Monday, December 27, 2010

This is a long-winded recommendation for a book I did not finish reading. It's also an apology to its author, Susan G. Bell.

I have a problem with fiction.
I also have a problem with chick-lit.

I've always been an avid reader  -- even when I wasn't supposed to be reading.
  • As a young child I read books under the blanket with a flashlight after my official "lights out" time.
  • By around age eight, I employed more advanced technology. I tied a string to the pull-chain that controlled the light in my closet. I attached the other end to a tennis ball with a hole poked through it. I could read with the closet light, and when I heard one of my parents walking down the hallway towards my room, I'd pull on the string to extinguish the light, and then toss the ball and string into the closet to hide the evidence before mom or dad opened my door to check on me.
(That was a long time ago. I wonder if modern parents care how late their kids stay up -- especially if they're reading.)

As a pre-teen, I did not bother with the Hardy Boys series that interested many of my friends. Instead, I eagerly devoured each new book in the Tom Swift, Jr., series. Books like Tom Swift and His Flying Lab, Tom Swift and His Giant Robot and Tom Swift and His Diving Seacopter provided my ideal combination of adventure and technology. My favorite magazine of the period was Popular Electronics. Although the mag included construction projects (amplifiers and short-wave receivers) and technical discussions (i.e., VOM vs. VTVM?), each issue included a short story seemingly written just for me. Like the Swift series, John T. Frye's Carl and Jerry stories combined technology and adventure, and sometimes the young geeks used electronics to catch bad guys and impress girls.

I remember one story where Carl and Jerry were on a small boat and its outboard motor conked out. The boys used the boat's battery and parts of the motor to build a primitive "spark gap transmitter" and transmitted Morse Code to get help. This was long before MacGyver used his Swiss Army knife to make a nuclear reactor from a vacuum cleaner, a sponge, a pair of snow shoes and a pound of shrimp.

Of course, I did most of the assigned reading in public school, but I sometimes cheated and wrote book reports based on the "Classics Illustrated Comics" version of the books. On the other hand, in my senior year in high school, to fulfill an informal bet with with my English teacher Frances Leighton, I did read and report on a book each day for several months.

As an adult, I'm typically reading five or six books at a time. I buy about three books each week, and finish about three books each week. At this time, I average about 20% ebooks and 80% pbooks.

Despite my intense consumption of words, I doubt that I've read more than a couple of works of fiction since I was in college. I was part of the class of '68 -- just like Billy Clinton, Georgie Bush and Donny Trump -- so college was a long time ago.

I'm not sure why this is so, but I seem to have developed two parallel media streams.
  1. The books I read are all nonfiction -- but many of them are as entertaining and exciting as they are educational and informative.
  2. If I want pure relaxation, I watch television or movies -- but I don't read novels.
I know it seems weird, so I recently decided to read a novel.

I had encountered author Susan G. Bell on the SheWrites website. Susan mentioned her new novel, When the Getting was Good, which dealt with Wall Street trading in the 1980s, and a woman in a largely men's world.

As one of the few testically equipped members of SheWrites, I can empathize with those in the gender minority. I also enjoyed the "Wall Street," "Barbarians at the Gate" and "The Bonfires of the Vanities" movies, and Susan's book has received excellent reviews. It seemed like a good candidate for my test.

I had one other motive. The book was published by Author House, and I was curious to see the quality of a book they produced.

I had one reservation. The focus of the cover illustration is a woman, and the title is in a pinkish text box. Those are pretty good signs of chick-lit -- which I would normally avoid.

Susan and I had some prepurchase discussion. (slightly edited, below)

Susan: "I don't think my novel is chick-lit, though I'm not completely sure what that term means; I've had positive responses from men too, and I hope that you will feel the same."

Michael: "Not to be confused with Chiclets candy-coated gum, chick-lit is chick literature -- the print equivalent of chick flicks. The books are often romantic and written for women in their 20s and 30s. There are sub-genres for teen, matron, Latina, Christian and Asian chicks. The outward signs of frivolous chick lit are male hunks ravishing women in the bodice-rippers published by Harlequin. The covers of more serious chick lit books frequently use femme colors like pink and lavender that are seldom used on "guy books." I recently read and enjoyed the funny-but-not-frivolous The Unfaithful Widow by Barbara Barth. There were parts of it I didn't "get" or identify with -- like evaluations of mens' butts and a discussion of bra inventory -- but there was plenty in the book to appeal to those of us in the male minority. I expect that your book will be the same . . . ."

Susan: Thanks for the definition. While I hope women younger than I am will enjoy reading When the Getting Was Good, it's not chick lit . . . though there is a rectangle of pink on the cover. A friend, who is director of an angel investment network for women entrepreneurs, likes Kate Munro -- my novel's heroine -- specifically because she is strong, balanced, and 'not neurotic, a nymphomaniac, or a bitch.' Not that there's anything wrong with that type of protagonist, but I wanted to tell the story of how a strong woman responds to a dilemma in her work place."

So, with much apparently in its favor, I paid $18.89 and received the book.

TIME OUT to talk business:
  • The cover price of Susan's book is a strange $20.99, and Amazon has recently raised the selling price to $19.23. Amazon sells a Kindle eBook version for $11.69. AuthorHouse sells the print version for $15.99 from its website, and also sells a $12.99 eBook.
  • $20.99 is a VERY high cover price for 408-page 5 x 8-inch debut novel. For comparison, Tom Clancy's bestseller Dead or Alive has a  $20.95 cover price, but Clancy is a well-known author with a BIG following. To make the comparison even worse, the Clancy book is an 848-page 6 x 9-inch hardcover and Amazon is selling it for just $15.55.
  • While books are not commodities like detergent or asparagus and it may not be fair to compare two very different books on the basis of pages-per-dollar, the comparison does point out a huge disadvantage of novelists who use self-publishing companies.
  • Strangely, while the printed version of Susan's book is more expensive and seems to be a much worse "value" than Tom's book, Susan's eBook sells for less than Tom's eBook. Although Amazon can set the prices of pBooks, Tom's publisher dictates the price of his eBooks.
  • I have no idea why the price of Susan's eBook sells for more money on its publisher's website than on, when Amazon acts as a middleman who has to be paid part of the selling price.
  • Fiction is entertainment. It's an option, often a luxury, and not a necessity like much nonfiction. Novels have to compete with movies, video games, vacations and even walks in the park. The tough economy makes it even harder to compete for the few available dollars.
  • It's very important for novels -- especially first novels -- to be affordable so people are not afraid to take a chance. $1.99 to $5.99 is a lot less scary than $20.99.
I get shipments from Amazon almost every day. Sometimes I open the boxes, and sometimes one of my employees opens them. One box contained Overhaul -- a gender-neutral book about the federal rescue of the car business -- and Susan's book with the female legs on the cover. Dave opened the carton and held the book up and there was immediate snickering, and a suggestion that I have my testosterone level tested.

Susan's book sat on my "to read" shelf at home for a while. It even spent some time on the right-front seat of my car, and it often traveled back and forth to work in my briefcase. I often read while eating lunch in restaurants, but I was wary of being seen with Susan's book. I picked it up and put it down multiple times. The book was daring me to read it, but I was not ready to plunge in.

The back of  the book has three blurbs. Two are from women and one from a man. Janet Hansen, founder of women's network 85 Broads, wrote that the book is "A must read for ambitious, intellectually savvy women everywhere." That was a not a good sign, so the book went back on my shelf and slipped out of my focus. I had other books to read, and to write.

However, Susan is a good self-promoter, and she recently sent me an email as a gentle reminder to read her book.

Since I had already invested nearly twenty bucks in the book, and had made a public commitment to read it, and I wanted to finally try to read a novel, I started turning pages on Christmas night.

Susan is a skilled and entertaining writer who knows her subject perfectly well. She creates believable dialog and I could easily get inside the physical environments she invented. It's a perfectly good novel and well worth the praise it received from others.

BUT... I just could not "get into it."

Apparently, at age 64, I have the patience of a two-year-old.

I've been conditioned by years of watching "Law & Order," "Bones," "Crossing Jordan," "The Closer," "The Mentalist," "Criminal Minds," "NCIS" and "CSI" -- where we see a corpse before the first commercial; and James Bond movies with dozens of corpses and at least one gorgeous woman before the title comes on screen.
  • When I'm reading nonfiction, a leisurely narrative is just fine.
  • But when I'm in the fiction mode, my brain automatically craves ACTION -- and there were no car crashes or murders in the first few pages to hook me on Susan's book.
Page four presented another problem. Susan wrote: "Jim still had the bearing of the college athlete he'd once been. His expensive cotton shirt, boldly striped in sapphire blue, fit snugly, accentuating what good shape he was in."

That sure seems like a sign of chick-lit, or gay-lit.

I'm a happy, horny heterosexual. I'm a 100% supporter of women's rights and gay rights, but I am a bit uncomfortable reading about shapely men in tight shirts, whether they're expensive cotton or cheap polyester.

I'm much more comfortable reading about shapely women in tight shirts, or with no shirts.

I may have been conditioned by sexist literature since I was very young. My parents bought me the Tom Swift books -- not Nancy Drew books.

I'm not a sexist. In fact, I'm a feminist. But I am the product of the 1950s culture and I don't like reading about men viewed through the eyes of a woman.

So, Susan, here's your book review. I bought your book as I said I would. I promised to read it, and I started to read it . . . but I could not continue.

It's an excellent book and I highly recommend it. (You can quote that blurb if you like). However I recommend the book to chicks, and to men who are younger and/or more metrosexual than I am.

Unfortunately, the book is just not for me. You will collect a royalty on the copy I bought, and if you sell the book to Hollywood, I'll definitely see the movie -- if there is some massive mayhem in the first few minutes.

You see, Susan, I have a problem with movies, too. It takes a lot of action to attract and maintain my attention. Sadly, when I go to a movie, it usually turns out out to be a $12 nap (or $24 with popcorn).

1 comment:

  1. OK, based on your recommendation, I'll buy the e-book.