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Archive for April, 2011

Jarir Bookstore in Saudi Arabia

As a writer who lived almost two decades in Saudi Arabia, I read certain articles in Publishing Perspectives and on  literary blog spots with, if not a smirk, a grain of salt.  I have found praise heaped on allegedly “smart” blogs paying a lot of attention to readers and writers in third world countries.  My experience in the Middle East has taught me the extent to which people actually read new fiction and nonfiction books in their native tongues.  It would take me more than the normal length of this blog space to indicate the humble status of “new” books in Saudi Arabia and other spots in the Arab Peninsula.  Such books are bought mainly by people who–how shall I say this–not only have college degrees but generally speak, read and write in more than one language.  Cosmopolitan people.

In the Muslim world, those who gain their degrees in their native language (learning no other language well enough to read in) do not tend to buy books once they have graduated with the desired college degree. The books from their courses are kept in their home offices, behind glass doors.   In North Africa, while the books are of cheaper quality, they are more widely dispersed to readers, probably because most North Africans learn to speak two to three languages.

Of all Arabic countries, the Lebanese are best known for their high degree of literary fervor. But the Lebanese are almost always trilingual.

Muslim fundamentalists tend to feel guilty–even those who speak two languages– if they read anything except religious literature. (Come to think of it, wasn’t that the attitude of Christian fundamentalists in the 18th and early 19th centuries?)

Any country that has a despotic, corrupt, totalitarian or rigged government is going to  do its best to make sure books that stimulate critical thinking or imagination are not easily available, or if they are, that such objects should somehow not be favored.   Anyone who has traveled begins to pick that up. Since it is really hard for intelligent writers not to make wry or dangerous political commentary, they have a hard time finding local publishers in such countries or even a safe place to sleep.

Here is an interesting fact: non English language nations tend to be jealous of English language writers, or at least, that was what a Swiss German writer once told me. He said that German language authors look with green envy upon our English language commercial world, for only in the English language can an author make the massive coup. The European language author dreams of his or her book doing well and THEN being translated into English.

Russian authors post their work for free on the internet until they may see the happy day of fame and possibly be translated into English, thereby making a few bucks.

I speak only of what I know or glean and invite comments on the reading and publishing going on in other parts of the world, particularly Spanish-speaking.  However, it seems to me that some literary blogs may be spending a bit too much time pondering publishing in Pakistan or China.  Reading is about freedom, one of the main reasons people come to the West.  English has become the main language of communication in the West and therefore dominates all media.

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Edward De Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

After first reading Shakespeare by Another Name by Mark Anderson, I felt wonderful. I did not feel so wonderful when I learned that there is no Santa Claus because, well, I was only eight.  At that precise moment, my mother was soaking in a hot bathtub and, worried that she had crushed my spirit, called out, “Are you okay, Honey?”  Struggling with my disappointment, I had already turned to a comforting thought and said, “It’s okay, Mommy. At least there are the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny.”

The concept that a meagerly educated villager with illiterate parents, an illiterate wife and illiterate children could suddenly begin penning some of the most witty and erudite plays the world had until that time ever seen is, to anyone who writes, a ludicrous notion. And yet I accepted it for decades, mainly because I didn’t dwell on it. Frankly, it was depressing. It bespoke a genius that I would never profess, never attain. My writing is about what I know and have experienced, and generally I need to rework it over the course of the years. From all I have ever read, that is the case for every writer who has ever lived–except Shakespeare.

I did take a course on Shakespeare in college and the teacher fell right in with the idea that this icon among writers of the English language died without a library. Yeah, sure. Since he didn’t question it, I (being about 21) did not either. He was the PhD. Has any other writer died without books on the shelves of his home? No. But Santa Claus can get his reindeer to fly him through the skies on the night before Christmas, so there you go.

I am not disputing that a person can be born with amazing genius.  Usually it runs in the family.  Born into a family of accomplished musicians, Mozart tried writing his first concerto for the clavier at the age of four.  No one ever said that the writings of Shakespeare were not done by a genius, a gifted soul.  But the William Shakespeare presented to the world is not that soul. It is Edward De Vere, a gifted and tortured man who received in his lifetime what would today be the equivalent of five million dollars for writing and staging plays for the royal court who penned those plays.  Allegedly NONE of these plays remain in existence.  How very odd.  Yet all the works of “Shakespeare” exist.  Gee, why didn’t Queen Elizabeth pay Shakespeare?

It is no one single thing but rather the preponderance of evidence presented by Anderson and writers before him that is convincing.  I am so relieved. I can believe in a genius writer who was a tortured soul with tons of faults, someone who obsessively recorded his own life in play after play. That sounds like reality. I can believe that he hired other writers to help him churn out these works, and I can believe that he spent his last years revising out his mistakes and over-the-top tendencies. Now that I know Edward De Vere was behind the works of Shakespeare, his plays have become one hundred times more interesting.

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Do readers want to read the type of stories I write? I must confess I’ve begun to wonder. Nearly every sale by new authors seems to be about strange, incredibly dark worlds that none of us mere mortals will ever visit let alone reside in. Personally I find that reassuring given how I’m not very fond of vampires, werewolves, or heretics. Ditto for serial killers, kidnappers, and rapists. Yet it is these very subjects that rule the day where publishers are concerned. The latest to come along is “Wither: The Chemical Garden Trilogy, Book One” by newcomer Lauren DeStefano.

To be fair, I haven’t read DeStefano’s book. But the lengthy review in this Sunday’s Fresno Bee makes me pretty confident I wouldn’t enjoy it. The basic plot centers around a 16-year old girl abducted by a “gatherer,” whose purpose is to kidnap all girls as soon as they become old enough to reproduce. Those girls deemed “undesirable” by said gatherer are killed or sold into prostitution. The others are used for breeding.

“Wither” is being pushed as a young adult novel by Simon & Schuster. Do tell. I can only conclude that I must come from an entirely different world, as I just can’t imagine how or why publishers would present young girls with a book like this. I don’t care if it somehow has a happy ending or whatever moral runs through its misguided plot. What good can be found in telling a story about girls kidnapped and forced to have sex? To quote the Bee’s reviewer, “Rhine is kidnapped from her Manhattan home and forced to live in a sprawling Florida mansion with two other teenage girls, all of whom are dressed in bridal gowns while sedated and married off to the same man, Linden.” Oh, and in case you’re wondering, this reviewer loved the book.

If this is the kind of story I have to write in order to place a book with a major publisher, I’m ready to call it a day.

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