Thursday, January 10, 2008

Three Answers

Reader Stephen Saperstein Frug has posted a message on an earlier entry here that he has blogged a review of What Can Be Saved From the Wreckage? The review is mixed, and obviously I am more in sympathy with the essay I wrote than with the essay which he wishes I had written. But his opinions are honestly felt and intelligently expressed, and so I see no need to argue with them.

However, in the course of the review, he asks three questions (the first of which is phrased as a cluster of questions and the third of which is implicit) which I believe I can answer here without being discourteous. So I shall.

1. “Do I need to begin at the beginning with The Cream of the Jest? Or is Jurgen independent enough to begin with, but then I need to read The Cream of the Jest? Or can I just read the ones Swanwick says are best and get to the ‘structurally necessary components’ later?”

Read them in whatever order you like. I recommend starting with Jurgen, which is the book you are most likely to enjoy, though others are particular champions of The Silver Stallion and Figures of Earth. These three, at any rate, are the most easily appreciated. The Cream of the Jest and Something About Eve are “structurally necessary” because the former (which is extremely light on the fantasy element) introduces the Poictesme sequence and the latter concludes it. These five books should be read first, and then The High Place and The Way of Ecben. After which, the adventurous reader can go exploring. Keeping in mind that he or she should stop as soon as the books cease giving pleasure.

2. “And while Swanwick talks about the rewriting Cabell did for his collected edition, he isn't clear about whether one needs to get the rewritten texts (are the others still around? In libraries, probably, if nothing else) or if the additions are hindrances, or too minor to matter.”

I confess that after reading through some forty-five books, plus critical materials, I lacked the ambition to perform textual comparisons. But nothing I read in any of the secondary literature suggested that the changes were so great as to compel anybody but a scholar to seek variant texts.

Those who are interested in doing so, however, will probably have to go to the Library of Congress or possibly the
James Branch Cabell Library in Virginia Commonwealth University. Even at that, it may be several other libraries will have to be consulted. Even a first-rate institution like The Free Library of Philadelphia has only something like 37 volumes penned by Cabell. The demand for his work is not great, and library storage space is in high demand.

3. “Why this essay wasn't released on the web -- perhaps as a pdf -- where it could have gotten a lot more readers, and quite frankly probably made Swanwick more money as an ad for his other books (or even this one) than it made in royalties, is beyond me.”

If I were convinced this was true, I’d do it. I just haven’t seen any hard research supporting this assumption. Publicity is all very well and good. But as my friend Bob Walters likes to say, “You can die of exposure.”

And that's all. I'm entering this post a day early because tomorrow night I drive to NYC for a five a.m. appearance on Jim Freund's "Hour of the Wolf" show on WBAI. So I'll probably be spending much of the day napping.

Oh, and . . . Children? In the future, please remember that this blog is for the purpose of ruthlessly selling product. You should resist posting links to anything but unqualified praise, okay?



James said...

I, for one, welcome any new work from the genius known to us as Michael Swanwick!

(Is that enough unqualified praise? Should I be more fawning next time?)

Thanks for the tips about which of his books to try first. I'll have to take another shot at Jurgen.

Stephen said...

In the future, please remember that this blog is for the purpose of ruthlessly selling product. You should resist posting links to anything but unqualified praise, okay?

Fair enough -- and I will even resist the temptation to re-link my review in case anyone wants to read it after reading your answers.

But I should clarify, for those who haven't read it, that I did like the book a lot, and would recommend it.

As for point three, perhaps I should clarify that I was wondering about this point not only in general, about Cory Doctorow-style web releases, but more specifically about a book of which only 217 copies are printed, and which is not sold in bookstores. Certainly it is hard to imagine it wouldn't have gotten more readers.

Thanks again for the answers!

Stephen Saperstein Frug

Michael Swanwick said...

James: Yes, I am wonderful, aren't I? (I'm far too stuffy to use emoticons, so you must imagine a horrid little smileyface one here, to indicate that I'm joking.)

Stephen: I do appreciate your positive comments. I'm trying to educate readers, though, that most writers are insanely thin-skinned. I'm unusual in owning up to this, but it applies to almost all of us.

As for the theoretics of giving things away . . . The two hundred readers (those who bought the signed editions got a paperback reading copy, so they could maintain their collectable's pristine condition)made it possible for Henry Wessells to break even on the project (he was in it for the beauty of creating an extraordinary rare book) and at the same time pay me a reasonable token (I'd blush to admit to how little it comes to per hour's labor, though) advance. To a freelance writer, every little drib and drab of money helps. Web readers, on the other hand, are an abstract.

There may well be a commercial advantage to posting material free on the Web, if you know how to work the system. But I'm not a business-oriented guy. I'm in this for the love of art.