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I recently finished reading a whole stack of Lew Archer novels by Ross MacDonald, and I’m kind of ambivalent as to how satisfactory the experience was. I’m aware of the man’s high standing in crime fiction circles, but I’m not sure how he got to be so highly ranked. Sure, his books were well-written for the time, and considerably more literate than much of the work of his peers (like, say Mickey Spillane), but they also tended toward a certain obsessive repetition in their themes and plots. Certain phrases turn up again and again in book after book, and it seems like every one of them has at least one scene where Archer visits his wealthy clients in a house that borders on being a mansion. Those conversations are almost invariably in living rooms where the rich clients are attended to by “Negro servants” (a term that really dates the books, too). Then there’s the issue of his attitude toward women, who almost always turn out to be duplicitous and, in most of the books, the killers. By the time you’ve read three or four books in the series, the rest seem almost identical, to the point where it’s difficult to later recall which plot went with which book. So… I dunno. Hopefully the Travis McGee books, which I’ll be reading soon, will be better.

READING: Clive Barker — BOOKS OF BLOOD (VOL. I-III)
HEARING: Eyehategod — 10 YEARS OF ABUSE (AND STILL BROKE)

RIP J. G. Ballard.

This is isn’t exactly surprising to me — I had known for a while that he was extremely ill — but it’s still a massive bummer. Ballard was not only one of the most visionary and innovative writers of my generation, he was an enormous influence on my own approach to writing (and art in general). The literary landscape will be considerably emptier without his presence.

More obituaries and tributes at ballardian.com.

READING: J. G. Ballard — THE ATROCITY EXHIBITION
HEARING: Throbbing Gristle — TG24 (Cryptic One Club, England)

useful reading

Ten Mistakes Writers Don’t See.

Saving baby robots.

Things not to say in query letters.

Anatomy of a royalty statement.

READING: Ross MacDonald — THE DROWNING POOL
HEARING: AC/DC — HIGH VOLTAGE

follett and wambaugh

I recently finished reading the Ken Follett novel THE PILLARS OF THE EARTH, which was exceptional (and, at nearly a thousand pages, exhausting). It was interesting to me because I was originally familiar with Follett only through the spy novels he wrote earlier in his career, several of which I read when they first appeared in the late seventies and eighties, a time when I was reading spy novels and thrillers by a wide variety of well-known writers, particularly Robert Ludlum, Jack Higgins, and John LeCarre. (I was also inordinately fond of the books of Jack Hoffenberg, a bestselling novelist of the seventies whose work now languishes in obscurity — just more proof that the reading public is far more fickle than you might like to imagine.)

I was never all that enamored of Follett’s spy books because I found his work extremely formulaic and kind of generic, so by the time he got around to writing what is now considered his masterpiece (and by far his most popular work), I had already stopped paying attention to him. I probably would have never read PILLARS at all, in fact, had it not been for an enthusiastic recommendation from my mother, despite the fact that our reading tastes are quite different (to put it mildly).  But I’m glad I did, because it’s an amazing book. Set in the 12th century during the rise of Gothic architecture, the books follows — over a period of approximately thirty years — the story of a mason and his family caught up in the anarchy of an era beset by near-endless wars and struggles between the Church and the King in England. Most of the action is focused in Kingsbridge, England, where a newly-appointed monastery prior faces the difficult task of attempting to build a cathedral, a process that takes decades, while also dealing with the tribulations caused by several enemies (in particular an ambitious and amoral bishop and a loathsome earl who is a thorn in the side of many of the main characters). The main characters are the prior, the mason and his family, and the earl, but there are literally hundreds of lesser characters along the way, all interacting with a number of real historical figures of the time (including the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, whose assassination leads to the climax of the book and ultimately results in the undoing of the earl who has been making everyone’s life difficult).

Follett not only manages to do a fine job of accurately depicting the historical setting, but keeps the action consistently moving in a believable manner — no small feat for a book this long — and does an equally excellent job of vividly bringing to life a large cast of characters. Reading the book makes me wonder why his earlier books were nowhere near as good, because he’s obviously capable of excellent writing; the only thing I can conclude is that perhaps he didn’t have as much of an emotional investment in his spy novels, whereas this book was clearly a labor of love. Now I’m definitely interested in reading the recently-published sequel, WORLD WITHOUT END, which takes place two centuries later and features descendants of the first book’s major characters.

After reading such a heavy tome I felt compelled to read something a tad lighter, which turned out to be the Joseph Wambaugh book HOLLYWOOD CROWS. The second in a trilogy of books revolving around police officers from Hollywood Station in Los Angeles, it’s a considerably breezier book (although one of the major characters does meet a grim fate at the end). The Hollywood Station books are less police procedurals than they are a series of loosely-connected black comedy vignettes featuring an often wacky cast of police officers (including two surfer dudes who spend their free time catching waves and speak in nearly indecipherable surfer lingo). The books are a satirical look at both Hollywood and the absurd bureaucratic entanglements bedeviling officers in the LAPD, and their realistic (and frequently surreal) feel is enhanced not only by the fact that Wambaugh was an LAPD officer himself at one time, but spent considerable time and effort before each book interviewing cops to gather the bizarre and sometimes hilarious anecdotes that form the backbone of each book. In some ways I prefer the earlier, grimmer style Wambaugh favored in books like THE NEW CENTURIONS, but he is definitely capable of being extremely funny. I sure wish he’d cut down on the exclamation point abuse, though.

READING: Ross MacDonald — THE DROWNING POOL
HEARING: Throbbing Gristle — TG24 (Architectural Association, London)

Earlier this week I read THE NEW CENTURIONS, the 1971 debut novel by Joseph Wambaugh, and one of the best police procedural novels ever written. A large part of what makes it work so well is that Wambaugh was an LAPD cop himself when he wrote the book, and much of the book — including a terrifying section depicting the Watts riot from the point of view of several police officers attempting to restore order to a city under siege — is based on his own personal experiences working for the LAPD. The novel follows the progress of three uniformed officers, beginning with their enrollment in the police training academy and ending in the aftermath of the Watts riots, and was unusually frank for its time, depicting police officers as real human beings caught up in the pressures of an exceptionally difficult and dangerous job.

Tonight I watched the 1972 film version starring George C. Scott and Stacy Keach. As I expected, the film falls far short of the book, as an artistic statement and even in terms of sheer entertainment value. The book is better on every level; the novel’s complex plotting and intertwined stories are squashed by the limitations of the film’s running time and budget, and much of what makes the book interesting (in particular, the back story of the characters and the philosophies involved with their behavior and moral dilemmas) ends up being jettisoned in the movie in order to keep it action-oriented. The plot of the film isn’t significantly different than that of the book (although some plot lines have been merged and others dropped entirely to keep the running time down), but without the nuanced philosophical underpinning that Wambaugh brought to the book, the same plot is ultimately kind of boring on film.

Sometimes it’s instructive to read a book, then view the film version, and compare the differences. This is one of those times.

On an unrelated note, I’d like to offer a shout out to my brother Mark, who sold a story today. Rah rah! Fezzes for all!

READING: Joseph Wambaugh — THE BLUE KNIGHT
HEARING: Throbbing Gristle — HEATHEN EARTH

words of wisdom

Want to get published? Don’t do things like this.

READING: Natsuo Kirino — REAL WORLD
LISTENING: Weakling — DEAD AS DREAMS

Release the fans!

Guy Gavriel Kay’s article is illuminating for a number of reasons. We live in an age where everyone is expected to be connected to the rest of the world through social networks and blogs, but I would argue that this intense connectivity is not necessarily helpful to writers, and might in fact be harmful. Sure, a writer’s blog such as this one is useful as a way to keep potential readers informed, but maintaining such a personal connection with your readership can lead to unexpected consequences, as the article points out.

For nearly fifteen years, I have published a music-related webzine called THE ONE TRUE DEAD ANGEL. In the beginning, I actively encouraged reader participation (although I was smart enough from the beginning to invest in a post office box so none of the more deranged readers could easily discover where I live, natch, which turned out to be an excellent move). What I was hoping for was some kind of dialogue with interesting musicians, and this did indeed happen from time to time… but more often what it resulted in was wave after wave of eccentric people bombarding me with “articles” having nothing to do with music (such as one guy’s feverish declarations of his secret knowledge regarding the truth behind the assassination of JFK), random spurts of anonymous hate mail, and — the crowning glory that led me to give up such an intense connection with said readers — a package sent to my post office box containing a copy of the Iain Banks “classic” THE WASP FACTORY accompanied by the dead body of a headless bird. I think that was the moment I decided it would be much better to publish in a vacuum whenever possible.

I’m an intensely private person by nature, which leads to a certain amount of cognitive dissonance when I realize that, thanks to fifteen years of publishing a webzine that’s relatively well-known in underground music circles, an awful lot of people I don’t know happen to know who I am (or who they think I am, anyway). As readers of this blog have probably already figured out (assuming I have any readers, which is a generous assumption), I am not keen on divulging much about my personal life, partly for reasons related to the debacles listed above, and partly because I find the cult of personality repugnant and even dangerous. Where writing is concerned, I think the only thing that any reader needs to know is what is within the pages of a book; it is not necessary to know about an author’s personal life and habits in order to enjoy a book, nor should it be. In fact, knowing too much about an artist can actually diminish the enjoyment of that artist’s work, whether we’re discussing books, music, or films. As far as I’m concerned, in a perfect world books would stand or fall on their own merits, with nothing known or said about the authors themselves. Realistically, this is unlikely, given the nature of book promotion (unless you’re as brilliant as Thomas Pynchon, in which case you can rewrite the rule book with impunity). The publishing world’s need for writers to have a “platform” means that the future of far too many books is tied up in what readers think of an author, rather than the quality of the books themselves. (This is why Paris Hilton can make millions selling “books” that are nothing more than puffed-up celebrity diaries while genuinely brilliant works of literary art written by old people who aren’t terribly photogenic can go unnoticed.)

One other item in the article particularly interests me, and that’s the idea that the writer of a multi-volume series has some sort of implied contract with his or her readers to put out those volumes in a timely fashion. I have to admit that it doesn’t make much sense to devote yourself to an extended series if you’re not going to release the parts on a regular schedule; that just invites readers to give up on you and move on to something else. I know how it feels to have to wait, too — I was a huge fan of Stephen King’s THE DARK TOWER series, and there’s no question it was maddening to wait (and wait… and wait…) for the next volume in the series. It didn’t help that it took King 22 years to publish the seven books in the series. As a direct consequence of that excruciating experience, I’m no longer willing to read any similar series until the entire cycle is completed.

I’m not a big fan of Martin’s work, and I frankly don’t care about the series he’s writing, but while I can understand that life has a tendency to disrupt any writer’s plans, I’m considerably more sympathetic to the fans who have been left hanging. My advice is writers of serial novels is simple: either write everything first before publishing the first one, or be ready to put the books out in a timely fashion, unless you want to be on the receiving end of lots of hate mail.

READING: Flannery O’Connor — THE COMPLETE STORIES
HEARING: Locrian — DRENCHED LANDS