Postmodern Novel Bingo

postmodern_novel_bingoThe “literary versus genre” debate rages on. This article from Current Affairs discusses the universal acclaim received by Nathan Hill’s 2016 debut novel The Nix. It’s a postmodern novel about… well, what are postmodern novels about, anyway? To me, that’s part of the problem, and that always makes them a hard sell in my world. I may never be a great prose stylist just because I seem to lack the “love of language” that characterizes the best of them, and that means I always have been much more interested in what an author is saying than in how he or she is saying it.

Critics from major publications were united in their praise. They agreed not merely that The Nix was good, but that it was breathtakingly good. Said The Independent: “Reading The Nix—all 620 pages of it—is an experience of complete unadulterated pleasure.” Said The New York Times: “Hill has so much talent to burn that he can pull off just about any style, imagine himself into any person and convincingly portray any place or time… the author seems incapable of writing a pedestrian sentence or spinning a boring story.” Said The Guardian: “Hill is an assiduous selector of words whose artistic concentration seldom lapses. He is also a very musical stylist—the book is full of long, beautifully counterweighted sentences and subtle cadences that change from voice to voice as different characters take up the narrative.” Booklist compared Nathan Hill to John Irving. John Irving compared Nathan Hill to Charles Dickens.

So what I can get out of that is according to critics, Hill is a very good writer. There’s not much at all in there telling you what the novel is actually about, so I suppose the point is that if you’re the sort of person who values prose styling over the actual story, this is the book for you. On the other hand, if you’re actually looking for a good story, the article points out that this might not be the book for you at all.

In the interests of sparing you the trouble of reading the whole thing yourself, I’ll summarize the plot briefly for you here. The Nix is the story of a sexually frustrated academic who despises his students. Most of the first part of the book is an extended flashback to the time in his childhood when his mother abandoned him. Cut to his mother. She has an extended flashback to the time in her college days when she was peripherally involved in some anti-Vietnam protesting. There is a longish interlude about a kinky affair between a police officer and the mother’s college roommate, who enjoys being choked. The mom and the son have some cursory present-day interactions for the purposes of linking the two storylines together. There is a shocking twist at the end where you find out that one minor character is actually a different minor character. The end.

Oh, wait, there was also another plotline where the academic is in love with a violinist but her soldier brother sends the academic a deathbed letter from Iraq telling him not to have sex with his sister, so he doesn’t. Also a malnourished recluse named Pwnage nearly dies of a blood clot after playing a video game for too long. This is described at considerable length and has more or less nothing to do with any other part of the plot. The end.

Wow, that sure sounds like a story I want to read – NOT. Seriously, though, I haven’t read this novel and I have no idea whether it’s really any good. A lot of critics loved it, and Brianna Rennix, the author of the linked article, hated it. From the description here what I can say is that no matter how well-written it is, it’s not something I’m ever likely to read. To me, the story sounds boring and pointless, and no amount of prose styling, no matter how skillful, can fix that.

So why has this dreary novel received so much adulatory attention from the critical establishment? Well, aside from the possibility of a highly concerted behind-the-scenes wining-and-dining campaign by Nathan Hill’s agent, my only explanation is that literary critics are trained to respond to certain cues that signal to the reader that a given book is A Serious Work Of Postmodern Literature. Over recent decades there has been a hiving-off of books into lowbrow “genre novels”—mysteries, thrillers, science fiction, romance, and the like—and “literary novels,” which are all self-consciously vying for an immortal place in the Great Books canon.

But just as mystery novels have their locked rooms and romance novels their kilted Scotsmen, the literary novel is a genre like any other, with predictable tropes and a predetermined range of narrative possibilities. Postmodern writing has a very strong focus on literary style: it prioritizes conveying a mood rather than telling a story, and writing a “striking” descriptive sentence over presenting a fully-realized three-dimensional character. The art of the short story, being easier to read and grade, is more highly-prized by MFA instructors, and consequently the novels produced by MFA-trained writers have a cobbled-together feel of multiple short stories mashed into something of a novel-length. So-called experimental elements, such as unusual text formatting, have long since ceased to be experimental: they are now well-established formulas.

Here Rennix absolutely nails it. When people go about how the genres I write in, science fiction and fantasy, are not “literary,” I just roll my eyes. While it’s true that much genre fiction is not well-written enough to qualify, the subject matter itself should not be disqualifying. After all, “dysfunctional family” is a genre too, and we all know how much “literary” writing employs the same old tropes of abusive parenting and the like.

Now I’m not trying to argue that I’m necessarily a good enough writer for my fantasy or science fiction to be considered literary, I just think the idea of dismissing entire classes of subject matter out of hand is profoundly misguided. If you think fantasy can’t be literary, read Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Anybody who tells me that’s not a literary-quality novel is absolutely full of it. Prose in science fiction tends to be more sparse and minimalistic, but what about pieces with massive and intricate world-building, like Frank Herbert’s Dune?

My point is this – evaluating novels as “literary” or “not literary” should depend not on their genre, which might be “dysfunctional family” or “post-modern” or “science fiction” or “fantasy.” It should be based on their overall quality as novels, regardless of their subject matter. Personally, I read very little of the “literary” stuff under the current definition just because I’m not that interested in reading about regular life. I already have one of those.

And as I see it, magical powers and advanced technology are interesting. A bunch of characters who waste their time agonizing about a bunch of stupid crap, or whining about what assholes their parents were, are not. Likewise, all too often “experimental” is just another word for “garbage.” I know there are people out there who feel completely differently, which is good. I find it particularly sad when authors can’t find an audience. I’m just not going start reading this stuff myself any time soon.

Now is it just me, or does that “postmodern novel bingo” card up there look like a writing prompt? Maybe I can figure out a way to work every single one of those into a novel that is simultaneously postmodern, dysfunctional family, science fiction, and fantasy. That would show them!

This Explains a Lot

BookMarketingI came across this point in an article about marketing movies, but it seems to me that it probably applies to marketing books as well. For all people talk about the possibility of books “going viral” on the Internet, from what I’ve seen it hardly ever happens. A lot of author discussion groups talk about cultivating word of mouth and so forth, but in the real world even getting somebody who already likes your book to write an Amazon review is tough. So what’s going on here?

There is a chapter in Derek Thompson’s book, “Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction,” published in February, about how things go viral in the age of the internet. Basically, they don’t. Rather than spreading from individual to individual, Thompson, working from research done by Yahoo, argues that “Popularity on the Internet is ‘driven by the size of the largest broadcast.’” Things that spread on the internet are generally shared by one large host source (a celebrity’s Twitter account, a big media outlet, etc.) to many smaller sources with diminishing and discreet (in-person) shares from the infected pool. “Digital blockbusters are not about a million one-to-one moments as much as they are about a few one-to-one-million moments,” Thompson writes.

This potentially has huge implications for marketing books. It suggests that the most efficient path to success is to focus your resources on getting the attention of the largest possible media outlet and letting the rest of the marketing take care of itself. I don’t know that it’s necessarily true, but I will say that it fits my experience better than what is usually considered the “conventional” viral model. It might just be that viral popularity is more suited to things like YouTube videos that require little investment in terms of time. Books certainly don’t fall into that category. Go big or go home, indeed.

So I’m going to think about this, and see if there’s any good way that I can test it out to see if Thompson is right. Getting the attention of large media outlets was always difficult, so in a lot of ways this statement makes it sound like the old “gatekeeper” system is still in place – it just now operates at the level of media exposure rather than book acquisitions. In some ways it’s a little disheartening, but at the same time there’s no way to effectively hack a system if you don’t know where the levers are that make it run. It’s axiomatic that everything can be hacked – you just have to figure out how do it.

Buying Your Way to the Top

new_york_times_bestseller_jpgThis week, a story came out of a small publisher who tried to buy their way onto the New York Times Bestseller List – and got caught. They issued their first title, a young adult novel, that mysteriously and immediately shot to the top of the list. This was despite any real buzz online, or even many copies available on Amazon. Also, according to many reviews, the novel is flat-out terrible. Apparently, what happened was that the publisher attempted to game the system by putting in large orders for the book only at bookstores that reported sales to The New York Times.

Handbook For Mortals by Lani Sarem is the debut novel from the publishing arm of website GeekNation. The site announced this news only last week, through a press release that can be read on places like The Hollywood Reporter, not a site known for extensive YA coverage. Sarem has an IMDb page with some very minor acting roles, several of which are uncredited, but details on the book are scanter to find. Googling it leads to several other books with the same title, but most of the coverage for it is press release based. There’s little real excitement or details on it coming from the YA blogging world, which is a mighty community who are not quiet about the things they’re passionate about (believe me, first hand experience here).

YA writer and publisher Phil Stamper raised the alarm bells on this novel’s sudden success through a series of tweets, noting GeekNation’s own low traffic, the inability to even buy it on Amazon or Barnes & Noble, and its out-of-nowhere relevance. Another user, writer Erik. J Brown, noted the questionable quality of the book’s Amazon reviews, which Fakespot deems of unreliable and low quality. The book currently has 9 Goodreads reviews, all of which are 5 stars and some of which are duplicates. If you know anything about Goodreads, you’ll already hear the bullshit alarm.

Jeremy West, manager of OnBroadwayish, pointed to the book’s sales, which according to Nielsen Bookscan, are 18k for the past week alone. That’s weird. Very weird. Buying your way onto the bestseller list is not technically illegal, nor is it that hard if you know how. Many conservative publishers have found success through bulk-buying books then giving them away as, say, subscriber gifts if you sign up to Newsmax or the like. The thing is, usually the New York Times make note of this and include this as a footnote of sorts to the list. Here, there’s nothing. Pulling this kind of trick is hard to conceal, but here it’s especially glaring.

18,000 copies of this book would run you upwards of $360,000. It’s a way to go if you have that much cash, though I have to admit if I had that much to promote a book I probably could come up with better ways to spend it. More ethical ones, too. The problem is that the publishing world has become something of a vicious circle. If you’re a small publisher, it’s hard to rack up significant sales numbers without pulling almost-scams like this. The more people do it, the more everybody else has to do it to get noticed. And you need to get noticed because nowadays, you just can’t make it as a writer if nobody hears about your stuff.

I’m not writing this article to present a solution. I honestly don’t have one. I do know that people need to value the work of writers they like. At the very least, fans should be willing to write the occasional review of books they like, and mention them on social media once in a while. And people who justify book piracy on the grounds that we writers are making all this money should just knock it off – nowadays there are a handful of writers getting rich out there and the rest of us are struggling to get noticed by enough people to make a dent in the market.

About all I can suggest is that you take a look at this post from awhile back, and click on the image to enlarge. It shows a whole list of things you can do to help authors promote their books on Amazon, which like it or not, is where everybody goes looking for reviews, sales ranks, and so forth. Even if you didn’t buy the book there, your review still matters (a number of people I’ve spoken with over the years have been unclear on that). People seem to pay about as much attention to “unverified” reviews as they do to “verified” ones, according to current market research.

For those of you who have been willing to review my books and help with my promotional efforts, I thank you all very much. It’s always appreciated. The better my books do, the more of them I can write and you can read, which is a win-win all around.

Yes, She Is

promo_5_I_am_resistance_jpg“But you aren’t doing yourself any favors passing around made-up garbage!” I exclaimed “The Resistance has to be about the truth. We can’t just fight the president’s lies with more lies. Have you lost sight of that?”

“Of course not. I’m just trying to be thorough. You do make a good point, though. You’re right that spreading more lies won’t help us.”

“America was founded on the principle of liberty and justice for all,” I continued. I was surprised by the intensity I heard in my voice. “That should be the focus, not baseless rumors or wacky conspiracy theories. Look at everything the president and his administration are really doing. There’s plenty to criticize!”

“Well said,” admitted Felix. “Well said, indeed.”

“Thank you,” I replied. “I don’t mean to pick on you, really. I guess I’m just passionate about the truth.”

A sly smile crept across his face. “I want you to try something. Are you game?”

“Depends on what it is,” I replied. After the whole rubber mask exchange, I had no idea what sort of weirdness he had in mind.

“Take a moment, pretend you’re on television, and say ‘I am the Resistance.’ Can you do that?”

I considered. “Sure, why not?”

“Then go ahead!”

I took a deep breath, centered myself, and spoke the words. “I am the Resistance.”

“I just got chills, Sophia – that was so great!”

I said it again. “I am the Resistance.”

As things eventually turned out, truer words were never spoken.

Trump Card – it’s a terrific novel, I guarantee it. Click here to find out more… #TrumpCard

Kek Will Not Stand

“Godfrey launched into some sort of incantation that I couldn’t understand, swirling the wand in the air as he intoned what sounded like nonsense words. ‘You do know that ‘destroying me’ never ends well, right?’ I pointed out. He ignored me, lost in his conjuration – or whatever it was supposed to be.

“Alan glanced at me dubiously. ‘He’s waving a stick at us.’

“‘I think it’s supposed to be a magical stick,’ I pointed out weakly.

“‘There!’ proclaimed Godfrey, lowering the wand. ‘Her power is entirely neutralized. Now get her!’ Perhaps the funniest thing about the Sons of Kek was that once they set up their memes, their plan always seemed to simply consist of ‘Get Her!’ I wondered if any of them had seen the original Ghostbusters film.

“The six Sons holding the memes remained in place, while the other six charged at us. Tim and Alan adopted karate stances as they moved in, trying to position themselves to defend me. Each landed a solid punch on the first Son to reach them, knocking two of the six attackers to the ground. Two more engaged me directly. As they reached me I could feel the pendant practically burning against my skin.

“I decided to try something I had only seen in the movies. I punched with both hands at once. Each of my fists collided with the face of an attacker, and down they went in a heap. Godfrey’s eyes widened as he witnessed the move. ‘But… but…’ he sputtered. ‘That’s not possible!’ He started chanting again, this time violently rending the air with the eclipse wand. I still felt nothing besides the heat of the pendant.

“Tim and Alan were exchanging blows and blocks with the last two attackers as I stepped out from between them and walked a few paces away. ‘I’m over here!’ I called. As the last two Sons disengaged and turned to strike me, I repeated the double-punch move. Both dropped hard on the ground.”

Trump Card – it’s a terrific novel, I guarantee it. Click here to find out more… #TrumpCard

Trump Card. Yes, Trump Card!


So it’s finally here. This project has been consuming my life for the last several months. But I’m finally done. I have a whole box of copies sitting in my living room, and they look great.

Trump Card is my satirical take on the popular Young Adult Dystopia genre based on current events, particularly the Donald Trump administration. It tells the story of Sophia Sanders, a high school girl from New York with an unusual birthday. When a mysterious pendant transforms her into a “winner,” she becomes a contestant on the reality television series Junior Apprentice in order to oppose the Trump agenda.

While the nation looks on, Sophia and her team compete to win the coveted Junior Apprentice title. A brutal and mysterious brotherhood along with its enigmatic leader stands against her, hell-bent on destroying her chances of bringing the Resistance to life. Sometimes, the only thing a girl can depend on is magick – and a little luck.

Trump Card is available in print, Kindle, and ebook editions. The print version is also available from Amazon and other retailers, but I get the best royalty percentage if you order directly from the CreateSpace link there. If you’re a fan of dystopian fiction, or just find Donald Trump amusing in a horrifying sort of way, check it out!

Books and Beer – Save the Date!

books_and_beer
This Sunday, August 6th, is the Books and Beer Pop-up Bookstore event at BlackStack Brewing, 755 Prior Avenue in Saint Paul. The event runs from 1 to 6 PM, and we’ll be holding a drawing for a free growler of beer.

Hope to see you there!