30 April 2009

Click here for a nice little overview from Flavorpill / Boldtype of the different ways to read a book on an ipod.  I like the writer’s ultimate conclusion that being able to sneak in a read here and there (sometimes without others noticing), at moments that would not lend themselves to pulling out an actual book, is a great thing.

27 April 2009

I feel a little bit about the Vook — a kind of multimedia “reading” experience — as I do about the worst fusion cooking.  Not that excited.  Read about it here.

Many of you may remember Choose Your Own Adventure.  I loved those books.  (The Mystery of Chimney Rock was my all-time favorite.) I loved Mad Libs, too.  But the thing is, those are for children.  They calibrate a child’s attention span, they give the child-reader something to do to keep her engaged.

Is the adult reader the new child reader?  Do we all need multimedia “interactivity” to keep our minds imaginatively and intellectually engaged?  

I think there’s value in fighting for attention span, the ability to sustain focus and immerse oneself deeply in words.  Words only.  No flashing pictures or actor dramatizations.  No reader “collaboration” or real-time commentary.  

A movie is different from a book.  I swear it is.  I love movies.  I love books. One gives me the aural-visual experience, one allows me to imagine the world on my own.   Please don’t take these richly rewarding experiences away from me.  (We all know what happens when you see the bad movie version of a book; it inevitably ruins any chance of a (subsequent) satisfying, unadulterated read.)  

Or if you’re going to insist on making these things in the name of innovation (and economics), at least call it a boovie.

25 April 2009

So I’m trying to get my head around the hullabaloo surrounding Google’s move to digitize and make publicly accessible out-of-print books.  These books — whose authors and copyright holders have “abandoned” them — are referred to as “orphan” books.

I’m no copyright expert… but I can see of course the potential here for illegality and why the protectors-of-copyright and the trust-busters have their knickers in a twist.   But on a less technical level, from the plain-old perspective of writers and readers and educators and consumers, it seems, you know, reasonable and good.  For someone — Google — to get these books off the dusty shelves and back into the public square.  It seems a pretty fruitful convergence of capitalism and public good.

Of course, Google stands to make a lot of money off of this.  And if Google has exclusive guardianship over the orphan works, they will be the only ones to make money off of this.  It’s pretty straightforward survival-of-the-fittest stuff: they got there first. 

As far as the profit structure goes, here’s what seems to be the crux of it:

Google will be allowed to show readers in the United States as much as 20 percent of most copyrighted books, and will sell access to the entire collection to universities and other institutions. Public libraries will get free access to the full texts for their patrons at one computer, and individuals will be able to buy online access to particular books.  Proceeds from the program, including advertising revenue from Google’s book search service, will be split; Google will take 37 percent, and authors and publishers will share the rest.

Google projects that the parents of many of these orphans will surface and claim their rights — and thus get their portion of the 63% share.  To me, this seems the big question — how much will Google profit off of absent parents (writers)?  Will it be reasonably easy for an author to come forth and claim his orphaned baby?  (Google will establish a Book Rights Registry to administer rights.)

Click here for more on the subject.

(If I’m getting this all wrong, and you know more about this than I do, please enlighten.)

22 April 2009

I’m about one-third through the copy-edited pages of Long For This World.   The process has been a bit painful but, overall, instructive.  I apparently have no idea when or how to use hyphens, for example.

The stakes feel high as I go through.  My last chance.  This is going to print.  “The most difficult problem for authors proofreading their own work,” the Chicago Manual of Style writes, “is to resist the temptation to rewrite in proofs.”  Um, yeah.

Mixed metaphors, nonsensical references, needless repetitions.  I’ve yet to feel a strong, tormenting pull to delete this scene or rewrite this entire dialogue, thankfully (a character’s name may change, however — eek!).  Basically, the book is done.  Or, as they say, it’s never done, just abandoned.

It’s a strange feeling, to know your work’s fundamental flaws and yet to also know that It is what it is.  It’s what you set out to do.  Inevitably, one feels both proud and disappointed simultaneously.

Here’s another aspect of that dissonance: every time I read through it, a different section will strike me as strong or weak.  The last time I read this one particular section — a sort-of love scene — I cringed a little.  This time, I was moved by it.  Go figure.  A work of literature really is a living thing, hyphens and all.

20 April 2009

NY Times TV critic Virginia Heffernan has written a piece in the Times Sunday Magazine about Twitter — “the Twitter bog,” she calls it — that makes me exhale a little in relief.  Reading the article gave me a sense that Twitter might come and go as a must-do adult activity without my ever having participated, and that I might actually be the better for it.  Or at least not have missed much.   Click here to read the full article.

I’ve been reading about how effective Twitter can be for activist mobilization and other group engagement goals; and I don’t want to wholesale diss something of which I have little direct knowledge.  But I think often about what Annie Dillard says: How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.  Doesn’t even the word “twitter” imply that it’s an activity meant to be more peripheral than central in a life?  Does one really want to twitter one’s life away?  (I understand that celebrities now hire personal Twitterers — that, in fact, there are many people out there who Twitter all the day long.)

I was thinking recently — as pundits speculate on the nature of “Obamaism” as it evolves and unfolds here and abroad — that our fair President seems to be staking out a rather ambitious transformative vision for, yes, CHANGE: the core of which seems to be this idea that healthy capitalism need not equal excess.  That an economy and a society can be built on creating and consuming things, but not to the point of addiction.  I’m not sure if, in the midst of the myriad massive programs and initiatives the Obama administration rolls out daily, we are able to fully appreciate just how radical — how fundamental to everything that shapes how we live — a vision this is.  

So Twitter as an activity which is productive but not excessive, and not an addiction.  Such a simple notion and yet… the American sense of healthy proportion has really gone awry over the last few decades.  We’ve come to take for granted that when it comes to a good business idea, if it’s working, if people will pay for it, then make it BIG, make it OBSESSIVE.  

As always, God bless, and God help, Mr. Obama.

17 April 2009

NPR has reported on the phenomenon of gimongous book deals.  Celebrity comedians Tina Fey and Kathy Griffin, and writers Sara Gruen (Water for Elephants) and Audrey Niffenegger (The Time Traveler’s Wife) have reportedly landed hefty advances ($2-6 million) of late.  Click here for the full story.

Money.  I’ve decided to add this as a post category, in defiance of the notion that one shouldn’t speak of such things.  In recognition of the fact that most writers and artists spend more time and energy struggling with the lack of it than they would care to admit.  And to acknowledge that, yes, literature is bought and sold in the marketplace, evaluated numerically by corporate executives. 

I’m not sure who originally came up with the “advance” system.  Writers are paid up front, and they keep the money regardless of the book’s sales.  This is good for writers who receive smaller advances — I think a writer should at the least be paid a living wage for his time value in creating the work.  (I am likely in the minority on this — what a crusty, old-fashioned idea — and the majority of literary writers don’t receive anywhere near their time-value — in advance, or ever.)  On the downside, authors whose books don’t sell well often get their desserts on the second or third book, i.e. it’s like reincarnation: if you don’t deliver sales the first time around, you pay for it in the next go around — with a decreased advance, or no contract at all.

But back to the mega-advances… in this economy, folks seem to be questioning the business-sense of the seven-figure advance.  HarperStudio, an imprint of HarperCollins, is experimenting with a new structure: they publish two books per month, with  no advances above $100,000, and instead of the traditional royalties arrangement (usually 10-15%), they will split any profits 50-50 with the author.

Not until recently, as my livelihood depends increasingly on my writing life, have I worried too much about all this.  I’ve never had to consider my “worth” in dollars in quite this way.  And I should say that, unfortunately, it’s often not even the literature which is evaluated numerically, but the author.  Is the author appealing, charismatic, sellable; does the author have a sensational story to tell.

Wednesday was tax day, the men in suits may be knocking soon.  The summer is looking bleak for teaching work.  These worries simmer daily, most people these days can relate I’m sure .  But it wasn’t until I received an email from a longtime friend that I realized how much these money-for-art issues have been troubling me.  She wrote, with such plain sincerity: “I’m so sorry about your financial struggles.  I wish we were wealthy so we could give you a stipend or something.”  And she meant it.  

You deserve to be paid for your work is what I heard.  And it became painfully clear to me in that moment just how much I needed to hear it.

Opus 18


16 April 2009

One of the joys of writing a novel, for me, is research.  Today, I mine the Web for recordings of chamber music (a character in Sebastian & Frederick plays in a chamber ensemble), which leads to Beethoven’s string quartets, which leads to Opus 18 No. 1 (second movement).  Notice the cello solo, which was unusual at the time — for the cello to have such a prominent role in the “conversation.”

My research also led me (back) to Alex Ross’s blog, “The Rest is Noise.”  I often quote Ross, who writes articles on classical music for the New Yorker and once wrote: Don’t make it new; make it whole.  Happy to add TRiN to the blogroll.

13 April 2009

[Note to would-be novelists:  get your copy of the Chicago Manual of Style now, and study the proofreading shorthand like your life depends on it.]


The copyedited pages are back; I’ve got a month to go through them.  I just about started hyper-ventilating as I paged through and realized to my horror that I’d snoozed through the entire semester of my Egyptian Hieroglyphics seminar in college… 

Oh wait, no, that’s that recurring nightmare… the one where I register for a class, fail to attend a single session, and then suddenly it’s finals week.

Ok, let me shake myself awake… I’ve got 288 pages of wall paintings to decipher.

10 April 2009

Click below for an article about book trailers — that’s right short videos used to promote books, just like the movies:

Watch Before Reading: Art-House Book Trailers

I wouldn’t rule it out, the creative possibilities seem promising.  But I’m still giggling, too.  Movie trailers can be unbearably bad — you know the ones I’m talking about:  A man.  A child.  Four penguins.  And the revelation of a secret that will change their lives…forEVER.

Long for This World: The Animated Trailer?  (Only if we can have penguins!)  These days, anything is possible.

9 April 2009 

Granta recently published online a 1979 submission letter from the British novelist Kazuo Ishiguro.


The story in question, “Getting Poisoned,” was not accepted by editor Bill Buford.  I suppose the posting is meant to evoke a kind of “Aw, cute” nostalgia… remember when Kazuo and Bill were unknown youngins? (Both Ishiguro and Buford were 25 in 1979.)

But this reminds me of an Ishiguro interview I read, some years back, following the publication of his fourth novel, When We Were Orphans, in 2000.  Ishiguro reflected on the then-prevailing (now outmoded) marketing strategy of the author book tour.  An excerpt from the interview following.  I’ve marked in bold the parts I’m thinking about an awful lot these days…

Are you able to work at all while you’re on tour?

Am I able to write? Are you kidding? I can’t even eat… It’s a strange existence….I started to publish novels in 1982 and then it was a very different kind of literary world or book world.

The established authors of the day didn’t tour. They might occasionally give a lecture at some august institution but they wouldn’t go on these book tours. They were very private figures. The whole publishing world changed…Somewhere in the equation I think authors started to get used as the main marketing tool… We are the kind of personal touch between a publishing house on the east coast and some prized independent book store on the west coast. It can’t all be done just on the Internet or fax…

I think along with the explosion of creative writing classes around the world, the book tour is the other big new thing that’s going to influence contemporary writing… I think these are much bigger than computer technology or anything like that. These are the things that actually affect the environment in which the writer thinks, creates, writes.

I’m not just talking about the busyness of the tour. It’s a process by which, whether you like it or not, you’re made very aware of why you write and how you write, who your influences are and where you fit in vis-a-vis other authors. How your personal life fits into what you write. That’s a good thing in many ways. It’s very good that you’re sensitive to your audience. But nevertheless it has an effect and it probably does change the way you write. You become a much more self-conscious writer. The next time you go home and write in your study you can’t forget all these questions, all these probings, all these suggestions about why you write, what you should be writing next, what you shouldn’t have written before, how certain things link up.

Often people point out recurring things in your work that you didn’t notice and so all innocence is lost. Sometimes some spontaneity is lost as well. Certainly, a lot of self-consciousness is brought on I think when people look back on this era and when they look at the literature produced in this era they’ll have to look at the tour to understand why writing has gone in a certain direction.

Click here for the whole interview.

7 April 2009

“The death of the novel is yesterday’s news. The death of print may be tomorrow’s headline. But the great American short story is still being written, and awaits its readers.”  -A.O. Scott, NY Times, 4/5/09 

A.O. Scott thinks the short story may be “poised for a resurgence.”  He points to the recent releases of three literary biographies — of Flannery O’Connor, John Cheever, and Donald Barthelme, short story masters all — as partial evidence.  The present cultural moment is characterized by a “craving for more narrative and a demand for pith,” writes Scott.

“Reading through their collected stories, you wonder if novels are even necessary. The imperial ambitions of a certain kind of swaggering, self-important American novel — to comprehend the totality of modern life, to limn the social, existential, sexual and political strivings of its citizens — start to seem misguided and buffoonish. More of life is glimpsed, and glimpsed more clearly, through Barthelme’s fragments, Cheever’s finely ground lenses or the pinhole camera of O’Connor’s crystalline prose.”

In fact, neither Scott nor anyone else need defend the short-story-as-superior-literary-form.  I don’t know of anyone who would demean the short story as less-than the novel.  One might well argue that short stories are for masters, novels for groping amateurs who lack the not-a-word-wasted craftsmanship of the short-story writer.  

Me, I’m a buffoonish novelist at this stage, I’m afraid.  Some day I hope to write a short story of Chekhovian perfection.  For now, I grope. Take the publishing advantage away — if indeed the short story rises to its deserved eminence — and I’m really up the creek.

Come, all ye slow and long-winded… let us read and write our novels, even if we must rise from the dead.

Not Me


5 April 2009

A student in one of my online classes writes about Don Delillo‘s “opaque” male narrators and characters, many of whom are somewhat unknown to themselves while at the same time seen in lucid flashes by the reader.

I think of Delillo often as I write Sebastian & Frederick, my first serious foray into male protagonists. Other writers who accompany me on this journey–hovering quietly–include James Salter, Hemingway, EL Doctorow, Cormac McCarthy, and Denis Johnson. The greatest difference I am sensing in writing male characters is precisely that they are less known to themselves than my female characters have been. They seem to do more than they reflect. Or it takes more action to lead them to reflection.

This fall I will teach a course called “True Fiction,” focusing on writing autobiographical fiction. I am nervous about it. Initially, I pitched a class exploring the opposite — writing characters who are distinctly not ourselves, set in worlds which our far from our own. My experience with beginning writers (including myself) is that much better writing comes from the latter than the former. My college students did a first-person exercise in which they recalled a childhood memory from the perspective of a character of different gender, race, or culture. The level of writing instantly shot up a notch.

We settled on “True Fiction” because — get ready — it seemed more “marketable.” So many people are already writing fictionalized memoir, we projected we’d more likely get full enrollment. My fear is that it will turn into writing-class-as-therapy, which can produce bad, lazy writing. My intention is to assign exercises like the one my college students did (variations on their own characters, perhaps) as a way of emphasizing that one must use the imaginative muscles just as much, if not more, when writing autobiographically-based fiction.

I don’t go to readings as much as I used to, partially because they started to seem very formulaic, and the writers seemed to hate being there. Invariably, the audience would try to get the writer to “admit” that the novel was really a veiled memoir. “How much of this is autobiographical?” someone would always ask. “How much of Gustave/Jill/Sammy is really you?”

The best answer I ever heard was from the novelist Chang-rae Lee who said, “All of it. And none of it.”

I’m pitching a class at a different school called “Writing Self / Writing Other.” Here’s my pitch blurb:

How do we write compelling fiction based on our lives and true experiences? And how do we write characters who are vastly different from us? In this course we will see how these two seemingly opposite approaches to fiction are in fact closely related and can fruitfully inform one another.

You’ll be the first to know if it flies.


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