Another subject I've virtually beaten to death here (and I'm not alone – the Internet press is hot on my heels) is the paradox of multiplying book sales and the difficulty writers – new, mid-list, or otherwise – have in getting into print. This week's NYT Books Update recognizes this issue and proffers something of an explanation.
NYTBU knows about the proliferating writing programs in MFA curricula,of course, as well as the interest John Q. Citizens elsewhere have in putting finger to keyboard the world over. What's interesting in their assessment is that:
As publishing has become less expensive, the urge to write my own self has become the opportunity to publish my own self,” said Gabriel Zaid, a Mexican critic and the author of “So Many Books: Reading and Publishing in an Age of Abundance,” a meditation on literary life in an over-booked world.
The interesting thing to me in this is that self-expression is heading onto the page in a volume previously uncharted, and there's no apparent need to have it settle into what we normally term literature. As the trend goes, so goes the publishing industry. For more details, go to NYTBU.
Another source of book and writing info can be found at The Red Room. The site has a decidedly entertainment slant ("What's wrong with that?" you may ask. "Nothing these days," replies Gridley.) But the site does offer something in the way of a promo tool for "real" books. Red Room allows authors to post books they're promoting, and these are sorted by genre. Yes, some are by prominent mid-list keyboard tappers, but a goodly number seem by first timers. Check it out if you want to promote your latest, or simply to survey the competition.
Next week, back to book reviews. I have a stack ready.
I like the Gihon River Review, not least because the the editors have seen fit to publish me in the past. By the way, GRR is an organ of Johnson State College, in Johnson, VT. I like GRR because, although it tries to be urbane and multicultural, it can't help but strike a sometimes slightly offbeat mainstream pose. And that is not a diss. The editors seem to favor a minimalist, somewhat experimental approach to both poetry and prose. The mag features nice, subdued artwork as a complement to the written word, and I enjoy both media here.
Three rather mainstream pieces of fiction adorn this issue, and they vary in style and technique: first and third person, past and present tense. All well constructed.
With these seven pieces, the editors seem more adventurous, more willing to say, “Here, try this – you might like it.” Some I did, some not.
The issue features one CNF piece, “Saving Tradition,” which seems to set the tone for the issue. Tradition here meaning something more commonplace to Americana than multicultural issues. And this is the way I see GRR – a new take on Americana.
Note: The cover art above is for the previous issue, not this one, in case you're looking for it at your local bookstore.
This post, particularly after my last, leaves me certain you’ll be glad when I end my preoccupation with the Eastern Front of WWII. Keep you chin up, light shows at the end of this tunnel. But I recently felt bound to poke around a bit at the Soviet end of things, and I turned up this memoir of an artillery officer during that time. Several things took me aback before I barely had the book’s spine bent. First Isaak K. is a Jew who fought the Soviet war. It apparently wasn’t a horrid experience—something like being a black soldier in the U.S. Army at that time—simply distasteful.
The second item was had to do with men and women fighting side by side almost from the start in this conflict. Lest you swoon at the egalitarianism of this revelation (and there is much to consider in that regard, given the years) be advised that the women soldiers often felt it wise to quickly pair off with the first decent men they met, lest they be sexual fodder for the rest.
And the third item has to do with the tone of this memoir: much vodka drinking, dancing, and general all-round emoting. If you’re picturing these Soviets as a large, gun-bearing band of Gypsies, rub your eyes. The Soviet soldiers, as portrayed here, were dedicated, clever, persistent, while living lives as austere as the vaunted Wehrmacht soldiers.
Mr. K goes to great lengths to present the most basic of details of the war, from daily hygiene to smoking materials (tobacco or a local weed called machorka). It seems he remembers more of this sort of thing than the battles, the tactics and various implements of destruction.
Kobylyanskiy was married to his childhood sweetheart during the war. After the war, and as the nation sought to rebuild and restore electricity, sanitation etc., (this is something few consider, I think, in contemplating that Soviet “victory”), the couple lived in a one room apartment with his parents while he sought work and completion of his education as an engineer. One would think a grateful nation would bend over backwards to accommodate those such as Isaak, but this wasn’t the case; he was turned down for work and had to fight for re-entry to school. Only through persistence did good things happen for him.
He emigrated to the U.S. in 1994. The great mystery to this memoir is why. Maybe he’ll tell us more in a second, equally compelling book.
After a pleasant trip to the NC coast with UNCA Masters Program Director Dr. Bill Spellman for the NC Graduate Liberal Studies Conference in Wilmington, I can report that my presentation on Hans-Ulrich Rudel was warmly received. I wasn't sure as things progressed, especially after noting frowns at the subject matter (the war on the Eastern Front was a nightmare of brutality, after all), but I had a tremendous Q&A response, and four private conversations after the presentation by persons connected by family and heritage to the conflict.
My presentation strategy was to introduce Rudel as my central character, then to read passages concerning the war's higher-ups as they pursued the war, and finally to speculate on the intersection of these muckety-mucks' policies with Rudel's ongoing development as a person. The best history, I'm discovering, is represented in fiction by stating the unvarnished facts and allowing readers – and listeners – to draw their own conclusions, based on the characters. No one quibbled with my take on the history itself, and most seemed intrigued with the Rudel character, a historical but little known figure.
The project is one-fourth finished. With a little luck, a light dusting of inspiration, and all due diligence, I'll have the finished manuscript in hand by January, 2009, and I can stop bending your ear about this.
My favorite book blog, besides my own, The Millions, recently reported that while book retail sales are tanking, that B&N and Borders may be married, fiction sales are up, particularly graphic fiction and romance. Take that, serious fiction writers.
I dare not expose my dear reader(s) to another column straight from the Times Literary Supplement, but for the writers out there, I have to mention another worthwhile book TLS brought to my attention: How Novels Work, by James Wood. It’s more a book of criticism, than a beginner’s how-to, but that should be right up any overachieving writer’s alley. Think about it.
April 5th I’ll be giving a presentation in Wilmington, NC, on my manuscript-in-progress, which is concerned with the Eastern Front conflict of WWII. The forum is a conference of Masters of Liberal Arts curricula in the Southeast, the presentations on proposed or recent Masters theses or literary projects. Besides being a manuscript I’d write anyway, this is my Masters project. And as if the subject matter isn’t provocative enough, I plan to end my half-hour segment with a discussion of the complex relationship between politics and the military. Kevlar vests are optional. Maybe I’ll let you know how it turns out. Oh, and the picture above is to remind me that beauty persists despite such ugly and desperate subject matter.