It's a Boy! 02/22/2010
I just got my first copy of Next. This is my fifth book, so I suppose I should be blasé about getting a copy hot off the press, but (in the spirit of Robert Stone, see below), this never gets old. It won't be in stores or available online for another two weeks, and it's entirely possible that I'm going to be the only person in the world the book makes this happy—it's pretty likely, in fact—but for now, I'm going to run with it.
And this just in: the very first review of Next, by Mike Shea, from Texas Monthly.
But wait, there's more: the second review of Next, by Lauren Bufferd, from BookPage.
Robert Stone's Fun With Problems 02/16/2010
I've only met him once, and he wouldn't remember who I am, but the writer Robert Stone and I go way back. One of the first book reviews I ever wrote, long ago and far away in 1981, for a long-defunct political and literary journal out of Ann Arbor, was a review of Stone's A Flag for Sunrise. I loved the book (and still do: it's one of the great American political novels), but by then he was already a literary hero of mine, on the basis of my reading and rereading of his previous novel, Dog Soldiers, which won the National Book Award, and which was (along with novels by Conrad, Graham Greene, and John LeCarre) one of the chief models for my first novel, The Wild Colonial Boy.
Along the way I've kind of shadowed him, without ever really making contact: when I was accepted at the Iowa Writers' Workshop in 1987, I was more thrilled by the fact that he was going to be teaching at Iowa during my first semester there than I was by the fact that I'd gotten into the workshop. As it turned out, he won a fellowship and ended up not teaching at Iowa during my two years there, but he did come to visit, about which more in a moment. Later on, I was thrilled again when I came to be represented by Stone's agency, Donadio and Ashworth, which is now Donadio and Olson, whose principal agent, Neil Olson, is still Stone's and my agent.
I've read every book he's ever published, most of them more than once, and I've reviewed, along with A Flag for Sunrise, his subsequent novels Children of Light (for another long-defunct periodical) and Damascus Gate (for the Washington Post). I don't know if they still use it, but I'm still tickled by the fact that on the original Scribner paperback of Damascus Gate, there I am, at the top of the back cover, quoted by name, calling it "a stunning novel by a great American writer."
I guess this is all by way of saying, full disclosure, I'm a fan, and even a very small planetoid spinning in a distant orbit in the same solar system where Stone is a massive, colorful giant (adventures in metaphor!). That said, I can recommend his new book of short stories, Fun With Problems, wholeheartedly. I read it in two big gulps over the weekend, and was reminded once again why I love the guy so much: nobody writes about about people on the fringes—of political movements, of middle-class society, of show business, of academia, of sobriety—with more insight, compassion, and wit. He understands and loves, without ascribing false nobility to them, various druggies, drunks, political paranoids, criminals, and artists, limning their lives in a clear, unsentimental light. One of the best stories in the book, a doomed, druggy Hollywood romance entitled "High Wire," is classic Stone, compact and evocative and heartbreaking, like a distilled novel.
Something else I've also come to realize about him, especially since Damascus Gate, is how funny he can be. Stone is deservedly recognized as belonging to the great tradition of semi-mad, oracular American writers like Melville and Whitman, railing at his countrymen and women for their sins, but even his grimmest books are infused with a mordant wit. And in recent years he's taken, upon occasion, to being flat-out funny. Prime Green, his incisive memoir of the 60s—and Robert Stone knows his 60s, he was pals with Kesey during the Merry Prankster years—has a hilarious chapter about Stone's tenure writing for an Enquireresque tabloid, for which he wrote such deathless stories as MAD DENTIST YANKS GIRL'S TONGUE and SKYDIVER DEVOURED BY STARVING BIRDS. Most of the stories in Fun With Problems are pretty serious, but several of them are played at least partly for laughs. "The Wine-Dark Sea" is a wild shaggy dog story, featuring a comically drunken journalist, a working-class conspiracy theorist, and a flat-out crazy (fictional) American cabinet secretary. "From the Lowlands" stars an egomaniacal software billionaire, whose bad behavior is a lot of fun to read. But the funniest story, and my favorite one in the book, is the last one, "The Archer," the story of a drunken artist/academic and his failed attempt to deliver a lecture at a third-tier state university along the Gulf Coast. I was laughing so much my cats started to get alarmed and edge away from me. The story has my favorite two lines from the book, evoking the bleakness of the scruffy little Gulf Coast town with hilarious pungency: "Artificial palms stood at intervals among the others like Judas goats at a slaughterhouse to encourage and betray the others. The tiki-torch fuel, together with road stench and beach barbecue pits, gave it all the aroma of a day-old plane crash."
Did I mention I met him once? I'm getting to it: during my second year at Iowa, he came and spent a week (he was an old friend of Frank Conroy, the late, great director of the Workshop). Unlike a lot of visiting writers who come trailing the nimbus of their own glory and self regard, Stone was a something of a mensch, a subdued figure wearing jeans, a pullover sweater, and running shoes. He gave a reading, as visiting writers usually do, and afterwards, there was a workshop party at my friend John Marks' apartment. These after-reading parties could often be fraught, flamboyant, and/or drunken affairs, as students preened for the visiting Great Writer, but there was little of that at Stone's party (though there was certainly drinking, it being a Workshop party and all). At one point, he was seated in an easy chair in the corner, with a bunch of us literally at his feet as he told hilarious stories about his grad school days at Stanford, where he was in Wallace Stegner's workshop with Ken Kesey and Larry McMurtry (imagine being in that workshop, and not being Ken Kesey, Larry McMurtry, or Robert Stone). Later, though, he was standing by himself against the wall, sipping some whiskey, when I finally plucked up my nerve and approached him with copies of all his books so far (the first four, of ten) and asked him to sign them all. I apologized right off the bat as he took the stack from me. "You must be really tired of having to do this," I said, and he widened his eyes at me and laughed. "Are you kidding?" he said. "This is one of my favorite things in the world to do."
Okay, so this isn't the most colorful literary anecdote in the world. Nobody got drunk, nobody took a swing at anybody else, nobody was witty or sparkling. But it was a lovely moment, one of my favorite ever with a famous writer, and it was a great lesson in humility, in graciousness, and in taking an honest delight in the pleasure other people derive from your books. Robert Stone is one of those rarest of birds, a mensch who's also a great American writer. But don't take my word for it—go out and read his books.
John Lanchester's I.O.U. 02/08/2010
Last night I finished reading I.O.U.: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay, which is British novelist John Lanchester's wonderfully smart, funny, and lucid popular account of the collapse of the financial markets. I have no head for economics, but even I think I understand things a lot better now than I did before I read the book. I still couldn't tell you exactly what a credit default swap is, but there are a couple of insights about the larger economy that will stick with me. Here's my favorite one, from late in the book—something I had never thought of before, but which seems perfectly self-evident as Lanchester expresses it:
...There is a profound anthropological and cultural difference between an industry and a business. An industry is an entity which as its primary purpose makes or does something and makes money as a by-product. The car industry makes cars, the television industry makes TV programs, the publishing industry makes books, and with a bit of luck they all make money too, but for the most part the people engaged in them don't regard money as the ultimate purpose and justification of what they do. Money is a by-product of the business, rather than its fundamental raison d'etre. Who goes to work in the morning thinking that most important thing he's going to do that day is to maximize shareholder value? Ideologists of capital sometimes seem to think that that's what we should be doing--which only goes to show how out of touch they are. Most human enterprises, especially the most worthwhile and meaningful ones, are in that sense industries, focused primarily on what they do; health care and education are both, from the anthropological perspective, industries.
At least that's what they are from the point of view of the people who work in them. But many of these enterprises are increasingly owned by people who view them not as industries but as businesses: and the purpose of a business is, purely and simply, to make money. The attitudes of a business owner are different from those of people who work in an industry, and from the point of view of business, an industry's ways of doing things are often the unexamined inheritance of the past, willfully inefficient, willfully indifferent to fundamental realities of how the world works. Money doesn't care what industry it is involved in, it just wants to make more money, and the specifics of how it does are, if not exactly a source of unconcern, very much a means to an end: the return on capital is the most important fact, and the human or cultural details involved are just that, no more than details. [pp. 197-198]
Again, this is self-evident and probably no surprise to most people—even to me, if I'd ever bothered to think about it in any serious way. It explains a lot about the culture industry, which includes fiction writing. At any rate, Lanchester puts it beautifully, and the book is full of bracingly clear-sighted insights like this. Here's one more, one of his concluding insights near the end—the, um, money shot, if you will:
So: a huge, unregulated boom in which almost all the upside went directly into private hands, followed by a gigantic bust in which the losses were socialized. This literally nobody's idea of how the world is supposed to work. It is just as much an abomination to the free marketeer as it is to the social democrat or outright leftist. But the models and alternatives don't seem to be forthcoming: there is an ideological and theoretical vacuum where the challenge from the Left used to be. Capitalism no longer has a global antagonist, just at the moment when it has never needed one more. Or rather, capitalism has found a deadly opponent, but the problem is that the opponent is capitalism itself. [p. 230]
Now, of course, my having read, enjoyed, and learned a great deal from Lanchester's book doesn't lessen my credit card debt by a single penny—nor does it make Lanchester himself a single penny, since I took the book out of the library. But even so, it's great, bracing stuff. Go read it for yourself.
Clash of the Titans 02/02/2010
Ever since last Friday, anybody who has anything to do with book publishing has been riveted by the clash of the titans between Amazon and Macmillan, as they duke it out like Godzilla vs. Mothra far above the heads of readers and writers over the pricing of e-books. If you don't know what's going on, the best account so far is Laura Miller's in Salon this morning, along with Sarah Weinman's more business-oriented account at DailyFinance. The short version: Amazon wants to keep the price of Kindle titles at $9.99, Macmillan and most other book publishers want to able to set their own prices, and while they battle it out, Amazon has removed the "buy" button from all Macmillan titles on their website. You can still go through Amazon to buy Macmillan titles from their associated sellers, but you can't buy any of their titles, either the Kindle or the paper versions, directly from Amazon.
Here's how clueless I am: for the first 24-hours, I was interested in a general way, as a (very, very, very minor) member of the publishing industry, and it wasn't until Saturday night that I realized, with a sinking feeling, that hey, I'm a Macmillan author. Either I'd never known it, or had known it and forgotten, but St. Martin's/Picador, which is the publisher of four of my five books, is owned by Macmillan (which in turn is owned by the German publishing conglomerate Holtzbrinck), which makes me perforce a Macmillan author. As soon as I realized this, I zipped over to Amazon, and true enough, none of the titles I currently have in print had an Amazon "buy" button, only a button that would send you somewhere else, where you can buy a used copy of The Lecturer's Tale for a penny. It was only at that moment that, in the immortal words of Martin Lawrence in Bad Boys, shit just got real.
Like a lot of writers, I'm more or less siding with Macmillan, but with mixed feelings. The pricing of all books, not just Kindle editions, is a vexed issue for every writer I know, because every writer I know is also a serious reader and, for the most part, a serious buyer of books. On the one hand, like every writer I know, my heart sinks a bit when someone asks me to sign a copy of one of my books that they obviously bought used (which means I didn't make a dime off it, let alone a penny). One lovely elderly woman in my neighborhood regularly tells me, every time I run into her while she's walking her dog, what a fan she is of Kings of Infinite Space, and how she bought a copy at Half-Price Books and passed it around to fifteen friends of hers. Like I say, mixed feelings: fifteen people read my book, but none of them paid for it, and the one who did, didn't earn me any royalties. But on the other hand, I buy used books all the time, usually at the aforementioned Half-Price Books here in Austin. In fact, I buy used books much more often than I buy new ones—not to mention that I regularly take books out of the library, which likewise earns each author I read exactly nothing. All of which is to say that, as a book buyer with a limited budget, I like a bargain as much as the next guy.
The mixed feelings I have about this are only rivalled by the mixed feelings I have when I read my semi-annual royalty statements. These are notoriously impenetrable, written in the bookkeeper's equivalent of Linear B. (I once complained to my agent that I couldn't make any sense of my latest statement, and he said, "Well, you're not supposed to.") But one thing I have divined from my statements—along with the realization that I need to keep my day job—is that the steeper the discount given to a retailer, the smaller my royalties are. And since Amazon is basically the Wal-Mart of the Internet, demanding, and getting, huge discounts from its suppliers (i.e., publishers), the percentage I make off of each copy I sell through Amazon is appreciably smaller than the percentage I make off of books sold elsewhere. (Though this isn't unique to Amazon: Borders and Barnes and Noble can also command huge discounts, which means basically the only books I make full royalties off of are ones sold by independent booksellers.) Now, if I were Stephen King or John Grisham, this wouldn't matter so much, since what I'd make up in volume would more than offset what I lose per individual book. But most of us aren't King or Grisham, so it stings a little to see our royalties (such as they are) shrink even more to accomodate a powerful retailer. I'm not going to compare myself to a sweatshop worker in Singapore, whose wages are kept low by Wal-Mart's insistence on low prices for running shoes or sweatshirts, except maybe I am, just a little bit: the aggressive push for discounts and low prices by retailers has its harshest effect not on publishers, per se, but on the people who actually, you know, make the goods. Which is why it matters to me that Amazon wants to encourage book buyers to get used to the $9.99 Kindle edition, or even $9.99 hardcovers. It's money out of my pocket.
But then, on the other hand (and in this argument, I have more hands than the goddess Kali), even if they boost the price of e-books to $14.99 (at least for new books), and even if every one of those fifteen freeloading readers of Kings of Infinite Space bought a new copy at full price at an indie bookseller, I still wouldn't make that much money. Full price books sell fewer copies, and I ought to know, because I can't remember the last time I bought a new book at list price. The fact remains that no matter who wins this dispute over e-book pricing (and book pricing in general), the vast majority of fiction writers still won't be able to make a living off of writing books.
In the meantime, I guess I'm still mainly siding with Macmillan. The fact that Amazon has been acting like a 19th century mill owner, locking out obstreperous workers, only encourages me to side with the other international conglomerate in this fight. But, the fact is, I'm not even sure how much this is my fight, for all the reasons I've enumerated above. As Laura points out in her article, this is more an argument about technology than it is about reading or literature; it's one of those epic struggles between big media companies that has happened many times before (see the early history of television, or the history of the movie business, or for that matter the effect of publishing technology on the rise of the novel in the 19th century), and which affects the lives of artists without much taking into account their interests or desires. I have a vital interest in how all this turns out, but at the moment, I mainly feel like collateral damage.
In which I mostly write about books, movies, and TV. An all-purpose spoiler alert: Sometimes I will talk about these works on the assumption that the reader's already read or seen them, so if you haven't, be forewarned.
About Last Night