October 02, 2014

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Have you heard that big, bad Amazon is destroying the book industry? To be more accurate, they”€™re plowing the major publishers under: ah, nobility in tears. I”€™m not a fan of the sheer volume of garbage that’s being dumped out on Kindle myself, and the new landscape is a pain to navigate. But the old one was worse. Call me a philistine, but after decades of watching agents and editors push stuffy litfic at the public while good books die in the slush pile, I”€™m afraid that if Amazon mows them all down, I”€™ll have to respectfully spit on their graves.

Take Chris Hernandez, a military fiction author and journalist who draws on his experience as a cop and in the Army and Marines. I enjoy the solid tales he writes”€”but I”€™m fed up to the gills with path-to-publication stories like the one he’s lived.

Hernandez’s blog recently made a little splash with a neat officer’s-eye debunking of the insane “€œUnarmed teenager!”€ propaganda coming out of Ferguson, but his forte is the novel. His second book, Line in the Valley, made its hard copy debut a couple of weeks ago on a tiny imprint after a few months as an ebook. The style is realistic, the story speculative: before the U.S. drew down in Iraq and Afghanistan, the National Guard in the far southern states was stretched out”€”short on men, weapons, and armored vehicles. What fresh hells might have broken loose if a well-equipped enemy had attacked the border while we were ragged and thin?

“€œThe real problem was that his unromantic approach was unfit for the “€˜educated, upper-middle-class liberal women”€™ that the majors consider their audience.”€

The prose is simple, assonant, and thick with the chewy ethical dilemmas to which the moral morass of warfare is heir; the first few chapters, when the Guard troops are desperate for Marine support to arrive and don”€™t know who’s behind the brutal onslaught, are deeply unsettling. The following sections pile firefight on top of firefight, and the point of view is swapped among several main characters, but this civilian reader was never bored or confused as the logically seamless narration carried the action along.

Unfortunately, Hernandez went through some serious soul-slaughtering to find a publisher, he says”€”and that’s coming from a guy who’s seen his friends killed on foreign soil.

“€œThe publishing industry is so insular and focused on such a specific audience that they aren”€™t interested in anything which doesn”€™t appeal to that audience,”€ Hernandez tells me.

When he began shopping his first book he knew it wasn”€™t perfect”€””€œI”€™m not Shakespeare”€”€”but it didn”€™t seem to matter how skillfully he wrote. The real problem, as a literary agent once confessed to him while drunk, was that his unromantic approach was unfit for the “€œeducated, upper-middle-class liberal women”€ that the majors consider their audience. This stereotypical New Yorker-reading lady has come to be the publishers”€™ only friend through their own self-fulfilling prophecy: they believe she’s the only person reading, they release books that cater slavishly to her tastes, and, indeed, she’s the only one who reads them.

Hernandez wasted years trying to find an agent. (The agent system is a lovely feature of the publishing structure that Amazon is so cruelly dismantling: big publishers won”€™t even consider a writer who’s not been vetted by one of these commission-based literary barnacles.) He gamely asked the agents who rejected him for advice, but he got the feeling their idea of “€œimprovement”€ was to make his stuff hew as close to a cash-cow formula as possible.

“€œLee Child‘s agent read an excerpt from Line and told me I don’t know how soldiers and cops really talk,”€ says Hernandez, a veteran cop of 20-plus years who toured as a soldier in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Child is a veteran British TV flunky.) “€œIf I wanted to know how they really talk I should read a Jack Reacher novel. I pretty much gave up on the mainstream publishing industry after that.”€

Over here in reality, the dialogue was the first thing about Hernandez’s writing that hooked me. The mysterious enemy is introduced almost entirely through terse, witty dialogue in an intelligence meeting; where movie and TV productions sometimes fail to create such a dreadful atmosphere with all the actors and effects and musical cues they have at their disposal, Hernandez carries it off with nothing but words. On a technical level, the military jargon and battle slang are unobtrusively translated every time they need to be. (But that’s just my opinion, I suppose, and I find publishing-speak to be gibberish in its entirety.)

In the end, Hernandez wound up finding his publisher through the bloody television, like a prole.


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