Street dickheads), we would be better in the long run. Continue reading

Old Dogs and New Paradigms, Part 2

Every month or so, Jill Elaine Hughes, Joe Bonadonna, and I get together, out here in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, as writers around the kitchen table to talk shop. Jill’s star is definitely rising; she’s an accomplished and very well-regarded playwright and a novelist. She writes romance novels and erotica and is doing really well in that regard. The Jill Elaine Hughes website is still under construction, but check out the two now online that appear under her pen names—or noms de plume, or noms erotique, perhaps—Jamaica Layne and Jay Hughes: http://www.jamaicalayne.com and http://www.jayhughesbooks.com.)

Jill’s agent in Manhattan is energetic and very proactive, and she knows her business. Talking with Jill this past Sunday, then, gave me a good perspective about where genre fiction is these days. And pretty much it’s in the situation I surmised in my previous blog.

Eight-five percent of fiction readers in this country are now women, says Jill’s agent. Eighty-five percent. Women agents, women editors, women writers, women readers . . . chicks rule. It is pretty much completely upside-down, I suppose, from the situation—I don’t know, 50 years ago? 60?—when publishing in all of its aspects was run by men. Women weren’t entirely excluded—dames and other just-one-of-the-boys sassy types were more than welcome—but sexist it definitely was.

In terms of social progress, then, times are better now. In terms of lowered levels of literacy, however, things are not better. And publishing’s following the zero-sum mentality that has long been a hallmark of the music industry and Hollywood, the all-or-nothing mentality, is definitely not good, in my estimation. But whether good or not, it was inevitable that publishing would move in this direction. Whatever else American-style late capitalism is, it’s a juggernaut; it is a large mouth, an appetite that constantly wants to be fed; and the larger the chunks of food you can give it, the better the juggernaut likes it. Rock-star authors, huge opening weekends for movies, break-out tweener singers and performers—the devouring gullet adores them, loves ’em, swallows them whole, and in return, coughs up gold. Continue reading

Old Dogs and New Paradigms, Part 1

“Aha! I understand everything now!” —SpongeBob SquarePants

For the past year, I have been actively trying to land an agent to represent one or all three of the novel-length manuscripts I’ve completed in the past few years. I am not having much luck. Part of the problem may be me. Perhaps I’ve lost my edge. In the mid-1980s, I dropped out of writing fiction; despite a few forays into popular fiction since then, I’ve largely stayed out of it. So perhaps I am not up to speed.

But that’s not the whole story. Publishing has changed dramatically during the past twenty years, while I was effectively sitting on the sidelines or being Rip Van Winkle. The stories I’ve written in the past couple of years are what you’d expect to see from me: a thriller about a killer-novelist; a supernatural story about a sorcerer and his enemies. The best of them is atypical in that it is literary—Seasons of the Moon, a story about a boy coming of age in a rural community that worships women and lives in harmony with nature. I published it myself in 2005 through iUniverse and occasionally still see royalty checks for it. It is not a very commercial book, but it is deeply appreciated by those who’ve read it.

I warrant that if I had tried to attract an agent with one of my manuscripts, or an editor, four or five years ago, I would have managed to get into print again for the first time since 1991. I say this because, before the economy crashed, there was a boom in publishing throughout most of the aughts and, despite a general trend among publishers to shrink the midlist, there were, as author Victoria Strauss said in a blog in December 2008, far too many titles being released, with publishers tossing out books “like spaghetti, hoping that at least some will stick to the wall” (http://accrispin.blogspot.com/2008/12/victoria-strauss-publishings-week-of_07.html). So the manuscripts I’ve been pitching lately would likely have had an easier time finding someone to champion them back when the spaghetti-throwing was going on. Which is all it comes down to, an agent or an editor becoming your new best friend because she or he is excited about the chance to make money with your manuscript as well as push forward her or his career as well as yours.

As to the midlist. When my first novel was published in 1977, I became, although I was not then familiar with the term, a midlist writer. This is the midlist, as described on the website for Mid-List Press (http://www.midlist.org/about.cfm): “quality titles of general interest that are rarely bestsellers, but, in the words of noted media critic Ben H. Bagdikian, ‘nonetheless account for the most lasting works in both fiction and nonfiction. . . .’ In the past, publishers built their reputations on midlist books. In recent years, however, such factors as the enormous prices paid for high-profile ‘frontlist’ books and the growing domination of mass merchandisers have eaten away at the traditional support for the midlist. The most disturbing aspect of this decline has been a corresponding decline in writers’ access to publication and, hence, to their audiences.” Continue reading

Book Catalogs

By book catalogs, I mean those periodic sales catalogs that show up offering deals on remaindered books. The perennial chief among these, I guess, is the Bargain Books catalog offered by Edward R. Hamilton. I’ve been getting this sales catalog off and on for my entire adult life, I think. In fact, if I recall correctly, it was Edmond Hamilton, the late science fiction writer, who first told me about the Edward R. Hamilton catalogs. That would have been around 1976 or 1977. Back then, the catalogs were in the style of tabloid-sized newspapers: small, sans serif (I think it was sans serif) type and maybe a few black-and-white photographs of book covers screened in huge Ben Day dots.

Maybe my fondness for these kinds of catalogs goes back to when I was in junior high school and used to send away for lists of old comic books for sale. I don’t remember paying for these. Did I? Maybe they were a buck, but that seems high. A dollar was a lot of money back then for a kid in junior high school. Maybe you just requested one. A first-class stamp was about eight cents then, so maybe these were free. Anyhow, I’d spend an entire period in study hall reading these dumb lists that offered such items for sale as the first issue of Detective Comics with a Batman story in it—Batman when there was no Robin and he was more like the Shadow and he killed guys with a .38 revolver. Or the first Superman comic for sale, or the first issue of other old comics from the 1940s and 1950s. It was the same romantic thrill I got from looking at Johnson Smith catalog, the one with the infamous X-ray specs and whoopee cushions. So the lesson is: you get a catalog in the mail with lots of small print and tiny pictures, well, the amount of cool stuff you could add to your life is pretty much endless.

This is absolutely true when it comes to remaindered-book catalogs. I’m looking at the new Edward R. Hamilton catalog right now; it came in the mail yesterday. It categorizes all of the titles in a table of contents on the inside front cover, and the result is that this makes me feel like I have the encyclopedic interests of a Renaissance man or an intellectual titan. I can’t do higher math to save my life—lower math itself is a daily challenge—but, as I browse through the titles listed on page 60, why, I come to understand that there is hope even for me. My latent or nascent fascination with higher math, which did not exist until I turned to page 60, comes to life. Algebra Demystified by Rhonda Huettenmueller! Calculus Demystified by Steven G. Krantz! Come on, if these people can write a book about it, I can read the book and master calculus. It’s like being in a candy shop, the list of books in these catalogs. Like the library was when I was a kid. The whole world is here, the whole freaking world, and so, by extension, I am capable of anything. It’s kind of like watching the cooking shows or the woodworking shows on PBS on Saturday afternoon. You have these people who cook moose ribs with a red wine reduction over campfires and produce five-star meals and they make it look so nonthreatening that I feel I’ve already done it. Come on, I want to say, give me a challenge. Moose ribs? For babies. Continue reading

Thoughts About Avatar

I saw Avatar over the weekend with my friend Joe Bonadonna. He is more tolerant of this picture than I am. I confess to being of two minds about it.

On the one hand, I am envious of any fanboys out there aged 11 years or more because they get to live in a period of fanboy heaven in which imaginative movies that look this good hit the mall on a regular basis. This is what sitting in the auditoirium of a movie theater is now for. When I was a kid in the early sixties, we could never have dreamed that we’d ever see movies with monsters and creatures and landscapes done like this.

On the other hand, the imaginative pictures we did have were so much better written than this that to make any comparison is quite pointless. You could see the strings on the wires of the Martian spaceships in The War of the Worlds, but the movie had an excellent script, one of depth and suspense, and it featured good acting. It goes without saying that the scripts for the Ray Harryhausen movies of the period were well thought-out and featured good-looking leads and great character actors. The stop motion of Harryhausen (and of Jim Danforth and others) may seem dated to some young moviegoers today, but the one thing these movies had in spades was imagination. These movies required the suspension of disbelief. Continue reading