Feeling the Bite of Trends

Call me strange, but I just don’t get it.

It seems that, if I wanted to immediately write a book that would generate significant revenue, all I would need is a relatively sound plot arc and some vampires. See, if you involve vampires, you’re bound to sell copy after copy. Vampires are all the rage.  On television, on film, in print. Even Abraham Lincoln hunted them, right?

When I was in high school, a friend recommended Anne Rice to me. I can’t remember if I borrowed or purchased Interview with the Vampire, but it captivated my attention. I found it one of those books that I couldn’t put down…something about the darkness of it seemed dangerous, perhaps wrong, and definitely irresistible. I had a poster in my bedroom with the book’s famous tag line.

I remember having a strange dream in which I woke to find the friend who had recommended the book to me, now a vampire herself, standing in my bedroom door, saying that I had touched the book and now something bad would happen. That was weird, but I didn’t put as much weight on those sorts of experiences then as I do now.

I moved on to The Vampire Lestat, and made it about halfway through the book. I stopped. I was squirming. There’s such a thing as too dark, and, for me, this was it. The word that I remember ringing through my head was “demonic.”

Now, I’m not here to preach against a sub-genre, or a type of character, or anything of the sort. I’m not pounding my fist and claiming that your eternal soul is at risk if you read vampire fiction. What I will say about my past experience is this: with the caveat that I didn’t have the literary analysis skills that I have now while I was in high school, those books, as disturbing as they were to me (even then, it took a lot to make me stop reading a book once I had started), was that at least Rice was good at her craft. While I wouldn’t re-read those books today, I respect her as a skilled writer.

And, I think, those two points about that high school experience encompasses my issue with the vampire craze in literature today. First, I have spiritual misgivings about these fictional creatures, and those misgivings were summarized much better than I could ever state by movie critic and author Jeffery Overstreet. He said (and I’m paraphrasing) that vampires in fiction represent individuals who are forever beyond redemption, and that this is why they are so terrifying, because they represent a lie. While we could debate that as a theological absolute, stop to consider the statement. It will cause gears to turn that haven’t turned before, I promise.

My other issue with the current craze is the issue of the literature being well-written. Rice’s books were crafted well, as was Stoker’s original novel. Compare this to Twilight, and I think you’ll find Twilight wanting. At the risk of mixing apples and oranges regarding different mediums, compare this to what appears on television and film with the current trend, which, ala True Blood, is essentially soft porn with a supernatural twist.

I’ll admit that I have an issue with jumping on bandwagons. I avoid most popular trends as though my life depended on it. I think I have good reason, here, however. I have friends whose reading assessments I respect defend Twilight as well-written. Assuming that their assessment is correct, I’ll still stand on my assertion that so much of the other vampire sub-genre offerings we see in print and on the screen are attempting to capitalize on the success of something that is arguably well-crafted, by adding the same type of genre spin onto something that isn’t well-crafted. That’s a sign of valuing profit over artistic substance. And that, my friends, isn’t cool.

These are all reasons for which I find vampire literature inherently suspect. Have you read any of the above, or something of which I’m not aware? Let me know…

A Review of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Millennium, #1)The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Should you find yourself in search of a good audiobook for traveling over the Holidays, I would recommend “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” Whatever medium in which you choose to read the book, however, you should do so, especially if you enjoy mysteries.  The “whodunit” factor of the plot kept me entertained, and there are enough turns and unexpected twists to keep you guessing. Also, one of the great contributions of reading this in audiobook format is that the narrator had a great sense of the characters, and the voices added a great deal to helping me visualizing them.

The mystery, however, isn’t what stayed with me the most.

The original title of the book (pre-translation, it’s “Men Who Hate Women”) seems appropriate, as that’s certainly the over-arching theme of the book. My wife commented that Mikael is a foil to this theme.  There are basically three types of attitudes toward women presented here: hatred, love, and uncertainty, all represented in different characters. In fact, Mikael seems to be a participant on further inspection, as a passive “hater” in his failure to respect the women in his life through an intentional lack of commitment and willingness to use them for his own gratification.

Lisbeth’s character is heart-wrenching. She’s a great depiction of Asperger’s Syndrome, combined with a healthy dose of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This poor, brilliant woman has no clue how to have a normal, functioning friendship with someone without permitting herself to be objectified. We see her exist in a perpetual loneliness brought about through events beyond her power, and watch as her coping mechanisms lead her to assume a role of subtle but great power over others.

I saw two other themes at work here: justice and forgiveness. Justice, in that Lisbeth is a sort of data vigalante who is unrestrained by societal norms and free to mete out justice of her own variety and in ways that she sees fit. Yet, we never question her ethics, because of what she has experienced. Are we right to view her in that sort of victim mentality? Are we wrong to oppose her?

Also, to piggyback on some discussion I listened to about the book (the Kindlings Muse podcast discussed this at length), the theme of forgiveness and second chances is strong. Lisbeth reprents the secrets that we all want to hide. In an era where someone with her skills can get their hands on every dirty secret we’ve ever typed or recorded anywhere during our lives, can we ever be offered any sort of grace? Is forgiveness possible in a world where nothing can ever be forgotten?

The book caught my attention through it’s heavy marketing in bookstores and on iTunes. I was actually sort of surprised that it is a mystery novel, as I thought it would be more of an espionage novel at first blush. I was in no way disappointed, however. The life of the late Larsson and how it influenced his writing make this book even more fascinating. There are violent sequences in the book, some of the specific details of which could perhaps have been spared the reader without losing any of the impact of the events. I found them to be slightly gratuitous at times. Larsson dwells in his details (perhaps a bit exhaustively in the first chapters), even during the action of the book, and right into the poignant ending. He chooses his words well, and this is an excellent translation from the original language. I’m left aching in sympathy for Lisbeth while cheering her on, and looking very forward to reading the rest of the trilogy.

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Monday night brought excitement as I received news about the new (and much anticipated) software update for Barnes & Noble’s NOOK, my e-reader of choice. Coming at the end of an otherwise complicated and hectic beginning of my week, this was a bright spot in my day.

Although, truth be told, I’ve been having some problems in the ebook world lately.

I say that not as a writer, but as a reader. I can’t wait to self-publish my manuscript in ebook format (assuming said manuscript ever reaches completion…and, believe me, that’s a long way in the future yet), and I’m heavily attracted to the advantages that ebooks offer. I enjoy being able to download a book instantly and begin reading it, and carrying all of my current books with me. What I’ve found myself missing over the last few months, however, is seeing the cover art of the book in my hands. I didn’t think that this would be a big deal, but it sort of is. I’ve found myself missing the act of shelving the book when I’m finished reading it. What’s odd is that I didn’t anticipate missing any of these things at all.

As ebook selection isn’t nearly what it should be as of yet, I’m currently existing in both worlds, finding only about 40-50% of the books I want to read available as ebooks from any seller. So, I’ve had a chance to remember what I’ve been missing. This week, Karen ordered several books from Amazon. I’ve found myself looking forward to their arrival, to finding them at the door, to unboxing them. There’s something about the waiting that’s superior to instant gratification. There’s something about the anticipation.

I listened to a discussion recently about how the act of purchasing music has changed in the era of iTunes and digital downloads. I’ve mentioned here before that I made the transition from CD’s to iPod very easily. I haven’t missed purchasing physical CD’s. I don’t miss holding the album art, because it appears beautifully on my iPod’s screen. I love having my entire music collection with me everywhere. Music holds just as dear a place in my life as books do, but I don’t miss holding CD’s at all. So why do I miss holding books? After all, I’m still reading the book. I listen to audiobooks without missing the physical book itself. What’s different here?

The discussion I listened to this week hinted at a cheapening of the music buying process…a lack of discussion with people who are as passionate about it as you are. The panelist discussed the loss of connection with other music lovers that occurred when we had to drive to an indie record store to purchase music. Now, when we click and download, there’s consumerism without connection. The panelist likened it to pornography.

What’s interesting to me is that this parallels some recent thoughts I’ve had about another long-time love: comic books. Digital comics are just beginning to come into their own on tablet devices. They look gorgeous on my iPad. Yet, almost 100% of the titles I collect are unavailable in that format. So, two or three times a month, I stop by my local comic book shop. During my last visit, I became involved in a conversation with the guy behind the counter about some mutual favorite titles, and he recommended the new Black Widow to me. I didn’t even know they had re-vamped the Black Widow! He gained a sale, and I gained a new title to collect. That’s the sort of interaction…the recommendation of friends…that connect us with new music and new books that are the most important. No algorithm generating a “you may also like” selection after your purchase on a website can duplicate that.

Perhaps this is yet another case of technology being permitted to rise above the status of the tool it is meant to be, beginning to manipulate us into serving it instead of it serving us. Perhaps this is one step further toward what science fiction authors have warned us about for some time.

And, if so, how ironic that I read so much science fiction in electronic format?

Eventually, I’ll reconcile this dilemma that I can’t explain, and decide one way or another how I want to read. I’ll either cultivate a sense of waiting, or succumb to more instant gratification. Or, perhaps I’ll recognize that there’s one area of my life in which I struggle to release “the way things used to be,” after all. Until then, I’ll keep dividing my reading time between my NOOK and physical books.

Honestly, though, I wonder how long that will last.

Photo Attribution: bfhoyt 

Video Killed…Well….Everything?

Not the first time I’ve talked about this subject….and, I’m sure, it won’t be the last. However, I hit a bit of writer’s block tonight, and went flipping back through that virtual Rolodex of blog posts and articles that I’ve wanted to write a response to, but haven’t quite made the time to do so. And, I rather quickly found this one. Quite a provocative title, don’t you think?

The sentiment of not only the post, but also the comment chain, concerns me. Several commented that perhaps this is the natural time for literary fiction to die, because nobody reads it any more. That stings…and I think that the reason it stings is because I see in it a good deal of truth. Frequently encountering middle-school aged students and seeing the public education system at work on a regular basis, I see a complete void of interest in reading altogether. I think of statistics of how few adults read books for pleasure, and I think of a remark I heard today on a podcast that we are the first culture in the world that has managed to nearly destroy its own poetry. I think about the evolution of media, and how new media is widely viewed (although most would not directly state this) as a substitute for literature, instead of other avenues to explore in addition to literature.

Am I a snob? Am I part of the “literati” who look down their noses at everyone who doesn’t peruse the summer fiction issue of the New Yorker? I hope not. Its just that I see the loss when I think of the great works I read in high school and college, and how many friends and colleagues I encounter who have never read…or in some cases never heard of…novels that have had a profound impact on the way our culture thinks. I don’t even want to say that I’m “well read.” Its just that I’m “somewhat read.”

Obviously, as the huge increase in sales of e-books and e-readers would indicate, novels are not dead, including classic and new literary novels. The blog post I referenced earlier states that genre fiction survives well, and I’m not against genre fiction…I’m particularly a mystery and sci-fi fan. The blogger questions, however, whether or not modern literary writers (who find it easier than ever to get their works in front of the public eye) are of the same calibre as, say, the Tolkiens or Dostoyevskies or Wilsons or O’Connors of previous generations. That is something that I think merits conversation, because the claim that recent decades have yielded no such great writers is not completely without merit, I think (some current and extremely talented writers notwithstanding).

Is it possible for a culture’s tastes and preferences to change so drastically that literature could die, replaced by pulp fiction and genre novels exclusively? Or, as some of the commenters on the original post indicated, does it simply evolve? Do some think that there are not great writers producing work today because others simply think differently as to what is a great work? In other words, does the definition of a great work change over time? If so, is this a loss or a gain? Is it to be expected? Will video kill the author, as well?

What do you think?

Photo Attribution: stuartpilbrow

The Loss of J.D. Salinger

I think it would sound cliche to say that the literary world lost an amazing writer this week, but the cliche would make the fact nonetheless true. J.D. Salinger passed away this week at the age of 91 after decades of living as a recluse in my wife’s home town of Cornish, New Hampshire.

I, like many, knew almost nothing of Salinger’s work after Catcher in the Rye. Recently, though, I became exposed to him through the recommendation of a friend and an accident involving chocolate. Several months ago, a friend was giving me critique on a short story I was in the process of finishing. He recommended a story with which I was unfamiliar: A Perfect Day for Bananafish, which was part of a collection called Nine Stories. I went to the local Barnes & Noble, and, being interested only in that specific story, found a copy of the collection and sat down to read the story over a cup of coffee, with the intention of re-shelving the book after. My cost-saving grad student ways hadn’t completely left me.

The description that my friend had given Bananafish as being the “perfect short story” resonated with me as I marveled at the precision with which the story was written. The body language of the woman described in detail, the squirmy, uncomfortable feeling in the dialogue between the protagonist and the child on the beach, the weighty symbolism of the mythical Bananafish, the abrupt suicide at the end that was described eloquently and without gratuitous violence, leaving me stunned and staring at the last sentence. Something I was glad to have read.

A few days later, I returned to Barnes & Noble and took the book from the shelf again to read the next story, curious to experience more of Salinger’s prose. This time I accidentally stained a page with chocolate from my drink, and decided that the only ethical thing to do was purchase the book instead of re-shelving it. I’m so glad that I did so, because stories such as The Laughing Man, to which I discovered a fascinating connection to some anime I enjoyed, left me digging for the message behind the metaphor (ironically, something Salinger would likely have not wanted). Others, such as the simultaneously abrasive and poignant For Esme–with Love and Squalor, left me with profound sorrow and adoration. The underlying theme of the loss of humanity in war is difficult to miss in Salinger’s work. I’ve since read all of his published collections of the “Glass Family fiction,” save one difficult-to-find short story that I’m hoping to lay hands on soon. Watching Salinger’s search for faith through the course of these works was  riveting, although his faculties appeared to be loosening a bit by Seymour: An Introduction. Sadly, I don’t think he found the faith for which he was searching by the time these works were finished.

Salinger’s rhythm and cadence stay in your ear long after you’ve read him, and his characters, not to mention his New York,  linger like an aftertaste with all their implications to ponder. I hope there were more manuscripts, as has been rumored, and that those will find their way to publication now. I’m in even more hope that, in reading them if and when they do see daylight, I will discover that Salinger found his way to the faith he desired.