Today’s Mail

DecoPunk CoverIn addition to the usual unsolicited credit card  offers at rates that make “usurious” sound like a good deal, the postalperson today brought us our authors’ copies of the anthology Decopunk: The Spirit of the Age, which contains our short story, “Silver Passing in Sunlight.”

I really like that cover, by the way . . . if they made a poster out of it, I’d  put it on my wall.

Questions That Nobody Asked Me, Take One

Q.  I really loved To Kill a Mockingbird, and Atticus Finch was my hero.  Do I have to change all that in view of the publication of Go Set a Watchman?

A.  Only if you want to.

If you don’t want to, there are several good reasons why you shouldn’t have to.

Reason One:  Go Set a Watchman is not a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird just because it takes place in a later decade.  It was written before To Kill a Mockingbird, but wasn’t published until just now.  If either version of Atticus Finch is to be regarded as the “real” one, the title should go to To Kill a Mockingbird Atticus (“Atticus Prime”, as the Star Trek fans would put it) rather than Go Set a Watchman Atticus (or “Reboot!Atticus”, to continue the Trek analogy), by right of prior publication.

Reason Two: Given that To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman, by virtue of their peculiar  history, do not actually stand in a text-and-sequel, or even a text-and-prequel, relationship, but are separate books, then Atticus Prime and Reboot!Atticus can safely be regarded as distinct and separate characters who just happen to share a name and place of residence.  (Again, science fiction readers already have a model to hand for dealing with things like this: two separate universes, parallel but different in some key respects.  Not quite Spock-with-a-Beard territory, but similar.)

Reason Three:  Go Set a Watchman, until recently, was never meant to be published at all.  It was what is sometimes referred to as a “trunk novel” — that is, an early work that the writer, usually for good and sufficient reasons, has put away in a trunk (or a desk drawer, or a computer file in an increasingly-obsolete format), never to see the light of day.

Sometimes, however, a trunk novel does eventually get published.  A writer may achieve sufficient popularity that it becomes a good bet that readers will buy even his or her old grocery lists, at which point somebody — maybe the author, but often the author’s literary heirs or executors — will decide to haul that manuscript out of obscurity and turn it loose on an unsuspecting public.

The reason for this, not surprisingly, is usually money.*  Either the author needs it, or the heirs-or-executors want it, or both. If the author is dead, and the heirs-or-executors are nowhere in evidence, then the coin involved is likely to be scholarly reputation.

So, no.  You don’t have to throw out your copy of To Kill a Mockingbird and consign Atticus Finch to the dustheap of abandoned role models unless you, personally, want to do that thing.  Which is your decision to make, not mine, and if I have any position at all on this, it’s that every person has a right to their own reaction to a work of art.

*Because writers have this annoying tendency to starve if they can’t buy groceries.  Go figure.


Of Books and Stew

A brief thought on the science fiction and fantasy community’s ongoing Hugo controversy (which is too depressing to have more than a brief thought about, especially before noon; for more links than you can probably stand to shake a stick at, go here):

If books I especially like are considered as analogous to chunks of beef, while books I don’t care for that much are considered as analogous to a collection of assorted vegetables, then “this beef stew has more vegetables in it than I prefer” is a not unreasonable statement. Likewise, the assertion “this isn’t a beef stew with vegetables anymore, it’s a vegetable stew with beef” – while almost certain to be productive of considerable argument about the precise definitions of “stew” and “with” (and probably the definitions of “vegetables” and “beef” as well, once people really get going) – isn’t especially unreasonable, either.

What is unreasonable, though, is if I go on from there to shouting out loud in the public street that my local diner HAS BEEN TAKEN OVER BY A VEGETARIAN CONSPIRACY!!!

And if at any point I start threatening to burn down the whole diner if the proper proportion of beef (good) to vegetables (bad) is not restored, then I have become a danger to the community and ought to be gently removed from it.

Nifty Link of the Day

Sherwood Smith has a blog post up at the Book View Café, talking about women writing space opera (since there are still a few readers out there who, despite all the evidence, seem to believe that the possession of girlybits negates the ability to write about epic space battles.)

Full disclosure time here:  I would have liked this post even if it didn’t say good things about one of mine-and-my-husband/coauthor’s own space opera novels (and its sequels), The Price of the Stars.

Sampler Platter

Some time back, I posted a tasting flight of shorter works by important authors, in the interest of giving readers a way to decide whether or not they liked a particular author enough to go on and tackle one of that author’s signature doorstop volumes.  Now, as a follow-up to that round, here’s another quartet of shorter pieces by authors of important longer works.

Henry FieldingJoseph Andrews.  Tom Jones is the doorstop (and well worth reading for its own sake); Joseph Andrews is the short one, written in response to that other blockbuster of the eighteenth century, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela.  Richardson’s novel featured a virtuous maidservant who attracts the lustful attention of her employer, Squire B, possibly the world’s most incompetent rake.  He tries everything, including abduction and a fake marriage, but never works himself up to doing the actual deed; meanwhile, Pamela steadfastly holds out for honorable matrimony or nothing, and – spoiler alert! – gets her way in the end.  Fielding, for his part, found the entire plot so silly that he responded to it first by writing Shamela, an outright parody, and then by writing Joseph Andrews, which was what we’d probably call today the genderflipped version, with the title character being the handsome young footman who resists the advances of his employer, the licentious Lady Booby, widow of the late Squire Booby (hey, no one ever said that Fielding was subtle!), and is dismissed from his position and forced to go on the road as a result.

Charles DickensA Christmas Carol.  Charles Dickens was the Stephen King of his day (or maybe Stephen King is the Charles Dickens of ours): He wrote big fat novels, and he wrote a lot of them, for a long time.  A Christmas Carol is short, but it’s got enough of the Dickens flavor that you can figure out whether you want to go for one of the doorstops – Bleak House, say, or Oliver Twist.  (You can avoid Great Expectations, if you like, and I won’t blame you a bit.  It’s the one most often inflicted upon long-suffering high school students, and has probably turned a lot of them off of Dickens for life.  Lord knows, it nearly did it for me.)  Dickens also managed, with A Christmas Carol, to come up with one of the great recyclable plots.  Hollywood, in particular, has been running riffs and changes on it for decades.

Thomas PynchonThe Crying of Lot 49.  Pynchon’s another author best known for doorstop novels like V and Gravity’s RainbowThe Crying of Lot 49 – the title refers to an item being put up (or “cried”, as the terminology has it) for auction – is short and fast-moving, an ideal way to find out of you like Pynchon enough to try the big stuff.  Highlights include a centuries-old conspiracy of uncertain intent, a (fictional) Jacobean revenge tragedy, and one of the funniest games of strip poker ever written.

Alexander SolzhenitsynOne Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.  Russian novels are notoriously long as it is, and Solzhenitsyn carried on with the tradition.  One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is an exception, being short enough to be published in 1962 as a complete-in-this-issue novel in the Soviet literary magazine Novy Mir.  If you don’t feel up to tackling Solzhenitsyn’s mega-doorstop nonfiction work The Gulag Archipelago, One Day in the Life will give you enough about life in a Stalinist-era Soviet prison camp to be getting on with.

On Criticism, Reviewing, and Voting

Or, how much is “enough”?

Personal statement of belief, one each, coming up here.

I believe that if you’re going to criticize a work — by which I mean, do a serious and in-depth analysis of its merits and its flaws, or a serious and in-depth examination of some aspect of it, then you have a moral responsibility to read the whole thing.  And that responsibility includes continuing past the point where you are certain that you don’t like it and are never going to like it and would prefer that nobody else ever like it either.

Serious criticism is serious business, and sometimes that means sucking it up until the bitter end.

I believe that if you’re going to review a work — by which I mean, provide other readers with a read/don’t read recommendation — then you really ought to read the whole thing.  And if you simply can’t bring yourself to go that far, you have a moral responsibility to let your readers know how far you made it before you had to stop.  (“The [insert bad stuff here] hit me in the face on the very first page, and as Dorothy Parker recommended, I threw the book aside with great force” is a legitimate review.  So is something on the lines of, “I stuck with it until the last third of the book, and then the cumulative [insert bad stuff here] overwhelmed me and not even interesting characters and a kick-ass plot were enough to keep me going.”

If you’re going to vote on something, I think that you should at least look at everything on the ballot.  This isn’t as onerous a task as it appears, because frankly, for most stuff it doesn’t take reading the whole thing to determine whether you think it’s make-the-cut-worthy or not.  Most short fiction shows its true colors inside the first few paragraphs; most novels, inside the first fifty pages if not sooner; and I believe that in this case you don’t have a responsibility to continue past the point where the work trips your personal “life is too short to keep on reading this stuff” trigger.

Also:  If you’re basing your public  “will read/will not read” comments off of somebody else’s reviews, reactions, or analysis, say so, and link if possible.  Clear citation is a positive good.

Ursula K. Le Guin Gets Her Snark On

She read a New York Times interview with Kazuo Ishiguro about his forthcoming novel, The Buried Giant, which takes place in a non-historic just-post-Arthurian England, in which the author frets that his audience will say that it is fantasy.  (To be fair, it contains. among other things, a dragon.)    And she was moved to speak.

I’ve said this here before, and I’ll say it again:  One of the things I respect most greatly about Le Guin is her steadfast refusal to disavow the genre.  More than one author, upon attaining literary respectability, has stashed their propeller beanie and their Spock ears in the far back of the closet . . . all honor, then, to the ones who don’t.

Four Ways Not to Compliment a Writer

Writers as a group appreciate having their egos stroked, and if you genuinely like a writer’s work it’s a kindness to tell them so.  But there are some compliments which can backfire on the giver, no matter how well-meant the delivery.  Most writers, most of the time, will accept a dubious or awkward compliment with a smile and confine themselves to an inward wince or possibly a private gripe session later among friends, but even the nicest writers can have the sort of bad day when the lid comes off of everything, and some writers . . . well, much as it pains me to admit it, writers – even good writers – are as likely to be jerks as anyone else in the general population.

Accordingly, here are a quartet of comments from the top of the Best If  Avoided list:

“I loved your book!  I’ve loaned it to all my friends!”

The savvy writer accepts such a compliment graciously, because word-of-mouth is still the best advertising, and because making an enemy of a reader is a bad move for a lot of reasons . . . but there’s no escaping the inward wince on behalf of all of the copies that could have been purchased if the bestower-of-compliments had confined themself to making enthusiastic recommendations at the bookstore instead.

“I love all your books!  I can’t wait until the library/the used bookstore/my buddy who lends me her copies gets the next one!”

Once again, most writers will take this compliment with a smile, because most writers can remember being young and/or impecunious themselves, and it would be hypocritical for them to complain about somebody else taking advantage of the same shifts and expedients that sustained them once upon a time.  But there’s still that inner wince, and the wistful contemplation of sales that might have been.

“I’ve loved your books ever since I was in fifth grade/high school/college!”

Again, the kind-hearted writer has no choice but to smile – and in fact, it’s nice to know that one was a formative or encouraging influence upon somebody in their youth.  But there’s no denying the fact that praise of this sort has a corresponding tendency to make the recipient of the compliment feel older than they did in the moment before it was uttered.  “I’ve always loved your books!” or “I’ve loved your books for ages!” are words less likely to send the writer in question off into a spell of broody melancholia.

“I don’t usually go for this genre/this trope/this style, but you made me like it!”

This compliment is especially tricky because sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.  Some writers like the idea of doing such a good job of a thing that they succeed in overcoming a reader’s ingrained prejudices.  (I confess to being a member of that camp myself.)  Others, though, will take offense at the implication that their chosen genre or trope or style has something wrong with it that needs to be dressed up and made palatable to the general public.  Unless you know how the recipient is likely to react, this compliment is best deployed with caution.

What do you say to a writer, then, if you want to compliment them?

Well, an unadorned but sincerely-meant “I love your books!” is always good.

Writing for Joe’s Beer Money

The idea that creators of popular fiction are writing for “Joe’s beer money”* is an often derided concept, but in my opinion it shouldn’t be.

For one thing, the fact that Joe is reading for pleasure at all should be celebrated, not sneered at.  Elitists might be surprised at what Joe sometimes picks – it isn’t just thrillers and soft-core porn.  I remember stopping for coffee for once at a truck stop that had, in addition to the usual snack foods and sundries, a wire spinner rack filled with audio book rentals for pick-up-and-drop-off .  One of the more well-worn items on the rack was an audio book of Homer’s Iliad.

For another thing, writing for Joe’s beer money is demanding work.  Joe doesn’t make so much money that he wants to finish a book feeling like he threw away some of it on a thing he didn’t enjoy.  (And let me say right here that Joe is just as capable as anyone else of acknowledging different values of enjoyment.  See Homer’s Iliad, above)  Furthermore, Joe is honest:  He’s not going to pretend he liked your book just to impress his friends and co-workers.  But if he does like it, he will read your next one, and probably the one after that.

Also – oddly enough, the cost of a mass-market paperback novel and the cost of a six-pack of ordinary beer have stayed roughly equivalent at least since the 1970’s, which is about the time when I started keeping track.  (Of paperback prices, at any rate.  I had to go to the internet for the beer data.)  Trade paperbacks are more in line with the cost of imported and craft beers; and it’s entirely possible that part of the controversy over how much an e-book should cost is also a disagreement over whether an e-book is more like a six-pack of Budweiser or a six-pack of some five-star brewpub’s signature XXX Strong Ale.

*The original quote is often attributed to science fiction writer Jerry Pournelle.