Pop vs. Literary, Round 1

Stephen King’s acceptance speech upon winning the 2003 Distinguished Contribution to American Letters Award from the National Book Foundation is a good read for a number of reasons. First, it’s interesting to hear from him some details of his early writing career and the support he received from his wife. We should all be so lucky to have the strong, unwavering belief of someone close to us, to give us the gentle nudges we need and keep us turned toward our words rather than toward our grievances. I am that lucky, and I hope you are too.
Second, it’s nice motivation. He had to write, a lot, and then write some more to get to the point that he is today. It’s good to remember that the writers you read, the one whose book is in your hands right now, have their moments of doubt, of lack of faith in themselves or the world, and that they have to muscle through those doubts, just like you. I go through it. Years ago doubt washed over me to the point that I couldn’t write. I’ve since learned that no one cares if I write or not (other than my wife) and that if I don’t do it the only one to hurt is me. I’ve learned that putting my head down and doing the work is what matters, not accolades or publishing contracts. I’ve written a lot lately, much of it is, I think, very good and I’m pleased with it. One of those is the “Endless Hours” contest entry (see below) which started out as a fun exercise and now lurks in the back of my brain as a possible beginning to a longer piece, a rough sketch that I’d like to flesh out. I got that short piece done because I’ve been doing the work, not because of divine inspiration or luck. I put my pen to paper daily, and I feel it working and I’m happy for it. King’s speech reminds me of that: put in the time.
Finally, I liked King’s motive behind the speech which is to herald the talents of “popular” writers. The National Book Award, as so many awards, are given to “important”, “serious”, and “challenging” work. It’s the reason that comedies don’t win Oscars, leading Jack Black and Will Ferrell to do their anti-dramatic actor song and dance at the Academy Awards this year. King’s speech is his version of that:

Now, there are lots of people who will tell you that anyone who writes genre fiction or any kind of fiction that tells a story is in it for the money and nothing else. It’s a lie. The idea that all storytellers are in it for the money is untrue but it is still hurtful, it’s infuriating and it’s demeaning. I never in my life wrote a single word for money. As badly as we needed money, I never wrote for money. From those early days to this gala black tie night, I never once sat down at my desk thinking today I’m going to make a hundred grand. Or this story will make a great movie. If I had tried to write with those things in mind, I believe I would have sold my birthright for a plot of message, as the old pun has it. Either way, Tabby and I would still be living in a trailer or an equivalent, a boat. My wife knows the importance of this award isn’t the recognition of being a great writer or even a good writer but the recognition of being an honest writer.

King goes on the ask that other popular writers be remembered, that they be honestly critiqued and considered. He’s right, they should be. Without popular art most people would have no “in” to art at all, and to discount works of authors (or any artists) which sell well and are easily accessed and enjoyed is to discount all writing. In fact, it’s a bit of a short-sighted argument, to say that (Insert Popular Author Here) is “simplistic,” or “formulaic,” or “derivative.” If that’s what they are, then might not your own writing be overly complex? Dense? Obfuscating?
There are so many words, and so many ways to order them, but there’s only so much to time to read them and people make the choice to read that should be celebrated, not derided.
(Publisher’s Disclaimer: Sean Ferrell has been known to read Stephen King and to enjoy him. He also enjoys the occassional Star Wars or Star Trek novel, and enjoys crude, pedestrian “poop joke” humor.)

That (sales) figures.

GalleyCat continues its coverage of the coverage of the Cussler trial. For those not following the case, the film producer of Sahara, based on Clive Cussler’s book of the same name, claims that Cussler lied about his sales figures in order to get $10 million out of him for the rights to the book. When the film bombed the producers discovered that Cussler didn’t have the 100 million sales he claimed. They are suing over that “lie.”
Only problem is, it seems that that “lie” is a how the industry works:

Interestingly, Cussler’s real sales figure amount to roughly half of what he’s claimed – a by-product, Cussler testified earlier in a deposition, of an edict handed down by his agent in the late 1990s never to say how many books he sold because the amount was not known. Instead, Cussler said, he was advised to use the phrase “books in print.” So a word to the wise, especially new GalleyCat readers: anytime you see a “books in print” figure, downscale it by half, maybe even more, to get the real story…

I find this interesting and a little sad, especially in an era of POD, when a publisher could print only what was needed. How often have you picked up a book and seen “Over a million copies in print” on the cover? How many of those copies were actually read? Sales figures are an issue. They keep the relationship between authors and publishers working, but if no one really knows what those figures are, what does that say about the authors who are touting figures to sell books?

Making art

The letter below, from Bob Ezrin, record producer extraordinaire (Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”, Jay-Z’s “Fade to Black”, among others) is about the music industry, and Trent Reznor. I found it here. But, even though it is about another industry I think a lot of his points about art and the need for a shift in our current business models, away from the bottom line and toward a concept of the value of art, has real merit. I found the letter inspiring and encouraging, and wanted to share it here:

Trent Reznor is a true visionary. He has broken and reinvented the rules of engagement on every level, from recording to touring to interacting with his fans.
He’s an intensely determined person—aware and on top of everything that happens in his name, from his music to his marketing. Trent controls all things Trent. Yes, he’s had help along the way, but he’s the captain of the Trent ship and his career is a product of his imagination and drive. He is not manufactured, homogenized, manipulated or packaged. He is Trent—and the rest of the folks get to react.
There’s a clue in here to how to run one’s life as an aspiring artist. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in situations where aspiring artists (as you know, I hate the designation but will grant it to a few sublimely talented folks like Trent) have created something and have had a vision that has not resonated with their “handlers” from management to producers, to the record company to even sometimes their lawyer—and have succumbed to the pressure to conform to the taste and judgment of these people at the expense of their own intuition—and have failed either immedately or ultimately because, in the end, they simply weren’t distinguished enough to connect to a large group of people in a lasting way. They may have produced a “hit song” but they typically did not create a career.
If Trent had done what everyone wanted him to, he would not have become a better selling act or bigger star as some of his advisors may have secretly thought. Instead, he would have disappeared long ago.
No one knows the heart or genius of true artists but the artists themselves. No one can predict them or imitate them or even steer them towards success. They are, by definition, single-minded people who cannot—and must not—see things the way the rest of us do. Once upon a time, we had a business built by passionate amateurs who revered the artists and who became their protectors, advocates and promoters. These folks didn’t presume to tell their artists what to do. Oh, every once in a while, they might beg and plead for more or different to help them to do their job, but they never imposed their creative will on the people they most admired in all the world.
And so we had a landscape of determined individualists who made very individual music—lots of it. We all know who they were—and some still are. But now the biggest part of the business is run by cold-hearted professionals whose reverence is for the bottom line first and last—and who think nothing of imposing their ideas and will on the people they sign. And most of those signings are not because they are enthralled by genius or art but because they smell “a hit” or know that someone else does and that they’d better get in there first.
Now, when I say stuff like this, all the record company people get pissed off at me and say I’m an asshole and that they are there because of their love for music, etc. And I don’t doubt that this is what propelled them at the start (though I suspect the notion of getting rich and hanging with rockstars may have had a bit to do with it too), but how many of the new leaders of our industry are able to resist the pressures of making their numbers in favor of supporting their artists? In fact, isn’t their primary job to “increase shareholder value”? So, they really can’t resist those pressures honestly and still be doing what they’re being paid to do. The problem with this is that it takes more than a [business financial] quarter to build something of value and real art cannot be scheduled or projected—only commodities can. But if we’re just a commodities business, then by definition we cannot build anything of real value—for the shareholders or the world.
So, what’s the biggest lesson here? It is that, if we can all agree to do as Ahmet [Ertegün, co-founder of Atlantic Records] recommended and surround ourselves with brilliant people and help those people to develop their craft, their own voice, and become artists making things of real value, we might see our way into the next golden age of popular music.
Thank God for Trent—and for all the others like him who will not compromise and will fight to realize their vision. In the end, they might save us all.

I made the right career choice…

…now if I could only get it to pay the bills.
I bet a lot of you writers out there have been saying, “You know, all the time spent writing and editing, second guessing, listening to crappy advice and ignoring same, the angst about submissions, not getting paid for my work, and possibly writing for no one’s pleasure but mine and my mother’s, it’s all been totally worth it!”
Well, now you know that you’re not alone. According to YahooNews a survey has placed “author” in the ranking as one of the most satisfying jobs:

Job satisfaction
Across all occupations, on average 47 percent of those surveyed said they were satisfied with their jobs and 33 percent reported being very happy.
Here are the Top 10 most gratifying jobs and the percentage of subjects who said they were very satisfied with the job:
* Clergy—87 percent percent
* Firefighters—80 percent percent
* Physical therapists—78 percent percent
* Authors—74 percent
* Special education teachers—70 percent
* Teachers—69 percent
* Education administrators—68 percent
* Painters and sculptors—67 percent
* Psychologists—67 percent
* Security and financial services salespersons—65 percent
* Operating engineers—64 percent
* Office supervisors—61 percent

Yep, there we are, stuck between Physical Therapists and Special Education Teachers. That just about says it all, doesn’t it?

VTech shooting victims

MSNBC has a retrospective of the Virginia Tech massacre victims, pictures and details of the students and teachers. It puts a lot of things in perspective.
These were babies that were killed. Even the professors. They were talented and beautiful and many of them died trying to help others.

“New” Tolkein book, The Children of Hurin

200px-The_Children_of_Hurin_cover.jpgCNN’s review of the new J.R.R. Tolkein book, edited by his son Christopher Tolkein, makes “The Children of Hurin” sound not only like a compelling read and nice addition to the Middle Earth saga, but like a wonderful labor of love.

“It is the fruit of 30 years labor by Christopher Tolkien, the author’s son, who has devoted much of his life to editing and publishing the work his father left behind. By meticulously combining and editing the many published and unpublished versions of the tale, he has produced at last a coherent, vivid and readable narrative.”

“Christopher Tolkien says that in reconciling the various versions of his father’s story, he added no new material, save for an occasional transition. The words, he says, are virtually all his father’s.”

Given the number of false starts and unfinished pieces which I have laying about, I hope my son is ready to spend a good portion of his adulthood getting them into publishable form.

Giving it away has critics

This is pretty astounding. An outgoing SWFA VP, sci-fi writer and apparent luddite Dr. Howard Hendrix wrote an essay in which he blasted writers who give away their writing for free online. He called them “web-scabs,” a poor use of the idea of a strike breaking worker, arguing that they undermine not only their own writing but that of other writers and the genre as a whole. We’ll just ignore that scabs are people who break a strike, not people who offer their services for less money.
GalleyCat has followed the whole affair really well, both with this original post here
and a follow-up here.
Dr. Hendrix’s obvious dislike of paradigm shifts and new technology is one thing. It’s ironic (he writes sci-fi, which, you would think, involves a certain amout of “looking forward”) and it’s short-sighted (the web isn’t going anywhere, and mainstream publishing’s inability to figure out how to harness it in a way that makes them money is a problem for everyone; writers suffer now, publishers will suffer tomorrow). What makes his reactionary claims even harder to digest is his complete lack of understanding about how publishing, or any marketplace, works. There are more producers of content than there are outlets. Therefore, those who control the outlets can name their price, and the content producers usually have little choice but to fall in line. I have had several stories published. I have received no money for most of them, and what money I have seen bought me a coffee and donut at Starbucks. According to Dr. Hendrix I have undermined the noble profession of writing by giving it away for free. Does it matter that my writing was selected by editors who don’t know me personally, who were professional and courteous and who chose my work over others? Probably not. My work was out there, for nothing, and damn me for trying.
This is, unfortunate as it is, a competition. I work as hard as I can on my writing because I know that there are so many great writers trying to storm the gates with me that if I sit by and just watch I’ll never get in. And one of the ways I have to get in is to share my work, and one of the ways I share my work is online. Blogging is part of it, the non-fiction part. The other part, for me is going to be sharing fiction online in any way I can. I have had some stories published at other sites. Most of them are gone. One isn’t (you can find the link to that story here). As a result I have stories which have been published online and are therefore unwanted by journals and other sites. That leaves me. If I’m going to show people what I write I have to put it up here. I’ll be doing that on 4/23, Jo Walton’s wonderfully named International Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Day. On that day I’ll have one of my older stories up here for people to download under a creative commons license, and maybe I’ll even have an audio version for download for people who want to hear it as they drive their car. I hope to share other stories in similar fashion. In any event, I am the only one who is going to do this marketing for me.
I don’t know who Dr. Hendrix thought would do it for me, or him for that matter.