Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Typewriters and the Movies

A few days ago, Aliya discussed the history of her typewriter, which she may or may not cart along with her after the Apocalypse. Shortly thereafter, Ryan David Jahn posted a discussion of the effects of typing on the composition process. In honor of what seems to have become Typewriter Month, I thought I'd add a few words of my own.

I haven't had a typewriter in ages. If I had one, my daily consumption of Wite-Out would run into the gallons.

Nonetheless, typewriters are very cool because they are so cinematic. Or, at any rate, they are more cinematic than anything else writers do (apart from getting druink and falling over at parties). Movie directors still invariably have writers banging away on typewriters. You can 1) zoom in close on each letter as it embosses onto the paper; 2) amplify the hammering sounds; 3) have the loose sheets of the manuscript fly away--out the window, or under a car, or into a pond. (This latter movie cliche was used as recently as Love Actually.)

What we do is about the dullest thing in the world to film, which is why they usually show the writer sitting down to write and then cut to the writer sitting back and wiping sweat from the forehead, a stack of finished manuscript pages beside the typewriter. Very seldom so they do more because, well, a story about someone making up a story turns out to be a bit dull.

Two movies have fine openings with the writer working at the typewriter. The first is Romancing the Stone, which opens in the romance-novel ending being written by Kathleen Turner's character, complete with her cheesy prose as voice-over. The scene then cuts to her teary-eyed face at her typewriter, as she says, "Oh, God, that's good...The...End."

The other, and my favorite, is the beginning of Throw Momma From the Train. The movie opens close in on the page as the typewriter stamps out "T...h...e... ...n...i...g..h...t... ...w...a...s..." and then switches to the face of Billy Crystal's character, who for almost the rest of the film is stuck on his novel's opening line, "The night was..." For the next few minutes of screen time, Crystal moves in and out of the frame (which stays fixed on his typewriter), doing all those things writers do, and a few I've never thought of, when we are stuck and pretending we are working. Nice scene.

No typewriter for me, though. I probably delete twenty words for every one I write and keep. Typewriters may be more cinematic, but if you're anything like me, avoiding typewriters keeps innumerable acres of trees thriving.

Though I have to admit that it would sometimes be satisfying to crumple up what I had just written and hurl it into the trash. Not only is that cinematic, but cathartic as well.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Some Good News in Publishing (for a change)

I'm a writer.

That first sentence wasn't a complaint. Or not much of one. After all, worse things could happen to a person than being a writer. You could be, for example, an actor, where the odds are even worse, the pay inequity between the top and the bottom even wider, and the rejections far more personal (and usually delivered to your face).

So I count myself lucky. And I'm even luckier than it might seem: I'm a novelist. I could have been born a short-story writer. Oh, I know the advantages of writing shorts. Your head isn't buried in the same damn thing for months or even years. Each individual rejection means less. You can explore ideas that are interesting but not plottable enough for a longer form. You can play with style, perspective, or narrative form in a way that might be annoying, cloying, or just plain too precious at book length. You can take strange risks.

But where do you sell short stories nowadays? Especially if you are thinking you ought to be paid...? There are many places to publish short stories on the web--if you want to give them away--but the classic outlets for short stories, the magazines, have progressively published less fiction.

There were loud cries of dismay a few years back when The Atlantic--which, along with The New Yorker and Playboy, were the flagships of non-academic short fiction in the US--announced it would no longer be publishing short stories on a monthly basis, but would instead convert to putting out an annual Fiction Issue.

Well, after that long preamble, here's the good news. Although The Atlantic has not decided to expand the fiction content of it's monthly issues, it has decided to publish short stories on the Amazon Kindle, beginning with one from Christopher Buckley and another from Edna O'Brien.

As the article mentions, this opens up some interesting possibilities. In effect, stories will now be published on a a stand-alone basis, without the associated content of a magazine, but with the imprimatur of the Atlantic's editorial staff. And the Kindle is a more flexible medium than print; it can just as easily handle short-shorts or stories that would have been too long for magazines, but too short for publication as a book. This development even offers some hope for the novella--arguably the most perfect of fiction forms, but one that has never really been able to find a market in the world of print.

Some things about Kindle make me nervous in a sci-fi paranoia way (I'll post again on that later). But The Atlantic's move strikes me as cause for celebration. I don't like short stories, but I do enjoy reading them, and am happy to see someone giving writers some incentive to produce them.

Not that short-story writers seem to need any encouragement. The supply of short stories seems to have no relationship to whether or not anyone is buying them (or even reading them). The short-story coat of arms ought to read Ars Gratia Artis...except for the fact that MGM Studios already uses that as their motto.

Even if deciding to remake the movie Fame calls into question their devotion to that principle. After visiting a brothel that catered to, umm, specialized tastes, Voltaire famously observed that "Once is philosophy, twice is perversion." Well, sometimes even once isn't philosophy. Or Art.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Blockbusters versus The Long Tail

You may have missed reading Chris Anderson's The Long Tail, but you have certainly heard its main thesis summarized: The development of netcentric distribution means consumers have access to ever-greater variety than what is on offer in stores, and suggests that a massive total demand exists out in the niche markets. Anderson believed the future of profits in retail and media existed out in that long tail rather than at the crest of the wave of wildly popular items.

I enjoyed The Long Tail, and hoped that it indeed predicted the shape of the future. Recent history suggests that Anderson may have missed a few important points, and an article in the November 28th issue of The Economist discusses The Tail versus The Blockbuster.

What appears to be losing out is the midlist. We now have many more books selling a handful of copies, and many more small, low-budget indie films. But blockbusters are faring better than ever. It's the middle that is dropping into oblivion*. The Economist notes that the traditional bookshop, which has always carried the bestsellers as well as a good helping of the midlist, is under attack at both ends: Amazon can do better at covering the full range of books, right down to the obscure and self-published, while competition on the bestsellers comes as much from supermarkets and discount department stores as from the web.

Something I had never considered is what a different audience blockbusters reach. The article notes that a study at the Wharton Business School has found that on Netflix the customer reviews of blockbusters--even blockbusters that are generally deemed by the movie community to be irredeemable garbage--get better ratings from their viewers than more obscure films. Why? The Economist puts it so nicely that I won't attempt to paraphrase:

...William McPhee noted that a disproportionate share of the audience for a hit was made up of people who consumed few products of that type...A lot of the people who read a bestselling novel. for example, do not read much other fiction. By contrast, the audience for an obscure novel is largely composed of people who read a lot. That means the least popular books are judged by people who have the highest standards, while the most popular are judged by people who literally do not know any better. An American who read just one book this year was disproportionately likely to have read "The Lost Symbol" by Dan Brown. He almost certainly liked it.

(The article goes on to make many other interesting points about distribution channels, word-of-mouth, piggybacking, and cross-merchandizing, but most of these points are more applicable to movies and television than to novels. It's worth a read in its entirety: here's the link again.)

Now, I may be chided for not realizing the obvious long before now, but this was news to me: Success in terms of number of copies sold inherently means that your book has been bought largely by people who don't read much. (In the case of JK Rowling, it may even mean that your book converted millions of non-readers into readers--but I suspect that can only occur write Young Adult fiction.) I'd conceived of the bestseller as a phenomenon where, through some magical process, readers of diverse tastes converged on a single title that had appeal across genre and style boundaries. Surely those people may be included as the readers of a bestseller. But the majority of readers of a bestseller are actually people we would class as non-readers.

Note that I said "readers of a bestseller." There are also those bestsellers that are more sold than read (Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient after the release of the film, Julia Glass's Three Junes, Seamus Heaney's new translation of Beowulf). But that's another post entirely.

*James Michener famously commented that America was a country where a novelist could make a fortune, but not a living. He should see it today.