Les Edgerton is a highly versatile author who moves between genres. While known for his gritty and real crime writing, he often challenges contemporary prejudice in his novels. His novels The Bitch and The Rapist are two great examples of this. Les met me at The Slaughterhouse where we talked about fiction and ideology.
Tell us about the progress The Rapist is making.
If by progress, you mean sales, it’s holding its own, Richard. Which means—as it does to most writers—not nearly enough!
What has been extremely gratifying to me are the reviews it’s been garnering from the people I respect the most—fellow writers. Their response has been absolutely wonderful and I’m basking in it. These are the smartest people in the world about literature and almost universally The Rapist has received raves.
However, it isn’t in bookstores and that’s not the fault of my publisher. It’s the fault of the system. My agent is working very hard to correct that. He’s actively seeking a legacy publisher for it and has the blessing of my publisher at New Pulp Press—Jon Bassoff—in this quest. As much as indie publishers have done for writers—and it’s an awful lot—they’re still hamstrung at gaining mass distribution and getting actual books into bookstores. Hopefully, that will change at some point, but currently not much headway is taking place. Also, getting a book distributed by Ingram’s and/or Baker & Taylor, is the only avenue to getting reviews done by well-respected reviewers, such as the NY Times, LA Times, Washington Post, et al. And it’s only by getting those kinds of publications to provide reviews or coverage that filmmakers ever find out about the book. And—face it—that’s the Holy Grail of most of us as writers. Indie books, by and large, aren’t even open to most industry awards, although this seems to be changing a bit. (Not enough, nor fast enough…) To see our books make bona fide bestseller’s lists (not those sub-sub-sub-sub-set of some obscure Amazon rankings) and to get noticed by Hollywood is what will transform the indie side of publishing and so far, mass distribution is the missing (and crucial) element.
So, in answer to your question, it’s making good progress in sales and exposure within the limitations of the indie publishing universe, but not the kind of progress other books make which are put out by legacy publishers. If an indie can somehow figure out how to get their books in the Ingram pipeline and therefore on the shelves of B&N, that’s a publisher who’s going to rise up and become a major player in literature.
My fervent hope is that publishers such as NPP, Down&Out Books, Blasted Heath and those kinds of magnificent publishers can someday figure out a way to get major distributors and chain bookstores on board. Look at the lists of just these three (and at least a dozen more) and Random House doesn’t even come close to the overall literary quality of the books these folks are putting out. But, if they’re not seen, it doesn’t matter. And that’s the shame of today’s publishing. They’re restricted to the Intergnat. Not enough, alas.
If I were an indie publisher, I think I’d be looking to band with other indies and trying to make a case to Ingram’s and also to the major chains such as B&N to get their books on the bookshelves and get covered by the major media. As it is, most don’t have the financial resources to do it alone, but I have to think that if say five of the best-heeled indies got together and presented a case for Ingram’s and B&N to take their product and put it on the shelves and store it in the warehouses, a major breakthrough could be made. What keeps that from happening now is that no one house has the resources to physically publish enough copies of the books to make it worthwhile for Ingram’s or B&N to distribute or stock them on their shelves. I think someday a visionary will come up with a plan to organize a consortium that would take a book like The Rapist, print 10,000 copies and then they’d be able to sit at the poker table with Random House and those folks and get books out to the buying public. That’s the major difference—the legacy boys have the bucks to print a significant number of books, send them to Ingram’s and made available quickly to bookstores as needed with the flick of a computer button. If I was younger I’d try to do just that, but that’s a job that’s going to require enormous energy to get the right parties together and talking.
Just think about how much better a novel such as Neil Smith’s All The Young Warriors, Richard Godwin’s Mr. Glamour, or my own, The Rapist, would do if it was on the shelves at B&N? Hell, we might even rival those Fifty Shades of Crap books that are on those same shelves. So much book-buying is done on impulse when a customer browsing the shelves happens on a copy of a book, picks it up, thumbs through a few pages… and then takes it to the sales counter and the person standing behind them in line spies it, asks about it and then buys his own copy? Our books don’t have that chance… We can’t even finance our own book tours since B&N and other chains won’t order our books unless they’re in the distributor pipeline. I think the key to mass market success lies in the major distributors.
There are small publishers who’ve done just this. Algonquin Books, Gray Wolf—there are several. The deal is, they published enough copies that Ingram’s could financially take a chance on them as could B&N. Their editorial acumen was good enough that the major reviewers would also look at their books. I really think if a few of the really top indie publishers banded together and started out with a few of their best titles, this strategy could work for them as well.
But, then, maybe I’m just naïve… wouldn’t be the first time…
How does it compare to The Bitch?
Two entirely different kinds of books, so probably not fair to compare them. The Bitch is a noirish thriller, while The Rapist is a more existential, literary novel. For some reason, I seem to have gotten labeled as a “noir” writer, but in actuality, I’ve only written a few novels that fall into that category. I’m not complaining! Just a bit puzzled. I do think what they each have in common is that both explore and plumb the dark parts of the human psyche.
As far as sales, The Bitch has a more commercial appeal. Although both titles are examples of how to irritate the PC folks, The Rapist seems to scare away more potential buyers because of its title. I kind of figured that would be the case for both, but my contrarian nature basically said “Fuck it” to both sentiments. If there’s anything I abhor more than PCism, I haven’t encountered it yet. Especially when it rears its ignorant head among so-called “intellectuals” and “academics.” More and more, I find a more anal group doesn’t exist. Freedom of speech and freedom of thought don’t seem to exist with these folks in any great degree. I used to teach at various universities and haven’t yet experienced a more restrictive atmosphere in any other milieu. In fact there’s a decided and vocal bias against thought that goes against the prevailing political mood and if you don’t subscribe to the ruling thought if you want to keep a job, you either learn to simply keep silent or else say fuck it. I took the latter tack and that’s why I won’t teach in a university these days. They’re very rigid and very close-minded. And, in my view, very ignorant.
Vicki Lambros Gund, who wrote the review you have here, presented it to two scholarly review publications and it was turned down. The reason? The way Vicki presented it to me, they’re run by a group of “feminists” who rejected it out of hand because of the title and what they supposed it was about. As you know, it’s not much about rape nor are there numbers of rape scenes, but simply a look inside a person’s soul who was accused of rape. One might think that a group of people who are against something like the heinous crime of rape might want to investigate something that reveals the inner workings of such a criminal, but like most people who belong to groups and live their lives by bumper stickers, that would require the process of intellectual thought and that’s a lot of work, I presume… Throwing a bumper sticker on their Prius and locking arms and singing Kumbayah takes a lot less effort…
Am I bitter or pissed? Well… yeah. Not because of my little book so much as I am in the general landscape of literature, especially in the U.S. I’ve found a much more open audience in Europe. Seems there are still large numbers of people there who actually enjoy seeing and considering other points of view. Not so much over here… at least among the ruling class… If you think I’m simply being paranoid, take a look at most of the major literary awards. Most are given to folks who toe the party line. Kind of a circle jerk…
Sorry. This is the reason I write. I hate. A lot. And hard. I especially hate small-minded people who’ve made up their minds to become part of the herd and have sold their souls for the congress of other small minds.
It’s why I will always come running any time you want to do an interview, Richard. You have one of the few remaining bastions of free thought and free exchange of ideas in literature that I’m aware of.
While political correctness is driven by ideology, history evinces evidence of the lack of Art under dictatorships. Given that, do you think that pc is the enemy of Art?
I think a truer statement has never been made! The destruction of freedom of speech (which is the direct manifestation of freedom of thought), is the biggest enemy of art that has ever existed, and this is exactly what PCism accomplishes—restricting freedom of speech. What makes it even more insidious is that many who find themselves reacting to a political correct culture, not only practice it themselves but exert pressure on others as well. At least in an overtly repressive society where freedom of expression is regulated by the state, there exists a healthy underground of dissent. In a society that has largely given itself over to a pc culture, Pogo’s dictum becomes the pulse of the society—“We have met the enemy and it is us.”
As it pertains to literature, truth is central to the quality. There simply isn’t any way to achieve truth when PCism is introduced into the formula. The basic unit of writing is the word. If we begin to use words that are in existence solely because they spare someone’s feelings—real or imagined—we’ve veered from that truth. Instead of the beauty that truth brings, we’ve created fool’s gold. We’ve seen the result of PCism in the version of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. PCism has reduced one of the great works of literature into a pathetic kind of Hardy Boys crap.
PCism isn’t something new. It’s just the newest form of censorship we’ve had to deal with. Like many grandiose ideas, there is a noble intent at the center of this outlook, but also like many other popular notions, it has been perverted until it is the antithesis of what it originated as. Being PC nowadays amounts to out and out censorship in my opinion. For every writer like Bukowski, William Vollmann, and David Sedaris who breaks through and becomes a cult hero, there are hundreds of writers who are being stifled, vilified, and destroyed, simply because they do not preach the party’s message nor do they conform to the parameters set up by the PC folks who seem to be in charge. Too often they are stifling themselves by trying to placate society. What used to be considered simply bad taste nowadays takes on a more sinister connotation and that is dangerous if we value freedom of thought and value the time-honored tradition of the debate of ideas which is the only viable method for advancing knowledge and understanding. And, which constitutes true art.
Plato himself spoke about political correctness in The Republic, when he said:“Then the first thing will be to establish a censorship of the writers of fiction, and let the censors receive any tale of fiction which is good, and reject the bad; and we will desire mothers and nurses to tell their children the authorized ones only.” How about that.
Author Gordon Weaver told me in an interview years ago that, “If our special interest, as writers and/or editors, is the precise use of language toward the end of a viable perception of and effect on reality, we may argue there is some virtue implicit in any utterance (written or oral) that confronts the consensus of any gathering.” He gives an example. “There is a cost that will be paid by all concerned if one tells a Polack joke in the presence of Poles, but I contend the cost is greater if one stifles or sanitizes the anecdote.” Gordon has something here, I think. Weaver also told me that academicians are perhaps the newest bullies on the censorship block and perhaps the most dangerous of all. He stated that, “There is a greater danger, it seems to me, when the censors come from the ranks of the presumably ‘enlightened’. It is not surprising that a number of college and university communities nurture factions who wish to control free speech; it is unsettling when more sophisticated citizens (faculty) add their clout to movements desiring to police our utterance in the interests of what minority or another deems politically incorrect.”
Simply as it pertains to literature itself, PCism influences every aspect of writing and publishing.
If PCism wasn’t such an insidious threat to free speech, most of it would be laughable. Just this week, reports have surfaced that the word “illegal” as applied to illegal aliens shouldn’t be used in government reports. That’s just plain moronic. A person who comes across our border who isn’t a citizen and doesn’t have permission from the government to enter has just broken a law. Therefore, he or she is only one thing. Illegal. And, not an illegal “immigrant.” They’re not immigrating—they’re entering the country illegally. They’re an illegal alien. Nothing but. The sad thing is that there are people who will accept this kind of language seriously. They don’t want to hurt the feelings of people who’ve broken the law? Okay…
We’ve got government agencies targeting individuals and groups for their thoughts and speech. The IRS is currently under Congressional investigation for just that. This is something every single American should be incensed at but are they? Nope. As long as they continue to get their “free” crap from the government, they’re happy. (Reality alert: It ain’t “free.” It’s paid for with our taxes and our freedoms.) Benjamin Franklin famously wrote that “whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech.” These words remain true today. What’s truly scary is that the mainstream press is fully complicit in preventing free speech.
What scares me the most is that universities should be the bastion of free thought but the state of the matter is that free debate of ideas is rapidly disappearing from the college campus. As more and more writers come out of university settings and are being influenced by teachers with a decided political bent, the writing they produce becomes more and more insipid. These same writers take over the litmags and editor positions at publishing houses and impose their political beliefs on those who submit, publishing only those that can pass the PC test in the content of their creative material. As Kurt Vonnegut said, “Literature should not disappear up its own asshole, so to speak.” Well, it’s in great danger of doing just that. It’s about halfway up the anus.
Alisa Smith, co-editor of The Marlet, the student newspaper at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, says, “Universities are trying to shut down thought, rather than newspapers. All the articles that you see are about how PC’s have sort of gotten a grip on society and how people can’t say what they want anymore. I guess it’s like a left-wing phenomenon.”
Virtually every publisher in the country, from the smallest litmag to the largest publishing conglomerate, is terrified of antagonizing any reader whatsoever, unless the person offended is not part of a highly-organized, highly-vocal political group. It seems everybody in America has now organized, has a group with a slogan, a newsletter, a home page on the Internet, and a secret handshake. The battle is being waged over who gets ultimate control of the presses. And it doesn’t matter who wins. We all lose. What we lose is freedom of expression. And once that happens, we are done as a free society. I go to Gordon Weaver once again, who said it as best as it can be said. “Censorship from without is bad for the language, bad for those who speak or write it; self-imposed censorship, whatever the motive is worse. If you won’t say what you think, you run the risk of losing the powers of both speech and thought. I suspect we’ll be safe just as long as we refuse to accept censorship for anyone.”
I’d like to leave you with one of my favorite quotes. In the preface to the infamous Story of O, Jean Paulhan wrote, “Dangerous books are those that restore us to our natural state of danger.”
Yes, they do.
What else is on the cards for you this year?
Several things. The launching of my latest novel, a black comedy crime caper titled THE GENUINE, IMITATION, PLASTIC KIDNAPPING from Down & Out Books in October. This one was a true labor of love. It began life as a short story in The South Carolina Review, then expanded into a novel as well as a screenplay. The screenplay is still being shopped and placed as a finalist in both the Writer’s Guild and Best of Austin screenplay competitions. I liked the characters so much I’m writing a sequel and I’ve never done that. In fact, I see several sequels in the future provided I live long enough to write them.
It’s the story of Pete Halliday, a degenerate gambler who was busted out of baseball for… gambling. It picks up ten years later in New Orleans where Pete retired to after hanging up his glove and who has a smarmy sidekick named Tommy LeClerc, a part-Indian, full idiot, who keeps inveigling him into hair-brained schemes. Both are heavily into debt to the Italian Mafia to the point of the duo getting rendered room temperature, and Tommy comes up with the bright idea of kidnapping the head of the Cajun Mafia (there are a lot of Mafias in the Big Sleazy), but with a twist. Instead of doing the old-fashioned and boring method of kidnapping, our two heroes plan to amputate Charles Deneuve’s hand and hold that unit for ransom. General mayhem ensues, including a scene where Pete’s new girlfriend, full-time waitress and part-time hooker, Cat, helps him escape the Italian Mafia’s enforcer, Sam “The Bam” Capelleti who just entered the black bar they’re in, by pretending to have Tourettes and screaming racial epithets for a diversion so he can slip out the back door while they’re cutting her throat. Or so Pete assumes, but it turns out Cat is slicker than he thought.
Tommy’s initial scheme is to kidnap the manager of a Kenner supermarket and gain cash by holding the guy’s wife hostage while he retrieves the money from the store safe. But… there’s even a prior to this one as they decide they can’t go into this guy’s neighborhood unless they’re dressed in suits, which neither own. To finance their wardrobe, Tommy lays out a plan where they’ll rob tourists on a streetcar, which goes south when they discover the passengers are better armed than they are and they escape in a hail of bullets. They get a loan and buy the suits and show up at the supermarket guy’s house, only to find out there’s no great love lost between the manager and his bride, and that, too, goes quickly south. It becomes quickly evident why the Indians lost the war… (This is not a PC Indian, btw—Tommy doesn’t believe in any frickin’ Great Spirits and he’s a polluter par excellence…)
Lots of twists and chases through the French Quarters, the Jazz Fest, and other environs and in the end, Pete and Tommy get the loot and then Tommy double-crosses Pete. Deneuve’s hand is returned to its owner, but alas, finds it can’t be reattached as his meathook has suffered severe freezer burn from when the pair hid it in Tommy’s girlfriend Wanda’s freezer under the veal cutlets and didn’t realize one needs to burp a Baggie before freezing.
In the end, Pete gets revenge on Tommy in a particularly ingenious way and he and Cat escape to hide out in the open in Lost Wages by getting plastic surgery to make them look like famous lookalikes, which Vegas is chockfull of. Only problem is, just before their operations by a reputable plastic surgery, Cat spies an ad by a surgeon who offers a cut-rate on such procedures by not having all the frills such as a high-priced office space (he works out of his split-level), nor other unnecessary items such as a licensed nurse, high-priced anesthetics, etc., and they end up looking like celebrities, albeit not the ones they envisioned. Instead of Elvis, Pete ends up looking like Liberace with yellower teeth and Cat? Well, Cat goes around these days not as the Cher she asked for, but more along the lines of Bette Midler with black hair and a Jimmy Durante shnozz. She’s not a happy camper…
This was just a pure-d fun novel to write.
Other things on my plate include an appearance at the Fayetteville, NC public library and then a trip to Bouchercon, both in November.
Richard, I just want to thank you for another great interview! No one out there asks the level of questions that you do. None of those: Where do you get your ideas? What time of day do you write? Twitter of FB? kinds of boring-ass snooze alert questions. It’s such a pleasure and rare treat to be asked intelligent questions! Thank you.
Thank you Les for a perceptive and informative interview.
His blog is here.