Friday, June 29, 2012

Acceptable Abeyance in the Arts

There was an interesting front page article in the New York Times recently. It was about how authors—specifically writers of genre fiction—feel pressure these days to produce more published work. The article states that readers are quickly becoming accustomed to the instant gratification of an ebook market that can deliver a book within 60 seconds of its purchase, which is increasing everyone’s desire for more new things to read and creating an insatiable hunger that is forcing authors to write something, anything—a short story, a novella, preferably another novel—in order to appease the mass of voracious readers. The old benchmark of prolific authors—a book a year—is no longer applicable, the article posits. Authors need two or more books annually to keep up with demand.

As an author of basically the type of books being discussed, I think the article is both ludicrous and totally accurate. Or rather, it’s ludicrous that it’s accurate. Even as the writer of one lone book (so far), I feel the daily accretive pressure to put out another book ASAP. There is a hopefully not too distasteful careerism at work here, a desire to build a back catalog and a “brand” associated with my name. But, like it says in the article, there is also a vague but ever-present concern that readers will move on to something else if not offered something new quickly. Wherever this anxiety originated and regardless of whether it’s truly a result of the new landscape of book consumption, I’ve been infected with it. I find myself wondering, “Is one book a year enough?”

The more I think about it, the more ridiculous it seems. Of course a book a year is enough. No one would call Jodi Picoult or Jennifer Weiner—both of whom put out at least a book a year—unproductive. Granted, they are no James Patterson (who apparently has 13—yes, thirteen—new books coming out this year), but a book a year is still wildly prolific, especially taking into account that we’re talking about a medium with a rich history of authors taking their sweet time.

Never mind the ones who wrote one book and called it quits, like Harper Lee and Ralph Ellison. There are plenty of examples of authors who eventually wrote enough books to fill at least half a shelf but took a long time getting there. It took William Gaddis 20 years to write his second book; Joseph Heller needed 13 years. Seventeen years passed between Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and Vineland. (His short story collection Slow Learner came out 11 years after GR, but the stories it contained were written 30 years prior.) Marilyn Robinson followed up her debut novel Housekeeping with Gilead—24 years later (although there were a couple works of nonfiction in between, spaced 9 years apart). These are extreme examples of limited productivity to be sure, but they are nothing compared to the case of Henry Roth (not to be confused with Philip Roth, who has written 31 books in 53 years). Roth wrote Call It Sleep in 1934, then 45 years later put out another book (which was a special small print run/limited edition kind of thing. You could make a case that his next proper book was sixty(!) years later).

All of which make the more recent examples of slow writers—like Jonathan Franzen (9 years in between The Corrections and Freedom) or Jeffrey Eugenides (9 years in between Middlesex and The Marriage Plot)—seem brisk in comparison. But these books are all literary fiction, which is held to a different standard. It’s not unusual for years or even decades to pass without a new book from someone who dabbles in capital L Literature. A three-year gap between books seems to be regarded as the fastest pace you can expect a big-time literary name to maintain; Richard Powers and Don DeLillo keep that schedule, roughly. (Although DeLillo used to be a book-a-year guy back in the day.) Then there are writers of literary fiction who are prolific by anyone’s definition of the word—surely the name at the top of this list is William T. Vollmann, who in 25 years has written a batch of 22 books that includes novels, short story collections, a thousand-page work of journalistic fiction, and a 3,300-page treatise on violence. He’s the literary equivalent of James Patterson, Stephen King, and Jodi Picoult all rolled up into one frenetic word-producing entity.

The people who write serial novels or books for popular consumption have no problem keeping up an annual turnaround. Patterson, Weiner, Picoult, King, and John Grisham are all prime examples. When they were working on their respective series, J.K. Rowling, Stephanie Meyer, and Lemony Snicket were also dependably fast.  Readers gobble up these authors’ works as fast as they can be produced, and the speed with which these books are written don’t seem to have an adverse effect on the success or quality of the finished product. In fact, in some cases it seems that a long layoff is actually detrimental to a prolific author’s work. When Harry Potter was being published, we usually had to wait only a year or maybe two between books. But Book 5, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, was published almost 3 years after Book 4—by far the longest wait for any of the books—and it is universally considered to be the weakest book of the series.

Let’s compare and contrast with other artistic mediums for a second. There is more music being produced now than ever before, or at least it seems that way. But even in pop music history, there are notable cases of long periods of silence. Perhaps the most infamous case is Guns N’ Roses’ Chinese Democracy, an album that seemed to take forever to come out, a situation exacerbated by the constant promises of its imminent release. In actuality, it was on shelves a mere 15 years after the release of Gn’R’s previous album. Portishead took 11 years to follow up their second album, Portishead, with their third album, Third. In 2000, Steely Dan put out their first album in 20 years, which promptly won multiple Grammys. Blondie had a 17-year gap between albums; Kate Bush 12 years. Fiona Apple just released her first new album in 7 years (making it 3 albums in 13 years).

There are plenty of prolific musicians out there, though. At last count, Lil Wayne has 5.3x1087 mix tapes. In the pop music world, the bar for proper album releases has been set by Rihanna. At the age of 24, she has released six albums, almost one a year since her debut album Music of the Sun, released when she was 17. She’s definitely not your stereotypical young slacker.

There are also some memorable periods of great artistic achievement in a compressed timeframe in music history. The Beatles spring to mind, the way they constantly evolved and remade themselves during the short lifespan of the band (less than 10 years). I used to think the greatest 4 album streak of all time was the Rolling Stones’ Beggars Banquet/Let It Bleed/Sticky Fingers/Exile on Main Street combo, which all came out in an amazing 3-and-a-half years. But then I was made aware that Bob Dylan put out Another Side of Bob Dylan, Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde in a mind-boggling 22-and-a-half months. I’m still trying to find my jaw, which hit the floor and rolled away after I found that out.

But taking those hyper-prolific musicians out of the equation, the acceptable time in between albums would appear to be two or three years. That’s the schedule kept by stars like Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, and Beyoncé. The way that popular artists space their single releases also extend the life of an album, making it seem still fresh and new a year after its release. So aside from some minor grumbling, their fans are perfectly content waiting a couple years for new music.

What about movies? Actors and writers are able to work on many movies a year, but for the purposes of this discussion we’ll ascribing a movie’s authorship to its auteur: the director. Some directors are very prolific, like Woody Allen, who has about as many movies as Lil Wayne has mix tapes. Guys like Spielberg and Scorsese and Nolan seem to have a movie every couple years. There are quite a few directors who take their time, though. Kubrick was a notoriously slow worker, although that indictment could only really be leveled at him toward the end of his career: there was a 7-year gap between The Shining and Full Metal Jacket, and 11 years passed between Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut, his final movie. James Cameron took 12 years to follow up Titanic with Avatar. Earlier this year, Whit Stillman released his first movie in 14 years. The King of Taking His Time used to be Terrence Malick, who waited 20 years to direct his third movie, The Thin Red Line. But since then he’s moving at a relatively brisk pace, making 2 movies in 14 years (with a third coming out next year).

A movie every three years seems to be the sweet spot for prolific directors, especially those who write their own material. Wes Anderson is regarded as a fairly prolific writer/director, and that’s basically the schedule he keeps.

So, to recap—
Productive artists keep the following schedules:

Musicians: an album every 2 years.
Filmmakers: a movie every 3 years.
Authors: a book or two every year.

Looking at the standards by which other types of artists are judged, it quickly becomes apparent that unreasonable demands are being put on authors of books. Why should an author produce more work than a musician or a filmmaker? Especially considering that music and movies are collaborative mediums, made with the help of a team of other artists. I know that, strictly speaking, no author writes a book totally alone, that they are helped by editors and initial readers, but you have to admit that they carry more of the burden of the finished product than musicians—who have helping them producers, sound mixers, guitar/bass/keyboard players, et al.—and movie directors—who have cinematographers, actors, editors, costume designers, et al. So isn’t it kind of ridiculous that we expect one guy or gal to make more art than a team of artists and to do it faster?

Also, consider this: Authors produce something that takes much longer to be consumed than what their fellow artists produce. An album can be consumed in usually no more than an hour. A movie takes a couple hours to watch, three at most. A book, even a short one, takes at least a few hours to read, usually spread out over days or even weeks. Why are we rushing the people who make the things that take the longest to get through? Shouldn’t we be banging on the doors of musicians instead, forcing them to get a move on? I mean, isn’t 2 years quite a long wait for 40 minutes of music? Or maybe we should be harassing filmmakers to hurry up and make more movies. Star Trek 2 comes out next year—why did it take them four years to make a sequel?

I have to admit that part of the blame must be placed on the artists themselves. No matter what the audience clamors for, the artists set the rate of production. What seems to be happening is that some popular authors are putting out more than one book a year, creating an expectation for others to do it as well. For whatever reason, the artists in other mediums are pacing themselves. But if Taylor made an album every 6 months, that would become the new standard. If they made an Avengers movie every year—which they could easily do, with all the manpower and resources at their disposal—everyone would think that an annual Avengers movie was normal. (Avengers 2 is slated for a 2014 release.)

Why the artistic output of musicians and filmmakers isn’t typically cranked into overdrive probably has to do with the creative process, which is usually a long, drawn-out ordeal. But another plausible reason has to do with a certain shrewdness on the part of the artist. Too much output can make the audience weary of what the artist has to offer. David Mamet once said he could easily write a play a year, but “who’d want to see them?” he asked rhetorically. Sure, his fans would love to see anything he put out, but it’s easy to see how a new Mamet play would cease to be special if there was a new one every 12 months. An abundance of artwork, like an abundance of anything, devalues it. However, this point seems lost on the insatiable readers who devour every word their favorite authors write and are perpetually hungry for more, which seems both a blessing and curse for the authors.

Look, I’m as eager as the next person for my favorite musician/filmmaker/author’s next album/movie/book. There are times I’ve cursed how long the “next thing” was taking. I’ve been impatient with slow artists, and I’ve bitched about the interminable wait between their projects with other impatient people. I understand, I get it. But I also understand that, ultimately, things take as long as they take, which is almost always longer than you’d like them to. That’s just the way it is, it’s the nature of the beast.

So this is just an earnest reminder: The next time your favorite author is taking a long time to write her next book, think about how she is working in the loneliest, most non-collaborative medium, and how her ongoing battle against the blank page is an unavoidably personal one, and how the burden of production is on her and her alone with no one there to make the most excruciating parts of the creative process more bearable. You still might not like how long she’s taking, but at least you’ll better understand why you don’t have her next book in your hands RIGHT THIS INSTANT.


Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Top Ten Ben & Jerry’s Flavors

As summer gets into full swing, nothing is more refreshing than a pint of Ben & Jerry’s. Of course, if you’re a B&J addict like myself, you’ll eat it year round, even if it’s 20 below outside.

It’s my favorite ice cream by far. Nothing compares to its lineup of delicious, creative flavors. Every bite is heavenly and you can’t stop eating it when you start, which is why they usually don’t sell it in larger sizes than a pint—no matter how much is there, it’s always a single serving, and it would be very dangerous, health-wise, if they sold it in half-gallon tubs. I used to eat like 2 or 3 pints a week. (Obviously I stopped at some point since I’m sitting here now with a functioning heart.)

What also makes Ben & Jerry’s unique is their controversial practice of discontinuing flavors, sending them to the “Flavor Graveyard.” Some of these flavors never come back, leaving us to reminisce wistfully about how great a nearly forgotten flavor was. Sadly, some of the greatest ice cream flavors that have ever existed have been unavailable for ten years or more.

Today I am picking the best of the best. This is my list of all-time top 10 flavors. Warning: I am not a big fan of chocolate, so while I do acknowledge the awesomeness of flavors like Bovinity Divinity and Phish Food, you won’t find them on the list.

10) Schweddy Balls
Vanilla Ice Cream with a Hint of Run & Loaded with Fudge Covered Rum & Malt Balls

I was only able to get this a couple times before One Million Moms Against BJ’s (that’s Moms Against Ben & Jerry’s…get your mind out of the gutter, we’re talking about something very serious here, namely Schweddy Balls) got this flavor taken out of freezers across the country. This is very unfortunate for those who never snagged a pint; this is one of the best flavors of all time. The whole malt balls were a B&J special, continuing the tradition of burying complete, unbroken treats in their ice cream.

9) Crème Brûlée
Sweet Custard Ice Cream with a Caramelized Sugar Swirl

Sometimes B&J comes up with completely original concepts for the base ice cream of a particular flavor. Where else can you even get sweet custard ice cream? What is it exactly? Who knows, but it tastes great. They are also the masters of the nice thick swirl, kind of like frosting for your ice cream (delish!), and this is one of their best.

8) Bonnaroo Buzz
Coffee & Malt Ice Creams with Whiskey Caramel Swirls & English Toffee Pieces

This is an amazing flavor. There used to be a lot of coffee flavors available (Coffee Coffee Buzz Buzz Buzz, and From Russia With Buzz) but this is one of the few remaining. Lucky for us, it’s the best one. The toffee pieces in this are huge—most require more than one bite to finish off. I’ll never forget scoring a pint that had 7 or 8 buried in it…it was like 2 whole candy bars wrapped in ice cream!

7) Appley Ever After
Brown Sugar Ice Cream with a Cinnamon-Caramel Swirl & Apples

Now, please note that I am not talking about the Appley Ever After that was released earlier this year in the U.K. With all due respect to the cause which fostered the re-introduction of this flavor, it is an inferior version of the 2005 Scoop Shop exclusive that was also called Appley Ever After, which never made it to grocer’s freezers. What’s being sold as AEA now is nothing more than a standard apple pie flavor with just bits of boring pie crust in it. The true Appley Ever After had brown sugar ice cream (!) and the gooiest, most delicious cinnamon-caramel swirl ever. And whole chunks of apple. It was crazy good.

6) Imagine Whirled Peace
Caramel & Sweet Cream Ice Cream Swirled with Fudge Piece Signs & Toffee Cookie Pieces

Lots of things going on in this one. It’s like a whirlwind of tasty, sweet flavors combining in the most piquant way. The fudge piece signs are a nice touch.

5) Triple Caramel Chunk
Caramel Ice Cream with a Swirl of Caramel & Fudge Covered Caramel Chunks

One of the foundations of the whole B&J line, in my opinion. Can you tell I love caramel? Maybe this list has too much on it, but it’s just so good—you can’t go wrong with caramel in ice cream. Some people would pick Karamel Sutra, with its solid caramel core, over this one. The thing that makes Sutra not as good is that half of it is chocolate ice cream. With Triple Chunk, you get all caramel ice cream. Case closed.

4) Key Lime Pie
Lime Ice Cream with a Tangy Lime Twist, Fluffy Meringue Swirl & Pie Crust Pieces

This is an incredible flavor. The lime ice cream is so delicious and refreshing, with just the right amount of tang. Discovering the meringue swirl, spread so generously throughout the entire pint, is to know pure joy. The pie crust distribution is perfect—not too little, not too much. Never a regular flavor, always a limited batch for summer, Key Lime seems to come around every two years—it was introduced in ’08 and brought back in ’10. I have it on solid authority that it will be in freezers once again this summer. If you see it, do yourself a flavor and buy one (or ten). You won’t regret it.

3) White Russian
Coffee Ice Cream with Kahlua Coffee Liqueur

We have not seen this flavor in a decade, and its disappearance might be one of the great tragedies of all recorded history. It was a fantastic, no-frills flavor. There were no chunks of candy, no bits of fruit. The experience was wholly dependent on the flavor of the ice cream, which was superlative. It was a minimalist flavor, bringing ice cream back to its essential essence. Honestly, I can barely remember what it tasted like. All I know is that it’s one of the best things I’ve ever tasted. I hope that one day it makes its triumphant return to my mouth.

2) Festivus
Brown Sugar Cinnamon Ice Cream Loaded with Gingerbread Cookies & a Ginger Caramel Swirl

When you ate Festivus, you knew you were truly eating a dessert. So rich, so sweet, so delicious. It had cookies, swirl, and brown sugar ice cream. Amazing! This is another one that has been gone for so long, it’s hard to imagine its taste on your tongue. But it was so good that while it was available you bought no other flavor. We can only hope that this holiday will one day be celebrated again in freezers everywhere.

1) Cherry Garcia
Cherry Ice Cream with Cherries & Fudge Flakes

The one and only. What more can you say? It’s the stalwart, the old stand-by. The king of the hill, lording over the realm. Always there, ever-reliable. It will never be discontinued, for there would be riots. This is the one you always go back to, because it’s just too damn good. Cherry Garcia will forever set the bar by which all other ice cream flavors are judged.


Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Pynchon, Ebooks, and the Encyclopedic Novel

Thomas Pynchon’s back catalog was released in the Kindle store last week after a long and conspicuous absence. This is a cause for celebration, as he was one of the few giants of American literature whose books were unavailable in ebook format. (Combined with the ebook debut earlier this year of William Gaddis’s revered and seminal tomes The Recognitions and JR, this is shaping up to be an annus mirablilis of sorts for ebook readers who love serious fiction. Next to join the ebook world, hopefully: John Barth, William H. Gass, and Donald Barthelme.)

It was never clear why Pynchon’s books were unavailable in digital form all this time, but the press releases strongly imply that it was his call and he finally gave his blessing to Penguin, his publisher, to release ebook editions of his novels. A few of the articles being written about this event are explaining Pynchon’s acquiescence by making cracks about his reputation of being a paranoid sort, speculating that his past reluctance stemmed from a wish to prevent his books from being swallowed up by the same systems and networks that he writes so critically and suspiciously of, at times.

I’ve always had a different theory. Pynchon is a writer of what are commonly referred to as “Encyclopedic novels,” a label given to books that are stuffed with an incredible amount of information about a wide range of topics. Readers of encyclopedic novels frequently encounter words they don’t know, concepts they don’t understand, and historical events they’re unfamiliar with. This is intentional—at least part of the point of these books is that they are supposed to be mimetic of the experience of real life in the respect that we are constantly subjected to a barrage of information and visual/aural/tactile stimulation which we are in constant struggle to make sense of.

If you pay attention and read it closely, you can usually learn a lot by reading an encyclopedic novel, in a way that is not dissimilar from the way you’d learn a lot by reading a real encyclopedia or a dictionary or textbook—which of course turns a lot of horrified readers away, readers who would never in a million years consider reading a reference book for fun.

While potentially rewarding, encyclopedic novels are usually as difficult to read as one imagines they would be. They are purposely overwhelming and disorienting. The good ones succeed in doing this without making you want to throw the book across the room, but even if you get through one, chances are that whole chunks of it will still be opaque to you because you probably won’t look up every unknown word or familiarize yourself with every obscure reference or keep track of what is oftentimes a cast of hundreds of characters.

You might see where this is going.

Reading an encyclopedic novel in ebook format mitigates many of its difficulties. The standard features of the devices that allow you to view ebooks—whether it’s an e-reader or app for tablet or PC—include built-in dictionaries and continuous connection to the internet. Getting the definition of a word is as simple as pointing at it, and, for everything else, Google and Wikipedia are a tap away. Suddenly these notoriously hard books seem a lot less daunting.

That is the main reason I intentionally chose Moby Dick as the first book I read on my Kindle. It is regarded as a predecessor to the long, complicated novels that became the foundation of 20th century literature; it’s the ur-encyclopedic novel. It has a reputation for being difficult and remains too intimidating for most readers. But I had a hunch that the Kindle would not only make the novel easier to read but also enhance my appreciation and understanding of it, and I was right. All the sailing terms—the capstans and mizzenmasts and whatnot—were instantly understood with no significant interruption of my reading experience. I wrote about this in a previous blog post, but the internet connection allowed me to look stuff up on Wikipedia that would’ve just flown over my head had I been reading it as a physical book. Ultimately, I got way more out of Moby Dick than I would’ve without the Kindle. (And it’s actually a great read, way more exciting and fast-paced and fun than you’ve been led to believe.)

Now, a Pynchon book is like the pinnacle of the encyclopedic novel. He puts in more allusions, references, obscure words, historical events, etc. than any other author. His novels are overwhelming by anyone’s standards and you just have to go with it and accept that you won’t understand everything about his work, or even most of it. (One of the most intelligent novelists out there, Alexander Theroux, said he understood “maybe 82%” of Pynchon’s books.) And, as strange as this might sound (especially if you’ve never read him), that’s part of the appeal. You’re pretty much ensured a unique, singular reading experience with a Pynchon novel; it’ll be unlike anything you’ve ever read before. It can be frustrating, like getting lost in a mystery you know you will never solve or discovering a hall of locked doors behind which you know there is incredible treasure, but just the intimations of that treasure is enough to make getting through a Pynchon novel a rewarding experience.

Pynchon probably derives at least some sly joy or amusement from writing these books that for 99% of the population are pure head-scratchers. Who knows how long it takes him to track down every little factoid, scavenging through the annals of the world’s history to find a perfect thematic tidbit to complement what he is writing about. It probably takes him a long, long time—he’s not what you would call a fast worker, commonly taking 10+ years to publish a new book. In the not-too-distant past, when a “book” meant exactly one thing—something made with paper and ink and glue—Pynchon could be reasonably assured that all the secrets he hid in his books would remain unsolved to all but the most intrepid scholars (or the people who bought books written by those intrepid scholars). But now, every term can be googled, every historical event can be wikipediaed, every word can be tapped on for the definition. The encyclopedic novel has never been more accessible to the average reader. Its secrets are more easily uncovered, its challenges more readily expugnable. (Go ahead, click it. See? Easy.) That must rankle Pynchon at least a little, and it explains his reluctance to relinquish his work to the digital arena.

Most of my Pynchon experience on the Kindle will be a revisiting of work I’ve already read as DTBs, with one notable exception. I’m probably the weirdest Pynchon fan in the world—I’ve read all his work except for Gravity’s Rainbow. V., Vineland, Against the Day, even Mason & Dixon—I’ve read them all. I’ve been purposely holding off on Gravity’s Rainbow, his National Book Award-winning magnum opus. Why? Well, I started reading him around the release of Against the Day in 2006 and, knowing his history and age, I was worried we might never get another Pynchon novel again so I wanted to save what is probably his best work for a rainy day (or month, considering the length), the same way one savors an unopened bottle of vintage wine. Of course, the 2009 release of Inherent Vice gave us another book in the Pynchon collection, one I devoured gratefully.

Speaking of Inherent Vice, I notice that it is still not available in the Kindle store. I’m sure no one will remember this, but it was available for pre-order in the Kindle store back in 2009 and then disappeared a couple weeks before the hardcover release. I remember being excited to read my first new Pynchon book in ebook format and then being deeply disappointed to have that opportunity snatched away from me. At the time I could find no explanation of why IV was pulled from the Kindle store—no one besides me cared, apparently. And even now: no Inherent Vice. Weird. (It is rumored that it will be adapted by Paul Thomas Anderson into a movie starring Robert Downey, Jr. and if that comes to pass, they have to release it as an ebook, with Downey posing dramatically on the cover. That will be especially weird, a Pynchon book with a movie tie-in cover.)

Anyway, the release of the Gravity’s Rainbow ebook is as good an occasion as any to finally stop denying myself the pleasures of what I assume to be one of the best books of the last 100 years. I still have to finish War and Peace (on page 431), but now I have extra incentive to speed through this Russian masterpiece already and get to a novel I’ve been anticipating for some time, and experience it in a way that they could only dream of back in 1973.


Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Deadly Reflections will be free this week

Hi all. Just want to alert everyone that Deadly Reflections will be free in the Kindle store from Wednesday, June 6, through Sunday, June 10. This is a wonderful opportunity to pick up the book if you haven't already done so. And if you've already read it, please tell everyone about the free promotion. (I know the promotion itself isn't free, but I guess this is what we call a hypallage; you know, like "drunken parties." Which is what we will have if the C's actually win the championship.)

Take care,