Thursday, June 13, 2013

Dear Readers,

Michael Gruber's official blog has moved over to his new website. His Blogger blog is scheduled to be taken down at some point in the future.

Thank you for your continued support!


Site Administrator

Thursday, May 23, 2013


On the advice of counsel I have taken up Twitter as part of my effort to expand my name recognition, or some such, in preparation for the publication of the next novel, THE RETURN, due out in late August. The counsel is the PR firm (February Partners) I've hired to help with the book marketing my publisher declines to do.  I have to say that before I became a published author it had never occurred to me that books were marketed like toothpaste or autos.  I guess I thought that publishers shipped books to bookstores and the bookstore people put them on the shelf and that was it.  I realized that some books got reviewed and others were neglected but I thought this decision was made over drinks at the sort of New York luncheons and parties to which I was not invited.

Was I wrong!  Book marketing is a big deal and an art. I am told I must put out content via blog (I'm doing it!) Twitter & Facebook so as to build a  public wider than the people who already buy my books. No one can say I am not a good soldier and I have been tweeting like mad, nearly a thousand pithy apothegms so far.  But I have to say tweeting is strange, or strange to me, although I know there are many people to whom its environment is as familiar as my driveway is to me. They are practitioners of a new art, that of forming communities around tiny squibs of language or references to other media.  I expect some infant Mozart is already at work on forging something quite new in the world out of this material. It will not be me, however.  I don't much like to talk about my work while it's in progress or read reviews or give encouragement to people trying to enter a profession I know to be a miserable way to make a living, with a premature death rate that compares unfavorably to coal mining.

Twitter has many mansions and I am mainly in the one devoted to writing, or writers talking about writing.  Although some quite famous writers tweet (Margaret Atwood being legendary here) the vast majority are not famous, and, of course, almost all of these never will be.  On first being exposed to this zone I confess to unattractive feelings of irritation verging on anger, rather like a person happy in a woodland cabin who finds that they're putting in a golf course community next door. Why so many writers? What do all these people want?  And why do they want to talk ceaselessly to one another? Narcissism gone mad?  What? 

After a while I calmed down and overcame the urge to flood the twitterverse with acerbic, discouraging comments.  Some of the people pushing their books on Twitter are, when you take the trouble to look at the work on amazon, frankly illiterate in the sense that they don't really know the meaning of the words they use and cannot reliably write coherent sentences in English. This is sort of funny and might be the subject of cruel humor, but I have discovered none of it on Twitter so far.  There might indeed be a # devoted to scarifying commentary on lame digital-only fiction, but the atmosphere I've observed so far is universally supportive. 

And this too is new--and odd. Writers have had on occasion mentors and protégés, but envy and rivalry were more typical of writers in the past. If one is a writer, why would one wish to encourage a rival?  It doesn't make sense, but there it is.  I don't think it has anything to do with producing real or better writers--only stringent editing and criticism do that--but it can't ever be a bad thing to be nice.  And perhaps in time this community will develop into a kind of sandlot baseball--playground basketball sort of thing, a place where lots of people can safely try out the game, and which occasionally produces a genius.

Speaking of sports, perhaps a more important phenomenon is at work. Professional sports leagues depend for their survival on fan interest in them, and that largely depends on a huge base of people playing the sport at an amateur level.  Can anyone imagine golf being a televised sport watched by millions if millions did not play golf?  And don't sports decline when they lose their amateur base? Horse racing, especially harness racing, was far more popular when people rode and drive horses and the same with boxing.  Pro soccer has come to America largely as a result of millions playing it in schools and amateur leagues. So maybe what we are seeing in writing's bush leagues is similar. I suspect that the majority of the writers I observe on Twitter (judging only from the work) are people who have read a thousand mysteries, or vampire novels, or thrillers and have said to themselves, "Why, I could do as well!"  Maybe, maybe not, but they sure must read a lot of books; a person (me) who earns a living selling books cannot but approve!

So what may be happening here is the birth of a novel and parallel system of generating writing talent, quite different from the former one in which writers submitted directly to agents and publishers, something much more like golf, with a huge fan base of duffers and a scattering of stars. I hope this is true because I sort of like the idea of talent emerging from an anonymous mass without elite filtering, even though I'm personally a beneficiary of the former system.

The down side of this, however, is the requirement for each participant of the new order to generate an on-line persona attractive to potential readers.  Yet good writers may not have attractive personalities, in which case the attractive persona is a lie, and in any case persona-building may blur the necessary focus on the quality of the work. We shall see. Meanwhile, there is Cyril Connoly's dire warning from six decades ago, which seems even more remarkably prescient in the age of Twitter:
"It is closing time in the gardens of the West and from now on an artist will be judged only by the resonance of his solitude or the quality of his despair."  And his Twitter feeds?

Monday, May 20, 2013

Writing and Terrorism

I was just meditating on one of my favorite quotations, Jacob Burckhardt's "Terrorism is essentially the rage of the literati in its last stages." (Burckhardt was an art historian of singular talent; he essentially invented our concept of the Rennaissance in Italy.)  This seems so valid to me.  For while people will fight for resources or to prevent aggression, we understand these guys are not blowing things up and sacrificing their lives because they're hungry and oppressed, but because somewhere someone wrote something down, and they read it and it changed their lives, it made them into terrorists.   There may be illiterate terrorists, but in every instance they are directed by someone who is well up on the justification for their violent acts, invariably embodied in a document of some sort, or in writings synthesized by some charismatic individual.  

The intellectual histories of our great monsters--HitlerMaoStalin etc--have been elaborately studied, and we can often tease out the birth of the rationale for mass murder.  This seems also to hold as well for the pettier mass killing of the current terror boom (so to speak).  Why do the literati rage?  Because they have looked at the world and found it wanting.  They devise some improvement, which they then argue for passionately, which eventuates in a book. Perhaps the authorities kill them or torture them, lending the validity of blood to the argument.  The book survives, however, is read by other literati, who carry on the fight. And they are opposed by people who think terror is wrong, and killing innocent people can have no excuse (us), which belief they too learned from books, in some cases the very same books. Isn't this a puzzle? Writers really are the legislators of mankind, in which case we have a lot to answer for.

This was borne powerfully home to me when I was a speechwriter in Washington.  To understand what this means you need to know that some political speeches are not merely hot air.  They are a way for the boss to set policy and give marching orders to the troops, to share the vison which, if pressed strongly enough, will inspire the various cliques and warring factions that comprise any instrumentality of power, public or private into pulling together in some particular direction.

The person I was serving happened to be one of the few non-Reaganite senior officials in Reagan's administration.This was a tremendously impressive famous guy, charismatic, brilliant, deeply experienced, full of ideas, and he was in addition a terrific extemporaneous speaker. So why did he need a speechwriter?  This is why.  We would be in his office talking about a coming speech, tossing out ideas, converging on how to focus on the core of the policy he wanted to advance, and I could see that he knew what he wanted to do, it was just there in the room, but inchoate ; and then I would say something like, "Why don't you just say....?"  And almost all the time he would go, "Yeah, that's right," and then we'd fuss over the exact wording a little, and that would be it: national policy. Of the USA.  Billions of dollars, millions of people affected.  And that is going on in every single government agency and every single large corporation, some guy is talking to a writer and the writer is actually saying what the policy is going to be.  Yeah, I always found it a little weird too.

At any big agency, the speechwriter occupies an odd position. He's resented because, needless to say, everyone knows about how policy gets made, and everyone is suspicious that the speechwriter is putting his own ideas, Svengali-like, into the process.  On the other hand, the speechwriter is everyone's best pal. Everyone wants to do a favor for the speechwriter because this will involve an opportunity to pitch their own programs to someone who spends a lot of one-on-one time with the supremo.  Your effective speechwriter should therefore be someone with not a lot of ego, who is not overly fond of schmoozing.

Getting back to terror, we see that the terrorist have a narrative, reinforced in books, pamphlets, and speeches, all products of writers.  Videos are significant, but they too must be fitted into a narrative, and that requires an argument written by someone and articulated. This and not that was the case, innocent civilians were murdered, it's a good thing to kill girls who want to go to school, and so on. Against this narrative is ours: we are innocent victims of senseless violence justly resisting it by waging war on terror.  And they hate our freedoms. Is this the right narrative?  It hasn't worked all that well, it seems to me.  We need a new narrative or the present mess will go on indefinitely, yet our own literati seem curiously unable to legislate one into existence.  Perhaps a little more rage?

Alas, Babylon

Writing a historical novel requires thinking seriously about history, of course, and it occurred to me recently that I am old enough to be historical myself.  In the Smithsonian Institution museum in Washington, for example, there are dioramas of student protests, a mid-20th-century schoolroom, and the kitchen of an immigrant's apartment in New York, ca. 1910.   It is passing strange looking at these because I have direct memories of the protests, and the schoolrooms I sat in, with wooden chair-desks bolted to the floor in rows, and the blackboard up front, with the American flag and the roller maps, and the Gilbert Stuart George Washington, were exactly like the one behind the glass.  My grandmother's place was essentially unchanged from the time she got married around 1910 and I spent a good deal of time in a room like the one shown when I was a little kid.

This sense of being an historical relic hit me strongly during a recent visit to New York, a city where I was born and raised and for which I still have a sentimental attachment.   It's a commonplace now that for most American urban dwellers, the cities they remember are gone, their populations changed, their industries vanished, but even in this regard, New York is a remarkable example.  When I was a kid, New York was one of the largest manufacturing cities in the country and the greatest port.  I started traveling around the city by subway from my home in Brooklyn (a borough void of hip at the time) and exploring Manhattan, which we referred to always as "the city."  Manhattan was then divided into districts characterized by various forms of trade and manufacture, and these districts were huge.  Electronics, books, printing, plumbing, kitchen supplies, spices, feathers, leathers, clothing, buttons and zippers for clothing, and many others all had particular streets and rows of streets devoted to them and to associated things.  The diamond district survives from this era and a shadow of the garment district, but everything else has been buried by the one industry that now dominates the city, which is the real estate industry, and the stacks of condos and offices it has generated over the past four or five decades.

And, of course, media and finance, which are fine, but of less interest, I suppose to the average child.  And the port is gone, as are the many communities that serviced it.   The meatpacking district is a clubland now, not an improvement, although the smell is somewhat less offensive  There is no longer a street over on the west side where the odor of tons of cinnamon or coffee would hit you when you emerged from the subway.  You can't get a decent bagel either.

Well, grump, grump;  everyone of a certain age can tell stories like this and experience similar nostalgia.  Times change, but I think that a city that seems increasingly devoted to providing hidey-holes for foreign billionaires or uncertain morality to stash their loot in the form of penthouses, and which handles almost nothing but digits, can compare with the lost city as a place to educate a child in the arts of civilization on the street.  Jane Jacobs, who did as much as anyone to preserve this lost city, wrote a book about how the arts of civilization could be lost, presaging a new dark age.  I don't know if she was right about us, but I do think that there's something about stuff and the making of useful objects that is not replaceable by anything in the virtual world.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Uniforms, A Modest Proposal

The recent disaster in Dhaka got me thinking about clothes and fashion and the true costs of these, and that got me thinking about uniforms.  Uniforms for civil occupations went out of fashion in the last century because of their association with militarism and fascism, but prior to that, in Europe, lots of people wore uniforms.  It's the case that most Americans hate uniforms and find them oppressive, but maybe we should rethink.  I always thought uniforms were one of the neat things about the army. You got up and one thing you did not have to think about was what to wear.  Also, and just as important, who you were, where you'd been, and what you'd accomplished were displayed right out front on what you wore.  Imagine wearing your résumé every day!  Here's a young fellow walking through the Microsoft campus.  He's got a tailored black uniform on, maybe by Hugo Boss, who did the designs for the SS back in the day.  He's got the red fourragier from Harvard, and the blue color tabs that show he has a Ph.D in computer science from Cal Tech.  On his shoulders are the oak leaves of a senior project manager.  On his left breast are ribbons denoting the projects he's worked on, above which rides a badge that shows his salary level, with leaves, stars and diamonds recording his annual bonuses.   On his cuffs are bars that shows how long he's worked at the firm.  Now imagine a woman in the same rig.  She would not get much sexual harassment, it seems to me.

Also, think of how much less bullshitting there would be. Everyone would instantly know who everyone else was.  So much time saved in bars!  This would produce a reduction in status anxiety, one of the great plagues of American life, the other being rich assholes pretending to be regular people just to be cool.  Imagine the uniform of a billionaire financier!  Here's a guy who's wearing a $10,000 bespoke suit and there are only fourteen people in the world who can tell, even if he leaves the real buttons on his suit cuff unbuttoned to show it's custom.  Let them flaunt it!  Maybe it would make them less greedy.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Kirkus review (starred) of THE RETURN

As a rule, I don't read reviews.  The bad ones make me feel worse than the good ones make me feel good, and only reading the good ones feels like a cheat.  That said, this beauty was obviously penned by my late mother, risen from the grave and achieving metempsychosis into the skull of whoever at Kirkus is responsible for the following, so I have to make an exception.  Thanks, Mom!

“Gruber (The Good Son, 2010, etc.) has a gift for seamlessly combining the visceral with the cerebral, without any degradation of quality on either side of the coin. He will have readers ruminating on ideas of identity, history, mortality, family, fate, and the complex and destructive relationship between Mexico and its neighbor El Norte, all while simultaneously thrilling their pants off, which is a rare and wonderful thing. Like Gruber’s other books, this novel puts the work of other thriller writers to shame and raises the quality bar for the genre to a precipitously high level. Thrilling and compulsively readable.”

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Poetry fears

I am so far from a poet that poets frighten me, a little.  What real poets do strikes me as wonderful but risky, which I imagine to be descending to the forge of language, the fertile void, and wreaking language new. I think that to do that you have to expose yourself to something that is not quite of time and space, and there is also the feeling that It is choosing you, It is causing the poetry, not you.  This is why poems can change us.  We recall that poet means maker; this is not a figure of speech with respect to the human mind.

I'm interested in the nature of the It.  We know that poetic talent is a tricky fluid.  It often strikes someone for a brief period and then departs, the number of poets who flamed out young is not small.  And there are all those poets of whom we remember but one poem, or even just a single line.  Very odd, yes?  If it were just a freak of the brain, you would expect it to go on, unless you think poetic genius is a transient biological phenomenon.  That seems a stretch, a particularly egregious example of what Sir John Eccles called "promissory materialism:" we have no idea of how this might work but our faith is strong that we will some day find a simple material explanation.  

Well, maybe.  Meanwhile there is Rimbaud. This provincial lad started writing poems as a teenager and by the time he was 21 he had revolutionized French poetry, indeed had an effect on poetry in general that is hard to overestimate.  At 22, however, he abandoned poetry, joined the Dutch colonial forces, deserted, and spent the last 15 years of his life as a vagabond trader in Africa.  He hated to talk about his time as a poet, never wrote anything else, and in all respects lived a mediocre, if adventurous life.  

This is so difficult to explain.  What was it that flowed through this undistinguished bad boy for half a dozen years and then departed?  The Greeks, of course, thought that poetry, and all creative acts, came via a daemon, and actual being that spoke through the poet.  We are not allowed to believe in such stuff now, but occasionally when I write, I'm aware that, in Pink Floyd's immortal words, there's someone in my head, but it's not me.  A little scary, and I imagine it must be worse for poets.