29 June 2009

A quick google of Cristina Nehring, author of A Vindication of Love: Reclaiming Romance for the Twenty-First Century, from last week’s post, brought up an interesting 2004 article from the NY Times by Nehring entitled, “Books Make You a Boring Person.”

In the article, Nehring cautions against book-lover self-righteousness, urging readers to remember that there are many different ways to read a book:

We all know people who have read everything and have nothing to say. We all know people who use a text the way others use Muzak: to stave off the silence of their minds. These people may have a comic book in the bathroom, a newspaper on the breakfast table, a novel over lunch, a magazine in the dentist’s office, a biography on the kitchen counter, a political expose in bed, a paperback on every surface of their home and a weekly in their back pocket lest they ever have an empty moment. Some will be geniuses; others will be simple text grazers: always nibbling, never digesting — ever consuming, never creating.

The example of the “grazer” helps me think through the half-baked thoughts of a previous post, “A Lot of People Don’t Read Books.”  In the back of my mind, I knew that I wasn’t really making a distinction between book-readers and non-book-readers, but something else.  Nehring gets closer to the meaningful distinction:

There are two very different ways to use books. One is to provoke our own judgments, and the other, by far the more common, is to make such conclusions unnecessary. If we wish to embrace the first, we cannot afford to be adulatory of books…we must be aggressive… 

…you can learn anything from a book — or nothing. You can learn to be a suicide bomber, a religious fanatic…as easily as you can learn to be tolerant, peace-loving and wise. You can acquire unrealistic expectations of love as readily as, probably more readily than, realistic ones. You can learn to be a sexist or a feminist, a romantic or a cynic, a utopian or a skeptic. Most disturbing, you can train yourself to be nothing at all; you can float forever like driftwood on the current of text; you can be as passive as a person in an all-day movie theater, as antisocial as a kid holed up with a video game, and at the same time more conceited than both.

My shorthand for this (and another reason why I struggle with the Kindle) is: “Read with a pencil.”  Read aggressively.  I know I am reading in a way that will change me in some way if I am making notes, rushing to jot things down in my journal, underlining and sending quotes to friends.  Can you make notes/marginalia on a Kindle?  If yes, I might just be sold.

24 June 2009

The other day, post-showdownatTheMillions, I was a little despondent (if you’ve read my essay, “How to Become a Writer,” you know that I have thin skin) and found myself wandering into a bookstore in Chelsea called 192 Books.  

It used to be that bookstores unfailingly cheered me up; there was always something to discover, whether or not I actually bought something.  And also a feeling of home, of sharing something fundamental with the other (possibly-despondent) browsers — all of us in search of hope in the form of beautiful writing.

These days I brace myself a little when entering a bookstore.  The publishing process robs one of some of that book-buying/book-browsing innocence.  It’s easy to get caught up in the sense that it’s all just sausage-making and to see nothing but pork fat and innards — loud displays, sensational jacket covers, the same-old-top-10-best-selling authors front and center.  I don’t begrudge any bookstore, independent ones especially, for whatever they need to do to stay afloat; it’s more that my awareness of all the machinations now blares, infringing on the homecoming.

But at 192, something wonderful is being preserved.  The place is curated, not window-dressed.  It feels like a person, or group of persons, is behind the particular arrangement of books — not a McPerson, not a sales formula.  Even in hard economic times, they seem to continue to understand their job as a mission — proactive, not merely reactive.  As a consumer, I feel respected — encouraged toward a highest common denominator, not a lowest one.  

Two of the new fiction releases on display were Joe Meno’s The Great Perhaps, and Kate Walbert’s A Short History of Women, both of which are going on my to-read list.  A terrific profile of Joe Meno by Edan Lepucki at The Millions first got my attention, and then the jacket copy at 192 really got my attention.  Here’s an excerpt:

…Each [of the Caspers] fears uncertainty and the possibilities that accompany it. When Jonathan and Madeline suddenly decide to separate, this nuclear family is split, each member forced to confront his or her own cowardice, finally coming to appreciate the cloudiness of the modern age. With wit and humor, The Great Perhaps pre-sents a revealing look at anxiety, ambiguity, and the need for complicated answers to complex questions.

Having gone through the process of creating catalogue copy, this struck me; for blurbs and summaries there is often a push toward punchy advertising speak.  This one seemed to me somewhat uncompromising; you can hear the author’s voice. (I mean, when you are releasing a book in the U.S. for the summer and thinking about how to hook the general reader, would the words cowardice, cloudiness, anxiety, ambiguity, complicated, and complexity rush to mind?)

A short video of Kate Walbert discussing “advice for young writers” over at Scribner/Simon & Schuster gives us a spare, truthful, and encouraging voice — bling-less and down-to earth.  “Don’t give up,” she says, then goes on to share the fact that the first novel she published was the third novel she’d written.  There is so much wisdom, and liberating realism, in that kind of established-writer’s revelation.

Both Meno and Walbert have been at this a long time.  Congrats to both of them on their auspicious releases.

23 June 2009

Boy, they really beat me up over at The Millions following my post about the dangers of genre-and-commercial-lit consumption.  As I mentioned in my June 18 post, the day “Slinging Stones…” went up on The Millions site, I was expecting some degree of push-back.  But as the days went on, and the comments piled up, it got pretty ugly.

So what did I learn from this experience?

1) beware of over-simplification via broad categories and labels

2) the essay-blog form is very, very difficult, especially when a nuanced argument is required

3) if you express a strong opinion, you will get strong reactions

4) literary populism is a serious force

5) I am an out-of-touch elitist (neither proud nor ashamed)*

I also learned that the blog-and-comment format is limited, and that it’s not terribly useful to repeatedly defend one’s position.  

I wondered throughout the commenting period if someone would change my mind.  I felt reasonably open to having my mind changed.  But that didn’t happen.  I probably feel even more strongly that gorging on pulp fiction and/or defending the literary merits of bad, empty writing is not harmless; and that much of the staunch defense of mass commercial writing is rooted in, as one commenter put it, “contempt-based faux-populism.”  

In fact, the emotional pitch of the strongest comments seemed less driven by passion about this book or that book, this author or that author (in fact, there was more agreement about what constitutes good writing and bad writing than disagreement); and more by a sub-textual conflict between constructed notions of elitism and populism.

I take to heart that my essayist’s skills require much improvement; and for that, I’ll take my punches.  But cries of elitism are starting to sound like “wolf” to me.  If I claim that Doctorow is a better writer than Koontz, Marilynne Robinson better than Stephenie Meyer, I’m supposedly an elitist.  At that point, it’s probably time to agree to disagree.

And, ultimately, disagreement is good.  I really believe this.  Mindlessness is the real enemy, and so I am encouraged when opinions — even ones I deeply oppose — are passionately, thoroughly, and intelligently defended.


*(“elite” is a neutral-to-positive word that’s been co-opted by the hysterical right wing; as for out-of-touch, well, that’s a relative term, depending on what one determines is worth being “in touch” with)

21 June 2009

I’m intrigued by Cristina Nehring’s book, A Vindication of Love: Reclaiming Romance for the Twenty-First Century, which, according to reviewer Katie Roiphe is a “celebration of the wilder, messier connections” throughout the history of great romances.  Nehring “sees our modern goals of marriage, security, and comfort as limited and sad.”

But could there be an ickier, less appealing image for Roiphe’s Sunday Book Review piece?  (shudder, goosebumps, ick) 


Nehring NYT


If the essence of the book is truly captured in this image, then it’s enough to turn me off completely from purchasing the book, and possibly from the content itself.  I surprise myself with this reaction.  I wonder if any other NYT readers have had a similar gut response.

18 June 2009

My guest post at The Millions today is already drawing some fire, which I expected. Dissent, discussion, it’s all good. Let’s talk about it.

16 June 2009

From the department of books-that-help-us-understand-current-events, some recommendations from Ann Kingman at Books on the Nightstand for recent books, fiction and nonfiction, about Iran.  Readers are posting additional recs.  Click here for the post.

16 June 2009

As a follow-up to my recent essay-memoir post, “How to Become a Writer,” I am reminded of Lorrie Moore’s much better much funnier, “How to Become a Writer Or, Have You Earned This Cliche?” from her first story collection, Self Help.   (At least I’ve got the coffee-drinking part down like a pro.)

13 June 2009

At Edward Champion’s “Reluctant Habits,” Sherman Alexie elaborates on his much-quoted attack on the Kindle as elitist.

Here, again, is Publisher’s Weekly’s report of what he said:

Sherman Alexie, the National Book Award-winning author of “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” said he refused to allow his novels to be made available in digital form. He called the expensive reading devices “elitist” and declared that when he saw a woman sitting on the plane with a Kindle on his flight to New York, “I wanted to hit her.”

Click here for the full clarification interview in which he talks about the cost of the Kindle; authors as the Davids, not the Goliath, of the digital book battle; the “social force” of independent bookstores;  and his concern about how video screen culture is changing our lives. 

Here are the final (powerful, I think) words of the interview:

People are eager to portray me as being anti-technology, but that’s not the case at all. I think the iPod is as vital as the fork and wheel. So I’m not even sure why I have this strange, subterranean fear and loathing of the Kindle and its kind. I think it’s really about childhood. Books saved my life, Edward. I rose out of poverty and incredible social dysfunction because of books. And all of my senses-sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste-come into play when I think and read about books. Books are tactile and eccentric. An eBook will always be a gorgeous but anonymous box. It will also be just a tool–perhaps an amazing and useful tool-but I don’t want it to replace the book. And I’m worried that many people don’t care about the book itself, and see the eBook as a replacement. And I’m worried that Amazon and other eBook distributors will completely replace bookstores. The careers of nearly every successful writer are based on the amazing human interaction between bookstore employees and readers. I enjoy an amazing career because, over the last seventeen years, bookstore employees, librarians, and book lovers have handed a copy of my book to another person and said, “You have to read this.” That face-to-face interaction will become more and more rare. Sure, the Internet can launch careers, but there is a loss of intimacy that should be acknowledged and mourned.

11 June 2009

Former New Yorker staff writer Dan Baum’s essay-in-tweets has been going around like wildfire for a while now. I started reading it a few weeks ago but stopped; I couldn’t, somehow, bear it. It felt close to home, it touched on something raw. But I couldn’t have articulated why at the time, because it’s not like I’ve ever written for an elite literary publication, nor been fired by a powerful literary figure.

I finally finished reading the essay.  I can see why it was so popular.  Baum did a few things in this essay that an aspiring memoirist might marvel at:  

1) he told the truth about a powerful cultural institution and its head honcho;

2) he did this via scene-based story-telling more than analysis or exposition (the Twitter form limited him productively in this way);

3) he implicated himself, but not really (most readers — non-insiders/loyalists to the New Yorker culture — will be sympathetic; and instead of emphasizing I don’t like David Remnick, he focuses more on David Remnick doesn’t like me);

4) he elevated a certain kind of naivete  which speaks to a non-institutionalized artistic purity that many writers, many anyones, crave.

Publishing the essay — tweeting it — was a brilliant career move on Baum’s part, and it’s hard to imagine that he did so with the winning naivete described in the piece itself.  I would imagine he counted the cost — my career, or the good will of the New Yorker – and probably determined that there wasn’t much of that good will left to speak of; so he went for it.  A calculated risk which seems, from the outside, to have paid off.  He’s even published on his Web site all of the pieces he wrote for the New Yorker which were “killed,” and are now likely getting hundreds, maybe thousands, of views.

The raw feeling I had when first attempting to read it, I realize now, has to do with this very palpable ambivalence one experiences about institutional prestige/acceptance that, if I pause for a moment of self-awareness, is always there.  What is lost or lacking in a life and work outside the circles of institutional sanction and prestige?  What is gained?  

 Here is how Baum puts it:

The big difference between being freelance and on staff – besides the irregular pay and the lack of benefits – is you’re not part of an institution. And every institution has its own character, its own emotional temperature. Freelancing for so long, I’d forgotten that. (If I ever knew it; I never held a job very long, either.) I’d come to believe that all that matters is the quality of the work on the page. That’s what set the writing life apart, I thought. And journalism folklore is replete with impossible personalities tolerated – yea, venerated – because their writing was so good. Hunter Thompson. Thomas Wolfe. William Faulkner. And on and on

In other words, what is at stake, in planting your feet in an institution, is your freedom.  Your voice.  Ultimately, your self-determination.  Someone else knows better — how to frame and judge  your ideas, your time, your talent — or you have to ostensibly concede to that notion anyway.  And the stakes are the same no matter how sophisticated, talented, or respected that someone else is. 

The atmosphere [at the New Yorker] is vastly strained. I’d get back on the Times Square sidewalk after a visit and feel I needed to flap my arms. Get some air into my lungs, maybe jog half a block. And I came to realize I had a really good job. I could write for the New Yorker, but not have to be of the New Yorker.  Therein lies the reason I’m no longer there.

The stronger your ego, the more likely you can maintain and continue cultivating your intellectual-creative freedom, in any context.  But, the stronger your ego, the less likely you will last in an institutional context; because someone else’s equally strong ego — someone more powerful than you — will have something to say about that.  Self-determination is the necessary manifestation of self-trust: I trust my own instincts and vision of the world more than I trust yours, O institutional leader.  

(And the showdown need not be one of animosity, as Baum’s was with Remnick.  I left a venerable NYC cultural institution (business cards and all) for reasons not dissimilar from Baum’s — to reclaim a clear and pressing self-trust that needed to be nourished and born out — except that I left of my own accord, and with both good will and friendship enduring.)    

We all have our own definitions of freedom.  A New Yorker magazine byline no doubt affords many freedoms.  But when I think of freedom — artistic, personal, professional — I somehow hear Theodore Roethke‘s (tortured, yes) voice in my head: Never be ashamed of the strange.  However you need to structure it for yourself, you can’t be free without direct access, experience of, and license to express that which is surprising and strange.  If someone else’s filters and frames — brilliant, influential, and erudite as they may be — are preventing this, then, in my book, you are not free.

Lunching with my agent recently, I mentioned a book that I was reading and couldn’t put down.  “Really?” she asked, partially surprised, a little repulsed.  “That’s so great, that’s not something I’d ever imagine you’d be reading.”  “Really?” I responded.  We beheld each other in perplexity.  Who are you?  her look said.  Who do you think I am?  my look replied.  It was a good moment.  It felt right.

8 June 2009

I’ve posted a new short memoir, “How to Become a Writer,” on my Stories & Essays page — written, in part, in response to Louis Menand’s New Yorker article on creative writing programs.  How does one become a writer? is the question that seems to have been launched into the literary discussion by this article.  I felt I had something to say about that.  

I suspect I will always have more to say about it, especially since I believe that the writer’s life is a vocation, not merely a trade — that to be a writer is a way of living, as much as it is a skill and a profession.  I also believe that the writer’s life requires much, and that this aspect of being a writer is often forgotten or downplayed, in favor of writerly glamor and celebrity (best-seller mania, movie deals, etc).

The memoir form is new for me; your feedback, as always, welcome.

3 June 2009

BookExpo America wrapped up on Monday, and I’m still catching up on all the “alert” updates I received from Publisher’s Weekly over the weekend.  Some highlights that caught my eye:

“There are fabulous novels by William Trevor [Love and Summer, Viking, Sept.], A.S. Byatt [The Children’s Book, Knopf, Oct.] Margaret Atwood [The Year of the Flood, Doubleday/Talese, Sept.] and Dan Chaon [Await Your Reply, Ballantine, Aug.],” said Sheryl Cotleur, buying director from Book Passage in Corte Madera, Calif. “It’s as if all these authors jumped forward just when the publishing industry needed them. There’s also Paul Auster [Invisible, Holt, Oct.], Nicholson Baker [The Anthologist, Simon & Schuster, Sept.], Jeannette Walls [Half-Broke Horses, Scribner, Oct.] and Barbara Kingsolver [The Lacuna, Harper, Nov.]. For nonfiction, forthcoming are Malcolm Gladwell [What the Dog Saw, Little, Brown, Oct.], Rebecca Solnit (A Paradise Built in Hell, Viking, Aug.] and Diane Ackerman [Dawn Light, Norton, Sept.]. I was going through the catalogues just flipping out—not only who’s publishing but the quality. We couldn’t need it more.”

The Nicholson Baker and William Trevor are both going on my list for sure; Barbara Kingsolver, too.

Sherman Alexie, the National Book Award-winning author of “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” said he refused to allow his novels to be made available in digital form. He called the expensive reading devices “elitist” and declared that when he saw a woman sitting on the plane with a Kindle on his flight to New York, “I wanted to hit her.”


So far e-books represent 1 to 3 percent of total book sales. But they make up the fastest growing part of the industry, and publishers, authors and booksellers have no idea just how big they will become and how they might affect profits and reading habits in the future.  NY Times article by Mokoto Rich

I’m thankful for this simple summary on e-books by Rich, who humbly confesses that, at this point, nobody knows.

2 June 2009

Louis Menand’s New Yorker article about university-based creative writing programs, “Show or Tell,” is sure to generate much echo-chamber discussion amongst literary writers. The article also covers a new book by Mark McGurl on writing programs and American fiction, The Program Era.

Here’s an intriguing snipet from Menand’s article:

Academic creative-writing programs are, as McGurl puts it, examples of “the institutionalization of anti-institutionality.” That’s why institutions love them. They are the outside contained on the inside.

I’m working on my own lengthy response-essay to this.  Having traversed from the institutionalized to the free-form creative life, from top-down to bottom-up (or maybe outside-in to inside-out?); and always considering the pros and cons of each;  this article makes me think. And thinking, of course, makes me write.


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