Category Archives: Popular Culture

Go Set A Watchman  Catastrophe

Really? Really?

There’s been a lot of hand wringing going on in the media – last night on PBS, today on CNN – about the effect that the release of Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman is going to have on her classic (and only other novel), To Kill A Mockingbird.

“Will this change the way Mockingbird is viewed?” they are asking, with the same anguish as if they had just seen The Phantom Menace or the second and third Matrix movies. “Will this change what it means to us? Will it keep its impact on us?”

US_cover_of_Go_Set_a_WatchmanPeople, this is a novel. And an unedited draft at that. Before the wheels of publication began to turn, Lee was offered the chance to have the novel edited and she declined. Today, that’s only afforded to massively bestselling authors like Stephen King, Tom Clancy and Jean Auel, whom editors are either too afraid or too busy to edit — okay, maybe that’s not such a big deal right now.

To catch you up if you haven’t been following the story. Once upon a time, a young Nelle Harper Lee wrote a novel called Go Set A Watchman about a young woman looking back on her relationship with her lawyer father. It made the rounds and one interested editor – or maybe it was an agent – suggested the story would be better if it was narrated by the protagonist at the age she was at the time the events in book took place, as opposed to looking back after a decade or so. She did some rewrites and the book we know as To Kill A Mockingbird was born.

And something likely happened to the story line along the way. The perception of the relationship passed from a knowing one, from the view of a young woman who was a newly minted adult. It became more idealistic, a view from a little girl who worshiped her Daddy.

Meantime, the first draft of the book disappeared, thought lost by the author, who was busy not writing other novels. Until it was recently discovered and put into motion as a real book, to much excitement… until folks found out what it was about.

Apparently Watchman shows a view of Attacus Finch as a separatist and possibly even a racist – perhaps a less idealistic view of a man as seen through the eyes of a now-adult daughter. This the cause of all that angst in the literati – like the release is going to undo all of the advances in civil rights and race relations that have been made since Mockingbird was released. Welcome back, lynching and Jim Crow laws! Like the first book was single-handedly responsible for all of that to begin with.

Is there nothing else going on in the world right now worth losing sleep over? Is it a slow news week?

Or am I the only one who understands the concept of a first draft?

Just in case I am – here’s the answer to this non-story:

No.

Go Set A Watchman will not change To Kill A Mockingbird. Mockingbird will be the same book, the beloved classic it deserves to be.

If you don’t believe me, photocopy a random page of the book, put it in envelope, and check it after Watchman comes out. I’ll bet a large amount of cash or chocolate pudding that none of the words will have changed. Or better yet, open up that favorite novel of yours that was made into a wretched, forgettable waste of a movie and read a random chapter. It hasn’t changed. Just like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn wasn’t changed by Tom Sawyer Abroad or Tom Sawyer, Detective, two cash-in novels written by Mark Twain, both of which were written in the voice of Huck Finn.

And as far as I know, Lee isn’t pulling a George Lucas and issuing a revised director’s cut of Mockingbird where, among other things, the rabid dog shoots at Attacus first.

If Harper Lee made any mistake in issuing Watchman, perhaps it was in leaving the names of the first draft intact, not understanding the attachment we’ve developed over the years to the version that was published. It would have been an easy thing, once the book was put into a word processor, to do a global search and replace to change the names from the revered ones to something a little more generic. Nobody would have been the wiser.

Yeah. As if something like that would ever become a best-seller.

Real or Fake?

jackalope1So I’m reading a Kindle sample of a novel and in the beginning pages a character is listening to a song on the radio. The singer’s name is made up, the popular song being sung is made up, as are the equally unimpressive lyrics1. Then I find out that the singer got famous when she was on a TV program called Popstar! and, well, that along with some of the other problems I felt the book had, it kind of did me in for wanting to read the rest. I mean, why not just say American Idol?2

Why not indeed? I mean, doesn’t Stephen King, who some people praise for his immersive style of writing, sometimes drown you in brand names – Louie sat in his La-Z-Boy recliner with a Budweiser and a bag of Doritos, and turned his Sony flatscreen on to ESPN, waiting to see the start of the Boston Red Sox game… I think King’s point is to have people believe his creepy stuff could happen in the real world, so he throws in real world stuff in the name of verisimilitude. And it works for a lot of readers.3

On the other hand, you have writers who throw in fakes, and, well, I can’t really explain why. Years ago I was really excited to start reading James A. Michener’s Space, his novel about the U.S. space program. But early on it described a character going outside to look at the night sky “in the state of Fremont” – and my suspension of disbelief came crashing down like a house of cards. I mean, yeah, it’s a novel, but it’s a novel about NASA, it takes place in the United States and some of the other characters are real people, like Werhner Von Braun and Lyndon Johnson… then why make up a state fercryinoutloud? Why not just say Kansas or Nebraska or Iowa?

Now there are times when you definitely want to fake it. If you’re an insider to history or popular culture and you want to vent your spleen on the subject from an insider’s point of view, the roman a clef is the way to do it. Just change the names and everything is good to go. And if you want to keep your job, better fake your name, too – Anonymous is very popular among this set, and you can join novels like Primary Colors and Elimination Night4, along with all the attendant “who wrote it?” publicity.

Unfortunately, to me novels like that become a jokey guessing game with no real point. Everyone knows which Presidential candidate is really Bill Clinton, which recently rehabbed rock star grasping for relevance is really Stephen Tyler. if you’re going to this, I have two pieces of advice: first, make sure you have a really good lawyer. Second, if you’re going to fake the names, go all the way. Don’t play the assonance game and make William Clinton into Wilson Fenton (Primary Colors makes him Jack Stanton). Doing that strikes me as being too cutesy and cloying. Make him Frank Stevens instead. And if you’re going to have a cameo by an iconic figure, you have to be consistent and play it out ’till the end, changing his/er name, too. Just don’t call him Rob Snopes.

In Science Fiction it’s easier to get away with fakery. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing about things that sound different in the future because, well, things will sound different in the future. Except when they stay pretty much the same, as evidenced by the brand names that pop up in films like 2001 and Blade Runner.

Still, when you’re in the future you need to play nice. While working on the Pembroke Hall novels, my editor asked me to change the way that I talked about Timex in the book. They were afraid the watchmakers would be offended by things and the lawyers would come out. I made the alteration because she had a point, it was an easy fix, and I didn’t really have anything against the company or their products.

If you’re writing Historical Fiction, then it’s probably best not to fake it at all. Readers of Caleb Carr’s The Alienist partly did so to watch how the characters interacted with a future President who at the time of the novel was Police Commissioner of New York City. They didn’t want to guess which leader Theophilus Rosenfeld turned out to be. The trick to not faking it here is use the real person’s character to enhance the goings-on – a recent episode of Downtown Abbey centered around a meeting with playboy Prince Edward, whose womanizing ways contributed to the plot in an ironic way.

So if you’re going to be real, play nice and be consistent. And if you’re going to fake it, well, go in all the way and don’t be ridiculous about it.

That concludes my thoughts. This is Joe Clifford Faust, signing off from the state of Midlandia.

  1. But then, I’m at the age where most of the lyrics I hear on the radio are unimpressive.
  2. And I have problems with ALL these shows that grind out cookie cutter singers, but I’m not going there today.
  3. See, I can write about King and not say anything nasty!
  4. Which I always thought was a really lame fake name for American Idol. Popstar! is much better.

Little Drummer Boys

Now that we’re mired in the Season of Christmas, I have a confession to make. Of late, I’ve become something of a Scrooge over Christmas music.

I haven’t always been this way. Since I’ve been married, my wife and I have made a tradition of buying one Christmas album a year, and we’ve amassed quite a collection during our marriage. And it’s quite eclectic – I tend to like the quirky stuff like Captain Sensible’s One Christmas Catalog, and my wife is more a traditionalist. Starting on Thanksgiving, I’d slowly start to incorporate Christmas songs into my iTunes playlists, until by the final week it was 100%.

Single_Harry_Simeone_Chorale-The_Little_Drummer_Boy_coverThen a few years ago somebody at Clear Channel got the idea to stunt a Cleveland radio station by going 100% Christmas music starting a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving. It was kind of cool… but then the next year, everybody was hopping on the bandwagon, the stuff was everywhere and the Halloween costumes were barely moved to the clearance rack. That’s when I began the arcane practice of banging my head on the steering wheel during trips across the FM dial.

I became more and more enscrooged about it until this year. Maybe it’s because I’m no longer working in advertising, and therefore have not been writing about Christmas since July. Or maybe it’s because I no longer have to wake up to the stuff. But I’m back in the mood of voluntarily listening to Christmas music.

Now there are a couple of songs I don’t care for that will have me reaching for the iPod and dialing up my Jandek playlist. The 12 Days of Christmas is the worst holiday song ever, in my opinion, being tedious, repetitious, boring and… I don’t care. Not far behind it is The Little Drummer Boy.

But there’s a big difference between the two. That is, while I have yet to hear a version of 12 Days I like, there are some Drummer Boys out there I have become friends with. Thanks to my unscroogeness this year, and to a friend who apparently adores this song and has been posting versions of it daily on his Facebook page, I decided to come clean and do a countdown of my favorite versions of The Little Drummer Boy.

So here they are. And be warned: These are the only ones!

5. Mannheim Steamroller
Because they made it sound like prog. And I loves me some prog.

4. Dandy Warhols
To paraphrase something from another friend of mine, the Dandy Warhols are my favorite band whenever I’m listening to them. And you know that even though they’re singing this one, they don’t mean it.

3. Michael Franti and The Blind Boys of Alabama
Makes the story what it should be: a narrative. And the Boys bring it with gospel.

2. Bing Crosby and David Bowie
Who would’ve thunk it? This odd couple really works. And ever a sucker for multiple vocal parts, I like the intertwining of the two songs.

1. Miracle Legion
I love the stripped down arrangement and the odd harmonies. Who were these guys? And were their originals as good as this cover?

Happy holidays, and may all of your Scrooges be slight!

Update 12/20/2012: So today I am reminded of my sins. I was wrong. There is one version of The Twelve Days of Christmas that I like. But ONLY this one:

Handwriting is on the Wall

I have just heard the news that cursive writing will no longer be taught in Ohio schools, making it the third state to abandon the skill (behind Indiana and Hawaii). The keyboard is king now, the thinking goes, making unnecessary a discipline that teaches manual dexterity at the fine motor level. In these modern times we live in, cursive is slowly being traded as a youth-learned skill in favor of manipulation of a joystick.

That’s pretty sad. We’re slowly losing something useful, something that was a rite of passage in our schooling, and something that serves as a unique identifier and perhaps even a mirror of our personality.

I say this in spite of my never having really gotten the hang of cursive. My penmanship was wobbly and inconsistent, and I always had to labor at it. Printing worked better for me, probably since I did an unusual amount of writing as a kid before the cursive lessons started. I was actually faster at printing, and over the years, my printing evolved into it’s own kind of cursive, though it doesn’t look anything like when I try to write in cursive. It’s neither writing nor printing, but it is distinctive.

Quality cursive is a subjective thing anyway. Two of my oldest friends vary widely in the quality of their penmanship. One has a tight, elegant, kind of writing that resembles a city skyline. It’s amazing looking and could be a font. The other writes in broad, palsied, wavy lines that look like Charles Schulz’s lettering in the last few years of his life. Even his printing is sad looking. But both are enormously successful in their respective fields.

What always amazed me was how cursive seemed to cookie cutter the handwriting of girls. Our cursive system turned out millions of girls who wrote with broad, loopy writing, the kind that seemed to encourage the dotting of “i’s” with tiny hearts or flowers. Being a callow youth, I immediately judged girls on this kind of penmanship, and I never dated anyone whose writing looked like that.

In fact, my wife has the most amazing handwriting I’ve ever seen. It took me a couple of years to be able to read it on the first pass. Her letters are long and thin and slant off to the right like a field of wheat bending in a breeze. The loops she pens are gracefully thin and tight, with just enough space inside to distinguish one letter from another. It’s graceful and compact and is as unique as she is.

My children, on the other hand, were educated during the ascendancy of the keyboard, and interestingly enough, they both lean more toward printing than any brand of cursive. Further, what training they did get in cursive managed to generify their penmanship, and their styles of printwriting are remarkably similar. Both have a practiced signature, but it consists mostly of straight lines occasionally interrupted by a loop. But as their father, I can tell them apart.

Perhaps it’s time for cursive to go, given how keyboards now dominate our lives. But that’s not a good thing. It was a good discipline to learn. It gave you a unique marker beyond the fingerprint. From personal experience, I can say that writing by hand gives you a more intimate connection with the words in your head. For most of the novels I’m working on or have planned, I already have opening scenes written by hand (including the soon-to-be-released The Mushroom Shift, which was the first time I wrote a first chapter by hand).

Time and progress leave things behind, and for better or worse cursive is looking more and more like a dinosaur. However, being modern has its price. I can’t imagine Sullivan Ballou’s letter or the train station scene in Casablanca being improved by a laser printed missive in perfect 12-point Times New Roman.

Oh, Fudge!

Where to come down on the idea of cussin’ in one’s books? I’ve gotten away from it for the most part, mostly because I’m a Christian and try hard not to use it myself. But I’ve also sat through enough TV versions of films where the language is softened, and for the most part the writing works without it (except for the moment in Heartbreak Ridge where Clint Eastwood refers to a compromised operation as a “cluster flop”).

If the profanity is taken out and not given a ridiculous substitute, most writing functions surprisingly well. I’ve gotten along without it nicely for a couple of novels now, although in Drawing Down the Moon I resorted to some comparatively minor epithets during a couple of moments when the emotional tension was ratcheted up so high that it seemed the scene couldn’t exist without the kind of expression that exists when you call someone a son-of-a-bitch.

One thing I don’t think most writers consider when using profanity is how it is perceived by the reader. Folks, most readers ain’t looking at it the way that a lot of us do. For example, John Grisham has been praised for years for “not using profanity” – but he does. The thing is, he uses it ever-so-sparingly.

This tells me that in minuscule amounts profanity becomes overlooked as part of the story and doesn’t even enter the reader’s consciousness. There’s not enough to alert the reader’s radar, so it flies under it naturally.

Unlike when I went to see Dog Day Afternoon once upon a time a long time ago. A bunch of us from college went, and one girl who was unenlightened about “cinema” (as opposed to “movies”) became bored with the plot early on and began to count out loud the number of F Bombs dropped by Al Pacino. And you know what? Thinking back on it, it was distracting. Not the girl’s count, but the fact that there were so many that it demanded counting. How else do you account for people tallying the number of F words in films like The Big Lebowski, or pretty much any movie in which Joe Pesci or Robert DeNiro are allowed to do some ad-libbing? It’s like there’s a saturation point for this particular epithet, and once you pass a certain number of uses, it pushes the meter from “Useful” to “Tolerable” to “Offensive” and into “Self Parody.”

Oddly enough, this didn’t seem to happen in The Commitments, but then the word wasn’t flowing exclusively from the mouth of one particular character – it same from everyone, as if it was a part of the street argot. And it worked that way.

My take is to use profanity infrequently and only when emphasis is needed somewhere. I’m not so sure I buy into the whole “it’s part of the character” thing anymore because it has become so over-used (see below for an exception).

While there was profanity in A Death of Honor, there were only two F-bombs – one in a confrontation with a jackbooted version of that universe’s police, and an expression of disgust and dismay near the book’s end. My editor called me up to talk about this since Del Rey wasn’t known for that kind of language, but what’s interesting is that she was concerned with the second instance of the word – almost as if the first hadn’t existed. I guessed that was a sign that it felt natural in the first application, and seemed gratuitous in the second – although I would have traded the first to keep the second, which is where I really felt it belonged.

Interestingly enough, there was almost no profanity in Honor – at least not in the traditional sense. When I initially wrote the first chapter, one of the things I postulated was that language would change in the future, so I used a different, odd word as a profane expression. However, since Honor was only the second novel I’d written, I lost my courage to see that part of the book through and used common contemporary cussin’ instead. But I kept the idea in the back of my mind… and when the time came to write Ferman’s Devils I had a lot more confidence… and that’s why the characters there say “ranking” all the ranking time. It’s up to readers to figure out why it’s a cussword (and no, I don’t give any clues – but it was accepted).

Incidentally, “ranking” is almost the only cussword in Ferman. There are two others, used only once each – “bastard” and “ass”. The only reason I used them is because I heard them used in actual TV commercials while I was writing the book, and put them into the advertising universe to make a point.

For the most part I think profanity is a spice where you err on the side of less is more. That said, there are exceptions. Right now I’m in the process of coding my unpublished police novel for the Kindle. It’s based on what I observed when I worked as a Sheriff’s Dispatcher, back during the Ice Age. It’s thick with creative profanity because that’s what I heard. Some time after I wrote it, in a moment of idealism I decided to rewrite it without the profanity. But when I started doing that it just wasn’t the same book. Taking the profanity out ruined the whole tone of things. So I decided to leave it in.

Ultimately, it’s the decision of each individual writer to make. Just keep in mind that your readers are more involved with the story than you think, and if you’re gratuitous with the language, it may push the aforementioned Profane-O-Meter into Self Parody faster than you think.

And be cautious when I finally release The Mushroom Shift for the Kindle. The language really is terrible, and some folks don’t ranking like that.

Wanted (No Questions Asked)

Have you seen me (in HTML or Plain Text)?

Walter Jon WIlliams is looking for pirated scans of his novels. In this article on Torrent Freak, he explains his rationale, and it’s a good one.

Having recently scanned and coded the forthcoming ebook issue of A Death of Honor, I can see the genius of this move. Why bother scanning when there’s someone out there who may have already done it? Or somebody who can be bribed with autographed books, a mention in the appropriate ebook edition, or perhaps even small amounts of cash to produce a new scan?1

So if any of you ace searchers out there can point me to a torrent where any of my titles (except A Death of Honor – done already) can be downloaded, let me know. Or if anyone out there is willing to do an OCR scan of one or more of my titles (preferably into html format), get in touch also.2

As I said, bribes are definitely in order. Although baked goods might be a bit hard to ship.

  1. Hey, we are in a recession, folks. If I were Stephen King, I’d be more generous. But then, if I were King, I wouldn’t have this issue.

  2. To answer an obvious question – I do have electronic copies of all my novels except Honor (which was written and edited entirely on an old device called a typewriter). The problem with these is twofold – one, they are all stored on 5 1/4″ floppies. Two, they are not the edited version as produced by the publishers.

Five Reasons Why I Don’t Do the Grammys

“And lo, all across the land there was a great ourcry,
with wailing and gnashing of teeth and shaking of fist,
for in the west it was the time of the gramophone,
and the people, while they were vexed at what they saw,
could not help but watch.

Once again we find ourselves in the aftermath of the Grammy Awards. I didn’t even know they were on until this morning, when I opened up Facebook and found several friends posting about the results in dismay. As if they couldn’t have guessed what was going to happen. Can the leopard change its spots, after all? What else do you expect from an event that, each year, gives Lady Gaga the chance to dress like an animal rights activist’s nightmare?

As a recovering Oscar addict, I know what it’s like to succumb to the allure of the cult of personality (to coin a phrase). But the Grammies have never held much allure for me, even though I’m big on music. Maybe it’s because they’ve never been big on the same kind of stuff I was.

But just for the sake of reference, here are five reasons why I don’t bother with this annual pat-yourself-on-the-back fest. Reading and acknowledging them is the first of twelve steps to freedom:

1) Any time any industry gives an award to itself, it is immediately suspect. They tend to be petty and incestuous. Trust me on this. I work in advertising, an industry that has nothing on Hollywood when it comes to giving one’s self awards. Also, I used to be able to vote for such an award in a different part of the entertainment field, and there wasn’t a year that went by that wasn’t filled with bile, backstabbing and brutality.

2011 Best New Artist Winner Esperenza Spalding. One of the rare years the Grammys got it right. Still, if I were her I'd be worried about my career.

2) 1979 – The band Taste of Honey – those perennial favorites – win the Grammy for Best New Artist. The losers that year? A bunch of folks you’ve probably never heard of: Toto, The Cars, Chris Rea and Elvis Costello.

3) 1989 – For the first time, the Grammys give an award for best Hard Rock/Metal Performance. The winner? Not Jane’s Addiction. Not Metallica. The award went to… Jethro Tull. Now don’t get me wrong, I likes me some Tull, but Metal they ain’t. (When Metallica did win a couple of years later, they thanked Jethro Tull for not having an album out that year.)

4) 1990 – Best New Artist: Milli Vanilli. Enough said.

5) The Grammies are named after a useless and out of date piece of technology. Maybe they should be named after the Phonograph… the Phonies? Ooops. How about the Compact Disc? The Seedies! Oops again. Well, then they have to be renamed after their big bone of contention, the mp3. The “Mpties.” Well, maybe they should stick with Grammy.