Tuesday, January 27, 2009


Alas, dead at 76. I never loved his novels, but I've read and re-read the Henry Bech stories with great enjoyment, and have long been a fan of the essays and reviews. I honestly have no idea what history will have to say about him; I suspect he'll be remembered as the author of the Rabbit Angstrom books. I don't know how well these will age--perhaps not that well. (I'm accustomed to this being a minority opinion.) But his short stories, I hope, especially the early ones, may rally, and come to form his legacy. The best book about him, on the other hand, is easy: Nicholson Baker's hilarious U and I.

I met him once, and told him I'd used a quote from a fanciful essay of his as the epigram for Mailman. He didn't know what the hell I was talking about--not only my book, which it was clear he hadn't heard of, but the essay of his I used, of which he had no recollection. All I can say is, may I live so long, and write so much, that I can't remember the half of it. Sad to see him go.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

How will piracy affect publishing?

I've reserved a review copy of the forthcoming Foxit eSlick, Foxit software's horribly-named e-book reader due out next month. It's not new technology, but at $229, this could be the first reader that lots of people actually buy. It also will read pdf's, unlike the abominably proprietary Kindle [note: I've been informed, in the comments, that there is indeed a way to read pdf's on the Kindle, sorry], which is what interests me about it, as I read a lot of manuscripts that are thrown out immediately afterward, and which I'm not interested in reading on a computer screen.

Now, I'm not terribly interested in one of those real-books-versus-e-books aesthetic debates. Yes, we all love the feel of a book in our hands, the discolored paper, the marginal notes blah blah blah blah. Doubtless there will be room in the world for both formats, and nobody alive today is likely to ever see book-lined rooms obliterated from existence. So chill.

But I am interested in the other possible consequences of this technology. So far, writers don't seem to have suffered much from the possibility of cracked copyrighted content, probably because they don't make much money to begin with, and mostly because not many people read literature in this format. But once the practice is widespread (as I've said before, I think it will be, once we have inexpensive readers that look half decent), piracy will probably be widespread as well, and literature might well go the way of music, with a vast percentage of people culturally acclimated to the idea that it is, in effect, free.

There are a few problems with this analogy, though. One is that musicians, at the dawn of file sharing, were already not making much money off of records. The money comes from touring. This trend has been hugely amplified in the wake of Napster, etc., and now many musicians and record companies have come around to also thinking that recorded music is basically free. The moral calculus involved in stealing music has changed, and most music acts don't even consider records a major source of revenue anymore. This doesn't make music piracy OK, of course, but it is now lower in the heirarchy of sins than, say software piracy. (For an interesting read on that subject, check out this Analog Industries post.)

This is bad news for writers, because we make no money from touring. Indeed, at least in the short run, publishers lose money on touring. For one thing, literary readings are generally free. Second, fans of writers don't really need to hear them read. If you love Bruce Springsteen, you are going to buy Springsteen tickets, because much of the pleasure in his music comes from the concept of its spontaneous creation; furthermore, when you go to a concert, you are hearing something unique, not just a rehashing of the record. In a concert, the music is being created now. But if you love, say, T. C. Boyle, you really don't necessarily want to hear him read. You might like to see what he's like in person, but ultimately, it's just going to be a guy reading out of a book, the same book you already read. Literature is cerebral, not physical and extemporaneous. The action all happens offstage; a book is merely its ultimate result. A reading is nice, but it isn't the act of creation. It's a shadow on the wall.

However, there's another problem with the e-book/mp3 analogy, and that is that literature is already free. Indeed, anyone in America can read any book he or she wants. All you have to do is go to your free public library, get a free library card, and check it out. You might have to pay fifty cents for an interlibrary loan. The main reason to buy a new book is that you want it now. (You might also suspect it will have lasting value, and you'll want to read it again.) But ultimately, very few writers make any money off of their books.

Now, I am talking here about Literature. The vast number of books that sell are not fiction or poetry--they're reference, cookbooks, celebrity memoirs, etc., and these books do make money. But for most of us, piracy is not very worrisome. Who the hell is going to steal my book? most literary writers would say, hardly anyone wants to read it to begin with.

This technology could be great for small-time writers who might want to sell novels, say, off their websites for five bucks, the way a lot of independent bands do with their records. But of course the public has to know, and care, that you exist to begin with. Bands achieve this by touring. And I bet a lot of writers would, too, if they could. Unless you're on the self-help lecture circuit, though, you really can't. Nobody will care, because like I said, it's not the physical presence of bands that pack clubs, it's the spontaneous creation of a work of art. And nobody ever danced to Jonathan Safran Foer.

Many of us who are into contemporary music could see the record industry crisis coming from a thousand miles away. Record execs blew it in slow motion, with their reluctance to embrace downloading and create subscription services. Instead they waited too long and tried to shove the genie back in the bottle with lawsuits and DRM. They were "right" to do those things, but it was never going to work.

I can't see the future of publishing, though. Maybe, ultimately, e-books will just not take off the way digital music has. Maybe digital will always be the ugly stepchild of print. In any event, here's my wild prediction: ten years from now, all the best literary writers will be at small presses, who will put out short-run print editions at a premium, while offering direct downloads at a heavily discounted price. And we will all go from not making much money to making almost no money, and we'll all sigh ruefully and accept it.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A donation, in honor of President Obama, and of Max / Paul Burga / "Anonymous"

Inspired by the comments of the last post, and in light of today's historic national events, I have just donated $50 to the Children's Defense Fund. In CDF's own words,

The Children's Defense Fund (CDF) is a non-profit child advocacy organization that has worked relentlessly for 35 years to ensure a level playing field for all children. We champion policies and programs that lift children out of poverty; protect them from abuse and neglect; and ensure their access to health care, quality education, and a moral and spiritual foundation. Supported by foundation and corporate grants and individual donations, CDF advocates nationwide on behalf of children to ensure children are always a priority.

I have made this donation in honor of our blog's most prolific and impassioned commenter. To wit:

This donation is being sent in honor of literary critic and internet gadfly Paul Burga, aka Max, aka anonymous, on the occasion of President Obama's inaugural call for national service and citizen action.

J. Robert Lennon

I encourage you all to donate to the literary or educational charity of your choice, in Max / Paul Burga / anonymous's name, and I want to take this opportunity to thank Max for providing us with such lively literary discussions.

Happy Inauguration Day!

Monday, January 19, 2009


The Hardcore Book Group took a break this month from the rigors of The Bard in order to reacquaint ourselves with Ithaca's most famous amateur lepidopterist, Vladimir Nabokov. Lolita was written, in part, at 802 East Seneca Street, a modest hillside house near Cornell's campus which has since been converted to student rentals. It was here, the story goes, that Vera rescued the work-in-progress from the trash incinerator; I myself have walked around in the back yard, looking for the footprint of this long-gone landmark. No dice.

The first time I read this book was in college, where a well-meaning professor tried to teach it as a clever code that needed to be cracked; we dutifully logged instances of chess imagery and anagrams, and I became convinced I didn't like Nabokov at all. I read it again in grad school, after reading Pale Fire, and this time I loved it, as I have loved all of Nabokov since. This week was my third, and most satisfying, read.

I think it's best to understand Nabokov first and foremost as a comic writer, and a writer with a carefully constructed and deeply ironic literary persona. At any given time, he is putting on a show. Nowhere is this more apparent than here, in this great, great novel; he is "Vladimir Nabokov" (the version of himself he presents in the now-ubiquitous afterword), who presents "John Ray, Jr, PhD," who presents Humbert Humbert, who presents Lolita. The Lolita we see is so painfully mediated that we are asked to create her out of scraps of rumor and possibility; in the end we figure the difference between the pregnant 17-year-old at the book's end, whose simplicity is filtered through one incarnation of the monstrous Humbert, and the 12-year-old of its opening pages, who is filtered through another. And somehow, in spite of everything, she comes through as one of the great characters in American literature: a cipher, a negative space whom Nabokov has somehow managed to persuade us to create. Maybe much of the controversy surrounding this book (and people's misunderstanding of the girl's manipulations) has to do with our reluctance to own her, to have thought her up ourselves.

I'm shocked at how shocking I found Lolita this time around: I did not remember Humbert being so horrible in the first half, and I didn't remember him being so sympathetic at the end. There is a scene, right after he leaves the "adult" Lolita and her husband, and sets out to murder Quilty, when he spends the night in a small empty town, and describes, in the book's most unadorned prose, its nocturnal existence. We see the blinking neon lights, the advertising signs, a passing airliner. Humbert misses Europe and leaves weeping, and we are inclined to weep with him.

Nabokov made a big deal about his forced alienation with the Russian language, and his supposed discomfort with English. But that, I think, was part of the dog and pony show. He loved American English. Nobody wrote it better before or since. Nabokov had a way of making baroque elaboration seem like plain speaking--he is the only writer I can think of who managed to increase clarity by adding words. He loved wordplay (including, yes, anagrams), and his best metaphors were utterly unexpected. In the pregnant Lolita's ramshackle house: "She closed her eyes and opened her mouth, leaning back on the cushion, one felted foot on the floor. The wooden floor slanted, a little steel ball would have rolled into the kitchen. I knew all I wanted to know." Not, "the wooden floor was slanted," but rather "The wooden floor slanted." The house itself is given agency; it is slanting as we watch. And this steel ball--it doesn't exist, but if it did, it would have rolled. He creates this crystalline, sad image in Humbert's mind, drops it neatly into an artful comma splice, and we know all we want to know.

Or this, one of my favorite lines in the entire book, which we read as Humbert arrives at Pavor Manor (aka, House of Fear), Quilty's lair: "...the sun was visible again, burning like a man, and the birds screamed in the drenched and steaming trees." Like a man? Who, exactly? Like Humbert himself, like all men bent upon violence. The only other writer I can think of who can throw strikes out of left field like that is Denis Johnson ("and you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you"), and rarely with Nabokov's incredible, effusive precision.

The HCBG now seems destined to read all of Nabokov, presumably interspersed with Shakespeare, starting with the Ithaca books (this one, Pnin, Pale Fire, and Speak, Memory) and then heading back to the Russian novels and working our way through the rest. I don't think the twentieth century came to grips with the guy, to be honest; he was too good at too many things and, like Conrad, reinvented himself so completely that he resists any straightforward analysis. Maybe we'll do better in an age when the postmodern is passe, and reinvention of the self is considered an American birthright. Tomorrow, a black man with a Muslim middle name will be sworn in as President with an 80% approval rating: I suppose anything's possible.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Let's Get Lost

One of the reasons I love writing novels (as opposed to writing short stories, which I merely like) is that there's so much room to spread out. You can walk into a novel, take off your hat and gloves and coat and leave them lying around on the furniture. You can spill food on the floor and leave it there. You can just make yourself a big mess and live in it for a couple of years.

I'm a tidy person, by nature: I like to keep my desk clean and the floor free of obstructions. I like to plan out tasks and execute them on schedule. But (as I've posted here before), the older I get, the less I like to plan out a novel. Short stories lend themselves better to my fastidious side; I find that they need to be almost perfect right off the bat, or I can't make them work. They have to be some kind of miraculous magic trick, or feat of physical dexterity, like sinking a three-pointer or making a perfect omelette.

A novel, though: you can stumble upon something and just go at it like a madman for a couple of days. In the novel I'm trying to write (I can't call it "my book" until I hit 75 pages or so; anything less, and it's just hubris), I recently found myself describing a character's job at great length--a good page and a half's worth. It doesn't really have anything to do with anything, and who knows if it will stick. But wow, what a blast. It's the most fun I've had writing in months. This is what it's all about--getting up in the morning and having no idea what you're going to be doing, then ending up describing the expression on a man's face as he peers out of a passing pickup truck, or the way an overweight hotel manager pushes himself up out of a swivelchair, or the way a CEO with a terminally ill child gossips about her employees.

The problem of course is confidence: confidence that any of it is worth it. If you have some distant goal in mind, maybe you can convince yourself that everything is relevant, even when you know it isn't. But without the goal, the excursions into the mess of the unknown just feel like so much pointless nonsense.

When it's on, though, it feels great. Getting lost, wandering around, finding your way back. Here's hoping it's on more often than not, for you, in 2009.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

On Being Reviewed

Oh, man. Why do I do it? I made the mistake this afternoon of looking at the Amazon page for my forthcoming novel, and to my astonishment found that it had already been reviewed, by fourteen people, two and a half months before it comes out. (There is apparently a new program at Amazon, to which it appears my publisher has subscribed, that provides advance copies of books to prominent reviewers.) And of course the reviews are terrible, and I am quaking with rage.

Well--I was for a minute. Now I'm just angry at myself for looking. Of course the reviews are bad, and of course they make me feel bad, which is why I don't tend to ever read them. Indeed, I haven't read the Amazon reviews of any of my books since my very first, back in 1997. But it's been a while since I've had a book out and I just couldn't resist.

Writers should never read reviews of their work. There is nothing--I'll repeat that, nothing--in it for you. Even if the review is spectacular, you read it at the expense of a little tiny piece of your soul.

Writing is paradoxical. The impulse to do it (if it's done right) comes not from a need for recognition or appreciation, but a need to express something, some obsession or impression or emotion, which is essentially inexpressible. The pleasure in it comes from seeing how close you can get to that elusive something, or seeing what other things you uncover on the way. Every book is a failure, in that you never get it right. But insofar as the journey is as important as the destination, every book is a success, as well. Like I was saying the last post, only the writer can define success for herself; during its creation, the writing should only serve, and can only serve, the writer.

But of course that's not the whole story. Even though you aren't doing it to impress anyone, you retain the expectation that it will be seen, and the hope that it will be understood. If you're lucky, you'll get the former. But you will never get the latter. Nobody will ever see it the way you want it seen. Even if people like it, they'll never like it the right way.

This can be socially awkward. When people praise your work, you're supposed to be happy. And you are--you hope a good review will make people buy the book, and you enjoy the pleasure of someone else's admiration (or at least appreciation). But there's a part of you--a part of me anyway--that is horrified by praise. You know that your reader doesn't really understand, because only you can understand: and because this reader actually likes the work, there will be no way to convince them that they didn't get it. At least, with a bad review, you can tell yourself the review was bad because the reviewer didn't get it. (That's what I've spent my afternoon doing, in fact.) But there is no deflecting praise.

OK, I'm exaggerating here. Everyone likes praise, myself included, and I'd definitely rather have it than not. But this is the calculus that goes on in every writer's mind when a review comes out. They're poison--they're nightmares. And when you read them anyway, young writers, don't say I never told you so.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

"What are you looking for?"

At the moment, along with the rest of the creative writing faculty at Cornell, I'm presently engaged in The Big Read--we've divvied up this year's MFA applications and are each reading dozens of them, to prepare for the decisions we'll be making next month on which students are admitted. Seeing me surrounded by mountains of folders, Rhian called my attention to this post on the MFA Weblog, in which applicants ask writing professors questions about the application process, their schools, and being a student writer.

I'm not going to comment on the specifics of this year's applications, or how we do things at Cornell. But I wanted to respond more generally about a particular breed of question--not representative, by the way, of the whole--that keeps cropping up in the comments of that post. Here are a few examples, from various commenters:

I'd like to ask an MFA faculty member what is the biggest and most common mistake applicants make. What (if anything) makes them place an applicant immediately in the "no" pile?

what is the most common mistake a first year MFA'er makes either specifically in their writing or in their academic work as a whole (so that we can all avoid it, of course =)

I think the question I have for faculty may be unanswerable -- but here goes -- what are you looking for in applicants' writing samples?

Now, I am not going to pretend that the MFA is not a professional degree, or that it's misguided to want to attend an MFA program in order to make connections, learn the ropes of the publishing world, and get an "inside track." Without question, these are benefits that the MFA offers students, and I took advantage of them myself, back when I graduated from the University of Montana in 1995.

But none of this is remotely useful if you don't have something to write. And the questions I quoted above seem to me to be hopelessly misguided--they are focused not upon the writer's work, but on the people who are judging it. And let me tell you, there is nothing that can be done about the latter.

Here's my MFA story: I applied to U of M because I'd never been west of Wisconsin in my life, and I went there because it was the only place I got in. In retrospect, I lucked out--I loved Missoula, and studying there. But the fact is, my application sucked, I didn't know what I was doing, and it was only some bizarre fluke that got me in. Somebody there must have seen something in the hideous muck of my writing that I might someday make something of. But honestly, compared to the people we let in to Cornell, my writing at the time was simply awful. The me of today would have rejected the me of 1993 after a page and a half.

My point is that, the only reason anyone gets in anywhere is that something they wrote connects with somebody who reads it. There is no forumla to this. There's no way of calculating it. It's like falling in love--it just happens, practically at random. Sure, some writers are especially talented, and are able to connect with more people than others, and probably those writers will get offers from a lot of places. But I wasn't one of those writers, and I might easily have not gotten in. And I like to think that, if that were the case, I would have done the right thing--put it out of my mind and dug back in.

If you're asking what we "want," or what mistakes you should avoid, you should go back to square one and do a little soul-searching. Because we don't know what we want, and there are no mistakes. There's only the same kind of connection between people that happens when anyone reads something they like. You have no control over us, but you can control your work. So do that: write what you want to write. If I have one piece of concrete advice, it's that you should do everything you can to forget about your "career," forget about the possibility of teaching, forget about publishing, about book parties, about the "in" crowd, about blogs, about everything except your personal obsessions and their expression. Though it's necessary to get a few recommendations, to write a personal statement, to send transcripts, to take the GRE, those aren't the things that really matter to readers. What they want is what they want when they read anything--to be surprised. To make a connection with another person. To feel some kind of spark. They want the same thing you do, when you read.

And when you send out the applications, forget about them completely and forever. Do not post on the internet about them. Go write something else. If you don't get in, it's nobody's fault, and you didn't do anything wrong. You just got rejected. Rejection is the norm. Most of what I write does not get published; most of my stuff that is published has been rejected a dozen times. It's not failure, and you shouldn't think of it that way. It's just that it didn't stick. That's the way it is now, and it's the way it will be in 25 years, when your tenth novel has just come out. You just have to shut it all out and write.

Ultimately, if we don't want you, you don't want us. It's that simple. The MFA is like any degree: it is all about what you bring to it. You could say that some schools are "better" than others, and I guess there's a case to be made for that. All of us like to think our program is the best, and yes, I'm really proud of the one I teach at. But the fact is, Princeton is "better" than SUNY Binghamton, unless you drink yourself to sleep every night at Princeton and study like a madman at Binghamton, in which case Binghamton is better. The point is that someone with internal resources can take advantage of every opportunity to learn. You need to be that person, so that you can kick ass at Iowa, but could also kick ass in your crap apartment, in your crap town, after your crap job is done for the day. You and your work are all there is, and it's nice to get to do it at school, but if you really mean it, you will do it no matter what. Keep that in mind, and good luck.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Donald Westlake

Alas, Donald Westlake is dead at 75. Man, this guy wrote like a demon. I didn't like all of it, but I liked an awful lot of it. He wrote more than a hundred books under a dozen different names, and way, way more of them were good than the law of averages would lead you to expect. My favorites were the Richard Stark novels featuring the thief Parker; somehow Westlake's other books always seemed a little too insincere to me, a little too misanthropic. Parker's cold morality and professionalism seemed to bring out the best in Westlake--the prose was tighter, the humor blacker. He also did a fair amount of screenwriting, most notably The Grifters, one of the greatest crime movies ever.

This is a real drag for me, especially on the heels of David Wallace. All the rest of my favorite writers, please watch your back in 2009, and cut back on the cigarettes and booze.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Some random holiday reading

First things first: this blog is now two years old.

Next, here's a random sample of what I've been lying on the sofa reading. I should first add what a pleasure it is to do this, even when what I'm reading isn't very good. Long live the long academic winter break.

Adrian Tomine: Summer Blonde. Back in January '08, I wasn't too wild about Tomine's graphic novel Shortcomings; it had an unsympathetic and uninteresting protagonist, and seemed to cover political ground already throroughly explored in print by about 1992. But I was told that book was something of an aberration for Tomine, whose drawings I nevertheless have always liked; and the four stories in this 2002 collection are much, much more to my taste. There's a sameness to them--disaffected urban twentysomethings casting about for reasons to live--but it's akin to Raymond Carver's sameness, a pleasing, flexible personal signature with a lot of potential for emotional nuance. I especially liked "Hawaiian Getaway," about a zaftig Asian-American underachiever who makes prank phone calls to the pay phones across the street from her apartment building. The glimmer of hope and happiness (or perhaps of ruin, it's hard to tell which) at the end really makes the story. All these pieces have 80's-style in-media-res endings, which gives them a certain retro charm. And Tomine obviously loves drawing girls--he's good at it, and they're all cute.

Michael Connelly: The Brass Verdict. Connelly has long been a disappointment to me. His first half dozen novels were brisk, nicely plotted police procedurals, but he began to drift off into repetition and, later, self-parody, slipping in references to the hit movies made from his other novels, and randomly throwing his various bestselling protagonists into stories together for a little gratuitous cross-series synergy. Sadly this book is in the latter category, bringing rough-and-ready lawyer Mickey Haller together with brooding police detective Harry Bosch. But the result is actually pretty good, if not precisely a return to form. There's plenty of inventive courtroom drama, a minimum of the-hunter-becomes-the-hunted crap, and a nice twist at the end. The denoument is a real eye-roller, but by that time you've had enough fun to forgive it. Really, if all bestsellers were this decent, I'd be able to do about 80% of my book shopping at Wal-Mart. Not that I would.

Robert Charles Wilson: Blind Lake. This 2003 novel represents all that is both terrific and awful about contemporary science ficiton. Great concept, lousy execution. Scientists at a government installation in Minnesota have managed to find a way to observe the inhabitants of another planet, but they're not quite sure how they did it. The facility goes into a mysterious lockdown, with no contact to the outside world, and the technology being used to watch the aliens develops a mind of its own...the whole thing ends up laying out some interesting ideas about sentience, culture, and artificial intelligence. The problem is the two-dimensional characters and their interpersonal dramas, which are uninteresting and overwritten; all the cutesy references to familiar "old-fashioned" late-20th-century culture; massive agglomerations of expository dialogue; and hopelessly pedantic, tin-eared prose. I wish SF writers didn't feel the need to literarify their writing when that's not what they're good at; I'll take the cool detachment of Stanislaw Lem over this stuff any day.