On Whimsy and Lizards

Life, as we know, is rarely fair; and things, as we also know, are rarely equal. And, it would appear, never has life been less fair or more unequal than in the case of Rowe vs. Literary Estate of P. G. Wodehouse. As the more tenacious of readers to this blog may remember, some years ago I had the itch to write a literary parody of P. G. Wodehouse‘s immortal characters, involving Bertie Wooster and Jeeves and the gang in a bloody mash-up with zombie literature. The result was Bertie Wooster and the Lizard King, a work that even its staunchest literary champions would admit posed absolutely no threat to Wodehouse’s standing as one of the titans of English comedic prose style.

Being the honest cove that I am, I approached the estate for permission to print or distribute—for free or with monies going to a charity of their choice—and was told never to disseminate this work in any way. Imagine, therefore, my surprise when one of the fans of BWLK emailed me with a link to a collection of parodies of Wodehouse currently for sale on Amazon, expressing the hope that its presence would encourage me to do the same. Entitled Whimsy & Soda, this book by Matthew David Brozik is not discernibly different in genre than mine (although probably a good deal funnier and better executed). Like mine, Mr. Brozik’s volume contains all sorts of disclaimers that it hasn’t been authorized and is a parody, and so forth. Why, one is tempted to ask, is this book OK, and mine not?

In fact, Mr. Brozik had contacted me in 2012 to find out how I’d coped with the Wodehouse Estate. He took things into his own hands, and has written about it (amusingly and fluently) it here (I’m the sad unfortunate whom MDB mentions!). In further correspondence today, he writes:

I entered into a written agreement with the Estate. After the Estate came down on me, my well-regarded IP [Intellectual Property] lawyer colleague/friend and I wrote the Estate’s counsel a letter explaining just why they were in the wrong, legally. They backed down on three conditions: 1. I couldn’t write any more than the 12 stories in my collection; 2. I had to change the title (I proposed, and the Estate agreed to, WHIMSY & SODA); and 3. I had to indicate in the book itself that the stories are parodic and not authorized. I considered the whole thing pretty much a win.

So, there you have it. I will have to consider my next steps.

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How Do I Get Rid of Books?

Books decaying in Detroit

Books decaying in Detroit

Occasionally, a beleaguered bibliophile will ask me how to shift a bunch of books that they no longer need but don’t want to throw away. Books may be wonderful in many ways, but they are bad for the environment when they end up in a landfill, decomposing slowly and releasing methane—and who wants that to happen? Luckily, a number of options exist for those who want to tidy up an apartment. Here are a few of them:

  • Secondhand bookstores. I’m not just talking about The Strand (or your local equivalent), but Housing Works (or your local equivalent), Goodwill (ask beforehand if your local branches take books), and even your local library. You may not get a lot of money for them, but at least they’ll be in a place where other book-lovers congregate. These options are especially good if you have a lot of popular fiction or practical titles.
  • Freecycle. This amazing service allows people to give away (and pick up) stuff . . . for free. You’ll often find bookpeople on Freecycle. In Brooklyn, where I live, a guy runs an unofficial circulating library service for senior citizens throughout the borough.
  • Ebay or Amazon. You could set yourself up as a vendor of secondhand books, but that might be just too much effort, and you’re not really interested in the pennies you will make versus the amount of time and labor you’ll spend getting all those books up online. But it’s an option if you have a lot of time and patience.
  • Local schools. Schools too may need books: especially classics and hardy perennials, which can be given to needy students. Call them up and see if they’re interested. Here‘s an organization that does precisely that.
  • Overseas. Consider donating books overseas, where libraries may be scarce and the hunger for knowledge and information—especially practicing and learning English—may be great. Here is a website on that might help.
  • Books Through Bars. This organization takes books of special interest to prisoners and sends them, or takes donations of books and money. Consider helping this organization (or your local equivalent).
  • Stoop sales and a box outside your apartment/house. If you’re in a heavily trafficked area, just take a bunch of books outside and watch them disappear. Make sure to take the box in if it looks like rain or snow, or night is falling.

I’ve found that it really helps to sort the books you’re thinking of getting rid of into subject categories. Doing so makes your book collection more useable to potential collectors, and will certainly make them more attractive to people with special interests.

You may own some books of disputed worth to anyone—Fodor’s Hawaii (1975 edition), for instance. In which case, my advice is to get yourself a shredder and rip the book into segments. You can either put the paper pieces out for recycling, or use them as bedding for your worm-bin, or as absorptive material for the old paint you’re disposing of, or even stuffing for a pillow. Either way, you keep the books out of the landfill and free up a little more space to . . . yes, buy more books!

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Animal Rights Fiction: A Solution?

The two questions I get asked most frequently at Lantern are: (1) “Do you publish fiction on animal advocacy?” (“No.”), and (2) “Do you know of any publishers that do?” I mention Ashland Creek Press (doing sterling work in this area), but then usually observe that, when it comes to fiction, it’s not so much the subject matter as the genre that counts (literary fiction, mystery, thriller, romance, sci-fi, fantasy, etc.). If your work is a good fit generically, then the subject matter fades in importance (although you hope that the editor/agent will be persuaded by the vividness of your prose to adopt your cause).

Options exist, of course, for self-publishing, and there now are a raft of e-book publishers offering varying degrees of access for readers or writers. Recently, however, I’ve been convinced that a much more exciting and viable route is opening up for animal advocates who love to read or write fiction . . . of whatever kind. Regular readers of this blog will know that I’ve been placing my short stories on Wattpad, a popular site for free genre e-fiction that is regularly trawled by editors and agents looking for new talent. Another platform is Smashwords, where you can offer lots of different kinds of work for free or for money. Both platforms allow a reader and writer to define their genre and sub-genre. Here are Wattpad’s genres; here are Smashwords’s.

Notice anything unusual? No “Animals” section. (This is strange, since many genres include animals in some way—good-looking people turning into wolves or bats, for instance, appears to be popular.) What would happen if writers about animals—short stories or long-form, of whatever genre—took to these and other platforms to showcase their work? Naturally, writers might have to set aside the dream of monetary gain (no matter how fantastical that might be), but it’s my bet that most writers, given the choice, would prefer to be widely read than earn a few shillings for their labor. However, this need not be a zero-sum game, and the benefits would be considerable.

A body of work from multiple authors under its own genre-heading would (a) attract readers who are interested in animals but not necessarily aware of the issues that we advocates care about; (b) provide community, solidarity, and mutual education for animal advocates who write fiction; and (c) offer agents and publishers access to talented writers and a sense of whether folks are interested in reading them. This, in turn, might turn into (d) potential publishing contracts for the more successful of the collective, and further encourage writers, readers, and publishers to pay attention.

Writers (and publishers) have to go where their readers are. Increasingly, those readers are going online to join communities of likeminded fans to read and write fiction (of admittedly variable quality) that is immediately accessible. This is especially true of fiction and genre fiction in particular. It would be a shame if animal advocates missed out.

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Habeas Corpus: An Analysis

I’ve posted another short story on Wattpad, this one almost entirely lighthearted. It was my immediate response to learning the premise of Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. “I can only imagine,” I said to myself, and “Habeas Corpus” was the result of that imagining. To my surprise, when I no longer needed to imagine and actually read Gilbert’s book, I found my story eerily prescient—both conceptually and thematically. “Habeas Corpus” is, as its title suggests, a reflection on what it means to have a body and to be subject to its desires. The story is about Carol, needy and impulsive, whose wish for a kind of transcendence is thwarted by her own choices and, more pointedly, by the preconceptions, judgments, and impulses of the men she encounters. It’s also a gentle satire on the language of self-help and personal growth. I had a lot of fun writing it, and I hope you will have as much—or even more—fun reading it.

Posted in Short Stories, Writing

Norm Phelps (1939–2014)

Norm Phelps

Norm Phelps

Norm Phelps—the author of four books (The Longest Struggle, The Great Compassion, The Dominion of Love, and Changing the Game), all of which were published by my company, Lantern Books—died on the last day of last year, less than a year after the passing of Rynn Berry: another writer,  independent scholar, and friend. I was proud to be Norm’s publisher and learned a huge amount from his work and his insights. He was an exceptional writer. Not only was his prose clear and passionate, but he presented his manuscripts with the highest degree of professionalism. They were accurately footnoted and properly formatted, which saved me a great deal of time and gave me extra confidence that Norm knew what he was talking about. He received my editorial suggestions gracefully and willingly, again demonstrating how good a writer he was. (In my judgment, those who accept editorial suggestions are usually the best writers; those who refuse to change a word are the worst!)

Most importantly, Norm had something to say—and he did so with compassion as well as passion. He struck me as a very reasonable man: someone not interested in the petty brouhahas that bubble up constantly in the animal advocacy movement. He took the long view and I very much appreciated that. In fact, I thought Changing the Game precisely encapsulated his thesis that animal advocacy needs to place itself within the long arc of social justice movements and not worry about immediate success when other movements took many decades to do so.

I will be forever grateful for Norm’s vocal and demonstrable support for the magazine that I co-founded, Satya, and for Lantern, which he championed at every opportunity. Norm truly appreciated independence of thought, and put his time and money where his mouth was. He took books seriously—including, to my surprise, mine. He kindly took the time and the energy to review The Polar Bear in the Zoo and The Elephants in the Room at length and with his customary acumen and generosity. It’s rare these days to find people who’ll not only read your writing but pay you the compliment of an honest review. He did both, and I was deeply touched by that generosity.

I recall I first heard Norm speaks at an outdoor rally back in the early 2000s, when he worked for The Fund for Animals. I believe he was speaking on why the animal advocacy movement should reach out to people of faith. I don’t remember much of the day, except that it rained and Norm talked with the perspective of someone who’d lived his beliefs and wasn’t just spouting bromides and scriptural quotations.

In recent years, illness had hampered Norm’s ability to attend conferences and meet his fans. I  regret that I didn’t get to know him better over the years. We don’t honor our elders in the movement very well, and that’s very much to be regretted. Our company, the movement, and the world are much enhanced with Norm having been a part of all of them.

Posted in Editing—Publishing—Writing, Publishing, The Elephants in the Room, The Polar Bear in the Zoo, Writing | Tagged , ,

The Squeeze: An Analysis

Stuart Wilde

Stuart Wilde

This is a brief description of the source and origin of “The Squeeze,” a short story I posted on Wattpad a few weeks ago.

Way back in 1991, I worked as the mail-order manager for the U.K. distributor of a large number of small U.S. independent publishers—most of them specializing in New Age spirituality or alternative modalities of living and breathing. I wrote catalog copy and handled the mailing list and awaited the owner of the company (who doubled as the catalog designer) to get around to finishing his work. It so happened that he came from Canvey Island.

One of the individuals distributed by the company, and about whom I had to compose a few words, was a personal growth guru by the name of Stuart Wilde. Through the inspiration of the photograph above, he became the genesis of Mickey Melon. Now I have absolutely no evidence that Stuart Wilde, who died in 2013, was anything other than an upstanding and thoughtful counselor of the human condition. “The Squeeze” is by no means a statement on Stuart Wilde’s work and thought, about which I have no comment. The photo above says more about 1980s fashion than it does about Stuart, who, judging by the encomia on his website, appears to have had a sense of humor, which is how I would have hoped he would have taken this story, had he lived to read it.

I’ve always been interested in gurus who are part flimflam artists and part genuinely insightful into the spiritual life. In some ways, that may be my very definition of the guru. One day, I plan to write a novel about a character based on Simon Magus, the charismatic fraud who taunts St. Paul in Acts of the Apostles to prove exactly what makes him different from (and inferior to) Jesus Christ. I admire such an individual’s self-confidence and frequently accompanying wit, and so it is with the hapless Ganesh and the rambunctious force of nature that is Mickey Melon. And, like Melon, I happen to have no problem with the placebo as a means of healing. If it works, why worry about how or why?

Posted in Short Stories, Uncategorized, Writing | Tagged ,

Fçñp: An Analysis

The Sparrow

The Sparrow

A few weeks ago, I published a short story on Wattpad about a female named Fçñp (don’t worry: the name’s deliberately unpronounceable). Here are a few of my thoughts explaining my choices and some of intentions with the short story.

Several years ago, I was lying in a hammock under a cloudless blue sky at a beachside eco-resort in Belize (now there’s an opening clause!) reading Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow when I was overcome with an irresistible urge to parody it. The Sparrow and its sequel, Children of God, are two highly imaginative and wonderfully well-executed examples of “first-contact” narratives: stories of what happens when one civilization meets an alien society and there are no obvious means of communicating with and/or understanding the other. Russell is an anthropologist by profession, and her story of how a Jesuit-led mission to a distant planet in search of the beings who produce a beautiful music, and what happens when the mission arrives, is informed by the history of Western civilizations’ encounter with the Aztec, Inca, and Mayan empires (as well as the societies of the native peoples of North America). She admirably demonstrates in her two books that these conquests weren’t simply about scientific curiosity, pure greed, and the desire to grab as much land for one’s patria as possible, but were also motivated by genuine spiritual beliefs. She also shows how what results on first contact—often accompanied with turmoil, destruction, and loss—isn’t necessarily anybody’s fault or bad faith, but the result of the inevitable cross-pollination of preconceived cultural expectations.

It turns out that the haunting music emanates from a highly refined race of beings whose aristocratic, even exquisite, civilization is founded on the brutal exploitation and suppression of the more numerous, but more agrarian creatures. The arrival of the Earth mission inevitably sets in motion the upending of the social order and tragedy for the human beings. Russell demonstrates that sometimes beauty arises from terror and that democracy sometimes requires the destruction of the aristocratic culture that came before.

As a vegan used to being greeted with mystification and occasionally suspicion over my choice of diet and lifestyle, I’ve occasionally felt that I’m a creature from another planet. It was too good a joke to miss in making fun of myself and the bafflement that greets me not to turn myself into a Vegan. It was an enjoyable challenge to create wholly unlikely creatures by rephrasing common idioms based on physical gestures—“to bat one’s eyelids,” and so on. I let the parody flow and it turned, quite rapidly, into a space version of Casablanca: where an impossible love briefly flourishes before the heroine is forced to leave and the hero returns to virtually certain death.

To my surprise, the story evolved into something more serious—an indication that my urge to pastiche The Sparrow overlay an actual emotional and intellectual impulse. The short story becomes a reflection of my fear that Earth will suffer the same fate as our hero’s adopted cluster because of our failure to grasp how serious our predicament is. In that regard, I had in mind the admonitions of that wonderful (and funny) Cold War film The Day the Earth Stood Still (the 1951 version, of course). I would hope that we will wake up before it’s too late, but I can see us following exactly the trajectory that awaits the doomed mission and its cluster.

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