Thursday, May 26, 2022

On the Words "Be Yourself"

Once upon a time I was teaching a survey course on American Literature from the Civil War to today. As part of a "unit" on naturalism I included Stephen Crane's classic Maggie, a Girl of the Streets.

One of my students, who had elected to complete a required short paper assignment by writing about that particular work, had for her thesis that Maggie needed to "be herself" and find a "lifestyle" consistent with that.

I was flabbergasted by this "analysis"--the more in as the paper actually indicated familiarity with the content of the novella (it would have been less appalling if they were completely ignorant of it when they made their claim), and I might add, as more than a few other students offered similar thoughts in their own papers.

(Lest the reader respond with a snide remark about community college students or some such they should know that I was teaching this course at a selective private research university which has ranked among the nation's top fifty in noted surveys of the matter, for what that is worth. My experience is that even the most prestigious institutions are no shorter on idiots--among students and faculty--than any others in the academic world, or the world generally, but the point is that this sort of cheap, common elitism explains nothing here. Now back to the story.)

Let us, for the moment, set aside the great many, many things wrong with what she (and the others) wrote, and focus simply on that particular choice of words she used, "Be yourself." Previously I had associated the words "be yourself" with the sort of lame, meaningless advice that unbelievably naive and oblivious parents give to children entering a far tougher world than the one they remember. (I find my mind often returning to Julie Hagerty singing "Be yourself!" to Ryan Reynolds as he gets in his car in Just Friends.)

But since that time the phrase has seemed increasingly pernicious. What does it really mean to "be yourself?" More precisely, how do we know if we are doing that? And how do others know it? A prerequisite to this would seem to be some basis for identifying a real "self" to which our "being" might or might not conform, but that raises yet another question, namely just who decides what your "self" is? Do you determine that, after which others defer to your conception of self? One might ask, too--is this self constant, or does it change? Should we want to do so, can we change ourselves?

We live in a society that speaks incessantly and self-importantly about "freedom," "liberty," "equality" and the rest. The reality it lives, of course, is very different. Ours is an extremely unequal, hierarchical society, in which very specific ideas about how people generally and people of particular types ought to behave are very strongly held by a very great many people, not least by those who have power and privilege--and because society is so far from the accepting, tolerant, inclusive thing it pretends to be, plenty of incentive to be something other than "yourself," however defined, and certainly as defined by those others. Others reserve the right to determine just what your self is, let you know it, and get very nasty about it--while not taking too kindly to people who change themselves (even as they demand that people "fit in," with the square peg told that it had better learn to accommodate itself to the round hole).

The result is that "Be yourself," while sounding like the namby-pamby, nurturing-gone-mad that makes right-wingers snarl about "political correctness" often is no more than the age-old snarl of those on top to those beneath them to "KNOW YOUR PLACE!"--a place you don't decide for yourself, that others decide for you, that is likely to be a matter of what class you were born into, what ethnicity your ancestors were, and so forth--and, in spite of the fact that that place is likely an unpleasant one might quite reasonably prefer to escape, keep that place forever, with doing anything else a matter of "putting on airs," and those who somehow manage to materially their circumstances, if they cannot be wholly denied, sneered at as "upstarts," "parvenus" and the rest.

In that we have an all too common story--how what is presented to us as overgentle, "p.c." and the rest so often comes from a place even more right-wing than the avowed right-wingers, as we are easily reminded when we stop tossing around the word "postmodernism" and look at what it really means, a creed that is the heir not to Marx (indeed, it is hard to think of anything more antithetical to a genuine Marxist) but to Maistre.

Such cluelessness prevailing, I am not sure very many on the scene are capable of being "themselves" politically--precisely because they have no idea who, or what, they actually are.

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Self-Publishing in the Early 21st Century: The Publishing Revolution That Wasn't

Self-publishing is no new practice, but about a decade ago it looked as if the advent of e-book readers, Print-On-Demand services, online book retail and other technological and commercial developments were laying the groundwork for a revolution in publishing--a radical expansion of the possibilities writers had for reaching readers, without going through a publishing Establishment that has ever more seemed able to say only "No" to anyone approaching it with just a manuscript. Indeed, the press seemed to thrill to a spate of success stories, with young Amanda Hocking's selling a million copies of her work merely the beginning!

A decade on the excitement is long gone--so long gone, in fact, that it is hard to remember that it was ever there.

What happened? One possibility, of course, is that the revolution did indeed triumph--that this change proceeded so fully and completely that we now take an utterly different world for granted.

However, another possibility is that the revolution was simply snuffed out--and to go by what I see of publishing it is the latter that seems to me to have really happened. Of course, here and there one may find someone who has sold a few 99-cent e-books. But look at the bestseller lists. These are as much as ever dominated by the same old authors publishing the same old material in the same old ways through the same old houses. Look at the high-profile review pages--and you find much the same story. (Indeed, a self-published author is only likely to become a real success when their work catches the eye of a traditional publisher who picks them up--after which they are no longer a self-published author.) Look at such discussion of self-publishing as we can find in the media--and see that it is overwhelmingly a matter of representatives of Big Publishing snarling at those who refused to let the form rejection letter-printing machines of Park Avenue crush their dreams of authorship. Look at the endless promotion of self-publishing services--the ads barraging you online when you look up the subject, the commercials on TV, and even cold calls you may have personally got at home from self-publishing companies if you have ever published a book through this means, all of it testifying to the reality that making money off of people who are self-publishing is a more plausible prospect than making money through self-publishing.

Looking back it seems that any other prospect was extremely improbable, for at least three reasons--beyond, of course, the virulently hate-filled propaganda against the self-published.

1. The Self-Publishing Technological Revolution Was Incomplete.
Services like Amazon's KDP can fairly be regarded as miraculous. Anyone can come in, upload a book for free, and have both e-book and print versions of that book on sale at innumerable retailers around the whole world within mere days. However, remarkable as this simplification--and cheapening--of the physical production and distribution of books is, the rest of book production remains as laborious as ever. KDP did not diminish the burden of editing, copyediting, physically designing books one iota--all of which has remained extremely time- and skill-intensive craft labor that is best done by a big, established team rather than an impromptu one an amateur had to hire, or a single individual carrying the whole burden themselves. And then, as if all that were not enough, there is the matter of publicizing the book, which gets to be the bane of many a self-published writer's existence.

The result is that a self-published writer is apt to find themselves more publisher than writer, doing it all alone on the basis of slighter resources. As the self-published book-bashers never cease to remind us this can and does take its toll on the quality of the product. However, even where the quality is all that can be hoped for--and yes, contrary to the propaganda, there are self-published books as good and polished as anything the major houses produce, better even where they offer something trad-publishing does not dare to--it is deeply draining for the author. (If one goes about it at all seriously editing one's own work is a very different and far more painful thing than editing someone else's.) Altogether, as is generally the case with small enterprise, they work rather harder, often for rather less, than their trad-published counterparts do. This can mean lower output, in a market in which a high volume of output seems ever more important to commercial viability. It can also mean that more writers who might, with time, have built up a body of work and an audience quit before realizing what potential they may have because the going was so much rougher. All that means that much less success not only for individual writers, but the self-publishing scene as a whole.

2. The Means of Publicity Available to Self-Published Writers Have Become Less Satisfactory Over Time.
Self-published authors have from the start had little access to the conventional means of publicizing books. They had little prospect of appearing on Oprah, or getting written up in the New York Times, for example. They relied instead on humbler means, three in particular--namely book review blogs; sites hosting fiction which allow readers to see some or all of the book for free; and social media. None of these options were ever as strong as advertised, and all have got less satisfactory over time.

No matter what anyone tells you, the blog is in decline as a part of our online life--for many reasons.

The sites hosting fiction, always much more useful for promoting certain kinds of fiction than others (Wattpad, for example, skews young), have become increasingly crowded, and are dominated by non-commercial fan fiction, which has its built-in audience, and which, just as with franchise movies at the box office, leaves much less of an audience for everything else.

And social media, which, again, was never as promising as some made it out to be (even here, nothing ever goes viral), has become increasingly inhospitable to book promotion. While the sites happily take the money of anyone who pays to advertise them and bombard their users with such ads, their algorithms block non-payers from attempting to promote themselves, with all that implies for anyone thinking they can use it to create public awareness of their book on a budget. (Meanwhile, the frequency with which the self-published have tried to publicize their books on social media would seem to have interacted with the stigma against their work to make their attempts notorious—and, to go by casual remarks I have seen, the butt of cruel jokes, with all that implies for the effectiveness of the approach.)

3. People Are Reading Less.
It was a technological revolution that made self-publishing's prospects look as bright as they did in the late '00s and early '10s--but the same technological revolution had other, less toward consequences. It meant that pretty much the entire potential audience for such work was carrying around at all times and in all places a smart phone giving them access to the entire range of entertainment options round-the-clock--from perusing social media, to streaming video, to playing video games. With all those alternatives--for many, far more enticing alternatives--there was that much less reading going on, with this underlined by what's on the bestseller lists. Certainly going by the appearances of such books on it in recent years as The Fault in Our Stars, Me Before You, The Duke and I, and many, many others, it seems that a bestseller is a book people read after they see the movie or TV adaptation of the story, the flow between media increasingly going only this one way--to the disadvantage of any newcomer to the market.

Moreover, such changes probably had their biggest impact on the young. While all other things being equal they might have been more open to new writers working in new ways than their elders, growing up with smart phones and so much more accessible to audiovisual media than before they have been much less prone to read for entertainment purposes--and certainly less prone to develop the habit of doing so. Indeed, I suspect that this generation's coming of age has played a significant part in the fact that the writers on the bestseller list are in the main the same people who were already there in the '90s (Grisham, Patterson, Evanovich, etc.)--the same writers catering to that older readership they picked up then rather than anyone winning over the younger crowd; while the same suspicion would also seem affirmed by the softening of the Young Adult book market, the Young Adults of today just that much less up for books of whatever type (as compared with the kids who read Harry Potter and Twilight, products of a different media world). Simply put, there was much less of an audience for them to chase generally, while the most likely audience was especially uninterested--which may be the most bitterly ironic of all of the aspects of the situation for those who had hoped it would all mean more than it has.

In short, what we had was an extremely incomplete technological revolution that solved only part of the self-published writer's problem, not all of it; a most dubious set of avenues for publicizing a book that has got only less promising with time; and, as if all that were not enough, an audience likely shrinking, with this especially going for that younger audience that may have been most up for grabs.

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

On Publishing: Movies vs. Reality

Recently I had occasion to remark how authors' biographical blurbs tend to cut out the less glamorous details of authors' pasts--while the very people who do the cutting whine endlessly that the public has an overglamorized image of authorship, as if they were not personally, directly part of all that.

Fiction, of course, also plays its part in this overglamorization--and in ways besides its depicting what authors do as mainly sitting about in bookshops autographing copies of their latest for starstruck fans. There is also how it skips over the little matter of publishing the thing. We hear about people writing (hear, rather than see, generally), and then, bam, there they are in the bookshop autographing away, even if, so far as we know, they are first-time writers who have no agent, editor, etc. lined up.

It gives the impression that all you have to do is finish the book, and then there is someone to take it off your hands--when, as the reality of authorship for the great majority shows, the hardest writing process is likely to be infinitely easier than getting a publisher to even look at the thing, never mind take it; that point the one at which the real struggle begins. The writing, after all, is up to the writer; but publishing is where other people get a say. If someone is a celebrity, or connected; if they are an "insider"; they can do deals. But what a director who had had an experience of being both outsider and insider in Hollywood once told me, while "insiders can do deals . . . outsiders can get lost," with Park Avenue no less unfriendly a place that way than Tinseltown.

The big publishers generally won't do deals with someone who doesn't have an agent, and tell anyone who would approach them "Get an agent" as if it were as simple as getting a plumber--but agents won't take on people who aren't published, because it's their job to represent people with careers, not create those careers for them. There are slush piles here and there, but the priority accorded them is low, the task of going through them entrusted to unpaid interns who might occasionally find something--but at best an agent getting five or ten thousand submissions this way might pick one up for their list. The rest get silence--or form rejection letters, often after months or even years of waiting for an answer.

In short, there just aren't that many opportunities even to have your work seriously looked at--while it is worth remembering that they can always find a reason to say "No," even if they bother to give any reason at all (the silence, or the form rejection letter, sparing them even the obligation to offer flimsy excuses for a brush-off).

The result is that the slush pile just isn't a serious way in--and unless you have connections there aren't likely any others, meaning that for the great majority, no matter what the quality of the manuscript they have in hand, there is no way in at all. And many beat their heads against the wall for years, even decades, either ignorant of that reality, or desperately denying it.

But you'd never know it from the movies--or for that matter, from the vehement denunciation by Big Publishing's trolls of those who, realizing that their choice is either to not be published at all, or to publish themselves (often, publish themselves on a zero-budget, wholly DIY basis), opt for the latter with all its disadvantages and its hardships and its risks. The trolls, vehement that publishing should be the monopoly of a professional elite; vehement that if that elite's selection is less than perfectly open and meritocratic and fair, that one may be denied their chance simply because "they didn't pick their parents well" this is just too bad for them; vehement that anyone whom the gatekeepers refuse to admit into the charmed circle of professionals, turning the outsider who can get lost into the insider who can do deals, should resign their dreams of authorship; are of course outraged by what they see as Defiance of Authority by the Unwashed. But the self-publishers persist anyway.

So far little would seem to have come of the fact--so much so that those desperately hoping for the victory of all those writers chasing their dreams over the elite that sneered in their faces for so long have probably felt something of the heartbreak all too familiar to the supporters of defeated revolutions. But to say that this will never change is another thing, "never" being a very long time indeed.

Monday, May 23, 2022

Researching the Self-Published Fiction Market

It is an oft-heard refrain these days that the results yielded by search engines are ever more worthless--that regardless of whether it is Garbage going In, it is pretty much always Garbage that is going Out--and that this is not least because the search engines, because of accidents of ever more complex design, because of the spoken and unspoken agendas of their owners or operators, because of manipulation by the chiseling, show us what someone else wants us to see--not what we are actually looking for, and what perhaps not so long ago they would actually have shown us.

Certainly I have experienced this time and time and time again, with a noteworthy case what happened when I was researching The Secret History of Science Fiction. In planning that book one thing I wanted it to cover was the implications that self-publishing has had for science fiction--and found it exceedingly difficult to find out anything about this.

In fairness the subject is intrinsically difficult to research. The category of self-publishing has its ambiguities. I had in mind specifically commercially-oriented self-publishing by people who are not established as professional writers, but this is, of course, not the whole of that market. (There is much non-commercial self-publishing, while there are also a good many professional writers who find it convenient or attractive to put some of their work out this way.) There is, too, the sheer number of producers, many of whom do not necessarily identify themselves as self-publishers--putting their work out under imprints of their own that at a glance may look no different from any other publisher's--while compared with the pros any organization is at best nascent, and so far as I can tell, no one taking much trouble to keep track of their doings.

However, my difficulties were also a matter of the search engines tending to, for all the reasons mentioned above, shove us toward someone who wants to sell us something, and toward "authoritative" sources over others--and how this interacts with what at least some people have to say about self-publishing, with the result that looking into the matter one encounters exactly two things:

1. People selling services to those who are interested in self-publishing.

2. People from the publishing Establishment, or who are at least representative of its interests (and so have access to "authoritative" media platforms), who see self-publishing as illegitimate, and relentlessly attack it as such.

So basically people who, assuming we are looking to self-publish, want to sell us something; and people who want us to believe that self-publishers are sinning in bucking Big Publishing. Both predictably strike a tone exemplified by how the author of one of the items I encountered gleefully titled his piece "Crushing Your Dreams." The people selling the service snarl that if we do not buy their whole $10,000 package we are just wasting our time for no one will read the unpromoted piece of crap we will otherwise simply dump on the market. Meanwhile the Establishment types snarl, in unbelievable bad faith given the lousiness of the professional product they extoll as so untouchable, and the complete lack of any way in for the vast, vast majority of would-be authors, no matter how competent, that the self-published are filth for not walking the "right path" of traditional publication. (They insist that any really worthy book will one way or another make it through the labyrinth--an absolutely unprovable proposition, presented on the basis of no facts or reasoning whatsoever, and completely at odds with the hard reality of how closed a world publishing has become to the unconnected outsider, but which flatters them as the deserving rather than the merely privileged they usually were, and conveniently lets them dismiss anyone who disagrees with them. "How dare you refuse to do an apprenticeship!" they yell--never mind whether apprenticeship opportunities actually exist.)

To face it, especially as a self-published author who knows that THEY MEAN YOU, is to be hit with a torrent of bullying, fear-mongering, insult and general abuse--and one can dig through all the words with which it is communicated for a very, very long time without finding so much as a single piece of real information about the matter. But then the paucity of information--the fact that we have such a hard time finding anything else--can itself be taken for an indication of the state of things. Had self-publishing emerged as a greater force in the publishing scene the champions of self-publishing--of the writers, and not the people who are so eager to make a dollar off of them--would at least be able to get a word in every now and then.

Friday, May 20, 2022

Remembering Double Dynamite

Some years ago I happened on the 1951 film Double Dynamite on TCM. It's one of those films that I find myself surprised to have not heard of before because the casting would by itself suffice to make it a curiosity--the movie starring Frank Sinatra and Groucho Marx and Jane Russell together.

Still, that was not the prompt to write this post. What really struck me was that while the film's plot is a silly bit of fluff (even if this allowed it to be as good-natured and funny as it is) the situation was substantially rooted in a genuine, everyday problem--the cost of living, and what it means for a young couple trying to start a life together--the starting point of the story the situation of two young bank employees, Johnny Dalton (Sinatra) and Mildred Goodhue (Russell), who would very much like to get married and start a family, but with Sinatra's character inhibited by the fact that he can't seem to work out how they will be able to get along on their earnings. Indeed, before anything else what arrested me as I watched the film was the way Sinatra's character tried to compute everything as he sat with Russell, which actually had me recalling a similar scene in Hans Fallada's classic Little Man, What Now?

While watching the scene I found myself wondering when was the last time that a major (or even minor) Hollywood film, especially a light comedy like this one, was so pointedly alert to the problems of everyday life. To be honest, I don't think that anyone in a position to have a major say in the making of such a production today has any idea what things cost, especially for people like Johnny and Mibs--and don't much care, either. After all, even our journalists don't, as the folks at the "liberal" New York Times tell America's working people (as prices explode but their life expectancies fall!) "You've never had it so good." Instead at this stage of things such persons have pretty much all lived all their lives within a bubble of extreme privilege--while snarling at working class people who dare suggest otherwise about their "entitlement."

Hans Fallada's Little Man, What Now? and Dreiser's Tragedy

As I remarked a while back Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Karamazov Brothers is the novel to which I tend to find myself comparing Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy, but these days I also find myself thinking of Hans Fallada's Little Man, What Now?

The cultural distance between Dreiser and Fallada is, of course, rather smaller than that between Dreiser and Dostoyevsky. Both were Westerners who were much closer in time (their books appeared seven years apart, 1925 and 1932). And both, one might add, based their art on the observation of an objective, material, social world (Dreiser a naturalist, Fallada a participant in Germany's "New Objectivity," a thing which was to make them unfashionable with the Modernism-worshippers who have so much marginalized them and their like within the history of twentieth century literature).

Perhaps for that reason the similarities in the situations of the protagonists are particularly strong. In both novels a young man of humble origins, alienated from a family of which he is ashamed because of how it has placed itself outside society's mainstream, tried to get on in the world--and have a good time. In the course of this that young man gets his girlfriend pregnant, and while they try to secure an abortion, the legal barriers that present no challenge to the rich in such a situation prove quite enough to defeat them. (Dreiser, in fact, has the reader comparing Clyde Griffith's situation to that of the lawyer his uncle hires to represent him--a rich man's son who, when much younger and in similar straits, was able to arrange the operation and just get on with his life, spared the dilemma that Clyde had to face. And if Fallada does not do the same he gives us no reason to think he thought differently.)

The result is that the protagonist faces a difficult choice. Clyde, of course, takes the course that leads to his girlfriend's death and his own trip to the gallows, while Fallada's Johannes marries his girlfriend (the crisis of the unplanned pregnancy the starting point rather than the climax of the book in Fallada's book)--and finds himself faced with only the beginning of a new round of troubles that are the novel's real subject, namely how a young couple might, or might not, get on in a very difficult world. It is a subject that Fallada, to his very great credit, treats as one who knows life at the bottom, and not only sympathizes with those who are there, but empathizes in a way that, as might be expected given the hard realities of social class and the opportunity to pursue an artistic career, very few major authors do. (I find myself recalling E.M. Forster's quip in Howard's End: "We are not concerned with the very poor. They are unthinkable, and only to be approached by the statistician or the poet." The remark said more about the Bloomsbury crowd, and what critics respect, than it does the reality, as writers like Fallada make clear.)

Thus we follow Johannes and Emma as, with the power in the situation somehow always in someone else's hands amid an insecurity that never gets better, that only gets worse as Germany and the world sink into the Great Depression and the fetid smell of fascism hangs in the air, and they struggle through one disaster after another--one change of job, one change of residence, one makeshift, one indignity after another that make a mockery of pompous talk of "choice" and "making do." The Hollywood film version (the book was so popular that the more cosmopolitan Hollywood of the '30s took sufficient notice to rate a major motion picture directed by Frank Borzage and starring Douglass Montgomery and Margaret Sullavan), if lacking the book's flow, conveys a good deal of this faithfully, but makes the concession to commercial expectation of tacking on a Hollywood happy ending far less convincing than the bleak picture we see at the end of the novel. It is less convincing still, I suppose, because of our later vantage point. After all, we know just how very, very dark things will get for Germany and the world; what their little son Horst will have to live through. Certainly Fallada found this out for himself--and produced a work about what it was to live through the Nazi era and the war that was at least as memorable, Every Man Dies Alone.

Hallmark vs. GAC

These days the entertainment industry's intrigues can seem more interesting than the content it offers up--and one such case is the rivalry between Hallmark and GAC. The Hallmark Channel, in spite of its ratings successes, never got much press--arguably because where the entertainment media lavishes its attention and its praises on "prestige TV," Hallmark has gone ever more in the opposite direction, emphasizing unashamedly conventional, crowd-pleasing, highly formulaic fare (just 12 plots for 40 movies, one reviewer of its seasonal slate quipped), and that of very specific types, particularly fluffy romantic comedies and cozy murder mysteries that, not least because so many of them are about a baker surrounded by baked goods, actually feel cozy. (There probably aren't a lot of things in this world cozier than fresh-baked baked goods.)

However, the channel could not escape the culture wars, with the result the fight that got the ex-CEO of the channels' parent company fired, after which, apparently, the man in question (William Abbott) has set up his own, competing channel of the type--GAC. Accomplishing the feat with the help of backers who, if anything, have made the whole thing seem even more political (Republican National Committee co-chair Tommy Hicks' dad's investment group backing the move, while the channel's commercial breaks are packed with Mike Lindell selling his pillows)--such that terms like "Trumpy" and "Trump-adjacent" are much heard in the press--GAC promises its audience a version of Hallmark that the old fan base, some of which has not been happy with the channel's recent direction, will find more satisfactory.

Of course, this is hardly a good time to set up a basic cable channel, given basic cable's commercial decline --and an even worse one to launch a major, high-cost challenge to an established entity in the medium. This seems all the more the case given just how far GAC remains from matching Hallmark, with a line-up consisting mostly of reruns of a handful of older sitcoms (like The Facts of Life and Full House). Their offering of anything new or different has been slight to date (a handful of Hallmark-style romantic comedies, the first broadcast airings of Netflix's Full House sequel Fuller House). Still, their picking up Hallmark's cast-off spin-off of its drama When Calls the Heart, When Hope Calls; bringing into that show's cast Lori Loughlin in her comeback role after her big scandal (which cost her her own involvement in not one but two big Hallmark series, When Calls the Heart and the Garage Sale Mystery film series); their signing so many of Hallmark's current stars to productions for their own channel (among them Jessica Lowndes, Jill Wagner, Cindy Busby, Jen Lilley, Merritt Patterson, Sarah Lind, Danica McKellar, and of course, Candace Cameron Bure); and GAC already making clear its intentions of going head-to-head with Hallmark during the Christmas 2022 season; suggest that for now, at least, GAC's management intend to go the distance in their endeavor to produce a serious competitor to Hallmark.

The Decline of Hallmark Mysteries?

The Hallmark Channel is a rare case these days of a media outlet which is successful while being profoundly unfashionable, producing the extreme opposite of "prestige TV." Rather than downbeat-to-grimdark edgelord material oriented to the obsessions of "the coastal elite" the channel (which has gone through an evolution), has specialized in fluffy romantic comedies with a sideline in cozy murder mysteries--as seen on the affiliated "Hallmark Movies & Mysteries."

Still, if it has had quite the wave of success the channel seems to be pulling back from the mysteries at least, recently canceling three of its series--the Picture Perfect, Hailey Dean and Matchmaker mysteries, with the cancellation seeming all the more final because the star of the Matchmaker series has signed a multi-picture contract with the channel's upstart rival, GAC. The same seems likely to be happening with the Aurora Teagarden series, with Candace Cameron Bure, long one of the channel's most prominent faces, now going over to GAC too. (I would also imagine that the Murder 101 and Martha's Vineyard series are also done for, with their stars, Jill Wagner in the first case, and Jessie Metcalfe and Sarah Lind in the second, also gone over to GAC. Cameron Mathison, who was in the Murder, She Baked/Hannah Swensen mysteries, is also gone over to that newer channel, likely indicating nothing very positive about that series' prospects.)

Meanwhile no replacements seem to have been announced--while it appears that premieres of such are fewer and less clearly intended as part of a series (Cut, Color, Murder and Dying for Chocolate look as if they could be launch pads for such, but the IMDB pages for their stars Julie Gonzalo and Nikki DeLoach indicate no sequels in the pipeline, with the same, I might add, going for Lacey Chabert's Crossword Mysteries). And the portion of the schedule the Movies & Mysteries Channel allots to reairings of its original productions has shrunk in favor of other material (like reruns of the same romantic comedies that are the main channel's staple).

Of course, basic cable generally has been less enthusiastic about funding the production of original content than before, and it may be that if Hallmark has been a comparative success story that success has plateaued or passed its peak. The numbers are still regarded as strong, but there is room to say that they are down from what they have been in the past, and many have cited possible reasons --as with other channels replicating its successes (responding to its notable success with its nonstop Christmas movies from late October to early January by filling their schedule with Christmas movies during the holidays, too), or blowback over particular decisions (with much complaint to be encountered online about the cancellation of their morning talk show Home & Family, while of course the culture wars are part of the story--they always are these days).

Yet I also find myself thinking about the evidences of a thriller market in decline. The Hallmark mysteries, after all, are commonly based on literary properties. (One wouldn't guess it at a glance, but Aurora Teagarden comes from Charlaine Harris--the same author whose books were the basis for HBO's True Blood, in as good a demonstration as any of the big difference between Hallmark and the competition.) If that market is suffering--if people are less interested in such series--then it seems unsurprising that Hallmark isn't investing in adaptations of such material with its prior alacrity.

The Evolution of the Hallmark Movie Brand

I have to admit that, from a marketing/pop cultural/zeitgeist standpoint, I find what the Hallmark Channel does fascinating--not least because it is both profoundly unfashionable, and at the same time hugely successful (indeed, until recently a relative bright spot in the darkening picture for basic cable).

What interests me in particular is that as TV generally got edgier and darker Hallmark, whose brand has always been associated with "clean," "safe," "family-friendly" content, did the opposite--oriented itself to becoming more of all those things, turning itself into the coziest place on the TV schedule, with this becoming obvious when one glances at the romantic comedies that have been Hallmark's hallmark.

Not so long ago those movies sometimes had a touch of blue collar grit--the heroine perhaps a struggling single mother trying to make ends meet on a waitressing job, in a small town that reminds us of how often young people look to get away from them simply to get on in the world (as in the Elizabeth Berkley starrer Lucky Christmas). We might have a protagonist whose job-and-money situation at least is happier, but has still had her share of bad relationships--the film beginning with the calamitous ending of one (as with AnnaLynne McCord in The Christmas Parade). And the goings-on on screen might not be wholly chaste (with The Good Witch seeing Cassandra Nightingale spend the night with Sheriff Jake Russell--and on the first date no less--three quarters of the way into the film).

All that sort of thing has become much rarer here. The blue-collar grit is gone, the heroine pretty much always an upwardly mobile "career woman" with a spectacular office and wardrobe, or a flourishing "entrepreneur" who, likely owning and operating a business of some type that makes people feel cozy, enjoys a solidly upper middle class--indeed, rich person's--standard of living (solely on the basis of earnings of, for example, a large and luxurious bridal shop in a town with a four figure-sized population, precisely because such towns are now pretty much always bright and prosperous). She is very attractive, and so far as we know has never been uninterested in marriage or, as a single woman, short of dates, but somehow in middle age has no apparent romantic "history" or associated baggage--like a post-Pillow Talk Doris Day. And the film only progresses to its first kiss in the final shot of the movie. (I might add that it seems that actresses with the sort of associations Elizabeth Berkley and AnnaLynne McCord conjure up for those who recall their earlier roles are less likely than others to get cast in the lead, with Candace Cameron's being the network's most visible star for so many years exemplary.)

in the process what was already brightened and fairly sanitized became that much more so--precisely because there were plenty of takers for what was on offer, doubtless to the bewilderment and consternation of prestige TV lovers.

The Decline of the Thriller: Explanations

Considering recent bestseller list data it seems plausible that thriller sales have recently been in decline--not only this past year, but this past decade. Naturally I have found myself thinking about why, and two reasons come to mind.

1. Publishing was never an open field, but it is hard to deny that it has become more closed--less willing to take risks on new talent ("What's your platform like?" they'll ask before they ask "What's your book about?"), and more determined to not only stick with known writers, but exploit their names to the full so as to avoid having to look to unknown quantities in whom they would--horror of horrors!--actually make a long-term investment. (Every extra "James Patterson novel" in their schedule is one less spot they have to fill with something else.) And all this, of course, is without considering just how closed the world of the arts, media, entertainment has become to anyone approaching it without celebrity or connections (so that they do not even get into a position to be asked what their platform is like before they are told "No"). And any idiot can tell you what that means for the prospect of new ideas, or even just new properties, that might regenerate the field. And unsurprisingly the thriller genre is still pretty much where it was back in the '90s, with John Grisham and James Patterson and Janet Evanovich and the rest who had established themselves then still headlining the New York Times bestseller list with pretty much the same books, and even the same series', they were writing at the time.

Of course, in the quarter of a century since something novel did occasionally come up--the fashion for religio-historical mysteries Dan Brown spurred with The Da Vinci Code, the interest in Scandinavian crime fiction prompted by Stieg Larsson's success--but these fashions came and went fairly quickly all things considered, with Larsson's books, notably, having been first published in another country and even made into movies before American publishing brought them to a wide audience, hardly making them some New York discovery. We have also had more idiosyncratic thrillers like Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl and Paula Hawkins' The Girl on the Train--though precisely because they are idiosyncratic one can hardly picture a whole subgenre really emerging and enduring as a result. Simply put, the genre has gone stale.

2. Younger people read much, much less, and for obvious reason. No one under twenty has much memory of life before everyone was carrying a smart phone and its ever-growing package of entertainment options all the time, anyone under twenty-five has likely had one through all their formative years. The fact has already had its effect on YA sales (the readers who made Twilight a blockbuster were living in a more different media world than you may appreciate), and it is likely to take an increasing toll on the sales of books officially designated as being for grown-ups--all as older folk, likewise becoming more and more digital in their orientation, similarly read less.

Still, if fiction a sa whole is suffering might it be that thrillers are taking a particularly bad hit? This does not seem to me inconceivable. After all, print fiction these days has a tendency to follow film--audiences, increasingly, having their aesthetic preferences formed by visual media, and expecting those preferences to be met when they pick up a book. And film itself has been changing significantly. Consider the thrillers we get on screen. Suspense thrillers, once a staple of commercial cinema, are now a rarity, supplanted by the action thriller--which these days is required to be ever more action-packed, with the action ever-bigger and filmed in ever more intense fashion. Indeed, even watching non-thrillers people seem to expect a shot to last no more than two seconds. This was not the kind of thriller that even a Grisham or a Patterson offered up--and it seems plausible that, stale or not, it simply does not hold audience interest the same way, especially when the medium delivering the content relies on words rather than a succession of images designed to strike the nerves directly rather than through the story they tell. The result may well be that, where in the past particular types of thriller have in the past fallen out of fashion, in significant part because of precisely this change (as with the spy novel and techno-thriller and paramilitary action-adventure in the '90s) the thriller altogether is suffering this fate.

Of course, that being the case one can hardly imagine publishers doing other than they have done—their current course instead of being simple stagnation a matter of resignation as they continue to trade on past successes for as long as they can rather than chase an audience that they know is not there.

This may sound overly pessimistic. But I can assure that publishers are quite capable of following such a strategy, not least because the editor of a noted fiction publication confessed as much to me in a private exchange. As the comment was not meant for public consumption I do not name either the editor nor the magazine, but it certainly left no doubt in my mind as to my suspicions about how that particular magazine selected its material--and how others might act in such a situation.

Thursday, May 19, 2022

The Discrete Silence On Authors' Pasts

Once upon a time I was struck by how little is said of writers' pasts in those biographical blurbs on the back of the hardcover book dust jacket.

Later I realized it was because the biographical blurbs, in the interest of a sales-promoting glamorization, avoided a great many of the grimy realities of the writing life. Thus they do not bring up the crummy day jobs writers often work to pay the bills until they can get a break (teaching English, for example—indeed, I suspect this is one of the things that keeps college English departments in adjunct labor, in spite of the pay and terms).

Thus does it also go with the "crummier" writing jobs writers often do before they hit the big time. I had a recent reminder of this over at the blog Paperback Warrior, which covers a range of material (I have seen work as diverse as Jack London's classic The Sea-Wolf and X-Files tie-ins discussed there), but concentrates on older work from the "pulpy" end of the spectrum--old hard-boiled stuff and the like. Most of the items Paperback Warrior presents are books reviews, but the blog occasionally presents broader, more background-oriented pieces. The one I have in mind now served up an overview of the history of the Nick Carter franchise, extending to its Nick Carter: Killmaster incarnation--one of innumerable '60s-era reinventions of older action heroes along James Bondian lines, with the old detective become a globetrotting secret agent. The resulting series ultimately had 263 installments between 1963 and the 1990s-era collapse of the action-adventure market.

One of the more interesting aspects of the series is the number of writers who worked on it, often under pseudonyms, before moving on to "A grade" hardcover work under their own names, and sometimes becoming fairly big names. Among them was David Hagberg, who wrote twenty of the Nick Carter novels on the way to becoming a major name in spy and techno-thriller fiction with his Kirk McGarvey books. One did not find the Nick Carter books included under the "Also By" heading in the front matter of his books. After all, he was an A-grade hardcover bestseller now, and we were not to think of him as anything else.

Such facts make the eternal whine of the Park Avenue types about the public's misperceptions of the business the more ironic. They complain that the public thinks it's much easier to become an author than it really is. But they certainly played their part in creating the illusion by eliding, among so much else, the apprenticeships from the record that convert old hands into apparent overnight successes--and of course, one can hardly credit them with worrying overmuch about the existence of apprenticeship opportunities, which have been dwindling for a long time. They shrank with the disappearance of the fiction magazine market and its openness for short form fiction (as Isaac Asimov forthrightly acknowledged in Earl Kemp's Who Killed Science Fiction?), and then shrank again when the more limited opportunities afforded by the old paperback market, and series' like Nick Carter, shrank in their turn. In this way as in every other today's aspiring writer is very much on their own, with no helping hand to be expected from anyone.

What T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" is Really About

I recall the shock of my first exposure to T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" in high school. After reading it I was convinced that I had just read a pile of nonsense and that the critics who esteemed this the Great Poem of the century were, frankly, deranged. And of course, no one was able to give me an intelligent answer to the question of why I ought to think anything else about it.

Eventually I learned what those I queried did not understand, or could not explain, or could not be bothered to explain to a "mere" high school student (or college student, or graduate student)--that it was indeed a pile of nonsense (as Eliot himself confessed, "In The Waste Land, I wasn’t even bothering whether I understood what I was saying") and that its being a pile of nonsense was exactly the point. As one might guess from the fact that the poem's footnotes are longer than the text of the poem itself it was a mockery of critics who would attempt to approach its neutron star-dense mass of obscurities rationally and discern in it a rational plan, a rational meaning.

In all that "The Wasteland" was exemplary of Modernism, the essential feature of which is its rejection of reason and rationality and, if there was any thought of salvation at all, its pursuit in anti-rationality. Thus Dadaism, thus surrealism, thus the nonsense of Futurism in the Martinetti sense of the term, and, among so much else, Eliot's poem. Not everyone who produced experimental work necessarily shared these assumptions, but this was nonetheless this was the impulse behind the declaration that the older, more conventional, "realistic" ways of depicting the world would no longer serve, rendering these experiments a necessity.

I, for one, have found the intent dubious. After all, the hardcore Modernists insisted that reason had "failed" in a manner that a student of logic would at once recognize as "begging the question," for it was not so obviously a settled question that "reason" caused World War I and other early twentieth century disasters. Equally it was begging the question to declare that realism had ceased to be a viable artistic approach. (Think about it. When you read a realist novel, for example, or look at a realistic painting or sculpture, do you think "Ugh! That won't do at all!" I doubt it very much.)

Moreover, overlooking this fact leaves us less able to understand what we are looking at when we are presented with Modernist work—hence all the critics butting their heads against the rock of Eliot's poetry--while the appraisal of the work also tends to be dubious. One associates Modernism with formal experimentalism, to the point that superficial discussion of Modernism notices only that--but considering this I long ago found myself thinking that experiments are judged by their results. They validate a hypothesis or they do not. They succeed or fail. But we never hear such judgment rendered. (Does anyone seriously believe that stream-of-consciousness writing "saved literature" as a way of approaching, depicting, understanding the world?) Instead, just as there is a slighting of the intellectual premises from which such work proceeded, so is there a slighting of the actual aesthetic results (which I must admit have seemed to me a colossal failure, and strained, ugly, failure at that) as critics then rushed, and critics today continue, to, accepting the aforementioned begging of the question as if it were the profoundest of thought, champion such work as the Good, the True, the Important. And it has seemed to me ever more the case that this has been a disaster for letters, culture and humanity generally--as well as yet another occasion in which few dare to point out the all too obvious fact that THE EMPEROR HAS NO CLOTHES!

Is The Thriller in Decline? A Few Thoughts on the Data

There was some talk in 2021 of thriller sales softening. Those discussing the matter gave the impression that this was some anomaly, but it seemed to me to be confirmed by the Publisher's Weekly data on the top-selling books of the year--among which thrillers were inconspicuous.

It may be that this is a temporary, anomalous development. But looking back over the top-selling fiction lists of the past decade I can't help suspect something deeper is going on here, the titles I see at least suggesting that the decline of the thriller has been underway for some time. Look, for example, at the list from 2010 (as archived at Wikipedia). Of the ten fiction bestsellers nine were novels, and six of those were thrillers written for adults (Stieg Larsson's The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, John Grisham's The Confession, Tom Clancy's Dead or Alive, Janet Evanovich's Sizzling Sixteen, James Patterson's Cross Fire, and Patricia Cornwell's Port Mortuary). In 2011 seven of the top ten were thrillers. By contrast in 2012 the list was dominated by various YA authors (Suzanne Collins, Jeff Kinney, Rick Riordan) and E.L. James, with the principal thriller present Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl--notable for being a literary thriller rather than a commercial one (unreliable narrator, no built-in series potential, etc., etc.), with the trend very similar in 2013 and 2014 (with Veronica Roth and John Green numbering among the YA writers, and major films of the year generally having related works prove bestsellers, like Gone Girl, The Great Gatsby, Frozen), even if Grisham, Stephen King, Dan Brown put in appearances. After that point it seemed that the YA wave had crested, but that did not translate to a return of those thrillers to their old place here. Instead, where it was not simply a reflection of what was playing at the movies (as with Jojo Moyes' Me Before You), it was becoming a good deal more eclectic in the manner we see today.

Of course, in considering this one ought to acknowledge that PW changed its method of assembling the lists significantly back in 2012, and that it seems plausible that the decline of the thriller's prominence was at least in part a matter of changing its criteria. Still, given the other changes in the list's composition since (like how YA not only exploded but collapsed later) that single factor seems unlikely to explain everything--and leave at least room for the suspicion that there really has been a long-term drop.

The Decline of the Hollywood Western

In the early days of Hollywood the frontier, or at least frontier-like conditions in the western United States, were so historically near as to be within the memory of a good many living adults, with the effect all this had for efforts to romanticize it. Half a century on the subject matter was far remote--and increasingly problematic, the attitude toward Native Americans common to the Western, for example, less acceptable. (The confrontation between Sacheen Littlefeather and John Wayne at the 1973 Oscars--recalled to public consciousness by the Will Smith-Chris Rock episode--seems symbolic.) One might add that making so many Westerns for so long--making so much of anything for so long--made it overfamiliar while leaving artists with that much less to do with it that had not already been done innumerable times (the more, perhaps, in as it focused on a very particular period and setting, with perhaps particularly strong limitations so far as such genres go). Unsurprisingly there was less tendency to handle the material "straight," with films like The Wild Bunch, Little Big Man, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Blazing Saddles, all bespeaking a very different, genre-subverting attitude.

Of course a trickle of such films has continued ever after, with something of a surge occurring now and then, most notably in the early '90s (with the commercial and critical successes of Best Picture winners Dances With Wolves and Unforgiven, as well as more modest success with such films as the big screen version of the old Maverick TV series, and a good many other efforts like Sam Raimi's The Quick and the Dead). Still, it went only so far and lasted only so long, and since then the genre has, its artier, lower-budgeted efforts apart, been more often associated with disappointing receipts and critical derision (as with Wild Wild West or The Lone Ranger) that only confirm the view that popular culture has moved on.

Yet there was another, more fundamental, factor worth recalling, both in the appeal of the Western in its heyday, and the decline of its appeal relative to other forms. Consider what Goethe and Schiller wrote in their piece "On Epic and Dramatic Poetry" (as translated by Evelyn Lantz):
The characters stand best at a certain level of culture, where self-activity is still left to its own resources, where one operates not morally, politically, or mechanically but rather personally (emphasis added).
Goethe and Schiller went on to observe that Greek myths were "particularly favorable to the poet," and so, one might argue, were the conditions of the frontier, where the apparatus and inhibitions and rules of civilization were a comparatively slight thing--what made for situations like those of Stagecoach, the oft-told story of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral (from My Darling Clementine to Wyatt Earp and beyond), High Noon.

As implied by the situations in all these films it is particularly important that it afforded a scene for individualistic action-adventure. And it is not irrelevant to the Western's decline that audiences found other milieu for such more appealing. Among much else there was a tendency to, in an era of hysteria over unruly youth, rebellious minorities, crime in the streets and the rest to see modern urban America as not so far removed from the frontier--and in need of a gunslinger (like a Dirty Harry, who, like the hero of High Noon, tossed away his badge at story's end). The attitude may have been more consequential still with an audience that found it easier to "get into" stories with contemporary settings. (Hence the boom of paramilitary action-adventure from the '70s to the '90s, and the preference for the adventures of superheroes in Metropolis, Gotham or New York to stories in more exotic milieu--like galaxies far, far away.) The result was that by the '70s the Western was not only exploiting an exhausted and increasingly challenged nostalgia, and itself artistically exhausted, but, as a cinematic staple on anything like such grounds, it had become superfluous.

A Note on Twitter Etiquette

I have noticed a common situation on some social media web sites, and certainly Twitter.

In that situation two people--let us refer to them as A and B--have an exchange.

In the course of this exchange A says something.

B puts A on the spot, demanding support for that statement as if it were their right to have it.

A responds by linking the source of their information.

B responds by saying that citing a source does not support what they said. This is in apparent obliviousness to, or disregard of, the fact that, even in scholarship, in which the standard for not only making a valid statement, but evidentiating it, might be imagined as higher than in a casual exchange between two strangers on social media, citing a source is accepted as support, at least so long as inspection has not revealed the citation to be irrelevant to the statement, or for some other reason unsatisfactory.

B's game gives away that they--very likely, and I dare say almost certainly--have no interest whatsoever in actually discussing or understanding the issue at hand because what is going on is not a debate, even an uncivil one. Rather B is pretending to engage A as cover for an opportunity to heckle them--possibly because abusing strangers is the idea of a good time of the degenerate in question, possibly because, while perhaps proclaiming themselves a "free speech absolutist" as so many do in extreme bad faith (they regard their right to free speech as absolute, not necessarily anyone else's), they have appointed themselves policers of the Internet's discourse, and are calling to account, and punishing, anyone whose "free speech" they disapprove.

If one really does take freedom of speech seriously--and I do--then I fear there is not much to be done about B's abuse of his right, save for A to refuse to play B's rather obnoxious and transparent game.

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