Wednesday, January 30, 2013

My very simple and egalitarian comments policy

In light of recent controversies, it might be helpful to clarify my comments policy:

My comments policy is simple, and very egalitarian. 

Some bloggers are restrictive and partisan about what comments they allow. Here you can write anything you want...absolutely anything!

With one wee, tiny condition:

If you descend to the level of extreme snark, profanity, or name-calling, you must provide your real name and your real face on your Blogger profile (or another Internet presence that is clearly traceable to you. For example: Your Facebook profile is fine--so long as it includes your real name and picture.) 

Here is the idea: The bolder you are, the more accountable you should be. This is only makes sense; and it's only fair.

This doesn't mean that I automatically delete comments from anonymous readers and sock puppets. I don't. But I reserve the right to edit and/or delete comments from non-identified posters if the content is inappropriate, profane, or consists of nothing more than an ad hominem attack.  

In any case, I don't care for the Internet's fetish for anonymity. I value feedback from real people much more than I do from IP addresses, screen names, and avatars.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Fiction and autobiography don't mix (unless you're Ernest Hemingway)

I have previously revealed that the corporate setting for Termination Man is loosely based on the company where I was employed for my first "real job" following college. That company was--like the fiction UP&S in Termination Man--a manufacturer of automotive components.

A reader recently asked if the central events and conflicts of Termination Man were based on my on-the-job experiences as well. 

Termination Man is a corporate thriller that involves criminal conspiracy, extreme sexual misconduct, and physical violence--all within the context of the American automotive industry.

I'm thankful to say that nothing like this ever happened to me at this job--or any other. Termination Man does reflect some of my feelings about contemporary corporate practices; but I never worked for or with anyone like the characters in this novel. 

This brings us to a central point for aspiring writers: The raw stuff of autobiography makes for poor fiction. 

There are a few novelists who have broken this rule, of course. Many of Ernest Hemingway's short stories and novels can be described as "half autobiographical" or "nearly autobiographical." Take A Farewell to Arms, for example. Hemingway did indeed serve on the Italian front in WWI. He was wounded; and he had a romantic relationship with a nurse. That relationship ended badly.

Ernest Hemingway in 1918


If you've read A Farewell to Arms and you know the basics of Hemingway's life, you'll immediately recognize how for Hemingway, at least, art imitated real life. Nor was A Farewell to Arms the only Hemingway novel to explore a failed Hemingway romance. The main characters of The Sun Also Rises are stand-ins for Hemingway and a group of friends he hung around with during his expat days in Paris during the 1920s. One of these friends was a woman who had a lot in common with Brett Ashley, Jake's love interest in The Sun Also Rises.

You could certainly make the case that the autobiographical approach worked out well for Hemingway. However, you and I are unlikely to lead lives as exciting and novel-ready as Ernest Hemingway's.

On the contrary, most novelists who adhere to the autobiographical approach are either one-hit wonders, or prone to exasperating self-repitition. Consider F. Scott Fitzgerald, a contemporary of Hemingway. Fitzgerald's break-out novel, This Side of Paradise, was a remarkable accomplishment for a young writer of twenty-three. Although F. Scott's stories of the Jazz Age have been "dated" for years, many of them still strike a chord with modern readers. "Winter Dreams" for example, is an excellent story for any man out there who ever--in a fit of youthful hormonal passion--put an unattainable young woman on a pedestal, only to be disappointed later. (I talked about "Winter Dreams" in considerable depth in one of my YouTube videos.)

It should be clear to you, then, that I am an admirer of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and have been since I was first introduced to him nearly 30 years ago. However, I also have to admit that Fitzgerald's fiction is hopelessly hemmed in by the social microcosm of the very Jazz Age that so compelled him to put pen to paper. Some of his later novels and stories give you the feeling that Fitzgerald was tiring of that milieu toward the end of his career--and so will you, as the reader. 

Among more modern novelists, Gregory David Roberts, author of Shantaram stands out. Shantaram is very closely based on Roberts' experience as a fugitive in India. Now, Shantaram is a fine novel--but many critics have suggested (rightly, in my opinion) that the book goes on too many self-reflective tangents. Shantaram contains a bit too much memoir, in other words. It is also worth noting that Roberts hasn't published any subsequent novels. His artistic ambitions seem to be confined to relating his experiences on the lam in India. 

Does this mean that your personal experiences can't influence your fiction in positive ways? No. There are two ways that personal experience can influence fiction positively, outside the scope of the purely (or nearly) autobiographical novel. 

The first occurs when you are able to take a universal truth from your own life and port it into a fictional setting. 

I spent twenty years in the corporate world; and I have a lot of experience dealing with corporate politics. My science fiction story "The Dreams of Lord Satu" isn't even set on earth. However, that story includes a lot of earthly corporate politics. So does my story "The Vampires of Wallachia," a horror tale. (Both of these are available as singles on Amazon, as well as in the collection Hay Moon and Other Stories.)




For Termination Man, the main contribution of my corporate experience was authenticity. For example, I've spent a lot of time in factory settings, and I have firsthand knowledge of how people interact in those environments. 

Consider this scene, in which Craig Walker (the antihero of the novel) is beginning his undercover work at UP&S. (His undercover name is Craig Parker--which is why he is introduced by that name. Craig's mission is to orchestrate the termination of one of the other characters in this exchange. That's the fictional part. The authentic part is the way that office workers and factory employees tend to relate to each other, gently stepping around the subtle class- and rank-related tensions:




*     *    *


The air in the factory was filled with the sharp odors of oil and ozone. There were other indistinguishable chemical smells that vaguely reminded me of my father’s garage in Dayton. I could practically feel the smells soaking into my clothing.
“It’s loud, isn’t it?” Alan shouted, and I nodded in response. I had been in many factories before, yet I still had a hard time adjusting to the noise in these environments. The UP&S factory was no exception. The aural assault here was pervasive: the clatter of machines came from every direction. For as far as one could see, masses of moving, swinging production equipment were organized into rows and islands about the production floor. Some machines seemed to be functioning without human intervention; most were attended by helmeted and uniformed workers. All of them made noise.
Even through the earplugs and the sounds of the other equipment, I could make out the distant thump of a large press machine. It was like the footsteps of one of the dinosaurs in the Jurassic Park movies.
“That’s the 50-ton press you’re hearing,” Alan said, as if reading my mind. “It creates the blanks that are used to create just about every component we manufacture here.”
I nodded as if this were a very interesting tidbit, thinking that it was exactly what an eager FNG would do on his first day on the job.
“Most of the people out in the plant are very easy to talk to,” Alan explained, signaling for me to follow him as he led the way through one of the main aisles of production equipment. We’ve never had a union here, so there isn’t so much of a division between office staff and the production team. At least there hasn’t been until now.” He shook his head, still walking quickly. “I look for TP Automotive to screw that up, too.”
Listening to him talk, I wasn’t surprised that TP Automotive had fingered Alan as a potential threat to their authority. Here I was, first day on the job, a man whom Alan barely knew. And here he was, talking trash about his employer at every opportunity. 
We arrived at a workstation where Alan seemed to be a welcome and frequent visitor. It was a welding station; two production employees were busy loading and unloading preformed aluminum stampings into a pair of machines that welded a series of rivets onto them, sending up showers of sparks.
“Helen, Roy,” Alan said. “Got a minute?”
“Oh, I always got time for you, professor,” a tall, stocky, African-American man—obviously Roy—said. Roy looked like a former football player. He gave us a large, toothy smile. “Looks you got yourself a new friend.”
“Meet Craig Parker,” Alan said. “Craig, meet Roy Jones and Helen Dufresne. Like me, they’re both old timers. All three of us were hired back in the gravy days, shortly after Takada Stamping and GM opened the front doors.”
By now Helen had paused her labors to talk with us. “Who you calling and ‘old timer’?” she asked. Helen was probably in her mid-fifties. She had platinum blonde hair and the hoarse voice of a lifelong smoker. “I’m just a youngster yet.”
I gave her an obligatory laugh. “Nice to meet you.”
I shook hands with both of them, each one gripping my palm through the thick cotton gloves that they wore to protect their skin from stray sparks.
“Welcome aboard, college boy,” Roy said. “You stick with the professor here, you’ll be all right.”
It wasn’t the first time that I’d been called a “college boy.” That’s the way it works in most plants. In some of the rougher plant environments, I’ve even been called a “fucking college boy”—and always with an air of what passes for familiar good humor.
These little barbs serve as a safety valve for the corporate caste system when the suits and the production workers are thrown together, as is often the case in manufacturing firms. In these companies, there is always a subterranean layer of tension between the people in the front office and the people in the plant. Call it class envy if you like, but it’s simple human nature. The average production employee is perceptive enough to realize that his counterparts in the office make more money than he or she does. And then there are the non-financial perks to consider: Office employees get to sit while they work, whereas production employees are constantly on their feet. The office is quieter, cleaner—cooler during the summer months, and warmer during the winter.
I had been aware of these distinctions even as a kid, when my father would come home smelling of machine oil and metal shavings, talking about the “soft” people in the front office—the ones who didn’t know how good they had it.
And one aspect of the game is that as a suit, you always accept these little jabs with an equal measure of good humor. You can jab back a little if you want—but you can’t show offense at their calling you a college boy or a softie. Do that and you’ll upset the whole delicate balance.
“I’ve only got one question,” I said to Roy. “How come Alan gets to be a professor, and I’m a lowly college boy?”
“Alan done paid his dues,” Roy said, clapping Alan on the shoulder. “He been here in the early days, when we had to work twelve-hour days just to get things running.”
“Yeah, I miss those old times, though,” Alan said. The wistful look again. “Anyway, I’ll let you two get back to work.”
“Bye, Professor. Bye, College Boy.”
 “They aren’t about to cut a new guy any slack on his first day, are they?” I asked, once we were past Roy and Helen’s workstation.
“Oh, Roy’s a good guy,” Alan said. “Like most of the people out here. Like most of the people in the front office, truth be told.”
“I sense a ‘but’ coming.”     
“Am I that transparent?”
“Alan, my car’s windshield is less transparent than you are. So when are you going to give me the scoop about what’s really going on at this company and what you’re planning to do about it? I know you’re up to something.”
“All in good time, grasshopper,” Alan said. “All in good time.”


*      *     *

Those distinctions wouldn't have come to me if I hadn't actually spent time in similar environments. As noted above, the main plot and premise of Termination Man is fiction. But the setting of UP&S is real. (I changed the name of the company, of course.) Termination Man includes some violent events and bizarre plot twists. Scenes like this help to ground the reader, so that she is more willing to suspend her disbelief when the treachery, sex, and violence heat up.

*     *   *
As a writer, you are best advised to think of your life experience as a tool--rather than a script that you are obligated to write from. Don't be afraid to mine your life experience for story ideas. But don't view make your fiction autobiographical, either. (That is--unless you've had a life like Ernest Hemingway's!) 









Wednesday, January 16, 2013

On rereading books

Someone asked me the other day: How often do I reread books?

Let me break the answer down into fiction and nonfiction:


Fiction:

There are so many novels out there. Only a handful of them are so compelling that I would read them a second time. Being trained in Economics, I always think in terms of opportunity cost. Reading books that I've already read burns time that I could spend reading new ones.


Exception:

I do occasionally reread a novel if a.) I read it many years ago, and b.) I want to experience it again in the context of the intervening years.

That sounds like something that an English teacher would say. (In fact, my English teacher did say this, back in 1985). So let me elaborate...

Just as you change over time, so your experience of a novel can change. As you age, you will be able to find new ranges of meaning in old books. You can therefore sometimes benefit from rereading books that you originally read ten, twenty, or thirty years ago.

Consider novels that deal with midlife issues like the loss of youth, the ennui of longtime relationships, etc. You might have trouble relating to some of that when you are seventeen or eighteen. I certainly did. 

This obviously implies that rereading is most beneficial to older, more experienced readers. I don't see the benefit in rereading a book unless a significant amount of time has elapsed. Otherwise, you are kind of like those teenaged girls who watch the Twilight movies over and over again. If you are a young reader, you are best advised to read as widely as you possibly can. Save rereading for later on. 

I began my voracious reading habit in high school (1982-6). Some of the books that I read as a teenager and have recently reread (as a 40-something) include: 

Watership Down
Dracula
King Rat (James Clavell)
A Separate Peace
A Farewell to Arms
The Red Badge of Courage
Salem's Lot
The Godfather
The Dead Zone
This Side of Paradise
The Great Gatsby

You'll notice that the above list contains a mixture of popular novels and classics. Many of the classics on the list were school assignments; and I probably read some them more hastily than I should have. 


Nonfiction:

There are many practical reasons to reread nonfiction books. We all forget subject matter over time. This is why I sell or give away most of my novels, and hold on to most of the nonfiction books in my personal library. 







Monday, January 7, 2013

MBAs and the decline of corporate America

A reader of my novel Termination Man asks, "Is the popularity of the MBA responsible for the decline of corporate America, as measured by rates of job satisfaction, morale, and our global competitiveness?" 

(Termination Man--while by no means a thesis against the MBA--can certainly be interpreted as critical of the "MBA cult".)




There are many aspects of the reader's question. I'll answer one of them in this post: How useful--or harmful--has the MBA been to American business in recent decades?

Key points:

1.) The MBA is overrated. The popularity of the MBA is not the primary factor behind the recent decline of conditions in corporate America. However, the exaggeration of its importance has been a negative factor.

2.) An MBA is no substitute for industry-specific experience. People with MBAs tend to believe that they can successfully apply general MBA-taught concepts to any industry. In other words, many senior managers now regard an MBA as being superior to industry experience. This is a grave mistake. 

3.) Corporate managers frequently engage in "magical thinking" about the value of the MBA. The real-world capabilities conferred by the MBA (especially an MBA from a so-called "top 10" or "top 20" program) are grossly overestimated in boardrooms throughout America. Most MBAs know far less in practice than they think they do

4.) The problem is not the degree--but the exaggerated perceptions of its value. None of the above points should be interpreted to mean that the MBA is "bad" or "without value." The MBA is a worthwhile degree. However, it should not be regarded as a.) a prerequisite to management, or b.) an automatic qualification of managerial prowess.

*  *  *

At the end of the day, the overemphasis on the MBA is symptomatic of our desire for shortcuts--for immediate results. 

The idea of spending a few years earning a degree that will convey instant managerial qualifications appeals to our cultural bias for quick solutions. It's fast, it's (comparatively) easy, and it's sexy (especially if your MBA was issued by a brand-name school). For most of us, the MBA seems far preferable to working in the trenches of a particular industry for 10, 15 or 20 years.