About Those Gatekeepers…

These days it’s all the rage to talk about how the old gatekeepers are losing their stranglehold on publishing, how no mere agent or editor can stand between you and your dreams anymore. The corollary to this stance is that those of us who have decided to go the traditional route are making some kind of a mistake, that we are throwing precious creative energy and years of our lives at querying agents and submitting to publishers when we could be selling books.

To some degree, the first half is undeniable: you can now make your creative works available for purchase online without paying much of anything, except for the cut Amazon etc. take from your earnings. The corollary, though, is nonsense.

This is not to say that self-publishing, online or in print, cannot work. Obviously it can, and I have even met those online for whom it has worked extremely well. But for those arguing that the gatekeepers can (and ought to) be ignored, the question is not whether self-publishing can work; the question is whether it works better.

One of the first points people make in support of self-publishing online is that ebook sales now account for over half the market. But let me point out first of all that it’s the tougher half. In a bookstore (yes, they still exist), your book is competing against the other books in the store. Online, you’re now competing against every book ever written in your language, including those that will never make it into a store. Even if the majority of book sales are online, the average author is getting a much smaller cut of this massive windfall. The statistics I’ve heard about self-publishing are fairly grim: the average self-published book sells under 1000 copies. Those are not fame and fortune numbers.

Another point people make is that self-publishing gives you more creative control. To put it mildly, that’s a double-edged sword. Having your work edited by professionals can make a huge difference to its quality. I’ve gotten priceless advice from rejection letters. And there is a cultural assumption that editors know what they’re doing. Fair or not, people assume a higher quality from traditionally published books than they do from self-published ones. And this affects their spending habits! What proportion of ebook sales do you suppose come from traditionally published books in ebook form? I don’t have the stats on this, but I’m guessing it ain’t small.

And we have to talk about promotion. When you self-publish something, you need to do all the grunt work yourself. And a lot of this grunt work really can’t be done by an author with a day job. Researching and building relationships with, say, a couple hundred bloggers interested in your genre. Contacting newspapers, magazines, etc. You can do it, just not quickly and not easily unless you already work in a very convenient field. But you know who can help tremendously with this sort of thing? A publicist. Preferably one you don’t have to pay extra for, because you’re already under contract with their employer. So hey, if you have the time and the savvy, perhaps you really can make a better profit as a self-published author. But the ranks of people prepared for that kind of work aren’t any bigger than the ranks of those who are publishing with traditional publishing houses. Probably much smaller.

Lastly (not because this is the last thing one needs to consider, but because I don’t feel like spending all night on this post), let’s not miss the fact that there are still gatekeepers in the free online self-publishing world. Those gatekeepers are called algorithms, and they have great difficulty sorting books by quality. The closest they come is sorting them by popularity, which biases them against new books and especially new books by unknown authors.

Now again, I don’t mean to imply that self-publication is illegitimate or wrong, or even that it won’t get you where you want to be. There are plenty of contexts where self-publishing makes a good deal more sense than trying to go the traditional route. If you are trying to reach a small, specific audience rather than a wide one, self-publishing is probably the way to go. If you have no interest in developing a writing career, and feel that you have exactly this one story to tell, then querying agents and submitting to publishers is probably an inefficient use of your time.

I’ll grant you this: agents and publishers aren’t exactly gatekeepers anymore. They’re more like powerful allies that can only be won over through the long, often dispiriting process of proving yourself worthy. They’re like Ents, really. Don’t hate on the Ents.

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Why I Stopped Watching “Grimm”

[Spoiler alert: this post will make you hate the show regardless of whether you’ve watched it or not.]

I’m a sucker for fantasy, especially on TV. If a show has magic and mythology in it, I will watch it way beyond the point where it jumps the shark. I watched through the first season of Merlin despite finding it to have some of the laziest writing I had ever seen. I watched the first season of Once Upon A Time even though the child actor annoyed the hell out of me and the main lead character was ludicrously naive for someone who was sold as bad-ass and cynical (I hear the show improved in season two, and the villains were great to begin with, but I just couldn’t bring myself to give it another try). I watched Misfits right to the end even though the show was a master class in idiot plot, had seriously problematic sexual politics, and its most entertaining character left after season two.

The point is, I often let my love of fantasy override my good sense and taste. But after nearly four seasons of watching Grimm, I just couldn’t do it anymore.

It wasn’t the characters, who were mainly two-dimensional. It wasn’t the repetition of lines and themes that weren’t even interesting the first time (“I don’t know much about his side of the family” ooh, mysterious). It wasn’t the endless complications that didn’t ever resolve themselves or give you a better understanding of the world of the show; it wasn’t the deus-ex-machina and general hand-wavery that the writers used to get themselves out of jams; it wasn’t the long, long parade of “wesen” that – no, it couldn’t be one of those…I thought they were extinct! Nobody’s seen one for a thousand years!

It wasn’t any of that. It was how the writers used sex.

If Misfits was a show that punished its characters for being happy, Grimm is a show that punishes its characters for having sex. And nobody is punished more cruelly or more senselessly than Adelind Schade. For those who are unfamiliar (hopefully everybody), Adelind is the show’s Scheming Woman. In the first season, she and police Captain Renard were secret villains, lurking in the background while they plotted…something evil. We never exactly found out what, because the (male) captain allied with the main character and was redeemed, whereas Adelind was vanquished and her witch’s powers were taken away. How, you ask? Well, the main character forced her to the ground and kissed her against her will; she bit him in response, and through the magic of handwavium, ingesting a drop of his blood de-witch-ified her. This was his revenge on her for having nearly killed his (police) partner…by having sex with him. I know, I know, I should have stopped watching then. It should have been obvious enough that things were not going to get better.

Well surprise surprise, things get worse. Captain Renard and Adelind’s mother treat her like a foolish child for having her powers stripped away, so she leaves the U.S. for some sexcapades. Also so that she can scheme with the remaining villains. It may bear mentioning that despite having turned against her former ally Renard, Adalind apparently has no information of actual worth to share with his enemies. Instead, she briefly returns in order to have sex with Renard and become pregnant (on the first try!) as some kind of a master plan.

But does she actually have a master plan? Of course she doesn’t. We know this because people keep telling her that she’s done something very consequential and dangerous, and that everybody will want to steal this politically important baby from her, and she is surprised every time. She is presented, for the rest of the show, as completely out of her depth.

Now as I said before, this show is chock full of unnecessary complications. Adelind leverages her important pregnancy to find an ally who can help her regain her powers. Then she goes through episode after episode of tasks that are completely punitive in nature (eating raw heart, etc.), all of which eventually result in her regaining her powers, although they also super-charge her baby and make the rest of her pregnancy hell. And now everyone wants to steal her baby even more.

How does she get out of this mess? Why, through the power, wisdom, and self-sacrifice of a bunch of men, of course. And at the end of a long and humiliating road, Adalind does in fact have her baby stolen from her. But it’s stolen by the good guys, so that makes it okay.

Well, she can’t get her baby back, but Adelind can still be all villainous, right? She certainly does her best. How? Sex, of course! She impersonates the main character’s fiancee, seduces him in that form, and thereby takes his powers away from him. For, you know, a few episodes.

You’re probably wondering, how did you ever get this far into the show, and if none of this outrageous shit made you stop watching, whatever could? I’m glad you asked.

This one sexual encounter with the main character gets Adalind pregnant again. All it takes is having sex once, people! Pregnancy every time. Sex has consequences. But worse then that is Adalind’s reaction: Oh no, not again! This can’t happen to me! Because apparently in the world of Grimm, abortion does not exist. Not even for villains! And I guess only the good guys use contraception? Either that, or their virtue makes them immune to unplanned pregnancy.

Adalind’s transformation over the course of the show is from somewhat stereotypical villainess to tragically incompetent, tragically abused villainess. And she has only herself to blame, because throughout the whole show, men are always giving her advice. To her credit she rarely listens to any of it, but then, perhaps that’s why she’s punished so severely. For a show based in Portland, OR, this show is somehow the least progressive piece of media I’ve ever come into contact with. And I’ve seen the occasional episode of Dragnet, which, let me tell you, has not aged well.

For all the talk we had this year about people giving up on Game of Thrones, it’s kind of remarkable to me that this show has slipped under the radar. This is a network show, people, and its ratings have been high enough that NBC has committed to a 5th season. Its viewership has actually been going up from season to season. For all of Game of Thrones‘ gratuitousness, it’s pretty even-handed with its misery. The same can’t be said for Grimm.

Why N.S. Dolkart?

When we got married, Becky took my last name. It was a long negotiation, and I leveraged every ounce of male privilege to have it this way. I won’t repeat my various arguments here, but suffice it to say that despite being happy with the result, it’s not something I’m proud of. I took advantage of having tradition on my side, even though that tradition really has nothing but inertia going for it. So when I decided I wanted a pseudonym for my writing career, I felt I had the perfect opportunity to repay the debt I owed her. She took my last name for life in general; I’ll take hers for my artistic career, the dearest part of my identity. It feels right.

Why N.S., though? Why not Noah Saul Dolkart? There are a couple of reasons behind that too. First off, the initials draw more attention to the last name, which is a plus. I have no interest in hiding my actual identity, but the name on the cover is what everyone remembers, and that’s for the best. I mean, who remembers Lemony Snicket’s real name without having to google him? It’s not like he’s hiding who he is either, but “Lemony Snicket” is easy and memorable and fun.

There is also an old (and at this point hopefully obsolete) tradition of women writers hiding their gender identity behind initials. Again, I’m not hiding my identity, but it’s a tradition I like evoking as I take my wife’s name for my own.

Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings

I feel I haven’t said enough to recommend Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings. Whether readers like this book or not (personally, I loved it), it is an undeniably revolutionary work of fantasy fiction, as tonally different from mainstream fantasy as Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell was.

In the case of The Grace of Kings, the tone and subject matter are unmistakably Chinese. The heroes are based on characters out of Chinese mythic history. The armies of the Evil Empire are led neither by bumbling minions nor by brainwashed innocents, but by strategic geniuses and true patriots, doing their best to defeat the Rebellion for the glory of their beloved country. And you root for them at times, as they win battles and crush enemies despite having their hands tied by foolish (and evil) political leadership.

And the villain? Basically doesn’t exist. Even the Evil Emperor himself comes out vindicated in his aims if not in his methods, just like the king of Qin in so many kung fu movies (Jet Li’s “Hero” and Jackie Chan’s “Little Big Soldier” come to mind). The book is sweeping in its scale, clever in its execution, and more than anything, different. It gives a completely fresh view of what a novel can be, and although I don’t exactly wish I had written this book, I am completely envious of its originality.

Read it. You’ll be glad you did.