26 February 2009

I’m glad Max Magee at TheMillionsBlog.com distilled this for us last week — because even in its distilled form, it hurts my head.  Read here about the new Amazon Kindle, versus mobile Google Books.  

Will e-books take over the world?  Will the publishing industry go the way of the music industry?  Most writers hope not, and many readers too.  I just, for example, got the estimated page count for Long For This World from my publisher (288), and a little thrill shot through me.  Pages.  I started to imagine and wonder about paper stock, dimensions, font… 

But the good news, of course, is that literature will be more accessible to more people in more formats.  Theoretically.  We’ll see (cautious optimism / managed pessimism, etc.)…



25 February 2009

The recent press on Caroline Kennedy’s awkward bid for Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat has me thinking about awkward self-promotion in general.  At a party shortly after CK’s announcement to seek the seat, a guest recalled that, when asked about it, “She folded her arms over her chest…and disappeared into herself—a characteristic gesture.” 

When I encounter other artists who seem perfectly at ease promoting their work — and promoting it aggressively, either in person or via any number of on-line venues — I think wow.  I think how do they do it.  I think, a little, ew.  When I send out an email announcing something — this blog, a reading, a bit of good news — I feel, a little, gross.

I don’t think Caroline Kennedy has low self-esteem — not any lower than your average person anyway.  

Caroline Kennedy’s friends are always saying how normal she is, and it appears that they are right. Normal people do not run for the Senate.

A political consultant who is also a friend of CK’s said, “Most of us have modesty impulses—you don’t want to brag—and you have to learn to defy these basic human impulses and say, ‘I am the greatest, and here is why you need me for this job,’ and do it without any hesitation or any doubt. Which is inhuman.”  Or maybe super-human?  

I think sometimes that, for artists, there are two distinct kinds of ego: the ego to create, and the ego to promote.  If one has the ego to create, but the primary audience is the self, then the ego to promote doesn’t much come into it.

Last week I got my first taste of awkward publicity.  They say no publicity is bad publicity, but… awkward publicity might be the exception to this.  My high school class secretary somehow got hold of a stock bio I use for things like readings or teaching; it includes publishing credits, awards, etc. (I think I’d included him on the e-mail list when I sent an announcement for a reading last summer; attached was a press release, which included my bio).  So that bio got printed, in full, in the alumni class notes.  It read like a commercial.  It read like I’d sent it in to be included in the class notes.  To me, it read like ew.

At some point, self-promotion becomes less about ego and more about survival:  if I do not sell books, I cannot support myself as a writer.  Ms. Kennedy, however, was not in survival mode, because fortunately for her, she had a pretty good fall-back plan: she now gets to go back to being Caroline Kennedy.  

And you know, I begrudge her not; in fact, I’m thinking, if I had had that fall-back plan, I probably would have done the same.  


(quotes source: Larissa McFarquhar’s profile of Caroline Kennedy in The New Yorker)

24 February 2009

So my friend Mimi, Facebook Queen Extraordinaire, has informed me that the default “is” of Facebook status updates has just been eliminated.  Ha ha!  

See my February 20 post for details on the prescient profundity of this change vis-a-vis the tyranny, I mean ascendance, of micro-blogging. An active-verb revolution has begun…

23 February 2009

Today, I learn about permissions.

I’d hoped to use an excerpt from a Louise Gluck poem for the epigraph to Long For This World.  The author (me) is responsible for securing reprint permissions, so after reading over (three times) a document from my publisher which describes how to do this (I’m still not 100% clear on the legalese) I find the Rights & Permissions page at Farrar Straus and Giroux (Gluck’s publisher) and discover this:

We do not allow editing or re-titling of any selection. Your selection must be reproduced verbatim, as a continuous, uninterrupted excerpt, without alteration, deletion, editing, abridgement or condensation

Well, darn.  The entire poem would be too long for an epigraph.

The part of the permissions-explaining document which I understood very clearly was this:

For poets who have been dead more than 70 years, you do not need permissions.

I have no idea who came up with the 70 years rule (or why); but it’s a good thing I had Rilke (1875-1926) in mind as a backup.

20 February 20009

So I’m recovering from yesterday’s post, still considering the apparent fact that not only is the novel dead (passé, at the least), but blogging’s got one foot in the grave as well.  The”now” now, the “it,” is micro-blogging.

I’ve not Twittered, but I’ve observed and tried out the Facebook “status update”:  Sonya is surfing Amazon, one might write on her Facebook homepage, for all her “friends” to see.  Sonya is combing her dog for fleas.  Sonya is off to bed now, good night!  The updates I love-to-hate are the ones which simultaneously thumb their noses and make poetry of Facebook’s default (passive) “is” in the posting box:  Jill is Puerto Rico!  Jane is every day is a winding road!

I have my doubts about a story-in-micro-blog-fragments, a la Goodreads.com; but who knows, the haiku form has flourished and inspired verses of depth and breadth and mystery for centuries.  

But the greater literary potential of the micro-blog, I think, might be found in Virginia Woolf’s notion of “moments of being” (from her book of the same title).  Moments of being are those flashes of insight, of heightened spiritual and sensual awareness, which grace us from time to time in the midst of lives which are comprised mostly of “non-being” — that greater part of life which is “not lived consciously,” but instead embedded in “a kind of nondescript cotton wool.”  Artists may experience moments of being as they work, or as inspiration to work (we writers keep our notebooks on hand for just this purpose).

And now, Facebookers-and-Twitterers-all can take moments out of the day for “being.”  How about suggesting to Facebook to replace the default “is” with a moment-of-being verb like wonders or envisions, sensory verbs like sees, hears, feels, hungers.  In that Facebook world, I might actually read all my news feeds.

19 February 2009

Goodreads.com is having a micro-blogging writing contest:

The novel is passé. The short story is outmoded. Even Lonelygirl15’s videoblog is yesterday’s news. The new medium of creativity is the status update. Aficionados of Twitter and Facebook understand the power of instant communication. We’re taking it one step further: Can you tell your friends a story using only your Goodreads status updates?

I am a little speechless.  More on this as I micro-process it in my micro-mind.

17 February 2009

“It’s not that he’s a Luddite — he buys songs on iTunes and does late-night YouTubing like everyone else — or a misanthrope who believes that art was better in someone else’s day.  ‘I know there’s great stuff out there.  But I don’t want to be influenced by stuff that’s going on around me.  I’m more interested in consuming stuff that’s stood the test of time and the hard work of filtering has already happened…’

“For Mr. Ward… success has been a slow and steady build.  In the decade since he moved to Portland to record his first album, he has supported himself through music —  a reflection of the city’s livability as well as his career as a sideman.”  

Part of my ongoing tracking of other “analogians.”  See what else indie musician M. Ward has to say about the “homemade” in this NY Times article (2/15/09).  Ward’s new album released today.

It’s all happening in Portland these days, isn’t it?  I hope the city is able to keep its DIY soul for years to come. Speaking of which, check out my friend Elizabeth Dye’s blog.  After grad school, where we first met, E. decided she wanted to “teach herself how to sew.”  Now she’s an acclaimed fashion designer and co-owner of The English Dept, a boutique in Portland.   


16 February 2009

“My mother’s was, I think, a nineteenth-century consciousness… this is far from the register in which ambition expresses itself in the early twenty-first century.  A reader looking for irony will find none.”  --David Rieff on the early journals of his mother Susan Sontag

(So I’m almost done with the Sontag journals.)

Long for This World is a novel in which a traditional rural culture and modern (media) culture collide.  Its “register,” for me, is hard to pinpoint — I will leave that to readers and critics.  But I will say that, for the most part, “a reader looking for irony will find none.”  

I got nothin’ against irony.  As a writer, I enjoy riffing in ironic registers as much as the next guy.  Here’s a draft passage from my novel-in-progress, Sebastian & Frederick:

Joe Sonnenberg was, among other things, a superb arguer.  His penchant—more like zeal—for nose-bloodying debate (always above the belt, but sharp weaponry permitted) created the exact conditions, the parameters, in which I felt free to chuck things against the wall and see what would stick.  Joe was our Socrates and our Ali in one. “The question, Lee, is who the fuck cares?  You’re sinking dangerously into the swamp of subjectivity here.  The general reader doesn’t care enough about you to care about the boyhood memory that came to you when you entered that interrogation room. Get your goddamned childhood outta there, for Chrissakes…”

Joe was a newspaper man, a Senior News Editor, before coming to World.  It was a controversial hire, he was much more rough-and-tumble—a yeller, a gesticulator, a phone-slammer, with black brillo-pad hair and giant hands—than the refined Marsden Letts (Yalie, author, curator, lecturer) who preceded him.  But the magazine had begun losing readership during the last years of the Letts reign, alienating, they used to joke, Gerard and Gillian Master’s Degree, who couldn’t get beyond all-but-dissertation and thus missed the subtle intonations of Lettsian World intellect and humor.  Joe Sonnenberg may have been rougher ’round the edges than some, but the hiring circle—that’s what they called it, a circle—and anyone who’d ever worked with Joe, knew that his mind was as sharp and brilliantly nuanced as any; and that he understood the business of media.   

What fun, writing this passage! And yet, who knows if it will make the cut in later drafts.  An ironic voice is not easy to sustain, not if it’s also going to be compelling and on some level trustworthy.  The truth is, my natural temperament, and my novelistic interests, are probably, like Sontag’s, more 19th-century than 21st-century.  

This is a journal where art is seen as a matter of life and death… And [Sontag] never lacked for people who tried to get her to relax.

Sontag would never have been a blogger.  Too much built-in expectation for blip and byte, for irony and entertainment.  

Well, God help me; 11-and-a-half  months to go…


13 February 2009

An article in the January 19 issue of Wired magazine by Steven Levy captures my feelings about social networking — “Author’s Online Activities” — aptly. He writes about the inevitable cycles of under- and over-participation:

…driven by guilt, I try to pitch in. I post Facebook status reports, send iPhone snapshots to Flickr, link my Netflix queue with FriendFeed. But as my participation increases, I invariably suffer another psychic downside of social networking: remorse… It’s one thing to share intimacies person- to-person. But with a community? Creepy.

Creepy, indeed. 

And yet, here we are.  I’ve not yet read Susan Sontag’s recently published journals, but here’s a pull-quote I’m chewing on:  

In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could do to any person; I create myself.  

Is the blog the modern journal?  Sontag might say so: One of the main (social) functions of a journal is precisely to be read furtively by other people.

Do we think, then, that blogging can be generative in itself, and not just the chatter which comments on or points (links, etc) us to substance?   I wonder: do bloggers — in putting themselves to the virtual page almost daily, for others to behold and ingest — actually build a thinking and creating self?  

(Literary memoirist David Shields has been thinking and writing on this — the phenomenon of “reality” writing — for a long time and has much smarter things to say about it than I.   I’m not sure how much he’s explored (divulged) the effects/experience of self-revealing writing on the writer himself…  but check out his forthcoming book, Reality Hunger.)

11 February 2009

AUTHOR QUESTIONNAIRE — Question # 33) For what audience is your book primarily written?

What a question. What I mean is, that’s quite a question. For one thing, it assumes there exists an answer.

From the writer’s perspective, it is not unlike–is in fact related to–the question of why we write. And the answer, I confess, is not so noble or generous as one might hope…

I write for myself. In other words, I am the audience for which my book is primarily written.  “The only reader [the writer] can know anything about is himself,” wrote Flannery O’Connor.  

But so as not to upset my publisher, I give it another go.  I think less in terms of demographics, and more in terms of bookshelves:  if you have these books on your bookshelf, then my book is, generally speaking, written for you.  What would those books be?  Here is where I need an Amazon.com mathematician, the guys (or gals) who create the algorithms for “Your Recommendations”–if you liked Attack of the Disco Rice, you’ll also like… 

The question, I suspect, is formulated for an answer that looks something more like this: women, professional, 30-65; gay men, 25-45; possessors of a passport; HBO subscribers.

Seriously, though, let’s go at it straight:  Long For This World is written for people who read literature for both pleasure and meaning.  I think I could slap that on the product label and feel pretty good about it.

8 February 2009

So I’m late to the Facebook party, and, as a words person, the first order of business is mastering the lingo…

One of the most palpable and, for me, unnerving, effects of online social networking is the redefinition of the word “friend.”

In Facebook parlance, “friend” is both verb and noun.  To friend someone is to propose connection of your Facebook worlds (profile, photos, Friend lists, updates, etc), granting full access to one another.  The friending action must be confirmed by a click on the other side, must be mutual.

So far so good.  But most people will tell you that a Facebook-friend is a specific phenomenon, not to be confused with a friend-friend; that Facebook is in fact an effective way to non-communicate — to communicate in a flat, by-passing sort of way, in a hey, in case you were wondering, but, you know, it’s cool if you weren’t wondering kind of way — with people who are by and large not your friend-friends…  

Which is strangely alluring, of course, especially if you are a busy person.  To communicate without having to individuate.  To communicate while also circumventing communication. To simulate communication.  Not unlike, oh, I dunno…writing fiction?

But it’s the flattening that throws me. What to say — and how to say it — to “everyone”? I tell my writing students that particulars and specifics make up the stuff of good fiction — because life is specific, not generic. Not abstract. In that spirit, here’s a particular from L.’s post to my Facebook “wall”– a tip for a new FB-user — that made my day:

The “become a fan” feature can be cool. Every morning your headlines tell you that someone has become a fan of Angela Davis, or Aretha Franklin’s Inaugural Hat, or Kafka or Rilke. Sadly, it also informs you if someone has become a fan of “Bacon.”

FB - Fans of Bacon


   Bacon?!   Mmm… bacon.  

   Now, one wonders: what does it mean exactly to be a “fan”…?

February 2009 – Here We Go… The First Post

Well, hello.  Thanks for visiting.  This blog is mostly about my forthcoming novel Long For This World, but is also padded with a healthy dose of literary miscellany. 

In January I received from my editor’s assistant a 55-question Author Questionnaire.  It’s the source document they will use “to present your book to our sales and marketing teams,” she wrote.   Most of the questions inquired about group affiliations and potential market audiences; the last 13 questions fell under the category “Author’s Online Activities.”   Uh-oh, I thought.

Are you on Facebook?  Do you have a Web site?  These questions seem to have replaced What do you do? and What’s your sign? or even How’ve you been? in our social interchanges. (I can’t help but consider the contrast with traditional greetings in some African cultures–How is it with the children?–or Korean culture–Have you had breakfast?)

There are so many reasons why mass online social networking, blogging, and instant messaging (instant anything) feel just plain wrong to the writer of literary fiction.  Not wrong in a moral sense; more like an ill-fitting-shoes or bad-haircut sense.  

But more on that as we go along.  (I’d get into it now, but, well, I should try to keep posts short, right?)

For now, here we go.  Once upon a time there was the book tour.  Now we have “Author’s Online Activities.”  Please come along on this wild ride with me. 

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