31 May 2009

With the long-term existence of the printed book in jeopardy, and as I find my own time and brain increasingly torn between books and electronic media (blogs, news, email, video, etc.),  I am thinking a lot these days about what it means to read books.  More specifically, what it means to be a person who reads books.

A commenter on this blog made the very good point a few weeks ago that a physical book is not connected.  Meaning, when you are holding a book in your hands and reading it, you are not receiving message pop-ups, or seeing links to buy this or click over to that, or tempted to “open new tab” to check in on Facebook, or work email, or news headlines.  Even if, say, you are reading on your Kindle, and you click away to download a book that came to mind as you were in mid-read, you are interrupting your reading, you are not fully engaged.  

Reading a book — a literary book, let’s say, fiction or nonfiction — is a kind of commitment, and is about singular attention; it is decidedly not multitasking; it is an experience both particular and unsimulatable.  And, if the book you are reading is worth anything, something happens to you, the quality of your humanness changes, as a result.  

Reading a book engages intellect, emotion, imagination.  No other kind of reading engages all these, firing on all cylinders, in that same sustained way.  Reading a book is a descending into a place of complex thought and feeling, a kind of departure from the world of surfaces as a way of seeing and understanding more deeply what those surfaces reflect.  

A person who reads books is different from a person who does not read books.  I wouldn’t go as far as to say that a person who reads books is morally or intellectually superior to a person who doesn’t; but qualitatively, these are different kinds of people.  There is a part of me that might venture to say that this difference is just as, if not more, significant than any race, class, gender, or geographical signifiers.  

Although, to be sure, the baseline assumption here is that we are talking about literate people, i.e. people who can read books but choose one way or the other.  What is clear to me, and somewhat surprising, is how many people who can read books do not read books.  

It’s a half-baked thought, which I hope to come back to.  All I know is that, these days, when I meet a new person, or I’m trying to get a feel for a person, or I’m having a conflict of world view with a person, one of the first things I’ll wonder is: does this person read books? Because I have this inarticulate feeling that somehow it’s all there, in the answer to that question.

27 May 2009

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you may have noticed a few sidewise digs at the Stephanie Meyers Twilight series.  Writer-to-writer digs are unbecoming (as evidenced by the recent Oxford chairship ugliness), especially sidewise ones.  So I’ve been meaning to write about Twilight straight on. 

In writing classes, a cardinal rule is to start with positive comments when critiquing.  So let me say that I’ve been to Forks, WA, and it’s a lovely place.

Ok, seriously.  My Twilight problems began when I took on a group of undergraduates, almost all young women, in a fiction class.  When asked what they like to read/are currently reading in fiction, most cited the Twilight books.  Most cited only the Twilight books.   

Naively, I gave the students free reign on what to write for their first round of short stories.  The first few came back as vampire and/or young-love stories. During the mid-class break (it was a 3-hour weekly session), I heard a few students congratulate the writers on how much the stories reminded them of such-and-such scene or character from Twilight, or, alternatively, how smartly the writer had both simulated and departed from Twilight.  Clearly, Twilight was hovering and echoing in these students’ imaginations.

The basic weaknesses of these first stories were as follows: repetitive/unimaginative language, cliche descriptions, flat (too-perfect) young male characters.  

So even though I’d never read Stephanie Meyers’ books, I immediately developed a prejudice against them.  I felt I had read them.

My prejudice became a little too apparent in class.  And when I confessed I’d never read the books, my students — justifiably — called me out on it.  So.  I asked one of the most enthusiastic Twilight advocates to bring in for us her favorite chapter, so that we could all read and discuss the quality of the writing, since that’s what we were there to study.  She happily agreed.

We had our discussion during our last class — after 15 weeks of studying and writing and workshopping.  We’d learned about characterization, language, plot, point-of-view, and dialogue.  In their peer critiques, the students had begun writing comments like “cliche!” in the margins, and were recognizing where characters were not credible, dialogue sounded forced, language too vague, plot arc too flat.  They were “showing, not telling” me their characters much more in their stories and exercises.  They were reading and discussing Chekhov, Junot Diaz, ZZ Packer, Tobias Wolff, Mary Robison. 

The gist of our Twilight discussion?  Repetitive/unimaginative language, cliche descriptions, flat (too-perfect) male characters.

But we also talked about the brilliant premise of the series — sexual tension, in a nutshell (the more the handsome vampire loves the girl the more he both wants to bite her and struggles to resist biting her – talk about conflict and rising action!).  And in the end, the students decided that the books are highly entertaining and emotionally absorbing; just not terribly well-written.

(For the record, the one male in the class hated the excerpt.)

So there you have it.  Life is hard sometimes, entertainment lightens the load.  That said, there’s no reason why art and entertainment should be mutually exclusive.  Looking for a salacious page-turning romance teeming with sexual tension?  Try Henry James, Edith Wharton, Tolstoy.  No kidding, you won’t be disappointed.

26 May 2009

Welcome to summer!  I don’t know about you, but we grilled us some corn-on- the-cob over the weekend.  So it’s only fitting to blog today about Hyperion’s new “e-imprint” Kernl.  Kernls are described as “short packages of text combined with video and interactive components.”

Err?  Yeah — me perplexed too.  Clearly these are not books.

What are they?  Well, it seems they might ultimately evolve into book-like substances.  The words “incubation” and “full-length” are used in the article.  

Kernl will also eventually seek advertising.  This is the part that makes my face squinch up.  A publisher (of books) adjusting to the new market reality by turning books into something which can be advertiser-sponsored.  More likely, turning increasingly away from the production of print books, and toward the delivery of multi-media “packages.” Perhaps no surprise, since Hyperion is a division of ABC TV/Disney Media Networks.  

I am no economics guru, but I think we learned about this in high school when we studied industrialization and the rise of big business.  A little something called vertical integration?  Any business-minded folk among you, with perspectives more sophisticated than my 1980s history textbook, please chime in and enlighten.

22 May 2009

…if you poke around a little on a regular basis.

From a post at RobAroundBooks, a book jacket I am guessing I would have otherwise never seen — for a novel by a Korean writer (I’ve never heard of), published by Telegram, an indie publisher in London (that I’ve also never heard of).  


The Bird


Isn’t that lovely?  I’m sort of speechless.

Click here for more about The Bird by Oh Jung-hee.

20 May 2009

A friend who was in the publishing biz for years (years ago) recently said to me: “You can’t have a conversation about publishing without the word ‘Kindle.'”

I’ve subscribed to the Publisher’s Weekly daily e-mail.  Not sure if this was the best idea.  Recent headlines include: “Bookstore Sales Down Again” and “The Rise and Fall of Book Output.”  Monday’s edition includes a number of links to articles about e-book economics: “Two Takes on E-book Pricing” (one from Mokoto Rich, a follow-up from Mike Shatzkin), “E-book Tipping Point?” and “Self E-Publishing.”

Again, it’s all Latin to me.  From what I can gather, Apple’s involvement in e-reading is significant (you can read any Kindle book on an iphone now), as is Barnes & Noble’s acquisition of a major e-book retailer and plans to launch their own e-reading platform in the fall.  In other words, Amazon is not — will not remain — the only e-book retailing game in town.  

But with hard cover books selling generally in the $20-$30 range, and all e-books selling for $9.99 on Amazon, both publishers and authors do worry: if e-book retailers begin driving down the magic number of what they’ll pay a publisher for content, then publishers’ profit margins drop even further; and authors, well… our dregs get even dreggier, if we’re able to publish our low-profit-margin literary works at all.

I may be getting this pyramid structure all wrong; but the part about authors being at the bottom seems about right.

Everything seems to be pointing to the literary mid-list  (by which I mean all non-best-sellers) becoming primarily a nonprofit and self-publishing endeavor. Perhaps some good can come of this — the proliferation of literary collectives, the birth of more nonprofit small presses?  What I would hate to see is the disproportionate death of the physical book for the literary genre; it feels, somehow, like if you  had to choose, you should be able to get Twilight electronically, but  EL Doctorow in hard cover.  

But that would assume an impossible world where I make the bottom-line decisions.  Moo-hoo-haa-haaa-haaaaaaa……..

17 May 2009

The book jacket for Long for This World is done.   Galleys next month.  Exciting?   Wish I could say yes.  It’s strange when things become “final.”  In every other part of life, completion feels good.  With creative work, there’s a tinge of melancholy.  Post-partum?

I’ve been looking at book jackets more closely lately.  Anyone seen this one yet, for Denis Johnson’s new novel?

Nobody Move


Ee-gads!  There should be a disclaimer: No books were injured in the making of this book jacket.  Still, can’t wait to read it.

14 May 2009

An interesting blog post from novelist David Francis about the dubious considerations of literary “success” in a publishing environment that is less and less interested in building up a writer’s career/readership slowly, over time.  “You wrote a hit,” the agent might say, “so now give us more of the same.  That’s what your readers want.”  Francis admirably resists.  No, “admirably” isn’t quite right; he resists because there is no other choice.  A literary writer only writes well when he writes from the gut — inductively, not deductively. Francis writes: 

I’ll honor that desire to lay out the lines of words as they appear, as Annie Dillard suggests, securing a sentence before building on it, allowing it to grow “cell to cell, bole to bough to twig to leaf; any careful word may suggest a route, may begin a strand of metaphor or event out of which much, or all, will develop.” That still feels right to me, to let it be what it becomes.

Let’s hope Francis’s agent gets it.

12 May 2009

On The Millions, a post about “subscriptions we can’t go without,” even in this digital age.  I was just recently thinking about this — i.e., in these recession times, whether I really needed to renew a particular subscription.  

And I realized that, even with all my Luddite tendencies, there is one digital-technological advancement I’ve embraced wholeheartedly: the podcast (and its older sibling, sort of, the audio book).  For me, it’s digital-audio media — not internet publications or blogs — which have absolutely replaced many print publications in my media consumption universe. 

I spend a good part of my life engaged in three activities: driving (between city and country), walking/running, and yard work/gardening.  The podcast is of course the perfect companion to these activities; something about the brain functions that allow me to in fact more deeply engage with aural input while performing physical tasks.  (As for audio books, I’ve “read” many of the difficult, big books this way.)  In church as a youth, I remember always getting up in the middle of the sermon to go to the back of the sanctuary, where I could pace or rock back and forth on my feet, and thus really listen.

I also appreciate the morphing and integrating of the reading experience into something more physical — sound engages the body in a way that reading doesn’t.  As someone prone to living too much in my head, divorced from my body, this is a good thing.

So given my healthy list of podcast subscriptions (free!), the print subscriptions are falling away.  Most of what I want to be reading from the above-mentioned last holdout is available by podcast.  

And even as interface with these digital files is considered technological advancement, there is a lovely sense of returning to an oral tradition of the past.  In getting my news, analysis, and literature of the day, I feel like I’m also regressing to a kind of daily story-telling hour.  Now, if we can just get back to the mid-day nap…

9 May 2009

If you’ve been reading this blog regularly, the following updates will make a little sense:

In the 5 April post, I mentioned a fiction-writing course concept I was pitching to a school I’d hope would hire me.  The idea was to take a step back (or to the left or right) from the memoir/autobiography rage and make a case for good old fashioned imagination-driven fiction.  I’m happy to report that we’ll be giving it a go.  Here’s an excerpt from the course blurb:

Enough About Me: Write-What-You-Don’t-Know Fiction
Some writing classes preach the dictum “write what you know,” and memoirs and autobiographical fiction are all the rage.  But many of us both read and write creatively as a way of putting ourselves in others’ shoes, inhabiting other worlds and psyches, developing stories about places and people who are very different from us.  Are you a woman interested in writing a male character?  A middle-class male wanting to write a story about a homeless youth?  An atheist writing about a nun? An American writing a piece set in South America?  A teacher whose main character is a drummer in a rock band?  In this course, we will look at elements of fiction craft crucial to developing your not-me fiction...

The course will only run if we get a critical mass of student sign-ups.  Cross your fingers.

Wyatt Mason of Harper’s Magazine is, as he puts it, “turning my attention to other tasks” and leaving the blog world for now.  Harper’s seems to be keeping the archives up on the “Sentences” site, so I’ll keep Mr. Mason on my blogroll for now.

*Update: I’ve replaced “Sentences” with maudnewton.com.

Manjushree Thapa’s The Tutor of History has been on my Reading List page for the last six weeks or so.  During certain seasons of life, I can be a terribly slow reader (and at other times, I devour books one after the other and barely lift my eyes to the real world), so one shouldn’t take the duration of the novel’s presence on my Reading List as any reflection on its quality.  In fact, having just finished it, I want to both highly recommend it and say a few words about it.

As for story summary, here’s an excerpt from the back cover:

The events of the novel unfold against the backdrop of a campaign for parliamentary elections in the bustling roadside town of Khareini Tar [Nepal]… Written with rare insight into the politics of a nation and of human relationships…

What I admire most about this novel is its uncompromising fidelity to both mind and heart — meaning, strictly speaking, one might categorize it as a “political novel,” but the reader is mostly engaged by the characters who live and breathe in this particular political landscape. There is so much heart in this novel, even while your brain delights in its intelligence. Thapa reminds me that, while we all have our political and philosophical and moral passions, in the end it is our humanity we are left with — our ability to give and receive love.  At the same time, the novel shows us how external forces, political and cultural, are what limit this ability for many (women in particular) who are cornered into loveless existences.  

As a writer who is also much interested in place-as-character, culture-as- character, I am also deeply impressed by how Thapa has managed to people her novel with quite a large ensemble cast (omniscient point-of-view), without sacrificing what agents and editors often refer to as an “emotional hook” — which said agents and editors often equate with a single protagonist, and a single point-of-view.  The success of this novel seems to me a powerful nose-thumbing at such simplistic (lazy) approaches to the acquisition and marketing of books.

It is perhaps no surprise that The Tutor of History was never acquired for the North American market, given its complex pleasures.  This, to me, speaks to everything that’s wrong with American-style reading and publishing.

[full disclosure: Manjushree Thapa was a classmate of mine at the University of Washington.  It took me way too long to reconnect with her and read her book.  One sometimes fears that the respect and fondness one has for a person might not translate to her creative work; this was clearly not the case here.]

7 May 2009

Well, not really.  I just find “Kindle DX” to be a funny name, like the different models of Honda Civics that were out there when I first got my driver’s license. 

The DX is otherwise known as Kindle 3, the latest e-book reader from Amazon.  If you look at the image, it appears to be about the size of an 8 x 10 picture frame (in fact, it’s 9.7 inches on the diagonal), though much thinner than most picture frames.  “Lighter than a thick fashion magazine,” they say.  Supposedly it lends itself better to newspaper reading (though the deals Amazon is offering to news organizations do not seem to be particularly… mutually beneficial, according to some editors).

There are also rumblings (where did I read that?) that Apple will be unveiling its own new-and-improved digital reader soon.  Unlike the Kindle, it will integrate ipod/itouch features and, knowing Apple, will be cooler and sleeker (moon roof, seat warmers, etc.).

I’ve been told (a la the low expectations viewpoint from the 5 May post below) not to expect much in e-book sales — it’s still a best-selling authors’ game.  But with the technology and marketing expanding at this pace (didn’t Kindle 2 just come out?), one wonders if this thing is going to take over sooner than later.  According to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, of all books which are available on Kindle, Kindle editions (e-books) comprise 35% of copies sold.  This is up from 10% in February.  (However, it seems to me this could mean that fewer books in any form are being sold at all; and thus the Kindle percentage increases as a share).

“E-reading” is now an official category on this blog.

5 May 2009

With job loss still on the rise; philanthropy, investment, and consumer spending way down; retirement funds dwindling to nothing; and everyone struggling to “do more with less” (when many have been doing with less for a long time anyway)… not to mention continuing death and violence in Pakistan, Iraq, and now Turkey in the news today (I won’t include the links here; you’ll find your way to the bad news on your own, I’m sure), and flu-and-more-flu (on this Cinco de Mayo);  it might be easy to equate realism with pessimism.  

When I was a college student, I became enamored of the philosopher/ivy league academician/jazz-and-hip-hop-activist Cornel West, who toured the country talking to 20 year-olds like me, saying idealistic things like, “Hope and optimism are not the same.  Optimism says ‘things will get better.’  Hope says ‘Things may not get better, but I have faith anyway.'”  (My paraphrase)

Lately I’ve been receiving and internalizing a lot of lower-your-expectations counsel from people in the book biz.  Don’t expect a big print run, don’t expect the greatest book jacket in the world, don’t expect much in foreign sales, don’t expect to sell your next book (necessarily), don’t expect people to show up to your readings.  Realism and pessimism, indeed.

(And I am as susceptible to pessimism as anyone.  My friend B. and I, both of us writers, have written to each other about how “easily dispirited” we are, and how writers sometimes seem to have been born with one less layer of skin than a normal person.)

But.  Miraculously (today, I can only speak for today), I am not dispirited.  I’ve finished with the copyedited pages of Long for This World (just in time for the deadline), and the thing is real and alive — painfully flawed in some areas, but a work of my imagination and skill and vision.  Not for nothin’, as they say.  

I asked my agent if her colleagues at the recent London Book Fair seemed depressed about the future of the industry.  She said no, not depressed, because people are still passionate about books, and that isn’t going to change.  They are, however, she said, humbled.

I like that.  A friend of mine once said to me that humility is simply self-truth — nothing more, nothing less.  Neither grossly inflating nor grossly diminishing one’s star.  Humility seems good counsel, perhaps the best counsel, for an artist forging ahead into today’s particular reality.


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