Friday, December 31, 2010

MMX: Walk Away

“MMX: Walk Away”

“He had slept, so perhaps this was some feverish nightmare, a dream-place where men killed and died for no reason he could see and each minute was spent in a starved, sightless silence, like animals far under the earth. Perhaps the moment of change had happened before then. Some other occasion when he fell asleep. Waking to the crimson sky of the drought. Waking to his new, hellish Memphis, ruined and gutted by a grief caused in the space of a day, an hour, a second. It seemed then that the world was a terrible, wounded place whose revolutions were driven by panic and madness more than love or reason. A directionless freefall toward something, maybe toward nothing. He no longer knew.  That night as he lay on the damp ground he wondered for the first time if there could ever be any return from this.” -- Robert Jackson Bennett, Mr. Shivers, Chapter 13, p.141-142, ¶5.


Burn the body to free the soul.
Bury the body to return to the soil.
Preserve the body to return to the world.
Display the body to return to the sky.
Sink the body to return to the sea.
Inhabit the body to experience time.


Last week the lunar eclipse fell on Winter Solstice. It won’t do that again ‘til 2094. That’s grandchildren’s time. Skies were clear; my youngest son and I saw Totality through bare tree branches. From darkness, light.

Yesterday afternoon, on a drive to stock up before a major storm might hit -- presuming they will prompts many such minor adventures -- I listened to the local classic rock station and it happened to play a quality list. “Levon”, “The Pretender”, and “Maybe I’m Amazed” -- song after song was a genuine classic, not merely a nostalgic gleam. Further, they were all serious in tone, with regret the most common theme. It seemed calculated to make someone my age look back in sadness at missed chances and sabotaged dreams. It also made me wonder how such young songwriters and performers had been so perceptive about what time would bring.

Surely music is better out from under corporate thumbs. It is probably that simple; those songs, primarily from the 1970s, were written by poets and artists who neither sold out nor came up through a mechanical Tin Pan Alley or Brill Building system. Today we see thugs like Simon Cowel drag music down to a financial and cynical story of promotion, exposure, and the crassest competition. To his ilk it’s a product for an industry to sell and exploit, nothing more. Expunged is artistry or individual expression that fails to serve the demographics research.

Sure, there remain real people making real music, but we don’t hear them much any longer, unless we attend local gigs all over the country, and who can afford that? We’re watching music go the way of poetry, into a state of near death in which its feeble pulse is maintained by a dedicated few who refuse to give it up. And even they write damned few of the old forms to any legitimate literary end.

Short fiction and probably soon novels, too, are also going the way of poetry. As fewer read short fiction, it becomes the new poetry, with anthologies and collections specialized and themed to appeal to prepared audiences. This has quite a few writers militating against it; Neil Gaiman and Stephen Jones recently released Stories, a large anthology of just plain good stories, well-told and of no particular type. Great idea, superb fiction, and no one much outside the short story community noticed, despite a brief tagging of the bestseller list.

As for novels, they still sell, at least commercial novels sell, but genuinely quirky novels, never easy to place in the first place, are becoming impossible to find unless one can spot them disguised in genre costumes. Series, particularly movie tie-ins and franchise fiction, dominate; people want what’s familiar, not what’s new.

It is said a hack gives readers what they want while an artist gives them what they need. The former is focused on sales, the latter on artistic expression, and always the twain meet in commerce, where books are actually published, distributed, and sold.

We’re seeing this all change, however, with the advent, still small but growing, of digital reading platforms and digital fiction delivery systems. Suddenly the benefits of a publisher -- production of a competitive item and distribution through brick outlets and mortar shell flack advertising -- leap into each writer’s lap, or at least as far as his or her home computer.

A writer today can publish online, without benefit of copyeditor, literary editor, printer, packager, cover artist, designer, or any of the other hundreds of people who used to go into producing a physical book. Now, a writer can convert a manuscript to PDF and post it online, sell on one’s own web site, and accept the payments via PayPal. Advertising is limited by imagination only; go on Facebook or Twitter and chat up your new work, link the Amazon page for it to all your acquaintances’ web pages, and make a cool You Tube promotional video to get out the word. Soon self-publishing may be the main route for writing seeking readers.

We are returning to the days of individual, rather than corporate, imprints, when Caxton, Gutenberg, and Kelmscott were the only sources for what readers wanted. This makes it a free-for-all aspects of which troubadours would likely recognize. Strolling players, selling poems and satires by the line, peddling their stories by the telling, are about to begin wearing out their fingers instead of their feet. We’ll know them by their colorful camps as reliable word encourages like-minded writers to clump for mutual support and safety.

Soon we’ll go online and sift through fiction as we gradually fix upon our favorite sites so we can visit them more frequently and get the kind of writing we most want to read. The standard genre categories are likely to be used, but almost certainly local variants will imprint themselves upon styles and types. We’ll see the equivalent of generic rock become grunge or thrash metal, and we’ll see the basics such as Mystery, Science Fiction, Horror, Romance, and Erotica divide into coastal variants, perhaps, or city-specific tales, or new sub genres such as steampunk written expressly for left-handed blonde blue-eyed lesbian chefs who own rescue animals, or, more realistically, xtian right wing liberal-bashing science-hating revelation millennialism geared toward fat old white men afraid of shadows but addicted to the smell of money.

When the short story magazines began croaking in ever-increasing numbers, it was observed that one trend helping to kill them was specialization. Magazines had become so laser-beam focused on splinter audiences that any kind of miscellaneous fiction magazine simply struck too wide a stance. No one wanted to “wade through” stories they might not like just to find a few they might like well enough. Way safer to stick with publications entirely devoted to precisely what one likes: Overheated descriptions in purple prose of pale yellow pumpkins with stems curled with an Elvis-like panache, or kitten stories featuring only calicos with green eyes, snub noses, and curled, feathered tails.

Thing is, human beings are not as individual as they like to think, so the good news is, if you like something, chances are good others will too. With the gate keepers banished, the field is free to anyone who wants to run in and pitch a tent. By sheer luck others like you may well spot your flag and waddle over to hear your tales.

From darkness, light.

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