Monday, December 26, 2011

The Political Economy of Experience -- And Not.

 Once upon a time, when I was but a wee tad of a writer, I was going through my first divorce, and was flat broke in Missoula, Montana, and needed to be in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where I was going to be starting my doctoral program, within about six weeks. So I called my agent—this was in the long ago days when that potentially might have some effect on a writer’s income—and said, “Get me work, I don’t care what.”

Honestly, I thought I was going to end up writing porn.

What happened was more interesting in several ways. It turned out that Gold Eagle, which was part of Harlequin, which was at the time the largest single publisher of fiction in the world, had come up against a small crisis because a writer (I never found out who) had screwed up with getting a new men’s action‑adventure series going for them, and they were now desperate to have three series books, the first of which had to fit an already‑done cover, about a time‑traveling soldier who had to be named Daniel Samson (marketing having decided that two Biblical names was what they wanted; I’d’ve picked “Jehosophat Shalmaneser” if it had been up to me). Other than that it needed to be about 60,000 words, soon, and it didn’t need to be good as long as it was soon.

(If you don’t know what men’s action‑adventure was—the genre is much smaller now and much more restrictive than it was in 1990— this excerpt from the vaults will explain a bit more. My take is that it was always a bit mis‑marketed, and that the actual readers, of whom I knew a few, were not who the editors thought they were working for. That essay is aimed mainly at collectors and buyers, to give them some idea of what they would be buying and collecting, so be sure to resist the subliminal pressure, especially my mentioning that you are feeling very sleepy, your eyelids are heavy, you feel warm and safe, you are descending a long staircase, and you notice that everything I say is a good idea).

I wrote what I called The Guns of Time and Gold Eagle eventually titled Wartide (a single word could be in bigger letters) in eight days, typing from when I got up in the morning to when I went over to the library to read research for the next day’s work. 62,000 and change, eight days, done, with the warning that I would need to revise it and have the second book by Christmas; Gold Eagle paid the agent, who paid me, and I had some money to get me to Pittsburgh.

Now, I was not particularly thrilled with the results, and one reason was that it was set in the winter of 1943‑4 in the mountain campaign in Italy, very deliberately because there weren’t many veterans of that campaign around even then (it had never been large and it broke many men’s health). There was a lot I just didn’t know, and speed‑reading was not an adequate substitute. But in a bar in Missoula, I bumped into a guy who ran a historical firing range and did various kinds of outfitting, so I was able to get a tiny bit of experience firing an M1, trying to persuade a mule to do what I wanted it to do (which is like a whole second Ph.D. in itself), and a few other things. Since I had decided the next book would be set in the Mexican War, I also fired some black powder weapons; time didn’t permit riding with authentic tack before I had to leave, and I'm not sure how much a guy who would be just learning to ride could learn from that, but I at least got to look at Mexican-War-era horse hardware and photograph it.

I didn’t quite realize it then—too busy and life was too crazy—but I had found one of the hidden benefits of being a writer, in those good old days when traditional publishing was the only game there was: you could go have adventures on the publisher’s dime. By the following spring when I was working on Union Fires, the Dan Samson adventure set in the Civil War (my title was Castle Thunder which was just as melodramatic but had something to do with the story), I was in easy driving range to Richmond, and could spend some time with Civil War re‑enactors. Within a couple of years, for Mother of Storms, I would be spending a goodly part of the summer of 1992 driving and catching third‑class buses around Oaxaca and Chiapas trying to get caught in a hurricane (I didn’t, but I did soak up a great deal of non‑tourist southern Mexico). Then I started to do the books with Buzz Aldrin and found myself on all kinds of marvelous back stage tours of various high‑end space and defense facilities and a few seagoing adventures besides, and worked on Payback City (spending almost the whole first part of the advance before the publisher stiffed me) which had me going out with arson detectives in Detroit in the wee hours of the morning. For about seven or eight years there, I traveled all over the place and did immense amounts of cool stuff—a bit more if you count the last hurrah of going out and interviewing and exploring the world of UFO cults centering on the San Luis Valley, and visiting many interesting‑in‑many‑senses places on the Western Slope of Colorado, for Gaudeamus.

I saw rockets take off from up close, handled some pretty bizarre weapons, talked to former spies and current smugglers, spent some interesting time with people trying to gross me out and more interesting time with people showing me things I’d never seen or heard before.

A couple of years ago when an editor was looking at perhaps bringing out a paper version of Payback City after all these years (the possibility fell through; maybe I'll do it via Metrocles House one of these days), she said, “I feel like I know how to torch a building, how to smuggle explosives, and how to look for an arsonist.”

That used to be pretty common for an adventure story writer, and as you may have heard before from me, I consider knowing how things work and how they’re done to be central to any adventure story. For decades, at least from a bit before World War One until the 1990s, if you hadn’t been there, you went, and if you hadn’t done it, you did (or as close as your physical condition would allow). If you had to fake it, you found people who knew the real stuff and talked to them first hand and ran it by them. (Occasionally still blowing it, I hasten to add).

This wasn’t particularly a divide between the respected literary writers and the adventure fiction writers; sure, Michener, Tom Clancy, Len Deighton, and Jean Auel were/are all notoriously research‑happy, but Tom Wolfe apparently did immense amounts of going out and seeing for The Bonfire of the Vanities, and was known as a reporter long before he turned to fiction. And after all, the legendary George Plimpton got to be a legend by being the guy who had no business being there, but was, and wrote about it. For that matter you don’t have to read very far to realize that Margaret Atwood and Joyce Carol Oates have both tried many of the things they write about.

Just after I had seen a total eclipse from the deck of a ship at sea with Buzz Aldrin, he turned to me with that sardonic lopsided grin that he probably could trademark, and said, “Now try to answer this one: What was it like? I’ve been trying to answer it for thirty years.”

The truth is, of course, that I can’t—no writer can—but many readers love to see a good writer try to take them to a place, time, and situation the writer knows that they are unlikely ever to witness.

And this brings me around to a sad change in publishing. During my grim hiatus, I probably could not have successfully sold my memoirs if I’d been the lover of four presidents simultaneously, and could not have typed a plot summary of The Cat in the Hat in less than a month, and I was away from things for quite a while.

When I came back, publishing was to some extent going broke (an extent which your editor will lie to you about), to a great extent unwilling to put much money into a book for any purpose other than acquiring a celeb name, and to a tremendous extent not interested in financing people to go out and have experiences (except for a few who went to war—and even there, a surprising number of the journalists in Iraq and Afghanistan have been freelancing, i.e. not on anyone’s dime, just hoping that what they write will sell for enough soon enough to keep them going).

Probably most importantly, tha interwbz had come along, and it was possible for anyone to find pictures and information about just about any point on Earth or Mars.

And not least, publishers had developed the tactic of drag‑out negotiating combined with inflexible deadlines: i.e. they would commence negotiation on a book that might take a year to write in January, with the delivery date in December; in June they would still be haggling, so that the writer had lost half a year of working time (and in traditional publishing, if you work on the book before the contract is signed, you are simply a fool—this is one more advantage of the indie world); the publisher would finally hand over the signing money (which would not be enough to finance research anyway) in September, when it could mostly go to pay down debt incurred while waiting for it, and still demand that the book be delivered in December.

How could anyone do that?

Many writers nowadays never leave the desk. Say you’ve never been to Africa but you have to do a first person description of crossing a bridge in Lagos, where you see someone go by in a boat, and part way over the okada driver wipes out, causing a loud argument that you can’t understand to break out around you, which causes a brawl, during which you slip away to wait for another ride. A scene with all that in it would run perhaps 1000‑2000 words, whether described by someone who had been there or described by someone who grabbed the first few pictures, videos, and articles he could find off the Web (my actual time: four minutes). There is more than enough detail in that “research” to quickly fill those couple thousand words; pause here and there and type a few sentences to describe each thing, and you’re done in no time.

And nowadays, that’s what publishers are willing to pay for—often that’s all publishers are willing to pay for. I’m far from the only person encountering this; many good writers who used to run‑go‑see and bring back whatever they could recall and express—sometimes well, sometimes badly, but something they had seen and felt and tasted—are being told “You were always so good at sounding like you’d been there. So sit‑read‑type. Just sound like you were there. You don’t have the money or the time or any reason to actually run‑go‑see, so just sound like it. If you have spare money, don’t waste time when you could be writing, hire a research assistant to look that stuff up for you so you can write faster.” (That last is not a line that I heard—but I trust the person who told me that that’s what they told her). Many younger writers are emphatically told that the “professional” way is internet research (and naturally tend to believe it because we writers are a cowardly and slothful lot—why else would we pick a job you can commute to in your jammies, less than 50 feet from the fridge?) and that “it’s the writing that makes it authentic.”

Except, you know, they haven’t been there. And it’s not the writing that makes it authentic, it’s the authenticity that makes the writing.

I really, really wonder if perhaps this is one reason why in at least mystery, sf, fantasy, horror, and spy fiction, more and more of the good young writers just breaking in are from what used to be called “exotic” backgrounds (i.e. outside the US, non‑white, either non‑English‑speaking or at least not‑Mid‑Atlantic‑Everybody‑Talk, often from various strangely eventful childhoods). Because frankly, nobody is so good that they can write the authentic without having been there, consistently and convincingly, every time and without making odd little errors. The publishers can toss blame around and try to convert the writer into the fiction‑production‑technician at the remote Web‑to‑prose‑work‑station, but where there is no experience, the phony ultimately will come leaking through.

You might say the choice between run‑go‑see and sit‑read‑type writing is the difference between, oh, say, Wife of the Gods and Tarzan of the Apes, or between The Cruel Sea and Horatio Hornblower. Some of us read because we’re probably never going there, we’ll probably never stand anywhere similar, but we want to ask What was it like?

But the scary thing, of course, is that it isn’t just writers who can get on the net, acquire fake knowledge, and feel like they’ve been there.

A woman calls her husband on the cell phone and says, “Hey, be careful, the radio says there’s a crazy man driving the wrong way on the freeway.”

“It’s not just one guy driving the wrong way,” he says, “It’s everybody!”

In a world where more and more depends on understanding how complicated this human tangle is—and where more and more distant complexities entangle our lives—we all end up writing our own knowledge base. And every year more of it is sit‑read‑type, and less of it is run‑go‑see. Am I the only one who has a problem with this?