Monday, October 31, 2016

The Center Of The Short Story Universe

Thanks to Penguin Random House and their First To Read programme, my inbox has been graced with short stories for the past two weeks, a serialized introduction to that which is deemed worthy of publication these days.

For some reason, I never seem to make any sort of effort to read short stories. There are literary journals galore, if I was so inclined. You'd think that short stories would be a perfect fit for those who like to read while commuting to work, the story fitting in with the time spent riding the rails or rattling over potholes on a bus. As easy as downloading a book, a reader could download the latest edition of whatever journal strikes the fancy.

Yet few readers bother. The average literary journal is the product of university creative writing departments, the production part of the training of the next generation of authors. Without such public funding, most journals would not long survive.

So how perfect, how fitting to my lazy tendencies and general tight-fistedness, that Penguin Random House has given me two short stories with no effort expended on my part. Free of charge, I can indulge and find out what makes a short story worthy of print.

The first offering came from Helen Ellis, author of American Housewife. What important topic does she choose to tackle?

Her protagonist is....a failed writer.

Really? That's the best that can be done? A writer writing about a failed writer? What about a failed welder? A failed farmer?

Write what you know is fine if your horizons are broad enough. But can writers write about anyone besides writers? They need to get out more, apparently.

The story itself was fine, with its stock characters of stupid Playboy bunny, feisty writer determined to succeed in her brief stint as a reality show contestant despite the odds, and a few celebrities thrown in to make the whole thing feel more real. The premise revolved around said failed writer as a contestant on a reality show that had something to do with finding treasure in trash and winning the show by getting the most money for the discovered items. The game show itself was the evil antagonist, with the host playing for the sort of drama you'd expect on a reality show if you ever watched such things. I'm more inclined to read a book, so I'm hardly an expert.

The second round of short stories came from Mona Awad, who came to fame writing about fat girls.

I suspect that the short story is actually an excerpt from her novel, 13 Ways of Looking At A Fat Girl. Considering that the short story giveaway is marketing by Penguin Random House to promote book sales, it's to be expected that they would offer a bit of the novel to entice someone to read more.

But would you want to read a novel about a narrator who wallows in self-pity and invites us to feel sorry for her?

That's what passes for short stories these days.

The material revolves around a self-centered universe, in which we the readers are invited to feel pity for people who are not exactly downtrodden or in desperate circumstances. Do we care about those who could solve their own problems if they realized that others have much bigger problems?

Yet publishers believe that is exactly what readers want.

Have they not spotted the connection, between low sales figures and the sort of books they publish? The market isn't there, or at least it isn't there outside of New York City publishing circles where self-pity thrives. The rest of us are just trying to pay the bills and keep the heat on.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The Lesser Bohemians: A Book Review

A novel? No. This is a 300 page poem.

To be taken in small doses.

Not for a casual weekend reading. Not for light entertainment.

So dense. Stream of conscious, partial sentences and fragments strung together.

What is it about?

Most likely it is the story of a young woman from Ireland who arrives in England to study acting and then comes of age. It's hard to tell, exactly, because it's no easy matter to plow through the thicket of words.

Did I enjoy it?

In part, yes. In part, no.

Creative, clever, often too cute by half, yet I was drawn to go back every time I put the book down thinking I couldn't possibly get through to the end.

THE LESSER BOHEMIANS is more of an experience than a read, something to be done as part of an attempt to find artistry wherever it exists. You wander through the modern art gallery, intrigued but not fascinated by the offerings, trying to understand what the artist was trying to convey. So, too, does a reader approach this novel/poem mash-up.

Not for everyone, to be sure, and not something easy to classify. It isn't often you find a book claiming to be a novel that skips the notion of dialogue in favor of enclosing the dialogue within the narrative. You might find yourself missing normal speech as you go along, worn down by the weight of the prose and looking for a break but finding none.

As I said, small doses.

With thanks to Blogging For Books for the copy used here.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Publishing As A Labor Of Love

There is no money to be made in publishing when you want to publish books that you love.

Those of us going at it as independent publishers know this well. The cost of advertising and promotion are out of reach for the average indie, and generating buzz on a small budget is no easy task. How do you make yourself heard over the noise of all the other entertainment venues out there? And how do you make yourself heard when your readers can hear little more than the rattle of the empty bank account?

Not enough money to go around for the readers, and not enough money to throw around for the publishers.

Liberties Press has discovered this sad fact, although it took complaining authors to bring the issue to some notice. The small Irish publishers is far behind on paying its authors their full royalties, and some staff members left the company because they weren't getting paid.

Working for love, you see, does not pay the bills and there has to be a salary coming in from somewhere.

Sean O'Keefe didn't go into the publishing business with a plan to defraud authors. He wanted to publish good books that the major houses were ignoring because all they're after is the blockbuster best seller. When you see books as works of art, rather than widgets, you want to share your little jewels with others, but displaying those precious gems takes more of an investment than Mr. O'Keefe was able to make.

It's grand to receive a little stipend from the government to promote Irish writing, but there are more pressing needs for taxpayer money these days and you can't run a business based on donations that are spotty at best. Then there's the price of the book itself, which has to remain in a competitive range or it won't get purchased.

Editors and such like talented folk expect to be paid in euro, not love. If Liberties Press was staffed by independently wealthy book lovers who took no salary, it would have managed to pay its authors. That, however, is not reality. Reality is a staff that demands income and there simply is not enough coming in to Liberties Press to meet all its financial obligations.

The owner has tried juggling funds, robbing Peter to pay Paul as the hackneyed phrase goes. Borrowing works if there is a boost in profits to pay off the loan, but that sort of thing doesn't happen in publishing. The great books published by Liberties Press were sold to a small audience and there has never been enough sales to cover all operating expenses.

Authors won't want to publish through Liberties Press because they know they won't get paid. Literary agents won't submit manuscripts because they know they won't get their percentage, and they aren't working for love either.

In the near future, Mr. O'Keefe will be facing some legal problems as disgruntled and out-of-pocket authors chase down money owed. Can you squeeze blood out of a turnip? The courts will have to answer that question.

The dream remains for Sean O'Keefe, but he will have to carry on with a shattered reputation and little more than his own drive to acquire, edit and publish what he sees as great pieces of prose. You have to wonder if he will give in to the temptation of becoming a vanity publisher, if only to keep his struggling house from collapsing altogether.

All those authors didn't expect to receive little more than love when they signed contracts with Liberties Press, even if they wrote the books out of love for words in the first place. They were hoping for a little bigger return on their investment of time than the pleasure of seeing their book in a Dublin bookshop. That may be about their only profit once all this is done.

Friday, October 14, 2016

The Babylon Line: A Book Review

Write what you know, the students are told, and so we are crushed under the weight of stories that are set in creative writing classes.

THE BABYLON LINE is indeed set in a creative writing class, which will not resonate with the average reader because the average reader has vastly different life experiences. There is no connection to be made, at least not in the first twenty pages that I forced myself to get through in an effort to find something that spoke to the human condition.

Life is not universally lived in creative writing classes.

Readers should be aware that this is not a novel, but a play. I'm quite fond of Shakespeare, and have been known to read plays, but I just couldn't read this one.

I'm tired of stories centered on writers and creative writing classes. There are other artists out there, for feck's sake, artists who work in steel beams and concrete, for example. Artists who experience plenty of emotional doubt as they struggle through questions about their life's meaning and their significance in the greater scope of things.

Writers today can't seem to expand their horizons beyond the end of their own creative noses, focusing on their own worlds and the sorts of people they already know. This one has that touch of upper middle class ennui, with the failed writer coming to grips with his failure and that same old, same old trope.


This book has been officially abandoned. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone I know.

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Reality Show Meets Reality

Flip this house - but don't tear it down
They make it look easy on those home improvement shows, don't they. Buy a rundown house, fix up this and tear out that, install new cabinets and appliances, and there it is. Flip this house, for fun and profit.

Not in Chicago, however. No indeed, not in the City That Works, where building inspectors make ends meet by requiring contractors and do-it-yourselfers to dip into their pockets a bit deeper than anticipated.

Alison Victoria of Kitchen Crashers discovered that her reality show, in showing the reality of remodeling that might lead to more extensive renovations than first intended, stepped too deep into the reality of Chicago buildings. If she had not been filming, well, then the building inspector might have looked the other way if she slipped him an envelope stuffed with cash. As it was, she was tweeting about her project, keeping her fans in the loop, and reality shows just can't show the reality of a pay-off. The guys on the take don't like to work in the spotlight,

Her group purchased a cottage in Bucktown, a thoroughly gentrified area of Chicago that was popular with the hipsters until it got too gentrified. Homes go for big money in the neighborhood, thanks to its location, location, location near plenty of public transportation and a restaurant scene that draws people in from all over the city.

They invested well over $500,000 for a cottage that had long ago been converted to a two flat. The building permit allowed for some remodeling, to return the cottage to single family use, but you just never know what will happen when you start tearing things out of old buidings that aren't in the best of shape.

As Alison Victoria discovered, and planned to show her viewers, is that masonry is not always solid after one hundred years without new tuckpointing and when the walls start to crumble, you're looking at full-on demolition. During gutting, the walls fell apart and it became clear that the rehab project was becoming a demolition.Time to call in the architect to revise and the banker to revisit that line of credit.

Then when the building inspector shows up, you take him aside and have a nice talk that involves negotiating a price to make the building permit say something other than what it said in the first place.

That's reality, but it can't be shown on a reality show. Instead, Alison went right on ahead with her project in the way that the ordinary person would think you'd proceed. Encounter a problem, solve the problem, and build on would seem logical, but not in Chicago. Not when somebody's somebody isn't getting their beak wetted.

A stop work order has been slapped on the rehab that turned into a demo when the rehab went wrong. As far as the building department is concerned, Alison Victoria and her production team failed to pull new permits to allow for more extensive work that might have been required after the walls came tumbling down, but wasn't approved by said building department. Like demolishing the cottage instead of fixing it up.

Too bad she didn't have the right sort of recording equipment that would have disguised the identity of the building inspector who would have accepted a little something from HGTV for looking the other way when the project took a wrong turn. Now that would have been a real reality show, demonstrating the reality of working in Chicago when you aren't an alderman with the clout to do what you want because who's going to stop you.