Mothers and Fathers Italian Association

Book review by Thomas M. Sipos

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Mothers and Fathers Italian Association, by Thomas M. Monteleone, (Borderlands Press, 2003, 485 pp.)

 

 

 

Since 1976, novelist, screenwriter, editor Thomas F. Monteleone has chronicled the art and business of horror in his MAFIA column, bouncing about small press zines, usually moving whenever its home folded. All columns now reprinted (with current annotations) in this volume from Borderlands Press.

Aspiring genre writers will find much useful info here. As a former anthology editor, Monteleone reveals the common mistakes writers commit that guarantee rejection -- and reports that the quality of small press slush (i.e., YOUR competition), is improving! He warns of the career risks of writing media tie-ins, and advises authors NOT to use their real names, especially not for the bottom-of-the-barrel tie-ins. Overall, Monteleone gives the impression that the tie-in ghetto is just notch above "all the hopeless mooks who send their stuff to rip-off artists in the Writers Digest Classifieds."

Monteleone offers us a peek at his royalty statement -- and how it revealed that his publisher wasn't properly promoting his orphaned book. He also relates his experiences writing for Hollywood.

As a collection of informative publishing biz columns, MAFIA resembles Richard Curtis's Beyond the Bestseller: A Literary Agent Takes You Inside the Books Business, which, like MAFIA, remains surprisingly relevant. But whereas Curtis offers only polite shop talk, MAFIA also has fan gossip, political and philosophical commentary, and humor -- all presented with Monteleone's "in your face/suffer no fools" attitude.

Are you a fool?

Monteleone bristles at the "dumb questions writers are always asked" such as: "Where do you get your ideas?" Even worse is the usual followup, whereby the querist offers to provide a book idea, if the writer will write it for a 50/50 split. Says Monteleone: "Now isn't that just about the most fabulous thing you can ever imagine happening to a writer? I can tell ya, friends, we all dream about that one ... it's right up there with being at the top of the bestseller list for 47 weeks and selling movie rights for ten mill."

 

 

Are you impressed by literary awards? Think a Nebula.or Stoker proves a book's merit or writer's talent? You may not think so after reading Monteleone's devastating report from inside the sausage factory ...

Says Monteleone: "The most popular way to select winners is by a long nominating and winnowing out process which, in the final accounting, can often turn out to be a grand invitation to bribery, cronyism, and other sleazoid activities of which we're all capable.

"It goes like this: a friend of mine has a story or a book nominated, and he thinks it's a pretty good effort, so he gets on the phone and starts asking me and the rest of his buddies to make sure they read the work in question. What he really means is: read it if you get the time, but Jesus Christ, don't forget to vote for the sumbitch. [sic] Sometimes writers even forgo the proprieties and just call in old favors. ('Okay, I voted for that turgid piece of crap of your's last year -- now it's your turn in the barrel, old buddy.') And if you don't believe that goes on, then you must be one of those people who kept sending Jim and Tammy your money even after the brown matter hit the whirling blades.

"I can tell you personally, it's a fact of life. I've had plenty of friends ask for nominations and yeah, grunge that I am, I've asked friends to do the same for me -- although this sin was committed primarily back in my SFWA days. Worse, I've nominated stuff I didn't have time to read (and then weeks or months later went back to finally check out the piece -- only to discover it's a ghastly piece of dreck).

"Yeah, I know -- real slimy. But you gotta know I'm not alone on this one.  It's part of what greases the machinery's gears. ... Having seen the grievous error of my ways, I have since refused to participate in awards politicking or favor-trading." He adds: "I speak from the heights of Sagacity Peak and Mt. Experience here and not from the lowlands of SourGrape City. I received a Bram Stoker Award in 1993 for Superior Achievement in a Novel."

Monteleone speaks truth. I confess, I too have campaigned (mainly through zine ads) and been targeted by campaigns. Surely one of the most expensive Nebula campaigns in history was when Rob Sawyer sent unsolicited free paperbacks of his Terminal Experiment to (presumably all) Active SFWA members.

Sure enough, Sawyer snagged a Nebula. Whether because his was the best book, or the "best known," who can say? But if you're like me, you've read your share of award-winning turkeys, and have compiled your own list of overlooked gems. [Here's my list of shamefully neglected gems: Jonathan Aycliffe's literary vampire novel, The Lost, Todd Grimson's goth vampire novel, Stainless, Greg Egan's Quarantine and Permutation City, and Kurt Vonnegut's Timequake, which received but one Nebula nomination -- mine.]

Of course, I still covet awards -- but not because I think they mean anything. I value them as promotional tools, and the money they generate thereof.

Monteleone might scoff at that. Although acknowledging that awards sometimes boost careers, he demolishes the myth that they guarantee lasting financial success. In MAFIA he recounts the sad fates of two genre giants: Theodore Sturgeon and Fritz Leiber. Leiber alone had won "eight Hugos, four Nebulae, three World Fantasy(s), three Gilgameshes, in addition to a Derleth, a Stoker, British Fantasy, and a Balrog." Both men were wildly successful in terms of publishing credits, influence, and respect. Even so, "Both men spent the last decades of their lives in a constant struggle for survival beyond the basic amenities. ... both died with little recognition (outside genre fandom) for their immense talent."

Sturgeon too had a collection of awards, and Monteleone recounts a choice bit of gossip. Awed by Sturgeon's work, Monteleone anxiously awaited his first meeting with Sturgeon, in the Manhattan living room of a mutual friend. Upon hearing Sturgeon's entry, Monteleone turned around and ...

"I'm sitting on the couch and I am eye-level with what is always referred to as the groin. More accurately I'm face to face with Ted's flaccid dick and a rather stupendous set of nuts. ... I'm trying to act like everything is cool and I deal with this sort of thing all the time, but in the meantime there is a neon sign in my head, flaring and pulsing out a message, which says: YOU'VE JUST MET THEODORE STURGEON'S BALLS AND THEY'RE BIGGER THAN A PAIR OF KEY LIMES."

Turns out Sturgeon had become a practicing nudist. He behaves as if nothing is amiss, sits across from Monteleone "so serene and natural" and begins conversing. Monteleone leaves several hours later feeling sorry the "strange, sad, little man. He is into all kinds of tangential stuff -- from the more usual things like vegetarianism, mysticism, and other post-hippiedom vagaries, then ranging through nudism and into more esoteric territories I couldn't even recognize." But he adds that Sturgeon "was a gentle, sincere, incredibly sensitive person. ... Ted had no trouble being himself, and I'll always respect him for that."

 

 

Yes, I quote Monteleone extensively, but that's because he is so quotable. Peruse MAFIA at random and you will find each column enjoyable and relevant, written in prose that is erudite, colloquial, and eminently readable.

I said that MAFIA is more than shop talk and fan gossip. I said it includes political commentary. In a 1977 column, Monteleone was remarkably prescient in anticipating political correctness while it was still a glimmer. "A most amusing incident occurred about a year ago when one of SF's most highly regarded female writers wrote a scathing tirade to the SFWA Forum attacking one of SF's most highly regarded male writers, based in part on the guy's mention in his most recent novel of one of the male character's admiring the lovely motion of a female character's breasts bobbing about in zero-G. From what I gathered from the fusillade of letters that followed, the female writer was incensed about the inclusion of such things in modern SF proclaiming they should be roundly condemned, and -- this is important -- that the male writer should not write about this kind of sexist activity. That is patently absurd."

While favoring equal rights (and really, who doesn't?) Monteleone opposes restricting writers to certain subjects, or imposing quotas on characters, or publishing stories on criteria other than merit.  It seems so obvious, he laments, "God this is prosaic stuff." And in an annotation, he debunks "This 'gender' nonsense. Humans have sex, not gender. Gender is a grammatical term used ever since the days of Latin to distinguish the declension of nouns into categories called masculine, feminine, or neuter. The Politically Correct Robots somehow picked up the word 'gender' and have been throwing it around with their usual supercilious elitism. And they have been using it wrong." He also he decries an SF anthology open only to women writers. "That's pretty much the same as No Dogs or Jews Allowed, No Irishmen Need Apply. ... That anthology simply had no more business in existence than a book called GREAT SCIENCE FICTION BY WHITE GUYS."

Monteleone is well aware that women need no special help. In a 1990 column, he reports: "The majority of book editors in Manhattan are female -- and have been for the almost twenty years I've been involved with publishing professionally." And based on his slush pile experience, he explains how stories by women were generally both worse -- and better -- than stories by men.

Women surpassed men at providing "an underlying theme which deals with a search for some kind of emotional fulfillment that's often absent from men's writing. And if there is one element that makes women potentially better writers of HDF [horror/dark fantasy], it is this single factor -- because good horror or suspense writing requires an emotional response from the reader, and if things are really cooking, a multi-layered response, an emotional matrix, if you will, that leans on the keys of not only fear and loathing, but also sadness, regret, and yes, even love."

On the other hand, "Women's conflicts tend to spring from psychological conflicts rather than physical ones, and rarely from boojums and monsters. Yeah, ladies, you heard it here first -- you don't, ah ... give good creature." Women also write with more style. "I found the ladies' writing to be more lyrical, and more conscious of the traditional techniques of imagery, metaphor, and symbol.... men tend to write a more colorless, lean, fightin'-mean lines of prose." Women are worse at ending a story "with proper bang ... Their resolutions tend to be a bit on the flat side."

Monteleone's political and social commentary sometimes only tangentially broach the genre. In one column, he decries celebrity worship and skewers the idiocies and hypocrisies of Alec Baldwin, Barbra Streisand, "and a thousand other Hollywood assholes, who have used the camera as their bully pulpit, revealing themselves to be devoid of rational thought or knowledge. ... I continue to be amazed by the balls of Rosie O'Donnell who called for all guns to be outlawed and all gun-owners to be arrested, but who told reporters she thought it was perfectly all right for her bodyguards to carry concealed handguns."

 

 

As evidence of celebrity vapidity, he submits Celebrity Jeopardy "in which you can be treated to the bon mots and diatomaceous intellects of contestants such as Star Jones, David Hasselhoff, Cindy Crawford, and a thousand other Hollywood numb-heads. Gone are the categories of Shakespeare, Latin Etymology, Ancient History, Physics, and Biography -- replaced with quasi-pop groupings such as Films of the Nineties, TV Actors, State Capitols, and Cruise Ship Destinations. And still, these beautiful, famous people stumble and fumble and allow their jaws to run slack."

Monteleone's blue collar parents both worked so he could be taught by Jesuits, and he remains passionate for education. His son still illiterate by second grade, Monteleone investigated the school -- and found students facing each other (rather than the front) in "learning groups" so they could "help teach each other" while the teacher wandered about the classroom. Estimating that only 30% of the students ever paid attention to her at any time, Monteleone asked the teacher about the setup.

"She smiled with a saccharine patronizing smile and told me that was the 'old' way of teaching, and that it just wasn't done anymore. I nodded, and told how great that was, but I had some news for her: those kids weren't paying attention to her and they weren't equipped to 'teach themselves,' and that the desk set-up is very counter-productive to creating an environment where kids can be focused. In other words, they aren't learning Jack." The next day Monteleone enrolled his son in Catholic school "and within a few months hey! guess what!?, he was reading. (He was also more polite and attentive and well-behaved. Funny, huh?)"

Monteleone then tackles the whole education mess. He rips Clinton's plan to fund "(yet another) government program of an army of 'reading tutors' to make sure our children are reading by the third grade... If our teachers were doing their job, why would we even need this grand army of tutors? And, if they're NOT doing their jobs, why the fuck are we still paying them? And, what about having kids reading in the FIRST goddamned grade??? (... the way you and I did it.)"

Dismissing NEA excuses that private school kids come from privileged backgrounds, Monteleone retorts that 70% of Catholic schoolkids come from "middle class, two-parents working families."  He concludes with a scathing description of Education majors. "[W]hen I was in college, I met thousands of other students and without question or doubt, the most opaque, dull-witted, uninformed, unimaginative, unaware, unthinking people I encountered were, hands-down-no-contest, from the College of Education. They were largely a collection of very dim bulbs."

And in case you're wondering what this has to do with horror or publishing, Monteleone retorts that horror writers have no future if people can't read; nor can free societies (and freedom of expression) survive without widespread literacy. Additional columns expose the racist assumptions underlying Ebonics and the dumbing-down of standardized tests scores for minorities.

In a sense, MAFIA is horror's answer to National Review, and Monteleone is Bill Buckley with balls. Not that Monteleone mirrors Buckley's politics, only his intellect. Monteleone is more libertarian, someone who "believes in the truth and validity of such pesky and bothersome documents as the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the Federalist Papers, and the general idea that good government is less government." Though, after calling himself a libertarian, he adds, "Actually, I think I'm really more of a Jeffersonian or constitutional conservative."

Monteleone is wary of encroaching government. "[T]hings are happening in America today that are not just eroding our personal freedoms, but are out-and-out obliterating them. And I'm not talking about these bullshit pseudo-issues like prayer in schools, same-sex marriages, and the whole abortion red-flag that every half- assed corruptician in the country uses to one advantage or the other." He cites an ATF SWAT team raid on the Meuller household.

"By the time his wife reached the living room, she was shocked to see her husband forced to the floor, hands cuffed, and the business end of an assault rifle jammed up behind his ear. When she asked what was going on, one of the attackers told her to 'Shut up, bitch!' while another picked up the now-barking family dog by its collar and informed Mrs. Meuller to get the 'fucking dog to stop fucking barking, or I'm going to fucking shoot it.' ... The Meullers were dragged from their home and thrown into jail -- all on the uninvestigated word of a known criminal 'informant' who claimed they had a cache of illegal weapons in their home. This was complete bullshit, of course. No weapons. No nothing. Just a big mistake from our friends in the federal government.

"Good thing Mr. Meuller did not greet the gang of marauders bursting into his home with a firearm (in an attempt to protect himself and his family) ... he could have been murdered by the federal thugs, which is exactly what happened to Donald Scott of Malibu, California, after federal agents caved in his front door in a nighttime raid. Scott had been totally innocent. Another mistake by the folks who brought us the $800.00 hammer.

 

 

"Banks are required by the 'Bank Privacy Act' (a typical example of current, government-1984-ese) to tell just about ANY government agency everything they know about you and your accounts and your financial practices, habits, or plans. ... We are losing our personal freedoms in this country, and if the socialists who are trying to take over America get their way, we will continue to lose more of them."

MAFIA teems with strong opinions and "in your face" passages like the one targeting Education majors. It's not a book for the squishy, New Agey sort of person who's always seeking a "safe area" where one is assured support and affirmation. Monteleone isn't cruel, only tell-it-like-he-sees-it, but that can seem cruel to readers who only want to read Happy Thoughts.

And there are a surprisingly large number of "dark poets and writers" who, despite their self-ballyhooed "darkness", seem to have confused horror with the Hundred Acre Woods.  Many of these Dark Poohs reside in the HWA, which has long been riven over the issue of membership tiers. [Until recently, anyone could join HWA as an Associate for the price of admission, but you needed a scant minimum of professional sales to join as an Active and receive voting privileges.  Some Associates saw that as "elitist."]

Monteleone blames this internal class envy for the decline of HWA as a professional association.  In "A Heinous History of the Hardly Writing Association" (perhaps his most controversial column) he reports that HWA was founded about 1988 by Name authors -- those who had the respect of publishers and were prominently listed on anthology covers. But as the number of less established Actives (those "credited" on anthology covers as "And-Others") and Associates increased, resentment simmered. Attempts to appease the have-nots with lowered admission standards and more Stoker award categories (so more members had a chance to win something) failed to halt the vicious flaming of those nasty "elitists" in HWA's online GEnie forums.

By the late 1990s, the battle lines were drawn. "[T]hat's how it finally came down: the And-Others declared war on the Names. And it's no secret how it came out. Over a month or two in which a new election slated representatives of both factions, the internecine conflict ended with the rebels defeating the evil, complacent, and bumbling Empire in the election, which sparked off a new round of various Names' heads being displayed on cyber-spears. What happened next was most likely inevitable and probably the wish-fulfillment of most of the And-Others' wet­test of dreams -- about 95% of the Old Guard, the Names, essentially said what any self-respecting person would say, which is, of course: 'Fuck this.'"

The Names didn't need HWA, they already had lucrative careers, so they quietly left by not renewing their memberships, leaving behind a "professional" horror writers association with few prominent horror professionals. Atlas shrugged.

Monteleone's "Heinous History" (still discussed at the 2003 World Horror Con) was followed by cyber-flames and irate letters, including from a writer denouncing HWA's former "elitist clique" and their "discrimination and hostility" and the need to level the playing field.

MAFIA reprints her letter in full and Monteleone's response: "What you can't seem to grasp is that there is no disdain for new or aspiring writers, and never was, but there was (and should be) a HIERARCHY in HWA, and like all other things in the UNIVERSE, an application of the Bell Curve.  Here's a head's up: success and achievement have to be earned. I heard the plaintive cry of whining socialist in you with this 'leveling the playing field' crapola.

"Listen, Madame, the playing field is NOT level, and never has been, and never will be. It is the essence of competition, achievement, and failure.  It is natural selection -- that thing that all underachiever disavow. Read Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand and wake up. You rail against the big wheel writers who are RESPONSIBLE for the success of the genre and the rest of you. You are like the workers who hate the wealthy industrialist who runs the company (the company he built from a dream and sweat and RISK ... the company none of the workers had the balls or the vision to create themselves). The world has leaders and it has followers.  It has big dogs and little dogs. Welcome to the pound, baby.

"What HWA was trying to do was remove the line of demarcation between all levels of professional writers ('let's all be brothers and sisters!') and have everybody treated the same whether you sold your book to Random House or to the chop house. Sorry, but if you do that, then your intended 'clout' and influence with the publishers (those mean guys who take all the RISK by buying your books in the first place) is diluted because you are perceived as mostly amateurs calling yourselves professionals.

"If you don't have a level to strive to, guess what? Nobody strives. Did you ever wonder why the world market never clamored for any Soviet stereos or toasters?"

Yet another choice passage from a massive book replete with choice passages. Fifty columns -- count 'em, fifty! -- and each of them a gem. This review only skims a few columns, so despite my extensive quotes, know that there's A WHOLE LOT MORE of Monteleone in this book.

MAFIA offers not only knowledge, but wisdom. Whether one's interest is in the writing life, or publishing, or Hollywood, or simply insight into how political and societal issues resonate within the genre communities, one will find MAFIA entertaining and enlightening.

Review copyright by Thomas M. Sipos

 

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