Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The End

Dear Friends:

After more than four years, we have decided to shut down Ward Six.

Writing this blog, and reading your responses to our posts, has been a great experience, and we're going to miss it.  But maintaining Ward Six has increasingly caused more anxiety than pleasure, and it's time for us to move on to other projects.

The primary reason for this decision, of course, is time.  Our professional lives have become more demanding over these years, and we want to devote as much time as possible to our fiction, not to mention our family and friends.  Something had to give.

There are other reasons, though--less important, perhaps, but more immediately compelling.  For one: the longer we remain in the business of writing and publishing, the more people we know.  The American literary world is like a big small town, spread across the country; stay in it long enough, and you end up connected to everyone.  As a result, it has become increasingly difficult to write anything that doesn't offend someone connected to us. Sometimes this manifests itself in the comments; sometimes via email.  Of course this should be perfectly fine--shouldn't a literary blog offer a forum for spirited disagreement?  Indeed, it should.  But when those disagreements keep you up at night, when they result in emotional exhaustion, you have to wonder if it's worth it in the end.

In an ideal world, we writers could write about one another without concern for hurting anyone's feelings.  Personally, we never read or respond to anything written about ourselves online--this seems like madness to us.  It wasn't until last year that we even realized there is a thing called Google Alerts and that writers use it to find discussions about them; the result is that we live in a world where you can always hear when people are talking about you.  There is one word for such a world: hell.  It's hard to remain neutral in it.

There are other reasons we're shutting down, less connected to our emotions.  John is writing more book reviews for print publications; this work is supposed to be free of any possible conflicts of interest.  Carrying on dialogues with other writers here makes such impartiality hard to achieve.  He will also, in the coming months, take over directorship of Cornell's creative writing program, and is increasingly conscious of the possibility that readers will interpret his remarks on Ward Six as representative, somehow, of the institution he works for.

But the main thing, aside from time, is that internet writing is stressful.  We don't blame writers, in the end, for their passionate advocacy of their own work online; the publishing industry is forcing them to do so.  Publicity and marketing budgets are down; writers are asked to promote themselves, ad nauseam, on Facebook, Twitter, and blogs.  This isn't a good thing, we don't think.  Writers should never ask other writers for blurbs: that's what publishers are for.  Writers shouldn't be responsible for what is said about them online.  They should put their heads down and work on their art, without regard for the vicissitudes of commerce.

But that's not the way the wind is blowing.  We receive many requests each month for quotes, and are sent a lot of galleys, and we find ourselves having to tell people over and over that Ward Six is not a promotional blog, but a labor of love.

Unfortunately, lately, it has become more labor than love.  We are proud of the fact that we have never run an ad on this site, have never made a cent from it.  But it's time for our labor to be directed elsewhere.

We've made a lot of friends here, and look forward to keeping in touch with them.  And we won't be disappearing from the internet.  So you'll be seeing us again before long.

Until then, you have our profound gratitude and affection.

John and Rhian

Sunday, April 17, 2011

"A life of their own"

I got a question from a grad student yesterday regarding a paper he's writing, and I thought my answer to him would make a good blog post.  So here you go.  The question (thanks, Alex): "Writers (and I've heard this from poets, too, who are inhabiting an historical voice) claim that characters 'take on a life on their own' and act autonously, despite their ontological tether to the author himself.  The character kind of becomes an 'other.'  What's your experience of creating characters like?  Do you feel this doubleness as actor/observer?"

My off-the-cuff reply was, "Yes, characters do seem to 'take on a life of their own,' but that phrase is sentimental and overplays the role of inspiration and loss of control in the writing of fiction.  Personally, I always feel that I'm in control of my characters.  But I also feel that they are manifestations of the self (that is, the author) that draw from parts of the personality (that is, our own) that we don't ordinarily have direct access to, which must be dug for with great effort, and generally are only uncovered in a state of deep concentration.  The process of creating a character is a process of assembling emotions, memories, hypotheses, and the like, until they form a pleasing shape.  And the more material one assembles, the more dots there are to connect, the more detailed a picture emerges.

"That isn't to say a character can be anything and all things--it's more like fractals, details concealed inside details.  You might think of this process as being like formal limitation in poetry--instead of being able to look anywhere, we limit ourselves to those personalities possible within a set of initial parameters.  And it is only inside these limitations that we're able to feel that we really know something.  If the plot demands that our protagonist is going to be a fifty-year-old woman with three grown children, a two-pack-a-day smoking habit, an abiding love for the string quartets of Shostakovich, and, back in her past, a youthful stint as a game show host, then we already have somebody in mind.  YOU have somebody in mind, right now.  This woman opens her mouth and speaks: I am certain that you know what her voice sounds like.  Because human beings are made to make broad judgements about people based upon small collections of data, and predict their future behavior according to those data.

"So this thing about characters taking over the story is, ultimately, silly nonsense.  (Nabokov, for one, hated the notion.)  But it is a pleasure for the writer, and one hopes the reader, to experience the illusion of same."

Monday, April 11, 2011

The quest vs. the meander

I listen to a lot of nerd podcasts, including this one, which today included an interesting tangent about Pixar.  You know, the animated film company everyone loves.  The co-host, John Siracusa, had the previous week been comparing Pixar to Hayao Miyazaki, and finding the former inferior, for various reasons: all of them, in my view, very valid.  This week, though, he pointed out that almost all Pixar movies feature male protagonists, and most of Miyazaki's feature female ones.

This in and of itself doesn't really concern me--I think children are perfectly able to identify with the other gender in a narrative, should their parents adequately encourage them to.  But this got me thinking about what I do hate about Pixar: their storylines.

Don't get me wrong--I really quite enjoy these films, particularly The Incredibles and Ratatouille (which, if nothing else, provides the extraordinary spectacle of Patton Oswalt not swearing).  They are visually stunning and often quite funny.  But they depend, by and large, on the same dreary goal/motivation/conflict plotlines that Rhian criticized in this post.  There is always some quest, or some search for self-actualization or self-improvement.  There always has to be a moral, a life lesson.  There always has to be a danger that forces people to embrace their better selves.  The world must always prove, in the end, orderly and sensible.

I find myself thinking of this as a "masculine" storyline, though I'm not particularly eager to defend that characterization; I will say, though, that the primary way girls get to be the heroes of contemporary children's movies is by proving that they can do the same stupid shit boys can.  Miyazaki, on the other hand, makes movies about intense, often directionless exploration.  He is contemplative, and his films often remain movingly unresolved.  Pixar movies look great, but the visuals are illustrative.  In Miyazaki, the images are the movie.  They make the story.  I can't, for the life of me, remember the plot of Howl's Moving Castle--but I will never, never forget the sight of it.  Is this perhaps a feminine ideal--that it is sometimes enough simply to be?  In any event, it is a worthwhile ideal, gendered or not.

Is this "better"?  It is to me.  My middle career (and, I fear, accompanying slump in book sales) has been largely about an effort to abandon the kind of heavily directed plots I love to indulge in as a casual reader, and concentrate more on the enigmatic things that move me.  I certainly haven't abandoned plot, nor have I become remotely experimental.  But my forthcoming (late 2012 I suspect) novel is about a woman who gets horribly lost in an increasingly confusing spiral of impossible domestic events, against a backdrop of impossible sci-fi phenomena, and I had more fun writing it than anything I've done in ten years.  It's the result of an obsession not with story, but with motif, situation, and emotion.

I dunno--I think we're stuck in this country in a plotline that's so familiar we can't even see it.  We keep telling ourselves the same damned stories over and over, are comforted by them, and live our lives by them, when in fact they are bankrupt and getting us nowhere.  We are never going to win the big game, or make people love us at last, or find what we're looking for.  Friendship isn't going to conquer all, we are not going to find the treasure, and we aren't going to land the deal.  If the worst thing that's going to happen to us is that we're just going to keep living for a while, we are in luck.  There are a million ways to write about that experience, many of them profound and beautiful.  Maybe we can do that now.

Thursday, April 7, 2011


I think I've posted about this before, but it's on my mind this week, for several reasons.  Writers have a strange relationship to their, you know, physical existence.  Like anyone whose satisfaction comes mostly from time spent in their own head, writers often find the actual world rather vexing to navigate, and have mixed feelings about presenting themselves to others.  Even though, in theory, nothing could be more simple than giving a reading--you don't even have to memorize anything, you just stand there and read stuff off of a piece of paper--many of us find such events incredibly stressful.  We are not accustomed to being in front of our readers--it's not in the contract.  We're supposed to be able to be our worst selves on the page, without fear of embarrassment or misunderstanding.  All we are is a pile of paper, a book, a digital file.  We aren't supposed to have a five o'clock shadow, pit sweat, or PMS.  It just isn't natural for a writer to perform.

Some people, though are so good at it.  Margaret Atwood was here last week, and R. and I got to spend some quality time with her.  Her reading was great, but her performance lasted the duration of her stay in Ithaca.  She was on all day long, keeping up a hilarious and fascinating line of patter on her favorite subjects--genetics, the environment, the culture of writers and literature.  (Sadly, no hockey.)

I'm giving a reading tonight, and I gave a reading last week, and I must admit I love giving readings.  But my hands shake as I do it, sometimes visibly.  The version of myself I'm willing to be while writing is not the version of myself I would naturally present to others in person.  This creates a certain dissonance while teaching, too--as writers, we talk about sex, death, self-disgust, self-doubt.  As teachers, we are supposed to be experts, flawlessly confident and assured, and keep a personal distance between ourselves and our students, even as we encourage them to reveal themselves in ways we might be reluctant to suggest even to our own spouses.  The result is this bizarre stew of emotions, of concealment and revalation, of intimacy and detachment.  I think this is one of the reasons creative writing classes are so popular, even with students for whom writing itself is not a great passion: they are a forum for deep personal expression, but with built-in limits and controls.  They are an oblique form of self-analysis, for people who might otherwise be afraid to examine themselves too closely.

We went to see The Mountain Goats the other night, in Ithaca, and I was struck by the facility with which Darnielle and company presented the deeply intimate, even disturbing, material the band is known for.  Sometimes I wish I could read or teach with Jon Wurster drumming behind me, and a guitar and amp to give my words something to ride on.  Then again, the typical literary audience is a bit better groomed and doesn't shout requests.  I'll take it.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Me and Lou Beach: The Great Zombini

Lousy of me, I know, to come slouching in after a week of absence with a self-promotion post, but that's what I'm doing.  Soon I will post about my busy week with some thoughts about performance, literary and otherwise.  But for now, news.

I have collaborated on a new book with visual artist Lou Beach called The Great Zombini.  It's a collection of 21 short stories inspired by 21 of Lou's hilarious and bizarre photocollages.  The book contains the images and the stories, and it is an ebook only release.  The link above is for the Kindle page, but it will soon propogate to your favorite ebookstore, including the B&N and Apple sites.  For those of you who were at my reading with Amy Dickinson and Jaime Warburton yesterday, those stories were from this book.

What can I say about it?  Lou and I have decided to be annoyingly cagey in our description: "Cautionary tales for adults, illustrated. You've been warned."  Here's a sample.

And do us a favor, will you?  If you read the thing, review it on Amazon, even if you didn't like it.  Our publisher is an indie, Red Willow Digital Press, and they (and we) need all the publicity we can get.  Blogward ho!

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Literary blurb translation guide

"luminous prose" = too many goddam words
"a tour-de-force" = threw it across the room
"a triumph" = huge advance
"a commanding new voice in fiction" = girlfriend's brother wrote it
"sublime" = didn't know what the hell was going on
"unflinching artistry" = lots of boobs and stabbing
"grabs you on page 1 and won't let go" = stuck reading it on long flight
"achingly beautiful" = really long sentences
"brilliant" = smarty-pants
"profound" = written by old person
"a story for the ages" = ripoff of Tolstoy
"taut" = limited vocabulary
"finely wrought" = namby-pamby
"best of the year" = only thing I've gotten around to reading
"deeply imagined" = makes no sense
"incredible range and breadth" = all over the place
"ingenious" = confusing
"radiant" = already been blurbed by people more famous than me
"lyrical grace" = either is girl or writes like one
"rich language" = not enough paragraph breaks
"devastating" = dropped it on my toe
"goes straight for the heart" = sappy
"trenchant satire" = poop jokes
"clever" = thinks it's being clever
"fiercely resonant" = author looks hot in publicity photo
"a small gem" = will sell five hundred copies, tops
"first-rate" = grad school pal
"bracing" = fits nicely in box headed for used bookstore
"tightly coiled and edgy" = contains fucking
"humane" = contains murdering
"you'll feel forever changed" = you will never get those hours of your life back
"transcends its genre" = stuck in its genre
"affirms the human spirit" = contains scene of winning big game
"searing...glorious...a fury of dazzling transcendence" = I'm just stringing random words together now

Please...add more.

Thursday, March 24, 2011


I just had a hissy fit on facebook but figure this is probably a better place for it.  A friend remarked that today was Lawrence Ferlinghetti's birthday, and then quoted him: "Don't patronize the chain bookstores. Every time I see some author scheduled to read and sign his books at a chain bookstore, I feel like telling him he's stabbing the independent bookstores in the back."

My response was as follows: "So, we are supposed to refuse what tiny, pathetic opportunities we have for publicizing our work, further restricting our already-meager options for finding new readers, to serve somebody else's anti-corporate agenda? As if anyone gives a rat's ass that a literary writer somewhere is taking a bold stance against some hairsplitting distinction that about nine people in the entire world even recognize. Ferlinghetti should try opening an independent bookstore in, say, Ohio or upstate New York, and see how much traction he gets. Personally, I feel stabbed in the back when I'm told how and where to sell my books by somebody I've never met."

Sorry, Corey, don't unfriend me.  But really: as a corollary to the last post, I personally decline to feel bad about failing to sell my own work according to some impossible left-coast standard of moral purity. And though I love my local independent, and support it with my dollars, rhetoric, and what little authorial clout I possess, the fact is that indies have been a niche business for a long time and are only going to get nichier.  People don't like them, they like Barnes & Noble.  Or ebooks, for chrissake, which are selling like mad, and this is for reading on a device aesthetically akin to a home perm kit from 1983.

Physical books and independent bookstores are a fetish.  I happen to embrace this fetish, personally, but I do not have the mental energy to proselytize about it, or to get all high and mighty about the method by which readers pay attention to what I do.  Frankly, this amounts to stabbing readers in the back.  "No--you're liking me wrong!" is the message Ferlinghetti is encouraging us to deliver to them.  Honestly, their only reasonable response would be to give up liking us at all.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A writer wants to sell books

Funny when you encounter the same unexpected thing twice in twelve hours.  Last night I was sitting on the sofa reading an essay about Kurt Vonnegut in this Steve Almond collection (it's good, you should read it) and came across this quote: "It's what writers do, this shuck and jive, this nevous dance to balance the emotional needs of those you love against your own need for glory."

Almond goes on to talk, briefly, about the writer's need to be noticed, to have his books read, which he shares with Vonnegut.  I didn't think much of it until I woke up and read this HuffPost piece by Julianna Baggott, which links to an Andre Codrescu piece (full disclosure: I didn't read that, as Codrescu makes me want to claw my eyeballs out) about facebook.  And in it, Baggott says, "And I know I'm supposed to feel guilty for wanting people to buy my books... and books in general? Novels and poetry, they belong to the realm of art. How dirty of us to try to hawk art! But, after a decade of hand-wringing and apologies, I can't quite muster the guilt anymore."

I feel bad for anyone who has experienced even a moment of guilt for wanting people to buy her books.  In fact, I think Baggott is lying--I don't think she's ever really felt guilty about this.

Because honestly, if we don't want to be read, what the hell are we doing?  If we write and don't send out our stuff, it's because we're afraid of rejection.  If we have writer's block, it's because we're afraid of failure.  But not wanting to be read is not any writer's problem.  If you don't want to be read, you're not a "writer."  You're some other thing.  A diarist, perhaps.

Now, as for Codrescu's complaint, if I am friends with you on facebook, and you use more than, say, 1 in 20 posts to promote your own work, then I find you annoying, and I have you hidden in my news feed.  facebook is for being mildly amusing and posting links to videos of stampeding baby goats and pictures of your kids with ice cream on their faces.  If you listen to your publicist and treat it like an advertising medium, then you're crapping in the pool.

But I sympathize: I want to be noticed, too.  Everyone does.  Am I not blogging right this minute?  The thing is, the correct way to be noticed is not to ask people to notice you, it's to make more stuff for them to notice.  If you want readers, write a lot, unshittily.  Don't post ads on facebook, post content.  (I have at least one friend, Lou Beach, who has a book coming out that consists entirely of short stories written there.)  Same goes for twitter, and your blog.  Listen carefully here, writers, because this is important.  Content.  Do not post reports on how many people came to your reading or what nice things book reviewers said about you.  This is called bragging and it makes you look like an ass.  People will read your books not because you're telling them how much people like you, but because your writing is worth reading.  So, on the internet, give them more of that.  Give people more of yourself.

And quit feeling guilty about wanting people to buy your books.  It's like feeling guilty about wanting sex, or breakfast.  And yes, there are people who feel guilty about those things, too.  Take a good long look at those people.  Do they look happy?  No, they look hungry.  And horny.

Desire readers.  Then write.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Random poetry idea generator

A quickie for you this morning: my undergraduate workshop was having trouble getting inspired to write poems, and asked me to give them some kind of exercise.  So I made this.

It's pretty simple--just a bit of javascript that chooses one item apiece from three lists: an action, a subject, and a method.  The interesting thing is, I was planning on stopping at fifty items per list, then couldn't stop.  It's up to 273 each now, which means there are more than 20 million possible combinations.  It got to feeling like writing, and I belatedly realized that's what it is.  It's writing!  I am just sacrificing control and sense for the pleasure of constant amusement and inspiration.

If you have some ideas, let me know, I'll add them in the next round of updates.

Also on the web, by the way: the young geniuses at Electric Literature have made a web app that allows you to record stories and pin them to a map.  It's cool, check it out.  And now that my former student Téa Obreht is super famous, you might want to listen to the interview I did with her last year, on the Writers At Cornell blog.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Gimme some happy

On HTMLgiant the other day, Blake Butler asked, "What are some good books that have happy endings and don’t suck shit?"  Hey, yeah--good question.  Commenters gave him plenty of answers: Jesus' Son, The Fermata, Ulysses (sort of), Stuart Little.  Well--that last is a kids' book, so of course it has a happy ending.  But it doesn't suck.  Neither, for that matter, does the ending of Little House In The Big Woods.  In fact, this latter is the only book ending that I start crying just thinking about: it might be the most beautiful ending of any book I've ever read.

But Laura lay awake a little while, listening to Pa's fiddle softly playing and to the lonely sound of the wind in the Big Woods.  She looked at Pa sitting on the bench by the hearth, the fire-light gleaming on his brown hair and beard and glistening on the honey-brown fiddle.  She looked at Ma, gently rocking and knitting.
     She thought to herself, "This is now."
     She was glad that the cosy house, and Pa and Ma and the fire-light, were now.  They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now.  It can never be a long time ago.

A while back a relative told me that eventually everybody turns into a Republican--the older you get, the harder you get, the less you want to give away.  Nope.  I am getting softer by the day.  And I like happy endings more and more.  If you can write one, you are a badass.  They are hard.  Our assumption, I think, is that happiness is empty.  Misery is real, happiness is an illusion.  Life will end in pain and fear, after all--why should our novels be any different?

Fuck that.  Gimme some happy.  Surprise me with it.  Find a way to tell me that love matters, and everything that is temporary is beautiful.  Show me that now is now and it can never be a long time ago.  I dare you.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

This new thing the kids are doing

A student recommended Mary Miller's Big World to me the other day; we were at a bar and she brandished it like a pack of the best cigarettes anyone has ever smoked.  It's about the size of a pack of cigarettes, too, and has an ashtray on the cover.  I bought it and am reading it now, and it's pretty good.

It does this thing, though.  Amelia Gray does it also, with mixed success, in her recent book that I reviewed in the NYTBR.  And the student who recommended the book to me does it, and so do a couple guys in my recent undergraduate workshops.  It's partially a McSweeney's thing, I think, although my student would probably bristle at that; she's not a fan of the mag.  And it's also kind of neo-Carverian.  It's minimalist, sort of, and sometimes it's selfconsciously odd.  It employs serendipity and timely pop cultural references and short unadorned sentences.

I'm not sure I like it.  I like some of it, of course--my student is very good at it, I think, and I liked parts of the Gray book and the Miller book.  (Oddly, I like Gray's twitter feed better than most of her stories: her tweets are genuine non-sequiturs, intended as non-sequiturs, and are really funny.)

But what is it exactly?  I think it's this: there's a new breed of minimalist writers who appear confident that passing something through their particular consciousness, however seemingly banal that thing is, will lend it sufficient weight to justify its inclusion in a story.  Some of these Miller stories are nothing but that: rambling lists of banal acts and observations.  And damned if she doesn't pull it off half the time.  These things do take on weight in each other's presence, and rendered in her lazily precise prose.

The other half of the time, though, stories like this just seem precious, or random, like stuff you find in somebody's dead grandma's glovebox.  You read them and you think, I guess you had to know grandma.  Or they feel like a night spent smoking pot in your sister's apartment with her grad school friends.  You know they're smart, and you know you're as smart as they are, but you don't understand a thing they're saying.  It's not for you: it's an insider code.  The context is missing.

It would seem that the key to doing this thing right would be to provide that context without appearing to do so: giving the reader the key on the sly.  Letting the reader be inside and outside at once.  A neat trick, if you can figure out how to do it.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Excellence by association

Inspired by the abandoned novels post, we seem to have temporarily abandoned our blog.  Sorry, life intervened!

Rhian showed me a surprising review by Tadzio Koelb in the NYTBR this weekend.  What's surprising is how clearly and cogently it's written, and its willingness to take a step back and examine the context into which the book in question, Rebecca Hunt's Mr. Chartwell, is being published.

In short, Koelb calls the book "well-packaged chick lit" that "benefits from the reassuring aura of history."  (Winston Churchill is one of its three main characters.)  He compares it to another recent novel, Child 44, which he says "was in the running for two of Britain's most important literary awards."  This comes as a surprise to me, because I read that novel and thought it was rather poor, even as a piece of genre fiction.  In any event, Koelb contends that both books are mediocrities that the literary press has elevated by virtue of their subject matter, rather than their artistic value; he believes this is a trend in book reviewing.

I think he's right.  I am still bewildered by the fact that nobody seems to have recognized Freedom as Jonathan Franzen's worst book; it's a lopsided domestic drama with a lot of timely and unnecessary sociopolitical nonsense slathered over it.  (FWIW, I enjoyed it anyway--but it is not up to Franzen's usual standard.)  In that book, we were seduced, I think, by its ambitious title, its environmental subplot, its political undertones.

While I am enjoying the democratization of literary discourse that the internet has brought us, the trend Koelb describes is a consequence of the decline of newspapers and print magazines--hardly anyone is being paid to recognize artistic value anymore.  And so, I fear, hardly anyone is bothering.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Abandoned novels

page one of King's book
I guess I'm a few days late on this topic, but I only just now read the Dan Kois piece in the Times about abandoned novels and thought I'd throw in.  First off, my favorite line in it, as my Twitter followers have already seen, is Elizabeth McCracken's: “It hurt for maybe a week. And then I decided to be butch about it.”  That is echt McCracken.  And I was also delighted to learn that Stephen King had posted manuscript facsimiles of his abandoned novel, The Cannibals.  Very cool!  Though after reading a few pages I think he made the right decison.

I've got a couple myself: three complete novels, actually, that never went anywhere.  The first, Telegraph Road, was about a rock band who has to drive a baby from Seattle to Philly in their van.  Ann Patchett, my teacher at the time, said, "This is just a list of band names."  Ouch.  Too, too true.  The second is a crime novel, Born Again, that I wrote in maybe 2004?  I still kind of like it, but I am the only one, apparently, because many an editor passed.  It was to have been only the first mystery featuring the overly tall, overly selfconscious campus-cop-turned-homicide-detective Malcolm Friend.  (I still have two complete plot lines in reserve in case I take him up again someday.)  And then there's 2009's The Document, a novel about an annoying person's every annoying thought, to which my agent said, "I'll send this to your editor if you really want.  But I think you should shelve it."  I shelved it, and wrote him a new one.

I hope Rhian weighs in--several of my favorite things she has ever written are abandoned novel bits.  I don't think non-writers realize how difficult it can be to actually finish a coherent long-form narrative--even the very best concept can be utterly destroyed by a host of factors.  The novel I just finished, Familiar, was an abandoned book for eight years before I took it up again--the problem, it turns out, had been that I'd chosen a topic I lacked the maturity and experience to properly explore at the time.  And even now it took a couple of false starts and a major, major overhaul to crack it.  (At least I think I cracked it: time will tell).

Let's hear what you've got in the orphanage.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Forbidden things you can do anyway

I've been having kind of an amusing exchange with a friend on facebook, a fellow teacher, who presently is grappling with inexperienced writers' mistakes.  She has been citing the mistakes, and then I have been firing back with examples of really good fiction that uses the "mistake" to greater ends.  For instance, to "it was all a dream" I countered David Foster Wallace's "Oblivion."  "Everyone dies in a car accident at the end" reminded me of Charles Baxter's "Saul And Patsy Are Getting Comfortable In Michigan" (although he did bring them back to life in a later story and novel).  And when my friend complained that her students don't even know to start a new paragraph for dialogue from a new speaker, I threw down Stephen Dixon's Interstate.

Of course my friend is right: there are things that are almost impossible to do well, and other things that a beginner can wrap his head around more easily, and learn to do skillfully, in the three-and-a-half-month confines of an academic semester.  But wow, it's hard to know how to tell them what's right and what's wrong.  "Some writers have been able to use this technique effectively," you can say, "but it isn't working in your story."  Or, "Traditionally, dialogue is formatted this way.  You can format it another way, but you need to know the convention, and understand the consequences of breaking it."

If you ever wonder why creative writing classes often seem to be graded rather generously, this is the reason.  Everything is a gray area.  Nothing can be judged out of context.  There are no things you can't do, and there are no things that always work.  There are only...things.  An infinite number.  And they can be arranged in an infinite number of ways.  It's enough to make me think my job might actually be...difficult.

Well--let's go with "complicated."

Monday, February 28, 2011

Books alone are not enough

I'm down with e-books, I guess, if that's where we're headed.  But this really depresses me.
“The national bookstore chain has peaked as a sales channel, and the growth is not going to come from there,” said David Steinberger, chief executive of the Perseus Books Group. “But it doesn’t mean that all brick-and-mortar retailers are cutting back.” 
A wide range of stores better known for their apparel, food and fishing reels have been adding books. The fashion designer Marc Jacobs opened Bookmarc in Manhattan in the fall. Anthropologie has increased the number of titles it carries to 125, up from 25 in 2003. Coldwater Creek, Lowe’s, Bass Pro Shops and even Cracker Barrel are adding new books. Some mass retailers, too, are diversifying — Target, for instance, is moving away from male-centered best sellers and adding more women’s and children’s titles this year.
Cracker Barrel.  Cracker Barrel.  We have arrived, it appears, at a moment when a book is roughly equivalent to a roll of masking tape--a more or less interchangeable commodity that you can buy at any one of many retailers.  But a place to immerse yourself fully in it?  A place that curates it?  A place where anybody knows anything about it?  Nope.

If you had told me in the late nineties that Amazon customer comments would eventually be one of the only remaining sources of generalized literary expertise in the world, I would have laughed at you, then gotten a funny look on my face, then said oh my god, then retreated to a corner to whimper.  But maybe that's where we're at.