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Review by
Thomas M. Sipos
by Thomas F. Monteleone
Borderlands Press
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 BOOK BUSINESS (1989), 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 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, crony-ism, 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.

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."

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'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?)"

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."

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.

Five BookWyrms

This review copyright 2003 E.C.McMullen Jr.

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