The Writing on the Wall
It’s not very often that you can see yourself standing at the crossroads.
People are, to a large extent, mechanical creatures. Except when it comes to the things that truly matter, events of passion, or anger, or hurt, or grief, people tend to move in the only direction they can, which is forward. Life is, by definition, a linear game and a perpetual physics problem, one under constant bombardment by the sordid combination of mass, velocity, and time.
It’s only at those strange, rare forks in the road when life forces us to take off our blinders and take stock of our strange little lives that you see the interjection of philosophy into the game. Why are we here? What’s the point of it all? Or, more often than not, “What am I going to do now?”
A much better soothing of this kind of internal turmoil can be found in the lessons of the late comedian Bill Hicks. In his infinite wisdom, Bill said: “The world is like a ride at an amusement park, and when you choose to go on it, you think it's real, because that's how powerful our minds are. And the ride goes up and down and round and round and it has thrills and chills and it's very brightly colored and it's very loud. And it's fun, for a while. Some people have been on the ride for a long time, and they begin to question: 'Is this real? Or is this just a ride?' And other people have remembered, and they come back to us and they say 'Hey! Don't worry, don't be afraid -- ever -- because... this is just a ride.'”
But I recently found myself at the proverbial crossroads, and the ride was getting less and less fun as time went on. As publication after publication bit the dust, each new bullet hold in the writing business -- not just in publishing, but across the wide gamut of places I’ve published over the years -- was causing me a lot more sleepless nights. Writing is wired into me at some primeval DNA level, so I’ll always perform at some level or another. But, as the compensation for this strange profession became slimmer with each passing month, I had to start asking myself some questions.
The quandary really started to stew for me when I saw a recent interview with The Demon Dog himself, James Ellroy, who was grilled by Galleycat about the future of publishing. Now, we all know that James isn’t going to be out of a job anytime soon, but he had some frankly disturbing things to say.
“It's survival of the fittest," Ellroy said. "Who wants to write? How bad do you want it? Will you write, even if you're poorly paid?”
Soon after, we got a bulletin from a very fine crime novelist named Declan Burke, the author of the recently released The Big O and Eight-Ball Boogie. Now, this is a guy who no less than Ken Bruen has called “The future of Irish crime fiction,” and one who has two more books already wrapped and up for sale. And after interviewing James Ellroy, Declan Burke had the immense courage to do something crazy. He publicly declared his intention to walk away. The writer decided to retire from writing novels so that he could do the unimaginable: write for money.
“I’d love to finish up with some kind of gloriously noble declaration about how writing isn’t just a business, it’s a vocation, a passion, an obsession, and come hell or high water, I’ll write the next novel and let the chips fall where they may, etc.,” Burke wrote. “But I can’t. Not only would such a decision be immoral, it would be foolhardy verging on insanity.”
Before long, I found myself in the same boat. The year started for me with the closing of The Rocky Mountain News. The work that came from there was good, and the working relationship with my editor even better.
The year ended with the death knell of Kirkus Reviews, another publication to which I contributed reviews for more than four years. The prevailing impression upon its closing wasn’t one of surprise; most merely proclaimed that it was purely a mathematical equation.
“It’s just business,” I often hear business types say, lifting their managerial style from a line cribbed from The Godfather without ever going back to read Puzo’s original novel, in which Don Corleone says that all business is personal.
Regardless of what happens in the future, I had a good run with Kirkus. The list of authors I interviewed for Kirkus included David Sedaris, Bill Bryson, Ha Jin, Susan Faludi, Jane Smiley, Nathan Englander and Scott Turow, as well as some of the greatest minds in the crime business, among them Elmore Leonard, Walter Mosley, and Donald E. Westlake. No matter what ultimately happens to the publication, I had a great time doing the work.
But I was surprised by the spiteful tone of many of those who reported on the closure. I saw a few regretful comments from librarians, and fielded a few notes of condolence myself. But in the popular media, vultures relished the death of a 76-year-old review publication, authors felt justified in crying revenge, and others made inane comments about how the blogosphere will rise up to replace these publications.
I’m not holding my breath on that last part, but I’ll try to keep an open mind. I saw a similar train of thought from a writer from a much different age earlier this month. I received a copy of Talking About Detective Fiction by the grand dame P.D. James, in which she discussed the dramatic changes taking place.
“For those of us who love books -- the smell of the paper, the design, the print and the type, the feel of the book as we take it down from the shelf -- reading by machine seems an odd preference,” she wrote. “But if we accept that what is important is the text, not the means by which it comes to the reader’s eyes and brain, it is easier to understand the popularity of this new resource, particularly for a generation which has become accustomed to technology since childhood. But how far, if at all, these changes will actually affect the variety and type of fiction produced remains to be seen.”
I’ve always had a foot in both worlds, in print and online at places just like Bookslut, but I’m not convinced that the old model of writing for money is workable anymore. I’ll always write, one way or another, and I’m sure I’ll continue to find places where I can make my voice heard, just like I do here most months of the year. But I’ve also reached a point where writing isn’t the only thing I want to do. I’m not sure exactly what’s next. But never let it be said I couldn’t see the writing on the wall.
However, until the business burns down completely, we’re still here to talk about books. As long as we’re going to talk about the slow decline of literature, let me at least share a pair of the more interesting items that came across my desk during the past few months.
First, let me suggest a lovely, small and affordable present to yourself. One of the things that arrived in my stocking over the holidays was a new copy of the Everyman’s Pocket Classics Book of Detective Stories, a retro-looking little volume that would both admirably sit on your shelf of pulp paperbacks and also serve as a terrific introduction to detective fiction for new readers of the genre.
Edited by Peter Washington, the book really does represent a glorious snapshot of detective fiction in the twentieth century. Many of the greats are here, among them the earliest purveyors of the trade like Arthur Conan Doyle, with “Sliver Blaze,” and Edgar Allen Poe, who practically invented the detective story with his investigator C. Auguste Dupin, appearing here in “The Purloined Letter.” Fans of the Cozy get the best of their lot with Agatha Christie’s “The Blue Geranium,” while aficionados of the hard-boiled will love revisiting “I’ll Be Waiting” by Raymond Chandler and “The Gatewood Caper” by Dashiell Hammett. The modern era is represented by the great series characters V.I. Warshawski and Inspector Rebus, with stories by Sara Paretsky and Ian Rankin, respectfully. The collection really is a great bedside introduction to the world inhabited by these grim, complex characters and a joy to recommend to others.
Finally, let me share a little bit about a fantastic artifact from a different age I found last month. I was poking around in my fantastic local used bookstore when I found a beautifully weather-worn volume that was obviously numerous decades old, embossed with an outlandish logo and bearing only the words “True Stories of Crime.” Inside was a copyright date of 1908 for this odd little artifact published by “Charles Scribner’s Sons.”
The book turned out to be one of the few non-fiction titles published by Arthur Train (1875-1945), who turns out to be a fascinating character. A Harvard graduate, Train was an attorney in the New York District Attorney’s office who later became a writer of some of the earliest legal thrillers. Train was no slouch in the writing department himself, devoting himself not only to the writing of short stories, but also journalism, poetry, science fiction novels, advertising copy and even vaudeville routines. In 1919, he created a popular series character named Ephraim Tutt, a cagey lawyer with a touch for the common man, who always seemed to have a trick up his sleeve. The character starred in more than a hundred short stories, and Train even wrote a book called Yankee Lawyer, the character’s autobiography, in response to his popularity.
True Stories of Crime From The District Attorney’s Office collects eleven stories of true crime cases from the district attorney’s office, and they make for fascinating reading. Train, who was simultaneously working on his writing career as well as working cases at the time, does a splendid job of combining true crime reportage with a flair for the dramatic, penning chapters like “The Lost Stradivarius,” and “A Finder of Missing Heirs,” and “A Case of Circumstantial Evidence,” any of which would match today’s true crime books and in many cases, surpass them.
And as odd as it may seem, the book does survive, after a fashion, so we do have technology to thank for that. The book, thanks to the wonders of print-on-demand tech is still in print, but you can read the entirety of True Stories of Crime on Google Books or Project Gutenberg. Even if it’s not your cup of tea, it’s worth taking ten minutes to read Train’s marvelous, compassionate introduction.
“The scenes recorded here are not literature but history, and the characters who figure in them are not puppets of the imagination, but men and women who lived and schemed, laughed, sinned and suffered, and paid the price when the time came, most of them, without flinching,” Train wrote. “A few of those who read these pages may profit perhaps by their example; others may gain somewhat in their knowledge of life and human nature; but all will agree that there are books in the running brooks, even if the streams be turbid, and sermons in stones, though these be the hearts of men.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself. And so, I won’t.