The vampire, perennial monster, has received somewhat of a makeover in recent years. For almost two decades it has become romantic hero and seducer, often aimed at younger consumers. Twilight as well as the Vampire Diaries series may be the most obvious exponents of this trend, but the seeds were already planted in shows like Buffy (remember Angel?), and the territory continues to be watered with numerous vampire men in the urban fantasy or romance section of the bookstore, who must invariably profess eternal love to a nubile woman.
There’s something strange about Kerry Nietz’s new Amish romance novel. The pretty blond girl on the cover wears a white hair bonnet and has an innocent look on her face. But then there’s the blood dripping down her face and the dead man lying on the floor behind her.
With all the disruptions in the book industry these days (e-books, self publishing, etc.), a lot of ink, electronic and otherwise, has been devoted to the “new” “discoverability” “problem” for publishers and booksellers and readers. I use quotes liberally because much as the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire, the new discoverability problem is neither new, nor about discoverability, nor a problem (unless you want to make it one).
It’s not new, because authors, publishers, and booksellers have always had to figure out ways to get their books to readers. It’s only the methods that continue to change.
It’s not about discoverability because for one, I’m not convinced discoverability is even a word. No one can seem to agree on a definition. And because the concept is so wibbly-wobbly, talking about discoverability seems to be a convenient way to dodge real issues, especially when the topic of lost marketshare come up–whether its traditional publishers losing marketshare to authors publishing independently or bricks-and-mortar booksellers losing marketshare to Amazon.
It’s also not a problem. Let’s tally my recent book discoveries. I walked into a bookstore and found four books I wanted to read within two minutes. I’ve had a friend recommend a book to me. I saw another friend talk about a book she was was reading on Facebook. I read a review of two other books online, and three authors I like have announced new books coming out in the next few months. In other words, I discover books the way I’ve always discovered them, and I suspect I’m not alone. “Disruptive technologies” aren’t going to change that. No, my problem is “discovering” enough time to read all these books.
I’m a little fatigued from all the hand wringing and hand waving. As a reader I want to read as many books that interest me as I possibly can. As a writer, I want my stories to reach everyone who might want to read them. Can we stop talking about faux problems and figure out a way to make those things happen?
If you could magically reset things so that you had the chance to read a favorite book/series again for the first time … which would you choose? And why?
The only book I’ve ever read more than once is Dracula. (Eyerolls abound from everyone who knows me.) Sometimes I pick up one of my copies and open it at random and just read a few pages. In an odd sort of way, it’s a comforting thing to do, like soaking in a steaming hot bath or eating a giant bowl of chocolate chip mint ice cream.
But if I could read it again for the first time, would I? I don’t think I would.
First, because it’s so comforting. I know the story, the characters, and the settings so well, it feels like putting on my favorite t-shirt. (Last simile I promise.) I wouldn’t want to give up that feeling.
Second, there are so many layers to the story, it’s impossible to get everything that’s going on all in one reading. The first time I read it, I read it for the story itself. The second time, because I didn’t have to pay as much attention to the story, I read it for the language. I paid attention to the words Bram Stoker used in order to ratchet up the tension and the overall creepiness. He was a master of atmospherics. Take, for example, this passage:
It was now nearly the hour of high tide, but the waves were so great that in their troughs the shallows of the shore were almost visible, and the schooner, with all sails set, was rushing with such speed that, in the words of one old salt, “she must fetch up somewhere, if it was only in hell”. Then came another rush of sea-fog, greater than any hitherto, a mass of dank mist, which seemed to close on all things like a gray pall, and left available to men only the organ of hearing, for the roar of the tempest, and the crash of the thunder, and the booming of the mighty billows came through the damp oblivion even louder than before. The rays of the searchlight were kept fixed on the harbour mouth across the East Pier, where the shock was expected, and men waited breathless.
The wind suddenly shifted to the northeast, and the remnant of the sea fog melted in the blast. And then, mirabile dictu, between the piers, leaping from wave to wave as it rushed at headlong speed, swept the strange schooner before the blast, with all sail set, and gained the safety of the harbour. The searchlight followed her, and a shudder ran through all who saw her, for lashed to the helm was a corpse, with drooping head, which swung horribly to and fro at each motion of the ship. No other form could be seen on the deck at all.
I find it still shudder-worthy.
On subsequent readings, I’ve been able to appreciate even more aspects of the novel, such as its commentary on Victorian sexual mores or its exploration of how we as Western society regard the “other.” (Think how the mentally ill were treated or how all the characters think of Eastern Europe as some place exotic and strange.) Then of course, there’s the fun of spotting all the literary allusions. (Okay, maybe just fun for me.)
In any event, I think I maybe have possibly answered the question, or not. I like reading a book for the first time and falling in love with it, but sometimes, I just need an old friend. (See, that doesn’t count because it’s a metaphor and not a simile.)
This is me chatting with New York Times bestselling author Neil Gaiman about Cairo, Illinois. True story. (Neil is signing a copy of American Gods, which is an amazing book. They go to Cairo, Illinois as well as many, many other places.)
It does seem like modern fiction just “tells the story” without much symbolism. Is symbolism an older literary device, like excessive description, that is not used much any more? Do you think there was as much symbolism as English teachers seemed to think? What are some examples of symbolism from your reading?
I’m of two minds about this question. Sometimes, I think that the symbolism is there. Sometimes I don’t. Sometimes, too, I think symbolism is misused. Back in high school, we had to read “The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James. For those of you unfamiliar with the story, it’s about a young governess who moves to a creepy country house to care for two creepy children who starts seeing ghosts. Is the house really haunted, or is she crazy? When our teacher told us that her visions were a result of her sexual repression, we all started laughing because none of us saw it (the name of the story aside). Then she started pointing out certain symbolic things about the…ahem…spiritual visitations, and it started to make sense.
That same year, we studied T.S. Eliot, and we read “The Waste Land” and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Both of these poems have passages that make absolutely no sense when read literally, so they must be symbolic, right? From what I know about T.S. Eliot, though, I think he might have been jerking everyone’s chain. I can see him sitting down at his typewriter, softly chuckling to himself about generations of English literature majors struggling and failing to find any meaning to his poems and ultimately having to go on anti-psychotic medication.
I think that in modern fiction, symbolism is used less effectively because not many people are familiar with symbolic language or symbolism in general anymore. I think sometimes symbolism is misused. For example, I like vampire fiction partly because vampires are the perfect symbol for the dark impulses, emotions, and desires in all of us. They’re monsters that look just like us, and we can become them if we’re not careful. So, I’m not a fan of the current “vampires are people, too” movement made popular by a certain author in a certain series of books. Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for taking symbols and subverting them to make a larger point. Several writers have done just that with vampires rather successfully, using them to explore themes such as redemption and the ennui of modern life. This author didn’t do that. She broke the symbolism.
Her main vampire protagonist has all of the strengths of a vampire, but none of the weaknesses. He has super strength and super speed. He’s immortal. And he’s really, really pretty. He can go outside during the day without being burned to a crisp. He can walk into a church. He can walk into an Italian restaurant and order the garlic shrimp. He can walk into your house without being invited first (all the better to stalk you while you sleep). He can cross running water. He doesn’t have an aversion to shiny things. (Sometimes, he’s shiny, too!) And best of all, he doesn’t make a habit of snacking on people. So basically, he’s Superman with fangs, except, you know, he doesn’t have fangs either.
So while these books were a huge commercial success, they ultimately don’t work, because she’s taken away everything that makes vampires compelling or useful as a symbol for anything. You could take the vampires out completely, and the story wouldn’t change much. Even she seems to know on some level that it doesn’t work. If you disagree, ask yourself, why, in a universe where being a vampire is so awesome that people should be lining up to take it in the jugular does it take four books for everyone to be okay with the main female protagonist becoming one?
What book do you think should be made into a movie? And do you have any suggestions for the producers?
I have a list, actually. I’m a very visual thinker, so I’m always thinking about how a particular scene might be filmed. I do the same thing when I’m writing, too. I find that it’s a really good trick when I’m stuck. So here goes:
The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. I love these books. They’re such fun to read. Currently, there are nine in the series, with a tenth one coming out soon. The author, Alexander McCall Smith, spent a lot of time in Botswana, where the books are set, and his descriptions of the landscape and the people are so rich an vivid that you can just see the sun setting over the Kalahari. It’s almost as if Botswana were another character. So I was very excited to hear that HBO and the BBC actually have made a limited series out of the books. It starts airing in the U.S. on March 23.
The Historian. Obviously, I’m a sucker (no pun intended) for Gothic horror. I had to actually stop reading The Historian after dark. It creeped me out that much. I would love Elizabeth Kostova‘s atmospherics to be transferred to the big screen. Supposedly, the film rights to the book have been picked up, but as often happens, things are mired in development.
The Janissary Tree. Actually, any of Jason Goodwin‘s three detective novels, The Janissary Tree, The Snake Stone, and The Bellini Card would be fun movies. Goodwin does not write traditional mysteries in that his setting is 19th-century Istanbul, and his detective Yashim is, well…a eunuch. Goodwin is a historian of the Ottoman Empire, and he personally knows every square inch of Istanbul. His books are packed with beautiful descriptions of the city, and again it’s almost as if the city itself were another character. Also, none of the books lack for action as Yashim is alternately chased by and chases various suspects through the city. The one problem is that the setting may be a little too exotic for Hollywood.
The Arabesk Trilogy. This series of novels, Pashazade, Effendi, and Felaheen, by British writer Jon Courtenay Grimwood, are set in an alternate history where the United States brokered an early end to World War I. Set in a 21st century where the Ottoman Empire rules most of North Africa and France and Germany still have emperors, the novels center around genetically enhanced but mentally unstable Raf and his adventures in Alexandria, Egypt, known in the novels as El Iskandriyah. Once more, its the descriptions of the setting that make these novels stand out. The one issue, which could be a problem or an advantage, is that Grimwood is a little postmodern in his leanings, and much of the plot is told out-of-sequence.
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.This book is just brilliant fantasy. Susanna Clark‘s conception of how magic works is inherently visual. Much of the magic in the book surrounds the use of mirrors, for example. Also, I would love to see the tall-ships made out of rain used by the British to trick the French and blockade their ports during part of the Napoleonic Wars. The problem here is the length of the book. My edition is 782 pages long. Again, here the film rights have been purchased by New Line Cinemas, but my advice is this: Under no circumstances should anyone who is not a loyal subject of Her Majesty the Queen be involved in this project. There is something so inherently British about the book that only a Brit could do it justice.