Old Dogs and New Paradigms, Part 4

While having breakfast with my daughter, Lily, the other morning, I made note of a commercial that came on as we were watching Nickelodeon. (Nickelodeon is pretty much the only channel we do watch these days, and that’s not a bad thing. The writing on I Carly—now canceled, alas—and Victorious, on See Dad Run and Marvin Marvin, is much better than what passes for scripting on most of the legacy broadcast network offerings. And if Supah Ninjas is new to you, be aware: this show has become appointment television in our house on Saturday evenings whenever a new episode premieres.)

The book advertised—I didn’t notice the title—is the latest of many series indebted to the wild success of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books. This one was engineered or concocted to reach an audience of Middle Schoolers and has to do with a brother and sister. That the product being advertised is a book or a series of books is subordinate to the fact that the product advertised is a product. This is nothing new in America; we are, after all, the country that developed mass advertising and product promotion and we are the country that created consumerism as a contact sport. The television commercial served to remind me that the commercial success of any writer or author depends on two things: (1) the beginning of a trend that comes from out of nowhere, and then (2) promoting and profiting from that trend by finding the sweet spot that will tickle the Pavlovian response in potential customers.

Events aligned just once in my life to allow me to hit that sweet spot, matching what I was writing with what a sufficient number of people wanted to read. This was during the late 1970s and early 1980s when sword-and-sorcery fiction was popular. The more profitable commercial possibilities of Tolkeinesque world-building fantasies, however, quickly took precedence in the marketplace. Continue reading

Old Dogs and New Paradigms, Part 3

Last summer, I got back the rights to 10 of the 18 paperback novels I saw published in the late 1970s and early 1980s. These 10 are copyrighted in my name and are about my original characters, so . . . they’re mine. (The other eight novels—seven of them coauthored with Dick Tierney—feature characters originated by Robert E. Howard, the famous author of the Conan the Barbarian stories. Neither Dick nor I own those characters.) Once I had the rights back to these books, however, I was a little unsure what to do with them.

For years I had neglected these novels because, perversely, I had tried to ignore or forget the fact that I had even written them. This state of mind was as odd as it sounds. But the fact is that, after having published 18 paperback novels and pretty much having reached a dead end in trying to become a successful popular writer, I dropped out of writing in 1984. In retrospect, I can see that this was a foolish decision and an immature overreaction to the pressure I was under, but there it is. I had been working very hard at my craft for about 12 years, had seen a small measure of success in the fanzines of the time and then with the sales of those paperback novels, but otherwise had not one blessed clue about what I was doing or how the business worked. I saw no foreign sales of my own work and no nibbles from TV or film production companies. I relied on agents to promote my work and regarded them as business partners when, in fact, as I have learned over the years, literary agents are in business for themselves, and writers are useful to agents only insofar as they help increase the bottom line. Which makes sense. But in my desire to become a writer, my appreciation of such a practical fact was on par with my desire to become, when I was 10 years old, a Mercury space program astronaut. That is, I had about the same level of unsophisticated understanding of both professional milieus. In determining to succeed at writing, I thought it best to put my head down and go as fast as I could so that somehow something would happen.

My mind is turning in this direction right now because I have been working again in earnest at the writing craft. Starting a few years ago, I have been trying to get the fires going again, and I am beginning to see some success on the page—that is, the work I’m doing now reads well to my friends and to me. So the coals that were going dead and turning cold have been stoked and are blooming again with heat. What a good feeling it is. I spent the winter and spring revising my old fantasy trilogy, The Fall of the First World, and recently turned it in to John Betancourt at Wildside Press. I was able, in revising it, to make some changes or corrections I’ve wanted to make since Pinnacle Books first published the trilogy in 1983—improve some word choices, tighten sentences, round out some ideas—things of that nature. I’m enormously pleased that this trilogy and the other 7 of my 10 books will be reprinted by Wildside. (I’m sending John the two David Trevisan books next, as soon as I have scanned them in. Then Oron and the other Attluman novels.)

Also, I’ve placed my novel Call of Shadows with Ron Fortier’s Airship 27 Production. I’m very happy about this, as well.

And sooner or later, I suspect that Magicians will be produced, once we can get the modest $5 million needed to do the movie the way it should be done.

So I’m getting back into print after a long hiatus and, in surveying the radical changes in publishing that have occurred since the rise of the Internet, the collapse of the midlist, and the total corporatization of New York fiction publishing, I came across an article that appeared recently online in Prospect, the British periodical.
The article, by Edward Docx, is “Postmodernism is dead” (http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/2011/07/postmodernism-is-dead-va-exhibition-age-of-authenticism/) and reviews a comprehensive retrospective, currently on display in a London gallery, of the postmodernist movement. Docx provides a very nice definition of this social, philosophical, and artistic movement: “In the beginning, postmodernism was not merely ironical, merely gesture, some kind of clever sham, a hotchpotch for the sake of it. . . . Postmodernism was a high-energy revolt, an attack, a strategy for destruction. It was a set of critical and rhetorical practices that sought to destabilize the modernist touchstones of identity, historical progress and epistemic certainty.”

Postmodernism quickly descended into the confusing, foolish parody of itself that we know today, although Docx makes it clear that postmodernism made critically important contributions to society. It has cleared away the paranoid concept of one dominant “narrative” (such a postmodern word, that) and provided alternatives to the conceit that that dominant narrative was western. It has provided parallel avenues of expression and acceptance of “difference” perspectives, thereby offering a horizontal appreciation of history, experience, and identity rather than a vertical, hierarchical one. And it has exposed the fiction of identity as a solid entity rather than as an aggregate of shifting coordinates of gender, religion, class, and so on; as Docx says, “We are entirely constructed. There is nothing else.” Postmodernism changed “the great banquet of human ideas” from “one of self-determination (Kant et al) to other-determination. I am constructed, therefore I am.”

The fly in the ointment, however, is clearly this: the unease that most of us feel in regard to this radical awareness or sensibility. Do you really think that you are “constructed”? Do you really sense that you are a kind of postmodern, fluid force field of almost arbitrary labels—this religion, that gender—and not a real person or a real human being? My answer to this is that we are what we think we are. If we are able to make choices, then we will do so, but we won’t make them because we surmise that we are “an aggregate of shifting coordinates.” We know this intuitively, and most of us recoil from the idea of being an aggregated force field (my term, not Docx’s!). It is very similar to the ancient notion—surely there is nothing new under the sun—that life is an illusion and that we, too, are no more than an illusion. And this creates a paradox that may very well lie at the heart of human experience. Continue reading

Back in Print

Today I signed a contract with Wildside Press to reprint a bunch of my out-of-print novels—the three volumes of The Fall of the First World, both of the David Trevisan books, and the five books of the adventure-fantasy series set in Attluma, the Oron books. I started the process of getting the rights back to these titles earlier this year, and once I’d achieved that, I took Ted C. (Teddy Waffles*) Rypel’s suggestion of querying Wildside about reprinting them. The result? Voila, as they say in France. Also in Cleveland, as well as in Chicago. Voila! they say in all of those places.

This is really good news. Well, for me it is. Wildside Press will publish these titles as print-on-demand (POD) volumes, available in both paperback and hardcover, and soon will offer them as e-books, as well. Wildside Books has been around since 1989. Founded and operated by John Gregory and Kim Betancourt, winner of awards as well as of gratitude and thanks on the part of readers everywhere, Wildside publishes the revived Weird Tales and lots of reprints (Leigh Brackett, Robert E. Howard, Clifford D. Simak, S. Fowler Wright . . . on and on the list goes), as well as original titles under a couple of different imprints. 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