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Hoisted on My Own Petard

During one of my blogtalk radio interviews to promote IMMORTAL, I spoke about publishing houses and writers and the need for the two to find a common ground. Today that interviewer contacted me, asking if she could use some quotes she had culled from the interview. Sure, I said. It won’t be the first or last time my own words have come back to bite me in the tushie.

Here’s the thing: Publishing is in a sad state right now. One house is foundering like the Titanic. Another house fired a publisher and is being restructured into a larger conglomerate. Editors have been fired. The ones who remain are afraid to buy anything.

But is firing people and re-organizing really going to help the bottom line? I mean, is it really going to entice people to buy more books?

The problem, as I see it, is two-fold: 1, marketing people decide which books editors get to buy, not editors, and 2, writers all want to publish beautifully written literary novels that no one but their mother and best friend will buy.

Books are not widgets. Books are the Keepers of Soul. For thousands of years, people have been going to war over their Holy Books. They’re still wreaking death, destruction, dismemberment and other varieties of intolerance because of their Holy Books. Books have this extra dimension, this extra quality, that MUST be taken into account. Even by marketing people, who can be soul-less creatures.

BUT. Writers also need to take the market into account. We writers can be all too self-indulgent, because we are in love with words, with prose, with story in its most abstruse forms. But most people don’t want to buy a book just because it has pretty words and the story takes an intellectually shimmering shape.

There’s got to be a middle ground. I say: let editors have more say and marketing people LESS say. One reason for this: editors love books, while marketers love money. When marketers chose which books get published, we get the current state of book selling. That is, I go to the bookstore and 99% of what I see is crap. Most of it is all the same. Badly written serial-killer-suspense books, formula mysteries, predictable action-adventure or supernatural yarns, and celebu-drek. Then there are those select ‘literary’ tomes that someone has chosen to anoint, and those ‘literary’ novels are self-congratulatory, precious, self-indulgent, and just plain boring. They also have unlikeable characters. WHY WOULD ANYONE BUY ANY OF IT???

I read everything, really everything. I will even pick up a Harlequin romance. I consider this my market research. I just finished a book that epitomizes what is wrong with publishing today. It is Brad Meltzer’s BOOK OF LIES.

I apologize to Mr. Meltzer for the bad review, and I can only say that plenty of bloggers have trashed my novel IMMORTAL.

However: BOOK OF LIES was confusing, hard to follow, and clearly created to capitalize on the DA VINCI CODE-secret-Biblical-artifact-craze, or what’s left of it. It is more than obvious that some marketing person yelped with glee: “Hey, Cain and Abel, biblical secret, we got a flavor of the DA VINCI CODE and we can even pull in the Superman fans: yes!”

Unfortunately, it’s just not that interesting a story. No one cares much about how Cain killed Abel and if the weapon survived. Yes, we did care about Jesus being married and whether or not the Church suppressed that information for reasons of secular power. Now, that story has been told: MOVE ON.

Meltzer’s prose isn’t horrible. He seems to be trying with his characters and with the relationships between them. It just never all comes together to make me as a reader care about anyone or anything. And the sentimental glop (spoiler alert!) of “Tell your stories to your children” that is supposed to be the big finale, well, if the story were riveting, it would be a let-down. But since this novel is just so functional, utilitarian, and forgettable, it comes across as annoying and silly. Drivel.

But the appeal to a marketing director is so blatantly obvious, how could this novel NOT be published?

So novels will continue to be boring, silly, and the same, because marketers are infected with the notion, “If it sold once, we can beat the dead horse into a gelatinous pulp and sell it a million times.”

So general readers are bored and disaffected and they don’t spend their money on books. And writers aren’t motivated to do more than 1, appeal to marketers or 2, indulge our worst, most narcissistic love of an abstruse craft.

Coherence theory, and networking
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Coherence theory, and networking

Moral relativism is a failed social experiment. So is moral fundamentalism. I blame modern psychotherapy–partly–for the degradation of a culture that can not tolerate accountability and discernment. It’s why so many TV shows and movies are about serial killers: we can not conceive of a bad guy anymore. The only “bad guy” we can all agree on is a mass murderer. Even that is in danger of being OKified by the shrinked up zeitgeist: ergo Dexter, the lovable serial killer who kills serial killers. We want to rehabilitate everyone in this sophomoric, brainless insistence that there is no evil.

But somewhere between the rocks and the hard place of relativism and fundamentalism is a unitive philosophy that embraces what Teilhard de Chardin called humanism, but still leaves room for shame and discernment. Yes, shame has an important place in social interaction. So does spirituality. I am playing around with the middle way in my head, and I call it coherence theory.

I got to hear some comments about Teilhard de Chardin at a dinner last night that honors classicism. The art critic Donald Kuspit received an award for excellence in the arts, and he spoke about the failure of the avant-guard, which has turned into an empty “frantic trendiness.” It was a great relief to hear someone state outright that the emperor has no clothes. My husband Sabin Howard, being a sculptor, drags me to a lot of art shows, and I have seen a lot of twelfth rate crap. In fact, as soon as anyone says they are an “abstract expressionist,” I know they suck.

Speaking of art that sucks: I was seated at dinner next to some stuffed shirts who run an arts club, and on hearing I was a novelist, they told me with much self-importance that they were honoring Chinua Achebe. I groaned. “For what? His novel ‘Things Fall Apart’ is so badly written! It’s boring and unreadable! He gets attention just because he’s the only one out of Nigeria.”

Immediately, the stuffed shirts wanted to prove that I was rascist and asked me if Obama was just getting votes because he was black.

“That’s not why I voted for him,” I answered. “I voted for him because he’s smart and inspiring, I think he can truly bring change, and I want change!” That shut them up long enough for me to carry on for a while about what a piece of cockroach manure “Things Fall Apart” is. The stuffed shirts managed to save themselves by turning away to talk to other people, and I seized the opportunity to make vomiting motions in their direction. It got a laugh out of my husband but probably didn’t endear me to the artsy fartsy shirts.

Later, in the cab ride home, the great Burt Silverman, a realist portrait painter who actually has a foundation in craftsmanship and tradition, twitted me about my oration on the indignity of art. “You were networking?” he asked wryly. Probably not.

Update from a few years later: The stuffed shirt who insulted me embezzled money from the arts club–a LOT of money. Sometimes my instincts hit the bull’s eye.

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Down with Priesthoods

A certain person who has worked with Carlo Pedretti, the renowned Leonardo da Vinci scholar, told me that, during the restoration under the Sforza palazzo in Milan, working with the pedestal for Leonardo’s incomparable horse, Pedretti has uncovered new information about Leonardo’s use of perspective.

“But he’s saving it for when the time is right,” the person confided.
Oh, and when will that be? “You mean he’s selfishly hoarding it for when he’s concerned that his illustrious career is flagging,” I said, with my usual tact.
“No, no, he’s just waiting for the right time,” the person insisted.
“The right time?” I cried. “The right time is now! I hope some enterprising grad student takes initiative and posts the information on the web!” The person stiffened and wandered off, drink in hand.
The point is that Leonardo da Vinci does not belong to Professore Pedretti, no matter how many decades Pedretti has invested in him. Leonardo belongs to the world. Leonardo belongs to humanity. If Pedretti has uncovered new information about Leonardo, who is one of the top ten most interesting people in history, Pedretti has a moral obligation to share it as fast as possible with as many people as possible. To sit on this information for any reason is petty selfishness of the worst sort. It reeks of Pedretti’s personal quest for power and glory, gain and status. It is corrupt.
I stand for the democratization of knowledge. But this places a terrible burden on civilians like me. The priesthoods who want knowledge concentrated within their own hands are not going to dispense that knowledge with any kind of grace. We have to bring ourselves to it, and work to understand.
Nowhere is this more easily visible than in science. Scientists don’t make it easy for non-scientists to understand what the hell is going on, and this is a big problem, because right now, scientists run the world. By that I mean they control what we eat, what we drink, what we breathe, what medicines we are administered, and so forth. Americans are, right now, guinea pigs in a giant laboratory experiment regarding genetically modified foods. Sure, an apricot with a few fish genes spliced in is shinier. But is it really, REALLY just as healthy as the regular kind of apricot that has a few speckles and brown spots, and a full complement of apricot genes, and only apricot genes? No one can really say for sure. Our grandchildren will be able to tell us, because their bodies will show the results of eating fishy apricots.
And don’t think the American Government is going to protect us. The FDA is nothing more, and nothing less, than a shill for the chemical, pharmaceutical, and biotech companies. In the American Government’s quest to concentrate wealth in the hands of a few people who own a lot of companies, and to reward those who help them do that, under the venal slogan that “The business of America is business,” scientists from biotech companies like Monsanto regularly leave their company position to work in the FDA when their company needs a product approved. There is no objective neutral analysis of data, because companies that have to spend the money to get through the approval process want to recoup that money as fast as possible. Is anyone really surprised that pharmaceutical companies were only releasing those trials that had the positive results they wanted? Corruption isn’t confined to scholars.
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Art historians, modern literary crap & the stink of scientology

I found myself writing to a former professor that the translator of Vasari’s “Lives of the Artists” should be taken out behind the ivy tower and shot in both knee-caps. The reason being that the “Lives” are wonderfully gossipy and dishy, once the reader gets past the god-awful diction. Unfortunately, and unforgivably, the frequent infelicities of language make it hard for a reader to stay that long. We should be indulging ourselves in guilty pleasure, the naughty deliciousness of scoping out intimate, graphic details of the actual personalities of master artists from Cimabue to Sansovino. Instead we’re slogging through a contorted, antiquated dialect of English to which it is very hard to relate.

So regular, civilian readers do not get to savor these all-too-human lives. Thus the ravishing nourishment they offer the soul passes from our collective awareness. We’re left with the fetish of reality TV, which is probably another post on how the decline of story is a barometer for the decline of civilization.

So what is it about art historians and scholarship in general that demands impenetrable rhetoric? Does writing that badly prove how smart they are, because the rest of us can’t understand it? Or are they just boorish and don’t care how sentence after crabbed, meaningless sentence affects their readers? I read a lot of art history for research purposes for my novels, and I am boggled by how badly written most of these books are.
And it’s not just art history that’s poorly written. People in the publishing industry complain about how there are fewer readers every year. Well, why do they expect people to partake of the meal, when the fare consists mostly of wormy fruit and twinkies? Take what is considered literature these days. Ninety nine percent of it is precious, self-congratulatory, and self-referential, with unlikeable characters. It’s an absolute dereliction of a novelist’s duty to write that way.
Self-reference and self-congratulation has been a post-modernist virus, nurtured carefully by the moral relativism of psychotherapy. I am all for self-esteem, but in my opinion, we are not going to build it within ourselves by telling ourselves that whatever we do is okay. We are going to earn it. By acting in honorable ways: keeping our word, choosing integrity, behaving with courtesy and respect for others, accomplishing difficult and worthwhile tasks, and so forth. By returning to those old-fashioned values that have stood the test of millennia. Let me state right now that I do not refer to perfectionism, with is a virulent form of self-hate. Nor have I been a paragon of model behavior. I’ve made a lot mistakes, broken a whole bunch of the 10 Commandments, and hurt plenty of people. But that’s not who I want to be. I aspire to better.
And I think that self-reference is what puts people off about scientology, despite the enormous appeal and considerable talent of its most famous proponent, Tom Cruise. There’s this queasy sense of arrogant self-entitlement that radiates out from scientology, so it doesn’t feel like a religion with any spirituality to it. Spirituality has to do with love, charity, kindness and compassion that elevate beyond the self.