Friday, February 17, 2012

Purifying Writing

Continuing a discussion of issues about writing raised by Delmarva Review editor Wilson Wyatt, Jr., I’ve noticed an explosion of internet journals who are looking for literary material. There are literally hundreds of them, and still they can only publish maybe one percent of what they receive. So no matter how good a writer you are, you still must persevere if you want to be published.

And forget about pay. There is none. My best hope is that when I have a novel to sell, my list of short story publications will help give me credibility with an agent or editor. Also, that if I ever have a book of short stories--or better, linked short stories--that having some of them already out there will help.

So I’m not sure how to view Mr. Wyatt’s report that, “The big news is self-publishing now stands on its own two feet and competes head-to-head with traditional publishing. This is a sea change from only a year ago.”

I didn’t get into writing to be a publisher. Writers, from the very beginning, have always depended on patrons, or at least sinecures, to make ends meet. Until very recently, self-publishing was disparaged as “The Vanity Press.” 

Now, Mr. Wyatt writes, “Self-publishing has achieved a degree of legitimacy” and is “more lucrative to authors than the 85% taken by traditional publishers” who instead of being gatekeepers “are finding it difficult to keep up with technological changes in the publishing industry.”

Sounds to me like writers are being forced underground by market pressures, writing more and better for fewer readers and no money. The business model has changed; in fact, it is no business at all to anyone with any business sense. Only a dreamer could possibly hope to make a profit from creative writing these days, in my opinion.

But this is not all bad. It may have a cleansing, purifying effect on the writing that does get done. On the other hand, it may mean more of us are asked to purchase self-published books from writer friends, whom we’ll later ask to return the favor.

If I didn’t have such a damn fine time when I’m actually writing, I’d throw in the towel. Well, there’s always posterity, and what writer doesn’t dream of that--even in a world someday bereft of libraries and book shelves; after all, it’s said that once something is on the Internet, it’s there forever.

So we’ll always have that.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Writing Not for Profit

Today, I'm continuing a discussion of issues about writing raised by Wilson Wyatt, Jr., editor of the Delmarva Review.

One of the saddest points Wyatt raises is that, “For better or worse, the most profitable market for writers is writers … writers who find their greatest profit opportunity by engineering “how-to-do-it” advice for other writers. Wading through the quagmire to find a grain of truth is painstaking, especially with technological advances on the Internet.”

A related phenomenon I’ve noticed is the fantastic growth of MFA in creative programs around the country and the world. What’s behind it? Obviously, there are a lot of people out there who want to write better--and maybe get jobs teaching others how to do it, too.

One of my mentors in grad school at Spalding University, novelist Silas House, had already published several acclaimed books before enrolling himself in the MFA program. He told me he’d enrolled because he wanted a college teaching job, but I’ve also heard him say in public that the books he’s written since then are better than the ones he wrote before attending Spalding. 

I also know that the nearby University of Louisville turned down its chance to have what is now the highly-rated Spalding University MFA program because the U of L English faculty felt it was “immoral” to offer such a grad program when college teaching jobs in creative writing were not to be found.

Ironic, isn’t it, considering the number of English graduate scholars who can’t find work, either; but I don’t see English departments across the nation disbanding out of conscience.

So what’s the answer to diminishing opportunities for earning money directly from your writing? Well, writing something irresistibly good would probably be a good start. Otherwise, it appears that the business of writing must now involve various kinds of self-promotion that I suspect in former generations would’ve been regarded as scandalous.

As one writer friend put it recently, too bad we’re not living in the Twenties.  

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Publishing's Changing Landscape

Some “definite changes to the publishing landscape” have arrived. They can either can be believed or fought, but “carry a strong measure of truth,” according to Delmarva Review editor Wilson Wyatt, Jr., who recently attended the annual Writer’s Digest Writers Conference in New York.

Mr. Wyatt raises some fascinating points in his blog that I’d like to weigh in on. “Thanks to digital technology,” for instance, “there are more authors than ever … more content … more books.” However, “90% of all books (traditional and self-published) sell under 1,000 copies.”

That seems to translate into a smaller and smaller writing pie--maybe now it’s more like a slice of one of those old Hostess fried apple pies in cellophane. I’m assuming the stats are from reputable sources in the publishing industry; they certainly match up with my own intuitions and anecdotal evidence.

So you can’t really make any money at writing anymore (if you ever could, except by teaching) unless lightning strikes--as it did for Louisville and national best-selling author Sena Jeter Naslund with Ahab’s Wife, which earned her a half-million dollar advance through a literary auction. This happens less often than literally being struck by lightning, I’d guess.

 “The value of good writing is more important today than ever,” Wyatt says, as the marketplace fills with more books.” This, I find encouraging since it mirrors both my values and professional efforts to improve. However, Wyatt doesn’t mention whether the number of readers is in decline now; we know the number of book stores certainly is.

I also wonder if fewer books are actually being printed, as opposed to produced digitally. Or if overall book sales are being juiced by a few kinds of writing.

I do find it encouraging that, “The boundaries between genres of fiction are rapidly becoming blurred, as a combination of ‘high impact fiction’ and ‘literary’ writing influence all of them.” I happen to love mystery fiction; I’ve read hundreds of crime novels. I even wrote my “extended critical essay” (the MFA equivalent of a Master’s Thesis at Spalding University) on the topic, “Mysteries Are Literature.”

One fact that is definitely not a mystery: when it comes to the business of writing, writing is not getting any easier. I’ll have more to say in response to Wyatt’s comments in future posts. And I'd certainly be interested in what Active Voice readers think, as well.

(You can read more of what Mr. Wyatt said at:  Wilson Wyatt Jr.)

Friday, February 10, 2012

Five Concerns

Last time, I referred to Andrew Sullivan's Newsweek piece about “How Obama's Long Game Will Outsmart His Critics.” I hope Sullivan is correct because Obama’s opponents will clearly usher in a new dark age if elected. But that doesn’t mean the President has been perfect during his first term. Today, in fact, with Sullivan’s help, I’d like to mention five main concerns I have with our nation’s first African American president.

In my view, to date the President has:

--Been far too moderate, reacting to rabid Republican assaults with (1) lofty appeals to unity and compromise or (2) giving away the store by attempting to reach a Grand Bargain on entitlement and other reforms.

--Continued Bush foreign policy by waging wars based on executive power opposed by civil libertarians. Escalated the Afghan War, while not completely ending the one in Iraq.

--Continued Bush policy in civil liberties by keeping our Guantanamo gulag open, supporting the Patriot Act, and signing The Defense Authorization Act into law (it approves the indefinite detention of U.S. citizens without trial--see The Active Voice, Feb. 5).

--Been a captive of Wall Street and responded too passively to recklessness by major U.S. banks while not pushing successfully for a WPA-type bailout for workers.

I say all this despite my disgust and fury with his opponents, who have disrespected President Obama in ways unimaginable with a white man in the Oval Office. I pray to God (if there is one, and he’s not a Calvinist) that Obama is re-elected so the United States does not plunge into a right-wing nightmare.

In future posts, I’ll take up some of the president’s achievements and successes during his 1st term in office.


Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Summing Up the Republicans

In the Jan. 16 issue of Newsweek, Andrew Sullivan writes about “How Obama's Long Game Will Outsmart His Critics.” As someone who voted for Obama, and will again, I certainly hope he’s correct.

“You hear it everywhere,” Sullivan says. “Democrats are disappointed in the president. Independents have soured even more. Republicans have worked themselves up into an apocalyptic fervor.”

For the moment, I’ll leave aside my own problems with the first Obama administration (which come from the left). Does anybody know an actual Independent? Do they exist outside a poll-taker’s imagination? As for the GOP, I agree with Sullivan that most of their complaints are based on fantasy.

Yes, unemployment is at terribly high levels, and the national debt is out of control. But the U.S. was on the verge of economic collapse and another Great Depression when George Bush was still in office. I haven’t forgotten that, and neither should you. I just hope Democrats won’t let the country forget it when we are barraged with dishonest Supreme Court-enabled PAC ads.

If you think I’m unfair to the court--well, I suppose you wouldn’t be reading this if you did--check out E.J. Dionne’s Feb. 5 column about, take your pick, the court’s naiveté or skulduggery.

An aside: I agree with the one good idea Rick Perry offered during his woeful campaign--allowing each new president to pick two Supreme Court Justices and retiring the two with the most seniority. Nobody should have a life term in a democracy. Who coached Perry on this? He obviously lacks the wisdom to have come up with it on his own.

There’s a lot more Republicans find fault with about Obama but in general they contend he has made things worse. Mostly, that’s just not true. And what he has accomplished has been in spite of the purely partisan roadblock led by House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Kentucky’s senior senator, McConnell, has even vowed openly his determination to deny the President re-election no matter what the cost, the country be damned.

I think that about sums the Republicans up.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Repeal The National Defense Authorization Act

I’ve been bashing Republicans lately, especially Newt, Mitt, and the Tea Party (sounds like something out of Alice in Wonderland, doesn’t it?), but I want to make it clear that I haven’t done so because I’m a Democrat or knee-jerk liberal.

I’m doing it because they deserve it. And much more.

Actually, I feel my political views are fairly mild-mannered, middle-of-the-road, common-sense. Well, maybe Common Sense a la Thomas Paine (who published his incendiary pamphlet anonymously during the American Revolution). You know, when they had the real tea party, the one about freedom from mad King George (no, not Bush).

Paine’s conceit--and I mean this in the literary sense of using an extended metaphor with a complex governing logic--was to argue for freedom from British rule when the question of independence was still undecided. Paine wrote and reasoned in a style that common people understood.

That’s what I’m going for, too.

To me, it’s just common sense that in America nobody should be thrown into a dungeon indefinitely without a trial. Does “equal justice under the law” ring a bell?
I’m against terrorism as much as anybody, including governmental terrorism as represented by The National Defense Authorization Act.

As if the Patriot Act wasn’t enough, this defense spending legislation includes a provision authorizing indefinite detention of terrorism suspects without trial--and critics (like the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch, and me) worry could be used against U.S. citizens.

You should worry about it, too. It’s your freedom that’s at stake as well as mine. As John Hancock says to the other signers of the Declaration of Independence in the wonderful musical 1776, “If we don’t hang together, we’ll all surely hang separately.”

As an old Vietnam War protestor, I applaud those who demonstrated outside the federal courthouse downtown recently as part of a national day of action, including more than 50 sign-waving members of Occupy Louisville.
And they claim these people lack clear goals. Ha!

As construction-worker slash citizen Brice Powers was quoted in The Courier-Journal, the National Defense Authorization Act threatens due-process rights and our civil liberties under the guise of fighting terrorists.

(By the way, where would be without our newspapers? They, not political parties, are the life blood of democracy. Whatever my disappointments with our local daily--and they are legion--its news columns, and those of the other free press, still remain our best defense against government tyranny. No wonder Republicans are always attacking them!)

The National Defense Authorization Act should be repealed.

Our Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell was targeted by demonstrators for supporting the provision. No surprise there. Not much hope of getting anything passed, either. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. How long did it take for the Civil Rights Act to pass? How long before the GOP repeals it?

President Barack Obama--who is my guy in the White House and shame on Arizona frumps who presume to be publicly rude to him--may say he had “serious reservations” when signing it into law, but he did it anyway.

Not good. And how long will the president’s vow last that his administration would not authorize the indefinite military detention of American citizens?
And what about the next administration?

Demonstrators say this law wouldn’t be dangerous, if you could trust our government--but everyone knows you can’t. Even when your guy is president, he doesn’t have total sway.

We’re supposed to have a nation of laws, not of men--but not unjust laws. The demonstrators hope they sparked more of us to the cause of repealing the offending sections of the National Defense Authorization Act.

Sign me up.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Real Total Depravity

I was taught in school--usually around Thanksgiving--that the Puritans came to the New World for religious freedom, but the truth is more complicated. What they really wanted was to be free to impose their own beliefs on everyone else, hence the Salem witchcraft trials.

I’m not religious. Christian ethics (I believe in doing unto others as I would have them do unto me) are fine. But theology only seems good for persecuting others.

And whenever fanatics get involved in politics, they inevitably try to impose their own dogmatic views on everyone else. Besides the Salem witchcraft trials (during which innocent women were drowned by Puritans; they knew they were innocent because witches could swim), witness Prohibition, old-time Sunday “blue laws,” and the never-ending brouhaha over abortion, to name but a few of the most obvious examples.

The latest involves Calvinism, which according to The Courier-Journal is being supported and disseminated by Louisville’s very own Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

This is extremely regrettable and dangerous.

According to the Courier-Journal, an Owensboro preacher, the Rev. Jamus Edwards, recently told his congregation, “If you’re a Christian, it’s not because you found Jesus” but because “You’re the kind of person Jesus has come to save.”

The newspaper report says, “Louisville’s Southern Baptist Theological Seminary—from which Edwards graduated in 2008—is playing a leading role in training and sending out pastors influenced by such views….

“Critics see in the New Calvinism a ruthless approach to both salvation and human affairs—with God destining some people for eternal damnation and many to natural disasters, torture and other earthly miseries.”

Count me among them.

So who was this Calvin guy and why are his ideas so bad for you?

John Calvin (1509-1564) was a French reformer who belongs to the second phase of the Protestant Reformation. Calvin was one of the originators of predestination and the doctrine of total depravity.

Calvinists believe humans are morally unable to choose to follow God; therefore, unless you’re one of “the elect” chosen by God at birth to be saved, you’re predestined to be eternally damned--and can do nothing about it.

It was bad enough before when seminarians were trumpeting Evangelicalism, which at least was inclusive, offering the possibility of salvation from hell fire to everyone who bought into their dogmas. But now they’re selling the idea that those who succeed do so only because are chosen by God; the rest of humanity need not apply.

So forget about free will. Or freedom, period.

This notion of “predestination” is entirely consistent with the economic and social exclusivity being preached by Tea Party Republicans. It’s also very convenient for the piggish right. Remember what Orwell says in 1984? “Some pigs are more equal than others.”

The ultra rich like Mr. Mitt Romney have always felt entitled to their privileged position. The Republican front runner has admitted he doesn’t care about the very poor (on videotape where it can’t be denied or unsaid). Perhaps he’s too busy swimming in his $23-million a year money bin.

Calvinism’s a bit more complicated with Romney, a Mormon, because his church prefers the term “fore-ordained” to predestination and believes that here in the “pre-earth” life the elect were fore-ordained--chosen, called, or assigned--to do specific things in this life.

But if there’s one thing I know for sure, it’s that the distinction-crushers of this world will always triumph. It’s predestined.  Fore-ordained.

This latest lurch by the religious right represents (as Milton says in Paradise Lost) yet another attempt to justify the ways of God to man--but only so long as they’re favored. Perhaps those not yet among the elect one percent also believe that God has a plan to promote them here on earth.

This is the real total depravity.

If they have their way, we’ll all soon find ourselves “sinners in the hands of an angry God,” as our Puritan ancestors believed and Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) famously preached.