MUSINGS OF A STORY MERCHANT

In Memoriam Harlan Ellison


 

Harlan Ellison in Boston in 1977. He looked at storytelling as a “holy chore,” which he pursued zealously for more than 60 years. 
CreditBarbara Alper/Getty Images


I only got to meet Harlan two or three times, and since it was in my position of VP for Los Angeles PEN it was somehow always antagonistic (by his selection, of course). He tried to shout me down when I was announcing something or other. I told him, Why don’t you stand up and defend yourself like the writer that you are instead of just interrupting obnoxiously. He jumped to his feet, stated his case, then sat down. And grinned. It gave me a good feeling.

I loved reading his words, but none more than what he sent me one day when I asked him what he did with “cranks & weirdos” he must deal with even more than I did as an editor. He sent me a mimeographed statement he sent to them, that went substantially like this:

SOME PRETERNATURALLY IMBECILIC ASSHOLE, USING YOUR NAME, SENT ME  THE ENCLOSED PIECE OF SHIT USING THE UNITED STATES POSTAL SERVICE AND I AM RETURNING IT TO YOU HEREWITH IN THE KNOWLEDGE THAT YOU WILL NEED IT AS EVIDENCE WHEN YOU FILE A FEDERAL CASE AGAINST THE MORONIC FUCKER. GOOD LUCK WITH THAT!

Being a professor at the time, I didn’t have the balls to actually use it, but I never failed to think about it when I opened a crank missive. If only I could adopt it to email today!

R.I.P., Ellison. You rocked!



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The Conversation: Hollywood’s mega-monsters head back east




Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Hollywood’s most recent creature feature, has taken more than US $900m at the global box office in just a few weeks. August sees The Meg unleashed – based on Steve Alten’s novel, it’s a big-budget mega-Jaws featuring Jason Statham battling a 75ft megalodon. And from Pacific Rim (2013) to Godzilla (2014) and Rampage (2018), these monster blockbusters can tell us a story about how Hollywood sits in global cinema, especially its power relationships with Asia.

It is widely believed that the giant monster movie is an import from Japan – often referred to by its Japanese name, kaiju eiga (literally, strange beast films). In 1954, Gojira (Godzilla in English), in which a huge mutant dinosaur, awoken by nuclear tests, devastates Tokyo, set the template for films that manifest the devastating effects of humanity’s destructive excesses in the form of giant city-smashing monsters.
This sci-fi sub-genre emerged from processes of cultural exchange, which helps us to see how one culture borrows or recycles material from another. Gojira borrowed aspects from two key American films: King Kong (1933) and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), both released in Japan not long before Gojira’s conception. Gojira’s name is a combination of the transliteration of gorilla, and the Japanese word for whale, kujira. The producer’s working title was even The Giant Monster from 20,000 Leagues under the Sea.

 

Combined with the influence of an incident in which the Fukuryu Maru fishing boat was caught up in radiation from the Castle Bravo nuclear tests, we see a powerful demonstration of cultural exchange, where local and global ideas came together.

Cultural exchanges have continued for a long time in this genre. American companies worked with Japanese studios to produce new versions of Godzilla and other kaiju movies. Collaboration with Japanese producers helped guarantee a steady supply of content for exploitation cinemas, drive-ins and later television, including Frankenstein Conquers the World (1965), King Kong Escapes (1967) and Yog: Monster from Space (1970).

Kaiju eiga were also produced across Asia, including Hong Kong, and South Korea. The most notorious example is North Korea’s Pulgasari (1985), produced by Kim Jong-il and directed by Shin Sang-ok, once South Korea’s most successful film producer, who was kidnapped by the regime and forced to improve their cinema.
Hollywood’s recycling habit

In Hollywood, global tropes are adopted and reworked – and their nostalgic (sometimes fetishised) referencing is rife at the moment. Pacific Rim called its monsters kaiju in homage to the genre’s Japanese roots – and its sequel’s climactic showdown occurs in Tokyo. Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One (2018) depicts a future dystopia where the populace has retreated into a pop culture saturated VR game. When one of its protagonists fights the evil corporate executive trying to take over the game, they take the forms, respectively, of anime robot Gundam and 1970s Godzilla enemy, MechaGodzilla, both icons of Japanese popular culture.

Rampage is an adaptation of a 1980s video game in which giant monsters smash up cities. The largely plotless game spawned a film that critiques the dangers of genetic experimentation. Godzilla (2014) and Kong: Skull Island (2017) initiated a Marvel-style shared MonsterVerse. Godzilla: King of the Monsters was teased in the end credits of Kong, and the two kaiju will face off in 2019.
Eastern appeal

The Jurassic World films challenge similar cultural and political ideas. As cinema becomes more transnational, cultural exchange and a changing global marketplace challenge our understanding of traditional power relationships. Hence, there is a different reason why we should consider Jurassic World a kaiju movie: the ownership of its producers.

If you’ve been watching the World Cup, you’ll have seen hoardings advertising the Chinese company Dalian Wanda, one of China’s biggest conglomerates, who operate the world’s largest cinema holdings. In 2016, it paid US$3.5 billion for Legendary Entertainment, the production company behind the Jurassic World, Pacific Rim and Godzilla series.

An earlier deal with state-run China Film Group had granted Legendary Entertainment unparalleled access to the Chinese market through co-production deals. The Meg is also a Chinese co-production.

Localised strategies have also appealed to Chinese audiences. Chinese star Jing Tian has appeared in several Legendary monster films – as a military leader in kaiju martial arts spectacular The Great Wall (2016), a biologist in Kong: Skull Island and a famous scientist in Pacific Rim: Uprising. Star casting has long been one of the key techniques used by Hollywood to appeal to local markets. Locations are also important – the action in The Meg has been relocated from Maui in the novel, to China. Its cast also includes Li Bingbing, a Chinese star who also appeared in the most recent Transformers movie.


Legendary’s films demonstrate the mixture of local and global features at work. Legendary East and China Film Group

Several monster movies have recently grossed more in China than
domestically in the US. Pacific Rim: Uprising grossed almost twice as much, and Rampage over 50% more. By contrast, Star Wars films make negligible impact at the Chinese box office – clearly monster content is more appealing to Chinese audiences.

This cycle of giant monster movies is currently the most prominent example of Hollywood’s globalised business. Its embrace of international material, familiar recycling and relationships with Asia are most strongly evidenced in these films. That’s not to say that all of this is new or one-way traffic: Legendary’s success with Godzilla inspired Toho studios to develop not one but two new series with the beloved national icon.


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The Changing Face of Romance Novels

 Growing up in Minnesota, Helen Hoang suffered from crippling social anxiety and struggled to make friends. She found refuge in romance novels, frothy stories that allowed her to experience intense feelings that were clearly spelled out on the page, always with the promise of a happy ending. “It was like I found a pure, undiluted drug,” she said.

Many years later, as a mother of two in her 30s, Ms. Hoang began researching autism and realized that she’s on the spectrum, a condition that makes it difficult for her to hold casual conversations, read emotional cues, have an office job and meet new people. She once again turned to romance. But this time, she wrote the story herself.

So far, romance fans have swooned over Ms. Hoang’s debut novel, “The Kiss Quotient,” a multicultural love story centered on an autistic woman who has trouble navigating the nuances of dating and courtship. Readers have flooded the website Goodreads with more than 7,000 positive ratings, and the book, which was published in June, is already in its fourth printing.

The novel’s unexpected success is all the more astonishing given the striking lack of diversity within the romance genre. Romance novels released by big publishing houses tend to center on white characters, and rarely feature gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender people in leading roles, or heroines with disabilities. Even as the genre has evolved to reflect readers’ varied tastes and fetishes — popular subcategories include vampire and werewolf romance, military romance, cowboy romance, time travel romance, pirate and Viking romance — the lead characters are often confined to a fairly narrow set of ethnic, cultural and aesthetic types.

“Publishers aren’t putting out books by many people of color and they’re giving us limited space at the table,” said the romance writer Rebekah Weatherspoon, who has published some novels with small presses and self-published others, including “Sated,” which features a black heroine and a disabled, bisexual Korean-American hero. “It’s definitely not a level playing field.”

The landscape is slowly starting to change, as more diverse writers break into the genre, and publishers take chances on love stories that reflect a broader range of experiences and don’t always fit the stereotypical girl-meets-boy mold. Forever Yours, an imprint at Grand Central, publishes Karelia Stetz-Waters, who writes romances about lesbian couples. Uzma Jalaluddin’s debut novel, “Ayesha at Last,” takes place in a close-knit immigrant Muslim community in Canada, and features an outspoken Muslim heroine who falls for a more conservative Muslim man, a Darcy to her Lizzie Bennett.

Alisha Rai and Sonali Dev have expanded the genre with love stories that feature Indian and Indian-American protagonists. Priscilla Oliveras, who is published by Kensington, writes romances with Latinx heroes and heroines. Jeannie Lin has published historical romances with Harlequin that are set in China during the Tang dynasty era. And Mindy Hung, writing under the pen name Ruby Lang, has a series of contemporary romances starring Asian-American female doctors in a group practice.

“Readers want books that reflect the world they live in, and they won’t settle for a book about a small town where every single person is white,” said Leah Koch, co-owner of the romance bookstore the Ripped Bodice in Culver City, Calif. Last year, six of her store’s top 10 best-selling novels were written by authors of color, Ms. Koch said.

Still, progress has been painfully slow. For the past two years, Ms. Koch and her sister Bea have conducted a study of leading romance publishers, and found that out of the 3,752 romance novels released by 20 major imprints in 2017, only around 6 percent were written by nonwhite authors.

Romance publishers say that they want to publish books with more diverse characters and settings, but argue that it’s a challenge in part because the majority of submissions still come from white authors. The genre’s largest organization, the Romance Writers of America, which has around 10,000 members, recently conducted a survey and found that nearly 86 percent of its members are white. The group has also faced growing scrutiny over its Rita Award, which has never gone to an African-American writer in the 36-year history of the prize. Black authors have accounted for less than 1 percent of finalists.

“It was eye-opening,” Dee Davis, R.W.A.’s president, said of the survey results. “We have a lot of work to do.”

The issue will likely be widely debated at the group’s upcoming annual meeting in Denver this month, where some 2,000 romance writers will gather. Industry leaders will attend an invitation-only “diversity summit” at the conference to discuss ways to make the genre more inclusive, and the African-American romance novelist Brenda Jackson will co-teach a workshop on writing characters from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, age groups, abilities and body types.



Avon and Harlequin, two of the biggest romance publishers, have both taken modest steps to publish more diverse books, but despite those efforts, their lists remain overwhelmingly white: Books by minority writers made up less than 4 percent of Avon’s list and around 7 percent of Harlequin’s list, according to the Ripped Bodice.

A spokeswoman for Harlequin said the publisher was “working to increase representation and inclusion in our stories, as well as in our author base,” and cited recently published works that feature African-American and South Asian characters, gay and lesbian characters and heroines with disabilities.

An Avon representative noted that the company publishes books by Alyssa Cole, Tracey Livesay, Mia Sosa, Nisha Sharma, Cat Sebastian and Laura Brown, all authors who write about diverse couples. One of Avon’s authors, Stacey Abrams, who has published romance novels with African-American characters under the pen name Selena Montgomery, recently became the Democratic nominee for governor of Georgia.

“Some publishers are showing more interest in acquiring books from marginalized groups, but there are still barriers,” said Ms. Cole, who has published romances set during the Civil War with African-American protagonists. “Part of the problem is some publishers say, O.K., we need more diversity, we’ll just have our white authors write more diversely.”

While a growing number of authors from minority groups are finally getting published, many say they still face more hurdles than their white peers when it comes to signing with an agent, finding a publisher, getting review coverage and convincing bookstores to carry their novels. Brick and mortar stores with limited shelf space for romance sometimes stock love stories that feature African-American characters in the “urban fiction” or African-American literature sections, limiting their visibility among avid romance fans.

Beverly Jenkins, a trailblazing African-American romance novelist who began publishing historical romances with Avon in the 1990s, said that plenty of diverse romance was being written, but too little of it was being acquired by major houses. “There are hundreds of women of color who are writing romance,” she said. “The issue is getting them published so they’re seen.”

With scant opportunities in mainstream publishing, many romance writers whose books feature diverse characters have turned to smaller presses, digital-only outlets or, increasingly, self-publishing. The best-selling romance writer Courtney Milan, who writes novels with interracial and gay couples and transgender and bisexual characters, left a Harlequin imprint around seven years ago and began self-publishing because she wanted to have more creative control over her plots and characters. She has since sold more than one million copies on her own, she said. Delaney Diamond, who started self-publishing romance novels with African-American characters in 2011, has sold around 370,000 copies of her books, and created her own imprint, Garden Avenue Press. She recently began publishing multicultural romance novels by other authors.

“People in publishing thought that black romance wouldn’t sell, which blew my mind,” she said.

That perception remains widespread, in part because romance imprints have traditionally published so few writers of color that there have been limited opportunities for those authors to break out. Big retailers like Target and Wal-Mart typically base their book orders on an author’s sales track record, and are unlikely to take a risk on up-and-coming writers. So books that are seen as risky don’t get picked up by retailers, and then fail to sell, and the cycle repeats itself.

There have been some exceptions, including Nalini Singh, whose novels have sold more than three million copies, and Jasmine Guillory, whose recent novel, “The Wedding Date,” became a surprise hit. But the majority of romance novels on the best-seller lists are by and about white, heterosexual people.

“We hear that readers want more diversity, but it’s still the case that the most popular books are the least diverse,” said Cindy Hwang, an editorial director of Berkley, a Penguin Random House imprint.

That may finally be changing. When Ms. Hoang’s agent put “The Kiss Quotient” on the market, five publishers made offers. Ms. Hoang signed a three-book deal with Berkley, which released the novel in June with a robust announced first printing of 100,000 copies.

Ms. Hoang gave her autistic heroine many of her own personality traits — her love of math and numbers and logic, her tendency to drum her fingers when nervous, her aversion to loud music and parties and her struggle to accept herself. She was surprised and overwhelmed by the flood of responses from readers who connected with her nontraditional love story.

“I wanted to share the perspective of an autistic woman, because I don’t think that’s a perspective you see very much,” she said. “Why can’t you make an impact with romance? It seems like the perfect place to do it.”

A version of this article appears in print on July 7, 2018, on Page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Going Beyond Boy-Meets-Girl, Romances Ignite Fans’ Passions.


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My Book: Head Wounds






Books Born of Books

The 19th-century French author Marcel Schwob was a writer’s writer in the literal sense, seeking his material in literature and history.

Books Born of Books
Photo: Bridgeman Images
If the 19th-century French writer Marcel Schwob (1867-1905) has not been well known outside of France, that may be because his ideas about literature were a little unorthodox, and so too his books. He believed everything had already been written, and that originality, in the modern age, consisted mostly of reconfiguring what had come before. He believed the texture of a life mattered more than its historical relevance, and that the past was best understood through acts of imagination. He was a writer’s writer in the literal sense, seeking his material in literature and history, but also in the conventional sense of being beloved by fellow writers: Colette, Oscar Wilde and Jorge Luis Borges, to name a few. He was not, however, a writer’s writer in the negative sense of being too rarefied for the common reader; on the contrary, his books are extraordinarily accessible, by turns delightful and haunting, which is why we are fortunate they are now being reissued in superb new translations, courtesy of Kit Schluter, Chris Clarke and the adventurous Wakefield Press of Cambridge, Mass.


Schwob grew up outside of Paris in a cultured Jewish family. His father had gone to school with Flaubert and collaborated on a play with Jules Verne, while his maternal uncle, Léon Cahun, was a famous librarian, writer and scholar. Young Marcel read Verne and Edgar Allan Poe, developing a fascination with adventure and with humanity’s dark underbelly that stayed with him all his life. As a student, he learned multiple languages, and spent years in the library reading Mark Twain, Schopenhauer, Greek plays, ancient Sanskrit and, by all accounts, just about everything else. He emerged from school a fountain of textual references, a linguist, a translator and a writer of a distinctly bookish sort.

His early story collections show the gothic influence of Poe but also of Robert Louis Stevenson, who was Schwob’s friend and role model. Set in a wide array of times and places, Schwob’s stories have the mythic quality of parables, but rendered in sensuous, often grotesque detail. Some have science fiction or fantasy elements, others are more like elaborated dreams. In the title story to his second book, “The King in the Golden Mask” (186 pages, $14.95), a king who has lived all his life behind a golden mask, in a court where everyone has worn masks without question for generations, discovers the horrible truth that he descends from a line of lepers, and that behind their masks, everyone around him is hideous. In “The Plague,” a pair of criminals disguise themselves as plague victims to escape capture, yet beneath their disguises, the plague finds them. The theme of masks runs through these stories: the personas we create versus the truth that always discovers us. Many are also based directly on historical or folkloric sources, anticipating the appropriative techniques of Schwob’s later work.
Books Born of Books
Photo: Bridgeman Images

By 1892, the year of “The King in the Golden Mask,” he had gained a reputation as a literary savant when, unexpectedly, life invaded his writing. One night on the streets of Paris he met a young working-class woman, Louise, whose childlike demeanor entranced him. Schwob had always been drawn to downtrodden figures in literature; with Louise he discovered a combination of a pitiable fate—she was tubercular—and a profound innocence. As he cared for her in her illness, he composed stories of young women surviving an indifferent world. When Louise died, these stories became the centerpieces of “The Book of Monelle” (115 pages, $12.95), Schwob’s most poetic and personal work.

In its structural looseness, lyricism and themes of creation and destruction, “The Book of Monelle” (1894) anticipates modernist writers of the following decades—William Carlos Williams, for example. It begins with a liturgical outpouring in which a young woman, Monelle, speaks in Nietzschean pronouncements on truth and reality: “Behold the word: Destroy, destroy, destroy. Destroy within yourself; destroy what surrounds you. . . . Destroy all good and all evil. Their ruins are the same.” Next come Schwob’s prose portraits of various young women, eerily titled as attributes—“The Dreamer,” “The Savage,” “The Faithful”—as if Schwob’s individual subjects have all morphed into aspects of the eternal feminine. The final section returns to the story of Monelle, a dreamlike account of death and resurrection resolving in an image of innocence: “And she came beside me in her white dress, and the two of us stole away together through the countryside.” It is a work of poetic force and intuitive form, and the book Schwob was best known for during his lifetime.

The confrontation of innocence and death remained Schwob’s focus for “The Children’s Crusade” (50 pages, $11.95), a brief work about the ill-fated 13th-century attempt by children to retake Jerusalem. Here Schwob proved himself a master of the dramatic monologue, slowly unveiling the deeply disquieting heart of this historical episode through separate accounts from clerics, a leper, a Muslim mystic, two popes and individual children who were sold into slavery or otherwise lost along the way. It is a hauntingly intimate book that somehow combines moralism, mystery and the concreteness of a lived account, and it represents a natural step toward Schwob’s masterpiece of historical fiction, “Imaginary Lives” (185 pages, $14.95).

By 1896, the year of “The Children’s Crusade” and “Imaginary Lives,” Schwob’s ideas about creativity and history had become a fully realized philosophy. “The art of the biographer consists specifically in choice,” he writes in a preface to “Imaginary Lives.” “He is not meant to worry about speaking truth; he must create human characteristics amidst the chaos.” The book presents 22 short biographical tales written with impeccable narrative concision. Some feature an unknown figure from the margins of history (an African witch, a soldier for Charles VII ), others add fictional aspects to a famous life (Lucretius, Uccello, Pocahontas) and at least one imagines a historical life for a fictional character (Suffrah, the wizard from “Aladdin”). There is no grand thesis, unless it is to emphasize “the unique existences of men, whether they were divine, mediocre, or criminal.”

Schwob cited Boswell’s 1791 “Life of Johnson” as a model for “Imaginary Lives,” but his own modern style—balancing between irony and mystery, fiction and fact—is better understood in relation to a later work it influenced, Jorge Luis Borges’s first collection of stories, “A Universal History of Infamy” (1935). Borges had several substantive encounters with Schwob’s work, including writing the foreword to a 1949 edition of “The Children’s Crusade.” As co-editor of a Buenos Aires literary supplement in 1933-34, he also published five translated stories from “Imaginary Lives,” most notably “Messrs. Burke and Hare,” about two Scottish murderers who sold corpses to science. In Schwob’s version—which reads like a perfect anticipation of a Borges story—the emphasis is on Burke’s admirable scientific approach, including the invention of a “stiff cloth mask filled with pitch” by which Burke suffocated his victims. Schwob probably came to the historical subject by way of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Body Snatcher,” Stevenson being an influence on both Borges and Schwob, and . . . and the pattern continues: history, influence, one text remaking another, one imagination picking up from another, in the great creative literary stew that Marcel Schwob made the special province of his art.

—Martin Riker’s first novel,  Samuel Johnson’s Eternal Return, will be published in October.

Appeared in the June 23, 2018, print edition.  Read more