Saturday September 26, 2009
When I first heard that the wingnuts from the Westboro Baptist Church—the “God Hates Fags” people—were going to be picketing a synagogue in our neighborhood, I assumed it was because they thought it would be where they would meet with the most confrontation. After going to the counter-rally this morning, however, I think they chose Park Slope because they knew it would produce the most user-generated content.
The iPhones and camcorders were out in force at 9:45 to oppose and record the anemic demonstration, which consisted of 20 signs but only five souls. Shirley Phelps-Roper, seen here (ironically) on the far left, was decked out with her usual “wings” of signage. I would say the protestors were outnumbered by videobloggers by at least five to one. (Guilty: Here are a few clips of video I shot with my phone. Alexandra shot the pics.) The counter-rally, all in, consisted of several hundred people—and at least one dog (above).
I know you’re supposed to ignore these people. Not even Fox News likes them, since they also like to protest at soliders’ funerals, claiming that God is killing our troops because we’re soft on gays. But it was six blocks away, and it’s hard to beat the feeling that we always say that on the left. Ignore them and they’ll go away. It’s also hard to beat the feeling that, whether Fox News likes them or not, these Westboro wingnuts are just an expression of the right wing’s ugly id. People who compare Obama to Hitler are on a continuum with these people, and so are the folks who take guns to town halls. (You could make the case, on the other hand, that WBC and their ilk are just distractions, drawing the left’s attention away from more moderate and viable threats—but in the current over-heated political environment, why take a chance.)
This was the rabbi’s message, basically, when he came out and addressed the crowd—silencing the demonstrators, whose presence was suddenly and completely ignored: if we can come together for this, we should come together for other things, too. Say what you want about extremists, they show up. They show up at the polls and at election commissions and at town hall meetings. I don’t show up that often—but then six blocks isn’t very far to walk.
A lot of discussion about e-books centers around pieces of hardware—like the Kindle—that offer new ways to deliver old narrative. While these delivery systems will obviously alter narrative conventions—there’s nothing narratively inevitable about 80,000 words; it’s a convenient amount of paper to carry around—enough attention isn’t being paid to the possibility (grim for me and other writers) that old narrative is already dead, not because it didn’t work, but because it has been replaced.
I think non-fiction and documentary films have already supplanted certain kinds of naturalistic fiction—and even some kinds of fantastic fiction. Would you need to write The Jungle in a world that already has Who Killed the Electric Car? What would Edgar Allen Poe have found to write about in a world where Intervention and Hoarders air back to back? (Think I’m exaggerating? Meet Sonia and Julia.) Word fans—and I am one—will scream that there are stories only words can tell, and that might be true. But which ones are they, and is it changing?
Lately, I’ve been enjoying this great story. It has dozens of compelling characters and exhibits an incredible attention to detail. It’s a commentary on society with leitmotifs of greed, desperation, and hope. I take in a few chapters at a time, put it down, then pick it back up later. I’m almost to the conclusion, and I’m kind of bummed about it. The story is so good, I don’t want it to end.
I’m not talking about a novel, which functions in one’s life exactly like this. I’m talking about The Wire. The advent of DVDs, DVRs, and video-on-demand has allowed episodic TV to compete with books like never before. Looking back, it was silly to think that something like Bonanza or Quincy could pose an artistic threat to book-length fiction. It might lure away the more distractable members of the audience, but for texture and narrative complexity, it was no contest. Now TV has come for the rest of us. Freed from the one hour (and even the two hour) frame—and from the idea that audience members might have missed episodes—TV is undergoing a renaissance and fulfilling its full promise. (Paddy Chayefsky, in the medium’s first decade, believed TV was uniquely suited for detailed, naturalistic drama, and it has only taken a half century for him to be right again.)
The other day, I asked Alexandra why anyone would write a naturalistic novel about the urban drug trade after The Wire. Her (completely correct) answer was: interiority. Then last night we saw The Informant! So much for that.
Saturday September 19, 2009
While there might be more reasonable explanations, here’s how I think this happened. The year is 1968. The location: a rundown studio apartment in the Fenway. 25-year-old high school drop out Stan Aeronesi is anxiously waiting for two wise-ass Northeastern students to get the hell out of his apartment. They got their weed. He smoked them out. Now they won’t leave. They just keep going on and on about hippy bullshit—the bourgeoisie and the Man—although as far as Stan can tell, these two kids are the bourgeoisie.
One of them is talking about some stupid play he’s just seen called Paradise Now, and how it changes everything by taking the audience out of their comfort zone, and by now Stan is pretty well far out of his comfort zone and he blurts out, without even thinking about it—as a sort of childish attempt to bring everything around him to a halt—“Keep fucking that chicken!”
Suddenly the kids, who have totally forgotten that Stan is even there, stop talking about Brecht and Artaud, and they look at Stan like he is crazy and (worse) like he is stupid, which Stan has always sort of suspected is true anyway.
“What?” one of them says, giggling. “What did you just say?”
“Keep fucking that chicken,” Stan says slowly, biding time, as the eyes turned on him suddenly make him feel self-conscious and paranoid, as if the kids can now see the fact that he already knows: that they are students, going somewhere—their futures ahead of them—while he is an uneducated low-life, washed-up at 25. In other words, he is overcome by the need to say something smart.
“Want to shake up the Man?” he says, rolling the words out like Dylan. “You can’t do that in a theater. You gotta say ‘Keep fucking that chicken’ on the live nightly news.’”
The kid laughs so hard he chokes, his big pampered face flush with adrenaline.
“How you gonna do that, man?” he says. “That’s stupid.”
In 1971, a clean-shaven young man presents himself for employment at WABC-TV in New York. He has spent several years rehearsing his South Boston accent away and he claims to hold a degree from Northeastern, where he has never attended. He gives as his name an anagram of his former one. He calls himself Ernie Anastos.
Years and decades pass as Aeronesi earns the trust of his employers at WABC, WCBS, WWOR, WCBS again, and finally at WNYW. He spends nights awake struggling with the timing, trying to decide when his taboo-shattering phrase can be released for maximum impact and subversion. No moment seems perfect enough—not even during an interview with Fidel Castro—and for years at a time Aeronesi finds himself hopelessly paralyzed. Sometimes he fears that he has lost himself and his life’s work completely in Anastos—in the million dollar contracts and the hard-earned respect of a great American city—and he laments that he will ever complete his provocative performance.
And then, on Wednesday, it just happened. A mission launched so many years ago out of resentment and striving was completed, effortlessly and flawlessly.
Congratulations, Stan Aeronesi. I hope you get the recognition you deserve.
Thursday September 17, 2009
While I didn’t get in as early as the sci-fi crowd, I was a relatively early adopter of e-books, both as a reader and distributor. I was reading Cory Doctorow and F. Scott Fitzgerald off an Audiovox SMT5600 long enough ago that I shocked publishing industry acquaintances simply by admitting I read this way. E-books were experiencing one of those periodic re-deaths they’ve undergone during the last 15 years, and publishers were happy to leave them dead.
I first published my own e-book—Single, a collection of two previously-published stories—in July 2006, and first posted it to a site other than my own two and a half years ago. I did this, on the one hand, to extend the lives of the stories. They had been published by nice, respectable journals—but even (and perhaps especially) nice, respectable journals have small runs and limited shelf-lives. On the Internet, meanwhile, you never know what could happen. A Bulgarian woman moving to Memphis (where you used to live) might turn a friend onto your blog. That friend, in turn, might turn another friend onto it, who might post something from it on Metafilter, where an editor from the New York Post might see it and pay you to re-print it. I believe in making work available and seeing what happens.
But I also posted it because I wanted to have a test balloon. In social media, especially, you’ve got to do it to get it. You’ve got to blog to understand that bloggers communicate with referrals. You’ve got to Twitter to understand how chips of ephemera become a mosaic of information and anecdote. I wanted to put out an e-book so I could see how that distribution channel flowed, like dropping a paper boat in a stream to see where it winds up.
Since then, I’ve posted Single to most major e-book sites as they’ve appeared on the scene and collected some information about how well it’s done on each. I’m putting out another small collection of previously published stories, Cassingle, next month, so I was thinking about where I should post it. Maybe this information will also help others decide where to post their own work. My unscientific analysis of five sites—in the order I found them—is after the jump. These results aren’t exemplary and are the result of ordinary promotion. Lots of e-books get many more downloads. Still, Single has been viewed 7,500 or so times as an e-book—more than the circulation of either One Story or the Land-Grant College Review, where the stories in it originally appeared.
Uploaded: February 2007
Downloads to date: 500
Matthew McClintock deserves credit for being a pioneer in this area. Manybooks was the first place, other than Project Gutenberg, that I downloaded an e-book. What he did before anyone else was take the Gutenberg catalog and make it more accessible by offering every file in more than a dozen formats. (His solution is technically elegant as well, since the conversions are made on the fly as files are requested.) He also might post your creative commons e-book if you ask him nicely, which I did in February 2007. The site reset its counters at some point, which is why I’ve added about 200 downloads to the total you now see on the site. Downloads have been slow and steady, averaging a dozen or so a month. Still, those are downloads, not views. These users have actually decided to store the file locally and maybe it take it somewhere with them. (More about that in a second.) But I’d be interested to know how most people use Manybooks. My sense, based on online chatter, is that people mostly use it to download the classics and don’t necessarily browse it for contemporary work.
Uploaded: April 2007
Views to date: 1,934
Wattpad started out as a Java app for mobile phones and has since expanded to include apps for Blackberry, Android, and iPhone. I didn’t like the user experience of the Java app and haven’t tried the others. I did upload Single there, however, and quickly racked up close to 2,000 views, although that number has remained pretty still for more than a year. I got a mention on the site’s blog shortly after I uploaded Single, which accounted for the bump, but now I must be buried deep in the catalog. Also—unlike Manybooks—this is the number of views, not downloads, so it’s difficult to determine how engaged users became with the book on Wattpad.
Uploaded: May 2008
Views/downloads to date: 3,258/29
Scribd.com nicely highlights the difference between views and downloads by tallying both. In the last 15 months, Single has been viewed there 3,258 times, but downloaded only 29. I’m happy to have my work viewed or downloaded, but it’s difficult to know what to make of Scribd’s numbers. On the one hand, that seems like a pretty low conversion rate, but then the site isn’t offering the book in an e-book format, per se, so why would anyone download it? Surely some people have read it—or part of it—on-screen. I just don’t know how many.
Uploaded: October 2008
“Viewloads” to date: 819
Travis Alber’s Bookglutton is based on the idea that talking about books is communal, so the site allows groups of users to read (and annotate) books together—like a virtual book group. This isn’t how I like to read—and I know you can also download the site’s catalog via Stanza and other apps—but the book group model is interesting. 819 users have opened Single on the site to date, and these “opens” are something more than views, but something less than downloads, engagement-wise. Call them “viewloads.” Users have to trigger a new window which opens an interactive reading environment to open a book, which requires more than stumbling across the page. My results, however, may not be typical. Travis was nice enough to make me featured author on the site pretty early on, so my book pops up on the frontpage once out of every ten loads or something like that. I don’t know how many views I’d have without that extra promotion.
Uploaded: March 2009
Downloads to date: 997
The title of this post comes from Feedbooks, since it is the site where Single will soon surpass a thousand downloads after a little more than six months—easily the fastest channel to cross that threshold. The site is simple and seems to have attracted a healthy community of self-publishers, many of whom have had even more success distributing work there. Plus it came on the scene at the perfect time, just as the Kindle was making e-publishing mainstream, so the site is hitting its stride right as e-books take off.
So where will I publish Cassingle when it’s ready? Feedbooks first, then Bookglutton—since my work has been featured there. But I’m open to suggestions. Any sites I’ve missed? Let me know.
Monday September 07, 2009
The Tuesday after Labor Day is New Year’s Day in New York. Half-empty subway cars fill back up with tanned, disappointed commuters, and long-unanswered emails miraculously yield enthusiastic (if brief) replies. It is a new beginning. Time to take short stories that have timed out—neither accepted or rejected—at one set of print journals and send them to other journals, where they will, in all likelihood, reach the same non-conclusion. (New year or not, print’s coming demise has done little to speed the operation of literary magazines, which instead seem to pride themselves—like “slow food” restaurants—on providing terrible service.) And it is time also, I’m thinking, to start blogging again.
I don’t know how long it’s been since I blogged regularly—a while—but I know that I’ve developed a bad case of what I will call “blog shyness.” I used to get “phone shyness” when I was reporter in Memphis (when reporters used phones), and it was pretty uncomfortable—watching a deadline roll toward you and feeling helpless to pick up the phone and get the quotes. It was like a bad dream. I haven’t decided what, exactly, I will blog about. I have some ideas for topics, and some ideas for sprucing up the site. That will all come. I just know that now that I’ve been working full-time, I’ve been itchy for an outlet for stray ideas that I’m no longer under pressure to sell, which is what blogs used to be about before they all got optimized and SEO’d within an inch of their lives. (My pledge: I will never make you click through to the rest of a post unless that post is very, very long.)
Nevertheless, one of the most uncomfortable moments in life is that moment—at a party or a wedding, especially—where you walk onto the dance floor and begin to dance. It feels ridiculous—the moment right before you start—and you hope no one is looking. So if you could all just look away for one second, that would be great, because that moment is coming up.