Stunning

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30 July 2009

Some wonderful things happen when you teach; as do terrible ones.  

Terrible: had to ask a student to withdraw from class (my boss did this, with grace and kindness, God bless him) for a variety of reasons.  It was one of those “for the good of the whole” decisions, and not an easy one.  I’m generally a believer in the wide gate when it comes to The Writing Life.

Wonderful:  I suppose “wonderful” isn’t quite the right word.  Stunning, maybe.  In both senses.  Let me back up a little.

Back in April, I wrote about a class I was hoping to teach, called “Writing Self/Writing Other.”  My interest was in proposing an alternative to the memoir and autobiographical fiction craze.  I love writing characters (and settings, and events) that have nothing to do with my personal experience; I love the exploration, the research, and the process of connecting with a character or place or time that is “other.”  I love how this process is almost always, ironically, a process of self-discovery.

That class has not yet materialized, but I’m still working on it.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Sarah Palin and empathy (or, her apparent lack thereof).  The gist of that post was that the artist’s vocation is an empathic one, requiring the development of an essential compassion; and that I’m glad to take part in this work, to the best of my ability.

Recently, I assigned a class a writing exercise, wherein the students were asked to write a letter, from one friend to another, at mid-life, after the experience of a great difficulty.  It was an exercise in Voice.  One student wrote a letter in which the narrator described the aftermath of her child’s tragic death.  

The Voice in this piece struck me as a bit too breezy, perhaps a bit too articulate.  As if the loss were not nearly as bizarre and incomprehensible as I imagine such a loss would be.  There is no experience further from my own — not only do I not have children, but I’ve yet to lose someone close to me to death — and so I treaded lightly as I provided comments.  “It seems like something that would live more in the subtext of a voice,” I wrote.  “That it would be unspeakable for quite a long time.”

The student wrote back to me (this is an online class) to let me know how much she appreciated my comments.  “That’s exactly it,” she wrote, and went on to tell me that her daughter and son-in-law were killed in a plane crash some five years ago, leaving three little boys.  

I can’t tell you what a gift this was, this student’s generosity and trust.  Life is hard, and we put on our armor to get through — layers of cynicism, irony, and stoicism.  It would be easy to lose our compassion, our empathy.  I am deeply grateful to know, in this small way, that in the midst of life hardships and learning to buck up where I am perhaps over-sensitive, I am also somehow managing to be a human being; and am more convinced than ever that our efforts to develop empathy are at the heart of our human-ness.

29 July 2009

From Publisher’s Weekly online yesterday:

Barnes & Noble is partnering with AT&T to provide free in-store Wi-Fi access to customers at all stores nationwide. 

CEO Steve Riggio said providing free Wi-Fi to customers is helping the retailer “[extend] the sense of community that has always been in our stores.” The company also stressed that in offering free Wi-Fi, customers will be able to easily download and preview e-books. The company said the number of e-books it carries in its new e-book store is expanding daily, and it expects to hit the one million mark soon. Riggio called the addition of free Wi-Fi in all stores “a natural progression of our digital strategy to provide customers with more choices in how, when and where they want to read.” 

Big change for B&N, I suspect we’ll be seeing more seating as well, and a friendlier atmosphere for lounging around in general (if you’ve ever tried Union Square or Upper West Side B&N in NYC for a lunch-hour or after-work pit stop, you’ve probably seen the hordes of people sprawled out on the floor, leaning up against bookshelves and heating units). It all makes sense: if you’re selling online, you need to give your customers access.

As for the AT&T partnership… is Starbucks next for free Wi-fi? It’s gotta be.

27 July 2009

I’m only just now beginning to seek out counsel and talk to other writers about their experiences in publishing.   And I’ve noticed that people often couch their counsel in terms of the one thing I’d recommend, which is usually born of either a very good, or very bad, experience they had, and learned from.  

Right now I’ve got two of those one things on my mind, and it occurs to me that it’s good to have two — one that helps you manage the big-picture, and one that provides a concrete, short-term action you might take.  

The big picture piece comes from independent publicist Lauren Cerand, from an interview at Three Guys One Book:

The authors that I see consistently lining up the best gigs and getting enviable exposure are not the ones with the most money to burn or endless time to spend but rather the ones that take the long view of their careers and keep a sense of perspective on things. Fiction takes a while to get going.

Cerand goes on to talk about historical trends in cultural consumption, how writers like Melville and Whitman did not “sell” well in their time, how a once-popular and still-vibrant art form like jazz  can become sidelined from the mainstream; but cautions against resigning oneself to irrelevancy. “A healthy outlook is somewhere in the middle,” she says. 

This counsel seems sound and wise to me; but I can’t help but worry its realism.  What I mean is that, from this writer’s perspective, the messages are mixed: novelists are made acutely aware of the fact that much of their careers rides on how the first novel is received.  There is less forgiveness than ever for a first novel that doesn’t sell well, an all-or-nothing short-term menace hovers.  We understand that our publisher is not committing to developing and supporting our writing careers over time, but rather calibrating the cost-benefit with each individual work.  I don’t lay any blame or judgment here, I recognize that editors hate this possibly as much as writers do.  (I would hope that the cost-benefit of this larger systemic shift is also part of the discussion in publishing right now, but I don’t know that to be the case.)

So the second one thing came from a fellow novelist, who published her first book a few years ago.   She advised: for your first novel, hire an independent publicist.  Because, she reasoned, you only have one first novel; and this is the moment when people might just be paying attention.

Funny that the publicist would be the one to say, Take the long view; and the novelist the one to say, Make sure you focus on this short-term moment.  It gives you a sense of the potential for how tense and fraught this whole process might get.

My six-months-before-release promotional push for Long for This World will begin in a month or so.  Stay tuned: we’ll see if/how well my two things materialize.  Once again, I seem to be seeking that middle path.

25 July 2009

A pile of work to do today, most of it on the computer; instead I baked cookies, sat outside staring at the grass, talked to the dog.  Read a little (a book, not a screen).  Can’t seem to get clear-headed or focused.  Very tired, and blah.

Opened my email and gingerly clicked on a link from a friend to an article in the London Times about digital-info overload.  Of course, I didn’t get through all of it.  But here are highlights.  Thanks, SKB — today, this is definitely me.

…the sense of mind-lag and unease that result from info-overload may be causing significant levels of anxiety and depression.

The concerns have been raised by two newly published studies which indicate that streaming digital news may now run faster than our ability to make moral judgments. Rapid info-bursts of stabbings, suffering, eco-threat and war are consumed on a “yes-blah” level but don’t make us indignant, compassionate or inspired. It seems that the quicker we know, the less we may care — and the less humane we become.

One fear is that habitual rapid media-browsing can, ironically, block our ability to develop wisdom. Researchers at the University of California, San Diego, announced recently that they had compiled compelling evidence that even the universal traits of human wisdom — empathy, compassion, altruism, tolerance and emotional stability — are hard-wired into our brains. In Archives of General Psychiatry, Professor Dilip Jeste says that neurons associated with those attributes seem to be sited primarily in areas of the prefrontal cortex — the slower-acting, recently evolved regions of our brain that are bypassed when the world feels stressful and our primitive survival instincts grab the controls.

23 July 2009

I’m over at The Millions blog again, chewing over the idea of “free” — featuring an ensemble cast: Toni Morrison, DH Lawrence, Chris Anderson, Adrienne Shelley, Jozef Czapski.  Click on over (your views, links, and comments most welcome).

22 July 2009

There’s something strange, and a little discomfiting, about being a first-time novelist right now.  The public-personality expectation seems greater than it’s ever been.  Making yourself “available” to readers, connecting personally on every front, is a foregone expectation.  I understand the many cultural and economic forces that have made it so, and I am grateful for the opportunity to share my novel with readers; and yet… sometimes, I think: if I’d craved a life of public events, extroversion, and displaying my life and thoughts regularly on the Internet, I may have gone into politics instead.

This bit from novelist Jonathan Evison, author-personality-promoter extraordinaire (full text at Three Guys One Book), illustrates the point:

As far as writers who keep their readers at a distance, I can’t say that I really understand them. Hell, I invite stalkers! I have a number of women fans who regularly send me little emoticoms–farting unicorns, leprechauns sliding on their asses down rainbows, that kind of thing. They send them for every conceivable occasion– Happy Wednesday! Happy Saint Abernathy’s Day, whatever. I love them! I send them back pictures of my bunnies! …

…I connect with a ton of readers at events. I always invite everybody in attendance to go drink beer somewhere nearby afterward. Drink beer with your readers and it’s a safe bet they’ll buy your next book and your next. I’ve probably attended 30 book clubs for Lulu, too. If you want to build readers for life, go sit in their living room and drink their beer for a few hours.

He goes on to describe the work he does to ensure attendance at readings, including communicating with his 4,000 MySpace friends, inviting people personally, and playing host, literally: “I baked hot dog cake and brought coolers of beer to my events. I made hundreds of jello shots.” 

I understand this is easier for somebody like me with a talk radio background who has a really social nature. But… if it’s not in you to do the highly public stuff, well, then, you damn well better blog, because there’s no free passes. 

In an interview in 2001, novelist Kazuo Ishiguro spoke about a different time in publishing and in the life of the writer, and how the book tour — the first incarnation of the personal-connections-between-writers-and-readers marketing strategy — affected the writer’s creative process:

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… 

These are the things that actually affect the environment in which the writer thinks, creates, writesI’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

And here I am, of course, self-consciously sharing on this blog my thoughts and bits of personal data and happenings, highly aware of the reader.  But every day, every post, I find myself wobbling on the balance beam, trying to gauge the middle path between public and private (I’m not sure I’d be so enthusiastic about stalkers, for example).  I find that Susan Sontag’s early journals are a good companion along-side the blog-life:

“X” is when you feel yourself an object, not a subject.  When you want to please and impress people, either by saying what they want to hear, or by shocking them, or by boasting and name-dropping, or by being very cool… The tendency to be indiscreet — either about oneself or about others — is a classic symptom of “X.”  [Curing herself of "X" is a persistent theme for Sontag in her journals]

It is not necessary to deliver oneself to others, but only to whom one loves.  For then it is no longer delivering oneself in order to appear, but only in order to give.  There is much more force in a man who appears only when he must.  To go to the end, that means to know how to guard one’s secret.

The second quote (from Camus?) reminds me of the weird morphing of the word “friend” in the age of Facebook and MySpace.  Some of us may be capable of loving many, many people (4,000!).  Some of us much fewer.   It seems a good guideline: reveal yourself when it is truly a form of giving.

21 July 2009

This.  Is so.  Funny.

Full Disclosure” at The Millions.

20 July 2009

I’ve just picked up Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer, a book I’m considering assigning for a fiction class I’m teaching this fall.  A quick flip to an appendix in the back entitled, “Books To Be Read Immediately” has me hyperventilating.  There are 117 books on Prose’s list.

All the more reason why last week’s “Fired From the Canon” — The Second Pass’s list of 10 supposedly must-reads that TSP’s editors have deemed skippable (which I linked to in my “Off the Hook” post) — is, if not in actuality, in terms of the editors’ specific recommendations, then at least, in the abstract, a momentary therapeutic antidote.  You must read these balanced by You won’t be dealt a literary GoDirectlytoJail Card if you pass over these.

Where does my sense of a literary Angry God, who delivers fire-and-brimstone commandments — Thou Shalt Read These – from on high, come from?  From starting late — in my mid-20s — as a serious reader, I suppose.  And my resulting slow-reader handicap.  Parents among you, here is your Thou Shalt for the day (from someone notably unqualified to deal out anything resembling parenting advice): forget the potty training, give your child a book (if you’re using Prose’s list, maybe start with Huck Finn, and by pre-school your little one will be ready for William Gaddis).

18 July 2009

I can’t stop thinking about this haunting, lovely story by Sergei Dovlatov  from the New Yorker fiction podcast.   Have a listen.  Beautifully read by David Bezmozgis. 

Audio: Fiction Podcast: David Bezmozgis reads Sergei Dovlatov: newyorker.com

16 July 2009

Eric Obenauf has written an impassioned take on “the death of print” over at the Brooklyn Rail.  Print is not dead; it can and will thrive, he says.  The piece is a kind of ode to the vibrancy of small and independent presses, and a celebration of the bursting of the corporate book bubble. 

Click here to read the full article.  Some highlights:

Since large publishers affect the flow of the market by sheer mass, the media seem content to regurgitate this overly hyped sea-change in corporate mentality and declare the death of print. However, the reality of the situation is much less dramatic: there is space for print not only to exist in modern society, but to thrive, if undertaken on a realistic scale…

The goal for book publishers, most simply put, should not be to undertake a virtual arms race of developing technology with both the Internet and media, or to try to compete on a bloated scale with music and film, or even to translate a work to conform to an undetermined potential future model. The mission for book publishers and print media at large should be to create a product that is irreplaceable and indispensible…

I believe that book publishing will re-generate in the near-future into two separate models: the corporate model, which strives to attain the widest possible “readership” in as short of a time-span as possible by use of electronic devices, interaction, and gimmicks; and the print model, sustained by independent, university, and re-branded imprints of large houses, that believe as [Dave] Eggers, in reading as a “beautiful rich tactile experience,” and who are satisfied with a book selling five thousand copies…

The corporate ideology has run its course in book publishing, which spells the death of print to many. But as evidenced by the bevy of awards (including Nobels and Pulitzers), the best-sellers, and the critical acclaim of the work being done consistently by independent presses, print can succeed on a responsible scale. These are the small, spunky houses unafraid to publish new ideas and new writers and work of substance, holding steady in their responsibility to the reading public as purveyors of culture. While this seems revolutionary in modern times, it was the dominant manner of thinking a half-century ago. It could be so again.

15 July 2009

Two heart-warming bookstore stories at a time when the not-so-slow and ugly death of independent bookstores often seems a foregone conclusion. Viva bookstores!

From Books on the Nightstand’s Ann Kingman: click here.

From The Stranger, Seattle’s alternative weekly (thanks for the link, LNR): click here.

14 July 2009

From a dusty piece of ruled notebook paper found at a bus stop in the South Bronx:

If there was a new continent named Hollys and we couldn’t find the old continent we would worship the King Hollys and I think like everything should be fair like prices of objects in stores, fair laws, greater jobs and greater movies and that’s what will happen if there was a new continent named Hollys and we couldn’t find the old continents.                    –Salman

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