Tag Archives: Larry Harrison

Self-Published At the Book Club

The New York Times Magazine has a story, which is only slightly condescending, about Amanda Hocking, the twenty-something self-publishing phenom whose paranormal romance/fantasies have earned her over $2 million.  Ms. Hocking recently signed a seven-figure deal with St. Martin’s Press. While stories like hers should do something to lift the stigma of self-publishing in the digital age, they are countered by other reports, such as the recent Reuter’s piece about counterfeit books being sold cheap on Kindle.

The truth is there probably never was a stigma for the mostly young readers of Ms. Hocking’s work.  They saw stories they were interested in and tried her books.  They didn’t avoid her work because it lacked a familiar imprint or because it wasn’t pre-certified by Publisher’s Weekly.

Within some genres, self-published books are selling well.  In thrillers, two of the top ten books at the Kindle Store US are self-published.  Both have the advantage of selling cheap — 99 cents compared to up to $12.99 for some of their competitors, which may be even more expensive than paperback versions. Romance, mystery and other genres have all been invaded by these upstarts.   While the Kindle Store is only one store, its scope is huge with e-books now outselling paperbacks on Amazon, which through its Kindle app, controls 75% of the e-book market.

Things are different when it comes to literary fiction.  Or perhaps I shouldn’t use the term “literary fiction.” Writers can classify their own works as “literary,” and a couple of self-published 99 cent novels identified as such have slipped into the top 20 on Kindle.  Both, however, also fall into other categories with wider appeal.  Maybe the term I’m looking for is “serious fiction.” The kind of books read by people who take reading seriously. You know who I mean — people who LOVE books,  pride themselves on actually having made their way through at least some of Joyce and Woolf, fans of all the Jonathans (Letham, Franzen, and Safron Foer), Paul Auster, David Foster Wallace, and anyone published in The New Yorker with the exception of Stephen King.  Those readers may read books from respectable independent houses or even obscure zines put out by writers and editors they’ve heard of, but 99.9% won’t even look at self-published work from the Kindleverse.

Months ago I suggested to a friend, a serious intellectual type and avid reader, that she look at a book I thought was not only good, but might even be important.  It was a historical novel, set mostly in London in 1963, with some back-story in the war and post-war years, references to mods and teddy-boys, jazz and The Beatles, as well as to the Cuban missile crisis and the Profumo scandal.  Her reply when she realized that the work did not have the approbation of a publishing house major or even minor was, “I don’t have enough time to read published books.”

I didn’t buy this explanation.  My theory is that while readers of genre fiction are simply looking for stories that keep them turning pages, “serious readers,” have another agenda. Heaven forbid they should like something that hasn’t been vetted by publishers and critics, only to be told later that it’s derivative or not as good as they thought.  It would be like buying a blank canvas, and then finding out it was just a blank canvas and not an accepted example of minimalism.  It’s not that they lack the time to read self-published books, they don’t even want to be seen with them.

The book, I was recommending was Larry Harrison’s Glimpses of a Floating World. Although I never convinced my friend, I’m pleased to say I got my book club to look at it.

This was only our third club meeting.  The previous selections were Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, and The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany.  I was thrilled that the club had taken my suggestion of Glimpses.. (Full disclosure: The author is fellow member of the Year 0 Writers group, and a facebook friend.  We first “met” on a writer’s site, where we admired each other’s work. We have never met in the non-virtual world.)

I didn’t take a poll, but I don’t believe anyone in the club had ever purchased or read a self-published book before.

So, how did it go?

As with previous selections, opinions varied. One reader complained that she didn’t find any of the characters sympathetic and didn’t see much change or growth in the protagonist, Ronnie.  It was also clear that she was not predisposed to read a book about a seventeen-year-old heroin addict.   Others pointed out that as long as he remained a junkie, showing growth would have been unrealistic,   but there were “glimpses” of his capacity to care for others and  by the end his thinking had evolved at least to the point where he understood his addiction to be a dead-end.   There was general agreement that the character was well drawn.  He acted like the adolescent he was — intelligent, but immature, in some ways even gullible.  Everyone thought that Ronnie’s father, Freddy was just an awful human being. A couple questioned the idea of his professional rise with the police. This led to discussion about “successful” people whose lives were a mess, and the nature of corruption and who rises to power within a corrupt system.    A few weren’t satisfied with the ending — finding it “contrived” or “overkill,” but I was not the only voice in the room who had a different take.

The point is, the book was taken as seriously as any other book.  Everyone thought the writing was high quality and professional. . No one complained about proofreading, formatting, editing inconsistencies or any of the other issues often associated with self-published books. All found it a gripping read.

As with any discussion on any good book, there were disagreements and tangents. We veered off into talking about British films set in that period that also dealt with social taboos, A Taste of Honey, Victim, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.

So back to the question I asked before: How did it go? The short answer is: It was “normal.” We were able to discuss the book and not the fact that it wasn’t traditionally published. It was not unlike going to a same-sex wedding and realizing it isn’t that different from any other wedding.

There was no pre or post-club survey, but maybe the members of the club will now be more inclined to read untraditionally published works. I hope so.

And just to encourage any “serious readers” who have not yet taken the plunge, here’s a trailer for Glimpses:

Soho Serenade — Glimpses of a Floating World, Book Review

glimpseLarry Harrison’s dark and dazzling first novel, Glimpses of a Floating World takes its title from the phrase used to describe the red-light district of 18th century Edo, now known as Tokyo. The Japanese term alludes to the Buddhist concept for “the transient nature and suffering that defines our earthly existence.” Edo’s floating world was a haven of pleasure and illusion, filled with kabuki actors, geishas and courtesans. Harrison’s work is set in London’s Soho, 1963, its denizens — anarchists, mods, rockers, beats, and others, among them our protagonist, seventeen year-old Ronnie “Fizz” Jarvis who loves feeling that he is part of “the scene.”

The novel opens with two heroin addicts on their way to a fix. The griminess of the dialogue is pitch perfect in its rhythm and authenticity. Ronnie, one of the fortunate few with a prescription for heroin and cocaine is eighteen minutes away from his chemist’s and would gladly die sooner to make up the time.

Our “hero”, the son of an abusive, alcoholic, upwardly mobile Scotland Yard officer, survives by staying in squats and selling small amounts of his excess stock on the black market.

Harrison skillfully makes it easy for the reader to identify with Ronnie despite the character’s being vain, selfish and occasionally cowardly. He is, after all, an adolescent trying to understand the world and his place in it. Ronnie, fiercely intelligent, tells himself that he is not constricted by his addiction but enhanced by it. He is a self-proclaimed rationalist and anarchist, identifying with the beats. Since age twelve, he has “collected extreme experiences in a conscious attempt to destroy childishness.”

Ronnie reminds us of other young, unreliable characters on the precipice of manhood in an imperfect world. The reader is immediately aware that no matter what else happens, Ronnie will either grow and change, or he will not. We root for Ronnie’s potential, hoping he will live to tell the tale.

Harrison’s Soho is not a land of flower children and love beads. There’s still a sense of post-war deprivation. Ruth Ellis has recently been executed. Political scandals involving naughty politicians and call girls are in the news, while on the streets police corruption is endemic and gangsters have celebrity status. Heroin addiction, however, is relatively rare. While addicts like Ronnie scam the system, which allows him to walk away drugs in hand for easy resale, the black market in illegal drugs is small.

Early in our story, Ronnie is caught shooting up in a restroom. While his heroin and cocaine are legal, he has a small amount of opium that isn’t. In jail, he is interviewed by an elderly (at least to his adolescent eyes) prison doctor. When she tells him that he’ll be dead soon if he keeps going, he replies, “We’re all going to die… You’re going to die a lot sooner than I am.”

She believes she’s been threatened, classifies him as a psychopath, and Ronnie is sent to a mental hospital that reminded this reader of a cross between a Dickensian workhouse and a Ken Kesey nightmare. Ronnie overhears the nurses discussing how easy psychosurgery will make their jobs and soon escapes.

Several chapters are told from different points of view. We see both the war and early post-war years through the eyes of Ronnie’s parents. Freddy’s drinking, jealousy and violence eventually drive Flo to leave and return to her hometown of Swindon — a place Ronnie will always deny being from. Freddy has managed to rise to become a senior officer, but his son has been out of his life for years.

While the atmosphere and depth of characterization is strong, so is the pacing and plot development. Ronnie’s initial arrest, psychiatric diagnosis, escapes and recaptures all lead to a situation where he is forced to turn informant even though he knows nothing about any large scale narcotics dealers and does not believe that any exist. The shifting points of view allow the reader to know more than the characters, and the last quarter of the novel is a compulsively addictive page-turner in which Ronnie’s fate is anything but certain.

Harrison who has written nonfiction books on alcohol and drug issues, seamlessly weaves in the growing panic over narcotics. While the world was on the brink of nuclear Armageddon and scandal reigned, Britain — influenced by the US — was changing its policies, moving from treating addiction as a public health issue to criminalizing addicts. Ronnie is as much a victim of these changes as he is of his abusive father and his own self-destructiveness.

Glimpses of a Floating World is described on its back cover as “a lyrical and triumphant elegy to a seedy, vice-ridden London of the 1960’s. ” It is that, but also a tale of familial tragedy, a history lesson, a novel that offers much more than simple glimpses.

Glimpses may not be easy to find in your local bookstore though you can order it online as a paperback or download FOR FREE as an ebook through the link provided. It’s from Year Zero, a writers’ collective dedicated to creating a new relationship between readers and writers without the filter of the publishing industry. Agreed, there are many skeptics who still won’t touch books not given the imprimatur of even a small publishing house. This novel puts lie to the myth that important literature can only be found on store shelves. In addition to reading like a lost classic, it’s polished, proofed and edited. If you’re a serious reader, skeptical about anything that sounds like self-publishing, I urge you to rise to the challenge and sample it online for free. Believe me, it’ll be a more rewarding experience than a trip to Border’s to browse through the latest Jane Austen with zombies tome.