Saturday, May 29, 2010

A 220 Volt Plug

The compulsion to write is really a compulsion for connection. My initial thought was that I'm a 220 plug in a 110 volt world -- no connection is actually possible. In the scrambled mass of neurons that is my brain, this thought took me to one of my more ill-fated home improvement efforts.

I was working on a basement apartment in a house I'd just bought. I turned off the power to the entire house at the circuit breaker because I was going to be working around a 220 volt electrical outlet. Why? I have no clue, it was too long ago. What I do remember is that I stuck my rubber gripped pliers on the wires and got knocked back across the room from the electrical jolt. I hurt my hand landing on some tool, but was otherwise unharmed physically. An inspection of the pliers showed that the live wires had melted a nice pattern on the metal pincers. For some unknown reason the house had been wired with this solitary 220 plug separate from all of the power at the circuit box, thus leaving the wires live unless turned off at another circuit box hidden on the side of the house.

Long story for a stretch of a metaphor, I suppose, but I'm coming quickly to the conclusion that writing is a lot like that 220 plug. You throw words out there and you don't know if the power is connected or not and whether the words will shock and repel the reader, melt themselves onto the reader's psyche or if there really just won't be any juice in them at all.

Nothing like hanging out at a writer's conference to question whether words can conceivably have any impact at all. Mostly we are all hanging around, hoping for the happy accident of writing something that can melt metal.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Author as a Commodity

This week I'm attending a writer's workshop in New Orleans with my wife, who is the real writer in the family. I rather hate being the living cliche of attorney who is a wannabe writer, but I'm finding that it is easier to aspire to be an author than it is to take the attorney out of my psyche.

For example, the instructor of our class is filling in our little workshop group on the travails of the publishing world. Specifically, She claimed that authors are "brown leather pumps" to the publishers. She said it to make the point that authors were mere commodities to the book industry and the fickle reading public will burn through a book and it doesn't matter much whose book it is. If you don't write it, someone else will. My poetical version: authors are the meat that is ground up to make book sausage.

I don't doubt the wisdom of the instructor's comments. From what I can see, commercial fiction (and non-fiction) on a visceral level work in this way. The formulaic novel, the ghost written celebrity book, the tough life memoir and the motivational/spiritual tome really could be written by anyone and consumed by the undiscerning hordes as the corporate book manufacturers scoop up the majority of the cash.

The best example of this is James Patterson, who doesn't even write all his own books. He hires would-be authors to write them for him. This is the final end game of creating books as entertainment (a game that has sadly been encouraged by "cut and paste" technology -- How much of the Harry Potter series was cut and pasted back story?) The brand supercedes the art. Sure there is quality control and a formulaic sameness that soothes the reader, that is why it works.

Looking at the entire process through the legal lens, I see a supply chain of author to agent to editor to proofreader to printer to book distribution company to book retailer with every participant sucking off the teat of the writer's words. In much the same way a lawsuit bleeds the litigants dry, the publication process bleeds the author's work dry.

And if this really is how it works, why would an author (attorney or not) want to be treated like a pair of brown leather pumps chewed on by the book industry puppy?

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Sunday Morning Musings

It is so quiet -- birds chirping, sun rising as I see the contours of the ridge line cut across the scrub oak as the mountain's shadow sneaks towards me. Unbelievable as it may seem to those of you who know me, a little kitten is perched on my shoulder, purring softly, asleep. Maybe not quiet so unbelievable is that the kitten's name is Henry Miller.

This week I've been thinking a lot about writing. My wife, JulieAnn, is an exceptional writer -- and she writes. Boy, does she write. One of her greatest skills as a writer is her tenacity. I've watched her develop her talent and watched her in practice. I envy her ability to just dive in and work on her novel of the moment. Her first published novel is why I'm married to her in a very real way, since it was the catalyst to our meeting.

Books (and thus writing) seem to be headed in the same direction that music went ten years ago. Books are becoming more and more a commodity and the price for the book is dropping, creating an economic pressure on both authors and publishers. They can be easily copied and transferred, even with some DRM encoding. I find myself gravitating towards author's I know and still pick up on new authors and hot books from the Sunday New York Time's Book Review, so I'm strongly in the traditional publishing realm as a consumer.

Yet, I can feel it all changing underneath my feet. I'm worried about it from a dual perspective -- as a potential author and as the husband of an author. Who do you listen to if you want to get a good recommendation for a book? How do you develop an audience? How big of an audience is enough? How do you hone the writing craft when the ability (and the compulsion) is there to spew out your thoughts onto the Internet in a blizzard of uncensored typing?

I'm sure my day job makes me look at writing from an economic perspective. Writing takes time. Time equates to money. How much money do I need for myself and my family? How do I increase the time I have for writing?

Sunday morning and I have all the questions and none of the answers.

Friday, May 7, 2010

The Future of Reading

One of my favorite new blogs that I read daily is Kindle Review. Anyone who knows me at all, knows that I am in love with my Kindle and in love with books. Today there was a post on the future of reading -- or more accurately the future of books. (I don't think reading is going anywhere, books appear to be in a state of flux however.)

The post raised a couple of questions, especially when it was combined with my wife's post about literature yesterday. So here are a couple of questions and my random musings on them.

1. What is literature?

Harold Bloom, the literary critic, sees the literary tradition as agon -- a conflict or contest of artistic style and morals. (Agon is the same root as agony, which seems completely applicable to the writer's craft.) Being the male combative that likes rugby and the law, this theory of literature appeals to me greatly. Obviously literature is a game and as a writer it is fun to play the game. The problem is that there are no rules -- or at least you need to pick the literary game you want to play. Literary fiction is a different game than writing mystery novels.

Before you answer the question as to what is literature, you must look to see that you are comparing tradition to tradition.

2. Will books become more than words on a page?

No -- and yes. No, because books are words on a page. Yes --think David Foster Wallace. His books become words on different pages through an old technology, footnotes. eBook technology is going to open up artistic possibilities to authors that have been tried before, but the tools weren't really there until now -- split narrative streams, collage, asides, merging of various texts/authors, alternate endings and whatever an artistic mind can come up with to use the brush strokes of eBooks and digital technology. Depending on what literary tradition forms around these uses of technology, then yes, books will become more than words on a page, but it won't replace the century old progression of other literary traditions. This is an addition, not a subtraction.

3. Time to go to work

The problem with books is not the form, but the quality.