Sherlock by train

Sherlock Holmes & Dr. Watson by Sidney Paget (1860-1908) (Strand Magazine)Last summer I had the great fortune to spend ten weeks in Japan. I traveled by train up and down the islands, from the agriculturally diverse Hokkaido to the richly historical city of Nagasaki at the southern tip of Kyushu. Japan is a fugue of culture, architecture, and landscape. The country never repeats itself, but is stitched together by interlocking themes.

On one leg of the trip I made the key mistake of failing to pack a second book, thinking B. Traven‘s The Death Ship was a hefty enough read until my return to Tokyo. Well, I ripped through The Death Ship in no time (a great novel, by the way) and found myself facing a long stretch of time on Japan’s shinkansen (bullet train) without a thing to read. Even if I understood Japanese, Japan’s trains are not like other systems where you might chance on a discarded newspaper or a light magazine in the seat-back pocket. The Japanese do not leave their detritus behind when they detrain. They even pick up their trash when they exit a baseball game.

Desperate, I searched my smartphone and discovered on my Kindle app The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892), the first published collection of Holmes’ adventures. Most of the collection’s story titles are as well-known as books of the Bible: “The Adventure of the Red-headed League”, “A Scandal in Bohemia”, “The Adventure of the Speckled Band”, and more. The stories have fallen into the public domain, hence the collection is often the free sample book Amazon supplies when you buy a Kindle or install their app.

Before my trip to Japan, I was never a fan of Sherlock Holmes. I found the Victorian airs and British pleasantries stuffy compared to Holmes’ American counterparts. When I first read “The Adventure of the Dancing Men” at age ten or eleven, I was going through a boyhood codes-and-ciphers phase. By all rights I should have loved the story. Instead I felt a bit let down by its lack of focus on actual cryptanalysis. As I learned on that train ride, Doyle’s stories are often more concerned with a viscount’s ancestry or Tsarist intrigue or preserving the good name of the British Empire than the dead body lying at Holmes’ and Watson’s feet.

All this is to explain that although I’ve read mystery fiction my entire life, from Encyclopedia Brown at the age of seven to the adult pleasures of Chandler’s The Long Goodbye (which I reread every few years), on that bullet train ride I was not terribly conversant with the Sherlock Holmes corpus. I’d read The Hound of the Baskervilles a few years before at an acquaintance’s suggestion when I mentioned I’d enjoyed the neo-Gothic Rebecca. Other than some Sherlock Holmes movie spoofs and casual viewing of Jeremy Brett’s BBC series, my exposure to the detective was largely through cultural references and the turns of phrase that have entered our common language, much like someone ignorant in Shakespeare will recognize bits of Hamlet.

Something wonderful happened on that train ride from Tokyo to Kyoto. As these stories of detection and deduction spooled out before me, I realized much of Doyle’s contemporary British audience would have been reading these stories on trains as well. Since he was writing for Strand magazine, Doyle’s audience would’ve picked up a copy at a newsstand before boarding, the Victorian version of buying a thriller at an airport bookstore before a long plane ride.

The cadences and rhythms of Doyle’s stories almost appear crafted for train reading. The percussion of the shinkansen tracks below and the low whistle of the passing wind was the perfect white noise to accompany a Holmes mystery. More than once I started a story as our train left the station, and by the time Holmes was announcing his solution, we were slowing for our next stop. Obviously Doyle wasn’t timing his stories for bullet trains, but it felt he crafted them with a sense of being read in a single sitting between destinations, whether traveling by steam or horse or electromagnets.

How often does Holmes send Watson scurrying to locate a train schedule to confirm some paramount clue or destroy an alibi? How often does Holmes engage in mysterious research in London before setting off by train first thing in the morning, only revealing the details of his research to Watson on the ride north?

Holmes and Watson call for cabs, hire carriages and watercraft, borrow steeds, follow bicycle tracks, and so on. Freedom of mobility is vital to a Sherlock Holmes story. It’s the core question in “The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist” and “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches”. A horse-and-carriage ride is the central puzzle in “The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb”. The climax of A Study in Scarlet involves, of all things, hailing a cab off Baker Street.

All fiction writers are writing to a perceived readership, whether they acknowledge it or not. This is distinct from a “target audience,” which commercial writers are all too familiar with. (A staff writer for Wired magazine will consciously know her target audience, which is distinct from the target audience for a sportswriter in a Midwestern farming community.) My notion of a “perceived readership” is more personal than a target audience, a writer’s internalization of their desired audience rather than a market demographic.

Some writers write with magazine editors and agents and publishers in mind—people they hope will publish the story they’re crafting. Some writers think of authors they admire or authors they desire to emulate. Some writers are thinking of friends and family whom they hope to impress, or at least earn their respect. Some writers are thinking of the public at large (whatever that abstract concept means) hoping to earn a wide audience.

Unlike “target audience,” it doesn’t mean the writer is actually writing for this perceived reader. The writer doesn’t actually believe only their friends will read their book, or that some big-name writer will pick it up, especially since that big-name writer may be dead. But just as painting a house requires a house to apply the emulsion, a perceived readership in the back of a writer’s mind gives the writer a kind of fuzzy target to aim for without committing to it.

By the time I returned from Japan, I’d devoured three Sherlock Holmes collections. For all the faults and stuffiness, Doyle is a generous writer, one who engaged with his readership and even challenged them a bit, but never denying them their desires. I suspect Doyle (like Dickens) read correspondence from his readers and was sensitive to their criticisms and praise. I don’t think it’s an accident Doyle modeled his first-person narrator as a physician, Doyle’s own intended profession, or that Watson wrote of Holmes’ exploits under the conceit of penning newspaper articles. Not only did it fill the public with the sensation Holmes was alive—many believed so at the time—but Watson’s audience also gave Doyle the house for which to apply the paint.

Doyle’s perceived readership began to coalesce with his target audience, like blurry double-vision sharpening into a single distinct form. I’m not arguing this is desirable or advantageous, but I do think it happened and that Doyle’s writing was the better for it. I also believe this is part of the reason for Sherlock Holmes’ character persisting as a vivid creative construct well into the 21st century. After all, Holmes’ as an individual is not some empty vessel for each generation of readers to pour their own ideals into. His persistence comes from being odd, unique, idiosyncratic, and ripe for reinterpretation.

This connection between author and perceived readership is a direct rebuttal to the 20th century myth of the “walled-off” author, the lone genius in a room with a typewriter penning works of high art unsullied by mammon or mass culture. While Nabokov, Faulkner, and Woolf may not have been writing for money and celebrity—although I think people are too quick to assume such things—I certainly believe all three were writing for a perceived readership, some idealized notion of the reader they wished to attract.

With the rise of ride-sharing like Uber and Lyft, and with the inevitable arrival of driverless cars in the future, we may experience a fresh resurgence of people with additional time on their hands to read. Who knows? Much as digital music led to the renewal of singles, there may soon be a burgeoning market for short stories and story collections, mysteries and otherwise, as people seek a brief form of entertainment while traveling.

What kind of story matches the cadences and rhythms of a self-driving car? And can America today produce writers as sensitive and generous as Doyle?

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Philip K. Dick on realism, consistency, and fiction

Philip K. Dick: The Last Interview and Other ConversationsRecently I dove into the superb Philip K. Dick: The Last Interview and Other Conversations (from Melville House, publisher of the increasingly-intriguing Last Interviews collection) and am enjoying every page. I’ve written before about my semi-tortuous negotiations with PKD’s novels, and am finding some justification for my issues in these interviews with him.

With PKD I remain hamstrung: he’s more speculative and philosophical than the run-of-the-mill hard sci-fi writer. This is right up my alley. I absolutely love PKD’s questions of existence, identity, and freewill that lay the foundations of his novels; and he’s a Bay Area writer to boot. Yet I find him to be a flawed writer, one who was so-very-close to writing perfect novels but had trouble overcoming basic hurdles, such as with cardboard characters and sci-fi’s obsession with “ideas” over story.

(For the record, my list of great PKD novels, in no order, remain A Scanner Darkly and The Man in the High Castle. I’m sure PKD’s fans find that list ridiculously short and astoundingly obvious. I still pick up his work now and then, so who knows, maybe I’ll find another one to add. PKD was more than prolific.)

In The Last Interview, PKD mentions to interviewer Arthur Byron Cover his early affinity for A. E. van Vogt. (I recall being fascinated with van Vogt’s Slan in junior high school, a book built from much the same brick as Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.) PKD observes:

Dick: There was in van Vogt’s writing a mysterious quality, and this was especially true in The World of Null-A. All the parts of that book do not add up; all the ingredients did not make a coherency. Now some people are put off by that. They think it’s sloppy and wrong, but the thing that fascinated me so much was that this resembled reality more than anybody else’s writing inside or outside science fiction.

Cover: What about Damon Knight’s famous article criticizing van Vogt?

Dick: Damon feels that it’s bad artistry when you build those funky universes where people fall through the floor.

It’s like he’s viewing a story the way a building inspector would when he’s building your house. But reality is a mess, and yet it’s exciting. The basic thing is, how frightened are you of chaos? And how happy are you with order? Van Vogt influenced me so much because he made me appreciate a mysterious chaotic quality in the universe that is not to be feared. [Emphasis mine.]

It’s the questions after my emphasis that make the book’s back cover (“How frightened are you of chaos? How happy are you with order?”), and for good reason: They strike near to the heart of the questions asked in all of PKD’s work.

But I’m interested in the line about the building inspector. Damon’s review of Null-A is dismissively brief (although I suspect what’s being referred to here is Knight’s essay “Cosmic Jerrybuilder”). I’ve not read Null-A, but in principle I line up behind PKD on this one.

Reality is not as sane and orderly as many writers would have us believe. If I’m critical of contemporary American literature’s obsession with “hard realism”, it’s because I think PKD has put his finger on a deep and unrecognized truth: Reality is a fragile facade, but what a thorough facade it provides. It’s one thing for the average person to think they have total understanding of things they have no access to—the heart of a politician, the mind of a celebrity, the duplicity of a boss or coworker—but it’s truly tragic when a writer writes as though they have this reality thing all sewn up.

In contemporary literature, there are often moments where the narrator will have some moment of clarity into another person’s life. Usually this moment is presented as the epiphany, although it’s rarely epiphanic. (See Charles Baxter’s “Against Epiphanies” for a better argument on this point than I’m capable of producing.) Never mind that these pseudo-epiphanies are the inverse of contemporary lit’s obsession with quiet realism and slight personal movement. These mini-epiphanies are the literature’s cult of poignancy, and they’re often not interesting because they’re predictable, rational, and orderly.

There is chaos in our world, and it produces strangeness and unexpectedness that is neither poignant nor tied to fussy notions of realism. This, I think, is what PKD was referring to.

My only quibble with PKD’s observation is that I don’t see chaos as an external dark force in the universe. We are the chaos. We produce it. I’m less concerned about the wobble in Mercury’s orbit than the ability for just about anybody to murder given the right circumstances. (See the 2015 film Circle for an exploration of just that.)

The human psyche is like a computer performing billions of calculations a second. Most of the results are wrong, some are off by orders of magnitude, but the computer smooths out the errors to walk a thin line of existence and consistency. Even with these errors, the human psyche assures itself that its footing is steady and sure, when in fact it’s walking on the foam of statistical noise. The number of calculations it gets right are the rounding error.

The noise and errors do not matter. Our minds have the cognitive plasticity to bind contradictions into coherency. We can absorb chaos and make sense of it. This, I think, is close to the heart of PKD’s novels.

Update: Shortly after posting this I discovered Damon Knight partially backtracked on his criticism of A. E. van Vogt:

Van Vogt has just revealed, for the first time as far as I know, that during this period [while writing Null-A] he made a practice of dreaming about his stories and waking himself up every ninety minutes to take notes. This explains a good deal about the stories, and suggests that it is really useless to attack them by conventional standards. If the stories have a dream consistency which affects readers powerfully, it is probably irrelevant that they lack ordinary consistency.

Reading closely, Damon isn’t exactly agreeing with PKD’s comments (or mine, for that matter), but he does concede some flexibility on the supposed rigid strictures of fiction writing.

From three acts to trilogies: The fall of “tight, gapless” writing

John August. (Mai Le)

John August. (Mai Le)

Over at Grantland, Kevin Lincoln makes a deft observation about the current (sorry) state of Hollywood’s output, which has gone from “tight, gapless screenwriting” to scripts focused on world-building, sequels, expansion, rebooting—in other words, franchising.

Lincoln quotes screenwriter John August:

Most screenwriters are essentially world-builders, and the nature of screenwriting is to create a universe in which these characters live, so that’s really exciting for screenwriters … it’s this weird blend of wanting to create the best two-hour movie you possibly can and having to sort of function as a TV showrunner, charting out the whole series, even though as a screenwriter, you’re only going to get paid for that one movie.

I have some interest in how Hollywood screenplays are crafted. (Truth be told, I’m more interested in how three-act scripts are structured, Hollywood or otherwise.) What concerns me with Lincoln’s article—beyond the ouroboros death-spiral that is the quality of Hollywood filmmaking today—is how this world-building dynamic is present in fiction too, particularly ebooks, a universe I’ve been wading into over the past twelve months.

If you search Amazon for independently-published novels labeled “contemporary” or “literary fiction,” you’ll discover your options are limited. (Or, if you’re like me, you might say “the field is wide open.”) Genre fiction is a another story. Science fiction, mystery, fantasy, dystopian YA, romance (and so on) are well-represented in the world of independently-published ebooks. Over-represented, maybe.

Some see that as a knock on the quality of independent electronic-only publishing, but the same situation is found across the publishing spectrum. Hardbound, paperback, big name New York publishers, small press publishers, even vanity presses—genre outnumbers the contemporary/literary world by an order of magnitude. (At least in the realm of books. By my reckoning, literary magazines outnumber genre magazines by two orders of magnitude.)

Someday I’ll write up my thoughts on genre fiction, but for now I’ll say that I don’t see the above situation as a problem in particular. I would like to see contemporary and literary fiction better-represented in the world of independent publishing, but I’m just one voice in a sea of many.

Three acts? Or three (or more) books?

My problem is where August’s observation about screenwriting intersects with independent publishing. Having spent a bit of time searching blogs and so forth for tips on breaking into the world of ebooks, I’ve again and again seen two connected strategies emphasized: world-building and sequels.

Group photo.

Group photo.

What’s that mean? Build a world, a big world, and explore it over the course of several books. This strategy has been the cornerstone of comic books (“the Marvel Universe“) and genre fiction (“A Lt. Detective Malone Mystery”) for decades now. Hollywood is finally waking up to the possibilities. And so are ebooks.

The ebook marketing wonkthink goes something like this: Write a catchy, addictive first novel that introduces your main character, builds the world, and stocks it with complementary secondary characters to be developed later. Give the first ebook away for free. Then write sequels that continue the story and develop your pantheon. Progressively increase the price of your ebooks as the series grows. When you’ve published the last ebook in the series—or reached a natural breathing point—package them together as a “boxed set” (there’s no box, just bits) and price it higher still.

Done right, the individual ebooks may be priced from free to, say, $4.99. The boxed sets can be sold as high as $19.99—the cover price of a physical book in a physical bookstore. With Amazon’s KDP Select, the author pockets 70% of that $20 purchase price. Not bad.

That’s the theory, but are sequels and world-building producing great reads? I’m not a connoisseur of modern genre fiction so I can’t say. I’m curious what hardcore genre fans think. Personally, I recall in my teenage years picking up Book One of various science fiction series only to discover its entire purpose was to introduce characters and describe the world’s physics and technology—in other words, sell me on buying the rest of the series. No thanks.

I know this: I haven’t gone to a movie theater in years simply because I can’t stomach what Hollywood is shoveling out the door these days. (This comes from a guy who grew up collecting Avengers comics and praying for a movie version.) They’ve rebooted Spiderman three times. “With great power comes great responsibility.” Yeah, got it.

Does it work?

Looking over Amazon’s Kindle Top 100 (paid ebooks, not free) and mentally discarding editions released by major publishers (and therefore available in paper form), I do see a number of independent ebooks that are part of a series. However, they’re all the first volume in the series (save for one boxed set selling for $0.99). I estimate two possibilities, and they’re not exclusive:

  1. The authors are selling the first book but failing to maintain readership throughout the series.
  2. The authors are big enough names they can sell the first volume rather than give it away for free.

In other words, I can’t tell from this limited data set what to make of this situation. I will say it’s tough as hell to crack the Kindle Top 100, so kudos to the authors. Also, this exercise of mine is rife with problems, so don’t let it stand as the final word on anything.

Note that I’m not terribly interested in the profitability of this world-building strategy. I’m more curious how other writers attract—and keep—the attention of readers. Do you really have to write a multi-volume genre series to succeed? I hope not.

I love the idea of tight, gapless screenwriting. I love even more the idea of tight, gapless fiction. For whatever it’s worth, that’s what I’m trying to do here.