Friday, August 31, 2007

Can Publishing Be Better?

A little while back Literary Rejections on Display had some interesting stuff going on in the comments . A commenter who works in publishing wrote: "The publishing world is as good as it can be."

As someone who lived for ten years mostly off the fat of publishing-land, I'm not going to complain too loudly about it. But let me draw your attention to Exhibit A: The OJ Book.

Rejecting that book would have been a good first step toward rehabilitating the industry.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Audio Podcast: Willie Perdomo

School's begun again, so I'm back to posting interviews with writers on the Writers At Cornell blog. This time around I spoke with poet Willie Perdomo, the author of Where a Nickel Costs a Dime (Norton, 1996) and Smoking Lovely (Rattapallax, 2003), which won the 2004 PEN American Beyond Margins Award; he is also the author of Visiting Langston, a Coretta Scott King Honor Book for Children, and has been featured on several PBS documentaries including Words in Your Face and The United States of Poetry.

We talked about class, race, and culture; whether academic acceptance is a good thing for spoken word poetry; teaching writing to young people; and the classical origins of poetry performance. It's a quick download; give it a listen.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Books on Writing

Some of us are addicted to drugs; some to gambling. Others of us are addicted to books that tell us how to write. Not that there are many really good ones. Mostly they tell you how to write just like the author, which is not always helpful. Pretty much all Ray Bradbury says in Zen in the Art of Writing is to pick a noun each day, and write about that! It's not a bad exercise at all, but it is just an exercise. Bradbury might have thought he was writing all his stories that way, but since his stories stopped coming decades ago, maybe he should have looked more carefully at what was really going on. (I hate ragging on Bradbury, since his collections of stories blew my mind when I read them as a child, and I credit him with single-handedly stocking my imagination. But he turned into a bitter old conservative, so oh well.)

These books fall into two camps: the inspirational ones and the technical ones. Of the inspirational ones, there are two that everyone loves but me: Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg and Bird by Bird by Ann Lamott. I'm not a spiritual person and the authors' quasi-religious take on writing grates on me. Not that they don't have lots of good things to say -- they do -- but there is a definite emphasis on feeling good first. Eh. Feeling bad about yourself makes for better writing, if you ask me. Anyway, if you read Brenda Ueland's If You Want to Write first, as I did, you might not need any more inspiration for the rest of your life. Ueland was an absolutely lunatic old woman -- lunatic in the best way. She believed that "Everyone is talented, original, and has something to say" and that the trick of it is being honest enough to figure out what that is.

John Gardner's books are a bit stuffy but excellent, too, though unfortunately I got them all out of the library and can't remember exactly why I liked them. William Stafford's books on poetry -- Writing the Australian Crawl is one -- are very good, too, though he was a bit of an insufferable old guy. He got up and wrote a poem every morning, whether he felt like it or not, or whether he had any good ideas or not. His point was that it wasn't his job to edit, but just to write. Fair enough! But he didn't have much patience for anyone who might have difficulty doing just that. Writers' block, he said in so many words, is just arrogance, what happens when a writer tries to be better than he is. Okay, I buy that. But some of his poems are awful. (I have one of his poems stuck over my desk. I don't have anyone else's poems tacked up, so there you have it: love/hate.)

While we're talking about poetry, I have to mention Richard Hugo's The Triggering Town. I've never written poetry, actually, but this book makes me want to. Just thinking about it makes me want to. The title refers to Hugo's obsession with towns, particularly the towns of Washington and Montana, and how place informs and inspires writing.

All the above books offer an entire worldview in addition to, or all muddled up with, writing advice. One really terrific book that does NOT do that is Peter Elbow's Writing With Power. I first read it in high school (it was my dad's) and it is probably the one book, along with Elements of Style, whose advice, direction, and techniques I use every time I write (blogging not included, ahem. I don't think of blogging as writing. Is that weird?) even though I lost the book years ago. Elbow assumes you're inspired and have lots of things to say, and focuses instead on actually getting your ideas on paper, and then once you have them down, moving them around. I love it. It's refreshing and practical. He devotes a whole chapter to Nausea, the feeling you get when you reach the inevitable point when you begin to hate your writing. Hmm, maybe I should read that book again.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Your Writing, um, Habits

Back in the day, when Rhian and I were in grad school, the workshop was having a discussion about writing habits. Not as in when or how often we did it, but what we did when we were doing it. You know, you sit there for three hours--if you were typing the whole time, you'd do about thirty pages, and none of us ever manage that. No, you do other stuff--pick your nose, scratch your ass, read the news, whatever. Then you impulsively type, like, three sentences, and then you go back to picking your nose for half an hour, then you erase them all. And so on.

Anyway, back in workshop, one of our esteemed peers announced that masturbating was a regular part of the writing regimen. Good lord! We didn't want to know that!! Well...actually we did, and I personally am still glad to know it; and God forbid should I ever forget all my other memories of this person, that one will always remain.

My privates shall remain private here, but I will name some of the things I do while writing that aren't writing. Eating is a big one. On a big writing day, I always eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich right there at the computer. (Here, you can watch me do it in this video.) When I was writing my (still, and possibly permanently, unpublished) crime novel, I played a hell of a lot of Mr. Do!, using MAME on my laptop. I post incessantly on a messageboard for recording geeks, and often take ten-minute breaks to play a little guitar. The guitar playing is actually mentally useful anyway, as it draws on the mathematical part of the brain, leaving the language bit alone to recharge.

So what do you while away the empty minutes with? If it's masturbation, I don't think we want to know, although if any of you manages to have actual sex while writing, we could definitely put aside our squeamishness to admire your mad skills.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

The Fate of Independent Book Stores

I spent the afternoon at a staff meeting for the book store I work in. It was at my boss's house and there was a nice spread: wine, shrimp, cookies. Some of us joked, Ha, ha, looks like a wake, is the store dead at last? But, to our surprise, it turns out the store is doing just fine. It's actually not in danger of closing, at all.

Wow! Even though a huge percentage of Americans read nothing but cereal boxes, TVGuide, and the Bible, even though hardcover books are overpriced, even though, thanks to the internet, you don't need to buy dictionaries or baby name books or travel guides anymore, even though Amazon has free shipping and the books show up in your mailbox, even though Barnes and Noble and Borders are just a couple miles away and have discounts, way more books, and acres of free parking... our little (but truly excellent) store is hanging in there. I almost can't believe it.

I think the reason it's surviving is because the people in our town really want it to. They want to live in a town with a real bookstore -- not just a book warehouse out on the highway. Independent bookstores are an organ of the town they're in: they're formed by the tastes of the town. Not everyone cares, of course. I've had friends argue strenuously in favor of the book warehouses, because of the obvious (lower prices and larger selection) but also because of their anonymity and uniformity. They want to get lost among the Dummies Guides and endless shelves of remainders, and they find the giant head of Jane Austen staring down at them to be vaguely reassuring. They dislike the way the owner of an independent store inevitably stamps the inventory with his or her personal taste. These friends also tend to believe that it's not their job to support a store, that the store should make them want to patronize it, and they should not have to sacrifice any kind of convenience just because a store happens to be independent rather than corporate-owned. They get a little bit pissed off if you imply otherwise.

I don't know. I hate chain stores. I hate entering a store in New York and feeling as if I could go out the door and find myself in Ohio. I hate the feeling of enormous psychic boredom I get when I look at those murals, or smell that Starbucky smell. I feel overwhelmed by the huge, spilling piles of books. Of course, I have a choice: I actually live in a town with a decent bookstore. When I lived in the rural south, I might have cried tears of bliss if a Borders showed up within an hour's drive of me.

As my boss, the store's owner, said, small bookstores have outlived their usefulness. But usefulness is not the only virtue.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

T Cooper's "Swimming"

Well, I found it. I hadn't recycled it after all--it was sitting on the radiator next to the bed, underneath volume 16 of The Onion and a handbook on drum kits. So, a week late, I have read "Swimming," which I am afraid I really intensely dislike.

I don't want to overstate this, because I think T Cooper is possibly a very good writer. It's all in the rhythm--the story has a nice coiled-up energy to it, and repeats itself in musical ways, and feels precipitous, all fine things for it to be and do. But the story itself--the protagonist, the situation, the moral universe it inhabits--seems odious to me.

The narrator is an American living in Cambodia. He moved there after he backed over and killed his own son with the car, and his wife left him. He's a doctor, and his manner is casual and numb, until his anger comes spurting out in random ways. He states that his accidental murder of his child has given him "the right to fuck the youngest, hottest girl with the tightest pussy in town and make her fall in love with me and yet bear no responsibility toward her or her family beyond shuttling them to the clinic when their grandchild was ill."

In other words, he's an asshole. The assholitude, I think we are supposed to understand, is in some kind of compensation for his guilt. At the story's end, he seems to be supposed to be learning some lesson by gagging on some sharkmeat while hearing about his girlfriend's father's escape from the Khmer Rouge, but I dunno--it seems like horseshit to me.

The thing is, a guy who killed his own son doesn't sound like this, would not be telling this particular story in this breezy way, because who is he telling? Who would listen? Guilt is hard to write about, and I feel that Cooper isn't bothering--he's writing about displaced guilt instead, and anybody with a laptop can displace guilt onto any emotion he likes, and run with it. The dead kid is an excuse for the displacement riff--it's not a real experience, it's not real guilt.

I can think of two stories you should read instead--Lorrie Moore's horrifying "Terrific Mother," about a woman who accidentally kills her friend's child; or, better still, Andre Dubus's fantastic "The Doctor" (is that in fact the title? I don't have it in the house, I think that's it), about a doctor who fails to save the life of a drowning child trapped under a heavy stone in a creek, and then later sees a garden hose, slices off a twelve-inch length of it, and stows it in the trunk of his car. Simple, beautiful, and perfect.

I admire Cooper's ambition here, because it's damned hard to write a story that starts the way this one does. And I will gladly read more of his stuff. But--and I say this as a guy who imagines backing over one of his kids every time he gets into a car and will probably do so long after they've grown and moved away--this one eluded me.

UPDATE: Well this is interesting!! Rhian remembers "The Doctor" differently--she recalls the garden hose already being in his trunk--thus making him more culpable for the child's death. Who's got this story handy? Maybe we're both wrong!

Friday, August 24, 2007

The Exception, by Christian Jungersen

W6 pal Jeffrey Frank has written a review of this terrific novel that pretty much covers anything I would have to say about it, except for one thing: its non-Americanness. Though it's a psychological thriller, which is a pretty familiar genre for an American reader, the differences between this Danish novel and a hypothetical American one about the same subject show how much of what we read is more or less formulaic. Even in much of our so-called literary fiction, characters are developed in a certain way, with a predictable mix of "sympathetic" and "flawed"; "plot points" are meted out at regular intervals; dialogue always serves the same functions, etc. A book like this one, which is in many ways very much like an American thriller (there are bad guys, and guns), is just different enough to draw attention to the staleness of some of our habits.

The novel's about four women who work at the Danish Center for Information on Genocide, whose workplace-persecution of each other reflects, and is possibly a result of, the subject of their work. As the relationships between the women become more and more strained, Jungersen includes articles on the psychology of evil written by one of them (all interesting). The novel is about the ways people deceive themselves and allow themselves to be cruel -- and it really is about that, working at the problem from different angles, examining it closely (how someone might rationalize snubbing a coworker) and from afar (why populations decide to wipe each other out).

Anyway, I'm interested to see how it fares here in the US. What will Americans think about a book that draws parallels between office bullying and genocide?

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Daniyal Mueenuddin's "Nawabdin Electrician"

So...I think I missed a week of the New Yorker story's recycling day too, and I wonder if it has already been trucked off to the shredder. In any event, the new issue arrived yesterday and I read this story on the bus this morning, while trying desperately to shut out the blaring country music with nothing more sophisticated than my mind.

This one's a winner. Mueenuddin doesn't have a book out--he's described on the bio page as a former New York City lawyer who now lives in Pakistan, where the story also takes place. It's about a rural electrician, entrepreneur, and all-around handyman named Nawab, who ostensibly works for the local absentee landowner but is known by all as the guy who can fix the electricity meters so they run more slowly. He rides around on a bicycle, and later a motorcycle, and is the father of thirteen children.

There is a subtle, deeply irritating, and condescending tone that some writers fall into when they write about working-class characters, especially "colorful" ones. This is inevitable, I suppose, as most writers either have never been working-class themselves, or, alternately, grew up working-class but have since gotten educated and have mixed feelings about their relationship to their origins. I'll even go so far as to say that class consciousness is one of the most important and most ignored elements in contemporary fiction. In any event, it's not unusual to see a writer struggling with the topic without seeming to be aware that's what he's doing; the result is a kind of patronizing cuteness that mars the authority of the narrative.

Zadie Smith is one writer who handles this issue well. Chekhov was another. This guy, Daniyal Mueenuddin, is also good at it--"Nawabdin Electrician" is quiet and assured, serious in tone, yet funny. Moreover, Mueenuddin brings this firm hand to bear upon a character who, in less skillful hands, might come off as ridiculous. As written, Nawab is a fascinating figure, a goofy person whom Mueenuddin entrusts, at the story's conclusion, with a difficult decision. Nawab makes the decision swiftly and mercilessly, revealing a deep hardness to his character only hinted at before.

The writing style is sophisticated but straightforward, a strong third limited that lifts itself up into omniscience from time to time for some selective and useful contextual detail; it is at its best when unpacking character and place, as this little gem of a sentence about Nawab's aquisition of a motorcycle:

The motorcycle increased his status, gave him weight, so that people began calling him Uncle and asking his opinion on world affairs, about which he knew absolutely nothing.

The narrative goes on to describe the road Nawab now takes home to his wife, explaining, in a quick excursion 150 years into the past, how it came to be lined with the dying trees the motorcycle is passing beneath. It's a lovely blend of good humor and narrative privilege, and really effective.

This is my favorite New Yorker story in a while, and I'll be looking forward to the collection Mueenuddin is said to be working on.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Books I Never Finished

I've heard of people who finish every book they start, and I admire those people. My own record is pretty bad, though -- lately I finish maybe half of what I start, and not always through any fault of the book itself. There are actually some very good books on the bottom shelf of my bedside table, where those poor abandoned volumes end up. Here are the latest, both good and not so good:

The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann. I love this book -- what I've read of it, anyway. I've been reading it for years, each time getting a bit further, but I might have gotten as far as I'm going to get: I skipped the final third and read the end. Somewhere about halfway through the book Hans Castorp falls in love with a woman, and it's about the least convincing depiction of loving a woman I've ever read. It's all about her arms, and the medical stuff gets mixed in, and it all became hard to stomach. (The ending is incredible, though.)

Apathy by Paul Neilan. I got this book because I liked the title and cover (image of a mens-room icon guy shooting himself in the head) and because page 69 starts like this:
on the too-high seat it felt like I was riding a slinky down a flight of uneven stairs. Only the front brakes worked so whenever I stopped short I was almost thrown over the handlebars, and the front brakes didn't work in the rain so I had to stop by dragging my feet on the ground like fucking Fred Flintstone.
Pretty fun, but I kind of forgot to read it. Maybe I had a tiny intimation that it *probably* isn't my thing, but I never got far enough to find out. Soon I will give it another chance.

Peyton Place by Grace Metalious. I hoped this would be another big, juicy, trashy book like Valley of the Dolls, but it isn't. It's sordid and depressing. Oh, well.

Lay of the Land by Richard Ford.
I got maybe a quarter or a third of the way through this before feeling awfully bogged down. I loved Independence Day, but the beginning of this novel is all driving around, and around, and around. JRL tells me it picks up shortly after I left off and becomes excellent, so I should definitely try again.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark. I enjoyed it for a while, but then it began to feel claustrophobic. I would certainly have finished it if I were on a plane or a bus, but since there were other books begging to be read...

The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo. I bought this book to read to my kids, thinking that since it won the Newbery it couldn't be that bad. It is. It's dreadful. I stuck it out for four nights, and then I said, Kids, I can't take it anymore. It's a "romantic fairytale" about a mouse who falls in love with a princess, told in a smirky, winky, pleased-with-itself voice. I just didn't think you could write about princesses without acknowledging the essential lameness of the princess thing, but apparently you can.

Gosh. That's more than I thought...

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Karin Fossum's "Black Seconds"

I'd really been looking forward to this new Karin Fossum novel, the fifth of her eight books to be translated into English from her native Norwegian, as the last one, Beloved Poona (disappointingly published in the UK as Don't Look Back and here as The Indian Bride) was as satisfying a literary portrait of a small town as I've ever seen, and reminded me at times of, yes, even Alice Munro. So it's a surprise to discover that this book (translated by Charlotte Barslund) is the most traditional police procedural Fossum has produced, residing for much of its length in the mind of its austere protagonist, Inspector Conrad Sejer.

Not that I have a problem with that. I am, after all, a crime buff, and Fossum is quite rightly known as a crime novelist. Still, she had been playing with the bounds of the genre, and it was faintly disappointing to see her pulling back.

That said, the book itself is not remotely disappointing--in fact it's really good. A girl goes missing, inexplicably, in broad daylight, and a week of searching turns up nothing. That's the setup. Unlike most crime novelists, Fossum doesn't play it as a whodunit--we very quickly meet three characters who are certainly involved in the girl's disappearance, and there is never any indication that this is some kind of feint on the author's part. And it isn't. Rather, the novel unfolds as a howdunit--we know more than Sejer, but as we get closer to the end, his knowledge catches up to ours, and we learn the key facts by his side. There are no nasty shocks, only the fascination of watching complex characters admit to themselves at last what they have done.

Fossum does something in her books that I absolutely despise in other writers--she allows us into the minds of the criminals, who just happen not to be thinking of the answer to the mystery when we stop by. This tactic can seem terribly manipulative and opportunistic, but for some reason it doesn't bother me with Fossum. In Beloved Poona this makes a certain kind of sense, as the guilty party is keeping the secret even from him/herself, in a psychologically plausible way. Here, though, the line is a little blurrier, and I felt a few times that she was cheating just a bit.

But perhaps that's merely a byproduct of my intimacy with the traditional police procedural, where the solution to the crime usually is the point, and the psychological depth of the characters of less importance. There, this move really is a cheat. Here, though, I was surprised to find myself happily going along for the ride. Particularly commendable in this book is the way Fossum brings to life one particular man, an introverted and possibly autistic eccentric in his fifties, whose sessions with Sejer are truly exciting and convincing.

So, not what I expected, but I'm very satisfied. Recommended.

Monday, August 20, 2007

The Imaginary Writer

What do you think of when you hear the word "writer"? I'll tell you what I think of: a guy (always a guy) in a white tee-shirt sitting in front of a manual typewriter, in an attic office, balling up paper and throwing it away. What a stupid cliche -- I must have got from movies or teevee shows or, and most probably, the 1960's How-To-Write guides I got out of the library when I was a kid. That writer is probably Ray Bradbury, even though he wrote Fahrenheit 451 in a library basement, not an attic, and he had to stuff quarters into the typewriter.

But it was a very long time before I could comfortably substitute a woman in this scene. Even though I knew of and loved many women writers as a kid, I didn't know anything about them, and couldn't easily picture a "woman writer." Did she sit at the typewriter in makeup and heels? Could she be married? Was she a slob, or did she set a vase of flowers next to the typewriter? In any event, I couldn't take her very seriously.

My romantic vision of writers was what made me want to be a writer, but I had to entirely throw away that vision before I could make the slightest progress toward becoming one. I am, after all, a woman.

Another romantic idea that some people have about writers is that they're born that way. This leads to a lot of gnashing of teeth and sleepless nights: Was I meant to write? Do I have what it takes? Am I a real writer? The older I get the more absurd this all seems. A writer is just a person who writes, and a good writer is most likely one who's done it a lot -- an awful lot. I've never met a "naturally gifted" writer. Every single good writer I know has taught him or herself, through copious reading and careful observation and plain old trial and error.

Anyway, I'm not sure why I'm thinking about this tonight. After a long summer of moving and kid wrangling my own writing energies are at low ebb. The writing life seems very far away and even imaginary.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Readin' Shakespeare

Holy moly, is this our first post about Shakespeare? Where's our lit cred, for Pete's sake? Considering my first post was about Stephen King, I think we're overdue.

I believe I have only read Hamlet, Lear, The Merchant of Venice, Much Ado About Nothing, and The Tempest. That's it...until now. Because my book group has decided to read all thirty-six plays, in order (according, anyway, to Norton), over the next four years, and intersperse them with the sonnets, and a few contemporary writers, Jonson and Marlowe, specifically.

Loyal readers might recall that this book group had been slogging through Proust for some time, and while we enjoyed and are continuing to enjoy him, the experience is sometimes akin to serving a lifetime sentence in an extremely beautiful prison in which everyone is wearing fascinating hats. Shakespeare, on the other hand, is the precise opposite--he is a breath of fresh air, hilarious and cutting and far-ranging in scope.

That is not to say that the first of this project, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, is the most emblematic of those virtues. In many ways, it kind of stinks. A comic meditation on love and friendship (and, enigmatically, the idea of service), it's about two friends, Valentine and Proteus, who fall in love with two women, Silvia and Julia. Valentine is the more honorable of the two men, while Proteus is, well, protean, sneakily reinventing himself to suit the situation, lying to everyone he meets, and generally making a mess of things. Proteus is in love with Julia, you see, until he hears Valentine go on about Silvia, at which time he falls in love with Silvia, then betrays Valentine to her father in a ploy to separate the lovers. The play ends with Proteus actually attempting to rape Silvia--Valentine catches him in the act, denounces him, and, five lines later, forgives him for everything, and everybody agrees to get married.

Whaaa? No, it doesn't make any sense at all. But the play is interesting, not only because of the way the young Shakespeare grabs hold of the cliches of genre and bends them into all kinds of crazy shapes; not only because of some really very nice verse here and there; and not only because of the terrific clown Lance and his urinating dog Crab--but because it's really about two men awkwardly expressing their intense love for each other through the unfortunate medium of a couple of women. Not that it's homoerotic--although Shakespeare's famous bawdy punning is already evident throughout--but it does grapple, quite amusingly, with the notion of male friendship, and in what strange ways sex is brought to bear upon it.

If you read it, don't look for it to push the same buttons Lear does. Rather, think of it as an Elizabethan Superbad.

Friday, August 17, 2007

I Heart Bembo*

(A big storm last night knocked out our internet when I was halfway through posting. One of the many perils of country living, along with my new least favorite: chicken-pecked eye.)

This post at Midnight Ambulette reminded me how important typeface decisions can be. Some of us identify powerfully with our favored font, and a perfectly good book can seem to be ruined by the wrong typeface. I was horrified when the first galleys of my book came back in a bizarre, poofy, sans-serif type. (Or maybe it wasn't sans-serif -- that seems a bit over the top. In my memory the typeface was pink. That can't be true, but it must have been a very pinky one.) I begged for a different one, and ultimately it was set in Minion, an Adobe font designed in 1990. Which is okay. It has a slightly plaintive, antique-but-trim look I like.

My favorite typeface of all time is Bembo, which is what The World As I Found It was set in. It's small, dense, humorous, and typey -- it makes me think of the little bits of lead type pressing into the page. Another favorite is Cochin, which I used for my short-lived litmag TEACUP, and last saw in George Saunders's CivilWarLand In Bad Decline. It has small e's and a's and tall h's and l's, which makes it kind of charming. Another notable font you don't see much anymore is Bodoni, which was awfully thick-and-thin but rather handsome. DeLillo's White Noise was in it, at least the edition I had.

Do typefaces really alter the tone of the writing, as they seem to? A great book is still a great book in Helvetica, isn't it? Maybe not. A font is not bad just because it's ugly, but because it draws attention to itself and away from the writing. A beautiful but inappropriate font is no good, either. There seems to be, in recent years, a move away from fancy or unusual typefaces in general book publication, and more sticking with the old standards. This is probably a good thing for the eyes, but no fun for the font-geeks.

When I was in graduate school, each writer in my workshops had his or her own distinctive font -- you never needed a name on anyone's story, because you could tell at a glance whose it was. The typeface became an integral part of each person's voice. Later, when some of those writers published books, it was as if part of their voice was erased, or moderated to fit into the larger world.

What I want to know is, why do some books have a Note on the Type, and others don't? Every book should have one, don't you think?

*In this post I use the terms "font" and "typeface" interchangeably, though they're not exactly the same thing.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Hari Kunzru's "Magda Mandela"

Maybe being a writer has ruined reading for me. Because just about every story I have read over the past few weeks has let me down in exactly the same way--starts off great and peters out into a faint disappointment. Perhaps I'm writing endings as I read, comparing the real ending to the one in my head. Perhaps I have too much riding on the one in my head being better. Or something.

In any event, the disappointment this time was particularly acute--small, but acute, like a flu shot--because the beginning of Hari Kunzru's "Magda Mandela," in last week's New Yorker, really appealed to me. It's all in the voice--an antic first person that projects itself into the object of attention with unusual elan. Our narrator, a vague smear of a fellow living in London, is talking about his nutty neighbor, a boisterous and amorous woman:

Magda is a nurse, a qualified pilot, a businesswoman and a philanthropist, a gifted and sensitive lover, the holder of certificates in computing and English grammar, a semi-professional country singer, and a mother. Yes, a mother! Magda has a daughter. Who came out of this pussy right here.

Right here, she says. Out of this pussy. RIGHT HERE.

That transition at the end of the first paragraph, from the narrator's voice to Magda's, is seamless, surprising, and very funny.

The whole story is pretty funny, in fact, but as I said, it ultimately disappointed me--Magda wakes up the neighborhood and gets arrested, and along the way we meet some of the other quirky locals, and observe their run-ins with Magda. But what of it? A grad student of mine said to me the other day, apropos of a story she had written and was trying to figure out how to revise, that for her, a narrator couldn't just tell the story; he had to be telling the story for a reason. And that reason had something to do with the story she, my student, was telling.

Obviously not everyone has to work this way, but that's what I was hoping for here--for the story's narrator to find himself implicated, somehow, in Magda's sad drama. Instead it's more of the same--quite funny, but never amounting to much, with the narrator lurking in the shadows. We are given to understand that Magda will return and the cycle of madness will begin anew. The ending suggests some shame on the neighborhood's part--

Sometimes I wonder what would happen if we returned Magda's love. If we believed in her, she could do great things for us. But our problem is that we are faithless. Our problem is that we are stupid. Our problem is that we just don't listen.

Aesthetically I like it--Magda's voice has inhabited the narrator's in a new, less mocking way. But there's no bite to it--it's an afterthought, a hail mary pass.

Still, this story has inspired me, as it's essentially plotless, a character sketch spun into a narrative with the thinnest of threads, and while it doesn't entirely work, in my view, it is doing something I like. And the writer's Wikipedia page informs us that he is a member of that rare tribe of award-refusing novelists:

Although he was also awarded The John Llewellyn Rhys prize for writers under 35, the second oldest literary prize in the UK, he turned it down on the grounds that it was backed by the Mail on Sunday whose "hostility towards black and Asian people" he felt was unacceptable. In a statement read out on his behalf, he stated "As the child of an immigrant, I am only too aware of the poisonous effect of the Mail's editorial line.... The atmosphere of prejudice it fosters translates into violence, and I have no wish to profit from it." He further went on to recommend that the award money be donated to the charity Refugee Council (UK).

There was a time when I might have found such a gesture pretentious or arrogant, but nowadays it seems totally badass.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Not Writing, But Typing

On The Road is fifty this year. I read it and just about everything else Kerouac wrote when I was in high school. I was such a fan (read: dork) that I published my second two (and last) poems under the name "Jean K. Louis," because Kerouac's real first name was Jean-Louis. (The first two poems, under my own name, were spotted by my English teacher on the Buffalo News Poetry Page. Humiliation ensued.)

But since then I haven't so much as looked at On The Road, The Dharma Bums, Desolation Angels (my favorite), Visions of Gerard, Dr. Sax, Satori in Paris, or even my treasured first edition of Big Sur. Why not? Because my experience reading them was perfect and unrepeatable. They were completely different from everything else I'd read. For a while when I was seventeen, almost every used bookstore I entered had a Jack Kerouac book I hadn't yet read. I don't need to tell you how much fun that was.

And of course they made me think, Hey, maybe I can do this, too. Not be Kerouac, of course, or even write like him. But maybe I could find my own way into writing, as he did.

While I now have a considerably jaded eye about his subject matter -- about finding God in cars, drink, women, small Mexican bathrooms, and run-on sentences -- I'm not jaded about the exciting and freeing effect Kerouac's prose had, and continues to have, on young writers.

Monday, August 13, 2007

David Bezmozgis's "The Proposition"

Back to reading magazines--I have a little catching up to do, as the next New Yorker will probably show up before I've posted about the last one.

I'd never read anything by David Bezmozgis, a Latvian-Canadian writer and filmmaker, but this new story in Harper's looked promising, on account of an excellent title and the dialogue indicated by little em-dashes, which for some reason seems aesthetically comforting to me, these days. In addition, I once did a no-quote-marks book myself and was surprised how bent out of shape a few people got about I feel a kinship.

Anyway. The story is about a physical therapist, an immigrant from someplace, we imagine, not terribly far from Russia. He has set up shop in Toronto and done well for himself being an honest businessman, but his teenage son doesn't understand him and some sleazy people want him to provide a front for their prostitution business. That's the proposition--that he take some easy dough for this purpose. Meanwhile a more recent immigrant from the same place wants to buy his old car.

We don't find out if he accepts the proposition (well--he rejects it. But we know the pimp will be back); rather, in a nice writerly sleight of hand, we see him refuse to sell his car to the recent immigrant, even though he's only 150 bucks short and reminds the therapist of himself, back in the day. And the teenage son is angry at him for not giving the guy the car. But, in the end, the therapist thinks,

It was for his son's own good. One day he would appreciate what his father had done [...] Life was painful and hard, and it did you no good to pretend otherwise. This was what he needed to understand.

The end.

Oh, the irony!!! I doubt I'm alone finding this ending a little unsatisfying, given that we have seen this very transferrence played out about a zillion times over the past 75 years of immigrant-themed fiction. Let me say that, overall, I like this story pretty well--the pimp and the prostitute who visit the physical therapist's office are particularly terrific--but it seems styleless in delivery and overly familiar in tone.

The therapist, by the way, is Roman Berman, apparently the subject of a previous story of Bezmozgis's, from a book of stories which James Wood digs big time, and which he compares to the stories of Chekhov and refers to as "true examples of storytelling." Hmm. I realize that we are supposed to recognize Wood as the arbiter of all things literary, but this seems like a stretch to me, at least based on this piece. It's good, but the reason Chekhov is good is that he is unmistakeably Chekhov at all times, whereas Bezmozgis, at most times, could be anyone at all.

That said, the anyone he might be is a pretty good writer, and perhaps I would like more of him. I'll check out Natasha and Other Stories but resist, for now, the mesmerizing power of the Woodman's cry.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Writing, With Children

I tried starting this post four times today, and each time I was interrupted by my ten-year-old asking, "Can I check something on Club Penguin?" Actually, he asked that three times; the fourth time he just looked over my shoulder and said, "Isn't this ironic?" (He really did.)

I've always been reluctant to blame my not-writing on my kids. The fact is, I think I'm a better writer now than I was ten years ago. Having kids is like any other deep and interesting experience -- like travel or a love affair -- in that it enriches you. However, it also occupies you. And sometimes it's hard to get a perspective on how much. I've found that even when they're not around, part of my brain is monitoring my boys, thinking about what they're doing and what they might be needing, and wondering if they're safe. Quite a large chunk of brain: it's like a part of my bandwidth is now totally devoted to the Emergency Broadcast Network, and it never shuts down.

Some writers are better than others at shutting out distractions in general and kids in particular. A friend whose mother is a writer describes how her mom would sometimes, in the middle of doing something with her kids, suddenly kind of vanish -- she'd stare into space and wouldn't answer questions. Oh, she's writing, my friend would think. JRL has barely slowed down since having kids. Others of us have more trouble shutting the door against our children, or even carving out a little scrap of mental space without them in it.

Maybe the solution is to write without separating from them -- that is, to write about them. Certainly that's what a lot of parent-writers do. Since I don't really write non-fiction (and doubt I'd want to write a parenting memoir even if I did) I'd have to figure out a way to write fictionally about being a mother. But being a mother is a horror show. So much of it (and most of the interesting part) is about worry, terror, guilt -- I don't want to go there. In fact, I don't want to think about it more than I can help it. My protagonists, my fictional selves, are all still single and childless.

So there's the rub: can't write about them, can't NOT write about them. No wonder we're stuck. Some of us, anyway.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

"...a northern train/ yowling outbound."

Good collections of poetry seem as rare as collections of poetry are abundant. I don't expect to find them, though I'm always looking. It’s a relief to be surprised by something new and worthwhile. You can get in a dismissive habit, then turn into someone else. This week the winning book from last year’s May Swenson Poetry Award Series arrived in our post office box (no home delivery in Idyllwild, so we unlock P.O. Box 270 every day, a shadowy chamber through which you can see the fluorescent mail-sorting room. Those big tables.), and this slim volume tumbled out. It's Neck of the World, by F. Daniel Rzicznek, and was chosen by Alice Quinn, published by the Utah State University Press. The book was in danger of traveling straight from envelope to the windowledge of the post office, where people sometimes leave things they don’t want but would be ashamed to throw away. But a few lines caught my attention, and the book held it through the afternoon. The experience was like discovering an old book by a current favorite, except this is Rzicznek’s first book, and he’s younger than me, so this is what we have. I hope there’s more to come. The book has captivated me. Everything’s here! A rich language, a commanding style, a vulnerable tone, ideas that develop, and hardy verbs. Let me try again, because that sounds dry and dull and competent: a wilderness seen through the most recent binoculars. There are echoes of other poets here, James Wright and Wallace Stevens and Philip Larkin in particular, but they echo through most contemporary poetry. In these quiet lines and orderly stanzas there's something new and daring, yet encouragingly familiar. Jonathan Holden writes about William Stafford's gift to "not embarass the reader with his genius," and there's a bit of that courteous genius here. Oh, I’ll just put a few stanzas here so you can judge for yourself:

from “A Mouthful of Crickets”

The cavern purges its hollow ice,

a quivering tonsil. Sickles of tar

scan every river of the lips

and it’s this thousandth elsewhere,

these well-to-do’s, dear. Close up.

Something gleams when you speak.

from "A Bear and His Madness"
There’s a burnished violence

ignorant in the leaves,

gilded to the hillside where I sit.

The land has begun holding me

trial for the murder of a sapling

tall as my smallest finger, its leaves

two spots of fire beneath my boot.

The air whirs a mouth foreign

like the speech of far-off bells

in the dark borough of my ear…

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Writers May Be The Problem

John and Rhian, while you’ve been sunning or not sunning yourselves, I've been haunting the national hurricane center website, although at the moment it shows no cyclonic activity. But we are late paying our house insurance in New Orleans, thereby opening a window of personal vulnerability. Which will reach the city first? Late check or as-yet-unnamed tropical wave ? As the second anniversary of Katrina approaches, so have new Katrina books, some to provide witness and outrage, some to exploit the misery. (And as Harry Shearer points out, reasonable people may imagine Katrina as merely chapter one of a longer narrative.)

Only two books about Katrina make sense to me, the graphic novel Revacuation, by Brad Benischek, and Year Zero, a compendium of articles from Both are fictions: Revacuation reimagines the storm and aftermath as a looking-glass metropolis of anthropomorphized bird-families, rats, dogs, zombie scarecrows, and disembodied hands on wheels. Year Zero is fake news that tended to happen.

I called Revacuation a graphic novel, and that's what it looks like published, but it retains the ragged glory of the artist/writer's narrative sketchbook he kept during his family's displacement to Mississippi, Texas, Alaska, California, New York, and back to New Orleans to reassemble their lives. The book is full of comedy and tragedy, and belongs on every bookshelf. I suppose one measure of the value of post-Katrina literature is how it would look to someone who knew nothing of the event, and Benischek's transformation of the cruel facts I think would look pretty monumental.

Matt Suazo’s introduction to Year Zero asks

"Have we learned to live each day to the fullest? Have we learned to cherish the time we have with those closest to us? Have we learned that every day is a blessing and that is all in the hands of the Good Lord? I can only speak for myself, but I have learned none of those things. Instead, I have learned the true meaning of dread. And not just passing, momentary, mutable dread, but sustained, soul-crushing, benzodiazepine-requiring dread. I have also learned that the truth doesn't matter and that the only thing that matters about the truth is that it is funny."

Some real news exists in Year Zero. The greatest work in the book is Tara Jill Ciccarone’s investigation of the grisly murder-suicide of Zachery Bowen and Adriane Hall, who were familiar and sympathetic neighborhood types. Ciccarone was beaten up during her reporting, and that makes it into the piece as a crucial aside. The piece reads a little like a cell phone conversation with someone having a fiery car crash.

A third book will probably make sense, Patty Friedmann’s A Little Bit Ruined. Friedmann’s work deserves to be better known for her fine and funny and outrageous novels Eleanor Rushing, Odds, and Secondhand Smoke. She didn’t evacuate, and waded a long ways to safety when the water came up.

(Calalloo published a magnificent issue about the storm, and it’s big as a book. It belongs on any shelf of appropriate response.)

On the other side of the ledger, the crude exploitation of death and authenticity continues with big names. Shameless Douglas Brinkley, a hideous writer and boyish historian, set the bar high last year with The Great Deluge, a selectively-researched overview of the event, hurried to shelves. James Lee Burke, an otherwise respectable figure, has turned my stomach with his sentimental blorp The Tin Roof Blowdown.

I was complaining to my friend Lofstead last week about the success of a mutual friend whose Katrina book has been recently released. We were at the Viceroy in Palm Springs, a strange hidden bar, the only bar worth visiting in that strange city. Lofstead was passing through on vacation from the bar he runs in New Orleans, Handsome Willy’s. He would accept none of my complaints, though he’s down on the book too. “The man filed,” Lofstead said. “He wrote it. Sure there are dozens of better books to be written about it, but they aren’t getting written. The guy showed up for work and did his job. What are you doing? Where’s your better book, your more moral book, your more appropriate non-exploitative book? Quit yr bellyaching.”

I get his point. He hasn’t written his book either.

July’s Harper’s added to the trouble. Duncan Murrell’s article “In the Year of the Storm” was part of a genre we’ve noticed of sensitive lads coming to suffer in New Orleans and leave. (Reminds me of the great Rodney Jones poem "Romance of the Poor" -- "I came as a tourist to their woe." )They mostly come to my old neighborhood, make friends, drink at Markey’s, get everything wrong, and leave badly. Hell, I left too. But Murrell’s article ends with le mot juste as a self-indictment: “thief.” And it is thievery, a pillaging of ruins, to write these pieces. It really really is, even if--especially if--the writing is beautiful. Soon after the flood, The New Yorker ran some gorgeous photographs of destroyed homes.

“Writers are the problem,” my friend Anne says, surveying the impact of Katrina on American letters. They’re the problem when they do write, because they get it wrong, and they’re the problem when they don’t write, because there’s the chance they could get it right. Revacuation and Year Zero got it right, at least, in my humble.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Foreign Crime Roundup

It's time once again to review the latest in foreign crime novels--as Rhian mentioned, we're at the shore, and so I had Amazon (sorry, independent bookstore supporters--if you can find somebody else who can get my the British books I crave, I will switch in a heartbeat) send me a few new ones for perusal on the beach.

(And let me say first that I am not actually reading these on the beach. I love the ocean, but I hate the beach--my skin is the color of an oak desk even in January and I don't need a tan. So it's off to the beach for swimming, and back to the air-conditioned rental for books.)

Anyway, I'm reading four new novels, two of which I'll discuss in this post--Hakan Nesser's The Return and The New Ruth Rendell, Not In The Flesh. The Rendell first--this book is the latest Chief Inspector Wexford mystery, and I am sad to say that, while it's pretty entertaining, it does not quite measure up to her best. The supporting cast of this long-running series has become rather cartoonish in this installment, and--in a very, very un-Rendellian mistake--an obvious clue appears halfway through that gives it all away. There are other Wexford books in which this seems to happen, but it's always a trick--the real answer is tucked away somewhere you would never have thought to look. This time, however, it's the real thing, and is something of a disappointment, though I'd pick middling Rendell over a lot of crime writers' best, any day. In addition, I'm not saying Rendell has lost her touch--the last Barbara Vine book was one of my favorites ever. If it's Wexford you want, though, go check out Kissing The Gunner's Daughter or Road Rage.

More satisfying is the Nesser, which I'd had no particular expectation for--the first of this Swede's novels to be translated, Borkmann's Point, was pretty decent, but not among my favorite recent Scandanavian mysteries. This new one is terrific, though. Inspector Van Veeteren, the series' gruff protagonist, is in the hospital having a length of intestine removed, and takes it upon himself to solve the crime from his bed. A man convicted of two murders is released from prison and is soon murdered himself; the subsequent investigation uncovers information that leads Van Veeteren to suspect that the man might be innocent of the first two killings. The book is smart, philosophical, and dryly written, and I was utterly blindsided by the shocking ending.

I just cracked the new Arnaldur Indridason, and have the latest Karin Fossum on deck--the latter is one of my favorite writers currently and I've saved her for last. I'll post about them in the coming days.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

The Letters of Gus Flaubert

I'll confess right now: I'm writing this from the Jersey Shore (potential bad guys: don't even think of breaking into our house and stealing our stuff. We have a house sitter and fourteen attack chickens) and it's a lot easier to stare into the misty distance or eat clams than to try and come up with something vaguely literary to say. But in addition to a stack of true crime paperbacks, I brought my copy of the letters of Flaubert (Vol. 1 seems only available used, but Vol. 2 is still in print). I love the letters of Flannery O'Connor and those of Virginia Woolf, but there's something about Flaubert's that affirms my feelings about being a writer and reminds why I want to keep doing it, in spite of how rough (or in my case, non-existent) the progress is. So forgive me if I use this post to share some of my favorite excerpts (all from the first volume -- I left the second at home).

Here's a good bit, from a letter to his lover, a poet named Louise Colet:

"Since my humor is particularly bad today (and frankly my heart is heavy with it), I'll drain it to the last drop. You talk about your "days of pride," when "people seek you out, flatter you," etc. Come! Those are days of weakness, days you should blush for. I'll tell you which are your days of pride. When you're home at night in your oldest dressing gown, with {baby} Henriette getting on your nerves, the fire smoking and money worries and other troubles looming large, and you get ready for bed with heavy heart and weary mind; when you walk restlessly up and down your room, telling yourself there isn't a soul you can count on, that you have been abandoned by all; and then -- somewhere underneath your dejection as a woman you feel the stirring of the muse, deep within you something begins to sing, to sing something joyous and solemn, like a hymn, a challenge flung in the face of life, a surge of confidence in your own strength, the flaring-up of works to come. The days when that happens to you are your days of pride."

Flaubert would not appreciate our culture's melding of literature and marketing. When his friend suggested he would achieve greater success if he moved to Paris and took part in the literary scene there, he said,

"I am aiming at something better -- to please myself. Success seems to me a result, not the goal ... I have conceived a manner of writing and a nobility of language that I want to attain. When I think that I have harvested my fruit I shan't refuse to sell it, nor shall I forbid hand-clapping if it is good. In the meantime I do not wish to fleece the public. That's all there is to it."

Writing was difficult for him, and he took it absolutely seriously. But his prose is unlabored and full of humor. He said,

"I like clear, sharp sentences, sentences which stand erect, erect while running -- almost an impossibility. The ideal of prose has reached an unheard-of degree of difficulty: there must be no more archaisms, cliches; contemporary ideas must be expressed using the appropriate crude terms; everything must be as clear as Voltaire, as abrim with substance as Montaigne, as vigorous as La Bruyere, and always streaming with color."

Awfully inspiring in these days of compulsory cynicism.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Daniil Kharms's "So It Is In Life"

This week's New Yorker story is a series of vignettes--if you could call them that--by an obscure early-twentieth-century Russian writer whose prose has not appeared in English before. Reading them, I wondered how many people like this guy are out there, waiting to be translated and appreciated by a worldwide audience. According to the introduction to these pieces (translated by Matvei Yankelevich, Simona Schneider, and Eugene Ostaeshevsky), Daniil Kharms was a founder of an avant-garde Russian artists' group called OBERIU, was arrested for anti-Soviet activities in 1931, was exiled, arrested again, and died in a prison mental hospital in 1942.

The most obvious comparison is to Babel, both in his lithe, unpredictable prose style and life history--but the stories remind me most of one of my favorite collections, Thomas Bernhard's The Voice Imitator, which I brutally plundered for a similar book of my own. They have the same wry, bitter detachment, though Kharms's pieces are most noteworthy for their unusual habit of veering off onto some tangent and ending there. A fairly static story about a sick man who whiles away his time, listlessly, in his quiet apartment, suddenly shifts when the man realizes he has forgotten some important word, perhaps beginning with "M" and perhaps beginning with "R." The piece ends:

I was making coffee and singing to myself all the words that started with "R." Oh, what a tremendous number of words I made up beginning with the letter "R"! Perhaps among them was that one word, but I didn't recognize it, taking to be the same as all the others.

Then again, perhaps that word didn't come up.

Come to think of it, that ending is pure Lydia Davis--another W6 favorite. There's a colleciton of this stuff coming out in the fall, and these excerpts suggest that it might well be a new classic in the literature of the non-sequitur. Bring it!

Friday, August 3, 2007

Barbara Gowdy's "Helpless"

I have alluded, a couple of times I think, to the awesomeness of Barbara Gowdy on this blog, but I based my opinion on only one novel--the audacious, utterly unexpected masterpiece The White Bone. This is a book about elephants. Just elephants. All the characters are elephants, thinking elephantine thoughts. It sounds like the stupidest book in the world, but it is amazing.

So a few weeks back I found her latest novel, Helpless, at the bookstore Rhian works at, and I bought it even though it's about a nine-year-old being kidnapped by a pedophile. I put off reading it for a long while, then started it last night at last, before going to bed.

I didn't sleep much, and I didn't do much today except read the thing. It is freaking marvelous, and Gowdy is now officially one of my favorite living writers. The book is written in a roving third person, and we are privy to the thoughts of the girl, Rachel, who is kidnapped; her mother, Celia; the kidnapper, Ron; and Ron's girlfriend, Nancy. All of them--and I mean all of them--are fully drawn, and the villains, Ron and Nancy, are stunningly sympathetic. Throughout, you are rooting for a happy ending, but you're rooting less for the bad guys to be caught than for the bad guys to think better of being bad. You want them to win, by allowing their better selves to emerge. There is no question of Gowdy supporting their actions, but she embraces their humanness as completely as she does that of Rachel and her mother--more, in fact, because Ron and Nancy are the standout figures here, absolutely convincing, and fascinating to watch. Ron's battle against his sickness is moving and harrowing; even more maddening is Nancy's struggle to beat through the wall of her clumsiness and gullibility. The book is about people who want to do the right thing, when they have already failed to do it and have rendered it almost impossible to do. It is a sad, gripping story.

Those who read my posts know I love crime novels, but this book--a literary outing through and through--is a better crime novel than any crime novel I've read in a long time. With only the faintest semblance of plot, it strikes you with the force of a flat-out, nail-biting white knuckler.

The funny thing is, if this were an American novel (Gowdy is Canadian), it might well become "controversial," presuming as it does that a pedophile is a human being, a kind of presumption that is not looked upon kindly here. I'm reminded a bit of the recent film The Woodsman (not a Canadian production as far as I know, so maybe my theory's shot), a movie in which Kevin Bacon plays a sympathetic pedophile. The movie's good, but it's not as good as this book--what seems like wishful thinking on the film's part is presented in Gowdy's novel as unalienable truth.

Anyway, I had avoided reading Gowdy's other stuff in the wake of The White Bone, for fear that I wouldn't like it quite as much. Helpless has broken the back of that irrational fear.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Sven Birkerts is Wrong

Ed of Ed Rants comments on an anti-blog essay by Sven Birkerts published in a recent Boston Globe. It is worth taking a look at.

Birkert's essay strikes one as more Barbarians-at-the-gates hand-wringing from someone safely ensconced inside the gates, thank you, who is not ready to give up his comfy place. (I confess a long and conflicted mental relationship with Sven Birkerts, who has always championed print media and could fairly be described as a Luddite. I, too, am something of a Luddite. I don't have a cell phone -- in fact, until recently, JRL and I had one of those old dial things. Never had a dishwasher. I love, love, LOVE books as objects, and will never buy an e-Book, and my dearest wish is to own a letterpress -- okay, Luddite cred established. But the feeling his work gives me is annoyed and conflicted. It's too late at night to explore this, especially since I started this post last night, but suffice it to say that although I find his basic argument to be true -- Print IS Good -- I find him to be not quite smart and well-argued enough.)

Birkert's essay says that, after a tentative exploration of the blogosphere, Sven is not not convinced that all this amateur reviewing is really a good thing -- that the days when a few select newspapers and magazines had a lock on opinion were better. The recent decision of several larger papers to ditch their book review sections seems to have brought this on. But this is where Birkerts errs -- bloggers are not the enemy. The enemy, Sven, are the robber baron owners of newspapers and media conglomerates who have killed off the world of print criticism.

(I admit that it's hard for me to get too worked up about the loss of the book review pages in newspapers (as much as I loved getting newspaper reviews of my novel sent via fax (hahahaha -- fax!)) when a more dire problem is the complete and total suckification of newspapers and mass media in general.)

And if Sven were sitting at my side right now, we could find many, many very intelligently written reviews of his work on the internet, and he knows it. Probably some dumb ones, too -- but Birkerts might be surprised to discover that most people who read all the way through one of his books are actually quite sharp. In any case, it really isn't the content of internet blogging that pisses Sven off. It's the format, and specifically, the lack of a Gatekeeper.

This is what the blog-dissers keep coming back to: there is no Authority on the internet to make sure that what it written on it is smart and wise. There is a lot of blah-blah-blah in Birkerts's essay, but the gist is this: without smart, educated wise men deciding what gets published and what doesn't, how can we know What Is Good?

I'll tell you, Sven: we know what is good by reading, reading, reading and reading some more. We actually don't need Charles McGrath telling us what to read. The internet gives us easy access to an enormous amount of opinion, and you know what? That is good. Fifty opinions might not be better than one, carefully-vetted, well-paid, possibly biased opinion, but it certainly gives one more to think about. The NYTimes is not keeping culture alive by paying writers to review their best friends or their prep-school enemies. Yes, it publishes some awfully good criticism, but if the NYTBR were to dry and blow away tomorrow, those excellent reviews would find another venue. The mediocre ones, too.

What the vaunted Authorities do is keep some ideas from being heard. An editor's main job these days is rejecting, is shutting up. The internet is shutting up no one, not even Michiko Kakutani (though who knows, maybe in the future, Rupert Murdoch will be) but is instead allowing all kinds of other folk to speak, too. Honestly, Sven, look in your heart! Is that bad?

(A better argument for Birkerts would be: too much. How can we have a dialogue about the latest critical review of whomever when there are 10,000 articles, and everyone has read a different one? I'd argue that, for our culture, it's already too late. Even writers talk more about movies than books, because there's a better chance that someone in the room has seen the same movie as you than has read the same book. Of course, on the internet, it's easy to find some to discuss whatever minor review you've read...)

If Birkerts really did look in his heart, he'd know that what he's freaked out about is his own irrelevence. He shouldn't be. Print and the internet can, and do, coexist. Though newspapers may well die off -- and soon -- print magazines will hang around a bit longer, and books will last throughout my lifetime, at least. Because people like them.

But even if books stopped being printed, it wouldn't be that bad. It would make me cry, for sure. Because I love books. But: books are just paper. In the end, what matters are human ideas and thoughts and dreams and arguments. They're never going away.