Wednesday, May 25, 2016

ENOUGH ALREADY, LET JANE AUSTEN BE JANE AUSTEN: A PLEA ON THE 200th ANNIVERSARY OF HER DEATH

Joan Baum is an extraordinary person who has led an extraordinary life. She sings in a chorus, has worked as a columnist, reporter, critic, and is a voracious reader. She lectures regularly, has a great sense of humor, and also lives in the village of East Hampton on Long Island’s South Shore. She is also a National Public Radio reviewer.

After meeting Joan many decades ago, we both realized that we attended The High School of Music and Art in Manhattan, in the early 50’s, as art majors. Though she was likely a freshman when I was a junior, we never met back then, but all these shared experiences added to the bonds that formed between us. Enough of an introduction, other than saying she is someone I greatly admire who I’m fortunate to have as a very good friend. Her blog, concerning Jane Austin, offers another display of her considerable erudition.

*         *         *

“A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away—Queens—I taught classes on the English Romantic poets, sneaking in a novelist and essayist and enjoying a relatively rare opportunity in an open admissions college to engage once again with the subjects of my doctoral dissertation and with the major events of an important historical period. That memorable time, full of revolution and cultural shifts, was said to begin with Wordsworth’s birth in 1770 and run to 1832, with the passage of the first Reform Act, when William IV was on the throne but which the Western world, pretty much jumping the gun by five years, began to refer to as the Victorian era. Although dominated by the big five—all men (Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats, with an occasional nod to Blake)—the English Romantic period did allow for the inclusion of Jane Austen on the syllabus, though she was not really considered part of The Canon, until she was. But recognition came late and owed much to cultural critics like Lionel Trilling who, as he did with Robert Frost, called attention to dark themes and biting ironies. But the times, they were a ‘changin’.

“The 60s, which took off in the 70s, helped awaken a renewed awareness of Austen in the academic world where she was inevitably hailed as an avatar of feminism in Regency England and a proto-Marxist in acknowledging class conflict and socioeconomic pressures on women in the late 18th – early 19th century. She was also, thank goodness, celebrated as a stylist of wit and irony,  furnishing the world with what has become one of English literature’s most famous opening lines (from Pride and Prejudice): 

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”  From there, it was on to reevaluations of her work in the scholarly journals (five more novels, plus a fragment ).  But who would have guessed, even back in the late 19th century days when 'Janeitism' made its idolatrous, cult-like appearance among admirers,  that Austen would  spawn  a fan base and entertainment industry that includes a Jane Austen Society of North America, blogs, costume conferences, pilgrimages to Steventon and Bath, and a still continuing plethora of movies and made for TV series, chick-lit adaptations,  prequels, sequels, parodies,  updates, camp and serious—not to mention biographies straining still to discover undisclosed facts and re-argue relationships.

“Why? 

“Is it that, at a time when memoirs and murder mysteries, often with harsh, nasty content and convoluted plots or self-consciously styled streams of consciousness, readers cherished what is a salient feature of fine fiction:  a good plot?  Is it that in an age that has vulgarized sex or made it boring by way of over-exposure, an intelligent romance that ends well engages because it says more about affairs of the heart by saying less about zones of pornography? Is it that Jane Austen’s novels present admirable heroines who are not necessarily the most beautiful and certainly not well-off, but who educate themselves by eventually acknowledging their own flaws and seeing faults in others (characters who would confess or tell all should be suspect)? Is it that her protagonists appreciate complexities in a world they cannot affect (including in Mansfield Park awareness of the evils of slavery), but not yield to cynicism or despair, or that they identify and exemplify qualities that inform ethical and moral character, regardless of gender or class?

“Whatever the reasons for Austen mania—and please offer your own reasons and remedies—the downside is that unless the fun and games result in turning or returning to the novels themselves,  injury is done to this remarkable artist whose sharp eye and ear reflect her time while achieving a universality that makes her observations timeless."


*         *         *


FEEL FREE to add your comments in regard to Joan’s blog, or contact her directly at joanbaum29@gmail.com.

Also, if any readers of this blog wish to submit one to me, you can do that by contacting me at shepard@thepermanentpress.com


Marty

Monday, May 16, 2016

THE VAMPIRE'S INSPIRATION

In the summer of 2013 an agent sent us Eleanor Lerman’s manuscript Radiomen, and by the time I finished reading it, I fell in love with her. It wasn’t until January, 2015 that we published it, and clearly others fell under Eleanor’s spell. Blackstone Audiobooks published an unabridged audio book at the same time. It was shortlisted for the prestigious Chautauqua Prize. It was also a  finalist for The Lascaux Prize in Fiction, as well as a finalist in Foreword's Indiefab Book of the Year. Barbara Hoffert, the Editor at Library Journal reviewed it as part of a roundup entitled “13 key spring titles for readers looking beyond the best sellers list.” A few excerpts of early laudatory comments follow:

“Though Lerman is a Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize winner, don’t expect a ‘lyrical’ read; she carries over her terrific narrative style into Lerman’s heroine, the nicely drawn Laurie, a bartender who declares, “I just wasn’t a mainstream person.” No surprise; when she was a child her Uncle Avi tried tuning in to pulses from life out there somewhere, and she seems to have seen an alien that haunts her dreams. For sci-fi fans looking for engaging backstory and literary fans seeking an escapist edge.”   —Library Journal

“Poet Lerman’s second novel is both a sharp send-up of Scientology and an intriguing aliens-among-us tale.”  
—Booklist

“This entertaining tale leaves readers wondering if there might be life out there.”  Publishers Weekly


“D
eft storytelling merits willing suspension of disbelief. If you go along for the ride, it won’t disappoint.”  

The Fredericksburg Freelance–Star

“This is a rollicking yarn. Yet at the end of any good book what readers ask themselves is, ‘What did it all mean?’ and, more importantly, ‘What does it mean to my life?’ These are questions Radiomen asks in multiple ways.” —New York Journal of Books


“This odd, compelling novel shows its author’s skill as a poet. She knows how to create original similes that effectively convey the ominous and depressive mood of this strange but absorbing tale.
It may be science fiction, but, hardly a predictable or typical example of the genre. It may well appeal to those who think they never would read such pop lit and enjoy it." —Joan Baum, NPR reviewer

But enough validations. My passion for Eleanor’s writing has to do with her immense gifts as a wordsmith, which I think are abundant in The Vampire’s Inspiration


*         *         *

“I’m a vampire. Of sorts, anyway. It’s because I’m a writer that I live by being a vampire. Alone, before dawn or up late at night—years ago, with a yellow pad on my lap and now, staring into the electric glow of my laptop screen—I am often at a loss for how to start my work. If I’m in the middle of writing something, then I’m okay because I probably have a general idea of where I mean to end up.  But if I’m trying to start something new—a poem, a short story, or, as in recent years, a novel—then I’m usually standing on the  proverbial lonely road looking off into the darkness and having no clue what direction I should be traveling. Or if I should be traveling at all. (That fear is always the writer’s companion, or it is, I imagine, for many of us: that there is no next poem, no next story; that finally, the well has run dry.)

“That is the point at which I know it’s time to go open someone’s veins—meaning, some other writer. I suppose it would be better to say, “I look for inspiration,” so we can pretend that’s what I said.  When I was much younger, the hot afternoons of an entire summer passed by outside my tiny apartment in the Village while I read Leonard Cohen and absorbed him into my bloodstream. I studied the way his lines broke, where he placed commas, how he wrote stanza after stanza and then veered off, in the last few lines, to some unexpected conclusion that left you gobsmacked (thank God for cable television; I sucked that word out of the mouths of cynical detectives in British police procedurals). Then I went even further: in imagination, I followed him through the streets of his city, Montreal, and his island, Hydra, where he went to have his romances. I read his early novel, Beautiful Losers, and had to stop and think about how language can stretch into infinity when I came upon his description of a woman’s ear as a beautiful, curving seashell.  Leonard Cohen sustained me for years; I actually met him once and tried to tell him all this and while he was amused, he wasn’t really interested. He just kind of patted me on the head and said something that I remember as the equivalent of, You’re a nice girl. A real sweetie. I took that as permission to keep feeding on his work and I still go back, from time to time, for another sip.

“But there came a point, about ten years ago, when my magic Leonard Cohen-with-a-hint-of-James-Tate-and-a-twist-of-Richard-Brautigan wasn’t working anymore. It was, I think, because I had aged out of the wind-blown romanticism of young poets and blown right past the genteel cynicism of older novelists. I was older now myself—probably in my fifties when I hit a wall; I am now sixty-four—and had to go out hunting again for someone to help me make my way further down that dark road.

“And I found him. So now, to the list of people I bless, I have added Whitley Strieber, the author of many books about his personal alien abduction experiences, among other work. (His most recent book is The Super Natural, “a new vision of the unexplained.”) Depending on what you think about his work, he’s either a great science fiction writer, a witness/survivor of multiple and undeniably real alien abduction experiences, or simply a man with a fabulous imagination and an extraordinary way with words. Or all of the above. Actually, to me, it doesn’t matter; what does matter is the way he has described the ideas that guide his work because I can tell he’s out there on that road, too, stalking the things that are stalking him.

“Because Strieber has written so much about his alien abduction/encounter experiences, going all the way back to his childhood, interviewers are always asking him what he thinks the aliens want and what he believes they’re doing when they forcefully intrude upon people’s lives. Over many years, in different ways, he has given the same response, which is basically, How should I know?  You’re asking me, a human being, to describe something beyond human experience. How can I do anything but guess at the meaning, motivation, and even the beliefs of entities who are beholden to gods we can’t imagine, have experiences we can’t fathom, and come from places we don’t even believe exist?

“I happened upon these thoughts of Whitley Strieber’s at a time when my bag of tricks was empty. Briefly notorious in my early twenties for writing about gay sex, drug-induced passion, and suicidal love when Leonard Cohen’s sweetie pies didn’t write about things like that, I had followed those themes to a greater and lesser extent through four decades of work. But suddenly, all that had loomed so large to a young, then not-so-young woman became small. Unimportant. Done and done and done. Anyone (just about) can write a love poem. And almost all of us born in the middle of the last century and raised on Woodstock and the Rolling Stones have done drugs and then put them aside because they’re too expensive, too hard to get, or mess with our increasingly delicate insides and soaring blood pressure. (After all, you always have to be mindful of that Medicare deductible.) And how angry could I go on being since I now live comfortably in a condo near the beach and own a little white designer dog that I bought at a fancy puppy store because the rescue dogs at the shelters were too big for me to handle? I mean, what do I have to rail against except inevitable death and the fact that I understand nothing—zip, nada, nothing—about why I am alive?

“And that’s when Whitley Strieber came crashing through the ceiling. The alien spacecraft dropped him off just in time to help me begin to approach my work in what has become the only way I can still function, at least for now: in the framework of speculative fiction. Embracing Strieber as a blood brother has helped me see this kind of storytelling as totally and completely free and open-ended; a new road to follow that makes the darkness deliciously inviting. By saying some version of this: Yes, indeed, mysterious stuff is happening out there beyond the paychecks we have to earn and the schedule of the commuter trains we have to ride to our jobs and the terror of a Donald Trump presidency, and you can say anything you want about it because no one really knows what’s going on. No one knows on this planet; maybe in this universe. Maybe they know in some strange elsewhere, but not here, and not us—Strieber bit back at the strictures of what to me had become the constraints of the everyday, of human limitations and the hard stop of mortality and, in doing so, gave me permission to speculate on the larger things. The unknown things, the mystery realms. And for that, I am deeply grateful.

“So the crazy, dangerous, love-smacked girl learned to masquerade as an older lady with a little white dog on a leash, parading through the neat little beach town like a proper citizen while enigmatic universes and demon-eyed watchers from beyond the stars are actually what I have in sight. While a Godzilla-of-the-mind stirs up an old surfer’s reunion with his longboard and keeps his big dog awake at night. (That part about the surfer and his Godzilla dreams sounds like a great story, right? I hope so, because it’s what I’m working on now.) So let me draw my cloak around my hunched shoulders, polish my little fangs and see what Whitley has been saying lately. It might help me with the next chapter of the book. Certainly, it will turn a few pages in the next chapter of what is still (Still! As long as I can write…) my secret, scintillating life.”


*         *         *

I welcome any comments below, emails directed to me (shepard@thepermanentpress.com), or to Eleanor (elerman1@optonline.net).


Marty

Monday, April 25, 2016

UNCOMMON BONDS PART 2

Last week we published the first part of Danner Darcleight’s blog in anticipation of our release of Concrete Carnival in September If you haven’t read PART ONE, I’d suggest you read that now. It has gotten more hits than anything we’ve placed on this blog in the past two years.

Besides his prison memoir, he has also had essays published in Stone Canoe, The Minnesota Review, The Kenyon Review, and Fourth City. Let me just add this before turning this blog over to Danner:  On April 21 we submitted Concrete Carnival to the Non-fiction judges at the National Book Award.

DANNER DARCLEIGHT writes from and about prison. His essays have been published in Stone Canoe, The Minnesota Review, The Kenyon Review, and Fourth City.

*         *         *

“Lily's friends each had similar reactions when she brought them into her confidence, one at a time. They raised time-honored objections: What if he's screwing around with men in there? Writing and visiting with other women? Scamming you, and planning to leave if he gets released? Won't you miss the physical intimacy?

“The same objections can be raised in regard to conventional relationships. Any tour of daytime TV will reveal a demented parade of toxic marriages, once-happy couples torn asunder courtesy of infidelity and hidden motives and domestic violence. Trust cuts both ways, especially since Lily is an attractive woman who regularly gets hit on at social functions, and I can't ask her to become a hermit. She's around men who can provide the material things and physical presence that I can only dream of, but Lily makes me feel secure in her love, so there is none of the frothing jealousy that I felt over girlfriends in high school.

“As to the lack of physical intimacy, that seems to be the norm in most relationships—if traditional love lives didn't need spicing up, why are there so many seven-step recipes devoted to just that at the supermarket checkout counter?

“Anyway, Lily shared my writing and drawings with her friends, fleshing out my portrait, as it were, showing that someone guilty of murder can create, not just destroy Mostly, though, it was her new, and lasting, sense of contentment that helped Lily 's friends understand our relationship. Still, there would occasionally come the question, What will you do if he never gets out?

“I now have almost seventeen years in on twenty-five-to-life, and it's no guarantee I'll make parole in eight years, when I'm forty-seven, or in twelve years, fourteen, sixteen, et disheartening-cetera. I have friends doing life without parole, who, because the state considers them ‘civilly dead,’ had to receive special permission from the warden in order to marry.  To people who say those couples have no future, I'd counter in the Eastern tradition, that there is no such thing as future, and they're bringing comfort and compassion to each other in the present moment.

“The think-of-the-future argument is often heard.  Do you think you'll be able to remain with him during his incarceration? Do you worry that he'll leave you once he gets out? Similar  questions could be asked of those married to active duty military personnel, or to someone struggling with a debilitating health condition, or, for that matter, to a corporate lawyer dedicated to an  eighty-hour-a-week climb up the partnership ladder. Can you imagine yourself asking a newlywed if she worries that her husband will start sleeping around soon, and leave in ten years when he gets a promotion? Lily is routinely asked things that no one would deem appropriate if her husband wasn’t in prison, questions that only partially obscure her  interlocutor's  misgivings about us.

“What about having children? some ask.

“What about it? There are plenty of happy marriages that don't bring children into the world.   In fact, research has shown that time spent with one's children rates as slightly less enjoyable as doing housework. Granted, evolution has coded us with a desire  to  procreate,  and Madison  Avenue  butters its bread with the pitch that you  won 't be complete without  2.5 kids, a white picket fence and a minivan, but breeding is overrated, and the world will do just  fine without  my genes living on.  I think I’d prefer to adopt a frisky dog.

“It's the rare relationship that survives one spouse being arrested and going to prison for any length of time. In addition to the stigma of being married to a convicted criminal, there are mouths to feed, and tough decisions to be made.  I have several friends whose wives dropped off the face of the earth shortly after the arrest, years ago, yet these men are still wearing t heir weddings rings, a bittersweet memento from a life before everything came unglued.

“On the other hand, marriages  that  begin with  one partner  in  prison  tend  to be extremely resilient. I'll have to proceed anecdotally, and you’ll have to half rely on me as being a competent observer: the divorce rate is considerably lower than the sixty percent of couples in  the world who  flame  out.

“We come to the  table  with  open  eyes and  a mature  understanding  of what  the marriage  will  be, and  what  it  won 't  be.  We will be  companions, even  if much  of our time  is spent  apart.   Quiet  dinners together  are  out,  so  are  weekend   getaways  and  mundane  trips  to  the  supermarket   and  make-up  sex after arguing our way through the assembly of an IKEA table. Is that hard to deal with for both parties? You bet.  But, is it worth it?  Lily and I, and countless others, think so.

“For me, the sun rises and sets with Lily, my never-ending fount of happiness. Unlike the superficial relationships in my past, I have in Lily a partner, a companion. The love I feel for her registers as a fluttery warmth in my chest, or the involuntary smile that appears whenever I think of her. We're more than just the plot lines of a Lifetime movie. The bond we share continues to make each of us better, stronger people—the whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts. We are, in a word, happy.

“So, finally, after all the layers have been peeled away, we get to the festering core of negativity: irrespective of prison, people look down on happy marriages, yet the reasons that unhappy people look down on them are numerous and unspoken.

“With the majority of conventional marriages ending in divorce, and a large swath of loveless couples sticking together until the kids are old enough to move out, I can understand why people make snap judgments about men and women who marry prisoners. Rather than looking in their unhappy mirror, they proclaim us to be delusional, dysfunctional, or possessed of lower standards.

“I'll let you in on a secret:  I used to harbor similar beliefs about my peers and the women who went for them.  In retrospect, I wasn't conscious of my jealousy of these people who wouldn't have to walk through life alone. Now one of them, I know our standards aren't lower — we have simply come to value those traits heralded in marriage guides: understanding,  involvement, empathy, passion, devotion.

“We work on our communication skills, because we have to. The silent treatment doesn't work with collect calls. Access to the phone is limited, so if we don't resolve an issue, it could be another twenty-four hours, or a week, before we reconnect. There are times when Lily has had a rough day, and is not really in the mood to talk, when she’ll say, ‘I wish we could just sit together quietly, with my head on your shoulder.’  In those moments, we both feel the distance, and I long to be there for her, to cook dinner or scratch her head. But what I can do is emulate that kind of presence, and bring her comfort. l channel my inner NPR host, and tell Lily lighthearted things and funny stories. We've learned that what’s necessary for making a marriage work isn't having money, or children, or date nights. It's being emotionally available for each other. Doing little kindnesses. She sends me pictures of puppies, and adorns the page with glitter stickers; I pass along or summarize articles relevant to her interests. She and I part company with the quick messages written on each other's arm.

“That’s the thing about us: we're willing to work on the relationship, and keep working on it. Many of my married peers are the same way. We're grateful that someone sees us for the person we are, not simply as the criminal act we senselessly, regrettably committed five, ten, twenty-five years ago. And like a dog rescued from the pound, we show our gratitude daily. You can usually tell when a guy in here is in a loving relationship: his head is out of prison, and he knows there are far more important things than the slights of guards and pettiness of peers. Having someone who actually wants to hear from you, and listens with compassion, does more to turn a life around than all the rehabilitative programs combined. Being loved like that turns your life on.

“I can imagine that this transformation in me was outwardly apparent when, one by one, Lily's friends accompanied her on visits. The ice quickly broken, we sat together, talking, laughing, eating greasy food, and washing it down with sugary drinks. Consistently, when I would reach Lily in the evening, she'd report that her friends enjoyed the day and want to return. They say they get it, now that they've seen us interacting.
       
“It's nice validation for us, but unnecessary.  We knew very early on that what we have is special. She's taught me that everyone deserves a shot at love, even me. As to the people who’ll never open their minds long enough to think objectively about couples like Lily and me, that's their loss. If they did, they might learn something, because though I may be in prison, at least l don’t view my wife as a ball and chain.”

*         *         *

I WELCOME YOUR COMMENTS on this site—or directly via email (shepard@thepermanentpress.com) —as there is no way to reach Danner currently who is serving time in a Maximum Security Prison. But I can send your comments or questions off to him via his wife, Lilly, who can deliver them when she visits. I also hope you will share this blog with others.


Marty

Monday, April 18, 2016

UNCOMMON BONDS

Danner Darcleight is the pen name of a 39 year old serving 25 years to life, in a maximum security prison. His crime? Homicide. It was committed 17 years ago. He had a good education, became addicted to drugs, and was fortunate enough to come in contact with Doran Larson, a writer whose novel, Marginalia, we published 19 years ago. For the past 10 years Doran has been working with prisoners, offering a workshop writing program. 

Doran is a Wolcott-Bartlettt Professor of Literature and Creative Writing at Hamilton College, editor of Editor of Fourth City: Essays from the Prison In America; and Director of The American Prison Writing Archive, and he was the one who sent us Danner’s memoir, Concrete Carnival, which we are publishing this September.

Darcleight began attending  Doran’s workshop ten years ago and here’s what Doran had to say about him:  “Concrete Carnival instantly places Danner Darcleight in the very top tier of writers working among the 2.3 million Americans held inside prisons and jails.  But this is not simply a prison book.  Darcleight’s verbal dexterity and streetwise insights, his honesty, humor, his narrative skills and unyielding search for the humanity in all of his subjects announce a writer who deserves a place upon the broad contemporary literary landscape.  Like Jack London, Chester Himes, Nelson Algren, Malcolm X, George Jackson, Edward Bunker, Angela Davis, Patricia McConnell, Donald Goines, Iceberg Slim, Malcolm Braly, Mumia Abu-Jamal and many others, Darcleight shows once again that any distinction between American literature and American prison literature perverts our understanding of what America is as a literary enterprise. 

“Prison walls quarantine bodies and minds.  They also incubate thinking and writing that strip bare the human costs of the contemporary order.   In an era of unprecedented, mass-scale incarceration—with nearly three quarters of a million citizens released from prisons and jails each year, and more than one-in-five citizens marked by a criminal record—we need this book in order to help us understand the very nature of the American experience today.”

Danner Darcleight’s Concrete Carnival is a moving portrait of one man’s long journey from hopeless and addiction to love and redemption. And the following blogs are about his relationship with his wife,  Lilly, who he met in 2009 and married a year later. Lilly has given workshops and lectures in all 50 states about autism. 

With that I turn you over to part one of Danner’s blog.


*         *         *


“In a few months, Lily and I will celebrate our six-year anniversary, years that have passed by as if in a pleasant dream. Hokey as it may sound, I have the incredibly good fortune to have married my best friend, a smart, caring, gorgeous woman. Our paths crossed in such an unlikely and serendipitous fashion, that, looking back on it, I can't help but see our courtship as if it were the early scenes in a romantic movie I'd actually watch. After getting to know each other for a year, we were married by a friendly justice of the peace in a small ceremony - that took place in the foyer of a prison's visiting room.
      
“Take a breath, and listen to what you're thinking. Are you happy for me, and imagining Lily as a good person?  Or, are you shuffling through a host of possibilities that explain why Lily would marry a prisoner?  Theories abound. Perhaps she's deranged, mentally feeble, or wildly insecure - and, I' m likely a devious con artist, telling Lily what she needs to hear while I slowly bilk her out of her l life savings.
       
“That’s a gentle paraphrasing of the comment threads one can find, I'm told, on the Web site of the reality show Prison Wives. And by no means does that constitute a monopoly on such morally-superior passing of judgment. Granted, one must control for a certain amount of fat-mouthing on any issue, from gun control to the upcoming film adaptation of a sci-fi classic. Still, any story of someone marrying a prisoner will inevitably draw comments that could have come from voices of fifty years ago, openly disapproving of interracial marriages, airing their rancid prejudices, and assassinating character.
      
“I'm apt, however, to be more charitable in my estimation of you, reader. And so, together, we can unpack the deeper emotions that may be hidden within this issue. For starters, why the rabid negativity and hate?  While we, as a nation, have made great progress in our attitudes regarding race, gender, and sexual orientation, one form of bigotry that remains socially acceptable, and so common as to escape discussion, is the fear and loathing of prisoners. We are misfit toys and wayward boys (and girls), the castaways who live in your midst, on concrete islands fortified with concertina wire.  If we are thought of at all, it is as the Other, a homogenous group lacking all the traces of humanity— fears, loves, disappointments, desires, talents - possessed by those in the world.
        
“There was a time, in eighteenth century England, when the public made good spoil of joking about the twitching legs of the men and women condemned to death by hanging. Such humor has kept up with the times, embodied by cultural shorthand like ‘ride the lightning’ to blithely depict execution by electric chair.  And today, rarely does prison show up in pop culture without a reference to the new inhabitant winding up on the receiving end of a (black and burly) Bubba.
       
“It's little wonder, then, that the local news will quote from the grieving family member of a crime victim, who, without a t race of irony, hopes that the perpetrator gets criminally victimized when he gets to prison.  The newly aggrieved can be forgiven their revenge fantasies, but what can be said of the news outlets that perpetuate the ugliness, or the off-camera producer who solicits such a reaction?  Politicians and the media —in a quest to garner votes or viewers—know exactly which buttons to push to scare citizens into overestimating the amount of crime that takes place in the community, exaggerating the likelihood of a recent parolee violently interacting with unsuspecting citizens.  
       
“Emphasis is placed on the otherness of this thing that has broken the law and can never be redeemed.  The person is de-personified with labels, and becomes the defendant, the accused, then, the guilty, the prisoner, inmate, convict, offender, and, eventually, the released ex-convict.
      
“In this media-saturated landscape, where we know so much, but understand so little, it’s easier to have our primal emotions —anger, indignation, outrage—triggered than it is to experience the more fragile and complex fellow feeling brought about by human interest stories. Unless you know someone who has done time, your source is the same poisoned well from which most of the public drink. So, after your day at work and myriad other responsibilities, you're not apt to do much thinking about the 2. 2 million people in America's criminal justice system. File us under  To Be Avoided, and carry on with your life.
      
“But then you hear that one of you has married one of us, and something doesn't compute. To make things jibe with your inner narrative of the way the world works, you can either rethink your perception of prisoners, or make a character judgment about the person who chooses to be associated with one of us. Let it be said that the brain doesn't like to let go of a firmly held belief, it easily makes snap judgments, and it's lazy. Rather than thinking, maybe prisoners are people after all, and capable of redemption, or, at least the prisoner in question is, the woman is deemed to be a defective unit.
      
“Even my family, who loves me, thought there must be something wrong with Lily that she would choose to make a life with their black sheep. It felt like a betrayal when I would casually drop her CV into conversations with my brother, as if lines on an impressive resume would quell his cognitive dissonance. Family members I hadn't spoken with in years suddenly wanted to hear from me, and I could practically hear them puzzling it out: She has a successful career, financial stability; perhaps she had a psychotic break-down.
       
“But they’ve come around, and see how good Lily is for me. Perhaps that's the way toward more tolerance on this issue: Instead of looking at the woman who marries a prisoner, and seeing 
 her as your friend or sister, better to focus on the prisoner, and imagine that he is your brother, or the friend of a friend  because, I assure you, in the jailingest nation on Earth you are not more than three degrees of separation from someone living in a cage.
      
“On visits with Lily, when she goes up to the vending machines, I take a mental inventory of the people visiting my peers. There are some young women in their late teens and twenties, girls from the neighborhood who probably won’t stick around for the long haul; several women who seem to embody the crude stereotypes traded in by Internet trolls; but the majority appear dignified and composed.  I have many married friends in here whose wives, like Lily, are smart, compassionate women. They are tough and driven —some are teachers, nurses, lawyers, professionals—and none have made this life choice lightly (no drive-thru wedding chapels here).
       
“They wake up early and drive long hours to see us in far-flung reaches of the state, where the cost of admission is a TSA-grade screening.  In some prisons, visits take place behind glass, with literally no physical contact While Lily and I can hold hands the entire day, we can only hug and kiss for a prescribed period of time at the beginning and end of each visit.  On semiannual facility ‘picnics,’ held in the gymnasium, we are allowed the rare pleasure of walking together hip to hip, our arms snug around each other 's waist Since relatively few inmates have access to e-mail, letters—hand-written or typed—snail their way back and forth, carrying love, pictures, and news from home on perfume-scented pages. Prison profiteers don't scruple at price gouging the loved ones of a captive audience, and the cost of daily collect calls can easily surpass a hundred dollars a month.
       
“How does one explain the lengths to which these women go to make the relationship work—are they dumb, desperate, or self-deluding? I know that not to be the case, but don't take my word for it: go to prisontalk.com. On many of its comment threads, you can find a person who will confirm the stereotypes—naive, delusional, and worse—but the plurality, the women telling her what's what, offer a litany of savvy, mature wisdom.
        
“The fact that prisontalk.com thrives is a testament to how marginalized these men and women are made to feel for loving one of us. They speak of not being able to tell their family and friends about the relationship. The guilt they feel for keeping it under wraps sometimes causes t hem to wonder aloud, if what I'm doing isn't wrong, why am I hiding it?
       
“Yet, who can blame them for keeping the relationship quiet rather than dealing with guff from know-nothings. After it was made known that Lily and I were an item—on no less a bastion of high-minded tolerance than some asinine local radio show—complete strangers had shifted their narrative of Lily, once a pillar of the community, into the trope of Oh, how the mighty have fallen. The mere connection to me prompted more than a few moralizing jackasses and some complete reprobates to sanctimoniously question her judgment, and suggest that consorting with a prisoner in her private life would perhaps lead to criminal behavior in her public capacity. It made me sick with grief when she was made to resign from her job. She kept her head down, learned who her true friends are, and wisely chose not to dignify the gossips with an answer. Lily landed on her feet, and, in some ways, the episode was a blessing in disguise.
       
“The drama, however, resurfaces every now and then, when a guard from the prison shows up in one of the local bars, and divulges prison gossip about me and Lily, interspersed with his opinions on the type of woman who’d marry a prisoner. Five and a half years since the story of us became public, every time Lily goes out to one of the bars, there'll be someone for whom the clock is turned back, and because they have little else going on in their lives, they'll whisper. Just as bad are those who, out of a desire to ingratiate themselves, will tell her that they, for one, don't believe the idle talk, and, as one guy said to her recently, ‘We knew that was all  garbage, because you 're not that  stupid.’”  

....TO BE CONTINUED NEXT WEEK

As always, I welcome your comments.

Marty

Monday, April 4, 2016

UNDER LUCKY STAR

Last December, Kathleen Novak wrote her first blog for us (I AM ALWAYS WRITING), even though her first novel, Do Not Find Me was not released until the beginning of March. This latest blog has a lot to say about successful marketing and it is charming, funny, unique, and true, and I heartily recommend it to one and all. With that I turn you over to Kathleen:


*         *         *


"Wake up: You are under lucky star. 

"This is my fortune in the cookie and exactly what I say to myself about Do Not Find Me, my first published novel. I am not, however, simply waiting for good things to happen. Six months before the book’s release I gathered a small group at my house, offered up a great lunch and plenty of prosecco and asked for input on how to launch my book locally. One of the women is a veteran novelist, a complete pro, and she said – throw a party. Make it big. Rent the VFW or any large space and invite everyone, friends, relatives, neighbors, work colleagues, gym buddies, school moms, everyone. Send invitations via mail and have food at the party.

"So that’s what I did. I rented a room on the top floor of our contemporary art museum and sent out a hundred postcard invitations that showed off Lon’s beautiful cover of the book on the front and the invite information with a Kirkus review excerpt on the back. The result was a warm, happy event with about one hundred and twenty-five people, who all seemed to be having a grand time. My dental hygienist was there, my old dad in his fishing hat was there and the couple whose bookstore I managed back in the 1970s were there. It all worked – and I sold seventy books in an hour.

"Around the same time that I invited “advisors” over for input last fall, I started scribbling a plan of what I needed to do month by month, including reaching out to stores I hoped would carry the book and local literary stars I hoped would review it. Using my stash of preview copies from TPP (a most generous and brilliant gift from publisher to writer), I sent out personalized packets. I saw in a web search that Tattered Cover Books in Denver is considered number one among indie booksellers, so I called them and sent a packet. It turns out that they have a high regard for TPP and liked my letter, so they accepted the book. This made me happy and had the added benefit of impressing my high school boyfriend who lives there. Not all outreach yielded results, of course, and I hate rejection as much as anyone, but I do believe it’s important to give these things a try.

"A month before the book release date, I wrote press releases to our two large newspapers here. TPP printed these on their letterhead, Marty signed them and I sent out packets with a personal note to the reviewers. I am a total nobody, so I doubted my book would rise to the top of their stacks, but I was wrong. Both papers published glowing reviews beyond my wildest expectations. (The St. Paul Pioneer Press reviewer essentially said my book was worth reading twice!) And because of those reviews the libraries have overwhelming requests for the book and have had to order more for their shelves.

"The above-mentioned veteran writer (Faith Sullivan, author of Goodnight, Mr. Wodehouse, which was one of the Wall Street Journal’s ten best novels of 2015) also told me to have my friends host small gatherings of people I don’t know, where I may extend my audience, read an excerpt and sell a book or two. I love this idea. My first one will be next weekend, a cocktail party late on Saturday afternoon. So far, I have four other friends who have offered to host such gatherings and two women at the gym an hour ago who thought it a grand idea to host one too.

"I’d like to get a bit of visibility through my efforts and hope that some of these ideas work for others as well. I also want to underscore Victoria Alexander’s recent blog about the Dactyl reviews for literary fiction. I am eager to participate in that ingenious idea and thank her for sharing the opportunity.

"My brother the doctor told me last week that he loves fortune cookies, but never reads the fortunes. Too much hokus pokus. But how about these:

You Will Get The Recognition You Deserve and      
You Have Much Love


"Who would throw those away? Not me. I’m hanging onto them. Just in case I really am UNDER LUCKY STAR."


*         *         *


I hope you’ve not only enjoyed Kathleen’s blog but that it also raised a unique way of selling books. Do feel free to contact Kathleen directly at knovakhome@comcast.netI ask, as always, that you post your comments below, and—if you will—send a copy of her blog to all your friends and acquaintances who might find it helpful.

And for those of you awaiting Danner Darcleight’s two part blog, I’ll be postponing that again...this time, it’s cross my heart and not my fingers. I can only say it will be worth the wait.



Marty

Monday, March 28, 2016

WE INTERRUPT THIS PROGRAM...

After sending out Tori Alexander’s blog on March 28th, I had promised to post a two part blog written by Danner Darcleight, whose powerful prison memoir, Concrete Carnival, will be published by us in September. But there were a series of events that occurred last week, which led to thoughts that I wanted to share with you first.   In a nutshell, this blog concerns survival and success as a publisher of literary fiction, the assumptions we made when starting out, and the reality of what I’ve learned, when it comes to the matter of “which reviews are most important” when it comes to selling books; and the difference between reviews in magazines and newspapers (read by the public) versus reviews published and read by only a small group of publishing “insiders.” And who are these “insiders”? Librarians, publishers abroad, filmmakers and the four pre-publication journals that serve them: Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and Library Journal, as well as a couple of very successful and widely circulated bloggers, as exemplified by Sheila Deeth (Sheila’s Reviews).

When we started publishing there were lots of newspapers reviewing books. Over the past 37 years, few are left. The New York Times was atop the list back then, both for their Sunday Book Review and their daily weekday reviews (one major review a day from Monday through Friday). Today they are the only major newspaper left who devote time and attention to publishing book reviews.

When I was in my mid-twenties and about to get my M.D. degree from the N.Y.U College of Medicine, I worked at the New York Times as a night intern. Before that, ever since I entered the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan as a 13 year old art student, I was an avid reader of the Times. Later on, when Judy, my wife and I, first started publishing in 1979, we had a major review for Richard Lortz’s novel The Valdepenas, written by the legendary Anatole Broyard, which appeared in the daily Times on Thursday, January 31, 1980. This was a grand beginning, which made me assume that  one needed to have books reviewed  in the weekday  editions of the Times in order to succeed as a publisher. As it turned out, this was also the last full review we ever had, though there have been over 9,000 other books reviewed there in the last 36 years.

Given the fact that we have no grants, no funding other than ourselves and book sales, the question remains how did we ever manage to survive? One answer is to say that this is mysterious and unexplainable: “kismet”—a gift from the universe—and that surely is true. But looking at things analytically one can better understand the building blocks that have fallen into place that have allowed us to continue.

One can talk all they want about how difficult it is to get a review in the New York Times where there is fierce competition for review space. But getting reviews in the pre-pub journals is not a walk in the park either. Last year we were fortunate enough to get two novels reviewed in the Sunday Times Book Review on their Shortlist page—which was much appreciated. But sales of these novels—Margaret Vandenberg’s The Home Front and Tom LeClair’s Lincoln’s Billy—were hardly affected after these reviews appeared. At the same time, we’ve had great success in getting coverage by the pre-publication reviewers, each of our 16 yearly releases being reviewed by at least one of these review sources, and most by several.

This past week we’ve had exceptional reviews for four of our forthcoming 2016 novels, with two reviews in Kirkus: one for Ray Merritt’s Clamour of Crows, and another for Ira Gold’s Debasements of Brooklyn. Publishers Weekly featured a rave review for Charles Davis’ Hitler, Mussolini, and Me, while Booklist gave Chris Knopf’s Back Lash a starred review. These are the reviews that not only increase sales for these titles, promote translation sales (220 right sales abroad since we began), and intrigue filmmakers. All of these enable us to go forward.

There are also other sources of revenue that help our bottom line. Blackstone Audio, a company based in Ashland, Oregon, that publishes unabridged audio books, and Haila Williams, their acquisitions editor based in New York, have acquired at least half of our titles for more than a decade. Three of our novels have been turned into movies and many others are in option. The fact that many of our titles—be they literary mysteries or literary novels—have been finalists or winners of major book awards has also aided book sales—including all the major mystery awards (Hammett Prize, Nero Award, Edgar Award, International Thriller Writers Award, and the Anthony Award). On the literary fiction side we’ve published several finalists or winners for the National Book Award, the Chautauqua Prize, the Lambda Awards,  and both the PEN/Hemingway Award and PEN /Winship Award.  Other authors have received cash prizes from both ForeWord Magazine’s Best

Book of the Year Award and the Dactyl Foundation Literary Fiction Award that were turned over directly to the authors. This does not include local State-wide honors for both mysteries and novelists we’ve published.


Accumulating all these accolades for so many authors has given us great satisfaction, but that is not necessarily reflected in profitability. Profitability is more assured if a writer is published by one of the five major conglomerates (actually, with mergers, I believe they are now down to “four”) who, with their huge advertising budgets and joint ownership with other mass media feed on celebrity and account for 85% of books sales in the U.S.A. A memoir for a star like Amy Schumer, or the formulaic James Patterson, who ”writes” over a dozen books a year (mostly written by well-paid writers) and who was honored at the last National Book Awards ceremony because of his contributions to literature are not books we have any interest in.  (If I sound like Bernie Sanders here, blogging about the way things are, I’d be flattered. But Bernie is on to more serious stuff, trying to change the way things are run and how traditional politics screws a hoodwinked public while enhancing the rich, when all that I’m talking about are books as part of the entertainment industry, which I have no interest in reforming at all).

What I’m talking about is simply “gratefulness;” grateful that we have been able to endure, to sort out from among the 5,000 queries and submissions we receive each year those few books we can present to readers who hunger for quality fiction primarily as opposed to “pulpy fiction,” and that we’ve  been able to do this successfully despite being relatively invisible to the larger public, whose awareness depends on what major media outlets and columnists consider “important news” when it comes to books is a continuing unfolding of  kismet, whether deserved of not.

If one’s passion is fiction (the step-child of publishing, where non-fiction overwhelmingly predominates), and a desire to find and promote artful writers (as opposed to seeking “Best Sellers,”) what we are doing now is as good as it gets.

I love working on behalf of our writers and it is thrilling when one of their books takes off.  And I love my two co-publishers: my wife Judy and Chris Knopf, without whom nothing is possible.

Now comes the “Academy Award Speech,” where every recipient goes on to thank all those who helped them:  I love being surrounded by those exceptional people who work with us here in Sag Harbor: Felix Gonzalez, our warehouse manager; Cathy Suter and Brian Skulnik who share office space alongside me and stay up-to-date with every aspect and detail of keeping things on track and anticipating what we have to do next to keep things moving along, andfeel the same way about those  off campus: Lon Kirschner who reads every manuscript from beginning to end and comes up with astounding book covers, Barbara Anderson who is a copyeditor without peer, Susan Ahlquist who is a remarkable typesetter and the book designer of both our books and those ads we periodically place in Publishers Weekly and Mystery Scene Magazine, and Jeff Aghassi, our film agent out in Los Angeles. I also want to thank some outstanding overseas agents who have been with us for years, are in touch with us regularly, who sell our books abroad, and who we invite to dinner every year at the Frankfurt Book Fair: Jill Hughes who covers Eastern Europe, Franka Zastrow at the Schl├╝ck agency in Germany, Lora Fountain in France, Jane Judd in England, Jackie Huang at the Nurnberg Agency in China, Rita Vivian in Italy, and Atsushi Hori at The English Agency in Japan

As Porky Pig used to say when signing off on cartoons that were once shown in movie theaters, “The..the..the..the..the..... that’s all folks!  And that’s about it.

COMING OVER THE NEXT TWO WEEKS:  the promised blogs from Danner Darcleight.

As always, I welcome your comments.



Marty

Monday, March 21, 2016

WHY I STARTED DACTYL REVIEW AND THE DACTYL FOUNDATION LITERARY FICTION AWARD


As publishers it has been a delight to have published three of Victoria N. Alexander’s novels over a period of two decades:  Smoking Hopes (1996), Naked Singularity (2003), and Locus Amoenus (2015).  Her range, inventiveness, and themes varied greatly and all three books represented different stages in her own life. And with this briefest of introductions, I turn over this blog to Tori who offers a spot-on critique of the way literary fiction is treated in general and what she is doing to improve things.

*         *         *

“I had been director of the Dactyl Foundation in NYC for some dozen years, organizing art-science collaborations and hosting poetry readings, before it occurred to me that we were doing nothing to support literary fiction. As a literary fiction (LF) novelist myself, I was well aware that these unlikely-to-be-bestsellers could use some support.  But it was not immediately clear to me what I could do to help.  Hosting readings did not work.  Poets tend to turn out for each other and buy each other’s work; they dedicate poems to each other and even write about each other’s poems, but not LF novelists; they are as independent as cats. They keep to themselves, don’t do reviews, fear influence, and reserve their admiration for dead authors.

I was such a writer, I realized. What could I do to get mavericks, like myself, to form a community?

“From personal experience, I understood that what LF writers need most (in order to get more readers) are sympathetic reviewers and an extended shelf life. Literary fiction needs reviewers who won’t judge the work by the standards of other genres. It needs other literary fiction writers. LF takes time to find its audience. Books aren’t given much time in front of judges and audiences. Those that don’t make it in six months are thereafter ignored.  No one in publishing denies this, and yet there are no awards for the best five-year-old novel, no reviewers interested in what came out last year.

“Literary fiction is not produce; it won’t spoil. It is not trendy, but of an enduring quality. I like the fact that the Permanent Press keeps my titles available in the back-list catalog.  When I signed on with my first novel, in 1996, I took comfort knowing I would not be remaindered, pulped or go out-of-print. What Marty and Judy Shepard do as publishers, I wanted to do as a foundation director, not just offer an initial opportunity for good books but also help keep them in front of audiences.

“I realized, too, that it would be necessary to share the responsibility of judging books in order to form a community would be self-sustaining. So in 2010, Dactyl Foundation launched Dactyl Review, dedicated solely to literary fiction, created for and by literary fiction writers. We publish reviews of only the best novels and short story collections, as judged by other literary fiction writers. Authors support the kind of work they admire by writing reviews and this also helps the reviewers build readerships for their own work. The reviewer’s signature is linked and followed by the title of his/her book that is most similar to the book being reviewed.

Dactyl Review also offers the $1,000 annual Dactyl Foundation Literary Fiction Award, which differs from most awards in a number of ways. One, the award is not limited to new books. Any literary fiction book by a living author published in any year is eligible for the award. We know that good books are often overlooked the year they come out. Two, we do not accept nominations from authors or publishers for their own books.  Dactyl only accepts nominations from other published literary fiction authors. A book is nominated when another writer reviews it on Dactyl Review (then the author or publisher has to accept the nomination before the book is officially in the running). Three, we do not require the nominated author or the publisher to send in copies. Dactyl Foundation purchases a copy of every book entered. Four, eligible works must be published, but we accept self-published as well as traditionally published. Five, there is no entry fee. Six, nominations can be made at any time. This year, the Dactyl Foundation award winner is Lindsay Hall for Sea of Hooks, which also won the Pen USA Fiction Award. Our open requirements help insure that we get the best entries not just money-backed entries and not just entries that conform to a list of bureaucratic constraints.

“One might think that leaving the judging up to self-designated LF authors and accepting self-published entries would invite a flood of low quality, not very literary, fiction.  This is not what has happened.  We’ve attracted quality reviewers. That’s because reviewing is hard work. We ask our reviewers to support all opinions about the quality of the writing with excerpts. (How often have you read a review of your own book that says things—good and bad—that are not at all true? as if the reviewer had only skimmed your book.) The review has to be very specific, and this seems to scare off lazy reviewers. It also prevents bullshit.  A reviewer cannot claim a writer has a “lyrical style” without backing that claim up with a brief example. Occasionally, we do get writers and publicists, who haven’t bothered to look at our “about us” page, asking us to review their books. I let them know that’s not what we do, and I invite them to review someone else’s book instead.  Predictably, the prima donna author will reply by saying, I don’t do reviews. I don’t have the time. And we are happy to let them leave us alone. 

“Several Permanent Press authors have participated, including Charles Holdefer, Ivan G Goldman, Marc Schuster, Bill Albert (as a reviewee), and Charles Davis. In 2013 Permanent Press author David Schmahmann won the award for his The Double Life of Alfred Buber, reviewed by Holdefer.

“All this may beg the question, What is literary fiction? Definitions vary, but only slightly. Typically, LF is defined as writing that is stylized or poetic, not always literal, connoting more than it denotes. It often treats a social or humanistic theme from an unusual perspective and is often in conversation with literature of the past. It tends to question stereotypes more than confirm them and avoids sentimentality.  Literary Fiction is the non-genre genre, but it can partake in the conventions of a traditional genre, like mystery or romance, doing so with a wry twist, sometimes with a view to subverting or expanding conventions.

“The Dactyl Review offers a little bit of what every literary fiction writer needs. We do need each other because the commercially-driven publishing industry is geared toward economic efficiency, spending the least amount of time on products that most people will buy. LF is for the uncommon reader. I invite my fellow Permanent Press authors to create some good review karma for yourself by reviewing a writer you admire, new or old, known or unknown. Once you have reviewed a couple of books, you can also offer your book to the community for review.  Next time you ask fellow writers to blurb your book, let them know they can turn it into a review and post it on DR. A Dactyl Review which gets to go into the ‘editorial review’ section on Amazon. We are here to help literary fiction writers help each other.”


To reach Tori you can call her at 845-667-9114, email her at alexander@dactyl.org, or read more about her organization at dactylreview.org. And, needless to say, I welcome your comments here on The Cockeyed Pessimist

*         *         *

COMING UP NEXT WEEK AND THE WEEK AFTER is a two-part blog from Danner Darcleight entitled An Uncommon Bond. Danner's prison memoir, Concrete Carnival, will be published by us in September (along with Marsilio in Italy and Blackstone Audio in the USA) and will likely be talked about domestically and throughout the world as he is a supremely gifted writer. Darcleight is 39 years old and has already served 17 years of a 25-to-life sentence. In this two-part blog series he discusses his five year relationship with Lily, the woman he married while in prison.