Thursday, 24 March 2011


The Kindle Surprise

It is an unspoken taboo in publishing; that the only difference between the freelance writer and the freelance whore is that the former lacks the right to an advance.  My subject is how the new technology is covertly shifting the power play further than ever before from writer to publisher.
  The corporate publisher – from HarperCollins to everyone beneath – becomes ever more out of reach.  From the independents, the writer has long had to accept – more in resignation than gratitude – that they don’t earn enough profit to offer advances.  From the print-on-demand packager, it is the writer expected to pay the advance to access their publishing package.  The POD packager’s get-out clause is that, not being a publisher anyway, they owe the prospective writer nothing, who should be merely grateful for seeing their work in print.  This, presumably, based upon the fact they employ no subjective arbiter for editor.  (Then, neither did Virgin when they turned to book production in the 80s’; and I assume they’ve always considered themselves ‘publishers.’)  Whether you, as the writer, consider the POD company as legit a publishing house as the corporate publisher, rather depends on whether you consider the industries of glamour and soft-porn separate or interchangeable.
  The corporate publisher knows one thing; the writer has to write.  It is the one addiction he knows the writer cannot shake - if he is serious about his craft - so will do almost anything for the next fix – i.e. his next book in print.  Therefore, the publisher - his supplier - holding all the cards, has no need to initiate a trade-off.  He sits, waits, chooses a proposal he likes, then waits some more for the money (the level dependant upon the veracity of his choice) to roll in.
  If this publisher needed the new writer at least as much as the regular classic reissue, ‘lifestyle’ series or premature celebrity biog, the writer could – if not name his price – at least expect the basic advance.  If the writer then failed to deliver on either time or quality he would, rightly, be responsible for its return, plus a percentage for breaking his contract.  Today, it seems even this may be too much to ask of the poor publisher.  Never mind.  The Kindle has downloaded to their rescue.  Now, the publisher has an additional excuse - if one were needed – to disregard new talent.  The writer can upload his / her own material and provide his / her own electronic ‘gate’ to allow access under pay-per-view.  Thus, the publisher is circumvented completely.
  But, is this really a good thing?  Rather, hasn’t publisher-responsibility been negated for the writer to gain some vaguely democratic, audience accessibility?  Aren’t publishers now off-the-hook in having to deal with any new writers at all?   It is too early to offer definitive answers, particularly with issues all publishers are having to deal with, such as copyright theft and the wavering economy.  But should things settle down for an indeterminate period, there are two possible outcomes:
  1/ at some future date, with Kindle sales overtaking mainstream publishing, publishers will realise they are losing too much additional income from online writers they could have, earlier, taken on and thus more willing to offer advances to bring them back.  Or, 2/ the publishing houses of the world will close down, en masse, written-off as paper-dependant dinosaurs, and become employees of the biggest selling online authors who’ve become the new digital entrepreneurs.
  Which writers am I talking about?  Not all who call themselves such, of course.  .Were publishers to take on everyone who did they’d be out of business in months.  Neither the wannabes with more enthusiasm than talent (e.g. like the alleged ‘singers’ of ‘Britain’s Got Talent,’ ‘X Factor’ and ‘American Idol,’ etc.); or, the businessmen and women of the corporate world with more cash and connections than the writerly instinct.  Rather, those with genuine talent who – for various reasons - fall off the mainstream, middle-brow radar for failing either to be found in time for next year’s ever-shrinking release schedule, or – horror of horrors – cash-in on current ‘taste.’
  There is no greater get-out clause in the publishing world’s current shifting power play than the latest: the introduction of the Kindle itself.  So, the rookie writer now has something to turn to.  It is now possible to upload your own material and – if your networking skills prove exceptional – you can make money – directly - off your work, gate keeping the charges for access to your new chapter or short story.
  But what if they are not?  Should this be the one reason for a work’s failure, and yours as a writer?  Is this an acceptable alternative to the corporate publisher’s traditional package of high-flying PR, book-signings in the biggest chains and networking parties in London and New York?  Of course it isn’t if you are not of such an entrepreneurial bent that your business acumen isn’t as great as your talent to amuse.  While the hardback and paper-cover remain a large minority demand, the traditional publisher is presumably still compelled (through continued corporate need or mere habit – who can say?) to go on spending at least a little of their annual multi-million profits upon new names.
  Perhaps the most crucial question is this: just how much income for one writer’s literature can ever be generated online alone?  The writer worth his / her salt must be careful.  A scenario may arise where publishable writing – I mean serious publishable writing – is no longer considered a serious trade, but a diminished activity, reverting to a pastime only; no longer the vital means of communicating experience and considered thought we’ve long taken for granted.  Thus, to the traditional publisher, financially worthless.
   My own view of the Kindle?   No Luddite, me.  It is at least a powerful opportunity whose own story is just starting.  And, if you have an opportunity before you it is, of course, foolish not to use it.  But, clearly, being ‘democratic,’ the opportunity is accessible to both sides.  Like coming into possession of a key to a store of weapons that will finish off your opponent; until you realise your opponent also has a copy – as Libya is currently finding out.

Waterfront Fists and Others: The Collected Fight Stories of Robert E. Howard, Wildside Press

On both sides of the Atlantic, for more than two centuries, the arousing vice of boxing has been a career option for the young, unemployed working-class.  Today, such kids of the inner-city ghettoes – mainly, but not exclusively black and Asian - are still encouraged to turn to the punch-bag at the local gym, to focus and pummel out their frustrations on the road to some hoped for self-discipline by a charitable, guiding hand.
  That one such stocky, even corpulent, kid, resident of Cross Plains’ Texas dustbowl in the 1920s’, was en route to becoming a cult writer of dark fantasy fiction, seems, from here, a highly unlikely career move.  Except, on reading these twenty pithy slug-fests, it soon becomes clear how the opposite was true; how the visceral nature of his later sword and sorcery prose was semi-compensation for the career he almost certainly would have preferred.
  Mainly published in ‘Fight Stories’ magazine between 1929 and 1932, each tale is triggered by one of two constant formulas.  Our Hero, at some waterfront bar, on shore leave from his ship the Sea Girl, rues his ‘luck’ with women, or diverts a face-off by a sozzelled bar-room challenger not worth the candle, who then riles him when overheard intimidating another much weaker; or else we are straight in there, building up quickly to an argument’s resolution needing settlement.  Each encounter ends inevitably in the ring, or, literally, a pit, depending on the friends his opponent keeps.  Of course, the victor is always certain, but, from the start, Howard builds up a visceral language that, throughout, never falters or bores by inevitability of the result.  The adrenalin sweats off every page.  How the win is achieved is the priority, smoothing an almost heartfelt layer over the comic book slaughter.
  You can’t help thinking how movie director Quentin Tarantino must have taken his cue from this approach.  There is an echo.  Mark Finn, in this collection’s Introduction, states how, “…Howard uses black humour to some effect, elevating the violence of many of his stories to a cartoonish, grotesque level.”  Some might argue with the use of the word ‘elevating,’ but I know what he means; that the cartoonish-ness offers the reader an intentional, ironic distance.
  Also, the danger of overt, patriotic bombast is tempered throughout by a deprecating, (and self-deprecating) tone, where the narrator, often pugilist Sailor Steve Costigan, or the sketchier Dennis Dorgan, is as much aware of his failings as he is of his strengths.
  While the depictions of black boxers are unavoidably old-fashioned, they are only as simplistic as the stories themselves; a consequence of Howard’s personal experiences with those whom he himself sparred.  In other hands of his day, the depictions could have been so much worse.  There are issues though.  Violence beyond that vented by the glove or bared fist is viewed as a satisfactory alternative should either fail.  While the protagonists never cheat in the ring, Sailor Steve Costigan’s bulldog, Mike, occasionally comes to his master’s aid via its slavering jaws upon the victim’s throat.  Today, such revolting little beasts would be put-down or, at the very least, muzzled, rather than cheered on as surely intended.  Also, the cumulative effect of reading every story together, in book form, fails to bare their contemporary success.  Such formulaic repetition may thus divert majority taste.
  Waterfront Fists encapsulates the inter-war period of unashamed Republican aspiration when men were men and pugilists who required headgear and less than a dozen rounds were mere surrender pussies.  But don’t let this put you off.  Howard delivers it all with a well-informed wink.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Next review will be added by the 26th March!

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Dark Entries by Robert Aickman, Tartarus Press

In his own, quiet way, Robert Aickman sparked a revolt.  Supernatural fiction, for 150 years, seemingly the male preserve of Devil-fearing aristocrats taking brandy and cigars at the club, needed a new, post-Georgian relevance.  His three-story contribution to the 1951 anthology We Are For The Dark pointed a way ahead.  Another sole tale was added to Cynthia Asquith’s Pan Third Ghost Book four years later.  Then 1955 relinquished many shackles.  Ginsberg’s ‘HOWL,’ James Dean in film and Chet Baker in jazz each represented a new generation in the Arts as a whole.  A generation uninfluenced by those who went before and more motivated by their own self-doubts.  Jimmy Porter, balling out the light, drawing room comedies of Terence Rattigan and Noel Coward at London’s Royal Court, and the parallel writers branded Angry Young Men, were only a year away.  Once kitchen sink drama was in, no longer would anyone be available for tennis.
  Aickman never invented modern literary horror.  Even aged Oxbridge intellectuals like Charles Williams had previously featured quietly credible characters with an inner life.  But his stories represented his time.  Aickman arrived representing his; and his questioned, portraying no ultimate certainties.
  The We Are For The Dark and Third Ghost Book’s admirers had to wait another nine years for this, the first collection under his own name.  The comprising six stories vary widely in the theme of self-doubt.  In each, the narrator is suffering some undefined illness, turning ambiguous for the reader that narrator’s perception.  Thus, a perhaps ‘normal’ experience incrementally unfolds tainted by a feverish magic realism.  What precisely is ‘truth’ is left for us to decide.
  The opener - ‘The School Friend’ – demands to be re-read on completion, such is its effect of a suddenly disturbed mirror that returns no single reflection.  The narrator, Mel, presents her memories of Sally; the most precocious girl of her school next to Mel herself.   Mel admits to a personal catastrophe, unimportant enough in her eyes to remain unnamed.  As the reader who must rely upon her word to help construct the story, we gradually realise that Mel’s normalcy is anything but normal, based upon the disconcerted perceptions of others around her.
  ‘Ringing the Changes’ – the sole contribution from that Third Ghost Book – resonates quite literally amongst these later tales. A couple on honeymoon arrive at a small hotel on the coastal village of Holihaven.  Everywhere seems deserted apart from its proprietor and her dissolute husband and an equally dissolute military man – the only other guest.  Each seem to be drinking themselves into some kind of denial as the unending noise from two churches bells ring out a whole lot more than an innocent evening’s practice.  The revelation of why they are ringing and who might be ringing them is one of the great moments in literary horror, related – as so often with Aickman – as an understated afterthought.
  ‘Choice of Weapons’ almost returns us to ‘School Friend’ territory in the skewed perception of the protagonist – confused by passion - although this one is ultimately made aware of the fact.
  ‘The Waiting Room’ is the most conventional tale of the six, featuring a man who misses his last train only to face the spectral consequences of his physical vulnerability.
   In ‘The View’ changes of perception are far more covert, where a woman he fantasises over draws him into a world that may, or may not, be of her making.  Again, the main character – Carfax – has been ‘very ill’ and, in this case, ordered on holiday ‘under medical advice.’  An amateur artist, he becomes disorientated as the view from the room he’s been assigned seems, each day, to markedly alter.
  Finally, ‘Bind Your Hair’ – almost a reversion to contemporary Dennis Wheatley territory - plays out like an exceptional episode of the 1970s’ British anthology TV series, ‘Thriller.’  Only Aickman’s characteristic, slight-of-hand subtlety throughout sets it apart.  An unconventional, newly engaged woman is invited by her fiancĂ© to spend a weekend at his parent’s West Country home.  Everyone appears warm and friendly until an ulterior motive seems to arise in the form of a late arrival – a second-sight bohemian - who invites the woman to visit her.  The woman, to herself, has no intention to comply, but it is only toward the story’s end we wonder to what extent the woman’s decisions were her own.
  This is a highly intelligent and all too short collection.  Fortunately, its 1966 follow-up – Powers of Darkness – is out next month while Sub Rosa, the third in order of original release from 1968, is already available.  Tartarus’s goal is to re-release all eight original collections, which I can only applaud.