Friday, September 4, 2015

Spy fiction (a very brief introduction)

For my YouTube viewers: a very brief introduction to spy/espionage fiction. I discuss the following authors in the video:

Tom Clancy
John LeCarre
Vince Flynn
Brad Thor



Romantic novels for guys? (mailbag)

In the video below I discuss how male and female authors tend to portray the "love interest"--including common stereotypes.

Also included is a brief discussion of David Nicholls' novel Us.


China's two sides



There has been a lot of anxiety of late regarding China's militaristic displays. I put it in context in the video that follows.


Thursday, September 3, 2015

Termination Man (novel serialization) Part 12

Below is the latest installment of the serialization of Termination Man. To access previous installments, please see the Serials page (or consider the option of obtaining the entire book from Amazon.)




View Termination Man on Amazon.com




Chapter 2 (continued)

I was going to prompt him to tell me about Eileen Cosgrove’s accident. This was another piece of background information that TP Automotive had given me. Eileen Cosgrove was a production worker who had suffered a crushed hand when her sleeve became caught in a press-fitting machine. There was more than a little bit of controversy regarding the root cause of her injury. TP Automotive had told me that Eileen Cosgrove was careless, and had been written up for poor safety practices even before the new lean and mean regimen had been implemented. I knew that Kevin Lang would have a different interpretation, of course.

But I never got to hear Kevin’s side of it—not that day, at least. My cell phone began chirping in my pocket before Kevin could speak.

I pulled my phone from my pocket.

“Where the hell are you, honey?” Claire asked. If her voice carried to Kevin at all, he would have entirely missed the slight tinge of irony in her tone.

“I’ll be home in about fifteen minutes,” I said, sounding like a henpecked husband who had once again lingered too long in the bar after work. “Bye.” I pushed the call termination button and returned the phone to my pocket.

Kevin gave me an inquiring look. I shrugged.

“The wife,” I said. “Got to get going.”

“Okay,” he replied. He held the joint up. We—mostly he—had smoked it down to tiny fraction of its original length. “Not much left on this thing, anyway. You want to take the roach with you?”

“You keep it,” I said. “I’m going to be lucky if my old lady doesn't get suspicious as it is.”

“All right. Thanks, Ben.” He dug into his back pocket for his wallet. He removed a crisp ten-dollar bill and handed it over to me. “Take care,” he said. “Maybe I’ll see you around.”


Kevin didn’t know how prophetic that statement was.






*       *       *
Serial to be continued. Visit the Serials page for links to more of Termination Man, or purchase the entire book from Amazon.com.



When white “anti-racism” backfires

Under the heading of checking one’s privilege: Kelly Osbourne, the lily-white, pale-as-Wonder-Bread daughter of a millionaire rock star and a millionaire television host, recently decided to demonstrate her solidarity with Latinos. Her ill-conceived effort crashed and burned.




Appearing on ABC’s “The View”, Osbourne displayed her solidarity with the nonwhite masses everywhere by publicly attacking Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump. Trump, most readers will know, has made illegal immigration a central pillar of his campaign for the GOP nomination.

But Osbourne ended up stirring a racially tinged controversy of her own, when she suggested that she really loves Latinos, as long as they are compliantly cleaning her bathroom:

"If you kick every Latino out of this country,” Osbourne said, “then who is going to be cleaning your toilet, Donald Trump? You know what I mean?"

Oh, dear: The problem was that too many viewers of “The View” (including some blacks and Latinos in the studio audience) did know what Kelly Osbourne meant; and suffice it to say, they were less than pleased. (Obsourne followed her faux pas with much backpedalling, both on-air and online.)

We could ask ourselves how many toilets the privileged Osbourne has ever cleaned, but let’s not go there. We shouldn't be too hard on Kelly Osbourne, in fact: She was doing what she reasonably believed the dominant culture expected of her.

Every religion has its professions of faith, its catechisms. In the secular faith of the sheltered, privileged white progressive, one such profession of faith is an ostentatious, self-conscious, and loudly voiced opposition to racism—when other white people are assumed to be practicing it, that is. This is the secular sub-faith of anti-racism.

Declaring oneself anti-racist usually involves one of a predictable set of spiels. One variant is “something-something…Confederate flag!” Another variant is “blah-blah-blah…white privilege!” (I’m sure the reader will be able to come up with additional examples.)

White progressives easily overlook the truth that Kelly Osbourne’s gaffe so plainly revealed: Ostentatious anti-racism is as paternalistic and condescending as racism of the old-fashioned kind, even if it is superficially kinder.

Racists of the old, bygone variety wanted racial and ethnic minorities to keep to their designated places and stick to their assigned roles. White progressives want the same thing. In the mind of the white progressive, racial minorities exist as convenient objects for declaring the white progressive’s virtue, his or her commitment to “social justice”.

True social justice involves treating people as individuals, not as faceless representatives of identity groups. The day is long past when African-Americans (or others) require white people to noisily declare their anti-racism. We have a twice-elected African-American president, after all. In the changed landscape, what was once a courageous—and potentially dangerous—act of cultural defiance has become a self-serving means of gaining peer approval and high-fives.

And sometimes a declaration of anti-racism backfires, as it recently did for Kelly Osbourne. In Freudian slips such as these, white progressives all too easily reveal that they primarily view minority groups as tools of their own self-aggrandizement.

This isn’t to say that white people—progressive or otherwise—should never make statements of anti-racism. But Bill Clinton’s pithy slogan about abortion, “safe, legal, and rare”, is applicable here.

There is no courage in loudly affirming what the mainstream culture unanimously regards as self-evident. In most cases, white opposition to racism is an attitude that should be practiced…and not preached.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Genre, reader expectations, and "marketing message"

As I noted in a previous post (and YouTube video), the lines between genre fiction and literary fiction are not absolute.

Genre fiction need not be peopled by forgettable, paper-thin characters. (In this regard, I mentioned Harry Bosch, the well-known and well-loved LAPD detective in Michael Connelly's crime novels.) 

There is also no law which states that a literary novel can't have a recognizable plot. (In fact, a literary novel will find a much wider audience if it actually has a recognizable plot. A dash of external conflict doesn't hurt a literary novel, either.)

Nevertheless, reader expectations must be acknowledged and satisfied

This is especially true when writing genre fiction, or a novel that might be mistaken for a piece of genre fiction.

Alan Lightman's novel Ghost is the story of a single, underemployed (but highly intelligent) 42-year-old man who embarks on a mission of self-exploration--after he sees what he believes to be the "ghost" of a recently deceased person.

Ghost is not a bad book. I read it at a time when I was, like the main character, in my early 40s. I was also underemployed and in a reflective state of mind. I was therefore able to relate to the protagonist's various musings.

That said, Ghost is a novel that seems doomed to the mid-list, and perhaps even written for the mid-list. 

The problem with Ghost is twofold. While Ghost is a thoughtful book, at times it lapses into the sort of navel-gazing that has become the chief cliché of literary fiction. 

And even though I was in many ways the ideal reader for this book, I found myself at times losing patience with the protagonist's unending introspection. At several junctures I wanted to shout, "Buck up man! Just get on with it, already!"

The bigger problem with Ghost, howeveris that the title and cover suggest that this is a work of paranormal--or even horror--fiction...and nothing could be further from the truth. 

There is only one scene in this book (the opening scene) that contains the paranormal; and even that instance of the paranormal is suggestive, so that the reader is left with a margin of doubt. Ghost is a literary, character-driven novel through and through.

Ghost received its share of five-star reviews from Amazon.com readers; but is it it is also clear that some readers came to the book with misaligned expectations. As a result, they didn't "get" it:

“This book had me hooked on Page ONE! But it went quickly downhill from there. Nothing else exciting ever happened. Even the main character was more and more unlikeable and boring. A big disappointment. Page One was great though! :)” 

“I kept waiting for the story to become compelling, but it just seemed to plod on and on. Not much of a "ghost" in this story, it is about a confused, pathetic middle aged man in crisis.”

These reviewers are perhaps being a little bit harsh (especially the second reviewer quoted above). Disgruntled reader reviewers, however, are seldom distinguished by their tendency to mince words.

Do I recommend Ghost? Yes, it's a worthwhile literary novel, especially for male readers over the age of 35.

But you should not read Ghost with the anticipation of the same chills you would get from a Stephen King or a Dan Simmons novel. Ghost isn't a scary book, largely because it isn't intended to be a scary book.

What we have here is not a failure of writing, but a poor choice of title and cover. To use the verbiage from one of my MBA classes, the marketing message isn't clear. From a distance, Ghost is all too easily mistaken for a paranormal novel. With different packaging, Ghost could have found more readers who would have appreciated it, and fewer readers who were  looking for something else.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Read "Lilith" in Kindle Unlimited

Not all of my novels are enrolled in Kindle Unlimited, but Lilith is, for at least the next three months...



So if you have a Kindle Unlimited membership, you can read it there for free.

Otherwise, you can read Lilith for a mere $2.99, about what you'd pay for a Cafe Latte at Starbucks.







Description:

With Lilith, the search for love can be deadly.

Someone is murdering Ohio men who use dating websites. The men are found in their homes, killed by a single gunshot wound to the back of the head.

Such is the work of the serial killer codenamed 'Lilith'. But who is Lilith? Is Lilith a 'she'? A 'he'? Or more than one person?

These are the questions that Alan Grooms must answer. Grooms is a detective in the Ohio Department of Criminal Investigation (ODCI).

Together with his partners, Dave Hennessy and Maribel Flynn, Grooms will enter the anonymous world of Internet dating to set a trap of his own.

This will eventually pit him against a homicidal young couple who kill men for profit, a couple who will kill anyone who stands in their way.

12 Hours of Halloween (novel serialization) Part 12

Below is another installment of the online serialization of 12 Hours of Halloween. To access previous installments, please see the Serials page (or get the entire book from Amazon nowIt's dirt cheap!)






Chapter 3. (continued)

We walked for a while, leaving the school behind us and passing through a section of Shayton Road that was mostly wooded lots, and the occasional farmhouse. The subdivision where Leah and I lived was maybe a mile up ahead.

Yes—there was a school bus at our disposal, and we could have ridden home. This was 1980—not 1930 or 1950. But riding the school bus meant an extra hour of travel time, due to the way the route was configured. We therefore walked home whenever weather permitted.

We had walked not far at all when Leah broached the subject of trick-or-treat. The idea of going out for “one last Halloween” had arisen spontaneously among the three of us several weeks ago, and Leah had seemed enthusiastic about the prospect at the time. Her next words led me to wonder if she might not be on the verge of backing out.

“Are the other kids in our class going out trick-or-treating this year?” she asked.

“I’d say about half and half,” Bobby answered. Bobby’s assessment was probably accurate, more or less. “Why?”

Leah shrugged, hitching her backpack higher on her back. “No reason.”

Of course there had been a reason, though. And while I was willing to let the matter drop, Bobby wasn't.

“Should we take a—what do they call it—a survey, Leah? Would you feel better about going out trick-or-treating if you found out that Brian Hailey and Sheila Hunt were going, too?”

This remark caused Leah’s face to turn red, ever so slightly. Brian Hailey was the likely captain of the basketball team, an all-around athlete since little league. Most of the girls in the seventh grade had a crush on him. Leah probably had a crush on him, too.

Sheila was his female double, more or less. Little Miss Popular. All the boys had noticed her, whispered shyly about her on the playground. The girls, meanwhile, were divided: between struggling to imitate her and hating her.

“Bobby, Bobby, Bobby,” Leah said, shaking her head. To my surprise, Leah was smiling. Bobby’s remark had sounded fairly nasty to me; but Leah had found it endearing, apparently. “Never mind: We’re going trick-or-treating. My mother has already made my costume. I’d never hear the end of it if I changed my mind now.”

“There he is,” I said. I was secretly glad to put an end to their all-too-cozy banter. But there was more to it than that: The ghost boy was here today—as he had been about two out of every three days over the past week or so. We were still a comfortable distance away from him. But we would have to pass by him in order to make it home.


He was sitting where he always sat: on a fallen log beside a stagnant pond that formed the pit of a little bowl of land alongside Shayton Road.


*      *      *

Serial be continued....

To read more, visit the Serials page, or get the complete book at Amazon.com.



*       *      *

Want even more horror fiction? Check out my highly rated novel, Eleven Miles of Night.

"Male novels" vs. "female novels" (mailbag)



A reader asks:

“Ed, do you think there are any recognizable differences, in general terms, in novels written by male authors versus female authors? Do you agree that female authors tend to focus more on romantic relationships, while male authors focus more on action?"

In this era of rampant political correctness, I'm sure that this one is going to get me in trouble in some quarters. But I'm going to wade in, nevertheless. (I categorically reject, moreover, the notion that a simple acknowledgement of male and female differences automatically equals oppressive sexism.)

Yes, I think it's a fair generalization to say that female authors are more concerned with romantic relationships than their male counterparts.

We might regard this as a male author deficiency. Few male novelists specialize in writing books about male-female romantic interactions; and when they do, they usually do so for a female readership. (Think Nicholas Sparks.)

This isn't to say that male authors don't include romantic subplots in their novels. But that's the point: these are romantic subplots

Female authors far more often give the "love interest" a more central role in the story.

This, in itself, is not necessarily good or bad. (This difference in emphasis, however, does tend to impact the potential market for a given book, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.)

It is interesting to see how this difference in emphasis plays out in concrete terms when male and female novelists address the same subject matter. 

Let's consider one of the most written about topics of all time: the American Civil War.

A typical male-written novel about the Civil War is the well-known The Killer Angels by Michael Schaara. This novel provides an in-depth exploration of the battlefield events that took place at Gettysburg.

Michael Schaara, and later his son Jeff, have written numerous novels about the American Civil War, World War I, and World War II. 

All of the Shaara novels have the same broad emphasis: generals directing troops, and/or men fighting it out in the trenches. 

There are certainly female characters in all of these novels; and yes, there are romantic subplots.

But all of the novels written by Jeff and Michael Schaara are primarily about the mechanics and trauma of war, and what war does to the people (mostly men) who fight it.

Margaret Mitchell also wrote a well-known novel about the American Civil War. You may have heard of it: It’s called Gone with the Wind.

I have no doubt that Margaret Mitchell knew her military history. The novel she wrote, however, has the military events of the conflict decidedly in the background. 

Gone with the Wind is mostly a novel about a young woman named Scarlet O'Hara, and the men she loves, and/or those who love her. (Scarlet O'Hara has her fair share of doormat suitors.)

Generals and soldiers do appear in Gone with the Wind, but they take a back seat to Scarlett’s various love interests.

Both Gone with the Wind and Gods and Generals are good novels. I’ve read them both, and enjoyed them both. But they are fundamentally different.

Although both novels are set in the American Civil War, they approach the subject of the war with different sets of priorities. (If you don’t believe me, read both novels; you’ll see.)

I should note in closing that it is perfectly possible for a male author to write a marketable romantic novel. (Once again, think Nicholas Sparks.) 

I should also note that a growing number of female authors are writing novels that have grittier, less relationship-focused subject matter. (Think Gillian Flynn, who writes thrillers that appeal to readers of both genders more or less equally.)

Nevertheless, there is an undeniable and observable broad trend for female novelists to focus on romantic relationships, and male novelists to focus on action and adventure.

And this isn't necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it isn't a bad thing at all.

Diversity in fiction shouldn't mean that everyone writes the same novel. 

An author's choice of what to focus on will necessarily be impacted by many factors—not always (but sometimes) including gender.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Commercial fiction vs. literary fiction

One of my YouTube subscribers asked for an explanation of the differences between literary fiction and commercial fiction.

Let's start with commercial fiction.

Commercial fiction has a clearly defined plot that you could outline without too much difficulty. 

Lots of things "happen" in commercial fiction. There is plenty of conflict, and the protagonist is waging a battle against some external threat. 

The external threat might be a serial killer, a terrorist, the spy of some enemy nation, or a supernatural entity. 

The hero may rely on his wits, but he ultimately defeats the external threat by taking some action

He captures the serial killer. She kills the enemy spy. He exorcises the demon, or drives a stake through the heart of the vampire. She blasts the alien spaceship into smithereens.

Which brings us to another generalization about commercial fiction: Most, if not all, genre fiction is commercial fiction. Crime fiction, spy fiction, horror, westerns, and science fiction are all examples of commercial fiction.

This includes most of the books that you're likely to see at the grocery store or Walmart: books by well-known authors like James Patterson, Stephen King, and Zane Grey.

A common criticism of commercial fiction is that it contains characters who are stereotypes, or thinly drawn.

This isn't necessarily accurate or fair. Many of the most memorable characters in literature are found in commercial fiction. As a contemporary example, I would cite Harry Bosch, the LAPD detective who appears in Michael Connelly's crime novels.

That said, it must be acknowledged that commercial fiction is primarily focused on plot.

What about literary fiction

Literary fiction is focused on character, and the characters' internal conflicts. Where is my life going? How do I recover from the loss of my husband? Are my relationships sufficiently fulfilling?

Author Stephen King once defined literary fiction as "extraordinary people in ordinary situations".

If a novel contains what seems like an excessive amount of inner monologue, and characters discussing the fine points of their relationships, then it's a good bet that you're reading a piece of literary fiction.

The most common criticism of literary fiction is that "nothing happens". This is true, strictly speaking, if you define "happening" in commercial fiction terms. Literary fiction contains few car chases, battles to the death, and strange creatures that slither up the basement stairs.

It isn't necessarily true to say, however, that all literary fiction is "boring". When well-written, literary fiction can be as compelling to read as commercial fiction. 

One of my favorite literary novels is Stuart O'Nan's Emily, Alone. This is a novel about an elderly woman who is adjusting to life without her recently deceased husband.

Boring, right? Especially for a male reader like me, who ordinarily reads crime fiction and spy fiction.

Actually, no. Stuart O'Nan is one of those literary writers who has a particular knack for transforming the ordinary and mundane into an interesting story. I enjoyed Emily, Alone a lot more than the last Dan Brown novel I read.

However, most literary fiction--including the good kind--adapts poorly to the screen. 

To cite just one example: Richard Yates's literary novel Revolutionary Road was a book that drew me in. 

The novel dealt with the internal conflicts of a restless young couple stranded in American suburbia during the postwar period. The young couple would rather live in Paris. They find post-WWII suburban life to be hyper-conformist and constraining.

I know: boring subject matter. But it wasn't boring, in the skilled hands of Richard Yates.

Revolutionary Road was also made into a film, starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio. I watched the movie after reading the book, hoping that I would like the former as much as the latter.

To my surprise and disappointment, however, I found the film version of Revolutionary Road well...tedious

It wasn't because the actors did a poor job. Rather, it was because "nothing much seemed to happen".

This was because the "action" in the novel largely consisted of the characters musing about their internal conflicts, and discussing those conflicts. 

Would they stay in the suburbs, or haul stakes for Europe?

This was very difficult to translate into a film plot; and as a result, Revolutionary Road the movie was not as interesting as the novel it was based upon.



Saturday, August 29, 2015

James Michener and the "middlebrow" concept

A brief video on the novels of James Michener, and the concept of "middlebrow" literature:


Termination Man (novel serialization) Part 11

Below is the latest installment of the serialization of Termination Man. To access previous installments, please see the Serials page (or consider the option of obtaining the entire book from Amazon.)



View Termination Man on Amazon.com



Chapter 2 (continued)


“It wasn’t profitable enough for TP Automotive,” Kevin said.

“Is that the name of the conglomerate that bought out your employer?”

Kevin nodded and passed the joint to me. I held it without inhaling as I listened to him respond. I didn’t have to bother smoking it any further. Kevin wasn’t even looking at me: he was staring out into the steel-grey sky, in the direction of Lake Erie. We were only a few miles from the water, and its dampness permeated the air. Kevin shivered as he began to speak.

“They brought in a team of what they called ‘efficiency experts,’” Kevin began. “People who had never even worked in a factory before. They were from one of the big consulting firms like—McKinney and Company—or something like that.”

I didn’t bother to tell him that the correct name of the consulting firm was McKinsey & Company. Ben the Welder wouldn’t have that sort of knowledge at his mental fingertips.

“And what did the efficiency experts do?” I asked, prompting him to continue.

“They created a spreadsheet that told them how many workers should be at each station, and how much production should flow through each workstation in a shift. Then they proceeded to cut our manpower and increase our production quotas.”

“And?”

“And then we started having all sorts of quality problems. Some of us who had been around for a while complained to the new management team. We knew damn well that this would never have happened under Joe Mentzel. But they wouldn’t listen. One of the new suits asked me point-blank if I had an MBA. And I said of course I didn’t—would I be working on a production line if I had some fancy degree? But I also pointed out that the hot-shot MBA who recalculated our manpower and our production quotas had probably never spent a single hour working on a production line.”

“Sounds like a productive conversation,” I said, smiling at my impromptu pun in spite of myself.

Kevin looked at me. “You get the picture, right? I walked out of that office of theirs, seeing that they weren’t even remotely interested in listening to reason.”

“What did you do then?”

Kevin shrugged. “I went back to the production line. What else could I do?”

“And you think they want to fire you just because of that?”

“No,” he said. “Not just because to that. Things changed again, after Eileen Cosgrove—one of my coworkers—got hurt.”


*       *       *
Serial to be continued. Visit the Serials page for links to more of Termination Man, or purchase the entire book from Amazon.com.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Millennial malaise and the vicissitudes of history



The above article is more or less a laundry list of all the challenges that today’s young people face.

No, my purpose here is not to dismiss the entire story as the whining of an entitled, mollycoddled generation. To be sure, today’s young people do face economic challenges.

But that has quite often been the case.

Consider the challenges that young people faced at the following junctures during the past 100 years:

  • 1917-18: Young men could be drafted for service in WWI
  • 1929-39: Young people enjoyed very few employment opportunities during the Great Depression.
  • 1941-1945: If you were a young man, you were probably at war (WWII) during most of this period.
  • 1951-3: Young men were drafted for service during the Korean War
  • 1965-1973: Young men were drafted for service during the Vietnam War
  • 1972-1984: More than a decade of very anemic economic growth: recession, oil crises, stagflation. The unemployment rate in 1982 was 9.7%.
  • 1990-1992: The post-Gulf War recession. (I was a college graduate during this period. It was not a good time to be looking for a job.)


Now for the other side of the coin: Has there ever been a particularly promising time to be a young person starting out in the world?

Sure. If you graduated from college between 1995 and 2005, you enjoyed far more opportunities than the cohorts who graduated before or after this period.

The boom of the mid- to late-1980s was an auspicious time to be in the job market as a young person.

There were also many economic opportunities for the young during the 1950s—especially if you were a (probably male) veteran who had managed to survive World War II with your body and mind intact.

But as you can see, where you happen to show up in history is (and always has been) the luck of the draw.

Today’s young people certainly face a poor job market. But if you talk to fiftysomethings who graduated during the 1970s or very early 1980s, they will tell you a similar story.

What happens today has usually happened before, in one form or another.