Thursday, December 29, 2011

Lecturing/Yelling

     I read Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle by Chris Hedges.  Discussing the rise of a corporate-run entertainment culture throughout nearly every walk of life, designed to lull America into consuming more and thinking less, Mr. Hedges presented a disturbingly convincing argument that suggested we are basically headed for the end of the world (as we know it and want it).  To calm myself down, I grabbed a couple of books on the opposite side of the ideological fence, just to balance the input I was getting.  So I read some Glen Beck and some Ann Coulter.  The irony is that they, too, were basically predicting the end of everything good and worthwhile, but blaming different people for it.  Is that the nature of ideology?  Is it ultimately just about who you blame?
     Reading Mr. Hedges' work, fiercely intelligent and well-researched, I often felt like I was being lectured at.  Reading Mr. Beck's and Ms. Coulter's work, both fast-paced and enthusiastic, I often felt as though I was being yelled at.  I mentioned this to someone and she summed it up rather elegantly, I thought.
      "That's because," she said, "liberals always think their party is smarter than it is and conservatives always think their party is dumber than it is."
      I wonder, would any of us make any progress if we tried lecturing more to conservatives and yelling more at liberals?

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Freaky

     We are surely in the boom era of the Young Adult novel.  Never before have they proliferated to such a degree nor, indeed, was it long ago that they were not even recognized as a genre.  Despite this, a few titles have lasted through the years as stalwart classics.  One such book is Freaky Friday, Mary Rodger's 1972 story of a thirteen-year-old girl who spends one very enlightening day in her mother's body.
     Having just reread it myself, I am struck not only by how sharp, insightful and caustically funny it is for such a lightning fast read (one hundred and forty five lickety-split pages), but also by the ways it pointedly does not resemble contemporary young adult fare.
     Young adult novels today are considerably more sophisticated in narrative terms and to the emotional extremes they often paint to meet the perhaps more sophisticated expectations and narrative savvy of today's readership.  Freaky Friday, however, is far less precious, perhaps as an indication of how children and teenagers were seen and treated.  Though it is ostensibly a comedy, Freaky Friday is far more raw and political than any contemporary fare I've read in the last ten years.  Most fascinating of all is how this raw sensibility is not the point of the story nor particularly calcualted in any way.  It is, as evidenced by much of the entertainment of the same era (movies in particular), simply the vernacular of the times.
     I would be interested to find out how Freaky Friday (or, while we're at it, another one of my favorites from this era, House of Stairs by Sleator ) could still shock and surprise readers of the more "hard-edged" likes of Hunger Games and Twilight

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Ode to a Former Boy Wizard

     At the behest of our eight-year-old theater critic, my wife and I took our daughters -- for a second time -- to How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying starring, among others, the erstwhile ex-Harry Potter Danial Radcliffe.  The entire show was -- or perhaps I should say "remains" -- grand, smashing entertainment, both sweeping and rollicking in its music and performances and cleverly subversive in its commentary on corporate culture (and, remember, it was originally performed in 1961).  The entertainment value was due in no small part to Mr. Radcliffe himself, who played the role of the naif cum master manipulator with great panache, humor and charisma.  Depending on your opinion of him as a performer, that may come as no surprise.  What blew my socks off (again) was the unbridled energy and and gusto with which he threw himself into the musical numbers and the dancing (also on display during the Thanksgiving Day Parade).  Not trained as a dancer, so far as I know, Mr. Radcliffe held his own with -- occasionally even outshined -- the cadre of professional dancers backing him up.  And these are not easy numbers.  Two in particular -- Grand Old Ivy and Brotherhood of Man -- call for a surprising degree of strength, stamina and acrobatic skill.
     Surely, if there is any actor around right now who can rely on his name to pull in crowds, who does not have to exhaust himself into a gasping, sweating heap eight times a week, it is Mr. Radcliffe.  But his absolute commitment, his unbridled enthusiasm for giving every audience something special, something they can enjoy and remember, is really quite extraordinary.
     It did make me think about the nature of art and the expectation of the audience.  Do we love art more simply because it's beautiful, enjoyable or, on some level, meaningful to us?  Or is there a component of the artist's effort that figures into the audience's experience, even if unconsciously?  Does this effort somehow make the work itself deeper or grander?  Can an effortless piece of art have the same weight as one that required a huge amount of work to produce?
     I don't know, but Mr. Radcliffe has my admiration for his commitment and for getting me to ask myself a new question about the artist's craft.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Interview for Graphic Novels in Your School Library

     I recently did an interview with the incomparable Matthew Moffett about Graphic Novels in Your School Library.  The interview was done as part of Matt's show on the YALSA Blog and is available to listen to here.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Eiseners

     The Eisner Awards, named for comic trail-blazer Will Eisner, are more or less the Oscar Awards for sequential art.  As of today, I am officially a judge on the 2012 Eisner Committee.  There's a lot of extraordinary stuff out there in the format.  I'm looking forward to diving into it.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanks

     Once you get beyond the things you're really thankful for -- the wonderful dinner, the family and friends you're sharing it with, the opportunities life has afforded you -- you come to the less vast but still significant things, the art and stories that lighten and enrich our days on a smaller scale.  Here are a couple of those things I'm thankful for right now:

The Binscombe Tales by John Whitbourn - I haven't started them yet, but these short stories about a small English village where people find themselves tormented by whispering voices or spend their entire lives waiting for a bus  sound very weird, and I do like weird.

Avengers Academy - It can be difficult to find something fresh in mainstream superhero comics, but this story of a troubled bunch of teenagers struggling through training with the world's premiere super-group has deep (and often dark) characterizations and dazzling intrigue.

The Descendents - George Clooney's new film about a family in turmoil is wonderful all around but also has the most beautiful last scene I've ever seen in a movie.

12 Angry Men on Blue Ray - About humanity and having the integrity to stand up for it.  Surely one of the best movies ever made.

     Happy Thanksgiving.  Don't let it pass you by without a good turkey joke.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Graphic Novels in Your School Library

     Graphic Novels in Your School Library, written by yours truly and illustrated by Rush Kress, is available now.  For more information about it and for excerpts from the book, have a look at the page linked here.  If you're interested in a copy for yourself, it's available for order here and at all the other internet book resources you might imagine.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Beyond the Pale

     The independent horror director/producer Larry Fessenden got together with some fellow, off-the-beaten-path horror masterminds and came up with a beautifully produced series of audio stories called Tales from Beyond the Pale that harken back to old time radio shows, but have distinctly contemporary tones, themes and content. 
     Every story has a full voice cast and, so far, the two that particularly stand out for me are Mr. Fessenden's own eerie and tragic The Hole Digger from Volume 1 and Graham Reznick's disturbing and semi-surreal The Grandfather (starring Angus Scrimm, the terrifying Tall Man from Phantasm in something of a departure) from Volume 3.
    The absence of imagery, or course, allows imagination to flow in and fill that void, thanks to strong writing -- that's the whole point of doing something in this format, I would think --  and a powerful sense of atmosphere and dread pervades each story.  For my money, that dread, that sense of imminent and inevitable doom, is what makes the most effective horror work.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Design of Our Lives

     A few days ago, I saw a documentary called Urbanized, which was about the design of cities.  Among several interesting things contained therein (including, for instance, why movable chairs are preferable to fixed-in-place chairs for public seating), something particularly struck me.  The point was made that everything in a city is designed.  That is, everything we see and experience and interact with in a city has been specifically conceived so that we interact with it in an intended way.  The trees throughout a city, someone noted, are placed by design.  This, I suppose, should not come as a terrible shock.  I never really thought that we built a city and left holes in the bottom of it for trees to grow up where they wanted to.  But it seems that even the height of the trees is designed.  Presumably, types of trees are chosen so that their height will offer a particular amount of shade over a certain area, not interfere with artificial light from lamposts, be set back far enough from the street so as not to cause trouble for people parking cars.  This is a level of design detail governing my interaction with the world that I had not expected.
     So, you get to thinking, is this only true of cities?  Are more rural environments less design-heavy?  Well, imagine looking down from an airplane at those huge, perfectly constructed square and rectangular sections of landscape.  Those didn't grow that way by themselves.
     Just how much are our lives defined by the design of others?  Is that just how human beings adapt to and tame their environments, by designing them to human specification?  Just how far does the design of others determine who we are?
     There's a book in here somewhere.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Editing, Stage 5

     After four previously reported stages of editing (and several smaller alterations in between that I didn't bother posting about), Jason deemed the manuscript ready to send along to my editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Julia.  After reading it herself, Julia -- I'm very happy to say -- was quite pleased with the book.  While she did not find it confusing in the overall (a problem Jason and I worked hard to fix), she sent along a list of twelve distinct suggestions, most of which were surgical changes of lines or words to clarify specific ideas or actions.  There were two suggestions, however, that had larger repercussions. 
     First, she found a conversation toward the end to be confusing in terms of who knew what and how.  This lead me to state several facts explicitly and shift dialog from one character to another.  Most importantly, though, it required that a certain fact that had been hidden from two characters be revealed to them.  This revelation lead me to write a new passage of dialog which deepened the tension and expanded the relationship between Laura and a new character named Rose.
     Second, Julia suggested that the final two paragraphs of the book be struck, in order to give the ending a more lyrical tone.  As it stood, the book ended on a passage about the state of the world itself.  Julia felt that it would work better to end with a passage about one of the characters and let that serve as an indication of the way things were heading.  She was absolutely right and thus the original ending will be packed away until a director's cut of the book is called for.
     Finally, as I predicted long ago, the title has been changed.  The word "man," it seems, is not ideal for a YA novel title.  So The Unmade Man is now titled What We Become, which is more in keeping with the wording and tone of the title Those That Wake and also comes from a quote that will precede the book.  

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Occupy Wall Street

     I applaud the Occupy Wall Street protestors and their growing cohorts around the world.  I absolutely and one hundred percent believe in what they are saying and their right to say it as loud as they can (without hurting anyone, of course).  Incidentally, it's also nice to see the the once utterly obscure Zuccotti Park (which I used to live next to) suddenly become the focal point of a worldwide movement.
     But I'm deeply dubious; not of anyone's motivations or commitment which are all proving to be quite clear and strong.  I just wonder if we have come to a point in history where this kind of action can no longer have the lasting effect that it needs to.  Once upon a time, this was how you affected change -- where would the 1960s have been without it?  But our attention is so diffracted, our wealth so concentrated, our laws so lenient, I don't know if the raised voice of humanity can topple the corporate walls any longer.  Clearly, public sentiment is not sufficient reason to get corporations to change how they do business.  For things to genuinely change the way they need to -- the way the protestors want them to -- we need an array of regulatory laws drafted the likes of which have not been seen, or even considered, since Ronald Reagan blew them to Hell.  This means that government has to respond to the outcry and be able to wriggle out from under corporate pressures to draft such laws.  Given that government interests and corporate interests are so inextricably wound together now and that the corporations will claim that such regulations will mean huge shut downs and mass relocation of factories to places that will prove less costly and that this will all inevitably lead to massive job cuts . . .
     I want to believe that our voices make this big a difference.  I want to believe that enough people, banding together can change the world.  I want to believe.  I just need some proof.     

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Comics In Education

     I did an interview with Diamond Bookshelf, the e-newsletter of the national comic distributors, on the subject of comics and graphic novels in education.  Have a look at it here.
   

Thursday, October 6, 2011

A Comic Con . . . in a Library

     On Saturday, October 8th, the Steinway branch of Queens Public Library will be hosting the very first comic convention in Queens and the very first comic convention (that I'm aware of) in a library.  It will feature various graphic novelist luminaries, as well as an auction of a large collection of impressive comics to be gotten at a steal, and a panel on collecting which I will be sitting on.  The event begins at 10:30 AM.  For more information, have a look here.
     If you're in the area, please stop by and say hello (and score a good deal on a comic book while you're at it).

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Power of Love

     What makes a happy ending?  I've been working on this one hard lately and what I've managed to determine is, regardless of what form you're working in (books, movies, etc.) and almost regardless of genre, it all comes down to one thing: love.  If love triumphs, you've got a happy ending.  If love doesn't triumph, you haven't got a happy ending. 
     The concept of triumph itself is somewhat open to interpretation.  Do the lovers have to end up together for love to triumph?  Not necessarily.  What I mean when I say triumph is that the love is validated, shown to have great value, to empower the people who are in love; that the love ultimately be a good and important thing.  If you've got that, it does not appear to matter if friends die, jobs are lost, families have to move, one of the lovers becomes a vampire or the world undergoes Apocalypse.
     Does this limit our ability to tell or appreciate stories?  Is love all we ultimately yearn for or crave in our actual lives?  Does it say something deeply hopeful about us?  Stories, of course, are seldom just stories.  They are always most interesting for what they tell us about ourselves. 

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Editing, Stage 4

     One more round of read-throughs and the latest changes are:

1. Laura's situation at the beginning needs to feel a bit more dire.  She's obviously got a problem, but the psychological turmoil of it could be brought out more.

2. Hone the background of a new piece of technology that's introduced here.

3. Eliminate an extremely minor character who figures into the background of a new major character.  This minor character was meant to highlight a sense of betrayal in the major character's life, but eliminating him will, instead, highlight the sense of isolation, which is more valuable.

     Finally, and somewhat predictably, there is still a bit of streamlining and simplification necessary surrounding the antagonist of the piece and his plan.  I myself lean towards a more vague background, but Jason suggests that giving more details could give the character greater weight.  It's a difference, I suppose, between a sense of mysterious unease (vague) and direct threat (specific).  There is a compromise between the two that I am going to strike, intending to create a sense of mysterious unease with a direct threat at its center.  As regards the villain's plan, cutting extraneous bits here and there should make the whole thing clearer and smoother.
     So, we are approaching the nitty-gritty at this point.  It's not all small surgical edits, but it is mainly that now.  This is excellent, because my deadline is a little more than three weeks away.  We're zeroing in here and one or two more edit sessions with my agent Jason should get it ready to go.
     Then, of course, my editor Julia gets a crack at it.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

We Can Rebuild Him

     Does anyone remember The Six Million Dollar Man?  Apparently Kevin Smith does (he's involved in a new comic book based on his movie script for an aborted cinematic update of the concept).  I do, too, with extreme fondness.  I was just the right age for the slow-motion heroics and to embrace Lee Majors' somewhat stony interpretation of the part.  The concept of a man becoming that intimate with technology (his right arm, left eye and both legs were bionic) did not particularly trouble me.  Cyborgs were already de rigueur in Sci-Fi, familiar even to a wee lad like me.  And, after all, it wasn't as though the technology was having a psychological effect on him.
     I bet Max Barry remembers it, too.  In Machine Man, he takes the central idea of the cyborg and adds in all the abnormal psychology, corporate menace and black humor that The Six Million Dollar Man did not feature.  Barry's wicked and disturbing take on corporate shenanigans was on full display in his excellent Jennifer Government and is not in short order here either. You also get a compulsively readable style, a morally dubious protagonist who Barry magnificently put you fully on the side of, and an unexpectedly poignant love story.  I suppose that it goes without saying that the examination of a world (and a man) that is so willing to integrate itself on the most intimate level with technology is all the more relevant now than it was back in the 1970's.  Unlike the fondly remembered Six Million Dollar Man, Machine Man is not about a cyborg hero, but is all about the psychological weight of the technology we embrace.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

A Joke

 Those That Wake, a rather different version of Laura asks a rather different version of Mal to tell her a joke in order to alleviate some of the tension brought on by their situation.  As those versions of Laura and Mal changed, the passage called less and less for a joke.  But it's a good joke and I hate to see it go to waste, so here goes:
    In an earlier version of

     A wild turkey walks into a bar.
     "Hey," says the bartender, "we've got a drink named after you."
     And the wild turkey says "you've got a drink named Ralph?"

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Editing, Stage 3

     The third draft of the sequel to Those That Wake (still, much to my surprise, tentatively titled The Unmade Man) has come back with notes from Jason.  With one exception, the notes this time are more specific and will require less of an overhaul of the entire manuscript.  We have not reached the nitpicking stage by a long shot, but we do seem to be out of the defining what we're doing stage.
     So, notes this time include:
     1. Slightly altering the backstory of a new character who has close ties to Mal and more clearly defining her feelings towards Mal at the beginning of the book.
     2. Delineating Laura's problem at the beginning of the book so that it plays up one of the books major themes relating to how we define ourselves as people.
     3. Sharpening the atmosphere through which we view the future New York City, which has changed in what I'm hoping is a surprising way since the first book.
     The one exception I mentioned in the first paragraph, I'm sorry to say, still pertains to a central element of the narrative that needs more simplifying/streamlining.  That's a more daunting issue than the others and it sure makes you feel the weight of that deadline pressing down (a month and a half from today).
     It's worth noting that all of the editing here and that has gone before is being done with my agent Jason at this point.  The manuscript has yet to be turned into my actual editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Thing You Love Most

     Editing and rewriting the sequel to Those That Wake recently has left me thinking about M. Night Shyamalan.  A case can be made that, after early and resounding artistic success, Mr. Shyamalan trapped himself in a bizarre loop of egotism and creative lunacy.  However you feel about him, I will always value his endeavors and creative thinking for two things.  Number one, his best movie: Unbreakable.  (Yes, I came right out and said it; its explication of the "becoming what you are meant to be" theme resonated more powerfully for me than the way it was handled in the Sixth Sense).  Number two, however, goes deeper.
     In discussing the deleted scenes on the Sixth Sense DVD, he explains that one of the segments toward the end of the movie was a scene he was in love with, maybe his favorite in the whole film.  It was, if I recall correctly, the scene he had initially envisioned, which the entire movie eventually sprang from.  Naturally, it wound up on the cutting room floor.  When you create something, he said, find the part of it that you love the very most.  That's the thing that you're going to have to get rid of. 
     I'm still working on why that is, exactly.  Maybe it's because the thing you love the most is too personal to you, that it muddles an essential accessibility.  Maybe.  Whatever the case, I am finding it to be as true a thing as I've ever heard about the process of crafting a story.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Red and the White and the Blue Come Through

     A brief comment on behalf of a subject near to my heart: Captain America; more specifically, the recently released Captain America: the First Avenger, which could easily have been missed (or scorned) amidst the field of so many superhero movies this season.  Rather than the shrill, jingoistic propaganda they could have turned out, the movie is a great, old-fashioned pulpy adventure with a surprising amount of heart, thanks mainly to star Chris Evans and director Joe Johnston.  They've fashioned an excllent hero cut from classic cloth, a guileless man with a good heart and a stubborn streak that won't quit.  Nobody is going to be left gasping at the gritty realism, but a more enjoyable two hours in a movie theater would be hard to find this summer. 

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Editing, Stage 2


     Notes have come back for the second draft (discussed here) of the sequel to Those That Wake and they boil down to this: it’s still too confusing.  The trouble appears to be an element carried over from Those That Wake, which was apparently the cause of some confusion there, as well.  The villain of Those That Wake, Man in Suit, was going to return in a very different form in the sequel (still, at least for the time being, tilted the Unmade Man).  Man in Suit’s new form was going to serve as a glue that would hold many pieces of the second book together, not just in a narrative sense, but also thematically. 
            Jason is convinced, however, that the concept is too confusing and he has convinced me, as well.  So, the problem: how to hold the narrative together and support the pertinent themes without having to rewrite the book from chapter one?  A fantasy element is required to do this heavy narrative lifting, but simply adding another fantasy element  into the sequel that is not already established may be one fantasy element too many.  I am, after all, trying to maintain a certain level of realism.  I am looking, then, for a fantasy element that already exists in the sequel that can be stretched and slightly reshaped to accommodate the new narrative responsibilities.
            Clearly, we are not at the nitty-gritty stages of editing yet and large, sweeping issues must be addressed.  I do not have the answer yet, but a few ideas are pinging around my head.  Once I’ve got a solid shape for them, I will write a detailed outline and give it to Jason for more comments.  Only after we’ve hashed that out will I begin on a third draft, which will hopefully lead us out of the large, sweeping issues and into the nitty gritty.  While it's not tapping its foot impatiently yet, my deadline is on its way down the street to knock politely at the door.  

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Cold

     Shopping for a new refrigerator, my wife and I found that the one with the smaller dimensions we need (we have a very narrow kitchen) is nearly a thousand dollars more expensive than larger models.  We ask why this is.
     "Well," says the salesman, with quiet sympathy, "the companies always charge more for non-standard sizes."
     "Yes," we say, "but the one we need is smaller."  This means, unless my understanding of physics is quite off, that it requires less material to construct and that there is less room inside it, thus it is actually less useful.
     "Doesn't matter," the salesmen replies.  He's explained this before.  "It's non-standard."
      In thinking long and hard about this, I am left with two possibilities: 1) the companies mass produce standard size pieces from which they construct most of their refrigerators, thus using non-standard pieces (whether they are smaller or larger) actually costs them more.  2) Companies can call anything they want "non-standard" and charge more for it.
     One choice is obviously more heinous than the other and, of course, there could be another reason I'm overlooking.  In any case, practically speaking, we (and you and everyone) must pay more (way, way more) to get less.
     This cannot possibly be the only instance of "non-standard" price difference discrepancies in all of manufacturing.  I'm almost scared to find out. 

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Things I Saw In Paris

Walking around the streets of Paris with my family, I see Coca Cola, Danon Yogurt, Lay's barbecue potato chips and Snickers on the shelves of every grocery store and deli, the movies Green Lantern, Bad Teacher, Hangover Part 2 (charmingly retitled Very Bad Trip Part 2) and Mr. Popper's Penguins playing in the theaters, and a McDonald's or a Starbucks on every block.
I understand the idea of exporting culture, but I have a hard time thinking of a single French product, movie or restaurant that I might see casually walking down the streets in New York. Is France accommodating us? Surrendering to us? The other day, a couple came up to me while I was on my way home and, told me they were from out of town and asked me if there was a nice place to eat nearby. I suggested a place I thought had good food and was distinctive. "No," the woman looked at me with clear confusion, "I meant something likes McDonald's or Wendy's." Seems like traveling is becoming more a matter of feeling at home wherever you go these days than really plunging into another culture.
We're all closer now than we've ever been, we all "know" each other with a cultural intimacy we never have before. That's a good thing, right?

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Editing, Stage 1

     A few weeks ago, I mentioned that the sequel to Those That Wake had been sent into my agent, Jason, for a first look and that I would give updates along the way as a glimpse into the editing process.  The first round of editing is underway and this is what has been/is going to change, as per Jason's very astute suggestions:
     1. The overall story needs to be streamlined so that the emotional relationship at its heart (that between Mal and Laura) stands out as much as possible.  I do tend to go off on character and idea tangents.
     2. The villain of the piece needs to be better defined, which is to say changed so that he will not confuse everyone who reads the book.  My initial conception of him was that he be very abstract, as the more shadowy and less defined evil is, the more menacing I find it.  Instead, he will be very solid, though his actions and methods will remain shadowy and menacing.
     3.  Something crucial that happens to Mal and defines his role for the middle portion of the book needs to be clarified.  Again, this is a matter of very conceptual stuff being made more accessible.
     So these were the first round of general suggestions.  Clearly, I have a problem with making things too complex or conceptual.  I'm working on that.  Anyway, I will address these issues and turn in a second draft and Jason will return with more specific advice on everything from narrative to style and the next re-write will be far more detail-oriented.  We are determined, naturally, to turn in the cleanest, sharpest, most effective manuscript to my editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
     Incidentally, as I predicted in the previous post linked above, there has been a call to consider changing the title.  
 

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Teen Writer's Bloc Interview

     Teen Writer's Bloc recently posted an interview with me about Those That Wake and various related themes.  Do please have a look at the link above.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

An Idle Question

     In Those That Wake, I wrote about Forgotten Places, parts of the world that people had stopped visiting and thus had left their memories and slowly started to fade from the world itself.  I was put in the mind of this a few days ago as I was driving from Ashland to Sacramento when I encountered a sign that said "You're now leaving Oregon.  Come Again!"  About a hundred feet on, a second sign sprang up, proclaiming "Welcome to California!"  So, there's a good one hundred feet of highway in between these two signs and, apparently, it's not in Oregon and it's not in California.  Where is it, exactly?  Does anyone own it?  Doesn't this same expanse of unclaimed land exist between every two bordering states in the country?  Can I claim this land?  Could I not, in effect, have this strip of land winding its way through the continental United States and proclaim it a massively long (but not very wide) fifty-first state?  Could I not charge a toll every time anyone passed into or out of its borders?
      There's a short story in here somewhere.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Sequel, Part 2

     What makes a sequel good; not just enjoyable but also a proper, worthy and satisfying continuation?  Seems to me that the key is partially in that last word, "continuation."  There ought to be, first of all, a sense that the characters from the first story have grown, moved forward.  Die Hard 2, for example, is great fun, but not much of a continuation.  The Empire Strikes Back, on the other hand, absolutely continues the development of the main characters (okay, mainly Luke) and relies not only on the fact that you know who they had been, but required that knowledge to create the narrative.
      At the same time, a sequel ought to offer an expanding and a deepening.  You can expand the vision of the world the story takes place in (again, the Empire Strikes Back does this quite nicely as does, for instance, Beneath the Planet of the Apes), but more significantly, the themes that the first one explored should be expanded, given greater weight, examination and perspective.  This expansion would, by its nature, also deepen one's understanding of the thematic undercurrents, which is crucial to a satisfying story.  Are themes whose depths have already been plumbed in the first story really that resonant for being retread in the second?  Notably, I don't think this thematic expansion necessarily requires that the story take on a larger scope.  Indeed, it seems sometimes that if you make the sequel a tighter, more intense narrative it can aid in deeper explorations of character and theme.  Philip Pullman's the Subtle Knife, sequel to the Golden Compass, is a great example of this.
     In discussions of sequels, you often hear about how there is a demand to both give audiences/readers what they expect but also to surprise them.  That has a very superficial ring to me.  It seems to suggest that people want their expectations met but with a twist so they feel like they got their money's worth.  Pushing this idea a little farther down the path, what you really have are audiences who want to visit characters they already know and like and be surprised by these characters in a way that feels fresh but also appropriate to their growth.  Honestly, there's nothing about that that's particularly special to sequel-telling.  Who doesn't want a story with good characters and a good surprise?

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Sequel, Part 1

     Those That Wake is going to have a sequel.  The first draft is done and the editing process begins.  A great deal of work was done on Those That Wake before it was published, though the structure, the themes and the nature of the characters all remained essentially intact (which is a real tribute to my agent, who was my de facto editor).  This makes me curious to see how much of the sequel, as it stands now, will make it to the published version.  I don't suppose anyone loves the idea of their writing being shifted, massaged, altered or transformed, but I will say that Those That Wake was far, far superior in its published form (that's the whole idea, after all).  Next post, I'll throw out some ideas for what I believe makes a good sequel.  For now, I plan to check back in with the sequel over the course of its pre-publishing process and note significant changes.  I hope this will offer some small glimpse into a process that always (to me, at least) seemed opaque.  The first thing on the potential chopping block: the title.  The original title of Those That Wake did not last long (and with good reason, I might add), so we'll see how this one does.  As of now, the sequel's title is The Unmade Man.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Antihero

     I hear the term antihero getting thrown around pretty loosely.  What people seem to mean when they use the word is a protagonist who -- while still embodying the classically heroic traits of determination, competence and honor -- fights against the standard social structures or status quo rather than fighting to support them.   This sort of antihero seems more and more commonplace as people become less and less enchanted with the status quo.  It is, of course, easy to root for a hero who fights against the social structures that seem to be holding us back or seems to be making the world a darker and more unkind place.  I came across a very enjoyable presentation of this sort of antihero recently in Grant Morrison and J.G. Jones's Marvel Boy, a teenage alien (completely human-looking though his alien DNA has been spliced with that of a cockroach) who, in retaliation for the death of his crew, let's The Man have it but good.
     What I hardly ever see is an antihero in the alternate sense.  That is, a protagonist who embodies characteristics that are antithetical to those of the classic hero.  Little wonder there, as it is difficult to get a readership or an audience to root for a character who is cowardly, vain, greedy or cruel even if that character is also compelling in other ways.  This sort of antihero is not essentially equivalent to a villain as, ironically, really good villains tend to share many admirable traits with the hero (who wants to see a great hero go up against a villain who doesn't match up to him or her?).  One fine example of an antihero of this variety is Verloc in Conrad's The Secret Agent, who possess relatively few (if any) heroic characteristics, but remains a riveting protagonist.
     A truly shocking example of antiheroism (the most shocking I've ever seen, anyway) is in Thomas Harris's Red Dragon.  Will Graham is, on the surface, a classic flawed hero, dragged back into a heroic role he left behind because it requires him to use an ability which is far more a curse than a gift.  For practically the whole book we follow Will's pursuit of a serial killer and are in his corner the entire time.  At the very end of the book, however, during the final confrontation, Will does something I've never seen another hero (or antihero) do.  I'm not going to say what it is (that would ruin Mr. Harris's powerful climax), but I will say that it can only be seen in the book as neither movie version (Manhunter nor Red Dragon) would dare to reproduce it (neither, for that matter, does the Wikipedia summary I linked to above).  Only in a truly heroic milieu, it seems, can you really plumb the depths of antiheroism. 

Thursday, June 9, 2011

"We Will Not Be Shushed"

     Starting Saturday, June 11 at 5:00 P.M. and running to Sunday, June 12th at 5:00 P.M.  is a twenty-four hour read-in to protest the massive funding cut to Brooklyn Public Library.  The event, called "We Will Not Be Shushed," will be held at Brooklyn Public Library Central at 10 Grand Army Plaza.  Something on the order of one hundred authors will be doing readings. 
     Incidentally, 8:00 A.M. to 12:00 P.M. on Sunday morning is devoted to children and young adult readings.  Among the many worthwhile authors, I will be reading a selection from Those That Wake at 10:15 A.M.  If you're in the area, please stop by at that or any time to lend support to this very worthy cause.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Work More

     I happened to catch a report on CNN the other day about how Americans are workaholics.  The report began by comparing the U.S. to countries such as France, where a greater number of vacation days are available (and government-mandated) and people actually take full advantage of them.  In the U.S. by comparison, the commonly allotted 14 days of vacation a year are not even completely used on the average.  Just when it looked like they might be suggesting that Americans could benefit psychologically from being less work-obsessed, CNN comes in with location reports from Japan and Korea, where the people seem to be far more work-oriented still.  Apparently there are fewer vacation days offered there and even those fewer days tend not to be used by 50% of the population because it can be seen as dishonorable not to leave those vacation days on the table.  The conclusion left one very much with a sense of "hey, don't feel too bad, America, there are places that have it much worse.  In fact, maybe you're not working quite enough, after all."
      Now, granted this is my reading of it and maybe I tend to look for hidden messages where none are intended.  But it did get me to thinking, if their are hidden messages in what is treated as a light weight human interest report from a respected new source, is there any kind of media communication that doesn't have something riding beneath the surface?
     I wrote a book and, without a doubt, I'm trying to send a message with it.  And, sure, I hope that I can change people's minds, get them thinking about things in a way which (I believe) could improve their lives, society, the future, etc.  But am I trying to manipulate readers?  My story is certainly weighted to help prove my point, but is my message hidden?  Would some people who disagreed with my point of view consider the message to be hidden within ostensible entertainment, somehow insidious?
     A person can start to sound a bit paranoid (especially if the person actually is, as people have assured me I am, a bit paranoid), but all I'm really trying to get at is the idea that there's a difference between intentional messages that you're meant to see and intentional messages that are meant to reach you without you knowing about it.  The line is fine and the less you agree with a given message, the more blurry that line may become.  My point, as always, is that it's good to pay attention to what you're seeing, hearing and is happening around you.  And you can be sure it's no accident that that's the same message I tried to put across in my book.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Rabbi Harvey

     I teach a graduate course at Pratt Institute called Graphic Novel: Narrative and Sequence.  Last class, we had a guest speaker named Steve Sheinkin, who created a character (and a graphic novel series) named Rabbi Harvey.  The entertaining and informative talk he gave the class aside, his comic work is nothing short of unique.  Harvey is a rabbi who lives in the Old West, dispensing justice through wisdom and heaping helpings of Steve's trademark low-key humor.
     The Rabbi has three books behind him now (which you can find out about right here) and every one contains exactly the quirky personality and sly sense of humor that no one expects from ancient stories of Jewish wisdom.  As it becomes harder and harder to find works that are truly singular artistic visions in the extraordinary proliferation of mass entertainment available, Rabbi Harvey offers that most infrequent prize: something you've never seen before.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Dystopian Domination

     Kai at Amaterasu Reads and Precious at Fragments of Life are currently hosting Dystopian Domination, a survey of recent dystopian fiction and an examination of why the genre is gaining such ground in the YA market.  In addition to featuring a review of Those That Wake, they were also kind enough to offer me a guest post, offering my own thoughts on dystopian fiction's growing market.  There's a book giveaway involved, too, so I invite you to have a look.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

School Library Journal Review

     School Library Journal just reviewed Those That Wake.  They said, in part "Karp has created a terrifically gloomy set and peopled it with both very real characters and others that are eerily unreal . . . With plenty of action, challenging ideas, and bizarre antagonists, this one should appeal to a broad section of teens."

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Your Title Here

     The art of naming a work is a tricky thing.  I will cop to being much better at naming my own short stories than my longer works.  Those That Wake was originally titled Four until someone looked at me somberly and said "you know, your book isn't going to be named that when it's published."  I grant you that Four is not such a great title (and I'm not at all bitter about someone else going with I Am Number Four), and Those That Wake (from Matthew Prior's words quoted at the left of your screen) turned out to be both a fitting title and one that summoned the ominous sense I was looking for.
     What makes a good title?  Well, immediate impact certainly serves a purpose, something that grabs -- even demands -- attention the first time you hear it (like, say, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre).  Something iconic that can conjure an overall sense of the work is good, too (for instance Star Wars).  Personally, I fall for the more subtle things: something that sounds mellifluous but also evokes a tone (The Stress of Her Regard by Tim Powers) or something so weird or mysterious you've just got to pick up the book and find out what it means (The Devil Is Jones by Lester Dent).  The very best titles, I think, work almost like a twist ending.  They function as one thing before you've read the book, but take on a new level of meaning -- or even give the work itself a new level of meaning --  once you're done (The Death of a Citizen by Donald Hamilton).  I was shooting for that with Those That Wake.  I also did some tricky stuff with the chapter titles, too, but don't get me started on chapter titles.  I've got so much to say on those, I'm going to have to save it for another post.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Stepford

     Sometimes a term from literature or movies enters the national lexicon, its meaning potent and universal, even if the work itself fades from wide-scale popularity.  "Stepford" is such a term.  When placed before "wife" or "husband" or what-have-you, it implies a vacuity, a sort of robotic hollowness that renders the person in question more automaton than human.
     The term's popularity may well have been helped along by the movie The Stepford Wives, which has its place in the pantheon of 1970's paranoid, fear-of-authority cinema (one of my very favorite genres, naturally).  But the term, the idea itself, originated in Ira Levin's novel.  Levin wrote the fantastic Rosemary's Baby, which Roman Polanski's fantastic movie was based on (and talk about paranoia . . .) as well as the slightly lesser known The Boys from Brazil (which also spawned a movie version).  But for the deftness of his literary skill, the original Stepford Wives cannot be topped.  It's  a very quick read, but it manages to characterize an era of the national dialog, and of women's rights in particular, with great clarity.  And as a stylistic achievement, it is incomparable.  This is a 208 page novel in which, essentially, nothing at all happens and yet, thanks to a tone of underlying unease, every page is utterly riveting.
     There was, of course, a Stepford Wives remake with Nicole Kidman.  I don't remember it being as horrendous as everyone claimed, but honestly, it is hard to imagine anything outdoing that book.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Massacres and More!

     Way back in January, I mentioned a book called the Year's Best Dark Fantasy and Horror 2010.  My favorite story in the collection was called Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre by Seth Fried and reading it brought me to order his first collection of short stories The Great Frustration.  Mr. Fried has a talent for mixing a laconic voice with deeply disturbing (in the best possible way) material and his overtly amusing subject matter masks a much darker commentary.
     In addition to Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre (a town returns year after year to a picnic that proves consistently disastrous), some real standouts in the collection are The Frenchman, about how the indiscretions of childhood stick with us, and Misery of the Conquistador, told in the lament of a gold-hunting conqueror but featuring a merciless commentary on our capitalist socio-economic structure. 
     Incidentally, Mr. Fried also has a highly entertaining website, which you can check out here.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Podcast Interview

     Matthew Moffett asked me some smart questions about Those That Wake for his regular podcast at the YALSA (Young Adult Library Services Association) website.  You can hear the interview here.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Carbonated Beverage of Tyrants

     When I was a kid one of the things I enjoyed most about traveling with my parents, was seeing the culture of other countries as depicted in their the media, their advertisements, their products.  One thing that was available in many other countries but not in the United States (at least not when I was younger) was the soft drink Fanta.  I remember those bright orange Fanta swooshes hanging outside of stores along unfamiliar streets and my young palate would tingle at the idea of an orange Fanta.
     So, here's what I've learned about Fanta since then.  Back during the build up to World War II, the Coca Cola Company was finding it difficult to get their product into Germany, both for logistical and political reasons.  Losing those sales would have been a huge blow to Coke's profit margin, so a new soda was developed to market in what quickly became Nazi Germany.  Coke could keep their profits but wouldn't have a great American product associated with a such an undesirable quantity.  The drink: Fanta.  One more warm memory of childhood blown to smithereens.
     That, of course, is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to media manipulation.  Don't even get me started on the Betty Crocker story.  It's hard these days to pick up a product, to see an ad or a TV show or a movie without wondering what you're being sold that you're not even aware of.
    So there's something fun to think about.  If the subject interests you, allow me to recommend and fantastic documentary called The Century of the Self, which is all about how corporations adopted psychological theory to help them present a palatable, inviting messages (and, incidentally, contains both the Fanta story and the Betty Crocker story).  Now what is the documentary trying to sell me that I'm not aware of?  I'm not sure, but I think I'd like it better than the other stuff.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Horror of Ideas

     When I saw the original Japanese Ringu, it scared the living hell outta me.  I don't scare easily in movies.  It takes something deeply and existentially disturbing to get to me -- it has to be the idea that scares me rather than merely the image or the situation.  The American version, The Ring?  I found it to be well-made and well-acted, but not particularly scary. 
     I find, in fact, that by and large foreign horror movies and stories (particularly but not exclusively Asian ones) are far more effective than American ones.  It strikes me that foreign films/stories deal in archetypes and iconography from their own cultures and thus feel unfamiliar to me, which helps to build a sense of disturbance and discomfort.  Asian countries, of course, have non-European-based cultures, so their symbols feel that much more unfamiliar to me.  At the same time, their seems to be a willingness in many other societies to use horror to deal with challenging and truly disturbing ideas that American purveyors tend not to traffic in.  Why is that?  Well, I'll save my theories on that for another post.  And I don't mean to say that there's no good American horror out there.  Far from it.  Try the work of Thomas Ligotti or Bentley Little (his short story The Washingtonians is a good place to start) for a resonating creepiness that is pent up in the tone and the ideas.  At the same time, I do see Asian horror bogging down a bit in ghost stories lately.  But if you're looking for something off the beaten track of fear, the kind of thing you've not likely seen before, try the books in the Ring Trilogy by Koji Suzuki (the films were based these) and the movies  Oldboy (not a horror movie per se, but definitely horrifying and very fierce) or -- if you dare -- Audition (only watch this if you are prepared for the strongest in scary ideas and horrifying imagery -- I'm not kidding).  
     There's nothing as scary as a new idea.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Books of Wonder

     As I mentioned last week, I will be making my first author appearance for an event called Fantastic Fiction for Teens and Tweens at Books of Wonder, on 18th Street between Fifth Avenue and Sixth Avenue, from 12:00-2:00.  I'll be on a panel of authors including Brandon Mull and Peter Moore and then we will be signing books.  If you're interested and in the area, please come by.  While you're there, stop across the street at City Bakery for the best hot chocolate in New York City.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Barnes and Noble and Me

     The publishing date for my book Those That Wake hit a couple of days ago (March 21st to be exact).  Naturally, I went to the largest bookstore in my area (a Barnes and Noble, of course) to get a gander at it sitting on the shelves with all those other real books by real authors.  Wasn't there, though, so I inquired of the lady at the information desk.  Not in stock, she told me.  Do any other Barnes and Nobles in the area have it, I ask.  No, she says, no Barnes and Noble in New York City has it in stock.
     I do some looking around on the Barnes and Noble website, checking my book's availability at various stores around the country.  It's not in any of them.
    Now, I'm very pleased to say that Those That Wake is available from various online sources including, might I add, the Barnes and Noble website.  I'm also very happy to say that I have seen it on the shelves of a few smaller, independent bookstores.  I have also, by now, spoken to the various powers that be and I am told that Barnes and Noble does plan to stock my book.  When?  Can't say.  Why haven't they yet?  That's what I'm wondering about.  As difficult as it is being beholden to a corporate giant, they are the biggest book seller in America.  Also, while I am a bit paranoid (or so my friends and those who have read my book tell me), I am not so far gone that I feel like my book is the only book this has ever happened to.  It just makes me wonder why Barnes and Noble has gone this way.  Rather than projecting reasons (including that it could, of course, just have been a simple slip up), I'll simply suggest that there are lots of things that corporations are deciding for us, about what we get to see and when, that we know nothing about.  Whether you have a direct, vested interest in this (as I admittedly do) or not, the idea that these decisions might be getting made for us seems worth mulling over.
     At any rate, if you are interested in reading Those That Wake, please have a look at your nearest independent bookstore.  If there isn't one near you, some of them are online and are happy to ship to you -- like this one.  Heck, you could even do that after Barnes and Noble has it on their shelves, too.
     Meanwhile, speaking of independent bookstores, I'm due for my first public appearance, on a YA author panel, at New York City's Books of Wonder on Saturday, April 2nd from 12-2 pm.  If you're in the area, please drop by.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Donut Chef

     Donuts are fantastic, but books about donuts have the advantage of containing no calories (at least not when you just read them).  The best I've ever come across is The Donut Chef by Bob Staake.  Staake has growing oeuvre of standout picture books, but this one (along with The Red Lemon) is his best.  On the surface, it's the tale of a jolly donut chef who wants to delight the world with his confections, but winds up in a duel of crazy donut flavors with a shifty competitor, until he learns that simplicity makes for the greatest delights.  The deeper theme of competing with a hyper-stimulated world is a potent one, too, and one that's near to my own heart.
     In any case, it's Staake's art that makes this book sing.  His geometric figures, deco swooshes and bright, evocative colors crackle with an energy like nothing else out there.  He feels like a very worthy torchbearer for the one and only Dr. Seuss.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Go, Librarians!

     I'll start off by saying that I'm a librarian and many of my best friends are librarians, so my bias should be clear.  Nevertheless, you sometimes have an experience that gives you a larger perspective on something very close to you.
     I spoke to the New York City School Librarians Association yesterday on the subject of using graphic novels in literacy education.  Though I am used to trafficking among them (librarians, that is), speaking with a new group really stirred up that old sense of pride.  Each and every one was curious, engaged and committed to advancing her own professional development and the development of the profession itself.
     I have always considered librarianship, in its ideal form, as a commitment to the availability of information (in all its myriad forms of transmission) to everyone.  But in our hyper-connected era, where availability of information seems to come automatically with the Internet (and I do mean "seems"), you often hear the cry that the profession is becoming outmoded, obsolete.  Working among, speaking to and hearing from librarians who do a far sight more than I do everyday, let me categorically state that I've never met or heard of a group that does more to expand our ability to function in an information-driven culture, to help people understand the information they're getting in new ways, or to bring new and worthwhile kinds of information to resistant communities.
     Far from librarians being obsolete, I'm afraid to imagine the future without them.    

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Kah-ray-zee.

     I was thinking about last week's post, noodling around the internet and pursuing my fascination with evil twins and doppelgangers, and I came upon something so bizarre, so flat out nutso, it could only be real.  Turns out there is a psychological condition called Capgras Delusion.  Patients suffering from this believe that their friends and family -- those closest to them -- have been replaced by identical impostors.  Since the first documented case of this seems to have been in 1923 -- well before Invasion of the Body Snatchers -- it means that our own brains produced it without any seeds planted from the world of mass media.  Just how crazy are we?  Until now, I thought the extreme of psychological breakdown was represented by M√ľnchausen syndrome by proxy (so ably depicted in The Sixth Sense), but I've adopted a whole new outlook on crazy now.
     Twins and doubles have a deep. archetypal resonance.  They pop up again and again in literature (try Dostoyevsky's The Double), film (try The Broken) and everything in between.  Maybe we find them a little bit too fascinating.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Neeson Vs. Quinn

     Ever had a moment, reading a book or watching a movie, when something that's lived in your imagination for years suddenly appears on the page or the screen, translated with perfect accuracy?  I saw Unknown this weekend and I can't say I was overwhelmed with it.  However, there is this one scene ...
     Liam Neeson plays a scientist who returns to his wife after recuperating in the hospital to find that another man (Aidan Quinn) has replaced him.  His wife, his associates, everyone he knows now believes that this new man is him.  At one point, Neeson and Quinn are presenting their cases to an associate.  Neeson and Quinn begin describing portions of their history, details of their lives from childhood, intimate details that no one else could possibly know.  They start yelling, interrupting, talking over each other until both are yelling exactly the same thing at exactly the same time, much to the bafflement of both the associate and themselves.
     I've long been fascinated with the figure of the doppelganger and the idea that there could be another copy of a person that was so complete, so perfect, that they could, in essence, never have a conversation because they would always be saying the same thing at the same moment.  Seeing it played out in the theater gave me moment of bizarre disconnect, like something had been pulled directly out of my brain, and made for an astonishingly powerful moment in an otherwise mediocre film.
     Incidentally, if the story of Unknown interests you at all, allow me to recommend the book it was based on Out of My Head by Didier van Cauwelaert, translated from the French.  The book is an existential thriller and, while it does follow the mystery of its character's predicament to a satisfying end, it dwells a good deal more than the film on the nature of identity itself.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Reviews Are Coming In

     Reviews for Those That Wake are starting to filter in (it doesn't go on sale in bookstores until March 21st).   

     VOYA said "the teen protagonists [are] well-developed and likable characters . . . The story is quick moving and full of action, both physical and intellectual . . . highly recommended for teen and adult readers . . . a well-written, intricately plotted story."

     Publishers Weekly said "Karp ably ratchets up the tension ... compelling."

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Poetry

     Never much went in for poetry.  Wasn't quite narrative enough for me.  But my family seems to have inadvertently launched a sustained campaign of poetry appreciation and, by God, I'm starting to appreciate it.  My favorites are the ones that distill a specific message with unusual humor, poignancy and power without ever quite coming out and stating it.  Poetry seems to have the market cornered on this effect (when done well, of course).  So here, then, is the best one I've come across thus far.  

Snow
by George Bilgere

A heavy snow, and men my age
all over the city
are having heart attacks in their driveways,

dropping their nice new shovels
with the ergonomic handles
that finally did them no good.

Gray-headed men who meant no harm,
who abided by the rules and worked hard
for modest rewards, are slipping

softly from their mortgages,
falling out of their marriages.
How gracefully they swoon—

that lovely, old-fashioned word—
from dinner parties, grandkids,
vacations in Florida.

They should have known better
than to shovel snow at their age.
If only they’d heeded

the sensible advice of their wives
and hired a snow-removal service.
But there’s more to life

than merely being sensible. Sometimes
a man must take up his shovel
and head out alone into the snow.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Reviewing

     They say a reviewer is supposed to answer three questions:
1. What is the work trying to accomplish?
2. Does the work accomplish that?
3. Why or why not?
    At any rate, that's what they told me back in journalism school (those many, many years ago).  While this does seem like it covers the basic necessities, I feel like truly excellent criticism encompasses something slightly larger than what is suggested by those three questions.  Truly excellent criticism touches not only on the deeper meanings of a work (whether they're intentional meanings or not) and places the work in a cultural context in which we can better understand it.  One professional critic who I think achieves this on a regular basis is A.O. Scott, movie critic for The New York Times (who, in fact, wrote a great article on the nature of criticism not so long ago).  Sure he can be snarky, somewhat from irritation and somewhat for the purposes of entertainment (he wrote the funniest movie review I've ever read, and snark played a huge part in that), but he's always getting at something deeper.
     I'm a reviewer myself (not of Mr. Scott's caliber, but I'm trying); I reviewed movies once upon a time and now I review books and graphic novels for Booklist .  The reason all this is banging around in my head now is that the trade reviews of my own book are starting to come in.  I'm finding it rather agonizing (like every other artist who ever lived, I'm sure) -- even reading the good reviews can be a gut-twisting experience.  Certainly, I'm lucky to be in a position where my work even gets reviewed, but it sure struck my reviewer self in a disturbing way: shouldn't reviewers remember there are real people who produced this work and that every comment carries huge weight?  Shouldn't reviewers remember that they are potentially making or breaking careers?
     The final lesson my reviewer self took from all this is that no, of course reviewers shouldn't be considering that, at least not in their critique of the work.  The reviewer's final responsibility is to their readership, that needs clear, honest appraisal of the art in question to help guide their purchasing or even expand their understanding of the work in particular and the form itself.  As torturous as this process is proving to the writer me, I hope in the end, it makes me a better reviewer.  It's still a long way to Mr. Scott's level, but maybe this is a step in the right direction.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Lost & Found

     Shaun Tan's The Arrival would certainly figure, with the oft-mentioned Set to Sea, on my list of top three graphic novels of all time.  In fact, his story Stick Figures from the collection Tales From Outer Suburbia may be my favorite short story ever (though the illustrations give it a big advantage in that area).  Before he perfected the art of the graphic novel, Tan brought his masterful design and narrative sensibility to picture books, three of which are collected in the forthcoming Lost & Found, including the extra-astonishing The Lost Thing.  I cannot possibly recommend this book highly enough, but a word of caution: these are not your standard children's picture books.  They are filled with deep melancholy and powerful wisdom.  Don't let that stop you, by any means, just look them over carefully before you go passing them along to anyone under twelve-ish.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Finding Books

     As I watch my publisher design strategies (and participate in efforts myself) to get the name and sense of my book to the public, I come to wonder how we find the the books we read these days.  I don't mean when we know the book we want, how do we get it, but rather how do we discover new titles and new writers?  How do we find that astonishing read which comes from out of nowhere and brings unexpected joy with it?
     Advertisements in public places are generally reserved for authors who are already massively popular.  Browsing in bookstores is always fun, but you need a bookstore near you and the time to pick through the offerings.  Also, with corporate megaliths dominating the bookstore world, it's easy to feel as though your tastes are being guided to some extent by the prominence of book placement within the store and other below-the-conscious-level marketing techniques.  Amazon, though difficult to really browse through, has no shortage of offerings and they even recommend titles similar to ones they know you like.  On the other hand, this strategy can be somewhat limiting, and there's nothing quite like holding a book in your hand and flipping through it to see whether or not there's a connection.  There are websites for every taste (not unlike the one you're on right now), but you have to seek them out for the most part and they tend to concentrate within particular genres.
     What I'm driving at here is a hope that books are still discovered by word of mouth, that a friend can sometimes drop something into your lap that you never would have come by yourself but suddenly and completely changes your reading life.  A friend noted a book to me the other day, based on the fact that it had the creepiest cover he had ever seen (click on the image above for a better look -- it's worth it).  I had a look and hunted down a copy for myself.  I haven't read it yet, but I'm very excited.  The creation of a story, at its best, is an incredibly personal experience that is meant to spark something similarly personal in readers.  It would be lovely to think that such a personal connection could travel all the way through the process.