World Without Pain Now in Hardcover!

My second book to appear in a hardcover edition is also one of the most important: the memoir of my time on the road in search of my voice as a writer: World Without Pain: The Story of a Search.

In the 1970s, after the Altamont Rock Festival, the Manson Family cult murders, and the fiasco of the Vietnam War many young people, disillusioned by the hippy movement, began to leave their homelands and travel to the far places of the world.  Hoping to find drugs, sex, freedom, and excitement, they more often were confronted with destitution, despair, disease, loneliness, and culture shock.

As a young writer wishing to break out of the familiar rut in which he was stagnating, Walters hit the road during this time, first to Europe, then onward to the Indian Subcontinent.  He sampled Buddhism and radical Christianity; he wandered alone in the Himalayas; he listened to strange gurus spouting stranger doctrines; he watched the people around him deteriorating and dying in the lands of the East.  As he traveled onward he became fascinated with the road itself, and determined to discover its secrets. He wondered what it was that gave the road its alluring power, and he forsook everything else to find out.

His story will appeal to those who lived through the turmoil of the 60s and 70s, to those who are hungering after spiritual fulfillment, to writers and other artists in search of their voice and their inspiration, and to anyone who loves a true story of adventure and excitement set in unfamiliar lands.

This is my first memoir. Recently I have been looking back on the times I write about in this book, and I am amazed at where I went and the dangerous and unsettling situations I encountered. Now my temerity astonishes me, but back then I took it in stride, considering it all a glorious and grand adventure. You don’t hear about people stepping out onto the road like this anymore. Give this book a read; you won’t be disappointed.

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Book Review: Drop City by T. C. Boyle

I bought Drop City months ago but put off reading it until now. For one thing, it’s a long novel, and for another, I didn’t know what to expect. Whenever I have taken up novels having to do with the hippie experience of the late sixties and early seventies, which I lived through, by the way, and feel personally invested in, I have inevitably felt disappointed. For instance Vineland by Thomas Pynchon, is slapstick and ridiculous, while Inherent Vice, by the same author, is depressing and cynical. Another Roadside Attraction by Tom Robbins is a fun read, but it veers into improbable fantasy. The paucity of good novels on this era caused me to write two of my own, The Misadventures of Mama Kitchen and Sunflower, in which I attempted to impart my own vision of what that brief special time means to me.

But back to Drop City. In brief, it tells of a hippie commune in 1970 living on a spot of land in California thanks to the largesse of a hippy patron named Norm Sender. The first section details their lifestyle, replete with free love, drugs, and filth. This opening of the book disturbed me, so much so that I almost tossed it aside and gave up. My problem is with Boyle’s depiction of the individual hippies and the commune in general. I hung out with hippies in the early seventies; in fact, I suppose you could say that I was one. And I never, ever, any place I went in the United States, Europe, and the Indian Subcontinent, came across any group of hippies (or freaks, as they used to like to be called) as filthy, distasteful, self-centered, and lacking in compassion, empathy, and nobility as the hippies described by Boyle in this novel. Especially in the first part, they come across as cartoon characters akin to the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, except less endearing. While spouting freedom and brotherly and sisterly love, they are cynical, selfish, dim-witted, and violent.

What saved the book for me was the second section. Boyle switches the scene to the hinterlands of Alaska, where a solitary trapper named Sess Harder living far off in the wilderness goes to town (a sparse scattering of shacks) to pick up Pamela, his mail order bride. She longs for the simple life in the wild, far away from the confusion of cities. She has promised to visit three different men, and in the end she chooses Sess. Their romance is truly touching, and Boyle’s description of their life in the harsh wilderness of Alaska, though uncompromising, made it sound alluring and even desirable.

Boyle sets up these two situations because he intends to bring them together. The denizens of Drop City, oppressed by the authorities because of legal violations having to do with their living conditions, pile on to a big yellow bus and a motley caravan of other vehicles and head up north to a piece of property owned by Norm’s uncle, which is, of course, just a few miles upriver from the newlyweds Sess and Pamela. They arrive in mid-summer, the short season of continual sunshine, and commence building cabins and frolicking in the wilderness, but most of them are completely unprepared for the harsh living conditions of the far north. This is Boyle’s point, of course: hippies were almost invariably the white children of the privileged, and what worked to bind a commune together in sunny California would not necessarily be adequate to weather the forty-below temperatures and perpetual darkness of an Alaska winter.

As I mentioned, Boyle has a propensity for exaggeration and violence, so this novel is not an easy read. Once I got past the first section, though, and the couple in the wilderness is introduced, and the hippies begin their epic journey north and then attempt to adapt after they arrive, I found myself getting more drawn into the story. I’ll hold off telling you how it all ends, but for me at least the ending is nuanced and satisfactory.

Would I recommend this novel? Yes. Once you manage to get past the beginning it sustains interest. But is it an accurate depiction of the hippie lifestyle? I would say no. In my experience, the hippies I met were more intelligent, discerning, thoughtful, and definitely cleaner than the ones in this novel.

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Bedlam Battle Omnibus Now in Hardcover!

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I’ve had stories published in hardcover anthologies before, but this is the first of my own 28 books to appear in a hardcover edition. Looks good, feels good, and reads great!

Bedlam Battle: An Omnibus of the One Thousand Series

Four science fiction thrillers in one volume

This omnibus includes:

The One Thousand:  Book 1

It is the late 1960s…

What better place than prison to recruit psychopathic killers?  So thinks Benny, possessed by a thousand alien entities which he intends to share around with the other inmates before unleashing hell on Earth in the form of a murderous rampage.  Only William Stafford, a Vietnam War veteran unjustly convicted of killing a girlfriend, can stop him.  But to do so he has to break back into the prison he has just escaped from…

The One Thousand:  Book 2:  Team of Seven

A team composed of countercultural humans and benevolent aliens based out of Haight/Ashbury hunt for murderous, alien-possessed convicts with enhanced powers who have escaped from prison.  They discover that this fellowship of psychopaths is preparing an elaborate party for hippies and other street people in a remote mansion built to simulate a Medieval castle, and that they are planning to slaughter everyone who attends.  Now the seven are faced with the task of locating the mansion and stopping the killers…

The One Thousand:  Book 3:  Black Magic Bus

To escape pursuit, the fellowship of psychopaths has fled to Europe.  In the mountains of Italy they customize a psychedelically-colored tour bus, intending not only to pick up and murder unwary young travelers, but deliver a cargo of lethal pathogens to a major city in the East.  Only the Team of Seven composed of enhanced humans and benevolent aliens can find and stop them…

The One Thousand: Book 4: Deconstructing the Nightmare

Their hunt for a group of alien-possessed psychopaths intent on igniting a rampage of mass murder leads the Team of Seven to a prison in Turkey, war-ravaged Vietnam, a luxurious nuclear fallout shelter, and finally to direct confrontation with their enemies.

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Book Review: Writing Blue Highways: The Story of How a Book Happened by William Least Heat-Moon

Not long ago I read Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon. It’s a travelogue/memoir of a trip he took around the United States keeping to smaller roads and out-of-the-way places. More recently I read River-Horse, a memoir of his boat journey from east to west across the United States via its rivers, lakes, and other waterways. I enjoyed Blue Highways in particular as the account of a solitary man van dwelling as he roams the country meeting with interesting people and hearing their stories. Thus I was drawn to Writing Blue Highways as a memoir of the years following his journey.

The book was not exactly what I expected. For one thing, compared to his other books, which are weighty tomes, this was slim and lightweight. For another, he touches on autobiography but mainly focuses on his writing process, which for the most part comes across as agonizingly painful. The book is readable and even entertaining, but I have to admit that I disagree with most of what Heat-Moon says about the act of writing.

For one thing, Heat-Moon scorns keyboards for his first drafts, preferring to write with pencils on paper. To each his own, I say. I have composed in notebooks with pens, but only when I had no choice. For instance, back in the seventies, when I was full time on the road in the United States, Europe, the Middle East, and the Indian Subcontinent seeking adventure and my voice as a writer, I could hardly carry a typewriter. (This was in the days before personal computers.) So I carried notebooks and wrote down my observations and prose poetry in them. Later, when I was writing my first memoir about those road days, World Without Pain: The Story of a Search, I wrote in notebooks because I was often composing it on the fly while driving my family around. As soon as we got a computer and printer, though, those notebook and pen days were over. Writing digitally via a keyboard is easier, faster, and more error-free. The text is simple to correct and is clear and legible. When I have occasionally had trouble creating a flow of words, the problem was in my mind, not in the mechanics of the device I was using.

Another thing that troubled me about Heat-Moon’s account of writing Blue Highways is how painful it all seemed for him. He worked on it doggedly with the end result in mind, but when he writes about writing, he makes it sound like a hideously dreadful activity only to be tolerated because it would finally, after years of effort, result in a finished book. Even after twenty-eight published books, I don’t feel and have never felt that way about writing. I love the act of writing. I revel in it. I like it less when I have to write articles on assignment and much more when I am composing my own creative work, but even writing as hack work beats any other occupation I can think of – for me, at least. Writing fulfills me; it’s my calling, my pleasure, and my deep joy. Heat-Moon makes it sound like such hard work, but for me it is great fun.

Heat-Moon and I also disagree about the importance of rewriting. Admittedly some writing needs to be rewritten, but Heat-Moon is of the opinion, which is held by many writers, that rewriting over and over and over is some sort of Holy Grail that must be an integral part of the creative process. With Blue Highways, he only hit his stride with the seventh draft, I think it was – but there was a special reason for that which I will get to in a moment. I am not averse to rewriting when it is necessary, and certainly I am willing to go over a piece when an editor accepts it and requests certain changes, which has happened on a few occasions. What I prefer to do, though, is revise as I go along. Before starting a day’s writing, I read over what I wrote the previous day; at that time, I make necessary changes before I forge into the new material. Since I have been revising as I go along, I seldom have to change much when I am finished, although I do proofread pieces a few more times before I send them out.

And now we come to the outstanding revelation of the book. Heat-Moon describes painfully writing draft after draft after draft; the manuscript got better by increments but always he and a trusted first reader felt that something was missing. What Heat-Moon realized after years of effort was that he was ignoring a key portion of who he was. Up until then he had been using William Trogdon, his Euro-American name, as his byline. However, he also had part Osage Native American ancestry. His father had taken the name Heat Moon in honor of an Osage ancestor. As soon as he decided to change his byline to William Least Heat-Moon, he sat down “not to revise but to fulfill the manuscript.” He started from the beginning and rewrote it one more time, and this time it clicked. I have to wonder if he could have eliminated some of those frustrating drafts if he had caught on to this earlier. What this means to me is that a writer cannot get by without imbuing all of himself into what he is writing, every time.

I referred to Heat-Moon’s realization as a revelation, and that’s exactly what it was. For me, the awareness of the need for honesty in my prose, whether I am writing fiction or nonfiction, occurred during those poverty-stricken but profound days on the road. For Heat-Moon, acknowledging the totality of who he was provided the magic ingredient that brought his book forth to completion.

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On Rereading Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny

What can I say? Lord of Light is a terrific book and Roger Zelazny is a one-of-a-kind author. If only he were still around weaving his incomparable tales! He died way too young (at age 58 of cancer). I may throw out a few spoilers as I discuss this book, but don’t be dismayed. Zelazny’s magic was in the way he wrote as well as in what he said. He’s the type of author whose works you can read over and over and enjoy the ride just as much or more each time.

The Hugo Award-winning novel Lord of Light is one of his longer and more ambitious works. The original colonists of a faraway planet in the distant future have set themselves up as a pantheon similar to the Hindu gods. They have suppressed technology, choosing to keep the human inhabitants of the planet ignorant and ill informed so that they can more easily be controlled. As part of that control they strictly regulate the transference of people into new bodies, which is the technological equivalent of reincarnation. The protagonist is a man named Sam, one of the original colonists, who has taken it upon himself to oppose the gods, bring them down, and promote acceleration, or technological advancement. The book has, to my mind at least, one of the greatest opening paragraphs in science fiction:

His followers called him Mahasamatman and said he was a god. He preferred to drop the Maha- and the -atman, however, and called himself Sam. He never claimed to be a god. But then, he never claimed not to be a god. Circumstances being what they were, neither admission could be of any benefit. Silence, though, could.

Therefore there was mystery about him.

A blurb on the cover by George R.R. Martin claims that this is one of the five greatest science fiction novels ever written. Once you read it, you’ll find it hard to argue with him.

As the novel opens, Yama, the god of death, is manipulating machinery to bring Sam back from the sky-cloud of Nirvana, to which he has been vanquished. Yama and a few other rebels from the Celestial City need Sam’s help to complete his task of overthrowing the gods. After this, the book goes into a long flashback that tells how Sam initiated his war with the gods by invading one of the halls of karma where new bodies are distributed, how Sam takes on the aspect of Buddha to introduce spiritual teaching contrary to the reigning gods, how Sam descends into a place called Hellmouth to enlist the aid of the bound demons that were the original inhabitants of the planet, how Sam is then taken captive to heaven and is supposedly killed but somehow escapes, and how Sam leads the rebel gods and a huge army of spirits and humans against the pantheon of heaven. Sam’s army is defeated, and Sam is sentenced to lose his corporeality – and this brings us back to the present.

As for the final chapter and the ultimate fate of Sam and his allies, well, I’m not telling. You’ll have to discover that for yourself. Be assured, though, that this is a great, complex, rousing adventure told in elegant manner by one of the greatest science fiction writers of all time. As I said above, nobody else has ever written like Roger Zelazny. His intelligence, wit, clarity, and poetic verve would have made him a first-rate writer in any genre. We who enjoy well-told science fiction and fantasy stories can be thankful that he lavished his talent upon the field, at least for a time.

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Book Review: Somewhere Towards the End: A Memoir by Diana Athill

I decided to read this memoir because I am getting old. In a couple of years I’ll reach seventy. Although I can still walk miles a day and do my customary pull-ups, pushups, and power yoga when I exercise, my hips, knees, and shoulders ache more than they used to, and I feel tired almost all the time. There is no getting around the inevitable decay and death. So I thought that I would read what another writer had to say about it.

Diana Athill recently died at the age of one hundred and one. She wrote Somewhere Towards the End when she was almost ninety. For most of her life she was a publisher and editor, dealing with some of the world’s most famous authors, and then late in life she turned to writing. She had numerous affairs and eventually lived for decades in London with a Jamaican playwright, but she never married or had children. When I picked up the book I hadn’t realized she was British, but her English manners come out in a certain elegance of speech, such as using the word “one” when referring to herself as an example of people in general.

The book is comprised of more or less an equal amount of reminiscences and observations. She sets the tone in the beginning of the introduction by reflecting on a woman in a park walking some dogs she sees while gazing out her window. She considers that she would love to enjoy a new puppy but she doesn’t want to obtain one and then die while it is dependent on her. She then describes a tree fern she ordered through a catalog; it has the potential to grow into a mature tree, but it came as a few tiny leaves protruding from some soil, and she is concerned that she will never be able to see it as a full plant. (At the end of the book in a postscript, Athill notes that watching the tree fern grow even in its early stages is worth the purchase.) These two thoughts have to do with considerations of time. Old people become aware of something that the young are unable to grasp: that our time on this Earth is limited; that we will die just as everyone in the past that has ever been born has died. In the meantime, old people have to deal more and more with the inevitable deterioration.

Early on in the book, Athill devotes a chapter to the various affairs she has had throughout her life. She points out that she has never had a predilection for marriage or motherhood, but on one occasion, when she was in her forties, she got pregnant and decided to keep the child; she had a harrowing miscarriage during which she lost a lot of blood and almost died. In fact, she woke up in the hospital when it was over and was surprised that she was still alive.

Another early chapter deals with old people caring for their even older ailing parents. I did not find this chapter easy reading. It reminded me of my father, who hung on in a nursing home through advanced Alzheimer’s until he was ninety. At the end, my siblings and I were relieved for his sake when he died, because there was not much of him left.

In picking up this book, though, I had not been looking for dreary stories of deterioration and decay but for encouragement. That’s why for me the book picks up in the second half; that’s when Athill gets to the good stuff: namely, the activities she enjoys in her old age.

First of all, she likes being around young people. She didn’t have children of her own, but she had nieces and nephews and children of friends, which she describes as mirrors and inspiration. She also enjoyed taking up activities such as drawing, painting, and gardening. She writes of the value of driving for old people, although she tempers this with observations concerning at what point, due to deteriorating senses, they have to be willing to give up the wheel. She describes giving care to other older loved ones such as spouses, or in her case, her former lover and roommate for decades, the playwright Barry Reckord. He was younger than her but became terminally ill and died sooner.

Athill devotes a chapter to reading, which was one of her dearest pleasures in old age. As she got older, she lost interest in contemporary novels and read mostly nonfiction, and also reread classic books that she used to read when she was young. Her greatest pleasure in old age, though, was writing. She devoted her youth and strength to publishing and editing, but then she discovered that she was a writer as well, and this gave her intense pleasure and solace late in life.

All in all, I would say that I enjoyed this book, but as I mentioned, I liked the second half much more than the first, mainly because it was less morbid and more consoling and inspiring.

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Book Review: A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life by George Saunders

This is a fun book to read. Award-winning writer George Saunders has spent decades teaching Russian short stories in his writing classes, and in this volume he chooses several of his favorite stories and expounds upon them at length. In several instances, Saunders’s commentaries are significantly longer than the stories. The four Russian authors represented with stories are Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gogol. Turgenev and Gogol have one each, Tolstoy has two, and Chekhov has three (but his are also the shortest).

I approached this book with eagerness to venture into realms of literature that were (and are) relatively unfamiliar to me. I’ve read a collection of Chekhov’s stories before, but it was a long time ago. I’ve read some of Tolstoy’s short works too, but not the ones that Saunders has selected for this volume.

Overall I like his selections, although I enjoyed some much more than others. One of my favorites is “Gooseberries” by Chekhov, a subtle discourse on the purpose and possibility of happiness in life. From “Gooseberries” Saunders gets the title of the book; at a certain point one of the characters takes a swim in a pond and relishes the experience intensely.

My other favorite is “Master and Man” by Tolstoy, which is also the longest story in the book. A landowner takes one of his servants with him on a trip to another town to conduct some urgent business; however, a snowstorm is raging and they keep getting lost. The landowner’s selfishness and disdain for his servant is brought out again and again as he refuses to hunker down and wait out the storm but continues to try to get to his destination. Finally they become trapped in the snow. The landowner selfishly takes the carriage horse and rides off to save himself, but in the storm he gets turned around and ends up back at the carriage where his servant has almost died of the cold. In the end, the landowner has a change of heart and throws himself on top of his servant to keep him warm. The landowner freezes to death, but the servant survives.

Chekhov’s stories are always well-crafted at least and masterful at best. The Turgenev story, “The Singers,” I felt was overlong and told in somewhat of a dated style, the Gogol story, “The Nose,” I thought was merely silly, and the other Tolstoy story, “Alyosha the Pot,” I thought was slight. For another example of brilliant Tolstoy I would have chosen “God Sees the Truth, but Waits” instead. However, here we come to one of the great pleasures of the book, which is Saunders justifying and explaining his choices. He takes the obvious objections that modern readers would have to these stories and delves into why the writers made the choices that they did. Some of his explanations are historical, while others have to do with plotting and character development and theme and even peculiarities of various translators. Most of the time, though, on whatever topic, they are witty, intelligent, and erudite. Saunders’s love of writing shines through it all.

Saunders closes the book with a short epilogue called “We End.” In it he sums up his ultimate message to his students: “The closest thing to a method I have to offer is this: go forth and do what you please.” In this book, Saunders explains how he approaches story writing and how these Russian master writers went about it, but when it come down to it, each writer is different, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Whether you pick up any practical tips for your own reading and writing or not, this book is worth reading for its entertainment value. Odds are, you’ll learn more than a thing or two as well.

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On Rereading The Very Best of Fantasy and Science Fiction Edited by Gordon Van Gelder

Sometimes at odd moments I enjoy looking over the books on my shelves. I don’t have a large collection; there’s probably not more than two or three hundred books in it, but those books hold many precious reading memories. I was pulling short story anthologies off the shelves and perusing the tables of contents. I came across The Very Best of Fantasy and Science Fiction and as I read the titles I thought: what a wonderful group of stories! I considered that a nostalgic trip to the past in the form of some speculative fiction classics might be just what I need in these trying times.

Let me begin by saying that for me at least the quality level in this anthology is consistently higher than I’ve found in any recent best-of-the-year collections. Naming the “best” is subjective, of course, as evidenced by the fact that though there are several anthologies each year that purport to have the “best” there is generally very little overlap.

Never mind all that. This anthology came out in 2009; the oldest story in it goes all the way back to 1951, and the newest is from 2007. Van Gelder had decades of stories to choose from. All of the selections are worth reading, but I’ll mention just some of them that particularly impressed me this time around.

“A Touch of Strange” is a wondrously subtle love story by Theodore Sturgeon. Two humans, a woman and a man, meet on a rock out in the ocean. It turns out that they are both waiting for their lovers, a merman and a mermaid. The sea dwellers never show up, though, and the man and woman fall in love. The amazing thing is how Sturgeon tells a story about mermen and mermaids without ever introducing them directly into the story – their reality is only implied in the dialog of the humans.

“Eastward Ho” by William Tenn is set in a far future in which Native Americans have taken over North America and white people are treated as inferiors and slowly and inexorably driven off the land. When I finished it, I wondered how it would be received in this modern era, since the story was first published in 1958. I wasn’t sure. Then I thought of my old friend and Clarion West classmate, the late Russell Bates, a full-blooded Kiowa Indian. We met each other now and then after the workshop, corresponded for awhile, and even roomed together for a few months in Los Angeles. During that time, we would discuss literature and Russ would give me his views on good novels and stories about Native Americans. I think he would have liked this one; at least he would have had a good laugh over it. Enough said.

“Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes is one of the most famous stories in this collection. It is a near-perfect gem of a tale, so well-crafted that Keyes is known almost exclusively for this one story and its expansion into a novel.

“This Moment of the Storm” is by the late great Roger Zelazny, whose literary style is unique and dazzling. It is certainly worthy of inclusion here, though if I were to choose an F&SF Zelazny story for this anthology, I probably would have gone with “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” or “The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth,” both of which Van Gelder refers to in the story’s introduction.

“The Deathbird” is a classic novelette by my old Clarion West teacher, the late Harlan Ellison. I don’t think it is one of his best stories, but in that assessment I am only comparing him with himself. It shines far brighter than most stories of any type or genre. It’s an experimental piece, a collage of different bits that manages to weave various love stories together into an ode and a dirge for the planet Earth.

“The Women Men Don’t See” by James Tiptree, Jr. (a pseudonym for the late Alice Sheldon) is one of my favorite science fiction stories and what I consider one of the greatest science fiction stories of all time. The amazing thing about this novelette-length tale is that it mostly consists of a fascinating buildup and the aliens only show up in the last few pages.

“The Gunslinger” by Stephen King is a novella, the longest story in the collection. This absorbing tale is the very first entry in the lengthy Dark Tower series of stories and novels.

“Solitude” by another of my Clarion West teachers, the late Ursula K. Le Guin, is a fascinating first person account of absorption into a very different alien culture. An excellent character study.

“Two Hearts” is by yet another of my Clarion West teachers, Peter Beagle. It is a beautifully-written fantasy about an elderly king who goes forth to slay a deadly Griffin, a sequel to Beagle’s classic fantasy novel The Last Unicorn. As I read this story, I recalled a magical evening over four decades ago when Beagle read a section from The Last Unicorn to his students and other visitors. A wonderful experience!

“The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” by Ted Chiang is written in precise and elegant prose, as is all of his work, and the main characters are the ideas and concepts that Chiang presents.

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Adriana’s Family: A Novel by John Walters

My 28th book and 9th novel, Adriana’s Family, is now available to order in paperback or digital form at multiple online booksellers.

Aliens attack Earth, or so world governments believe. In the aftermath of global warfare brought on by the crash of an alien spacecraft, Adriana wakes up in a hospital-like facility with no memory of who she is or how she got there. The administrator tells her she has family on the outside that she needs to find. When she leaves, she begins to hear whispers in her mind that draw her to a disparate group of strangers that she instinctively feels are her brothers and sisters. After discovering that they all share an astonishing connection to the alien arrivals, Adriana resolves to protect her family members from a sinister organization intent on tracking down and annihilating them.

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The Value of Awards

This is a complex subject, but it has been occupying my mind a lot in the last couple of days, so I want to take a stab at it. Every year I read the finalists for a certain literary award before voting; yesterday I read a few finalists in short fiction categories, and the experience left me deeply discouraged. It’s not that they were bad stories. One was nice, one was clever, and one was sweet, but none came anywhere near what I thought of as award-worthy. I wondered how they had got on the ballot. There have been scandals in recent years involving the major science fiction literary awards concerning blocks of voters putting support behind mediocre stories, and I wondered if this was what was happening again. My faith was restored somewhat today when I read another nominee and its brilliance blew me away. Okay, thought I, probably every ballot has less-than-deserving entries – that doesn’t mean they’re going to win. That one terrific story somewhat restored my confidence in the system.

The mediocre nominees I had read previously, though, caused me to call into question (again) our culture’s fascination with awards. It’s partially the fault of the media. Winners are touted far and wide, and even finalists get a sort of partial credit for their resume. The real value of an award is commercial. It makes an author more visible, and as a result causes their work to be disseminated to a wider audience, which in turn makes them more money. Okay, it may also provide an ego-boost, but a writer who has anything worthwhile to say is going to go ahead and say it whether they win any awards or not.

The problem with awards is that often they do not honor the best work. There are all sorts of ways awards are chosen and all sorts of reasons why people select one work and not another. Some awards are chosen by a single individual, some by committee, some by peers or members of a professional organization, and some by popular vote. However, even in the most democratic of circumstances such as popular vote or voting by fellow professionals, situations arise such as the block voting mentioned above.

Motivations for voting for particular works vary as well. I’m sure that many voters, when contemplating works of what they perceive as similar quality, would opt to vote for the efforts of their friends. Sometimes works are favored that address current movements or hot topics, even if the works are lacking in technical quality. These works often do not stand the test of time.

Controversies about awards extend across all artistic disciplines. Consider the heated debates that always accompany the announcement of Academy Award nominees, not to mention the opening of the envelopes and revealing of the winners. Because these awards are so high-profile, there are always endless articles afterwards explaining why some films and performers should or shouldn’t have won. The debate carries on for decades in trivia articles listing the least worthy winners.

I probably wouldn’t have bothered writing about this if it has not been so important to the career goals I set long ago for myself as a writer. I have reached several of those goals concerning professional sales, but one that I have not come close to is the winning of a certain award that I have craved for almost five decades. Yesterday when I was reading those mediocre awards nominees I realized (or rather re-realized) that setting the winning of awards as a personal goal was completely wrong, the reason being that I have no control whatsoever about its accomplishment. What I can do is strive to improve the quality of my writing every day. What I can’t do is cause other people to nominate my stories for awards and then vote for them. That situation is completely outside my hands – and as I have explained above, those outcomes often have nothing to do with the excellence of the work. Goals should be things that I can reach through my own efforts. Therefore I should erase the winning of that certain award from my career goals list. (I still want one, though, but that is a hope or dream rather than a professional goal.)

In closing, let me emphasize that I do not go to the extreme of saying that awards are useless. They often bring worthy artistic works to the public’s attention. I have sometimes perused lists of award winners while looking for what to read next. The point, though, is to not give overmuch attention to the giving and receiving of awards. Some works of literature that were commercial failures and virtually unknown during the authors’ lifetimes went on to be considered classics. Among these are Walden by Henry David Thoreau, Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience by William Blake, Moby-Dick by Herman Melville, the lovely poetry of Emily Dickenson, and the haunting tales of Franz Kafka. A singular story concerns John Kennedy Toole and his novel A Confederacy of Dunces. Toole committed suicide at the age of thirty-three after unsuccessfully trying to sell his novel to publishers. His mother persisted in marketing the work, and it was published in 1980, eleven years after his death. The following year, 1981, the book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

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