Saturday, February 28, 2009

Meeting and Working with Philip José Farmer

A long time ago, in a town a couple hundred miles up the road, I stopped into my favorite bookstore, Kroch & Brentano's, at lunchtime and headed downstairs to where the paperback novels were kept. The place was a cultural Fort Knox to me: row after row, shelf after shelf, of great reads, each and every book face out, titles, author's names, and cover art all screaming, "Buy me!" That day, one book called out more clearly than any other: Philip José Farmer's To Your Scattered Bodies Go.

It's the ultimate story of reincarnation. Everyone who ever lived on Earth is reborn as a young, vigorous adult along the banks of the Riverworld. Food, drink, and drugs are all provided free of charge by Grailstones. Maybe that's not everybody's idea of paradise, but it's an intriguing take on the theme. Close enough to say, "Here you go, people. Let's see what you can make of this." Reading what Phil Farmer made of it was a real joy. As was rereading it many a time.

Years later, having had two novels of my own published, with a third on the way, a lady named Maggie Nelson called me. Maggie did publicity for the Peoria (IL) Public Library. She asked if I would be interested in writing a chapter of a round-robin novel (a different author for each chapter) to be called Naked Came the Farmer. The proceeds from the sales of the book would benefit the library. Being a lifelong lover of libraries, I said yes.

Great move on my part. The guiding light of the project, and writer of the first chapter, was Phil Farmer. Meeting him was like a rookie being introduced to Hank Aaron. You know you've got a long way to go before you might ever be mentioned in the same breath. Philip José Farmer published 75 novels over his lifetime.

Phil passed away last Wednesday, February 25, 2009. He was 91 years old. It was reported he died peacefully as he slept.

In the handful of times I got to spend with Phil, I found him to be smart, funny, unassuming, and generous. On the occasion of the release of a new edition of To Your Scattered Bodies Go, my wife, my daughter, and I traveled to Peoria, where he lived, to hear him speak (at a branch of the public library, naturally enough) and to buy a new copy of his book and have him sign it for me.

Phil had previously honored me by purchasing a copy of my third book, The Next President, and asking me to sign it for him. Then he took matters a step further. He sent me a handwritten letter to let me know what he thought of my book. I lifted a line from it to use as the first review I posted on the home page of my website.

The way these things sometimes work is you cherry-pick the words that make you look good and omit the rest. But what follows is the entire message:

Dear Joe,
"Your near-future novel, The Next President, riveted me. It's been a very long time since I've read such a vivid and intriguingly complex novel of 3-dimensional characters coupled with such a murky mystery. Congratulations!"
Philip José Farmer

If sharing that sounds a bit self-congratulatory, it is. But ask yourself if you'd keep quiet if Hank Aaron complimented you on how well you hit a baseball.

Thanks, Phil. I only wish I'd met you sooner.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Redeeming the Rich

In the February 22, 2009 edition of the Chicago Tribune, Don Esmond, a U.S. sales executive for Toyota, in analyzing the state of the current car market, is quoted as saying, "Even the people with money are holding back."

That's quite a thought to conjure with, especially when you remember that over the Bush years there was an ever greater concentration of wealth at the top of American society. This aggregation of so much money among so few people has been compared to the Gilded Age of the nineteenth century robber barons.

We've all read about the wretched excesses of the ultra-rich; cataloging it has long been a staple of celebrity publishing and TV shows. We get glimpses of cars, yachts, planes, and houses that are the stuff of fairy tales for 99.9% of us.

There are, of course, people of immense wealth who have dedicated themselves and their fortunes to making the world a better place. Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffet come quickly to mind. They are donating tens of billions of dollars to helping people in dire need. God bless them.

But what our country needs today is a great many billionaires, and even demi-billionaires to step forward and emulate the fictional John Beresford Tipton. He was the semi-retired industrialist who handed out checks for $1 million to everyday people on the TV show The Millionaire. The show aired on CBS from 1955 to 1960. The $1 million Tipton gave away in 1955 would be roughly the equivalent of $8 million today.

For his time, Tipton, giving away the equivalent of $8 million a week, was a one-man stimulus plan.

Now, I'm not suggesting that the denizens of the country's various Gold Coasts start handing out multi-million dollar checks every week, but if Mr. Esmond is right and you're holding back, stop it! Start spending, as crazily as you normally would, but not on yourselves.

The American people are sorely aggrieved by the grandees in their midst. So now is the time to redeem yourselves in a Tiptonesque way that will help the economy.

Go out to middle-class restaurants one night and buy dinner for everyone present.

Go to a college book store and pay for every text book a student brings to the counter that day.

Go to a car dealer and do an Oprah: buy a car for every customer on the showroom floor.

Go to a bowling alley and not only treat for the beer frame, pay for the lines of everyone who picks up a ball.

Go to a department store like Kohl's and pay for the purchases of everyone in line between noon and two p.m.

Go to a public library and buy all the books they'd like to have but can't afford.

Go to a Boys' and Girls' Club and buy a gymful of new sporting equipment.

Go to a high school Scholastic Bowl tournament and buy the winners a team bus; buy one for the last place team, too.

Whatever you decide to do to help someone, and thereby stimulate the economy, do it the way Tipton did: anonymously. That's far cooler than taking credit for it. So don't hold back, rich people.

Get out there and commit random acts of conspicuous consumption—for someone else.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Only Schools That Matter

This is the time of year when high school seniors and their families and friends are on pins and needles. In little more than a month's time, colleges will be sending admission decision e-mails and letters. The universal hope among our brightest high school students is that they will get into great, good, or at least solid schools.

Because those universities are the places where their futures will be decided. 

But not really. These are the places where all of our futures are decided:

The Harvard Business School
The Stanford Business School
The Penn Business School (Wharton)
The MIT Business School (Sloan)
The Northwestern Business School (Kellogg)
The University of Chicago Business School
The Dartmouth Business School (Tuck)
The University of California, Berkeley Business School (Haas)
The Columbia Business School
The New York University Business School (Stern)

As listed in the February 11, 2009 edition of U.S. News & World Report, these are the top ten business schools in the United States. They, along with a number of other top business schools, produce our country's elite bankers, traders, developers, and entrepreneurs. You know, the people who created this sucking mess of an economy that is making everyone's life so exciting these days. The same gang that's getting trillions of taxpayer dollars in bailout money.

Last week, the House Financial Services Committee, chaired by Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), called in a rogues' gallery of mega-bankers. Their number included Kenneth D. Lewis, CEO of Bank of America, graduate of Georgia State University; Vikram Pandit, CEO of Citigroup, MBA Columbia; John Stumpf, CEO Wells Fargo, MBA University of Minnesota; John J. Mack, CEO of Morgan Stanley, Duke; Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan Chase, MBA Harvard; Lloyd C. Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs, Harvard JD; RobertP. Kelley, CEO of Bank of New York Mellon, MBA Cass Business School, London.

Needless to say, but I'll do it anyway, the companies these guys head are on the hook to the federal government, that is you and me, for umpteen billions of dollars. 

Which raises in my mind several questions, such as: Are all of these guys legacy admits? If you think I'm kidding, consider this: The Harvard Business School rejected an application by the most successful investor of modern times, Warren Buffett, but it admitted and conferred its solid gold MBA on George W. Bush. (Another of the mugs most responsible for the current disaster.) If you think Boy George got in on anything other than the strength of his family name, I've got some Enron stock to sell you. 

But let's assume that at least half of the people who get into top tier business schools do so on merit. Then the questions become: What the hell were they taught in their classes? Or did a statistically improbable number of them suffer devastating but invisible head injuries after they'd risen to the pinnacles of power?

Is it possible all these schools have incorporated in their curricula the credo of Gordon Gekko from the movie "Wall Street?" Greed is good.

We have to do a serious examination of our country's business schools because not only did they produce the pack of hyenas and imbeciles who gave us outsourcing, downsizing and Soup Kitchen 2.0, but they are also producing the next crop of grasping sociopaths.

There's one more observation to make here, and a constructive suggestion: None of the CEOs driving us off a cliff is a female. What I'd do? Can all the guys at the top and give some smart women a chance.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Books and Baseball

Not long ago I came up with an idea that would benefit every reader and writer of fiction in this country. My idea is this: Every American city that supports a Major League Baseball team should also be home to a vital publishing house of American fiction.

In case you’ve forgotten, or never knew, the cities MLB teams call home are:

Anaheim, CA, Arlington, TX, Atlanta, GA, Baltimore, MD, Boston, MA, Chicago, IL, Cincinnati, OH, Cleveland, OH, Denver, CO, Detroit, MI, Houston, TX, Kansas City, MO, Los Angeles, CA, Miami, FL, Milwaukee, WI, Minneapolis, MN, New York, NY, Oakland, CA, Philadelphia, PA, Phoenix, AZ, Pittsburgh, PA, San Diego, CA, San Francisco, CA, Seattle, WA, St. Louis, MO, St. Petersburg, FL, and Washington, DC

Yes, I know I’ve omitted Toronto; Canada will have to fend for itself.

Of the cities on the above list, Chicago and New York support two teams; Los Angeles is a potent enough name to have a team within its city limits and another in Orange County, i.e. the Los Angeles Angels, who play in Anaheim.

Now, let’s look at the cities on the list that support thriving publishers of American fiction. Well, New York is first, foremost, and all but unique. There are whole directories listing New York publishers of fiction. Boston has a handful of fiction publishers. Chicago has a few. Maybe you can find one or two in L.A. But that’s about it.

If I’ve just ruffled the feathers of any small publishers of whom I’m not aware, I apologize. But when I say a thriving publisher of American fiction, I mean a business that can afford to pay at least a five-figure advance, has national distribution channnels, has a publicity budget for each title, and stands at least some chance of getting shelf space in most bookstores. (More on this point later.)

The inspiration for my idea comes from the publisher of my new novel, The President’s Henchman, Variance Publishing. Variance meets all of the criteria I mentioned in the preceding paragraph. It is located in Cabot, Arkansas, a suburb of Little Rock, with a population of 21,000. That makes Cabot much smaller than any of the MLB cities. Culturally, though, in terms of publishing American fiction, Cabot is outperforming many cities that like to call themselves Big League.

However, Variance has—temporarily, I hope—bumped up against a ceiling: It has received all the manuscript submissions it can handle. Which means I got in just in time, and almost surely other authors were too late in finding this new publisher.

So what are these writers to do? Well, most likely they are trying to get their novels published by a New York house. That’s what you do. That’s where the money and the glory are. But as Jon Stewart likes to say: Maybe not so much.

Outside of J.K. Rowling’s mega-selling Harry Potter series, the market for American fiction is essentially flat. Newsweek quotes an unnamed publishing source in its January 26, 2009 edition as saying, “There’s likely to be a buying strike in the book business for up to six months.” When the New York publishers are buying, they are increasingly looking for blockbusters. As if anyone can recognize a blockbuster ahead of time. Still, if you make an editor labor under the expectation that any book he or she buys had better sell in boxcar numbers, the tendency will be to take very few chances, even to the point of rejecting novels the editor personally enjoys.

Charlie Rose was interviewing John Grisham recently and Rose said that the publishers of fiction depend for their survival on mega-sellers like Grisham. If that’s the case, the publishers are doomed because they are working with a resource limited in number and life expectancy, a resource that won’t be adequately renewed because of the barriers the publishers have erected against writers with new voices and new stories.

This is not a slam against any big-time best-selling writer. Not at all. They’ve paid their dues and their books make a lot of readers happy. God bless them.

But the next Forrest Gump is going to come from outside their number.

In case you didn’t know, Forrest Gump was a great book by Winston Groom before it became a great movie with Tom Hanks. It was published by Pocket Books in 1994. But tell me, what New York publisher, today, is going to buy a book about an idiot from Alabama? Even one that was brilliantly written. But what if there were thriving publishers in Atlanta, Miami and Arlington, TX—those MLB cities, remember—you think they might be more inclined to publish the story of someone like Forrest?

For all the chain stores we shop in, and all the chain restaurants we eat in, all the dumb TV shows available to all of us, all the homogeneity that defines popular culture, the United States still has a wealth of storytellers with distinctive regional voices. Trying to filter them all through New York has created an immense bottleneck. The wheat is being thrown away with the chaff. This is a cultural disservice to the whole country.

The simple fact is, people in the Southeast are likely to appreciate different stories than people in the Northwest, whose preferences might not resonate with people in New England. But there likely would be novels that would sell well in all these regions—but still not meet the demands of an editor in New York whose corporate bosses demand blockbusters.

The corporate approach to publishing is flawed in the most basic sense: Businessmen want guarantees of success, and there are no guarantees in art. Not in writing, not in moviemaking, not in music, not in painting. That doesn’t stop left-brained MBAs from trying, but it does diminish the range of what we have to read, watch, hear, and see.

Or possibly, unlike me, you believe there are more good books, movies, songs, and paintings than there were twenty years ago.

What I’ve noticed is there are indisputably more people today whose wealth is measured in millions or billions of dollars. A good many of these people have made their money by using technology in creative ways. It doesn’t seem like much of stretch to ask some of them—twenty-nine would do; the same number of American MLB cities—to start publishing companies. They could start by hiring smart people, locally please, as editors and tell them, “Here’s a list of writers I’ve always loved. Find me more who will make me as happy as they did.”

Now, would that be so hard? Yeah, I know the economy stinks, but even an English major like me knows that the best time to get in on something is at the bottom not the top. And we have to be at least near the bottom, don’t we? God, I sure hope so.

Now, let’s look back at the bookstore situation I mentioned near the beginning of this piece. It’s damn tough to get space in a bricks and mortar Barnes & Noble or Borders. They’ve jumped on the blockbuster bandwagon, too. But if new, interesting novels were flooding the market from all points of the compass, not only would the big chains have to reconsider their business models, new venues would spring up to accommodate the product surge. Maybe chains of book “niches” would pop up in larger stores, reflecting the buying preferences of their regions and, I would hope, picking up on interesting books from other parts of the country.

Anyway, that’s my idea. So if you know someone with a good chunk of money, someone who enjoys reading and doing something, well, novel, tell them you’ve got a big league idea for them. Tell them you thought of it yourself.