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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.

Who do I read?
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Who do I read?

People ask me what other authors I like to read. Richard North Patterson and Sue Grafton, for starters: two of the classiest writers of prose in the English language today. Line for line, Grafton’s prose stacks up against anyone’s in the history of the English language, and she’s a virtuoso with character development and story. Patterson is bringing to life ideas that we as Americans need to face, and he does it with elegance and heart-palpitating suspense. In “The Race,” the question is, Can an honest man become president?–And for those of us who voted for Obama in the primaries, as I did, the answer is: I sure hope so.
Lately I’ve been reading Daniel Silva. Another elegant writer who can tell a story. His painting restorer/secret agent Gabriel Allon is three-dimensional, human, and mesmerizing. I read Silva’s book and think, I wish I’d written that.
I read for pleasure and knowledge, I read fast, and I read everything. There’s plenty out there that I can’t believe actually got published. There’s a lot that’s great, too. I’ve become wary of current books touted as ‘literary’ because that usually means they are precious, self-congratulatory and unreadable, with unlikable characters. But if I look back fifty years or more, that wasn’t the case. Dickens is full, rich and satisfying, and Jane Austen never gets stale. And there are occasional evenings when I kick back with a glass of red wine and the Complete Works of Shakespeare in my lap, and I read aloud from his plays. What could be more fun than that?
How Buddha erred, why Writer’s colonies are mistakes, and Maya Angelou
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How Buddha erred, why Writer’s colonies are mistakes, and Maya Angelou

I have definite opinions. They’re idiosyncratic, but usually carefully considered. Take my stance on the Buddha, whom I revere. I’ve had palpable experiences during meditation of the Buddha’s radiant compassion. The Buddha is enlightened and I am not. Still, as much as I sense the holiness of this archetypal being, I think the human Gautama made a mistake when he abandoned his wife and child to seek enlightenment. God and liberation are eternal; They would have waited for Gautama’s child to go off to college and his wife to start a career as a caterer so she wasn’t stuck with empty nest syndrome. Maybe this life is an illusion, but the illusion must be lived with integrity.

The householder bears the burden of liberation. It’s we who live in the mundane world with jobs, snotty teenagers, and ex-spouses who snipe over money, who have the most exquisite task: melting into communion with the divine despite the entangling web of responsibilities, obligations, and relationships. Anyone can get enlightened meditating all alone in a cave. That’s Gut 101, science for English majors with a guaranteed A, the easy way out.
Writer’s colonies perpetuate the same myth: that the work should be separate from daily life. That you need to leave the world behind in order to create. Bull manure. A writer writes. A writer carves out space in his or her messy, hectic, ragged, intervening life to write. It becomes a ritual, a discipline, a practice. It’s the journey that counts. When artists and writers stop thinking of themselves as precious children who need to be coddled in order to produce, there will be better quality art and writing.
Now, because I am a householder with a teenager who thinks I am wrong 95% of the time, I get challenged a lot. My oldest daughter yelled at me recently about my opinions on Chinua Achebe.
“Mommy, white people can’t criticize anything black people do!” she scolded me. She’s taking an African-American literature course in school; right now, she is very sensitive to the sad plight of black writers and to what African Americans have endured. I didn’t respond because there’s no point. Currently this daughter is convinced that I am an unredeemed idiot. But it did make me wonder.
Am I supposed to praise every work that comes from a black author or artist, simply because they are black and I am white? (Mostly white; there’s quite a lot of Native American blood in my lineage.) Does this chicanery really help black people achieve the parity of opportunity and circumstance that they’ve been denied because of race? It’s unconscionable that these inequities have caused so much suffering throughout history. Yet it feels to me that pretending that “Things Fall Apart” is a great novel actually detracts from the accomplishments of authors such as, say, Maya Angelou, whose work makes my soul sing. I put her in the same literary category as Yeats and Rumi, and in the larger artistic category with Giotto, Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Brunelleschi, and Caravaggio: these artists exalt, uplift, redeem. Well, in Caravaggio’s work, the spirit is rotting, so redemptive isn’t the appropriate word. Nonetheless, I am so compelled to have a relationship with his work because of its virtuosity that I place him in the elite.
And it isn’t just Chinua Achebe whose work I have criticized. I am an equal opportunity disliker of bad literature. Dan Brown is one of the worst writers of prose to come along in a century. His success just shows how powerful story is, even when told so badly it makes you want to vomit. This said, I do hope my novel IMMORTAL makes 10% as much money as Brown’s book did. And the fact that Leonardo is mentioned in the first paragraph of IMMORTAL certainly helped my novel get picked up by a publisher at a time when the the mania over Brown’s badly-written novel was at its peak.
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Hello, Dear Readers:

This is the inaugural entry of my blog, In the mouth of the serpent. This blog will consist of my ramblings, rantings, observations, opinions, suggestions, and hopes for the future. My interests are passionate and diverse: books, pop and literary; art, especially of the Renaissance; spirituality and healing; politics; relationships; children and child-rearing; movies and TV shows and travel and yoga and any other topic that seizes my imagination. I hope this blog stimulates and intrigues you. Feel free to email me with questions and comments; if I’m intrigued, I’ll post your email and respond.
In Vedic astrology, I have entered a particular cycle of my life ruled by Rahu, the north node of the moon, the iconic head of the serpent. Rahu in general is considered malefic but in my horoscope, it’s unusually well placed by sign and house. So, for the next 17 years, I am standing in the serpent’s mouth: this is the view.
Very truly yours,
Traci L. Slatton