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AFTER THE GOLDEN AGE for 10/13/2003
Volume 2, #98
I have been pontificating on this site for several years now. I've reached out from comics to a whole range of subjects, exploring a veritable universe of ideas. Why? An avid curiosity, a lot of different kinds of experience, a lot of years to acquire it all, a lot of chutzpah to go with it, and maybe even a touch of "dear Abby" in my character to round it out. Abortion? Politics? Religion? Philosophy? Art history? Criticism? You've come to the right place.
I had a famous professor of philosophy when I attended City College many years ago. His name---Morris R. Cohen, a brilliant thinker who also happened to be endowed with an eidetic mind. He could recall everything he ever read. One day, he looked at the class with a big grin and said in his unmistakable Minsk accent: "Well, boys, ask me anything." And we did, and he had an answer, the right answer, every time.
One bright student figured he had the old man when he took him up on a statement about a certain philosopher by bringing the latter's book to class and reading from it. Certainly, the paragraph contradicted what Professor Cohen had recently said about the aforementioned philosopher. But was Cohen phased?
Not exactly. He just grinned wider and said: "You are reading from the first edition of the work which was revised in, (he named a date which I don"t recall), but," Cohen went on. "In the second edition, he rethinks his position and says the following:--" And here Cohen, staring upward a little as though he were reading from a version of the work right in front of him but which nobody else could see, proceeded to recite the paragraph which supported his original claim. The abashed and somewhat humbled student challenger sat down and shut up. It was like that in Cohen's class. The man was a legend in a school that was famous for churning out first rate young philosophers by the carload.
Now in some ways, it may look as though I've been trying to do a Morris Cohen stunt on this site. Of course, I don't come anywhere near him. No photographic memory. Limited foreign language accessibility. Even a touch of aphasia. Temporary forgetting that sometimes drives me crazy. But I'll admit to writing good comics when I had a free hand, and even knowing a lot of stuff you wouldn't expect from a comics writer. In fact, I've written a lot of stuff that comics writers rarely touch. But you all know about that. I've published a number of books; I've even been in publishing myself, years before I got into comics. So how come, with all that stuff in my head, I'm now completely bewildered by today's publishing scene?
Okay, I'll come clean. Here's what I'm really getting at. I fully believe that I've recently written one of the great novels of the day. I say that without blushing. It's simply a fact. And a lot of people support me, even that most distinguished critic of the e-book world, a certain J.D. Masters who despite his grundgy prose sits at the top critical rung of a growing universe of e-books that this past year has sold as many as 600,000 copies, and is moving up quite fast. In fact, I'd had that masterpiece of mine selling on an e-book site for some months where it sold as well as the regular run of romance, sci-fi, adventure, porn and other genre competitors. Not staggering, mind you, but competitive.
I'll go a step further. I've had two agents who thought the book a likely major prizewinner. One of them, an English agent, and a writer himself, was convinced
that I would be a shoo-in for the Booker Prize. I had an American agent who knew the business so well, he had been the owner and publisher of one of the country's more outstanding and successful literary and popular presses. This agent who also got my first novel, The Blowtop back into print, could not, however, do a thing for my major work, which had been his reason for taking me on to start with. He got close. He got close enough for a couple of editors at a major US publisher to hold consultations over it, fearful of their jobs because they couldn't absolutely guarantee I'd sell enough for them to take the risk of publishing me. They finally suggested I go to a small literary press. Having just had the experience of two such presses folding on me, I determined to keep trying the majors. After all, I had a major work and I was determined to see that it got major treatment. In the meantime, the two editors got fired the next day. No, not because of my book. Just because the whole major publishing industry is in a state of chaos, and everybody feels so insecure, they're afraid to take a chance on anything. In fact, the barnacles grow quickly so that the list of what WAS successful has completely become the guideline for what WILL BE successful.
The result has been, as might have been expected, that a few best-selling authors have been able to command enormous advances such that little is left for any gambles on anything new. And of course the constant repetition of what has gone before has only thinned out the market. The over priced super-authors are no longer paying back their advances, and publishers are just beginning to get a glimmer of the fact that a backlist, consisting of books that people like to keep, are worth building up again. Random House has been restoring its library of classic works in The Modern Library and Harper Collins has been reviving its Anchor Torchbook line. But we're far from there yet. (And in case anybody's interested, the same thing has been happening in comics. Only not in new stuff, but just reprinting the old classics, written by guys like me half a century or more ago).
All right, you think this is just a writer's gripe? Let me put it this way. The most important thing in the world today is the terrible clash between two fundamentalisms, as I've said in this space before. Christian fundamentalist against Islamic fundamentalist. Go back and read my column on the subject. And then, note that fundamentalism is always based on a certain notion of prophecy. The subject of prophecy is one of the most misunderstood in the world. We don't know if there may or may not be a vast number of probable futures. But every system of belief has its notions of prophecy in which the present-day mullahs and imams and preachers and priests and Orthodox Jews threaten us with various disasters unless we follow them and sacrifice ourselves to their notions of the Truth as it was written in the old books. .So today, there's war and death and self-sacrifice all over the world because of it. Okay, we know all this.
Now we come to my book, The Shattering Presence. All I'll say here is that it's the kind of book that directly confronts just those big questions and proposes some interesting answers. But from real characters and real people. It's also a work that establishes the important difference between power by itself, and power expressed with authority. But it's not a tract and not a treatise. It carries the reader around the globe and looks through the eyes and minds of the whole variety of leadership types demanding that we follow them. It looks at the world and confronts the world. But this is not why I'm writing all this here. Just one further detail about this work before I put my big question to all my readers out there, all five or maybe a thousand, I don't know.
A sample of that big question, the meaning of prophecy as I see it and as it's expressed in The Shattering Presence is offered here so that the flavor of this work can be tasted, as it were.
There's a scene with my protagonist , an Irish diocesan priest, who in various ways has found himself "called" and who, like the prophets of old, has resisted that call until events overwhelm him and force him to act, even in direct contravention of his own church. He's not the only prophet in the book, by the way. There are prophets of revolution, of intellectual insight, of political might, of secular and sacred powers, a great variety of men and women with powerful gifts of leadership. But the priest, one Father Riordan, has been meeting with the president of the United States of America, a composite of the presidential breed we've elected over the last twenty or so years. You'll recognize him, I promise.
The President, Bert Dornhofer, is having a private discussion with the priest. . .the subject: God.
"Even God can fail sometimes," Riordan said softly.
"I'm not sure what that means."
"That possibility- His failure- is the source of our freedom. Life is predicated on a bipolar structure. It is therefore spontaneous and self regulating. In the Divine Plan, you might say, there is really no success or failure, only the constant transcending of imbalances. That's what growth is. And keep in mind too that all real growth is spiritual growth."
When someone speaks like that, Bert started to tell himself, it isn't at all that you're persuaded by whatever he's saying. Because he's not just telling you something. A prophetic voice is something quite different. He had never understood that until this afternoon. A prophetic voice doesn't try to convince or persuade or tell you something as much as it sets up a kind of interior resonance allowing you to make choices about things you already know. Things you've always known. Maybe too, if you haven't exercised that kind of choice for a long time, the alternatives look completely unfamiliar at first as they rise to the surface of your mind. But they're still things you know a whole lot better than if someone told you about them-because they belong to you. They're part of you. Unlike the powerful words of a demagogue or a spellbinder, that interior resonance has to be true and one simply has to listen to it or lose something of oneself..
Not a simple passage, but a linch-pin which I use to examine a whole series of events, romances, wars, beliefs. insurgencies, racial questions, the whole human condition in all its strenuous and constant engagements with life. So it's certainly not a sample either. It's a summation of the thing I'm striving for in a richly textured story, highlighting that important notion of prophecy so that we can better understand where we're going and what we're doing. In fact, because I had written Superman for so many years, as I've often explained, I used to wonder what would happen if I were to create a REAL savior type, a human fashioned in the traditional prophetic mold. How would he function in today's world? What would drive him? What would he believe? How would his normal erotic drives relate to his role, and how would the latter come to him. In short, I imagined a REAL Superman. THE SHATTERING PRESENCE is the result.
So now, my question is directed to my readers, those of you whom I know and those I don't. Not a major question, but maybe just a discussion that might flow from it, with you helping me. Especially if any of you have any ideas of how to go about getting this book launched. Remember, a number of good agents have tried. A lot of other good ones won't touch it. Oh, they like the book, but say it's the publishers. I'm not sure.
So this week, instead of my handing out advice, I'm asking for yours. Every author needs to do this from time to time. It's one of the ways books do get published.
<< 10/06/2003 | 10/13/2003 | 10/27/2003 >>
Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.
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