Tag Archives: Books

When Bad Books Get Published

book of the dead

There are two realities: The one we insist upon and the one that actually is.

For writers, the insisted reality is that nothing less than perfection will get us a sniff at publication. Agents, publishers, editors, other writers, and bloggers don’t mind telling us everything we’re doing wrong in our quest, either.  Taken in toto, their advice demands that our stories have intriguing, likeable, and flawed (but not too flawed) characters who interact via engaging, authentic dialog and whose arcs roll out in perfect synchronization with an expertly paced, surprising (but not too surprising) plot, within which we have woven the perfect balance of descriptive details and crisp verbs while employing a narrative style that utilizes all five senses, avoids adverbs like bubonic plague, layers in foreshadowing that is not too obvious yet not too obscure, and speaks to the human condition in an original, innovative, and commercially viable way.

The actual reality is that most books fail to meet these demands yet are published all the time. Go to any bookstore, and within 5 minutes you should be able to find at least one novel that is a derivative, bland, and cliché-ridden exercise in tedium, the sole purpose of which seems to be: I dare you to finish this. Within a half hour, you can probably find a dozen more like it.

book of the dead2I say this because I am currently reading a debut novel that is, at its very best, mechanically competent on a sentence level. I’m reading it because it’s set during the early Italian Renaissance, a period that intrigues me, and because someone lent it to me.

None of the characters offers anything close to a personality or motivation, tedious exposition stands in place of a plot, and tension is nonexistent. I’ve invented the following dialog exchange for your amusement, yet I feel it captures the character interplay quite accurately:

“It’s not fair that you are sending me to the monastery. You know that all I long to do is paint and to become a great artists like my father!” said Luigi with a wince.

“You know what is not fair?” replied Super Mario. “It is not fair that you stole that apple from the street vendor, forcing me to give 3 florins to the jailer to secure your release! It is not fair that your mother died of consumption those five years ago and left you in my care, for, prior to that, I had no worries in the world. Oh, what else can I do with you, Luigi? It’s a monk’s life for you, I’m afraid.”

This followed by a three pages of exposition detailing the hitching of the cart, the ride into town, the condition of the roads, the oppressive atmosphere at the monastery, and so on.

To end up in a bookstore, this manuscript had to interest an agent then be pitched and sold to a publisher, edited, printed, and distributed, despite the writing being objectively poor.

As would-be professional novelists (presuming no best-selling authors currently read this blog), we show good form by not whining in public about our struggles to find success, not trashing our contemporaries by name, and taking our lumps from experts with humility. But you know as well as I do that lots of awful books get published and sometimes—admit it—you think, “Geez. I would have written that so much better.”

Which leads me to this question: When you browse a novel that forces you to stifle your gag reflex over its dreadfulness, do you end up feeling bitter or motivated?

monty python book

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Interview with Music Journalist and Author Amy Yates Wuelfing

City Gardens bookFresh from her appearance on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, music journalist and author Amy Yates Wuelfing sat down with little old me, of all people, to talk about her new book No Slam Dancing, No Stage Diving, No Spikes: An Oral History of the Legendary City Gardens. What was she thinking?

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For the unfamiliar, City Gardens was among the country’s most notorious punk rock clubs of the 1980s and ‘90s, and everyone from the Ramones to the Dead Kennedys to Green Day graced (?) its rickety stage. The stories told in this book are quite literally insane, the mayhem on stage frequently surpassed by the lunacy playing out on the dance floor and in the parking lot. It’s a must-read for music lovers, psychology majors, and people dangerously obsessed with fire.

EJB: Why write a book about a punk-rock club in New Jersey?

Amy Yates Wuelfing:  City Gardens was in the middle of nowhere. Not Philly, not New York, but it was still a big club.  That fact that it was so close, and in the middle this dead zone, made the community of people who went there stronger and tighter. It was almost like college, you saw the same people all the time so they became your friends. That was the main thing for me.  And unlike the clubs in Philly or New York, the pretentious element wasn’t really there.  

EJB: People will be shocked by some of the stories recounted in the book. What are some of your favorites?

Amy Yates Wuelfing: I like it best when people have completely different recollections of the same event.  It is left up to the reader to decide who, if anyone, has the story straight.  The one story that people seem to gravitate
to is the riot at an Exploited show.  Some people say that the band’s van was completely ransacked and set on fire, CGardensother people say, no, just a broken window or two.  Which is correct?  You have to decide.  There is a similar story about the one time the Beastie Boys played there. Was it the best show ever – or the worst show ever? That’s why I love oral histories so much; you get every side.

EJB: You talked to members of The Ramones, Green Day, Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, and other big punk acts as well as plenty of pop, metal, and rock bands from the era. How receptive were these musicians to being interviewed? Did anybody give you a hard time?

Amy Yates Wuelfing:  No one gave us a hard time, but some people just didn’t take part in the project and that’s fine.  In the end, the book turned out exactly like it was supposed to.  Anyone who passed on talking to us isn’t missed.

EJB: You told me a lot of publishers were iffy on your plan to interview “normal” people (as if City Gardens’ patrons could be qualified as normal) along with the bands, believing readers wouldn’t care what they had to say. However, I found that to be the most fascinating aspect of the book. I’m convinced a sociology course on disaffected youth could be built around this thing. What it your plan all along to paint that kind of picture, or did the theme and direction of the book evolve as you compiled and transcribed the interviews?

Amy Yates Wuelfing: The book started out as a project to write the memoirs of City Gardens promoter Randy Now, then it just kept expanding in scope.  Early on, I realized that the club was so important to so many people, that I felt it was essential to include those viewpoints as well.   The normal, not-famous people had great stories. cgardens2And you are not the first person to recognize the sociology angle!  It is a total case study in how misfits found each other before the internet.  As we began interviewing people, it all just came together.  The book became what it was meant to be, not to get too “new age” on you. The book had a force of its own.

EJB: This title is selling out all over the place. Someone stole mine before I could resell it on eBay for a profit!

Amy Yates Wuelfing: Dude, that’s so punk rock.

Where can people get a copy?

Amy Yates Wuelfing:  The first pressing, which was 2000 books, sold out in less than a month.  If anyone had told me this a month ago, I would have laughed and bought them a drink.  We are doing a second pressing right now.  To get a copy of the book, head to infinitemerch.com.  They are the first people we will restock with books when they come in, mainly because they are really close to my house, which is where the books will be delivered.  This whole thing is DIY, just like the old days.  No publisher wanted to touch this, so we have to do the grunt work, but we don’t mind.  The book was a labor of love and to it see it get this much attention makes me so happy.  At every signing we do, people thank [co-author] Steve and I for putting it together. That alone makes it worth the time and effort.

Co-authors Amy Yates Wuelfing and Steven DiLodovico

Co-authors Amy Yates Wuelfing and Steven DiLodovico

 


The Great Bookshelf Purge of 2013

Have you ever seen Hoarders on TV? It’s a semi-exploitative reality show about people who refuse to throw anything away, to the degree that they alienate family and friends and are threatened with having their homes condemned.

My biggest book at 15" x 11"

My biggest book at 15″ x 11″

Watching it will compel you to vacuum the carpet and wash the dishes during the commercial break in a panic response to all the filth, bugs, and accidentally mummified pets you just witnessed on your television screen. It’s no mistake that they advertise cleaning products between the segments.

I’m definitively not a hoarder. I can’t stand clutter and have little tolerance for things that don’t fit neatly onto a shelf next to other things exactly the same size and shape. It’s my good fortune that I like to collect movies and music, which suit my orderly world of rectangles. If a thing ain’t a rectangle, I put it in a rectangular case.

I also love books. Yeah, they sort of follow the rectangle theme, but that damn size variance! There’s just no way my coffee-table book on Gothic cathedrals would work if the pictures were shrunk down to the size of a passport photo, yet I have no use for a paperback mystery in a 72-point font. Both would be unwieldy, in their own ways, at anything other than the proper size.

Which means my bookshelves look like an earthquake at a library. More books than shelf, and then there’s the rather unforgiving shelf dimensions. X high, Y deep, and Z wide, take it or leave it. My biggest book is 15-inches tall (complete works of Michelangelo), and my smallest is a quick spelling reference at 5-inches tall, with titles at every size in between. It’s my little mad hoard in the middle of all that geometric clarity.

Maybe it wasn’t so little. Did I forget to mention that I had a closet stuffed with boxes of books at my mom’s house too?

Well, on Sunday, my wife got into one of those moods. If you are a married man you know the mood I’m talking about: If you don’t get rid of this shit, I’m calling a lawyer.

I have to admit, it was cathartic and cleansing at the same time. At first I was making excuses, like, “I might read this again. It was pretty good,” and, “Aunt Gertrude gave this to me. Sure she passed away five years ago and I’m never going to read it, but…”

My tiniest book at 5" x 4"

My tiniest at 5″ x 4″

However, once I got into the groove, I went full-on rampage. I cleared out almost every novel I own, except for my five favorite Agatha Christies and a couple of classics everyone should have. I made stacks for my mom’s church flea market, stacks for eBay, stacks to chuck because the pages have yellowed or the binding glue has rotted, and stacks to keep.

I kept most of my art, film, and music books and a couple of science ones I use for writing reference. The rest is gone. The storage boxes are gone. The sneezing is over. The dust mites are saying, What the f*** just happened?

Most importantly, my shelves are now neat and tidy, and every remaining title is easily accessed. And that eBay stack? The ones I was sure would fetch me enough to buy a new car? I looked them up, and their average value appears to be somewhere between $1.75 and $4. I guess I’m stuck with my Malibu for a few more years.

How about you? Are you a book hoarder? Would purging your bookshelves be liberating or be like giving away your children?

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Note: Today’s theme was inspired by my blogging pal Tuesday and her post on a similar subject. She’s just began a countdown of 20 favorite books she’ll never give away. Now’s your chance to get in at the beginning!

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Honestly, I’m not crazy about Red Hot Chili Peppers, but I can’t think of a more appropriate song for today’s piece.


Don’t Judge a Reader by His Cover

harry potterDispensers of writing advice will frequently say, “Know your audience.” I think that means we should pick a genre and follow the conventions of that genre (yawn). They can’t be suggesting we know who is going to like our material, can they? Can you really judge a reader by his cover?

Here are some random examples that say “no,” culled from real people in my life:

1. A thirty-something fashion plate who’s poised and modest. She’s definitely not into greasy kids’ stuff and disapproves of undignified behavior. Wouldn’t be caught dead watching a movie about superheroes or fighting robots.

Yet she’s totally obsessed with the Harry Potter universe. She knows every book inside and out.

2. A man in his mid-twenties, sports fan, and devoted scholar of world history and foreign cinema.

You know those Twilight books? He’s read ‘em all, cover to cover, more than once.

3. A man in his early fifties, gun collector, with the appearance of a former biker dude.

In his spare time, he pores over books about horticulture and grows exotic trees.

One of the most fascinating things about life with humans is being continually surprised by what they are into, not the least of which is their reading choices. If you’ve followed my blog for a while, you know I write speculative fiction, AKA science fiction, horror, and supernatural. You probably know I’m really into music, both as a musician and a listener. I’m married, got a kid, work in an office building. But when it comes to books, can you guess what’s on my shelf?

  • Piles of cozy mysteries by Agatha Christie and others. Give me British aristocracy, an old mansion, and a murder, and I’m yours for 250 pages.
  • Rows of film studies and analyses. Who made what movie and when? Why? What does it say about: society, philosophy, the human condition, the inherent destructive nature of man, pretentious film writers? Less-serious titles about low-budget trash cinema abound as well.
  • Heaps of books on art history and criticism, especially French, Dutch, and Italian. Some ancient Greek and Roman thrown in, plus some really dry stuff about medieval architecture and metalwork. Never mind that I can’t paint a fence.
  • Titles on popular science, evolution, and critical thinking (the latter of which don’t seem to be working).
  • Assorted stragglers, like whatever Elmore Leonard novels I haven’t gotten to yet, plus a few literary works and classics.
  • And writing books, though that is a given for someone who blogs about writing all the time.

So there’s my book collection in a nutshell. Very few horror or science fiction novels. No fantasy or supernatural. Not much about music. Maybe not what people would expect based on my “cover.”

How about you? What’s on your bookshelf, and which titles would surprise us?

botticelli