Monday, April 30, 2012

Our Real Great American Novelist

We've been reading a great deal lately about the issue of gender preference in the publishing world. More than anything, the proclamation a few years back that Jonathan Franzen had written the new Great American Novel (complete with JonnieFranz's appearance on the cover of Time magazine) really upset a lot of people. Probably the most cogent questioning of this issue came in the form of an essay by Gabriel Brownstein at The Millions comparing Franzen and his book Freedom to Allegra Goodman and her book The Cookbook Collector. Read this excellent piece here.

There's been a good amount of hand wringing on this topic too for years -- mostly by women. I think they have a point. It's not clear to me what is going on in the media world with the need to anoint a book as the next great American novel. Partly, I suppose, arguments against novels have been a mainstream occupation of contrarians and critics now for decades.  Anytime a big, sweeping book like Freedom or Don Delillo's Underworld comes out those who are pro-novel in the publishing world (i.e., people who make their living funding novels) can't help themselves. The fact that men seem to be the ones who supposedly write these great American novels is as much a "book-as-phallus" issue as it is anything else. 

But something that bothers me in all these debates is that many people seem to miss the fact that only one American writer has won the Nobel Prize since Saul Bellow won it in 1976. That American has written a number of great American novels. This spring she will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She has also had to grapple with being categorized as a Black Woman Author, a Female Author, and a Black Female Author. She is, of course, Toni Morrison (who has also been on many magazine covers in her day). Her books obviously tell the story of the African American experience in the New World, but that story is in many ways all of our stories. She writes of love and revenge and lust and family turmoil, the urge to create, succeed, destroy, and kill. In this land of free willed creatures, those are certainly traits of great American stories.

More than anything, at least from what I have read of hers, Morrison shows the heroism of people (usually women) rising above the difficulties of circumstance and even the horrors and atrocities of life. Too often novelists of today get by with characters nobly accepting their circumstances or tragically being the source of their own ruination. Morrison usually steps far beyond acceptance and making peace with life. More than anything, it seems to me, what is required of a Great Writer of any kind is the ability to show us what it means to be Great in Life and to be part of this Great Country that continues to blow open the doors of history.

Photo from Guardian click here for article
The more I think about this issue of Greatness and the question of what it is that defines Great Art, I can't help myself in the conclusion that Toni Morrison is truly our Great American Novelist. Books like Song of Solomon, Beloved, and Jazz aren't simple little entertainments.  

For those of us who care about books and stories -- and the novel -- we need to think more about emulating and learning from this great poet and creator and less about arguing whether men or women should get credit for defining things here in our times. 

Congratulations Ms. Morrison on your latest award. Please let us know when you're coming out with your next work.  

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Experiments in Kindle Consciousness: The Plasticity of Digital Indie Writing

I recently received two reader reviews on stories of mine available at Amazon's Kindle Store. Both reviewers were rather unhappy. That's fine. I know that fiction, like most everything else, is a matter of taste. Not everyone is going to like everything they encounter in life -- from movies to food to music.

The experience of bad (sad?) reviews got me thinking about the Indie Author Experience and how different it is from the status quo, old school legacy publisher experience. As an indie writer I can edit and change my stories in a matter of a few hours and have them re-posted by the next day. Writers beholden to old school publishing houses (even small independent ones) are locked into their published content -- even electronically -- for a very long time. The process of bringing a novel or memoir or whatever to publication requires the extended efforts of many different people (a team, really) over a year to eighteen months...or more. Once a product is deemed complete, it goes out to the world and it's pretty hard to change even if you're lucky enough to publish multiple editions over the years. As an indie author it's a heckuvalot easier to re-tool and re-vise. 

Thus, if a reviewer doesn't like the ending of my story "House Sitting," I can go back in and juice it up with an unexpected suicide, hot erotic encounter, or perhaps an amusing culinary domestic roadkill experience. Likewise, if reviewers don't like the idea of creepy men going through laundry looking for a neighbors' unmentionables, I can just censor that aspect of the story and offer an excised version that is more palatable for at least those who have taken the time to offer a review. In theory, multiple versions of an Indie story can be posted. If you think about it very long, the permutations here are endless.

However, in the legacy publishing world, none of those permutations make any sense at all. When you buy a book published by [name your well-known company] -- whether on paper or digitally -- you get what you get. In the movie world you might be able to get the "Director's Cut" after a first run, but it's rare to find a "writer's edition" in the book world. This limitation is actually a function of what I think of as "the book as property." I'm not going to get into it here, but digital offerings are something far different than property as we know it. The best term we might be able to come up with is "virtual property," but I don't think that really addresses what's going on. The very malleability of an independently published text means that writers can treat their work more as a word sculpture that they're working on while standing in a quasi-public square.   

Rest assured, I have not changed a thing with "House Sitting." The story is what it is because that's the way it was written and I'm very happy with what it says. Nor have I done anything with "Guda and His Son" because in a very few words I think that story says a great deal about cultural perception and 9/11. 

However, in pondering this whole issue -- let's call it the plasticity of digital indie writing -- I realized that I have never liked the ending of "Jenna's Mother." It was just too abrupt and tone deaf. A new version has been posted this week. I like it much more and it says what I wanted the story to say much more definitively. In re-writing the ending, I also found several elements to the piece that required copy-editing and word changes. "Jenna's Mother" is now better. The reading experience should be superior because of that. 

I offer all of this as a set of observations on how the Indie experience is different both for writers and readers -- potentially, anyway. As the new world of publishing continues to develop, differences like this can and should be experimented with continually by both entities in the equation. 

In closing, it is important to note that the quality control issue for Indie publications is an obvious problem on many different levels. Better put, the quality control that traditional legacy publishers invest in each work offered in their name is exceedingly important. Forget grammar, punctuation, typos and wording, editors and their staff often turn raw talent into masterful stars and refine loose drafts and 2,000 page manuscripts into gems that transform culture.

I don't think it makes sense yet to say that digital Indie books are taking over and that the old school folks are toast (or wadded up paper). There is room for both approaches for sure. And you as a reader should take both seriously. However, it is important to understand that there is virtually nothing buffering the relationship between Indie Writers and their readers. The plasticity of digital media is a profoundly new and powerful opportunity that allows writers and readers to connect and modify the world of letters in a new and exciting way. Readers should remember that they are supporting writers directly and that the works they buy are much more real and raw than what they might get through standard publishing venues.

There's no telling how this is all going to end up for all of us, but it's clear that the new world of digital publishing is so open-ended and filled with potential readers and writers are in for an interesting ride as we move through the next decade. Stay tuned...and if you haven't yet purchased a Kindle, Nook, iPad, or whatever, now's the time. Things are getting very interesting...

Friday, April 13, 2012

What is Beyond the Will of God? (contains a full prologue excerpt)

And they also threw this in my face, they said,
Anyway, you know good and well
It would be beyond the will of God
And the grace of a king.

- Jimi Hendrix, “1983…(A Merman I Should Turn to Be)”

Beyond the Will of God is a mystery coming out in Summer 2012. It ain't your run of the mill whodunit, though. Somehow everyone forgot all those conspiracy theories and weird coincidences that kept popping up in the late Sixties and all through the Seventies. More than anything, the music of folks like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Doors, and The Allman Brothers (even The Beatles and Elvis if you were paying attention) spoke to something deep and wild in each of us. Do you remember?

Beyond the Will of God brings you back to that place, and offers a great deal of whacky ideas and provocative characters all related to a series of murders that take place in central Missouri during the heat of summer when the insects are buzzing and the air is thick with possibility once again.

Here's how the book opens:

Journal Entry 1397: Cecil Miller

I found it on a number of bootleg recordings first, but there are a few examples of it on studio works as well – all from groups who understand what is possible. On the live recordings, you hear it best. There’s a certain moment where something happens with the music and everything comes together. You have to know what to listen for, though, or you won’t experience it.



I was required to delete the rest of this prologue due to my agreement with Amazon in their KDP Select program. For what it's worth, buy the book. It's worth it. Just click the cover near the top of the page and you'll be taken to the Amazon page.


This novel will be independently published through Amazon's Kindle system over the summer and then more widely distributed in the Fall. If all is successful, a paper print version will be ready by Christmas. You can still buy Kindle books and read them on your computer or iPad or smartphone. Check out Amazon's Free Apps online.

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"Something's happening, but you don't know what it is, do you? Mr. Jones."