Wednesday, September 25, 2013

High & Low

Brooklyn is now the place for writers, if you hadn't heard, and that was the theme of sorts to the recent Brooklyn Book Fair. I skipped the main event, having suffered through enough readings of the same meandering yuppie angst, but I attended two events that gave a good picture of where this whole publishing thing is going.

Look! A metaphor!

First up, a panel of agents and editors in a big-box bookstore. A crowded, chummy affair with the Big Boys - who were mostly girls. Old girls, either young Boomers or aging Gen Xers. One complained that Brooklyn was so totally not the place for writers because she'd finally gotten a Manhattan apartment. MCing the whole affair was one of those professors you find in English departments who encourages you to put bad words in your essays and kinda looks like Stevie Nicks. She freely announced that most of the audience were her students - a collection of much younger girls with the stink of affected bohemianism and Jane Austen novels.

They went back and forth, sharing the little "secrets" about publishing that any fool learns in the first year of this dismal art. Be respectful, be professional, research where you submit, crap like that. It was the nuances that really stood out to me, the subtle nods of a class identity - like one editor who explained how he got into the industry by recounting his time at some Radcliffe internship as a student. "You pay five thousand dollars and get a job." And he hadn't worked at anything else since.

Then there was the disdain they held for anyone outside the guild. Meaning anyone who wrote and published outside their little Manhattanite world. I'd encountered the snobbery of literary agents before - a bunch of parasites who exist more out of tradition than any usefulness - but when someone brought up electronic self-publishing the panel turned cold. "I think there's a reason it wasn't published in the first place..." one of them said, dismissing the idea that an indie could ever get signed to one of the big presses. They clung to that stigma for dear life.

But more than anything, I came away with a sense of the careerism infecting everyone, panel and audience alike. Not the drive to get your stuff read - that's a healthy and natural sort of mania - but the settling into a job with prescribed dos and don'ts. Do submit the same tired yuppie dithering to all these fine New York publications with "New York" in the title! Do get yourself an agent and a ghost editor and all these other people who get paid to do what you as the writer should be doing already! Don't for the love of God have anything new or interesting to say!

Which was really driven home when Professor Nicks-a-like pointed out a success story sitting right there in the audience. A student who submitted essays to one of the muddling New York journals and was now signed to release her memoirs. We all look over - and she can't be more than twenty-three. How do you write a memoir when you're only twenty-three? Why would you write a memoir when you're twenty-three and why would anyone with any self-respect read it!?

Now the next event - self-published authors in a poetry shop. As soon as I walked in I started having flashbacks to Zinefest but this crowd proved much better than those neo-luddite screwheads. For starters, they all bathed. And more importantly, they were all driven to be read by more than the same homogeneous peers over and over again. The crowd was decidedly more mixed, in age and race - this panel even had a black person talking! A sharp contrast to the white and gray of the previous event.

They had just as much disdain for the upscale crowd too. I heard "gatekeepers" thrown around a lot and it was impossible to miss the feelings of bitterness among the panel. Still, they didn't sit around kvetching in a coffee shop at the injustice of it all - they just went ahead and got their books out! Of the two available on a table next to me - alongside stacks of gay erotica - were a YA novel about Icarus' girlfriend and a courtroom drama re-imagining of the three little pigs. The latter by the aforementioned black lady, Marie Guillame, who displayed an admirable mad-on for marketing - "Facebook! Twitter! I read my own book on the subway!"

While there's a grasping desperation to the self-published crowd, they're also the only ones I encountered concerned with the actual craft. Writing is an entire life to them, something they eat and breathe and shit every day. The Big Boys are all careerism, about as adventurous as Mormon accountants. And any claim to meritocracy is undercut by the fact that it was this crowd that published everything from James Frey to Snooki.

But more importantly, seeing such extremes of modern publishing really highlighted how homogenized the mainstream publishing world has become. It's made up of people who all went to the same workshops at the same colleges and are now all on a first name basis with the same agents and editors. It's a closed world that can't produce anything new or interesting and more importantly doesn't want to. The New York Times Book Review will never be a place of divisive ideas - whether in the books or the reviews - because then neither writer would get invited to the right parties. This isn't an all-consuming passion for them, it's just a lucrative bourgeois day job. 

Give the indies their due. As terrible as a lot of self-published books can be, the people behind them mean every misspelled word.

Trevor Kroger is the author of One Nation Under God, another indie self-published novel you should buy from Amazon or Smashwords!

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

An Inside View from an Outsider

"People are the same all over." It's one of those truths that's much more hideous than you'd think. You have to get into the specifics - "People are shameless all over" is a good one, or "People are clueless all over." And it's as true as only the really horrible stuff can be.

Take the recent mayoral campaign. NYC is looking for a new mayor, if you hadn't heard. I sure hadn't until I got here but New Yorkers have this delusion that everybody cares about them. That's for another time though... See, there's a bit of a fuss being made because the winner, Bill de Blasio, has a black son. Not the usual sort of fuss - usual by "Real America" standards - but everyone is whining that Little de Blackio is the only reason his pop won the primary.

This isn't surprising coming from the local Republicans, whose whole deal is just straight up hating blacks. I'm serious, they ain't shy about it up here. But what's surprising is how popular the black son meme has gotten over the past week. Outgoing mayor Bloomberg himself even accused de Blasio of running a racist campaign - because you know white billionaires are the experts on these sorts of things. Never mind that de Blasio emphasized labor rights in a town that still has unions worth mentioning. Never mind his opponents were an alienating technocrat and Carlos Danger-Dong. He only got votes because his black son appeared with him in a commercial!

And that's cheating!

"People are idiots all over!" I hear you say. Well yeah, and that's their argument too. "People" - implicitly black people - are so dumb they fell for de Blasio's trick. Because if people were rational they would have voted for [insert preferred candidate here].

Now on a substantive level, there was something to recommend both de Blasio and Christine Quinn. Where the former sounds better on labor rights, the latter has solid experience in government rather than just in activism. But the Quinn campaign was run like an afterthought, sending volunteers on hikes around the Burroughs with pamphlets to hand out regardless of actual ability. It was a very closed affair and if you wanted to be in on the higher levels you had better have been there to begin with.

The de Blasio campaign, in contrast, went out and engaged. His people talked to the voters like they were people and his campaign managers encouraged that sort of dialogue. Come election day and more people have a better immediate experience with de Blasio then Quin and you can fill in the rest...

"People are idiots" is a popular refrain when things don't go your way. Just don't forget that you're "People" too.