An article from the NYT on the rise of teenaged runaways over the past few years, as the economy has worsened. It’s sad and, for me, recognizable. One of the things I encountered every now and then when I was going around reading from my first novel, One for Sorrow, after its release a couple of years ago, was the occasional reader who would come up to me afterward to say how much they liked the book but found something about the running away that the narrator, a fifteen year old from rustbelt Ohio, slightly fantastical. I would laugh because it has ghosts in the book, but it was the very real event of running away that felt at a remove for these rare but present readers. For me, it was something I’d seen over the years in and around this region of Ohio, as the loss of industry grew to a devastating level, and families no longer able to support themselves sometimes began to implode under economic pressure. Kids ran away from trouble that brewed at home in those conditions. Here it is, a bit more evident, apparently trending as more places feel the pinch. It’s sad stuff, but it’s good to see it being recognized for what it is here.
An interactive segmented video about my home region’s loss of industry over the past thirty years, and how it may now lose its very last major manufacturer in GM. It’s very well made, though a sad reality, and one that is now in the new century becoming the reality of more and more communities in America. If you want to know what loss of economic foundations look like, watch this small portrait. There are other documentaries I’ve watched that give bigger pictures, but this is a small taste of America in decline.
Okay, okay, I babble on about my home city–small, cranky and rusty as it is, I love it, as a person should love and care for anything they feel is theirs in some way, as a home is–but sometimes I fall silent about it on my blog for long periods because even I get sick of my own obsession and passion for it. Today, though, I’m slapping a picture on the blog that made me very happy when I saw it:
I’m not a business person, but I’m more than happy to see that this old town that hasn’t know what to do with itself since the mills left it three decades ago is finally finding its feet again. Sure, it’s the beginning of something, and there’s a lot to wince at and flinch about on the ground in Youngstown, but beginnings are better than endings, which we’ve had enough of here for the past thirty years. I love how the subtitle of this month’s Entrepreneur is questioning, curious, and knowing that it will be a surprise to people who pay attention to cities like this and their histories. And when you open the magazine and see how the magazine has classified or typified Youngstown, it’s called “The Dreamer”. Which is appropriate. And makes me feel that being here is appropriate.
I Will Shout Youngstown has actual things to say about it, though, so you can follow up there if you’re interested.
I’ve been reading a novel called “Out of this Furnace” for one of my summer courses. It’s by Thomas Bell, an author from Braddock, Pennsylvania who grew up in a steel mill family. The novel is semi-autobiographical, following three generations of a Slovak immigrant family from the turn of the century through the thirties. The novel was published in 1941, not long after the last decade Bell writes about in the book, the 30s. The book works more like a very well-done historical narrative more than it does as a novel, at least in terms of what expectations for novelistic writing looks like these days. It provides many more insights than a typical historical narrative, too, because of the personal relationship the reader builds with its characters, rather than the distanced tone of an actual historical narrative. In any case, I learned a lot reading it, about a time and a place and a particular kind of people, and also a lot about how things looked during the first thirty years of the Twentieth century around places like the one I grew up in, which isn’t very far from the novel’s setting. Just outside of Pittsburgh.
In any case, a couple of quotes leaped out at me while I was reading today. The leaped out because even though they were written seventy years ago or thereabouts, they felt like they could have been written today:
“The depression deepened to the sound of voices chanting that prosperity was just around the corner, the country was fundamentally sound. In the face of unparalleled catastrophe the rich and powerful lacked even the decency to keep silent. Blind, ignorant, obsessed with the myth of their own infallibility–they had been obeyed longer than was good for an human being–they drooled their obscene mumbo-jumbo, witch doctors without faith in their own magic imploring the betrayed to have confidence, the penniless to put their money into circulation, the despoiled to take pride in an America plundered, gutted and laid waste. Silence would have become them more and proved wiser, for there must have been many like Dobie whom their stupidities shook out of bewilderment, goaded to anger.”
“What did they ever do for the working people? All through the depression they haven’t done anything to help anybody except the big banks and corporations. What good did voting Republican do John when he was getting dollar-fifty pays and taking money down to the mill on paydays to keep his insurance in force because they weren’t even giving him enough work to pay for his insurance? He had to take from our few dollars in the bank and pay it to the mill on paydays instead of them paying him. I owe four months’ rent and I’ve got a store bill that scares me when I think of it. Do they think we’re all greenhorns and they can rub our faces in the dirt forever?”
And there’s more where that came from.
A really interesting article about the changes in the art world over the past decade or two, mirroring the movement away from global awareness that multiculturalism had been brewing in the late 80s to 90s as the country moved politically towards greater conservatism, and how that has, in the end, handicapped American art as it became too localized and exclusive, not to mention product oriented over vision/quality/knowledge for the sake of knowledge oriented. I wonder if there is any correlation in the publishing world as well.
Sherry Linkon, of Youngstown State University, has one of the most illuminating radio shows in town, Lincoln Avenue, named both for the street on which our local NPR station is located as well as a play on her last name. Last week she interviewed Marilyn Geewax, senior business editor for National Public Radio, who also happens to have grown up in Youngstown during the period when the mills here were beginning to shut down. Marylin’s interview with Sherry talks a bit about the changes that occurred in Youngstown and the surrounding region of Northeast Ohio due to this shifting of the Industrial Age to foreign economies, and how this is really playing out all over again as the entire nation is beginning to shift into the Digital Age. Instead of Steel Mill workers being told to go elsewhere for work, it’s now journalists, publishing executives, editors, etc, and how this is really the same thing that occurred in the late 70s and early 80s here. She brings a fascinating perspective to the shift from an Industrial economy to a Digital and Green economy. If you’re someone interested in this particular thing, you should give the podcast a listen by clicking here.
And by all means, look through the rest of Sherry’s archives. Many of her interviews are fascinating. She asks the best questions, and often gets really good responses.
I’ve been spending the past week doing Q&A at the Endicott Mythic Reader’s Group on Goodreads, and there have been some really thoughtful questions. One came in today, to which I just responded. And I’ve decided to post the question and my response here, too.
Q: Ghosts and eldritch kids in and of themselves aren’t that unusual in dark fantasy/horror. Working class backgrounds like that of Adam and his family aren’t often handled in books within the genre or outside it. Decaying cities are a commonplace but not the economic devestation of the city in your novel. In some ways the family and the city are more unsettling than death and the ghosts. Could you talk about how and why you came to make those as important elements in ONE FOR SORROW as you did?
A: Thank you for your question. How and why did I come to choose the rural small town and dying steel city important aspects of One for Sorrow? There are a couple of reasons for this.
One is that setting is a very important element of fictional narrative for me in general. I think it’s an especially overlooked element of narrative in the recent past. It seems we have a lot of narratives these days that could take place in Anywhere, America. Suburban communities without a lot of distinguishing characteristics, or else in the very large mega-cities, like NY and LA. Occasionally you come across books set in marginal communities, but in my experience, finding these settings in books has become an infrequent event for me as a reader over the past ten years or so. When I began writing One for Sorrow, which is my first novel, I decided I would set it in my own home region, where I grew up, because I had never encountered a novel or short story which took that place as its setting, and told a story that derived and was specific to that place.
The dying steel city of Youngstown, Ohio and the small rural communities that surround it are in many ways forgotten places in the American landscape. There are many forgotten places that the rest of America has no context to understand them. If you asked someone who was an adult and paying attention to the news back in the late 70s and early 80s, you might encounter someone who knows these places and without very much need for prompting will be recall the devastating economic disaster that occurred in Youngstown, Ohio at that time. Bruce Springsteen wrote a song about it for his Ghost of Tom Joad album, which explored these forgotten and ignored aspects of American community. They are forgotten and ignored because communities such as Youngstown are working class, the underclass, and had no one of any articulate ability to speak for them, and to speak loud enough. In recent days, due to it being an electoral year, Youngstown pops up on cue in the political world, presidential candidates come here in those years to take pictures in front of decaying steel mills and factories that have been abandoned for the past thirty or forty years, and pretend as if they’re going to do something to help the people who live in these jobless, poverty-stricken communities. But if we count the years that have passed between the time Youngstown lost its steel economy to the attractive, exploitable third world, we know that they really don’t intend to do anything but use the place as a backdrop of the narrative they’re creating for themselves as politicians.
Ghost stories are about people who have something left to say, so much so that they remain alive somehow, supernaturally, beyond the grave. So along with the death of Jamie Marks, who has several things left undone in his life–friendships left unforged and unexplored with Adam and Gracie, relationships unresolved with his mother and father–there is also the character of the small town the characters come from, and the dead/dying steel city to which their rural community is a satellite, the nearest thing to urbanity. Settings are characters, too, really. A community itself has character, based off of the people who live in them and the values and beliefs they’ve chosen to live by. Youngstown is a community that, despite having died an incredible death of its former self, after having lost its identity, has clung to life despite all of that. At one time it had a population of around 175,000 people. Today it’s about 75,000 people. That’s an enormous loss. There are whole sections of the city that have fallen into ruin, houses abandoned, workplaces abandoned, blight is a common view. In the 80s it was evaluated as the Murder Capital of America. It no longer has that place, thankfully, but crimes of this sort are a natural occurrence in communities that have lost their basic foundation for survival. People begin to fight for resources; they’ll steal and plot and sometimes kill when they are desperate. The community now is small enough that the crime that occurred after that initial blow in the 70s and 80s has waned and enough people have left, realizing there are not enough resources for living here and that they must leave if they intend to have a better life for their families. And yet the city still lives on, and has in the past four or five years attracted national and international attention with a new plan to shrink itself in order to provide a higher quality of life for its citizens, rather than following the typical American city idea that you must grow, get bigger, take on more and more. So the city has begun demolishing whole neighborhoods, to get rid of blight, and old workplaces which we have finally accepted no work will come back to inhabit. Or at least not the sort of work that once inhabited them. There is a large group of young thirty and twenty somethings, a new generation, that have taken on an amazingly energetic community activist approach, and have tried to create bonds between various communities within the larger community, something that did not occur in the past, to make the place stronger. Revitalization is occurring, step by step, and though it is slow progress, it is the first progress we have seen in four decades, and people are taking some comfort and allowing themselves to perhaps hope a little harder than they once did.
It’s a place that is no longer the city it once was, but has decided to live somehow, anyway it can, the same way Jamie tries to live beyond his unjust and early death. And if there is a reason why I chose to feature working class characters in an economically devastated rural community and city, it’s because I come from this place and decided a long time ago, when I knew I would write, that I would attempt to become good enough at writing to say something about the lives we live here that a lot of fiction does not ask us to think about, or at least does not ask us to think about as often as I wish it would.
Reading this article in the NYT about the woes of the book publishing industry not being able to make as much money off of their product due to the rise of online used booksellers seems very similar to what happened in the music industry when Napster arrived and people started sharing music instead of buying it. Of course, people still have to buy the used books from online booksellers, but they’re able to do it often for almost nothing, a cent plus shipping and handling. Far cheaper than the bookstore, or buying new from an online bookstore.
It’s a situation that doesn’t seem like it’s going to change anytime soon. As mentioned, the music industry still hasn’t fully figured out how to make money on product that people can easily move around for free online. A similar thing has been occurring with DVD burning, of course. I don’t see this as a problem so much as a change, one that indicates the idea of property is changing, too. People want their music, movies, and books, but they don’t want to pay a lot of money for them.
I wonder sometimes if these products are priced too high by their producers. I’m a writer and not a business person, and I understand that the point of a business is to make profits, but if your product is overpriced (a thirty dollar hardback, for example) how do you expect to sell it in great quantities? And let’s be honest. Making books isn’t as expensive as it once was, either. Wouldn’t it make sense to lower prices in order to sell more, and by doing so probably make an even greater profit than raising the prices on the product to be purchased by a lot fewer people?
While Black Wednesday has hit the publishing industry recently (you have been following that event, right?), and many people have lost their jobs because of it, from news and professional blog sources it seems that one sector of the publishing industry that remains safe and still profitable are YA novels. They’re extremely popular, and that popularity is not waning in the face of recession. I think this may be because books are seen as a “good thing” and parents can feel good about buying books for their children even if they themselves have stopped buying books for themselves. But also there are a great number of adult readers reading almost nothing but YA novels. I find it odd that so many adults are reading about almost nothing but teenagers, and am not sure of what it is an indication. I read YA stories and novels myself (and often write about young adult characters) so my uncertainty about what it indicates when adults read YA books is not one that comes from some sort of snobbery toward the genre itself so much as it stems from encountering so many adults who read nothing but YA novels. I don’t buy the theory that YA is where it’s at for no particular reason. It just doesn’t seem rational that adults would stop reading adult novels altogether, especially when a lot of teens read “up” about older adults and levels of maturation. It’s a way that we tend to figure out what’s going to come next for us, what to anticipate.
I think a few factors exist in the shakiness of the adult publishing world at the moment. One of them is expense. For example, recently I was in the YA section of a bookstore looking for books to buy for my nephews and nieces for Christmas (Peeps by Scott Westerfeld, How to Ditch Your Fairy by Justine Larbalestier, Valiant by Holly Black, and Pretty Monsters by Kelly Link, if you’re interested). What I noticed (probably for the second or third time in the past year or two) is how cheap YA books are. You can purchase a hardback YA novel for 15 or 16 dollars. You’d pay the same amount for many adult trade paperbacks, and twice as much or more for an adult hardback. You can purchase a trade paperback YA novel for anywhere from 5 to 10 dollars. Because of this, I felt less restrained about buying more books, and ended up getting several more YA books for myself that day, and got a little annoyed that I couldn’t feel so unrestrained in regards to how I felt I could go about purchasing all of the adult books I want to buy.
I’ve heard some people say that YA books are shorter than adult books, so they can be priced more cheaply. But I see a great amount of YA books that have as many pages (and often even more pages these days) as adult books. If they can be produced at lower cost than adult books, I’m not sure why, and as I said, I’m a writer not a business person, so if someone can explain this to me, I’ll be grateful. Until then, I’ll continue to ponder over the large differences in pricing between adult and YA novels, and continue to buy unrestrainedly in the YA section of the bookstore while pinching pennies in the adult section.
On a potentially good end note, it seems there is a potential trend toward cheaply priced trade and quality paperbacks in motion, though perhaps not many of the larger publishing houses have caught on to it yet. The books featured are a new line of paperbacks (Olive Editions) somewhere in between trade and mass market–trade quality cover leaning toward mass market size. They look good, too. I received the Olive Edition of Michael Chabon’s The Mysteries of Pittsburgh for Christmas. I’d already read the book, but had exclaimed over the size, affordability, and style of its production when I saw it in a bookstore several weeks ago, and in response received it as a gift.
Do you get sick and tired of hearing how Republicans apparently are better with the economy, with money, than Democrats, and how Democrats are perceived to be “spend, spend, spend”? Well, if so, you need to read the fabulous Scott Westerfeld’s (author of the Uglies series) blog post “Do the Math” on the website YA for Obama, where Scott does indeed do the math based on statistics for the past sixty or seventy years, comparing Republican and Democratic administrations (taking a wide variety of variables into account, like House and Senate majorities as well) and finds that, in fact, Democrats are hands down better at growing our economy than Republicans every time. He also explains how and why Republican administrations tend to run the American economy into the ground time and time again. They say they’ll lower taxes, and they do, but to make up for it, they borrow borrow borrow from other countries, and leave us holding the bag full of debt.