30 March 2009

Crudely speaking, it seems a “good” time to be a writer of color.  Cross-cultural and transnational narratives are, dare I say, popular these days.  The perspective of the “other” creeps its way into the mainstream cultural psyche little by little.  Consider the obvious example of President Obama’s best-selling memoir Dreams From My Father, and the even more obvious point that we elected Mr. Obama to the Presidency with a 52% popular majority. Other literary examples abound (Zadie Smith, Junot Diaz, Jhumpa Lahiri, et alia).

Today, I face the issue of Korean-language anglicization in the manuscript of Long For This World.  John the copyeditor, with his Irish-Scottish surname, seems to know more about this than I do, oddly — or maybe not so oddly — enough.  He writes:

There are two systems currently in use: the official Korean one introduced in 2000; and the more familiar but less accurate McCune-Reischauer from the 1930s, which is still used by ALA and the Library of Congress. 

I consider two primary issues here, which needn’t necessarily be in opposition, but which might well be:  1) ease of reading for the average English-speaker, and 2) fidelity to pronunciation.  Protocol of systems, as stated above, matter less to me personally.

Re: 1) — hyphens are not typically used in either of the accepted systems, but I can’t help but wonder if they would help to break up the visual jumble of words like, say, jeonbokjuk (abalone stew) or sinseollo (an elaborate hotpot dish made for royalty).  Jeon-bok-juk?  Sin-seol-lo?  Latin-based-language speakers, your thoughts most welcome.

Re: 2) — a friend recently complained to me about the anglicization of our shared surname, i.e. “Chung,” which, in Korean, is really “Jung” or even “Jhung,” with a soft, aspirated lead consonant.  (“Chung” makes us Chinese, which is a whole political-history ball of wax in itself.)  Thus daenjang chigae (stinky soy bean stew), as it’s often anglicized, really should be daenjang jjigae.  Similarly, panchan (all those little appetizer plates that you get before the main course at a Korean restaurant) would be banchan.

I’m just about ready to break for lunch here, now that I’ve whetted my appetite; but before I do, another case in point regarding the ever-globalizing world: the NY Times online today offers in the header the option of switching from the “US Edition” to the “Global Edition,” which I’ve just done for my home page.  The major difference, today, is the headline, “Gunmen Storm School in Pakistan” (and a “Global Spotlight” box in the upper-right corner) vs. “Obama Issues Ultimatum to Carmakers.”  These days, I guess it’s mostly a matter of whose bad news you want first.

26 March 2009

Click here for a story from NPR’s “All Things Considered” about Digital Rights Management (DRM) issues in the e-book industry.  

The question is whether DRM protects authors and publishers, or if it limits potential audiences. In the music industry, some argue, laxness about DRM is what crippled record companies and kept artists from making money.  Others argue that the more widely and easily available an artist’s work, the more likely the word will spread and sales will increase.

Everything topsy turvy, the commerce of books in flux.

23 March 2009

My dear editor Alexis Gargagliano is featured in a “Q&A With Four Young Editors” article in the March/April issue of Poets & Writers Magazine.  

On the topic of self-promotion, Alexis says this:

I think there’s a stigma that it’s a negative thing. It’s really an extension of that deep involvement we were talking about earlier [in the conversation]. It’s about being really passionate about your book. It’s a way to figure out how to make the world of your book bigger, and to give other people access to it. I think it’s helpful if authors can wrap their heads around looking at it from a different perspective. I have a lot of authors who are afraid to go out there. They think it’s about them. It’s actually about the book. It’s about the writing. It’s not about you personally.

Get yourself out of the way, so that the book can have a life, she seems to be saying.  Maybe analogous to parents and their budding teenagers.  Except in this case, getting out of the way means that the writer must actually get more involved.   Wyatt Mason  has it right — a weird little business, indeed.

20 March 20009

In approaching a few writers to read the manuscript of Long For This World and possibly provide blurbs, I’ve been surprised by a more-than-once response, which goes something like: I’d be happy to read it, but you should know that I will only blurb it if I absolutely love it.

My first (inner) response is, Well, of course; why would you praise something falsely? Followed by Hmm, I suppose that response implies that it is not uncommon for writers to praise work falsely.

“Falsely” is too strong.  The common practice, I believe, is for writers to praise what they love about the work of writers in whom they believe.  In other words, the commitment is personal, rather than work-specific.

Wyatt Mason of Harper’s writes this week in his blog about the role of friendship in the making of literary careers.  Quoting T.S. Eliot in a letter to the benefactor John Quinn:

I am sorry to say that I have found it uphill and exasperating work trying to impose [James] Joyce on such “intellectual” people, or people whose opinion carries weight as I know, in London. He is far from being accepted, yet. I only know two or three people, besides my wife and myself, who are really carried away by him. 

Mason goes on to comment:

Quality is the key to any serious literary endurance, yes, but friendship is underrated as a critical tool. Anyone can write a blurb extolling, adverbially, the “fearlessly brilliant” and “daringly brave” (?) qualities of some someone’s latest something. But not everyone will write and circulate defenses of under-known works and undervalued artists, try to raise cash for the strapped genius, advocate in public and push in private for the virtues of the great but obscure… We forget, now and again, in the careerist whirl of the weird little business that is made of writing, how much altruism there is among those who do this sort of work.

Of course we’d rather believe in a pure meritocracy, but as Mason points out, it’s not so either/or.  As in any field of work or path to success, there’s some element of luck/good fortune that comes into it.  And the magic of the altruistic personal touch is still alive and well.

My editor and I will hope for some good fortune, but as far as blurbs go, we may just have to do this the old-fashioned way.  In the words of the late John Houseman: we’ll have to earn it.

18 March 2009

Denis Johnson is among the most talented writers alive.  He is one of those writers whose prose is so good, reading it often makes me want to quit.  But in a good way.

Since I’m currently writing a politician-character (Frederick of my novel-in-progress Sebastian & Frederick), I have my eye out for interesting political fiction.  Johnson’s character Mike Reed in The Name of the World once worked for a US Senator.  Another character asks Reed about the experience:

In D.C. I experienced what I once heard called ‘the temptation to be good.’ It’s a curse.  As soon as it hit me I got confused.  I still don’t know if, by quitting, I gave in to a bad temptation, or managed to resist a good one… There’s a perfect stillness at the center of Washington…It’s natural to talk about it in paradoxes…Everything in the world is going on there, but nothing’s happening.  It’s all essential, but it’s all completely pointless.  The motives are virtuous, but whatever you do just stinks. And then you retire with great praise.

I’m only about halfway through The Name of the World — a slim little book which is my warm-up to Tree of Smoke.  But already it has me threatening (to myself) to pack it in.

16 March 2009

Follow-up to March 8 post….

It’s over-stating to use the word “sin” in regards to Facebook, of course — but the notion of Facebook (as a symbolic stand-in for social networking in general) as a social “good” going “bad,” in a way that calls for a break — a veritable spiritual cleansing — gives one pause.

(Another FB friend reports “taking a break from the Internet” in her Facebook status update. “Call me,” she writes.)

In the NYTimes Sunday Mag this week, Peggy Orenstein writes about the generational  dynamics of Facebook.  For 30-and-40-and 50-somethings, Facebook has become a way of  reconnecting — for better or for worse — with past selves, via old friends and acquaintances from youth.  For today’s youth, Facebook might end up being the way in which one never loses touch with that self — or those youth-associated relations — in the first place.  Facebook’s “most profound impact,” she writes,

“may be to alter, even obliterate, conventional notions of the past, to change the way young people become adults… college was my big chance to doff the roles in my family and community that I had outgrown, to reinvent myself, to get busy with the embarrassing, exciting, muddy, wonderful work of creating an adult identity. Can you really do that with your 450 closest friends watching, all tweeting to affirm ad nauseam your present self?”

My guess is that for us older folk, the novelty of Facebook wears off after the initial surge of participation — exploring features, finding old friends, satiating that hunger for instant social gratification.  Hence the need for a “break.”  A bit of binge-and-purge, then hopefully a leveling off to a more reasonable and managed and individualized participation.  

One of the great and profound hallmarks of adulthood is the capacity to both pursue and experience “difficult pleasures” — reading a book that requires some intellectual effort, for example.  The concern might be that Facebook, for the younger generations, would encourage perpetual adolescence; that instead of serving as a kind of fun side-story to a fully-realized adult life, it will in fact supplant adult life, will become the very architecture of a life, and preclude the possibilities of more difficult pleasures.

Today, I’m going with an optimistic outlook (spring is in the air, after all).  Social networking is evolving so quickly (remember Friendster? Orenstein writes), it’s certainly possible that Facebook will simply “grow up” along side its users.  Interestingly, the status update has just recently changed from the default “Mary is…” (What are you doing right now?) to a blank box with a new header question: 

“What’s on your mind?”

Be thoughtful human beings, the Facebook people seem to be saying.  Take a moment to think about what you want to report.

12 March 2009

I’m stealing this from themillionsblog.com, click here for the originating post.

Click here for my original post on a recent profile of the late David Foster Wallace.


cover   cover

People I trust (men, mostly, though) love both these books.  I’ve not read either. One does wonder about the conversation at that marketing meeting, where the Netherland paperback design was decided. Not much of an attempt at all to veil the strategy, it seems to me.  Or is this another sausage/laws situation?

10 March 2009

Author Questionnaire, Question # 42) List other books on the same subject now on the market, or in preparation, with which your book will compete, or will appear, e.g. to booksellers, to compete.

Boy.  This one might serve as a hearty meal to hungry sociologists — particularly the “or will appear” part.  Ethnic studies departments, too.

I list 3 recent novels I know of by Korean American female authors.  All acclaimed, none of which I’ve read, since I try not to read too much contemporary fiction while I’m in draft mode on my own fiction.  Or if I do, I’ll usually read something dramatically different from my own work.

But here’s the point: for all I know, each one of these 3 novels is dramatically different from my own work.  Probably so.  And yet… it is likely that they will indeed “appear to compete” (I don’t like this word here, for many reasons, but I’m quoting directly).

I hope this isn’t one of those “remorse” posts.  Question 42) may just fall into the too-much-information category, a la the political joke, “There are two things you don’t want to know too much about as far as how they get made: laws and sausages.” 

But maybe my mind is jumping too fast, too narrow.  

Here’s an even narrower thought:  since, in reality, many people (myself included) DO judge books by their covers… might this question be better answered when we have the bookstore visual?  As in, I always get those two books confused — you know, the ones that both have photographs of belly-dancers whispering into the ears of marmots on the cover?

We’re making our list for possible back-cover blurbers.  I recently read a Publisher’s Weekly blurb on the back cover of a short-story collection by a Japanese American writer that read, “Fans of Amy Tan will love this.”  No disrespect at all to Ms. Tan — and in fact all due respect for breaking ground for this generation of writers — but is this necessarily the way this needs to work?  

Presumably, shorthand is all we have when getting the word out about a new novel in a sea of novels… but I wonder if we can’t, a la my favorite President these days, elevate our conception of our prospective audience.  “The American people know better than that,” candidate Obama often said.  And I so very much have wanted to believe him.


8 March 2009

A friend has just reported to me that he’s given up Facebook for Lent.  

There are so many levels of resonance to that — especially as I blog here about the strangeness and dissonance of social networking — and  I can’t seem to stop thinking/musing about it…

Maybe what it’s triggered for me is a whole psycho-sociological thought-path that is now leading into spiritual realms, i.e. the layers beneath the expression “guilty pleasure” and what it is that millions of people really “get” out of Facebook.  

More soon, after I stop giggling… (if you’re reading this, JC, you know I’m not laughing AT you, I’m laughing WITH you.)

7 March 2009

This post will be a bit of a tangent — except insofar as it does have to do with literary commerce and consumption.

I am pretty irked by DT Max’s profile this week of the late David Foster Wallace in The New Yorker.  I will try to sum up my response as succinctly as I can, since a) this is a blog, and b) if I rant too much I risk remorse, a la Steven Levy.

The profile is quite long and documents DFWs long struggle with depression and anxiety — both psychological and artistic (if these two can even be distinguished).  DT Max shows us how Wallace wrestled with the meaning of existence in a deep way, in a way that made the writing of his final (unfinished) novel a veritable battle for personal hope.

Max gives us a compelling portrait of a man trying to both satisfy and calm his soul via his work (and, as Max describes in detail, via a variety of prescribed medications)… and who, toward the end of his life, hungered more and more for a kind of “adult sanity.” But then he concludes the article — after detailing the last few days of Wallace’s life and his death-by-hanging in his home — with this:

Green [DFW's wife] returned home at nine-thirty, and found her husband. In the garage, bathed in light from his many lamps, sat a pile of nearly two hundred pages. 

Max goes on to deduce that this was DFWs parting “message,” the manuscript was all.

Throughout the article, Max draws us into the pain and anxiety of this talented man struggling with what it meant to be, as Wallace himself put it, a “fucking human being.” But here at the end, he takes us from his wife finding her dead husband hanging, right to “bathed in light… sat a pile of nearly two hundred pages.”

I was first startled, and then truly disgusted, that the writer would turn the article so abruptly, and then end it, with PAGES — bathed in light.  As if the pages are the man, as if the pages mean more than the man; which is sophomoric, pseudo-artistic crap.  The man lived with a woman, his wife, and they made a life of love together.  As an artist and a man, he suffered much distress.  Pages bathed in light?  

There will likely be much hullabaloo around the publication of said pages next year.  I hope we can control ourselves — all this oggling and deifying (and inevitable crass commercializing) of an artist who had a very hard time of it… as many do.  

Read the whole article.  Tell me what you think.

5 March 2009

I’ve posted a new, additional excerpt of Long For This World.

This section is written in a very different voice from the first excerpt, and in first-person point of view.  The novel shifts between first-person and third-person points of view throughout, which was one of the most difficult things about writing it.  I swore to myself, “Never again,” and yet… lo and behold, Sebastian & Frederick does the same.  Isn’t this someone’s definition of insanity?

The decision was intuitive, but the further away I get from the writing of Long For This World, the more I understand how the world and characters of the novel necessitated this shifting form.

I went quite a ways down the road of consistent third-person narration with Sebastian & Frederick before it became clear that a first-person voice wanted to emerge as well.  For the record, I find first-person narration the most difficult of all narrative points of view… and would appreciate it if, one of these days, those “I” voices would shush up when I’m trying to write a novel!

I’ll consider myself in reasonably good company, though.  Julia Glass’s Three Junes is a wonderful novel that shifts POV in this way; and rumor has it that Barbara Kingsolver, whose novels also shift first-person and third-person POV, writes each section of her novels in every point of view before deciding on which works best.  This makes me feel just a little less insane.

2 March 2009

From “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” 12/3/08, special guest Arianna Huffington, founder of the popular (liberal) blog  The HuffPost:

AH: You know 50,000 blogs are started every day.
JS: You  make it sound like a sexually transmitted disease.
AH: Well, no, it’s a lot more fun.

Arianna Huffington has edited a new “complete guide” to blogging.  Here’s some of what she has to say about the essence of blogging:

First thoughts, best thoughts.  Don’t overthink it…  It’s like a first draft.

Blogging is not about perfectionism, it’s about intimacy, immediacy, transparency, and sharing your thoughts the way you would share it with a friend.

Here’s Jon Stewart on why he won’t be blogging:

AH:  I’ll bet you have more thoughts than what you use on the show.

JS: But why should I give people the drek?  Shouldn’t I try to focus it and make it as good as I can… my “other thoughts,” there’s a reeeaason I haven’t put them on the show.

I love Jon Stewart.

The literary writer is slow.  The literary writer labors over words.  Don’t overthink it?  Uy yuy yuy.  It’s like a first draft?  

Anyone who knows Anne Lamott’s book Bird By Bird knows about the shitty first draft.  The shitty first draft is what we accept as “first thoughts,” how we resist letting perfectionism prevent us from getting the ideas down.  But the thing about the shitty first draft — the essence of the shitty first draft — is that no one ever sees it.  For the literary writer, first thoughts are rarely best thoughts.*

As Arianna Huffington has aptly recognized, the ascendance of the blog represents the ascendance of the immediate. In buying in to this appetite for the now, I hope we don’t end up ultimately dumbing down our readerly expectations, not to mention intellectual capacity. I myself have had a heck of a time getting through The Brothers Karamazov, and I can’t help wondering how much all this instant verbage (both reading it and writing it) is altering my brain.  

Any literary writers out there who also blog, your thoughts on this most welcome.


*I never publish first drafts on this blog. I rarely even send first-draft emails.


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