Archive for November 27, 2012

Tortuous Fantasies of Power and Fame (Re: Reel Splatter and Me)

BlackWyrm Publishing (click and scroll down the alphabetic list to find my novel Burning the Middle Ground) is a noble but small press, a minority entity that offers innovative fiction not overtly calculated to match pre-sold subjects with large, predictable demographics.

Examples of the overtly-calculated appear in paranormal teen thrillers, which use vampires and other love-softened supernaturals (pre-sold subjects) to titillate literate adolescents (a large, predictable demographic). Or, perhaps more controversially, consider the “literary” novel, which uses trendy topics from history and the news (pre-sold) to assuage the liberal guilt and class insecurity of bourgeois New Yorkers and New Yorker readers (a large, predictable demographic). Anything that cannot be made recognizable as pre-sold and pre-matched, however erroneously, with the often demographic-defying mass American readership is unlikely to appear under imprints of the “Big Six” publishers that sell more than 50% of what Americans read.

At this point I could make this blog quite interesting by claiming that the 50%+ figure, lower than many people suspicious of Big Media might expect (maybe I should do more homework about the source?), justifies one of these assertions:

1. Print fiction is a dead art form!

2. Under the laws of capitalism, free thought is illegal!

3. Corporate hegemony and global capitalism dictate our lives by limiting our representations of ways to live!

All of these claims are tempting, and when I’m in a bad mood, I’m inclined to believe them, but I have been unable to convince myself of their extremes’ veracity. If I believed such critiques, would I really bother with print fiction or, for that matter, thought? On the contrary, I believe all fiction is necessarily formulaic, and I actually like for my demographic to be served with mass market goodies. I therefore see the situation as bad news / good news.

The bad news is that we’re not likely to see very much innovative work coming directly from the bestseller-mills. “Literary” fiction, like “genre” fiction, relies on narrative and market formulas, but the literary distinguishes itself from the (other) genres by hiding its formulaic buttresses. These buttresses generally involve narratives about underprivileged people who have experiences that ultimately affirm the lives of the privileged by revealing the importance of Understanding. They sometimes involve privileged people confronting the malaise of their own incapacity to achieve Understanding. The former approach tends to engage with identity politics; the latter tends to engage with quasi-experimental form, existential angst wearing postmodern shawls. Hybrids welcome.

The good news is that fiction doesn’t have to be innovative to be enjoyable.

The better news is that the independents publishing the less-than-50% of novels are putting out a huge amount of material, a gush of books in which any droplet is unlikely to be a standout but could be, especially if it moistens appetites, perhaps some of those in the more-than-50% sector who deign to splash through them like the Trevi Fountain in La Dolce Vita.

Image borrowed from an Italian site about Fellini

Now then, I’m thinking about all of this stuff because I want to be realistic about the prospects for my novel Burning the Middle Ground, which will rely not on the +50%’s market muscle but on people like YOU if it’s to reach all the people who might find it vastly entertaining and thought-provoking. In other words, I am at the mercy of viral flows and appetites–word of mouth, word of Facebook, word of Twitter, word of words.

And now my thinking flows into other media.

David Bowie was, according to some, the first publicly traded individual. We could, at one point, buy stock in the man’s as-yet-unspecified artistic productivity and then share in the profits of such activity. But anyone who stakes her or his life on the buying power of the public, particularly if the stakes involve something as personal as art, is, in a sense, publicly traded. The artist’s fortunes wax and wane according to the investments of distributors and consumers. Bowie knew this truism and made his market activity a profound metaphoric reflection on a much broader phenomenon.

As a novelist and film critic working outside mainstream channels, I have small, ambivalent hopes of gaining anything like the profile of a David Bowie. I am, nevertheless, interested in what having that kind of market power could enable me to do, not just for me (narrow narcissism gets boring rather quickly) but for others I happen to like.

The fantasy of market power fills my head today because, in my class on the American Horror Film Since 1960, I hosted a Skype session with film director Mike Lombardo of Reel Splatter Productions. I have seen a great many short horror films in my time, and I have talked with several filmmakers who share Mike’s ambition. Mike, however, is the first person I’ve met in a purely-business fashion who has convinced me, however unintentionally, that he has a shot at becoming a true celebrity in my chosen field. I picked up his first collection of shorts, Suburban Holocaust, at Louisville’s Fright Nights Film Festival in July 2012. I’ll admit that I was shopping for someone to become a part of my teaching agenda, but only Mike got a follow-up email. While some of the other films I saw were competent, Mike’s had something different–self-awareness without cliched mise-en-abyme, humor that accentuates horror (and vice versa), and writing that makes characters seem more like the students I work with every day than flat Hollywood stereotypes. The work is allegorical but avoids the pitfall of taking itself too seriously; it is disgusting but avoids the error of assuming that extreme gore alone can carry a horror film to success.

In short, Mike Lombardo’s Reel Splatter is where I hope the horror genre is going. What a thing to stumble upon while casually shopping a crowded festival!

In an email to Mike after the Skype, I paid an awkward, self-indulgent compliment to the tune of, “Hey, if anybody ever asks me who I’d like to direct the film version of Burning the Middle Ground, I’d put your name right at the top of the list!” This awkwardness involves layers of fantasy–the fantasy of having the power to sell my novel’s film rights wrapped around the fantasy of also having the power to lure a director who writes his own good stuff into working with mine–but I think, perhaps, these layers reveal what is most attractive about working in the less-than-50% indie zone. Just as small presses offer an alternative mode of publishing, and indie cinema offers an alternative outlet for film art, the indie world offers an alternative fantasy of power and fame.

Sure, I dream about my books reaching an audience wide enough to support me in a luxurious lifestyle, but at least a little more realistically, I dream about my work reaching a substantial audience that trusts me enough to take my advice about other art to consider.

If I had such an audience, I’d say to them–“Hey, look at Mike Lombardo!” I can’t judge my own artistic potential, but I have judged his, and I think it’s considerable. However, I know that the majority of people who have such considerable potential do not get a “breakout” moment to achieve stardom. If whatever capital I get from my own endeavors allows me to give a bump to an artist like Mike who deserves a breakout as much or more than anyone I’ve met, I’d feel enormous satisfaction in the accomplishment.

I really don’t think I have such capital yet, but just in case, do have a look at Mike’s work:

Not Honking at a White Van

My novel Burning the Middle Ground, in print Nov. 30, was inspired by–among other things–my profound ambivalence about the impact of organized religion on American politics. Parts of it were also inspired by how incredibly creepy I find white vans. This post is about religion and white vans. It has nothing else to do with my novel, which everyone should soon buy and read and recommend to friends.

Today I drove from Louisville to Durham,following a nine-hour route through Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina. With the autumn leaves in full color, the route was the second-most gorgeous stretch of road I’ve ever experienced (the first is California’s PCH; the third is I-40 through Arizona). Despite the fact that most of the territory I covered went for the other team in the election, the scenery made me feel profoundly patriotic. How could I not love every square inch of a country as beautiful as this? I felt prouder to be an adopted Kentuckian than ever, and considering how quickly Louisville has become one of my favorite cities in the world, that’s saying something.

Deeply immersed in a landscape-inspired aesthetic fervor, buoyed by the intoxicating scent of the smoke from a “scheduled burn” not far from the highway, I drifted into traffic thick enough to be annoying but not as thick as Atlanta and Los Angeles’s Friday equivalents. As I coasted cautiously in the left lane, on my right appeared a white van. Since I have exposed white vans’ evil in my forthcoming fictional page-turner, I tend to pay attention to them. Imagine my pleasure at seeing not a demonic, mind-controlling presence through the back window but an enthusiastic, innocent and very All-American-looking child, holding up a piece of paper and waving to get my attention.

I gestured to indicate that I couldn’t read his message. He waved me forward. I sped up but signaled my continuing failure. He switched his handwritten sign to the side window, and I sped up even more. Finally, I could read the print: “HONK FOR JESUS!”

Flashback: at about the same age, maybe a little farther into adolescence, I went on a church-sponsored road trip to Gatlinburg, Tennessee. The other boys and I made a game out of doing everything in our power to encourage truckers to honk as we rode by. Jesus had nothing directly to do with our efforts. Neither did my unrealized-until-years-later attraction to the PK (Google it… what I mean is hidden on the Wikipedia list under “Other”).

The present: I wanted very much to make this kid happy, but I didn’t do it. My reason (the conscious one, anyway) was that using my car horn in the fast-moving but heavy traffic might be dangerous. What kind of example would I be setting? A moment later, I changed lanes, positioning my vehicle in front of the white van. I realized then that my Obama-Biden bumper stickers would be at least as visible as the “HONK FOR JESUS” sign had been.

The layered significance of the child’s request and my non-response rushed in. I had refused to honk for Jesus. I, an irreligious, liberal-voting homosexual, had refused a child the simple pleasure of an aural affirmation of his socially-conditioned by still heartfelt religiosity. And then, by waving my bumper stickers in his face as plainly as I do my “lifestyle choice” whenever I go into public without hiding who I am, I had reinforced every prejudice he likely has about my kind.

I felt, then, that I should have honked my horn. The dangers of falsely signaling a road hazard be damned–a kid’s happiness, not to mention his ideological future, was at stake! At that point, however, the white van was lost in a sea of other vehicles, most of which, like my own, sported license plates from red states.

At this point the post would undoubtedly benefit from moral resolution, a final decision about why I was or wasn’t right to honk my horn for Jesus.