Saturday, April 26, 2008

Too Many Books, Too Much Snow

There is an essay in this Sunday's New York Times Book Review worth checking out. It's about the self-publishing industry. It seems that about 400,000 new titles were published or distributed in the U.S. last year, many of them self-published. The average self-published work, according to iUniverse, sells fewer than 200 copies. I have met hundreds of authors who have self-published. A tiny handful--Vince Flynn and Steve Thayer being two examples--have parlayed their effort into successful careers. The rest have basements and garages and car trunks full of unsold books. I guess it like anything else--you takes your chances. We woke up in Minneapolis this morning to winter all over again. April 26, the ground is covered with snow, it's still snowing and blowing and it's freaking cold! A hundred or so miles north of us they are looking at 4-8 inches, with blizzard conditions. If you have never experienced blizzard conditions, it's like this: You walk out to your mailbox and never return. Those who know me well know that I am an avid mushroom hunter. I've been picking, identifying, and eating wild mushrooms since 1972, when I stumbled across a patch of Morchella esculenta. So extraterrestrial-looking; so delicious! Around this time of year I get pretty wound up--the morels will be back in a couple of weeks, to be followed by many other delectable species. I've been reading mushroom books (a.k.a. "fungiporn") at night, and I'm looking forward to the MMS (Minnesota Mycological Society) meeting on Monday. I mention this now because it is so depressing to see all this snow on the ground, I just have to remind myself that buried beneath it are quadrillions of miles of mycelia poised to send forth their fungilicious fruits. Stay tuned: There will be pictures.

Friday, April 18, 2008

An old post revisited...

Books Are Dangerous! About a year ago, as I was participating in an “author panel” a member of the audience asked a question about censorship—both about the extent to which we authors self-censor our work, and about how librarians can and should deal with censorship and/or book challenges from parents and school administrators. I can’t remember the precise phrasing of the question, but I do remember that one of the other authors on the panel responded by vigorously defending her work, asserting that her books would never encourage self-destructive behavior in their teen readers. I’ve heard that before. The argument usually goes something like this: Questioner: "Do you ever worry that your book about teens sticking needles in their eyeballs might cause some kids to indulge in self-destructive behaviors?" Author response: "Absolutely not! My book is a realistic account of eyeball-stabbing, and it makes perfectly clear that such behavior can only lead to misery and blindness. I cannot imagine any teen reading my book, Needle of the Eye, and wanting to pierce her tender young corneas!" The implication here goes like this: "Banning a truly dangerous book might be acceptable, but my books are safe as a padded placebo!" Let me state here and now that I am opposed to censorship, book-banning, book-burning, and author-lynching. Most authors, including myself, admit the possibility that inappropriate teen books might exist somewhere, but we like to insist that our own books are entirely appropriate. Nevertheless, to claim that books describing dangerous behavior never encourage such behavior is self-serving crap. Books are powerful. Books are dangerous. Teens (and others) read things in books that may sometimes cause them to do things they would not otherwise have done. If books could not affect the behavior of readers, no one would bother to write them. And any author who believes that his or her book will encourage only intended behaviors is operating under a delusion. It is no more credible than for a shotgun manufacturer to claim that his products will be used only for hunting ducks. Once the gun is in the hands of consumers, anything can—and probably will—happen. I wrote a novel in 2004 called Godless. In that book, a group of teens climbs a water tower. I make it quite clear in the book that climbing a water tower can lead to injury, death, punishment, or all three. I also mention that the view from the top of the tower is spectacular. Will some teen somewhere read my book and decide to climb a water tower and check out the view? It would not surprise me in the least.
UPDATE 10/21/08 -- I just ran across a blog that demonstrates this precise behavior. Yikes! Might one such teen die as a result of his misadventure? It is entirely possible. In another book, No Limit, I tell the story of a teen who discovers in himself a talent for high-stakes poker. In that book, I describe the dangers—and the attractions—of gambling. Will No Limit cause some kid to start playing poker, and go on to develop a life-destroying gambling addiction? It is not only possible, it is likely. Will it cause some other teen to think twice about wagering his money in a poker game? I hope so! Several months ago I was talking with a group of teens, and asked what it is they look for in a book. One girl said, "I’m, like, fourteen, and my life is really boring. I want to read about a girl just like me who goes out and, you know, steals a car or something." That’s one of the reasons we read books. We want to know what it’s like to do things we would "never" do. We want to read about climbing Mount Everest, robbing a bank, killing a dragon, having passionate sex with a forbidden partner, capturing Osama Bin Laden, eating magic mushrooms, ruling the world, playing professional football, living on Mars, or facing down a charging rhinoceros. Most readers—nearly all, in fact—are able to read about such ill-advised adventurers and risk-takers without being tempted to emulate them. But there will always be a few fools who opt to try some of the crazy stuff they read about in books. Some of them will get hurt. Some of them will die. And that’s okay. We don’t stop manufacturing automobiles because people die in traffic accidents. We don’t stop having children because women die in childbirth. We don’t prevent people from swimming, boating, or bathing, even though some of them will drown. As a species, we are engaged in a constant game of risk management. That many activities entail the risk of injury or death does not necessarily make them unacceptable. Reading books is one such risky activity. You take your chances. To assert that a particular book can do no harm is akin to promising that a knife will not cut. Books are dangerous. They should be. Treat them with the respect they deserve.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

A few things...

Book news: On April 10 (today!), Doppelganger, the third Bloodwater Mystery, will be published. When a perfect double of Brian turns up missing, Roni and Brian tackle the mystery of where Brian really came from, and how he ended up living in Bloodwater, Minnesota. I’ve been writing a lot this past year, and 2009 will see the publication of at least one, and possibly two new novels. The one I finished most recently is called How To Steal a Car. It’s about, uh, stealing cars, and will come with a free “How to Hotwire a Honda” DVD. Just kidding about the DVD. But the book is real. Also in the works: a romantic comedy, an SSF trilogy tentatively titled The Klathu Diskos, and a non-SSF trilogy that has a title so cool I am afraid to share it. Mary Logue news: Mary’s mystery novel Maiden Rock is a finalist for the Minnesota Book Award in the Genre Fiction category. We will both be at the awards ceremony on April 12th with fingers crossed. Dog news: Jacque (The Terminator) is much better, thank you. He is back to chasing squirrels and bouncing off the furniture after his near-death experience with Addison’s Disease. Movie News: Several of my books are currently under option to writers, directors, or producers. I mostly don’t talk about it, because making a book into a film is an iffy business, and most of these options stall out for one reason or another, but in the case of the Godless film project, I feel there is a very good chance it will happen. If the Ten-Legged One so wills. I should know more by summer. Family news: My brother Joe won the Federal Duck Stamp contest for the third time!!! If you don’t know how incredibly cool that is, go here.