27 January 2011

Ebook advice, from a complete tyro.

So I didn't attend the Digital Book World conference this week, but I did read this drinking game, so I feel totally qualified to offer advice to publishers about the ebook future. My one piece of advice is this:

Go read MS Paint Adventures.

This is a webcomic, sort of, that started as interactive fiction--in the first couple of stories, readers could suggest things for the characters to do next, and the author, Andrew Hussie, would pick a suggestion and go with it. It doesn't really operate on this paradigm anymore, but the stories are still written like a mock computer game, with puzzles to solve and bosses to fight. He publishes several pages every day or so, and the scope of the most recent two adventures is just dazzling: Problem Sleuth runs to 1700 pages, published over a year, and Homestuck started in April 2009 and is still going! The first's a gritty noir, the second the tale of four friends playing a computer game that will destroy--and save--the world. Both are full of whimsy and imagination and time loops. YE GODS THE TIME LOOPS WILL DESTROY YOUR BRAIN. It's just great writing, great art--both have some animated pages, and Homestuck even has embedded music (written by collaborating readers) and sometimes adorbs little Flash games. Which I am terrible at, because I have the spatial sense of an ambrosia salad.

What I think publishers could glean from this--besides hours and hours of goofy entertainment--is a sense of the possibility inherent in digital storytelling. MS Paint Adventures are much closer to novels than films, if only because the reader controls the speed of the experience (I have been forcibly limiting myself to an hour and a half of Homestuck a day for the past week or so)--but there's a multimedia, collaborative, friendly experience to it that ebook creators would do well to emulate. I would love if this became the paradigm for an entirely new genre of novel.

Of course, it's all free, and therein lies the rub. I should buy a T-shirt. This one, you think? Or this?


It snowed like crazy again here last night, but I still plan to trudge my way up to WORD (oh-so-soon to be my neighborhood bookstore!) to attend the launch party for Eloisa James's When Beauty Tamed the Beast, where there will be champagne and cupcakes and (I suspect) the marvelous conviviality of estrogen. It's gonna be off the hook, as the kids say. Though they probably don't still say that.

Remember when I read Beyond Heaving Bosoms, and it was the most hilarious thing I'd read in ages? It also got me curious about romance novels again--I was definitely mistaken in that previous post about not having read a romance novel cover to cover, because I read several by Rebecca Brandewyne when I interviewed her for The Shocker (Wichita State's alumni magazine. The school mascot is an angry shock of wheat, so get your mind out of the gutter) back in '04. (You should read that article: my first, and to date only, cover story; I'm still super proud of it.) Her novels--especially the early ones I read, No Gentle Love and Heartland--were pretty much (as the Smart Bitches would say) rapetastic, but I liked them nonetheless.

Returning to the present: it was my aforementioned high school bestie, now a romance novelist herself, sent me the link to tonight's event on Facebook with a note boiling down to DO EEEET! Ms. James is one of her all-time faves, so I'm totally willing to fetch her a signed copy; and because I like to have read something by an author before I go to their event (a quirk that has undoubtedly made me miss some great events, mea culpa), I asked Theresa for suggestions and checked out A Kiss at Midnight and Desperate Duchesses. And I loved both of them!! The first, as the title implies, is a riff on the Cinderella story, complete with wicked stepmother and glass slippers (made, ingeniously, out of see-through stiffened taffeta); the second's the first in a series that I must get more of, set in Georgian England, and OMG SO RACY! There's strip dominoes! And sex in a boat!!!!!

I shan't bore you with more of my yammering about the bullshit distinction between "genre" and Serious Literary Fiction (anyway, Caroline Leavitt says it much better than I), but here's throwing my two cents in the ring about why romance is so sneered at (Hell, my D&D group looked a bit askance at Kiss at Midnight when I pulled it out on the subway. After we'd spent the whole evening fighting monsters with dice.). Besides, obvy, that it's mostly read by ladies--and OMG those ladies right? With their rotten taste, and their going to the bathroom in packs?--I feel there's a prevailing concept in the culture that in high art (movies or novels) that prides itself on Realism, sex must be bad sex. Either poorly executed, or suffused with melancholy, or angry or demeaning or violent or all of the above. It's rare for a sex scene to feature partners who genuinely like and care about each other and who both enjoy the encounter wholeheartedly, unless (as in the current wouldn't-watch-it-if-you-paid-me critical darling Blue Valentine) it's to serves as counterpoint for disintegration and misery down the line.

And yet I'd wager most sex isn't like this--starry-eyed, perhaps, but I think the kind of mutual, emotionally and physically satisfying sex that's Romance's stock in trade is much closer to the sex most couples have in this world, and always have. Sure, the trappings are fantasy--fabulous gowns! dashing dukes!--but the heart and the infatuation and the rush of falling in love all ring completely true for me. I think it's a valuable service the romance genre does for all of us: keeping good sex alive in fiction. And turning out sexy, fun books I, for one, am not ashamed to enjoy.

21 January 2011

Two wars.

Via the quirks of the Brooklyn Public Library, I'd two unremitting-horror-of-war books checked out at the same time: E.B. Sledge's classic WWII Pacific memoir, With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa, and It Was the War of the Trenches by French graphic novelist Jacques Tardi, an episodic Great War comic just released in English by Fantagraphics.

Sledge's prose is almost entirely unadorned, and therein lies its power: there is no romanticizing, no rationalizing, not a shred of glamour in his account of fighting with the 1st Marine Division in two fierce, weeks-long battles on Pacific islands--the largely forgotten (and largely pointless) Peleliu, and Okinawa, the last great offensive of the war (though the soldiers didn't know it--they were simply preparing a base for the invasion of Japan. My 18-year-old paternal grandfather was waiting with the invasion force when the bombs were dropped.). He is matter-of-fact about mud and shit and maggots, the stench of a battlefield covered with corpses in various states of decay and crowded with unwashed living men, and the sometimes shameful treatment of the enemy dead by his fellow Marines--wrenching out gold teeth as trophies was common. At the same time, he is straightforward and sometimes heartwrenching about the emotional range of the soldier: despair, courage, and the wholly unique camaraderie that occurs between fighting men--a human relationship with no peaceful parallel. Sledge sums up the paradoxes of war better than I can:
War is brutish, inglorious, and a terrible waste. Combat leaves an indelible mark on those who are forced to endure it. The only redeeming factors were my comrades' incredible bravery and their devotion to each other.

Tardi's Great War* graphic novel is of course not an eyewitness account. It was originally published in chapters, over a span of 12 years, and there's no overarching narrative--it follows several different French soldiers, mostly to their deaths. The drawings are black-and-white, stark, and horrific (in fact, I think I upset a couple sitting across from me on the subway with the cover, which prominently features corpses, barbed wire, and rats). The French experience of the war was slightly different from other countries--for one thing, their trenches were shoddily built and maintained, especially compared to the Germans--and they were also the only army to mutiny on a large scale, in 1917 (43% of infantry divisions were "destabilized" by men refusing to remain in the front-line trenches; 24,000 were convicted of mutiny. More information will be forthcoming in 2017, when the last of the military archives will be released). This is borne out in Tardi's fiction by anger and misery among the men. There's also a fascinating catalogue of various colonial troops--Senegalese, Algerians, Vietnamese--dragged thousands of miles by imperial masters for the privilege of dying in the mud.

I'm fond of saying that all great war movies/novels/etc. are also great anti-war works, and vice versa; both of these more than qualify, and I'd highly recommend them, with of course the caveat that because they are true, they are not pretty, and if you're anything like me you will require your next couple of books to be frothy and delightful (I am countering with a couple of Eloisa James romance novels). They have also finally determined me to eventually read Karl Marlantes's much-ballyhooed-by-people-I-trust Vietnam epic Matterhorn, after a decent amount of time has elapsed.

*N.B.: I am wholly aware that referring to WWI as "the Great War" is an affectation, and it is TOTALLY OKAY if you roll your eyes when I do it. I just feel very, very strongly that it is too often relegated to the role of prequel to the war which came after it. If it were up to me to name conflicts that took place decades before I was born and affected millions of people (which really, would indicate something terribly wrong with the world), I would call them both the Great War, since the later was a product of the vindictive "peace" that resulted from the earlier.
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