27 November 2012


The past couple of weeks has been quite the whirlwind.  The launch of Bloom  has been wonderful—lots of enthusiasm and support, not to mention some choice press from the New Yorker, the LA Times, Flavorwire, and The Atlantic (coming soon: a bloggy thing on Bloom at the HuffPo).  Today I got a mini-orientation to the wonders of Twitter; which I sort of get, in theory, but only superficially at this point.  At any rate, Bloom  is at this point something between a magazine and a community, and it’s that community part that needs to engage at both Facebook and Twitter; and if you know me/have been reading my blog, you know that I’m, uh, not the best person to make that happen.  But we’ll figure it out.

All this to say that with editorial plates spinning, a novel in-progress, teaching, continuing to write for The Millions, and basic life-care; writing here with any regularity is The Thing That Has to Go.  I’ll be signing off for a little while; but I’ll  be back.  In some form or another.  Things have a way of continuing, even as they cease…

Peace out.

(p.s. I’ll keep up my Reading List page, mostly for my own visual record.)

17 September 2012

Thanks to Lisa at Like Fire for alerting us to NYRB’s new e-book series, NYRB Lit — “devoted to publishing contemporary books of literary merit from around the world.”  Launching this fall, which means, presumably, now!

I’m way behind when it comes to e-reading; when I speak of “turning the corner,” I mean my relationship to e-reading, not e-reading itself.  (I tried the Kindle a couple of years ago and just couldn’t do it — no pages, all that scrolling, ick.) But then again: NYRB launching an e-reading series feels momentous; with their beautiful Classics Series (bringing worthy classic titles back into print), and tabloid-format bimonthly mag (long-form reviews and articles), NYRB has felt to me like the last man standing.

And yet, their new series feels…  natural.  As if they waited until it felt right, no need to rush, and then went for it.  Of course it just makes sense, when your mission is to bring the best (non-blockbuster) literary work into the world, and you want to publish new work, economically risky work, that you’d take advantage of low-cost production and distribution.  I’m excited.

As always, it looks as if many of the titles will be works in translation; and the “covers,” i.e. the digital thumbnails, are lovely.

I’ve been thinking about an ipad; if the rumors about an ipad mini are true, then the corner may very well be turned this fall — for me, and for NYRB.

14 February 2012

I’m awfully glad to hear that Carrie Tiffany has a new novel out!  (I wrote about  her first novel Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Livingat The Second Pass, a couple years back.) It’s called Mateship With Birds and it’s been published by Picador. Read more about it in this interview with CT here.

I’d had a brief email exchange with Carrie Tiffany back in 2009; she said she was really struggling with the second book, and also not finding much time to write (children, full-time job, etc).  That the book is being released now, in 2012, makes my heart pitter-patter (appropriately, on this Valentine’s Day?), because it means that this very talented woman, with as many life challenges as anyone to deal with, got down to it: she got it done, despite the obstacles.  Three cheers!

Here’s what Tiffany herself says about her slow process (she wrote an entire novel that she ultimately threw away):

If you’re wondering why there were seven years between her novels, part of the answer is that she wrote another novel. Freud in the Bush grew out of that first short story about a snake. In reality, the great psychoanalyst sent a paper to an Australian conference in 1911. Tiffany imagined he attended to give a paper, On the Pouch, and took a train inland from Spencer Street Station. When the novel was finished she threw it away. ”I realised I was making fun of him,” she says. ”The more I read of Freud, the more I was convinced a great many of his discoveries were correct – that what we really want as adults is what we wanted as children, that dreams often point to repressed desires, that sexual repression manifests itself in the body in a variety of ways. I could no longer treat the subject with the irony I had intended.” [...]

Don’t expect another novel from Tiffany in a hurry. She has begun writing one, set in the 1970s. However, she says, ”People write too much. They write to prove they’re still writers”. She writes slowly and in the end, ”I hand in a postage stamp and the publisher says, ‘More, more!’ I’m definitely a miniaturist.”

I’m not sure where to find the novel at this point – it’s not yet on Amazon or Powell’s.  But I’ll keep looking.

18 November 2011

Something completely insane seems to be happening.  Last week, Sam Allingham wrote an analysis at The Millions of Jonathan Lethem‘s takedown of James Wood‘s review of his own novel The Fortress of Solitude (from eight years ago).  The Lethem essay was recently published at the LA Review of Books.

But that’s not quite the insane part (depending I guess on how you feel about Lethem/The Fortress of Solitude).  The comments section of Sam Allingham’s post blew up and started to get rather heated.  Then, suddenly, someone calling himself “James wood” joined the conversation, and it got even more heated.  Soon it became clear that “James wood,” who started his comments referring to “Wood” in the third person, was in fact the James Wood in question.

From a comment by someone named “Lewis,” deep into the thread:

Talk about post-modern moments. A critic writes a review of a writer. Then the writer responds to the critic. Then a blogger writes an article about the writer’s response to the critic. Then posters attack the writer for responding to the critic and other posters attack those posters for attacking the writer’s response. Then the critic responds to the posters, but no one believes he is the actual critic. The strangest/funniest part was perhaps when one poster pretending to be the critic also in response posted a link to a James Wood web site that is for James Wood the used car dealer and another asked that money be deposited in an offshore account for James Woods in the Cayman Islands, although those posts were unfortunately deleted. In any case, I do apologize if I offended you James for my sometimes gratuitous comments, although I never said that all you write about is Flaubert and you don’t write about contemporary authors. In fairness to you I have not read all of your critiques, only enough to get perhaps a biased impression. In fairness to me and Steven though, I agree that it is extraordinarily odd for a writer or critic to write about himself in the third person. Why would you expect any of us to believe you’re you when you speak of yourself as though you’re a corporation or a press agent speaking for you?

Completely apart from the issues of literary criticism and author-responses that this thread of comments addresses; what is going on here?  I feel lost and confused about how it is we are all learning/unlearning to communicate in the blogosphere; it seems scarcely human.

29 October 2011

It’s no surprise that I would be delighted to read Charles Simic at NYRB on the virtues of keeping a notebook, of writing things down longhand.  I still write in a Moleskine journal, and I use spiral notebooks and Bic pilot pens for writing fiction and essays.  I write emails more than texts, which I know is rather outdated, and I still can’t quite get comfortable posting at Facebook (and don’t tweet), because I find that degree of brevity and frequency really stressful.

But I wonder about iPhones/iPads.  I’ve been tempted for a while but haven’t seriously considered it yet (price point is of course an issue).  I like the idea of an “all-in-one” device, but what’s still missing from the “all” is, well, words.  If words are your main medium (generating them, that is), not images or sound or information chunks, then the i-devices still aren’t quite for you.  Yesterday, I left my phone somewhere, and for a short while I didn’t know where.  I thought, O shit, I’m going to have a get a new phone.  Will it be an i-phone? I wondered.  There is a feeling that a year from now, it won’t even be a question or a choice but a foregone conclusion — you’ll need an iphone like you need, say, a refrigerator.

I did find my phone, so it’s all okay for now.  But a year from now… well, let’s just say that I do hope Charles Simic is still writing for NYRB.



8 October 2011

This is one of those long-form pieces accessible online that I think is worth your while.  At Triquarterly, poet Michael Anania describes the sometimes-absurd ways in which academic institutions attempt to assess the “value” of a potential faculty member’s publications, based on who is publishing their work and how:

At one absurdly comic point, an administrator at my own university drew up a long list of literary magazines and presses which he sent out to people he thought of as experts in the field.  He asked that they review the list and assign numerical values to each of the magazines and presses based on literary merit and stature.  His plan was to multiply the number of poems, stories, lines or words—I was never quite sure which—by the “quality rating number,” then add the results and get a number that would represent the writer’s  achievement.  The plan was never put into effect because the chosen experts, those, at least, who didn’t simply laugh and throw his letter and list in the trash, sent their letters and lists to me, either as a not-so-gentle jab at my department or with the presumably flattering suggestion that I would be the person most qualified to assign the ratings.

Anania focuses on the perspective of academic hiring committees, and on scholarly and poetry publishing, but I think his discussion here pertains to an “at-large” view on a writer’s “value” and “success” as well:

Fiction that makes its way into quality paperbacks or Penguin paperbacks can retain its commercially conferred value, while fiction that moves into mass-market paperback tends to lose value.  In this strange form of what might otherwise be called thought, some commerce is good but too much commerce is bad or at least less good. Lingering here is the notion that the more commercial something looks, the more valuable it is, unless that look is wholly commercial and thus lowbrow, all of which is more than a bit distressing since universities are supposedly places where ideas of value are hashed out independent of corporate influence [...]

In regards to the publication of scholarly monographs, i.e. the economic evolution in this area of publishing:

The question is: are these drab, expensive monographs less good than their fancied-up predecessors?  And now that scholarly, as well as literary, publishing is moving to electronic, rather than paper, media, will it be less valuable?  Less tenurable? [...]

(The word “tenurable” here is, I think, rather brilliant and somewhat chilling.)

Anania also celebrates the excellence of small indie presses and debunks the notion that small and nimble means of lesser merit or value.

The increase in the numbers and variety of poets writing and publishing has been met by an increase in the number of small poetry presses.  This essentially positive literary development creates new areas for the kinds of misunderstanding that are generated in tenure and promotions committees.  Is a press with a name that is unfamiliar to committee members or located far away from Manhattan respectable?  That is to say, does it represent a judgment a committee can rely on?  Does it represent any editorial judgment at all? [...]

Here are some of the tangles you get into if you confuse commercial publishing with literary value.  For years Marvin Bell had Atheneum as his publisher.  He changed to Copper Canyon, a non-profit small press.  Did his value as a poet decrease?  Charles Wright went from Wesleyan, where he published for twenty years, to Farrar Straus, so presumably he became a better, more consequential poet [...] Lucille Clifton went from Random House to BOA.  A similar decline?  Gwendolyn Brooks left her New York publishers for Broadside in Detroit, though with that change her career seems to have soared [...] (Anania goes on in this vein to cite many other poets whose publishing trajectories have shifted with the times, nimbly, and for the ultimate good/value of the poet’s career.)

In regards to the flux-y moment we are in, where we can’t quite decide if print is still at the peak of the prestige pyramid, Anania writes:

To choose one combination of technical adaptations over another as having a lock on literary value is simply silly.

And finally — here, here:

One last thing—and it’s the darkest recess of the “publisher” question.  There is, if only implicitly, an invasion of academic and aesthetic freedom involved here.  Large, commercial publishers and glossy magazines do not necessarily represent higher judgments of literary merit.  In the short term, they might offer access to larger audiences.  What they do represent—you could argue “enforce”—is a fairly limited set of social and aesthetic choices.  Saying that you should publish in the New Yorker is not merely a wish for greater success for you but an insistence that you become a different kind of poet, that you change your subject matter, your poetics, and your voice in order to find a shiny place among the hotel and jewelry ads.  Saying that you should publish with Knopf has the same effect.  I would be happy if on your own terms you were swooped up by either or both, but not if you tried to remodel yourself and your work to suit what you imagine they want.

I myself get excited about more indie presses popping up; smart and creative folks reclaiming literary publishing as a vocation, a passion, a deep commitment to the life of each book that is acquired and launched into a reading world that truly needs these books.  Every business must survive, yes; and I hope all the new small presses sit down and study the economics of the thing and consider how everyone can make a decent living in the long run, how each project has the potential for profit and growth.  I also hope that perceptions and judgments about literary value and success evolve in stride.

4 August 2011

At the Hindustan Times, Sanjay Sipahimalani calls The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books “a breath of fresh air” and quotes my essay in the final paragraph of the review.

It’s Sonya Chung, though, who strives to look at the present in just the right manner. The pendulum will swing back one day, she writes, but meanwhile, “…whether you are optimistic or pessimistic, hopeful or dispirited, it is clear that our needs, desires, fears, and values are at stake; and what could be more exciting for literature?” A new age of Modernism could be around the corner, in other words. As that quartet from Athens, Georgia, might well have sung: It’s the end of the book as we know it, and I feel fine.

An R.E.M. comparison?!  Definitely a first.

Read the entire review here.

24 June 2011

Longreads is a newish blog offshoot of FSG’s Work in Progress blog.  It’s full raison d’etre can be found here.

Says founder Mark Armstrong:

Here’s a problem that we, People of the Internet, should solve: The web is not yet organized in a way that recognizes that there is more than one type of text-based web content. There’s quick, snackable stuff, formulated for 5-minute scanning between checking your email and getting some real work done. But then there’s the long, in-depth content better suited for the couch, the commute, or the airplane. Most sites jumble these two types of stories together. When I click a headline at NYTimes.com, I can never tell whether I’m going to get a 200-word blog post or a 10,000-word epic. At work, I want the former; at home, the latter. But my browser doesn’t care. Graydon, you would never ask me to read the Vanity Fair cover story standing at the newsstand. Yet that’s precisely what VanityFair.com and others do.

Now that I have the ability to “read later,” I will. It’s time for publishers to start recognizing this need for “time and place”-specific content. I humbly offer up “Longreads” as the tag by which we, The Internet, will understand when content is meant not just for scanning but for reading, savoring and digesting.

Can’t we all see where this is going? The online world no longer needs to be 500-words-or-less. Instead of killing long-form journalism, the internet can help save it.

Longreads posts include

long-form journalism, magazine stories from your favorite publications (The New Yorker,EsquireThe Atlantic), short stories, interview transcripts, and even historical documents. (For the record: Longreads are typically more than 1,500 words.)

1,500 words is what constitutes “long” these days?  I’m glad Longreads exists, certainly, but since I am only getting older, these new parameters for long and short make me ever-more despondent.  The battle between The Slow and The Fast continues…

1 June 2011

At The Atlantic, “10 Essential Books for Thought-Provoking Summer Reading,” including The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books (C. Max Magee and Jeff Martin, eds.), in which I have an essay (quoted at the New Yorker‘s Book Bench blog).

25 April 2011

A nice piece by Linda Homes at NPR (thanks to Jane for passing along) about the anxiety many of us have these days re: “so much to read, so little time.”  She makes the argument that the sadness we feel about “what we’re missing,” because there’s just too much good stuff out there, is also a beautiful thing; and that we should resist “culling,” which is her term for coping with the volume of choices by mentally eliminating entire categories of art from our “worthwhile” list.

Culling is easy; it implies a huge amount of control and mastery. Surrender, on the other hand, is a little sad. That’s the moment you realize you’re separated from so much. That’s your moment of understanding that you’ll miss most of the music and the dancing and the art and the books and the films that there have ever been and ever will be, and right now, there’s something being performed somewhere in the world that you’re not seeing that you would love.

It’s sad, but it’s also … great, really. Imagine if you’d seen everything good, or if you knew about everything good. Imagine if you really got to all the recordings and books and movies you’re “supposed to see.” Imagine you got through everybody’s list, until everything you hadn’t read didn’t really need reading. That would imply that all the cultural value the world has managed to produce since a glob of primordial ooze first picked up a violin is so tiny and insignificant that a single human being can gobble all of it in one lifetime. That would make us failures, I think.

If “well-read” means “not missing anything,” then nobody has a chance. If “well-read” means “making a genuine effort to explore thoughtfully,” then yes, we can all be well-read. But what we’ve seen is always going to be a very small cup dipped out of a very big ocean, and turning your back on the ocean to stare into the cup can’t change that.

And here’s an interesting response in the comments from someone who disagrees, who thinks generalism is a waste of time:

Endeavor to contribute in your special way, and humanity grows. It’s a fools errand to personally know all knowledge. It’s a liars ruse if one claims to know all. Furthermore, if you knew and could do all, there would be scant appreciation for those that excel at only a few things. Would the great artists, architects and leaders be useful if all were as capable?

I have to admit that I have culling tendencies; though I’d like to think that I cull in a thoughtful way, as opposed to a dismissive one.  In other words, in my experience, culling is not easy, it means developing priorities based on an aesthetic and/or personal value system that’s idiosyncratic by virtue of having formed over time.  It also recognizes reality; I can’t know or do everything, so I’ll work on what I can.  I trust the people who are gifted otherwise to cover those areas, while I cover mine.  Be master of such as you have, is how Barry Hannah put it.  Perhaps the compromise is that the culling process works best when it’s evolving and organic.  Tomorrow I may evolve into, say, an Italian film enthusiast; but only if I’m open to it.

21 March 2011

A nice look at The Late American Novel over at the New Yorker’s Book Bench blog.  Blogger Rachel Hurn reminds us of a film classic, one of my favorite Hepburn-Tracy movies, “Desk Set” — in which a gifted research librarian (Hepburn) and an efficiency consultant peddling a revolutionary, room-sized computer (Tracy) go head-to-head over the human vs machine conundrum.

The fight between Hepburn and Ms. Warren [a computer technician] captures the sort of conundrum considered by the contributors to the new essay collection “The Late American Novel,” edited by Jeff Martin and C. Max Magee [...] Nancy Jo Sales, who briefly mentions “Desk Set,” wonders whether her life in books would have been the same if they had always come to her via Kindle. “There’s something about the physicality of a book,” Sales writes, “the way it looks and feels and even smells—the notes written in the margins—that makes it a living, breathing companion (who, like yourself, is actually dying).”

Thanks especially to Ms. Hurn for these kind words:

My favorite paragraph is by Sonya Chung. She suggests that while we can’t ignore the elephant in the room (or the room-sized computer, or the iPad 2 advertisements), a writer’s optimism says, “Hope is what we exercise in spite of our knowledge that things may not get better.”

4 February 2010

Hot off the (Soft Skull) press: The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books, edited by Jeff Martin and C. Max Magee (our fair editor at The Millions).  Short essays, manifestoes, jokes and riffs, all manner of engaged expression about where we are and where we might be going in literary life.  Featuring 26 ruminations by: Rivka Galchen, Joe Meno, Benjamin Kunkel, Jonathan Lethem, Garth Risk Hallberg, Emily St. John Mandel, Deb Olin Unferth, Victor LaValle, and yours truly, among others.

From the back cover:

The way we absorb information has changed dramatically. Edison’s phonograph has been reincarnated as the iPod. Celluloid went digital. But books, for the most part, have remained the same—until now. And while music and movies have undergone an almost Darwinian evolution, the literary world now faces a revolution, a sudden change in the way we buy, produce, and read books.

Scholars, journalists, and publishers have turned their brains inside out in the effort to predict what lies ahead, but who better to comment on the future of the book than those who are driven to write them?

In The Late American Novel, Jeff Martin and C. Max Magee gather some of today’s finest writers to consider the sea change that is upon them.

Orderable now at Amazon


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