Saturday, May 26, 2012

The 50 Percent Theory

 (Spoilers Ahead)

During last week's rant against the ubiquity of crap fiction in the world of e-books, I mentioned a “50 percent theory” that I recall encountering in The New Yorker awhile ago: That when we say we love an author’s books, what we really mean is that we love, say, around half of them.

This week, in true hyper-textual fashion, I thought I’d explore that idea by reviewing a less-than-excellent book by a favorite writer of mine, one of those listed-and-linked on the side of this page.

My hapless victim is the fine and highly regarded historical spy writer, Alan Furst, the author of the splendid Night Soldiers, the first volume in his continuing saga about World War II, anti-Nazi resistance movements. Furst is considered, rightly I think, a successor to genre pioneer Eric Ambler, along with Graham Greene and John le Carrê (though I think less so in le Carrê’s case).

I’ve been reading the Night Soldiers series in order and Kingdom of Shadows, which I’ve just finished, is his sixth, published in 2000. Of the six, I think this one counts as one of that other 50 percent of his, along with Dark Star and World at Night.

Furst lays out the story of the European resistance in clever fashion by portraying, novel-by-novel, resistance movements in individual nations (starting from Bulgaria in Night Soldiers, though he allowed that narrative to sprawl, quite wonderfully I thought).

Since I read Night Soldiers, I’ve found Furst’s work follows the outlines of the 50 percent theory, in checkerboard fashion. Night Soldiers was followed by the forgettable Dark Star, which was followed by the eye-opening and stirring The Polish Officer. (The Poles fought the Nazis a lot harder than you think, even as they were being crushed and betrayed 360).

The Polish Officer in turn was followed by World at Night, a frustrating, desultory story of Jean Casson, a Parisian film producer who is tugged back and forth by various subterranean factions before and during the early days of Nazi occupation.

Despite its elegant, indirect and painterly evocation of Parisian alleyways and cafes, its lackadaisical character’s dance with espionage made for a lackadaisical book. Things aren’t helped by Jean’s sudden melodramatic dive overboard into the English Channel, fully dressed; the kind of stroke works fine in a movie like Casablanca, but seems arbitrary in a novel.

Casson’s heart remains as elusive as the secretive world he spends much of the book trying to avoid, but not as intriguing. Jean Casson is the callow, reluctant hero, struggling with the decision whether or not to join the Resistance. Good enough, but the impacts of outside events on him never seemed to come to life. I never felt touched by the war raging inside Jean. He seems to be dressed a in a finely tailored but hollow suit.

However, I’m glad to say, Casson filled out that empty suit in Furst’s next adventure, Red Gold, a breakneck, harrowing thriller of Casson’s adventures after he commits himself body and soul to the Resistance. Here, Casson comes live as a dashing though still-ambivalent hero, thanks to relentless, hair-raising, sometimes horrific, encounters with both German occupiers and treachery from other Frenchmen. I closed that book with an admiring shudder and admiration for the bravery it must have taken to stand up to the Nazis. Like the best war stories, it gave me to feelings of both excited admiration for its heroes and gratitude that I didn’t have to live through it.

But now I come to Kingdom of Shadows. Here, the 50 Percent Theory again seems useful. This time, we’re with the Hungarian segment of the Resistance, starting in March 1938, when Hitler’s evil forces—with some assist from Stalin--were gathering and the whole world seemed willing to give way before his stew of manipulation, deceit, and proud-faced bullying.

We experience this world through the eyes of Nicholas Morath, handsome Hungarian nobleman, sometime playboy, and patriot who’s living in exile in Paris. Morath is resolutely anti-Nazi, willing to do his utmost to serve his country. Unlike Jean Masson, Morath feels no doubt about joining the good fight. Unfortunately though, thanks to Hungary's fraught internal politics, he’s never sure whose side he’s working for, pro- or anti-Fascist.

Morath rapidly finds himself wandering that mirrored hall so often found in the house of spies. Even his boss (and close uncle) Count Polanyi, has no idea if their high-minded actions are helping their side or playing into the hands of the crypto-fascist Hungarians. One hand never knows what cards the other holds and everyone is at dangerous cross purposes, except, unfortunately, the bad guys. No one seems able to tease out the tangled threads of espionage.

By itself, this is an exciting, emotional scenario about the dilemmas people can encounter in trying to do the right thing in a baffling world. And there are bursts of excitement and suspense.

But Kingdom of Night feels like a cold, distant book. Its fog obfuscates more than it beckons. Furst writes in a style that evokes place and time, filled with lovely details and pithy observations that feel poetically right: At one point he mentions a Paris café located “between a butcher that sold halal meat to Arabs and kosher meat to Jews” while, at another point, an old man describes life as being like “licking honey off a thorn.” Wonderful!

Unfortunately, the telegraphic style Furst employs--short punchy sentence fragments meant to flash like lightning, to stab and reveal--often conceals more than reveals, pushes away more than pulls in. Its jabs and hints seldom illuminate, piling into muddled shards of mirror glass.

And, like Jean Casson in World at Night, Morath is a remote man, his inner world out of reach, thanks in part I think, to Furth’s narrative style. His fragmentary sentences add up to a fragmentary mosaic of the hero.

It’s in this aspect, I think, that John le Carrê may be a better writer than Furst. While le Carrê’s people sometimes become entangled in winding sentence webs, they eventually knit together and come alive in their nuances, in their torment and ambivalence about the grim business they’re engaged in and the impact it has on their souls (and le Carrê’s people do have souls, as rounded and fully seen as anywhere). They are bound strongly to each other and the world they work in.

Furst’s characters sometimes seem like collections of attributes that only unify under the kind of duress they face in his best works. When they’re at rest, when the world is only impinging on them or confusing them, they’re less interesting, and so are novels like Kingdom of Shadows.

But don’t let that stop you from delving into the world of Alan Furst. Just don’t start with Kingdom of Shadows. Start with Night Soldiers. Believe me, after that, you’ll want more, and you won't mind that other "50 percent."

As for my own work,  I know I'll be behind the critical 8 ball myself someday; that moment when I realize that my efforts have fallen short and that I've not delivered the book I wanted to deliver. But like any other successful writer, I can't let that dread stop me.

(Re-edited 5/27/12)

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Photo by author.

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Strong Opinion

I guess I won’t be moving into that chateau on Lake Como next door to George Clooney anytime soon.

I mean, I’d sure love to have genre writer James Patterson’s money. But I doubt I’d enjoy having to keep up his fertility rate. When I think about his huge output, I hearken back to my early years spent lugging fifty-pound boxes of paper around San Francisco law firms. O simple joys of youth!

Those of you who read The New York Times may have seen the article last week describing the new paradigm for ultra-super-bestselling genre authors like Patterson. Nowadays, writers are now being pressed to produce—I might not call it writing, precisely—two books a year. Plus short stories.

“The culture is a great big hungry maw,” said Lisa Scottoline, another mega-best-selling thriller writer, “and you have to feed it.”

(Full disclosure: I haven’t read either Mr. Patterson’s or Ms. Scottoline’s work.)

This requirement is said to be a feature of the e-book era. With readers now able to download anything, anytime they want, it’s believed that an author has to stay in the reading public’s pupil 24/7. This is based on the theory of signal-to-noise ratio, which, in a certain frame, makes a good deal of sense, at least economically.

This has led me to think again about what kind of readers I want to reach.

Most habitual genre fiction readers want escape, clean and simple. Perhaps they’ll tolerate a thematic nod to their value systems, whether “conservative” or “liberal,” and some pop-psychobabble, but beyond that, the vast majority of genre fiction readers want nothing thematically challenging, innovative, or overly offbeat, no matter how entertaining it might otherwise be.

Then, there is an apparent minority of picky readers, like me. As someone said to me, there’s reading to escape and there’s reading to grow. And while I prefer novels that take me into other worlds, I like it when the journey not only alters my sight and gives me new perspectives, it illuminates the world I’m in now, that touches on the “human condition.” I read to both grow and be entertained.

Most genre novels and stories aren’t nearly so ambitious as to bridge those two landfalls, but a remarkable number can. I count John le Carrê, Peter Straub, among others, as examples. It takes time to write books like these. That’s the table I want to sit at as a writer. And so, I can’t hope to write two books a year. At least good ones, as I understand them.

Back in the old days, of paperback originals and hardcover novels that would made their real big score in paperback editions, genre masters like Rex Stout and Luke Short would craft a book a year, maybe two if they were feeling frisky or the butcher was giving them the hairy eyeball. Maybe they weren’t Hammett-level innovators, but they were unmistakably talented, gifted writers, who nevertheless, must have grown bored churning out the same book with the same formula or characters year after year.

Believe me, at times, I can hear Rex Stout’s fingers falling like a lead hammer on the typewriter keys and his heavy sighs as he types “The doorbell rang” for the one-thousandth time; I can sense when the champagne rapport between Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin loses its fizz; or I’m almost sure that Stout used almost the exact same mystery plot ten books ago, except the murder weapon was a pitchfork instead of a harpoon and . . .  well . . . .

After a while, an understanding develops. No writer—literary or genre--writes only good books. All my favorite writers have written novels that fall short for me.

One critic—I think a New Yorker writer--recently wrote that when we say we love a writer, what we mean is that we love, at most, fifty percent of his work. So long as you sense an author’s always striving to be his Best Self, that other fifty percent--well, no one’s a genius all the time and those valleys can make the peaks look all the grander. And if that fifty percent dross starts drifting toward ninety, you gently close the door and search elsewhere.

Snobby as I am, I’m also a literary anarchist. By this I mean, I can like anything . . . so long as it’s good, whether it’s the best Luke Short western or the eye of Vladimir Nabokov’s young poet opening to the world while gazing out over 1930s Berlin. The reality is that there are more good books than I will ever be able to read.

So, I’m wondering, just what is it that fans of Mr. Patterson and Ms. Scottoline expect to get with their high productivity demands? I’m not talking about literature, either. Having to grind out two full novels a year, means there’s hardly enough time or space for craft or professionalism. Whether you’re Lee Child or Thomas Pynchon, it takes time to write a decent book. Followed by a nice vacation.

Remember the hubbub over the length of time George R.R. Martin took to finish his latest Song of Ice and Fire epic, Dance of Thrones? Some of Martin’s “fans” were--no “upset” is too mild a word—pissed off with scalding, flaming vomit that the next book had failed to be completed by their timetable. “We demand that you pander to us! We demand a stinking, unreadable tower of shit!”

Neil Gaiman was right: “George Martin is not your bitch!” I second that motion, as do most of us writers. The only sin is writing lazily, writing badly (and releasing it), writing like you don’t care, writing to keep your “fans” from condemning you on Facebook.

Now, James Patterson fanboy, come sit on my knee so ol’ Grandpa can dispense some advice: You know, while waiting a year or so for Mr. Patterson to write and publish another novel, why don’t you take a breath, broaden the ol’ horizons and read some other genre writers?

There are plenty of worthwhile books worth your time. I will even boldly suggest you read my (IPPY prizewinning) Dragon’s Ark, while you wait for Mr. Patterson to write a good book. I mean that’s what you really want, isn’t it? A good James Patterson book?

I know I don’t want, for example, a bad Peter Straub book. I know that if I start sleeping on the doorstep of his Manhattan brownstone and fire-bombing his Twitter account with demands for Ghost Story XXII, he’d be well within his right to tell me to go have airborne relations with rolling holed pastry.

I don’t say this because I worship the dust around Mr. Straub’s feet. I say this because I do what he does. And it’s hard to do well. I can do it badly, I can publish a napkin a day, but I don’t want to and the kind of readers I want—those fussy readers--don’t want me to either. They’ll want the best I have to give and that’s what I’ll try to do, even though I fully know I won’t always be able to.

I took four years to write (IPPY Award Winning) Dragon’s Ark. I’m first to admit that’s too much time for such a book. Happily, I’ve absorbed the lessons I learned so that my next book Butchertown, started in August of last year, is galloping like a thoroughbred and should be out by the end of this year—a little more than a year and, even more importantly, done with my very best effort.

While you’re waiting, look at that long list of writers on the side of this page. They’re good writers, all of them. Some of them are Olympian highbrows, some of them first-rate entertainers, writing artful, sophisticated tales of adventure, suspense, and hair-raising horror and thrills. New or old, they deserve your valuable reading time. There’s no hurry. You’ll never read all their work and you don’t need to.

As for James Patterson and Lisa Scottoline, I hope they have time to enjoy their chateaus, wherever they are.

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Interesting Times

Tuesday afternoon, I was at my desk, writing e-mails, trying to drum up editing business and rescue a slow slow year, when the phone rang. The call screener read “The Jenkins Group.” A tiny waved rippled through my memory.

At last, a client, perhaps?

“My name is Andrew Parvel, from the Jenkins Group,” a voice called from another world. “Did you get our e-mail last week?”

“No. Which one do you mean?”

“The one announcing that your novel Dragon’s Ark has won the Bronze medal, third place, in this year’s IPPY Awards contest in the Horror Category. Category 15. Go look. Oh . . . and congratulations!”

No, I did not and have not fainted. But you may catch me pogo sticking around my neighborhood, wearing a shiny grin.

The Jenkins Group is a large publishing services company, based in Farmington, Michigan. Every year, since 1996, they’ve held the Independent Publishers Book Award (known as the “IPPY”), awarding a series of medals honoring the year’s best independently published titles in 74 categories.

This year, Dragon’s Ark found its place in the crowd: again, Bronze medal, third place, in the Horror category. One among over 5,000 entries. Consider the odds.

The IPPY is one of five indie book contests I’ve entered the novel in this year, and only the second to respond, so far. In 40 years of writing, it’s the biggest award and highest honor I’ve ever received. I didn’t expect it would happen this soon, if at all.

The first person I told, of course, was Elizabeth; then my two sisters-in-law; old friend and colleague John-Ivan Palmer; and later, the quasi-communities on Twitter and Facebook. There remain many more pigeons to send. This is one of them.

In between e-mails and phone calls, I’ve paced a mile or so around the house and have become familiar with the contours of empty space. And gone pogo-sticking up and down the sidewalks of Oakland.

The IPPY award ceremony will be held at the Providence, a former church and recording studio in New York City, on June 4, the night before the opening of BookExpo America, the largest publishing event in the country, also held in New York.

“Of course,” you say, “you are going to New York, aren’t you, Burchfield?”

 “You betcha!” I chirped that day in my best Sarah Palin gloat. “Elizabeth and I both!” I went so far as to RSVP the IPPY staff.

The next evening, as I walked home from celebratory libations at Cato’s on Piedmont Avenue, I tapped the brakes on my speeding mind, pulled into the slow lane (Yes, it’s true. Three beers and a scotch can, sometimes, be a key to wisdom and caution).

For one, fierce, frantic research had led to a cost estimate of $2,000 minimum for the trip to New York from Oakland, just for the flight and hotel (unless we were to settle for the Staten Island Ramada Inn, $90/night and Earl’s Boy-Are-My-Arms-Tired Airline, $100 round trip, no seat belts, no engine, but free peanuts, a used WW II parachute and layovers in Gardnerville, NV, Oshkosh, WI, and Johnstown, PA).

The editing business, as said above, has been very bad this year so far. Two thousand dollars would be two arms, a leg, and a knee, no crutch.

Further, as Elizabeth pointed out that evening as we talked it over, I’ve been eager all year to launch an advertising campaign for all three of my books (and two more to come out), under the Ambler House imprint.

Books that win awards, even relatively minor ones, show increased sales. But the world must be told. And my win would speak louder with a steady, persistent marketing campaign, than would it would with carbon footprint increases and a two nights on a lumpy hotel mattress in Staten Island.

The glamour part can wait.

I reluctantly withdrew my RSVP. I will stay home and spend the money from behind the desk in my tiny office.

This decision will remain—in our current economic frame—quite pricey. Already I’ve burned a hole in my pocket to have Dragon’s Ark featured, with other winners, in the New Title Showcase, a display shelf to be set up at the front door of the BookExpo. I’ll be ripping a big one for advertising space in the “Show Daily,” the official daily magazine of BookExpo America, produced by “Publishers Weekly.”

And that’s just the beginning: The Jenkins Group (and other companies) provides a variety of PR services; there are ads to buy on Goodreads, Facebook, Google. The list is larger than can be known.

I still feel like a leaf in a windy blue sky, anxious as I try to keep from becoming overwhelmed. I’m grateful to the IPPY committee and judges; to Elizabeth—to whom I owe so much for this; and everyone who contributed to Dragon’s Ark, including all the beta readers, my interior designer Joel Friedlander and cover designer Cathi Stevenson.

I pray to keep my head clear and my feet on ground, one step, one day at a time . . . .

Among my amusing thoughts: as the independent publisher of Dragon’s Ark, I’m put in the odd, slightly embarrassing position of congratulating myself on my accomplishments. In the third person, like it’s been said, Richard Nixon used to do. Luckily, there are only two mirrors in our apartment and their reflections are fragmentary.

It’s not like I’ve never been here before. But each time, the door opened to a room that I found to be empty and I walked out hollow with disappointment.

This time, it’s very different. This time, there’s furniture and a small window and a door taking shape in the opposite wall. At this, point, all I can add is thanks to all of you that have been coming by here over the years and . . . stay tuned.

Time for another turn around the neighborhood on my pogo stick.

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield is the author of the 2012 IPPY Award winning contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark, and the original screenplays Whackers and The Uglies (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, all are available at Amazon in various editions. You can also find his work at Barnes and Noble,  Powell's Books, Scribed, and at the Red Room bookstore. He also “friends” on Facebook, tweets on Twitter, and reads at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

You Say "Go," I Say "Goch" (and So Does Van Gogh)

You may have recently heard that Edvard Munch’s masterpiece “The Scream” sold for a near-record $120 million. Shortly after, San Francisco Chronicle movie critic Mick LaSalle held a vote on his “Maximum Strength Mick” blog, asking readers which of 31 Old Master masterpieces would they like to own if could they afford it.

The selections ranged from the “Mona Lisa” (no no no, not the Bob Hoskins movie . . . aargh!) to Picasso’s “Guernica,” a painting that would only fit in Mitt Romney’s living room or the brick wall of the alley you live in, should you happen to be homeless.

I picked “Starry Night” for its dark turbulence; the stars like giant blossoms rolling across a turbulent blue sky on streams of energy. You can see the wind. It’s reality transformed, space seen as swirling with life.

I entered my selection, “Starry Night” by Vincent Van Gogh. Then, I added teasingly, “pronounced “Van Goch,” or maybe “Van Gich.”

“Ohhhh, stop being a show-off,” I’ve been told. Everyone—and that means E-VERY-ONE—pronounces it “Van Go” and who am I, some big-browed ponce who’s read “Gravity’s Rainbow” twice, to stand against the customs of lemmings? I’m only showing off my erudition like Michael Sheen parading his mouthy brain through the Louvre in “Midnight In Paris,” annoying the innocent-and-down-to-earth Owen Wilsons of the world (though, Owen's character, it must be said, is every millimeter the snob).

Arguments like this always give the impression of people looking up their noses at me.

If were a rude person, I’d be tempted to say a hearty “intercourse yourself” and continue glottal-stopping my way through the art gallery of life. However, my nose-thumb at the Indomitable Hive is not the point. My argument is based strictly and strongly on simple courtesy. Or what I also call the John Wayne Argument: “Ya call a fella how he likes to be called, pil-grim. Dead or alive.”

The “Van Go” said nowadays is the French pronunciation, and if Van Gogh were French, he would have pronounced it that way, too. But Van Gogh wasn’t French. He was born in the town of Zundert, which, as much as Wikipedia might sometimes have it otherwise, is not in France, but in the Netherlands.

Van Gogh was Dutch. He spoke Dutch and would have given his name a Dutch pronunciation (though, intriguingly, he may have been somewhat mispronouncing it himself: It’s also seems to be pronounced “Van Gich,” as discussed here.

Exactly how his name took on French coloration I haven’t found out, but, what’s really important is that Van Gogh apparently really really did not like the “Van Go” pronunciation. Van Gogh was already known as a difficult house guest and roommate (“almost unbearable” as even his loyal and loving brother Theo put it), and misstating his name made him even a bigger pill.

But whether Van Gogh was a Minnesota Nice Guy or not, what counts is courtesy. If you really love Van Gogh—or just love his art—it seems simply rude and tone deaf to address him any way but the right way--his way--even if he’s tracking mud all over your carpet while squeezing your last franc out of you and stealing the cheese off the sideboard.

Call him whatever else you want, but never call him “Van Go.”

(And if my argument really bothers you, look at it as one more way for freedom-loving Americans to annoy freedom-hating French persons.)

For myself, I imagine my own fierce displeasure at returning from the Beyond 150 years from now to find out that everyone is pronouncing my name “Boorch-veelt” simply because it took a German academic to make me world famous. Posthumous fame is nice, but please remember to address my ghost as “Burtch-feeld” (tongue tip on the hard plate, “f” as in “field”). Or else, I’ll steal your cheese, all your scotch and scare the feces out of you as I melt away into perfect gloom.

To extend my argument further--if irrelevantly--consider the case of Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush (former assistant to former President Richard B. Cheney). Sadly, we all recall Bush II’s joy in towel snapping nicknames on whoever happened to be standing around. On Putin, President of the Russian Federation (and whose soul was visible to Bush II, but no one else), Bush bestowed the nickname “Pootie-poot.”

Now, I know nicknames are not the same as given names, but imagine if, somehow, “President Vladimir Pootie-poot” had gone totally viral and had become customary usage to everyone in the world (yes, I’m looking at you, Henry Kissinger!) except for . . .  well, a dictator of immense power whose desk drawer contains a big red button with which he could launch World War 3.2. Tyrants are never good sports and “But everyone says it like that” is not a useful, or moral, argument, even in regard to a Vladimir Putin. I daresay, President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton would be inclined to agree.

At least, I hope they are.


Come Holmes fans come! The game is afoot!

A quick note encouraging all of you to stop your lives this Sunday night to watch the second season of “Sherlock!" on PBS Mystery (check your local listings). I loved the first three episodes broadcast last year; to my eyes, they blew the dust off without losing the spirit of the Conan Doyle originals.

The reviews for this season promise more ripping adventure starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the 21st-Century Holmes (the best Holmes since Basil Rathbone, full of  bounding energy and infuriating self-regard), Martin Freeman as a sweetly exasperated but always game Watson, and co-creators Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss.

So many mystery series these days seemed weighted with humorless self-importance (AMC’s “The Killing” for one) that “Sherlock!” looks as fresh and cheerful as a daisy. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.