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Friday, May 19, 2006

The Best Novel of the Last 25 Years?

In case you missed it, the New York Times this week announced the results of their efforts to find "the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years." And the winner is...

Toni Morrison, for Beloved.

Okay, I don't have a problem with that. Nor do I have a problem with the runners-up: Don DeLillo (Underworld), Cormac McCarthy (Blood Meridian), John Updike (Rabbit, Run and its many sequels), and Philip Roth (American Pastoral).

But waitaminnit. McCarthy and Updike each have four books on the list, while DeLillo has three. Meanwhile Philip Roth is the clear winner, with no less than six titles in the top 25. Is the author of Portnoy's Complaint truly the greatest living American writer?

I must confess that I gagged and upchucked on a Roth novel sometime back in the 1970s and have never looked at his fiction again. Have I been overlooking a true genius all these years? Or is the New York Times book section, as is so often the case, hopelessly out of touch? What would you pick as the best work of fiction by an American published in the last 25 years?

Note that this restriction immediately rules out a ton of enormously popular, successful, and highly influential novels, e.g., Bridget Jones' Diary. Have we reached the point where the "best novel by an American" is kind of like the Wyoming Writer's Association's award for the best novel written by someone who lives in Wyoming?

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Literature and Libel

Fred E. Diggan III sends a fan letter and a question:
I've read the short story adaptation of Cyberpunk twice and the complete version once. I've found it to be very entertaining and, as an aspiring writer, very inspirational. I am a 42 year old mega computer geek. I've had aspirations of becoming a writer as early as the fourth grade. I have a desire to write about what I know best and that's our wonderful world of technology. I however am stopped dead in my tracks by the fears of copyright infringement. In my writings I always feel it a major detail to include words like "Windows *",and so forth. I do not have any desire to talk about any trademarked materials in a derogative way, but the fear of possible suit always haunts me. After reading your story. I feel if I write appropriate disclaimers and give the works away, I may be okay. This would give me an opportunity to gain experience and possibly gain feedback from the most important of critics, the reader. I also have hopes that the reader may experience what I have from reading Cyberpunk.
First off, Fred, thanks for the kind words. They're always appreciated.

As for your question: I'm afraid that libel is libel, regardless of whether or not you make any money off it, so giving the work away for free doesn't really protect you. Given that reality, why not try and publish your work? One bright side to doing so is that most publishers maintain staffs of copyeditors and lawyers who are well versed in trademark and libel law, and who will make sure that you a.) use trademarks such as Microsoft® Windows® correctly, and b.) don't publish anything that might be libelous or actionable. Usually this latter goal can be achieved by doing something as simple as changing the company's name to Microsnot or MegaSoft, or changing the operating system's name to Ventana VDx or something like that.

Of course, usage is everything. You're probably safe writing, "John blew his nose on a Kleenex®." You're probably not safe writing, "[Trademarked brand name] tissues were invented by a cabal of Satanists, and everytime you sneeze and someone fails to say 'God bless you,' the tissue steals a tiny bit of your soul."

Even if you aren't writing for professional publication, though, but really do want to just put your work out there so that people can read and comment on it (which is an experience the web excels at delivering), why not make up trademarks and company names if you're in doubt? When you're writing contemporary or near-future fiction, it's pretty easy to make up company and product names that sound real but aren't, and often more effective (or at least funnier) to do so.

On the other hand, if you're writing non-fiction, remember this: The truth is always proof against libel. You can write anything you want, provided you can make the case that what you've written is true.

Hope this helps,

Friday, May 12, 2006

King Kong Revisited

We finally got around to renting Peter Jackson's remake of King Kong a few weekends ago. It took us three days to make it through the thing.

First, the good news: yes, it's bigger, louder, and longer than the original, and every single frame is a beautiful visual composition. Yes, the big ape is so well-done that for most of the movie you forget that he's just CGI. Yes, it's a far, far better effort than Kong's last screen outing, the spectacularly awful 1986 film, King Kong Lives! (There's one that Linda Hamilton doesn't usually list on her c.v.!) And yes, I am reluctantly becoming a fan of the acting skills of Jack Black, and Andy Sirkis clearly has a great future ahead of him as the next Al Leong.

Did I mention that it's long? Really long?

The Kid lost interest about an hour in, right after the "gorge full of giant bugs" scene. My Wife dropped out somewhere towards the end of the second hour. I made it all the way through to the end, but it was just sheer bloody-minded determination that kept me going.

The test of a remake has to be not whether it's technically superior to the original -- which Jackson's Kong clearly is -- but whether it's an improvement on the telling of the story, and in this regard, I think the new King Kong is clearly a bigger, louder, longer, and marvelously expensive failure.

But that's just my opinion. What do you think?

Friday, May 05, 2006

A pocketful of loose ends

Here it is, Friday already, and there were so many things I meant to blather about this week and never got around to. Ergo, to flush the holding tank:

Publication News
Ranting Room regular Guy Stewart has a short story, "The Baptism of Johnny Ferocious," in the latest issue of Dragons, Knights, and Angels magazine. Guy warns that his story "is highly Christian and evangelical in content," but what the hey, it's online and it's free, so if you're in the mood for some fresh reading, why not check it out?

New Pics from Titan
NASA, in conjunction with the European Space Agency and the University of Arizona, has released new photos from the Cassini mission, including a 5-minute Quicktime movie put together from the images collected by the Huygens lander during its descent. If you're in the mood to be awed and amazed, this is some awesome and amazing stuff.

The Book Scandal of the Month Club
First we had The Summer of Ordinary Ways, the controversial and apparently somewhat embellished autobiography of Nicole Lea Helget. Next, we got James Frey and his faux autobiography, A Million Little Pieces.

If you're keeping track of such things, the current scandal "rocking the literary world" is that of Kaavya Viswanathan's apparently plagiarized debut novel, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life. (More than 55,000 copies recalled by Little Brown!) While initially I had some sympathy for Ms Viswanathan, having once found myself unconsciously plagiarizing an old Arthur C. Clarke story badly and from memory, that sympathy has faded somewhat as the extent of the scandal has become apparent. A half-million dollar advance and a Dreamworks film deal for an unknown (but very photogenic) writer and an unwritten book? Something doesn't smell right here.

Anyway, if you're in the mood for schaudenfreude, Sara Nelson has a really good article in Publisher's Weekly on how and by whom the deal was actually put together, while Alyce Lomax has a good article in The Motley Fool that lays out the numbers.


Whoops. The Kid is awake and wants breakfast. More to say, but not enough time to say it. Catch you next week!

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Media Relations 101

Twenty-some years ago, when I was first starting to make professional sales, an old pro gave me some advice. He said, "Don't waste your time arguing with fanzine writers. You won't change their minds and you'll just end up looking like a giant asshole."

The years went by far too quickly, the sales came and went, and the fanzines gave way to bulletin boards, chat rooms, and web sites. I paid attention to the old pro's advice and stayed out of the fan commentary -- most of the time -- but once in a while I did succumb to temptation and let fly at some dolt who had failed to appreciate my genius with what I felt was a well-deserved broadside of flaming shot and chain. Then, about ten years ago and on a dare, I did an Altavista search on "Bruce Bethke"+asshole. It returned more than 3,000 hits.

Ruh-roh, Reorge...

There are some things a professional writer simply should not do, unless you either crave abuse or want to establish a reputation as a real jerk. First off, don't read or respond to your reviews on There's something about the anonymous and consequence-free nature of Amazon reviews that brings out the third-rate Roger Ebert on a cranky day in way too many people, and your writer's ego doesn't need to see that. Your agent or publisher should have someone who watches the reviews for you and makes sure you only see the good ones.

Second, don't Google yourself. It's tempting, I know -- oh boy, do I know -- but again, the odds are that you'll mostly find evidence that not everyone out there thinks you're as wonderful as your fans tell you that you are. It's one of those peculiar aspects of human nature: if someone likes your book, they'll tell a few friends, and maybe you, but if they hate it, they'll want to shout it to the world.

Third, and this is the tough one, don't give in to the temptation to look up your own name on Technorati, icerocket, or any other blog search engine. Unless you're the masochistic type, you don't really want to know what people are saying behind your back. And if you ignore this advice and check the blogs anyway, stick to making factual corrections. Don't waste your time trying to argue with bloggers; it just encourages them, empowers them with the belief that you are indeed a worthwhile target, and turns it personal.

And once that happens, it won't matter what you write after that, because the personal animus you've created will remain long after the book that started it has gone out of print and reverted to silverfish chow.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Corollary to Sturgeon's Law

When asked why he chose to write in a genre where ninety-percent of everything published was utter crap, Theodore Sturgeon replied, "Ninety-percent of everything is crap." This has since become known as Sturgeon's Law, and while we in the blog world regularly make Sturgeon's numbers look conservative, in general, his law seems to hold true.

Now, some of you feel you've detected an inconsistency here, in that I can spend so much time slagging the products of Hollywood, strongly advising writers against working in the areas of movie novelizations and media spinoffs, and then turn around and speak kindly of something like "Land of the Lost" just because Sturgeon and his wife wrote some scripts for it. In reply, I would say that, a.) I never claimed to be free from inconsistencies, and b.) Hollywood routinely throws insanely large amounts of money at mind-bogglingly stupid projects. So if you as a writer ever find yourself in a position where you can scoop up some of those big Hollywood bucks without selling your writer's soul, I say go for it.

With very few exceptions, I like writers. Ergo, anything that raises cash, pays the bills, and a keeps writer like Theodore Sturgeon writing -- as opposed to, say, selling plasma or his spare kidney -- is, if not good, at least not bad.

Except for Killdozer. Sorry, that one was just plain bad.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Celebrity Deathmatch: Roddenberry vs Allen

It strikes me that perhaps we're being unkind to Gene Roddenberry. The original Star Trek came close on the heels of Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, both of which were intermittently brilliant anthology series with no continuing casts or characters. At the time Twilight Zone seemed to have the better writing, but it also placed more emphasis on the supernatural and seemed to carry more ghost stories and ironic-surprise-ending stories ("IT'S A COOKBOOK!") than straight-faced SF. Outer Limits was more strongly an SF show, although of the B-movie Monster of the Week variety, and is interesting now mainly for the episodes "Soldier" and "Demon With a Glass Hand," which explain how Harlan Ellison was able to successfully sue James Cameron and end up with a nice six-figure settlement and a small piece of the Terminator franchise.

But after those three shows: what's left? The Invaders? Granted, the producers of X-Files and Invasion must have watched it religiously, but --

And after that, we're down to the curds and wheys of the Irwin Allen cinematic cheese factory: Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Lost in Space, The Time Tunnel, Land of the Giants. Shows -- in some cases, successful and long-running shows -- distinguished by their sloppy writing, indifferent acting, crappy sets, frequent re-use of stock footage, and utterly idiotic science. "DANGER, WILL ROBINSON! DANGER!"

Really, I don't think we give Roddenberry nearly enough credit.