Jennifer Astle

July 24, 2009

Book Review: The Angel’s Game By Carlos Ruiz Zafon

51nBUKGP-YL._SL500_AA240_I picked up The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon last week after a colleague recommended it, and settled in, somewhat skeptically, to give a new writer (by new, I mean one I had not read previously) a fair shot.  It had been described to me as a dark mystery by a writer who Stephen King recently raved about.  And as one of King’s Constant Readers, I trust his word more than I’d trust that of any clergyman.

I was not disappointed.

Zafon brought me down the familiar road of writers writing about writing, and into early 1900’s Barcelona and the life of David Martin.  Martin is a young boy working at a local paper, The Voice of Industry.  His early writing career is bestowed upon him by a young, charismatic benefactor who has a soft spot for the budding storyteller.

Later in his career, Martin enjoys enormous success writing trashy horror stories for an even trashier publication, run by sleazy publishers.  Writing under a pseudonym, Martin begins to dream about writing under his own name, and thus enjoying his success in his own right, a dream that his already successful (although a horrible writer) benefactor shares.  Thus begins Martin’s descent into darkness as a mysterious French publisher makes him an offer worth his soul.

On the surface, this is a typical story based on the competing notions of good and evil, light and dark, God and The Devil.  Zafon constructs the story in such a way that, beyond the title, there is little mention of God, and yet, one feels that there is an omnipotent force pulling the strings in the lives of David and those who are acquainted with him.  Yet, it is much more than that.  It steps further, leaving the reader questioning who is “good” and who is “evil”, and if in fact, they aren’t one and the same.

Underneath, if you look closely through the eyes of a young, struggling writer, you see a play on the insecurities of a writer who can gain thousands of readers under a ghost name (more than one, in fact), and yet cannot sell a single copy under his own.  It plays directly into the notion of literary publication being tantamount to immortality, shows exactly how desperate a writer can get, and delves into both the magic and consequence of a writer’s craft.  Much the same way that King attributes a power of their own to his characters, Zafon brings Martin, and what he writes to life.

When I closed the cover and replaced the sleeve I was left with two resounding thoughts; 1) Would I sell my soul to be published? and 2) I must visit Barcelona, and remember to bring a pen.

April 14, 2009

Glitch, My Ass

I might be a little late to join the discussion of the epic fail on the part of Amazon, but I am joining the discussion none the less.  Think of it this way; I needed a day or two to wrap my head around why, in the 21st Century, Amazon (a product of said century) would begin to act like a tiny Christian bookstore in a small Texas town?  For those of you who haven’t heard, or don’t understand what the big fuss is about, let me clarify.

Amazon has recently removed sales rankings from books that they deem “adult”.  As a result these books will not appear as frequently (if at all) in related searches, or display how well they are doing in sales.  The problem is, the books that are being stripped of their sales rankings relate primarily to homosexual issues, queer theory, and don’t forget, the evil feminism, while books by the likes of Tucker Max, chauvinist extraordinaire (you have to be good at what you do, I suppose), are allowed to remain in the regular search and sales rankings.

Pardon me, but what the fuck?

I’m not a big fan of censorship in general.  My mother raised me in a censorship-free home.  This doesn’t mean that I was raised with a get out of jail free card, but it does mean that I was encouraged to think for myself, ask questions, and form opinions based on what I knew, not what I thought.  The only time I can ever remember my mother denying me the right to watch or read something was when I expressed an interest in Clockwork Orange…when I was twelve.  I can’t say I blame her.

But, back to this epic fail by Amazon.  They are defending their actions by saying that this is a glitch.  Let me clarify what this means for you in Public Relations speak; “We were subversively trying to marginalize books by the LBGT and feminist communities, and we really didn’t think that anyone would notice, because who reads books by gay and women writers? And then we got caught.  So as not to offend what we now realize is a large portion of our base, we’re saying it was a glitch. Please believe us!”

Others (including myself) aren’t taking the bait.  Jessica Valenti of Feministing.com, an author whose books were stripped of their rankings, quotes her editor who communicated with Amazon about the issue;

Basically he said that amazon has been experimenting with the way they dole out content specifically so that people who are searching Harry Potter or whatever won’t run into links to products that might be offensive.

I ask this of Amazon; what if I find Harry Potter offensive, or Tucker Max, or any of the books about “curing” homosexuality in your kids?  I still have to look at those search results.  Here’s my trick…if I find it offensive, I don’t click on the fucking link.  Or better yet, I click on the link so I can learn the perspectives of those who offend me so I am better able to make clear and succinct arguments about it.  It’s called not living with your head up your own ass. Why is this such a difficult concept to grasp?

But changing the collective conciousness of an America who encourages young women to wear purity rings and promise their virginity in a mock marriage to their fathers is not a task I feel I can accomplish in my lifetime.  The question still remains what Amazon’s intent was.  What did Amazon hope to accomplish by creating it’s very own dark room behind the curtains for certain books?  From Deanna Zandt;

What kinds of books received this “adult” label? Erotica with gay themes (but not heterosexual themes), rape survivor advocacy and rape culture criticism, and feminist missives were among those suddenly labeled adult material. Soft-core hetero porn (such as Playboy centerfold calendars), hetero-themed sex toys and anti-gay screeds were left untouched. Let the maelstrom begin.

Yes, let’s. As someone who has probably spent somewhere in the vicinity of thousands of dollars on Amazon, I am outraged that my money is paying for the salaries of those who specifically chose to exclude LBGT and feminist books while leaving Playboy centerfolds untouched (so to speak).  I’m not saying censor Playboy, or Max, or any of the other books on the site.  Leave them all alone.  Presumably, if we are an intelligent society we can grasp the horrors of finding a book we may not like for personal/political/homophobic/religious reasons in our search results, can’t we?  Remember the old adage; don’t judge a book by it’s cover.

This all boils down to one thing; the dehumazining of the homosexual (and to some extent, female) writer.  Both life and the publishing industry are difficult enough for straight people, let alone gay people and feminists searching for their voice, and readership in the literary world and Amazon simply decided this literature didn’t count.  It’s sick, and it’s sad, and yes, I feel very strongly about this issue.

The LBGT community has theory and history, and they have more than earned their right to a collective literature about their lives and struggles.  Imagine for a moment if Amazon decided to declare all books about Black History or by black authors inappropriate?  Of course, then it would be a mistake too, wouldn’t it?

This little book burning party by Amazon has caused me to realize that, at least until this issue is fully rectified, and an apology is issued to the LGBT and feminist communities, I can no longer continue to patronize Amazon.  Over the years I have ordered many books, electronics, and other items from the site, and these humble dollars will now go elsewhere.  I urge you to do the same.

Below I have included a list courtesy of Jezebel, of books that have and have not been stripped of their sales rankings.  Decide for yourself what message Amazon was trying to send.

Books Stripped Of Amazon Sales Rankings:
Wetlands
Ellen DeGeneres: A Biography
Outing Yourself: How To Come Out As Lesbian Or Gay To Your Family, Friends, And Co-Workers
Gay Life And Culture: A World History
Homosexuality And Civilization
The Way Out: The Gay Man’s Guide to Freedom No Matter if You’re in Denial, Closeted, Half In, Half Out, Just Out or Been Around the Block
The Velvet Rage: Overcoming the Pain of Growing Up Gay in a Straight Man’s World
Coming Out Of Shame: Transforming Gay And Lesbian Lives
The Gay And Lesbian Self-Esteem Book
Heather Has Two Mommies
Dude, You’re A Fag: Masculinity And Sexuality In High School
Sexing The Body: Gender Politics And The Construction Of Sexuality
Chelsea Handler’s My Horizontal Life: A Collection Of One Night Stands
Sex and the Single Girl by Helen Gurley Brown
Full Frontal Feminism by Feministing’s Jessica Valenti
Lady Chatterley’s Lover
For Yourself: The Fulfillment Of Female Sexuality
Queer Theory: An Introduction
Out In Theory: The Emergence Of Gay And Lesbian Anthropology
Diary Of A Drag Queen
The Rise And Fall of Gay Culture
A Memoir Of No One In Particular
Apples And Oranges: My Journey To Sexual Identity
Bi Lives: Bisexual Women Tell Their Stories
Bisexual Women In The 21st Century
Lesbian, Gay, And Bisexual Identities Over The Lifespan: Psychological Perspectives
Social Services For Gay And Lesbian Couples
The Lesbian Parenting Book: A Guide To Creating Families And Raising Children
The Truth Is…My Life In Love And Music by Melissa Etheridge
Nasty: My Family And Other Glamorous Varmints by Simon Doonan
The Praeger Book Of Transsexuality: Changing Gender to Match Mindset (Sex, Love, and Psychology)
True Selves: Understanding Transsexualism—For Families, Friends, Coworkers, and Helping Professionals
GenderQueer: Voices From Beyond The Sexual Binary
Girl Meets Girl: A Dating Survival Guide
The Art Of Meeting Women: A Guide For Gay Women
The Mayor Of Castro Street: The Life And Times Of Harvey Milk
Victory Deferred: How AIDS Changed Gay Life In America
Women, Gays, And The Constitution: The Grounds for Feminism and Gay Rights in Culture and Law
Identity And The Case For Gay Rights: Race, Gender, Religion as Analogies
Gay America: Struggle For Equality (YA)
Queer Theory, Gender Theory: An Instant Primer
Men Who Rape: The Psychology Of The Offender
Gay Day: The Golden Age of the Christopher Street Parade 1974-1983
Gay And Lesbian Washington, DC
Created Equal: Why Gay Rights Matter To America
Stone Butch Blues: A Novel
Sexual Rhetoric: Media Perspectives on Sexuality, Gender, and Identity
Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940
Wide-Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965
Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities
Odd Girls And Twilight Lovers
Band Fags
Trans Liberation: Beyond Pink Or Blue
Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, And The Rest Of Us
Queering The Popular Pitch
Homosexuality In Greece And Rome: A Sourcebook Of Basic Documents
Greek Homosexuality
Among Women: From the Homosocial to the Homoerotic in the Ancient World
Between Men: English Literature And Male Homosexual Desires
She’s Not There: A Life In Two Genders
Live Through This: On Creativity And Self-Destruction
My Gender Workbook: How to Become a Real Man, a Real Woman, the Real You, or Something Else Entirely

Books NOT Stripped Of Amazon Sales Rankings
Fear Of Flying
Belligerence and Debauchery: The Tucker Max Stories
The Complete A**hole’s Guide To Handling Chicks
Lesbian Couples: A Guide To Creating Healthy Relationships
Cunt: A Declaration of Independence Expanded and Updated Second Edition
How To Be A Happy Lesbian, A Coming Out Guide
Ron Jeremy: The Hardest Working Man In Showbiz
Traci Lords: Underneath It All
I’m With The Band: Confessions Of A Groupie
Emma And Meesha My Boy: A Two Mom Story
Boy Meets Boy (YA)
How To Be A Super Hot Woman
The Complete Idiot’s Guide To Amazing Sex
Female Chauvinist Pigs
Getting Off: Pornography And the End Of Masculinity
A Parent’s Guide To Preventing Homosexuality
Gay Children, Straight Parents: A Plan For Family Healing
Confessions of a Video Vixen
The Vixen Diaries
Candy Girl: A Year In The Life Of An Unlikely Stripper by Diablo Cody
A Stripper’s Tail: Confessions Of A Vegas Stripper
Seduce Me! What Women Really Want
The Professional Bachelor Dating Guide: How To Exploit Her Inner Psycho
Playboy: The Complete Centerfolds
Super Beauties: Nude And Natural
Male Nude Photography: Lance And Beau
Hot Cougar Sex: Steamy Encounters With Younger Men
Exercising The Penis: How to Make Your Most Prized Organ Bigger, Harder & Healthier
Whore
The Anarchist Cookbook
Hot Luxury Girls: Best Of Sugar Posh Beauties

And to illustrate…

This book is okay; Gay Children, Straight Parents – A Plan for Family Healing

This book; not so okay; Ellen Degeneres – A Biography

This book gets the Amazon grade; A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Homosexuality

While this one is stripped down; Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities

This book is totally acceptable; The Complete Asshole’s Guide to Handling Chicks (yes, really)

While this book is very, very naughty and god forbid a child even see the title; Gay America – A Struggle for Equality

Have I made my point?

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March 12, 2009

The Great #QueryFail Debate

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I sold my soul signed up for a Twitter account this morning.  I have resisted the beast until now.  I wanted to have a look at the phenomenon that is #queryfail.  A handful of literary agents, editors, and other industry “insiders” have been sharing reasons why query letters get rejected.  The query mistakes range from bizarre to simply ignorant (both equally unacceptable). #QueryFail Day on Twitter is the creation of Colleen Lindsay.  This is what she has to say about #queryfail;

Today is #Queryfail Day on Twitter, the first of what will probably become a monthly or semi-monthly experience. What is #Queryfail Day, you ask? * rubs hands together gleefully * A group of online agents, book editors and periodicals acquisition editors are posting about their queries in real time. The idea is to educate people about what exactly it is in a query that made us stop reading and say “Not for me.” We’re being very careful not to include personal identifiers of any kind. The idea isn’t to mock or be intentionally cruel, but to educate.

Here is a sampling for your reading pain/pleasure;

ChristianPubTip: It’s a handwritten manuscript with a note that says this is the only copy they have.#queryfail

danielliterary: Asks me how to go about submitting? Uh. If u have my email address, then u obviously
have my web site address with my guidelines #queryfail

danielliterary: Say you don’t know how to paste the first five pages of your manuscript into your email?
Please get your 3-year-old to teach you. #queryfail

angelajames: ONE sentence about the book. I don’t need to know your life history. I need to know about
the book. #queryfail

angelajames: “passion raging between two characters will burn right off the page” makes me think your
book is going to be overwritten #queryfail

Colleen_Lindsay: A headshot embedded into body of query email. #queryfail

Colleen_Lindsay: @bookavore I just delete all queries that come in addressed to Dear Sir, To Whom It
May Concern or Dear Agent. #queryfail

danielliterary: Call yourself a “published author” when what you really mean is “self-published”?
#queryfail

bostonbookgirl: Including a creepy photo of you clearly taken about 20 years ago? You have just taken
your first step on the road to #queryfail

Colleen_Lindsay: Three paragraphs, no plot, no hook, and lots of “me, me, me, look how wonderful I
am!” – #queryfail.

mattwagner: “My proposal is a work in progress.” Sorry, please finish your proposal before querying,
#queryfail

danielliterary: Addresses me “Dear Sir/Madam…”? #queryfail

I deliberately excluded the #queryfails for the BDSM photo included with the letter, the mothers who want to educate their daughters about pimps, and the con-men who are finally ready to tell their stories.  Self-explanatory.

I, like others, am incredibly interested in this debate.  Netta at WordWebbing.com had this to say;

I couldn’t help but wonder if this is what is done in public, what the hell goes on in private? But then, it’s private and I don’t have to know. I also wondered if these agents, who took time out of a busy day to skewer the hapless writer, ever took the time to contact the writer and tell them, in private and in a professional way, just what it was that made the query fail. Feel me?

I feel you.  Rejection is important.  It’s more important than succeeding, because succeeding doesn’t really teach you anything.  You already knew how to do it in the first place.  I can see where there would be concern over the feelings of some poor hapless writer venturing into the mysterious world of Getting Published. That said, not every writer (ahem) follows Twitter, so the personal contact offering constructive criticisms (to the honest mistakes, not the con-men and crazies) would be useful.  I would venture to guess though, that not every literary agent has the time to write a personalized assessment of my crappy query letter.  They have more bad query letters to read you know.

As a whole I think we have become too sensitive to rejection and failure.  No, I don’t like failure.  I’m not a complete idiot.  But, I learn from my mistakes and hopefully refrain from making them again.  No, I don’t want to be another hilarious #queryfail tweet, but I do want to know how NOT to write a query letter, so I learn from the mistakes of others. It seems that this would be common sense to most, but common sense seems to be about as common as horse-drawn buggies these days (see: Pimps for Dummies #queryfail).

Still, some are up in arms about the snarkiness that can come along with some of the fails, but honestly, they seem to deserve it.  Besides, telling an agent or an editor that they’re doing it wrong would be like telling God she built the universe wrong, and that, I suspect, would land you in the #queryfail pile.

March 6, 2009

The Celebrity Book Deal and the Struggling Writer

The book business as we know it will not be living happily ever after. With sales stagnating, CEO heads rolling, big-name authors playing musical chairs, and Amazon looming as the new boogeyman, publishing might have to look for its future outside the corporate world.

hilton_bookOminous words coming from respected magazine, New York.  With the publishing industry flailing, a writer has got to question her future.  Let’s just forget for a moment, the challenges of finding let alone the right agent, but any agent at all.  Then there is the query letter, and the waiting.  All of that, considering you have your book written first.  The challenges facing a struggling writer in the beginning of their career are steep, and that is under the best of conditions.

So, what does this mean for struggling writers and the publishing industry? It seems that there is a spike in celebrity book deals.  I have no statistical data to support this, only my observations from my daily morning online meandering.  James Franco has just signed with Simon & Schuster to release a collection of short stories.  That’s just the beginning.  In 2008, as the economic crisis that has challenged the publishing industry loomed, Miley Cyrus signed a seven figure book deal with Disney.  At least James Franco is an MFA candidate studying creative writing at NYU and Columbia.  Miley Cyrus is 15 and famous because her daddy had an achy-breaky-heart back in the 1980’s (although it must have got fixed sometime in the 1990’s).  Is it possible to still take the craft seriously when there are thousands of talented writers out there who are sending short after short to literary magazines, searching for an agent, and hoping for any advance at all, while Miss Cyrus gets a million dollars for her memoirs?

Let’s not forget Britney Spears’ $20 Million book deal to spill all of the sordid details of her recent crazy years.  Excuse me, but that is not literature, it’s voyeurism…and not very well cloaked.  What about Kanye West? Or Paris Hilton? Or Kathy Griffin? Or even Sarah Palin?  Musicians, actors, politicians…it seems anyone but a writer can get a book deal these days.

Is this really the way to save the publishing industry; by offering celebrities who already blog, Twitter, star in YouTube videos, films and television, appear on news and talk shows, and are the topic of paparazzi and media everywhere seven or eight figure book deals to write their memoirs?

Of course, I am biased considering that I am a “struggling writer” and not a celebrity.  I understand why the publishing industry is increasing its affinity with celebrities.  They come with a built in audience, just waiting to spend their allowances on the next unauthorized Lindsay Lohan tell-all.

But what of the struggling writer then?  Where will the future of publishing take us? To the Internet? Vanity publishing and self-promotion?  Is this just the right moment for writers to take reins away from powerhouse publishers by getting wise to the opportunities offered by services like Amazon (e.g. Kindle, CreateSpace), blogs, online lit mags, and a new generation of news media like the Huffington Post? No one knows for sure, not even the publishing industry.  One thing is for certain; enough with the celebrity book deals.

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