Smart Novels

Recently I had a conversation with a friend who told me about the latest rejection of her novel (by an agent).  There was nothing but praise from the agent, but ultimately the verdict came down to “This book is just too smart to sell.”

Much scratching of head and muttered curses ensued and I sympathized.  I’ve read the book in question and it is indeed a smart book.  Very smart.  It’s one of the rare examples of a novel that, from time to time, we hear about from an author in his or her cups complaining of being ignored by the publishing industry with the final dismissal of “Well, I’m just too good for them.”  The natural reaction to this is an unspoken “Yeah, right” and then move on to the next subject.

But I’ve come to believe that in a few instances, this is exactly true.

Agent and publisher have one problem in common—how to sell a book.  The agent must sell it to the publisher who must sell it to you, the general public.  In pursuit of this, much time and skull sweat is spent trying to figure out—to divine—what will sell.  It’s nigh unto an impossible task and usually the publisher puts work out, crosses collective fingers, and hopes for the best.

Except in some instances where they are convinced they have a Winner and then extra effort is put into the book—sales-wise.  A campaign is mounted.  There is adsvertising.  Reviews are purchased (yes, Virginia, reviews can be bought).  An author tour is undertaken and underwritten.  Radio interviews, and if things look especially good some local television.  Attempts are made to transform the author into a Personality.

Certain sometimes vague common denominators about such a book must be in place, however.  The all-elusive Accessibility about sums it up.  It must be popular, which means that readers with a reading ability of about the eighth-grade must be appealed to.  (Perhaps I exaggerate a little, but just look at best sellers and the level of writing they exhibit.  Never mind subject matter, that’s not what I’m talking about.  I’m talking about vocabulary and depth.)

Which brings me to my point.  Some novels may well be considered “too good” for the publishing mills.  And by that I mean they require something from the reader.  They demand a bit more attention, a bit more commitment, a bit more general bnackground education.  They require that the reader step up to the plate prepared to participate in the reading experience at a level approaching that which the writer had in writing it.  They elicit a projicient extrospective perspecacity on the part of the reader equal if not superior to the proferred text.

In short, you might have to do a little work to really enjoy the book.

Granted, some novels are abstruse to the point of diminishing returns  (Finnegan’s Wake, Moderan) while others hide their cleverness beneath prose so under-challenging that whatever message may have been there is overlooked (most Kurt Vonnegut, in my most humble opinion, but The Old Man and the Sea certainly).

We have a legacy of smart novels from the age when The Novel was the chief entertainment of a book buying class that possessed both vocabulary and philosophical depth.  Which is why today we still find exceptional work published.

But seldom from new writers.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not for a moment condeming any new writers.  Excellent work comes out all the time from new writers.  But there is a level of intellectual conformism in style and approach that makes the rare “smart” novel something of an oddity.  For every Donna Tartt, how many Ken Folletts get published?  For every Matt Ruff or John Crowley, how many Dan Simmons or Jasper Ffordes get published.  For every Guy Davenport, Umberto Eco….

Anyway, this is not to slam any writer who produces good work that is in some way “safe” by virtue of being accessible.  Nor is it to say that the novels of which I speak don’t ever get published.  Obviously they do.  Sometimes you have to find them from obscure little publishers tucked off in the corner of East Erudite or some such, or they get lucky enough to find a smart imprint within a larger consortium.

But how often do they sell well?  How often are they really promoted?  And how many rejections do they garner before finding a Believer who takes the chance?

These are books that do not compromise.  Now, no writer intentionally compromises, and this is really not about the writer anyway.  What it is about is a mindset in the publishing industry that would bar a Thomas Pynchon if he came on the scene brand new today because no one would know “how to market it.”  I’m talking about an attitude on the part of the gatekeepers that predetermines what would be “too smart” for the reading public.

Which all comes down to the ledger.  What is being said is not that the book isn’t worth publishing, but that the publisher can only conceive of a small audience for it, which makes it not worth while.

Or some such nonsense.

Smart novels that get readily snapped up, it seems to me, wear a cloak of something else that the publisher recognizes as salable.  Something that can be reduced to a one-line sales pitch.  This may be how a lot of smart writers get themselves to the point where they can start writing that wholly unclassifiable, “too good to be published” work that is their true forte (consider William Gibson).  Michael Chabon is doing interesting, unclassifiable work (smart work) now, but his first couple of novels, while smart on one level, wore an overcoat of relative conventionality (Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Wonderboys).  He makes money now, he can publish what he wants.

Finally, though, this is a cop-out.  The agent (or publisher) is basically admitting to a lack of imagination or energy or both.  What they’re saying is that, in the market as it exists today, it would be too damn much effort for them to sell this book, because, well, it is clearly good, it is clearly worthy, but it is also clearly over the heads of the sales department.   It is a confession of surrender to the fact that The Market has beaten them into submission with its apparent demands for more of the same pabulum that fills supermarket book shelves.  (You’d never see William Gaddis shelved in the local QuickMart next to John Grisham.)

So next time you hear the phrase “my novel was too good for them”—pause.  One or two percent of those people may be telling the unadorned truth.  They might actually be someone with something worth reading.

But only one or two percent.

I’d be perfectly happy to be convinced that this is not really the case.  In fact, I do believe that if the writer perseveres, eventually good work gets published.  But the playing field is anything but level.

Odd Bits

“The historian of manners obeys harsher laws than those that bind the historian of facts.  He must make everything seem plausible, even the Truth; whereas in the domain of history properly so-called, the impossible is justified by the fact that it occurred.”  Honore de Balzac

The central paradox of contemporary Christian fundamentalism is its spin on the message that the world and its concerns are irrelevant, and that soon, very soon, it will all pass away—and then turning around and making temporal behavior the basis for an ongoing political activism that is just shy of fascistic.

“His heart was a purple castle.  It lay in a rock-strewn desert, concealed by dunes, surrounded by a marshy oasis, and set behind stone walls.  It could be reached only from the air.  It had a thousand private rooms and a thousand underground chambers and a thousand elegant salons, among them one with a purple sofa…”  Patrick Suskind Perfume

Within 50 years after 1590, 1200 plays were presented in London—900 written by 50 professional playwrights.

And Again….

“Once people envisioned the possibility of change in a fixed order, the end of an age of submission came in sight, the turn to individual conscience lay ahead.  To that extent the Black Death may have been the unrecognized beginning of modern man.”  Barbara Tuchman

“…a total of 15 certificates of achievement and decoration verified his integrity and competence for all the world to see.  On some days he would haze at the rows of his awards in smug satisfaction.  On others, he would search within the frames for some proof that he was a good man.”  Michael D. Weaver, Mercedes Nights

“Somewhere in somebody’s sacred scripture it says: ‘And there shall be caused to be built dark alleys wherein the mockers and the unrighteous shall in their turn have their heads laid open and in likewise their fat lips busted; and even this shall be pleasing in the sight of Heaven.'”  George Alec Effinger, Marid Audran When Gravity Fails

Today’s Quotes

In a way, doing these are a way to not have to think of something original to write.  On the other hand, some of these I made up to begin with, so originality isn’t the problem.  Anyway, a few more.

Most correlations are noncausal; when correlations are causal, the fact and the strength of the correlation rarely specify the nature of the cause.

“The tendency has always been strong to believe that whatever received a name must be an entity or being, having an independent existence of its own.  And if no real entity answering to the name could be found, men did not for that reason suppose that none existed, but imagined that it was something peculiarly abstruse and mysterious.”  John Stuart Mill

“Apart from logical agency, there is to me something a little odd about the ethical valuations of those who think that an omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent Deity, after preparing the ground by many millions of years of lifeless nebulae, would consider himself adequately rewarded by the final emergence of Hitler and Stalin and the H-Bomb.”  Betrand Russell

Little Lost Book

We returned home one year from a worldcon (world science fiction convention, for those who may not know the nomenclature)—I forget which year—and promptly I lost a book. Or a box of books. You see, we’d early on gotten into the habit of mailing our purchases home rather than try to take boxes of books on the plane. (The first worldcon we went to in 1984 resulted in about three hefty boxes going back, all of which cost around a hundred and fifty dollars. Today that much would fit in one (small) box.) This system worked pretty well until this time. I think it must have been Chicago in 2000.

We—I—misplaced a box. So I thought. We were rearranging the house once again, moving things from one place another, and along the way I thought this one box of books had disappeared. Oh, it was in the house, certainly, buried inadvertently, and one year it would reappear. But it never did, not even through subsequent house cleanings.

Over time the contents of this box took on mythic status. I only recalled one title that was in it, Dan Simmons’ Crook Factory, but I knew there must be others in there from maybe George R.R. Martin or Greg Bear or Emma Bull or a collectible hardcover by some SF luminary. It was a small box that acquired supreme status.

Well, this morning I found it. Or, rather, I found the one title I specifically remembered, the Dan Simmons. Not in a box with other books from a worldcon, but in a plastic file box filled with old Scientific Americans. One book.

As soon as I saw it I realized that the rest of the box did not exist. I’d put this book in with these magazines to get it out of the way while I did…something. It then ended up at the bottom of one of the closets in my office, and would have remained there had I not got it in my head a few weeks ago to completely purge this space.

The bubble burst, all those other volumes—which, tellingly, I could not recall—have vanished in memory. They never existed.

Now, I have lost stories of my own before, put somewhere to wait until I got back to them…those are not mythical, and some of them were masterpieces which may never see the light of day again.

Pack Ratting

Apropos of nothing, I have just finished putting (in order) all my LOCUS Magazines.  I have nearly a complete run from 1982 to the present.  They all but this current year fit in three 38 qt. Rubbermaid storage containers.  Did I say I put them in order?

I’m keeping my LOCUS collection.  I also have two other magazine collections I’m thinking of keeping (though I have no idea why, really).  I have a nearly complete run of OMNIs from Issue One to about 1989, when the magazine got really too stupid.  I also have a set of a magazine called GEO, which originally belonged to Earline, the woman who trained my as a photofinisher.  They’re handsome editions, like a real high-end National Geographic.

Anyway, pack ratting is a disease which so many of us share that it is not considered a disease.  I’m trying to get over it.  It may sound morbid, but at 53 I’m beginning to ask myself just how much of this crap I’m ever going to actually use before I die.

More Quotes

I should point out that some of the quotes I’m putting up are my own thoughts, based on something I read. So anything unattributed is probably mine. With that in mind, here are a few more.

Numbers suggest, constrain, and refute; they do not, by themselves, specify the content of scientific theories.

H.H. Goddard and Robert Yerkes and Lewis Teman managed to supply the U.S. Government with a supposedly scientific basis for passing the strict immigration laws of 1924 that effectively kept millions of Europeans from coming here where Hitler was coming to power. They had nowhere to flee, since American I.Q. tests indicated they were of inferior racial stock and could not be allowed into America to “dilute” our native intelligence.

“We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the state for these lesser sacrifices. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” Oliver Wendell Homes, jr., Buck vs. Bell Supreme Court 1927

Alfred Binet destroyed Broca’s process of division by craniometric study, determined his own predilection toward subjective bias, and formulated the first crude I.Q. tests (1905). “The scale, properly speaking, does not permit the measure of intelligence, because intellectual qualities are not superposable, and therefore cannot be measured as linear surfaces are measured.” Nevertheless, his work, misunderstood and coopted, was used to create the Standford-Binet I.Q. test, which held sway over the educational destinies of American children for decades, even though misapplied.

“A society defines what is normal and what is crazy—and then says anyone who challenges the definition is crazy.” Elizabeth Butler from “The Falling Woman” by Pat Murphy

Quotes and Musings

As salve for the more astringent posts preceding, I thought I’d start putting up a series of some of my favorite quotes.  I began keeping these on a pad of legal paper years ago, anytime I came across something I really liked, thinking maybe one day I could use them as epigrams.  Well, the pages are starting to tear and I need to put them in some more permanent form.  So I’m going to put them here.  And continue the practice online.  Some days I may just put up one, others I’ll do a few.

Bear in mind that in many instances I do not necessarily agree with the sentiments expressed.  Often I disagree strongly, but the quote is fertile ground for debate, and that I welcome.

I put one up a few posts back, the one about equality from Roberto Calasso.  So now, here are a few more.  Enjoy.

“All great efforts to improve human beings by way of training are thwarted through the apathy of those who hold the sole feasible road to be that of stricter breeding.”   Charles Spearman, 1927

“Well, I mean, yes idealism, yes the dignity of pure research, yes the pursuit of truth in all its forms, but there comes a point I’m afraid where you begin to suspect that if there’s any real truth, it’s that the entire multidimensional infinity of the Universe is almost certainly being run by a bunch of maniacs.”  Frankie Mouse, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

“What the public wants is the image of passion, not passion itself.” Roland Barthes

“Persistence of the normal is strong.”  Barbara Tuchman

Georgia On My Mind

Just when we thought it was a good time to buy one of those magnificent, Soviet-era dachas in Georgia, this happens.

We’re getting the updates on the most spectacular round of this event, but the fact is this has been brewing since the break up of the Soviet Union. Georgia couldn’t wait to get out from under Russia’s thumb, where it had been for two centuries at least. That they could not understand the desire on the part of the Ossetians and Abkhazzians to get out from under their thumb is proof that willful blindness, when politically inspired, is alive in all parts of the world. Georgia has been conducting low-level warfare in these two regions since 1993 at least. What has prompted this present crisis is Georgia’s president’s decision—due to a promise he made in his election campaign—to settle the issue once and for all and bloody well take the two provinces in question. In anyone’s lexicon of who to blame, Georgia is here the equivalent of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in its decision to annex Kuwait (or China in its decision to annex Tibet—but for diplomatic reasons we don’t wish to draw such comparisons).

By that calculus, Russia has acted the part of the United States by invading Georgia and beating it about the head and shoulders until leaves Ossetia and Abkhazzia alone.

So why are we condemning Russia?

Because Georgia is the poster-child for America’s post-Soviet ambitions to see democracies spring up and flourish all over the former superpower. Saakhashvilli won a more or less open election with a staggering landslide (something the Republicans claim often but never achieve for themselves) and Georgia has every appearance of becoming a successful democracy.

We’ve made commitments, at least verbally. We told Georgia we’d back them. Doesn’t that sound familiar?

Just what does that mean, though? Back them how? Cheer? Send money? Troops?

We are organizing humanitarian aid. We want to use our military to deliver it (though that’s still tentative). This would put U.S. troop in Georgia, sort of a glove on the ground in front of Russia, a school yard dare. If Bush plays this right, we may be in a shooting conflict with Russia before he leaves office. McCain’s rhetoric seems to support the idea that we should push Russia out. Diplomatically, of course (if possible).

But the fact remains that Georgia was the bad guy first. We should have told Saakhashvilli to leave those two little breakaway states alone*. Democracy being our religion, our missionary zeal should have inspired us to take the side of the underdog. Or in this case the under-underdog.

I am not so naive as to believe that the reasons for saying this and not saying that in a political situation are not complex. But the consequences of policy can often surprise and embarrass us. Damnit, why can’t the allies we back just behave?

Saakhashvilli and Vladimir Putin have also had a running cut fight going on since they got in each others’ faces. There is no love lost between these two. At times it has been juvenile, with references to height or brains. Doubtless Putin welcomed an opportunity to humiliate Saakhashvilli and that, too, is bad public policy. As I say, juvenile.

Doesn’t this all remind us of someone else, though?

The real tragedy is that here we have a president who has squandered whatever moral authority he had by essentially behaving in more or less the same way—naked aggression, overt regime change, nation building, using any excuse to send in troops, a snide remark about not needing a permission slip from the U.N. etc etc—trying to shake his finger, school-principle-wise, in Russia’s face, scolding them in a classic “Do what I say, not what I do” moment.

Now, for their part, Russia has a problem it will need to get over. What Putin really doesn’t want is for Georgia to become a member of NATO. Bad enough to have all the former Eastern Bloc countries signing up in what Russia can only perceive as a competitor organization—not necessarily the enemy, but surely we can understand their sentiment in feeling that Europe, not to mention the United States, may still feel a bit of concern over Russia’s ambitions and the bases of her fears? So it is reasonable to see Russia’s attack on Georgia as—also—a warning. Russia is saying, “Look, we can overrun this pissant democracy whenever we want, so have a care what kind of deals you make with them.” This is a form of gunboat diplomacy. Russia is probably saying more to us than to Georgia, which they consider a nuisance more than a threat. But they would like to keep it a nuisance. By joining NATO and allying itself with the West in such an overt way, Georgia does become a threat.

So what? If Georgia wants to join NATO and we want them, so be it. But we really ought to be more careful what kind of commitments we make to what kind of leaders and we ought to be willing publicly to chastise such leaders when they become antithetical to the stated goals of American policy.

*Because in point of fact, the state department told Saakhashvilli not to go into Osettia. We knew he was about to do it. We suggested in very strong terms that this would not be a very good idea. He ignored it. We’re downplaying that now. Maybe we shouldn’t. Maybe we should let some of these sorts hang out to dry when they go against what we not only believe but in fact told them about.

It all goes back to what kind of promises got made. And man we need to be more careful with those.

I’ve heard mention of Teddy Roosevelt with regards to Bush’s ideas on foreign policy. Bush seems to like the Big Stick approach. But take note—Teddy said “Speak softly” first. He rarely used the Stick. It was a warning as much as a prescription. For all his bombast, Teddy Roosevelt was a cautious diplomatist. He had a grasp, as they say.

This guy doesn’t.

Apparently neither do many of his allies.

Equality and History

This will be brief.  Going along with my last couple of quotes concerning the election and all that it implies this year, I thought I’d post one of my very favorite quotes.  This comes from a wonderful book about the Heroic Myths of the Greeks, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony by Roberto Calasso.  I recommend this to anyone struggling with mythology and origin motifs and the history of so many things Hellenic we take for granted.  Anyway, this quote is one of those “obvious” things we usually forget about when dealing at a fever pitch with, you know, equality.

Equality only comes into being through initiation.  It does not exist in nature, and society wouldn’t be able to conceive of the idea if it weren’t structured and articulated by initiation.  Later, there comes a moment when equality is geared into history and thence marches on and on until the unsuspecting theorists of democracy imagine they have discovered it—and set it against initiation, as though it were its opposite.