16 July 2012

Taking Matters into Their Own Hands

Dear George: Streets full of water. Please advise.
Photo by Olga Vannucci.

The contemporary publishing industry, under assault from technological innovations and declining readership (or anyway, declining purchases), has become a no-man’s-land for first-time authors — as I know firsthand. Three novels in succession failed to find publishers, and my rejections dwindled from lengthy essays for the first to terse e-mails for the last, divided equally into two camps: either the book was “too commercial” or “not commercial enough.” Even the authorized biography of Madeline Kahn required three years of wandering before finding a happy berth at the University Press of Mississippi, and for now, my agent has forbidden me to use the word “fiction” in his presence.

But with technological innovations have come new solutions to the ever-maddening predicament of author rejection: it’s increasingly easy to publish one’s book for oneself. Outlets such as Amazon take care of distribution, and the author is left with the work of making sure potential readers hear about the new book. There lies the rub, but more and more writers are bucking the system, and rather than grouse about the system (as I prefer to do) or throw themselves at the mercy of beleaguered commercial houses, they’re taking matters into their own hands.

That’s been the case of four friends, and I take this opportunity to point you to their books, each of which is entirely worthy of your attention and any of which might have been snapped up by a commercial house only a few years ago — that is to say, in a different environment entirely, which is coming to seem like a different planet. In time, we may come to look at my friends as pioneers who blazed the trail that other writers — myself included — may follow.

Edward Doughtie was the first writer I knew, a neighbor in Houston and family friend since my boyhood. Granted, in those days my definition of a good book generally entailed at least one wizard and a few elves, Munchkins, or talking animals, whereas Ed’s books tended to concern Renaissance poetry, well over my head. A professor at Rice University for many years, Ed is the author of Lyrics from English Airs, 1596–1622, for example, which must be the book he’d have been writing in his study at the very time when his children and I were yelling at the top of our prodigious little lungs and running around his yard — which is to say, right outside his window — for hours at a time every single day.

I confess that I’ve never yet read Lyrics from English Airs, but I take a certain pride in the book nevertheless: if I’d been any worse-behaved while a guest in Ed’s home, he’d never have finished writing it. So I must not have been too savage as a child.

In his retirement, Ed turned to writing murder mysteries, and when he failed to find a publisher for them, he began to publish them himself, first on his blog and now as e-books available for sale through Amazon and Barnes & Noble. I made it a point to download to my Kindle his first e-book, Four-Part Dissonance, and I read it with immense pleasure on a long bus ride a few weeks ago.

Ed is an accomplished chamber musician, a cellist in fact, and this gives him a limitless supply of the stuff of mystery — that is, a mystery to the rest of us. The musical background in this story works much as academia does in Amanda Cross’ novels or as the ringing of English church bells does in one novel of Dorothy L. Sayers.* Mere mortals such as you and I would throw up our hands, unable to ferret out the clues amid the arcana and the trivia, but a truly intrepid detective, such as Kate Fansler or Lord Peter Wimsey or Ed’s character, the more down-to-earth Aldo Branch, will know just what to do.

Four-Part Dissonance kicks off with the brutal murder of a famous chamber quartet in the toniest neighborhood in Houston; instantly, we’re introduced to intertwining intrigues among musicians and patrons, police detectives and insurance investigators, criminals and ex-lovers, most of whom are as juicy and richly imagined as the characters in an old Warner Bros. movie. As a reader, you don’t need to know the difference between a Stradivarius and a Fender, but Aldo Branch does, and it’s great fun to follow his adventure.

Ed isn’t out to reinvent the wheel here: he’s done his homework and written an authentic murder mystery, the kind of entertainment that, back in the day when more people actually read books, would easily have found its market.

The late John Mosedale, one of my mentors at CBS News, had enjoyed a certain degree of commercial success with his books already when he completed his last novel, The Church of Shakespeare. However, due to his declining health, John’s family opted to publish through Lulu.com — so that John could have the satisfaction of holding the finished book in his hands. I’ve written already about this utterly captivating novel, which is available in paperback through the Lulu.com website, and I continue to recommend it enthusiastically.

Even now, a couple of years after I finished reading, I’m still reminded of John’s protagonist every time I find myself in a bus or subway and barraged by the conversation or bad music of the inconsiderate folks around me: how I’d love to do what Bix Baxter does at such moments, and start declaiming Shakespeare! But alas, I lack the courage.

Eli Lederman, a friend from college days, had no interest in subjecting himself to the rounds of submission to commercial editors, and he bypassed them entirely, setting up his own company in the process. Drawing on his years of experience in the financial business, he’s written a juicy novel that’s quite likely to tap into whatever frustration and anger you’re feeling in the wake of the financial crisis — and because he came to this world from a different one (physics, for mercy’s sake), he’s got the objectivity of the outsider, and all the wit and bite that go along with it.

I haven’t yet finished High Finance, though thus far it’s fast-paced and rich in every sense. But I couldn’t see the point in omitting it from this little survey; I’ll save a more conventional review for another time. High Finance does strike me as the sort of book that, in a healthier climate, would have made quite a splash at a commercial house: a controversial milieu described by a real insider, giving us the scoop we’ve been panting for. Hell, an attorney named John Grisham has made a fortune with less to recommend him.

And how well the alumni of Brown University do write! Not just Eli, but also Olga Vannucci, who’s written a perfectly charming memoir, Travels with George, about several trips she made to her native Italy with her young son. Her prose is spare and evocative, and she selects anecdotes and images with judicious flair. Her chapters are quite like journal entries, and may have begun as such; it’s possible that a professional editor would have helped her to shape and to structure the book a bit more, but in giving the reader the impression of sharing letters and postcards from a dear friend abroad, Olga more than succeeds.

Honestly, I know people who will read every book ever written about Italy, and I’ll herewith recommend that they move Travels with George to the head of the list. Among her other achievements, Olga is quite likely to make you hungry for authentic Italian food, and the odd thing is that young George remains steadfastly unimpressed by the greatest delicacies of the culinary art. To a degree, this is refreshing: he’s a normal American kid, and therefore finicky. But the Frenchman in me wants to swat his derrière and tell him to eat what’s served him and to like it.

Indeed, Olga often writes wistfully as she retraces her own childhood steps in the hope that George will find the same inspirations, pleasures, and meanings she once found. Her memories are so beautiful! Naturalmente she wants to share them with him, just as she shares them with us! She stops short of writing anything that will embarrass George when he grows up, but this reader was reminded of his own childhood notions — from an opposite vantage.

Oh, how I envied all the kids who went to Europe! How unfair it still seems that I must wait until adulthood to cultivate — to liberate, really — all of my famously exquisite, exquisite tastes! Art! Music! Antiquities! Food! Wine! (Well, Olga keeps George on a pretty short leash around the vino, so we don’t really know whether he’d have liked it.)

How seldom my little friends seemed to appreciate the tremendous advantages they were offered when they went abroad. I remember one friend who bemoaned that he was being forced to visit England, “a dumb country” in his opinion because “they call policemen ‘bobbies.’” Really, he said, he’d prefer not to go to such a place. I wanted to scream at him. What wouldn’t I give for the opportunity he had!

Poor George doesn’t go that far in his resistance to Italy, and he certainly doesn’t bring me to the point of screaming. But I’m at least as wistful as Olga is, and I look forward to the sequel, which I hope Olga will entitle I Told You So, George, in which the kid grows up, returns to the patria, perfects his command of the language, develops not merely a taste but a hunger for cucina italiana, and discovers that being Italian is a distinct asset when it comes to picking up girls.

Meanwhile, I’ll be enjoying his mother’s tender memories and polished prose — and applauding her ingenuity in getting this book published.

*NOTE: Amanda Cross was the pseudonym of another formidable professor of English literature, Carolyn Heilbrun, with whom I studied at Columbia.


Anonymous said...

Regarding those three unpublished novels, you might want to consult the 2012 Novel & Short Story Writer's Market. You might be surprised at how approachable some agents and publishers really are if you can craft an effective pitch. I know this is the sort of unsolicited advice that can irritate people, but the above-named guide has helped me in my writing career.

-- Rick

William V. Madison said...

Thanks, Rick. Especially after he landed me the contract for the Madeline Kahn bio, I'm stickin' with the one whut brung me -- as Molly Ivins might say. But for any readers with writing projects in need of representation, I second your opinion and urge them to take a look at the guide.

Anonymous said...

Bill--Thank you so much for the kind and beautiful words. I'm happy you liked the book, and I especially liked how you connected the whole European travel theme to your own experiences.
As far as a next project, we're looking for George to pen "Travels with Mamma: The Rebuttal."