The Writer’s Ego

I once met a writer of some eminence who proclaimed quite openly that he didn’t have an ego. In a fit of shock I challenged him and almost laughed in his face. On reflection, perhaps my ego had gotten the better of me. But, a writer without an ego? Why, it sounded like a car without an engine!

This engine, ego, call it what you may, is what drives us to sit in quiet places, away from the rest of the world, trying to make sense of humanity, trying to form messages for humanity that will live on long after we are gone. This ego gives us the belief (misguided or otherwise) that we have the answers to life, or at least that we can frame the questions that need to be answered, that we can paint the picture of the flawed human condition, forcing our fellow humans to take action, because we cannot, for we are only showers not doers.

This ego is what keeps going when feebler souls give up and take easier pursuits like watching TV or reading the books that they found too difficult to write, or just going with the flow and not ruffling any feathers. This ego endures rejection because it knows no other way but to go forward, even when thrown a knockout punch. It reminds me of an ant colony patiently building their hill; when disturbed they scatter for awhile, but then regroup and continue their work. They know of no other way, nor does the writer.

This ego can go into furies when thwarted or crossed. Many are the writers’ feuds we have witnessed in public over the ages: Le Carré vs. Rushdie, Dickens vs. Andersen, Byron vs. Keats, the list goes on. We could call these writers pompous bores but they are merely heeding the dictates of their egos, driving them to call the shots, to shape public opinion and mold the world according to their vision at the expense of everyone else. How dare they be contradicted without there being consequences?

The Buddist mantra says that we should abandon the ego. I think that writers would have a hard time working, especially writing fiction, in this ego-less universe. Jack Kerouac and J.D Salinger are classified as Buddhist writers and yet their writing is embroiled in conflicts surrounding the human condition. It would appear that the journey from ego to selflessness and the conflicts inherent therein make for better fiction than fiction solely grounded in the present and encased in selflessness. I’m also sure that many writers will not agree with me on these points, but that is all the better, for my ego does not necessarily have to agree with theirs.

I have therefore concluded that I am glad for having an ego, and for its power to propel me forward, often into unknown zones where I start to see connections and form beliefs that convert into ideas and stories that could be communicated to the rest of the world. To lose ego would be to lost this gift. After all, if God gave us an ego, it would be for the purpose that we use it, not amputate it like an appendix or a tonsil, unless it has turned toxic.

So the next time I meet my eminent writer friend, I am going to ask him whether the fact that he proclaims he has no ego is a sign that he indeed has one, and a very powerful one at that.

On Turning Sixty

Books are being written on this subject these days. It’s big news – Boomers! And why 60? Because it’s smack in the middle of the baby boom that began in 1946 and ran out of steam in 1965. Well, I hit the big Six Oh this year and began to wonder what the fuss was all about.

I must admit that I too have written my little book on the boomers, a novel titled In the Shadow of the Conquistador that I wrote 8 years ago and was worried about releasing into the world as I felt that I was going to enrage my peers. I had portrayed my boomer characters as takers rather than givers, people who built empires and trampled on the feeble to realize their ambitions, people who had left the planet confused and their progeny either unborn or malformed and marooned in a sea of underemployment. Then I began to read about the lives of the Conquistadors, about Pizarro, de Almagro and Cortes, and realized, that in temperament, they were no different from my boomer buddies. The Conquistadors had been takers, they had trampled on others, they had been “me, first” thinkers. Only the technology is different today.

So what’s it about being a boomer, and turning 60? Well, for starters you are never going to get a job again and you are too young to retire just yet, so you live in an occupational limbo. This may sound frightening but it’s also greatly liberating. Boomers of 60 are either their own bosses after having been turfed out with generous severance packages from the corporations that once employed them, or they are cashing in on their inheritances from their more frugal parents of the Great Generation. They are writing books (mostly autobiographical), starting business, travelling, exercising, watching their diet, downscaling to release equity from their homes, and throwing it all on Facebook to make everyone above or below them on the age spectrum envious of their lifestyle. A few reckless ones are going in for divorces, cosmetic surgery and sports-cars that attract younger partners, but those are the ones who have a lot of money to burn. The rest are shoring up their pension funds and figuring out how to stretch them out until age 95. And they are starting to feel the pressure to let go: let go the four-scotch lunch (try wine instead), the 18-hole round (how about 9 holes as a compromise?), running that marathon (how about the gentler ski-machine in the gym – it’s easier on the knees!), and the 8-ounce steak (chicken or fish is better for the cholesterol).

And what legacy have they left behind? A damaged planet that reacts badly and erratically more often, a politically polarized world of haves and have nots, a technology-charged world that has not adequately compensated those who have been released from their labours by machines, a hedonistic world focused on the “I” not the “Us.” Also a huge gulf for their fledgling children to surmount, one that many have given up even attempting. “I’ll just live off Daddy’s and Mummy’s left-overs,” seems the cop-out strategy. Watch it, kids – daddy and mummy may live to be over 99, and with their lifestyle needs, the breadbasket will be empty by the time you get your hands on it!

Now I realize why I wrote that novel, and after much vacillation, why I released it into the world last month. My generation needs a wake-up call, a reckoning. It’s great to be a boomer of Sixty, but it comes with a huge price tag, and it seems to me as if its only others who are footing the bill right now. Being 60 also comes with responsibility. What message of hope do we provide the Boomerangers and Echo Boomers? I tried to do that in my novel, as my way of expiation. But I’m plagued by the suspicion that it was only a gesture and that the solution has eluded my generation completely.

Who is reading our blog posts?

My work is syndicated on a few blog sites;, and on those that provide statistics of readership, it’s great to see the number of “reads” soar from time to time when an article catches the zeitgeist.

I tried to analyze these numbers and soon discovered that except in a few cases, where a geographic breakdown is provided as to where these reads are coming from, all you get is a flat number of reads per article. Since these sites are also heavily into banner advertizing to earn their income, one never knows whether the reader is reading your article or the banner ad, especially when there is a snazzy car, a scantily dressed woman or a movie trailer on those sidelines.

Then I began to notice another phenomenon (which I have written about in a previous article), and that is the presence of bots that read certain keywords of your article, associate them with an advertisement of one of their clients, and promptly post a comment (bearing very little relation to your topic) on your article with a link to a website promoting their client’s product. In recent times, essay writing services are very popular, services that write your exam essays and help you cheat the academic system of selection. Let’s not get into the morality of this form of advertizing, I covered it already in that previous article. Suffice to say that the next time I see a spike in the number of reads to my article, am I to infer that it is due to a genuine interest by readers, or that an army of bots, selling competing products, are waging a war for prominence over the battlefield of my article?

How does one rid oneself of this menace? Some use captchas, but simple captchas can be circumvented pretty easily, and the harder ones are so visually difficult for us humans to read that they defeat the purpose of engaging readers in a debate, for readers quit in frustration and never bother to post a comment because that captcha stopped them dead in their tracks. And even if we find a solution that is somewhere in the middle, what’s to prevent these bots being managed by a smart outsourced company in a low-income country that has a few lowly paid employees circumventing the captchas on posts worth preying on? Give bot management to the article posters themselves? This might work better, for a writer whose article comments are routed to her e-mail address, is alerted every time a comment is posted; she could quickly delete the bot-generated ones that are so blatantly obvious for their poor grammar and nonsensical context. This might be like killing mosquitoes, you never quite get them all, but over time they decline. And you get the satisfaction of having killed some of these pests—but you are still likely to be bitten anyway. Have a moderator filter all comments? An added expense, and who pays for the cost of the moderator?

This is a problem of our times, and the cost of online blog syndication. I noticed that even Flikr now inserts commercials in-between the feed of my photo album pictures. Alas, there is no escape from the almighty advertiser who pays for all our free activity online and extracts our secrets in return! If you want the fame and coverage, then pay for the crap that comes with it, is what I have concluded. I also trust that astute readers can differentiate bot-created comments from real ones and will ignore the former as background noise; and that bot activity will ultimately provoke content site owners to clean up their act or have their sites sink in the ranking of quality places to visit.

That still does not prevent me from dreaming of what I would do if I come face to face to face with a bot in a dark alley one day! Or do bots only lurk on the Internet?

I guess we need to talk about the refugees at some point

With Europe being flooded by refugees, and other wealthy countries like the US and Canada hemming and hawing about whether they should take in the displaced ones, and if so, in what numbers, one wonders how this all came to pass. I have some theories and recommendations, but these are mine alone.

Once upon a time, Western Europe was geographically insulated from the hungry hordes in the Third World by the Iron Curtain countries and by a string of dictators in the Middle East and North Africa. And of course North America had the vast Atlantic and Pacific Oceans as buffers, and the US even recently built a giant wall to keep the Mexicans out. Then the Berlin Wall collapsed and the aging population of Western Europe determined that in a globalized world it needed to replenish its labour pool with younger workers from the poorer former-Communist Bloc, so a second tier of EU membership was created, and suddenly Poles were serving in restaurants and bars in England. Then chinks in the larger barrier gave way: dictators were ousted in Libya and Iraq and another was sent into a bunker in Syria. The walls began leaking big-time, transforming this easy conduit for cheap labour into an uncontrollable flood, threatening the protected way of life of the incumbents.

Switch scenes for a moment to the human smuggling industry. Once upon a time, it was called slavery but that term went out of fashion after the American Civil War. “Economic Immigrant” became the new word. And economic immigration has been happening since time immemorial. It is a human imperative of survival to seek a better environment for one’s self and one’s progeny, and it applies to both master and slave. In recent memory, we have witnessed the boat people from Vietnam, the Indian migrant ships, Sri Lankan refugees coming over the US border into Canada in the trunks of cars, and Mexicans swimming across the Rio Grande. (Globalization and outsourcing are also forms of economic migration, for the rich and for their money, lest we forget). When you see the recent flood of refugees include people from places such as Gambia and Pakistan, you know that ISIS is not the only cause for this exodus. The marginalized had always been parked outside the gates of the privileged, waiting for a chink in the fence to make a rush for it. These “rushes” are “facilitated” by clever profiteers who extract money, sell dreams and put the vulnerable in life-threatening situations. And these vile merchants of flesh, saw a great opportunity when the walls punctured in Libya, Iraq and Syria.

Let’s also not forget the arms industry. Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan are export markets for military equipment, brand new or second-hand. And the Western and Middle Eastern allies pitched against rebel groups in these countries are lucrative customers too. These conflicts must continue in Big Guns’ view, despite the collateral damage.

While we can take short term measures to re-settle refugees in the west, despite the hemming and hawing, the real answers lie in six strong initiatives (IMHO):

1) Deal conclusively with barbaric throwbacks like ISIS. We did it with Hitler, why not now? To that bunch we can add all other extremists that fuel hatred. I can think of radical right-wingers and their Trump card—they should be sped onto their self-created isolationism and allowed their own tea party (or gun party), away from the rest of us, where they can pat each other on the back, draw their guns, and self-destruct.

2) Strengthen the war on human trafficking and include all nations in it. Let it not be as ineffective as the war on drugs that only focused on the perpetrators and not on the addicted.

3) Educate people in the developed and developing world in the art of tolerance and of accommodating one’s neighbour. Make them aware that the best chance of a person realizing themselves is in their homeland. And that if people still chose to go west, then teach them that being a good guest and integrating into the host country (that has attracted them with a better economic model) is a wise thing to do. And teach all this to immigrants before they leave, so that they can make an informed decision before they take the big leap.

4) Increase immigration to countries that can absorb newcomers and don’t hypocratize the act by saying that we are doing this only to be generous to refugees. We need young people. Canada’s seniors now outnumber its youth, and we have joined the geriatric club of the rest of the Western world.

5) After #1 and #2 above have been accomplished, dismantle or severely curtail the movements of the arms industry so that they do not facilitate mini wars that create future human exoduses. We did it with Big Tobacco, why not with Big Guns?

6) And face up to our collapsing climate. If not happening already, it will not only be mini-wars that create exoduses in future but droughts, floods and famines, forces that do not respect where they happen, whether in the developing or developed world.

I am sure many more fixes to our global refugee problem are required, but I’ll be content if we can eat the elephant in small bites and if we can crack the above six items for starters.

But now, where are the global politicians with the nerve to take all this on?

Obama and the Pope are leading the way to a new epoch

What an odd combination: a lame-duck president in his last year and a soon-to-be-octogenarian with a weak lung taking on Big Business capitalists at home and abroad. There are many scorecards out there that measure these two leaders’ progress over their terms in office, but let’s distill them down to a Top Five Accomplishments list each.
Let’s see, Obama has done the following:
a) Restored America to its economic powerhouse status from the Bush legacy of a collapsed economy in 2008.
b) Provided Healthcare to those without it in the richest nation on earth.
c) Ended two unpopular and draining wars abroad.
d) Taken a stand on the Environment and on Renewable Energy.
e) Stopped nuclear proliferation with a creative plan on Iran that traditionalists are having a hard time comprehending.

As for the Pope:
a) Cleaned out hidden accounts and rogue budgets at the Vatican.
b) Come out strongly on Climate Change and challenged corporations to comply.
c) Speaks to service rather than privilege within the Church hierarchy and demonstrates it by visiting prisons and washing the feet of prisoners.
d) Talks freely with journalists and reporters instead of using the carefully prepared press statements synonymous with corporate bureaucracies.
e) Has undertaken a reform of the infamous Curia.

Naysayers will argue that many of these initiatives are incomplete or that they have been improperly executed. The fact of the matter is that they have been attempted.

The world goes through cycles of economic systems: capitalists epochs, socialist ones, back to capitalism and so on. None of these systems are perfect, and when they have been in place for long periods, greed infiltrates, a stasis develops, and the epoch begins to crumble. In just the last century, we have seen parts of the world swing from monarchies, to unbridled capitalism to communism, to social-democracy and back to capitalism, with two global wars acting as catalysts for change. We emerged into the 21st century with capitalism being firmly in the lead, and with many of the other systems having fallen behind for reasons of poor implementation and lack-lustre management. But now it’s time for capitalism to take a back-seat for it has gone on for too long and caused too much damage:
a) The rich have got richer, the poor poorer, and by 2016 the world’s wealthiest 1% will own more than 50% of its resources.
b) Climate change is a fact and the 20th century was the warmest in 1300 years. And 14 of the hottest 15 years have occurred in the 21st century.
c) Worker rights have declined; first with governments taking over what trade unions did (because the trade unions themselves created their own bloat and demise), and then reducing those rights with subsequent legislation when under pressure from Big Business sponsors.
d) The world has become an unsafe place, with many countries ending up as “failed states” caused by civil war or economic mismanagement, to the point that the have-nots want to harm the haves, and the haves are erecting walls to keep the have-nots out.

Many of us, once former capitalists, agree that the world has swung too far right and a course correction is required lest we plunge into the abyss. It’s time to bring in the “other guys,” even for a breather, until we find our direction again. Therefore, tough choices need to be made at inflection points like this, and it’s refreshing to know that these two old veterans, Barack and Francis, are willing to lead the charge and go to bat for the rest of the world. It’s a pity that the rest of the world is not rising to this call as a collective, and that people are still polarized and caught up in a “to be or not to be” paralysis, caught in the middle by the clever media manipulation of both sides of the political divide.

Come on guys, give this odd couple a chance. These two aging puppet masters have no more skin in the game, other than personal glory. And personal glory has a better chance pumping some good back into the system than monetary gain which takes value out and places it only at the disposal of the puppet master.

CEO Pay – a board-made monster

Much has been touted about the runaway compensation of the Chief Executive Officer. But haven’t we created this monster ourselves, by placing more power in the head—or the figurehead—than what is required?

The Corporation, and by extension the CEO, is governed by a board of directors, but in recent years this august body has tended to abdicate responsibility by delegating it all to their “man” or “woman” in the hot seat, bribing the CEO with ludicrous perks, while pocketing fat cheques themselves for only showing up at obligatory meetings and nodding contentedly at their chosen one’s cleverly positioned strategic plans.

The CEO has also capitalized on this position of power. With a captive board, she has made herself indispensible, commanding salary and benefits far in excess of the effort expended. A wily CEO may argue that lil’ol’me knows nothing of her onerous job; that I do not have to jet about the world attending meetings with difficult people (including hostile governments, angry customers, pesky journalists and flighty stock markets), that she has a short shelf life given how her performance is judged from quarter to quarter, that she has to give up valuable time in her private life in order to perform her job. But is that a justification for making 331 times what an average worker is making (according to Forbes Magazine’s report on CEO salaries from April 2014)? Isn’t the average worker also dealing with angry customers, facing a lay-off due to a quarter’s bad performance, and coping with work-life imbalance in order to “do more with less” in this current environment? Sure, the CEO’s job is tough, but 331 times tougher than Average Joe’s? Gimme a break!

The modern corporation has replaced the former royal court. The CEO is the King; the COO is the heir apparent, anxiously biding his time to step in and take the throne at the earliest opening; the VPs are the fawning courtiers who will never contradict the King but will pass his orders down the chain of command. Outside the walls, enemies vie for control of the kingdom; we call them The Competition these days. A CEO who misrules his kingdom (poor strategy) or who fails due to being overtaken by the competition (product obsolescence) is expected to fall on his virtual sword, take a handsome severance from the royal coffers, and start life again as the ruler of another kingdom. Decision making has bubbled up to the top. Every decision that is made in the lower echelons has to be “run by” the CEO’s office. And the insecure head can make sure that no decision is decentralized, creating a state of stasis until he can attend to matters himself.

A figurehead or a face that represents the corporation is required, the experts say. The guy who stands on the stage at the annual sales conference and struts his stuff, hands out rewards, and gives rah-rah speeches to rally the troops towards next year’s even more elevated goals. But why not hire a clever actor for that? And at a much reduced price? But we need a fall guy, is the counter argument, the person who is not expected to know everything that is going on in a company but who is expected to take the fall if something juicy and embarrassing leaks to the press. Why not hire a sacrificial lamb from the penal system, then? Someone on Death Row, for instance, who could, after performing this job, leave behind a monetary reward to his kith and kin?

CEO fixation could be minimized if the board develops the strategy for the CEO to execute. Hence the term chief executive officer: one who does, and who is an officer (i.e. one who has authority within a hierarchy, but who is not the King). There will be countless counter-arguments to this proposition to say that “management by committee” will be too slow to cope with the exigencies of the market, but a strategy is not something that needs to be visited every hour of the day. A sound strategy should endure for at least a quarter, if not, it is merely a tactic. And if the strategy is unsound and fails, let there be a rogues gallery of board members going to the guillotine instead of just one solitary sucker.

When CEO compensation is touted as a problem, I shrug and say, “This is immensely fixable. Fire the board and start all over.”

The Artist’s Career Progression

There is a progression in a successful artist’s career. First, toiling (for several years, sometimes) in the trenches to reach base camp, then beginning the climb up the mountain of fame, then reaching a point on the gradient where a magic elevator suddenly appears and creates an inverse tipping point that starts to hurtle the artist to the pinnacle with no further effort required on his part. Finally, a period of success-building-upon-success, of walking on clouds, until disability or death intervenes to close that chapter. The last period is the posthumous one, when the artist’s work in enshrined and cleverly marketed to keep his spirit and estate alive.

Take our Joe, a budding writer, who writes some pretty decent stuff but who has to compete with every other Tom, Dick and Harry, along with Ann, Meg and Sally who are also writing pretty decent stuff. Joe meets Mike, an influential person in publishing, at a bar, where they both get drunk and wax lyrical over everything from Homer to Hitler, and realize that they have a lot in common. “I’m going to help you… hic,” says Mike, as they stagger homewards. Mike keeps his promise, and Joe gets a publishing contract from a decent publishing house. Unknown to Joe, he has arrived at base camp. Mike exercises some marketing muscle and introduces Joe to a movie director. Film rights, foreign rights and a literary prize follow. Joe is on his way, leaving his cohorts in the dust of self-publishing where he too once worked his heart out; he is now into cleaner air. He churns out a book per year, easy to do now that he does not have to worry about earning a living elsewhere. His publisher, and his agent (yes, he needs an agent now, and an agent sees value in Joe at this point) realize that to keep Joe’s books moving, he has to be in the news; therefore, more literary prizes, more film deals, foreign translations, and a couple of celebrity romances (and failures) should be part of the continuing life of Joe. When anyone is thinking of holding a literary conference or organizing a literary awards gala, they must invite Joe. Our Joe is on that magic elevator ascending the mountain. Now he does not have to think of ideas for his next book – his publicist (yes, he has one of those now too) and his script development team (fancy!) provide him with what he needs to write. His publisher will even fly him to the locale of his next book so that he can immerse himself in the scenes he is going to write about. Joe is now at the “walking on clouds” stage. Sounds familiar? I think you get it, so we can skip describing the “posthumous stage.” And this story is not quite fiction, for a chosen few in every generation have done it.

But that is not the main point of this article. The main point is that the pinnacle is the most important stage, and it must be defended at all costs and made to last as long as possible. When Joe has reached the top of the mountain, and when anyone thinks of literature, they must think only of Joe. His social calendar must be overflowing and he must decline a number of invitations so that his “decline factor” will create even more mystique and increase Joe’s appearance fee at future events. Meanwhile, Tom, Dick and Harry, and Ann Meg and Sally will be still waiting hungrily for their call to climb the mountain, churning out angst-ridden tomes, that if only someone had the time to read, would probably be far more authentic than Joe’s scripted deliveries. At this point, Joe’s management team will further determine that in order to extend the life of their “product” they need to create barriers to entry; therefore subtle attempts will be made to keep Tom & Team, and Ann and Associates or anyone creating “Joe’s look-alike literature,” or “better than Joe’s literature” out of the running until targeted returns on investment in Joe are met. Upstart attempts to dislodge Joe off his pedestal will be…ah…resisted. Creative destruction is healthy for society, but not for those who have their investment in the incumbent cash-cow.

That “the cream rises to the top” is true in this business as in any other. And once there, it stays at the top until death or disability renders the cream no longer edible, and investors have to either go into the posthumous stage of the artist or go looking for new talent development.

And then, the next Joe (or probably even Tom, Dick or Harry, or Ann, Meg or Sally, if they are not too old and beaten by then) will be waiting in a bar, scanning the crowds for Magnanimous Mike to start their climb up the mountain…

Does the Corporation own our personal life?

There was a time when bosses used to say to employees who were having a hard day at work, “Don’t bring your personal life to the office,” or “I don’t want to know about your personal life, get on with the job I’m paying you to do.” That message has changed over the years, and now reads, “Get on with the job of doing more with less, and also lead the life I expect of you.”

Somewhere at the end of the last century, employers realized that they needed to embrace the whole person at work, that the private life of an individual influenced his professional life and vice versa, and that they were ignoring a whole area that affected employee performance. So began the rounds of personality testing, and the emotional intelligence movement that scored employees on scales from extrovert to introvert, from red to blue, from feeling to thinking, from emotionally evolved to emotionally stunted, giving us night sweats that we had never before had in our lives, making us want to conform to an optimal corporate personality stereotype that some of us were totally unsuitable for. This “whole person” movement then intersected with a quest for doing more with less as machines and computers began taking over “routine” tasks but creating other routines that now had to be dealt with incrementally by these personality and emotionally “boxed” employees.

Then came the social media age where employees were encouraged to express themselves on corporate and personal social media pages, as long as they posted politically correct messages. This followed with the move to check on what these employees were engaged in at their desks by planting clever bots to spy on keystrokes and provide reports to inquisitive bosses. Then the action moved on to monitor employees’ behaviour at recreational events that were no longer tied to the 9-to-5, or should we say the 24/7, workday. And woe be unto employees trying to de-stress in a socially unacceptable way—they were now on Candid Camera! Some of these employees had no social lives to begin with, due to being strapped to a grinding corporate life, so their behaviour outside of work had to have a reactionary component shaped by social media itself.

Then the sanctions and punishments started to rain down: “You were seen at this public sporting event, uttering rude words.” “Our team lost, I was upset.” “But you were spouting four-letter words.” “That’s the way I talk when I hang out with my friends” “Well, you were caught on public TV and your tee-shirt bore our logo.” “Sorry, that’s the only stitch of clothing I have these days, you pay me so poorly.” “You’re fired!”

I am glad that I escaped before things got to this stage at the Corporation. Even back then, I realized that my days were numbered when I released my first novel fifteen years ago; I realized that I was going to end up in a conflicting situation sooner or later. My novels are not politically correct and are aimed at discovering the truth, while corporate messages are based on “positioning that exposes truthful elements and masks untruthful ones.” My books are complete exposés—all or nothing! Yes, it was time to exit gracefully. And I did.

But younger employees may not have that luxury. Theirs will be a life that will bear more scrutiny from employers, more suppression of their true natures (not sure what it will do to their emotional intelligence!), more nervous breakdowns as a result, and an earlier mid-life crisis, all in the name of earning a pay cheque. It may also lead to more self-employment that will ultimately compete and weaken the Corporation, and start the next cycle of workplace evolution.

Our contributions to literature – a feed into the collective consciousness?

When I think about all the hours that I have put into writing, all the novels and stories published, and an equal amount unpublished and probably never to see the light of day, I wonder whether it has made one dint of difference to the oceans of literature that surround us and keep increasing exponentially every day.

Let’s face it, we all circle around universal plots, which Wikipedia describes in the following article: The Seven Basic Plots
And we keep re-hashing the same plot, albeit from our experience, in our voice, hoping that it has enough novelty to stick out from the rest. We believe that we are extending the outer regions of the universal plot we have chosen. We add newer technology into the mix, exotic settings, complex characters, and when reality is too dull or frightening, we go off into fantasy where we can order the world according to our morality and pain threshold. Or we flip around and invent diabolical acts that we would never desire in our own lives – the more diabolic the better. And all the while we are plagued by nagging thoughts: “Has this been done before? What is the limit of tolerance before a reader tunes off? Or are there no limits? Are we limited only by our imagination? ”

I have come across books and stories that have eerie resemblances to my own work, that were published around the same time as mine. I had not read or copied from these works and I am sure their authors are in the same boat; it was as if there was a collective consciousness operating at the time that we were all plugged into from different vantage points to create these works, each in their own voice, but each moving towards a common centre. Or were we caught up in a trend of copycatting the first book that came out and stretched our imagination in a certain direction? I can think of the detective novel that hasn’t stopped being “adapted” since Edgar Allan Poe started writing his “disturbing” stories; I think of the vampire genre that hit a renaissance with the release of the Stephanie Meyer books; and the Jane Austen revival, thanks to film and TV adaptations of her novels. But these newer iterations, copycat or not, have stretched our concept and expectation of those plot types. I’ve seen the detective novel change with the advent of fingerprinting, and later with cell phones, then DNA mapping, and now that ubiquitous snoop that takes the fun away from sleuthing: the CCTV camera. I would be bereft if a modern detective novel did not have all these newer props; I would say that it was not “realistic.”

And yet, despite all this evolution, it is only a handful of authors who are universally read in their respective genres today—even if they do not do much to extend their branch of literature— thanks to effective marketing engines powered by astute investors, while the rest are relegated to an amorphous bubbling sludge from which some periodically pop and gasp “read me, read me,” before slumping back into the collective consciousness (we hope) that houses the evolving Seven Basic Plots.

So what is the way forward? Delude ourselves that we are furthering the cause of literature and continue to churn out tame derivatives of the Seven (should we rename them The Seven Deadly Sins?) or troll around for a clever marketer who could find an angle to “position” us above the sludge, or hold our pens and cast out for that truly genre-bending idea that will start another movement like Poe, Austen and Meyer? That, my dear scribes, is the 64,000-word question!

Manuscript Auctions are anti-literature

As publishers narrow the number of titles they select to put their promotional dollars behind, there is a disturbing phenomenon that is distorting the allocations of funds in book marketing, and consequently, influencing what we read. Let’s talk about the manuscript auction.

Typically literary agents resort to an auction if more than one publisher is interested in a particular manuscript. This front-end loading process can get hot and expensive (the price tags are now in the $millions for the most prized books) if the participating publishers get into a bidding war that is fueled by egos rather than by the intrinsic value of the manuscript under auction. If discernment gives way to greed, the winner standing after the dust settles may have exhausted their funds and be left holding a sub-par manuscript that now needs to be further marketed to cover its costly investment. And the sacrificial lambs: other books in the publisher’s upcoming catalog that have to forego their marketing budgets to help pay for this spoiled child who has edged them out for the wrong reasons.

Auctions unfortunately do not look at literary merit as much as they look at commercial merit. And when heavily marketed commercial books hammer the message: “read this book, read this book,” it skews independent judgement of even the most die-hard reader, forcing them to, at least, take a peek at this latest curiosity that everyone is talking about. Given that time is our most precious commodity these days, such peeks come at the expense of other books that may have grabbed the reader’s attention through non-promotional means. I usually compile a list of books that I have stumbled upon through reviews, word-of-mouth, or fellow-author recommendations, but this list always slips into second place when I have to take detours to check out the latest developments in modern literature, such as Karl Ove Knausgaard writing about his premature ejaculation or E.L James’s kinky punishments in the bedroom (because everyone is talking about them and I don’t want to be left out). And when the underlying motive for this marketing hoopla is a royalty that has been prepaid via a runaway book auction, my detour will have even less to do with literary merit.

I’m hoping that the author whose work was auctioned and who is now left to sign with the winning publisher, would use their judgement, take the long term view, and let the auction be used only as a yardstick to determine the “potential value” of their book. I’m hoping that they will settle on the publisher whom they feel will be the best fit for their career (after all, there will be more books in the pipeline from this author, we hope) rather than going with the highest bidder on just this single auctioned work. For the highest bid also comes with the highest expectation, and an author who does not earn his advance could get dropped for their next book by an “over-generous” publisher.

And as for readers, I hope that they (like me, who has now decided to take my own advice) will stick to their own reading lists, compiled through due diligence rather than hype, and that they will not take those time-wasting detours just because an at-risk publisher has thrown the rest of his money after his moment of weakness at an auction and is touting the compelling but distracting message: “Read this. I put too much money behind this damned book and I need your help to bail me out!”