Monthly Archives: April 2015

What It’s Worth: Living Life Well

A most-valued student once gave me one of the highest compliments I have ever received: “Professor Casil, you’re so humble.”

Whales off Dana PointI thought about that for days. I still think about it.

The young woman who said it, was herself, very humble, hard-working, kind and loving. Like many of my students, she had a full-time job, was attending school full-time, and caring for family members who were ill.

So the New York Times has paid to promote an article by David Brooks writing above and beyond himself. Brooks discusses the difference between being a fully-realized human being (the ones he says he meets about once a month — and he lives in one of the world’s largest cities) and being the person most of us are. Most of us don’t really live in the moment; we are seldom fully-present. Perhaps we are ever looking over someone’s shoulder to see the next person who will be more “important” than the one we’re talking to – now.

Something has happened to me over the past few weeks. Brooks discusses the transformative power of genuine love. I’ve had this — I have it still. I never thought I would have such love, though I felt overpowering love for Lali (Anthony). Unconditional love for Meredith. When I knew it was likely that Lali would be born with Down Syndrome, it was a kind of bridge. My heart went over to him and I fully-embraced that I would spend the rest of my life caring for him, making sure he was safe, making sure he would be the best he could be. And then he died. One of the only things that kept me going was the thought that his life should not have had no meaning. I knew he was given to us for such a short time for a reason; I’m still not a hundred percent certain what that was, but I know it’s got something to do with what David Brooks is writing about, what Carl Rogers spent his life uncovering: becoming fully-human.

Do listen to this (Undiscovered Colors, Flashbulb).

Brooks points out that growth occurs when we admit our weaknesses. How I have clung to my underdog status. How I have treasured feeling different from others. They all have husbands or wives who love and support them. They all have friends who care about them, not just use them. They don’t have to fight and scratch and claw and strive for the least thing. They weren’t born an orphan, they weren’t abused, they weren’t beaten and raped. They didn’t have a sub-literate maniac accuse them of murdering the person they loved the most in the whole world on the internet.

It did happen during the Writers of the Future ceremony. During my time, terrible things happened to me. One year, my beloved uncle died. Alan’s kids disrupted that ceremony. A very bad event (of the special type that happen to me) destroyed any enjoyment I may have had another year. I was never able to participate fully in the workshop. I was working too hard. One year, I drove back and forth daily. I went to the ceremony by myself.

Last year at the 30th Anniversary, I took Meredith and Kiele, who were immediately singled out as my 6′ + “Amazon daughters.” This was wonderful, and they had a great time. But I was overwhelmed by this feeling of sadness, longing and yes – resentment – as every single winner got up and thanked their families. Parents, thank you so for your support. Well mine have been gone for years and the one I had, I barely survived. Husbands and wives, thank you for your support. This is the 5:00 to 7:00 every morning writer, so I could get Meredith off to school. Friends, thank you for your support. Well, I did have that. But when we’re feeling sorry for ourselves, the blessings we do have become tiny and our injuries and hurts so very large. Yes, I was very happy for the winners and extremely proud of them, but at the same time (I’m different from you. Worse. Nothing good ever happens to me.)

So this past year, not only did I not feel alone hearing the proud and thrilled winners, I felt …

Kinship

With the winners. At last. Kinship.

I can do this thing, I thought. We can do it.

I wrote in large part because of all those underdog things. I wrote because I was forbidden to speak as a child, unless I followed a careful script and performed complicated behaviors as desired. I learned to please others in ways so ancient and deep that I often am uncertain from where they come, whether or not they are “me” or they are some long-ago Amy, some long-ago Sterling, or farther back, other names, other places, other times. I felt this massive thing inside of me, often not me at all, that must get out.

And now that’s gone. It’s not about me, it’s about we. It’s about everyone. David Brooks shouldn’t encounter fully-realized humans once a month. He should encounter them every day. We should all encounter them every day.

We were talking about 9-11, we were talking about Baltimore. These things wouldn’t happen in a world with more fully-human people. Oh, I still cling to my special status as a wounded warrior. My skills are needed, I think, in this process — skills forged and honed in the fire of the culture of abuse,

I understand how the people feel in the streets of Baltimore. I understand the young students who are afraid and whose schools are closed. I understand the “thugs” who are taking advantage of the situation to make some money, have some brutal fun, and get some of their own back. I understand the people whose only way to be heard is to set buildings on fire and rampage through the streets. People who have never had the opportunity to enjoy the things others take for granted have ever-burning inner reservoirs of rage that is liable to simmer up and explode, just as Langston Hughes said. Students are flogged through his poetry, understanding little of it; it isn’t real to them. It wouldn’t become real unless they’d been themselves, ignored, abused, downgraded, disrespected, at all kinds of risk the “other” has avoided. We have millions in this country right now who’ve experienced far worse than nearly all of the Baltimore “thugs” have, and none of them are rampaging through the streets. They’re in school, studying. They’re at work, working. They’re with their families, enjoying the gifts of life.

That’s because they understand the things David Brooks is working out in his article. They understand it’s not about them, it’s about we. And it’s not about things or money or fame: the cake is a lie. It’s about learning to live. It’s about being fully-human.

#Meant4Bub: Why So Many Books and Covers Are So Similar

#Meant4Bub All Books The Same
I could hardly believe my good fortune upon finding this image! Even George Romero’s famous sympathetic zombie Bub deserves better than the reading that’s so-often forced on the public.

Last year, people began to notice that most books about Africa, written by African authors, or set in Africa looked about the same. This is the original article which notified those “in the know” of what was obvious on the shelves for years.

Like this:all similar book covers about Africa

Knopf art director Peter Mendelsund told writer Michael Silverberg “By the time the manuscript is ready to be produced, there’s a really strong temptation to follow a path that’s already been trod. If someone goes out on a limb and tries something different, and the book doesn’t sell, you know who to blame: the guy who didn’t put the acacia tree on the cover.”

So, not joking, I put a few simple search terms in Amazon Book Search and notated the results.

Popular Topics for Books on Amazon

26,604 books about zombies
56,669 books about vampires
53,007 books about dead girls
28,560 books about celebrities
28,862 books by celebrities
13,286 books about dystopias
76,512 books about child abuse
115,075 books about murder

Less-Popular Topics for Books on Amazon

1,899 books about heal the planet
9,057 books about endangered animals
4,879 books of love poems
7,391 books about world peace

Because my Big Data Auto Ad of the day was for Greg Iles’ awesome sequel The Bone Tree, I put “When the nude body of a young female is found …” (in quotes) into Google and came back with 410,000 results. (Note: The Bone Tree features a murdered African-American nurse, no mention of nude body of a young female as  in Iles’ other work).

So Now We Have The Infographic For Teachers and Classrooms

Our Literary Heritage

The Hashtag #meant4Bub

Seems to me that if people find something that fits comfortably into everything they’ve seen before, like rows and rows of Insurgents and Divergents, they can just give it a good old shout-out and hashtag it #meant4Bub. So everyone will know what they’re supposed to read and what’s good for them.

Why Do You Think So Many Books and Covers are So Similar?

Ask Bub.

Gulf Coast Bookstore: A Warm, Friendly Place for a Young Book

Books are Health Food For the MindI’ve got a few friends, and thanks to one who is neither a writer nor a publisher, but rather a genius/maker who’s already influenced the course of books and reading, I saw an article about a new bookstore in Fort Myers, Florida that’s featuring only the books of local authors: Gulf Coast Bookstore.

This beautiful small store, which is located in local destination business the Butterfly Estates (exactly what it says – devoted to the heritage and beauty of southwest Florida’s butterflies) is owned and operated by writers Patti Brassard Jefferson and Timothy Jacobs, who, according to BookLife’s Judith Rosen, worked for two years on the concept prior to locating the right retail space at the Butterfly Estates and opening April 1. The book’s developing Facebook page shows plenty of enthusiasm.

Gulf Coast Bookstore Ft Myers FloridaOnly 37 authors, all local, are currently featured in the store. The model is similar to a consignment store (the fastest-growing type of retail in North America over the past 5 years). Consignment models are thriving in the furniture, infant/children’s products, outdoor equipment, and higher-end women’s clothing and accessories segments.

Local authors – who are the only ones featured in Gulf Coast Bookstore – pay $60 to display their work in the store for three month periods. They are charged a one-time $15 set-up fee, and receive an astonishing 100 percent of their sales. This adaptation of a local art gallery model seems more than workable (though business planner advises owners Jefferson and Jacobs to think seriously about their fiscal model; they’re looking at a flat revenue quarterly based on consignment payments only – they might want to examine other consignment models depending on their sales volume and experiences).

Gulf Coast Bookstore openingThe store shelves books by category and author, and display is a far cry from Barnes & Noble’s crowded, intimidating, seemingly endless stacks, tables, endcaps, shelves and dumps. Even with the grand opening crowd, the store’s books, lighting and ambience are “buyer friendly.” Numerous tables in the front offer a friendly space for reading, chatting and enjoying refreshments. There’s a porch out back: it is southwest Florida with its gracious atmosphere.

Local authors have struggled for years to publish and sell their own books, not just in Fort Myers, but across the United States. I’ve got a copy of Our Fascinating Earth by Dr. Phil & Nancy Seff — local Redlands, California authors (my hometown). The Seffs have written another book, Petrified Lightning. I remember the lovely couple as tireless promoters not just for their book, but also for science, history, and education. Because people perceive that I’ve achieved some level of success as a writer and have some awareness we are developing Chameleon Publishing, I am asked almost daily for help by aspiring writers or self-published authors.

Yesterday’s retail secret shopper survey of the local Barnes & Noble showed a business that wasn’t very customer-friendly despite the huge selection (much dusty) of books and other products, and busy coffee shop (with no outlets for laptops or other devices). And, a business that was merchandise-unfriendly as well. I don’t know of too many successful retailers that display merchandise sitting directly on the floor, or seem to “decorate” with merchandise – i.e. “books as wallpaper.” Sure, some clothing retailers do display items that are high out of customer reach. The staff should have hooks to get such merchandise down … if they don’t, they are likely to be among the 14% of retailers who shut down stores in 2014, or went flat-out bankrupt.

If Barnes and Noble is a lonely, forbidding place for a young book, then Gulf Coast Bookstore is a wonderful, friendly, beautiful and serene environment where that young book can grow and thrive.

Co-owner Jacobs told Booklife, “It’s just hard to compete with Stephen King or Dan Brown in a mega-bookstore that has tens of thousands of books for sale.”

Even Stephen King and Dan Brown are finding that it’s hard to compete in such an environment; certainly Greg Isles would be, if the evident movement (none) on publication day of his most recent book is any guideline. Row after row of faced-out, untouched cookie-cutter trade paperbacks and hardcover fiction shows the same response.

People want real books — they are hungry for them — but they are, I think, exhausted by the sameness of the current merchandise offerings in the places where they are most easily and quickly directed to look for and buy books. Barnes & Noble’s 600+ stores are approximately 1/3 the number of all independent bookstores in the U.S. But they’ve driven out their competitor chains and put thousands of other stores out of business — many of whom had “friendlier” environments, better merchandising and closer, more contact with their customers. Now, they are suffering from the ever-accelerating downward spiral: everything they’ve got for sale either looks the same, or actually is the same, as what they had 3 months ago, 6 months ago, a year ago.

“Nobody reads any longer.” Lie. Reading is about active minds and active imaginations.

“Books are health food for the mind.” – Amy Sterling Casil

People deserve far better and Gulf Coast Bookstore is a huge, positive step in the right direction. Locally-sourced, real books: for real people.

Barnes & Noble: A Lonely, Forbidding Place for An Innocent Young Book

I used to regularly do retail surveys of bookstores, typically Barnes & Noble or the late, lamented Borders, but also independent bookstores and delightful bookshops of all sorts. With all the Barnes & Noble troubles and struggles, I hadn’t visited our local store (Aliso Viejo Town Center) for several months. The store and its offerings seldom changed, and I typically only went in to meet with friends and colleagues in the always-packed coffee shop. There are at least half a dozen other coffee alternatives within walking distance of this coffee shop; so there’s something about the studying tables, or ability to snatch magazines and have a cup of coffee or dessert that keeps customers there. It isn’t the availability of outlets for laptops, as Starbucks and Peets have … there aren’t any in this charming location and the employees are glad to tell you so. It isn’t usually the service, and it’s not the coffee: “Seattle’s Best” can’t hold a candle to Peets, Bagels & Brew or the lovely Neighborhood Cup that’s INSIDE the Aliso Viejo Library.

So, the Barnes & Noble coffee shop thrives!

The rest of the store? Not so much. Barnes & Noble is a lonely, frightening place for a young book to be all by itself. And this, in a real world where more young people are reading (books) than ever before, and younger readers say they prefer real, paper books to e-books or tablet reading (before you, reader who says “She is always wrong, they’re all reading on e-readers … try this additional). Because I actually speak with my students and others I meet in different environments who are age 28 and younger, these surveys are confirmed by my in-person market research. Younger people like real, paper books, and when they find books they enjoy, they will buy and read them.

On to the rest of the store:

B & N Insurgent Endcap Display

Children’s and YA areas

One mom, two little ones, reading and playing in the worn and torn “children’s corner.” Judging by the racks, the big-sellers in that area were the inexpensive picture books: various Disney princesses, old-standards like Clifford the Big Red Dog, Golden Books, and Berenstain Bears. The same books I bought for Meredith almost 20 years ago. The fevered fervor for YA books I saw 5-10 years ago: gone. Rick Riordan languishes. The stalwart, standard fantasy/sci fi YA books (Harry Potter, etc) sit untouched. The glossy “Spirit Animals” series with writing by such incredible talents as Sean Williams — man, these books look like total kidbait and — really kind of not moving. What was selling, judging by what needed to be restocked: Sounder. Where the Red Fern Grows. And, selling so well that the only available copy said “To be a feature film coming soon,” Lois Lowry’s The Giver.

See the Insurgent endcap above? Not quite so “packed in” as the one I saw last year in the grocery store “bestseller” (paid, TNG) display. This book and its various editions, packages, special-whatevers, is selling about as well as a Hot Cheetos/Mountain Dew display at Whole Foods. Despite the MOVIE! ! ! (the quality product Furious 7 made 4 times the amount Insurgent did on its opening weekend).

Greg Isles Anne Rice Display B & N

New Releases in Hardcover

Yesterday (Tuesday, April 21) was release day for Greg Isles The Bone Tree and Beauty’s Kingdom by Anne Rice (A.N. Roquelaure). The only new hardcover moving at all in the store was the Anne Rice book, with evidence of 5-6 copies selling at the front of the store and additional 4-5 out of this dump. Greg Isles? I lost my $10 bet that it would center on the discovery of a nude white female body. It’s about the killing of an African-American nurse. I couldn’t tell if she was discovered clothed or nude from my cursory overview. Greg may have sold one book at this store. All other dumps and paid displays pristine and untouched. Greg Isles v. Anne Rice Amazon rankings … Anne Rice #457 in Books. Greg Isles an amazing #85 in Books on Amazon – the book was barely ranked yesterday.

According to Booklist, “Absolutely compelling… A beautifully constructed story, some extremely fine writing, and some hard-to-bear tragedy.… Everything is big about this one: its epic scale [and] its built-in readership based on the success of its predecessor.” (Greg Isles – The Bone Tree – a sequel to “something else with a dead female body”).

Other evidence of hardcover sales at the front (paid) discount display portion of the store included mostly business and self-improvement titles and very limited action among others. The store is near a number of large employers and headquarters including Pacific Life (the planner/developer of Aliso Viejo).

science fiction aisle b & n George R R Martin Land

Mass-Market Dumps and Displays by Genre

And here is an interesting change. Not only were a goodly number of the mystery titles moving in apparently modest numbers, but the retro-cover and small, genuine pocket or pocketbook size has emerged. We can quibble about cover quality (there were some real doozies on the rack – in fact, the WORSE the cover from an aesthetic perspective, the better the sales …)

Theory here?

Well, here is one that showed action both at the front of the store and back in the stacks:

A Fright to the Death

A Fright to the Death, by Dawn Eastman. Dawn’s book doesn’t have any starred Booklist reviews, but it is part of a series, about a female cop named Clyde Fortune.

“A tightly plotted, character-driven triumph of a mystery…Sparkles with charmingly peculiar characters and a fascinating heroine, Clyde Fortune, who effortlessly shuffles the reader into her world like a card in a tarot deck. Eastman is fabulous!”—Jenn McKinlay, New York Times bestselling author of the Library Lover’s Mysteries, the Cupcake Bakery Mysteries, and the Hat Shop Mysteries

Well there ya go. To the jaded Studio Art major and design aficionado’s eye, the “cover from Hell.” To the readers who like a good mystery that’s not overlong … those are two dogs, but that book cover is pure catnip. That cover, virtually indistinguishable from hundreds of “self-published” covers and worse than many from a design perspective (What is that Christmas Tree font???) – it’s doing its job. Everyone in the art departments for the mass market publishers has gone total 70s retro.

A Ghostly Grave by Tonya Kappes

 

Proof?

Yes.

I have noticed fine details like “Colonel Chicken Teater” upon second glance – in its way, this cover is a magnificent achievement. In its way. Also selling. At least it can fit into the “Fun With Photoshop” category.

Recent sci-fi in-field controversy aside: Larry Correia Monster Hunter books were moving in all the dumps and shelves and those covers are not Rembrandt … 

Death Aisles (Sci-fi and Fantasy)

I always hate going to the sci-fi and fantasy aisles. The only change seems to be in the negativeB & N Middle shelves SF F aisle George Martin Land direction. Few ever shop there. Those who do … you always see them reading David Drake or David Weber books. Sometimes Eric Flint. (Aside: anime & manga books packed in tighter than a tick … they may have utterly run their course).

These are the regular 3 George R.R. Martin shelves in the “aisle of death” (my term – meaning it’s where good books go to die before being stripped). Most of these are simply different size/age/format editions of the same books (self-explanatory). The one that appears to have sold (upper right, red spine) didn’t. We moved it to look at it. Outside this area was something that might be called an end-cap, but it was actually a pyramid-shaped display (stack or building project with book-blocks) of every imaginable Game of Thrones-related book and product stacked from the floor to waist-height. Similarly to the Insurgent display, this appeared untouched.

Most-Active Shelves

  • Christian Books (including fiction, several genres, trade paper and mass market) – this section appears much larger than on previous visits, including more titles and rack space in all segments. B & N may have “noticed.”
  • “Other” Religious Books
  • Romance (mass-market)
  • Mystery (mass-market)
  • Classic Literature displays (sort-of)
  • Featured award-winners in children’s lit (Trade Paper) – “literary” or realistic seemed to be preferred

As we left, Bruce said, “I wouldn’t want to be a book in Barnes & Noble. It’s a lonely place for a young book.”

I’ve been involved in the publishing industry for almost 20 years now. The simple customer-oriented retail survey we just did is seldom found in any industry-specific publications. An article I read last year that was widely-shared (a single-author complaint about low gender diversity in UK bookseller Waterstones) was really, really personal, though it had specific marketing examples such as Waterstone’s old-fashioned, unattractive and male/70s/80s author-dominated sci-fi/fantasy in-store marketing posters. This is the kind of thing writers share around to make brownie points amongst one-another for their complaints.

So, the type of business that does well in our community of about 50,000 here in Aliso Viejo (South Orange County) is one that appeals to those who live here or nearby, or who work in one of the large businesses located here. It’s called market demographics; non-existent in the book trade since Barnes & Noble has the same books no matter where you go, just as McDonalds has the same food, and chooses to work, for the most part, with the same 5 suppliers.

Aliso Viejo 2013 population was 50,175, 4.3% population growth since 2010 Census, 7.7% under 5 years of age, 5.3% over age 65, 51.9% female, and 25.9% are 18 and under. This is a white town – 72%, even though the nickname “Asian Viejo” is commonly heard. About 15% of those who live here are Asian, and 17% identify as Latino. Median household income is over $99,000, and median individual income is $44,699, both significantly more than statewide averages. The median home value is $462,800, and 61% of those who live here own their own home. 30 percent do speak a language other than English at home – it’s South Orange County so this language may well be Farsi, Arabic, or Spanish. Nearly 60% of those who live here have a Bachelor’s degree or higher, and 95.2% have a high school diploma. $662 million in retail sales were done here in 2007 and this figure is certainly higher today. The per-capita retail sales were $16,269 in 2007, and food services sales were $53.7 million, also in 2007. You would, like many of the thriving businesses here – want to open the right business in this community.

Guess which business recently closed:  Burger King.

Guess which businesses recently opened (past 18 months)? Whole Foods and Peets Coffee (among many others, including numerous fitness/fitness related businesses).

And the Barnes & Noble is not moving merchandise. It is doing active insult to quite a bit of merchandise with its practice of creating fake “endcaps” by stacking books and related items on the floor underneath real endcaps. People will (and I’m sure do) trip on the books haphazardly stacked on the floor. Table displays are placed so it is difficult to walk between aisles. Other large metal racks are awkwardly placed, interfering with store traffic, with unnatural orientations. Much store space is devoted to ill-displayed toys, gifts and other similar items. A giant cardboard Walmart-style display for expensive retro vinyl records is jammed in the middle aisle. Employees do not dust; dust visible on every exposed shelf and surface.

The “first thought” about all of this is that “people don’t buy and read books any longer.” Again, if I had a dollar for every time I heard that, I would have more than adequate capital to fund a really robust marketing program for every Chameleon book planned or imagined for the next two years. “Second thought” is “everyone is reading e-books.” A dollar for that phrase heard would pay for Rian Hughes to design every Chameleon book. Yes, Virginia, there was an extensive Nook display in the front of this Barnes & Noble (I was SO behind the times – B & N is keeping the Nook as part of its business. Now they are getting rid of their 600+ unprofitable college bookstores. I know. How is it possible to LOSE money on a college bookstore with a captive audience and mandatory sales?).

Statistics show otherwise. Aliso Viejo is the ideal location for this store to thrive. Yet, it’s not – and it is not 100% due to Barnes & Noble’s overall corporate problems. The average customer doesn’t “know” of the company’s financial struggles. They know the bookstore, where it is located, and will shop in it if they are having the customer experience they desire. If they follow today’s shopping patterns, chances are they very likely will shop online before going to the actual store to purchase – for price, other information, or ideas.

It feels like stuff in the store has just been there forever without selling … but that’s not 100% the case. Compared to some other retailers, there’s more turnover. However, Men’s Wearhouse and Books a Million, another large book retailer (1/3 the size of B & N) and Men’s Wearhouse, where the suits seem perennially the same, are both more profitable than B & N.

B & N 2014 Days Inventory 106.73
Inventory Turnover 3.42

Men’s Wearhouse 2014 Days Inventory 152.41
Inventory Turnover 2.39

Books A Million 2014 Days Inventory 219.31
Inventory Turnover 1.66

As to use of store real estate:

B & N sales per square foot $258 (about 15% less than 2003 figures I found)
Walmart sales per square foot $424
Books-A-Million $198 (approx. 10% higher than 2003)

There’s a baseball analogy in the works. Like the “Big Bang” homerun style of AL baseball that was all shaken up by “Billy Ball” and the Oakland Athletics in the early 80s.

The Barnes & Noble, and ever-evolving big publishing “home run” emphasis seems to be one of the key problems in the foot traffic/sales at these stores. And as the “biggest game in town” amid the fragmentation of the rest of the retail book industry and manufacturing supplier side … it is what it is. Not great for books and readers despite all the “choice” the stores offer.

 

 

Shyness: Written 2002

Thanks to the long-term outage of the SFF.NET service which has taken down websites of numerous writers, Mindy Klasky sought out one of her older websites from the Internet Wayback Machine. I can’t link to Mindy’s current site – because it’s still unavailable!

I found copies of my original AOL website (during the time I didn’t realize I could have “amysterlingcasil.com” among many other things). There was plenty on there I’d forgotten. But this? This, I did not forget. This was written around my birthday in March, 2002. Unsurprisingly, I received criticism from individuals about this, mostly along the lines of “It’s no big deal to be shy and takes no courage whatsoever to overcome” and “it doesn’t matter what society tells minorities they are supposed to look like, they are a bunch of whiners.”

This documents the ACES before I knew what those where. This documents a form of self-recovery. This was written 3 years before I was diagnosed with complex PTSD (multiple precipitating incidents). This was written shortly before what truly was the high point of my life until the past 18 months, when I went to Kansas City for the Nebula Awards and John Starr and Zubin Contractor took care of me for a week. When I had for that brief time, people who cared about me, taking care of me, paying attention to me, listening to me, no additional outside worries or responsibilities.

Amy Sterling Casil 2002 Web Page Banner

SHY

Yes, it’s true. I was unbelievably shy as a child and had the self-esteem of a wet napkin. I felt ugly, unloved, and dumb. Not at all quick and smart. In fact, I felt most comfortable “making things” (as in my homemade books, forts of branches and rocks, and rickety treehouses). I enjoyed the sports I participated in, especially softball (I wasn’t BAD at any position and I was a pretty good hitter and shortstop), and dance classes. I spent countless hours scouring the countryside for exciting adventures, either alone with my BB gun (You’ll shoot your EYE out!) or with my friends. I remember finding the giant pack rat nest. He had built a little hut out of branches and rocks (sound familiar?) and I was positive that a small person lived in there.

Crouching in front of my pals, I peered into the door to the “little house” and saw light dancing off dozens of shiny things. As my eyes adjusted, I realized they were bits of broken glass, pop-top can tabs, and bottle caps. These were nested in a woven mat of old string and rubber bands. And it smelled nasty! Then the “little man” came out, rearing on his hind legs, reaching up with his arms, and baring what looked like three-inch, dark orange sabers. He was hissing! He came staggering out, and I shrieked and we all screamed and ran off. That was Pack Rat. As I ran away, I heard a familiar voice saying, “Surprise, surprise, surprise.” That made me laugh; it wasn’t so scary any more.

I fought – well, this is so feminine, isn’t it? – my first victim was a 5th grade boy who got “smart” when I was in 3rd grade, and I pounded him because that was what I’d seen the other kids do. But after that, I mostly got into it trying to defend my friends. I don’t recall ever initiating any trouble, but I do recall “defending” my friends from teasing and harassment. It wasn’t “teasing” by Junior High. I have to laugh these days when they talk about the problems in the schools. When I was in Junior High, I knew kids who would ditch and go across to the orange grove across the street and engage in what they now call “inappropriate sexual behavior.” We had a teacher who sat at his desk and smoked pot. In LA, I went to a Junior High where we had another pot-smoking teacher who assigned us to read SIDDHARTHA by Herman Hesse (in Junior High!). The “fights” were nearly all gang-related. It is true that back then weapons were mostly knives. But I knew what a switchblade was; I guess what amazes me is that now, people freak out about everything. I’m not saying that these fights are right. They’re not. But it is a completely false impression to suggest that there was “no violence” in schools during the 70’s, whereas now it’s a zone of armed warfare, teachers in terror over students bringing Uzis in through the metal detectors. I went to school during the 70’s, so that should provide some insight into my knowledge of “America’s Drug Problem.”

Years later, when I came to Family Service, the agency in Redlands where I was the director for nearly ten years, I saw a lot of my schoolmates: yes, as people coming in seeking help. I remember one dramatic fight in Junior High with a girl everyone was terrified of. She was much bigger than me, and her gang (race-related, but I won’t feed that to say “which race”) was after my best friend, looking to seriously hurt her. As in switchblade, broken ribs, etc. Many years later, her sister came to Family Service and I learned that the girl who’d led the fight was doing 20 to life in the State Penitentiary, a heroin addict, with six children she’d never see grow up.

This may seem rough. This may seem ugly. But I have never had a “sheltered” life. Parents today may wonder, “How can I protect my children against this type of thing?” The answer is: you can’t. They’ve got to live life just like the rest of us. I don’t think that I had a whole lot more self-esteem than the girl who ended up in the State Penitentiary. My age: her life is now, for all intents and purposes, over. People might say, “Amy, you’re a rich white girl, blah blah blah.” Yeah, I ended up as the director of the agency to which so many of these other kids ended up going, out of money, out of jobs, out of food, addicted to drugs, involved in domestic violence, running from the law. Their children are orphans, being raised by overwhelmed grandparents. I was raised by my grandparents. Rich? I never went hungry. Compared to people in economically stressed countries, every individual in America is “rich.” They have multiple pairs of shoes, television sets, and not one single person in this country needs to go hungry. If they do, it’s because they don’t know about the resources that are available, or because pride, or lack of transportation, or disability, prevents them from taking advantage of them.

I worked for so many years with people of all backgrounds that I almost sometimes laugh when I hear people lecture or hector about “diversity.” That’s not what this is about, but I guess that everybody can understand what “shy” is. It doesn’t matter what you look like or if your name is easy or difficult for others to pronounce — if you’re shy, you’re shy and that’s that. Shyness will prevent you from taking the initiative in doing so many things you want desperately to do. Being there for my friend during all those terrifying gang fights was a large part of helping me to overcome my crippling shyness. I discovered that I had physical courage; it’s not like I thought about it too much at the time. I think that’s what physical courage is: just not worrying. Things you have to think about in advance, like bungee jumping or skydiving? The way to get past that is to turn your brain off and just do it. I used that same process, little by little, in every aspect of my life. Dealing with friends, being in a group and saying more than two words? Turned off the “shyness fear.” Suddenly, everyone thought I was extraverted. Speaking in front of a group? Same thing. I found a way to just turn the fear off and focus on the audience. Maybe part of it is forcing yourself to stop worrying about what others think of you, and instead focus on others — what’s going on with them? How are they reacting? What do they have to say and offer? Rejection fears: I can’t tell you how horrible it was for me to put my work into an envelope and receive those rejection letters back. But after a while, I became able to use the very same process, telling myself each time, “If you don’t try, you’ll fail for certain.” Don’t be shy.

Another part of it was thinking, “Nobody’s better than anybody else.” Shyness is a natural personality trait, but it’s made so much worse by poor self-esteem and inner fears.

As far as the racial thing goes, I guess it makes me really angry. I truly feel that all people deserve the opportunity to do what they want to do in life — pursue the career of their choice, have the family life they want, attend the church they want to be a part of – or no church at all -, live where they want to live, and live free and happy. Because I am who I am, Family Service Girl, always having talked to and been with whomever I got along with, never having given more than a second’s thought to “he or she looks different, sounds different, is different from me,” my friends and acquaintances seldom, if ever, bring up topics of racial or ethnic denigration. I suppose, and as I said to one of my good friends the other day, “We can’t see ourselves as others see us.” You see, I recently realized that “Not everyone feels the same way I do.” I recently heard of a group of middle-class Caucasian individuals “going off” about “Mexicans” with stereotyped, ignorant comments galore. Not just one or two people, an entire group just having an “anti-Mexican” fest. I guess that’s like Cinco de Mayo in reverse. I occasionally hear people using the “N” word, and not in jest. When I was growing up, I desperately wanted to look like Snow White. Well, you can see my picture and see how “likely” that was to happen. I felt sluggy and hideous, a little chubby-cheeked blond girl who wanted to be tall and willowy with long black hair. But what’s that compared to a black or brown woman who constantly has pictures of blond, tall, willowy, blue-eyed women shoved in her face and is told, “That’s beautiful?” A young black man who’s snowed under by images of successful black athletes and entertainers — but what if he isn’t a great athlete, and he can’t sing very well, and what’s more — wants to do something different? I believe that everyone can relate to overcoming shyness, but I don’t know about these other things. It just makes me angry to think about it. I often hear the term “ignorance” used to describe bigotry and prejudice. I think that’s right. I think also that it’s willful ignorance. I believe that it does make bigoted, prejudiced people “feel better” when they put others down with no knowledge whatsoever of what they’re so cruelly babbling about.

What I believe most about this, what I see, is that when people categorize others this way, descending to the lowest, stupidest, most ignorant stereotypes possible, they are committing the ultimate act of disrespect. They are literally throwing other people away as if they were pieces of trash. When I teach, I see the shy student in the back of the class. Often, that student produces the very best work. Because of his shyness, the other students have absolutely no idea what their fellow class member is capable of. The shy student also loses access to what the others are doing and saying. The same process occurs on a larger scale with people who are ethnically bigoted and prejudiced. They automatically cut themselves off from ever being friends with, working with, or having their lives enriched by people who are of the groups they fear, disrespect and hate. As a society, the members of groups who are considered “minorities,” or have endured prejudice and bigotry, are enforced into that position of the shy student in the class — and in many cases, it doesn’t matter if they’re shy or not. I grew up in the day — along with the switchblades and gang free-for-alls at the flag pole, all race-related — when Diahann Carroll was the first black woman to star on a television series. I remember Nichelle Nichols as Lt. Uhura on Star Trek. She was so beautiful and poised. They both were; in fact, I remember them the most of any women on television during those years when I was disturbing Pack Rat and struggling with my own shyness and self-esteem. I loved both shows, and they were my favorite female actors at the time. I believe that they were not just pioneers and role models for black American women, they were role models for all women. But prejudiced and bigoted people would not be able to see through that; to them, they would be “tokens” or there would be resentment against them based on some other racially-motivated “favorite.” In my home, I was encouraged to watch Diahann Carroll, because she was exactly as I said — beautiful, poised, and she played a professional woman and a single mother. Now — where am I today? Certainly not as lovely as Diahann Carroll, but I am a professional woman and a single mother. And when I have to, I can behave with poise and dignity. Today, I look at Halle Berry and often I hear comments about her gorgeous physique, but she has also proven herself as a talented actress. Maybe Halle Berry is the best actress working right now in films. Her beauty and her race receive a lot of comments, but she has definitely “overcome” those stereotypes. I look at her success and I feel incredibly proud. A whole new generation of young women can look at her, watch her films, and see someone who is not just beautiful, but a deeply-perceptive performer with class, talent, and intelligence.

For me, overcoming shyness only occurred when I was able to get a better sense of who I was, as well as deciding who I wanted to be. That does cross all barriers, and — I suppose on a small scale — as a non-Snow-White “dumb blond,” I understand what it’s like to be judged based solely on appearance. And judging based upon appearance is part of human nature. No one can escape that. Now I get to deal with being called “ma’am” and “Mrs. Casil.” Heaven love my students calling me by my first name without asking permission. Like Diahann Carroll, I have to quietly address issues of respect and dignity without causing hurt to others.

I’m still painfully shy. I feel ill every time it’s time to teach a class. I’ve heard other people describe “butterflies” in their stomachs. With me, it’s more like a clenching fist inside. But it’s been a long, long time since I’ve given in, wimped out, or otherwise sidestepped situations where I was uncomfortable or fear-filled. The fear never goes away. It does grow less as time passes. Familiar situations do make things easier.

Looking at brain theory and the theory of the mind (hey, I am a science fiction writer!), it’s now understood that we each “deconstruct” the world as we perceive it, then reconstruct it in our minds. No two people perceive the world in exactly the same manner. But even so, I do believe that we all perceive the world in ways that are similar, and we share common experiences and perceptions that are very like, if not identical, to others. Everything I’ve written about, from the “freaks” in “Chromosome Circus,” to Mel in “To Kiss the Star,” — Mel, there in her wheelchair, looking at her face in the horror that I dread; her face in that story is the face I see in my own mirror each day, because that’s what shyness and low self-esteem is — is really about accepting who you are and overcoming fears, self-doubt and the brutality of others. I suppose my anger derives from the brutality most of all. In the same way that people approach their environment and their lives, with no “intelligence,” but rather selfish, self-interested, “of the moment” reactions and decisions, so, too, are people discarded with no thought whatsoever. It seems to me that those who live their lives this way “deconstruct” the world, but they never put a thing but their own selfish concerns back together.

Overcoming shyness is not about brutalizing or hardening yourself. It’s about perceiving who you are and what you’re capable of doing, and not allowing the shyness to rule your life. Above all, it isn’t about telling yourself that you’re better than others. It’s about telling yourself that you’re a human being, just like everyone else, and that you can and do have something to offer. Real courage, not just blind physical guts, comes from recognizing who you are and making choices based upon your firmly-held inner beliefs and values, regardless of what others say about you, do to you, or even if they ignore you or mock you.

Amy Sterling Casil

Well: Chameleon.

Redlands, CA March, 2002

Not Doing Your Job … and Nobody Else is, Either

turtles all the way downThe Weekly Standard joined the parade of publications covering (more or less) the Hugo Awards controversy. Writer Jonathan Fast concluded by stating the endless “culture war” controversies are “turtles all the way down”… in other words: there’s no way to tell where they started, and no end.

But there is, somewhere, a turtle all the way at the bottom who is bearing the weight of the world on his shell.

Jonathan’s main point was “Even the sci-fi awards have become part of it.”

And, I think this is another throe in the devastating trend that Mike Rowe identified as “The War on Work.” Fast began his article describing how a young man named Anthony Stokes received a heart transplant he’d been initially denied, because people advocated on the internet for the operation, averring that doctors were racist because Anthony was black; therefore he’d been denied the heart because he was black. As many people who’ve been in need of organ transplants know, there are some qualifying, and disqualifying factors that have been established — Anthony was initially denied due to a criminal record and poor school performance. He did get his heart – but lost his life last week, two years after the transplant. He died in a car crash, seeking to escape police pursuit.

Fast sought to say, “The rules weren’t followed – Anthony got an exception and somebody else did NOT receive a transplant, because people stepped in and advocated, stating he’d been denied due to his race.”

Certainly Anthony wouldn’t be the only person to receive a transplant only to “waste” the second chance at life. Of any race/ethnicity.

I thought about how messed-up things got for the transplant team at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, where Anthony received his transplant. With major publications like Huffington Post, Gawker and Ebony saying their facility was racist, they probably went through untold troubles. Physicians and nurses, unaccustomed to dealing with public accusations of racism and bias, took unknown amounts of time away from their daily work with patients. I don’t think it was just the person bumped back down the transplant list in favor of Anthony who paid a price. It was the whole hospital and community. Unknown numbers of parents and children who didn’t get the right care — children of any race, any ethnicity, any age, parents of any sexual orientation. It’s Atlanta, a city of half a million people. A busy hospital. Hearts are not the only type of organs transplanted there.

I don’t follow daily news about people who get into trouble because their personal lives and opinions vary from the demands of public advocates for various social positions. So, I hadn’t really known much about the situation with Mozilla co-founder Brendan Eich, also mentioned in Fast’s article. In a nutshell, after a lifetime of work that positively influenced the world, last March, Eich received a promotion to CEO of Mozilla. After two solid weeks of controversy because Eich had contributed $1,000 to California’s Proposition 8 (“Defense of Marriage”) campaign … in 2008 … he resigned his position. The most recent entry on his formerly busy blog is dated as of his resignation. I followed him on Twitter … that and $2.25 will get you a cup of coffee. This cup is free at my house.

I just realized today that the anti-Chick-fil-A campaign ultimate results were a) probably to color the later days of founder S. Truett Cathy, who died last September at age 93 with controversy – he probably thought “I was just a guy who wanted to make and sell great chicken sandwiches and build a business”; and b) whatever that was all about, in the wake of Mr. Cathy’s death, Chick-fil-A continues strong. As most who know me know, I’m no advocate of fast food, but Chick-fil-A racked up $5 billion in sales and surpassed KFC for the top fast food chicken restaurant in the U.S. last year. So – Mr. Cathy’s controversial support for traditional marriage organizations did not result in fewer chicken sandwiches being made and sold.

Now, some may wonder, “Amy, aren’t you afraid of them coming after you?”

Well – they already have.

It started back in the 90s when we did Home Again Project in Redlands. Over my 10 years at Family Service, we were able to help over 1,000 homeless families find good places to live, get good jobs, and help their children get back on track in school. We even hired a formerly homeless dad who’d managed to help himself recover from substance abuse. He’d been certified as a drug counselor, and for two years, he did help many others with their battle with the deadly disease. Then he relapsed, unbeknownst to the rest of us for a time. He falsely accused his female supervisor of sexual harassment. I investigated this professionally, in accordance with training and company policies. I (and all the rest of us) did everything right under the circumstances. I estimate it cost me about 400 hours of work a year for the three year period during which the allegations went through various court processes. At the end, the man focused on me personally, and frightened me by trying to intimidate me. We called him “The Man With No Neck.” It was an accurate assessment. There’s no telling who didn’t get proper assistance or care during that time, when I was dealing with state investigators, countless lawsuit responses, lawyers and insurance people.

Then, this writer – and I don’t suck – this writer lost literally thousands of hours of productive work time and countless hours of sleep, and obtained a PTSD diagnosis because of the chap we call “Mr. Moron.” In an early example of what we see today with internet shaming and Twitter wars, Mr. Moron believed he could influence a custody battle by putting out a giant web page alleging that my now-deceased partner Alan Rodgers had murdered our baby Anthony. Anthony died because he aspirated his formula after being put down for a nap. He died in my arms. I had enough on my plate losing the baby I’d given everything up for, the baby I was committed to spending the rest of my life caring for (because he had Down Syndrome), and also to caring properly for my daughter Meredith. I did not need to see myself accused of murder of the most important person in my life, or see my beloved daughter also so-implicated (at age 12!).

It has taken me a lifetime to come to the point where I am today. This is what I understand. We, no matter who we are, have only a limited amount of time on this earth. What is it — what is the human tendency to do this type of thing — if it is not a desire for death and destruction, not life and living? People have 100,000 heartbeats a day, 35 million heartbeats a year, and a stunning – yet finite – 2.5 billion heartbeats during the average lifetime.

They say that “living well” is the best revenge. Mike Rowe advises people to stop looking down on those who do “dirty jobs” and recognize that not only do we all need those jobs to be done, but also the folks who do them, are among the happiest. Because they “get” what I just said about our lives being finite. It seems that it is the job of some of those who drive these endless controversies to do this. Or, fomenting these controversies is a way of avoiding doing some other work. My former employee who falsely accused his female boss of “sexually harassing” him didn’t want to do his job any more. He wanted time off, due to his addiction and probably other factors. He couldn’t handle it any more. His solution was to cook up these accusations so he could file for Workers Comp. He did, too! He got it for two years, and got free medical care and prescriptions. But then … it did all come to an end. He was ordered to pay it all back, and narrowly escaped jail time.

Because he wasn’t telling the truth.

He couldn’t pay me or the organization back for the endless hours wasted; he could never pay back his boss, whom he so brutally and falsely accused. He couldn’t give her back the unhappiness, stress, heartache, and confusion — he couldn’t give her back the sleepless nights. He couldn’t pay back the people who didn’t get the help they should have in the best way we could, because we were all so upset and confused by these false allegations.

Young people are having trouble on the job these days because they are so consumed by technology — smartphones, social media, videos, music, etc. As to those who may not be — well. There are always turtles. All the way down.

The economic cost: incalculable.

 

 

Writers and Illustrators of the Future

Tom Doherty Writers of the Future 2015Last evening at the Wilshire Ebell theater in Los Angeles, Tor Books president Tom Doherty gave a gracious, eloquent acceptance speech for the Lifetime Achievement Award given by the Writers of the Future organization.

Tom briefly covered his history bringing the best, most visionary, entertaining science fiction and fantasy authors and books to the public. With humbleness and humor, he spoke of the days before writers like Orson Scott Card, Anne McCaffrey, Frank Herbert and Andre Norton were household names. Those long-ago days were times when a fraction of books that are published today were put out to the public. They were days in which the raw numbers of people who regularly bought and read books was much smaller than the current 20 percent of the adult population in North America or 75 million people who buy and read books.

Yeah, nobody buys and reads books any more. An article of this nature is published just about every week in a major news or commentary magazine. In January, Atlantic author Jordan Weissman tried to put a good spin on some numbers that show in general, the number of people who totally do not read has been on the rise over the past 20 years. If I had a buck for every time I heard, “Nobody reads any more,” I would not be doing Chameleon.

For example – this chart prepared by the NEA details national reading surveys. It represents, by all adults and young adults, respectively, a 6 and 7 percent decline in the raw numbers of Americans who state they read one book for pleasure a year over the previous two decades.

Pew Reading Stats

Correlation is not causation. In media reports and most education-related circles, this “decline” is almost universally attributed to the rise of “competing media” including games (all platforms), television (certainly present in 1992), social media, film, and new media in all its forms.

Yet other social trends are on the rise — trends not fully-encompassed by either traditional publishing or alternatives, including self-publishing. Weissman notes increasing college graduation rates. This past year, the U.S. high school graduation rate hit an all-time high of 85 percent. In 2014, 30% of U.S. adults had a college degree, and 10.9 percent had a graduate degree. More women than men have been enrolling in and successfully graduating from college in the U.S. for the past five years; this has been the case in Canada for the past 15 years. By 2025, UNESCO projects that more women than men will attend and graduate from college in all but a handful of nations worldwide. Students in historically under-served categories, including Latino, African-American and immigrant students whose first language is not English, are making huge gains in college attendance, and graduation rates. I can make a correlation, and perhaps a stronger correlation, between the rising numbers of these graduates and the declining percentage of regular readers, than can be made by assuming that “people are playing games and watching YouTube and following Twitter, not reading.” I’ve done this approximately 20 times by copying the top six or seven books on the NY Times bestseller list and asking, “Which of these would most interest a young Latino medical student, a young Iranian-American engineer, or a young African-American design major?” Or – my daughter and her friends. Just kids from South Orange County. The gap between who people are, and who most publishers and Amazon’s algorithms think they are, could not be more vivid.

As an individual writer, I can only speak about the woman’s perspective as far as what I personally enjoy reading or am interested in and able to write. I was certainly cut out of lucrative writing opportunities over the years due to my inability to write a convincing romance narrative. My interests as a science fiction writer were an odd fit with the common trends in sci-fi publishing in previous decades. Some stereotypes go like this: women are poor at following driving directions; they aren’t so hot at following typical sci-fi narrative conventions, either.

As a teacher, I do have some input regarding the group which is more than capable of regularly buying and reading books — but who do not typically do so. I know from experience that when they are presented with a book that interests and engages them, they eagerly read it, and are hungry for more. Students, whatever their ethnicity or first (or second, or third) language, are interested in something interesting. They respond to the same things Aristotle indicated thousands of years ago were the most important values in storytelling: to entertain, to educate, and to delight.

When people hear or see the same-old, same-old over and over again, of course they tune it out. And books have never been about the “least common denominator,” any more than people are about that, Atlantic articles or sad Victor Davis Hanson musings on the decline of Western civilization aside. Remember when people used to think “writers were special?” That’s because — like anyone with a skill or gift in any area — they kind of are. Writers like Truman Capote, who were on television all the time when I was growing up, were unique characters with their own perspective. Only Capote could have written In Cold Blood. Only he saw things that way, to give one small example. Only Frank Herbert could have written Dune.

Tom Doherty established his company against the strict literary conventions of the late 1960s and early 70s, conventions which declared that sci fi and fantasy was trash. Sci fi and fantasy are now the reality of our lives and currency of much of our popular entertainment across all platforms. Tom saw that there was something worthwhile in great science fiction, and great fantasy as well. He saw that a vision of a better future, big stories, and encompassing ideas, were very much needed. He saw there was a market for these types of stories, and the world we live in today, was in no small part, shaped by them. In his speech, he recalled Andre Norton’s work — she on her own influenced a whole generation of younger writers, and her work inspired and delighted and continues to delight young readers. He spoke of Anne McCaffrey, and Frank Herbert’s Dune books. He mentioned Orson Scott Card, whose Ender’s Game delighted young and not-so-young readers with a thought-provoking, impossible to put-down story about a young boy with responsibilities far beyond his years, a story that asked questions about the nature of war and conflict itself.

Let us imagine a story about a young boy who has exceptional talent for playing a game that involves killing distant aliens in the millions, and this game is real, but for most of the story, the boy doesn’t know that.

Some of my students survived a “game” that was real, and no game. Bombs dropped on their houses, brothers returning home without limbs, cousins killed by poison gas. Nightly fear of men with guns coming to their houses to take them away. Fear of a bullet in the back of the head in the black of the night.

They would find more relevance in Ender’s Game than they would in 50 Shades of Gray; they also do not much desire to read “realistic stories of being oppressed by oppressing oppressors.”

The favorite poet of many of my students (and indeed, the top-selling poet in America right now) is Rumi. He was both an eloquent, and a very wise man.

“Don’t be satisfied with stories, how things have gone with others. Unfold your own myth.” – Rumi

That is our frontier right now. We know what “a good story, well-told” is. But we have heretofore as a society, only accepted and promoted a few such models of “myth.” The many myths out there, are as varied as Rumi says. Because there are 7 billion people in the world now. To pretend that the only stories worth telling, worth publishing, worth putting out to the public are based in strict ideas held by a few people based in their personal tastes — is madness.

I think often that no one listens to me. I think not a soul has ever read a thing I have ever written. I sometimes think I have, unlike Tom Doherty’s life well-spent, wasted my time on this planet. I have said that when I come to the end of my life, I want to be able to say that I leave the world a better place than I found it.

Last evening, talking at the Writers of the Future Awards with Eric James Stone and Tina Gower, who won the grand prize at the event two years ago, Tina said, “I read your essay about entering the contest.” She said it helped to inspire her to keep writing when she was tempted to give up. Jordan Lapp has also said this to me. So has Brad Torgersen. It was what I wrote, about being ready to give up writing – again – and receiving not an award from the Writers of the Future Contest, but a rejection. But the rejection contained two letters, one from Dave Wolverton, then (and now) the contest judge, and Frederik Pohl. a great writer and editor (for Galaxy). Each of the letters instructed me not to quit. So, I did not. What I’m saying right now is today’s version of that small idea that started back then. It’s the same concept, only it’s not just me. It’s everyone.

I knew beforehand, but was even more struck last evening at the Writers of the Future Awards, that self-publishing in the absence of an organized structure and team, was no answer to the limited nature and voices found permissible in traditional publishing. Only one of the many winners on the stage had won with a first, or early, story they had written. One winner had been writing and entering the contest for 25 years. Yet also, for writers to have to work against extreme opposition, is also counterproductive.

Eric Stone mentioned the story of a writer who’d written an interesting book, but who’d been told by a publisher, “Our marketing team can’t sell it.”

As noted, there are approximately 75 million adults in the U.S. and Canada alone who regularly buy and read books. Approximately 95 million U.S. adults are college graduates, and another 35 million have graduate degrees. That is assuming that only college-educated or higher adults buy and read books in this part of the world. That is of course, a false assumption. Everyone who can read is a potential book buyer and reader – hundreds of millions, not 75 million. Billions, worldwide. The marketing team for any book must consider this. For every good story well-told, there are enough readers to make its publication financially feasible.

Look at the assumptions behind all of the commonly-held “wisdom.” Only certain people buy and read books. There are only certain types of books they’d be interested in. Fine points of detail (i.e. this female protagonist is over age 25; this protagonist is a mixed-race young woman; this story doesn’t follow the expected model) are disqualifiers. And as to the self-published, they are all formatting and modeling their work after books or authors that have sold to the existing readership in the past. How to break out of this? Notoriety. Controversy. Say something shocking! Write some mommy porn, like bestselling two-striker 50 Shades of Gray (shocking – and originally based in fan fiction written for a large community of enthusiasts for the Twilight books). Copy others. Fit the format. Follow the formula.

Yes, all of these thoughts about what readers would accept and what would be a “bestseller” were in Mark Twain’s mind in 1889 when he published A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. There was a well-known, established internet fan community for wise-cracking Yankee engineers time-traveling back to medieval England and challenging Catholic orthodoxy while sending up notions of “magic” and chivalry. The book has been called not only Twain’s best, which is saying something, but also “Mark Twain’s best lesson in democracy.”

Twain was born to be what he was. World population when he was born in 1835 was a little over 1 billion. Literacy rates in the U.S. at the time varied from high levels in New England to less than 10 percent in many areas; many women, many farm children, and only a tiny number of African-Americans (to my students of today – in 1835 there were still millions of slaves) could read.

Today, what a different world we live in. And overall, we are less-brave than Twain, not moreso. Would A Connecticut Yankee be able to be published and widely read today? That is an interesting question. If we can say “yes,” then, we will succeed.

That’s What It’s All About, Sad Puppies

Amy April 2015

Amy Sterling Casil April 2015

As Larry Correia says,

“The thing I’m shouting about is bigger than just the Hugos. It is about freedom of expression, and the ability of authors to say what they want to say without fear. It is about exposing the malignant, destructive bullies who live to persecute others for crossing their invisible lines.”

Larry was responding to George R.R. Martin, who apparently woke from slumber and noticed there was such a thing as “Sad Puppies” and an organized campaign to interest new voters and readers in science fiction fandom’s Hugo Awards. Most people writing about or noticing this now don’t even know these awards are named after Hugo Gernsback, noted as the “father of science fiction.” This gentleman founded Amazing Stories, and was also called “sleazy” and stole from writers, according to Barry Malzberg (and others). As an aside, I know Barry Malzberg as one half of the team who wrote many retrospective articles for the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America’s Bulletin, together with a gentleman I know rather better, Mike Resnick. Barry, to me, is a 6’5″ or-so gentleman who has written some very elegant fiction. Mike Resnick, I know from being Mike Resnick, and I also know as father to my friend Laura Resnick, a writer as accomplished as her father. These surnames: they are Jewish.

Of sci-fi writers, the most well-known, perhaps to this day, is Isaac Asimov, a Jew. When I said to my father, a man who had a Phi Beta Kappa key, two master’s degrees and a Ph.D., who had established the most successful janitorial service and window cleaning business in Los Angeles with this education, “Dad, I think I want to be a science fiction writer,” he paused and said in his most humorous Yiddish-inflected tone, “Oh, like Azeeemofff??” Yeah Dad. Like Asimov.

Larry Correia, who is an entertaining professional writer who writes the Monster Hunter series and others, is I think, of Puerto Rican ancestry. He’s for sure Latino. I am myself, half a Jew and half Irish/Scottish. I just did the 23 And Me deal and surprise surprise! I’m half Ashkenazi Jew. Durr. The cool thing is that it only follows maternal DNA and of this, on my mother’s (non-Jewish) side, I turned out to be K1a1, which is a haplogroup that has been traced back to a single female ancestor about 20,000 years ago. Some of this lady’s DNA has survived to this day, and while that haplogroup is often associated with Jewish heritage, I have it also, and not via my father, but rather via my mother Sterling. The Seven Daughters of Eve book names the original “mother” of the haplogroup K “Katrine.”

I pictured upon learning of this long background, so many mothers going back so many thousands of generations, as “Katrine helped others throughout her life. She sacrificed her life, and what she wanted to say, do and be, so that others could thrive.”

This, throughout the generations, on all of our continents.

And today, here we are. “Dad, I want to be a science fiction writer.”

“Oh,” he said. “Like Azeeemoffff!”

Asimov, I understand, wrote every day of his adult life. He published over 500 books. I do not think this catalog is complete.

I rather think that he was a successful man financially – at least he was comfortable.

This is a job that we do, we writers. Much of the commentary out recently regarding the “Sad Puppies” and huge coverage it has gotten (“racists and misogynists seek to take over science fiction awards” etc.) has little to do with the work of the writer. It has even less to do with the business of selling books to the public. And yet less to do with what is important to readers.

Asimov, in his science fiction and science fact writing, sought to educate, inform, and delight readers. This is why he was such a successful author.

Of his prose, often fun was made by “literary” people. I have the “literary” credentials and education, and while I was always a respectful student and scholar, I always knew, whether I stated openly or not, that the people who sought to make fun of writers like Asimov for their plain, functional prose, were merely frustrated communicators, seeking to mock those who communicated better than they did.

Which brings me back to what Larry said in his refutation of George R.R. Martin’s statements made now that the chap has noticed there’s a “Sad Puppy” controversy regarding the sci-fi fan awards.

“It is about freedom of expression, and the ability of authors to say what they want to say without fear.”

Understood properly, I must disagree with Larry. It’s not about the ability of authors to say what they want without fear. Whether “Sad Puppy” or “anti-Sad Puppy,” every solitary person participating is saying what they think others want to hear.

And that is not what writing at the highest level is all about. Coincidentally this week, I saw that noted author Salman Rushdie had discovered the Goodreads community, and was posting ratings and reviews of classic works of fiction. This got Salman some probably-welcome publicity. He reportedly slagged To Kill a Mockingbird with 3 stars, and gave Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim only one star.

These “Sad Puppy” Hugo Awards have never been strongly associated with “literary quality.” By the time Larry Correia launched the campaign three years ago, there were only a few hundred people nominating work and voting on it. I have myself attended sufficient conventions to determine that many who are involved haven’t read a book of any type in years. Many of the votes are cast by people who recognize favored names. All along the way, voting in this process wasn’t dissimilar to voting in elections for public office.

So, here is the deal. Science fiction is supposed to be the literature of the future. It’s supposed to deal in not just entertainment, but also ideas that will challenge the reader — activate their interest and enthusiasm, activate their minds, launch the imagination, help to comment on the present, and also shape the future.

And those who write it professionally are those who are frightened by a few people with loud mouths, big Twitter presences, and the ability to call names?

As Andy Kessler has correctly pointed out, we live in a world which is markedly, measurably better than any before. Our frontier now in the “first world” — is not food, not clothing, not shelter, not resources – it is freedom, and above all, self-determination. The chains that bind us are those we have in our own minds, not those others put upon us, primarily. We can only bear such chains if we allow others to put them on us.

Those who are arguing for the established publishers and their sponsorship of writers who have been traditionally nominated for these science fiction awards in the past, are in fact, arguing for a system which may accommodate one or two “writers of color” or diverse gender orientation … a year. Perhaps. And any writer in such an arrangement with said publishers, could be offered as little as $2,500 for a novel that may take a year or more to write. Generous pay! For 1850.

As to the “Sad Puppy” side, they are merely taking the opportunity to speak to the identifiable readership that they have; those who share their perspectives and agree with their opinions. However, this side does have freedom of speech on its side, as the only restriction is a desire to respond to the audience of readers, not the desire to satisfy the requirements for “right thinking” and expression made by an editor with control over a few thousand dollars of potential remuneration.

The only thing we have that will carry our thoughts, feelings and ideas across time and space, in other languages, across continents, and perhaps, as we are sci-fi writers, across the vast distances of space, are words.

That is what it’s all about, and that has very little to do with any annual award process, or one-time book contract, or even temporary “bestseller” status.

I just filled out a wonderful program survey for the BayCon science fiction convention that will be held in May in the Bay Area. Just one of the items was a panel devoted to the work of Mark Twain, and the survey helpfully pointed out that he’d written the first time-travel story, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.

That didn’t win any Hugo Award. But it’s won the award for pleasing and delighting readers, and will do so, again and again.

That’s what I’m talking about.