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Archive for January, 2014

I recently became aware of a Kickstarter campaign to fund an app called Story Surgeon, which could be used to create “filters,” templates for excerpting or altering e-books, after which one could upload the “filter” and anyone else who wanted to could alter their copy of the book the same way. For example, you could take Star Wars and substitute in Harry Potter characters, or even insert your own name and those of your friends (or enemies). Neat, though I would think it would get boring fast. The discussion thus far is focused on that aspect, and whether it invites copyright violations. But that’s not what I’m thinking about.

I’m wondering about the app creator’s intent, which is to allow excerpting “objectionable” language, so that, “I could let my mom or my little brothers read them (without losing their innocence.)” Okay, first, you pick your mom’s books? (And if you think she still has her “innocence,” you two need to talk.)

But second, and more seriously, why do you need this tool? If you buy a book and don’t like the violence, sex, or language, give it to your library and don’t buy any more of that author’s books. If enough people agree, he’ll get the message. Carving up the text to suit your views–that’s just nonsense.

A book is a work of art. (Fine art? Depends on the book.) If you wanted Renaissance wallpaper on your computer, but wanted to use it at work, would you download a Rubens nude and Photoshop the naughty bits? Of course not. The naughty bits are part of the painter’s vision, just as all that sex and violence is part of an author’s vision.

There are plenty of authors out there who won’t offend you; find one of them. Don’t try to impose your artistic vision on my book. Or write your own, and you can use whatever language you want. Maybe you’ll even publish it. How cool would that be?

But don’t be surprised how upset you get when I add a few sex scenes.

 

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A bit of a departure today; I usually like to confine my remarks to writing and publishing and such, but today’s news made me deviate a bit. Today they announced that “The Wolf of Wall Street” was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. In my personal worldview, this is a travesty.

Now this has nothing to do with the movie; I haven’t seen it, and for reasons which will become apparent, I probably never will. I certainly will never spend money to see it. My irritation has to do with the “Wolf” himself, Jordan Belfort, a convicted stock swindler, con man, and if his own movie (and my experience) is to be believed, a complete waste of oxygen.

Mr. Belfort ran one of the most successful “boiler room” operations of the 1990s, Stratton Oakmont. He stole between $100 and $200 million from trusting people, most of whom could not afford the loss. Ironically, his thievery made me money, because I was working at the time for a company which offered representation to investors who needed to sue people like Mr. Belfort. His malfeasance kept us in business for three straight years. I personally filed approximately two dozen arbitration actions against him, resulting in collection of close to $2 million. ( I was also the first person ever to obtain a finding of personal liability against his right-hand man, played by Jonah Hill in the movie.) I was so ubiquitous that Stratton’s accounts payable department knew me by name.

But my last and greatest victory against them never came to fruition, because Stratton declared bankruptcy, leaving my client holding an empty $525,000 judgment. And this makes it personal, because I was due a bonus off of that case which I never able to collect. So the fact that the movie based on Belfort’s book is up for a prestigious award grates.

On the other hand, perhaps this is his way of paying back. Because there is a writing-related lesson here: Belfort’s book (and movie) tells the story of his high living and ultimate fall. It does not dwell on what he did to get there (or I’d be in it). That’s a lesson in storytelling: Use what works. Discard what doesn’t. Belfort wanted to brag about his drugs and hookers, but he knew nobody would read that if they had to read about his ripping off retirees as well. So, like all good fiction, he pared it down to the bits that told the story he wanted to tell. The rest, the parts that wouldn’t sell, he left aside.

Except that now, of course, he’s big time. He could write another book (his third on this subject) that tells the dirty details, and he could sell it–because he’s made his name. He’s whet the public appetite, and he has plenty left to feed it another meal.

So write that book, Jordan, and get that movie deal. Because I want a walk-on. I’ve earned it.

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It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single novel in possession of a good publisher must be in want of a label. After all, if a book were not easily categorized as “fantasy” or “mystery” or “romance,” how would anyone know that they wanted to buy it? The irony of this reasoning, of course, is that large segment of published books known in the bookstore (the only place this label has any meaning) as “literature” or just “fiction.” “Fiction and literature” is where the grown-up books go, the ones you aren’t supposed to be ashamed of reading in public, except on the beach or in an airport, where the usual rules are relaxed and “thrillers” are acceptable. (I’ve never understood why you would want to read a novel about terrorists while waiting for an airplane, but that’s just me.)

The upshot of this is that when a “literary” novelist ventures into genre territory, it is an insult to say he has written a “genre novel.” Pains must be taken to differentiate his walk taken on these common grounds from those taken by the lowly scribes who, after all, only make a living at this stuff. (In my experience, “literary” writers have gotten great traction from dredging up themes mere “genre” writers exhausted a generation ago. This is not to say that this book, about a “dystopia in utopia’s guise,” might not offer new insights. But that’s not the point.) Such is the review I read today in the Los Angeles Times for a book entitled, On Such a Full Sea, by Chang-Rae Lee. Now let me say first that I have not read Mr. Lee’s book, but that’s okay, because this column isn’t about his book, it’s about the review, by Porochista Khakpour.

 Ms. Khakpour makes it explicit that Mr. Lee is not only not a genre writer, but is, in fact, better at genre tropes. “Though the plot outline might sound similar to the kind of dystopian fiction flooding bestseller lists and young-adult shelves, Lee does something altogether more ambitious–not simply as genre writers do via plot but most ingeniously here via style.”

 So apparently genre writers have no style. No insult there.

 Later on, the review again takes aim at perceived genre conventions: “Resisting the genre writer’s eagerness to display the breadth and width of his imaginative feat, Lee doesn’t see the merit in just exposing the intricate wiring of his fabrications; instead he lets his heart walk the walk with Fan [the protagonist] and lets the ‘facts’ of his future settle into a supporting role.”

So apparently “genre writers”–and let’s be frank, she means SF and fantasy writers–are interested only in world-building. None of that hoity-toity characterization or emotional growth for us!

But then we are told that the book’s author indeed has higher aspirations than the mere “genre” practitioner: “Lee has said he’s always been interested ‘in positions of alienation or some kind of cultural dissonance’…”

Heavens! Why haven’t SF authors ever thought of that?

In the end, of course, what this reviewer thinks of this book, or genre writing, or literature in general, is of no import to me, or, honestly, most of the world. But as a book reviewer, readers give you the courtesy of believing that you know something about, I don’t know, books. When you write about something you aren’t familiar with, perhaps like Mr. Lee you should stick to fiction.

 

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