Friday, March 20, 2015

How reading has changed . . . part I

I'm old. I'll admit that. I just had a birthday, and I am so tired! (LOL)

I didn't grow up in the Greatest Generation like my mother, though. I was on the tail end of the Baby Boomers, the hippie sub-section, in the late sixties and the seventies. I feel as if I got the best of all worlds, beause not only was the nation still in a postwar boom, but we had a lot of respect for intellectualism and had a so-called "middlebrow culture" in which people felt it important to at least know many authors of "canon" novels and be aware of classical music (Western art music), acknowledging that these things have stood the test of time and must have merit (even if you personally don't prefer it.)

Nowadays, everyone has an opinion, and all opinions are equally valued. People post their opinions and views everywhere and consider that their say is just as valid and important as that of an expert in the field. We see a lot of people contradicting what scientists who are working in the field say, and we see people dismissing the advice of those who are studying whatever it is (world events/politics, music, whatever) and saying that their opinions are just as valid as the experts. "The End of Expertise" has been bemoaned (note my appropriate use of the passive voice, heh), and I think it IS a shame. Doctors know more about how to treat patients than the patients do. Professors of a discipline know more (even if you don't like what they say) than novices in the field.

The ancients were neither stupid nor ignorant. We are where we are because we stand on the shoulders of giants. Much that we know today is based on research and knowledge from the past. I mourn the Library at Alexandria and wonder just how much we've had to rediscover because of its burning. We can learn much from listening to the greats (and even the lesser lights) or the past. We can learn a lot from just watching and listening to those of today, too. We might find out a lot if we don't discount the views of those who seem to oppose us.

BUT ANYWAY. I've noticed a change in the way that readers read, and it kind of hurts me.

Once upon a time, the "average" reader appreciated many of the allusions and literary r3eferences in books. Lots of people were conversant with Shakespeare's plays and with the King James Bible (as literature and history, at least), and many were conversant with a large section of the Great Books (by which I mean the Odyssey, Lysistrata, She Stoops to Conquer, the Commedia dell'Arte, The Importance of Being Earnest, etc.) The Western Canon was not despised but was largely revered. My dad and his mentor Angus Pearson knew EVERYTHING. You could ask either of them anything and they could provide an answer that was correct--sometimes as a result of an educated guess. If you ever watched the PBS series "Connections," you understand what I mean when I say that the knowledgebase you have will allow fairly accurate predictions in related questions. I saw my dad and Angus as perfect. When I was a child, I determined to be just like them when I grew up.

Now I find people complaining about encountering any sort of cultural reference in a novel or story. They say it "is just there to fill pages" and that it irritates them, and often they don't get it at all. People have asked me why I would have any reference in my novels to other novels or to plays, movies, and so forth.

Great Books founder Mortimer Adler (I think) was the first to use the term "The Great Conversation" to refer to the body of work that is the Western Canon in English (and other books that didn't get on the list, as well.) He points out that authors have a Great Conversation going with one another. If you "get" the allusions and references, it deepens your understanding of what the author you're now reading is saying. It adds resonance to the current story and relates it back to what has gone before. Donald E. Westlake used to get away with a LOT of this, as did Lawrence Block. Some now call them self-indulgent for doing it. I disagree.

If an author writes that a character looks like Cary Grant or Frank Sinatra . . . it's probably ME, so let's reframe that . . . I am using those older icons for a reason. I believe that most people have seen Grant and Sinatra on the screen and will twig to what I mean, that the character's general demeanor or charm makes you think of the actor. If I write that someone sounds like Garrison Keillor, perhaps that is a bit more obscure (he hosts Prairie Home Companion on PBS radio and has for many years--his "Lake Wobegon Days" was a huge best-seller and I still get lots of inspiration from his radio programs.) Still, those who get it will get it, and I think it will deepen their first impression of that character AND of the character who sees him that way. In other words, if Kay perceives Whit as sounding like Keillor, then you know she is the sort to listen to PBS.

Oh, I don't know. Perhaps it's fruitless to discuss this. Either you like this sort of thing or you don't. I don't use references to ephemeral things that won't be remembered in a couple of years because I know that will date the text badly. I think that most literate people should have some knowledge of the Western canon and of the culture before hip-hop ruled and baggy pants were on everyone's radar. I could, of course, be wrong.

But if you're thinking those allusions are just thrown in to fill space, or if they're tossed in without a lot of consideration, you're wrong. I always have a reason for referring to "It's a Wonderful Life" or "All About Eve" or whatever. I think other authors do, as well.

Just clearin' that one up for the Gipper.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Life Lessons Learned From Bad Book

When I moan about my miserable sales figures, people tell me to "read what is selling and write something like that." I did read several of the bonkbusters (sex plus violence::=simulated plot), but I can't write like that. Yuck! How could I live with myself or those characters for the year that it takes to write, revise, polish, beta-test, and fix a book?

But I figured out several life lessons from these books, and I want to pass them along.

I write mysteries (among other genres), but I do not put stuff in there that is grossout or psychotic. I believe the artist has a responsibility to society as far as not giving ideas to those among us who are twisted and who will pick up on these things and go out to actually do them. Ugh. The "from the psycho's POV" chapters especially bother me because they have such explicit psychotic thoughts. The author(s) must be psychopaths or they couldn't think this stuff up. My promise to my readers guarantees that you won't get thoughts such as, "Which body part will I cut out of this victim and keep in a jar?" or anything similar. Ugh!

ANYway. *ahem* I came up with several LIFE LESSONS people can learn from the idiotic actions of the idiots contained within these tomes.

LESSON: Have a "safeword" or codeword that you will use to signal to someone who gets your e-mail or phone message or phone call that YOU ARE IN TROUBLE. "Banana" or "puce" or "ankendosh." This is a word you will slip into any email you are forced to write or phonecall you are forced to make. Conversely, you may choose to put a different safe word somewhere in your legit emails so that the recipient knows you are OK or can guess where you are being held. Yes, some criminals will twig to what you are doing, but most evildoers are too dumb to figure it out. It's worth trying. SOME form of this should be in your bag of tricks.

One protagonist's sister supposedly sends her this email including "don't try to find me." This is so out of character that if it had been legit, it should have had the "banana" codeword in it. Because it does not, you know this is fake. OR . . . during the phone call that someone gets from her child while she is being held hostage (and you're supposed to convince the child you are not being held hostage), if the keyword "banana" is slipped in, the child knows there's trouble. This is something your child should have for herself! If someone shows up to pick her up from school or a party and does not give the codeword, RUN!

LESSON: If your sister or friend disappears and you go into her home, CHANGE THOSE LOCKS IMMEDIATELY. Duh!! Also, install a spycam to see who comes and goes. In this book, Amy hears someone who has a key actually opening the front door of Becky's apartment while Amy is in there. She didn't change the locks! She didn't do a spycam! Dumb! TSTL! If neighbors have had keys, take them away and change those locks. Take any laptop computers with you the first time you visit the place. Also any pets. This is just common sense!

LESSON: Never have a locking room or closet that locks from the outside with a hasp and doesn't unlock from inside. This guarantees (in these novels) that you will be locked in there, either to die or to suffer. If you see someone has installed a padlock and hasp, RUN. Have your cell phone charged and ON YOU at all times, like in a pocket. When I broke my kneecap and had surgery, my mom tied my cell phone around my neck on a long shoelace. This isn't completely wack, because then I could walk on the crutches and still have the phone if I didn't have pockets. Anyway--you don't need a room that locks you in from the outside. Which is worse--having someone steal some rusty garden tools out of your backyard shed, or getting locked into it?

LESSON: Have a hidey-hole in which you keep cash and a weapon (knife or even a Glock). This should be a fake electrical outlet or a fake cable TV outlet in the wall of your bedroom by the headboard OR in your bathroom. That way you can get to these things when the bad guy lets you go to the bathroom. It is insane NOT to have something hidden too well for the people to find. In a previous book by the same author(s), the search described of the property would not have turned up the hidey-hole and she could have gotten away. But then there would have been no book. Keep a screwdriver to remove door hinges. Whatever you might need. Or have a hidden panel like Lawrence Block's Bernie Rhodenbarr, in the back of the closet that you will hide in when the perp comes to get you.

And obeying the order to "not call the cops" and instead going solo to meet a stranger in a strange place . . . TSTL.

Slutty behavior is not a plus for me, so I don't respect the women who do this stuff at all. In MARFA LIGHTS, yes, Ari is weak and she takes comfort one time when she definitely should not have. But she did know the guy and he had been "vetted" by Gil and by society in general, so it wasn't as risky as it could have been. The incident was meant to show that she was so shaken up that she needed some sort of comfort, and that was what was available. Also, it was the opening move in the endgame because it allowed the dude to steal something of hers. Slutty behavior is when the women try to hook up all the time with whoever and don't seem to have any sort of standards. (IMHO, in a book!)

So . . . if you read a book like this, learn those life lessons it offers. Do as I SAY, not as THEY DO! Keep yourself safer out there.