Monday, March 2, 2015

February Reads

February was another good reading month, with non-fiction still taking up the best spent of my time.

How We Got to Now, Steven Johnson. The companion to PBS’s excellent mini-series, with a few things PBS didn’t have time to include. I’m glad I read Where Do Good Ideas Come From? first, as some of the terminology used here was introduced there, but readers should have no trouble jumping right into this one. Fascinating, page after page.

The World of Raymond Chandler, Barry Day. Chandler never wrote a memoir, so Day has culled what he could about Chandler’s life and thoughts from Chandler’s own writing, including fiction, non-fiction, and letters. In doing so, he opens the door to much I didn’t know, and addresses some criticisms that have crept up as modern day sensitivities look back on Chandler’s work. Having read this, I don’t think I would have liked Chandler much as a person, but I have even more respect for his writing, as Day’s compilation of the best bits heightens the impact.

Courier, Terry Irving. Courier hung around near the top of my To Be Read list for four months; something urgent kept knocking it down a notch. I’m glad I got around to it. I’m not a thriller guy, but, having met Irving at a reading, his historical cred was impressive. The book reflects that, weaving its story into Watergate-era events in a way that put me in mind of James Ellroy’s use of historical events. The motorcycle scenes are particularly effective. Irving knows what he’s talking about, and does a nice job of avoiding the conventions send too many modern thrillers over the shark.

400 Things Cops Know, Adam Plantinga. I’ll have more about this one on Thursday. Suffice to say, every crime writer needs a copy of this book.


The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett. Holy shit. It had been at least ten years since I last read this. (My records only go back to 2006.) The seminal crime fiction/PI story. I finished it and didn’t want to write that evening. Comparing what I do to what he did is like putting a Little Leaguer up against Ted Williams.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Ventti

Vent-ti (vent-tee) noun. A large venting. A rant. A self-indulgent expression of spleen.

You have been warned.

Life has done an even worse job than usual in entertaining me of late. Work is a prime culprit. Politics. The weather. Definitely the writing business. A few things have popped up recently to remind me of some others that have been burrs under my saddle for a while, and I’m about fed up. I move a little more all the time in the direction of believing that, while I love to write, I do not enjoy being a writer. I have my reasons:

Agents. Every time I hear from my agent, he’s encouraging. He likes the book, that’s a good self-release plan, it’s a tough market for selling “guy books.” (No definition of “guy books” has been forthcoming.) The problem is, I don’t hear much from him. I sent the recently completed novel to him a few weeks ago, and asked for a list of who’d received its predecessor, which he’s had for a year. I wanted to see their comments, in part to help me to decide whether I should keep pushing this, or go back to self-publishing, maybe look for a small press that paid less than an agent’s time would be worth. He replied a couple of days later, said he would read the book over the weekend and get that list to me. That was three weeks ago. I know he’s busy and I’m not making him any money, but, damn.

Publishers. The e-book release of Grind Joint was scheduled to occur a year after the print version, so as not to inhibit print sales. I wasn’t crazy about the idea. As a new writer, I wanted to get the book into as many hands as we could, as quickly as possible. E-mails were traded and an agreement reached that the e-book would come out about three months after the print release. Three months passed, and I asked where the e-book was. Turned out the publisher had decided three months was too short, pushed it back to six, and didn’t see any reason to tell me.

Lawyers. I didn’t have an agent when Grind Joint was published, but I did get interest from a TV producer. Wanting to take my time to find a literary agent, I hired a lawyer to handle the short-term negotiations. He charged me over a thousand dollars to have drinks with the producer, where it was discovered my deal was contingent on the producer receiving funding; nothing was imminent. By this time I had an agent, and told the lawyer I’d let him handle it, thanks for your time, and he got pissy, like he had a divine right to negotiate a deal—or not—over drinks at $500/hour. Oh, and it wasn’t him who told me of the delay in financing; it was the producer himself. My lawyer left that part out.

Booksellers. My experience with booksellers for events has been excellent. I’ve been treated well and had a great time. Beyond that, not so much. I understand and agree with the need for local booksellers, and do not want to see them pushed out of business, but they have told me to my face they have no place for me, whether my book comes from a small publisher, or from the Antichrist, CreateSpace. I understand their business position, and I sympathize. I have a business position, too, and they’re not helping.

Amazon. Yes, they’ll sell whatever I write, but they’ve found new and creative ways to break my balls about it. They’re running low on paper copies of Grind Joint, and I contacted them to ask how I can sell the inventory I have here through them before self-publishing via CreateSpoace. (I bought back the rights, which meant I now own just about every unsold copy in the world.) A couple of phone calls and several emails bumped me from Amazon to CreateSpace to Amazon and back to CreateSpace. Never mind. When they’re completely sold out I’ll re-format and self-publish. I can try to sell the inventory at conferences, or use it as wall insulation.

To add insult to injury, Amazon told me twice one of my 1099 forms would be late. When one finally came a couple of weeks ago, I went ahead and did my taxes. The day after I submitted them, yet another “corrected” 1099 showed up. On February 23, no less. Remember before computer automation, when all your tax forms showed up by the end of January?

Yeah, I know. Boo-fucking-hoo. Quoth Hyman Roth, “This is the life we’ve chosen.” I mentioned to The Beloved Spouse I half felt like working a book to my usual level of detail, typing THE END at the end of the final draft (I never add THE END until I’m done done), and then deleting the folder; the fun’s over. She asked “what about those who like to read your stuff?” I don’t know. Mail them individual files? Maybe that’s the way to go. Not have to fuck with covers, taxes, or any of the above 800-pound gorillas. Write the book, post a link on the blog, web site, and Facebook to download it, and be done with it. There’s a definite appeal in that.

Of course, I will have to find a way to budget around the $400 I grossed last year. Maybe if I told any lawyers not to go for more than hour of drinks…


Monday, February 23, 2015

Westerns as Noir

Beth Kelly hit the ground running with her first OBAAT post, and got me to thinking why I enjoy some Westerns so much, others only a little and (unfortunately) the rest, not at all. It was The Beloved Spouse who reminded me: the best Westerns are very much noir stories, set fifty to seventy-five years before film noir became a thing.

The stereotypical Western has become a cultural cliché: white hats = good guys, black hates = bad guys. Anyone with a true understanding of “American Exceptionalism” can figure that can’t have been how things really were. Better and more honest histories have since been written, and we now know “good guy” and “bad guy” were often situational, as many Western legends walked on both sides of that road, sometimes simultaneously. (Wyatt Earp a prime example.)

The earliest Western I know of to embrace these noirish roots was Shane
(1953).  Alan Ladd plays a gunfighter who tries to give it up, only to learn his past is not so easily eluded, and good intentions cannot alter one’s destiny. There’s no secret how the film will play out once Jack Palance makes his screen debut, but earlier Westerns would have Shane clean up the town and ride off into the sunset as the adoring citizens wave. In the movie, he rides into the dark mountains with only a child to see him, presumably to die.

Ride the High Country (1962) takes things another step down the road. Randolph Scott, the stock Western good guy (In Blazing Saddles, Cleavon Little rallies the people of Rock Ridge to follow him by saying, “You’d do it for Randolph Scott”), betrays old friend Joel McCrae. Scott can’t go through with it and dies for his sins—classic Western stuff—the tone of the film is what matters. The mining camp and its residents place one in mind more of Deadwood than of Dodge City, and you’re really not sure how things will fall out with Scott and McCrae until the final scene.

Ride the High Country was directed by Sam Peckinpaugh, who’d break the mold with 1969’s The Wild Bunch. The film created a stir with its ground-breaking graphic violence, but holds up over time thanks to its portrayals of the Wild Bunch as not only ruthless outlaws, but men who care enough about a comrade—the one they’re least close to, no less—to sacrifice themselves for him. It’s the
alleged good guys—Robert Ryan and his posse—who are the low-lifes, stealing the clothes off dead men and fighting over who killed who for the bounty money. Let’s also not forget, Peckinpaugh’s violence is graphic, not gratuitous. Over forty years later, the Battle of the Bloody Porch is still a difficult scene to watch, not least because of how the viewer has come to identify with William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates, and Ben Johnson. (Yeah, Sam had a decent cast to work with, too.)

Television got into the act in 1989 with Lonesome Dove. While many would not think of it as noir, the final scene establishes its credentials. Woodrow Call
(Tommy Lee Jones) has returned to Lonesome Dove, where a reporter recognizes him as the man who ramrodded a cattle drive from the Rio Grande to be the first man to graze cattle in Montana, and tells Call people say he is a man of vision. Call reflects on how his quest has resulted in the deaths of everyone he was close to, and mutters, “Yeah. Hell of a vision.” A key element of noir is that of someone who kicks off events that will spiral out of his control and end badly. If this doesn’t qualify, I don’t know what does.

Clint Eastwood (you knew he’d show up sooner or
later) takes Shane’s premise to its pinnacle with Unforgiven (1992). (Eastwood made several movies that deserved mention here: A Fistful of Dollars; For a Few Dollars More; The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly; and The Outlaw Josie Wales. I chose Unforgiven as his masterpiece.) All characters are multidimensional. That Eastwood’s character William Munny comes out on top at the end is recognition that the most dangerous man is one who has no boundaries.

All of which brings us to what may be the darkest—and most realistic—depiction of its chosen Western element: Deadwood (2004 – 2006). Intended by creator
David Milch to show how order will of necessity arise in any situation, HBO’s brilliant series played self-interest against moral compass (or lack thereof) against greed against a desire to do what’s best for the most people, a morality play defined by the acrimony and marriages of convenience between Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) and Al Swearengen (Ian McShane, playing what may be the ultimate multidimensional villain). Extremely loosely based on real people and events, Deadwood shows how society inelegantly climbs from anarchy despite—and because of—the baser natures of all involved.


It’s no great surprise Elmore Leonard was able to transition so well from
Westerns to crime fiction, the core elements are so much the same. (The movie Hombre (1967) could also have made this list, and may well be Leonard’s masterpiece; a brilliant book.)  A casual disrespect for the letter of the law, the use of violence as an acceptable means to an end, and characters who, when done right, are not what they seem to be, link both genres.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Not Just Write What You Know, But Who You Know?




John McFetridge, writing in the Do Some Damage blog last week, raised the issue of “appropriation of voice.” I agree with John’s position—mostly—but the post got me to thinking, and my thoughts grew into more than what would fit into a comment.
                                       
The core question: can a white man (anyone, for that matter), write as someone of a different gender or race, without improperly “appropriating the voice” of the group the character belongs to? John linked to an article by Kenneth Williams in Windspeaker Magazine, which takes an even-handed approach, citing both those who see no real issue (aside from the author’s need to be sensitive to the group represented), and those who take major issue, such as  Lenore Keeshig-Tobias, an Anishinabe author and story-teller:

"I think the most important thing for a non-Native writer to do when they write about Native issues is to have respect - respect means research and talking to the people. I can see non-Native writers doing that in the field of journalism, but when it comes to literature it's a dicey situation because we all grow up with certain biases, and if we accept or reject those biases, it always shows up in our writing."

And:

"I appreciate the work of Rudy Weibe and M.T. Kelly because they were very, very respectful and they were the only things going. But they must realize there comes a time for them to step back. I believe that the reason that they're doing this is to foster and promote a greater understanding of Aboriginal people and their histories. They can't do that forever and ever because it [becomes] the same old missionary situation."

I’m not going to argue that white men have not dominated the lists of books published and reviewed for years, and still do; any moron can see they have. Whether the underrepresentation of women and minorities is due to publishers’ bias, or because their books may be perceived to occupy too much of a niche to suit the suits, is not today’s discussion. (That women still have this problem is confounding, as a substantial majority of novels are bought and read by women. The market should be there, which could be prima facie evidence for the bias argument, but, as I said, that’s for another day.) What I will argue is, who gets to decide who can write what?

I’m not familiar with the work of Wiebe and Kelly, but I am with Tony Hillerman, who won universal acclaim for his portrayals of life on a Navajo reservation. Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, along with many others, are fully formed characters the reader can appreciate as people, with many of the concerns all of us have, formed by their unique Navajo culture, toward which Hillerman is never patronizing. Keeshig-Tobias didn’t mention Hillerman by name—maybe because he was not Canadian—but one must wonder if he was among the white authors she wanted to “step back.”

Whatever the causes for the underrepresentation of woman and minorities in publishing, individual writers are not to blame; larger forces are at work. Some are likely benign. Others, not so much. All the writer can be held responsible for is his or her effort; all they can do is the best they can. If all of my black characters are either fiends or hard core bangers, by all means hold me accountable. If all my female characters talk about is shopping and men, let me have it. If I make a genuine effort to avoid those pitfalls and fail, that’s due to a shortage of talent—which I also have to answer for—but it’s no justification to preclude me, or anyone else, from making the effort. If I, or any other writer, regardless of background, make the effort and it creates believable characters that read like real people with real problems, well, then give credit where it’s due.

John notes in his essay that he has problems reading books where middle-aged men write from the perspective of young women. I hadn’t thought about it much, but, since he put it in my head, I can’t remember liking anything of that ilk myself. Not that it made me uncomfortable: the books just didn’t work. The same can be said of some books by women with male leads. There are also plenty of books—too many—where the minority characters aren’t well realized. That doesn’t mean the effort should not be made. One never knows when an author—of whatever background, color, or plumbing—may have something to say about a group he or she is not part of, and it will resonate. The more often that happens, the better off everyone is, and I don’t mean just the writers.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Movies Since Last Time

Recent movies have run the gamut, from two of my all-time favorites to one that didn’t hold up as well as I thought it would, to one that was new to me that I would have been happy to have left undiscovered.

The Cheap Detective (1978). The gold standard for affectionate satire, regardless of genre. Screenwriter Neil Simon and director Robert Moore don’t
miss a beat or an opportunity as they weave together elements of The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca, with a bow toward Chinatown. Peter Falk is flawless and hysterical as Lou Peckinpah, channeling Bogart throughout. The stellar cast—Ann-Margret, Eileen Brennan, Stockard Channing, Sid Caesar, James Coco, Dom DeLuise, Louise Fletcher, John Houseman, Madeline Kahn, Phil Silvers, Marsha Mason and others—are not only perfectly cast but all know the best way to get real laughs from such a project is so play everything straight. Visual gags, one-liners, and set pieces abound. To say this is a laugh a minute is to damn with faint praise.

Reasonable Doubt (2014). About a year ago I wrote a post about the value of execution in any project, using LA Confidential as an example of how to do it
right. Reasonable Doubt is the counter-example, a movie with such poor execution its potentially excellent premise is left crying beside the road in the rain. DA Mitch Brockden hits a man with his car, calls 911 and flees the scene. When the man is found later and someone else is charged with the crime, Brockden throws the trial only to learn the man he hit may have been fleeing from the man Brockden just let go. A lot could have been done with this but the filmmakers took the easy way out at every opportunity. Filmed in 27 days, and it shows. Holes about, continuity errors are obvious, and, despite the Chicago el and skyline used in establishing shots, it’s obvious from the spear carriers’ accents this was filed in Canada. Nothing wrong with that, but, damn, if you’re going to use B reels to set a location, at least make an effort to help us suspend disbelief about that location. We worked hard enough to swallow the story.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). Possibly my favorite comfort food
movie. Watched it with The Beloved Spouse for my birthday and loved it as much as ever, even though I knew everything that was going to happen. For younger readers, if you haven’t seen this, do so. You’ll thank me. It’s a delight.


A River Runs Through It (1992). I didn’t enjoy this as much as I did twenty years ago, in large part because I know a lot more about writing. If ever a
movie was undermined by telling rather than showing, it’s this one, and that’s no mean feat in a visual medium. The opening expository voiceover goes on too long, and the ending is too abrupt, using the voiceover to tie up all the loose ends. Beautifully photographed and acted, and what story director Robert Redford and screenwriter Richard Friedenberg deign to show us is well done,  but we got to the end and thought, “and?” Not a waste of time, but not a movie that you’ll discuss much afterward, either.