Good Prose, No Win Satire

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The Sellout, by Paul Beatty

You might be in the den with some pals waiting for the Super Bowl to begin, and someone cracks a joke, then another. Then another. And you think, “Jokes and satire can’t be all that hard; maybe I could do a stand-up act, or write a satirical book.” So weeks later, it’s midnight and your idea for a novel full of witty things is a complete bust.
This, in a nutshell, is why Paul Beatty’s novel fails to complete its mission. More on that in a minute.
The author’s ambitious project here is intended to satirize nearly everyone and every institution in American life, and satirize he does. His story is of a young black man who is trying to live up to his father’s expectations as an understudy “nigger whisperer.,” i.e., someone who can calm even the most rambunctious denizens of Dickens, a black community on the outskirts of Los Angeles. The son isn’t much good at following in his father’s footsteps, so he determines to re-segregate Dickens. In the process one of his friends, Hominy Jenkins, aspires to be the young man’s slave and he sets out to accomplish that. So this is pretty much the story.

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The author has apparently decided, however, that he doesn’t need much of a story; his project is to leapfrog here and there to point out the foibles of whites through the coping mechanisms of Dickens’ black community. He easily accomplishes this, but at the expense of both races’ human nature. The “gets” are easy here; the old man’s network of ad hoc clients has abandoned him and the son isn’t anywhere near as talented as his dad at that whispering thing. So he reels from pillar to post in his quest to re-segregate Dickens and manages to be dragged before the U.S. Supreme Court for his effort.
The problem here isn’t that Beatty’s intent isn’t clear enough; rather, he sets up a mild desegregation meant to feed us and inform a precise servitude. The main issue is that his satire isn’t often funny; in fact it’s often mean spirited, with no obvious saving grace. Still, when he does manage to be amusing, his schtick is a downright thigh-slapper.
My rating: 15 of 20 stars

 

Visit my website here, where you’ll find more information on my books. There’s also a Facebook fan page if you can find it. On both you’ll find more on ideas and events that matter to me — and possibly to you.

Submitting Submittable Submittals – Part 2

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The last post here was all about the Good Old Days, when writers dealt with the business end of things via the Post Office, and not a small amount of clerical work in making submittals to agents and editors.

But things have changed. Drastically.

First, the publishing industry has changed and that affects all those persons downstream from the published manuscript. The larger publishing countries are now run by corporate entities. They don’t spend  time developing writers any longer. Business dictates that profits be maximized and maximized quickly. So now, when editors at these corporations meet, each one’s job is to persuade the rest that his/her client’s “product” is the most valuable among all the others vying for preferential treatment.

This means that any necessary development of a writer will happen through a literary agent’s relationship with the writer. I’m sure that this is occurring in some agent/author relationships, but I’ve not heard of them personally. What I DO hear is that agents will work with writers on specific manuscripts, not in the context of the writer’s overall development. And what I hear in that regard as well is that agents will ask a writer to tailor the manuscript to the corporate standards of characters, genre, story flow, point of view and style of writing. Clearly this retards creativity and innovation.

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But be that as it may, there may be a tremendous amount of time expended between the agent and writer, and the writer may be asked to spend a great amount of money resolving issues with the agent. In the best of cases, however, most agents are accepting digital query letters, and many of these receive quick turnaround. In many cases the writer may receive a reply to the e-query within one to three days. And many of these agents will accept electronic manuscript files, again saving  the writer a great amount of money and a not insignificant amount of time in negotiating this hurdle on the way to publication.

But this applies mostly to the largest, most prestigious publication houses. In submitting to the smaller houses, the writer may very well be dealing almost completely with the publisher/editorial staff. And these are more open to innovative structure, writing style and type of style, including hybrid genre manuscripts. In these cases it’s not unusual for a capable writer to be signed immediately to a publication contract.

So the digital revolution and the corporatization of publishing are remarkably different in nature now than then. Some of these changes are good, some bad, for everyone from author to reader, and what this implies is that the digital revolution as it applies to writing and publication is not yet complete.

 

Visit my website here, where you’ll find more information on my books. There’s also a Facebook fan page if you can find it. On both you’ll find more on ideas and events that matter to me — and possibly to you.

Submitting Submittable Submittals – Part 1

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In the glory days of pursuing a publication contract for your story collection, novel, non-fiction book and, yes, even poetry anthology, you faced a long and agonizing process. So long and agonizing, in fact, that once your manuscript was thrown over someone’s transom, you were likely advised to start work on another project. Which you might or might not finish before you heard back about the first one.

And it could be a costly process, too. You were surely advised to have a freelance editor look it over, and that cost could run from $600-$300, depending on the detail of work needed. Time cost? All too few editors were available, and that could mean as much as four months. Then, if you had spent some of that time fashioning a query letter, advice dictated sending queries to as many as 100 possible agents or small press editors. Cost for sending those out would be around $50 to print the queries and mailing labels. And if you chose not to do your own agent/publisher research, companies such as Writer’s Relief were there to help. Cost? Well over $100. Time involved? At least two weeks, and you have to assemble the packages to send in. Some agents would want manuscript samples, too, and that could double the cost.

Okay. You’re closing in on six months by now. You can breathe easily while waiting for replies, so you return to that second manuscript. Replies pour back in to the tune of maybe two per week. All rejections, the replies canned letters, with no commentary on whether the agent/editor liked your work, cited reasons for the rejection. Some of those you sent queries to didn’t say so, but their practice is not to reply unless they want to see more.

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Finally someone bites, and you send them the first 100 pages. On paper. More printing. More time elapsed.

This agent writes back three months later. Your use of a prologue was ill-advised, the agent writes, and more context could have been supplied had you written it in third person instead of first person. However, your main characters are sharply defined and interesting.  you scratch your head over this, and come back to it for the next three days. You decide to reply to the agent: If I make these changes, will you represent me? You wait for another three months and then you summon the nerve to call. No, the agent’s reader tells you, you can consider your manuscript rejected; we just thought we should give you that feedback from the three houses that read your work.

Well, don’t I feel the perfect fool now, you think as you hang up. By now even you don’t like the first manuscript, and you begin work anew on the second one.

The next post will cover the way – and costs – you might submit for publication in the 21st century. Note: The graphics shown above aren’t meant to be construed as recommendations.

 

Visit my website here, where you’ll find more information on my books. There’s also a Facebook fan page if you can find it. On both you’ll find more on ideas and events that matter to me — and possibly to you.

It’s A Journey, Plain and Simple

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News Of The World, by Paulette Jiles

At least as far back as The Canterbury Tales, there’s been the literary trope of characters on a seemingly nondescript journey, but a series of unexpected events change the journeyers forever. This is Jiles’ story in News Of The World, and it’s unexpectedly disarming, charming in the telling. Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd is an itinerant news-bringer to the isolated settlements of east and central Texas, these towns still beset by attacks from Kiowas and Comanches. Lawlessness is rampant.
While in Wichita Falls, Kidd is commissioned to return a girl to her former home after being captured and reared by Kiowas. An Indian agent has bought her back from the tribe, and the girl, who barely speaks English now, is more Kiowa than her original German/American. Her name is Johanna Leonberger, the Captain to return her to an aunt and uncle near Castroville. Along this long and dangerous journey, Kidd makes money reading newspaper articles about exotic places to the citizens of towns they pass through, and Johanna becomes his helper. Finally at their destination following a handful of harrowing experiences, both Kidd and Johanna find themselves disappointed and virtually helpless without one another.

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Jiles’ prose essentially makes this story unique. Her attention to detail, her dialogue between Kidd and Johanna and other incidental characters is pithy, simple, and effective. If there are faults they are within this story type’s nature: The relationship between the two is transformed simply by their being on this journey, and there are few interior passages for the characters that explain this, particularly where Johanna is concerned. The trip is merely a trip, its purpose to depict this era of Texas history. The ending is a bit maudlin, rushed in the telling, and hardly in the same tone as the rest of the story. Still it’s a worthy read, particularly if you happen to enjoy Texas to the degree that a Texan might.
My rating: 17 of 20 stars

 
Visit my website here, where you’ll find more information on my own books. There’s also a Facebook fan page if you can find it. On both you’ll find more on ideas and events that matter to me — and possibly to you.

A Pittance For Your Soul, Mister?

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In browsing through the latest copy of Writer’s Chronicle magazine  my thumbing stopped on an interview with famed writer and writing teacher, Ursula K. Le Guin. I usually pass over interviews because they’re normally about the struggles of writers embedded in academia or some such, and they’re usually parroting the same stuff . As in “if you’ve read one interview, you’ve read them all.” Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course. Occasionally, though, some bon mot within such an interview pops out that affects the way I see my own writing, and I read it over and over trying to get a grasp on its kaleidoscopic effect. I decided to read this interview in toto, since Ms. Le Guin has much to say about writing in general. part-way through, this rather opinionated statement stop out:

A fear of using the imagination is very deep in America.

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Interesting, I thought, and quite true. How many times have I been in conversation about one of my books – or another’s – when my conversation partner says ,”Oh, I don’t read fiction.” “Oh?” I reply. A nod from the other. “And why’s that?” “I don’t know, really. I guess I’m more comfortable with what’s actually happened rather than some made-up thing.” I consider telling the other how much is gained from such speculative voyages, that the second prime objective (No, make that the prime objective) of fiction is to inform. And so we concoct a tale full of symbolism that, along with it’s superficially entertaining impact, tells us so much by extreme characterizations and storylines.

But then what is real these days?  We’re constantly faced with “fake news,” as part of our political lives, and in any case memory is no longer considered an accurate reproducer of what has gone on before. “Reality TV” is considered the supplanter of sitcoms and drama on the idiot box, even though nearly everyone knows that on several levels such reality shows are contrived, managed, and in very few ways are they representative of anything real. This has created the most famous “reality star” in the person of our current president, a person who is so adept at managing his image that neither he nor his supporters seem aware of the dividing line between the real and contrived image.

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The irony here, I think, is that we’ve grown cynical for perhaps extraneous reasons, and cynicism has shaped a general belief that nothing real underpins much of our existence anymore. Marriage? That’s just something we can step into with one foot dangling outside in order to make it easier to escape when we can no longer “dig it.” Technology? A postmodern tool for creating mirror images of what’s real, one we feel secure in wallowing in. Hence we e-mail instead of phoning; we text instead of talking. Death? Yes, that seems real enough, and we do fear it, indeed. Patients with terminal cancer will beg for treatments that remove vestiges of an individuals’ life quality in exchange for another three months of evading death.

So, yes, we fear our imagination, I think, precisely because it’s the avenue to something our lives touch into that’s not only real but enduring. Imagination has given us so much in our quest to be complete in our humanity, only to be eschewed now in that same endeavor. Imagine if you will a state of evolution in which we have virtually everything at our touch to manage our human functions, but a state in which we have no idea of how these things came to be and no idea that we may exchange them for the blood, sweat, and sleeplessness that would give us freedom from them.

What Ms. Le Guin is saying, in essence, is that we’ve exchanged bits of our souls for ephemerality. And that’s a very sad state of affairs.

 

Visit my website here, where you’ll find more information on my books. There’s also a Facebook fan page if you can find it. On both you’ll find more on ideas and events that matter to me — and possibly to you.

Kid Lit, My Friend, Kid Lit

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How do you read?

What?

What I mean is – and I mean this indirectly – what do you intend to get out of what you read?

That’s a pretty general question, Bob.

All right, I’m still not being clear enough. Do you read to get the gist of the story? Do you read to understand the characters and their conflicts? Do you read contextually, i.e., do you read to understand the story and characters in light of their historical and social settings?

Yeah, all that.

Okay, that makes you an exceptional reader. So let me ask you this: How quickly do you read?

You mean do I buy a book, run home and start reading?

You know I don’t mean that. How long do you dwell on each page?

I don’t know…Jeez, Bob, you going to put a stopwatch on me, or what?

No. What I’m getting at is: Do you enjoy the act of reading? Do you savor the writer’s word choices? Do you ponder his/her choice of metaphors? Can you slip into the writer’s written voice like a new bathrobe? Do you look for and celebrate the irony there? The subtlest humor and satiric bits and pieces?

Yeah, sometimes. Sometimes the book bores the shit out of me, and so I scan it. Can’t wait to get through with it, you know?

I do indeed. I try to allude to all these things when I write a review; I try to lead the ones who read my reviews into reading the book, and I try to tell them what they can expect from reading it.

I get where you’re coming from, Bob. You’re going to try something new in your reviews, aren’t you? And you depend on your formula to get you through the weeds.

(Notice how, suddenly, the questioner becomes the questioned?)

I get that, Bob. You’re as regular as an alarm clock when it comes to putting that formula into practice. So what’s up?

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Kid lit, my friend. Kid lit.

Books for tykes, you mean.

Yes.

So why is that a challenge?

Vocabulary, for one thing. An eight-year old’s vocabulary is roughly half an adult’s. And then there’s the degree of complexity a child’s mind can handle.

So, Bob, you think a kid’s mind isn’t as well developed as an adult’s?

Well, it’s been proven. That’s why they go to school. To improve their ability to think and communicate what they think.

It’s not to learn a trade? To get a good paying job?

Now you’re getting into politics, and we both know where that ends up. Certain people scratch around in the dust long enough and greedily enough, and they end up with money. Piles of it. They become addicted to money. Can’t get enough of it. So they tweak society into training mindless automatons to do their bidding. Give them just enough mental training to have them function as human machines.

Like that old song? “A mind that’s weak and a back that’s strong?”

Exactly. You become dangerous if your mind becomes over-educated.

Is that what you want, Bob, over-educated people who cause trouble?

In a way. But what I’d say is I want people who can think for themselves – and for society as a whole. To move us all forward.

Really, Bob? Really? And how do you propose to do that?

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Get them reading. Challenge their minds that way.

And how do you get your so-called automatons to read?

Kid lit, my friend. Kid lit. Get the kids reading, and they’ll never stop.

 

End of scene. See you next week.

The Inevitability of Fate, or Fate Floats

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The North Water, by Ian McGuire

There are numerous stories out there playing on the trope of a self-styled mystic aboard a ship at sea predicting some ominous thing that may or may not come true, and Ian McGuire works that ground as if virgin soil. Patrick Sumner is an ex-British army surgeon fresh from the Indian Rebellion of 1857. He’s been booted from the army for leaving his station in a time of warfare, and while he’s waiting for an inheritance to fructify, he joins the crew of a whaler, The Volunteer, bound for the Arctic Circle. One of the crew, Henry Drax, is a murderer and worse, and he’s rightfully accused of a shipboard murder. Another of the upset crew voices a prophecy that, because of the crime they’ll all die there except for Sumner, who ferrets out Drax’s crime and who will die in another place and manner.

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The story, told in present tense and largely from the point of view of Sumner, as the prophecy seems to come true, follows the crew through a spate of whaling, then of survival. McGuire’s depiction of the inhospitable arctic scenery takes on the import of a character here, and Drax’s implied presence is never far away from the crew’s – and Sumner’s – consciousness.
Irony is never to be denied in such stories, and what seems barren and debilitating to the Volunteer’s crew is natural and rather inviting to the native Esquimauxs of this clime.
The writing is elegant, sometimes approaching purple, but the power of McGuire’s narrative prose cannot be denied.
The ending owes something of a debt to Guy de Maupassant, an obvious sleight of hand that will leave some readers unsatisfied. However, it will be classroom fodder for literature students for quite some time.

My rating: 18 of 20 stars

 

Visit my website here, where you’ll find more information on my own books. There’s also a Facebook fan page if you can find it. On both you’ll find more on ideas and events that matter to me — and possibly to you.