BEA, Writers’ Egos, and Other Stuff

May 30, 2010

Just got back from BookExpo America on Friday, and my head is swimming. Here are some reactions, in no particular order:

  • Holy.  Crap.  That was a lot of people under one roof.  (200,000+)
  • It was nice to see lots of stuff designed by Deena on display, such as the Constellation logo and website in the Perseus Books booth:

    More pictures at the DWDLLC 5/27/10 blog entry.
  • Every time I talk to Matt Schwartz of Random house, it’s like attending a master’s class on publishing.  Wow, does he know a lot of stuff.
  • The timing of Garrison Keillor’s latest column, “Missing the heydey of books,” is ironic.  “Call me a pessimist, call me Ishmael, but I think that book publishing is about to slide into the sea,” he writes.  Because of vanity presses, the future of publishing is “18 million authors in America, each with an average of 14 readers, eight of whom are blood relatives. Average annual earnings: $1.75.”  He has a point, but Jesus Christ, I think what I saw at BookExpo shows that there’s some kick left in the industry.  If the Horror Writers Association spent $6,000 for a booth the size of my shed, then I can only imagine what Simon & Schuster spent for a booth the size of my house.  If the industry were about to slide into the sea, I doubt anyone would be spending so freely.
  • Speaking of the Horror Writers Association, the HWA is pretty damn lucky to have Vince Liaguno on its side.  Besides being a good publisher and a very nice man, he’s extremely hard working and dedicated.  One of his ideas is to open up the Stoker Awards banquet to the general public to attend it (provided they buy admission, of course).  It’s a great idea and the kind of thing the HWA should do to up its profile.

When I got home, I caught up on things like finishing the latest Sookie Stackhouse novel, which unfortunately really didn’t get going until the last three chapters, and cheering that another webzine has interviewed me about Blood Born.  I also played my latest video game purchase, Alan Wake, which tells the story of a horror writer suffering from writer’s block who has gone on sabbatical to the Pacific Northwest.  While there, his wife goes missing, and he battles mysterious shadow men as he searches for her, along the way finding manuscript pages of a novel he doesn’t remember writing.

Alan Wake has a great premise and is beautifully executed, but I have to say I am extremely displeased with the character himself.  Alan Wake, the person, is an asshole.  From the very beginning, he’s full of the “oh, I’m such a famous writer, and I wish the public would just leave me alone” movie star angst.  He blows up at his wife when she encourages him to use their vacation as a time to conquer his writer’s block.

The worst was the scene I just played last night, when he’s in the sheriff’s department, conferring about his missing wife.  A pop psychologist who specializes in writer’s block enters the station for presumably some unrelated reason, and Alan attacks him.  Alan knows that this is the doctor whom his wife wanted him to see, and he assumes that the doctor has something to do with her disappearance.  Maybe he’s right; I haven’t played far enough to find out.   But a few things about this cut scene especially bother me.  First, why would anyone get up in somebody else’s face and punch him out for no apparent reason?  (And why would any self-respecting sheriff, who watches this transpire in her police station, right in front of her, fail to arrest him on the spot?  The game’s realism went right out the window there.) Worse, Alan’s literary agent, Barry Wheeler (named because he’s a wheeler dealer, I suppose), suddenly storms into the police station, screaming and swaggering as if he’s some high-blown Hollywood lawyer, which he’s not, and pulls his client out of there.

I could forgive this if I believed the game’s writers knew they were setting up Alan Wake as an asshole.  Maybe their plan was to give him a character arc so that he’s a humble, nice guy by the end of the story.  But I suspect that that’s not the case.  I have this niggling thread of doubt that we’re supposed to be on Alan’s side, sympathizing with him because his wife has disappeared–particularly since we’re using our Xbox 360 controllers to puppet him through the story.  So, basically what I have here is an unsympathetic protagonist whom I care little about, which discourages me from continuing through the game.

The character of Alan Wake particularly bothers me because I’ve known writers like him, and I simply don’t understand how a writer can act that way.  I scrape and work hard for every fan and positive review I get.  I’m grateful when an editor thinks highly enough of my writing to publish my work.  When someone tells me he’s read my stuff and liked it, or asks me for an autograph, I’m thankful for the validation that I haven’t wasted my time writing that story: that my creation was worthy of spending some time in somebody else’s head.  That’s the way writers should be–not these angsty, self-absorbed assholes who think they’re very smart and clever and wonderful when they’re really not.

The writers of Alan Wake did themselves a great disservice when they wrote their character to be a Hollywood-style figure of arrogance.  And Garrison Keillor needs to stop griping like an old man lamenting the Good ‘Ole Days, even if that’s what he is.  They all need to attend the next BookExpo and inject themselves with a little bit of humility and a little bit of hope–because most of the time, as a working writer, that’s all you have to power you through the day.