Publishing Industry Standard

Angela Bole, CEO of the Independent Book Publishing Association, has introduced an Industry Standard for a Professionally Published Book in the July issue of  IBPA Independent magazine.

Angela Bole

In the article, she says: “IBPA has been championing independent publishers, big and small, self and otherwise, since 1983.  That’s over 30 years of advocating for indie voices in the traditional publishing industry.  Over this time, we’ve seen a thing or two.

“Recent changes in the publishing industry have created enormous opportunities for self-published authors.  It’s now possible to produce a professional-quality book outside of the Big Five conglomerates.  Unfortunately, this opportunity has come at the cost of a deepening divide between how traditionally-published and self-published authors are treated.  Too often, IBPA has noticed a bias against self-published authors, independent publishers and hybrid presses when it comes to choosing titles or authors for review consideration, book award contests, association memberships, and inclusion of independent bookstore shelves.

“There is no reason for this bias.  While it is true that not all books are created equal, when they are, it’s important that the industry treats them as such.  That’s why the IBPA’s Advocacy Committee recently published an Industry Standard for a Professionally Published Book – a two-page document developed to support independent publishers and self-published authors, but also to urge an industry in flux to acknowledge that books ought to be judged on their substance ranter than their business model.  If used appropriately, the checklist gives both authors and book industry professionals an at-a-glance method by which to gauge the professional presentation of a book.  The goal is that the checklist becomes a future guide that reviewers, contests, membership associations and bookstores turn to when deciding which authors merit consideration.

“You can download the checklist at: ibpa-online.org/standardschecklist .

“During BookExpo last June, I had the privilege of discussing the checklist with other industry organisations.  I met with the American Booksellers Association, the Authors Guild, Publishers Weekly, Foreword Reviews and many more.  I’m glad to say that the reception was warm.  Those industry professionals paying attention know they’re missing quality books be using gatekeeping tactics attached to business models; they just haven’t figured out how to consider books without opening the floodgate to unprofessionally produced content, as well.  They seemed to appreciate that the checklist is a needed first step toward figuring this all out.

“Today’s independent publishers and self-published authors represent a diverse array of voices and backgrounds, often speaking about specialised issues that are marginalised by larger presses, often because their books are being judged on the business model and not on what matters, which is the content of the books.  Just as publishers, self, or otherwise, are responsible for producing books that adhere to industry standards, the book industry as a whole is responsible for creating an environment that allows for equal evaluation of all published works.”

Amen!

Erudite Writing

A friend was telling me about a book she was having trouble reading and enjoying.  She (a well-educated woman) said the “writing is over the top; I have to stop now and then to look up word.  Why can’t authors simplify their writing?  Why do they have to make it so complicated?”  He husband added, “There seems to be a trend for authors to try to position themselves above their readers, and to win the admiration of critics.”  I agreed with both points, and I said that, “It seems to me that writers who are aiming for big prizes use extraordinary language to express themselves: not only in vocabulary, but in sentence structure, grammar and imagery.  Prose is becoming poetry for the benefit of the critics.”

As evidence of this trend, there are three passages below.  The first is from Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses.  The second is how I think I would have tried to write the same passage, and the third is in ordinary English.

Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie

After the news of his death in the plane crash reached her, she had tormented herself by inventing him: by speculating, that is to say, about her lost lover.  He had been the first man she had slept with in more than five years: no small figure in her life.  She had turned away from her sexuality, her instincts having warned her that to do otherwise might be to be absorbed by it; that it was for her, would always be, a big subject, a whole dark continent to map and she wasn’t prepared to go that way, be that explorer, chart those shores: not any more, or, maybe, not yet.  But she’d never shaken off the feeling of being damaged by her ignorance of love, of what it might be like to be wholly possessed by that archetypal, capitalised jinn, the yearning towards, the blurring of the boundaries of the self, the unbuttoning, until you were open from your adam’s apple to your crotch: just words, because she didn’t know the thing.  Suppose he had come to me, she dreamed.  I could have learned him, step by step, climbed him to the very summit.  Denied mountains by my weak-boned feet, I’d have looked for the mountain in him: establishing base camp, sussing out routes, negotiating ice-falls, crevasses, overhangs.  I’d have assaulted the peak and seen the angels dance.  O, but he’s dead and at the bottom of the sea.

William Peace

When she learned of his death in the plane crash, she agonised over day dreams of her perished lover.  As the first man she had slept with in over five years, he represented a kind of icon.  In his absence, she had repressed her sexuality out of a fear that to live and examine it would somehow frighten and diminish her.  Her ignorance of the bright spectrum of love, was a source of insecurity, and sometimes she longed to know the feeling – whatever it was – of merging one’s consciousness with that of a lover.  But, if her lover had been there she would have eschewed any leap into the heavens of love; rather she would establish a safe and slow process to advance into the heights until, in her glory, she saw the angels dance.  But, alas, her lover lay at the bottom of the sea, dead.

Plain English

Ever since the news of his death reached her, she thought of him, the first man – remarkably – she had slept with in five years.  She set aside her interest in sex out of fear of stepping into the unknown.  Nonetheless, her ignorance of love bothered her, and she wondered what it would be like to experience true and selfless love.  If her lover had been present, she would not have thrown herself into an unlimited relationship; she would have approached the situation gradually, learning and advancing slowly so that eventually she would have found true bliss.  But, of course, her lover was dead.

I’m not, by any means, suggesting that my text is in any way better that Rushdie’s.  I rather like his use of off-the-wall phrases like ‘archetypal, capitalised jinn’, but I would never think of it; and I like some of his images, which border on the poetic.  However, one has to be pretty well educated to read Rushdie.  So who is he writing for?  Critics and academics, or Mrs Smith, book reader?

National Book Foundation

There was an interview in Time magazine a couple of months ago with the first black female to be named executive director of the National Book Foundation.

By way of background, the National Book Foundation website says:

“The mission of the National Book Foundation and the National Book Awards is to celebrate the best of American literature, to expand its audience, and to enhance the cultural value of great writing in America.

“History: On March 16, 1950, publishers, editors, writers, and critics gathered at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City to celebrate the first annual National Book Awards, an award given to writers by writers. The American Book Publisher’s Council, The Book Manufacturers’ Institute, and The American Booksellers’ Association jointly sponsored the Awards, bringing together the American literary community for the first time to honor the year’s best work in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.

“In 1986, the publishing community established The National Book Foundation, a not-for-profit organization to oversee the Awards, diversify their base of philanthropic support and expand their mission. The Foundation board then hired Neil Baldwin—an author, and Manager of The Annual Fund at The New York Public Library—to become the Founding Executive Director of The National Book Foundation and help determine its agenda for the future. ”

Wikipedia says this about Lisa Lucas: “Lucas was born in New York City and grew up in New Jersey.  Lucas attended the University of Chicago, where she studied English.  Reporting on Lucas’s 2016 appointment to executive director of the National Book Foundation, NBC said: ‘With Lucas at the forefront of the National Book Foundation and Awards, the future of publishing looks very bright.’  The Los Angeles Times said Lucas ‘is clearly poised to bring the organization to a new level…ideally suited’ to promote the foundation. She is the third director in the history of the foundation, ‘one of America’s key literary institutions,’ and the first woman and the first African-American to lead the organization.”

Lisa Lucas

In the Time interview, Lucas was asked: “What’s going to be the role of American literature in the new political era?”

Lucas: “People keep saying we’re postfact, and I think that books are the special place where we can go to understand the world we live in.”

Time: “In 2014, 27% of Americans didn’t read a single book.  How can we change that?”

Lucas: “People who make and market books probably assume that 27% of people aren’t going to bother with our product.  That’s the place where you first start correcting.  Assume everyone reads.  Lately, people have been talking a lot about book deserts, places where there isn’t access – how do we encourage people to open bookstores in these communities?”

Time: “What book would you recommend to our President?”

Lucas: “We were so lucky to have such a wonderful reader in President Obama, who said that reading novels helped make him a better citizen.  I can only hope that President Trump is as interested in our stories, lives and literature.  I’d recommend some books that have recently been celebrated by the foundation: Claudia Rankine’s Citizen; John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell’s March; Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land; and Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning.

The full interview is on page 48 of the January 30, 2017 issue.

Review: Seeking Father Khaliq

The following review of Seeking Father Khaliq was posted on Amazon.com by amts:

“This is another wonderful book by author William Peace. Fascinating discussions of theology, philosophy and politics all melded in to an intriguing and mysterious plot. Who is Father Khaliq and why does this perhaps Saudi Arabian princess hire Professor Kareem al-Busiri who teaches at the American University in Cairo to find him? An indifferent Muslim, he is intrigued by her offer. Looking for Father Khaliq takes him on a variety of religious pilgrimages from the Muslim Hajj to the Shia Arba’een, to a trip to Israel and to Rome. Not only does one encounter a treasure trove about each of these places and pilgrimages, but one is treated to stimulating discussions about the three major religions and their approaches to essential questions about the meaning of life, about who is God, and what role the divine being plays in each of our lives.
The politics of the Middle East is handled plot wise in the lives of two of the professor’s sons. The elder, Naquib, wants radical change and becomes a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. The younger, Kalifa, chooses to join the army and to work for change within the system. The choices each makes leads to a tragic outcome that is unforeseen. During one of Kareem’s pilgrimages he comes in contact with Daesh and are held hostage. The scenes involving Daesh are not easy to read, but anyone familiar with the work of ISIS, as Americans refer to Daesh, will not be surprised. Their eventual rescue is one of the most exciting scenes.
Kudos to Mr. Peace for providing us with a book full of strong women characters. Although he is a widower, we learn about the strength of his former Peace Corps American wife who stayed in Egypt after her tour ended and later became a Coptic Christian. He is a realist; she an idealist, but they accepted and respected each other and she was able to exert her quiet influence on him in many ways. Naquib’s wife, Anisa, is the wage earner while Naquib is in school and takes care of the children while she is at work. Kalifa is unmarried, but later marries the daughter of another strong character, Adeeba, a friend of his wife’s whose husband had died about eighteen months before Elizabeth. Adeeba is a professor of Egyptian history also at the American University and the author of several books. She has strong opinions and is not shy about expressing them. The romantic relationship that eventually develops between Kareem and Adeeba is one of mutual respect and admiration, but also one with passion. The final strong female character is Wahida, Kareem’s daughter who works for the Red Crescent and presents the viewpoint of a young Moslem woman challenged by life as a Moslem in the modern world and in a Middle Eastern country.
This book has much to offer the reader – a fast moving plot, stimulating ideas to ponder, insight into the contemporary Middle Eastern world, and well developed characters both the main ones and those whose places are more peripheral. I recommend it most highly.”

Seeking Father Khaliq has received an honorable mention in Reader View’s annual literary awards.

Charlie Smith, Novelist

I’m always interested in other writers: what motivates them to write as they do, and their techniques.  My high school alumni magazine has an interview with Charlie Smith (class of ’65), who has written eight novels, a book of novellas, and eight books of prize-winning poetry.  He has won the Aga Khan Prize, the Levinson prize, the J. Howard and Barbara M.J. Wood prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.  His writing has appeared in magazines and journals such as The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Harper’s, The New Republic, the New York Times, and The Nation. He lives in New York City and Key West.

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Charlie Smith

His latest novel, Ginny Gall, is the “story of Delvin Walker, and African-American born in Tennessee in 1913.  Young Delvin loses his mother when she flees their home after being accused of murder; is taken in by the kind and literate Cornelius Oliver; has to hightail it out of town after a skirmish with a white boy; and rides the US railroad system in a bid to find a home, a place, his life.  The novel sprawls across the America of Jim Crow and the Great Depression, steeped in segregation, violence and destitution of the era, while vibrantly capturing the making of a man – and a writer.”

Smith is asked about the origins of the story: “Well I’m not really a writer who forecasts his novels; I just start off writing.  But this novel does have a faint template: there are certain skeletal bones that reference the Scottsboro Boys in Alabama in 1931, nine young black men who were pulled off a train, accused of raping a couple of white women and thrown into prison.  Those facts were more than I usually have to go on when I start writing.

“One of the things I wanted to do was write an imagined biography about a young man in peril in the South, the extreme difficulty that someone can find himself in – not of his own making – and how he responds to it.  As far as  the character being a writer, it wasn’t something I thought of before I started the book, but as I moved along, I found myself interested in the side of Delvin that would culminate in someone who was becoming a writer.  So I went along that way, and that’s what followed.”

Smith is asked: “Even the bleakest parts of the book had this sort of light shining on them because of the way you used your language.  Did you maintain that language to show how Delvin’s mind works?”

“Some of that is simply the way I write.  I write pretty dark books – but this one is very light-spattered despite all the trouble and grief – it’s kind  of a square dance compared to the books I usually write.  But the juxtaposition of dark and light is an important part of how I approach a novel, and some of these decisions are intuitive decisions, they’re not something I organize ahead of time.  So the lightness you’re referring to is somewhat characteristic of how I write novels, but it’s also characteristic of this particular person – Delvin Walker – of how he experiences life.”

I must say that I’ve found it beneficial to lay out an rough outline of a novel before I start writing: who the characters are, where and when the action takes place, and the message or point of the story.  It seems to me that Charlie Smith had done exactly this when he says “an imagined biography about a young man in peril in the South, the extreme difficulty that someone can find himself in – not of his own making – and how he responds to it.”  I agree with him that what happens in the story isn’t planned in advance.  It evolves from the characters and the message of the novel.  I usually write a more detailed outline of each chapter before I begin writing it, and this will be a listing of events and reactions to them.  But while I’m writing a novel, the plot and the characters evolve over time.  For example, when I’m about halfway through, I begin to get a sense of how the story will end.  I also agree that the use of language is very important in setting the mood of the story, which changes as events unfold.  Language is also vital in creating distinctive characters.

Joan Wickersham

There is an interview called “Inside the Writing Life” in my high school alumni magazine.  A prominent English instructor is interviewing Joan Wickersham who graduated nearly two decades after me.  Ms Wickersham has been writing most of the time since graduation; her work includes her memoir and 2008 National Book Award finalist, The Suicide Index; a book of short fiction, The News from Spain; and The Paper Anniversary, a novel.  She writes a regular op-ed column for The  Boston Globe; her writing has been published in prominent literary journals; and she has read her work on National Public Radio.

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Joan Wickersham

Two questions and answers in this interview caught my eye.

Q: (David Weber) “You’ve sustained your output over many years.  Does the problem of writer’s block seem remote to you, or have you struggled at times to give your work the priority required?”

Wickersham: “There’s a very funny little moment in a movie I once saw, where a bored, impatient woman is trying to figure out where a piece fits in a jigsaw puzzle and she finally just puts in somewhere and smacks it in with her fist.  Writer’s block is a sign that what I’m doing isn’t working, and I can’t fix it by trying to ram something into a place where it doesn’t belong. It can take months to figure out that what I thought was a piece of the sky is actually a piece of the ocean, or that its a part of a different puzzle altogether.  I hate writer’s block, but I’m always grateful to it in hindsight.  It usually means that what I’ve been writing is somehow false, which is just as bad in fiction as nonfiction.  Writer’s block slows me down and makes me throw out pages and drafts – after I’d been working on the book about my father’s suicide for nine years, I threw out a 400 page manuscript and started over – but getting stuck can be an important investment in finding the right way to tell a story.”

I like this way of thinking about writer’s block: it’s not you that are the problem; it’s the story.  Sometimes, when I sit down to write, I feel cornered.  I’ll look back over what  I’ve written, and ask myself ‘what’s not working?’  Other times, particularly when I’m lying awake at night, I’ll start feeling uneasy about the direction of a particular novel.  That feeling generally leads to surgery.  When I was writing Sable Shadow & The Presence, I threw out and re-wrote whole chapters of the book, which has gone on to win eight awards.

Q: “Does a fully realized piece require its own new form, not just descriptive skill and the authority of honesty?”

Wickersham: “A lot of what I’m doing when I write is trying to figure out the inherent rules of a particular piece – the form or structure which will be most true to the story.  My husband, Jay, is trained as an architect.  A long time ago, when I was struggling to write about my father’s suicide, he told me that the students at the École des Beaux-Arts begin each design with a parti – an organizing principle.  I found this idea of the parti exciting and liberating.  I’d been wresting for years with how to organize the messy and painful story of my father’s death, and part of the problem was that the story defied any attempt at a conventional linear narrative.  When I stumbled in the parti of organizing the book as an index, suddenly I had this cool, numb structure that simultaneously imposed order and ridiculed the idea of imposing order on an inherently chaotic experience”.

I never heard of the term parti before, but it makes sense.  The novel I’m currently working on has an unusual organizing principle: two increasingly hostile narrators, whose identity is obscure at first, tell alternating chapters about three, very different, young protagonists over whom they have influence, but no control.  The setting is present day East Africa.

Review: Selection Day

My wife bought me a copy of this novel – signed by the author!  – while I was briefly in the hospital (nothing very serious) and I wanted something to read.  Hospitals are a great place to read: one is always waiting for the next procedure to take place; one can make oneself comfortable; and it is not particularly noisy!  She bought it because I had asked for a novel by a Man Booker shortlist author.  The author, Aravind Adiga, actually won the Man Booker in 2008 for his first novel, The White Tiger.  Adiga was born in Madras (new Chennai) India in 1974; after achieving his secondary school certificate, he emigrated with his family to Australia, where he graduated from high school in Sydney.  He graduated, next, from Columbia University in 1997 and subsequently studied English literature at Magdelan College, Oxford.  He began his business career as a financial journalist with the Financial Times, Money and Time before becoming freelance.

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Aravind Adiga

Selection Day is a book focused on Indian cricket and its effect on a Mumbai slum family of two boys and their compulsive father.  Radha, the older brother, expects to fulfill his father’s dream of being selected for a top Indian team.  Tommy Sir, a coach/agent/promoter introduces the boys father, Mohan, to a ‘businessman’, Anand Mehta, who pays Mohan a stipend in return for a large slice of the boy’s earnings when they become famous.  Unexpectedly, Manju, the younger boy, is the better batsman, scoring 497 not out in a crucial contest.  Radha has a ‘weight transfer problem’ which is inhibiting his effectiveness as a batsman.  Enter a rival, Javed, a cocky, rebellious, rich kid who is also a fine batsman, and who happens to be gay.  Manju, at the center of the story, is his older brother’s best friend and rival, and his father’s severest but respectful critic.  The younger batsman is torn between his admiration for Javed, and his reluctance to commit to an intimate relationship; and between careers in cricketing or in science.

Selection Day offers a rich mixture of conflicted, imperfect characters with whom the reader cannot help but empathize.  The setting of Mumbai is drawn with natural clarity; one feels truly present.  And without being a ‘book about cricket’, Selection Day, presents the culture, the mystique, the competitiveness of Indian youth critic captivatingly, without technical fussiness.  The dialogue is credible, but occasionally seems too tangential to lead the reader to any firm conclusions.  Perhaps, this is Mr Adiga’s intention with this novel: to make the point that, try as one might, there can never be the achievement of one’s ultimate dream.

This sense of failure seems to carry over into the two concluding parts of the novel: what happens after selection day and in the epilogue.  One cannot help but be engaged by the beautiful writing, the energy, and the unfolding future in the lead up to selection day.  The writing is as good, but the energy and the future have dissipated after selection day.  Perhaps this novel could feel more whole, more consistent, if dreams could be scaled back rather than dispelled, and the energy and the future modestly re-directed.

A Nobel Artist

Bob Dylan’s selection to receive the Nobel Prize for literature in 2016 has stirred up considerable controversy.  People are either strongly in favor or very much opposed.  The award seems to be intended for a unique poet/songwriter.  The Nobel Academy said Dylan “Created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”.  Sara Danius, the Nobel Academy’s permanent secretary, said she “hoped” the decision would not be heavily criticized.  She said, “If you look back, far back, 2,500 years or so, you discover Homer and Sappho and they wrote poetic texts that were meant to be listened to.  They were meant to be performed, often together with instruments. and it’s the same way with Bob Dylan.”

Here are some Dylan lyrics:

From Tangled up in Blue (Blood on the Tracks, 1975):

We always did feel the same       We just saw it from a different point of view       Tangled up in blue

From My Back Pages (Another Side of Bob Dylan, 1964):

“Equality”, I spoke the word as if a wedding vow       Ah, I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now

From Lay Lady Lay (Nashville Skyline. 1969:

Lay, lady, lay, lay across my big brass bed       Whatever colors you have in your mind      I’ll show them to you and you’ll see them shine

From Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands (Blonde on Blonde, 1966)

With your mercury mouth in the missionary times     And your eyes like smoke and your prayers like rhymes        And your silver cross and your your voice like chimes    Oh, who do they think could bury you?

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Bob Dylan

Objections surfaced quickly all over the world.  One commentator labeled the selection, “an ill-conceived nostalgia award.”  Another said it insulted “ten thousand fine writers” who could have won the award in his place.  Fiammetta Rocco, manager of the Man Booker International Prize and culture editor of The Economist, said, “It’s a gimmick.  With all the extraordinary fiction that is being written all over the world, by writers whose lives are in danger and who could to some degree be protected by a Nobel Prize, why do this?  Bob Dylan doesn’t need it.  He is an old white man who is rich, famous, and physically safe”.

But, Professor Seamus Perry, head of the English faculty at Oxford University, said, “Dylan winning the Nobel was always the thing you thought should happen in a reasonable world but still seemed quite unimaginable in this one.  He is, more than any other, the poet of our times, as Tennyson was of his, representative yet wholly individual, humane, angry, funny, and tender by turn; really, wholly himself, one of the greats.”  Salman Rushdie said it was a “great choice” and the Dylan is “the brilliant inheritor of the bardic tradition”.

Edna Gundersen’s article, resulting from a recent interview of Dylan, appeared in last Saturday’s Daily Telegraph.  In the interview, Dylan says that the award was, “amazing, incredible.  Who ever dreams of something like that?”  And that he intends to attend the awards ceremony in Stockholm “if it’s at all possible.”  She says: “In interviews over the years, the famously unpredictable Dylan has been by turns combative, amiable, taciturn, philosophical, charismatic, caustic and cryptic.  He has seemed, most of all, on being fiercely private and frustratingly unknowable.  His apparent toying with the Noble committee cannot be said to have come entirely out of the blue.”  When asked whether he could have just taken the calls from the Noble Committee, he says, “Well, I’m right here”, as if it was just a matter of the committee dialing the right number.  Ms Gundersen says: “As a painter, writer, film-maker, actor and disc-jockey, Dylan plainly sees no limitations to artistic expression.”  I think one should add ‘musician’ and ‘sculptor’ to that list.

As for me, I think the award is a great choice.  It recognizes a man of extraordinary talent, who speaks for the times.  Is it a ‘gimmick’?  No.  I would call it a ‘departure from the norm’ which is sometimes necessary to breathe new life into an old process.  What about the ‘ten thousand other writers’?  Would selecting one of the ten thousand have satisfied the other nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine?  I don’t think so; it would, if anything, have intensified their sense of entitlement.  What about the writers whose lives are in danger and who could be ‘protected by a Noble Prize’?  Is it the function of a Nobel Prize for Literature to protect writers?  I don’t think so.  There will always be writers who are hated by their governments.  God bless these writers!  Bravo, Nobel Committee!

 

Writing Contests: A Cautionary Tale

Warren Adler published the following article, extracted below, on the Huffington Post Books page in June of last year.  Until I read it, I hadn’t realised there was such explosive growth of on-line writing contests.

Warren Adler is best known for The War of the Roses, his masterpiece fictionalization of a macabre divorce turned into the Golden Globe and BAFTA nominated dark comedy hit starring Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner and Danny DeVito. Adler’s international hit stage adaptation of the novel will premiere on Broadway in 2016. Adler has also optioned and sold film rights for a number of his works including Random Hearts, The Sunset Gang, The War of the Roses – The Children,Target Churchill, Residue, Mourning Glory, and Capitol Crimes.

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Warren Adler

“When I started the Warren Adler Short Story Contest in 2006 I had rather lofty ideas about integrity and fidelity to the goal of resurrecting the popularity of the short story which was in decline. I appointed qualified people, meaning people who were either authors themselves or teachers of literature or creative writing with the taste and experience to judge the submissions honestly.

“It was a difficult chore at best and I wanted to guarantee that those who were the chosen winners were the very best of those who submitted their work. I offered cash prizes out of my own pocket. The first Prize Winner received $1000 and prizes were offered for our second and third choices. The submissions were free of charge.

“In addition to the cash prizes I promised that the prizewinning stories would be published as an e-book anthology on Amazon and offered for sale with royalties given to the authors of the stories. My hope, of course, was to give a boost not only to the short story format but also to the writing careers of the talented writers who participated. The book, as promised, is available on Amazon.

“The digital publishing revolution was in its infancy and I believe I was the first novelist to ever create such a contest on the Internet. As the cyber world grew so did the submissions. It became difficult and time consuming to read all of the offerings and finding enough quality judges to devote the time to honest assessment was becoming exceedingly burdensome to administer. The last thing I wanted to do was jeopardize the integrity of the contest.

“Eventually I had no choice but to begin charging a small submission fee designed to perhaps curb the number of submissions as well as to provide judges with a stipend that would make it worth their time. Above all, the goal was to maintain the integrity of the contest and further the original goals of the enterprise.

“After seven years of sponsoring the contest, I opted for a hiatus. It was a victim of its own success. To do it right required time, personnel and resources. I finally suspended the contest. I had no desire to create a startup and it was interfering with my own busy writing career.

“What I didn’t imagine was the tsunami of writing contests that it inspired. Worse, I never suspected that it would serve as a business model for entrepreneurs to get into the game just for profit.

“I am somewhat suspect of the value these contests hold for participants.

“Self-publishing requires self-promotion. It is an absolute necessity and comes with the territory, requiring time, effort and funding. The goal is “discoverability.” Most never achieve it, regardless of the quality of their work.

“The rise of self-published fiction authors has been spectacular. Unfortunately the glut has made it difficult for them to stand out from the crowd however excellent their writing is. Genre writers with promotional skills along with lots of money and time might find a niche, although the odds of making enough money to give up their day job is long.

“These writing contests, with their prestigious sounding names, offer the impression of quality promotion for the winners and, of course, bragging rights which can be dubious and of suspect value. One wonders who the judges are that are taking on such a massive amount of submissions. Few of these contest sponsors reveal their methods or the people who read this mass of material and make their judgments. It is often true of the most prestigious awards like the Pulitzer and the Nobel and I often wonder how some of the winners have reached the attention of the judges and who makes the screening decisions.

“By and large, internet-based contests tend to always charge a submission fee, which accounts for the sponsor’s profits as well as its proliferation. Considering that these contests are expanding they must be profitable for the sponsors and are inspiring others to create mirror image money-making opportunities using a similar business plan. Their targets are vulnerable, aspiring writers desperate for recognition and the realization of their dreams.

“Most of these contests are based upon dreams of literary glory, popularity, riches and movie adaptations on the part of authors. All truly believe that their work is deserving of recognition, popularity and prestige. Many probably fit that description. Indeed the sponsors know this and exploit it. It is the key to their monetary success.

“There is a great deal of literary talent out there who go unrecognized and do not attract the traditional publishers. Of course it works both ways. The traditional publishers sometimes gamble on first novels and often lose their bets in the sales arena. Such is the nature of the beast.

“This is not meant to be a blanket condemnation of writing contests. But since the Internet is a vast swamp of snake oil salesman hawking worthless schemes, products and ideas, consider this a cautionary tale.”

My experience of writing contests is very similar to the picture Mr Adler paints.  I have entered a number of contests with most of my books, and I have won some ‘awards’ – but no money.  Even winning first place in a genre did not merit a financial award.  So, I have a wall covered with award certificates.  Invariably, I had to pay an entry fee.  To me, this doesn’t seem unreasonable: there are administrative costs and (presumably) judges fees to be paid.  But, I have never learned how the judging would take place, let alone the identity of a single judge.  I attended one award ceremony in London, at which I expected a journalist or two to be present: there were none.  Attendees consisted of some of the authors who won awards and two low-ranking admin people representing the contest.

Having said this, I still try out new contests that appear to offer more value, particularly those that offer a critique of the work submitted.

Review: So Much for That

This novel attracted my attention as it is written by Lionel Schriver, the author of We Need to Talk About Kevin, which won the Orange Prize for fiction in 2005 and which has sold over one million copies in twenty-five languages. Lionel Schriver wrote seven novels before Kevin, which she called her ‘make or break’ creation after seven years of professional disappointment and ‘virtual obscurity’. Six of her seven novels were published; one failed to find a publisher. Since Kevin, Ms Schriver has written five novels, including So Much for That, which was published in 2010. She is an inspiration to all of us novelists who feel that our creations have not received the deserved recognition.

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Lionel Schriver

So Much for That’s principal character, Shep Knacker, is an entrepreneurial handyman, who is both skilled and likeable. He is able to sell his New York City-based business for one million dollars, and his plan is to move his wife Glynis, his son Zach, and his daughter Amelia to Pemba Island off the coast of Tanzania to live her rest of their lives in low-cost, stress-free comfort. Glynis, though she has been involved in numerous searches around the world to find the perfect place for their ‘Afterlife’, has doubts. Just as she is being confronted with a decision to go or to stay, she is diagnosed with a virulent form of cancer. Escape to Pemba has to be postponed while Glynis undergoes months of treatment. The American healthcare system being what it is, Shep’s nest egg is gradually depleted by co-insurance payments and invoices for un-covered treatments. In order to keep the insurance he has, Shep must continue on the payroll of his prior company, under the unsympathetic supervision of the new owner. Glynis finds that the likely cause of her cancer is exposure to asbestos, with which she had contact in her metal-working hobby. She decides to sue the company which made the asbestos products. Just as Shep is on the verge of bankruptcy, Glynis wins her case and the money received covers an Afterlife in Pemba.

There are several other characters, including Shep’s friend, Jackson, who engages in diatribes against the Mooches (the freeloaders) and the systems that lets them take advantage of the Mugs. Jackson’s daughter, Flicka, who suffers from a horrible, terminal, childhood illness is a vehicle, along with Glynis, for debating the value of human life. There are doctors of doubtful honesty with their patients. And there are decisions about whether to be a Mooch or a Mug.

So Much for That is an entertaining story. It is human, sad, funny, heroic, and, and it is difficult to put down. I felt, at times, though, that the author was lecturing me about the dreadful state of healthcare in the US, and other assorted inequities in life. Several characters, including Flicka, and Shep’s sister, Beryl, are so polarised that one tends to lose what sympathy we should have for them. At the outset, I found it difficult to buy into Shep’s vision of the Afterlife; acceptance of his vision came when his troubles grew acute. Occasionally, I found the text somewhat oblique. For example: “It was disconcerting to be systematically punished for what might have engendered a modicum of gratitude.” Why not say: “He was annoyed to be punished for acts of kindness”? Sometimes, for me, the dialogue didn’t ring true, but perhaps I am being too picky.

 

I liked So Much for That. It makes some very important points about what is to be human: what’s good about our humanity and what’s not so good.