Robert Frost, “Mending Wall,” from North of Boston (1914)

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbour know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
“Stay where you are until our backs are turned!”
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, “Good fences make good neighbours.”
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
“Why do they make good neighbours? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.” I could say “Elves” to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbours.”

Links of the Week

The Economist calls for fairness and balance in accounts of American slavery. What would Peggy Garner say?  (Well, that’s just one mother’s opinion.)

“Fuck your parliament and your constitution! Or: the kind of governments American leaders really like!

And a Sam Shepard interview at the Guardian: These days, he reads a lot of Irish writers. “They are head and shoulders above,” he says. “It’s the ability to take language and spin it.” And a lot of South Americans, too, “because they seem to have a handle on the ability to cross time and depth.” He struggles to think of contemporary American writers he rates, beyond Denis Johnson.

How We Get the Stuff

(Remarks prompted by the discovery that Bomb magazine has a section called “Literature.”)

Every thousand or so years, civilization burns to the ground.  As it burns, all sorts of people flee for their lives.  About one in a hundred of these people pass a bookcase on their way to saving themselves from the flames, and they see a book and decide in a split second to take that book with them.  They grab it and continue running for the nearest exit.  This process, repeated over time, is how we got a lot of the writing of Euripides, some of that of Sophocles, and not very much of Aeschylus at all.  The end-result of this process is called literature.  Literature is not about education, college degrees, MFAs, publication, carefully crafted craft, or finely observed observations.  Literature is about survival.  That is all it is about.

Happy New Year

Where I’m Calling From: A Little Manifesto

I grew up in the U. S. Army. I learned early that we, the entire family, were “in the Army.” Only we didn’t call it the Army. We called it the Service. We were “in the Service,” and I grew up in the Service. There is a difference. David Petraeus was in the Army, but George Marshall was in the Service.

I never finished college because of alcoholism, which came close to killing me. I had my last drink on 2 November 1977. It was some time before I could write again, and even longer before I could write the kind of thing – fiction – that I wanted to write. Fiction is among the writings that universities label “creative.”

But this label is a misnomer.

All writing is creative. Most writing creates money, but not much of it on a per-writer basis. Enough to live on, if you live fairly simply. MFA programs create certified writers who have a steady income, usually from teaching, and whose writing is judged to be “literature” before it is even published. And some writing – very little, in comparison to the total produced by what the University of the South calls “the writing industry” – creates the kind of writing you will grab and take with you as you flee for your life from the burning building we term, with unconscious sarcasm, Western civilization.

The first pieces of writing that I was paid for were articles for a trade paper that covered the independent grocery business. I wrote a story about Bertolli olive oil, which was just entering the U. S. market at that time, and the Bertolli guy in New York actually sent me a letter of thanks. He did not know that the original ending of my piece about his olive oil had been suppressed. I had concluded on what I thought was an upbeat note by saying something to the effect that Bertolli was going to make olive oil “bigger than Popeye’s girlfriend.”

The owner of the paper thought this might offend the company. The owner of the paper, like the owners of most papers, was a candy-ass and a coward.

I am a coward, too, but I do the scary stuff anyway, because fear is not a valid motive for anything, and also because I’ve learned that if something scares me, it usually will interest the reader, who may or may not be interested in what merely interests me.

I spent a long time – or what seemed like a long time – in what they call “trade press,” writing about things like soft drinks, corporate real estate management and facilities planning, computers and programming, and the airline business. I then wrote my first novel, which effort I supported by writing corporate communications, user manuals, various technical pieces, and by learning data-base programming. No longer a part of the Service in the military sense, I was now in the Service as a writer.

In 1991 I went to work for a publisher of medical newsletters, and I wrote about HIV/AIDS, cancer, and MDR-TB. I also wrote my second novel, Safe Sex, which was published in England in 1997 by Fourth Estate Limited.

Writing explicitly about human beings being sexual is very good for your sex life. It is surprisingly liberating. It really frees you up, as they say. When Safe Sex was published, I discovered that most, if not all, of the sexually liberated (aka mature) reviewers were gay. The straight people uniformly pooh-poohed the book, like sex was something beneath them – no big deal to these experienced and world-weary heteros, see?

Don’t let these critics kid you. Sex is a big deal to every last one of them. That’s why explicit writing about sex baffled them to the degree that they could not see notice the influence of Oedipus Rex in the storyline of Safe Sex.

But nobody reads the classics anymore. That was my mistake.

Everybody did notice the word cunt, which I used in that novel because it is the actual English word for the female sexual organ. This upset some bourgeois Southern liberals.

Liberals don’t have cunts. They have “pussies” and other similarly childish code words for cunt. The childishness of such verbiage is precisely why I used the word cunt in Safe Sex. Kung Fu-tzu called this practice “the rectification of names” and called it, as well, the first step in the saving of society. That is, saying what you really mean is the beginning of sanity, salvation, and, yes, good government. What I really meant was – cunt. I did not mean “pussy,” or any other baby-talk. I meant cunt. (I still do. If you’re interested, check out The Analects or read Eros Denied: Sex in Western Society by Wayland Young, which may be purchased used here and here

My thinking is simple: if you can’t say it, you don’t really get to do it, and if you can’t call it by its real name, you haven’t really got one. Not really.

Safe Sex was what an agent in Atlanta termed “a hard sell to a small audience.” This, I think, is because “Americans” – defined as North American white people, with tacit honorary membership extended to a few European whites – don’t really like reading about sex because they (still) think it’s dirty and all that stuff, that is, unspeakable. And they think only kids – specifically, adolescent boys – would even care to read about sex. Mature people don’t read such stuff, mature being defined as having and keeping a job, owning and paying off a car, raising well-behaved children, voting, supporting the United Way, having a checking account and a portfolio, owning a home, paying the bills, taking out the garbage, mowing the lawn, washing the car, doing the laundry, etc. This defines the maturity of a people who believe Ronald Reagan was a “great” president – they know this must be true, because they saw it on television.

These people are rationalizing their fear of their own genitals, which is terrifyingly real to them. When they fuck, they are liable to turn off the lights. One of these bourgeois liberal women said to me: “Women don’t masturbate.” This particular lady probably doesn’t have a cunt, either.

If you think cunt is dirty, look it up in the dictionary. Check out that old etymology. Read Chaucer, who uses the Middle-English form of the word in The Canterbury Tales. Cunt wasn’t dirty in English until that band, Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans, took over England. They declared it a dirty word, because they thought it was a dirty thing.

What’s your opinion?

The publication of Safe Sex was followed by a long period of writing feverishly that took real years to result in anything. When it finally resulted in something, a novel about biological warfare in the Second World War called The Wonders of the Invisible World, it couldn’t be published in the United States either. Wonders is a fairly realistic historical novel about the Pacific War and its aftermath – i.e., the early days of the Cold War – and that kind of narrative can’t be published for North American white people, with tacit honorary membership extended to a few Europeans.

Or maybe it could be published, but no one could figure out how to market it, which is what the publishing industry is really about. You can’t say, for instance, that it’s a book about World War II that fans of warfare like Tom Brokaw will rush out to buy. The U. S. publishing industry, like every other industry, is soulless. Clever, but soulless.

(That paragraph is an example of the rectification of names. Compare the etymologies of industry and profession, and see if it isn’t.)

What can be marketed about war and warfare in the United States is Saving Private Ryan, which is a twenty-minute extravaganza of special effects “realism,” followed by two hours of what Edmund Wilson termed patriotic gore – two hours of war movie that was, in its heart of hearts, no different in spirit from the Hollywood propaganda movies of the period, just more “graphic.” At the end of Saving, though, we’re treated to a full-screen shot of the U. S. flag, aka “Old Glory,” flying high with the sun shining through it – the U. S. as light-bringer, so to speak.

(But remember, the original light-bringer wound up chained to a rock having his liver eaten out of his body by an eagle every day, over and over, forever. That should have given Robert Rodat pause, but he probably didn’t read the classics either.)

To be fair, there is one scene in Saving that gets at the real effect of violence. That occurs at the Ryan home, in what looks like Kansas or Indiana or some other image that brings to mind, in the movies, “the heartland.” The sequence shows Mother Ryan at the kitchen sink, looking out the window and seeing a big black car pull up out front. She goes to the door and, by the time she gets it open, she sees two men in uniform emerging from the vehicle. Knowing what this visit means, she cannot remain standing and collapses in the doorway.

If you want to reveal the horror of violence, this is the kind of thing that can do it, because it shows that violence is pointless and meaningless human suffering. Human suffering happens to your mother. Everybody else as well, but having it happen to Mother will sell the concept of nonviolence a lot better than any other scenario. Killing, as George Orwell once observed, is screaming children and hysterical women and weeping men. Let’s show that to our adolescent boys and girls.

So, as I said at the beginning, I grew up in the U. S. Army, the Service, which is why I don’t romanticize war or take Tom Brokaw seriously. I’m a big fan of Graham Greene, though, who wrote the following passage in The Ministry of Fear:

Rowe thought, as he often did, that you couldn’t take such an odd world seriously, and yet all the time, in fact, he took it with a mortal seriousness. The grand names stood permanently like statues in his mind: names like Justice and Retribution, though what they both boiled down to was simply Mr Rennit, hundreds and hundreds of Mr Rennits. But of course if you believed in God – and the Devil – the thing wasn’t quite so comic. Because the Devil – and God too – had always used comic people, futile people, little suburban natures and the maimed and warped to serve his purposes. When God used them you talked emptily of Nobility and when the devil used them of Wickedness, but the material was only dull shabby human mediocrity in either case.

Let’s repeat that phrase: “dull shabby human mediocrity.” When it’s all said and done and they lower us into the ground, that’s me and you and, I’ll bet, Steven Spielberg too. And owning up to it is both the meaning of humility and the beginning of being able to laugh at yourself. No one who can laugh at himself (or herself) ever starts a war. No, wars, the most gloriously useless and wasteful of all human endeavors, are always started by serious people, adult people, people who wouldn’t be caught dead reading a sexually explicit book or watching raw news footage of actual combat, people who don’t know there is a difference between graphic realism and truth, between truth and propaganda, and who find the propaganda a whole lot easier to do – and, especially, to sell. Growing up, I got to see what all the greatest killing actually did to the men who were present and on the scene at the time of the carnage, before it became a movie, and I concluded early on that it wasn’t worth it.

I was right. I still am.

I have concluded that we, Americans, are as phony about war as we are about sex. And it’s not just us. If you read the letters and diaries written by the troops who fought the battle of Stalingrad, you find, again and again, soldiers on all sides claiming to be “fighting for freedom.”

Dig it: the Nazis and the Communists fought for freedom – according to themselves. Actually, the Nazis and the Communists fought for real estate and money, which is what we fought for too, because those are always the goals and the purpose and the cause of war. The army of Spartacus actually did fight for its freedom, but it lost to an army that fought for its property. This, and this alone, is what nations kill for.

I’ve written an awful lot for property, and the idea behind websites like this one is mainly about property as well: selling books is a part of property. But I don’t believe I can really sell you on my books, my writing, by “creating content” or expertly applying search-engine optimization techniques or any means other than by being the same guy here that I am when I write the books. That’s a guy who is writing because he has to if he is ever going to be free.

Right now I’m working on a crime story – what the college professors call noir – and next year I will be writing another war novel, one about the Great War, aka “World War I.” I have hopes for the commercial potential of the crime story, tentatively entitled Blackout, and, who knows about the Great War? Next August marks the centennial of its beginning, and I assume, along with all the other industrial-strength writers, that it will be and will remain “commercially viable” for the duration of the festivities, that is, till 11 November 2018 – the History-As-Spectacle Book Sale to end all History-As-Spectacle Book Sales, or: Back to the Future with the First Greatest Generation.

But that is only what I hope for, and Emily Dickinson called hope “the thing with feathers.” That’s me. Dull, shabby, human, mediocre, with feathers. And that’s what I write about (also me). I drink (soda water) to the dull, the shabby, the mediocre, and, above all, to a thing with feathers.

Writing about so-called “limited nuclear war” in The Challenge of Peace in 1983, the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said this about hope:

Hope sustains one’s capacity to live with danger without being overwhelmed by it; hope is the will to struggle against obstacles even when they appear insuperable. Ultimately our hope rests in the God who gave us life, sustains the world by his power, and has called us to revere the lives of every person and all peoples.

Amen, brother. Now, where art thou?

STATEMENT OF 9 JUNE 2013

After all these years of being Eleanor Roosevelt, I have at length concluded that, finally, there is no viable alternative to Being Myself.  Myself is the creature of whom my father always said:

You dont really feel that way

Not only was he wrong, he also lied to the New York Times.  In fact, you could say that the degree of my father’s lying rose to the pathological, but I ask you to remember that he only lied for his country.  Or, at any rate, his government.  Saving Private Ryan is, after all, an exercise in pro-war propaganda, which becomes readily apparent when we note that the most affecting scene concerning violence — in fact, the only truly affective one — occurs when the two soldiers pull up in front of the Ryan home, out there among amber waves of etc., and Mrs [no first name] Ryan, upon opening the front door and realizing what this visit portends, can no longer remain standing.

If I had an alternative to Being Myself, believe me, I would opt for it, because I cannot imagine anything scarier than Being Myself (neither could my father, and he was a war hero).  Know that I undertake this course of being only as the very last and desperate resort, at a point in my life when I find myself bereft of any other thing to be.

I know that this decision will alienate some people — perhaps even most people — but I am, as yet, unwilling to die for the sake of those people’s good opinion of themselves.

Interested readers who have followed my case in the past may think of this Statement as a sequel to my one-hit wonder of yesteryear, An Account of a Family.  We now return to our regularly scheduled programming.

Signed,

Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Slayer

We Need a New New Model for Publishing

What Is a Publisher’s Job?

In a letter dated 18 September 1919 to Maxwell Perkins, editor-in-chief at Charles Scribner’s, F. Scott Fitzgerald asked if it might be possible to publish his new novel, This Side of Paradise, “before Xmas or, say, by February?” As we see in Editor to Author: The Letters of Maxwell E. Perkins,Perkins replied on 23 September 1919:

Dear Mr. Fitzgerald:

I was very glad to get your letter of the 18th and to know that everything was ready with regard to This Side of Paradise; and we are now making an estimate upon the book preliminary to putting it in hand, which we shall do within a short time if the printers’ strike does not make it impossible to put anything in hand.

It is this way about publishing before Christmas: there are two book seasons in the year and the preparations for each one are begun long before the season opens. The publishers’ travelers go out in July and August over the country with trunks filled with dummies and samples of the Fall books, which are to have their greatest sale in the Christmas season. The Advertising Department and the Circularizing Department get up their material in August and early September to make these books known considerably before publication and at the very time of publication. The advertising that is done from the first of September on is supposed to have its great effect in December, although the book may have appeared in August or September or October and may have sold considerably then. Now, if a book is accepted after all this preliminary work is done and comes out in November, as yours would have to do at the earliest, it must make its own way altogether: it will get no preliminary advertising; it will not be presented to the trade by salesmen on the basis of a dummy; and it will come to the bookseller, who is already nearly mad with the number of new books and had already invested all the money he can in them, as a most unwelcome and troublesome thing and will suffer accordingly. Even if it is a book by an author who has been selling well for years, it will be very considerably injured by this.

The next book publishing season is the Spring season. The moment the Christmas rush is ended the travelers go out once more and see all the booksellers, equipped with samples, etc. The bookseller has made his money out of the previous season and is ready to begin afresh and to stock up on new books. The Advertising and Circularizing departments have prepared their work on it, and their accounts of the author, etc., and have advertised it in the trade magazines to reinforce the salesmen’s selling argument. Then, when the book does appear in February, March, or April, the trade is ready for it and knows about it and it can be competently advertised because the publicity force of the house has become familiar with it.

These are the reasons why there is no question but it would damage your book exceedingly to try to rush it out before Christmas. Whether or not it can be printed in February we cannot yet say, but it certainly can be published in that month or March and we shall remember that you want it to be as early as possible

Sincerely yours,

Maxwell Perkins

What Is a “Direct” Publisher’s Job?

In 2010 764,000 books were “self-published.” The figures in the table below postulate a year in which an independent self-publishing contractor — who possesses the means of production and distribution of the books — has 10 percent of such a market, sells all his titles at $6.99, with each author earning a 70 percent royalty.

spc-earnWhen 4th Estate Ltd, London, published my novel Safe Sex in 1997, I was assigned a copy editor as well as a content editor, and a graphic designer who laid out the book and the cover. The book was reviewed in about a dozen periodicals, including the Times of London, the foremost newspaper in the English-speaking world. I also did two interviews, one online and one in a magazine, via email. My advance came to £4,000, or, at that time, something in the neighborhood of $6,000.

Publishing with our hypothetical “self-publishing” contractor gets each author a choice from among an assortment of “template” covers, each the epitome of the generic, and all copyrighted by the contractor. Each author gets to proof the ebook file, which is created by converting her word processing file to the format of the contractor’s reading device.

There is no design involved in the book, beyond, say, a compulsory table of contents providing a link to every chapter. The word processing file is simply converted to the reader’s format and a cursory overview is made of the result.

Sometimes, the reader file has justified left and right margins. But curiously, no words in the text are hyphenated. This results in a righthand margin that is sometimes oddly ragged. I do not know why this case occurs, but I do know that hyphenation is, compared to a quick-and-dirty file conversion, a considerably more complex piece of programming to implement. That is, hyphenation costs the contractor money. This cost may or may not be the reason for the absence of hyphenation in the converted file, and the consequent rather amateurish job of what used to be call “typesetting.”

Of course, no advances are made against the publisher’s expectation of initial sales, and our 76,400 authors have to contact the Times themselves. Of course, each of these authors gets that generous 70 percent royalty on every copy she sells. Seventy percent sounds pretty impressive compared to the 15 percent that I settled for from 4th Estate.

Odds are that each self-published author will sell at least one copy — to his or her mother, if no one else — which grosses our Contractor just over $160,000 — and nets each author $4.89 apiece.

Should we hit a self-publishing jackpot, i.e., each of our authors sells 10 copies, then the writers earn not quite $49 apiece, and our entrepreneurial Contractor, the capitalist risk-taker and job-creator in this hypothetical business venture, grosses right at $1.6 million.

Job Creation

Blogs and similar marketing advice devoted to self-publishing — media content aimed at aspiring authors — all pretty much agree that The Author will do better in the marketplace if she hires

• a professional editor

• a professional proofreader

• and a professional graphic designer

and, of course, if she hosts her own website and devotes enough time to it — theoretically every day — to create a meaningful (or “professional”) marketing effort.

All of this work is summarized in the business preliminaries Perkins described to Scott Fitzgerald way back in 1919.

To accomplish all this endeavor — as opposed to having 4th Estate or Scribner’s do it — our author receives that additional 55 percent of her royalty. That is, to hire the labor of all these other professionals and pay for the promotion of her work, her generous royalty allows her — indeed, requires her — to spend as much as $4 for every book that she sells. This amount comes out of her $4.89, of course, leaving her a profit of $0.89, that is, 15 percent.

But, just as Scribner’s and 4th Estate had to do, our author must make that $4-per-book investment up frontbefore she sells even a single copy of Raskolnikov in the House of the Dead.

Our Contractor is, of course, not a contractor. He is a capitalist. On the other hand, the “traditional” publisher — also working in a capitalist economy — did contract with our author for her work. Scribner’s end of the contract, like 4th Estate’s, covered things like . . . editing, proofing, graphics, and marketing. And Scribner’s paid its authors something up front for having written the books in the first place — a percentage of what they, as entrepreneurs, gambled that they could make on a press run of, say, 5,000 copies. Our Contractor pays his authors their 70 percent after they have not only written the books, but marketed and sold them as well.

On the Nature of Our Progress

We have a lot of technology that Maxwell Perkins lacked, and it would be good if we had a new model for publishing. We could have such a new model, but the table above does not illustrate it. Our table is not a model for publishing, but, rather, a model for the transfer of capital from the many to the few, in exchange for the not-much — a sterling example of the “new economy.”

The difference between the old economy and the new consists in the very real and meaningful work done by Charles Scribner’s, and by 4th Estate, which went on to be acquired — eaten up — by HarperCollins. The end-result of Scribner’s effort, This Side of Paradise, was a also a cut or so above the average ebook or, for that matter, the hardcovers typically reviewed every day in the Times. What’s new in this model is that the capitalist does much less than he used to do, while grossing roughly the same percentage.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Only things don’t stay the same. Book publishing was once regarded as a profession; now it is an industry. According to the Online Etymological Dictionary, to profess meant “to take a vow,” originally a religious vow. Industry, on the other hand, means “cleverness.”

As Tyler Durden says in Fight Club, “How’s that working out for you? Being clever.”

Clever is working pretty well for our Contractor.  The writers are still getting screwed.