Sunday, August 17, 2014

Short Fiction

Since the beginning, heroic stories of great feats and daring adventure have always been long epic tales. From the poetry and narratives of Homer and Ovid, to Le Morte d'Arthur of Sir Mallory, mythical stories, legends, and now modern fantasy stories have become long tombs covering multiple publications with thousands and thousands of pages. Sales figures for such lengthy stories continue to climb as each successive generation acclimates to longer and longer story arcs. In modern publishing history, what may have started with a prequel and simple trilogy with Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, has now turned into series that span 3, 6, 9, or even 14 books.

Yet there is a discrepancy.

We are told that because of the Internet, YouTube, Twitter, etc. that our attention spans are getting shorter; our ability to remember details over the course of a long story is less and less; we can't follow narratives that arc across various episodes or chapters. The fiction we buy, and the shows we watch tend to contradict those statements though. In fact, book sales figures indicate just the opposite. Modern readers demand fantasy at least a trilogy, and while science fiction fans will enjoy stand-alone novels, they too like trilogies and longer.

In the pulp fiction days, writers were able to make a living writing short stories, and many rarely wrote novels. It wasn't unusual though for some authors to write serial stories published over several issues. The days of making a living writing short fiction are long gone, and modern publishers rarely publish short story collections unless big names are attached - authors who have established a strong following through their novels - because of the poor sales of those collections. 

I'm not the first to ponder this enigma: If our attention spans are so short, why isn't short fiction more popular? My regular Cheesy Readers know I'm a big fan of short fiction and I always encourage readers to buy and read it whether it's in magazine or book form. Short fiction is not a lost art, as many have proclaimed. It is as strong as ever, popular among writers, but only marginally so among those who aren't. There are many wonderful stories, adventures, and excellent writing in short stories. Many well-established novelists began with the short form and frequently continue to write it long after novels become their main vocation and revenue stream.

Honestly, put down your smartphone, quit checking your text message and Facebook updates, and instead pick up a short story collection. Read a story while waiting at the dentist, while waiting on your flight, or getting an oil change. Your life will be enriched and you'll be promoting an art form that very much needs your financial backing.

Until Next Time...
Shortly Yours,
Michael

Thursday, August 7, 2014

See... Even Jo Does It

Yet another example that just because an author isn't considered mainstream, or intellectual, doesn't mean that they don't have deep academic influences.

Something that was recently brought to my attention was J.K. Rowling's inspiration of the "three brothers and Death" folktale told by Xenophilius Lovegood in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. According to two different sources I've researched, the parable was inspired by The Pardoner's Tale of Geoffrey Chaucer's Middle English epic poem Canterbury Tales.

I remember as I read that folktale that I thought it seemed vaguely familiar, but I didn't put it together until I read that above little bit of information. So I'm happy to have learned that Rowling not only read Canterbury Tales, but that she enjoyed it so much she modeled part of her fiction after it, and thereby indirectly exposing millions of children and adults to one of the greatest poems in the English language. Unfortunately many of Rowling's readers, adults and children, have never heard of the epic tale and will never read it, thus robbing themselves of a beautiful piece of historic poetry.

If given the chance, you should read Chaucer's work, or at least The Pardoner's Tale. At first, it may be difficult to read because of the archaic spellings*, but the more you read from it, the easier it gets. I promise you, you'll find it very rewarding.

Until Next Time...
Brotherly Yours,
Michael

*There were no dictionaries in the 14th century, so each author could spell a word any way they wanted. Some were known to spell the same word multiple ways throughout long texts.


Friday, August 1, 2014

Make Millions Writing Romance

Okay, not quite millions, but it's no secret that in the modern publishing era, romance novels outsell every other genre, and women make up a majority of book buyers in nearly every category of books except for war, science fiction, and sports. With the romance genre alone, women make up 84% of the purchasing market (note: I'm surprised it's that low, I didn't realize that men make up 16% of romance readers).

Ebooks haven't changed that trend too much. The overall male/female split of book purchasers remain the same, women are buying a lot more of their books as ebooks. In fact, ebooks have increased the sale of romance novels, but not necessarily in a way that has increased the profit of publishers. In fact, publishers are feeling the pain of ebooks because many authors, especially in the romance genre are self-publishing or publishing straight through Amazon, choosing to cut out the middle man. This lowers the costs of publishing and creates a higher profit margin for authors.

Yahoo! has an article with a lot more facts and figures, plus a few real stories of authors self-publishing and making a better living at writing now than they were before ebooks.

If you're interested in learning more, just follow this news link to the Yahoo! article.

Until Next Time...
Trendily Yours,
Michael

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Smart Librarians

Many years ago, I read The Hitchhiker Trilogy (age disclosure alert: back when it was only four books), and decided it was high time to read it again. I'll probably buy the leather-bound version from Barnes & Noble the next time I'm there, but in the meantime I decided to check it out from the library.

So.... you know how libraries help shelf browsers by putting little stickers of the bottom of the spine to indicate the book's genre? A book may have a sticker with a unicorn and the words "Fantasy" on it. Or a book may have a ringed planet or a rocket ship and the words "Science Fiction," etc. etc. Western, Romance, blah blah, you get the point.

Now as I scanned the 'A' section of fiction, looking for the first book, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, once I found it, I saw the sticker at the bottom of the spine read "Classic."

Oh... Librarians...genius! ... People after my own heart. Yes, the book is science fiction. Yes, it's a comedy. And finally, YES, it's a Classic. Good call, Anonymous Librarian, good call.

Until Next Time...
Classically Yours,
Michael

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Just Proves My Point

My assessment and summary of the May/June 2014 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction serves as a perfect example of why my blog and website are necessary for readers of either classics or genre fiction.
 
It's important to cross read - to read more than just one certain category. Stephen King's advice to budding writers is to read as much as possible, especially books outside your chosen niche.
 
One of the best short stories on the long term scars of war came from the story The Memory Cage by Tim Sullivan. As a man goes through his father's effects - a father who served in World War II - a father who would later commit suicide because of the images he continued to see many years later, the adult son makes this observation:
     Three sentences from another keepsake, a letter sent to my grandparents from French Morocco, were most telling.
     "We shot down a German bomber. I guess we killed the men in that aeroplane," he said. "I don't know how to feel about it. Good, I guess."
      Good, I guess. An eighteen-year-old boy, on the opposite side of the world from all he knew, had just killed a group of other boys whose faces he never saw, consigning them to a twisted-metal funeral pyre in the Sahara from the business end of a gigantic cannon. I don't know how to feel about it. Good, I guess.

And here's proof that Sullivan read much more than just science fiction. When describing the father's mental state after coming home from WWII, the author makes a one-line reference to Hemingway in what many might think is a casual way, but shows a clear brilliance of writing:

     He didn't waste time sitting on the porch like the damaged vet of Hemingway's story. 
There's our proof! That shows not only a depth of reading, but the ability to create a character's state of mind with one sentence. That, my Cheesy Readers, an example of great writing - the ability to completely capture a character with one simple sentence. If I offered a Classics And Cheese annual short fiction award, this short story would be nominated.

The novella featured in this issue is Bartleby The Scavenger by Katie Boyer. A clear homage to the classic Melville story many of us read in high school. It was a bit long, and the author went above and beyond in establishing parallels between the original and this futuristic dystopian version, so in my opinion its overall length could have been trimmed by about 25%, but it's still worth reading if you get the chance.

Rooksnight by Marc Laidlaw and Containment Zone: A Seastead Story by Naomi Kritzer are two novelletes worth their time. Fun stories, told well, and worthy of these pages.  

Until Next Time...
Bartlebly Yours,
Michael 
 

Monday, July 14, 2014

It Was One Simple Task...

THE MISSION: Drive to the grocery story. Pick up two items.
 
ESTIMATED TIME TO COMPLETION: 15 Minutes
 
MISSION SUMMARY: Pulled into parking lot, walked into store, spotted dump bin full of bargain books, priced 5 for $10. Felt overwhelming compulsion to sort through dump bin until I had seen and evaluated every book. Came away with two (pictured). Left store with a total of four items, the two I was originally sent to purchase, plus these two additional items.
MISSION COMPLETION TIME: 30 Minutes
 
MISSION STATUS: Failed.
 
LAME EXCUSE: Still a sucker for dump bins full of bargain books.
 
Until Next Time,
Ashamedly Yours,
Michael


Saturday, July 12, 2014

Word of the Moment V

It's no surprise that people can increase their vocabulary by reading, and I've often bragged that a person can increase their vocabulary by reading genre fiction as well, but I had no idea that you can increase your vocabulary by reading reviews of science fiction and fantasy novels.

That is until I read James Sallis's column Books reviewing The Land Across by Gene Wolfe and Cordwainer Smith, Lord of the Afternoon by Pablo Capanna in this month's The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

Seriously. When I sit down to read book reviews, I don't expect to have to run over to the dictionary every few minutes to look up words the reviewer is using. If he's quoting a passage from the book and I have to look up a word from the quotation - then fine. But to look up words from his writings? Come on? Are we sure he's not showing off?

Well, doesn't matter. Mr. Sallis expanded my vocabulary this week, so I suppose I must thank him. So without further (boring) adieu, here are this entry's words of the moment:

  • encomia - noun - a formal expression of high praise; eulogy
  • shibboleths - noun - 1. a peculiarity of pronunciation, behavior, mode of dress, etc., that distinguishes a particular class or set of persons; 2. a slogan or catchword; 3. a common saying or belief with little current meaning or truth.
  • mimetic - adjective - 1. characterized by, exhibiting, or of the nature of imitation or mimicry; 2. mimic or make-believe.
  • cavil - verb - to raise irritating and trivial objections; find fault with unnecessarily (usually followed by at  or about)
 
So there we go, four new words we can struggle to actually use in our daily lives. And don't let people convince you that you're just showing off your superior vocab, because you're not, you're just letting them know you read science fiction book reviews.
 
Until Next Time...
Cavilly Yours,
Michael

Friday, June 27, 2014

Enough Already

1. I like mysteries
2. I like gumshoe detectives
3. I like epic fantasy
4. I like science fiction
5. I used to like them mixed together
6. "used to" being the operative words of Point #5

Seriously...

It was cute at first, but the cuteness has worn off - kind of like a cute, little baby alligator who grows up into a big adult alligator and is eating everything in sight.

There's only so much I can take of these stories, yet authors keep pumping them out, and publishers keep publishing them because apparently there are people out there buying and reading the dang things.

There's got to be at least a dozen of these wise-cracking gumshoes, each one in their own universe, but deep down, all exactly alike - so much so that I think the word "dame" is probably one of the most used words in the genre right now; "sultry" might be a close second. And their "smart mouth" always gets them in trouble, and local law enforcement is out to get them, except for one inside guy/gal who is really their pal and goes out on a limb for them all-time risking their career on behalf of the P.I., etc. etc. etc.

Yawn. Now I'm tired. Bored. And a bit irritated.

So before I turn into a mean ol' nasty alligator and start publicly calling out authors and publishers for flooding the market with this over-done cuteness, I should probably stop here.

Until Next Time...
Toothily Yours,
Michael

Thursday, June 26, 2014

It's Only Sensible

We're all guilty of it. We mean to read more classic works of literature than we actually do. I love many of the classics, but I get so caught up keeping up with modern books and publications, that I don't read nearly as many of these works as people assume I do. And looking back over the books I've read since January, I realized I haven't read any so far this year.

Among my reading friends, it's well known I'm a Jane Austen fan, so I figured what better way to get back at it than to pull "Sense and Sensibility" off the shelf. I love Pride and Prejudice (before you ask, yes, the Colin Firth BBC adaptation is my favorite of the screen versions), so I'm hoping S & S is just as good.

And while this may sound crazy to some, I think Austen is a good place to start for people who normally read fantasy. Let me explain: As we all know, most fantasy novels takes place in what many characterize as medieval or prior times in terms of technology, so fantasy fans, by choice read stories in which there are no phones, cars, electricity, etc. Also, Austen is know for her witty characters and rapid fire dialogue to keep readers engaged and propelled forward. Which means the only adjustment fantasy fans have to make is the lack of magic or strange creatures -- something some fantasy novels even use sparingly, if at all.

Okay, maybe I'm stretching here a little, but seriously... Austen is a fun author to read, one who engages her readers early and let's the dialogue and characters' actions propel the story forward.
If I did have to recommended one Austen novel, it would be "Pride," but I know others who recommend "Northanger Abbey", "Emma", or "Sense" (all of which have screen version, either via the BBC or Hollywood, or both).

It's time for me to stop gabbing and head back to the 19th century.

Until Next Time...
Sensibly Yours,
Michael
 
 

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Poetry & Music

Monday, June 30, the Tavern of Fine Arts (313 Belt Ave, St. Louis) will be hosting "Poetry & Music" starting at 7:30 pm. Presented by CHANCE OPERATIONS, this intimate event will feature poetry readings by Michael Castro, Jerred Metz, and Howard Schwartz. Music for the evening will be provided by Tracey Andreotti and Henri Claude.

Free parking is available in a small parking lot across the street, and outdoor seating is available in front if you wish just to sit and enjoy the atmosphere of a quiet neighborhood.

You can see an entire list of the summer's events here.

Until Next Time...
Poetically Yours,
Michael