A writer I know sent me e-mail urging me to affix my name to a petition protesting an “emergency” archive that stores books that can be downloaded without charge. The archive exists, I was told, so that people who can get reading matter for teaching purposes or light the darkness with cultural sparklers after the end of the world as we know it (presuming that the internet, computer operating systems and screens still function). Until the apoclaypse arrives, people can download this stuff for free.
The Writers Guild says this is theft and should be stopped. I agree that it is theft of an author’s copyright. As someone who has a copyright, I can say it ain’t all it’s cracked up to be, especially when publishing royatlies come up for discussion.
For example: a while ago a friend bought a digital copy of one of my books. This should jave triggered an infinitesimal publisher’s royalty payment to me. Because publishers like to hold on to royalties, just in case the world ends, the publisher should at least have sent me a statement filled with creative accounting methods that prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that even if the entire population of Sweden bought digital copies of my books–the publisher owed me nothing.
I’m still waiting for the statement.
So I checked out this emergency list. Most of the stuff on it I didn’t recognize. I saw copies of Architectural Digest and immediately thought of a dystopian scenario (similar to Canticle for Liebowitz) in which commercial effluvia attains the veneration of a sacred text. Most of the books were in the public domain, so Lord Byron will not rise from the grave to claim whatever he is due for Four Longer Poems downloads.
I almost wished to see my books on the list. They were written to be enjoyed. I like the idea of someone in the distant future finding my work and having a chuckle. I did not see them but, then again, I did not search for them because, long ago, I learned the frustration of searching for my books in a bookstore.
My first job was bookstore clerk. Though I had wanted to be a writer long before that, I had a dream of strolling into a commercial literary establishment and, after enhaling the aroma of freshly printed paper, I would find one of my books sitting snugly on a shelf, cover out.
This actually happened, and, when it does, it’s one of the things that can make you forget all the other stuff that’s supposed to happen to an author, but doesn’t.
Still, I quarreled with the dream: my book wasn’t science fiction or fantasy, which I have always revered; and the book wasn’t is every bookstore. But it was in a some. And, for a moment, that was wonderful.
When I was a child I thought books were monuments of an author’s genius that, once published, sat on shelves forever to delight those that found them. When I began to publish journalism, I believed that my important writing—the stuff I was born to do—would happen in books.
This expectation made writing books slow, worrisome and fretful. When you want your stuff to be good, when you write for the ages and fear that mistakes, hidden biases and sloppy work will damn you forever, you want every word to count.
Though my mother encouraged me to read books, neither she nor my father were avid readers. Both thought science fiction and fantasy was a childish thing that I’d put away. I never put it away, largely because it “spoke” to me, as it does to many adolescents who have no idea how they’re going to navigate the perils and pleasures of the adult world.
Most of the writer heroes of my youth wrote for money, which meant they were known for what they wrote about, not how they wrote. They cranked the stuff out quickly, depended on editors to tidy up the messy parts, used stock characters, reused plots and settings like old tea bags, strung out their stories in a sequels and prequels when a single volume would have sufficied, shamelessly copied the tropes and pacing of movies and mainstream fiction, and didn’t fret about critics because they had two other manuscripts awaiting publication, a third in the typewriter and a dozen more waiting to be written.
No matter how much they seemed to know about astronomy, engineering, the military or advanced technology, most had day jobs. I can infer now from the authors’ ritualistic disparagement of authority figures, that these jobs were sufficiently degrading and humiliating to inspire fantasies of strong willed, brilliantly inventive heroes from outside the social mainstream who instantly see the truth, realize their destiny, fight the good fight, rescue the damsel and save humanity.
The editors and exemplars of the genre rationalized their hastily cooked escapism as a necessity: science fiction no longer about predicting the future as much as it was anticipating the moral, psychological and sociological implications of technological developments, and show that humans will not only solve problems, but evolve (symbolically or actually) into beings who can master the rude passions that brought wars and the threat of Cold War era thermo nuclear destruction.
And, more than any other literature (or so the purveyors claimed), fantasy gushed with the sense of wonder, that ecstatic, sublime, transcendent emotional state that would redeem us from our narrow, selfish concerns, and inspire us to take our place as explorers and citizens of a universe better than we can imagine.
What genre fiction really did was make money for a very few people, shamelessly exploit many more and create fan cultures that found imaginary worlds more appealing than their own. In terms of production values, it was about quantity, not quality, though some writers sought an illusory legitimacy by selling their work to mainstream publications that not only paid more, but reached a larger audience.
When science fiction and fantasy found that bigger audience it was rarely taken seriously. Oh, there were a few infamous moments, such as Orson Welles radio dramatization of the War of the Worlds, but it was only until the hippies of the 1960s turned to J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, and Frank Herbert’s Dune, that a scaffold rose that would one day bring us Star Trek, Star Wars, Game of Thrones and, finally, the Marvel movies. And you know these have inspired a new generation that can’t wait to chose the tropes they most enjoyed from previous literary and visual genres, and put them into a package that sparkles with the spectacular adventures and wonderful visual effects that the rest of us can’t find at home.
In a sense, the Marvel movies are a new generation’s equivalent of the traveling circus that used to come to town and, for pocket change, thrill us with things we’ve never seen, makes us laugh and fills us with a sense of wonder about the astonishing things people can do on the high wire, the trapeze, in the lion cage and behind curtains in the side show.
How many wanted to hop aboard an elephant, or stowaway on a truck or a train when the circus left town? Of that number, how many found out that to do those tricks required discipline and dedication: you had to practice, practice, practice and practice some more, and that one slip can either end your life, or render you worthless for any other kind of employment?
And how many reached that conclusion that being able to do something wonderful ain’t all it’s cracked up to be, but it’s still worth doing?
More than enough so that when their work speaks to you, you can’t help but listen.