Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Best Author Who Totally Lost It.

Pretend you're an author. Go ahead, get yourself in the mood. Do author-y stuff like... I don't know. I don't do any author-y stuff. Author-y stuff these days is limited, so far as I can tell, to complaining about how hard it is to write and what a chore it is to be a writer.

I don't get that. Granted, I have not achieved the absolute highest pinnacle of author-y success: having a book (a) published and (b) having that book optioned into a movie that will never be recognized as the book that I wrote but which will make me lots of money, but I do a lot of writing and have had stories published by people who aren't me.* And in all that time, I've never, ever complained that writing is hard because it's not. It's not at all. People who are lucky enough to be able to support themselves writing and who complain about what a chore it is are annoying in exactly the same way as people who have a lot of money and tell you "Money doesn't solve any problems."

To them -- the money people-- I say: Yes. Yes, it does. It solves the problem of having no money, for one.

To the writer-complain-y people, I say "Be quiet and spend a day tearing down a shed to get an idea how carpenters live and then tell me how hard it is to come up with motivation for a secondary character in the epilogue of your novel."

So I don't share with many writers the tendency to complain about how terrible it is to be a writer. I don't share that tendency with anyone, and I think that's a good thing, because I think more and more the world is filled with people who try very hard to achieve something only to then turn around and complain about what it is they've achieved. Like rock stars, who work their entire lives to have a hit song, and then once they do have a hit song, complain that all anyone wants them to do is play their hit song and then they petulantly refuse to do that for a while only to see their career really, really, suffer, at which point they trot the old hits out again, but it's too late. (Right, David Bowie?) Or the reality show denizens who complain about cameras following them.

I'm not fooled, by the way; these people don't really dislike the attention or the fact that people think they've got only one hit; they're trying to gain attention through any means necessary. One way of gaining attention is to write "Space Oddity" and have it be a hit. But when the attention from that fades, you have to somehow keep people talking about you, so you talk to someone who will listen and then say "I'm never playing Space Oddity again! Bollocks!" That keeps your fame simmering a little longer. For celebrities and gossiples, on the other hand, complaining about the cameras is their attempt to look less vain and attention-hungry, and also to forestall the day when they've got to say something embarrassing about their underwear or a former sex partner to get their name mentioned in the back of "US Magazine" at that part where the magazine prints "outrageous" "quotes" from "celebrities."

How depressing is your life if you're so attention hungry that you are reduced to emailing out gossip about how long it's been since you've had a date in hopes that a tabloid will think it's funny and print it?

While I don't share the writer-y tendency to complain about how terrible it is to spend a lifetime thinking up things and writing them down and getting paid for it, I do share the writer-y tendency to want to have a best-seller and to also have something that I write made into a movie so that I can have enough money to relax and spend the rest of my life writing other stuff that can be made into a movie, ideally doing so from my luxurious beach house in Hawaii.

I think all writers, if they're honest, will tell you that's what they want. Most won't be honest, but if they were, they'd agree with me. They won't be honest because to crassly admit, as I do, that you want to make money is, well, crass in their eyes, but I don't get that. Why is it considered terrible to want to make money being creative but not considered terrible to want to make money as, say, an accountant? Has an accountant or mechanic or aquarium manager ever been accused of selling out? No. But do something "creative" and make money at it, and you're a sell-out -- with one proviso: You're only a sell-out if you didn't achieve instant (or seemingly instant) success.

So: Guns and Roses? Not a sell-out because their first major album was a success. Nirvana, the over-rated Bee Gees of the 1990s? Sell out!

It's not selling out, though, to want to make money. Not even if you deliberately cater to popular tastes to try to make something more popular so you can make some money. Yes, artistic integrity, yes creative control blah blah blah PLEH. There are two ways to make something and make money: First, come up with something so great that the market instantly says Yes! We didn't know we liked this but we LOVE it! Send more! Examples of that kind of awesomeosity include this blog, Cadbury Creme Eggs, and The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold.

Second, ask yourself: What do people like, and then do that really really well. Like Jerry Seinfeld did with his sitcom for a few years, like McDonald's does with cheeseburgers, and like Rachael Ray does with being Rachael Ray.

Both are equally valid. I don't care which you do: both are artistic and both are creative and neither is better than the other. The key point is not, as so many think are you making money, which people equate with selling out. The key point is are you doing this well. Making money isn't selling out. Sucking at what you do and still making money is selling out.

That's where today's author comes in. Patricia Cornwell is what started me on all this musing, because I've been struggling through The Orchid Thief which is good but hardly a compelling page-turner, and I was mournfully thinking that there are no good books on the horizon, and I glanced over my wall of books and saw the Kay Scarpetta books that I loved to read so much, loved to read all the way up until I quit reading them because they sucked more and more as it became apparent that Cornwell was actively trying to sell out by not being very good at what she was doing but still making money at it.

Kay Scarpetta, as you might know, is the fictional Virginia medical examiner who struggles to help raise her niece Lucy while investigating, with Marino and some others, ever-more-heinous crimes. (Kay shares more than a few similarities with The Closer, including an FBI boyfriend and being Southern; Cornwell, in between writing what I assume are ever-worse books, may want to check with a lawyer about that.)

I first came across the Kay Scarpetta books when I noticed that the library, on the rack where they sell former-best-sellers for a couple of bucks, had two of the books The Body Farm. Libraries buy dozens of copies of expected best sellers so everyone who wants to can check them out right away and get 7 days to read them before having to bring them back. I can't stand that. There was a time in my life when I could read a book in 7 days; that time was college. Now, 7 days isn't enough for me to remember to get the book out of the car and bring it inside and put it on my bedside table.

So I picked up The Body Farm and bought it for $3 and read it, and really liked it. From there on out, I went on a Kay Scarpetta binge, reading book after book about her adventures and getting to know Marino and Lucy and the FBI boyfriend whose name I can't recall and enjoying Cornwell's prose and writing style and enjoying the really gruesome mixture of crime-solving and forensics that the books detailed, with minutiae from crime scenes and graphic autopsy descriptions that predated "CSI: Each Episode Seems To Feature That Dominatrix" by quite a few years. (Seriously, Ms. Cornwell: Get your lawyer on the phone!)

When I say I went on a binge, I mean it: I bought back copies of the books, I eagerly awaited each new book about Kay Scarpetta, I read them as quickly as I could. Kay Scarpetta was, for a while, my Harry Potter. (Can I say "Harry Potter" in a blog without getting sued? God, I hope so. I'd better call my lawyer.) The stories were great -- and I'm not a mystery or crime-fiction lover, generally. The characters were interesting. I recommended these books to everyone and in between all that, considered how great of a TV show or movie these books would each make.

Then things began to go bad-- I think because Patricia Cornwell, too, was thinking what a great movie or TV show these books would make, and then wondering why they weren't, yet, TV shows or movies, and then began, I assume, trying to make them even more movie-showy or TV- showy. When I first began reading the books, Kay Scarpetta was a fledgling investigator of sorts -- a medical examiner who worked with the cops to solve crimes and also cooked gourmet meals.

Over the course of the novels, Kay advanced in her life and her romance and things changed for her, and she developed some new skills or old skills were revealed. I recall that she was, in one book, an expert SCUBA diver; I'm not sure if she had been one before, but suddenly, she was. That's fine, I thought. Add some new skill sets, make the story work, etc. I wasn't sure why the Chief Medical Examiner would need to be an expert SCUBA diver, but it's not like it was out of the realm of possibility.

That kind of thing continued, though, and advanced ever more quickly and bafflingly. By the last book I ever read about Kay Scarpetta, Cornwell -- I don't remember which one it was exactly, but it might as well have been called Kay Scarpetta: SuperHero -- Kay could, by my memory, cook awesome meals while dissecting two or three corpses at once, underwater, using only a gun that she had become an expert marksman with. I'm being pretty serious about that; there was no skill that Kay Scarpetta might need that she did not suddenly have. If the killer had, in that last book, escaped in a space shuttle, Kay Scarpetta would likely have been able to cobble together her own spacesuit and jet pack and catch him by calculating, in her head, orbital velocities necessary to do so. Or maybe she'd have just found one of the Guardians' rings of power; I don't know.

I'm not being facetious: The one lasting memory I have of the series, right now, is this:

Kay Scarpetta fighting terrorists while flying a helicopter, solo, around a nuclear power plant.

Which is all great if you're trying to make "Live Free or Dissect Corpses" but is not so great if you're a character in a series which was beloved for the very-realistic and human and believable way it depicted fantastic crimes.

Here's what's really sad about that: I read probably five or six of these books before that scene, five or six books of many hundreds of pages about Kay Scarpetta and her mysteries, and the only thing I clearly recall, from all of that, is Kay fighting heli-terrorists. That's how damaging that ridiculous finale was: it utterly wiped away my memories of every single thing that had gone before it.

That scene would have made Michael Bay salivate (he's probably trying to order the book off Amazon right now), but it's not that I'm against Michael Bay-esque movies with lots of explosions and things. What I'm against is taking a perfectly good series of books with great characters and stories and writing, and turning them into Michael Bay movies in what I presume is a desperate attempt to get these books made into movies or TV shows...

... and I'm against doing that badly. The writing in the books, so good for so long, turned bad. Cornwell still had (has? I don't know -- I stopped reading anything she wrote) talent, but that talent had been thrown out the window, because it takes more to write a good book than just knowing your way around a synecdoche. It takes an understanding of where your characters fit in the world you've created, and keeping them grounded in the world you've created, staying true to your vision and making sure that everyone is still done really well. That's the key to not selling out.

If Patricia Cornwell wanted to write books about superwomen who can fly a helicopter right into the main control center of a nuclear power plant with one hand while shooting a gun with the other, all the while keeping an eye on the gourmet picnic she had packed in the back, she had every right to do so. But crudely turning the perfectly good Kay Scarpetta into that person was the wrong way to do it; it took something good and turned it bad, and did so (I assume, again) because it was easier and more profitable to suddenly make Kay Scarpetta a superhero than it was to begin a whole new series and begin from scratch.

That's selling out.

So go read the early Kay Scarpetta books and as you read them, marvel at the talent that was Patricia Cornwell, The Best Author Who Totally Lost It.

Just stop reading them when you get to the point where Kay begins flying around the world to turn back time to save Marino.

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*What, did you forget about the asterisk? If you want examples of things I've published, "Don't Eat My Face" will be coming out in a horror anthology this fall, and you can read "Thinking The Lions" (a short story) at The Adirondack Review. You can also pick up a copy of my self-published essay collection by clicking here.

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