Sunday, May 31, 2015

Why many readers dislike speculative fiction

It is no secret that so-called "speculative" fiction--horror, fantasy and science fiction--is generally regarded as "lower grade" fiction. I know many avid readers who refuse to touch it, in fact.

The problem is not that people aren't open to speculative elements. Most readers, in fact, are open to speculative elements in their fiction. They've been trained to be open to it, in fact, ever since their first grade school and high school literature classes. 

Speculative elements can be found throughout the body of Western literature. Consider, for example, the ghost of Hamlet's father and the witches in Macbeth. A fair number of "classical" literary works contain fantastic and supernatural elements. 

The problem, rather, is that so much of modern speculative fiction is simply poor writing--plodding plots, wooden characters, and repetitive themes. (How many teenage vampires have we see in books and film in recent years? And how many more will the publishing industry throw at us in the years to come?)

But what about Stephen King? Here is a horror writer who has developed not only a cult following--but who has also made inroads among general readers. His sales numbers prove as much.

Stephen King succeeds so lucratively not because his stories are particularly "frightening". There are a few spooky moments in King's assorted novels, but nothing to compare to The Exorcist. I've never had a sleepless night over a Stephen King novel. I suspect that most of his readers would report the same.

King finds a wide readership because he creates compelling characters with whom readers can identify. His plots, moreover, involve basic human dilemmas that are not far removed from the experiences of everyman and everywoman--even if they occur against a supernatural backdrop. 

When writing speculative elements, it is important to create compelling monsters, supernatural villains, and other worlds. But never at the expense of creating a compelling story. 

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Test driving the new Kindle font

Since purchasing a new iPhone 6+, I've retired my 2011-model Kindle reading device, and now do all of my Kindle reading on my phone. (It's a lot easier than carrying two devices around.)

Yesterday my iOS reading app updated with the new Bookerly font described in greater detail in the above article.

Overall, I see a significant improvement. I recommend updating your app if you read Kindle books on your smart phone.

As a company, Amazon makes mistakes, to be sure; but the company usually does things right. If only our government were half as efficient and innovative as Amazon.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Thoughts on reading Shakespeare

Some simple advice for better understanding and appreciating Shakespeare's plays. Disclaimer: There is nothing ultra-profound here; but you may find it useful if you're struggling.

The politics of horror fiction

Writing in National Review, Tim Cavanaugh suggested that the horror genre is reflexively conservative, even if the explicit political ideologies of some horror authors are not:

“The King of Horror himself, of course, is a political lefty who calls Maine governor Paul LePage a “stonebrain,” but his work is shot through with hard-headed pragmatism and traditional morality that, if viewed from a certain angle (i.e., directly), seem clearly conservative. Few horror creators (Clive Barker being an occasional exception) ask us to root for the devil.”

Stephen King isn’t the only horror author who reflects conservative values—perhaps subconsciously. Brian Keene (author of The Rising and Ghoul) is a self-declared independent. But when he does sound off on political issues in his Twitter feed, he usually criticizes conservatives and Republicans rather than liberals and Democrats.

Yet one of Keene’s recurring protagonists is Levi Stolzfus, an ex-Amish magus who begins each battle against the supernatural with an explicitly Christian prayer. Keene’s two linked zombie apocalypse novels, The Rising and City of the Dead, contain an (Judeo-Christian) theological subplot.

All horror fiction (as opposed to science fiction or fantasy fiction) is based on a fundamentally realist (and therefore conservative) message: that individual human lives are fragile, and that much of the universe is beyond human control.

In some novels, that “much of the universe” is supernatural (The Exorcist). In other works, the “beyond our control” element is naturalistic, more or less. The well trodden subgenre of zombie film and fiction has become reliant on the convention of animating the undead by viruses, radiation, or toxic chemicals.

Other works seem to attempt (with varying degrees of success) to adopt a middle position. H.P. Lovecraft declared himself an atheist; and there is no trace of a recognizably Judeo-Christian cosmology in his stories.

However, it is difficult to imagine Lovecraft’s fictional universe without some version of supernatural (i.e., spiritual) beliefs. Lovecraft saw humanity as pawns at the mercy of impersonal but undeniably supernatural forces. The main difference between Lovecraft’s worldview and a Christian’s worldview was that Lovecraft saw the triumph of evil as a foregone conclusion. H.P.’s spirituality was dark and nihilistic, without any hope for salvation or redemption. There is no concept of “heaven” in Lovecraft’s work, but there is a fair approximation of hell.

Any variety of horror fiction strikes a contrast to the hyper-optimism and hubris that surrounds the contemporary cult of science. Horror authors do not deny the practical, limited benefits of science, it should be said. But scientific advances often bring untended and negative consequences—like nuclear weapons and zombie plagues. Science, moreover, has its limits. Science cannot conquer the inevitability of death, nor answer the question: “What happens when we die?”

And for some problems, conventional science is useless: In The Exorcist, numerous doctors attempt to find out what is wrong with Regan MacNeil. They end up mostly doing more harm than good. What Regan MacNeil finally needs is a priest—i.e., spiritual faith.

Friday, May 15, 2015

"An army of exorcists"?

Whatever you believe, this is an interesting development.

“The Vatican are training up ordinary doctors, teachers and psychologists to cope with a rising tide of demonic possessions.

More than 40 years after The Exorcist left cinema audiences green, the Vatican has gathered a team of experts including practising exorcists to give ordinary Catholics the tools needed to recognise a case of demonic possession when they see one – and teach them what to do about it.”

An important point made in the article is that skepticism is built into the church’s process. The vast majority of people who believe they are suffering from demonic possession are actually suffering from mental illness, a physical ailment, or severe stress. (An overactive imagination is another possibility, of course.) Even from the Catholic Church’s perspective, demonic possession is a rare phenomenon, and should only be seriously considered after other, more prosaic factors are ruled out.

Nevertheless, there is a predictable number of readers who use the comments section of the article to proclaim their superiority over anyone who believes in "any of that religious stuff".

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Interested in reading a coming of age horror tale set in the early 1980s?

Monday, May 11, 2015

Yes, horror fiction can be “literary”

But you already knew this if you’ve read HP Lovecraft, Edgar Allen Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, or many, many others. Even Rudyard Kipling wrote his share of supernatural tales.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Self-publishing is also a business

Or at least it should be:

It is interesting to note that Publishers Weekly, a journal of traditional publishers, now feels compelled to handle independent publishing as a serious segment of the publishing industry.

But that doesn't mean that everyone (or even a majority of indie/self-published writers) are making serious money.

To make money writing (regardless of how your work reaches the marketplace) will require some business sense.

“Prior to self-publishing, Leveritt did a lot of research, consulting online resources, weighing her options, and reading extensively about other authors’ experiences.”

That is the attitude of someone who is a businessperson/artist, not only an artist.

Meanwhile, the “self-publishing boom” is creating new business models for those who aren’t writers, but valuable elements of the writer’s “supply chain”:

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Skeptics claim ghosts “caused by mold”

I’m all for Occam’s Razor and all. Let it be said: Most reported incidents of the “supernatural” have perfectly “natural” explanations. There are also plenty of deliberately concocted hoaxes.

Nevertheless, the cult of scientism is fundamentalist in its view that “everything can be explained by science”. The notion that mold can explain away paranormal activity might be an example of science fundamentalists throwing a Hail Mary pass—pun fully intended.

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Horror fiction worth reading:

The haunted road of Eleven Miles of Night
The haunted 1980s: 12 Hours of Halloween

Read the opening chapters of both books on this site.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Novelists, and the perils of blogging about politics

Anyone who reads horror fiction has a favorite Stephen King novel. King's contributions to the realm of popular fiction are beyond dispute.

This doesn't mean that King is a great political thinker.

Nor is he even a particularly original one. Most of King's online political statements (whether in interviews or on Twitter) are simply boilerplate leftwing cliches.

Full disclosure: I'm a conservative, so I would probably disagree with King's views under the best of circumstances. And there are plenty of rightwing cliches to be found on the Internet, too.

Nevertheless, the man who wrote Carrie, The Shining, and The Stand doesn't significantly enhance either his brand or his legacy with Tweets like this:

Read the first seven chapters of the 4.5-star rated horror novel Eleven Miles of Night:

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Hormones and reading

All of the points in the above Washington Post blog post are accurate, more or less.

But I might add one more: Adolescence brings a whole new set of priorities, few of which lend themselves to reading.

I was an avid reader in my very early years (up to age 11). Then I went through puberty and discovered girls. 

For a number of years, I had little interest in reading (though certain magazines with pictorial content certainly captured my adolescent attention). 

Luckily, I immersed myself in reading again during the second half of my high school years. By age 18, I was a more avid reader than I had been at age 11.

But enough about me: Here is the takeaway, for parents and young people alike: Teenagers are primarily and disproportionately interested in other teenagers--especially teenagers of the opposite sex. 

This in itself is perfectly normal; but if taken to excess, it can result in lost intellectual opportunities and much wasted time. This was certainly the result in my case.

And I went through puberty thirty years before the profusion of cell phones and texting....

Saturday, May 2, 2015

A crime against the humanities

If your major is electrical engineering, then you have my permission to graduate without taking a Shakespeare course.

But if your major is English literature, then a Shakespeare class should be part of your undergraduate studies, without exception.

"Geoffrey Sanborn, English chair at Amherst, said …it’s important to remember that English is about more than its canon. 
“Rather than conceiving of literature as great works written by a handful of great authors,” he said, “we conceive of literature as a basic form of expression that’s taken a wild variety of forms, in a range of cultures and across time.” Plays, poems, novels, essays and more. “We’re trying to create lifelong, engaged, animated readers,” he said.
What I sense here is an academic trying too hard not to seem overly traditional--as if tradition implied fogyism. 

Yes, literature is a "basic form of expression that's taken a wild variety of forms." 

In order to objectively evaluate that "wild variety of forms", though, the student needs to understand the tradition from which those forms arose. The student needs a baseline, in other words.

And that means: the writings of Shakespeare, Thomas Hardy, Milton, Dickens, Hemingway, and other great works in the canon of English literature. 

There will be plenty of time after that for the student to explore wild varieties of form.

The diaspora and the Irish language

There are far more Americans, Australians, and Canadians of Irish descent than there are Irish citizens. (The population of Ireland is only about 6.4 million, making it roughly the size of Tennessee, in terms of people.) 

The Irish diaspora may be contributing to a minor revival in the Irish language. (While Irish was "revived" as a language some time ago, English is the language that most people in Ireland use on a day-to-day basis.)

Friday, May 1, 2015

The pitfalls of author collaborations

I’m of the opinion that fiction writing is generally an individual task.

I came to this realization back in 1984, when I read The Talisman, a collaborative work written by Stephen King and Peter Straub.

The Talisman, it must be said, isn't a bad novel—and it’s held up well for a thirty-year-old work of fiction. However, both King and Straub were at the peak of their talents when they wrote it, and The Talisman paled beside the books that either man was individually producing at the time. The Talisman would probably have been much better book if it had been written by only one the two authors. While it was, once again, a not-bad book, it didn't measure up to the standards of Stephen King’s Cujo (1981), Christine (1983) or Straub’s Floating Dragon (1983).

In recent years, father-son writer collaborations have become common, usually with unsatisfying results. Jonathan Kellerman’s books are almost universally liked by crime fiction fans; but a recent collaboration with his son, Jesse, received so many 1-star ratings on Amazon, that its overall rating slipped to 2.6 out of five stars.

At the time of this writing, I haven’t read the father-son collaboration, The Golem of Hollywood. I should also note that the younger Kellerman may indeed be a competent writer. The problem is that the elder Kellerman’s novels have developed a distinctive “feel”. (Kellerman has written and published several dozen books.) The son, whatever his talents, is not the father. Collaborations between adventure author Clive Cussler and son Dirk Cussler have also been marked by uneven quality.

None of this means that writing cannot or should not become a family business. However, if a son (or daughter) decides to follow in the footsteps of a famous father (or mother), there is a better way to go about it. Rather than piggybacking onto the parent’s brand, the child (and the parent) would be better served by the child developing his own brand.

The best-known example in this latter category is horror author Joe Hill, whose real name is Joe King, as in Stephen King.

It would have been very tempting for Hill to launch his career by deliberately associating his work with that of his uber-famous father. Instead, he deliberately chose to publish under a pseudonym. This has earned him respect in publishing as well as in fandom circles.

I’ve read a few of Hill’s books: Heart-Shaped Box, Horns, and 20th Century Ghosts. Frankly speaking, Hill’s work (so far) is not as good as his father’s work; he has yet to write a novel as distinctive and memorable as Salem’s Lot or The Stand. Nor has Hill achieved anywhere near his father’s level of fame and success. (Everyone has heard of Stephen King. Joe Hill is known only to dedicated readers of horror fiction.)

But Hill’s novels are pretty good, nonetheless. And if he does ever top his father (Hill is still in early middle age), no one can claim that he rode his dad’s coattails.

In the category of author collaborations, still more troublesome are the “author franchises”. Clive Cussler comes to mind here, as well as James Patterson and Tom Clancy. Clancy, who died in 2013, still produces new novels.

Tom Clancy is able to still publish novels, several years after his death, because they are now written by someone else. The most recent Tom Clancy book, Tom Clancy Full Force and Effect (A Jack Ryan Novel) was penned by Mark Greaney. The latter, living author is keeping Clancy’s characters alive and giving them new storylines.

This isn’t as unusual as it might seem. All of the Hardy Boys novels, which were published from 1927 to 2005, were published under the penname Frank W. Dixon—but were written by various ghostwriters.

Technically speaking, a ghostwriter isn’t a collaboration (though I dislike the idea, as it implies a formulaic and cookie-cutter approach to writing). The modern franchise writer is usually not a sock puppet penname like Frank W. Dixon, nor a deceased author like Tom Clancy. Most franchise authors are well-known and older (usually in their sixties or seventies) writers who rely on collaborations with younger, less well-known authors as a means of maintaining their output.

Clive Cussler comes to mind again here, as does James Patterson. Cussler has produced novels with a slew of collaborators—not only his son, but also Justin Scott, Russell Blake, and Graham Brown, among others. Patterson’s coauthors include Maxine Paetro, Marshall Karp, and David Ellis.

The usual technique is for the “franchise” or “branded” author to produce an outline. The collaborator then writes the actual story. A rough metaphor would cast the franchise author as the architect, and the coauthor as the building company.

Novels produced by this system can occasionally be good, but only rarely great. The committee approach may be appropriate and often necessary for projects in the corporate world. A creative work of art is likely to be better when it is the product of a single person’s vision.

Or to state the matter another way: A single individual can’t design and build a Camry; and a committee comprised of disparate individuals is unlikely to pen a great novel.

For the market that James Patterson is aiming at, however, good is probably good enough. Patterson produces multiple novels each year; and no airport bookstore or grocery store book section lacks at least one of them. Cussler’s titles can also be found in almost any venue where books are sold.