Fun With Meter


I have never been much of a poet. Despite taking creative writing classes for years and all that, it turns out that I can write poems that follow specific forms and are technically correct – but still terrible, or at best not even rising to the level of mediocre.

I do enjoy playing around with meter, though. One of the interesting things about it is that there are really only so many ways you can write a rhyming poem with meter. So that means that many poems share the same meter and structure, and some of those are set to music. For example, Emily Dickinson was so enamored of the 7-6-7-6 meter that all of her poems can be sung to the tune of The Yellow Rose of Texas.

Recently some clever folks on the Internet came up with a far more sinister example of meter overlap. They discovered that the H. P. Lovecraft poem Nemesis has the exact same meter as Billy Joel’s signature song Piano Man. How does that sound, you might ask? Well, have a listen above. You can find the text of Nemesis here. It’s way creepier than a straightforward tune about a guy playing music in a piano bar.

Back in 2009 Slate put up a piece arguing that Billy Joel’s music is somehow transcendentally awful. Personally I’m pretty neutral on Billy Joel – I don’t particularly like his music, but I don’t particularly hate it either. It’s cheesy pop that I can take or leave. The article makes me wonder if the author had some bad childhood experience that took place while Billy Joel was playing in the background – because, let’s face it, in the 1980’s you could barely turn on a radio without hearing one of his songs.

But if the core of Piano Man somehow resonates with creeping Lovecraftian horror, I may need to revise my opinion. What if Joel’s music is not merely bad or schlocky, but evil? What if it is the means by which the Elder Gods intend to return to the world from the dark recesses of human imagination? Maybe that’s why he’s been popular for so long – his songs tap into an eldritch reservoir of ancient power that helps to embed them within the foundation of human consciousness.

Granted, it may just be a coincidence. But isn’t it more fun to envision Joel as an emissary of the ancient ones, promulgating their message through his music, and in the process slowly being driven mad?

…And It’s Gone

BooksI took a look on Amazon today, and was surprised to see that the $713.52 copy of Arcana that I mentioned a little over a week ago is no longer posted. Was somebody really dumb enough to pay over seven hundred dollars for a copy when I normally sell them for under twenty bucks?

My guess is probably not. More likely, the seller came across my blog post and realized I was on to them. Like I said in the previous post, odds are they never had the book in the first place and were planning on ordering a copy at the under-twenty-dollar list price to ship to anybody willing to bite. Then, they could keeping the difference for themselves. I do know that Amazon is trying to crack down on that sort of “selling,” so if that’s what they were doing it would explain why they didn’t want the attention.

But it also occurs to me, on the chance the book actually sold, that maybe I should put up a listing to sell my own used copies for hundreds of dollars. It’s not like I don’t own a stack of them, and I could honestly pitch them as “signed first editions.” You know, because there’s only one edition and I’d just sign the book before shipping it out.

“Blade Runner” Was a Totally Different Story

Back in October I saw the new Blade Runner 2049, the long-awaited sequel to Ridley Scott’s science fiction classic. I enjoyed it a lot, and I think that they did justice to the original – which is a pretty tall order. I will say that the reviews were mixed in part because you need to be familiar with the original film in order to fully appreciate it, and some of the perpetual fan questions like “Is Deckard really a replicant?” go unanswered – but I found it a nice counterpoint to the big, kind of dumb sci-fi action films that seem to be taking over the genre of late.

At any rate, no matter what you think of the original or the new film, here’s a question for you – what the heck is a “Blade Runner?” We know what it means in the context of the films – blade runners are essentially bounty hunters who track down rogue replicants, synthetic humans originally created as a slave labor force. The original Philip K. Dick story, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, is no help at all – the term “blade runner” is nowhere to be found in the text.

I recently came across this Slate article up explaining where the title came from, and it’s actually kind of bizarre and amusing. It just goes to show the in world of movie adaptations, nothing is anywhere near as straightforward as it appears. The story of the term “Blade Runner” starts with a doctor named Alan E. Nourse who also happened to be a science-fiction writer.

Whatever Nourse’s skills as a doctor may have been, they were outweighed in the scales of history by his other passion: writing about the medical profession and fantastical worlds of the future. Before he was even done with medical school, he was publishing sci-fi on the side: first came short pieces in anthology magazines like Astounding Science Fiction and Galaxy Science Fiction, then he started publishing novels with titles like Trouble on Titan (1954), Rocket to Limbo (1957), and Scavengers in Space (1959). In 1963, he retired from medicine to focus on his writing, but wrote about learning the healing arts in a 1965 nonfiction book called Intern, published under the intimidating pseudonym “Dr. X.” Sci-fi author-editor Robert Silverberg, who knew Nourse, tells me the latter book “brought him much repute and fortune,” but in general, he just “wrote a lot of very good science fiction that no one seemed to notice.”

That changed on October 28, 1974. Sort of. On that day, publishing house David McKay released a Nourse novel that combined the author’s two areas of expertise into a single magnum opus: The Bladerunner. It follows the adventures of a young man known as Billy Gimp and his partner in crime, Doc, as they navigate a health-care dystopia. It’s the near future, and eugenics has become a guiding American philosophy. Universal health care has been enacted, but in order to cull the herd of the weak, the “Health Control laws” — enforced by the office of a draconian “Secretary of Health Control” — dictate that anyone who wants medical care must undergo sterilization first. As a result, a system of black-market health care has emerged in which suppliers obtain medical equipment, doctors use it to illegally heal those who don’t want to be sterilized, and there are people who covertly transport the equipment to the doctors. Since that equipment often includes scalpels and other instruments of incision, the transporters are known as “bladerunners.” Et voilà, the origin of a term that went on to change sci-fi.

The Bladerunner had nothing to do with Philip K. Dick or Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Nonetheless, it would become the title of the film that would make Dick and his work famous in popular culture. The story of how that happened was strange and serendipitous, to say the least.

But fortune smiled on Nourse, as did one of the finest writers of the past 100 years: the obscene eccentric William S. Burroughs. According to literary scholar Paul Ardoin, Burroughs somehow obtained a copy of the second printing of The Bladerunner around the end of 1976. Burroughs was in a transitional stage in his life, having kicked heroin only a few years before and having moved back to New York after a self-imposed exile in Europe. He was rebooting his career with the help of a new assistant named James Grauerholz, turning in columns for pop-culture mag Crawdaddy and soaking up the nascent downtown punk scene. On December 5, 1976, Grauerholz wrote a letter to Burroughs’s agent, Peter Matson, saying the scribe had “liked the book very much, and in fact has begun to consider a film treatment for it.” As far as I can tell, writing a film treatment was something new, or at least quite rare, for Burroughs, but he dove into it with fervent passion. Matson negotiated the rights with Nourse, got the go-ahead, and Burroughs wrote the treatment in less than four months, delivering it to Matson by March 1977. He called it The Blade Runner, adding a fateful space to the titular noun.

Burroughs’s take on Nourse is, to put it mildly, a wild ride. Indeed, it barely has anything to do with The Bladerunner and is as over-the-top as the original was buttoned-down. It’s written not as a screenplay, but rather as a novella-length explanation of the movie to someone named “B.J.” (Burroughs periodically included this mysterious figure as the recipient of his words in other works, as well.) Like many Burroughs texts, the adaptation is highly inscrutable, which is what makes it so entertaining. He doesn’t even get to the main plot of the movie until nearly halfway through, having spent the first portion just setting the scene with the difficult-to-follow backstory of how the world of the film got to be so screwed-up: Overpopulation led to government intrusion into the lives of private citizens, the state’s attempts to control the population begat multiple Health Acts that were received poorly by the populace and led to a bloody civil war in greater New York in which the white middle class battled the poor and people of color, and from the ashes rose a new America where “the unfit” have to undergo sterilization in order to receive health care.

The Blade Runner was patently unfilmable. Grauerholz reported in July 1977 that nobody they took it to was interested, and an alternative arrangement was made with Nourse, whereby the treatment would be published in book form and all film rights would be forfeited. In order to distinguish it from Nourse’s book, a title change was necessary, and although the adaptation would never be a movie, Burroughs and Grauerholz confusingly chose to call it Blade Runner: A Movie. It was first published in 1979 by Blue Wind Press and was never considered a major Burroughs work.

However, a copy of Blade Runner: A Movie found its way into the library of a struggling actor and writer named Hampton Fancher. In the early 1980s, he, producer Michael Deely, and director Ridley Scott were working on an adaptation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and stumbled on a question. “Ridley, after a few months of us working on a draft, when he first came into the project, asked me a question that was so obvious I hadn’t really addressed it before,” Fancher tells me. “What is it that Deckard is, professionally? ‘He’s a detective,’ I said. ‘Well, that was obvious, but what kind of detective exactly, what should he be called?’ I didn’t have an answer, but I’d better get one fast.”

He turned to his collection of tomes. Per Fancher: “That night, I was looking through my books and came across a thin little volume by William Burroughs called Blade Runner. Bingo! Everybody liked it, then later, we needed a new title other than the ones we’d been considering and Michael Deeley, the producer, said, ‘It’s staring us right in the face.’” According to Scott, they approached Burroughs, he said yes, they bought the title of his book for “a nominal fee,” and Blade Runner — a work that otherwise had nothing to do with The Bladerunner or Blade Runner: A Movie — was released on June 25, 1982.

I don’t know if there’s any real takeaway from this, except that it shows if you come up with a really cool title for your story, somebody might decide to license it for a completely unrelated film. This isn’t the only case of that, either. The producers of the 1992 film The Lawnmower Man licensed the title of the Stephen King story of the same name not long after King became a household name, but the movie was actually based on an original screenplay with a working title of CyberGod.

The only similarity with the King story is that there’s one scene where a guy is killed with a lawnmower. King wound up suing the production company when they advertised that the film was based on his story – when all that the company had licensed was the title and the movie was entirely written by someone else. And by the way, before you tell me how terrible The Lawnmower Man was, make sure you’ve watched the director’s cut first. Compared to the theatrical release, which was awful, it’s like night and day.

So maybe that means if you come up with a really cool title, you should keep it to yourself until you know what the people licensing it are going to do with it. Then again, if your name isn’t Stephen King, I don’t know how likely it is that a film production is going to try and exploit your fame in order to drum up publicity.

Publishing in 2017

publishing2017 might turn out to be the year in which declining book sales finally start to take a real toll on major publishing houses. Niche and independent writers like me have been talking about these trends for years, but for the longest time it seemed like big publishers who could position books were essentially immune. The democratization of publishing has meant that anybody can publish their work, but what that means in practice is that there are now millions and millions of books out there that hardly anybody will ever hear of, with all of them in competition with each other.

Marketing is an entirely separate skill from writing, and beyond that, the only organizations willing to put significant resources towards it are the big publishing houses – so their status as de facto gatekeepers has not really changed that much. But as this Slate article points out, 2017 was a little different. Even for the big publishers, it was a pretty bad year for book sales. At the end of 2016 sales were flat, and Carolyn Kellogg of the LA Times opined that the publishing industry really needed a 2017 blockbuster. But it did not get one.

Only a handful of overtly political books broke through this tranquil surface in 2017. First and foremost—among political books, but also among pretty much all books—was Hillary Clinton’s memoir, What Happened, which sold 167,000 copies its first week according to BookScan and kept on trucking through the fall. This Fight Is Our Fight by Elizabeth Warren and Understanding Trump by Newt Gingrich made brief appearances on BookScan’s top 10. Rediscovering Americanism and the Tyranny of Progressivism by radio personality Mark R. Levin had a bit more staying power. But the sales of every non-Clinton political book were easily dwarfed by those of the latest John Grisham or, for that matter, Neil deGrasse Tyson, whose Astrophysics for People in a Hurry is one of those titles that never hits the No. 1 spot but ends up selling far more copies over time than the hot screed of the moment. A couple of perennial best-selling authors, however, performed considerably below their previous numbers this year. Dan Brown sold 144,759 copies of Origin in its first week out. That’s a staggering amount, but less than half of the first-week sales of his previous blockbuster, 2013’s Inferno, and Inferno’s first week was less than half as impressive as that of Brown’s 2009 novel, The Lost Symbol.

Brown isn’t the only franchise whose brand appears to be cooling. Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard have been raking it in for several years with their Killing series of page-turning popular histories. These books aren’t overtly polemical—unlike O’Reilly’s other titles, authored on his own—and the most popular volume in the series, Killing Patton, sold 163,208 copies during its first week of publication in 2014. Last year’s Killing the Rising Sun also did well—144,657 copies sold—in its first week. But the most recent installment, Killing England, moved only 64,723 copies during its first week in September. This is almost certainly due to O’Reilly’s ouster from Fox News earlier this year, and with it his inability to hawk the new book on TV every weeknight. With O’Reilly out of commission, Brian Kilmeade of Fox & Friends is clearly hoping to don the mantle of Fox News personality lending his brand to ghostwritten potboilers that burnish all the annoying moral nuance out of American history. His Andrew Jackson and the Miracle of New Orleans: The Battle That Shaped America’s Destiny has loitered around the midsection of the list for the past few weeks.

Leveraging a massive publicity platform is one of the few proven methods of selling a lot of books, but the media has become so balkanized that many best-selling authors are “celebrities” invisible to most of the nation: YouTube stars, radio hosts, reality TV contestants. The Canadian poet Rupi Kaur has enjoyed a degree of popularity few poets would dare to hope for. Her work, by turns mawkishly sentimental and quotably confessional, makes her the Rod McKuen of her generation. Kaur’s success—her new book, The Sun and Her Flowers, sold more than 75,000 copies in its debut week last month and has racked up a total of 252,602 sales in the month or so since—isn’t entirely due to her ability to produce lines like “i do not want to have you/ to fill the empty parts of me/ i want to be full on my own.” She has 1.8 million followers on Instagram, where her fame was initially spurred when a self-portrait in pajamas stained with period blood was banned by the platform. In a paradox worthy of our late, decadent stage of internet culture, Kaur’s career is dependent on Instagram both because it puts her on millions of teenagers’ cellphones and because she is seen as having defied it.

It’s not so much that those numbers are that small, but compare them to some numbers from the past. Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code sold 81 million copies as recently as 2003. Nothing like that ever seems to happen these days, and that only happened fourteen years ago. Not hundreds of thousands, millions. A while back I published an article in Denver Witch Quarterly addressing the entirely wrongheaded idea that you can freely publish occult books because occult writers like me are swimming in money. The reality is that occult books make next to nothing in terms of real money, so every single sale counts.

Now that might be starting to happen for mainstream authors as well. Maybe that means we’ll see some changes in the industry at this point, but unfortunately I have no idea what would work. Business is not my strong suit and it never has been. Probably it will be something that takes us all totally by surprise. The next big hit might be just around the corner, ready to revitalize the industry, and 2017 might just be a fluke or an outlier. At least, for now we all can hope that something will emerge to turn things around.

Check It Out! I’m Rich!

arcana_screenshotWell no, not really. But this listing on Amazon was too good not to share. You can click on the image to enlarge.

Now to be clear, that’s a real listing, not something I whipped up with my mad MS Paint skills. You can check it out right here. Somebody has a used copy of my novel Arcana on sale for $713.52. Besides being an oddly specific number, that’s way more than it costs anywhere else. If one copy is worth $713.52, and I’ve got twenty of them in a box right here plus a few more on my bookshelf, that’s like fifteen thousand bucks. I’m sitting on a small fortune, right?

Amazon will even give you five dollars off your order. What a deal!

In fact, this listing highlights one of the more dubious practices I see on Amazon whenever a new book comes out. Somebody will put up a listing for a used copy – you know, before any copies have been sold and when I know that for sure – for some ridiculous price. Then, the listing just sits there for years. My working hypothesis is that it takes very little effort to list a book, and there are a few collectors out there dumb enough to pay those silly prices on the assumption that the book must be worth something if it’s priced so high and they’ve never heard of it. Then, on the off chance the vendor does make a sale, they buy the book at the regular price, ship it to the buyer, and pocket the difference.

It’s sure nice work if you can get it.

Is Trump Card Non-Fiction?

At one point, a friend of mine commented that with the way things were going, I should be marketing Trump Card as non-fiction. I conceded that perhaps what was really needed was some version of the opening to the film The Men Who Stare At Goats – “More of this is true than you would believe.” But as this article from Slate points out, because of an oddity in how books are classified, a parody Donald Trump memoir by Alec Baldwin and Kurt Andersen is listed under non-fiction. Even though it’s a parody, and obviously not a real memoir by Donald Trump.

This is not to say that Times readers are likely to be confused by the memoir (though who really knows anymore). The book doesn’t conceal the fact that it is a parody, but there are fictional moments within it that could almost be true, knowing Trump. The book is even written to read like him, with ridiculous lines like “Mitt looks like he could be a winner, but he just doesn’t smell like one” actually being painfully plausible.

Andersen, who sees his book as a work of fiction, said he finds the whole situation “hilariously and delightfully meta.” (Anderson’s radio show, Studio 360, is part of the Slate podcast fold.) When asked why the book was on the Nonfiction list, staff members at the Times said that the book fell under parody or humor (though Jason Zinoman, who reviewed it for Slate, might disagree) and that humor falls under nonfiction. Other parodies to have been categorized as nonfiction include The Onion Book Of Known Knowledge, Earth (The Book), America Again, and I Am America (And So Can You!), though “determinations are made on a case by case basis.”

This is relevant for Trump Card because when I was self-publishing it I had to pick a single category, and settled on Humor/Topical/Political. Even though the book is also a parody of the Young Adult Dystopia genre, the book constructed around a satirical look at Donald Trump and his administration. So it’s humor. Does that make it non-fiction? Some of the material in the book about “David Godfrey” and his “Golden Dawn” group supporting Trump turned out to be weirdly accurate if you substitute some names in there from the real occult community. But otherwise? Of course it’s fiction, regardless of how the classifications fall.

Do Readers Dismiss Science Fiction?

science_fiction_quote_bradburyThe Guardian has an article up today discussing the results of a study that to my way of thinking plays right into the “literary versus genre” fiction debate. As I’ve mentioned a couple of time, I had an English teacher in high school who insisted that science fiction was automatically not literature, which to my way of thinking conveyed a lot of ignorance about the genre. Sure, there’s pulpy science fiction that isn’t written well enough to give it much value beyond passing entertainment, but there are also examples of the form that are written at least as well as most literary novels.

According to the study, readers were given 1000 word short stories to read. The stories were identical in terms of writing quality and content, except that a “literary” version was set in an ordinary cafe, and a “science fiction” version was set on board a space station at some point in the far future. The study found that readers tended to dismiss the science fiction version and not read it as carefully as they did the literary version.

Their study, detailed in the paper The Genre Effect, saw the academics work with around 150 participants who were given a text of 1,000 words to read. In each version of the text, a character enters a public eating area and interacts with the people there, after his negative opinion of the community has been made public. In the “literary” version of the text, the character enters a diner after his letter to the editor has been published in the town newspaper. In the science fiction version, he enters a galley in a space station inhabited by aliens and androids as well as humans.

After they read the text, participants were asked how much they agreed with statements such as “I felt like I could put myself in the shoes of the character in the story”, and how much effort they spent trying to work out what characters were feeling. Gavaler and Johnson write that the texts are identical apart from “setting-creating” words such as “door” and “airlock”: they say this should have meant that readers were equally good at inferring the feelings of characters, an ability known as theory of mind.

This was not the case. “Converting the text’s world to science fiction dramatically reduced perceptions of literary quality, despite the fact participants were reading the same story in terms of plot and character relationships,” they write. “In comparison to narrative realism readers, science fiction readers reported lower transportation, experience taking, and empathy. Science fiction readers also reported exerting greater effort to understand the world of the story, but less effort to understand the minds of the characters. Science fiction readers scored lower in comprehension, generally, and in the subcategories of theory of mind, world, and plot.”

As the article goes on to explain, the study has a number of problems. The authors made no effort to sort their subjects according to what they actually liked to read, which is an enormous hole. It seems to me that the most obvious observation in the world from this is that once you identify a piece of writing as a genre you don’t really like, you tend to just skim over it. I like fantasy and science fiction and don’t read romance, for example, and I can certainly see if somebody handed me a “romance” piece and a “science fiction” piece, I would probably test a lot better on the science fiction one than the romance. I’m automatically not going to read something as closely once I identify that it’s in a genre I don’t particularly like.

This would require a new study that would group the participants into science fiction readers and non-science fiction readers, and compare their scores. I suspect that among the science fiction readers, the scores would be similar for the two pieces, and among the non-science fiction readers the scores would diverge dramatically. Since science fiction is not the most popular genre out there, my guess is that these two sets got averaged together to produce the final result. I would also predict that if a follow-up was done on genre preferences, it would find that there are far fewer science fiction readers in the sample than non-science fiction readers, just due to random selection.

So I think the answer to my question up there would be that yes, readers dismiss science fiction if they don’t like science fiction. But seriously, did we really need a study to work that out? My guess is that it holds across the board, with readers engaging with genre fiction that they like and dismissing the rest. And as for literary fiction, the primary characteristic of that version seems to be that there was nothing in the story that allowed a reader to classify it into a genre. There was no real difference in writing quality or content, just the setting. So to frame it as the headline does – suggesting that there is something in particular about science fiction that makes people “poorer readers” is just plain wrong.

So one takeaway – if you can write a piece that people can’t easily classify into a genre, you maybe have a larger potential audience. But it’s also challenging to get there, because people tend to look for writing in the genres they like, not pieces of writing that might or might not fall into their preferred categories. “Literary” readers tend to go for stuff in the “dysfunctional family” genre – which is totally a genre with a whole detailed set of tropes – and pieces that appear to be about “real life,” which basically just strike me as drop-dead boring. Maybe that means I would score better on the science fiction piece in the study – after all, at least in that version something is going on that has the potential of holding my attention.