Be Careful What You Fish For

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Because the waters of the unconscious are deep and dark and full of…, well, who knows what? I’ve been pining for reviews. While trying to remain cognizant of the idea that we all ought to be careful what we wish for. Because, as they say, we just might get it.

Well, I haven’t received any reviews for Time Crime. Yet. And when the latest Locus Magazine arrived yesterday and I found myself encountering a review by Katharine Coldiron (great name) of a book I’ve been following (without having read it), namely, The First Sister by Linden A. Lewis, because her book had appeared beside mine in a Goodreads giveaway and we competed neck and neck for a time for entrants, and I sort of liked the cover and appreciated her nod towards mythology (in her case religion) as an oblique theme, and I assumed she was a debut indie author like me, besides her being queer and half my age and writing in the first person (none of which appeal to me), well, I was intrigued and jealous. Again. Because, as I’ve discussed here before (and posted as a blog), she somehow seemed connected in a big way that I am not – garnering a mention in the NPR Book Concierge and having her book cover appear in Locus’s Books Received when I can’t pay people to read my novel. What is she managing to do that I can’t? Does she know somebody in the business? Is she an insider? Is she connected? Is she adept at spinning her female/queer diversity angle? Is her book good? Is it hitting a zeitgeist? Is she just a better writer than me?

Let’s just say that Coldiron’s review was evocative of her name: cold iron. Sharpened to a lethal edge. “I genuinely wanted to like and to root for Linden A. Lewis’s debut….” Uh oh. “As I read, though, the book dissolved more and more of my goodwill, until, by the conclusion, I had very very few positive things left to say.” Can it get any worse? Remarkably, yes. Indeed, relentlessly, artfully, ruthlessly and intelligently worse.

Lewis presents a new science fiction universe but she’s a poor historian of that universe, leaving the reader confused about important aspects of its origin. She invents diverse characters in difficult, conflict-ridden situations but their personalities are almost blank, their narrative voices interchangeable.

Katharine Coldiron, “Locus Looks at Books,” Locus: The Magazine of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Field, Issue 720, Vol. 86, No. 1, p.19.

Ouch. These are creative writing workshop callouts. Not that I’ve ever attended a creative writing workshop. Within that context or perhaps some other classroom such lethal frankness might be intended to snap a wannabe out of complacence or indicate to a beginner that they might do better to point themselves towards a different vocation entirely. Here, however, within the pages of a well-regarded flagship of the SFF trade, the accusation is one of inauthenticity and, unforgivably, amateurishness.

Near the end of the review Coldiron is still slugging at the corpse. “But because Lewis’s characterization and the historical aspects of her world building are weak, I felt sure I was in the hands of a writer who didn’t know what she was doing….” Then the final, irreconcilable dispensation: “Truly, I hope that Lewis’s craft improves, because there’s always room on the shelf for a science fiction newcomer with interest in gender issues and power struggles, but The First Sister is an unready book, a novel with fewer merits than demerits, and an unfortunate start to a new author’s career.”

It strikes me that while I had assumed Lewis to be an indie author the fact that she isn’t may have further worked against her. I found her author page on Simon & Schuster’s website. Along with an image, already (The First Sister was published in August of last year) of her new book. Such a  pedigree implies accomplishment. Such subtle yet significant marketing penetration implies substance. Or merely smacks of corporate gamesmanship.

Whether or not Lewis’s visibility and Big Four backing provoked an unhindered antagonism on behalf of the influential but tenuously situated Locus – they are a registered non-profit openly struggling to survive – who knows? And if Coldiron had so adeptly and boldly savaged Stephen King or Blake Crouch it may have only inspired more sales – the fans have spoken over the years in regard to such critically bulletproof writers. Meanwhile, unready; an unfortunate start to a new author’s career. Yikes.

The review literally left me shaken. I thought, Christ, what if that were me? I’m new at this, too, after all. And I’m too often earnest and passionate beyond anything to do with my curriculum vitae. If it were a customer review on Amazon, say, I could perhaps shake it off, nevertheless with difficulty, as an unreasonable, neurotic rant from a disgruntled wannabe. Or something. But this? I’d frankly consider suicide. I’m not kidding. I don’t know how a new author comes back from such a thrashing.

Yes, as artist-craftsmen we’re to cultivate a thick skin. If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen, that kind of thing. Not everyone is going to like your work. But, whew, I don’t know. Here I am grasping at reviews in the hope they’ll be good ones, that they’ll eventually help thrust me from oblivion into arrival and legitimacy as an author. But to be so categorically dismissed. On the very first of the New Year. With one’s brand new sequel just arrived. Be careful what you wish for, Keith, old man. Be very careful, indeed.

Best to focus instead upon making TC2 the best it can be. I’m reminded to maintain an inside out perspective, as it were; to stay within, be true and to write from the heart. All the while honing my craft, never surrendering to my impatience and my too often pernicious sense of urgency. I need to write and rewrite ruthlessly, taking the time the manuscript needs until I’m confident I’ve done all I can. I believe in the tetralogy but then all writers believe in their work. Lewis believes in hers, I’m sure. Yet somehow, sometimes, our earnestness and passion can make us blind to things. Even great artist-craftsmen sometimes can’t see when their talent has left them. They sometimes refer to an author’s books or a songwriter’s songs or a painter’s paintings as their children. Because, perhaps, we love our works like children, namely, in spite of themselves and all their otherwise obvious faults and failings.

Such love inspires faith. But faith is a tricky thing when it comes to art-craft intended for public consumption. Write for yourself, sure, and keep it to yourself and then no harm, no foul, the work is for its own sake. Regard it as a boon, however, something fought for and won and worthy of bringing across the threshold of dream and vision into the hard, cruel brilliance of the world-of-action and we’ve got to prepare ourselves for one of each of the three receptions as Campbell himself defined them: (1) welcome, (2) refusal, or (3) tentative indifference. The first two remain entirely outside our control while the last result responds, in the best case, to influence, be it our own or that of others, but it demands pedagogy. The world has to learn to appreciate, let alone require, our gift.

It may take years. It certainly, meanwhile, takes courage to face and endure the risk of rejection to begin with and, should a person encounter the third response, it takes an iron will and a life of lean, eating-one’s-own-white-guts patience. Do we know when our work is good enough? I’d say, yes, we do, when we’ve done our homework, honed our scholarship, sought and followed as much advice as we can stomach and won through to a finished product; something with a beginning, middle and end; something expressing conflict and character development. Something with a resonant vision if only to us. This is the rub. And the misery of it. It has to matter to us regardless of its reception. Welcome would seem the easiest and best reception. But knowing how life is and how difficult arrivals can be, I would guess that in the end the best, most fortunate outcome for a person’s boon is that of the slow acceptance. Within one’s lifetime to be sure, but to have one’s book “take off” as I’ve heard some authors describe it, well, I don’t know if that doesn’t bring with it another version of the genie-in-the-bottle lesson: your wish is granted and you get everything else that comes with it. For better or worse.

Sunday, January 3, 2021. Boy. Was I ever misguided about Linden A. Lewis. One-hundred seventeen Amazon reviews at 4.5 stars. So-called Amazon “Editor’s Pick” for “Best Science Fiction.” Her Kindle version is delivered via Simon & Schuster, which just proves that if she was ever indie (silly to assume that) she certainly ‘ain’t now. Editorial reviews posted by Publisher’s Weekly – “solid LGBTQ and multicultural representation” – NPR, Library Journal, all glowing. Her second in the series isn’t out now, I was incorrect, it’s merely all over Amazon and probably everywhere else as “release in August.” Gads, eight-month advance hype. Well, now I see why poor little ‘ol Locus magazine was a bit testy with this golden girl. That is, I get the impression, again, that while the magazine apparently goes to great lengths to promote its own version of diversity, it also cultivates the historiography of science fiction and respects legacy and earning one’s stripes. I could be wrong, but that’s my take.

Meanwhile, given Lewis’s bulletproof status, Coldiron’s scathing review will likely be reduced to a quirky anomaly, the kind of snarky lashing out that gets perceived as jealousy instead of perspicacity and only fuels the fire of Lewis’s legitimization – after all, having enemies is the surest  sign of success. But time will tell if Lewis’s measure of ability is a talent or not and if her on-the-nose diversity gambit won’t go the way of all other flavor-of-the-month trends in publishing. Otherwise, it’s an example of being uncannily right on top of the zeitgeist and irrepressibly connected, a true chosen one. It happens. “Well,” said Angie, “at least now you know she’s not your competition.” Wow, I guess not.

I don’t know. I certainly feel a fool for having cultivated any sense that this woman, clearly leveraged by an industry insider (her mother, father, cousin, lover?), had anything in common with me. Cripes, there couldn’t be a debut sci-fi author less similar to me. And now I get to watch her career “take off” while my own… well, I’m frankly ashamed to refer to my own meager inroads as anything akin to a career at all. I pay to play, in a very, very minor way, that’s all.

What must it be like to be chosen? To get it all when you’re young, before you’ve been tarnished by age and failure and desperation. All of us try to imagine it. And we know all the stories surrounding such successes; namely, how some of the chosen never sought it, in fact have other ambitions or would prefer to be doing something else and others who did seek it, end up resenting it and regarding their fame and fortune as a curse. Then there are the handful who relish it and thrive within the big time. And so on. The big time. I wonder what Linden A. Lewis herself has to say about it all? She’s probably already had interviews and if I dug deep enough I’d likely find her whole story online. But reading it will only make me feel worthless. And then of course there will be the movie franchise, probably being inked as we speak.

Getting on with things – one’s own personal mythology – is of course the only answer to the anxiety induced by comparing oneself to others who appear to have more of what you want than you do. We lose our place within the principle of eternity when we become anxious for the outcome of our deeds. I’ve quoted and paraphrased this wisdom from the Bhagavad Gita many times, always by way of where I first encountered it which is within The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Our place within the principle of eternity. Our place, period. If it’s a bitter pill then I think one’s life is a tragedy. So, somehow, in some way, we must purge ourselves of the poison of comparison and soldier onwards with the work that has been given us and what we have to offer, come what may.

I’ve been grinding my way through Robert Richardson’s Emerson: The Mind On Fire. I’ve discussed my admiration for and brief correspondence with Richardson who died last year. But somehow I just cannot connect with anything to do with Emerson. Unlike within Richardson’s biographies of Thoreau and William James, where the men came alive as compelling, timelessly relevant icons of inspiration, Emerson remains cast in amber to me, as it were, as if he’s too much a part of a lost, alien time and perspective. His writing, at least as Richardson communicates it, seems loopy, convoluted, imprecise, bafflingly diffusive and perpetually tangent to the plot of my own interests. In short, I find him not only overrated but tiresome. And, frankly, dated. His thought is of its time, his supposed idealism, which is better described as “idea-ism” is, for me, a dull road that leads nowhere. I have no interest in the “idea” of the so-called mind-at-large and all that mumbo jumbo. I’ll shut up. Here I am criticizing as if my own work in fiction and non-fiction isn’t entirely lacking. Again, as Fripp suggests in so many words: if you’ve got no regard for your soul then be a critic.

Yet, some of us are natural critics and it’s a form of art-craft in its own right. As long as critique is delivered within the context of sincerity. Critique has its uses, its value. At it’s best, it contextualizes many things, even functioning as a secondary source of sorts in its own right. Read a well rendered review and you not only learn something and expose yourself to new vistas but oftentimes gain a context and therefore an insight into something that you may in fact like when you had convinced yourself you didn’t. But it doesn’t happen often. Which is to say it’s more likely that we read reviews merely to reinforce our own opinions – it’s too often a fraught, occasionally ugly form of gamesmanship in this way, so be it, it’s no use to defend the field against its inevitably parasitic component.

Nevertheless, I write reviews. Hence, I’m a parasite in this way. Not that I get paid to write reviews and therefore literally feed off the work of others. No. My god, no. I not paid to write goddamn anything at least in terms of a profit. Yes, I’m a professional novelist because I’ve sold a book or two, but that’s all it takes to get your pro-card. Otherwise, I’m writing reviews like I write journal entries; namely, as a method and a practice and a way of writing my way through things. So that I was heartened to hear back from T.S.:

Dear K.

I trust you have had a peaceful and joyous festive season. Here, in my Bavarian village (still marked, by the way, by myths and superstition), all was tranquil, not least because of the curfew (9:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m.) decided by our government.

Already in December, I have read your gracious words about my books (The Second Birth, The Figure of Modernity) that you put on the pages of Amazon and Goodreads. Your praise is generous, your sensitivity for the content (message?) of the books remarkable. I am grateful and greatly obliged to you.

Your text on the Figure of Modernity includes this sentence: “Hence, perhaps we need a third volume, one that expresses full-on Schabert’s ideas of mythos or spirituality or mystic vitality or what may be termed the Cosmos of Nature.” Well, in a way, both books you reviewed imply the third volume. But, then, I may refer also to my lengthy book on “The Architecture of the World: A Cosmological Reading of Architectonic Forms”, published in 1997, in German though. A French translation is available, but no English one (yet …). This book certainly corresponds to your wish for a “third volume”, partially at least. You can get an idea of it, though, by an article that I published on the subject – in English. You find it attached to this message.

I am very glad that Wherefrom Does History Emerge? has caught your attention. I hope you will find the essays that this book presents helpful and inspiring indeed. I may add, that five of the contributors – Davíd Carrasco, Antonio Panaino, Eiko Hanaoka, Dieter Fuchs, John von Heyking – are former Eranos Speakers.

It`s not too late to wish you: Happy New Year! May 2021 be for you full of good things, health, divine inspiration, good work, unexpected but then welcome experiences….

I write the reviews as a form of supporting the cause, to fuel dialogue and continued investigation and because they help, in their modest way, to help folks sell books that I like. These poor goddamn academics with their books priced at $99.00 or more and nobody reading them but their students and colleagues. I recall Richardson lamenting that early on in his publishing career, having witnessed a couple of his scholarly books struggle to reach his sought after general readers and instead functioning as merely printed versions of memorandums to colleagues, he’d become motivated to write biographies. As a way to connect to a significant readership. Anyway, I’m glad to do my thing – novels, journaling, blogging, reviews – both for the intellectual camaraderie and on behalf of whatever marketing support I can bestow.

Meanwhile, back to work tomorrow at the home improvement and while I’d never planned on working there more than the four months it took to earn the money to pay for the audiobook (a nice experience and something I’m very proud of but a categorical disappointment in sales, as it stands) somehow I’m still there another four months down the road. So be it, I can’t stomach taking a job in my old career, no matter what it pays and for now at least I’m still game to slog away at this indie novelist gig, come what may. It makes no financial sense whatsoever. It makes very little vocational sense because, hey, it’s been almost a year and I’m clearly not a Linden A. Lewis. Where will the money and the motivation come from to keep at it? I don’t know for certain. The wife would rather I “hit it big” so that she can quit her career which has its own challenges. For now, we’re holding the line and not making any drastic changes. I’m going to keep blogging, editing, paying for advertising and otherwise acting-as-if I’m a legitimate authorpreneur. If you’re a member of the tribe – a reader and a follower in any way, shape or form – thank you, and may your own endeavors bestow commensurate riches of all types, rock on, welcome to 2021.