How to judge an author

A book the proves that story and context mean everything

A book the proves that story and context mean everything

Well, well, well, it’s been a while since we’ve had a decent author on author scrape in the world of publishing but thanks to a recent piece titled Heinlein, Hugos, and Hogwash by John C. Wright for the Intercollegiate Review feelings have been stirred, thoughts have been expressed, and rants have been rendered, most notably those of author Rachel Aaron. I have issues with both Wright and Aaron.

Wright is upset that science fiction authors are being silenced for their personal views. Much like the defenders of Donald Sterling insist he can’t be forced to sell his NBA team for making racist remarks, Wright believes Sci-Fi authors shouldn’t be punished for their statements on race, gender, sexual orientation, political leanings, etc. He begins his argument by insisting the father (oops, sorry if that’s sexist) of modern military Science Fiction, Robert Heinlein, would not win a Hugo Award in today’s Sci-Fi community. Why? Because Heinlein wrote provocative works that challenged the norms of his day.

Wright is making the same argument the generation before him made about the current state of things and the generation before that voiced the same concerns and the generation before that and so forth and so on. I’m sure Neanderthals sat around grunting out complaints about how utterly politically correct the world of cave painting had become.  We old-timers tend to do that. “Why back in my day we used to…” blah, blah, blah. Most of us have selective memories about what actually happened back in the good old days and get it horrifyingly wrong.

But nonetheless Wright sees a trend that worries him and he’s trying to put the wheels back on the bus. The problem is he doesn’t really make his point. He presents two of Heinlein’s books as examples of where the legendary author lays out his views and then Wright states that one title espouses right leaning social think while the other title espouses left leaning social think.  Wright’s intention was to illustrate that Heinlein had free reign to express his views without fear of reprisal.

Do you see the flaw? Heinlein didn’t adopt a social view and then put it in a story. He wrote two different stories that adopted two different social views. How can you judge a man that is a leftist, conservative, sexist, feminist that has a weird thing for bugs? The ideas in Heinlein’s books didn’t belong to him. They belonged to the societal construct of each story.

Wright goes on to give examples of modern day Science Fiction authors who’ve been attacked and ostracized for their personal views on topics that include homosexuality, immigration, racism, and sexism. His mistake is that he doesn’t recognize that these authors weren’t held accountable for their books. They were criticized and in many cases punished for their opinions expressed outside of their books. As is their First Amendment right, they spoke their minds, and for doing so, they were not thrown in jail nor did the government ban them from publishing a work of science fiction or any other material ever again. Yes, they were boycotted by groups, and they were kicked out of organizations and denied consideration for awards, but there is no constitutional amendment that guarantees you a nomination for a Hugo award or acceptance into a genre based literary association. Like it or not, it is fair and legitimate to judge someone for their personal opinions.

Wright’s final misguided notion is that he is of the opinion that an author’s ultimate value depends on how many awards he or she wins. If you’re writing with awards in mind, stop writing because you’re cranking out thin, worthless crap that no one wants to read, and it won’t win an award as a result. In fact, don’t write for the reader either. I love my readers, but I don’t write for them. In the case of my Oz Chronicles books, I write for Oz and Lou and Wes and all the way down the line to poor lowly Gordy. Those are the people I care about when I write an Oz book. It doesn’t matter to me that they’re fictional. My readers’ views and those of awards judges, even my own views don’t come into play.

Which brings me to my beef with Rachel Aaron. While we both agree that Wright’s views are a tad off-kilter, we do so from very different perspectives. She’s applying the argument that Wright thought he made but clearly didn’t to inform her opinion. That is that authors should not be punished for views expressed in their books. Wright fell short of making that argument because he never cited an example of an author being punished for views expressed in their books. Instead he gave examples of authors being punished for personal opinions expressed outside of their works.

That aside, here’s where Aaron went a little off track.

Authorship is an opinionated business. The very act of writing puts your core values and world view front and center. Your characters, your plot, your moral conundrums, the way you build your world–these are all reflections of you, the writer behind the curtain. If you hold and put forth opinions in your writing that other people find repugnant or offensive, they’re going to offended. And since you, the author, put those opinions in a public medium widely distributed and sold for money, otherwise known as bookselling, these offended people are going to criticize your work publicly. They’re going to say that these stories don’t deserve awards and/or public recognition because of the ideas espoused therein, they might even band together to get you booted out of your genre organizations, publications, and/or fan groups so they don’t have to put up with your crap anymore.

Only in the smallest possible part are my books reflections of me. They are by in large a reflection of my characters and the fictional world they’ve been placed in. True, I am at the helm of the story. I carve out the starting point and the stopping point, but that stuff that happens in between, I stay out of that. That’s left to the DNA of circumstances. The moral decisions made within the pages of my book are made by my characters. In Bad Way Out, E.R. Percy, the protagonist, is responsible for feeding a man to pigs. I would never make that choice nor would I encourage anyone else to make that choice. In The Takers, there are passages where it’s revealed that Oz was a bully in school. I wasn’t a bully in the least little bit. You can read every book I’ve written to date, and you will never be able to figure out my political leanings. Take away the author bio and photo, and you wouldn’t know if I’m black or white or Asian or gay or straight or a man or a woman.

Aaron in particular is not a fan of books “where women are nothing but sex objects and rape victims”. My C. Hoyt Caldwell books contain sexist passages. They don’t contain rape scenes, but that doesn’t mean I won’t write a rape scene in the future. I will if it serves the story.   And to be fair to Aaron, I don’t think she’d be horrified by that statement. The “nothing but” in her objection indicates that she’s not opposed to that kind of material as long as it’s not glorified in any form or fashion.

The problem is Aaron steps into dangerous territory when she writes:

I don’t care if you wrote the freaking War and Peace of sexist rape books, I’m not going to read it, I’m not going to vote for it for awards, and I’m going to tell other people to stay away as well if they don’t want to read sexist garbage.

Now, that might seem unfair. What about the story? What about the context?! But deciding I don’t want to read yet another sexist book full of women being violently raped for plot is my right as a reader, as is calling those books out publicly for what they contain. The same goes for racist books or homophobic books or any other form of bigotry, because I don’t want that poison in my genre. I don’t want it in my world, period. I can’t stop you from writing it or thinking it–that’s your right, your free speech–but just because you wrote it doesn’t mean we as readers and fans and members of the genre (which, by the way, belongs to all of us, not just those you anoint as “real fans”) have to read it or take it seriously.

This doesn’t just seem unfair to me. It seems like she is lurching towards censorship territory. Firstly, story and context matter greatly. As she indicated, she wouldn’t “read yet another sexist book full of women being violently raped for plot”. She’s judging a book she hasn’t read, and making an uninformed opinion about the author based on what others have said about the book. By this logic, she’d not read A Clock Work Orange because it contains depictions of rape and sexist passages. Secondly, by not wanting it in her world does she mean that she wouldn’t want her children to read it? What if a book like A Clock Work Orange was assigned reading in her child’s school, would she then go to the school board and demand that her child not to be forced to read a book with ideas she objects to? Would she fight to have it banned at her child’s school? Do you see the slope Aaron is perched on? Do you see her having trouble finding her footing?

The problem here is that Aaron and I have two different writing philosophies. Obviously, she puts a great deal of herself into her books. The ideas, opinions, moral decisions, etc. are all hers. Only a smattering of mine make it into the stories I tell, and that’s usually a coincidence.

My point is that I have no problem with people objecting to and staging a protest against an author for personal beliefs outside of his or her work. If an author makes a homophobic or racist statement in a public forum that angers you, do not read his or her material. Encourage others to not read his or her material. Why would you want to lend financial support to a person like that? But don’t assume you know an author is racist, homophobic, sexist, or holds any offensive beliefs based on what they write in a work of fiction.  Despite what Aaron says, story and context should be how you judge the use of any loathsome material.

Works of fiction have to be honest to be worth reading. If you remove references to sexism, racism, homophobia, or any objectionable belief system from your story because you don’t want to offend anyone, you’re writing something that is dishonest and truly offensive. A lot of the time the truth is messy and ugly. Don’t be afraid to go there because of it. Write all the abhorrent material you want, and I promise I’ll judge it based on context, but I won’t make any judgements about you.

Shhhh! I’m studying Breaking Bad

No half measures

No half measures

I’ve been re-watching Breaking Bad to bone up on my character development skills.  I know I should be reading, and I am.  Unfortunately, I’m just not as inspired by my current reading choice as I am by Walter White.  I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – Watching Breaking Bad is like taking a Master’s Class in writing, particularly when it comes to story structure and character development.

My chosen material of study has sparked an idea for a pivotal scene between Wes and Oz in Book Seven.   I count that as a win.

BOOM! The first draft of The Closeout Kings is done!

I just typed “The End” on the first draft of C. Hoyt Caldwell’s next book, The Closeout Kings! And, it is such relief! This one has been hard because of the subject matter.  Trying to make a story about human trafficking enjoyable is as hard as it sounds.  Is it any good?  No.  Not at this stage.  This is the first draft.  First drafts are normally dreadful.  I have some rewriting to do, but the story officially has a beginning, middle, and END!

You’ll notice two things about this post. One, I called the book The Little Deputy and the Closeout Kings in a previous post.  The little deputy has been pulled from the title.  Not because she’s less important than the closeout kings, but because graphically I couldn’t pull off the long title when it came to designing a cover.  Plus, The Little Deputy and the Closeout Kings sounds a little like a children’s book.  It just doesn’t fit the genre.

The other thing that you’ll notice is that I’m talking about C. Hoyt Caldwell on my R.W. Ridley blog when in the past I said I wouldn’t unless something big happened.  Well, completing a first draft is big so there.  Stop judging me.  There’s a possibility that I may rescind that rule anyway.  I haven’t made a final decision yet, but I am leaning that way.

Now for the fun part.  I created a couple of cover options for this book, and posted them on Facebook.  I was stunned and pleased by the great response I got from my Facebook Friends.  They gave me some really good feedback and based on that I’m down to two possibilities.  Take a look and let me know which one you like better.  I’ve made them about the size they’d be on an online retailer’s website because that’s where about 99% of my sales come from.

Do you like cover A or cover B?

Do you like cover A or cover B?

 

Here’s why authors should never get upset about a bad review

You're so wrong, Book Riot!  The Old Man and The Sea is a "MUST READ"!

You’re so wrong, Book Riot! The Old Man and The Sea is a “MUST READ”!

Basically, the premise of this post is that having an opinion doesn’t make that opinion valid.  Case in point: Book Riot, a fun little e-zine that covers all things books, started a “What Not To Read” book club for their Twitter Fiction Festival, and they included The Old Man and The Sea on the list.  The Old Man and The FRIGGIN’ Sea!  Are you kidding me?  The book is a classic for a reason.  It’s a seminal piece of literature, one that I include in my top 10 all-time favorite reads.  What is wrong with these people?  Have they no literary soul?

Here’s the deal.  Book Riot is worth adding to your list of bookish websites to visit on a regular basis, but even they can get it horribly and embarrassingly wrong.  Remember that next time you get a bad review.  Don’t take it personally.  If someone can be wrong about Hemingway, they can be wrong about your book too. We don’t all like the same thing.

BTW – Back in my schooling days, I was taught that The Old Man and The Sea wasn’t a book, but a short story.  Has our text message driven society changed the definition of what is and is not a book?

It doesn’t matter what you call me

My clown selfie

My clown selfie

Every six months or so someone on the traditional side of the publishing fence feels the need to blast the internet with their opinion on the unsettling trend of self-published authors flooding the marketplace with material that hasn’t been vetted by the increasingly irrelevant gatekeepers of the industry.  The fact that anyone with a computer can publish a book sickens them, and they bark out their dismay until their throats get sore, and they annoy the holy hell out of everybody in the process. We get it.  You’re upset.  Move on.  There is nothing new you can say.  Your point has been made… repeatedly, and uttering another word about it is completely unnecessary.

The latest grumbler is Michael Kozlowski, Editor in Chief of Good E-Reader.  He is so miffed that he is even offended self-published authors are allowed to call themselves authors.  I’m guessing he wants self-published authors to wear a scarlet letter… only not an “A”.  He suggests that self-published works should be segregated from those published by what he calls “professional” authors.   His logic here is that it’s unfair to consumers to subject them to a plethora of inferior works on an e-tailer’s website. They should be given a clear path to the deserving works of traditionally published authors.

Kozlowski’s argument would be valid if not for the fact that by his own definition Snooki is a “professional” author, along with Pamela Anderson, Britney Spears, John Travolta, and the list goes on. Bad writing abounds amongst the offerings of traditional publishers and self-publishers.  To suggest that a bad writer deserves to be called an author because he or she has a contract with a traditional publishing house while another one doesn’t because he or she self-published is more than a bit shortsighted.  It’s an elitist-laden load of pap.

Here’s the good news.  Good writing can be found in the indie world just as plentifully as it can be found in the traditional world, maybe even more so.  Self-published authors are more apt to take risks and bring readers something new, while “professional” authors often play it safe and follow formulaic writing not because they want to, but because they’re being paid to.  I ask you which has the potential to bring more value to the literary world.

I’m a writer first and foremost.  I’m devoted to the art of fiction.  Whether or not you call me an author matters not to me.  Call me a hack or Bobo the typing clown for all I care.

Writer out.

When a bestselling author isn’t really a bestselling author

Or not!

Or not!

Do you have a book you want to appear in the top ten of a “prestigious” bestsellers list?  Yes?  Okay, next question.  Do you have $85,000 to pay a company called ResultSource to manipulate your book sales for a day?  The sudden spike in sales will flash on the radar of bestselling lists and wham, bam, call it a scam, your book is listed as a bestseller.  Now, your sales will drop precipitously after you’ve reached such dramatic literary heights, but that doesn’t matter.  You can forever call yourself a bestselling author.

According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, here’s how it works.  ResultSource will use a portion of the $85K you paid, and “arrange the purchase of a quantity of books in such a way that they (are) counted toward national best-seller lists.”

In other words, enough books (2500-3000) will be purchased by a stable of buyers on a certain day to give you a sales spike.  ResultSource will reimburse those buyers for their purchase, and, I imagine, kick in a little “commission” for their efforts.  Now, part of this is conjecture on my part because ResultSource has never really revealed how their formula works, but common sense sheds a little light on the darker aspects of this fraud.

The article only addresses this tactic being used for business books, but I’m willing to bet that other categories and genres are afflicted by this dishonest practice.  Authors do not reap riches for their investment.  They merely use it to acquire the title of “Bestselling Author” to apply to their website, business cards, and Christmas newsletter for family and friends.  They may get a speaking engagement or two out of the deal, and a front of the line pass at Starbucks, but other than that this truly has a horrific ROI (Return On Investment).  You would think business book authors would know better.

The truly astonishing thing that one learns from this article is how few books you actually have to sell to appear in the top ten bestsellers lists from The New York Times to The Business Journal.

Authors who have used ResultSource have discovered that there is no lasting effect from their enormous investment.  You think?  They create artificial demand for a brief period of time.  The key to a books popularity and sales isn’t the people who buy it.  It’s the people who read it.  ResultSource isn’t finding readers for authors.  They’re finding buyers who will never crack it open.  They’ll never fall in love with it or find anything of value in it.  They’ll never rush to Facebook or Twitter to tell their friends and followers about it.  They’ll never call up their BFF or mom and insist they read this great new book they discovered.

You can manipulate a bestseller list for a brief moment in time, but you can’t manipulate readers.

Arm outstretched. Microphone dropped.