Norman Spinrad has published over twenty novels in the last fifty years. He became affiliated with science fiction’s New Wave when he began to contribute to Michael Moorcock’s New Worlds magazine during the 1960s. His 1969 novel Bug Jack Barron, serialized in New Worlds, provoked a firestorm of controversy for its forthright depiction of sex, drugs, and radical politics. Spinrad continued to push the satirical envelope with The Iron Dream (1972), written in the persona of an alternate-history Adolf Hitler who, having failed as a dictator, becomes instead a bestselling heroic fantasy writer, author of a series called “Lord of the Swastika.” Other major works include the space operas The Void Captain’s Tale (1983) and Child of Fortune (1985), which infuse the subgenre with an erotic edge. His novel Mexica still has not found an American publisher, and the future publishing prospects of his next two novels, Welcome to Your Dreamtime and Police State, are also uncertain.
“The inside of the studio was actually the inside of a hundred million television sets. There was a creature bearing his name that lived in there (seeing out through monitor eyes, hearing with vidphone ears, monitoring its internal condition through prompt-board kinesthetic senses, shifting image-gears with the foot-buttons, ordering, threatening, granting grace all through the circuitry and satellites of that great gestalt of electronic integration, the network, into which he was wired, the masterswitch in the circuit) for one hour a week, a creature indeed, designed and built by him like a Frankenstein android, a creature of his will but only a segment of his total personality.”
—from Bug Jack Barron
Norman Spinrad: Bug Jack Barron was a transformational novel for me and not just in terms of my literary reputation, which it made, and, I guess I dare say it since it has been said often enough by others, for speculative fiction as a whole, and the irony of it was that it probably would not have been written the way it was, or even perhaps at all were it not for a certain naiveté on my part.
My third novel, The Men In the Jungle, was first conceived as a novelette for Harlan Ellison’s deliberately taboo-breaking original anthology Dangerous Visions — where the rules were no rules, where taboos existed to be broken — and it metamorphosed into a novel that ended up published by Doubleday, whose SF editor, Larry Ashmead, had no complaints. Indeed, like Harlan, he told me not to concern myself with genre limits, sexual content, politics, or any other taboos or constraints, so when I wrote the next novel, which would be Bug Jack Barron, under contract to Doubleday, I naively took him at his word.
The initial inspiration for Bug Jack Barron was the way the question of immortality was generally treated in science fiction — that is, no one had seriously dealt with the inevitability that it would initially be very expensive, and that it would confer enormous political power on whoever controlled it, indeed on whoever might even be able to promise it one way or another. The political consequences, and not in the far future, but in the immediate future. Thus Benedict Howards and his Foundation for Human Immortality.
But then I needed a political force powerful enough to counterbalance such a power in order to write the novel at all. I was reading Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media at the time, and the satori came to me that the only such power that could stand up to the power of the promise of eternal life was the power of television to transform, control, mutate, and manipulate individual and cultural consciousness, as McLuhan had made quite clear, at least to me.
I had also read Norman Mailer’s An American Dream, which had at least tangentially dealt with American Presidential politics and show biz, and somehow it all came together in the format of the Bug Jack Barron Show and the disillusioned former New Left idealistic politician who had “sold his soul to show biz” by becoming something of a safety valve for the political powers that be.But to write such a novel, I also had to invent a style that would not only convey the consciousness of Barron himself as transformed and evolved by his experience as both a media creation and a manipulator of his own televisual avatar but would also some give the reader something as close as I could manage, using words on paper, to the experience of actually watching the show on television itself.
This was 1967, and the novel became overtly and specifically political. This was 1967, and I did have a passionate political agenda, countercultural like Jack Barron himself up to a point, but like Jack Barron himself, cynical about political power as an addictive drug. This was 1967, and I had been told by my editor to kick out the jambs, that there were no rules or taboos.
But this was 1967 and the apogee of the culture wars, and when I turned in the manuscript Ashmead told me that Doubleday would or could only publish the novel if I took out the “dirty words,” the sex, and the politics.
That would turn it from a novel into a short novelette, I told him, Doubleday rejected the novel, and so did every American publisher to which it was submitted for something like a year, until Michael Moorcock published it as a serial in the British magazine New Worlds and the rest is fairly well-known literary and to some extent also political history.
The booksellers W.H. Smith refused to carry the magazine with the Bug Jack Barron serialization in it, the British Arts Council supported the magazine and the serialization, and it was attacked in Parliament for doing so, where I was called a degenerate, it all became a cause celebré, after which the novel was published in the United States and Britain, and then in a dozen or so other countries, including France where it became common reading for politicians, would-be politicians, and media people, and so on, and so forth, and it’s still in print in various countries decades later, all levels of people still want to make the film version, and it’s still considered politically and culturally relevant, still crazy after all these years.
Why? Literary critic or not, as the author I’m not exactly the best person to answer this question, but I think by now I can say why not. All the condemnation back in the day, in Parliament, in the science-fiction press, laid it on the explicit sex and four letter words, but these days there’s hardly anything in Bug Jack Barron that couldn’t be found in many Young Adult novels.
The style? Well, okay, most speculative fiction, indeed most fiction period, is still not written in such a defiantly non-transparent prose, but the same year or so that Bug Jack Barron was published, Brian Aldiss published Barefoot in the Head, Norman Mailer published Why Are We in Vietnam?, and Robert Heinlein published The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, all of which were likewise written in one-shot idiosyncratic prose styles crafted to convey the specific consciousnesses of the viewpoint characters — none of which, I venture to say, have had quite the legs of Bug Jack Barron.
Perhaps I’m dissembling, like those who attacked the novel for “pornographic sex” and “dirty” words back in the day, for of course the obvious truth, the answer to the question, that which could not be admitted lest those who attacked the novel on those spurious grounds be attacked themselves for supporting political censorship, is the challenge posed by its passionately radical political stance and analysis.The capture of political discourse and electoral politics by and for show business. The transmutation of show biz celebrities into political candidates. The means by which television corrupts democratic politics by its power to sell policies and candidates as if they were so much toilet paper and dog food.
Or as I wrote in a much more recent novel, Pictures at 11, sometimes called “an update of Bug Jack Barron”: “Show business trumps politics, and Hollywood trumps Washington.”
Plus ça change, c’est plus la même chose.
“The paradox [of the New Wave] being that there has always been more comprehension for the desire to break the bounds of genre, more emotional and intellectual support for the literarily adventurous speculative fiction from within the walls of the very ghetto from which is seeks to escape than from without.”
—from An Experiment in Autobiography
I was always indifferent to “genre” restrictions, requirements, and even existence, even when I was a teenage reader, seeing no contradiction or inherent difference of level of literary ambition or achievement among my favorite writers — Norman Mailer, Theodore Sturgeon, Mark Twain, Alfred Bester, Jack Kerouac, Philip K. Dick, Henry Miller, Ernest Hemingway, William Burroughs. I didn’t even know that the “science fiction subculture” existed until I had published a couple of novels.
What I came to learn later was that the existence of a commercially formulaic set of genre requirements targeting “science fiction” as a definable fan base restricted the literary possibilities and freedoms of what the so-called “New Wave” called speculative fiction, which is a literary definition, rather than a commercial genre description.
It was Michael Moorcock who claimed that speculative fiction was limited literarily by the genre restrictions of “science fiction” while so-called “literary mainstream fiction” had reached a creative dead end in terms of content due to its inability and unwillingness to even attempt speculative visionary extrapolation.
Or as I put it more bluntly at the time, “Science fiction deals trivially with matters of great cosmic importance while mainstream literary fiction uses its superior literary skills and powers to examine the lint in its own navel.”
Moorcock’s twin goals, Harlan Ellison’s with Dangerous Visions, and what I think can be fairly said I achieved with Bug Jack Barron, was to free speculative fiction from the literary shackles of “SF” genrification and free mainstream literary fiction from its constipated rejection of speculative content. Looking back, it can be said that the New Wave completely succeeded in freeing speculative fiction from the constraints of genrification, but even today so-called “mainstream literary fiction” writers have just begun to dip their toes into speculative content, and to be charitable, not yet doing a very impressive job of it.
“In the modern world, with its intellectual banishment of the supernatural to the guru farms of central California, with its exponentially mutating technosphere, with its Faustian domination of nature, it is difficult indeed to deal with the interactions of your characters’ psyches with the external environment, with the individual’s position in the body politic, with the forces of history and destiny, with the evolving nature of human consciousness itself, without being constrained to write science fiction.”
—from Science Fiction in the Real World
To the extent that such literary definitions are useful, distinctions must be made among “SF,” “Science Fiction,” and “Speculative Fiction.” Like Damon Knight, I once defined science fiction as anything published as science fiction, but these days that genre distinction has broken down, what with all sorts of outright fantasy being published in “SF” genre lines and both science fiction and fantasy loosely being labled “Sci-fi.”
Speculative fiction, on the other hand, has a coherent literary definition as any fiction containing one or more speculative elements — that is, the “could-be but-isn’t, at least not yet” that do not contradict the known physical laws of mass and energy or at least attempts to fudge such contradictions by suspending the reader’s disbelief by literary technique, something call “Rubber Science.”
“Science Fiction,” then, is easily and rigorously defined as speculative fiction in which at least one of the speculative elements is scientific or technological.
However, all that being said, for me at least, the true inner heart and spiritual center, the raison d’etre of speculative fiction, the reason that I mostly write it, is that by its very nature, by its taking nothing for granted, by its starting with a blank screen and mandate to construct a fictional total surround, and creating the very consciousness of the characters within it, it is centrally concerned with how the external surround interacts with, creates, and transforms human consciousness and vice versa. A task which most other forms of fiction do not and to a large extent cannot address but which in the 21st Century is more central to human destiny than ever before. Or, if you object to that as species chauvinism, is central to the destiny of all sentient consciousness in the material realm.
“Legend had it that Stal Held had ordered the weapon forged by a hidden community of captive wizards who had preserved the lore of the ancients through the Time of Fire and far beyond.... By some lost art, these baleful wizards had so constructed the truncheon that only Held himself and the true bearers of his genetic pattern down through the centuries could wield it. The mysterious alloy out of which the weapons had been forged gave it the weight of a huge boulder, no ordinary man could budge it, let alone wield it. But contact with flesh shaped by the royal genes triggered the release of some inexhaustible power within the Great Truncheon, so that in the hand of a hero of the true royal pedigree, the Steel Commander could be wielded as effortlessly as a willow wand, though to those who felt its wrath it had the mass of a small mountain.”
—from The Iron Dream
When I was living in London, Mike Moorcock was churning out a dozen heroic fantasy novels a year to support New Worlds, not all of them under his own name by any means. When I asked him how he could do it, he told me he could type 60 words a minute, but he really didn’t master it until he figured out that the way to write such stuff was to take a mythic cycle or a piece of history and pump it full of phallic Freudian imagery.
“Oh,” I said, “you mean something like...the Third Reich....”
I had always been skeptical of the usual economic and political and cultural explanations of how a civilized and cultured people like the Germans could create and be captured by the “Iron Dream” of a nightmare like Nazi Germany. But looking at the rise, if not the fall, of Nazi Germany as a heroic fantasy novel, as a feverish, frustrated power fantasy written by an alternate Adolf Hitler who became merely a sci-fi hack rather than der Fuhrer, was a way to explain to myself, and hopefully to others, how our Hitler did it in the real world, with phallic imagery, media manipulation on a deep archetypal level, music, oratory, and so forth, that appealed to and captured not the communal psyche but the communal id.
Algis Budrys, who had been there as a boy in Lithuania when Hitler visited, told me that many people who attended a live Hitler performance quite literally shat in their pants and panties with ecstasy.
And like the “Great Truncheon of Stal Held” in the novel, The Iron Dream was and is a sort of double-edged sword, an explication of Nazi Germany to be sure, but also a revelation of the true appeal of an all-too-familiar form of “heroic fantasy” even today, and hopefully an exorcism of it in the hearts and minds of the innocent.
In the 1930s and into the 1940s, Hitler, after all, was a dedicated fan of heroic fantasy in the form of Wagnerian opera, and at the same time, did not a certain other form of similar fantasy have its own fandom, and was it not called “space opera”?
“If the floating cultura contained its fair share and then some of subsidized children of fortune, wealthy sybarites, refugees from ennui, and their attendant parasitic organisms, did these not serve as a communal matrix for the merchants, artists, scientist, aesthetes, and pilgrims who travelled among the stars for higher purposes? In ancient days, the courts of monarchs served as similar distillations of the more rarefied essences of human culture; these too were gilded cages filled with self-pampered birds of paradise, but in their precincts were to be found the philosophers, artists, and mages of the age.”
—from The Void Captain’s Tale
The Void Captain’s Tale and Child of Fortune were written in sequence and set in the same far-future Second Starfaring Age, and they are both written in first person: The Void Captain’s Tale by the void ship captain Genro Kane Gupta, Child of Fortune by Wendy Shasta Leonardo, a mature writer telling the tale of her younger self’s wanderjahr, each in their own unique “sprach” of the universal “Lingo.”
So on the one hand, these two novels should be considered together as being set in the same fictional future, but on the other hand, Wendy and Genro are two very different sorts of characters, their narrative styles are different, more Germanic in the case of Genro, more Latino in the case of Wendy, as befits his darker and more constipated personality and her lighter and more positive one.So neither what Genro says about the floating cultura and the Second Starfaring Age nor what Wendy says should be taken as the whole picture. They’re not so much unreliable narrators as narrators with different points of view and styles of consciousness.
What I was trying to do with the Second Starfaring Age was not write some kind of postmodern space opera or a criticism or satire thereof, but create a far-future starfaring culture taken much more seriously than the usual such thing is.
Three thousand years from now, barring the usual convenient apocalyptic cultural amnesia and taking into account the enormous wealth of books, discs, chips, tapes, and so forth that we have today, the Second Starfaring Age would have total access to all previous human history and cultural legacy. This culture would have long since mastered the sciences and technologies of mass and energy. It would not wage war. Its language would be Lingo, a universal tongue more or less understood by all, composed of many former national languages, with each Lingo speaker choosing their own personal “sprach.”. And so on.
A culture far superior to our own in every aspect including the moral, but no perfected utopia, with the paradox at its core being that the Jump Drive, the faster-than-light technology based on “platform orgasm,” the very thing that makes a Second Starfaring Age possible, the legacy of the vanished aliens known as We Who Have Gone Before, and a mystery whose ultimate reality these perfect masters of mass and energy cannot fathom.
“I had heard it had been said that Hell was the absence of God. And from the evidence before me, my betrayal and that of the beurs by the Caliphate, the deeds that I had done in the belief I was serving the Will of Allah, and most of all the ruthless and cynical actions of America and how it now seemed they would allow that Great Satan to prevail as the ruler of a world deprived of justice by the power of military might alone, I found it impossible not to believe, no matter how hard I tried, that the Earth was that Hell.”
—from Osama the Gun
I was in New York on 9/11 and close enough to Ground Zero to see and smell the pillars of smoke and fire on that day, in the apartment of my friend Dona Sadock in a zone closed to vehicular traffic, and a bit later I was commissioned to write about it for the French newspaper Liberation — twice in fact, first in the immediate afterward, and again reflecting upon it a year later.
Any number of novels were written about it before Osama the Gun, but they were almost entirely about narrowly-focused psychological reactions to the event by Americans. Indeed, Dona and I had been together in the 1970’s, had broken up, had been married to other people, and had come back together in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, so I thought I had the impetus to write one of these reflections myself, which I called Love During Wartime. But the novel never came together. I was often asked why I wasn’t writing a “9/11” novel, and my response was always that it was too soon, the people who were writing this stuff weren’t really ready to tackle this subject as it needed to be tackled, as their novels demonstrated, and neither was I, the difference being that I knew it.
But my ex-wife, N. Lee Wood, who had written Waiting for the Madhi, a novel set in a near-future Muslim Middle East, had done a lot of research for it, and I had gotten interested and read it all myself. And what with the war in Afghanistan, the rise of a transnational Al Qaida and a jihad whose ultimate vision was the establishment of a new Islamic Caliphate, and the sort of writer that I am, I came to the rather terrifying realization that my “9/11 novel” had to be something like Osama the Gun.
If for no other reason than no one else was daring to do it. I’m no political naif. I’ve lived in France for over a decade. I’m rather well-travelled. For a non-Muslim, I’m well-grounded in Islam, having, among other things, read the Koran twice, if only in English translation. I am something of a political figure because I am not exactly an apolitical writer, having, after all, been denounced in the British Parliament over political issues however well-concealed, having had The Iron Dream semi-banned in Germany and liberated from the German Index only after an eight-year legal battle that I followed in my lousy German, having been a political columnist for a major Underground newspaper, and so forth. I’ve worked as a literary agent, I’ve been President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. I had my commercial viability destroyed when Sonny Mehta, the Grand Poobah of Knopf, torpedoed The Druid King, to the point where Mexica, a best-seller in Spanish translation in Mexico, still hasn’t been able to find an American publisher.
So I knew the score. I knew what I was getting into. I knew what the political tea leaves said. I knew that one reason no one had published a novel like Osama the Gun was because, as one rejection letter would say many tries later, “No American publisher would touch a novel like this with a fork.” Still less if written by someone without the bottom-line power of a Stephen King or Philip Roth.
But I also knew that the very reasons why Osama the Gun was going to be so difficult to get published were the reasons I had to write it. Because someone had to write it. Because things being what they were, the Western body politic, indeed the Islamic body politic, the Umma, needed to read a story like this. And since no one else seemed to be willing to take on the task, and I at least was under no illusion as to what that literary task was, like it or not, and my practical publishing street-smart self certainly didn’t, it seemed I was stuck with it.
Sympathy for the Devil, as the title of a Rolling Stones song put it, and that was what I was compelled to write. Sympathy for the Devils. Both of them. The Great Satan was what the United States had become for the Islamic Umma; indeed Osama bin Laden had in effect quite deliberately created that identity for America and the West in order to marshal up a Jihad that would restore the long-lost Caliphate of his fever-dreams. And America had fallen right into the trap, demonizing Islam itself, not merely bin Laden and the jihadis, creating its own Great Satan, and thus perfecting the Jihad, the apocalyptic clash of civilizations that Benjamin Barber called Jihad vs. McWorld.
I have often said and written that the real battle is not between good and evil but between differing concepts of the good. That is the true nature of the clash of civilizations between the modernized, globalized democratic civilization epitomized by America, and the civilization of “fundamentalist” Islam for which the Koran is the immutable last Word of Allah and Sharia law is its unchanged and unchangable extension.
For “McWorld,” democracy, the consent of the governed, the will of the people, is the only source of political legitimacy, the highest political good. From a strict fundamentalist Koranic point of view, democracy is evil because it allows popular vote and legislation by human beings to override the Will of Allah as expressed in the Koran, which is the only source of political legitmacy from that point of view. What Islam sees as the good of protection of the honor and virtue of women, McWorld sees as evil phallocratic chauvinism. What McWorld sees as the right of freedom of religion, Islam sees as heresy. What McWorld champions as the right of freedom of expression, Islam condemns as blasphemy. Islam champions Sharia as the font of justice, McWorld sees it as brutal savagery.
“Radios the size of cigarette packages were available in the souks for next to nothing. Western films and music stored on chips the size of a thumbnail fell from the skies like rain. Efforts to maintain perfect firewalls around the censored interior Califate Internet were futile. Illegal satellite antenna balloons were far from uncommon and mighty broadcast satellites, far out in geosyncronous orbit blasted out pornography, propaganda, and advertising. The electronic rantings of priests and evangelists and rabbis were easy for the Faithful to ignore but the “entertainment” and “advertising” were created to appeal to the base desires that lurk within even the most righteous Muslim by powerful djins of these black arts of seduction.”
—from Osama the Gun
These differences are real. These differences are not trivial. These differences are moral questions with complexities and ambiguities. Islam’s critique of McWorld is not without a certain validity. Nor is McWorld’s critique of Islam in the real world. Both are on the side of the good in their own eyes. Both are on the side of evil in the eyes of the other. From a binocular perspective, both have virtues, both have immoralities. Both can be and are right and wrong at the same time.
Therein lies the story of Osama the Gun, a young man of a Caliphate reborn, a sweet and likeable soul who begins as a sincere and innocent Muslim and stepwise stumbles and is seduced into committing greater and greater acts of what in the end both sides of the divide would finally agree are evil, and yet somehow remains likeable or at least sympathetic on a personal level. To the extent that I have succeeded in what I was trying to do, in the end, I would hope to leave the reader agreeing with the Christian maxim “Hate the sin, love the sinner.”
In English, Muslim political extremism is called “Islamic fundamentalism,” but in French it is called “integrisme,” and the French, who confront something like five million French Muslims, have it right. Salafists, jihadhis, Al Qaida, the Caliphate of Osama the Gun, are not “fundamentalist,” quite the contrary. True Islamic fundamentalists understand that the Koran and the Koran alone is the immutable Word of Allah transmitted via Mohammed, who is the Prophet, but neither a supernatural being nor a Pope, while Sharia law is a human creation of Mohammed as the first Caliph, a political ruler, and the haditha is something like Western case-law precedent, so that their alteration by democratic decision is not heresy.
The French term “integrisme” is usually translated as “fundamentalism” but that is quite wrong, if subtly so. What the French mean by “integriste Muslims” is Muslim extremists, Muslims, who, contrary to fundamentalist Muslims, believe that “Islam is the answer” to everything, not just as revealed in the Koran, but expanded to cultural norms like beards, modes of dress, the inferior status of women, and so forth as expounded in the Sharia and haditha.
Far from being fundamentalists, these Muslims are radicals, one might even argue heretics themselves, denying as they do the fundamental difference between the Word of Allah as delivered in the Koran and traditional tribal mores and laws written by the hand of man.
“It all seemed as Cortes had told me; we were a liberating army of Christian soldiers parading through a fair countryside towards final victory over a hated and bloodthirsty tyrant, expanding the borders of New Spain as we went and leaving in our wake a grateful peasantry won over to Christ and King. I was almost able to persuade myself that the massacre we had put behind us was justified. For had not this lesser evil produced a greater good, the liberation of whole nations from far more sanguinary cannibalistic sacrifice and in a pacific manner?”
I would contend, and have contended in both Mexica and Osama the Gun, that first contact and subsequent contentious confrontation between two different human civilizations is the most fundamental driving factor of most of human history. Europeans in the Americas versus the native American cultures and political structures in both Continents. The French, the British, the Dutch, the Spanish, the Germans, and the Portuguese in Africa. The British in India. The Americans in Japan. And so forth, and so on, time out of mind.
And first contact between homo sapiens and extraterrestial aliens has, of course, been a central staple of science fiction for a century or so. Interestingly enough, in my opinion, it was Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, who got it morally, culturally, and politically right with his creation of the “Prime Directive” of his fictional interstellar Federation — namely, that it is forbidden to interfere in the internal evolution of another culture. Period. No matter how morally good and beneficial intervention by so-called “superior civilization” might seem to be to that civilization itself.
Given the record of several millenia of human history and the current state of this world, who can really deny that our species as a whole should adopt the Prime Directive before we even begin to dream of venturing any further from terra firma into terra incognita? And we should hope that if there are civilizations “superior” to our own out there, they have long since done likewise.
“You see where this mathematical regression is going, don’t you? Sooner or later right down the willy-hole to an unpublishablity that has nothing at all to do with the literary quality of a writer’s work, or the loyalty of a reasonable body of would-be readers, or even the passionate support of an editor below the very top of the corporate pyramid.”
—from The Publishing Death Spiral
The publishing industry has been said to be in a state of transformation, what with the ebook tail beginning to wag the ink-and-paper dog, the brick-and-mortar chains that overpowered the independent bookstores reduced to one, namely Barnes & Noble, and that one being in trouble what with Amazon dominating retail sales of both ebooks and ink-and-paper books, formerly independent publishers gobbled up by a handful of conglomerates and reduced to brand names, and so on.
Transformation? Transformation into what? It’s more accurate to admit that the publishing industry is in a state of chaos because its entire archaic and dysfunctional business model has broken down. Broken down not only by the advent of ebooks, the rise of Amazon as the primary retailer, the collapse of mass market paperback distribution, and the conglomeritization of the industry into a few behemoths, who, like the brontosaurs of yore, often seem to have more brains in their asses than in their heads, but also by the degeneration of what should be at least a partially artistic and cultural decision-making processes, analog if you will, into the digital bottom-line calculations of BookScan Nielson ratings and marketing algorithms.
In a very real sense, all of us involved in publishing are victims of this mess, including readers, whose choices are limited by what this defective machinery is churning out. Independent bookstores whose proprietors and staff at least know the tastes of their customers have been driven up against the wall by chains like Barnes & Noble, and now the last chain standing is being driven towards the tarpits by Amazon. Major independent publishing has become largely impossible. Power has shifted dramatically from those who actually produce the product to those who market it and retail it, from literary and cultural concerns to strict bottom-line mathematical decision making processes.Since there are fewer and fewer publishers, writers have many fewer chances to place their work, and whether it is published or not is determined far more by BookScan ratings than by editorial taste.
Indeed, a writer’s chances of publishing his next book are pretty much circumscribed by the BookScan numbers of the last one he published and by “order to net,” which have created the so-called Death Spiral. For example, if a publisher prints 5000 copies of a hardcover, and sells 4000, that’s an 80% sell-through, which is really excellent — indeed, in the real world, beyond excellent. But “order to net” means that the publisher will print 4000 copies of that writer’s next book, and an 80% sell-through on that is 3200 copies, so that becomes the next print order, and 80% of that is 2560, and that is long since condition terminal.
And if a novel does not sell-through a publisher’s wet-dream 80% or even a realistic industry standard of 50%, if it is a BookScan flop, a second chance is highly unlikely; no matter how good the writer’s next book is, it is unlikely to be published. So that one ratings flop, even if the result of a publisher’s incompetence or indifference, even if the result of actual hissy-fit malice, can, intentionally or not, actually terminate writing careers.
I know this from sad, frustrating, and infuriating experience, I know this because it has happened to me.
Sonny Mehta, head-of-house at Knopf, probably the single most powerful publishing executive in the United States, was instrumental in acquiring my novel The Druid King because I knew him, or rather he knew me, way back in the New Wave days in London, when he was a lowly paperback sci-fi editor, and I was the cause celebré author of Bug Jack Barron.
Not unreasonably or unexpectedly, given his current position and work-load, Sonny handed off the editing of The Druid King to Marty Asher, then the head of Vintage, a Knopf/Random House reprint imprint, with little experience therefore in originating novels, who required the submission of 200 pages or so of the novel in order for me to be paid a second partial advance.
Needing the money, but knowing that to stop writing first draft in the middle to rewrite a clean draft would be a creative disaster because I had done it once before, I tightened my belt, finished the whole first draft instead, and submitted that to Asher, figuring it was a lot more than he had asked for, and would also at least give me the benefit of creative editorial input.
But Asher just didn’t get it, he couldn’t be made to understand that what I had sent him was not a mess but a rough first draft, probably because he had never had to deal with a first draft before, and he dithered endlessly and inconclusively whether to reject the novel or not. It went on and on and on, until I had finally had enough, until I finally prevailed on Sonny, who was very experienced in dealing editorially with early drafts and who I figured would understand, to get a shit-or-get-off-the-pot decision made, and the good news was that Knopf ended up publishing The Druid King.
The bad news was that when I saw the cover illustration, my heart sank. It was so counterproductive in terms of drawing the eye in bookstore racks that when it came out even I walked past the new-books racks without noticing it three times before I finally saw it.
The Druid King had been scheduled for May publication, a decent month, but when I got the catalog, it wasn’t there in May, it had been dumped into August, well-known as a death-slot month, maybe the worst month possible for publication. When, in something of a funk, I called the line editor who had told me the book was scheduled in August and demanded to know what the hell had happened, he told me he had no idea either but would try to find out.
When he did, he told me in a daze that Sonny himself had done it unilaterally all by himself. And when The Druid King was published, the advertising that had been promised was not forthcoming. When I came to New York at my own expense to do PR armed with a tape I had done of an interview I had made with Woody Allen as a demo, the Knopf publicity department got me exactly nothing.
Unsurprisingly, the BookScan numbers for The Druid King stank. Knopf rejected the option novel, which was Mexica, the next book I wrote, and neither Mexica nor Osama the Gun, the novel I wrote after that, have been able to find an American publisher. Many people have suggested that I’ve been blackballed for political reasons, which I suppose might seem plausible, given my record of political controversy. But I think not.
Because I know that given the current state of the publishing industry, the tanking of one novel can tank a whole decades-long career.
Why, you may well ask (I certainly have), did Sonny Mehta do what he did? I can only guess. And all I can come up is that when I asked him to intervene with Asher, I had gone a step too far, I had committed what in his mind was a species of lèse majesté — or as a Bob Dylan line put it, “Please don’t let on that I knew you when.”
“Now is the time for a futile gesture.”
—a slogan of the Irish Republican Army
My latest finished novel is Welcome to Your Dreamtime, written and published in large part as a series of stories in six different print and online magazines because I had been told by people I respected that what I wanted to do was impossible, and I wasn’t so sure I could do it myself.
Because the premise of Welcome to Your Dreamtime is the invention of the Dream Master, a device something like a DVD deck, but that plays dreamchips, which give you dreams created by dreamwriters, so that you the reader are the viewpoint character. So that the novel has to be writen almost entirely in second person singular. And though the dreams themselves were well-received, the novel as a whole tells the overall story of the rise of a schlock genre to a true art-form, its demise via malicious piracy, and its ultimate rebirth, via a dream, that if the novel is entirely successful, will teach at least some readers lucid dreaming and something that is the next stage beyond.
It will be published in France in November, but has no English-language publisher yet. I’ve just finished, or perhaps almost just finished, my next novel, Police State. It’s been said that my writing of so many different kinds of novels, while a literary virtue, has been a commercial vice. Maybe so, maybe not. But I have to admit that even I find it a bit surprising to have found myself writing a Southern regional!
Police State is set in New Orleans, is not science fiction, is deeply involved with the specifically regionally and specifically outré politics of Louisiana, voodoo, the New Orleans Police, banking scams and schemes, and the interfaces between all of these things.
Am I optimistic about finding American publishers for either or both of these novels? I’d be a fool if I said I was, I’d be dissembling to avoid public embarrassment. Especially, after I submitted a 100-page treatment for Police State — which was enough to get me a contract for an uncompleted novel from my French publisher, something very rare in France, and which has already garnered some movie feelers — to an editor who has openly expressed great admiration for my work. He rejected it without even taking it to his publication committee. Even though he praised it effusively in literary terms and told me that it would surely be a major best-seller if properly published. But, he told me, with brutal honesty, the only way it could be published at all was if a head of house with the power to roll the bones beyond the BookScan numbers got behind it and rescued it and me.
And his head of house wouldn’t. And the heads of house who even had that power were now few and far between.
And the only head of house that I know who may be the only head of house with such bottom-line overriding power is ... Sonny Mehta.
So I’ve submitted Police State to Sonny. Do I expect him to publish it? Not really. But who knows, perhaps I misjudge him. I do believe in the Christian notion that repentance should be met with forgiveness. And that those who have sinned against you should at least be offered the possibility of redemption. And the Jewish notion that it is possible for anyone to become a mensch by acting like one. And the French notion of the beau geste. And it’s self-defeating not to do well by doing good.
And if not...
Hollywood trumps New York. And at least I’m still in show business.