Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

Kindle Fire

I am not a myth!

I don’t have a dog in the fight between Amazon and big publishers over eBooks – I’m just an irrelevant bystander — but I do think I can tell when someone is trying to sell me a bill of goods.

At least that’s how I felt about parts of “The Seven Deadly Myths of Digital Publishing” by Bill McCoy, which appeared on the Publishers Weekly website today. However, I agreed with other points in Bill’s argument and overall found the article well worth reading. Here are my notes:

Tablets and Large Screen Smartphones Are Transforming Digital Publishing

McCoy says that new devices along with new universal coding standards will allow electronic publishing to offer “highly-designed illustrated and enhanced digital books” as well as greater reader interaction and social engagement. He also believes that the differences between reading content on an eReader, a mobile phone app, or a website will be reduced, where as currently they are distinct formats. All of this will allow the eBook’s success to expand beyond their current domains in “novels and linear non-fiction”.

All this is interesting and cool and thanks to Bill for sharing. My problem is that his article implies that Amazon (the monster elephant in the room he doesn’t name) is vulnerable because they are reliant on a proprietary and outdated E Ink platform: that is the Kindle.

Which would be true if Amazon hadn’t launched the Kindle Fire in September of 2011, and wasn’t continuing to roll out enhanced versions at a fraction of the cost of an iPad ever since.

Plus, considering Amazon has a pretty decent on-demand video streaming service already live, I’d say they are thinking about how to deliver content through their own website.

Now this doesn’t mean that Amazon will be more successful seizing the opportunities of the future than big publishers; but I do think it shows that Amazon sees those opportunities as clearly as Bill does. And Amazon sure doesn’t look like it’s behind the curve.

Authors Still Need Publishers

On this one, I’d say Bill is on thin ice. If not swimming in open water. Anyhow, he makes several points. That writers will need publishers for their expertise in editing, cover design, typography, and marketing. That publishers can evolve into new roles as multi-media / multi-platform “producers” of content in collaboration with writers. And that publishers can find a role organizing communities around authors and readers interested in the same topics.

Well. Expertise is editing, cover design, typography, and marketing is not limited to publishers and there are an enormous number of experienced freelancers out there (many of whom used to work for the publishers’ until they were outsourced).  Literary agents have marketing skills and are at least as well positioned, maybe better positioned, to be creative collaborators with writers, not mention their business managers. And none of these folks are going to demand 90% of a book’s net revenue as compensation.

As for community creation, is a publisher going to want create a community around a topic in which they aren’t the dominant publisher? And if they are the dominant publisher, are people going to believe that community ISN’T a form of advertising run by a big company for which they are working as unpaid copywriters?

I ain’t sure.

Now Bill is right that authors still need publishers. But the authors who need publishers most are the unknown ones – ie, the ones least likely to make them money. Will Stephen King still need a major imprint in five years? Maybe not.

And Let’s Not Forget About Amazon’s Huge Sales Pipe

Last summer, Forrester research stated that 30% of all online shoppers begin with Amazon to research products. Not Google. Not Bing-Yahoo. Amazon. Yikes.

Why? Well, people know they can find a lot of stuff they want to buy, at reasonable prices, with convenient shipping on Amazon. Getting them to change their habits and say, buy eBooks direct from a publisher platform, is going to take some major heavy lifting – most especially, offering some new product or service of such compelling value the people have a good selfish reason to switch.

Otherwise, publishers can innovate eBooks all they want. But they are still going to need to sell a lot of them through Amazon, because that’s where readers want to buy them right now.

And Let’s Not Forget About 70% Royalties and the Power of Social Media to Bypass All the Old Gatekeepers

And while I’m walloping away at Bill – who is doubtless a nice man and doesn’t deserve it – let’s not forget about 70% net royalties from eBooks published through Amazon versus 10% give or take from publishers for print books. With those numbers, authors could sell fewer total units of just eBooks at a lower cost through Amazon and still make more money. Ouch.

Plus, social media can be a highly effective way to market books, but publishers really can’t do it for authors. Who would you rather follow on Twitter? Dan Brown or the marketing assistant assigned to tweet about Dan Brown books at Doubleday?

So Pete, You’d Never Sign a Contract with a Traditional Publisher Then, Right?

Are you kidding? In a second. I am one of the unknowns in desperate need of their help. I love you, Doubleday, you big beautiful handsome company you. Call me!

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fifty shades of grey inner goddess journalFor a guy who writes mediocre poetry and has read one volume of Proust, I’ve always been pretty okay with capitalism. But the Fifty Shades of Grey Inner Goddess Journal (list price $16.99) is making me change my mind.

Before I saw the ad for this excellent product in The New York Times Book Review this morning, I regarded capitalism as not necessarily a good system, but the system which in practice has created the most wealth for the largest number of people so far.

Its dynamic of winners and losers was necessary to reward hard work, innovation, and risk-taking as well as to discourage free-riders (although I’m no free marketeer and I think the United States’ level of social protections is inadequate to ensure we get the most from all our people, not just those of privilege).

Capitalism certainly generates a large number of crappy products, but I’ve never been able to side with the critics who makes this point because (1) their definition of “crappy product” is “crap I don’t buy” and (2) they tend to talk as if they are the only ones who see through capitalism, while everyone else is its slave-drone-fool or an active participant in its malevolence.

But you know what. I was wrong.

It’s not just the breathtakingly cynical whoring after profit the Inner Goddess Journal represents that’s changed my mind because, honestly, you see whoring after profit going on all the time all over the place.

It’s that the Inner Goddess Journal includes “tips for writers” and plenty of blank pages for “aspiring writers” to “express their own Inner Goddess” according to the product description.

E.L. James offering tips for writers is like Genghis Khan handing out advice on how to live in peace with your neighbors.

Okay James wrote the books, and people liked them, and she made money, and everyone was happy. Fine. I’m okay with that. I read the first one. I thought it was hilariously awful. I moved on. It’s a free country. I’ll read the books I like. You read the books you like. God bless American. Amen.

But this. James wants to metastasize herself and Vintage Books is her enabler. Ladies, gentlemen, please. Write all the erotica you want. But don’t follow her advice. Because if you do, I’m going to have to move to a commune or see if the Pennsylvania Amish will take me in. And my wife won’t be very happy about that. I think.

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The Great Gatsby, classic cover designJulie Bosman published an interesting article on the front page of the The New York Times yesterday about competing cover designs for two paperback editions of The Great Gatsby. (The article is here.)  The first is a re-issue of the classic Gatsby cover familiar to readers old enough to have read Fitzgerald’s masterpiece in high school or college. The second is the tie-in edition for the movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio and directed by that genius of brilliant excess — or hawker of wretched excess, take your pick — Baz Luhrmann.

Much of the article describes the different markets at which the two cover designs are targeted, and different sales strategies behind each. Readers already familiar with the novel are likely to choose the classic design, while readers just discovering the book are more likely to be attracted by the movie version.

Behind one of these strategies, however, are certain attitudes toward literature which I find — well, let me be gentle in my expressions here — contemptible. Allow me to explain:

How does the cover design of The Great Gatsby change the novel? (Hint: It doesn’t.)

The Great Gatsby, movie designAssuming that texts in today’s competing versions of The Great Gatsby are identical, how do the differing cover designs affect the experience of reading the novel?

The answer is they don’t. Just like reading Gatsby on a tablet rather than on paper doesn’t change the experience, as long as you think what is essential about a novel is reading the text. Is engaging the words on the page. Is entering into a conversation with the author as you read the book.

Now, the cover design can influence your expectations of a novel you haven’t read. And if those expectations are different than your reading experience, you may come to a different conclusion about the book than you might have otherwise. But all sorts of things influence our expectations of a book. Its status in the canon. The opinions of reviewers and friends. Advertising. Our mood and experiences. Our age.

But once you’ve read a book, how does anything other than having read it affect your expectations on re-reading it? Especially a novel like The Great Gatsby, which a lot of people have read. Or put another way…

If the cover design of The Great Gatsby doesn’t matter, why does anyone care?

Because people do care. Or at least we know for certain that one SoHo bookseller quoted in the article cares, because he says so. “It’s just God-awful,” he says, referring to the movie tie-in version. (I agree, by the way. It is pretty bad.)

But it doesn’t sound like this bookseller objects to the fact the cover design is ugly. Allow me to quote the article.

As to whether the new, DiCaprio-ed edition of “Gatsby” would be socially acceptable to carry around in public, [I’ve withheld  the name, you can find it in the article] offered a firm no. “I think it would bring shame,” he said, “to anyone trying to read that book on the subway.”

Shame. Really. Why?  Is it because the important thing about The Great Gatsby is not reading The Great Gatsby but being seen reading The Great Gatsbyespecially being seen reading an edition of The Great Gatsby which signifies that you aren’t some hick coming late to the art party?

I realize I’m speculating aggressively here, with a certain amount of snark, but it’s hard to think what else our bookseller friend might have meant.

Also, while I’m at it, why the hell would you care what strangers in a city of 8.3 million people think of you? Are you likely to ever see them again? What’s the point of trying to impress people you don’t know?

Also, while I’m at it, shouldn’t we be happy if a person decides to read The Great Gatsby because the movie-cover persuaded him to pick it up? Shouldn’t we hope more people will read the books we like? I would think the answer to these questions is “yes”.

Unless of course the point of great novels is not to read them or share them, but to use these books to create an exclusive club that allows us to feel special and look down on everyone else.

Allow me to be blunt. If I haven’t been already. People who use art to bolster their social status or personal vanity are philistines. They don’t care about art. For them, it’s just another accessory to flash, like a fancy watch or a cocktail  made with a certain brand of liquor.

And people who use art to exclude or denigrate others are the mortal enemies of art; enemies because the purpose of art is to connect and communicate, to inspire and delight, to comfort and challenge, to upset and exhaust, but always to leave us with a deeper experience of the life and consciousness and creation we share.

There is no connecting in an exclusive club, just arrogance and self-congratulation and rigid insularity and pettiness. These are pretty contemptible qualities.

I think I’ll pass on the opportunity to join and go get the new ugly Gatsby instead. I hear it’s available at Walmart.

Somewhat Related Content

Here’s a post on the aura of art that got started by a discussion in the comment section below.

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This American author is deadIn The New York Times this week, Scott Turow published an op-ed on publishing and eBooks titled “The Slow Death of the American Author”.

Following my habit, I won’t summarize the piece (since you can read Turow’s thoughts here). But I will throw out a few more-or-less random notes. Here we go.

Publishers Put the Screws to Authors on eBook Royalties

Turow says in the piece that publishers limit “e-book royalties to 25 percent of net receipts. That is roughly half of a traditional hardcover royalty.”

My first reaction to this is “huh?” because it sounds like Turow is saying that authors often get royalties of 50 percent of net receipts on hard covers. Unless publishers subtract their costs from this net before calculating the royalty, or unless Turow means the actual dollars paid are roughly double, this sounds very high and totally sweet.

Now, I have to admit I haven’t seen many book contracts in a while, and none of them for general fiction. So I’d be happy for information from someone with current experience in the industry. Also, if any publisher would like to provide a sample contract – perhaps with my name on it? – that would be okay-dokay too.

Anyhow, as for the complaint that publishers put the screws to authors, all I can say is, “What else is new? It’s a business. The point is to buy low, sell high, and sleep on a pile of money.” At least publishers are willing to pay authors something, even if the word “pittance” is germane. As opposed to these folks.

Pirating of E-Books Are a Threat to E-Books

This is a different problem and one about which I can’t be as flip. Many eBooks authors are finding the best way to combat getting screwed (or ignored) by publishers is to sell directly to the reader.

As you may know from my other posts, I am quite keen on this model, although I don’t think it is the utopian revolution described by some of its more enthusiastic boosters.

However, if e-Book piracy becomes as endemic as other forms of media piracy, then the model breaks down. And leads to this question: What reason will writers have to create good work?

Writers Should Write for the Love of Writing

Yeah, that sounds nice, and to a large – but not absolute – degree, it’s true. All good writing starts with enthusiasm and love, I agree.

But that doesn’t mean the only reward for writers should be personal satisfaction; and the folks who claim otherwise are either individuals eager to read books for free or companies that have business models which substantially depend on the enormous amount of free content on the web. (A big piece of the value electronic device manufacturers and internet service providers offer to their customers is access to free content. Pirate sites monetize their piracy by selling advertising, much of it through our giant friend on the internet, Google.)

Also, to paraphrase Turow, and to borrow from King Lear’s advice to Cordelia, writers who get nothing for their writing will eventually write … nothing. Or more accurately, writers will write less, and the quality of their writing will decline, if they can’t get paid for their work.

Those at most risk are the mid-list, middle-brow  authors. Successful genre writers are likely to always make enough money to keep writing about vampires or serial killers, particularly it they can sell rights to movie or television producers. Writers with real artistic talent will find a perch in a college or university that is happy to pay them hard cash for the prestige of their name and a light teaching load.

Everyone else? I hope they make a beautiful corpse.

Related Articles:

“Scott Turow and his Sinking Ship” (

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Evan Hughes has written an interesting piece on eBooks, the publishing industry, self-publishing, and the future of writers and readers for

I won’t summarize the article (since you can read it here) which nicely describes many trends reported elsewhere in the recent past; but I will make a few observations about points that particularly struck me. Here they are:

Successful Self-Published eBooks Are Serials Written in Pulp Genres

The writers who’ve had success self-publishing eBooks seem to work largely in traditional pulp genres like science fiction, crime, horror, romance, and erotica. These writers produce books in series, each of which creates an intense desire to read the next, just like one tasty potato chip makes you desperate to eat another. The digital format lets you satisfy that desire instantaneously and buy the next volume, from any place at any time.

As a bonus, you don’t have to figure out how to get rid of the damn thing once you’ve finished it. The pleasure in pulps is all about reading the next one, not re-reading the ones you already own, which tend to lie around the house and glare at you reproachfully for having paid $30.00 for the hard cover. Passionate fans are excepted from this problem.

All of which makes me feel better about my own lack of self-publishing success with Queen of the Nude since my mistake was not following this model. (I’m rationalizing because I’m feeling vulnerable today.)

I seem to have written erotica. Good! But I’ve actually written a commercial fiction / literary fiction hybrid. Bad! And it is not the first in a series. Bad! And I pretty much wrap everything up on the last page. Bad! I’m doomed. Okay, enough whining.

Only Writers Who Aren’t Yet Successful Need Publishers

Traditional publishers offer writers only two services of any real value today: some modest – but highly unreliable – assurance of quality and marketing muscle which they may or may not flex. (Big guaranteed advances also count as a service, if you can get one.)

These services are useful primarily to writers who might deserve an audience but don’t have one. Successful authors, self-published or otherwise, don’t need help building an audience, and these audiences generally don’t need an assurance of quality because they have already have a decent idea of what they will get.

This means, right now, traditional publishers only offer compelling value to those writers least likely to make them money. And these companies have got to be sweating blood at the thought of the moment when eBooks capture a great enough percentage of all book sales that writers like Stephen King decide they can make more coin without them.

Because when this happens – and I don’t usually pretend I can predict the future, but I think it is a when – the traditional publishing industry will need to find new ways to offer writers and readers value. Or cease to exist.

Books Still Need Paper Copies to Sell Books?

This is an intriguing assertion. According to Hughes, lots of data suggests that while people like to buy books online, they still like to discover these books in stores. So books published on paper and sold in bricks-and-mortar stores will always be essential to publishing.

I’m not sure this is true, however. People discover books many ways, particularly from friends, reviews, and social media as well as advertising.

I enjoy browsing in bookstores and buying books from them (one of the few forms of shopping I actually like), but I’m hard pressed to think of an occasion when I have ever bought a book I had wholly discovered in a store.

Like traditional publishers, bookstores are going to need more new ideas to survive. I don’t believe either is fated to go extinct. But I don’t see a solution to their problems, either.

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a clockwork orange anthony burgess reviewAnthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange succeeds purely on the strength of its narrator’s voice – but what a voice!

The novel’s story is told by 15-year-old Alex who lives in a vaguely dystopian, vaguely futuristic country that seems to be Britain.  Alex can check off every item under the DSM definition of sociopath. He bullies his parents and friends. He brutally assaults people at random. He gang-rapes a woman, rapes two young girls, and kills an old woman while trying to burglar her house. Alex regards this as all good youthful fun. When confronted by authorities, he knows how to pantomime innocence or remorse. When punished, he laments that no one cares or feels sorry for poor Alex.

All this promises to make Alex pretty ugly company, but sociopaths are often noted for their charm and wit, and Alex  has these in aplenty – not to mention exuberance, intelligence, formidable powers of observation, and a passionate love of classic music.

He also has the advantage of “nadsat,” the famous Russian-influence English slang Burgess invented for Alex, which puts the violence Alex commits at a remove from the reader and lends it a fantastical, almost fairy-tale quality.

Burgess described A Clockwork Orange as a “jeu d’esprit” that he wrote in three weeks, and it certainly feels like a book created in a burst of white-hot inspiration and imagination.

And it is a good thing, too. Because the “philosophical” parts of the novel, for which A Clockwork Orange is often complimented, strike me as (at best) heavy-handed and (at worst) laughably obvious.

So the philosophical meditation part of A Clockwork Orange goes like this.

First, Alex runs around assaulting, raping, and murdering. Then he is sent to prison where he is subjected to  behavior modification that physically incapacitates him any time he thinks about committing violence.  Then he un-behavior modifies himself by jumping out a window. Then he decides it’s time to grow up,  find a nice wife, and have a cute baby.

Get it?

In case you don’t,  Burgess sprinkles handy hints throughout the novel. So there is a book within a book, also titled “A Clockwork Orange,” from which Alex helpfully reads a summary passage on how you shouldn’t turn men into mindless machines. There is also the prison chaplain, just before Alex goes for his behavior modification therapy,  worrying out loud to the young man:

Does God want goodness or the choice of goodness? Is a man who chooses the bad perhaps in some way better than a man who has the good imposed upon him?

Burgess leaves us in no doubt of the answer to this question, and since he has created the world in which the question is asked, he gets to arrange his “facts” and “reality” to support his talking points. (Ayn Rand was a great one for doing that too.)

A Clockwork Orange is also noted for its satirical elements, and these were better than the philosophy, but not exactly revelatory. The police, politicians, Christianity, and what look like Communist intellectuals all get a good bracing spank and that was fine.

For me, one of the interesting things about reading A Clockwork Orange was how it compared and contrasted to Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock.

Greene’s novel features Pinkie, another murderous teenage British sociopath at the center of another “novel as meditation” – this time on the nature of sin and morality. Greene’s novel doesn’t deliver the same jolt of pure linguistic bliss as A Clockwork Orange, but it doesn’t bludgeon you with its themes either. It’s a close call, but I like Greene’s book a little better. I would fully recommend reading both, however.

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never let me go ishiguro rviewCan you appreciate a book without particularly liking it? That was my reaction to Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 speculative or experimental or science-fiction novel (read the review then pick your adjective), Never Let Me Go.

 Never Let Me Go focuses on three characters – Tommy, Ruth, and the novel’s narrator Kathy H. – who are students at what seems to be an upscale private school called Hailsham in what seems to be England in the 1980s.  But something isn’t quite right.

The disquiet begins with the first chapter in which an adult Kathy talks about her work as a “carer” for “donors”.  The story quickly returns to Kathy’s childhood at Hailsham where the students are only taught art, where the teachers are called “guardians”, and where not only are parents and the outside world never mentioned, but where they seem to barely exist.

As it turns out, there is a good reason for all these strange facts. The students of Hailsham are clones who are being raised to adulthood for the singular purpose of providing organ donations to “normal” men and women. The last donation is fatal.

And with that realization, we follow Ishiguro down his rabbit hole, and pop up in the world of Kafka or Beckett (as other reviewers have well noted before me); but unlike the fantastical worlds of Gregor Samsa’s middle-class family apartment, or Vladimir and Estragon’s desolate country road, the world of Never Let Me Go never quite achieves a coherent internal logic. Which means I don’t think the novel is an entirely successful experiment.

But before I get to these objections, let me talk about what I think Ishiguro did right.

The Flat Affect of Kathy H. Is Pitch Perfect. And Hard to Take

 Kathy H.’s narrative voice in Never Let Me Go is cool – even cold – dispassionate, and elusive. She leaves an enormous amount unsaid about the feelings and experiences of clone donors. They all seem to embrace their fate with a combination of resignation and acceptance. The four stages of donations are not described. Post-operative pain or complications are vaguely acknowledged, at best. Every donor dies off the page. No one knows where the bodies are buried. If they are buried.

Kathy H.  describes strong emotions, even in herself, with a matter-of-fact tone that prevents us from feeling them. She doesn’t seem to want our sympathy, and her coolness makes our empathy harder.

But all this seems exactly right. Asking someone to remain alive in feeling who has been bred and raised like cattle; who has helped the people she loves die in the service of a society that treats them as spare parts; and who herself is now facing the same death – all that is too much.

Kathy H. should be shut down as person. And if that makes our empathy harder, then it should be harder, because it is a catastrophic lack of empathy in Never Let Me Go that makes the genocidal slavery of the clones possible.

And I would go further and say since any injustice committed by one human against another has as its foundation a failure of empathy, then the novel pushes us to strengthen the quality which is the solution to its (fantastical) horrors.

Never Let Me Go: An Inadequate Portrait of Human Life

You might think after that statement I don’t have any serious criticisms of Never Let Me Go. But I do.

My first criticism is based on the indications that Ishiguro wants us to understand the experience of Kathy H. and Tommy and Ruth as universal. We know this explicitly from the February 2005 interview Ishiguro gave to The Guardian in which he said:

There are things I am more interested in than the clone thing. How are they trying to find their place in the world and make sense of their lives? To what extent can they transcend their fate? … Most of the things that concern them concern us all.

We also know it implicitly because it is not just Kathy H. who responds to her fate with resignation and acceptance. Every clone responds with resignation and acceptance. If there are variations from these two emotions in the world of Never Let Me Go, we have no report of them.

This is a barren and withered portrait of human life; and while it is an accurate description of some human lives, it is entirely inadequate representation of the human race I know.

That race, too, strives with might and contends with blood. That race, too, loves with a fierceness that will break before it quits. That race, too, rejoices and despairs. That race, too, knows beauty as well as horror. That race, too, seethes for justice in the face of injustice. That race, too, believes beyond all reason, beyond the heavy evidence of experience. That race, too, endures and endures.

Where are these lives too in Never Let Me Go?

Clone Organ Donors: Extraneous and Finally, a Distraction

My other problem with Never Let Me Go is that I think it was a mistake for Ishiguro to situate his science-fiction nightmare in what otherwise appears to be England in the middle-late 20th century.

It would have been fine if Ishiguro had transformed the premise into something more familiar: say a children’s cancer ward in which Kathy H. could have been an orphan and ward of the state, the other characters had dysfunctional families, and so on. Then Ishiguro could still have explored the things in which he says he was most interested without all the fussing with clones.

Or he could have set Never Let Me Go in some dystopian alternate Earth-like world sometime in the past or future, in which it would be easy to accept the clones because that’s what happened in this world. (Think of Panem in The Hunger Games.) That would also have been fine and easy to do.

But as it is in Never Let Me Go, I kept stopping and saying to myself: “Wait, exactly how does this clone-donor society thing work again?”

How did England, barely ten years after the defeat of Nazi Germany, the exposure of the death camps, and the end of the Nurenberg Trials, transform itself from a reasonable progressive Western society – as these things go – into a moral monster? Did the rest of the Allied powers acquiesce or participate? How did England get the entire medical profession to ignore the Hippocratic Oath? Where there no objections from the religious communities? Did anyone object? Who was making money from this? Was there an underground railroad for clones? What was the system of control? As young adults, the clones seem to be able to roam at will. What stopped them from disappearing into society, where they would be indistinguishable from other human beings? Why didn’t the clones go all Rambo on the murderous bastards running the system? As an American, I can name entire states – hello, Texas – that would rise up in violent defense of themselves. How did science perfect cloning months after the discovery of the DNA double helix, but still need another 30 years to invent the Walkman?

Also, I’m not a big fan of the novel of social comment, but the premise clearly suggests that our societies are capable of such actions, but doesn’t go any further with the suggestion.  This combination of provocative and perfunctory doesn’t sit well.

Should You Read Never Let Me Go?

Never Let Me Go is two books in many ways. As the story of three people dealing with horrors not at all dissimilar from real ones in the world today, I thought it was pretty good. As a speculative science-fiction novel, it would have needed to speculate much harder and much more thoroughly to be a success

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brief wondrous life oscar wao junot diaz reviewWhen artists are really good, I tend to curse at them. G-dd-mn Jane Austen. G-dd-mn Beethoven. G-dd-amn Billy Wilder. Now I’ve got a new name on my curse list. G-dd-mn Junot Diaz.

The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao principally concerns its title character, his sister Lola, and their mother, although it does also tell the story of their extended family as well as that of its ostensible narrator, Yunior.

Diaz’ novel is that rare find – a work of current fiction that entirely lives up to its hype. The number of successful elements it delivers is simply ridiculous:

Big vivid characters that make a big splash on the page? Check.

Big vivid characters that are also richly imagined, convincing, and affecting? Check.

Multi-generational saga? Check.

Lots of sex but no sex scenes (thank you Junot!)? Check.

Healthy dollops of magical realism? Check.

Locations exotic to the typical American reader of literary fiction: hard scrabble New Jersey and the Dominican Republic? Check.

A narrative voice that is part gangster, part geek, and part grad student? Check.

A whole bunch of fanboy references to comic books, science fiction, and fantasy novels (oh god not again)? Check.

A great deal of untranslated Spanish dialogue, narration, and commentary? Check.

A third-world history lesson — in this case about the hyper-over-super-achieving sadistic Dominican dictator Trujillo and his thirty year reign of terror — much of which is told through jazzy footnotes? Check.

A story focused on the wild, uncompromising, irrational, destructive but all the same soul-sustaining power of love? Check.

A satisfying ending that unites all these elements in an organic whole that meets Nabokov’s definition of art, “beauty plus pity”? Check and check.

G-dd-mn Junot Diaz.

The only criticism of the novel I have is a flaw in the narrator which, as it turns out, isn’t a flaw at all. In the beginning of The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Yunior pushes the comic book/sci-fi/fantasy references so hard that they almost entirely obscure the character of Oscar.

I kept muttering, “I can’t see Oscar, Junot, because all these Lord of the Rings references keep getting in the way.”

But what I realized is that early in the novel, Yunior is a young man who writes like a young man: overly earnest, full of himself, self-absorbed, and inept. He matures as he ages, and his narration matures too, until it is much wiser, more self-aware, more observant and empathetic, and more rueful.

Yunior is also one of those (not uncommon) characters who are their author’s alter ego, to the extent that they often share their creator’s omniscience. Yunior describes many things in the novel which are simply impossible for him to know.

Diaz doesn’t give Yunior the excuse of being the fictional author of the novel. Instead, Diaz shimmers in and out of Yunior’s character, which I think gives the novel more depth, because Diaz keeps getting you to fall into the dream of the story, then waking you up from it.

That’s another element I should have put in my list. Well, I’ll check it off now and conclude with this: G-dd-mn Junot Diaz.

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Save us from bad erotica wine godsThe world is facing many serious problems today. But one of the most serious is poorly written erotica.

How have our sensual imaginations come to be dominated by writers of awkward syntax with no feel for adjectives, a habit of inserting commas where they do not belong, and a hilarious understanding of human psychology?

Not to fear! Our saviors are at hand. Open any wine connoisseur catalog and you’ll find writers of extraordinary talent and distinction who can easily be drafted into our fight against bad erotica.

Please join me in a campaign to recruit these writers, so we can all enjoy work like this:

Black plum and refreshing, tangy red cherry with hints of dark chocolate.

Nice to meet you. Do you come here often? Did you know you have pretty lips?

Light gold with green glints.

I could lose myself forever in your greenly glinting golden eyes.

Red cherries and raspberries layered over silky, rounded tannins.

Tell me more about those silky, rounded tannins.

Creamy peach, sweet citrus and melon.

What’s that scent you are wearing? It’s intoxicating.

Mouthfilling texture and a deep finish.

Wooah, slow down. We just met. And the night is still young.

Juicy, smooth, and pleasing. Dark fruit and hints of nutmeg spice, delicate toffee and a refreshing finish.

You know, you’re the girl my mother has been asking me to bring home for years.

Explosive guava and vibrant gooseberry. Hints of flinty stone on the finish.

Oooh, good-looking bad boys who play by their own rules are flinty. I’ve got vibrant gooseberries and I can be flinty. Whaddaya think?

Soft mouthfeel. Fresh-sliced red apple, juicy pineapple and mango with a long, buttery finish.

Okay, you’ve convinced me. Barkeep? Check please!


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Play it as it lays Didion reviewAlbert Camus goes to Hollywood in Joan Didion’s celebrated 1970 novel, Play It As It Lays.

The story concerns Maria Wyeth, a 31-year-old movie actress of small distinction, as she suffers a vaguely defined emotional / moral / existential disintegration.

Nothing is going well in Maria’s life. Her marriage to a film director is falling apart. Her young daughter is institutionalized because of a severe psychiatric disorder. Maria is not working because – at least it seems to me – she is suffering from a debilitating combination of depression and anxiety. She terminates a pregnancy that results from an adulterous affair and is then haunted by the choice.  And through it all, Maria becomes more distant and indifferent, until she can no longer find any meaning in her life or the lives of the people around her.

Play I As It Lays is composed of 87 fragment chapters written in a elliptical style that largely focus on its characters’ external actions. Didion names Hemingway as one of her influences, and it shows.

Play It As It Lays and Camus’ The Stranger

One of my strongest reactions to Didion’s novel was how much it reminded me of The Stranger. (Spoiler alert, by the by.)

Both novels concern a character that sees life as essentially meaningless. Both characters commit a crime. In the case of Camus’ Meursault, it is the famous murder of an Arab man he encounters on the beach. In Maria’s, it is abetting the suicide of a friend  who shares her bleak view of life.

Meursault is imprisoned for his crime. Maria is confined to a neuropsychiatric hospital for hers, although whether this is the result of legal action or medical judgment or her own choice is not defined. Both are, overall, reasonably happy locked up.

Both Meursault and Maria Wyeth can be seen as monsters or truth-tellers. Both are viewed by other characters in their novels as selfish, self-absorbed, or evil (Maria addresses the question of evil directly in the opening sentence of Didion’s novel) although I don’t think Meursault and Maria are selfish as much as they are as indifferent to their own lives as they are to the lives of others.

Both seem to have one single authentic human connection: Meursault tenuously to his mother, Maria to her daughter Kate. Both novels have a desert setting (Play It As It Lays takes place as much in Nevada as Los Angeles). Both books are written in a clear, brief, terse, and unadorned style.

Both Play It As It Lays and The Stranger also possess a serious flaw, to my mind.

In Camus’ novel, it’s my nagging sense that Meursault commits the murder less from psychology or situation than from Camus’ need for him to commit the murder in order to advance the story. It’s a senseless crime, but it’s motivated neither by an irrational burst of emotion, or carelessness, or anything else I can see.

In Didion’s book, the flaw I see it that Maria Wyeth seems to suffer constant, intolerable emotional pain while at the same time acting with utterly indifference to her life.  These are mutually exclusive states of being. And while the exclusion doesn’t have to be absolute, I’m not sure Didion resolves the contradiction.

What is the nature of Maria Wyeth?

This is one of the more interesting questions a novel can ask about its main character and the best ones often answer it in unsettling ways.

Emma Bovary, for example, is a puzzling and off-putting and challengingly shallow literary character. Can we really take her as a successful simulacrum of a potential actual person? Because a profound occupation with the nature of humans and human life is the essential foundation of the novel, despite what theory geeks and academics might insist otherwise.

On first reading, I thought Maria Wyeth was a successful simulacrum because the novel is written retrospectively.

Play As It Lays opens with Maria in the neuropsychiatric hospital with all the book’s action already in the past. So the coldness and distance with which the book narrates Maria’s descent make sense: she’s simply withdrawn from pain that would otherwise have destroyed her.

The novel’s quick shift from the first person in the first chapter to third person – “a third very close to the mind of the character” as Didion described it in a Paris Review interview – also makes sense because it makes the distance between Maria and her experience greater.

But on the other hand, Didion makes a very big deal out of Maria and “nothing” in Play It As It Lays. Maria asserts in the beginning of the novel that “NOTHING APPLIES”. She explains that  her doctors, about her, “will extrapolate reasons where none exist.”

Maria tells her ex-husband she wants “nothing” and feels “nothing’.  Maria says, in a return to the first person toward the end of Play It As It Lays, “I used to ask questions, and I got the answer: nothing. The answer is ‘nothing.’”

On the last page of the book, Maria declares “I know something Carter never knew, or Helene, or maybe you. I know what ‘nothing’ means, and keep on playing.”

I read all this and I said to myself, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” Or is it brags?

Now it is possible that Maria Wyeth, the self-proclaimed Queen of Nothing, at the same time, and with equal sincerity, desperately wants to get out of the hospital, save her daughter, and live with her.  Quite possibly she wants nothing and feels nothing, except when she doesn’t. Holding mutually exclusive convictions is a human trait. In fact, it may be THE human trait.

It also human for a person to regard her experience, insight, and suffering as well as her resilience in the face of these, as unique and remarkable. Arrogance is another common human trait.

But I don’t see where Maria gets her arrogance. She is barely able to hold herself together in the novel from one moment to the next; and yet at the end of Play It As It Lays, we are supposed to believe that Maria has faced and transcended the devastating truth of life nobody else has the capacity to see much less the strength to withstand?

I don’t buy it. I’m not convinced. And because I’m not convinced, that makes Maria, not a simulacrum, but a conceit. Simulacrums speak for themselves, but conceits speak for their authors. And Maria Wyeth does not speak well for Didion.

Let’s wrap up with a little subjective opinion

Part of my reaction to Play It As It Lays is informed by my response to A Year of Magical Thinking, which I thought was a fine book, and made me feel sympathy for what Didion suffered, but which also set my teeth on edge because Didion wrote about the deaths of her husband and daughter in a way that seemed to imply her observations and feelings were unique. (My father said to me spontaneously about the book, “Does Didion think no one else has ever lost someone they loved?”) We could ask a similar question about Maria.

Then also, I’m sensitive to the unspoken conviction among writers and readers that a habit of introspection and a (sometimes) talent for expression gives them a finer soul than normal people. These qualities don’t, although they are often the parents of a particularly offensive and repugnant form of vanity. In its negative form, this vanity will suggest that if you are happy, you aren’t paying attention.

Finally, there are few things I enjoy less than reading a book about rich white people who are self-importantly miserable. My reaction to these characters goes something like this. “If you have an untreated or under-treated or resistant-to-treatment mental health disorder, that’s one thing. If not, then please make some modest effort to unf*** up your life. It might work.”

Now that intemperate outburst may lead you to conclude I didn’t like Play It As It Lays. But I did. It was well written and challenging and gave me a good workout. I had an interesting conversation / argument with Didion as I read it. Can’t ask for too much more than that.

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