Friday, May 23, 2008

Shelf Life: Not a Trivial Pursuit

I've always been fascinated by the illusive nature of celebrity and the transient nature of contemporary fame. Andy Warhol's metaphor calculated fame in minutes, fifteen to be exact. What he meant, of course, was that so-called "celebrity" has a very short shelf life.

Father Time wields an unforgiving and indiscriminate scythe. No one presently living has a clue as to what will be the classic of tomorrow or who will even be remembered—except perhaps in future Trivia games, a dubious distinction.

When I was on the Warner lot, I used to visit the main building of Warner Bros. where the green-lighters hung out listening to sweaty-palmed producers, writers and stars pitch their movie ideas.

The reception room was filled with large photos of the stars of yesteryear when the star system was at its height. I would take along my younger staff people, all movie industry wannabees and prod them to identify the names of those pictured. One would think television might have familiarized them with these people until I realized that the black and white movies of the past had little interest for them.

They could not, for example, identify Clark Gable, once known as the King of Hollywood. Or Gary Cooper. Or Myrna Loy. Or William Powell. I could not fault them for their non-recognition. These were not the stars of their generation, nor could I and others of my vintage recognize most of the names in the current issue of People magazine. The creation of "celebrities" is an end product of media manipulation feeding an insatiable appetite of a craven public searching desperately for role models. The preceding sentence sounds like psychobabble and probably is, but I'm sure the reader gets my meaning. Perhaps it has been always thus, but its proliferation in our contemporary culture distorts our perception today of what is worthy of saving and what should be quickly discarded.

In terms of the writing game, I often wonder which contemporary scribbler's works will be relevant to future generations. In my own lifetime I've seen the literary heroes of my youth disappear into oblivion. Thomas Wolfe and John O'Hara, where are you?

How many of yesterday's literary heroes will weather the vicissitudes of time? Beyond mere name recognition who will read their books? After all, a book not read is a form of authorial homicide.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Badmouthing Authors

A novel is a one-on-one communication system. If you are unlucky enough to draw a reviewer, whether a so-called professional or an ordinary reader who does not relate to your work or has an axe to grind or a hangover or is in a battle with his or her significant other or has a differing political view or is being assailed by a thousand slings and arrows of misfortune, you are in deep doodoo. Worse, you will never know exactly why, since the critique is always subjective, always personal.

Even in the publications designed to serve the so-called literary highbrow "establishment," such as the New York Review of Books and, at times, the New York Times Book Review, I find many reviews are more about the reviewers' opinions, biases and prejudices than about the book itself. A case in point was a lengthy review dealing with Philip Roth's novel, The Plot Against America. The reviewer fulminated about his own political creed and strayed so far from the book's meaning and substance that I thought it actually demeaned Roth's book, which I found "terrific" (Now there's a one word review that says it all).

Yes, bad reviews can be emotionally painful and definitely a career inhibitor. If, for example, a bad review appears in one or another of the trade publications such as Kirkus, Publishers Weekly or Library Journal, it does have some impact on the marketplace. For the most part, these reviews are written by well-meaning underpaid folks, many of them wannabee writers, teachers or students beached on the fringes of publishing world. They wield, arguably, the power to sway the opinions of book buyers for big brick and mortar chains and libraries, and therefore can have some impact on an author's sales.

Bad reviews on Amazon can also be hurtful. This is probably true as well for the Internet book opinion websites, which employ a gaggle of so-called reviewers, some of whom are paid in chump change, or free books, or in the satisfying ego rewards of seeing their name in print.

Book lovers in general are fierce and feisty in their various opinions of authors, whether pro or con. The literary blogging sites are filled with inflammatory, negative and very nasty comments about published writers. They are particularly vehement about best selling authors, whom they excoriate for what they consider bad writing, bad plots, bad characterization and general all-around incompetence. Mass popularity and apparent success in the marketplace gives them instant reflux. A popular pin cushion target was Dan Brown's phenomenal The DaVinci Code with accusations that range from story theft to very bad writing, as if it made a difference.

The subtext of the blogger comments on many of these sites seems to be the old bugaboo. I am a better writer than him. I know more than he does. I deserve to be published, recognized, celebrated, lionized. Why him and not me?

But then, attacks and venting on the Internet are sly fun. There is no physical confrontation, no accountability. There is satisfaction in finding others who agree with your opinions and, if those who disagree militantly step forward, there is more opportunity for confrontation and attack and even more enjoyable word tussles.

My advice is to keep cool. Writers, especially of imaginative fiction, have been wasted, assailed, berated, and denounced by critics from the very beginnings of the written word. Few have escaped.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Aging Obsession

I admit it. I am obsessed by the aging process. I hate it. I hate the accelerating deterioration of my inner and outer body parts, the declining sharpness of hearing and sight, the slowing pace of my legs, and other unmentionable afflictions. Despite medical and pharmacological advances, which I welcome, I know that such advances are merely unnatural palliatives that extend our lives but do little to demolish the reality of our inevitable descent into oblivion.

That said, I have found one saving grace that is both inspiring and encouraging to anyone who has reached the age of seventy. I am inspired by the words and deeds of Ronald Reagan, who once joked that he didn't trust anyone under seventy.

Once the seventy line is crossed, a person says what they want without worrying about the consequences. I don't mean that reaching this age of pre-senility gives you the license to say hurtful words or deliberately insult or ridicule others, especially those of lesser years. But at age seventy, at long last, the Rubicon has been crossed. It is time to vocalize your opinions, say what you really mean, and trumpet your opinions without pussyfooting around or worrying that you are offending someone's pet cause.

We live in a world of a million pet causes. Television and the Internet have spawned thousands of ways to protest and demonstrate against some perceived violation of rights, as if the larger the crowd shown the greater the truth and righteousness of the cause.

More and more, I have discovered the one great joy of the aging process, speaking out. At this moment in my time, I feel free to speak what I think, what experience has taught me, what life has earned me. I really don't give a tinker's damn what others may think of my opinions. Moreover, I take great pleasure in argument and rebuttal, however it might offend those with contrary views. I say, the more contrary, the better the argument.

Most people tend to be absurdly rigid in their views. The prevailing etiquette is to either accept what is circumscribed, compartmentalized, and deemed politically correct or be relegated to the fixed boundaries of the enemy camp.

The greatest of all pleasures is to attack the ramparts of political correctness, which has frozen all manner of debate. Say the word "girl" to a woman over twenty-one and the gender Nazis may attack. Criticize the term African-American and you are a racist. Dare to say what you really think about Muslim extremists and you are anti-Muslim. If you opine for a saner immigration policy, you are anti-Hispanic. If you are pro-choice, then you are a baby killer. If you are pro-life, you are a religious fanatic. If you believe in God, you are a right-wing nut. If you don't, you're a Godless creep. Chat up a lady in the office and you are a sexual harasser. Advocate lowering taxes and you are anti-poor. Advocate raising taxes and you are anti-rich. Discipline your child and you are a child abuser. Kiss your darling little baby grandchild on her butt and you are a pedophile. Naysay a lionized academic and you are an ignorant ingrate. Disagree with a mainstream drama, literary, or music critic and you are a tasteless Philistine. Rebut a wine snob and your palate is deemed insensitive.

The list of alleged discriminations and rights abuses are endless. For people over seventy, who have shed their fear of non-conformity and discovered the joys of saying what they really think, the vineyards are bursting with ripe fruit.

Of course, there is a downside to such outspokenness. You risk being dismissed as a laughable curmudgeon or senile by those who the years have yet to ferment with hard-earned knowledge and insight.

But then, does it really matter what they think? Invariably they are dead wrong. By the time you hit seventy, the chances are that you've learned the truth of things and if you make eighty, you're entitled to a curmudgeon medal with clusters. If you hit ninety, hell who cares what anyone says.

I'll end with Dylan Thomas' immortal lines: "Do not go gentle into that good night."

Sunday, May 4, 2008

The Summer 2008 Warren Adler Short Story Contest

Suggested by the recent publication of Warren Adler’s latest novel, Funny Boys, the theme for the Summer 2008 Warren Adler Short Story Contest is humor. We’re looking for humorous stories in all their varied forms. From satire to farce, from the whimsical to the uproarious, all writers looking to get a laugh (in a good way!) should enter. We are looking for the subtle and the pungent, the black and dark, the sporty, the salty, the waggish, or whatever can spark a knowing smile, a sly chuckle, or a hysterical belly laugh. In other words, anything goes, just as long as it falls into this category, however one stretches its elastic boundaries.

Entries must not exceed 2500 words, and there is a minimum length of 1000 words. As in the previous contests, all stories will be judged on the basis of character authenticity, plotting, narrative drive, and the skillful manipulation of the short story literary form.

Submissions will be accepted from May 1st to August 15st. Entry fee up until August 1st is $15. After August 1st, a late entry fee is $20.

Five cash prizes will be awarded.

The winning story will be awarded the $1,000 grand prize and a personalized first edition of Funny Boys. Mr. Adler will also choose his top five for a People’s Choice award that will also be awarded personalized first editions.

Although Mr. Adler will have already chosen the winner, five finalists’ stories will be posted on the Warren Adler website on September 1st and the People’s Choice winner will be determined by public voting. Warren Adler’s top choice, along with the People’s Choice winner, will be announced 15 September. Prizes will be as follows:

1st Prize: $1000
People’s Choice Prize $500
Remaining finalists receive $150 each

Authors retain worldwide publishing rights.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

The E-Book Has Arrived

For the past eight years, I have been blindly optimistic about the future of e-books. I have made countless speeches, attended numerous meetings flacking the concept as the wave of the future. Mostly, what I encountered was skepticism, sometimes disbelief, and at times downright hostility. Indeed, the prevailing opinion was that the e-book would never be a credible challenge to the paper book industry. My optimism is, at long last, on the verge of vindication.

My cheerleading was prompted by a very personal agenda, rescuing my books and name from the authorial wrecking ball of time, fading memory, physical disintegration, obscurity and indifference. By re-acquiring the publishing rights to my many novels and short story collections and digitalizing them, I was assuring that they would remain in print and saleable beyond the foreseeable future and be available both as a family legacy and the optimistic and immodest possibility that one day my backlist would have a resurrection and be rediscovered and popularized by future readers. It was strictly an author’s long shot bet.

To pursue such a fantasy required a belief in the victorious triumph of the e-book and its promise of durability and commonplace accessibility. That element of vindication is about to arrive. As for the long shot of my motivation, a resurrection of future interest in my work, I can only cite the famous lines of the immortal Bard in Macbeth: If you can look into the seeds of time and say which grain will grow and which will not, speak then to me.

From the get go I knew that the e-book concept would not take off until some large enterprising company would come up with a device that would provide ease of operation, clear type transference, portability, and wide availability of content. I was well aware that there was a hard core of readers to whom the paper book was a sacred and much loved object and would be the final holdouts to “reading on screens.”

It must be said at this juncture that the paper book, especially when wrapped in glorious leather bindings, is my special passion, and I have spent years filling my shelves with sets by authors who have given my life heft, meaning, and delight. As antiques, the value of these books will undoubtedly soar in the future and one day pay my heirs for the profligacy of my early e-book forays.

While I’m not ready to say a final bye bye to the modern paper book in all its guises, I am going to enjoy watching the publishing fallout from the early failure to recognize the e-book surge and observe the wrenching displacement about to be caused in the industry by a horse and buggy mentality that will be both costly and emotionally and financially draining.

Two companies, SONY and Amazon, have entered the fray coming up with devices in which readability is no longer an issue and ease of operation is assured for anyone who has the skill to operate an old fashioned land line phone. Both have solved the basic issue of readability. Each offers clear content transference, ease of turning pages, and a wide variety of content choices, from thrillers, to academic journals, to newspapers and magazines.

The reading part is perfect and in every respect as good or better than a printed paper book. In fact, both devices can offer books that can overcome obstacles of weight and maneuverability. The reading screens are clear, fonts can be upsized to fit one’s optical capability, and there is no loss in the ability to “trance out” in complete concentration. I have read scores of books on both devices and, while I am a partisan to the concept, I am now convinced that the e-book revolution is on the verge of a giant breakout.

In my opinion the descent of printed books will begin to accelerate as each step in the further development of these devices takes place. And they will. The speed of acceptance, I believe, will be astonishing. While the numbers are still far from reaching the tipping point, the acceleration points to a coming avalanche of success.

Note that I am not citing the obvious, the ever shortening age for a computer which now starts at the very moment a tiny tot can maneuver his muscle coordination. It is, indeed, a cradle to the grave phenomena. Reading on screens for most people under the age of forty is a way of life, and the BlackBerry addiction is beginning to soar in senior ranks. It won’t take a giant step to get people of all ages to accept the screen as the ultimate reading platform. There are those that are reading long form text on cell phones, including BlackBerrys, but I have not tried them and therefore will leave that evaluation as a reading device to another day.

While the SONY Reader is certainly a worthy and reader friendly device, it is still tethered to the computer companion for selection and purchase and its proprietary software could eventually be a hindrance. The Kindle on the other hand is stand-alone, computer companion free and wireless and, in my opinion, will point the way for others to jump into the e-book fray. I can’t imagine that SONY is not revving up their development to compete head to head with the Kindle.

According to the Jeff Bezos’s letter to his stockholders, the Kindle sold out in five and a half hours and is now awaiting increased production to meet the demand.

The ultimate objective for SONY will be three fold, to increase reading selections, decrease the price point, and eliminate proprietary content software and make its device also compatible with Apple. Kindle, too, will have to move to reduce its price and tweak its accidental page turning design.

The icing on the cake will come when the devices will solve the power riddle and make the devices backlit for the reading-in-bed set. But then the paper book has not managed to solve that problem nor will it ever.

My own experience with these devices is absolutely, hands down, ecstatic. The thing that worried me the most was that the mechanics of the device would interfere with the absorption of the content. I feared distraction by the technology. I felt the same about the creative aspect when I switched from my electric typewriter to the computer using the old Wordstar program nearly thirty years ago. Actually the computer has greatly enhanced my output and continues to do so.

While you might think my conclusion is self-serving hype, I say with one hand on the figurative bible that the reading experience is better than the paper book. It is, at least to me, easier on the eyes and less burdensome than the paper book in ways still too mysterious to contemplate. Now that I have read scores of books on both devices, I don’t make that statement lightly. Indeed, it has confirmed what I knew all along in my gut. It’s the content, dummy. It’s all about content. For some uncanny reason the journey of content to the brain seems to make a more seamless trip using this new technology.

Be aware, I am discussing reading, only reading, that one-on-one communication system, mind to mind, using the word symbol to convey knowledge and insight through instruction and stories. I am not referring to music or audible conveyance, which ply their own profitable paths through the technological world. Companies already stuff these add-ons into these e-book devices and they certainly will have their allure. Reading, however, is my only game in this discussion.

To be sure, improvements will undoubtedly be made along the lines suggested, but the implications for change go deeper than one can imagine. As the paper text book industry slowly tanks, the backpack manufacturers will decline along with ancillary school supplies. Libraries will shift their focus as places of community assembly encouraging and celebrating literary and instructional content and become a free marketplace for study and ideas. Publishers will continue to be the gateway for content providers, eliminating warehousing and the traditional production chain. Large bookstores could become vast restaurant reading rooms, film and music previewing “theaters,” venues for electronic teaching seminars, and supermarkets for the sales of electronic portable devices.

Now that Amazon has pointed the way, Barnes & Noble and other surviving chains will rush back into the e-book business with a vengeance. Expect them to increase their own content publishing arms as the traditional publishing consignment business goes south and they staff up to compete directly with their traditional paper book suppliers.

Newstands will decline as newspaper and magazines dwindle and impact negatively on candy sales. Lottery ticket sales will go almost exclusively on-line. Greens will, at first, welcome the tree saving impact on newsprint and other forms of paper manufacture, although the looming population explosion and technological breakthroughs will find ever new ways to use wood products for energy and other uses, yet to be discovered.

One might concoct a scenario where language itself will be transformed so that adaptations to all languages will take place electronically in the blink of an eye and books will be instantly translated and words morph into one universal language for all. Indeed, there is no stopping the human imagination when it gets revved up. Futurists are already rocketing into the sublime.

In my scenario these ideas will seem like flights of fancy to the unbelievers. But I am now convinced that the impact of e-books will be revolutionary and create cataclysmic results to the industry as we know it. Of course, it will happen incrementally and the full effect might not be felt for a few years. Old ways go down hard, but when they do go down, and they are, gravity accelerates the destruction.

The law of unintended consequences will surely kick in prompting changes that will boggle the mind as more and more authors, meaning creators of content, an appellation I despise, will surely latch on to the e-book premise I have outlined, crowding the already cluttered information pipeline. But then, everything has a downside. Sorting through the rubbish heap of electronic chatter will create new challenges and ever more clever software filters.

Nevertheless human nature is unchangeable, the thirst for stories and knowledge is never ending and, whatever the doomsayers might attest, reading words created by imaginative and searching minds will never ever go out of style. The delivery of this brain nourishment and entertainment reading material will, in my opinion, accelerate with delivery by electronic means.

Undoubtedly this rosy prognostication will be dismissed by the present number crunchers in the publishing business. Those publishers who can read the signals of the coming storm moving in their direction will find creative ways to survive. But the sucking sound soon to be heard by the conglomerates who will bail when they see their numbers flatten will be a harsh reminder of those who poo pooed the revolution in the music business and stood pat while their world collapsed around them.

In the end, the cliché about building a better mousetrap is an eternal verity. The e-book is, without a doubt, the better mousetrap and is coming on fast. Buckle up your seat belts.