Friday, June 1, 2018

The Cosmic Vision of Holst: The Planets 100 Years Later

Inevitably, certain works in the classical music canon fall into heavy rotation, often to the detriment of lesser-known (but equally powerful) pieces. One piece that is a perennial favorite is Gustav’s Holst’s 1916 suite, The Planets, which is often given the dubious distinction of being a “pops” piece. It is been recorded numerous times by most of the great conductors and orchestras, and many people assume that it has said all it needs to say by now, just over 100 years after its first performance. So I often think myself, until I hear it with fresh ears, or even better, catch a live performance. A few months ago I saw it again in concert (my third time, I believe) and though I was looking forward to it, I wasn’t desperate to hear it again, as much as I adore the piece.

Perhaps that’s the best way to go into a concert—expecting as little as possible. From the opening tread of Mars I was intrigued, forgetting how exciting it is to hear the rhythmic backdrop being tapped away on the violins’ strings before it explodes from the full orchestra. Movement after movement gave me fresh insights—the runs of double harps accenting the otherworldly beauty in Venus, or the cavorting of bassoons in Uranus. It’s a piece that really needs to be seen live to get the sense of how well Holst manipulates the orchestra, echoing themes in different sections, and then massing incredible towers of sound in the most interesting combinations. And who can forget the astonishing entrance of the off-stage chorus in Neptune which swims through the orchestra fabric, only to be the last ‘man’ standing as the piece fades into oblivion?

Hearing it again made me think about why this piece is such an astonishing achievement and how much subsequent music—including anything about space or written for celluloid—owes to its inspiration. Perhaps the most amazing thing about The Planets is how doggedly Holst refused to follow it up with a sequel. Holst was quite an eccentric composer, hopping from Eastern mysticism to English folksong without batting an eye. While he was capable of writing crowd pleasers such as the St. Paul’s Suite and the ballet music from The Perfect Fool, he usually preferred writing mysterious, craggy works such as Edgon Heath or The First Choral Symphony (there wasn’t a second).

Yet hearing The Planets alone, you would think he was the most tuneful, extrovert composer on the planet (heh), rivaling Rimsky-Korsakov for orchestral color and Dvorak for the sheer number of tunes. Had he written a single movement alone—say, Jupiter—he would have been world famous; yet he wrote seven magnificent movements, each one a masterpiece of mood and music. The piece is uniquely balanced between orchestral fireworks and actual depth: despite its reputation as a pops staple, this is not empty music in the vein of, say, the 1812 Overture. Holst slid in some deeply personal thoughts as well as a bit of prophecy: Neptune is more than a leave-taking of the suite; it also seems to predict the future of 20th century music.

While many dismiss The Planets’ importance, you merely have to look at 20th century music far and wide to hear it all around you. While Holst had his own influences, Richard Strauss and Elgar among them, he transformed the whole into something neither composer could have dreamed up. For all of Strauss’ sheer opulence,  he always seems a bit tongue-in-cheek, as if he’s mocking the very beauties he catalogues. And Elgar, for all his nobility, can occasionally seem a bit too noble, too convinced of his own rhetoric. Holst exhibits something of Keats’ “negative capability,” in that he offers some of his own compositional thumbprints, while also seeming invisible throughout.
Each movement has its own sensibility and ethos. Mars is very different than Jupiter, and none of them are at all like Neptune. There is a lot of connecting thread, mind you, and the orchestration itself seems to be the ‘frame’ that unites the whole. And yet, Holst never winks at you, as if to say, “isn’t this clever,” or “here I’m writing a scherzo ala Dukas.” The music simply seems to be, as if it has always existed, spinning in space and awaiting the first bold explorers from our humble planet. More than anything, I feel I am visiting a unique, self-contained world in each movement, with its own culture and laws, some more or less recognizably human until the last. Only at the end do we get our first glimpse at the “beyond,” a world where humanity falls away like a dried-up husk to reveal something frightening in its boldness, yet liberating in its ice-cold beauty.

The suite opens with Mars, Bringer of War, and it’s possibly the most famous—and most plagiarized—movement. The brutal rhythmic tread tapped away on strings, and soon shouted by the entire orchestra, belies the cleverness of the main theme, which is almost heroic and noble—a mechanized Elgar, perhaps. The piece reminds me of the WWI propaganda that sent so many idealistic young men to their doom, and the music, too, seems to ring hollow as the piece progresses. The nobility is ground away by the sheer violence of the sentiment, even though it’s extremely exciting and the listener gets carried away in the sentiment. Yet passionate outbursts attest that those fighting  in the war believe in their role, and that even if glory is in vain, some people will die in the pursuit. More than any other piece, this movement sounds prophetic of Shostakovich’s ‘war symphonies,’ particularly the great grinding opening movement of his Seventh, though that theme is far more banal than Holst’s. The genius of Holst is that his themes are truly believable—they don’t sound like parody, but rather, something beauty and noble pressed into unholy service. So when the battle explodes to life, you realize what brought them to this pass—and why no one can hope to survive it. This is not only the death of young men, but the death of ideals, the destruction of an entire world. Fitting, in that WWI was raging at the time and that the 20th century would never be the same again.

Naturally, this is followed by Venus, Bringer of Peace, which is tonally and thematically different in every possible way. The opulent, Straussian orchestration gives way to a chamber-like delicacy, opening horns and flutes, and then harp, strings, and celesta. This could be a sentimental cliche in the hands of a lesser composer; Holst makes it sound like a fever dream experienced by a shell-shocked survivor of war. The opening theme is ethereal and the very epitome of peace (as the title suggests). A second theme emerges on solo violin, a Romantic theme but played at a distance—almost like a memory of love than the feeling itself. The strings join in this theme, which reaches a restrained climax, then fades back into the warm, glowing calmness. More than anything, this movement seems to suggest the idea of love in tranquility, happy memories that can never be experienced again, perhaps at the moment of death. The pulsing winds behind this second theme give a hint of darkness—again, like beauty and peace that can only be experienced fleetingly, a happy ending that is essentially bittersweet. Yet the violin, oboe, and cello solos try earnestly to create a mood of rapture, even as they are swept aside by the general feeling of benediction. When the second theme is played toward the end by muted strings, it seems even more desolate. Like Saturn to come, there is something of old-age and passions spent in this piece, even if it still remembers what loves feels like.

Mercury, the Winged Messenger is the dark horse of the suite, and perhaps the most ingenuous movement. Essentially a quicksilver scherzo, it begins with a motif that flitters all across the orchestra, before reaching a quirky theme that is again passed around by the orchestra and interrupted by chimes. A violin introduces a new theme, more plaintive in tone, which is also passed around as if late for a pressing appointment. However, it reaches a grand climax by the entire orchestra—the destination reached?—before fading back into the racing motif of the beginning. The orchestration is jaw-dropping and requires the utmost virtuosity, and for this reason, really makes a splash in concert. You can hear a bit of Debussy and Ravel in this piece, as well as Dukas, whose The Sorcerer’s Apprentice may have inspired it. More than anything, this jolly, wistful piece reminds me of the colors and shapes of kaleidoscope, tumbling and falling over and over again.

Jupiter, Bringer of Jollity, is the true ‘core’ of the suite, as well as the most famous single movement. The grand opening predicts big things, and Holst doesn’t disappoint. More than anything, this movement seems to be narrating a story: the festivities for a grand ceremony of the gods, with the music ushering in this and that deity’s arrival. The grand theme on cellos and horns does indeed seem like a procession, followed by ‘scurrying’ music reminiscent of Mercury (perhaps some of the gods are late)? Then the big, strutting theme emerges, perhaps Jupiter/Zeus himself arriving on the arm of Hera? It all sounds like grand Hollywood ‘sword and sandals’ music, which is appropriate, since they shamelessly pilfered Holst’s musical language (along with Liszt, Strauss, and a few others). As the ceremony falls away, something miraculous happens: the arrival of a second great theme, a “hymn” of arresting beauty and nobility. Someone even grander than Jupiter himself has arrived. Holst would later write words to this tune, called “The Land of Hope and Glory,” since it is quite a show-stopper. In this context, it seems that even the gods are stopped in their tracks by something greater than themselves. I like to think they are gazing on the works of man, which are quickly outstripping them and moving them to tears of admiration—and envy. But the gods have a short attention span: scurrying music soon intervenes, and the grand entrance of the very beginning repeats. The gods are immortal! Or are tonight, at any rate. So let the feasting and drinking resume!

A much more human note is sounded by the following movement, Saturn, The Bringer of Old Age. As stated before, it seems to have a mood/tone in common with Venus, a certain world-weariness and sense of coming to a fatal conclusion. But Saturn is much darker from the outset, and offers little in the way of romantic excursions. It opens like a question, a mere pulse (like the ticking of a clock) to set the stage for a cosmic confrontation. The first motif is full of yearning and passion—more passionate than anything we’ve heard so far. Finally a theme emerges, sounding like a grand theme (similar to Jupiter’s) but with passion spent and played too slow. We expect it to gather steam and become triumphant and jolly, and indeed, it does seem to acquire a sense of major key optimism—for a moment. Then it reaches a climax only to fall away to a few distant drums and a restatement of the theme, in a more spectral garb. It suddenly sounds like a funeral march. A new theme emerges, full of tragedy and danger. It begins to rise, the drums growing in size and alarm; the brass pound out the theme, until bells intrude—danger! destruction! death!  The funeral procession seems to topple off a cliff, falling to ruin below. Death seems to sweep the board clean of players, and the orchestra returns to a brooding accompaniment of chimes and slowed-down clocks. Yet at the moment of greatest despair, the music takes an upward turn, harps taking over the ‘ticking’ accompaniment in a more hopeful manner. Horns pick up snatches of the theme making it sound like a hymn, as a distant church bell seems to signal a rekindling of hopes—or an ascension of spirit. Though subdued, the music assumes an almost ecstatic character, reaching a state of transcendence beyond the world of hopes and dreams. At the very end, flutes imagine the afterworld, suggesting the peace of Venus without the illusion of romance. It’s the calmest and most hopeful moment in the entire suite.

Uranus, The Magician is meant to startle after this moment of bliss. The opening motif is aggressive and menacing. A dance-like theme kicks up its heels in a cackle of spirits. Holst creates an atmosphere of savage enchantment with music that skitters like Mercury, but quickly assumes depths that the “messenger” can never imagine. A heavy, rollicking theme takes over, becoming increasingly violent—like a spell that has escaped the magician’s control. The use of percussion is masterly, drums and glockenspiel suggesting shadowy spirits marching across the walls. An especially chilling moment is when the low brass plays the rollicking theme, while the flutes play a marching variation—as if two imaginary armies are drawing battles lines in the magician’s study. This grows into the most savage climax since Mars­—a truly barbaric clash of percussion and brass, as the entire laboratory is torn asunder. Vials explode, windows shatter—and then, an explosion punctuated by an organ. Perhaps the sorcerer has finally banished the spell. But no...harps continue to pluck away at the theme, suggesting a few embers yet remain. Then the brass comes back for one more savage volley before a final, and resounding, silence (but not before the opening notes are played once more on the harp).

Neptune, as stated earlier, is the great beyond. It opens with a wandering, mystical flute theme appropriate for its subtitle, “The Mystic.” It seems suspended in time, without anything human as a point of departure. The theme avoids any hint of Romantic melody, a quality emphasized by the violins which trace a spectral accompaniment behind the slow, spare wind music. Celesta chimes seem to evoke the distant, twinkling stars of a hundred thousand years ago, light that has traversed the darkness of space to reach us at last. It’s beautiful and calm, until the brass intones some starkly unsettling undertones like a warning. After all, it’s always dangerous to leave home, and who knows exactly what lies beyond. Either way, we won’t return the same way—or in the same form. When the chorus enters (off-stage, in a live performance) it’s like the sirens call of adventure, yet far less sensuous than Debussy’s Sirens from a decade before The Planets. It wafts in like a passing cloud, and the music behind almost hints at a romantic melody; we are lost in wonder at a hidden truth we never imagined and long to hold in our grasp. The chorus carries us away, the music from the orchestra fading, until even sound becomes lost in silence. 

Can You Hate a Great Book? That Depends How You Define Great...

When I was younger, I loved the moment before I started writing a story. When I had the idea, but not the words. In that never-never land of thought and possibility, I could be on the verge of writing the greatest story in existence (or at least in my genre). However, the second I put down a word, then a sentence, then a page, the percentage would fall. 80% chance of writing a masterpiece...65%... 15%...and on down to, “well, it’s a book one or two people might love.” Once I inevitably got to the end of the story, or even the end of a long process of editing, what I had was far from a masterpiece. I would even debate if I could comfortably call it “good.” Somehow, it seemed to lack that quality that all great writing had, even though I had kept those ideas in mind as I wrote. Yet what I ended up with was merely okay, a flawed hodgepodge of good intentions. Not a great work of art.

Over the years, I’ve often challenged myself to define the difference between “good” and “great” works of art, particularly in writing. I’ve read so many books over the course of three degrees and forty-four years, and though I’ve enjoyed many of them, only a few dozen would qualify as truly “great.” Because it’s not subjective (not entirely), and it’s not just about enjoyment or pushing an individual’s buttons. No, great writing is something quantifiable, something you can notice and examine and emulate (even if it’s impossible to replicate). And of course, you might strongly dislike a work even while knowing with every page this is a great work of art. I’ve done it—disliked, even hated, a masterpiece. Because “loving” can’t be the sole criteria of art, or even a viable one. There has to be more to telling stories and crafting sentences than falling in love.

Here are a few criteria I’ve compiled over the years to determine the worth of a truly great book—though note that these are rough sketches, rather than definitive rules.

#1: A Great Book Loves Language. By this I mean that the writer enjoys writing for the sake of writing. Words mean something, and are not just empty vehicles to drive a story. Even a writer who hoards his or her words and writes very succinctly can do this. But as you read, note how the sentences unfold. Read them out loud. At some point, the words should dazzle you, the sentences should drive you wild. There have to be passages that make you think, “I know what he/she is saying but I never thought about it like that!” In short, some of the prose should occasionally read like poetry. And poetry isn’t just ornate like Shakespeare or Milton; e.e. Cummings and Raymond Carver also wrote poetry. And both of them loved language.

#2: A Great Book Initially Seems Wrong. Ever picked up a book and thought, “what the hell is this writer doing? You can’t start a book like that? You can’t switch narrators like that? You can’t end a scene like that? You can’t use the tropes like this!” No one is more opinionated or dogmatic than readers, particularly in genre fiction. We like books to follow carefully prescribed rules and enforce these rules zealously as self-appointed gatekeepers. Great writers, however, like to experiment; they simply can’t help themselves. They like to subvert, to turn upside-down, to tell a story backwards instead of forward. Sometimes, granted, the experiments don’t work or seem pretentious. But when they do, it changes the way we think about books. Great writers always challenge the way a story is told and why we read them. Behind every great book is a ton of bad reviews and skeptical readers. Until someone finally gets it and goes, “we should have been doing this from the beginning!” And then we do.

#3: A Great Book Knows Other Books and Traditions. This seems obvious, but it’s vitally important. When you read a great book, you can see/hear the other books and stories behind it. They not only make allusions to other works, but write variations on familiar themes and characters, illustrating that great writing comes from reading other great writing. Too many books pretend that they’re the only book in existence, that they exist in a vacuum, and worse still, that they’re not really writing a book. A book should read like a book (not a movie, or TV show, or something else); the writer should tell us, “look, we’re reading and writing a book together. So what usually happens in books? Let’s play with that.” Epic fantasy should be aware of the titans of Homer, Tolkein, Lord Dunsany, and scores of others in the rear view mirror. You don’t have to tells us you’ve read them (that’s boring and pretentious), but show us by how you tell your tale and the conversation you have with your characters. Good readers will figure it out.

#4: A Great Book Teaches. Take this one with a grain of salt. Yes, books can simply be entertaining and “art for art’s sake.” But even so,  a great book teaches you something about yourself, or the world, or the genre in question. The authors can’t help it. A great book is so involved in the tradition of story telling and the interior lives of its characters that education will inevitably result. It’s like a teacher who goes into a classroom exhausted, burned out, but encounters a classroom of eager students who read the book and wants to have a meaningful conversation about it. Within minutes the teacher will be in love with life again. Ideas will spark up and the teacher will see connections that previously eluded him/her—as well as the students. When a writer is confronted by great ideas, more ideas result. Many of these ideas will be new to us and will change how we see the world.

#5: A Great Book Scratches an Itch. Simply put, a great book sees something that we’re all interested in, or worried about, or wanting to talk about but were afraid to speak up. The great book says all of these things and scratches that cultural itch. You can see this happen in real time. When a book explodes, it’s because it’s found one of our itches and goes to town scratching it. Harry Potter, Twilight, The Hunger Games, The Martian—these are all books that figured out what we worry and dream about and repackaged it for us in the most engaging, readable form. You can pooh-pooh these books all you like, and even question whether they’re that “great” at all (and this criteria alone wouldn’t make a book great). However, there’s no arguing with society...we know what we know, and when we embrace a book whole hog, there’s more than voyeurism behind it.

Are there more criteria than this? Certainly. Could there be a great book that defies all of these criteria? Probably so. However, I encourage you to define great books without recourse to phrases such as “because I loved it,” or “I thought it sucked.” There are brilliant people in the world who you simply don’t like; they might even be assholes in private. However, being smart isn’t subjective—it can be proven, if not with degrees than with actions and results. The same is equally true of books. A book might turn you off or alienate you, but that doesn’t make it bad. In fact, the book that pisses you off the most might be the greatest book you’ve ever read. Think about it...

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Revising the Creature: or, Does Advice Always Improve a Novel?

As a writer, it’s difficult to know when a work is complete. Writing “the end” is only a kind of beginning, after all, since there are so many stages of re-reading, revision, editing, proofreading, and nail-biting (waiting for the first readers to tell you what they thought of it). Of course, some would argue that a work is never complete; only after years or even decades of living with a work can you finally close the book on what you once wrote and what you actually meant. So how do you take the first step from writing to revising? Whose words can help you see the flaws (as well as the virtues) and figure out what kind of work you’ve actually written?

In other words, when do you listen, and when do you stick to your guns? Who gets to decide what your work should actually look like: you (the author) or them (the readers)? Do they know better than you? Or are you more far-seeing than they are?

Here’s a case in point: in 1818, Mary Shelley published her now-legendary novel, Frankenstein, as a twenty year-old with no previous publications (indeed, her name was suppressed in the first edition, so as to hide her gender as well as her name—she had recently taken up with the infamous, and married, poet Percy Shelley). What she published is an out-and-out masterpiece, totally consistent in tone, style, and length (very short, without a moment of slack). That said, it’s also quite raw—full of a young person’s passion, impatience, and occasional bombast (how many times does Victor “gnash his teeth” when he gets angry?). Though the writing is beautiful and evocative, there are times when her emotion runs away with her, and descriptive scenes of nature—plucked from her favorite Romantic poetry (including her husband’s)—could be clipped for dramatic effect. But these quibbles aside, it rightly established itself as a masterpiece of Gothic literature and one of the greatest novels of the entire 19th century (and perhaps the 20th and 21st, since it has never gone out of print since its publication).

But tell that to the author. In 1831, after surviving several personal traumas (the death of children, her husband, and several friends) and writing several novels, she returned to her most famous work and made ‘corrections.’ At 34, she was an established writer and mother, and hardly the nomadic teenager tramping across Europe with her flamboyant husband. In short, she saw things differently, and had a long time to live with her novel—and to hear everyone’s opinions about what was wrong with it, what needed improvement, and how much of it was clearly written by her husband.

Yes, many people insisted that a woman (and almost a child, as she was) could have never written such a landmark work of art, so clearly her husband wrote the better part of it, condescending to let her “borrow” its authorship to make a name for herself. Never mind that Percy Shelley was not celebrated for his prose writing and was in general far too long-winded to write such a compact novel that often criticized his very character and ideals (did I mention how angry and passionate she was when she wrote it?).

At any rate, she decided to respond to criticism and revise her novel accordingly. First, she took a shot at critics who denied her authorship in the 1831 edition’s preface: “At first I thought but a few pages—of a short tale; but Shelley urged me to develop the idea [of Frankenstein] at greater length. I certainly did not owe the suggestion of one incident, nor scarcely one train of feeling, to my husband, and yet buy for his incitement it would never have taken the form in which it was presented to the world.”

Having settled that, she went on to make some wide-ranging revisions, softening Victor Frankenstein’s character and guilt, removing some of the more revolutionary passages (that betrayed her Romantic sentiments and those of her father, William Godwin), and erasing much of the character of the novel’s most important female character, Elizabeth Lavenza. The latter is the most surprising: why would a female author edit out a woman’s voice from her novel? The easy answer is that probably many readers (chief among them men) found her sentiments shocking or her character intrusive. Why doesn’t she act like a woman—like a victim? they might have chided. For whatever reason, she complied and made Elizabeth a much quieter and less effective character, as would be expected of a daughter/wife in the 1830’s.

For example, here’s a major difference between the 1818 version and the 1831 revision. It occurs in Volume One, Chapter Seven in 1818, or Chapter Eight in 1831, when Victor and Elizabeth confront Justine, their servant who is wrongfully accused of strangling their brother, William. She will be executed the following morning, and she has just confessed that her confession was forced—undertaken merely to save her soul. In the 1818 version, Elizabeth responds as follows:

“Oh, Justine! forgive me for having for one moment distrusted you...I will try to comfort you; but this, I fear, is an evil too deep and poignant to admit of consolation, for there is no hope. Yet heaven bless thee, my dearest Justine, with resignation, and a confidence elevated beyond this world. Oh! how I hate its shews [sic] and mockeries! when one creature is murdered, another is immediately deprived of life in a slow torturing manner; then the executioners, their hands yet reeking with the blood of innocence, believe they have done a great deed. They call this retribution. Hateful name! When that word is pronounced, I know greater and more horrid punishments are going to be inflicted than the gloomiest tyrant has ever invented to satiate his utmost revenge. Yet this is not consolation for you, my Justine, unless indeed that you may glory in escaping from so miserable a den. Alas! I would I were in peace with my aunt and my lovely William, escaped from a world which is hateful to me, and the visages of men which I abhor.”

A powerful speech against the “justice” of capital punishment as well as the bias of men that offers up another woman for sacrifice. This reeks of the teenage Mary Shelley’s indignation against male prejudice and authoritarianism. Giving Elizabeth space to say this makes Justine’s death meaningful; it also calls out Victor for his inability to protect her, since he is too worried about what people will think of him (and too selfish to sacrifice himself). However, in 1831 we find something quite different in this passage, which you can read below:

“Oh, Justine! Forgive me for having one moment distrusted you...Justine shook her head mournfully. “I do not fear to die,” she said; “that pang is past. God raises my weakness and gives me courage to endure the worst. I leave a sad and bitter world; and if you remember me and think of me as of one unjustly condemned, I am resigned to the fate awaiting me. Learn from me, dear lady, to submit in patience to the will of heaven!”

That’s it. Elizabeth says one sentence. Instead, Justine gets to speak, and rather than blast male pride or judicial hypocrisy, she refuses to call anyone out, and almost thrilled with the opportunity to die like a Dickensian heroine. Her final sentence almost seems cribbed from a Victorian conduct manual: “Learn from me, dear lady, to submit in patience to the will of heaven!” So no matter how duped you are by your protectors or by justice itself, simply submit to the will of heaven and say your prayers. You might get killed, or raped, or even worse, but no matter—you’re only a woman!

Why would Mary Shelley take out one of her most powerful speeches (and a speech by a woman, no less) and revise it with something pat and perfunctory? A response to criticism, no doubt. People were uncomfortable with Elizabeth’s agency—her unwillingness to submit to her fate. She does the same elsewhere, too, and almost every time Mary strikes it out. In an England inching toward Victorian sensibilities, such women could no longer speak out. And whatever Mary privately thought of it, she seems to have nodded her head and bit her lip and crossed out the offending passages. Did it make for a better novel? After all, a few fine speeches don’t make a novel, and we can argue that Elizabeth’s powerful declaration has nothing to do with the story proper. Did Mary feel it actually detracted from her tale? Is it possible that she actually saw it as an improvement?

Sadly, we’ll never know, though to this day, the 1831 version is the more common form of the novel. Most people read this version, with its truncated Elizabeth, than the original 1818 (though this is increasingly gaining in popularity). So which one should we read? Are first thoughts best thoughts? Or does everything improve with revision? Whatever we decide, Frankenstein remains a cautionary tale on revision and criticism. To be sure, some things improved in the revision: the Creature has some better scenes, and the novel overall is a bit tighter and more dramatic. But much is lost, and not just with Elizabeth.

Revisions are always a compromise between what you wrote then and what you see now. And criticism can blind you to the fact of who you were when you wrote the work. The best revisions are undertaken with a foot in both worlds—the present and the past. If you only revise based on who you are now, with ignorance or even contempt the previous writer, the revisions are unlikely to improve the work. I think to some degree Mary Shelley revised in this spirit—or was convinced that she should.

Take criticism will a liberal pinch of salt. Don’t assume that what one or even a dozen readers say is gospel. Listen closely, carefully, and digest this advice in the balance of your own inspiration and intentions. Don’t assume that you’ve outgrown the writer of yesteryear. Sometimes—many times—we were much wiser back then than we are today. Wisdom isn’t always measured in years, after all. It’s not for nothing that Mary Shelley wrote many other novels, some of them quite good, such as Valperga, The Last Man, and Lodore, but nothing that matched the popularity and visceral thrill of Frankenstein. Perhaps she never forgave her first novel for being her best, especially when she no longer thought so herself (for what author ever thinks his or her first novel is their crowning achievement?).

If writing is an emotional exercise, so, too, is revision. But even worse, revision can become an exercise in exorcism—a chance to rid yourself of the demons and spirits that haunt you. Shelley hoped to make Frankenstein more civilized and respectable—an impossible task. We love it for what it says about who she was and how she saw the world: as a firebrand teenager who refused to conform to society’s laws. Only a teenager in the early 19th century could imagine a “monster” who thought like a child, and was cruelly tortured by his father—much as Mary was betrayed by her own father for loving Percy. Fiction preserves the follies of youth even when the adult can no longer stomach them. However, now that she’s escaped the dogma of 19th century England and the land of the living, I can only imagine that wherever she is, she’s reading the 1818 version and smiling with approval. Yes, that’s exactly what I meant...and the rest of you can choke on it!

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Don't Take It Out On the Books!

Recently in an article on Book Riot’s Facebook page, a writer/academic boasted of her lifelong disdain of a “great” work that everyone is supposed to like, but apparently, no one does. The work in question is Moby Dick, and the writer congratulated herself for finally tossing the work aside, realizing that you can be an academic without sacrificing your own sense of taste. On the one hand, she’s exactly right: being an academic doesn’t mean conforming to a rigid standard of taste or values, since no one is more argumentative or less homogenous than a group of English professors. I should know—I’m one myself, and ran the gauntlet of a PhD program in English literature with a highly divisive group of mentors. Indeed, one of my favorite professors would often tell us, “Jane Eyre is a piece of shit—read Wuthering Heights instead!” I was far too timid to contradict her at the time, but the question always forming on my lips was, “er, why can’t we read them both? Does liking one necessarily exclude the other?”

But to return to the article in question: why is rejecting a work a badge of pride or an arbiter of taste? Of course we’re not all going to like the same books, or appreciate the same music, but that has less to do with conforming than our individual aesthetics. I get that the writer felt pressured (by whom?) to like and appreciate Moby Dick, and by defying it to all and sundry, she felt she was asserting her independence from the academy. My only question is, why take it out on a book? Books don’t care what you think of them; they don’t have a secret agenda to make you feel stupid; and they certainly don’t belong to a secret club of hipster academic rock stars. Yes, a group of hipster academic rock stars might carry specific books as icons of their own importance, but that’s their choice—not the book’s.

I think the most tragic mistake we make as readers is grafting other people’s personalities onto books we haven’t read. A student recently told me, “I rarely read books that are assigned in class; I prefer to chose my own reading material.” While that sounds very enlightened and independent, it also says “any book an authority figure likes is immediately branded with their image.” So he rejects the book as an effigy for the professor, rather than putting his ego aside and taking the book on its own terms. After all, what if a book he might have read himself is on a class reading list? Does it suddenly become anathema? Does he pretend he never wanted to read it? Or does he actually convince himself he never did? Should reading books be so complicated? Isn’t the point of reading to learn, to dream, to imagine, to expand, to travel, to exalt, to fulfill, to explore, to be something more than you are? So why settle for so much less?

Okay, granted, you might have every intention of liking Moby Dick, or Beowulf, or To The Lighthouse and a dozen pages in, you’re nodding off. So you toss it aside and try again a few days later...with the same result. Maybe you try again in a month, even a year, with the same experience of tedium or blatant dislike. How could you respond so negatively to a work embraced and loved and taught by millions? It’s natural to feel a little embarrassed, as if everyone is laughing at a joke that doesn’t seem in the least bit amusing. And often that vague embarrassment turns into resentment—and then a total rejection of the book in question. Some people assume it’s a conspiracy or an act of pretension; no one really likes that book—it’s just something people say! Another click bait article on FB recently announced, “25 books that if people say they’ve read that proves they’re lying,” with rather tame favorite such as Pride and Prejudice and 1984. Is it really that simple? If two people disagree about a book one of them has to be lying?

Or is the answer much more complex? Books, like all creative art, have to be examined from multiple perspectives. Reading alone doesn’t make you the master of all books, and no matter how many places you’ve lived, you’re not ‘worldly’ enough to understand every book from every culture. Every book has its own aesthetic DNA which resonates when a reader shares a similar genetic makeup—either through their life experiences, or the books they’ve read, or their hometown, or their thought processes. Not liking a book isn’t necessarily a failure of the book—and it’s certainly not a failure in you. What is a failure is when you censure a book for not meeting your standards and/or assume that a book that bores you isn’t a book worth reading. Even worse is when you go on a crusade to stop anyone from reading that book...which is what the author of the article seemed to undertake as a newly minted academic (her poor students!).

Simply put, you will hate, dislike, be bored by, or simply find yourself indifferent to very good books. Even some of the best. Even worse, other people will hate, dislike, be bored by, and simply find themselves indifferent to the books you love most in the world. Some of these people will be your best of them may even be your husband or wife (gasp!). And it’s okay. Life goes on.

However, as we grow older our tastes change, broaden, deepen, are refined. The books we loved as teenagers don’t always carry on into late adulthood. Likewise, books we find deep meaning in after 50 might have infuriated us at 25. So how do we read for both or multiple selves—the one we are today, and the one we hope to grow into? Here’s what I would suggest if you find yourself at odds with a book that everyone else claims to love:

* Read some reviews of the book. Not Amazon or Goodreads reviews (ye gods!), but a review by a professional critic or another writer or academic. Or even better still, read the Introduction or Afterward often published in editions of classic books. Such reviews/intros will give you a fresh perspective on a book the way a college class can invite multiple discussions on a single page. The more voices you invite into the reading experience, the more you might see—and appreciate—in the book before putting it down again.

* Learn more about the author. Often we dislike a book because it seems to exist in a vacuum. If you don’t know anything about Flaubert, and his book seems tiresome, figure out who he was. Where did he come from? Who did he love? Why did he write this book? Connecting a book with an actual human being changes things immediately. It makes it real, a precious object rather than a mass-produced pile of pulp. It might also explain why some of the things that annoy or confuse you are actually there.

* Figure out what else was being written at the time. This is especially important for the so-called classics. Reading Candide might confuse you until you realize what Voltaire is directly responding to. This will help you understand much of the satire in the little volume, but also how courageous he was in standing up against tyranny and the dictates of popular taste. Also, seeing how one book responds to and expands upon another helps you appreciate the “spider web” effect of literature, and how everything exists in a symbiotic relationship—even books by authors who used to hate one another. Especially authors who hated one another!

* Give it time. We often think that we’re the most advanced, enlightened, educated, emancipated person right now that we’ll ever be. And it’s never true. In a year you might think differently. Things will change. A relationship (or lack thereof) will change how you read a book. So will a change of job. An election. Even the time of year. Nothing is more true than this: your taste will change. Not get “better,” perhaps, but evolve. The book you toss aside today might one day become your constant companion. And nothing is more annoying than admitting that to a friend you convinced never to read a specific book.

So don’t hate books. It’s not worth it. Hate politics, dogmas, bureaucracies, secret societies, even a few people while you’re at it. But not the books. They represent the best of what we do, and they last because they offer us more than we could possibly become ourselves. We diminish ourselves when declare a holy war against art. Because only art itself is holy, not our self-righteous and often hypocritical ideals.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Self-Published Books: Better than the Drive-Thru

For many authors, the very phrase “self-published” means defeat. And to some it’s simply the “easy way out.” Conversely, many people would never buy a book that didn’t have the stamp of approval from Tor, or Harper Collins, or Penguin. And let’s be honest, some people only buy books from big name authors and no one else, publisher be damned. So what chance do indie authors stand, who often publish on their own and are relative nobodies? In general, people who laugh when you tell them you self publish have one (or all) of the following arguments:

* If you can’t get an agent or publisher to accept your work then you probably have no business being an author; you’re simply not good enough.

* Why buy a ‘generic’ book when there are thousands—millions—of bona fide works of art to choose from? Who needs “Best Value” Cheerios when normal Cheerios are cheap and readily in stock?

* Indie books are poorly written and edited, making it a chore to read them. The big publishers pay people to smooth out the kinks of their authors’ works—but indie authors either can’t afford to or simply don’t care.

* Indie books are derivative and unimaginative copies of the best sellers, much like a ‘direct to video’ movie (who seriously wants to watch Star Crash instead of Star Wars?)

These are all compelling arguments, and like many stereotypes they contain a kernel of truth. Are there many poorly written and edited indie books on the market? Of course. Are some of them derivative and generic versions of the best sellers? Sure. And do many indie writers turn to self-publishing when all the big name agents and publishers turn them down. You bet they do. Ah, so I’ve admitted the truth—it’s all true, you just said so!

Proving some things true doesn’t prove all things true. Just because McDonald’s gets your drive-thru order wrong twice in a row doesn’t mean they always get your order wrong in every city throughout the country. It ultimately comes down to the individual franchise or workers, but it can’t be indicative of the experience of an entire restaurant chain. Whatever you think about McDonald’s food (and I boycott it, personally) the reality is that many managers take pride in their businesses, and many workers are happy to do a good day’s work. Not every teenager working a minimum wage job hates life—and by extension, hates you. And even I, who hate McDonald’s, have occasionally been forced to eat there on a road trip and can get good service and decent food and think, “well, okay, so it’s not always bad—but I still don’t like it.”

You see where I’m going with this? Are all indie writers hacks, charlatans, and wannabes? Do they slap together books simply to turn a quick profit and then skip town? Even more so than McDonald’s owners, they’re people with dreams, many of whom work long hours at a ‘real’ job and then come home, bleary eyed and exhausted, and still log in a few hours with a work-in-progress, hoping that one day it will climb the charts and validate their secret passion. Because the reality is that not everyone can be a writer. There are just too many books already out there, and too few people who want to pay people for writing books (and sadly, too few people who want to buy them).

Conversely, there are probably millions of people who are genuinely talented writers, at least half of whom also exhibit traits of genius—people who could legitimately revolutionize the field. How many of their works, however, will ever reach print? Probably only about 1%, and that’s being generous. A sad truth of the modern world is that many talented people will die without a single person recognizing their gift. Some will get a measure of recognition, but not enough to quit their ‘day job,’ and many more will give up in despair and look back at their affair with art with revulsion—or guilt.

The ability to self-publish is, in some ways, one of the most compassionate bones ever tossed to society via technology. Now everyone can publish their works and see their works in print. True, the price of getting every talented writer a book is that millions of untalented writers and outright hacks get one, too. But is that worth the cost of admission? In general, I would say it is; after all, bad books come and go, but the good books stay, as long as enough people find them first. And now, even in a field drowning with books, it’s still possible to find a truly good book—even by an unknown author. Below are some very compelling reasons to buy an indie book and support a self-published author despite everything you’ve heard, everything you’ve said, and everything you know (or think you know) from first-hand experience:

* Most self-published writers are writing against the current, so to speak; no one asked them to write this book, they’re not being paid for it, and they often do so at great personal and professional expense (i.e. when they should be taking care of kids or doing their jobs—or sleeping!).

* They’re following a dream. Sure, professional authors are, too, but they’ve already achieved it in some measure. Indie writers are all like Cyrano de Bergerac (Rostand’s once-famous play), who claimed that the only fight worth fighting is the one that you know you can’t win. The fight that you’re doomed to die in. That’s the indie writer: howling into the winds having already seen the pitiful fate of their comrades.

* They can afford to take chances. An established author has to think about their agent, publisher, editor, audience, and so forth, and all of them have a say in what they write and when. The indie author can write whatever the hell they want. They can fly in the face of trends and even defy industry wisdom about what sells and who wants it.

* Usually the people who start new trends are doing it where no one is looking. Honestly, Steven King isn’t going to change the landscape of horror or science fiction at this point—he did what he did, and his moment is over (though he continues to write good books). However, even he came out of left field and changed the market. Today, that’s most likely going to come from someone who doesn’t have the ear of the industry. Someone who is writing in obscurity until an intrepid reader catches wind of it and says, “why isn’t everyone writing like this?”

* You can actually make a difference in these authors’ lives. If you write a fan letter to J.K. Rowling, you might get a generic reply from one of her many handlers. I’m sure she’s happy you like her books, but really, she has bigger fish to fry. But if you read the work of an indie writer, and you write them...then will respond to you. Likewise, it will make an immediate and tangible different in their lives. You could even become the catalyst that makes a great writer about to give up write their next bestseller.

* Indie writers are more likely to be fans of the genres they write in. All-too-often, genre fiction catches the attention of an ‘important’ writer who wants to revitalize their career, like Margaret Atwood trying her hand at writing a superhero comic. I’m pretty sure she could give a shit about superheroes in general, or even comics; indie writers, on the other hand, are much more likely to read comics and to know the universe they’re actively trying to shape. In other words, they’re probably more like you.

* One word—surprise. Simply put, you don’t know what you’re going to find with an indie book. The big publishers are very predictable in what they publish: namely, what has already sold. Indie writers might be trying the same thing, or they might try their hand at something completely different. You’re much more likely to be taken unawares by an indie than a mainstream writer, though admittedly big writers can surprise and indies can disappoint.

After all, reading isn’t a formula or an equation. It’s a gamble...and sometimes, it really pays off. So while there are many good, sound reasons to never buy a self-published book, there are some damn good reasons to defy current wisdom and do just that. And honestly, buying a book is never a bad thing to do or something you should regret. In fact, you’re more likely to get better service and a more wholesome product than if you go through the McDonald’s drive thru! It’s a hell of a lot cheaper, too...

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

My New Novella--Short and Cheap on Amazon: The Shadow Familiar

1681: Two sorcerers are summoned to a remote estate to exorcise the Viceroy’s daughter. Is she entranced by the ancient book that holds the soul of a mysterious sorcerer...or the strange blue woman who appears in mirrors at night? Or have the sorcerers bewitched her themselves?

Read my new novella (only 75 pages--an hour's worth of reading--or two, if you read especially slow), The Shadow Familiar, set in the 17th century world of Mandragora, in a Europe that never was. You can download it for only 99 cents on Amazon and read it with a Kindle or any Kindle app. Leave a review if you enjoyed it or even if you didn't.

Here's the link: