Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Vachss and Vachss

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I’ve been a fan of novelist Andrew Vachss for about a quarter century now, and anyone who knows Vachss’s Burke books will recognize how they’ve influenced my own. I wrote about all this at length in my entry for the International Thriller Writers’ Thriller: 100 Must Reads:
I first heard of Vachss in 1989, when, as a new covert recruit with the CIA, I was reading a lot about crime, violence, and the street. Vachss was mentioned in the bibliography of what remains one of the best self-defense books I’ve ever read, Cheap Shots, Ambushes, and Other Lessons, by Marc “Animal” MacYoung. MacYoung praised Vachss as one of the few novelists who really understood and was able to accurately portray the way the street works: the hits, the scams, the freaks, the whole ugly symbiosis between the criminal world and the civilian. Because MacYoung was clearly a man with his own intimate acquaintance with Vachss’s world, I decided to give Vachss a try...
Today, when people ask me to name some of my literary influences, Vachss is always on the shortlist. He’s the author who opened my eyes to the dramatic possibilities of dropping fictional characters into nonfictional settings and circumstances. He awakened a latent love of clipped dialogue and bleak prose. He implicitly instructed me on how to make the bad guy good: understand him profoundly, make sure that beneath his dark carapace lie certain core qualities the reader can respect and even admire, drop him into a world whose moral palette consists only of the bleakest shades of gray, and populate that world with people even worse than he.
Fast forward to this summer, when I read Vachss’s excellent latest novel, SignWave, his second book about Dell, a former French legionnaire and contract killer. I meant to write a review, but kept getting distracted by other books, including an older Vachss entry called A Bomb Built in Hell that for whatever reason I hadn’t heard of until I was online looking for a link for SignWave. So of course I had to get that one (Phil Gigante/Andrew Vachss is one of the great audiobook combinations of all time, up there with Blair Brown/Isabel Allende and James Ellroy/Craig Wasson).

And then in the course of research for the novel I’m working on now, I came across a book by Vachss’s wife Alice Vachss: Sex Crimes: Ten Years on the Front Lines Prosecuting Rapists and Confronting Their Collaborators. It blew me away. And I thought, the hell with it, I’m just going to do a post on both Vachsses. So here we are.

Okay, Dell first. The structure of SignWave was unusual, in that the villain is off-screen for most of the book and the real pleasure is in Dell’s meticulous preparations for his hits and in his relationship and repartee with his wife, Dolly, who’s as tough as he is, albeit not as adept with violence. And the plot was something of a departure, as well. Like the novelist himself, Vachss’s characters are almost always focused on the welfare of children—protecting them from human predators when possible; avenging them otherwise. But here, the threat was to Dolly. Not a good idea to be a threat to Dell’s wife, given the way the man solves problems. And indeed, his solution was a pleasure, as was the revelation it led to in the last paragraph of the book. Now I’m hoping for a third Dell book—and more.

Now, A Bomb Built in Hell. Assassin Wesley was one of my favorite characters from the early Burke books—maybe my very favorite (though the Mole was pretty awesome, too). So stumbling across this Wesley book—and an origin story, too!—was a great surprise. Wesley is a relatively peripheral character in the early Burke books—mysterious, feared, respected, and legendarily lethal. In other words, not an easy character to do justice to in an origin story. But this one completely delivered: Wesley’s experience in war and demonstrable ease with killing, even outside the rules of engagement; his mentorship in prison at the hands of a Mafioso lifer; his emergence as an unstoppable and increasingly uncontrollable contract killer.

There were bonuses, too: Vachss’s prescient observations about publishing in the foreword; the way the story was integrated with and prefigured elements of the early Burke books. I’ve missed Wesley, and it was great to join him on one last, wild ride.

Finally, Sex Crimes. This is a harrowing account of Alice Vachss’s decade as chief of the Special Victims Bureau in the Queens (New York) District Attorney’s office—harrowing not just because of the horrible crimes Vachss prosecuted, but also because of the politics and bullshit that hindered her efforts. Vachss built the Queens SVB into a force feared by rapists and child molesters, and then lost an epic battle to save the bureau from politics. The story is nonfiction that reads like a thriller: high stakes, a lone hero, a powerful villain (more than one, in fact).

I came away from the book in awe of the stakes a prosecutor like Vachss faces. If I have less than my best day, the writing won’t be what I had aimed for—and the next day I get to make it better. If a sex crimes prosecutor fails, a rapist goes free—a horrible twist of the knife to his previous victims, and a likely guarantee of future victims, as well.

There is so much I could quote from Sex Crimes, but maybe I’ll just go with this from the afterword, regarding the collaborators of the book’s title:

We have allowed sex crimes to be the one area of criminality where we judge the offense not by the perpetrator but by the victim…
Collaboration is a hate crime. When a jury in Florida acquits because the victim was not wearing underpants, when a grand jury in Texas refuses to indict because an AIDS-fearing victim begged the rapist to use a condom, when a judge in Manhattan imposes a lenient sentence because the rape of a retarded, previously victimized teenager wasn’t “violent,” when an appellate defense attorney vilifies a young woman on national TV for the “crime” of having successfully prosecuted a rape complaint, when a judge in Wisconsin calls a five-year-old “seductive,”—all that is collaboration, and it is antipathy toward victims so virulent that it subjects us all to risk.
Vachss’s thoughts on the causes and consequences of collaboration—on why society tolerates rapists in a way it doesn’t tolerate, say armed robbery—are as thought-provoking as they are sobering.

Reading Vachss’s tough, clipped, no-nonsense prose, I realized I’m not the only writer her husband has influenced. And I enjoyed the periodic aside hinting at the supportive relationship between these two warriors on behalf of the powerless. During one of Alice’s toughest battles with the politicians intent on dismantling the SVB, Andrew took to leaving her notes here and there, including this one referring to one of Alice’s office enemies, who he called the toad:

If your eye is on the sky
you may crunch the toad in the road—
which is how we measure progress.
If you love the Burke books, you know the Prof is smiling somewhere.

Update: Someone just pointed out on Facebook that SignWave is the third Dell book, not the second. Somehow I missed AfterShock, the first, and thought SignWave was the second after ShockWave. Well, much as I hate screwing up like that, here its good news...means I have another Dell book to read.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Life Depressingly Imitating My Art

Here’s an interesting story from the Intercept on how Robert Litt, the general counsel in the office of the Director of National Intelligence, told colleagues that Congressional support for anti-encryption legislation “could turn in the event of a terrorist attack or criminal event where strong encryption can be shown to have hindered law enforcement.” More:
A senior official granted anonymity by the Post acknowledged that the law enforcement argument is “just not carrying the day.” He told the Post reporters: “People are still not persuaded this is a problem. People think we have not made the case. We do not have the perfect example where you have the dead child or a terrorist act to point to, and that’s what people seem to claim you have to have.”
And here’s Theodor Anders, Director of the NSA in my new novel The Gods Eye View, available February 2, 2016:
In the car on the way back to Fort Meade, Anders thought of the images he’d seen on CNN that morning. It was unfortunate, but on balance he believed it would be beneficial. In so many ways, a country was like a person—which made sense, after all, because a country was in the end just a collection of people. And people were always concerned about their health, and rightly so, but not always properly solicitous of it. A man might therefore visit the dentist and be warned he needed to floss more often to prevent gum disease, and the man, in the immediate aftermath of his run-in with the pick and the drill, would promise himself that this time, he would be more diligent about his dental hygiene. And he might even follow through, brushing more conscientiously, flossing more regularly, for a few days, perhaps even for a week. But inevitably, as the dentist’s warning and the discomfort induced by her instruments receded into the distance, the man would revert to laziness, complacency, denial. The simple truth was, twice a year just wasn’t enough to make the average person take better care of his teeth. And similarly, the occasional random terror attack demonstrably wasn’t enough to keep the citizenry properly vigilant. An occasional supplement might be required, and while that supplement might involve some unpleasant inherent side effects, surely those side effects were nothing compared to the actual disease they were required to protect against?
He wished the supplements weren’t necessary. He wished the country could grasp the nature of the threat, as he did, and give him without question the tools he needed to combat it. But he supposed he couldn’t blame them. They didn’t have access to the information he did, they didn’t understand just how dangerous the world was, they didn’t know what was needed to keep that danger at bay. 
Well, they knew slightly better today than they had the day before. And that was something, anyway.
Earlier in the book, Anders muses:
For a moment, Anders was irritated at all the trouble he had to go through just to confirm a single person’s location. It would be so much easier, and better, if everyone were fitted with a microchip. He’d read an article somewhere about how a dog had slipped away from its home in Pennsylvania, and how it had been discovered months later in Oregon—all because a shelter technician had read the microchip her owners had implanted in her. There might be some resistance to the notion of doing something like this to people, of course, but he imagined if it were billed as insurance against kidnapping . . . and if a high-profile kidnapping could be arranged to be foiled—a child saved from the worst depravity, its parents from bottomless horror and grief, solely because the child’s loving parents had possessed the foresight to implant a chip while the child was an infant—it wouldn’t be long before all parents would feel criminally negligent for failing to implant their children. He wondered if a law could be passed, the way there had been for car seats and bicycle helmets. But no, it probably wouldn’t even be necessary. The fear of a kidnapping coupled with a Why, why did we not have the microchip done? would be more than sufficient.
He shook off the daydream, knowing he had to work with the tools available to him today. Tomorrow was another matter.
Reality has long had a way of catching up to my fiction: pacemaker hacks, nuclear safety coverups in Japan, government kill lists, etc. But usually reality waits until after the book is published. Its getting harder for art to stay ahead of life. Given the types of stories I write, I wouldnt call that good news.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Authors Guild Report: AG Membership Impoverishes Authors (And It’s Amazon’s Fault)!

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People sometimes tell me I’m too hard on the Authors Guild and that I should cut them some slack. And I’d like to. I really would. But it would help if the organization would try to meet me half way, or even a quarter way, instead of continuing to pump out the kind of incoherent bullshit I’m going to examine in this post.

Okay, the latest. Apparently the Authors Guild has done a study in which it concludes that “the majority of authors would be living below the Federal Poverty Level if they relied solely on income from their writing...not only are many authors earning little, they are, since 2009, also earning less.”

Now I’m no statistician (though I doubt I’m any more statistically challenged than anyone at the Authors Guild), and regardless picking apart the report’s basis isn’t what primarily interests me today. But I do have to note one thing just as an aside. Which is: it’s fascinating that the Authors Guild could rely on respondents only from its own membership—89% of whom are over 50, 64% of whom have never even experimented with self-publishing, and only 4% of whom have eschewed legacy publishing entirely—and then use these responses to draw conclusions about what’s going on for all authors.

You dont need to be an expert in self-selection bias and non-probability sampling to understand that the AG’s stunt would be a devastating methodological flaw in any study (as it is regarding reports of Association of American Publisher earnings—don’t miss the latest must-read AuthorEarnings report). But given that the most innovative and entrepreneurial writers in publishing today look at the Authors Guild as at best a punch line, the error is a showstopper. If the report demonstrates anything at all, it’s that a declining poverty-line subsistence correlates with membership in the Authors Guild. Not exactly a ringing endorsement, and maybe this is why the organization is eager to treat its respondents as somehow representative of authors generally, including authors who would laugh at the notion that they should join. Or maybe the conflation is just an unconscious attitude, a kind of “l’état, c’est moi” reflex. Either way, what the Authors Guild has done here is the equivalent of polling a group of grandparents, then using their responses to conclude something like, “No one at all can figure out how to use a remote control.”

All this is bad enough, obviously, but things actually go downhill from there. Here’s how executive director Mary Rasenberger explains the bad news:

Citing a swirl of factors, from online piracy to publisher consolidation to the rise of Amazon (and the shuttering of brick and mortar bookstores), Rasenberger said the takeaway from the survey is that authors should be receiving higher royalties from publishers. “Authors need to be cut in more equitably on the profits their publishers see, or we’ll stop seeing the quality of work the industry was built on.”

This isn’t an argument, or anything else that might be potentially useful. It’s gibberish, the flotsam and jetsam of a self-interested ideology dedicated to a conclusion and free of supporting facts. To see why, let’s just assume that the kind of author impoverishment the AG claims to have uncovered really does exist, and examine the causes the AG alleges and the solutions it suggests.

Piracy is impoverishing authors. This is such a persistent piece of foolishness that Joe Konrath and I have it cued up as one of our ongoing Zombie Meme posts (I wish we’d written the piracy post already because then I could link to it to save time, which is half the point of the Zombie Meme series). If Rasenberger has some evidence that piracy is harming authors, she should share it because simply repeating something again and again isn’t ordinarily by itself enough to make it so. As it stands, there’s no logical or empirical reason to believe piracy harms authors. And if you think I cherry-picked that link by searching for “piracy doesn’t harm authors,” I urge you to do your own search for “piracy harms authors,” which will be at least equally revealing.

Publisher consolidation is impoverishing authors. While I doubt publisher consolidation is much good for authors (which is why I’ve wondered aloud from time to time why this organization calling itself the Authors Guild has never done anything worthwhile about it), I also think that if Rasenberger has reason to believe publisher consolidation is actually impoverishing authors, she could at least share her evidence. Is consolidation correlated with fewer books being purchased, fewer authors being published, or something along those lines? If so, Rasenberger might have something worthwhile to say. As it stands, the claim is pretty feeble.

Amazon is impoverishing authors. If the previous claim was merely feeble, this one is actually insane. As a bookstore, Amazon sells more books than anyone. As a publisher, it pays higher royalties than anyone. So Rasenberger would have you believe that selling more books and paying higher royalties is impoverishing authors. Does she therefore believe that authors would be better off if Amazon sold fewer of their books and paid them lower royalties? I guess she must.

An argument this backward should function as a straight-up disqualification of anyone trying to make it. Instead, it’s reported with uncritical reverence in Publishers Weekly, which apparently is more interested in providing PR and stenographic services to groups like the AG than it is in performing actual journalism. Seriously: read the article, and ask yourself whether even one thing about it would be different if it appeared as a direct press release on the AG’s own website. My guess is, the bargained-for consideration in an exchange like this goes like, “As long as we get a sneak peek, AG, we’ll publish anything you want to say without any pushback, critical commentary, or anything else that might be confused with actual journalism.”

Though fear not, PW; in pretending to do journalism while instead performing PR and propaganda, you are of course in excellent company.

The shuttering of brick-and-mortar bookstores is impoverishing authors. Well, now I’m really confused…a minute ago, authors were being impoverished by the rise of a bookstore; now they’re impoverished when bookstores close? It’s almost as though the impoverishment is caused by everything, no matter what!

In fact, new indie bookstores are opening all the time, so the notion that on balance bookstores have been shuttering since Borders went bankrupt nearly five years ago is factually inaccurate. If Rasenberger has information about, say, Barnes & Noble reducing the amount of shelf space devoted to books, that might be a meaningful data point. Or again, even more useful would be information on the numbers of books being purchased generally, given that how many books are being purchased would seem a more meaningful metric with regard to alleged author impoverishment than where books are being purchased. And how big is the size of the book market generally? Maybe the pie is growing, but the top one percent of that market is making less, leading the one percent to feel they’re being impoverished (hint: there’s a lot of support for this notion). But something like that would require actual data and modicum of thought, which is why we’re repeatedly subjected instead to tired, internally contradictory bromides in these AG pronouncements.

Now let’s examine the proposed solution to the causes of all this author impoverishment: “Authors need to be cut in more equitably on the profits their publishers see, or we’ll stop seeing the quality of work the industry was built on.”

Wait, I thought the rise of Amazonthe publisher that pays higher royalties than any otherwas impoverishing authors. How is that possible, if the solution to author impoverishment is higher publisher royalties? Its all just so confusing!

But okay, no doubt it’s an outrage that legacy publishers are making more and more and sharing with authors less and lesswhich again makes all the more remarkable the AG’s failure to do anything about it beyond than the odd supplicatory blog post. But what does any of that have to do with piracy and all the rest? It’s like Rasenberger is throwing up a bunch of distracting chaff instead of saying what’s simply and glaringly obvious: if legacy authors are being impoverished, it’s because their publishers are keeping an ever-larger share of the profits. It has nothing to do with piracy, or consolidation, or with some bookstores rising and others opening and closing. Legacy publishers make too much and share too little.

It’s hard to understand why Rasenberger seems so intent on nonsense that obscures this obvious truth. My guess is that if the Authors Guild spoke a little more plainly, more people might wonder why the organization does virtually nothing to address the actual problem the organization itself has identified.

By the way, I confess I especially loved that bit of “we’ll stop seeing the quality of work the industry was built on” drama, as though only impoverished legacy authors write quality books (readers, apparently, disagree, which I can imagine might sting a bit among a certain class of writers). Do you hear that, ungrateful society? Après moi, le déluge!

Just to forestall any distracting silliness in the comments: I’m not arguing that the Authors Guild does absolutely nothing for authors (the truth is a bit more nuanced than that). But what mysterious force is preventing the AG from doing anything meaningful about what the organization itself claims is the cure for author impoverishment? Here, an easy idea for you, AG: contact the Justice Department. And no, not with a plea to help authors by dismantling the bookstore that sells more books than any other and the publisher that pays authors higher royalties than any other—Authors United has already cornered the market on that insanity, with your help. But rather, say, with an argument that the whole legacy industry is built on illegal tying and needs to be dismantled:

Tying…is the practice of selling one product or service as a mandatory addition to the purchase of a different product or service. In legal terms, a tying sale makes the sale of one good [say, paper distribution] to the de facto customer [here, the author] conditional on the purchase of a second distinctive good [here, all the other publishing services that would otherwise be available elsewhere, such as editing, copyediting, proofreading, cover design, marketing, PR, and advertising]…

Some kinds of tying, especially by contract, have historically been regarded as anti-competitive practices. The basic idea is that consumers are harmed by being forced to buy an undesired good (the tied good) in order to purchase a good they actually want (the tying good), and so would prefer that the goods be sold separately. The company doing this bundling may have a significantly large market share so that it may impose the tie on consumers, despite the forces of market competition. The tie may also harm other companies in the market for the tied good, or who sell only single components.

One effect of tying can be that low quality products achieve a higher market share than would otherwise be the case [which might explain why legacy publishers notoriously suck at, for example, cover design]...

Tying may also be used with or in place of patents or copyrights to help protect entry into a market, discouraging innovation [which might explain why legacy publishers are well known for innovating…nothing].

Tying is often used when the supplier makes one product that is critical to many customers [again, think paper distribution]. By threatening to withhold that key product unless others are also purchased, the supplier can increase sales of less necessary products.

In the United States, most states have laws against tying, which are enforced by state governments. In addition, the U.S. Department of Justice enforces federal laws against tying through its Antitrust Division [good news, Authors Guilda lever by which you can pressure legacy publishers into sharing a bit more of the wealth!].

Accusing legacy publishers of tying is a significantly more coherent argument than accusing Amazon of being a monopoly. And the “Amazon is a monopoly” gambit is just a ploy anyway. As Lee Child of Authors United has acknowledged:

I don’t expect anything substantive [to come from Authors United’s letter to the Justice Department accusing Amazon of running an illegal monopoly], but books are generally seen as vaguely important, so the initial think-of-the-children rhetoric might get attention, and then maybe there might be a back-channel whisper…

If these organizations can use a ploy as weak as “Amazon is a monopoly” to try to pressure Amazon into the behavior they want, what’s keeping them from using an actual legal argument to the same end with regard to legacy publishers? Only psychological thralldom, I would argue. And certainly an appeal to the DOJ about legacy tying would be more effective than the “pretty please” blog posts and interviews which, when it comes to the legacy industry, the AG pretends are its only weapons.

One other bit of fascinating bullshit from this Publishers Weekly/Authors Guild joint press release:

Noting that both “copyright law and policy” need to be “tailored to put authors’ concerns at the forefront,” Rasenberger said the Guild hopes the survey will allow it to “more effectively advocate for working authors.”

What does copyright have to do with the author impoverishment the AG alleges? Copyright term has long since metastasized to mean functionally forever, which might be good for authors (if less so for society)—except that publishers routine require authors to assign by contract their rights for the entire length of those “forever” terms. Rasenberger’s copyright! argument is therefore at best a non sequitur. Worse, it’s a dodge, intended to obscure the Authors Guild’s obligation (at least judging from the organization’s mission statement) to actually do something beyond the odd blog post about those legacy publisher “forever” terms. What is she proposing, that someone lobby Congress to amend copyright law and policy (whatever she means by drawing that distinction) to make copyright even more favorable for authors? Even if such a chimerical approach (akin to a politician claiming to support some constitutional amendment, knowing it’ll never happen) might accomplish anything, it would have zero impact on the real problem—which is, again, that whatever rights authors have in their works, legacy publishers gobble up everything anyway via lockstep draconian contractual requirements.

It’s fascinating. The Authors Guild knows what’s the real problem—it’s just that the organization is unwilling to actually do anything about it. When pressed, its spokespeople resort to what’s familiar and comfortable—piracy is bad, Amazon is bad, copyright isn’t working—no matter how irrelevant or untrue these beliefs are repeatedly proven to be. It reminds me of recent establishment media coverage of Jeremy Corbyn’s huge Labour win in Britain—perseverating that Corbyn is “radical” and “divisive” even as he wins unprecedented majorities and brings to Labour tens of thousands of new members. How do they know someone who just won Labour’s leadership by a landslide and is swelling the party’s rank-and-file membership in the process is radical and divisive? They just do! Who are you going to believethat comforting feeling, or that annoying combination of facts and logic?

I’ve argued before that an Authors Guild worthy of the name would display a little less dedication to the interests of legacy publishers and a little more to, you know, authors. But maybe there’s a separate problem. Maybe the organization really does want to help authors. Maybe it even knows how it could do so and is just too fearful. In other words, maybe what the AG lacks isn’t brains; it’s balls. Whether it’ll ever grow a pair remains to be seen, but I wouldn’t bother with these posts if I didn’t live in hope.

Update: Nate Hoffelder at the Digital Reader has a great analysis of what the AG numbers really mean. Among other things: “Far from showing the demise of the American author, this survey actually shows that the youngest authors are better off than they were before

The Authors Guild. Even worse than you thought.