SEX, MURDER, SHOPPING (NYT, 4/13)
Let me be clear: I would LOVE to have my novels reviewed by Janet Maslin, chief book critic of the NYTimes. Even a lukewarm mention translates into visibility, sales and prestige. Even an acknowledgement by the Grey Lady that an author exists is indeed a priceless piece of advertising.
Witness today’s review of MAESTRA, described as “ …a pornographic, shopathon, travelogue thriller …” replete with licentious billionaires, art scams, scheming strumpets, and murder. The sexual component is apparently crude enough to render “50 Shades” almost chaste.
Ms. Maslin’s critique is hardly complimentary. In fact, she suggests that even the heroine’s jaded gymnastics grow stale and dare we say it, boring.
Still, I seriously considered plunking down the $13.95 needed to pre-order the e-book. After all, who knows what I might learn? The novel’s author is a British historian, which argues for at least some sheen of respectability. When I read that like many series, this is only book one, and that it has already been optioned by Hollywood, I decided to wait. Sometimes the film version skips the clunky dialogue and gets to the good parts straight away!
BANK ON IT!
I spent a pleasant weekend in New York, celebrating a minor dog show triumph (another point for Lord Byron), and seeing the sights. Imagine my chagrin when while attempting a minor purchase at Saks, my Bank Card was “declined.” Forget the humiliation I encountered: the icily polite clerk with narrowed eyes and a tight lipped smile who nodded with faux empathy when I proclaimed that “there must be a mistake.” They’ve heard that song sung by many credit-challenged patrons in the past.
Fast forward to my dealings with BancAmerica. Forget the 22 MINUTE wait on my cell phone because “our representatives are busy assisting other customers. Your call is important to us.” REALLY? When an assistor finally answered, she informed me “Oh. You’re a premium member. I can’t help you. Let me switch you to the premium line.”
(Omit the volcanic eruption from yours truly).
After another 10 MINUTES on the cellphone, a pleasant lady responded and quickly diagnosed my problem.
Assistor: Oh. You’re in New York.”
Assistor: “You didn’t tell us you were going to New York.”
Incredulity and a protracted discussion on coordinating my travel plans with the BANK ensued.
Assistor: What are you doing in New York?”
Me: Unprintable outrage.
Assistor: When will you be back in Massachusetts? The exact date.”
Me: Long, mostly polite diatribe about the unacceptable intrusion into my private life and my refusal to comply with their absurd requirements in order to use MY MONEY.
Assistor: We’re only trying to protect you. Our policy is for your own good.
For years, citizens complained about the depredations of the IRS. Hey. Compared with BANKS, the Treasury Department is a rank amateur.
A sour observation in the New York Times book review (2/21) suggested that commercial fiction, that opiate of the masses, is comparable to a Dorito-a tasty but ephemeral treat with no lasting benefit. Literary fiction, however, is equated with “books of value,” a type of vital nutrition for the soul. I note that the author mentions the supposed financial rewards of commercial fiction (LOL) several times. With marked distain, she remarks that literary fiction exceeds “market value” and commercial appeal. Pity the poor purveyor of novels that seek to engage and entertain a wide audience. The literary establishment inveighs against such goals and often indoctrinates MFA students against them.
Pretentious prose masquerading as “deep thinking” can bore the pants off readers. However, works by Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte and a fellow named Shakespeare were originally geared toward the masses yet cherished by millions of readers in subsequent generations. Commercial or literary fiction—you be the judge. I believe both can coexist peacefully without diminishing either.
PS—I researched the author of that piece, a well-respected and erudite woman who has won numerous literary honors. Too bad that her published works sound as dull as dishwater. I guarantee that they will never pander to the great unwashed.
Like many of you, each morning I watch the national news shows eager to assess those being interviewed. More often than not people who should know better perform dismally in the spotlight. Some are quite unforgettable—not in a good way. Until now, hedge fund huckster Martin Shkreli had my vote for insolence beyond the call of duty and against his own best interests. He shrugged off raising the price of a life-saving drug by 800% while displaying a patented sneer that was truly a work of art. Subsequent actions by the SEC and a command appearance before a Senate Sub-committee were probable by-products of that tour de force.
I was eager to hear the new editor-in-chief of COSMOPOLITAN magazine this morning on voting patterns of young women. MISTAKE! Joanna Coles out sneered Shkreli (credit the British accent), used unnecessarily vulgar language, and managed to achieve something that Vladimir Putin failed to do: annoy the usually unflappable Charlie Rose. This thoroughly unpleasant woman did her employer and herself a disservice. Her message—young women are seeking something new—was obscured by her bad behavior and repellent personality.
There are lessons to be learned from those who can relate to an audience and like it or not, authors must master public appearances. Some are naturally gifted in this area but there is still hope for those who are introverts. Consider the following:
- Show your audience and moderator courtesy by listening to the question and answering it succinctly.
- Don’t babble, bloviate, or bore your listeners.
- Even if you are a curmudgeon, learn to FAKE IT. Be your self but be your BEST self.
- Humor, particularly self-deprecating humor is always a crowd pleaser.
- Remember that every appearance is an opportunity—for good or bad. Prospective readers or current fans will be influenced by your public persona.
Finally: with social media and the INTERNET things last forever. Use your time in the spotlight to advance your own interests.
BEWARE THE GREEN-EYED VERB
Many people are beset by jealousy but writers, individuals who labor in splendid isolation without adequate recognition or compensation, are especially vulnerable to the slings and arrows of envy. Writing is a cruel mistress, the true La Belle Dame sans Merci, who frequently beguiles one with promises then casts him aside. The New York Times Book Review (1/31/16) notes the temptation to react to another’s good fortune—fawning reviews, sizable advances, burgeoning sales–by exercising the power of the green-eyed verb to savage competitors. We may all occasionally scratch our heads when some mediocre or poorly written novel scales the heights, but obsessing over the success of another is counterproductive. Far better to analyze why and profit from it.
Awards can indeed be popularity contests that are totally unrelated to content. Reviews may be subjective and sales reports can be manipulated. Taken together however they suggest a strategy that the savvy student of the game takes into account. Why bemoan your fate when you may have the power to change it?
Aligning oneself with supportive writing communities also helps. Sisters-in-Crime is one example of an organization that educates and encourages its members while focusing on skill building. It celebrates the success of crime writers and strives to share the wealth with all members. There are many other groups with a similar mission that can stimulate professional growth and combat writers’ angst.
If all else fails, the next time you peruse the NYTIMES best seller list keep one thing in mind: perhaps the writer in question is actually BETTER than you.
According to the New York Times, erotica and even somewhat naughty novels are a smash success in the audio book market. Typical consumers range from salespeople to long-haul truckers. Even the car-pool parent or subway commuter occasionally succumbs. That may explain sudden stops made by tractor-trailers or the secret smiles on the lips of your Metro seat-mate.
Poor DH Lawrence and his pals wouldn’t even raise an eyebrow today.
TURNING A BLIND EYE
All my life I have been blessed with abundant good health and I now realize how smug that has made me. When a crisis hit (detached retina), I was totally unprepared for the helplessness it sparked and the primal fear of blindness it provoked. In the blink of an eye (LOL), I was transported to Boston for emergency surgery and deprived temporarily of simple pleasures such as reading, and writing that are so much a part of my life.
As in all things, there were life lessons to be learned from this experience that I will share with you. Most people respond with great kindness to a sight impaired person who blunders about an enormous medical facility trying to find her way. A wrong turn at the elevator landed me in the basement but a kindly physician bundled me back into the elevator and guided me to the correct floor. The medical staff was surprisingly courteous.My surgeon even asked me to consider using his speciality for a subsequent mystery story. No problem there. Agatha Christie used atropine plenty of times to off her victims and I now have my own supply.
Just an aside– as Nativist sentiments swirl about the political landscape, I note that my surgeon (considered one of the top retinal specialists in the nation) is of Cuban descent. Take that, Mr. T !!
There was a glaring exception to the “kindness of strangers” rule. One nattily dressed geezer in a packed grocery line raised a patrician brow and chided me for touching him with my cart. I considered asking this entitled prig to step outside to settle things (he was at least 25 years my senior and I thought I could take him even with only one good eye)
however, my own good manners prevailed. If I had actually been aiming for his bony ass, believe me he would have known it.
DOLLARS TO DONUTS
Yesterday I received a disquieting message from American Express-you know, the pulse-quickening, heart-wrenching kind that warns of fraudulent credit card charges. My chat with an account representative revealed that 2 charges ($100. & $50.) respectively with the name SVC CORP had appeared within one hour of each other. She did some research and revealed that a criminal with exceedingly low taste had charged those amounts at DUNKIN DONUTS!! DUNKIN’ DONUTS!! I quickly assured her that I neither drink their noxious brew nor frequent their establishments. Starbucks, no problem, but really I consider myself a coffee connoisseur (Some say snob), and although I have a sweet tooth, it does not extend to buying $150. worth of donuts!!
I have to commend Amex. Their rep was courteous and dilligent. She then scanned my account and said. “There are a awful lot of charges at NEIMAN MARCUS.
No problem, I said, with a secret smile. Some things are just worth the price.
A recent opinion piece in BOOKENDS, posed this question:Is self-loathing an occupational hazard for writers? I love George Orwell’s observation that for writers, “self-loathing and self-love are locked in a tight pro-creative embrace.”
In all candor, many of us in all professions suffer from periodic bouts of despair, wondering if we are good enough, personable enough or just plain tough enough to survive and flourish in our chosen field. For writers (actors,comedians, & even politicians),
our merits are too often weighed publicly and cruelly in the theater of the absurd, aka the Internet.Unfortunately any troll with a computer and a grievance can savage our work. Third parties can inflict the unkindest cut of all by simply ignoring or dismissing us. Oscar Wilde, who knew a thing or two about trauma, famously said. “All men kill the things they love..” Writers in particular often labor in splendid isolation, mired in our daunting sales figures,paltry advances and the perceived successes of less talented peers.
Reality check–it is far easier to give up, and “kill the things we love” by abandoning the struggle than to persevere and create a novel to be proud of.
By allowing self-loathing to triumph, writers squander the most precious gifts of all–talent and creativity. After each rebuff, I force myself back into the battlefield, girded for victory.Sometimes I sense the triumph of optimism over reality. Other times, I savor the sweet sweet scent of success.