30 January 2010

"Small press" is no excuse for this dog's breakfast, vomited

"Don't bother if you plan to half-ass it."
Matthew Kressel, publisher and editor, interviewed by Charles Tan

"My one criticism of Festive Fear is that the editing is occasionally sub-par, as is so often the case with small-press offerings. That said, the contents of this anthology more than make up for the occasional typo. Buy this anthology. It's brilliant. Unfortunately, I believe it's also a limited edition, so you'll need to move quickly; hopefully, though, customer demand will lead to a reprint, as this is an anthology that all horror aficionados should - must - read. "
HorrorScope review

If Festive Fear were a dish and Tasmaniac Publications, a restaurant, this reviewer could as easily have excused sub-par cooking and food poisoning. After all, many restaurants do make dog's breakfasts of good ingredients, and accidentally kill their customers by a half-ass attitude to the basics.

This anthology and its publisher deserve a review, as they are both outstanding. The good ingredients in FF include the concept, the quality of the concepts in some of the stories and some of the writing, some fine stories that luckily have authors who are more scrupulous in their own attention to the finish of submissions, and the artwork on the cover and inside pages. The mess the publisher made of all this should be noted and a Public Health Notice slapped on the web wall so that prospective customers and sellers looking to hawk their writing and their art (even for the love of it or the "publishing credit") are forewarned—for Festive Fear is planned as an annual, with submission details for the next repast already posted on the web wall.

Starting from the publisher's website, "quality" is spelled correctly, but spelling and language are hit or miss. This is one paragraph:
This unique e-package will contain the near 10 000 word short story, The Calling, seperate from the novella Stone Cold Calling, though it will involve a recognized character. A non-fiction piece, Make Me Frightful, where Simon offers advise to the horror writer, AND, a short video entitled The Haunted Page - shot by Simon.
Caveat venditor
The ability to convert a file from rtf to pdf does not an editor make, just as the ability to pay for a publication's printing does not make someone a publisher. There is no good reason to think that illiteracy in a publisher's site will lead to good work practice, let alone a publication you can be proud of as a contributor or should fork anything out for. There are many fine small publishers, so sellers of work (at any price) should examine the publisher closely before submitting—unless the seller thinks that a half-ass establishment is a good starting place to be in before trying to get work into another as a "pro". This makes as much sense as saying that a restaurant that poisons customers when it is new or small is just making its way toward becoming a four-star restaurant. If you submit dog's breakfasts as manuscripts, or submit to slob publishers without demur, you're not a writer—and if you're a graphic artist submitting good work to a slob of a publisher, expect to be treated like a potwasher.

The publisher/editor of FF wrote the introduction, which reads well in concept, but in the fourth paragraph, "immanent" stares out like a sheep's eye in the custard pudding. Few spell perfectly without help, and no one can proof themselves and trust to catch everything including messy writing (this column included!), so it is pretty outrageous that the editor didn't even get his own introduction proofed, or use a spell checker at any stage. Contrary to the reviews, one of which would get no pass in literacy, this is not a praiseworthy introduction to what could have been an excellent anthology.

Spelling is all over the place in FF, showing that many authors don't bother to check their own work or have anyone else proof it for gross mistakes before submitting, let alone those mistakes a program can't pick up and that are often missed. There are both typos and the kind of mistakes that occur when revisions are made and sentences garbled. These are common and understandable, and should have been easy to fix, as simple proofreading would have picked many of these up.

Punctuation must have been converted directly from submissions, with all their inconsistencies within a manuscript and amongst them. This is understandable because, as the website shows, the pub/ed hasn't the faintest idea what the function of punctuation is, nor what those little doodads are. Thus, there are hyphens used as em dashes sometimes, em dashes at other times, haphazard spacing everywhere. Asterisks are used in line breaks sometimes and at other times, even in the same story, are left out—even when the proper use of dingbats is called for (the top or bottom of a page where there is a line break). Semicolon abuse is rife, and if the pub/ed knows what an ellipsis is, I'll eat a dead wombat. I could go on, but the gist of what I'm saying is that the pub/ed might enjoy reading, but that doesn't mean he knows what a sentence is, or a paragraph, and as for grammar, what's that? I'm talking basic literacy here, and this pub/ed fails, so to function as an editor would be impossible.

Editing, therefore, has been reduced to saying "Yes" to a submission. That is no more editing than buying a meal makes someone a restaurateur. Editing, real editing that goes beyond proofreading, is both a skill and a talent. Any degree of editing starts ahead of this book, as the basics of spelling and punctuation and grammar should be mastered before a writer even contemplates sending in a submission. This might be a good place to recommend Ellen Datlow's "Rant on Proper Submission Formatting".

Although there are different levels of editing, some of which is just proofing for bloopers of spelling, etc., editing of the sort that a person can state with veracity, "I am an editor" can lift a story out of the writer's stumbles of meaning and obscurity. It can untangle a story's guts. A great editor is a joy to work with, and a lack of editing is nothing for writers to sigh about with relief. Only amateurs consider their submissions perfect as submitted.

The basics of book design have also been ignored in FF. The publisher has been so arrogant that there has been no attention paid to some conventions that aid reading pleasure. I suspect that this is because he is impervious to learning from example, though he claims to be a great reader. There are no headers in this anthology, though a reasonable convention for anthologies has running headers with the author's name on, say, the left page and the name of the story on the right. Page numbers are more helpful if they are placed on the outside of these headers, not the bottom centre.

There is no understanding of the roles of display fonts and body fonts, but that pales compared to the gap-toothed appearance that occurs in this book and does with all others every time a publisher doesn't understand that justifying paragraphs leaves spaces that need manual correcting.

Paragraph indents follow the manuscript indent, making the printed page take on a corroded appearance. Most amateurs who get books printed and call themselves publishers, fail to notice that the printed page should be set with less of an indent than what a typesetter needs to notice that there is a new paragraph. It just looks better and makes reading smoother.

A picture is worth how many words?
All that writer stuff is just an egg dropped on the floor and put on your plate—nothing to make a fuss about—compared to treatment of the art in this volume. The artists are as credited as the sculptors of Notre Dame's gargoyles. Although there is a "Contributor Bio's" list in back, there is no crediting of individual artworks. The Table of Contents does not list the illustrations by artist, nor does anywhere else. Even the cover is uncredited, though a casual glance at other books would have shown this publisher that the artist of a book cover is often not only credited on the cover itself, but in the book, near where the publisher itself claims rights. It is a nice touch when the ToC lists the illustrations, but wherever they are credited (and sometimes it is on the page that they are displayed), they should be listed somewhere.

I don't know what the contributors think about this book, but I will say that I suspect they didn't get a galley as part of the pre-publication and editing process. Galleys should have been sent out, and sent out again. I don't know if the word is familiar to this pub/ed, but anyone thinking to submit to a small press should make sure before submitting, that there will be an editing process that involves the writer seeing a copy of the work in the galley stage, and being able to make comments and ask for adjustments if there are mistakes.

Slash and burn, splash and flambé
I don't like to cut down people who attempt something, but there is nothing noble in this small publishing venture. This is not the product of some kid just out of school, many of whom have standards that would shame this. This is not some production by people who are not living in an Anglo country. Back in the prehistoric days of the 1980s when spell checking relied entirely on people, the humble "Soviet Literature: Modern Soviet Short Stories" series was a fascinating read, and not because it was a shambles of language and grammar. The translations were flavoursome and served up such good grammar that it was a shame the restaurants had to serve their fare with forks that couldn't take the strain of food. Today's small presses in many non-Anglo places, such as Blaft in India that I raved about recently, can often be pointed to as models of excellence. Two other examples are the consistently fine Philippine Speculative Fiction series published and edited by Dean Frances Alfar and Nikki Alfar, and A Time For Dragons, An Anthology of Philippine Draconic Fiction edited by Vincent Michael Simbulan with illustrations by Andrew Drilon (who is credited on the front cover and twice in the book as the illustrator). This dragon anthology is quite a treasure, by the way, and I hope that one day it is reprinted and made available internationally, for it has a wide breadth of vision that is unique, and really memorable stories. Included in the volume is a wonderfully informative (without pain) essay by Charles Tan, about the great variety of dragons and their relationships with us.

In contrast, by its sloppiness, FF has not only hurt the standards of the contributors if they are happy with the standard and consider this a stepping stone to the pro market, but small press publishing, if the quality is considered acceptable and the publisher not taken to task. He was interviewed on the ABC, self-righteously talking of altruism. "I accepted a long time ago that if I were to pursue my dream of publishing fresh horror fiction then my drive would be based solely on love and admiration and not towards the financial gain. . . . My hope is that eventually the average Australian's (sic) preconceptions of horror fiction will change for the better. If, through Tasmaniac, I can change some people's views then that's a positive sign."

This could be said to be an amateur publication and a small press, but if you buy one of his books or are a contributor, you spend money and time, and to paraphrase my grandfather, money and time don't know from amateur.

What causes me the most outrage is the slap in the face that this give to good small presses. There are many superb small publishers today who pay great attention to all aspects of what publishing should be, from the concept of the book to the way submissions are treated, to the process of actually reading and understanding and editing and communicating with authors, including paying them. These publishers know what galleys are, and all the aspects of editing. They have as role models, great editors like Ellen Datlow and Gardner Dozois.

Their commitment follows through to the look of the book in all its aspects—and that includes the look of the publisher. Only then can the publisher can be said to be a publisher, and the editors earn the title of editor, for it is a great skill and there are few fine editors.

As the publisher of FF is Australian, this is the final straw. There is a timidity in Australia to say when the she'll be right attitude is just dog vomit. By accepting Tasmaniac's claim of quality, we do wrong by the fine contributors this publisher has effed up by not presenting them as the best that they can be.

By praising FF, this leaves anyone justifiably mistrusting any claims, so when a bookstore is approached to carry a small press publication, we can't blame it for not even considering the work.

High notes
MirrorDanse Books and its publishing/editing team of Bill Congreve and Michelle Marquardt have proved for years that there is no excuse needed for a small press. Their Year's Best Australian Science Fiction & Fantasy series is always well designed and a pleasure to read (even if I still think they indent too far). Some of its publications are the equal of any from the most respected houses, and some should have received far more international recognition than they have. I particularly like Confessions of a Pod Person by Chuck McKenzie and A Tour Guide in Utopia by Lucy Sussex. The MirroDanse website is lousy, but they put the work into the making of fine books, the relationship they have with their authors, and the promotion of quality fiction in Australia beyond their own press.

(1 Feb correction: I was sloppy with my use of "lousy", which needs qualification. MirrorDanse has no intuitive url and no glitzy Enter page such as Tasmaniac's with its nice graphics and no information [these infuriate me]. MirrorDanse's website is very plain and makes no attempt to be anything other than informative. It is, however, in English, and organised well. Also, all its links work, unlike those on many other small p's sites, including Ticonderoga's.)

Two other small presses and names in Australia that deserve praise for their dedication, products, and integrity in how they have treated their contributors, are: Cat Sparks and Robert Hood's Agog! Press and Russell B. Farr's Ticonderoga Publications (both of these publishers in hiatus). New promising small presses include Peggy Bright Books whose first publication, The Whale's Tale, reads well and presents well from the cover all the way through. Simon Petrie in particular, has married legibility with attractiveness in his topnotch book design, which makes lovely use of artwork by cover artist and illustrator Eleanor Clarke. This is one book that credits even the editor. PB's second book is now out, this one by Petrie, but I don't have it yet, so I can't report. I mentioned Twelfth Planet yesterday. There's quite a risk-taking attitude in this press that I like, and so I do hope it does good and does well.

Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine is produced by a cooperative, which should be enough said. It should be a disaster, but it isn't. Sometimes the magazine is bloody brilliant, and sometimes less so. Sometimes the editing is a work of love and dedication in addition to talent and skill, sometimes less so. Some issues are better proofread than others. But there are no dud issues. ASIM does things right far more than it does things wrong, which is why I like it to read and to submit to. If that's not enough, ASIM likes to make its readers smile, a good enough reason on its own.

Some other small presses that deserve high praise that I can tell you about because I've seen their kitchens (been a contributor):

Rusty Morrison and Ken Keegan's Omnidawn Publishing. I was able to improve my story in ParaSpheres because of the sensitivity of the editing, down to some incredibly fine attention to comma placement. The process was also smooth, and best of all, I love the design of the book. Someone with old-fashioned typesetting and layout knowledge was involved, and it shows. John Klima is a superb editor and it shows in his Electric Velocipe, now a joint venture with Nightshade Books. His editing also improved my story in his anthology Logorrhea: Good Words Make Good Stories (which was his concept, too). Matthew Kressel I've quoted at the beginning of this rant. The way that he and editor Ekaterina Sedia treated us contributors in the making of Paper Cities: An Anthology of Urban Fiction is a major reason why the anthology won its award. Mike Allen and his little poetry zine, Mythic Delirium. You might think he'd just wing it for a poetry magazine, as any crime can be covered by poetic license, but not so. I was delighted to be pulled over politely by him when he told me that his "copy editor" questioned my use of "mayhaps". Jay Tomio is another insanely dedicated perfectionist, and a joy to work with. Like all wonderful publishers and editors, he is both considerate and not afraid to point out something that tastes off. That's what makes his Heliotrope Magazine consistently good. Vera Nazarian and her Norilana Books win A's for her dedication, drive, and integrity—but in my opinion, Nazarian still needs to learn more about book design so that the products consistently match her vision. That's not to say that Sky Whales and Other Wonders isn't a better book than many that big presses put out. It is. But she could do even better if she got some lessons from a book design fanatic. An editor any writer would be lucky to work with is Jed Hartman. There are many more editors and publishers I haven't mentioned, some that I only know are good from second-hand knowledge. Ann VanderMeer and Jeff VanderMeer can be excellent editors—when they put out a book, it's not only a great read, but right with great attention to look, and promoted beautifully. But their profile is such that I'm telling you something you expect to hear. On the other hand, you might not know of Brett Alexander Savory and Sandra Kasturi's ChiZine, based in Canada. Their production of Claude Lalumière's Objects of Worship, should, in my opinion, get the Hugo for 2010 Best Collection.

But of all the small presses, the one I would hold up as the model that deserves all stars, is Neil Clarke's (he describes himself as"Publisher/Editor" and lists a crew of other editors) Clarkesworld Magazine. It was laughable that this was a nominee for the 2009 Hugo as "semipro". Sure, there's no claim to "quality" on the site, but when it's there, it shows. Mmm-mmm! And I love how Clarkesworld treats its artists.

Eat it!
Well, this was a rant with many self-corrections, so it's probably a dog's breakfast, vomited. You don't expect me to follow my own advice, do you? I don't want to be toooo perfect. So thanks for dining at my restaurant. I hope you remembered to rub the spoon on your clothes before you ate, to clean it.

Coming in Sprawl from Twelfth Planet Press

Sprawl, Alisa Krasnostein's upcoming anthology from Twelfth Planet Press, takes:
"as its point of inspiration, the delightful and whimsical creations of Shaun Tan’s art and fiction in Tales from Outer Suburbia. Sprawl is intended to be a book that glimpses into the brightest dreams and darkest fears of modern Australia."
Shaun Tan's marvellous and thoughtful art and fiction should become classics. His every line has emotional substance—whimsy, sadness, joy, poignancy, hope, regret, trepidation and the spirit of adventure; mystery, surprise, and enormous beauty are as common and expectable in Tan's work, as rabbits in a healthy warren.

The magic vintage that never upends as "empty"
Twelfth Planet Press should soon be known as a sprightly little producer with refreshingly quirked taste. Sprawl should be typical—too insidiously appealing to cellar in dusty book stacks of should-reads. And too good to consume just once.

My story in Sprawl is "Gnawer of the Moon Seeks Summit of Paradise".
Sprawl non-final Table of Contents
Liz Argall/Matt Huynh - Seed Dreams (comic)
Peter Ball - One Saturday Night, With Angel
Deborah Biancotti - Never Going Home
Simon Brown - Sweep
Stephanie Campisi - How to Select a Durian at Footscray Market
Thoraiya Dyer - Yowie
Dirk Flinthart - Walker
L L Hannett - Weightless
Pete Kempshall - Signature Walk
Ben Peek - White Crocodile Jazz
Tansy Rayner Roberts - Relentless Adaptations
Barbara Robson - Neighbourhood Watch
Angela Slatter - Brisneyland by Night
Cat Sparks - All The Love in the World
Anna Tambour - Gnawer of the Moon Seeks Summit of Paradise
Kaaron Warren - Loss
Sean Williams - Parched (poem)

22 January 2010

Haiti and the shift of Hemispheres

Find Haiti

Haiti is not, as has been widely reported, "one of the poorest countries in the Southern Hemisphere".

Unless nifty Americans like Kathleen Sebelius, ex-Miami Herald reporter Pat Murphy (now opining in the Idaho Mountain Express) or businesses such as Pepco Holdings have hiked the earth's pants up so that they sit just under the man-boobs of Florida and that constitutes a waist, the earth's equator hasn't shifted.

Nor has it shifted where it runs in Africa, as many Europeans think. One of the main men in Roger Federer's charitable foundation was quoted in World Tennis Magazine:
One of the main goals of the foundation was “to help selected poor countries in the southern hemisphere,” Schmocker explained. For example, the foundation sponsored a school in Ethiopia."
So does Southern Hemisphere now just mean any place that you wouldn't want to be stuck in? Or is the definition: aid recipient? If so, the EU should list the countryside of France—and Japan, its whaling ships slaughtering at the expense of the Japanese taxpayer and the name of science—and the banking industry in many places. They're all in the Southern Hemisphere, as is Iceland these days, though it was high up in the North just a short time ago. A case of Global Shifting. In all these cases of Southern Hemispherism, as reporter Murphy advises, it's cheapest for those of us who live in the North to cast them adrift. They're not worth the expense.

And remember to reclassify Australia. We live too well to be in the Southern Hemisphere. Especially compared to the US economy at the moment, we are in the North—and the US better look at the base of its economic tectonic plates for it looks to me that the US is sliding S****. But enough about them. I'm talking now of Australia. Make sure your reporters and opinion makers know Australia is part of the North and of course, the West (another source of mixups).

But remember that the seasons are non-compliant. They don't care what we say.

My favourite Season's Greeting card this year arrived on a broiling day in December. "Happy winter" it said, and honestly, I truly love that though it was a misperception. But that mistake still gives me refreshment, perhaps as much as my snow-laden friend would have got from a hot cuppa delivered by a friendly ghost while friend froze in car, stuck on an ice-locked freeway. That cuppa and a picture of sun and sand and half-naked frolics on a sandy beach.

Mythic Delirium 21: The Trickster Issue

Just released:
Mythic Delirium 21
Published and edited by Mike Allen
Cover art and design by Tim Mullins

Editors can be so inspiring. Mike has been with this, The Trickster Issue.

And Tim Mullins inspires for making the most of life.

Playtime in the sandbox of submissions
This issue was also a party hosted by that beast, the publed. It was a hoot meeting the "work" of other contributors and having a chance to riff. I love meeting like this.

Editorial: Myths and Delusions — Mike Allen
Coyote Knock — Jessica Paige Wick
Cooks' Tricks Nix Sticks — Anna Tambour
The Gentleman — Theodora Goss
Before the Knock — Holly Dworken Cooley
Card Tricks — JoSelle Vanderhooft
Rain Face — Jaime Lee Moyer
The Animal Heart: She Warns Him — Jeannine Hall Gailey
Egyptology — Samantha Henderson
Red Silk — F.J. Bergmann
Trickster Weather — Deborah P Kolodji
Tricksters Are Spinning My Hair — Erzebet YellowBoy
Silk Sleeve Song — Sonya Taaffe
Red Engines — Catherynne M. Valente
We Took Our Gods — Jennifer Crow
The Gods We Left Behind — Darrell Schweitzer
Other Fires — Constance Cooper
Not Without a Struggle — David C. Kopaska-Merkel and Kendall Evans
Gentle Hestia — Kacey Grannis
The Ones Who Met Them — Ann K. Schwader
Maiden & Raven — Ann K. Schwader
The World Belongs to the Young — Danny Adams
Initiation — Gary Every

Illustrations by Oliver Hunter, Bob Snare, Daniel Trout, Paula Friedlander, Tim Mullins, Don Eaves and Terrence Mollendor.

10 January 2010

09 January 2010

Thoughts about The Accord by Keith Brooke

The Accord by Keith Brooke, Solaris, May 2009, 416 pages.

First, the disclaimers. Keith Brooke wrote the introduction to my collection of short stories, and I think highly of him.

Second, the prejudices. I hated the idea of The Accord from the title itself, almost as much as I hate vampires in fiction. A fine prejudice, however, like fine skin, is made to be broken.

This is the only book I've read that tackles levels of reality head on. Now that the edges of all our personalities are smudged by public projection and perception, this is both a timely and a deeply thoughtful multi-faceted novel that is not a quick read, nor a forgettable one. Though there are many issues Brooke covers including the abused and warrisome state of the "real" world, the plot is no manifesto. All the players in it are as real as our own pain, lusts, and love. In lesser but more famous hands, this book would have been a tour de technowind and opinionated irony. The Accord is written from a much lower vantage point, down where we live emotionally, especially the base place of inconvenient, irresistible love.

With so many people so mixed up about what is real today, and so many trying to escape and deny reality ("I'm quite interested in the idea of Second Life [since my first, ie. real life is a crap-out] " an award-winning friend of mine wrote to me), The Accord is thought-provoking rather than opinion-reinforcing, and emotionally rewarding on levels that science fiction often isn't. The issues are relevant not just now but in the future. My only quibble with it is the setting of part of it, which I would have placed at a much higher elevation physically—Edinburgh? But then that's heartless me. I think it's stupid to spend money against the sea in New Orleans. There isn't a plot that isn't lace if one pokes hard enough, including ridiculous truth. And in my consigning London to the past, I might be negating an important part of Brooke's message. Certainly his places are evocative and add much flavour and poignancy to the story. No one since Childers has done the terrors and beauty of land that the sea claims as well as Brooke, who also has a feel for the tiny details of a place that makes that place turn into life instead of, as he tells in graphic detail, the blurred mess that a tree is in the half-glance of casual remembered imagination.

The important point is that— in the challenge of the pressing problems it poses, the relevance of the issues today and in the future, the serious way it treats the reality of a fictional world, even the reality of a fictional virtual reality (something done almost always with surprising tackiness) and the strength of the story itself, which is held together partly by suspense — The Accord, in my opinion, deserves a Hugo.
We head west. I want to see Deanmere Gap again. I want at least some connection with you, Priscilla. We are coming for you, coming to find you. We will find a way out of this place.

I, too, look out of the carriage, but it is not to glimpse the sea. I am studying Magda's reality, looking for flaws, for repetitions, for dithering where the fabric of this world may be stretched thin.
I'm also fascinated by another aspect of the Accord, this "consensual reality that would leave all other VRs behind, a reality built from the mass of human experience, a super-city of the mind."

This book strikes me as a great example of the way great minds don't think alike. I was trying to find the right way to say this when I came upon Robert Louis Stevenson's words: "English youths turn to the thought of the American Republic. It seems to them as if, out west, the war of life was still conducted in the open air, and on free barbaric terms: as if it had not yet been narrowed into parlours, nor begun to be conducted, like some unjust and dreary arbitration, by compromise, costume, forms of procedure . . ." - (from "The Amateur Emigrant", 1895)

The Accord is as European a concept as the idea that a group of nations can agree by consensus. The EU concept has smoothed the sharp individualism that has been a feature of capitalist society as easily as the nation of shopkeepers has been turned into a people grumbling in comment lists against silly rules.

That the actual Accord in Brooke's vision fractures as much as consensus in the actual EU is a measure of the duality of thought in the mind of all thinking Europeans on both sides of the tunnel. That is a relief to this reader, who finds the idea of living in any state formed by consensus to be not a heaven, but a hell. And that distrust of the sum of conscious thought is possibly more culturally induced mania than I'd be willing to admit. I found the very idea of it revolting in the concept, as I hate the idea of being hemmed in — but Brooke was able to take even someone like me and bring us inexorably into his world that bureaucrats would tear their hair out at, as would those modellers who are reviled even today, as the jokes proliferate about the difference between Climate and The Weather.

I make these observations possibly as erroneously as those early observers did who saw flies emerge from meat. So please correct me if I'm wrong, but I do think that Brooke's vision would be vastly different if conceived by someone say, mentally living in the myth of US individualism, or the equally mythic Australian revolt against institutions. The citizens of both countries act as opposite their myths as the the EU does in the communality of life that is consensual Europe which doesn't, in fact, exist.

Recommended reading about the War Without Why

"The squabble over a few acres of dust and rocks they call palestine is not very important to most Americans."
- comment by "Semper Fi" to George S. Hishmeh's op-ed first published by the Jordan Times:
Way out for Obama

"Yeah and stupid Australia jumps in every time the US says jump."
- comment by "Marilyn" to the Veterans Today Special Report:
War Without Why

Looking back to some cautions and advice
"A nation is only as strong as the ability to influence its friends. If America cannot halt the criminal activities of the nation that owes it the greatest debt, that uses American munitions—then America can hardly balance the power of the nation that is America’s greatest creditor."

So why isn't this mainstream debate in Israel mainstream in the USA and the other nations that jump? Until it is, foreign policy aids war, not peace.

"America, stop sucking up to Israel"
- Gideon Levy, Haaretz

04 January 2010

Review: The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction

The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction, selected and translated by Pritham K. Chakravarthy, edited by Rakesh Khanna Published by Blaft Publications, Chennai (2008) . 400 pages. Available from Amazons and Blaft, and other sellers in India, USA, Canada, and the UK.

This book should be an international hit well beyond the diaspora, and already have been reviewed by the likes of real reviewers in Publishers Weekly, The London Review of Books, the New York Times, Village Voice and the Economist, for this book fails.

Blaft Publications should be struggling to keep up with orders for this, and its other seductive selections. But so far, the reviews haven't made it past the world lit ghetto, which is as weird in its way as A1 Books India selling The Secret Policeman's Union, but it does.

In Chakravarthy's unusually fascinating introduction (already a failure. What pulp reader wants an introduction, let alone one too interesting to skip?) she mentions several popular writers whose works have been printed on "recycled sani paper" and appear in tea stalls and bus stations. Their stories have been excluded here, she explains, because they "seemed to aim to do more than simply entertain; we felt they did not quite fit most people's idea of 'pulp fiction'."

This volume entertains, and how! But it does much more.

Included are 17 stories by ten authors, and two Q & A's that I've forbidden myself to quote to you, though they and the whole book sorely tempt. Mixed in are over 20 nuggets of black and white covers, curiosities, and illustrations. 16 full-colour pages of annotated cover art make a juicy centre.

The authors chosen sell in the millions, but this is not mindless pap for the masses, nor talk about nothing. One striking difference between this and pulp is the amount of political savvy and yet, reformist zeal that runs through pretty much every story. This shouldn't be surprising, given the extent of political involvement in a country with 714 million registered voters and such passion to have one's voice heard in this democracy that amongst the 828,804 polling stations, there is one for a single voter. Thus, this fiction is imbued with a combination of optimism and pragmatism that could come from nowhere else. I'm indulging myself by telling you a true story told to me by an Indian politician friend. X was visiting a jail where one of the inmates turned out to be an enthusiastic supporter, so keen that he offered to get his cronies on the outside to keep the neighbouring village indoors, so that no one could get out to vote.

The first story in the book is by "Subha", the pen name of two men who have produced so far: 550 short novels, 50 longer novels serialized in magazines, more than 400 short stories, plus. "Hurricane Vaij" moves like Bollywood hips. The political satire is as seriously funny and timeless as Yes Minister—but what a difference a place makes! Here, a secular politician is terrified that the opposition religious party will learn of his secret assignation — with a spiritual enlightener. There are political thugs by the pack, and a mad scientist who seeks to gain, not for himself but for his country. And those are only some of the features in one story in this beautifully produced anthology that should be only the first of a series.

Matchmakers abound, as do parents' wishes and the social demand for dowries, but love can sometimes conquer all. Female detectives work in an environment that is no Ladies Detective Agency. Here, they literally kick arses and knock out baddies with karate chops. Pattukkottai Prabakar's wildly popular Susheela wears tight T-shirts with slogans like "PLEASE SEARCH ON THE OTHER SIDE" on the back, which incites her working (but not yet bed) partner to say "This T-shirt wasn't meant for someone of your build. There's no need to search for something as obvious as lorry headlights."

One of the joys of this collection is that, while the basic motivations, tragedies and humour are as universal as the capacity to love, oppress, betray, and laugh, no story here could be reset as say, the Office tv series has, from Britain to the US, nor is any story here self-consciously of "the Indian experience", that excruciating stuff cooked up especially by US-college-educated literati to order, the butter chicken of lit.

Being unselfconscious and written only to the expectation that it is genuinely readable by someone who is not expected ever to study it, these stories (bar one) take place in settings that are very different to some homogenized West, though there is also drug addiction, bought cops and judges for the bribing. But as with the vigilante movement in the stirring "Matchstick Number One" by Rajesh Kumar (great movie stuff!) in which the family relationship is both touching and non-transposable, these stories work where they are. And it isn't just their exoticism that makes them so attractive to escape into. These are damn fine stories that smell fresh, even the ones by the youngster, Prajanand V.K., who has read his Holmes but is really an understudy to Rajesh Kumar (who has several stories in this book. the bio reads: "Rajesh Kumar may well be the world's most prolific living writer of fiction.).

Outrageousness abounds. A detective builds a makeshift taser and uses it on a low-level criminal to get him to talk, while we readers cheer the inventor on with our variations of "give him another wake-up call in the goolies". Gods are appealed to and expected to actually do something—though when God is mentioned here, as in the phrase "in the service of God", it is not the megalomaniac Hebraic god, but God in the Hindu sense—and there are gods everywhere, from every kitchen to the sides of roads. This doesn't mean that religion is sacrosanct. Far from it. "How many years ago did Jeevakan descend to this world to serve God?" a detective asks to find out how long a disciple has been in a swami's ashram.

Reincarnation is a natural part of the life cycle. In "The Rebirth of Jeeva", Indra Soundar Rajan tells how belief in reincarnation and the panoply of gods and goddesses is embarrassingly old-fashioned to today's college students, yet they change their minds when one of their own is touched. This story also addresses problems of power, wealth, caste, women's rights, and the helplessness and strengths of rural villagers—yet still manages to be as satisfyingly engrossing as a lurid cover.

As far as I can tell, there has been no culture-negating attempt to make these stories understandable to Westerners (such as, say, the common practice of changing Mum to Mom and v.v., in cartoons that are syndicated across the international M-mlines, or eliminating anything that might be considered culturally confusing). The picture of the writing duo "Subha" entwined arm in arm is wonderful. And in one of Pattukkottai Prabakar's addictive Moonlight Detective Agency stories,"Sweetheart, Please Die!", Bharat, sexy male partner to the stacked, karate-chopping Susheela, meets her for a snack, ordering for them "two plates of hot bajjis and two glasses of rose milk." Later he gets ready for a meeting, so he "washed up, combed his hair and powdered his face." There's much fun the stories, but one instance that made me choke. In in a book filled with names that take up a quarter of a line, one character says on meeting someone with a typically long one: "Hell of a name."

In contrast, I'll digress with Stieg Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. I think this has been such a best-seller in the West because it says nothing unfamiliar to the target reader, which is the Westerner wherever, from Iceland to Duluth. From Larsson's themes of financial journalists being sycophants and the share market being divorced from the health of a real economy, to his study of the mentally sick members of a rich, powerful and secretive family—there is nothing in the book that couldn't have taken place as written, with just a change of place, to say, New York City or London and a little family compound in Connecticut, Jersey (the nice one) or Tuscany. The clothes, tats and piercings, and coffee would even stay the same, the only change being the toppings for the sandwiches. I'm not denigrating this shoe that fits many feet. Much of the strength of Larrson is that his messages and warnings are as global as finance. His message was serious, though he wrapped it in a ripping yarn—and his warnings have been as heeded as any of the lessons in any satire.

In Tamil Pulp, there is only one story that takes place in the West—it didn't quite work since the culture isn't understood. NASA is a family space program, not a program that can continence an act in space that can make a family! But how many millions must think this about how many popular works? Shashi Tharoor offered a taste with his comment, "Movies made by Westerners about India have rarely been worth writing home about, ranging as they’ve done from the ignorant racism of Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom to David Lean’s well-intentioned but cringe-inducing Passage to India , with Alec Guinness warbling away in brown-face."

Many plots here pivot on the roles and rights, and abuses of women—and spread no myths about women and mothers being gentle goddesses. Vidya Subramaniam's two stories are as readable as any pulp should be, but this author should be classified as heavy ammunition for the world's classic-literature canon. In "Me", a daughter claims the right from her mother to have, at least, a satisfying sex life.

Pushpa Thangadorai's serialized novel, "My Name is Kamala" was such a success when it came out in the 70s, that this former religious-travel-guide writer extended the novel by several months (what does the ghost of Dickens say to that?). From the excerpt, it would seem to be time to translate and republish the whole novel, as the issue is as fresh as sex for money, do-gooders wanting to help, and corruption always are. The story takes place in a Delhi brothel—and just as the situation is now, the place is both a terrifying jail for the abducted (ruled here by two middle-aged women, one of them just bad and the other a sadist), and a workplace for independent women who fear do-gooders shutting down their means to make a living.

This pulp anthology might be a good proof for a law of self in literature. The more educated the author and audience these days, the more narrow the scope of outlook often is (though some would say staring in the mirror gives a world view), to the point that we now have what's called "the academic novel" but what is really the novel about novelists kvetching about writing novels and teaching about writing in university. See for instance, Valerie Vogrin's paper: "A Sub-Sub-Genre: The Creative Writing Professor as Protagonist". Vogrin writes:
"In coming up with a topic for my paper, I decided to follow the lead of the panel title I devised – “Staring Back at the Mirror” – directly. I am focusing on novels that wander into the neighborhood of my own experience in the University, specifically Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon, Straight Man by Richard Russo, and Blue Angel by Francine Prose. These novels have strikingly similar protagonists—substance-abusing novelists in their late forties, long married with wandering eyes, who are severely handicapped in their writing . . . All I can really muster is a heavy sigh regarding the formulaic familiarity of these books."

The only sigh I feel about the Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction is that there is not yet a sequel, or another anthology from Blaft available yet, though there is so much to translate. This very attractive book fits in every library and would make a super gift. Even the typesetting and layout manage to be tongue-in-chic retro, and classic. The cover is a treat back, front, and spine. The paper is high quality, as is the printing. I say this because this quality (of selection and editing, physical book, and introduction) equals another favourite of mine, The Oxford Book of English Short Stories edited by A.S. Byatt published by Oxford Press, 1998. This Baft publication should put to shame the execrable job that Penguin India did with Sampurna Chattarji's charming translation from the Bengali of the masterpiece, Abol Tabol: The Nonsense World of Sukamar Ray (2004). In my two copies of that, the glue pot must have been empty for the spines, and a reader can read four pages at once, as the backs show through. A criminal act of publication, especially regarding the illustrations, which are drolleries the equal of Dr Seuss.

But Blaft is not Penguin. One look at the Blaft site, and I'm craving this and that, and that. This is a publisher with a sense of fun, adventure, and risk. The choice of Pritham K. Chakravarthy is brilliant. Certainly her introduction raises the bar of what introductions can be, and her translations keep the feel of different styles, and don't seem to me to be dumbed down for non-Tamil readers. My only quibble with this book is that I would have loved more in the glossary, which is helpful but a bit hit or miss. Still, it's great that something like a ragalai, a mother-in-law vs. daughter-in-law- fight, is defined in the glossary as such rather than having its meaning rubbed out in the translation, in the all too common well-meaning cultural erasure of they-won't-understand.

Oh. Some other curiosities. In only two stories do people drink tea, one story using the ability to make a good cup as a distinguishing mark of old-fashioned abilities in a girl who also values other traditions, such as wearing saris and not cutting her hair. Otherwise people drink coffee, and though there is often a specific given as to the method of making the coffee, in no case is there the question raised: "coffee or tea?" No scene happens in a tea stall, and perhaps to keep the pace fast, buses don't feature.

Read an interview of the founder of Blaft
Rakesh Kumar Khanna was born in Berkeley, California, and educated as a mathematician and musician, in UC Berkeley and IIT Madras. He moved to Chennai in 1998. He deserves high praise as a publisher and editor.

And dhool! I was just checking the Blaft site just as I was going to post this, and guess what's on it?

You can buy direct from Blaft!

Now, if only Blaft could send me an order of hot bajjis and rose milk!