Sunday, December 18, 2011

I Hate Blogging

I have to be honest—I hate blogging.

It’s an intriguing medium, and its best practitioners—Andrew Sullivan, say—keep it pretty lively, to the point that there’s a lot of interaction between writer and audience, which is part of the point of this whole writing thing.

Given the current state of the publishing industry, I feel like I’m expected to be that lively with my own blogging—it feels like a classic Catch-22 situation, where you’re supposed to prove you have an audience before anyone will put the effort into helping your books find an audience. But truth be told, between working a full non-writing workday, working out, working on a relationship, and keeping up with other need-to-do-stuff, I don’t think I have the time. And with the time I DO have, I’d rather be writing books. Rather than shooting from the hip every day, hitting sometimes and missing others, I prefer taking the time to revise and edit and polish, to come up with something solid and coherent and well put-together. (I also kind of like the process of envisioning scenes and dialogue. It’s like working out, in that there’s a certain fear of the effort that can keep you dilly-dallying and doing other things. But once you dig in and the terror wears off, a certain euphoria settles in, not unlike a runner’s high, and that sticks around for a few minutes, at least, once you stop writing.) Even when I do write things that are more immediate and interactive than fiction—Amazon product reviews, facebook status updates, blog posts—I spend a lot of time mentally revising what I say and, if time allows, editing. (Even this blog post has taken at least six days to write. Granted, in that time I’ve also put a lot of effort into my latest manuscript, Messiah, but still, I ain’t exactly doing this in real time.)

Despite my best efforts, I’m still Catholic enough that I engage in an unhealthy amount of self-flagellation. (Figuratively speaking, for now.) I’m particularly good at this when it comes to things I “should have” done, such as channeling my creative energies into something a little less lonely, like, say, being a musician. The level of artist-audience interaction, and its immediacy, is way higher for musicians than novelists; the sheer length of time it takes to consume a book guarantees this. Even those books that are quick reads and thoroughly enjoyable and thought-provoking/memorable (Camus’ The Stranger or The Fall, say, or Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground, or even Bukowski’s Ham on Rye or Factotum) will, in the absence of vacation time, take a few days to rip through. And plenty of books that I’ve really enjoyed, or at least that I like to TELL people I’ve really enjoyed (The Brothers Karamazov, or David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest) have been multi-month ordeals, with plenty of great moments, but also a substantial amount of time spent gazing longingly at the other books on my shelf, wishing I were reading them instead.

And that’s a hard thing to remember when I’m at the stage I’m at with my novel, where I have a few manuscript copies out there in the hands of (hopefully) eager friends, and a few emailed query letters sitting in the Inboxes of (presumably) overworked agents. I think and I hope Resistance is the type of book I’d like on my shelf—thoughtful and well-researched, but lively and insightful; arty without being pretentious or inaccessible, even (dare I hope) something that will hold up to multiple readings and still be around in a couple hundred years. That’s the vision I have, at least, but obviously beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and the creator can’t ever be an objective beholder. So I’m awaiting feedback from the friends and activity from the agents, a state of being that usually lends itself to still more self-flagellation.

I had the good fortune of meeting Gary Shteyngart a few weeks ago, at a book reading for Columbia alumni in Chicago. Prior to this reading, I’d never read any of his books, but he has attained the level of literary success I tell myself I’d like as the end state of all this punishment—a comfortable level, where one wouldn’t get mobbed on the street or shot by deranged loners, but where one could get a book out there every few years and have total strangers willing to pay for it, read it, and respond to it. (Granted, when they asked for a show of hands to see who’d read his latest, 98% of us hadn’t. But we knew who he was, at least!) I asked him a couple questions about publishing during the Q&A session, and we got to chat a little afterwards. In between chitchat and jokes (I got a laugh out of him by comparing Gogol’s Dead Souls, with all its skips and gaps, to a bad Netflix disc), he gave me his take on the literary world.

Hunter S. Thompson famously said that T.V. was a “cruel and shallow money trench…a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs, for no good reason.” And Shteyngart’s view of writing seems even bleaker, a nonstop merry-go-round of psychoanalysis and self-recrimination and Herculean effort towards an uncertain end. Success (in my recollection of his estimation) sets you on a book treadmill where you have to keep churning out books regardless of whether or not you actually like them, but lack of success—or a decline in success from one book to the next—is far worse, and sends you into a deep funk. So authors, even at his level, have to put a tremendous amount of energy into marketing themselves. To promote his latest work, Super Sad True Love Story, he had to enlist the help of his M.F.A. students to film a movie for the YouTubes. “We had to make a movie so we could publish the book,” he said. “That should tell you everything you need to know about publishing these days.”

So my fears are confirmed: you need to get an audience before you can get an audience. It seems absurd, but (this is the last time I’ll name-drop, I SWEAR) as Shteyngart told me, we can long for those days of all-expenses-paid book tours and superstar literary authors, but they aren’t coming back, so that’s just the way it is. And like it or not, I HAVE to do it, because I don’t know how to not write. (Others have said they don’t know how to do anything else, but I can’t exactly say that—I do make a decent living at my Clark Kent job, and I’m earning something close to what I’m told is the annual income level that corresponds to the optimum amount of personal happiness.) And, for as much as I hate blogging, I can still put something out there, which means it still seems far superior to querying agents, a prospect about which I’m slowly acquiring an unmitigated and pure hatred, far more substantial than the pretend hatred I have for blogging. (I’ve had two agencies request my full manuscript. One of them seemed excited and went through a round of revisions with me but abruptly stopped returning my phone calls or responding to my emails, and a subsequent agent never got back to me after requesting the full manuscript. And BOTH were friend-of-friend situations; blind query letters have gotten me exactly nowhere, which is why I’m reluctant to continue sending them out.)

In fact, I’m considering self-publishing (again), but perhaps doing a little more pre-publication work this time and possibly even establishing my own imprint for other self-published authors, so we can all project the image of having passed through the tough judgment of the tastemakers and gatekeepers. Of course, if I do that, it’ll be a LOT more of what I hate—blogging and tweeting, counting my followers and my page hits—and that’ll suck up still more of my virtually nonexistent free time.

I believe in my book enough that I’m willing to do these things for its sake—or at least, I want to get it out there and see what the marketplace says about it, because, frankly, as much as they like to pretend otherwise, agents and publishers don’t know what will or won’t sell until it sells or doesn’t sell. Still, the thought of doing still more of what I hate for the sake of what I love left me with a fair amount of fear about all the effort that entails. So I asked a good friend for his advice about being crushed by this self-imposed crisis. And he responded with a question: “What would you expect of yourself if you were humane?”

It’s obviously an absurd question—if I were humane, I wouldn’t put myself through all this trouble. So here I am in Catch-22 land, or embracing the paradox, at least—disconnecting from my life to connect with yours, doing something I hate, in the hopes you’ll like it, at least.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Best Crime Songs - Arson

"April 29, 1992," Sublime. I was a skinny white kid living in suburban Canada during the Rodney King riots, and was only in 9th grade, so participating in them wouldn’t exactly have been feasible, but when I first heard this song, their knowing taunt about how “You were sittin’ home watching your T.V. while we were participating in some anarchy” amplified my sense of suburban geekiness and made me feel like I’d missed out on something really really awesome. “Red lights flashing, time to retire, and then we turned that liquor store into a structure fire” makes the arson seem both completely unnecessary and gleefully cool. (This song could have also won in the Riot and Robbery categories, but I wanted to give someone else a shot.)

Monday, October 10, 2011

Best Crime Songs - Murder

So I wrote a column for The Deadline, my friend's resolutely non-online newspaper, about the best crime songs ever written. And since I want to keep the blog going without writing new stuff just yet, I'm gonna go back through and post them all, one by one. First up: murder.

Best Crime Song - Murder

There was a time I would have said “Folsom Prison Blues” hands down; “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die” is pretty hard to top, lyrically. But this song has a sleeping flaw. Namely, even though said homicide apparently took place in Nevada, Johnny’s narrator’s singing from Folsom Prison, which is, of course, in California. So there are clear jurisdictional issues here, which lead me to question the narrator’s veracity. Not that I believe a lot of other narrators—as much as I love staples of gangsta rap like Ice Cube and Dr. Dre’s “Natural Born Killers” (and Cash-esque murder ballads like Nick Cave’s “Mercy Seat”), they’re more like cartoons than documentaries. And while Eminem can get every bit as far over the top, he at least convinced me in “‘97 Bonnie & Clyde” that he’d thought long and hard about the murder in question. Key to this is that he’s sick enough to actually imagine his cutesy explanations of everything to his young daughter. “Maybe when you’re old enough to understand it better I’ll explain it to you. But for now let’s say mama was real real bad, was being mean to dad and made him real real mad. But I still feel sad that I put her on time-out,” he raps to her before making a series of googoo baby noises to distract her, and then dumping her mother’s corpse off the end of a dock. It almost doesn't matter whether or not you like the song—you believe it, and that's much more important.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Who Owns History?

This article on history and copyright is interesting. (Probably more so for me than for you, since I've written a book of historical fiction that used a lot of research from a lot of other history books, but still.)

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Query Shark

One other thing I've got to read: the archives from this awesome blog I've somehow only now discovered, Query Shark.

I've gotten so used to the current No-Response-means-No state of the industry that this agent's level of author (and public) interaction seems downright saintly. Although I think my query letter's damn near perfect, and my manuscript's not far behind, I'm still going to put the former through the Query Shark wringer.

Wait, no, that's mixing metaphors. Damn! I'm going to feed it to the Query Shark and see if it gets chewed up, digested, or excreted. There. Much better!

Criticism of "Criticism of Criticism"

I lied.

I realized it pretty soon after I posted my "Criticism of Criticism" post. (I just updated this with a hyperlink, in case you're too lazy to scroll two posts down.)

I like to think I'm a pretty honest online reviewer, and generally I do my best to write my honest opinion of everything I review. But there have been a few instances where I've reviewed books for friends, or family of friends, or people who have tracked me down based on my Amazon reviews, and in some of those cases, I'm sure I've skewed my reviews a little, for predictable reasons--wanting to make a friend happy, wanting to make a stranger feel like they'd written a crappy book, wanting to encourage a stranger, wanting to make a friend feel crappy, whatever. And I also didn't always do the standard journalist full-disclosure-disclaimer. That isn't to say that those reviews were wholly inaccurate, but they were also probably not the same reviews I'd have written if I'd just plucked the same book off the shelf.

Why am I telling you this? Two words: Catholic Guilt. I'm pretty sure my main point's still pretty valid, though--online reviews supposedly indicate quality, but it's hard to gauge the quality of the reviews themselves. And nothing is ever really objective, anyway.

OK, this post has gotten way too meta-, or existential, or something. I'm going to go read Irrationality, by Stuart Sutherland, which discusses the formation of opinions with far more wit and knowledge and research than I ever could muster. Or maybe I'll read A Dog About Town, which, despite the corny cover art, is really a well-written and fun book. And I'm not just saying that because I'm friends with the author. Or am I?

(I'm not. Honest!)

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Steal Like an Artist

I don't think I posted this the last time I came across it, but I came across it again. So read it!

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Criticism of Criticism

This is a pretty fascinating piece about what seems to be a growing problem--the fake online review.

As for me...hmm. I've been writing Amazon reviews for some time now; I don't quite have the sheer focus and productivity necessary to climb into the top ranks, but I did get to the point where they started sending me free stuff (through their Vine program) as long as I reviewed it. And think I wrote fewer positive reviews of that stuff, and I eventually kinda stopped reading their newsletter of new free stuff they sent (and are still sending) out every month.

Why? Frankly, I'm usually writing reviews because I'm passionate about something. (Sometimes it's because it's new and I want to sound off early, but not often.) I don't care if 721 other people are giving their take on Goodfellas, it's a movie that meant a lot to me, so if I can articulate that in a semi-interesting way, I'm gonna have my say, too. So when I'm writing reviews for me, I end up giving a lot of positive reviews, because I generally review things I love. (Granted, there are some exceptions.)

Anyway, when they were sending me stuff and I had to review it, even though I got to pick what they were sending me, some irrational and unknown combination of factors (frustration about my sense of obligation, willful refusal to see what other people were writing about those products) led me to write reviews that were probably slightly more negative, on the whole. And they still kept sending me emails to get new free stuff, so I totally respected them all the more. (Full disclosure: I did recently apply for a book editor job there. No word yet, but, hey, it could still happen.) But my interest in the Vine program withered.

Anyway, I can honestly say I was never tempted to try and contact someone to get paid for a good review, or turn in a review that didn't represent my actual opinion of a product that I had consumed in its entirety. But can I honestly say my reviews were accurate, and unbiased by emotion? Probably not, as this book and this book make clear.

Long story short, there are plenty of great and relatively trustworthy reviewers online, but they have a host of biases of which they're not even aware. And there are an even greater number of mediocre reviewers, and an unknown (but possibly even greater) number of paid review whores/hitmen/man-whores/hitwomen. (Like how I balanced out all the sexism in that analogy?) So we need people to do a better job of reviewing these reviewers, so we can sort out the wheat from the chaff. Criticism of criticism, people, that's the next frontier. Let's get crackin'!