Recapitulating Frey

I’m here at the Launchpad Workshop in Laramie, Wyoming, getting my brain stuffed full of proper astronomy (and boy did I need it—I am ashamed to admit that I honestly thought the moon cycle was caused by the earth’s shadow). I’m sure this experience will give me plenty to post about soon (at the very least, I need to vent about how terribly, god-awfully bad Armageddon is), but for now I’m going back to two weekends ago, when I attended the truly awesome Readercon convention in Massachusetts.

First, Readercon is a convention that probably has the highest number of professional and semi-pro writers attend. I couldn’t believe the people I saw just walking around the hallways. I met Nina Kiriki Hoffman, which made me particularly excited, since I absolutely adored A Fistful of Sky. Even better, I learned that she’s now writing a sequel focusing on the main character of that book’s sister. I honestly can’t wait. I also played mafia, which is a game that brings out every ounce of deviousness and cunning in me. Which is to say, I’m really not very good and I have a shitty poker face. On the other hand, I loved it so much that I’m now attempting to write a short story about it.

BUT…onto the point of this post. One of the most interesting panels I attended was called “James Frey Recapitulates Santa Claus.” Now, I have a particular interest in the case of James Frey because I happened to be working on the lovely book club QPB when the Smoking Gun revealed his deceptions and his money-sucking house of cards came crashing down. We at QPB had just made My Friend Leonard, the sequel to A Million Little Pieces, a Main Selection in the upcoming catalog and had paid the publisher A Great Deal of Money for this privilege. We thought that it was a sure thing, given how much play James Frey was getting all over the internet and on television because of Oprah’s endorsement. I don’t know if my reader(s) remember this, but James Frey was pretty much the king of the literary world for a few months there. Everyone was reading his book on the subway, and as far as I could tell the reviewers really loved him and his surprisingly cinematic, tough-guy true story of recovery from addiction. I later discovered that a few savvy reviewers had been calling him a fraud from the beginning, not based on any investigative reporting, but a simple knowledge of the realities of addiction and rehab. Of course, no one paid attention to them. In a strange way—and this is important to the theme of the panel—people wanted to believe the unbelievable stories that James Frey told. They had a disincentive to acknowledge the clear hyperbole in the book, because the alternative was boring and depressing.

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Author gets a blurb

The lovely, talented Jacqueline Carey (author of the bestselling Kushiel’s series) has been generous enough to give me a blurb on my book. Here you go…

“Racing the Dark” is an engaging debut fantasy novel with a fresh, innovative setting and an intriguing central mythos. I look forward to reading more! – Jacqueline Carey

Oooh, I am so happy. Now, go forth and read Kushiel’s Dart (and sequels), if you haven’t yet. They really are very good. She’s one of the current fantasy novelists who really pays attention to language in a very beautiful way. Also, they’re kinky, if that sort of thing appeals to you 😉

That elusive Granta invitation

As reported on Boing Boing, Ursula LeGuin wrote probably the funniest, most sarcastically devastating rebuttal of the persistent “genre fiction sucks” meme I’ve ever encountered. This piece of dry genius was penned in response to a miraculously clueless Slate review of Michael Chabon’s latest “counterfactual” (read: spec fic, but I wanna be lit’ry) opus. The reviewer, Ruth Franklin, opined: “Michael Chabon has spent considerable energy trying to drag the decaying corpse of genre fiction out of the shallow grave where writers of serious literature abandoned it.”

After recovering from the near-mortal wound so delivered, LeGuin (incidentally, one of the most “serious” writers of literature in any genre, if by “serious” we are to read “fucking brilliant”) sent Ansible a response, in the form of a very short story. Read the whole thing here (please!), but my favorite part:

God damn that Chabon, dragging it out of the grave where she and the other serious writers had buried it to save serious literature from its polluting touch, the horror of its blank, pustular face, the lifeless, meaningless glare of its decaying eyes! What did the fool think he was doing? Had he paid no attention at all to the endless rituals of the serious writers and their serious critics — the formal expulsion ceremonies, the repeated anathemata, the stakes driven over and over through the heart, the vitriolic sneers, the endless, solemn dances on the grave? Did he not want to preserve the virginity of Yaddo? Had he not even understand the importance of the distinction between sci fi and counterfactual fiction?

My God: “…endless, solemn dances on the grave?” This is pure genius. I doubt she’ll admit it publicly, but dear Ms. Franklin must be feeling rather red-faced at the moment.

My favorite line is at the end:

Genre breathed its corpse-breath in her face, and she was lost. She was defiled. She might as well be dead. She would never, ever get invited to write for Granta now.

This is particularly hilarious to me because I have read precisely one issue of Granta. Someone who knew I liked SF gave it to me because, she said, it contained an interesting story that she was fairly sure was Science Fiction. Indeed, her surmise was correct. The story was illustrated with planets, just in case a hapless member of Granta’s literary audience found herself adrift amongst these unfamiliar spaceships and hyperdrives and interdimensional travel and other landmarks so far removed from their comfortable tales of upper middle-class urban angst. I actually liked the story, though it suffered from that typical disease of Genre As Written By a Serious Author: it wasn’t nearly as original as the author (and, apparently, the editors) thought it was.

In any case, I was grateful to this person for having alerted me to this strange and palpably pretentious literary magazine, because I thought I had discovered a new market for my short stories. So, eager writer that I am, I promptly zipped onto their website and looked up their submission guidelines. And there I discovered

Here is a list of things that Granta does not publish:

* Genre fiction. That means: no Romance, Crime, Science Fiction, Fantasy Fiction, Historical.

My goodness! thought I, hapless and apparently pestilent writer of that great horror, Genre Fiction. How could this magazine, which so recently published a work that not only featured spaceships, but also aliens and other universes, not be interested in my ever-so-earnest meditations on similar themes?

But LeGuin, with her ineffable flair for ridiculing this absurdity, has puzzled it out for me. It isn’t that these self-appointed guardians of the world of Serious Literature are opposed to aliens, spaceships, Martian colonies, FTL drives, black holes and freeze-dried ice cream per se, but that writers who delve into these arenas must ensure that they have performed the necessary public rituals of grave-dancing and sneering repudiation of the very genre in which they wish to work. Even better if they refuse to read a single example of this “genre” they so despise, instead relying on the previews of The Fifth Element, which really didn’t look very good, and vague childhood memories of disliking Ewoks. Then they should publish a few stories of the explicitly “literary” variety (which is of course not a genre with its own conventions and cliches, how could it be, for this is the only One True Serious Literature), featuring angst-filled urban dwellers coping extravagantly with 9/11 and family betrayals and quiet epiphanies by the seashore. Then, having made their street cred nigh-impregnable, they are free to jump feet-first into the pool of genre that they are quite certain has yet to be touched by a single writer of their caliber.

What a service they are performing for us, the lowly hacks just desperate for a royalty check! Writers like Atwood and McCarthy and Ishiguro and Cunningham are gifting us genre writers with the crumbs of their ineffably superior ideas and execution. Sure, they deny that they’re writing genre at all, (they “write about people,” you see, which is completely different), but the crumbs fall beneath the table anyway. Never mind that Atwood’s dystopian feminist tales of the future were done earlier (and probably more thoughtfully) by Octavia Butler. For that matter, so long as we’re talking about intelligent, beautifully written SF with sociological themes (read: about people), why not try Sheri S. Tepper or Robert Charles Wilson or, hell, Ursula K. LeGuin.

Here’s something to take home, writers and editors of literary fiction:

  1. “literary” is a genre.
  2. “science fiction” and “fantasy” have a long history, much of it excellent, and judging it a priori based on your ignorance should not increase your taste-making clout
  3. if you don’t know anything about the genre of a book to which you have been assigned a review, perhaps you should politely suggest to your editor that someone who does should review it. That might prevent you from making an ass of yourself in public. Though, of course, we all love asses who make themselves in public.

Ms. LeGuin– I will never, ever get invited to write for Granta now. Praise be to the gods!

The trouble with copyright

So, the wonderful online speculative fiction magazine, Strange Horizons, has very admirably decided to offer the option to all of its past contributors to license their work under a Creative Commons license. If you don’t know what this is, then click on the link for detailed information, but in brief: it’s a way for authors to get around the ludicrously restrictive copyright laws that only benefit a handful of corporations (cough, Disney, cough) and allow their work to be used for certain purposes that they define. The one that I chose for my story Shard of Glass is here:

Creative Commons License

Shard of Glass by
Alaya Dawn Johnson is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

I like it because it lets people fool around with my idea and do what they like with it, so long as they don’t do it commercially and they offer their work under the same happy, hippie-free-love license. Now, wouldn’t the world be a better place if all creative people decided to get over themselves and offer their work like this? I’ll still get paid if someone wants to use my work in a commercial way (i.e. Spielberg still has to call), but for everything else, I say: enjoy yourselves. Not as though I think there will be some mad rush to make the literary equivalent of the Grey Album now that I have released my story’s bounty to the world or anything, but I like the principle. My other stories aren’t online, but I’m thinking that I should attempt to figure out how to apply this license to them also. I’d even like to put it on my novel, but I figure I should at least wait until it comes out.

The Creative Commons people have, in addition, increased my esteem of them beyond measure by also offering what they call a Founder’s Copyright— essentially, a limited copyright that gives you exclusive rights for 14 or 28 years, instead of the (truly absurd) 95 that’s on the books right now (yeah, thanks Mickey). Apparently, the “Founding Fathers” thought that 28 years was more than enough time to get the benefits of private ownership of your work, and would probably wonder who the hell a copyright that lasts for 70 years after the author’s death benefits.

I’ve heard stories of anthologists who have made valiant attempts to bring some obscure author’s work to public attention by republishing it, but were stymied by the (astonishingly dumb) family members, who felt that 10 or 20 cents per word just couldn’t be good enough, got horrible advice from the neighborhood property lawyer, and demanded some outlandish fee that absolutely no one would give them, all on the bizarre idea that the next person calling them for permission would have to be a Hollywood exec. I’m sorry, but I make no promises as to the intelligence (or market savvy) of my progeny, and I don’t want them to have the sole responsibility of managing my writing when I’m dead. It’s very important to me that my work be in the public domain by the time I’m gone, and probably for a while before that. After all, why shouldn’t it be? Yes, I might be the originator of a story, but I know perfectly well that once other people read it, it becomes a little part of them as well. It’s presumptuous of me, I think, to claim that I should have the rights to whatever is done with it for now and forever. Hell, I write fanfiction, so it would be a little hypocritical of me to hate all derivative works.

You want to know when I’ll be sure I’ve “arrived?” For some, it’s the expensive car, or the invitation to the swank party, or the front page New York Times Book review, or getting mentioned on Page 6. For me, it’s having fanfic written for my work. The very idea flabbergasts me. There is no greater compliment than having a group of people so inspired and excited by something you’ve created that they want to spend the hours and hours necessary to play in it more. I personally think JK Rowling must be the happiest writer alive (though, of course, she must have her own peculiar stresses). Maybe because of that, I don’t want a stupid, corporate-lobbied, draconian copyright law getting in the way of what these hypothetical future fans might want to create. I want my novels to have creative commons licenses, and I want the whole copyright to go away at a proper, reasonable time. Like 14 or 28 years.

The Creative Commons people say that they aren’t interested in lobbying congress to change the law. But I think that someone ought to. 95 years doesn’t benefit anyone except Winnie the Pooh and Mickey Mouse, and I think it’s high time they let us have our way with them, don’t you?