Archive for July, 2011

E-Book Boom: Bust or Bonanza for Publishers?

The closure of Border stores reflects the publishing industry’s archaic structure that has been exceedingly slow to adapt to a changing environment. I lament with others the passing of the great grazing fields of these brick and mortar stores in which I spent hours of browsing; but I must admit since at least 1998 I have purchased many of my books online. Because I can still look inside the books, browse all authors’ titles, read reviews, and buy at lower prices; I find online booksellers offer more and at any hour of the day or night. Browsing the physical store was something I did because I wanted to get out of the house. Currently, I divide my purchases approximately half and half between electronic and print books. Publishers Weekly projects that by 2015 e-books will outsell print copies.

A shrewd publisher could get on board this trend or continue to let the boat pass by.  Until the e-reader began to sell widely, the structure of the publishing industry has been loaded against the author who has had to jump through several hoops before seeing his book in print, if ever–a crap shoot from the start–getting an agent, the agent finding a publisher, the editor preparing it for publication, getting it in Borders and getting media attention. A fat chance, a roulette game. Finally, the wheel has turned in favor of the author. E-books put the writer in the driver’s seat without middlemen, thereby, increasing the author’s earnings. Kindle and Nook self-publication programs enable readers to decide what they want to read rather than agents, editors, and media taste makers; although I think the publishing houses will still pander to celebrity books.

I propose a model that can also increase the publisher’s share of profits and lower the risk of taking on unknown authors. Bypass both the agent and over-the-transom submissions; reduce mailroom costs and go to the heart of the matter. Editors should study the sales and rankings of self-published e-books.  They should read excerpts of the books that fit the type that they publish.  They should offer print publication contracts to the ones that stand out. Similar to the entertainment and sports fields in which talent scouts go to  the minor leagues, community theaters and cabarets; editors should mine e-books to uncover outstanding, well-written ones with promising sales and rankings. These books have established a readership that the editor can expand into the print market. At this point, an author is free to get an agent to negotiate terms, movie rights, etc.

This model is premised on the belief that there will also be a demand for print books. That will never go away. Bookmaking is an art form too. The beauty of bound books on a shelf will always draw book lovers, if my own habits are any indication. I want the print copy of a book that I know I will read again or that I value as an enduring work of the world’s great literature.  That will not change. What has changed is that the locus of power has moved from New York to the writer at his desk and the reader holding his Kindle, Nook, iPad, or other device. Another cause for excitement is my feeling (maybe just a hope) that those e-books are making readers of more Americans whatever their age. And that is very good.  What a bright prospect for children to gain the life-long pleasure of reading through today’s e-readers.

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Automatic Writing: Aspasia in Gerontion and the Maiden

Pearl Curran (Feb. 15, 1883 – Dec.4, 1937) Medium for Patience Worth Writings

By automatic writing I mean messages a channeler receives from a spirit and records in writing or dictates to a transcriber.  This definition distinguishes it from simple stream of consciousness techniques or trance-like states writers may induce to inspire creativity. I was introduced to the subject in 1972 when my neighbor, an older woman, gave me the book Singer in the Shadows,  the story of a St. Louis housewife, Pearl Curran, who received during the period from 1913-1937 proverbs, poetry, plays, and novels from the spirit of Patience Worth, a New England housewife of the 1600s.  Although many theories have been advanced, there is no satisfactory explanation for how Mrs. Curran, who had an eighth grade education and was not widely read, could have composed the writings in archaic English and with historical details of the period. Five of Patience Worth’s poems were anthologized in 1917 along with the respected poetry of Amy Lowell, Vachel Lindsay, and Edgar Lee Masters.

Reputable authors have dabbled in automatic writing. Among them are James Merrill and W.B. Yeats. Merrill claimed that his poetry collection The Changing Light at Sandover resulted from messages through a Ouija board. Although Pearl Curran’s first contacted Patience Worth when she and a friend were playing with a Ouija board, Pearl eventually abandoned its use when the communications came too quickly.  The September 2010 Smithsonian Magazine contains an excellent article on Pearl Curran.  More recently, Jane Roberts received messages from the entity named Seth that she recorded in her Seth books.

Helen Schucman (July 14, 1909 – Feb. 9, 1981)

Helen Schucman, a Columbia University psychologist, scribed  A Course in Miracles  through what she called a “Voice” over the course of seven years from 1965-1972.  An atheist and a skeptic, Schucman could not scientifically explain her dictation that reached in excess of 1000 pages of metaphysical thought.

The experience of reading Pearl Curran’s story remained with me until in the late 1980s when I came to write my novel centering around the young, ambitious Felicia Mendive who marries Augustus Walsingham, a wealthy man old enough to not just be her father but her grandfather. I set my novel in St. Louis, in middle America to suggest the balance, the golden mean, that fine equilibrium between reason and passion, which is Felicia’s quandary. Felicia and her three women friends visit a channeler who receives messages from the spirit of Aspasia, an actual woman of ancient Greece.

Marble sculpture with Aspasia inscribed on the base found in Rome now in Vatican Museum

Aspasia, a learned courtesan and skilled rhetorician, associated with Socrates and other philosophers in ancient Greece, became the mistress of the Athenian statesman Pericles. Central to my theme was a May-December marriage and conveniently Aspasia and Pericles represent a pairing of a young woman with a prominent old man.  I use the phenomena of channeling to advance the theme that some truths are unseen, that the spirit needs nourishment as well as the body. Living in affluence, wary of giving way to emotion, Felicia cannot realize happiness.  Likewise, Mrs. Curran had all the comforts of a middle-class life in 1913, yet still was drawn into a supersensible realm.

St. Louis is also the birthplace of T.S. Eliot.  To evoke his memory, I wanted Aspasia to speak her messages in blank verse.  After all, Gerontion (a pseudonym for Augustus Walsingham) is the title of  Eliot’s poem in the persona of an old man.  The etymology of the word is from the Greek geront meaning old age. Not until the end of the novel does Aspasia switch to prose when she speaks directly to Felicia, but always Aspasia’s tone is elevated.  Here is a taste of Aspasia’s poetic lines:

She shall not grieve the lost of taste or touch

or stop the cough in an old man’s cracked throat

with cushions or coins stacked in palace halls

but bend her mind to the young body’s will,

nor shall she rue aught in a dry season

when ambrosia brewed of Zeus she’s sucked.

Socrates Seeking Alcibiades in the House of Aspasia, 1861 painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme

Angle of Vision

A writer has much in common with a photographer composing a picture and focusing the camera’s lens on the principal subject.  A picture can be taken from many possible angles, but from whatever angle the shot is snapped, the perspective belongs to the photographer.  The finished photo embodies his vision. Composition is the essence of both art forms.  Placement of the focus, to zoom in or to zoom out are decisions both the photographer and the writer make.  The close-up shot for a writer translates into the decision to develop an intense dramatized scene replete with dialogue rather than to zoom out with a passage of narrative to cover the event.

Likewise, it seems to me that the single most important decision the writer makes is what viewpoint or viewpoints (recognizing he can choose to tell his story from more than person’s perspective) to tell the story. The first person viewpoint–the “I” of any story–creates intensity and psychological depth of the character-narrator who relates his own story. This is a quick, obvious way to achieve emotional intensity and reader identification with the main character. Many memorable novels have used this technique. Salman Rushdie does a superb job with the first person narrator Saleem Sinai in his novel Midnight’s Children. Other novelists have chosen to shift the first person viewpoint, dedicating sections of the story to one character or another.  In the same way, they can shift the third person subjective point of view in different parts of their novel.

I favor the third person subjective in my novels because it facilitates interior monologue. I can delve into the thoughts and feelings of a character with abandon. Although I have used first person in the short story, so far I have not chosen the first person point of view in a novel.  In contrast, third person objective, tells the story from one point of view but does not get into the head of the character. More often than not, the contemporary novelist uses one or more third person points of view, demarcating the change in point of view from one character to another by a break or chapter division.  The omniscient narrator found favor in sprawling nineteenth century novels in which the writer revealed the thoughts of many characters and also loved to intrude his authorial views.

In the choice of point of view the writer answers the question whose story is it.  Writing the story from another character’s point of view creates an entirely different novel, clearly evident by the trend nowadays to take a succesful novel and rewrite it from another character’s point of view.  Two such attempts that come to mind are Rhett’s People by Donald McCaig, a variation on Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind and Ahab’s Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund, a variation on Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Can you think of other contemporary novels that revisit another novel with a different point of view?

Aversion to Categorization

The publishing industry and the marketing of books depend on categorization. Retailers need to know where to shelf books, and marketers help stores decide in what section to place the books. That is fairly easy to do with genre fiction like romance, science-fiction, fantasy, mystery, and murder. But some books defy categorization and it seems to me these are probably the most enduring books. They defy pigeonholing, because they often encompass the intertwining of several elements: a murder mystery, a detective story, horror, the fantastical, and the ever-present romance. Because they are not just one thing, these books offer so much more for the reader to digest and to enjoy. Sometimes even within the genres, things can get messy; debate can arise whether a book should be categorized as horror, thriller, murder, or suspense.

Writing gurus, prolix in offering advice, recommend that fledgling writers stick to a strict genre because their chances of selling their work will increase. That is true, making it possible to label your work as this or that in a query letter and easier for an agent to sell. Yet other works are not so easy to classify, because their depth, breadth and range do not neatly fit into a category. When this happens, a bookstore could shelve the book in the catch-all aisle of literary fiction, which in my estimation, is not a bad place to be. To declare your work literary may strike you as pompous. If so, you can describe your novel as contemporary or general fiction.

I don’t like the labeling of people as this or that any more than I like the necessity to categorize books.  My aversion likely accounts for the fact that I do not read a lot of straight genre fiction. As in food, I prefer the exotic dish, the new, the unique, the unheard of, the unread of before, the strange bird, the oddball in the room.  This is not to denigrate genre fiction. I love Anne Rice’s vampire chronicles and her Mayfair witches. I have read three books of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time fantasy series and enjoyed them. I love Stephen King’s horror novels. I admire the way King crafts his sentences.  There are fine genre writers. I am married to a science fiction novelist, and I respect the imagination and knowledge that goes into constructing a futuristic scenario.  The fact that  I write novels that I can’t categorize (although some I can categorize as historical fiction) explains my aversion to categorization.  My husband, on the other hand,  indisputably writes genre fiction. Despite these divergences, we blissfully co-exist, read each other’s work, and cross-critique our manuscripts. The arrangement has worked well nigh unto the sixteen years of our marriage.

So it boils down to writing the books you want to write, to telling the story you want to write, regardless whether you can stuff the book into a marketing category. And, well, if the book fits in a marketing category, that’s terrific.  I for one like the hybrid; someone else likes the pure strain.  Everyone benefits from the infinite variety of genre and of style in the world.  File me under Miscellaneous? Sure. I won’t be offended.