Friday, December 19, 2014

Sliding Towards The Holiday At The End Of The Literary Road

Your query is being ignored while the literary agent goes shopping
All across New York City, literary agents are preparing for the year-end holiday. Publishing is about to shut down for the next two weeks, to arise again in early January.

It is not a good time to query.

You should have done that in November, before the glut of NaNoWriMo hopefuls inundated e-mail inboxes with unedited first drafts masquerading as polished manuscripts. Your agent of choice has already selected the potential manuscripts to read while on holiday in some sunny locale while you sit in the December gloom and wonder if your words are good enough to sell.

You have no doubt noticed that the best books of 2014 are getting a listing wherever literary critics are found.

Have you read any of them?

Have you made a point of seeking out debut novels, to get some idea of what sort of opening it takes to get an agent to take notice and ask for more pages?

Other than that, pay no attention to the genre du jour. The best books for this past year were in the works a few years earlier. What is going to make the cut for 2015 has yet to be laid down.

In other words, write what you like rather than writing to match a market that is already out of date by the time you're ready to submit.

This is not the time to query, with agents busy partying and packing. It is a time for you to polish your manuscript and read the debut novels of other writers. Learn from the past. But don't go repeating it.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Life And Death Decisions, The Bureaucracy Version

A woman in a vegetative state is being kept alive in an Irish hospital because the State is not sure what is to be done about her.

The State is making a decision on pulling the plug for a woman in a vegetative state. Not the woman's family. The State.

And why does the Irish government hold this power of life and death? Because the woman is pregnant and her unborn, unviable foetus may have some rights under the Irish Constitution but it's not entirely clear. This being a bureaucratic decision, it will take time to sort out the legal technicalities and such, so in the meantime, the woman who is brain dead must be kept artificially alive. Whether her loved ones think that is the best course or not.

It's all there in the eighth amendment. The unborn have a right to life. Sure the mother has a right to life as well, but that doesn't say a thing about her right to be allowed to die, does it? Should a doctor turn off the machine, well, he'd likely be sued by some ardent pro-life organization and nobody wants to wallow in that particular swamp.

So the respirator pumps away and the feeding tube slurps and you might think it would be a mercy to let the poor thing go but this is a bureaucracy. Mercy has not been written into the law.

Brain trauma is seen often enough in traffic accidents or falls. When the Irish Constitution was written, it was not unknown. What has changed is medicine's ability to treat brain trauma and extend the life of the injured. The family of the victim is typically consulted, however, because the ability to extend life may not be desirable if that life is one lacking any quality. In this case, the victim just happened to be in the early stages of pregnancy, and God help us if the medical community did anything that might be considered an abortion. That's breaking the law right there.

The respirator maintains its rhythm to no good end. The woman is essentially dead already. Her body is being preserved as a containment vessel for the developing foetus, too small and undeveloped to be delivered so that the mother can be put to rest.

Her family is seeking legal counsel, to find out what rights they might have in regard to the care of a loved one who was so unfortunate as to fall pregnant before suffering a traumatic brain injury and then even more unfortunate as to be treated successfully.

While the case winds through the courts and government ministers and bureaucrats debate the fine print of the law, an innocent woman and her family is made to suffer.

The bureaucrats are making a life and death decision that should not be theirs to make, let alone consider.

But that is health care in today's Ireland.

Some are calling for a change in the country's highly restrictive abortion laws that have doctors second-guessing treatments, afraid that they might do something illegal and so they do nothing. Women have died because of the dithering.

Too many will not hear of making changes because that just opens the door and the next thing you know women are deciding on their own if they want to continue a pregnancy and they have no right to make such decisions. Neither do their doctors, for that matter.

Health care in today's Ireland. It's a dangerous place to be a woman.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Genius Crosses The Fine Line

How does that old saying go? Something about a fine line between madness and genius, or something like that.

That fine line may have been crossed by Marsha Mehran, an acclaimed author who threw herself into writing but slipped into madness. She died in solitude, in a self-imposed isolation that was supposed to be about writing a book.

Ms. Mehran took a house in Lecanvey, in Mayo, telling the estate agent that she wanted to reside in that area while writing a book. The area would seem well suited to writing, providing inspiration during a long walk on the beach. Watching the waves and listening to the ocean can be very relaxing, allowing an author to delve deep into their mind and work out plot devices or dialogue. No one would have questioned Ms. Mehran's decision.

Some time in April, Ms. Mehran texted the agent with what sounded like a serious medical emergency. The author was vomiting blood, and reached out to the only person she knew in the small town, but she did not ask for directions or even a lift to the nearest hospital. She did not ask about nearby doctors or clinics.

When the estate agent tried to contact Ms. Mehran, she was ignored. There was no response, despite repeated attempts. When someone tells you they are vomiting blood, you'll make some effort to contact them, which led the estate agent to enter the house after Ms. Mehran failed to answer the door.

The writer had been dead for approximately six days at that point. Her body was found in what was described as a messy place. More disturbing, there were pans of urine around the place. Even if you throw yourself into your writing, you'll make the effort to use the toilet.

No cause of death has been found, according to the coroner. There was no foul play. She may have died as a result of inflammatory bowel disease which can lead to eloctrolyte imbalance. If she had gone to a hospital, they would have been able to detect such an imbalance and then work to correct it.

But instead, Ms. Mehran wrote as if there was nothing else in the world but the words in her head.

That is the world where genius has crossed over the fine line.

Monday, December 15, 2014

A Money-Losing Venture Only Matters In The Real World

Last week the literary world was buzzing with New Republic news, a swirl of bad feelings and angst and outrage. And all that for a journal that was losing money, but had the sort of editorial content that the staffers liked.

In part, the issue revolved around politics, and not of the office variety. The news journal is based in Washington DC and the current administration is a liberal one. The people who worked for the rag were also liberal in their views, and those views were being expressed when the New Republic was owned by a bunch of rich men who didn't mind pouring money into a losing venture. Until, of course, they did mind.

The journal was sold to Chris Hughes, a man steeped in social media. That's not New Republic, and once Mr. Hughes began running his piece of the old media, the staff grew increasingly disgruntled. They were as hide-bound as the most staunch Republican conservative, unwilling to change, seeing Mr. Hughes as a danger to their way of doing things.

Because Mr. Hughes bought it, he could do what he liked with it, and he liked to shift operations to New York City where the publishing industry lives. The staffers were alarmed. Politics happens in DC, and the journal is all about politics. How could they keep doing what they were doing if they were to be doing it far from the source?

Even more upsetting was the talk of turning the journal into a digital-media operation. Much of that talk came from the new CEO, who was formerly with Yahoo News.

Chris Hughes made his money in Facebook. Facebook makes money in the real world, while New Republic was losing money. The staff thought he was buying a trinket and would continue to pump in the cash to keep things as they were, a money-losing venture. They were wrong. So they quit.

Everyone who could, those who did not need the income, left the magazine rather than go along with Mr. Hughes' plan to remake the old brand. The journal was all about political thought, had been for the past one hundred years, and they would not be part of any attempt to alter the status quo. The concept of "journalism" was replaced by "content" that was marketable. It became all about turning a profit rather than turning a phrase.

Without the old guard, can the New Republic survive? Can a century-old name be made relevant to the Millennial generation who might be thinking that the journal is something their parents or, worse yet, their grandparents are fond of reading?

Clearly something had to change because in the real world, a publication has to at least break even to remain alive. Owners with deep pockets are few and far between, and such an owner with a passion for liberal politics would be the most rare of all.

This being the real world, the New Republic was dying, and drastic change may just be the final nail in its non-digital coffin.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Black Diamonds: A Book Review



Once England was an economic powerhouse, fueled by coal. Within living memory, Margaret Thatcher shut down the nationalized coal industry as a financial drain. Coal was no longer king, nor had it been for many years. Catherine Bailey's BLACK DIAMONDS takes us back to the day when British coal made the country a manufacturing power, when the sun was not setting on the Empire.

The book focuses on the very intriguing Fitzwilliam family, made rich by the coal that existed under the land they received for supporting the dismantling the Catholic Church in England. Fans of Downton Abbey are aware of the great changes in fortune that ensued after the end of the First World War. BLACK DIAMONDS is an accounting of the decline in the Fitzwilliam family's fortunes, a story that is centered on the family's estate and the mining towns that were part of it.

Ms. Bailey describes the lifestyles of the people who made the place run, from the social activities of a peer of the realm to the ordinary existence of the miners. She brings the reader from the Edwardian era when the money was rolling in, through the Great Depression when Earl Fitzwilliam made an admirable effort to help his employees when the coal industry went into a decline. The book provides insight into the change that British society underwent after the war, with the rise of socialism that doomed the coal-funded aristocrats. The labor unrest that began at the close of the Nineteenth Century provides a backdrop to the entire book, and helps to explain the actions that followed through the years. Nationalization of the coal industry comes as no surprise.

Readers may find the story-telling a bit choppy, with long anecdotes interrupting the flow of the narrative. The inserts are of interest, however, because the Fitzwilliam clan brushed shoulders with British royalty and America's version of royalty, the Kennedys of Boston. Throughout the book, the reader will watch the earls decline in quality, and the great house that was built on coal is presented as a suitable analogy to the end of an aristocratic line. In general, the book is well worth reading for its portrayal of a radically shifting political landscape that saw the end of a traditional way of life, but failed to substitute a new industry for the dying trade of coal mining.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Not That Kind Of Memoir

And once again a memoir hyped beyond reason has proven to be largely a work of fiction.

This time it's Lena Dunham, of the pleasing plumped-up platform. Her book tour was a masterful bit of marketing, garnering news which in turn provided free publicity to further boost sales.

NOT THAT KIND OF GIRL has been sold as a memoir. The Random Penguins paid a fat advance for it, in large part because Lena Dunham's television programme draws the right kind of audience. It's all about the millenials these days, those twenty-somethings who are filled with the sort of angst that Ms. Dunham cultivates. Who wouldn't buy her memoir, to learn where her outlook and humour come from?

The first difficulty arose shortly after the book was laid down and someone looked at Ms. Dunham's relationship to her younger sister. The prose smacked of child sexual abuse and some less-than-acceptable curiosity. Just like that, the author appearances at book signings were cancelled. The author did not back down from her recollections, maintaining that her book was definitely a memoir. She apologized, of course, and the book continued to be featured in the non-fiction section.

Ms. Dunham's memoir also touched on her earliest sexual awakening, which she said included rape.

That sort of accusation will make a reader sit up and take notice. It will also see the fact-checkers arise to check what facts they can uncover. If it's a memoir, you see, the facts must be checkable. Otherwise, it's a work of fiction and should be called a novel, which does not have the same cachet as a genuine accounting.

Did Ms. Dunham name her rapist? Why yes, she did, and wouldn't you know that it was a man of radically different political views than her own.

That's the sort of thing that creates tension in a novel, and it doesn't hurt when a memoir has a bit of tension to get the readers turning the page.

The fact-checkers figured out fairly easily who she was accusing. As many have noted, conservatives at the ultra-liberal Oberlin College are rare. Conservatives named "Barry" who were in university at the same time would be even more rare. The former Oberlin College student named Barry was found. He was a real person. The memoir was verified.

Until Barry made noise about a libel suit because the rape accusation levelled at him was fictional. He never met Ms. Dunham.

Now Ms. Dunham and her publisher are scrambling to avoid an expensive lawsuit and a legal demand that all copies of the book be pulped, with sales discontinued. No e-books. No paperbacks. It must all disappear.

Penguin Random House hopes very much that Barry will accept their apology and their attempt to fix things by putting a note into the e-books that Barry is a pseudonym for the rapist. And the mustache and purple cowboy boots worn by Barry are also pseudonyms, we must presume, because the description of the invented Barry just happens to fit the real Barry.

Will the publishers ever learn to check the facts of the memoirs they publish before they put themselves into these situations? It's gotten to the point where you can't be sure if that memoir you're reading is just a work of pure fiction that wouldn't otherwise sell if it couldn't be touted as a litany of real events.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Isn't It Ironic

There is no love lost between Amazon and the publishing community that calls New York City home. The traditional publishing houses feel the financial pressure from that upstart in Seattle, and it wasn't that long ago that Amazon was locked in a cold war with Hachette Book Group, a battle that was waged on the editorial pages of the New York Times.

The employees of those big five publishers pay taxes in New York, whether they pay as residents or people who work in the Big Apple. The fruits of their labor fill the state's coffers, but they have no real say in what happens to that hard-earned money. If they do not vote in New York, say, if they reside in New Jersey or Connecticut, the matter is entirely out of their hands. And for those publishing folk who do vote, they are too few in number to have any significant effect on the elected representatives who are hard at work attracting new jobs to New York.
Albany, New York, where they feel the love for Amazon

Isn't it ironic, that the publishers who would like Amazon to go away, are seeing their tax money go to Amazon?

The state of New York is trying to attract new jobs, but it's tough to compete with cheaper places like Texas where the cost of doing business is lower, and therefore serves as a large incentive. Businesses exist to turn a profit, and if locating in Place A as compared to Place B would boost the bottom line by 2%, it's not hard to figure out where said business is going.

So New York offers tax incentives to level the field, while the difference is made up by those already there. The residents of New York, whether they like Amazon or not, are going to be donating $5 million in incentives to a behemoth that has likely driven their local independent book shop out of business via predatory pricing.

How does it feel, to be in fear of losing your job because of Amazon's pressure on your employer to offer steeper discounts on books, and to know that your elected officials are going to use your tax money to help Amazon expand in Manhattan? You don't much want Amazon to grow, especially not in your own back yard, but there it is, right across from the Empire State Building for the next seventeen years.

Amazon is renting space, so the cost of starting up does not entail the expenses of building. There is a lack of permanence in renting, meaning Amazon can pull out any time if things don't work out, and then be out some small penalty to the state for backing out of the deal.

Amazon says they will create 500 new jobs over ten years, which sounds like a fairly rosy projection. What might those 500 souls be about?

Will the attempt to become a player in the publishing game be pursued in the belly of the publishing beast? Or will this additional office space be utilized for procurement operations or distributions?

Whatever the space is used for, it cannot be good for the publishers who are paying taxes that are turned over to their enemy to help that enemy grow bigger and stronger.

Isn't it ironic.

Any authors or publishing executives out there preparing letters of outrage to their state representative?