Monday, March 31, 2008

Fine Oregon Place Names

This is in response to Tim's comments on the previous post.

Yes, there is indeed a town of Wanker's Corner, Oregon. It was never much of a town--actually, just a corner, in fact, with a grocery store and saloon. Of course, I haven't been there since 1993, so things may have changed.

Even before the term "wanker" invaded America, people thought this was a pretty funny name. The proprietors of the store--who were comprised of at least three generations of Wankers--were unamused, and informed everyone it was pronouced "WAHN-kers."

Over time, of course, the town's name became its main attraction, and the Wanker's Corner Saloon capitalized on it. The saloon had always been a bit odd--the kind of place where peanuts in the shell were free and everyone was encouraged to throw the shells on the sawdust-strewn floor. The owner had a taste for offbeat decor, and stuffed the place with antiques...and not tasteful, grandma's antiques, either--wooden Indians, old advertising signs, oversized chickens. old gasoline pumps.

In addition, he accumulated a lot of odds and ends from Australia. Not to engage in any national stereotyping, but a place that served beer and was in a town called Wanker's Corner was a magnet for Australian tourists, even though Wanker's Corner was a bit off the beaten track.

The peanuts, the name, and the Australian connection provided the joint with its logo: a kangaroo pulling a handful of peanuts from its pouch over the words "Grab your nuts at Wanker's Corner." The grab-your-nuts design is still available on t-shirts, but calmer shirts and hats (and a subtle red thong) are also available. After all, with a name like Wanker's Corner Saloon, do you really need anything but the words?

The town is still there, but Wanker's Corner Saloon has moved to larger quarters in the nearby town of Wilsonville. The location may have gone downhill, but all the geegaws and antiques have been relocated to the new site, and it is apparently now quite a popular place--the photo here shows a Maxim Magazine "talent search night" (the 'talent' they are searching for being looking good naked).

Wanker's Corner isn't the only fine place name in Oregon, however. The poor spellers and visually challenged transcribers who settled the state provided us with a host of mistaken place names:

Milwaukie (named after Milwaukee, Wisconsin)
Idea (named for "Ida" someone, but misread)
Olex (same thing, but for "Alex")
Ewe (they meant "Yew")
Depoe Bay (umm, "Depot")
Owyhee River ("Hawaii River," named for some Hawaiian students who drowned there)

And, then, the just plain inscrutable:

Boring, Oregon
Drain, Oregon
Zigzag, Oregon
Ragic, Oregon and Ekoms, Oregon (two small places near one another; that's "Cigar" and "Smoke" spelled backwards, and, no, I don't know why)

and, of course, the rather large town of Beaverton, Oregon. Happily not far from Wanker's Corner.

PS. The estimable Rob from Denver dropped a link on the comment trail to a video where some folks visit the town of Mianus, Connecticut. It's a one-joke sort of video, and a bit juvenile. Therefore, it naturally had us roaring with laughter.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Axe Arrives Again

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the bookstores, RN Morris barges in with his paperback edition of The Gentle Axe, taking up shelf space sorely needed by struggling American novelists like Pamela Anderson Lee and Nicole Richie. Congress ties up our legislative process for months arguing about illegal immigration from Mexico, but do they devote even a minute to the influx of foreign books? No. And then, after exposing our children to spellings like "flavour" and "gaol" and "arse", and baffling concepts like "macadam" and "treacle", they wonder why Johnny Can't Read.

And, yes, I know Roger called it "A" Gentle Axe, not "The". But us Yanks are a straightforward lot, and prefer definite articles to those shifty, ambiguous, indefinite articles. We expect our articles, like our politicians, to take a position some time in kindergarten and never waver (which explains why so many of our policies seem like they were thought through by toddlers). "A" Gentle Axe? One of many? How many? Are there more? Nope, we like certainty, so in these parts, buckaroo, it's "The" Gentle Axe, and if you don't like it you can just haul your pansy ass back to Mrs. O'Leary's Dance Academy.

Although the US title is still The Gentle Axe, the publishers have wisely adopted the UK cover for the US paperback release. The US hardback was a handsome thing, with an elegant dust jacket, but the cover art never quite let you know the tone of the book. Was it a diplomatic novel? A straight-up historical? A spy novel? The UK cover, with its foreboding parkscape and the little lines of bloody tracks in the snow, is more to the point.

And, more to the point of this post, if you reside on the proper (left) side of the Atlantic, and were foolish or miserly enough not to buy The Gentle Axe when it was released in hardback, you really ought to take this opportunity to buy it on the cheap and read it. It's a damned good read, and the start of a damned good series.

And don't tell me you can't find it. I've verified it's sitting on the shelves at Barnes & Noble (face-out in our local one, and there's glory for you) and Borders and just about everywhere else, and that's just here in Southern California, which everyone knows is a literary wasteland.

But you can also order from Amazon US. Sort of. Just be aware that they have horribly muddled the genealogy of the book, and that although there are seven versions of the book to be purchased, if you search on "The Gentle Axe," they give you as options only 1) the US hardback edition; 2) the UK, Faber & Faber paperback edition; and 3) used copies of what they claim is a 2007 Penguin paperback, which, insofar as I know, doesn't exist (and which, confusingly, is listed as only available used).

The one thing they don't list is the edition I'm talking about here--the new US paperback reprint edition from Penguin. Perhaps they'll sort it out over the next few days, but at the moment, the only way to find it is to search on "Gentle Axe" and then go to the Faber & Faber paperback edition and then click on "See all 7 editions" and then click on "Paperback (Reprint)".

Alternatively, you could go here, which is the proper Amazon page. (Or you could buy it from Powell's, which is possibly the world's greatest bookstore as well as being a together online seller, unlike some.)

In other words, Amazon has thus far made it damn near impossible to find the most recent edition of the book. Amazon US is increasingly incompetent, and I can't figure out why everyone thinks Jeff Bezos is a genius. If I were Penguin, I'd be hopping mad.

Unless I were an emerald green Penguin, in which case I'd be in an Aliya Whitely story. But that's a Penguin of a different colo(u)r.

My point was, those readers in North America should go buy the damn book. Or, better yet, buy the hardback--it promises to be worth some serious money down the line.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Steven Pressfield (My favorite books on writing)

Steven Pressfield, The War of Art.

As I mentioned back when I started this series of posts, I’m not a big fan of “inspirational” books on the writing process. I want to hear from real writers talking about writing, not life coaches urging me to follow my bliss.

So Steven Pressfield’s book was initially a bit off-putting to me. In the original hardback edition, the cover (there is no dust-jacket) is made up of silver embossed squares, and a few have been polished to a high gloss so when you pick up the book you see your own reflection. Cute. Add in the title, which puns off Sun Tzu, and it might be too cute altogether. Inside, your worries only multiply: the book is made up of super-short chapters, most only one-to-three pages long, and the layout seems like something Kahlil Gibran might have suggested.

On the other hand, Pressfield is the author of the excellent novel Gates of Fire (which probably spawned the comic book and movie 300, but is, unlike 300, actually good), as well as other fine books set in classical Greece, and he seems like a hard-nosed sort of guy. So I read the first few pages, and I was hooked.

Pressfield’s book is about one thing only, a force of evil he calls “Resistance.”

Most of us have two lives. The life we live and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.

In other words, this is a book about all the ways you can fail to do the work you want to be doing. As Pressfield says, “Every sun casts a shadow, and genius’s shadow is called Resistance.” In other words, Resistance is a form of self-sabotage—though we often explain our failure to do our work in terms of external constraints (job, family, illness, and whatever else seems to get in our way).

Creating soap opera in our lives is a symptom of Resistance. Why put in years of work…when you can get just as much attention by bringing home a boyfriend with a prison record?

Sometimes entire families participate unconsciously in a culture of self-dramatization. The kids fuel the tanks, the grown-ups arm the phasers, the whole starship lurches from one spine-tingling episode to another. And the crew knows how to keep it going. If the level of drama drops below a certain threshold, someone jumps in to amp it up. Dad gets drunk. Mom gets sick, Janie shows up for church with an Oakland Raiders tattoo. It’s more fun than a movie. And it works: Nobody gets a damn thing done.

Pressfield’s book is all about how to get your work done, and, in the end, his real message is “If not now, when?”

Resistance is fear. But Resistance is too cunning to show itself naked in this form. Why? Because if Resistance lets us see clearly that our own fear is preventing us from doing our work, we may feel shame at this. And shame may drive us to act in the face of fear.

Resistance doesn’t want us to do this. So it brings in Rationalization. Rationalization is Resistance’s spin doctor. It’s Resistance’s way of hiding the Big Stick behind its back. Instead of showing us our fear (which might shame us and impel us to do our work), Resistance presents us with a series of plausible, rational justifications for why we shouldn’t do our work.

What’s particularly insidious about the rationalizations that Resistance presents to us is that a lot of them are true. They’re legitimate…What Resistance leaves out, of course, is that all this means diddly.

Although it looks like a book to idly browse through, in fact Pressfield is marshalling an argument that builds from one mini-chapter to the next. And he means it: he really believes that Resistance to our purpose in life is the root of all evil in the world, and that this is a force trying to snuff out our eternal soul. And he believes that the proper response is to act in the face of fear, to gird our loins with faith, and to cultivate the Muse.

Literally? Yep. He believes in the Muse, and inspiration, in the most literal and heroic terms—but the believes the gods only smile upon you if you go forth to do battle. Pressfield’s view of the universe is unapologetically premodern, half-Homeric and half- Zoroastrian. To many, this book may seem absurd or simply beside the point. I think it’s a minor masterpiece; but I'm sure it won't suit everyone's tastebuds.

Monday, March 24, 2008

My Favorite Movies Nobody Has Seen, #5

Tideland 2005

I think novels beat film at storytelling any time. Unless a movie resorts to voice-over, it is stuck on the surface of things, while a novel can go as deep as the writer chooses.

So, if I’m going to be held on the surface of things, I damn well want visual style. (A corollary to this is that if a film has enough visual style, I can enjoy it for the eye-candy alone.) Hence my love for director Terry Gilliam (Time Bandits, Brazil, The Fisher King, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas). Even when Gilliam directs a major flop storywise—like The Brothers Grimm—it’s still fine to look at.

And speaking of The Brothers Grimm, while it was in production, Gilliam was simultaneously working on another movie: the tiny-budget, limited-release Tideland. Adapted from Mitch Cullin’s excellent novel of the same name, Tideland is the story of a little girl whose junkie parents both die, leaving her stranded on a remote farm in Texas--and also stranded in her vivid imagination. It might not seem that empty, bright countryside would agree with Gilliam’s visual inclinations, which tend toward the dark, the cluttered, and the baroque, but he finds plenty of opportunities in attics, burrows, sheds, and the mind’s eye. And even on the vast prairie, the sun still goes down...

The movie features a stunning performance from child actress Jodelle Ferland, who plays the protagonist Jeliza-Rose and also does the voices of doll-heads Sateen Lips, Glitter Gal, Baby Blonde, and Mustique. (The doll-heads, who live on Jeliza-Rose's fingertips when they are active, are some of the main characters.) Janet McTeer plays a truly disturbing and disturbed neighbor, Jeff Bridges is a sad, beat-down, pitch-perfect loser, and Brendan Fletcher plays a jittery retarded neighbor hunting The Monster Shark.

Basically William Faulkner on mescaline, but moved a little further west. Decidedly not for all tastes. But unlike so many of my favorite films no one has seen, this one's out on DVD.

PS. I would be remiss if I didn't mention that, with a couple of exceptions, the critics loathed this film. Of course, the critics also loathed Kubrick's 2001 and Renoir's Rules of the Game when they came out.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Self-Referential, Self-Indulgent Claptrap (but I call it "Texture")

In one of Paul Reiser’s stand-up routines, he told a particularly obscure joke and received only a few chuckles, while most of the audience merely stared, blinking in puzzlement. “That’s okay,” he told them. “Some of these…are just for me.”

Do you toss things into your stories that are just for you? Names that have meaning but will probably go undeciphered, allusions that could only be understood by a handful of readers, references that couldn’t possibly be grasped but by you and a couple of friends?

Not all my characters have meaningful names; some of them just sound right. But in my (unpublished) first novel my protagonist was a middle-aged man who was so skeptical and reductionistic that he had gradually cut himself off from belief in anything he couldn’t touch and quantify. I wanted him to be mundane in the literal sense of the word, so I made him a professor of geology. And I wanted a name that reflected that pedestrian, materialist nature, so after a long browse in the phone book, I named him Walker Clayborne. (I also dug out an astrology computer program and found him a birth time and date that made him a triple Virgo, the most intellectual of the three Earth signs.)

In my work-in-progress, one of the main characters is a biologist who specializes in the rain-forest canopy. She is named Miranda but goes by Mira, which is an anagram of Rima, the bird-girl of the trees from Green Mansions. Well, some of these…are just for me.

A character in Shock and Awe is named Lamont Richter. I think "Richter" is a nice, harsh-sounding Germanic name, but also has an association in most people's minds (or at least the minds of most people in the Western US) with the Richter scale of earthquake fame. I decided to name him "Lamont Richter", because he's somewhat elegant and old-school, and I think "Lamont" reflects that; but those who care about earthquakes may also catch a hint of the Lamont-Doherty Seismographic Network and the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observation Lab.

Long, long ago, Lawrence Block wrote a series of comic thrillers featuring Evan Tanner, a hero whose sleep center had been destroyed by a wound received in the Korean War. In one of the Tanner novels, The Scoreless Thai, Tanner is being shown the ins and outs of Bangkok by a CIA agent who points out key drops, including a tobbo shop. A tobbo shop? Whazzat?

A “tobbo shop” is a typesetting error for “tobacco shop.” Block decided to let the error stand, just to add a touch of (faked) authenticity, and noted that the way the world of words works, he might very well find a novel some day in the future making reference to “the notorious tobbo shops of Bangkok.”

In my novel Tomorrowville, my protagonist is taken to a futuristic (well, come to think of it, it is the future), 24-hour drug‘n’drink bar. Above the door is the sign Tanner’s Tobbo Shop (We Never Sleep). And inside, at last the waiting world (all five of us, I'd estimate) learns what a tobbo shop is.

Contrived? Yes. Silly? Certainly. Obscure? You bet. But it gives me a sort of glow of pleasure, and I think it reads sensibly in the story even if you have no idea where it came from.

Similarly I put the words of acquaintances into the mouths of my characters, or have my characters actually quote them in the form “This psychologist I know says…”

And don’t even get me started on little writing stunts I pull just because I want to break some “rule” I’m tired of hearing.

I rationalize this sort of behavior by using Hemingway’s theory that the iceberg of a book should be seven-eights underwater—that the reader can sense things the author knows yet has not put on the page. Roger Zelazny operated on this theory as well--he claimed that every one of his novels had an "invisible" chapter, one he wrote but deliberately excluded. In my rare moments of lucidity, I suspect this is all masturbatory behavior, and that the only argument that can be made for it is that it keeps my butt in the chair long enough to get some work done.

Do you guys do this sort of thing? Are “Some of these…just for you?” Or am I weird? Or maybe both?

Monday, March 17, 2008

Great Second (and third and fourth) Lines, Part II

As I've noted before, sometimes the best opening isn't a matter of the best first line. Let me give you an example of a subtle little one-two punch from Eliza Graham's Playing with the Moon. Here's the opening sentence:

Our second wedding anniversary.

Big yawn, right? Are you ever going to find that in a book of best first lines? But look at the first two lines:

Our second wedding anniversary. I'm about to tell Tom our marriage is over when he spots something in the sand.

A whole different world, right? And Eliza is accomplished enough that she then drags us away from the marriage problem in the beginning of the second sentence into a wonderful, close-POV examination of what Tom has found--filtered through the skeptical, alienated voice of his wife. By the middle of the page we have two problems looming: the relationship itself, which is left hanging but still informs everything that is discovered, and the item that Tom proceeds to dig up. That's a good opening.

Okay, let's take a look at a classic:

Mother died today.

Great line? Some might answer yes, but I think it has less intrinsic structural interest than the Bonneville Salt Flats. Yet it's the iconic opening of Camus' The Stranger, and I find it unutterably boring without the second line:

Mother died today. Or maybe, yesterday; I can't be sure.

Okay--that's getting a little spooky, but it only gives the full flavor of what's to come when you look at the opening paragraph (the Gilbert translation):

Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can't be sure. The telegram from the Home says: `Your mother passed away. Funeral tomorrow. Deep sympathy.' Which leaves the matter doubtful; it could have been yesterday.

So powerful is the compulsion to consolidate into single quotable lines that you can often find this mistranslated as: "Mother died today, or maybe yesterday, I can't be sure." Well, M. Camus didn't write it that way--we can quibble about how to translate it, but he wrote Aujourd 'hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-ĂȘtre hier, je ne sais pas... so at the minimum we can be sure that he intended for there to be two sentences, and I figure Big Al knew what he was doing. He didn't have a great first line. He did have a great opening.

Here's one of my favorite openings, from Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett's hilarious Good Omens. It starts with a contender (but see below) for the least-quotable first line in the annals of literature:

It was a nice day.

You won't find that in Bartlett's, though it's pretty funny. But let's read on:

It was a nice day.

All the days had been nice. There had been rather more than seven of them so far, and rain hadn't been invented yet. But clouds massing east of Eden suggested that the first thunderstorm was on its way, and it was going to be a big one.

That's clever.

Here's another opening line:

When Alba walked past the window of Le Drugstore Saint-Germain in Paris, three men were eating ice cream inside.

That's from Delacorta's novel Diva (yes, the one they made the movie of, and yes, I agree, it's really a novella. If you didn't insist on interrupting, perhaps we could get finished and all go home.) My point is, that's not a first line you'll find engraved in marble. In fact, it sounds like the set-up for a joke, and, in a mild way, Delacorta uses it as one:

When Alba walked past the window of Le Drugstore Saint-Germain in Paris, three men were eating ice cream inside. Catching sight of her, the first one nearly swallowed his spoon, the second one gulped convulsively, and the third one tossed thirty francs on the table and leaped up from his seat to run after her.

Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle opens with the line:

Call me Jonah.

Ha ha. But he goes on:

Call me Jonah. My parents did, or nearly did. They called me John.

And he keeps running with it:

Call me Jonah. My parents did, or nearly did. They called me John.

Jonah--John--if my parents had named me Sam, I would have been a Jonah still--not because I am unlucky for others, but because somebody or something has compelled me to be certain places at certain times, without fail.

And, to quote Vonnegut one more time, I seriously doubt he was going for immortality in the first line of his magnificent, underrated novel Mother Night:

My name is Howard W. Campbell, Jr.

That has to be the most boring opening line ever, topping even It was a nice day, which at least has an ironic, tongue-in-cheek feel to it. My name is whatever sounds like the worst opening line you would get at the first meeting of a creative-writing workshop at the Bakersfield Night School for Youth at Risk. But, as Vonnegut would say...Listen*:

My name is Howard W. Campbell, Jr.

I am an American by birth, a Nazi by reputation, and a nationless person by inclination.

The year in which I write this book is 1961.

I address this book of mine to Mr. Tuvia Friedmann, Director of the Haifa Insitute for the Documentation of War Criminals, and to whomever else this may concern.

There's not a quotable line in those four paragraphs, but I still think it's an utterly engrossing opening.

And what was my point? Hear me, oh Muse: I love marvelous, quotable opening lines. But I also think the cult of great first lines is deluding itself. Some first lines only find their culmination in the second line, and some openings start small and ratchet up the interest with every additional sentence. A great first line is a wonderful thing, but an opening that drags the reader into the book is is more valuable.

And, who knows? If you write a wonderful opening, people may decide that your first line was inspired. Even if it's just Call me Ishmael.


*Want to mess with Vonnegut lovers? Ask them for the first line of Slaughter-House Five. Chances are good they'll say:

Billy Pigrim has come unstuck in time.

Nope. That's the first line of Chapter Two, a good 5,000 words into the book. I reread SH5 a while back and was startled to find it doesn't open with that famous line. So it goes.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Great Second Lines, Part I

I once sat in on a seminar by a literary agent. An entertaining process, though I had my doubts about some of the proceedings. For instance, the agent wanted to talk about how important great first lines are, and spent some time marveling over how wonderful Melville's "Call me Ishmael" was. "Immediately you wonder," he said, "why 'Ishmael'?"

Well, I admit that the first line of Moby Dick has become iconic. And I love Moby Dick. But I think "Call me Ishmael" itself is overrated. Contrary to what the literary agent stated, in the context of 19th Century novels, it doesn't really make us wonder, "Why Ishmael?" Despite all the critical analysis of the meaning of every syllable of Moby Dick, and the fact that one can read all manner of things into the choice of that name, in an age where people were routinely called Zebediah or Josiah or Homer, there's nothing especially striking about someone who suggests they ought to be called "Ishmael."

Sorry, it's not a remarkable first line. It's the first line of a remarkable opening passage, at once funny and soul-shaking:

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago--never mind how long precisely--having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially when my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off--then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can...

For me, that is as good as openings can get. But it isn't because of the first line. It's because of the opening as a whole--the flat initial greeting, then the rolling, controlled second sentence. The candid third sentence, and then the long, cadenced, semicolon-laden fourth sentence, which not only prefigures the high style of much of the novel to come, but also maintains the conversational, confessional style of the first sentence. This opening, taken as a whole, shouts the authority of the narrator in a way that is irrefutable.

But I'll be damned if "Call me Ishamel" is genius on its own:

Call me Ishmael. It's a family name. That's what my uncle was named. As a child it was embarassing--there's no obvious nicknames, so blah blah blah.

You could come up with "Call me Ishmael" all week long and it wouldn't be genius were it not for what followed. But for what followed, it wouldn't even be memorable.

I'm not denying that there are such things as brilliant first lines:

Now is the winter of our discontent.

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

And so on.

Oh, did you catch me on that last one? The real sentence as Dickens wrote it is a substantial paragraph, not the couplet that is usually quoted:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Which is very nice, but, like the opening to Bleak House, not readily recalled in its entirety.

All of which is to say that, while I love great openings, I think great first lines are a bit overrated.

A good example of my position came up in the aforementioned seminar. The agent had people read the opening line of their manuscript aloud to the room, and then had the room vote on whether they would keep on reading. I quote the following scene from memory, so I'm sure it's fraught with inaccuracy, but I'm sure it's faithful to the sense:

Woman: Can I read two sentences instead?

Agent: No, this is about the opening line.

Woman: (sigh) "She tossed her glossy black hair off her shoulders and squinted at the menu as though nothing satisfied her."

Agent: Well? Who's excited about reading on?

Room: (Mumbles of no, not really...)

Woman: Can I please read the second line too?

Agent: Yeah, sure.

Woman: "She tossed her glossy black hair off her shoulders and squinted at the menu as though nothing satisfied her. It's going to be an utter pleasure to kill this bitch, he thought."

The vote after she read the second line was a bit different.

I have more to say on this topic, but I'll close this post by recalling Peter DeVries' lines from The Vales of Laughter:

Call me, Ishmael. Feel absolutely free to call me any hour of the day or night at the office or at home...

Peter DeVries was wonderful. Especially his observation, "I love being a writer. It's the paperwork I can't stand."

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

How to get more traffic on your blog

Kate Monster: I'm glad we have this new technology...
aaaaaaaTrekkie Monster: ...for Porn!
Kate Monster: That brings us untold opportunity...
aaaaaaaTrekkie Monster: ...for Porn!
aaaaaaaaaaaaThe Internet is for porn!
aaaaaaaaaaaaThe Internet is for porn!
aaaaaaaaaaaaWhy you think the net was born?
aaaaaaaaaaaaPorn, porn, porn!

"The Internet is For Porn"
Avenue Q

That's Trekkie Monster and his operators/ singers /actors Minglie Chen and David Benoit. Avenue Q has some songs that invariably bring down the house ("Everyone's a Little Bit Racist Sometimes" and "What Do You Do With a BA in English?" are big hits), but "The Internet is For Porn" tends to get the loudest laughs, often drowning out the song.

And apparently the song is correct. A while back I posted some remarks on writing sex scenes under the post heading "SEX SEX SEX (Writing) LIVE NUDE GIRLS (and) SEX SEX SEX". I happened to check my site statistics (courtesy of Google Analytics) the other day, and that post has had more visitors, and more search engine referrals, than any other post. And not by a small margin; the day I published it, the number of visitors to the site more than doubled from the previous peak.

It's hard to believe that people are actually Googling "Sex". I mean, what would that get you, ten gazillion hits? (I just did it. The answer is 716 million, whiich means that if you put in eight-hour days and checked one every thirty seconds, it would take you about 2,043 years to get through the list.) Even "SEX SEX SEX" gets you 2.2 million hits. These people need training on how to formulate a search.

I'm guessing that few of these extra visitors hung around to read my post. Nonetheless, if you just put SEX SEX SEX in your post header, your traffic can double. Trekkie Monster was right. Why you think the net was born? Porn, porn, porn.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

No Such Thing as Bad Publicity

Remember James Frey, the guy who wrote the partially faked memoir A Million Little Pieces? (After Frey said the book was 95% true, David Thayer remarked that this still left 950,000 real Little Pieces, which he thought was quite a lot.)

Harper is publishing Frey's new novel this summer, with a claimed 350,000 print run. There was speculation that he had also placed a collection of short stories. According to the New York Times:

Reached by telephone before the announcement, Mr. Frey denied rumors that he had sold a short story collection, saying, “I have never written a short story in my life.”

But Mr. Frey published a short story last fall in a catalog for an exhibition by Malerie Marder, a Los Angeles-based artist.

Well, okay, we already knew Mr. Frey had some issues with telling the truth.

Faked memoirs seem to be popular; a woman named Margaret Seltzer just went down for one last week. But I suspect fake memoirs will be even more popular now—Mr Frey has demonstrated they seem to be a good route to getting a top agent and a big publishing deal for your novel.

On the other hand, Laura Albert, who wrote two novels under the pen name JT Leroy, was successfully sued for hundreds of thousands of dollars—because the publisher (and production company who optioned his/her books) knew that what she was writing was fiction, but bought the books in the belief that their author was a more interesting person than the author actually was.

Now, let me get this straight:

1) Frey lies in a book claimed to be non-fiction, and is rewarded with a huge fiction contract.

2) Laura Albert sells a novel and gets saddled with a massive debt because she, the author, isn’t as interesting as the person they believed the author to be.

Is it just me, or is that messed up?

DISCLAIMER: For the record, I would just like to assert that neither I, nor any of the fiction-writing visitors to this site, are interesting people in any way whatsoever, nor have we ever represented ourselves as being interesting people. Should anyone ever buy any of our novels, or procure the rights to them, or even happen to glance at them in a bookstore, they should not do so under the mistaken impression that we, ourselves, the writers, are interesting. We are dull as dirt, which is why we sit in rooms by ourselves making up stories about our imaginary friends. You can find more interesting things than us under your sofa cushions. Do not under any circumstances buy our novels, no matter how exciting they may be, under the illusion that we, ourselves, must be even more exciting. We are somewhat less sexually attractive than Yoda (though we have better syntax and some of us, at least most of the women, have less hair growing out of our ears); we are less witty than the defensive line of an American football team; and we are slightly less charming and socially adriot than a herd of flatulent hippos. So, even if our novels happen to be exciting or interesting, you have no grounds for taking legal action against us in the belief that we, ourselves, ought to be more interesting. We aren’t, and we warned you in advance, so there are no grounds to sue any of us. The days of the wild bohemian artist is long gone.

[Note to other novelists: We’re having another get-together here. Drinks, nose-candy, and exotic snacks will be provided free, but if you need any “equipment” you’ll have to bring it yourselves. Although we discard any left-behind needles, please do check the lost and found before leaving—we’ve got four pairs of thigh-high boots, a whole wad of thongs (we laundered them), and any number of rather unique, um, devices, none of which fit us. And, please: be considerate. If you insist on going all Sylvia Plath, please do it elsewhere—our oven is electric, and many of our guests need to get home to relieve the babysitter, and don’t have time for yet another police inquest! ]

Friday, March 7, 2008

Tomorrowville: My Evil Twin

I can't live with I guess I'll have to move next door. It's one of the prices you pay for multiple-personality disorder.

Back in the day, they used to have a commercial for L&M, "A cigarette for the two of you." The two of me? (How did they know?)

But, it's official: there's now two of me. By day, I'm wealthy socialite playboy David Isaak, but when night falls and the Bat Signal shines in the skies above Gotham, I'm

D.G. Underhill

David Underhill. David G. Underhill.

<==========That weird-looking guy over there.

And what, you ask (or ought to ask, which is why I'm asking on your behalf) does the "G" represent?

At the risk of sounding like a Sue Grafton novel, "G" is for "Godot." David Godot Underhill. (Why "Godot"? Because I've been waiting forever for Tomorrowville to be published. The book takes place in 2088; I was beginning to wonder if it would see print before then.)

Other noms de plume (or do I mean les noms de plume de ma tante?) were attractive. David G. Montblanc was caroling its siren song (or do I mean sirening its carol song?), but that was too silly even for me. Slightly. And variations on David Isaak like Isaac Davidson (which topped Janet's list) were also appealing, but a cardinal rule of tradecraft is when possible to change your surname but keep your first name, so that you still answer, "Yes?" when people shout out your first name. (Those of an analytical frame of mind will object that I also would probably respond if someone shouted, "Isaac!" True. But it would make me feel as though I were in gym class.)

Though, come to think of it, when someone shouts out "David!", half the men in the room over the age of 40 turn around. Of course, it's even more extreme if you shout "Jennifer!"

I used to work closely with a gay couple who were both named David, which resulted in interoffice phone calls that ran, "Hi, David, this is David. Is David around?" They told me they had gone to dinner with friends once and ended up with a total of seven people at the table--all named David.

There has been a lot of talk lately about differences in how Clinton and Obama are going about courting the Hispanic vote. To heck with that. If either of them could capture the "Jennifer" vote and add in a majority of the "Davids", they'd ensure a landslide victory.

There was a moratorium on Davids beginning in the mid-1970s, along with a move to phase out lead in gasoline (is there a connection? Might be...), but the Davidophilia virus is infecting a new generation of parents (most of them named Jennifer or Jessica and Jason or Jacob--"Gen J"). In 2007 "David" was back up to number thirteen on the list of most popular baby names in the US. Already I'm hearing mothers at Starbucks shout, "David! You sit down and behave!" And, of course, I promptly do.

So, I'm sticking to "David". Though you can call me "DG" now, if you like.

…leave the name of Baggins behind you. The name will not be safe to have, outside the Shire or in the Wild. When you go, go as Mr. Underhill.

And so I shall.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

George Plimpton and Paris Review (My favorite books on writing)

George Plimpton, et al. Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, Volumes 1-8.

I need a word, here. You know how there can be something--a writer, or a music group, or a vacation spot--that you discover when it is still relatively obscure and difficult of access, sort of a cult item that you feel deserves wider recognition? And then that day comes when your relatively hidden treasure becomes well-known and widely available...

Is there a word for that conflicted feeling when your treasure wins the recognition and ease of access it so deserves? Perhaps the Germans have a word for it--after all, they gave us schadenfreude, and this is to some extent schadenfreude's mirror reflection.

The first volume of Writers at Work came out around 1960, and the last one around the end of the 1980s, and for those of us who didn't subscribe to the Paris Review from 1953 on, finding the collected interviews was both a joy and, sometimes, a bit of a quest. I have them all on my shelf. The battered first volume has interviews that now seem to be from the Age of Legend: EM Forster, William Faulkner, Thornton Wilder, Georges Simenon, Dorothy Parker, Joyce Cary, and a half-dozen others.

But, starting last year, the Review announced they would be publishing "The DNA of Literature" free on their website. And I can't help but applaud the idea. Even if I had to scour the world for years to find the books, and now anyone can download them for free. (Hence that funny feeling that has no name.)

However, they haven't been quite as generous as it sounds. Hundreds of interviews are now available as PDF downloads, but they held some back for republication in the new four-volume set being published by Picador (the first two are out). So if you go looking for the interview with TS Eliot or Ernest Hemingway, you will find you are out of luck. And if you are looking for interviews since 2000, you will generally be politely invited to buy the issue of the magazine in which it ran.

The interviews are marvelous. Although the writers are given free rein, the interviewers are intelligent and produce something far more in-depth and valuable than your typical magazine or newspaper interview. I'll never have a chance to sit down with Faulkner or Vonnegut or AS Byatt and have a chat, but these interviews are a good second-best option. Maybe even a better option, as they give me no chance to make a fool of myself.


Note to Jen: If you really seek out Ernie's interview, it's in the second edition of Writers at Work, and can be bought used on Amazon for less than $2...about 90% of everything Hemingway is quoted as having said is somewhere in that interview.