My 2015 Top Ten and a 2016 Resolution

January 1, 2016

I’ll start with the resolution. Let’s get the craziness out of the way.

I’ve been working on a young adult novel that I like, but which isn’t the kind of thing that people in publishing call “commercial fiction.” It’s not literary fiction, either. It’s just this . . . thing about a young person whose brother has been unjustly accused of planning a terrorist attack and about the surveillance state we live in. On new year’s eve I took a deep breath and told Twitter:

tweet1In case you’re not a librarian or academic (or an academic librarian) OA stands for open access. All of my scholarship is available in some flavor of open access – all available for free online and most under a Creative Commons license. I’ve decided for a  couple of reasons to go that route with fiction, too.

Reason One: You have to be really good and really lucky to make it in traditional publishing. I read a lot of books and I’m grateful to the authors and publishers who feed my reading addiction, but I haven’t been good and lucky enough to break out, except in hives. Turns out I’m severely allergic to the business end of publishing. Why try to do something that makes you miserable?

Reason Two: You have to be really good and really lucky and willing to produce like crazy to make it in self-publishing. I can’t write that way. My muse is like a toddler taken for a walk. Forget about getting anywhere fast. Besides, I think our fetish for productivity is irreparably harming ourselves and the planet. So that’s out for me.

Combine my slacker tendencies and an allergy to the business of publishing with serious reservations about Amazon, the leading platform for self-published books, it makes sense for me to try something that fits my personal values better. More like the zine world – hand-made and imperfect and shared for love, not money. To be honest, most fiction writers are motivated more by love than money because hardly any make a living at it. But even so, productivity, sales, and frantic marketing efforts infuse the writing world and that’s what I want to leave behind. It’s inconsistent with my anarchist tendencies and my own mental health.

“Would anyone want to read it?” That was a silly question! Some of my Twitter pals said they would, because they are sweeties, but a piece of that new year’s resolution that I didn’t express properly is that I’d be happy if someone reads this story, but I don’t want to fall into the trap of actively competing for their attention. That’s part of the doomed economic model that’s making such a mess of things, including culture and the internet.

Here’s a bit more of my Twitter stream . . .

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Happy new year to all. I’ll be using Pressbooks to serialize this thing and will be blogging more about it here later. I just solved a gnarly problem with the ending this morning! Now I just have to sort out all the other gnarls. All in good time . . .

But now without further navel-gazing, here are my top ten crime fiction reads from 2015. I read a lot of good stuff, but these stood out to me at the end of the year. The list could be much longer.

Kristina Ohlsson / HOSTAGE1476734038-01-_sx175_sclzzzzzzz_
Don’t read this on a transatlantic flight. Swedish detectives team with intelligence officers to find out if a threat found aboard a full jet headed for New York is real and, if so, how to deal with it. They only have as long as the jet’s fuel lasts. The author worked in European counter-intelligence and her take on Swedish versus American intelligence practices was engrossing. I also was happy to have some police procedural aspects mixed in with the thriller aspects of the story.

0802123961-01-_sx175_sclzzzzzzz_Belinda Bauer / RUBBERNECKER
My mystery pals at 4MA chose this book for discussion, and I’m glad because I found it deeply entertaining. A young man with Asperger’s and a troubling fascination with dead things takes an anatomy lab course. Meanwhile, we follow the fate of a man gradually coming out of a coma after a car accident who unluckily witnesses the murder of a fellow patient. Nicely assembled puzzle that combines humor and emotion quite satisfyingly.

Jari Jarvela / THE GIRL AND THE BOMB1503946355-01-_sx175_sclzzzzzzz_
An engrossing psychological thriller involving a black teenager in Finland who wants revenge when her good friend, a street artist, is pushed by a security guard to his death from a building after he has been “bombing” train cars with brilliantly-executed graffiti. The story is told in two voices – that of the disaffected girl and of her chosen enemy, who wasn’t actually responsible, but who grows increasingly angry and defensive. Full of ethical issues and vivid characters – really good story, well translated.

1616954469-01-_sx175_sclzzzzzzz_Timothy Hallinan / THE HOT COUNTRIES
Yeah, I know. This series is always on my top ten. So sue me for being predictable. Visitors to Tim Hallinan’s Bangkok have previously met a group of aging ex-adventurers who hang out at an expat bar. They’ve been there long enough to know their way around the glittering city, but now getting around is getting more difficult. One of them, Wallace Palmer, is becoming increasingly vague and likely to misplace himself, forgetting where he lives and chasing after glimpses of a woman he loved who disappeared from his life many years ago. When a new expat joins them, flashing white teeth and an encyclopedia of factoids that he shares without a pause, they grow a little uncomfortable. Not only will he never shut up, he seems terribly interested in the whereabouts of their friend, travel writer and family man, Poke Rafferty. He seems to think Poke is hiding a treasure that he’s come to Bangkok to claim. My full review is at Reviewing the Evidence.

Martin Cruz Smith / HAVANA BAY0345502981-01-_sx175_sclzzzzzzz_
Another 4MA group discussion book. Arkady Renko, with little left to lose, tries to find out what happened to an old enemy found dead in Havana Bay. Wonderful juxtaposition of a post-Soviet Russian’s experiences with its former ally, now struggling to manage on its own. Really fine. I dithered between this and TATIANA, which I also enjoyed, though not quite as much as the earlier book which, somehow, I had missed reading.

0062197738-01-_sx175_sclzzzzzzz_Laura Lippman / AND WHEN SHE WAS GOOD
Fascinating story about a woman who decides to open her own business – as a “madam” providing services to D.C.’s elite after things go badly wrong with her pimp. When her cover story as a lobbyist for women’s employment is threatened, she has a problem, particularly because she doesn’t want her son to know what she really does. Lippman does a great job creating a character who is both vulnerable and tough as nails as well as brilliant at business.

Lisa Brackmann / DRAGON DAY754aa9e539cbb42597046596b67437641414141
The third and final Ellie McEnroe story in which the veteran of a confused and pointless war tries to find her feet in a confused and confusing China. Her cheerful, scary billionaire acquaintance, Sidney Cao, has a job for her. He wants her to find out what’s going on with his three kids (the one child policy is optional for the powerful) and in particular whether the American adventurer who’s hanging out with his youngest son is bad news. Readers of this trilogy will guess fairly soon: they’re all bad news. There are two strengths in this trilogy.One is the fascinating picture it provides of the New China, a place that’s aggressively under construction and chaotic after a seismic cultural shift toward consumerism. The other is Ellie’s voice – casual, unsettled, constantly searching for something she can’t identify, faced at every turn with a need to figure out the least bad of terrible options. She’s a fascinating woman and a nifty guide to a place that has changed beyond recognition. I’ll miss her (but I won’t write whatever Brackmann writes next).

125004474x-01-_sx175_sclzzzzzzz_Julia Keller / LAST RAGGED BREATH
A fine entry in the series featuring a tough, vulnerable prosecutor who wages war on the problems facing her beloved West Virginia county. This one asks us to remember the unnatural disaster of Buffalo Creek, when a mining company’s dam broke and their toxic sludge swept away a town, killing over a hundred people in minutes, but also to appreciate the work of miners made redundant by machines. I wrote a more detailed review for Reviewing the Evidence.

John Scalzi / LOCK IN0765375869-01-_sx175_sclzzzzzzz_
After an epidemic leaves millions “locked in,” conscious but unable to move, scientists develop a way to link their brains to “threeps” (androids); others affected are “integrators,” able to host locked in people who want to borrow a human body. Our locked-in hero joins the FBI (getting around with a threep) and is quickly involved in strange murder case in which it appears a murderer was an integrator hosting someone else when committing the murder. Sounds preposterous but it worked for me – the scene-setting was handled so efficiently it had a great pace. Scalzi primarily writes SF, but handled the crime aspects of this near-future story very well. Inventive and compelling. There’s also a highly-intelligent handling of gender issues that . . . well, I didn’t even realize until after I finished the book which is the whole point. It would be a spoiler, but there’s a great analysis of it here. Scalzi is not only good fun, he’s wonderfully wise about the world.

0312621280-01-_sx175_sclzzzzzzz_Alan Glynn / BLOODLAND
This is a terrific conspiracy novel that is a bit challenging in that there are lots of characters and multiple points of view, but sharp writing, excellent plotting, and an appealing young Irish out-of-work journalist as a protagonist. He has a commission to write a biography of a silly celebrity but stumbles upon a multinational scheme to make money off a mine in Congo run by people who will dispose of anyone who gets in the way. Cracking read. Excellent narrative skill. Loads and loads of rage burbling under tasty ethical dilemmas. Yvonne Klein wrote a review at Reviewing the Evidence that explains why it’s far more than the bog-standard globetrotting conspiracy thriller. In fact, it’s very nearly its opposite.

Here’s to good reading (and, for me, more stress-free just-for-fun writing) in the new year.

 

 


so long, Dutch

August 20, 2013

 

Elmore Leonard
photo courtesy of mtkr

I suppose it had to happen sooner or later – the man was 87 years old – but I was still sad to hear the news this morning that Elmore Leonard had died. He was a tremendously talented author whose books have brought me a lot of pleasure over the years.

He says in his famous Ten Rules for Writers that you should leave out the parts people tend to skip and avoid adjectives and other hooptedoodle.  A lot of people have taken his advice, but it doesn’t mean they can write like Dutch. He had such a great ear for dialogue and an eye for the telling detail and a way with getting it all down in words that fit together so well they were a kind of everyday, unassuming poetry.

He was funny. He knew how to pace a story. He could sketch a character in a few perfectly-chosen words. But the thing that I always felt set him apart was that he loved his characters, even the losers, the ignorant, and the lame. He had a big heart for this messed-up world we live in.

I read a lot of his books before I started to write down what I thought of them, but I loved Killshot and Rum Punch and Maximum Bob and Out of Sight and many others. (The scene about the photograph of Jesus in City Primeval still cracks me up.) I have a particular soft spot for what I believe was the first of his that ever read, Glitz. Here’s what I said about it over at LibraryThing when I reread it a few years back:

Vincent Mora is bringing in groceries when a slimeball demands his wallet. Instead of handing it over or playing the tough guy, Vincent wearily explains the obvious. You think I’d drive a car like that? It’s a cop car, asshole. Now go lean on it. Not smart; he ends up shot, with red wine and pasta sauce all over him. That’s just for starters. Add a beautiful Puerto Rican hooker, some goombas at an Atlantic City casino, a bad-tempered parrot, an ex-con nutcase who wants to look Vincent in the eye when he shoots him, a touch of garlic and simmer gently. It’s got what Leonard does best: a weird but quite believable bad guy, vivid settings, a cast of criminals who are treated with generosity even though they’re, well, pretty bad, a great female love interest, a sexy, cool, intelligent, funny, totally likable hero who doesn’t indulge in angst, but from time to time thinks about the slimeball who tried to mug him. Vincent ponders ways he could have handled it that wouldn’t end up with shooting and killing the would-be mugger. A tough guy who’s really bothered when he takes a life. I like that. Lots of humor, dialogue that’s absolutely right, a great sense of timing, a plot that keeps twisting … you can’t do better than this.


a random thought about love and work

January 4, 2013

I am often thinking about the ways that marketing and branding and the hustle of selling your identity deforms our social interactions (and our identites), which came into focus when reading an essay, “How to Do What You Love” by Paul Graham, which I found via Brain Pickings, which I found via Readlists which I found thanks to Josh Hadro at Library Journal. Which is probably more than you want to know.

Anyway, here’s what I liked:

Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.

That’s what leads people to try to write novels, for example. They like reading novels. They notice that people who write them win Nobel prizes. What could be more wonderful, they think, than to be a novelist? But liking the idea of being a novelist is not enough; you have to like the actual work of novel-writing if you’re going to be good at it; you have to like making up elaborate lies.

Prestige is just fossilized inspiration.

After more discussion of what leads people astray – including money, which is particularly problematic when it gets combined with prestige, he adds this:

The test of whether people love what they do is whether they’d do it even if they weren’t paid for it.

I know a lot of writers who say “I can’t not write!” Some of them get up super-early to give themselves time to immerse themselves in this thing they love, or have an itch to get something on paper in the middle of the night and get up and do it. People who tend to stare into the distance a lot because they’re with their characters.

Graham points out that this doesn’t mean loving every minute of the work, because there are times when it’s just a slog, but the work will help you figure out what you love to do most. Where I see a lot of unhappiness in writing circles (and in academic circles, for that matter) is when you forget what you love because you’re trying desperately to make people notice (often in a crowded room where nearly everyone is doing the same thing), or you’re noticed and it’s not the kind of notice you want and it makes you squirm, or you’re awaiting notice from a first reader or an editor or reviewers and the anxiety is eating you up.

It’s a truism these days that writing is half marketing and self-promotion. If so, it’s not the kind of life I want to have. In reality, money and attention is not a terribly good measure of a writer’s worth. Lots of fantastic writers can’t make a living from writing and promoting their books. Even those who do seem perennially uncertain how the next book will be received. I’m always amazed by how insecure even the most successful writers can be.

The fact is, we can’t live a happy life through the prestige our work brings us, any more than we can live through the lives of our children. We have to pay attention to what we love, whether it’s our kids or our work. If I have a new year’s resolution, it’s to be more aware of what I really care about and let that shape my daily choices of what to do with my energies.

love, dream, smilephoto courtesy of Joe Philipson

Edited to add: I just read a great talk by Bethany Nowviskie, a digital humanities scholar and brilliant blogger, who cites a line from William Morris that suddenly seemed to fill a gap in this post. Doing what you love doesn’t mean always enjoying what you’re doing. It can be frustrating, discouraging, head::desk inducing and sometimes repetitively so. Knowing the difference between something you are doing because you think you ought to even though you hate it and doing something difficult because the work you love and are trying to do well demands it is sometimes a challenge. Morris said “you can’t have art without resistance in the material.” So next time I bang my head against something, I’ll try to remember this and figure out if it’s external influences that are driving my activities or if it’s the material itself putting up a fight.

 


rebuilding trust in our trust networks

January 4, 2009

Anita Elberse once again explains why spending millions on a potential blockbuster makes sense for book publishing,* an issue that she previously explored at greater length in the Harvard Business Review.** The only way to make real money is to go after books that will sell lots of copies. In order to sell lots of copies, you have to invest even more money into marketing (e.g. paying for it to be visible in chain bookstores and Wal-Mart and be written up in newsletters: wow, this is a book we think you should read – we won’t mention the publisher paid us to say so). Interestingly, she ties this not to consumer gullibility or to clever marketing, but to the social nature of reading, which has long interested me.

Media companies’ hit-focused marketing did not emerge in a vacuum. It reflects how consumers make choices. The truth is that consumers prefer blockbusters. Because they are inherently social, people find value in reading the same books and watching the same movies that others do. This is true even in today’s markets where, thanks to the Internet, buyers have easy access to millions and millions of titles.

But, but . . . buyers also have access to loads of reader’s responses to books, thanks to the Internet.

This happens to resonate for me with a comment that popped up when a George Mason professor had students in a class on history hoaxes create their own hoax and spread it virally using the social networks made available through Web 2.0. The commentor said it violated trust networks – that people believed in the hoax not because it had been marketed to them or because it was reported in USA Today, but because historians they trusted talked about it. Their trust network, wired through Internet channels, had been breached by someone who deliberately manipulated that network and their trust for false purposes. There are pedagogical and ethical issues involved that are better discussed elsewhere – but the existence of those trust networks woven together by online connections replicates the “invisible college” or Polanyi’s Republic of Science. It’s bound together by trust and based on both expertise and disinterestedness (in John Ziman’s sense of the word).

Readers have trust networks, too. The best way people can determine what to read next is to have a trusted and well-known fellow reader make a recommendation. There are thousands and thousands of online communities that exist for this purpose. The goal isn’t to sell books, it’s to share information about really good books. A side-effect is that it leads to buying books and to satisfying reading experiences that builds an audience for books.In other words, a trustworthy and disinterested social network that promotes reading is good for business. Once it’s corrupted, it’s nearly useless.

Sadly, they are vulnerable to stealth marketing, and have been exploited that way from the birth of Web 2.0. There are countless websites, blogs, and experts explaining how to use people’s social impulses to sneak in marketing messages. To me, this is fundamentally immoral. And it totally permeates the book business, at least in US culture. I don’t see the same frantic marketing dynamic in the Scandinavian countries, where enthusiasm for books is nevertheless high. And I’ve heard British authors say it’s much worse in the US than in the UK, where a hard sell is simply boorish and unwelcome.

The only way for bookish social networks to work well is for us to draw the kind of firm line between sharing honest information about books and advertising that the best news organizations embrace. Authors, too, can be much clearer about when they are promoting their work and when they are acting as members of a reading community.

Here’s my attempt to adapt the Society of Professional Journalists’s Code of Ethics to book blogging and other social networking. I realize that journalists rank a little lower than lawyers in the public eye, but I have a strong attachment to these principles – which I have borrowed from liberally in this adaptation.

For readers (including those who happen also to be writers)

  • Seek out interesting books and write about them honestly. Don’t rely on marketing materials to make your choices. Don’t read other reviews before you form your opinion. Tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of literature by seeking out the lesser-known and unusual. Shun sources that are a hybrid of information and promotion, and recognize the special obligation to speak the truth of your experience with books regardless of other people’s opinions or any potential for personal gain or harm.
  • Minimize harm. The temptation to be clever should never lead to an unfairly humiliating review. Criticize the book, not the writer or the reader of it. Pursuit of critical rigor is not license for arrogance. Balance the book’s right to a fair reading with readers’ right to know. Likewise, make sure your enthusiasm for a book you love is accompanied with concrete reasons for your enthusiasm so that other readers can make a more informed choice.
  • Act independently. Avoid conflicts of interest. Disclose any relationships that might compromise your objectivity or even the appearance of compromised objectivity. Do not review books in exchange for favors, however intangible. Don’t let the potential to grow close to a much-loved author (or to any other opportunity) influence your judgment.
  • Be accountable. Don’t get your feather’s ruffled when people disagree with you. Be open to alternative perspectives without abandoning your best judgment.

For writers in particular

  • Don’t see every social encounter as a chance to sell a book.
  • Don’t strategize everything you say based on what you might get out of it (good or bad).
  • Don’t join social networks to use them for marketing. That’s not what friends are for. Besides, it’s deceitful.
  • Don’t strike bargains, overt or unspoken, to cross-promote other writers’ works in exchange for their support. Disclose potential conflicts of interest.
  • Marketing isn’t half the job. Writing is the job.  Marketing is a semi-necessary evil that can do more harm than good.
  • Don’t go for the hard sell. Just don’t. It’s obnoxious.
  • Be honest. Be yourself. Act with integrity.

*Thanks to Maxine Clarke for pointing out his article and getting it on FriendFeed.

**In case anyone is wondering, I don’t read the HBR on principle. Any publication that will add to its expensive full-text licensed content in library databases a clause that it cannot be used for classes deserves to be shunned. I guess if your subject is filthy lucre, it’s a great way to write a license. It’s a lousy way to communicate research.