Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Why this blog has no comments

When I started up the blog for 2018, I decided that there would be no open comment threads. The ultimate Internet blasphemy, I know, in the day of Wikipedia and the Great Online Collective Hive Mind. 

Why? Seth Godin stated this case eloquently twelve years ago, in 2006:

I think comments are terrific, and they are the key attraction for some blogs and some bloggers. Not for me, though. First, I feel compelled to clarify or to answer every objection or to point out every flaw in reasoning. Second, it takes way too much of my time to even think about them, never mind curate them. And finally, and most important for you, it permanently changes the way I write. Instead of writing for everyone, I find myself writing in anticipation of the commenters. I'm already itching to rewrite my traffic post below. So, given a choice between a blog with comments or no blog at all, I think I'd have to choose the latter. 
So, bloggers who like comments, blog on. Commenters, feel free. But not here. Sorry.

I've followed a lot of blogs over the years. The blogs that allow comments are inevitably influenced by them, as the blogger attempts to curry favor with a small minority of readers. 
For me, at least, writing is not a collaborative act. I hope you understand! 

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Isn't that arrogant of me? Perhaps. But this blog has humble aspirations. It isn't a crusade or a political movement. There are no pretensions here of changing the world or throwing the next presidential election. 

This isn't FoxNews, CNN, or MSNBC. This isn't even Breitbart or the Huffington Post. This is a personal blog where I record my thoughts and observations. 

Most of the topics here are innocuous. I most often write about my own writing and my writing process, and the world of books. 

I do, though, editorialize on occasion. This sometimes involves controversial issues. 

In any event, everything here is my opinion and/or observation...nothing more. 
But what if you believe that something I've written is wrong????!!!

In all likelihood, what you perceive as "wrong" is simply an interpretation that differs from yours. However, I make no claim of omniscience or infallibility; I may very well be "wrong". 

But I wouldn't be the first person to be wrong on the Internet, now, would I? Chances are, the world won't end. 

But what if you feel compelled to tell me how much you disagree?

Must you? Okay, fine. If you really take issue with something I've written here, feel free to contact me via my author page on Facebook, or email. 

Be warned, though: The blog is a sideline for me. My focus is writing books. And while I might read your 5,000-word rebuttal of a 500-word post I wrote two weeks ago (and have largely forgotten myself), this may also be the night when Hawaii Five-O is on. 

You are also at liberty to write a rebuttal on your own blog, Twitter feed, or Facebook page. I may or may not read it...Honestly, I probably won't read it, because I won't know about it. (I've long since stopped doing vanity searches on Google.) But that will give you a chance to publicly disagree with me. Everyone will be happy. 

As should be clear from the above, I think it is a colossal waste of time to spend hours arguing with strangers on the Internet--another reason I don't have comments. 

If the content of this blog annoys you, you are free to ignore it. The Internet is a big place. There are many other blogs and websites to read. You may find others more amenable to your tastes and opinions. 

Don't spend your time getting upset about what's written here--or anywhere else on the Internet. Life is too short.

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This blog is a one-man show. I've tried having comments before, and they simply weren't for me. Like Seth Godin, if forced to choose between a blog with comments or no blog at all, I would choose the latter. 

Or to put it another way: If I liked making everything I do a vast, convoluted committee project, I would still be working in the corporate world--where I was paid to make everything a vast, convoluted committee project. 

Once again: I hope you understand. 

Doom and gloom in the indie book world

I came across the following thread on Kboards, lamenting the oversaturated state of the indie book market:

"But man, seeing the expenses rack up on my spreadsheet... starting to get me down. Every day it feels more and more like a self-indulgent waste of time.  

I'm lucky in that my partner repeatedly tells me I'd be an idiot to give up now, and that everything's been paid for by a side job. But we're also thinking about buying a house, etc, and I've got to wonder if maybe the money would have been better spend on something else. 

I don't know. Maybe once I get the third book out and start marketing it'll turn out to be the smartest thing I've ever done. A part of me knows that if I hadn't done it, I'd regret it forever. 

Is anyone else feeling blue about this whole enterprise?"

I'm going to pull out my old man card here, and take the reader back about twenty years, to the super-heated days of the dot-com boom, circa 1998~1999.

During the last two years of the 1990s, everyone was (supposedly) going to get rich by either forming their own dot-com, or by day-trading tech stocks. 

And if you really had to have a job on someone else's payroll, it would most likely be a cushy online marketing position (assuming you weren't a coder) at a dot-com start-up that offered its employees free vegetarian lunches, complimentary back rubs, and recreation rooms that employees could visit at any time of day, when they needed to blow off steam. 

*        *        *

This version of reality was, as subsequent events proved, a bunch of hooey. 

In 2001 the dot-com boom imploded. The tech-swelled stock market crashed, and the dream of day-trading your way to easy money disappeared. 

As detailed in the movie, the dot-com managers tended to be even more callous and cold-hearted than their "dinosaur" industry counterparts when the the inevitable layoffs came. In 2001 and 2002, there were endless news stories about dot-com managers firing employees via mass email. 

Amazon, and a few other dot-coms survived, of course. But many of the original dot-coms went belly-up during 2001 and 2002. These companies were widely touted as the wave of the future. Now they are footnotes on Wikipedia articles about the Great Dot-com Bubble

*          *           *

What does all this have to do with the current state of the indie writing market?

The Amazon Kindle "revolutionized" independent publishing in 2009, just as the Internet "revolutionized" commerce in the mid- to late-1990s. But the Kindle revolution, like the Internet revolution, was misinterpreted and vastly overhyped. 

As recently as a few years ago, there was a chorus of Kindle publishing gurus who were selling utopian dreams. Citing the extraordinary successes of a few outliers like Amanda Hocking and JA Konrath, they pushed the notion that almost anyone could get rich writing fiction for the Amazon Kindle.

As a result, the market has become oversaturated with poorly conceived books. 

There are now authors publishing dinosaur erotica, for goodness sake. There are countless ripoffs of Twilight, Harry Potter, and The Hunger Games. More Battlestar Galactica and Game of Thrones clones than you can count.  

This is unsustainable. Even the Kindle publishing gurus are starting to admit this. 

The talk nowadays is much less utopian, and more reality-based. 

And yes, sometimes it's downright gloomy.

*          *           *

What will happen next? 

First of all, there will be a shakeout, much as there was in the dot-com market seventeen years ago. 

Kindle publishing will still be a path for a good income for some--and genuine riches for a few. But the "gold rush" days are over. 

At present authors are spending exorbitant amounts on advertising, because they are all clamoring for attention from a relatively fixed population of readers. There is simply too much volume--or over-supply. 

A shakeout will bring advertising costs--and other expenses--down to more sustainable levels. Visibility will always be a challenge for any author whose name isn't JK Rowling or Stephen King. But the one-in-a-million odds should improve as the volume decreases. 

Likewise, there will always be new authors entering the fray. But in 2018 and 2019 they are unlikely to enter the market in the droves that they did during the gold rush days. 

This will bring the market closer to equilibrium. There will still be more books than readers. (That has always been the case.) But the inventory of the Amazon Kindle catalog will no longer be doubling every year

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Bubbles are a common economic phenomenon. When a bubble bursts (as all bubbles eventually do), there is a shakeout, and a period of doom-and-gloom sentiment. 

Those who were pulled in by the hype and the lure of quick riches will be more easily dissuaded. 

They will pull out and move on to something else. 

*        *        *

If you're reading this as an indie writer, know this: There is no shame in deciding: "Hey, you know what? Kindle publishing really isn't for me! I'm going to invest my time, energy, and resources in some other endeavor!"

Among the sundry silliness that propagated during the Kindle gold rush period, is the notion that absolutely no one, after dipping his or her toe into Kindle publishing, should ever "quit". 

That is pure nonsense. Sometimes it makes perfect sense to quit. 

I played football my freshman year of high school. I didn't go out for football my sophomore year--because I realized that I would never be anything but a second-string right tackle.

So I "quit" football. 

But I found a respectable degree of success a few years later, when I went out for track and cross country. Football wasn't my niche. Long-distance running was my niche. 

Sometimes you have to abandon something that isn't your niche, in order to move on to (or identify) that which is your niche.

*           *           *

The post-bubble market will be better for those who persevere, those who were driven by long-term motivations all along. 

I repeat: There is still money to be made in Kindle publishing; but the gold rush days are over. Get used to that. 

What I'm reading: 'The Mediterranean Caper'

I just finished reading Clive Cussler's early Dirk Pitt novel, The Mediterranean Caper (1973).

This was Clive Cussler's first published novel. As such, it contains--in spades--all of the flaws that characterize Cussler's later works: cheesy dialogue, over-the-top action, and more than a few plot holes. (In one scene, Dirk Pitt is shot in the leg, but he somehow manages to keep standing. He also interrogates his enemies with supreme confidence, and speaks with the utmost bravado--all while bleeding from a gunshot wound.)

The book is also lots of fun. Clive Cussler novels are escapist fiction. No one reads them for their realism. 

That said, The Mediterranean Caper is far less polished than the novels Cussler is publishing today.

The Mediterranean Caper has received a lot of hate on Goodreads for its depiction of male-female relations. (Most of this criticism seems to come not from actual female readers, but from male reader-reviewers who want to demonstrate how enlightened they are, and therefore outraged at Cussler's backwardness.)

This criticism is, on one hand, perfectly fair. There is an early scene in the book in which Dirk Pitt encounters a weeping young woman on the beach. When she tells him that she is crying over her late husband, several years dead, Dirk slaps her. 

Why? Dirk Pitt is enraged that such a pretty young thing would waste her life chastely mourning a man who will never return to her. 

Within a few minutes, Dirk and the young woman are having passionate (consensual) sex.

This scene does stick out like a sore thumb. And it could have been edited out of later editions of the book without impacting the story. Maybe it should have been edited out. We could have a spirited debate about that. 

I'm not going to defend the scene, but nor can I go along with reviews like this one, which opens with the line, "F-- this book with a spiked baseball bat soaked in concentrated lime juice...."

This is from a male reader-reviewer, and it is the standard virtue-signaling stuff that has become so tiresome in recent years. Blah, blah, blah. (Or, as they used to say on Seinfeld: "yada, yada, yada...")

Clive Cussler envisioned Dirk Pitt as an old-style rogue, in the mold of Rhett Butler, or in the pattern of some of the heroes of the old John Wayne movies. 

Clearly, in this instance, Cussler went too far in the roguish direction. 

Like I said, the scene could have been removed for a twenty-first century readership, some of which would predictably fixate on it. But it's important to remember that The Mediterranean Caper is a 45-year-old novel, written by an author who is now in his mid-eighties. Readers of the Nixon era weren't quite as touchy as the "woke" readers of today.

And just as no one reads a Clive Cussler novel for its realism, no one reads a Clive Cussler novel as a manual for proper social behavior, either. Let it go, people!

Overall, The Mediterranean Caper is an entertaining novel. But because of its undeniable flaws, I wouldn't start with this one. If you've never read a Clive Cussler novel, begin your reading with one of the more recent Dirk Pitt installments (there are lots of them!) and work your way back to this one in due time. 

Monday, February 19, 2018

Politics in fiction, and the pitfalls of agitprop

One of you recently asked me, “How do a writer’s political views show up in his or her fiction? When do politics in fiction go too far?” 

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Authors most often reveal their political and philosophical views through selectivity. In other words: which stories they choose to tell, or which stories they are instinctively drawn to.

Let’s take the War on Terror as a thematic example. 

A conservative author is going to be inclined to write a novel about heroic FBI and CIA agents stopping the next 9-11 terrorist attack. 

This is a perfectly valid story choice. Islamic terrorists have staged attacks in the West, after all. Not just 9-11, but the London subways bombings, and the Boston Marathon bombing. Islamic terrorism is a real problem, and a fair topic for a story. 

A politically left-leaning author, on the other hand, would take the theme of the War on Terror in a different direction. She might write a novel about collateral damage from American drone strikes in the Middle East. Or she might write a story about a peace-loving Muslim college student who was unjustly accused of aiding Islamic extremists.

These, too, are valid choices. There has been collateral damage from American drone strikes in the Middle East. And it is certainly not impossible to imagine a Muslim college student being falsely accused of aiding terrorism. False accusations occur in every legal system on Earth, after all—including the American one. 

In the above examples, both authors are showing their political hands somewhat. Both (might) be accused, by hyper-sensitive readers, of writing stories that are “biased” or “political”. But neither of these authors has yet strayed into the realm of “agitprop”—which is something that the fiction writer wants to avoid at all costs.

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What is agitprop? The English word agitprop is taken from the Russian агитпроп. (If you can read the Cyrillic alphabet, you’ll see the immediate resemblance to the English word.) Agitprop is a combination of “agitation and propaganda” in art. 

In film or fiction, agitprop is a story that exists solely to form the vehicle for a political message—which is usually one-sided and without nuance. Agitprop is not story informed by politics, but story subverted to politics. 

Both the Soviets and the Mainland Chinese cranked out agitprop during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. The storylines were always predictable, and designed to instruct the masses on the glories of communism and the decadence of the capitalist West. 

Russian and Chinese storytelling have improved considerably in recent years. (I recently watched the Russian-Ukrainian film, Battle for Sevastapol. Wow, was it a good a movie!) But the North Koreans still create agitprop, and the results are predictably cringeworthy. 

*       *      *

In English-language literature, one of the most common genres for agitprop is dystopian fiction. 

The setup usually goes something like this: Liberals/conservatives take over the government, and America (or the UK, etc.) turns into a leftwing/rightwing dictatorship. Rampant tyranny and pervasive misery ensue.

A specific example in this category would be Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. I don’t mind a novel with feminist themes, or a movie in which head-shaking male chauvinists get their comeuppances from a strong, capable female protagonist. (In fact, I rather like strong female protagonists in film and fiction—because they are usually far more interesting than their weaker alternatives.)

But Margaret Atwood’s story of women being turned into breeding cattle by evangelical white males in a near-future America is unrealistic, nakedly ideological, and…well, ridiculous

Atwood wasn’t telling a story with The Handmaid’s Tale, she was going on a rant. The Handmaid’s Tale is pure agitprop. It is also one of the most overrated and overhyped novels in American literary history. (And—before you ask—yes, I’ve read the book. I’ve also seen the 1990 film adaptation.)

But there are rightwing versions of the agitprop novel, too. Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged comes immediately to mind. While not technically a dystopian novel, Atlas Shrugged has strong dystopian overtones. It is also filled with cardboard-cutout characters who exist as simplistic representations of abstract ideas. 

Even worse, Atlas Shrugged is filled with long-winded political disquisitions. The most prominent of these—John Galt’s 60-page speech—is enough to compel the most dedicated of readers to seek out mindless distraction on Facebook or television.  

*        *         *

The fiction writer need not strive for complete political neutrality. There are some topics—crime, race, terrorism—that are nearly impossible to write about without pushing some readers’ buttons. (Especially in this day and age, when so many people are actively looking for reasons to be offended.)

And while the writer should strive to create complex characters with conflicting motivations, it is not always possible, or even desirable, to present “all sides” of a given issue in a work of fiction. A novel should not aspire to be a symposium, or a round-table discussion, on a sociopolitical subject. 

Wonder Woman is a female superhero. By design, every Wonder Woman movie is going to contain a degree of feminist inferences. How could it be otherwise? And that is always going to annoy a small subgroup of male viewers, who perceive every assertive woman as a “feminazi” Likewise, every novel in which the Muslim character really is a terrorist (as opposed to a peace-loving, misunderstood humanitarian) will be panned by some readers as “Islamophobic”. 

The writer shouldn’t worry about fine-grain distinctions like that. But the writer should not write a novel in which a ham-fisted political message completely overwhelms the plot and the characters. 

When writing about political topics in fiction, always beware the pitfalls of agitprop. 

Sunday, February 18, 2018

The end of Barnes & Noble

As reported on TechCrunch, the end is nigh for Barnes & Noble:

I’ve been chronicling the slow demise of B&N for years now, watching the company bleed out, drop by drop, until it has become a shell of its former value. B&N was a cultural center in places without cultural centers. It was a stopover on rainy days in New York, Chicago, and Cleveland and it was a place you could go to get your kids’ first books. 
That’s mostly over now. On Monday the company laid off 1,800 people. This offered a cost savings of $40 million. But that’s particularly interesting. That means each of those people made an average of $22,000 or so per year and minimum wage workers – hourly folks who are usually hit hardest during post-holiday downturns – would be making $15,000. In fact, what B&N did was fire all full time employees at 781 stores. 

In the Cincinnati area, most of the Barnes & Noble stores closed a few years ago, so the chain has already ceased to exist for me, in all practical terms. 

I miss the walk-in bookstore. As recently as a decade ago, there were no fewer than four Barnes & Noble and Border stores within a thirty-minute drive of my house. 

Now there are none.

I spent significant chunks of time in these stores during my twenties and early thirties. I'm more than a little nostalgic about their passing. 

During my 1980s childhood in Cincinnati, the Waldenbooks at the local mall defined bookstores for me. I was first exposed to Borders when I moved to Columbus for a few years right out of college. I couldn't believe that there could be a single store--so large!--devoted only to books.

Borders was like heaven for me. And so was B&N, after I discovered it around the same time. 

After I moved back to Cincinnati in 1996, one of my first steps was to chart out all the Barnes & Noble and Borders locations in the area. There were many of them then. 

These were my favorite hangouts on Saturday morning. I bought a lot of books at both stores over the years. (I also met two girlfriends at B&N, but that's another story for another time.) 

The big retail bookstore is not the only thing I miss from the 1990s. I was also a huge fan of Blockbuster. 

But as I've confessed here many times, I'm an unabashed throwback. The twenty-first century and I coexist on less than harmonious terms.  

A kinder, gentler, more secular America? Think again.

It is no longer meaningful to speak of the “Christian West”. Europe has been abandoning traditional Christianity for at least a century. America, too—as measured by regular church attendance—is becoming increasingly secular. And secularization is not only for pot-smoking lefties anymore. Republicans and rightwing voters are increasingly secular, too.

Oh joy! Now everyone will be kind, cool-headed, and rational, right? 

Not exactly. As C.K. Chesterton (1874 - 1936) presciently wrote, “When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything.” 

The evidence for Chesterton’s assertion abounds in our present political landscape.

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What we see today, on both the right and the left, is not the triumph of cool-headed Enlightenment values, but a new left-right paganism in which identity-group politics are elevated to the status of a quasi-religion. 

On the left, this takes the form of a semi-religious obsession with transgenderism, which is far out of proportion to the number of people who actually identify as transgender. We can also see this in the unholy rage of Black Lives Matter activists who openly call for violence against police officers. 

This is not your grandparents’ liberalism, in other words. Neither Jimmy Carter nor Martin Luther King Jr.—two compassionate religious liberals of a previous age—would be embraced by today’s angry, secular left.

We see the effects of radical secularism on the far right as well: At last May’s ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville, young extremists carried anti-Christian swastika banners. 

The Nazis were disdainful of Christianity because Christianity is incompatible with racism. Christianity is universalist; it requires compassion and brotherhood across nationalities and ethnic groups. (The Nazis, in fact, had a grand plan to scrap Christianity in Germany, and to replace it with a modified version of pre-Christian German paganism.) 

If today’s conservatives (particularly younger ones) reject Christianity, we should not be surprised that they—like their young leftwing counterparts—will be susceptible to the barnyard logic of identity-group politics. 

As Mr. Chesterton warned us, people need something to believe in. And tribalism has an age-old appeal. 

*      *      *

The New Atheist writer Christopher Hitchens (1949 - 2011) subtitled his 2007 book, God Is Not Great  “How Religion Poisons Everything.” 

On the contrary, Christianity has more often served as a unifying force in American culture, encouraging us to right old wrongs and to resolve our differences. 

Martin Luther King’s embrace of Christian non-violence forced apathetic whites throughout the United States to acknowledge that the treatment of African Americans under the Jim Crow regime in the South was wrong. Christianity had also been the driving force behind the original abolitionist movement of a hundred years prior. 

More recently, Christianity was a fundamental influence of the “compassionate conservatism” of Ronald Reagan, Jack Kemp, and George W. Bush. (Notice that you don’t see the alt right talking about “compassionate conservatism,” except to occasionally ridicule it.)

Writing in The Atlantic last year, Peter Beinart observed that the secularized right and left are proving to be far angrier, far more intolerant, and far more violent than their Christian-influenced predecessors were:

“For whatever reason, secularization isn’t easing political conflict. It’s making American politics even more convulsive and zero-sum.
For years, political commentators dreamed that the culture war over religious morality that began in the 1960s and ’70s would fade. It has. And the more secular, more ferociously national and racial culture war that has followed is worse.”

Anyone who believes that de-Christianization will make America a kinder, gentler, more rational place really needs to spend a few hours observing the shrill online behavior of Internet atheists. (Internet atheists are generally so obnoxious, that I suspect they drive some people to the nearest church out of sheer spite.) 

There is no evidence for the assertion that a lack of religious belief will make people more compassionate or rational. More often than not, in fact, the nihilistic moral code of atheism gives license to people’s basest and cruelest impulses.

We should not forget that the two bloodiest regimes of the last century—the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany—explicitly rejected Christian values. This historical evidence does not bode well for our post-Christian future. 

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Should writers read reviews?

Someone asked me the other day what I thought of that oft given advice that writers—especially fiction writers—should not read reader reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. 

I spent many years in the corporate world, and that has affected my biases. No marketing manager worth his or her salt would suggest that ignoring customer feedback is a smart move. 

If you wish to make a living (or at least enough money to justify the endeavor) as a writer, then you need to think of your readers as your customers. 

That said, there are some important disclaimers to keep in mind.

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1.) Art is subjective. Not everyone is going to like your work. I don’t care who you are, or what you’ve written. 

Let me give you a concrete example. For my money, Michael Connelly’s crime novels are pretty close to perfect. I’ve read the entire Harry Bosch series, and I have yet to read a single one that I didn’t like. 

Most readers agree with me. And yet—Michael Connelly’s most recent Harry Bosch novel, Two Kinds of Truth, has received over two hundred 1- and 2-star reviews on Goodreads. 

I am reading some of the negative reviews of Two Kinds of Truth on Goodreads as I type this. I just don’t get it. I read Two Kinds of Truth, and I read every page of the book with sheer delight—as I have all of Connelly’s novels.

But on the other hand, I cannot, for the life of me, figure out the appeal of the films of Quentin Tarantino. 

I’ve watched Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill, Inglourious Basterds, The Hateful Eight, and Django Unchained.   

I’m sorry; but I think the films of Quentin Tarantino are almost unwatchable. 

But what do I know? Millions of people love Tarantino’s movies. Quentin Tarantino has been a successful director since the mid-1990s. That isn’t a fluke. 

The people who love Quentin Tarantino’s movies are not “wrong”. Nor are the readers who didn’t like Two Kinds of Truth. The lesson here is that tastes in art vary by individual; and a song, movie, or novel that speaks to one person may leave another cold—or even angry (more on this shortly). 

*        *       *

2.) But here’s a big disclaimer to the above: To paraphrase Stephen King (who was paraphrasing Abraham Lincoln): You may not be able to please all of your readers all of the time. But you should be able to please at least some of your readers, some of the time. 

Without the objective standard of the marketplace, it is all too easy for a writer to become overly self-indulgent, lazy, or navel-gazing. 

The writer should, I believe, gage reader reviews (or other forms of feedback) to ascertain that a book is a “viable product”.

What this means is that a significant number of people who are not your mom, your significant other, or your best friend have read the book and given it a thumbs-up, a “this works for me” imprimatur of approval. 

If a hundred random people really like a story, and a hundred random people really don’t, then it’s okay to split the difference in favor of the author.  

But if two hundred random people don’t like a story, then you may have a problem. In fact, you almost certainly have a problem. 

*        *       *

3.) Some readers actively seek to be offended. They will be unscrupulous in their reviews; and there’s nothing you can do about it. There was a day when critics and reviewers were expected to judge art objectively, and filter out their political and philosophical biases. 

That day is long gone. In these hyper-sensitive times, many readers will brazenly pan a book because they don’t like the politics of the main character, the politics they believe is implied in the story, or the politics that the author has expressed on social media.

Back to Michael Connelly’s Two Kinds of Truth: At least two of the negative reader reviews I found panned the book because one of the characters expresses an anti-Trump sentiment. 

I noted this; but it was a minor aspect of the book. To describe Two Kinds of Truth as an anti-Trump diatribe would be a gross exaggeration. 

But leftwing “review mobs” are far more common, especially on Goodreads. This reviewer initially made a moderately favorable assessment of Larry Correia’s Monster Hunter International. But after disagreeing with some of the author’s social media posts, she changed her 3-star review to a 1-star. 

The reviewer—who is also a Goodreads librarian (in other words, someone with actual power within the Goodreads ecosystem)—has engaged in such shenanigans on more than one occasion. 

I haven’t yet been attacked for the real or imagined politics of one of my stories. One reader-reviewer, however, did give my suburban thriller Our House a 1-star review because I chose a villain who is in late middle age. 

The reviewer wrote, on both Amazon and Goodreads: There is nothing good in the book the characters were one dimensional. I couldn't believe it, and if your [sic] over 50 be prepared to be insulted though out [sic] the book.” 

There is more than a little bit of irony here. If someone wishes to take issue with my center-right politics, my heteronormativity, or my cisgendered white maleness, that might be fair game. But my bias against the no-longer-young? I don’t think so. 

I turn fifty myself this year—and I mentally turned fifty about a decade ago. If you read my blog, you’ll know that I drift closer to the category of “middle age curmudgeon” than “young hipster”. 

I am anything but a young hipster. In fact, I sometimes (half-) jokingly invert that old slogan of the 1960s: “Don’t trust anyone over thirty.” My version of the line is: “Don’t trust anyone under forty.” 

There are countless examples of politically motivated, punitive 1-star reader reviews (especially on Goodreads). I don’t recommend that the writer attempt to spar with such folks by leaving comments. But nor should such diatribes be taken as serious, legitimate reviews.  

*        *         *

4.) Every book has it’s target market. Readers from outside that target market, even if the book is good, will sometimes assign low ratings. 

At the urging of a much younger female acquaintance, I once tried to read John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars

I made it through about fifty pages before giving up. I had the same experience with Gayle Forman’s If I Stay

This isn’t because either of these books is objectively “bad”. This is, rather, because both books are targeted at female teen readers. Both contain lots of sappy teen romance, and male protagonists who are sure to annoy anyone who is not a teenage girl. 

I am, as noted previously, a fifty-ish, heterosexual man. Suffice it to say that I am not within the target market for these books. 

It isn’t that I can’t handle stories that don’t contain car chases or shootouts, or that I don’t like fiction written by women. On the contrary—I very much enjoyed Lucinda Rosenfeld’s literary novel, Class. I also liked Mary Miller’s The Last Days of California

But teenage girl romance novels? No, sorry—I just can’t go there. 

I didn’t rate either The Fault in Our Stars or If I Stay on Amazon or Goodreads. This was because I knew that my ratings would be low—and unfairly low. As a corollary to my previous statement: Neither of these books is objectively “bad”; but neither was the book I was looking for—because I’m not the target audience. 

Very often 2- and 3-star reviews come from readers who simply wanted the writer to pen a different book. My corporate thriller, The Eavesdropper, received one such two-star review. The reader stated that rather than a workplace murder conspiracy, I should have written a novel about a conspiracy to kill the president, or a terrorist conspiracy to steal a powerful weapon. 

That’s a fair expression of preference; but the disgruntled reader was actually looking for a novel by Vince Flynn, Tom Clancy, or Clive Cussler. The Eavesdropper is more akin to a novel by Joseph Finder or John Grisham. 

I don’t blame the reader for not liking the book; but I might have pointed out that had he read the description, he could have seen that The Eavesdropper is a claustrophobic corporate conspiracy thriller, not a big-stage novel about the fate of the Free World. 

When your book winds up in the wrong hands, it is usually because a.) the title, cover, or book description are off, or b.) you have given the book away to thousands of random people. 

In the aforementioned situation, the 2-star review occurred because of b.) above. When I launched The Eavesdropper, I gave away thousands of free copies. I also made the book available on Kindle Unlimited.

It is inevitable that your book will occasionally end up in the hands of the wrong reader. (I ended up with a copy of The Fault in Our Stars, after all.) But proper marketing and packaging of a book can prevent many such mismatches. 

Reviews from readers who were simply looking for another book should not be ignored out of hand, like those from readers throwing temper tantrums over politics. But these should be assessed primarily as failures of marketing—not failures of writing.  

*       *        *

So where does all this leave us? I believe that reader reviews should be taken into account, but they should also be read with a discerning eye. Just as not all books are brilliantly written, not all reader reviews are fair, thoughtful, or even rational.

Do not—I repeat—do not adjust your entire writing strategy with each review. “O, that way madness lies.”

Nevertheless, it pays to remember that even if you’re self-employed, you always work for someone. If you’re a professional writer, you ultimately work for readers.

Don’t dismiss the feedback of your customers. Do remember that there are one million of them; and some of them will inevitably decide to fire you. 

This is a natural part of the process. Once your writing reaches a certain level of competence, it is usually better to focus on finding the readers who do like what you do, versus contorting yourself in vain attempts to please the ones who don’t—and probably never will. 

Is the problem guns….or mental illness?

In the wake of last week’s tragic school shooting in Florida, a great debate has recommenced: Is our epidemic of school shootings—now roughly twenty years old—a problem of gun control, or a problem of mental illness? 

You’ve seen this debate in your personal Facebook feed, and on Twitter—if you still bother with Twitter. (I largely don’t bother with Twitter anymore.) The fanciful idea of arming teachers has also been floated once again. 

(My teachers were, by and large, wonderful people; but there isn’t a single one of them whom I can imagine returning gunfire in a hostile situation.) 

We’ve also learned that the FBI had been notified that Nikolas Cruz was an unstable individual who specifically talked about engaging in a school shooting. It is interesting to note that while FBI agents have the leisure time to form anti-Trump cabals, they don’t have the time to follow up on credible threats about school shootings. 

But what about the main issue of the debate: Mental health or gun control? Which is it?

*      *      *

Let’s start with the gun control issue. I grew up shooting rifles and shotguns with my grandfather in rural Ohio. Shooting animals was never my thing. But I loved to shoot trap and skeet. I’ve destroyed many a clay pigeon in my time. 

And while hunting animals is not my idea of a good time, many of my friends and relatives are hunters. In my part of the world—the Ohio River Valley—we have no wolves, and lots and lots of deer. Responsible hunting keeps the deer population under control. And venison is a very lean alternative to beef, even if it is a little on the gamey side. 

My point here being that I’m not one of those “Eek!—a gun!” types. I am very, very comfortable with firearms, as I have been since roughly the age of twelve. (I’m now forty-nine.)

Guns are essential for hunting. If you live in a rural area, moreover (where coyotes, if not wolves, still exist), a firearm is an essential tool. 

My grandfather owned every conceivable weapon that a sportsman or rural dweller might want: He had .38-special revolvers, 12-gauge shotguns, and lots of bolt-action .22-rifles.

What my grandfather did not own were high-capacity assault rifles like the AR-15 (the weapon used in the recent school shooting in Florida). 

My grandfather was a WWII combat veteran. He fired 50-caliber machine guns at German Messerschmitts. So this wasn’t a man afraid of guns. But it would never have occurred to him to acquire a weapon whose only purpose was to kill or engage in combat with large numbers of people. 

And this is where, in my view, the gun movement has gone awry. Forty years ago, gun ownership was about sporting, and—to a lesser degree—reasonable personal protection. 

Now the gun movement seems to be about competing with the US military in terms of firepower. Are personal stockpiles of weaponized anthrax and household nuclear weapons next?  

*      *      *

But what about the “mental health” issue? Over the past twenty years or so, abnormally large numbers of young males have felt compelled to gun down large numbers of people. While adults have often been collateral victims, their peers have consistently been the main targets.

In my youth (the 1970s and 1980s) no one worried about school shootings—because they were extremely rare. Between 1940 and the early 1990s, there was about one such shooting every generation. Since the late 1990s, there has been at least one such shooting practically every year—and there have been multiple incidents in some years. 

We can’t blame this spate of violence on inner-city African Americans. The school shooters have almost uniformly been white, and at least moderately affluent. Quite often they have been downright wealthy. And while Islamic terrorism is an important issue, these shootings have occurred regardless of what’s going on in the Middle East. 

So what has changed? Let’s take a look at that.

In my youth, there was much less emphasis on a.) shielding kids from adversity, and b.) restraining every expression of male aggression. 

This is another way of saying that boys of my generation were often roughnecks and knuckleheads. We played physical games like dodgeball. We sometimes got into tussling matches and (gasp!) fistfights.

And yes, there were bullies. Some of my earliest memories involve coping with school bullies—even at my suburban Catholic school. Unless someone was really brutalizing you, the adults mostly let the kids work these matters out on their own. 

We were also under no illusions that everyone gets a trophy in every field of endeavor. Childhood involved winning—and frequently losing. You dealt with stuck-up cliques, and little girls who told you that you were “gross” if you revealed that you “liked” them. So you dusted off your ego, and maybe the next girl would be more amenable to your fumbling romantic advances. 

Compare this to the extreme social engineering we see today—whereby sixth-grade girls are no longer permitted to refuse the dances of boys they don’t like. 

In recent decades, in other words, the entire enterprise of raising and educating kids has been aimed at creating an unrealistic perception of life on Earth. Teachers and other authority figures have attempted to social-engineer a childhood world in which there are no bullies, no rejection, and no failure. 

At the same time, they have denied boys the safety valves that were common in my day: contact games like dodgeball, and yes—the occasional playground fight.  

Is it any wonder that under this contradictory combination of circumstances, male aggression occasionally explodes in extreme violence?

Oh…and one more thing: Kids of my generation weren’t taking doctor-prescribed psychotropic drugs in large numbers. 

In 1980, if you were an unruly kid, no one diagnosed with you with the made-up disease of ADHD and drugged you with Ritalin. You got your ass paddled, and were told to be silent in class. 

Yes, children of my generation were subjected to spankings, not time-outs. 

How do I know? Because it happened to me on more than one occasion. And guess what? I’ve didn’t develop any violent tendencies as a result. 

On the contrary: It is the hyper-coddled, socially engineered, drugged-into-submission generations that have subjected the world to the mass school shooting…Not the generations who had to endure bullies, rejection, and spankings. 

And we didn’t even know what Ritalin was…

*      *     *

Oftentimes societal problems require not simply a leftwing or a rightwing solution, but a combination of both. 

Do pro-welfare state policies create more welfare recipients? Sure they do! But so does inadequate public education. Perhaps you see where I’m going with this.

On one hand, I’m willing to acknowledge that there’s something slightly screwball about private citizens owning military hardware—which is exactly what an AR-15 is. 

On the other hand, though, I’ll ask you to acknowledge that the namby-pamby educational and child-rearing policies of the past two decades have failed many young people. School shootings are not the only disturbing trend on the rise. Teen suicides are increasing, too—despite the fact that children are more coddled than at any time in history. 

Life is full of unpleasant realities. We should give our kids coping skills by allowing (and perhaps forcing) them to face adversity early in life. This means dealing with peer rejection, bullies, and failure. 

And almost no child should require psychotropic drugs like Ritalin in order to cope with daily life in the big, bad suburbs. 

The world isn’t perfect; and this is something that everyone should have to face pretty much from toddlerhood forward. By teaching kids this lesson from an early age, we can reduce the risk that they will explode one day—in self-harm or in the harm of others—when they learn the inevitable truth. 

The USMC bows to ideology over reality

According to, the U.S. Marine Corps has “quietly dropped” a pass/fail physical fitness test that has hitherto been an obstacle to female candidates becoming infantry officers. The USMC, in case you don’t know, is the most infantry-centric of all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces. 

The Marine Corps is, therefore, the branch with the most “structural impediments” to 50-50 gender representation. In our current environment of radical identity politics, there are some folks who find that highly objectionable.

Therefore, the Marine Corps has been ordered to lower its fitness standards so that more women can lead troops into combat in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. 

*       *       *

“Gender neutrality” is all fine and good. But this is not gender neutrality. This is lowering the standards—placing a proverbial thumb on the scale—in order to bring about a result that meets the aims of social engineers. 

In endeavors where gender neutrality objectively exists, there is no need to alter standards. For example: Women are now 51% of law school students. Clearly, the study of law is objectively “gender neutral”. 

But infantry combat is not gender-neutral. It requires high levels of strength, aggression, and physical fitness. In the aggregate, men and women are simply not equal in this regard. (This has a downside as well as an upside, I should add: It’s no coincidence that the vast majority of violent crimes are committed by men.) 

*     *     *

Our society has become so paranoid about gender politics, that any acknowledgement of male and female differences is now labeled “misogyny”, or the hating of women. Au contraire: A society based on exclusively male values would, in many respects, be the equivalent of a sweaty locker room. I personally would not want to live in an all-male society. I don’t think most men would.

Furthermore, it may well emerge that women are better equipped, on average, for some tasks in the military. Studies have shown that women are better at certain types of multitasking. This might mean—for example—that women are better at some computerized jobs aboard aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines. 

That isn’t misogyny. It is simply acknowledging what everyone has known, since roughly the first grade: Males and females are different. 

Not in every aspect, but in some aspects. Biological reality is what it is. The US military should base the requirements for each job on objective criteria—not on the criteria that a noisy band of ideologues wishes them to be. 

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Fiction writer, know thy limits...

In a tweet following yesterday's tragic mass shooting in Florida, horror author Stephen King appeared to believe that MS-13 is a type of firearm. 

Examine the tweets for yourself: the evidence is rather compelling. 

I happen to know that MS-13 is a gang; but there are all sorts of things I don't know that much about. Keeping up on the news is a full-time job. (Or at the very least, it's a part-time job.)

This is why I limit the topics I blog about here. As fiction writers, we can't be expected to know about everything. 

Nor does the average accountant, physician, or CEO. But the difference is: Most accountants, physicians, and CEOs don't feel compelled to churn out half-baked pronouncements on Twitter everyday. Fiction writers aren't always so cautious. 

Since taking to Twitter about two years ago, Stephen King has often conflated his knowledge of writing fiction (which is indisputable) with an encyclopedic mastery of current events--which he clearly doesn't have. 

Stephen King proves again and again that he isn't exceptionally well-informed about the world beyond his little corner of Maine. Moreover, his opinions tend to consist of little more than leftwing boilerplate. If King had not written Carrie and The Dead Zone, no one would give a hoot about his political views.  

Here we have an object lesson of why most fiction writers should stick to storytelling. Or--if they must sound off--they should focus on topics that they have actually taken the time to learn about.