Thursday, December 30, 2010

Concentration

I was trying to start reading a book the other night (Tom McCarthy's C, BTW, and so far it is excellent, and completely different from Remainder), and found that, over half an hour, I read the first few pages about eight times.  It isn't that it wasn't interesting, it was that I couldn't concentrate.  At all.

I didn't used to think this when I was younger, but I now believe that concentration is hard.  And I am not one of those people who think that the distractions of modern life etc etc blah blah.  I think human beings are naturally distractable.  And that the act of reading a novel requires skills that have to be acquired in life, and can be temporarily lost.

Think about what a novel is asking us for: to switch off all of our perceptive organs and give ourselves over, entirely, to the consciousness of imaginary people.  It is (as I suggested in the comments of the previous post) like sex.  And who can blame us for not always being in the mood?  Also like sex, it is a rare and transcendent pleasure, and one that gets all tangled up with our sense of ourselves.  It's complicated.

Sometimes, when I have something I really really really want to read, like this McCarthy book, or a new Alice Munro story in the New Yorker, I have to wait until the perfect moment to read it, so that I don't blow it--ruin my experience of it with inadequate concentration.  As a result, I occasionally forget to read these things entirely, while things I don't give a crap about, I dispatch right away.

And writing?  Forget about it.  These days, I can only write first thing in the morning.  Anything past 9am, my mind has turned to garbage.  Maybe someday I'll have to do my reading then, too.  Until that time, it's catch as catch can.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

I ♥ Books

Thanks to WS reader Pale Ramon for this link to a Susan Orlean blog post about loving books -- all kinds of books, even or especially trashy thrillers that keep money moving in the book world. I agree with her. I love to see people reading -- reading anything. Sometimes it's easy to get caught up in liking some books and hating others, and there's nothing wrong with that. But put me on the side of books in general.

Here's a link to more Andre Kertesz photographs of people reading.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

End of an era?

Rhian and I made a major decision today: the annual holiday card we send out tomorrow will be our last.  Not our last holiday greeting, but our last physical card, that we actually mail to people.  It was designed by our son Owen and me (he did the hilarious photoshop of himself and his brother looking sullen with Santa Claus), and was a huge pain in the ass to have printed.  It was also expensive and wasteful (minimum order: 250) and necessitated a ten-minute wait in line at the post office for stamps, because the USPS took away the stamp vending machine.

The fact is, many of our closest friends have little or no physical presence in our lives.  We love them via the phone, or by email, or (I admit it) on facebook.  For many of these people--at least half of the address book on my phone--we have no street address.  These aren't second-tier friends, not necessarily anyway--they are internet correspondents.  This is its own particular, and honored, category.

And so next year, we're doing a web page and will email you a link.  It won't just be a photo--we'll fancy it up, maybe stick a song on there, or a Flash animation (if Flash is still alive in late 2011, and Owen still knows how to code it), or bit of comic writing, or what have you.  The fact is, the virtual world is more versatile and potentially entertaining for this sort of thing.  Our crowning achievement in the paper arena was probably the board game we designed and sent out years ago--that was a corker.  But last year's card (admittedly, it was lame: a broken-image gif on the front and a "404: card not found" error on the back), nobody even bothered to tell us they received.  It was just another piece of junk mail.

The thing is, a holiday card is something you're only supposed to look at for about a minute.  Then you throw it away.  This is practically the definition of internet content.  It isn't that a fine old tradition is dead: it's that the perfect technology for holiday greetings has finally arrived.  We're gonna do it, but we're gonna do it for free.  To our beloved physical-world friends, we thank you for your cards and letters (espcially Sung's and Dawn's, with all the adorable dog pix, and Bev, with the crazy-ass family photo and two-page newsy snark manifesto).   But we're going virtual in 2011.  And the USPS, sad to say, can suck it.

Monday, December 27, 2010

True Grit

How often can you watch the movie of one of your favorite books and feel like justice was done? I'll tell you: not often. But the Coen brothers' new version of Charles Portis's True Grit was done with absolute respect for the novel. Almost all of the dialogue is taken verbatim, and the most of the changes are things left out (though there's an important change to the ending). Portis is a comic writer with a perfect ear, and True Grit was an obvious choice to make into a movie. The other Portis novel I've read, Dog of the South, is less so: while just as funny, its plot is crazy and all over the place. True Grit has a simple, arrow-straight plot. It's a perfect short novel, and the movie is perfect, too.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

One long sentence

Ed Park's piece in this week's Times Book Review is a carefully researched, clever little essay about the obscure phenomenon of the one-sentence novel, but I have to admit it kind of rubs me the wrong way.  My irritation can be summed up in the line "Not many writers have had the nerve to go this route."

Nerve?  Really?  This is not the word I would use.  I'll admit that, if I came up with an idea for a novel that could be best be expressed in a single book-length sentence, I would have to take a deep breath before diving in.  But it seems to me that this is the kind of fake formal experimentation that a writer is more likely to use as cover for his incompetence than for any kind of genuine insight into character, situation, or language.

Of course you could dismiss any literary trick as a gimmick, but this one seems gimmickier to me than most, especially since the writer generally finds new ways to separate ideas and establish rhythm, and the reader quickly gets accustomed to them.  That is, nobody's really being challenged here--it's all proof-of-concept.  If you're going to break it up with conjunctions or semicolons or what have you, you might as well restore the periods, indentations, and chapter breaks, and devote more of your energy to evoking the wrinkles in grandma's forehead or the smell of jasmine wafting over the piazza.*

That said, I certainly haven't read 'em all.  Prove me wrong, readers.  Show me a book-length sentence that gives you that special kind of lovin' only breathless literary nerditude can provide.

* j/k.  Please don't evoke those things.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas

A merry Christmas to all W6 readers who celebrate it, and to those who don't, may you endure its excesses in peace.  See you in a few days.  In the meantime, let us know what books you got.  And has anybody figured out an adequate way to wrap an ebook?

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Speaking of linked stories: Patrick Somerville's new one

This post is not going to do it justice, but I can't recommend highly enough Patrick Somerville's amazing new collection, The Universe In Miniature In Miniature.  (I must disclose that 1, Patrick is a friend of mine; 2, I got a free galley from the publisher; and 3, I blurbed it.  In fact, it resulted in the greatest blurb I have ever written, if I do say so myself.)  This book indeed consists of linked stories, and it's one of those rare specimens of the species that succeed far better than they have any right to.  I'm at a loss to describe the thing; it is quasi science-fictional (there's some stuff in Patrick's last book, The Cradle, that suggested he might eventually give full rein to his inner sci-fi nerd), mysterious, dark, comic, and thoroughly engaging.  It contains, oh hell, marriage problems, and a supernatural power helmet, and a secret society, and aliens, and a mercenary.  It is also beautifully illustrated by Rob Funderburk, which I didn't even realize when I wrote the blurb ("It's as if Optimus Prime has folded himself up into a story collection"), and which is actually kind of important to one of the stories.

Patrick is a rad dude and this book is incredibly adventurous and utterly unique.  How often is it that somebody follows up their breakthrough book with a small-press collection of semi-sci-fi?  Not often.  Reward him by throwing down for this baby.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Another Way to Write Better

When I'm feeling terribly uninspired, I remember some advice given to me by Pinckney Benedict, an old teacher of mine. He suggested that, when we have nothing we feel like writing, we sit down and type out a story by a writer we love, just to experience what it's like to write an excellent story. Have any of you ever done this?

I do it a lot. In fact, I started doing it in high school, long before I met Pinckney, in order to learn how to type. It is astounding to see someone else's awesome words arise from one's own typewriter, or to appear in one's own font. And you can learn things you might never learn otherwise. Type the sentence slowly, and guess what the next line will be. Are you right? Why did the writer make that choice? Was your choice better?

Lately I've been interested in the structure of paragraphs, so I've been typing paragraphs instead of whole stories. Two people who write great ones: Vladimir Nabokov and Denis Johnson. I cannot believe how far these guys can go in the space of a paragraph: across time and universes. Take a look!

The pitfalls of this technique are probably numerous. It can be a great way to waste time, typing other people's words for weeks on end. But as an isolated exercise, I think it's really useful. It can jolt you out of yourself and your invisible ways of thinking.

Try it and let me know what you think.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Elements of Internet Style

Speaking of style guides, maybe that's what we need--some standards for written English on the web.  You'd assume that what's good for the page is good for the laptop, but new technologies mean new ways to screw up your writing.

Case in point, this excellent post by John Gruber on Daring Fireball, my favorite nerd blog, which post is about one thing and one thing only: "a long-standing irritation: poorly designed web page titles":

The title is the string of text in the HTML "title" element. This string manifests itself to the user in several ways. It is presented in the title bar of the web browser window on Mac and Windows. It is presented in the tab, if you’re using tabs in your browser. It is presented at the top of the screen in mobile web browsers. It is listed in the “Window” menu of your browser, listing all open browser windows. And, when you choose to bookmark a web page, the title string is used as the default name of the bookmark...An awful lot of websites use patterns for page titles that are ugly, hard-to-scan, and/or just plain stupid.

In the stupid department, Gruber writes, resides MSNBC's ridiculously long "Breaking News, Weather, Business, Health, Entertainment, Sports, Politics, Travel, Science, Technology, Local, US & World News - msnbc.com," which of course is far too long to read in your drop-down bookmarks menu or browser tab, let alone on your bookmarks bar.  And of course since the actual name of the actual web site is at the end, nobody will ever, ever actually read it.

Gruber, predicably, favors the short and clear, just like Strunk and White. (One imagines E. B. White would have been simultaneously appalled and mesmerized by the internet, like any thinking person is.) I agree.  The fact is, half my reading is done on a computer these days--books are books and may they always be, but much of my life consists of incidental reading, which ultimately is as important to me as any other.

Somebody oughta write a style guide. Ellis & Lennon, perhaps?

Monday, December 20, 2010

How to Write Better

Once you're an adult, and you've been writing for a while and teachers and workshops are long behind you, how can you become a better writer? I mean besides the obvious, which is writing a lot, reading a lot, and sharing your work with good readers. How can you improve your prose? Are there any techniques, like Hanon exercises for pianists or running sprints for marathoners?

I'd like to know because I think the years of following Anne Lamott's "shitty first draft" advice have done a number on my prose style. For those unfamiliar: Lamott suggests that writers -- especially new or blocked writers -- should not worry about quality in the first draft, but just get it all down and make it better in the revision process. It seems like good advice: I know I couldn't have written a single paper in college if I didn't do it that way. But I'm wondering if it's so great for fiction. Fiction lives in the words on the page, not in the outline. Lately I've found that I don't like what I write. Is it because I'm just throwing down any old thang in order to have something to revise later? The problem seems to be that I have no motivation to revise if the prose is crap. I can't work up any love for the shitty first draft.

So: how to get better without obsessing over every sentence? I had exactly one idea about this (and hope you have more): read Strunk and White again.

First revelation: so many ideas I thought were my own turn out to be things I stole from S&W! Second: a lot things here are not obvious. For instance: Do Not Inject Opinion. Sometimes we feel like it's all about opinion. But no.

Funny thing about Strunk and White: this sentence: "By the time this paragraph sees print, uptight, ripoff, rap, dude, vibes, copout, and funky will be the words of yesteryear..."

(Neither Strunk nor White would have anything good to say about my colonophilia, I know.)

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Franzen in the Paris Review: the good and the bad

I enjoyed this new interview with Jonathan Franzen in the Paris Review, but I dunno.  I think he's got a wrong idea about himself.  Or perhaps the interviewer, Stephen Burn, does.  There's an unquestioned assumption here that Franzen has been getting steadily better throughout his career, and Freedom is his best book.  I don't think that's so.  I rank it as being about as good as his first novel (which is to say pretty good), but not as good as The Corrections and certainly not as good as Franzen's masterpiece (IMHO), the tragically under-read Strong Motion.  Nerdy, intense, eccentric, and disquieting, Strong Motion seems to have grown from a difficult phase of the writer's life:

Strong Motion was a novel written by a person to whom things were happening as he wrote it.  It was a third party in the relationship [ie., Franzen's marriage]...I honestly have a poor recollection of how I wrote that book.  It was bad time.

This makes sense to me--the book feels as though it was written by somebody who had no idea what he was doing.  And that's why it's great.  Freedom, and, to a lesser extent, The Corrections, seem to me lesser works, more controlled, more composed.  The new book in particular is a disappointment to me; it seems massively, if expertly, calculated.  Franzen's life needs order, but I think his work needs chaos.  He shouldn't believe the hype: Freedom is a smart, hugely entertaining book, but I'd like him to leave a corner of his heart and mind untended.

One thing I really dig in this interview, though, is a quote about American writing:

The people at the Swedish Academy [...] recently confessed their thoroughgoing lack of interest in American literary production.  They say we're too insular [...] we're only writing about ourselves.  Given how Americanized the world has become, I think they're probably wrong about this [...] but even if they're right, I don't think our insularity is necessarily a bad thing. [...] Maybe that very insularity, that feeling of living in a complete but not quite universal world, creates certain kinds of literary possibility.

He's right.  It does.  This is a strong case, I think, for specific detail over broad theme, and it's a lesson Franzen ought to listen to himself.  The least interesting things about Freedom are the things that are about, frankly, freedom.  It's when he forgets he's an important writer, and notices the hell out of the smallest things, that Franzen is at his best.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Linked Stories , Part 2

Some more thoughts on linked stories. Publishers like them, I think, because they can pose as novels, but are not as hard to get right as novels are. It's really difficult to take the same set of characters through 300+ pages of a single story. In a set of linked stories, the writer essentially has 10 or a dozen fresh starts -- all new characters, new ideas -- and can shake off whatever started to get tricky and bogged down in the last section. But for the very same reason, readers usually don't like them as much as novels. Instead of working through the tricky stuff in a surprising, satisfying way, the writer of linked stories gets to throw it all behind her and start on something new. And linked stories aren't even usually as good as regular stand-alone short stories, because they depend a little on the weight of what's around them. A lot of time, a linked story is really just a vignette.

Not that I think all collections of linked stories are awful, but I do resent publishers disguising them as novels -- they aren't. Fans of the genre should read Laura Hendrie's Stygo, an old favorite of mine.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Extra Lives

My apologies, I missed the boat on our pre-New-Year's daily-posting resolution: I was out of town.  But on the way home, on the bus, I finally got around to reading Tom Bissell's terrific Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter.  Tom is a superb and versatile writer, and he's the perfect one to have written on this subject for a popular audience--it's funny and self-deprecating, yet it investigates something very important: the fundamental nature of our relationship to narrative.

Though the book is a bit rambling--many chapters feel as though they were written to stand alone elsewhere--Bissell never strays very far from this thesis, which is that narrative is gaming's biggest problem.  Not that the narratives aren't good enough--which, if you'd played even the very best military shooters, you'd agree they probably aren't--but that they're narratives borrowed from other forms of art, particularly Hollywood films.  Video games, Bissell argues, need to find their own kind of stories, based not in authored narrative but in the mechanics of play.  Through interviews with industry thinkers and detailed descriptions of games, he makes a great case for games as art, even as he proves that they haven't yet really figured out how to be art.

There's also some great memoir-y stuff, including a chapter that describes Bissell's cocaine-fueled devouring of Grand Theft Auto IV, and many very fine descriptions of the places where games are made and the characters who make them.

It's almost enough to make me want to go out and buy an Xbox 360.  But I think I'll stay married instead.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Linked Stories

This is nuts: we're hardly posting at all these days. Time for changes! We're going back to daily posts. Why not? It's winter and there are no weeds to pull or chaise longues to lounge upon.

I started reading Tom Rachman's novel The Imperfectionists a couple of days ago, with great excitement: I really liked the first chapter, and the writing is top-notch. But then I discovered -- NOOOO! -- that it isn't technically a novel, but a collection of linked stories. Oh, despair! Betrayal! My book club had the same reaction when I made them read Olive Kitteridge.

But why? What's wrong with linked stories? In a way, the idea is awesome: all these stories that accumulate into something larger. But if you're expecting a novel, and you like what you're reading, discovering that you're reading a bunch of stories instead is crushing. Because the wonderful thing about a nice, thick novel is how complex and full it is. A short story is one thing -- it's an episode with reverberations -- but a novel keeps going and going and changing and evolving. I was really bummed that the character in the first chapter, a washed-up journalist named Lloyd Burko, was OVER after one chapter. I was so invested! He and his story were so interesting! It feels like Rachman didn't know how good his characters were, and felt like he needed to start fresh after a single episode. To me, linked short stories feel like an artifact of insecurity. (Though Rachman is probably as secure as anyone, and just had a concept he wanted to work through. Fair enough! The book is still excellent. I just wish it were a novel.)

I am probably deeply suspicious of collections of linked stories because I've so often wanted to write one. A writer of such a collection gets the satisfaction of finishing something -- stand-alone story you can send out somewhere! -- while still struggling along on the trail of the big kahuna, a NOVEL. Everyone loves a novel. Publishers, especially, love a novel. Which is why you almost never see the words "linked short stories" on a book jacket.

Anyway, I don't mean to imply that structural experimentation is no good, or that every work of fiction should adhere to a set of rules. No! But I do think that the novel is king for a reason. It is delicious and long and satisfying and is the perfect vehicle for exploring character.

(So why are my two favorite writers -- Alice Munro and Lydia Davis -- masters of the short story? I don't know. Don't ask!)

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

So what do we think about Google Editions?

Google's ebooks venture, Google Editions, appears poised to launch within the next month, and in theory, I like it.  I've been begging anybody who would listen to please make my out-of-print books available, cheaply, in electronic editions, but for a midlist, non-genre writer, this is just not a doable thing.  It appears that, if you own the rights to your work, you'll be able to sell copies through Google at whatever price you like.

One thing that's confusing me is this line: "To sell the Google Edition of a book, you must hold the electronic rights to that book, including all images and other book content."  Does this mean that a writer needs to own the rights to, say, the cover?  The layout?  The design?  Becuase I'm not sure that any of us do, at least those of us whose books have already been published and are now out of print.  I do now hold the rights to my first three novels, but not, I'd imagine, the visual elements designed and executed by my former publishers.

Anyway, this will presumably all be clear next month.  I find the whole thing unnerving, of course, and still doubt that Google will ever pay me anything, for any reason.  (Where, by the way, is my Authors' Guild Settlement check, eh?)  But if this is the way the wind is blowing, I suppose I will let myself be carried along with everybody else.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Wood on Moon

I'd like to poke my head out of my lit cave for a moment to praise James Wood's article in the New Yorker this week on, of all people, Keith Moon. The phenomenon of literary writers moonlighting as rock and roll nerds is not unusual in my age bracket, but James Wood? A drummer? Really? Who knew! My initial distaste for Wood's criticism (I think it's his ambivalence about David Foster Wallace that got me thinking of myself, initially, as anti-Woodian) long ago evaporated, and these days I like him a lot.

This article in particular. Wood actually tries to explain, to the New Yorker audience, why Moon was awesome, and he largely succeeds. At times, of course, he sounds hopelessly dorky, as in this passage about John Bonham: "His superb but tightly limited breaks on the snare and his famously rapid double strokes on the bass drum are constantly played against the unvarying solidity of his high hat, which keeps a steady single beat throughout the bars." Which I think we can all agree is not what generally occurs to us while we're blasting Led Zep in the car.

But this passage about the Moon of "Won't Get Fooled Again" and "Behind Blue Eyes" is right on the money:

...you can hear him do something that was instinctive, probably, but which is hardly ever done in ordinary rock drumming: breaking for a fill, Moon fails to stop at the obvious end of the musical phrase and continues with his rolling break, over the line and into the start of the next phrase. In poetry, this failure to stop at the end of the line, this challenge to metrical closure, this desire to get more in, is called enjambment. Moon is the drummer of enjambment.

For me, this playing is like an ideal sentence, a sentence I have always wanted to write and never quite had the confidence to do: a long, passionate onrush, formally controlled and joyously messy, propulsive but digressively self-interrupted, attired but dishevelled, careful and lawless, right and wrong.

Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. I feel the same way. I think the connection, among writers of my generation (guys mostly, I think, but not entirely), between literary fiction and rock has gone largely unexplored; here, Wood is getting at the kind of controlled exuberance that I find most moving both in popular music and literature, and he manages to do so without coming off like a total dipshit. That is quite an accomplishment, in my book.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Temping

Rhian and I got talking last night about all our temp jobs.  At the time, this work--reception work, phone answering, bank tellering, low-grade editing--seemed pretty empty and dull.  Now, it seems somehow important.  We got a lot of work done at our temp jobs--literary work, that is--and learned something about the era when we came of age.

I took pretty much all my notes on The Funnies while working as a bank teller at about half a dozen banks in Missoula, Montana.  This would have been around 1995.  I stood there in the drive-up window in my knit tie, adding new note cards to my rubber-banded stack, and by the time I got a real job I was ready to start writing the thing.  (Indeed, I drafted it, largely, at that real job, which was as a museum receptionist.)  The two of us did so much temping that we became honorary staff at the Manpower office; often one or the other of us would man the front desk for Debbie, the sardonic, put-upon manager.  It was here that I read Stephen Dixon's collected stories and wrote him a long letter telling him why the book had restored my faith in the form.  We're still in touch.  Rhian once won a camera by unscrambling a word in an AM radio contest, which she entered daily from her temp position at the Teamsters' Union; I later stole this and stuck it in Mailman.

Temping was a nineties rite of passage.  It was the Clinton-era boom: everybody thought they needed to hire.  But if you lived in a town without much going on, everybody was wrong.  Temping, for us, was the experience of sitting idly by while other people failed to make money.  The gears of life were turning, grinding around us.  So much of lived life, it turned out, consisted of waiting to start living life.  There was something depressing about the people who hired us, but also something inspiring.  Human beings were awkward and inept and incapable of making good decisions.  And yet they soldiered on.  In this context, fiction writing seemed no more or less important than correcting scanned legal documents or administering parts-sorting aptitude tests; it seemed like something we might be able to actually do.

My relationship to my work has grown deeper and more complicated, of course, but sometimes it's possible to evoke those early days of newness and possibility--the sense that starting a new story was no big deal, that there were plenty more out there if this one failed.  Temping prepared us well for fiction writing, really: it gave us a taste for work that is uncertain, not very lucrative, and different every day.  There are worse ways to make a living, to be sure.

You'd be surprised at how long it took to find that old-school Manpower logo.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Help me out: Crime Stories

W6 readers, give me a hand with something, will you?  I'm designing a new Cornell class, a First-Year Seminar called Crime Stories.  It will be a survey of crime fiction since the dawn of time, with written critical responses.  (I always allow at least one creative one, too.)

I have a few things I will definitely use: The Big Sleep.  Sjowall and Wahloo's The Laughing Policeman.  One heist novel, probably one of Richard Stark's Parker novels.  One genre-buster, perhaps Jonathan Lethem's Gun, With Occasional Music or China Mieville's recent The City And The City.  I will of course use a Poe story and a Conan Doyle story.

But what else?  I'd like more women (besides Maj Sjowall).  Dorothy Sayers?  Patricia Highsmith?  (Maybe Strangers On A Train.)  I wouldn't mind using Tana French's The Likeness, but it's rather long.  Ruth Rendell / Barbara Vine?  She writes great crime novels but I don't know what I'd say about them in a college class.  Karin Fossum perhaps?  Can a case be made for Shirley Jackson?  I am thinking of We Have Always Lived In The Castle.

Or writers of color--Walter Mosley?  I'd like to get a couple more pre-war writers maybe.  It's a 14-week semester and each week will be either one or two short stories, or a short novel, or half a long novel.  Would love your ideas.  Especially if you are a Cornell freshman who happens to be registered for the class.

Monday, November 1, 2010

I Love This Blog

No, not this one, that one.  Those of you whose minds are always in the gutter, which is to say probably all of you, will dig it.

This reminds me of one of my favorite dirty-mind stories...when the kids were little they had one of those Winnie-The-Pooh travesty Disney spinoff books with the strip of sound effects down the side, and when you pressed the Tigger button you heard Tigger say, "THAT is what Tiggers do best!"

But at one point we realized it sounded like it was saying "FUCK is what Tiggers do best!"  And after that, it was impossible to un-hear it.  Imagine sitting around with one's parents hearing this phrase over and over, nodding and grinning as though nothing untoward is going on.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Leaving It All Behind

I was talking to a colleague of mine at a grad student reading last week (nice work, BTW, Aisha and Alex) about a family story of mine that I once told him: a great-uncle, Tony Moran, was a semi-famous mobster who ran a gambling machine empire in Reading, Pennsylvania during the thirties and forties, and was eventually knocked off in a bar by a rival.  It's a good story, full of colorful characters and funny twists and turns.  And my colleague said, "So when are you gonna write about this?"

Believe me, I've thought about it.  Why wouldn't I?  Nothing would get me an interview with Terri Gross quicker than a novel about my family's shady past in organized crime.  But the fact is, I'm never going to do it.

Why not?  Rhian supplied the answer for me the other night: writing, for me, is about leaving it all behind.  My home town, that is (not Reading, but nearby Phillipsburg, New Jersey), and all its lowlifes, wiseguys, and weirdos.  Don't get me wrong, I love visiting home, and hearing my family tell stories about growing up in the area.  But back when I was in my late teens, all I wanted to do was get away from all that and do my own thing.  Indeed, all my early short stories were about the self-actualization of quirky young people.  I've moved on, thank God, but still can't conceive of writing the kind of stories I love hearing from my family--those serve a different purpose.  Fiction, for me, is self-invention--the "wooing of distant parts of myself," as an Alice Munro character once put it.

People often talk about, or try to talk about, where their writing comes from.  But I wonder--what is your writing trying to escape?

Photo from here.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

iambik.com

Okay, I admit it, this constitutes self-promotion.  But I'm quite excited about it.  Today, iambik.com went live.  They sell audiobooks.  For five dollars.  The first wave of offerings includes me, Lydia Millet, Gordon Lish, and the ridiculously brilliant Lynne Tillman.

From the site: "Iambik makes audio of books we love.  Iambik is a bit different from traditional audiobook publishers, though. We partner with print publishers and authors, and work with a collective of skilled independent audiobook makers around the world. We record new books and old ones, great books that have been overlooked by traditional audio publishers.  We work almost exclusively on a revenue-share basis, with narrators, publishers/authors, and iambik all sharing in successful audiobooks.  Our prices are low. We don’t have any digital rights management (DRM)."

Doesn't this just make you want to weep with gratitude?  This seems to me a superb business model for literary fiction, and if you agree, head on over there and buy some stuff.  Like, you know, for instance Castle.

Monday, October 18, 2010

What happened to "Men In Space"?

So.  I'm re-reading Tom McCarty's Remainder for my graduate seminar, and am reminded how amazing this novel is--I think it's going to be considered an extraordinarily important book when all's said and done, and in any event it is hugely entertaining and a major influence on the book I'm trying to write right now.  And I've got McCarthy's new one, C, waiting in the queue for the moment the semester ends.

But what happened to Men In Space?  This novel is not listed in the opening pages of C, and wasn't mentioned in the recent NYTBR review.  If I'm not mistaken the reviewer referred to C as McCarthy's second book.  Men In Space only seemed to come out in the UK, and at the moment (see link) it is listed as out of stock on Amazon.co.uk.

Out of stock?  Really?  Published in 2007, by a major author with a new novel out, and it's out of stock? I have a copy that I ordered from England, and must confess that I didn't get through it--at least not on my first sortie.  But it is definitely the same guy--it employs the same photo as Remainder.

I shouldn't be confused--I am a guy who had a book that only came out in the UK myself, and that kind of disappeared in the wilds of lit obscura for a while, until it finally came out here last year.  But McCarthy is different--he wrote a Big Book.  You'd think this second novel would have come out here by now, one way or another.

Any insights, keepers of Lit Arcana?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

iA Writer, plus, my talk.

Here's a brief review of a new iPad app, Writer, by iA.  I had assumed, shortly after getting started with my iPad, that it really wouldn't be a viable writing tool--indeed, I must say that I still don't like blogging on it.  Pages, the standard Apple word processor, is irritating in a lot of ways, offering only the most meager collection of options, and making them difficult to access.  (Why, for instance, are you forced to go into a menu to get strikethrough?  There is ample room on the toolbar.)

But Writer is conceptually different.  It is VERY simple, eschewing all formatting options entirely, so that you can concentrate only on the writing itself.  It features an extended keyboard with--at last!--left and right cursor arrows, AND "word" keys that allow you to navigate through a document word by word.  It has its own custom-designed font, which is extremely pleasing to read.  It will automatically sync what you're working on to your Dropbox, so that you can continue your work on another computer, and saves in .txt format for full compatibility.  There's a special "focus" mode as well, that only shows you the last three lines you were working on--an unnecessary limitation, in my book, but perhaps useful to some.  I have already written a couple of letters on it and believe I could write a story as well.

I'd like to see one concession to formatting, though: tabs.  I don't like paragraphing using white spaces, except in a business letter.  But this is easily accomplished "in post," as it were.  A really nice app, and it's just five bucks.

I also thought I'd share this: the talk I gave at the Colgate Writers' Conference this past June.  It's called "In the Presence of Absence: or, Thanks, Blanks!" and is an appreciation of negative space in fiction (and in other forms, for that matter).

Saturday, October 2, 2010

"1000 True Fans" for writers?

This seems like a good opportunity to link to a favorite blog of mine, The Online Photographer. If you're into photography and are a bit of a gear nerd, this blog is an excellent mix of artistic philosophy and technical discussion, with a very fine stable of regular writers.

I've been reading lately from a series of articles by artist and printer Ctein that are in reaction to this much-discussed article by Kevin Kelly, about the possibilities, in today's media market, for artists to support themselves through their work.  The idea is that all you need is 1000 "true fans," and enough time and energy to keep them interested in you.  Here's the latest installment from Ctein; he links to the previous posts as well.

All this sounds good to me, but every time I think about it I can't help but consider how poorly placed writers are to benefit from such a system.  Artists are selling physical artifacts, and can charge a fair amount for each; what we do is ephemeral, the kind of thing people are accustomed to being able to acquire for free.  This is true of musicians, too, of course, but as I've said before here, musicians can tour.  It seems to me that we're more wedded to commercial publishing than other kinds of artists are to their respective supporting apparatus.  Even Kelly, in his original piece, puts us last on the list.

Maybe everyone thinks they've got it worst, though.  I know that a few W6 readers (like Jon Frankel) have had some thoughts about this, and I would love to have them weigh in.  What do you think, can writers make a go of it on their own, without first becoming famous through conventional means (e.g., Radiohead)?  Or are we destined to write for free and make our living some other way?

Thursday, September 30, 2010

An Interview with Lydia Davis


I am delighted to get to pass on this link to my interview with Lydia Davis for the Writers at Cornell podcast. Davis is in town for a reading, but she was kind enough to talk with me about the complexities of translating Proust and Flaubert, using economic language to convey strong emotion, the evolution of her literary style, and the value of self-limitation.

Davis's Collected Stories has just come out in paperback, and her new translation of Madame Bovary in hardcover; snap them up after you've had a listen. (And thanks to Gallagher for the question about constraints.)

Monday, September 27, 2010

Every single day. Also, questions for Lydia Davis

There's another aspect of my current novel revision that I didn't mention in the previous post, but which has come to seem very important to me over the past ten (bloggingless) days. In the past, especially when I have been teaching, I have tended to revise in four-hour blocks of time only on days when I could set four hours aside. This generally equated to three days a week of rather fast-paced work, which I accomplished in the service of some deadline (usually arbitrary) that I imposed upon myself.

This time around, I have changed two things. One, I have no deadline ("sometime next year" is all I have told anyone) for finishing. And two, I am working every single day. This includes, say, Tuesdays, when I have, ideally, six hours to make real progress, as well as Wednesdays, when I get up at 5 and have perhaps a single hour.

What I am finding is that the one-hour sessions might well be as important as the six-hour ones--sometimes more so, even if very little (or even no) writing gets done. The key seems to be to do something every day, to keep my mind from straying too far from the book. I've written here before about the difficulty of holding an entire novel in one's head at once--it is possible for some people, and I feel I've been able to do it every now and then. But it is hard, and the more time you spend away from the thing, the more you need to recover when you return.

This method--work daily, even if it's only time enough to stare at the screen and think--is quite revalatory. I feel more connected to the book, even when I'm not really accomplishing anything substantive. We shall see if it pans out in the end.

Finally, the great Lydia Davis is coming to Cornell this week, and I will be posting my podcast interview with her here on Thursday. If there's anything you're dying to ask her, post it in the comments, and I will try to throw it into my interview.

photo: raccoons watching me work the other day.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

How do you revise?

I had an interesting talk with my graduate seminar yesterday on this topic--how different writers approach the task of revision. My own feelings about revision have evolved over the years, and far from having arrived at some kind of tried-and-true method, I have come to find that I am less certain about the process than ever, and feel more lost in it than at any time in my entire life.

I think (read, "hope") that this is a good thing. A couple of days ago I started revising the novel I drafted earlier this year, based on the notes I took during a couple of editorial meetings with Rhian. This is a very sketchy draft, composed in haste, and it probably needs more work than any first draft of anything I've written. But there is something exciting about the uncertainty, the possibility, that the situation has provided.

Early in my career--as I have written here before--I was a big novel outliner, and my first drafts generally bore a close resemblance to what they would eventually become. Over the years, my outlines have gotten shorter and shorter, my first drafts more uncertain. This novel, I didn't outline at all. I didn't make character sketches, or do research, or even think about any ideas I'd cooked up for more than a day or two. I just wrote it. Quickly and sloppily. It's about parenthood, and has a science-fictional conceit, and I'm only now beginning to figure out what it's about and what I ought to do with it. I find it intimidating, actually--I am a little afraid of it. And a lot of that fear comes from not having enough solid first-draft material to know how to revise.

At the moment, I am just adding stuff--going through my notes, looking for things I know are missing, and patching them in, roughly. I will probably spend a month or two on this, just spackling the thing. Then I'll go back in and start sanding and painting--trying to make it feel less like an awkward patchwork of crap. I will probably have to rip stuff out along the way and replace it. Certain characters will serve new purposes, be de-emphasized or eliminated, or get bulked up and foregrounded. I can already feel characters' fundamental motivations changing, their relationships with other characters changing.

Maybe this is familiar to most of you, but it's kind of new to me. I have always been fond of telling students that, if you know what you're doing, then don't bother doing it. But like a lot of my favorite advice, I find it hard to accept in my own work. I like to think I'm always doing something original, but it's likely that, all too often, I am secretly dressing up the familiar in vestments of the new, to trick myself into thinking I'm setting new challenges. When what I'm really doing is making myself comfortable.

I'm curious how people approach their revisions--how much of your first drafts actually make it into your final drafts, how much time is spent revising (compared to the time spent composing), how many drafts you go through, how attached you are to the permanence of a day's work. And how your thoughts about these things have changed over time.

Photo from here

Monday, September 6, 2010

Who are we writing for?

Last week, a good discussion almost broke out in my graduate seminar (it would have, if we weren't already deep in another one) when a student used the word "elitist" to describe a novel's frame of reference. The book, he felt, was too insular--the product of intellectual squirreliness, an egghead speaking in code to the ivory tower.

He has a point, and so we're going to throw this topic on the floor in the coming week's class: why are we doing this? And who is it for? I have a ready answer for the second question, which I sent to the students as part of a little epistolary manifesto (manifistle?) which I hope will serve as a jumping-off point for class:

We are writing for other smart people. Now, it may be that the vast majority of these smart people are, in fact, formally educated. But I know from experience that many, many of them aren't. The people I meet on book tours and at university readings continue to surprise me. They are all over the map.

However, the thing is, I don't give a rat's ass. The reason is that I don't consider one "class" of reader to be of greater value than any other. Nor do I value one kind of human experience over another. The suffering of a university dean is no less real than the suffering of a starving child thousands of miles from here. The latter may suffer more, but his suffering is not more legitimate as a human experience. The pleasure of a cold beer on a summer afternoon is not more legitimate than the pleasure of solving a tricky equation. A good writer can communicate all kinds of human experience to all kinds of people--should be able to show an intelligent but uneducated reader what it feels like to solve that equation, to be that dean.

The trouble with thinking about audience is that literary writers are usually wrong about who their audience is. Or, as Rhian put it to me, channeling a mentor of hers, "It's none of our goddam business."

As for the first question, I think I know less now about why I write than I did when I started. Because I can't stop? Because I need it to feel alive? Because I want people to love me? (If all I wanted was to be loved, I could have picked a more lovable genre, I suppose.) The one thing I do know is that it's dangerous to connect the first question to the second. To assume you know who you're writing is for, and to write it for them. Because before you know it you're writing down to them. If you need to feel you have a specific audience, do what one writer once told me to do if I was nervous at a reading: pick somebody at random from the audience and read the whole thing to them. My random audience members are Rhian and Skoog, still today. Will this amuse them? Move them? Occasionally I have written something, shown it to one of the two, then shelved it. And that was enough for me.

Anyway, the questions of purpose and audience always get tangled up in discussions of class and privilege. That's as it should be. A novel, say, can't contain the whole universe: you need to assume your reader knows certain things. And so it is inherently for insiders. With every word you choose, you choose to include or eliminate somebody from the people who will "get it."

Can we know who we're including and who we're not? Not really. But we can go into our work with honesty and openness and do our best to be inclusive without alienating the already initiated. For my part, I try to err on the side of inclusion: when push comes to shove, the initiated can suck it.

But readers, I find, will give you more space than you think. They'll forgive you for explaining too much, or for talking over your head, if you give them a way to feel comfortable and interested. A compelling voice. Moral complexity. Good characters.

As for my seminar, well...this is quite the can of worms. If you don't hear from my students and me after Wednesday, know that we sacrificed ourselves for a good cause.

Photo: our son found that button on the street!

Sunday, August 29, 2010

O. Henry Prize Stories, Then and Now

I recently got the new O. Henry Prize collection and read the whole thing, cover to cover. I liked some of the stories, very much unliked others, but there was one thing I couldn't help but notice: pretty much every story has a death in it. The first one in the collection, which is by Annie Proulx, is about some 19th century western pioneers who die (miserably), the Wendell Berry story has people dying left and right, the William Trevor has a murder, the Daniel Alarcon has blind people falling to their deaths off a bridge, Peter Cameron's story (maybe my favorite in the collection) has another fatal fall, etc. One story is actually in the form of an obituary.

It got me thinking about a potential blog post! Because if I remember my favorite stories of years past, none of them were about death. Were they? I mean, Charles Baxter's "Gryphon" or "Saul and Patsy are Getting Comfortable in Michigan" didn't hinge on grief, nor did all those Ann Beattie stories full of yuppies and Cuisinarts (I love Ann Beattie, but it's true: so many of her stories have people making salads or pesto), or most of Raymond Carver's stories (the execrable "A Small Good Thing" being a notable exception), etc. So then I (re)read the O. Henry from 1989 (don't have the 1990) and guess what? Yeah, there are just as many dead people in those stories as in today's.

So -- feh. I guess killing off characters to give your story emotional weight is a long-standing tradition, not just some post-9-11 tic, or whatever. Not that I haven't done it myself (in practically everything I've written, ha ha) or that it's necessarily bad. It isn't. The deaths of other people are life-altering, powerful experiences, so of course we want to write and read about them. But it got so that by the time I was 2/3 of the way through the 2010 collection, I could feel the death coming up. And in some stories the ghoulish death scene feels tacked on, as if the writers and editors thought that a nice juicy death could turn a regular story into Literature.

So, did I come to any actual conclusions after reading all these stories? Not really. It's hard to compare old O. Henry stories with new ones, because the old ones were chosen by a single old guy, William Abrahams, who had a pretty conservative sensibility. It could have been at least partly his personal taste that make the 1989 stories seem sort of less colorful -- more intellectual and upper west-sidey -- than the new stories, which are, of course, more multi-culti. One of the 1989 stories that stands out is "Here and There" by David Foster Wallace. It's the best story in the collection by about 1000 times (and no dead people). Rick Bass's "The Watch" is also in that collection -- not a perfect story but an interesting one. It got me thinking about how around that time there began a flood of cartoony-realist stories, like those of T. C. Boyle, George Saunders, and Ralph Lombreglia, though Rick Bass himself went in the Western Regionalism direction soon thereafter.

I should probably say something more, though, about multi-culturalism, which is the most obvious difference between the stories of today and twenty years ago. Around half the stories in the newer edition are about non-American people. There is definitely a sense, these days, that we've come close to exhausting the literary possibilities American culture offers, and that it's time to pay more attention to other cultures. True enough! I do think, though, that some writers depend too heavily on novelty and write stories that teach us about other cultures/cuisines/climates but don't say much about the inner lives of other people. My main complaint about some of "other culture" stories in the 2010 anthology is that the writers stand too far outside their characters. Of course, plenty of American stories are the same, especially stories about Southerners, poor people, or outsiders. And plenty of other culture stories do inner lives brilliantly.

Because that's what it's all about, for me: the inner lives of human beings. Is that what it's all about for you? Or am I weird?

Monday, August 23, 2010

*sigh*

Pardon the hiatus, there, but what can I say, it's August. Rhian read my novel draft and spent two days telling me what's wrong with it--that deserves a ten-day blogging break, right? Actually, she saved the thing--I was going to feed it to the hens. She is now preparing a monster post on something or other, brace yourselves.

Meanwhile, the forces of gadgetism were out in strength. Our old advocate for arbitrary, profit-generating change, Nicholas Negroponte, gave the physical book five years to live.

One rolls one's eyes. One palms one's face. But seriously now--could he be right? I myself personally have bought about half a dozen e-books this year, and despite my ongoing love affair with the iPad, the experience was inferior to that of reading a paper book in pretty much every way. Maybe I'm weird, though. The only Kindle I've logged any time with didn't impress me either, though I did see a lot of them at the Jersey Shore this year. (I am tempted to drop a benjamin and a couple of tommyjeffs on the new edition, Just To See.) Maybe people are really digging this stuff. I don't buy CDs anymore--perhaps books are like CDs, for most people.

And furthermore, even if he is right, do we care? The writer in me doesn't, but the reader in me certainly does. Rhian's guess: hardcovers and textbooks will die, paperbacks will soldier on indefinitely. Vinyl, after all, is still readily available, and I'm even still shooting film (or will be when I get around to ordering more stop bath).

The one thing I am certain I would like to see die is the public declaring of the impending death of stuff. But that's one thing I suspect is immortal.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Embracing the tweet

Well, as usual, I contradict myself. I thought Twitter was stupid. Remember this? I should have known better than to blame the tool when people misuse it. No, Twitter is awesome. Not as a forum for extended narrative--as a mojo-restoring tonic. It turns out you can get a fair amount of short story into 140 characters, if you try real hard.

A woman leaves her purse at a restaurant. She returns for it, and finds a note inside that reads "I hate you." The handwriting is her own.

Deep in a bunker in the mountains of Colorado, a general accesses defense secrets that could destroy the world. The password is "ravioli."

Woman pines for famous actor over many years. Wins contest to have dinner with him. During meal he says, "You remind me of my yard man."

Talking dogs, walking upright, explore Cincinnati.

OK, these aren't going to win any awards, but surely any one of them could make a person's bus ride infinitessimally better? And can one ask any more than that of the form?

Share your 140-character stories, if you will. And a link to your lit tweets.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

If you like this, you are wrong

I don't think I'm going to bother commenting much on, and I'm certainly not going to link to, Anis Shivani's dumbass list of overrated writers on Huffingtonpost. Oh, I am not a fan of every writer on that list, to be sure. But the notion that my admiration for Lydia Davis or Marilynne Robinson, who have written some of the most brilliant, moving, and inimitably human books I have ever read, is little more than the result of having been told once by a college professor that they are good, or that their writing is "easy enough to copy," as opposed to actually having read them and enjoyed them multiple times myself, is depressingly stupid. This is the worst kind of argument there is--the kind where somebody doesn't understand something and is so utterly narcissistic and insecure that he can't allow the possibility that others might understand it better. And so he invents an explanation that renders his ignorance virtuous and others' understanding fatuous. He sounds like a guy who was just denied tenure.

If you want to criticize a writer, go right ahead. But just for once, could we have a critical debate that doesn't involve declaring opposing viewpoints morally bankrupt? Can I please like John Ashbery without being labeled a pompous, self-deceiving ivory-tower snob? Can I please be permitted the courtesy of knowing my own personal motivations, instead of having them dictated to me by some dude on the internet? It's a shame, because some of Shivani's actual literary analysis of some of his overrated writers is in fact quite good. I wish he could have just said what he thought without first having to invalidate what I think, based upon my status as a college professor in an MFA program.

At least he deserves congratulations for one thing--creating the first top-whatever literary list in years with more women on it than men. Sweet!

Oh--wait.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Passage

I don't think I've ever had a book recommended to me more times than this one. Justin Cronin used to teach at Colgate, and all my friends at the conference there are friends of his, and this year The Passage was all anybody talked about. They all know I've got a thing for sci-fi and post-apocalypse stuff, so the conversations generally went like this:

Them: "You gotta read Justin's book!!!"
Me: "But isn't it about...vampires?"
Them: "They're not regular vampires."

Well, I read it. And I need to say right off the bat that I almost didn't make it through the first 25 pages, which are about a hooker with a heart of gold who gets horribly victimized by an evil college student. Ah, class war! The adorable, stuffed-animal clutching Innocent Beautiful Daughter didn't help matters, nor did the friendly nun into whose arms she flees.

But if this sounds awful to you, bear with it. The Passage is kind of awesome, and it's true what they say--they're not regular vampires.

I have long looked for a book that I could enjoy the way I enjoyed The Stand at 15: with total absorption and an utter lack of critical judgement. The Stand itself certainly isn't that book; I gave it another try a few years ago, and couldn't make it past the Improbably Old Magical Black Lady. And even though Cronin manages to employ not one, but two Improbably Old Magical Black Ladies in this novel, this is exactly the book I wanted. With Rhian and the kids out of town for the weekend, I set myself up on the sofa and didn't move until all the coffee and bourbon were gone.

The story, as I'm sure you know, is that military scientists inadvertently create bloodthirsty, and apparently immortal, monsters which are let loose upon the land. Flash forward a century: humanity is fucked, and the last few people left alive are trying to survive. Some intrepid adventurers set off on a road trip through the terrible hinterlands, in an effort to...well, it's never really clear what they're trying to achieve. But no matter. What happens to them is a total delight.

Cronin's former reputation is as a writer of literary short stories, but the weird thing here is that the most literary sections are the least successful. He relies far too heavily on characters' past suffering as a motivation for their present actions. Rape, abuse, murder, orphanhood--everyone is driven by wrongs that have been done to them. None of it is convincing, or necessary. The book could lose 150 pages, easy.

But oh boy, the other 650 really fly. Cronin has found his calling as a writer of popular fiction--in scenes of suspense and action, he is right on the money, and he is quite good at showing character in there here and now, without explanations. The monsters are really spectacular, too--scary, but weirdly sympathetic. Our innocent little girl from the first section has come back, see--she got the vampire virus, but it has made her immortal without turning her monstrous, and she can talk to the vampires with her mind. She knows who they used to be, and what it feels like to be them. With this device, Cronin manages to explore what it means to be human, what it means to survive, and in so doing trumps The Stand, with its good v. evil nuclear showdown. There's no evil in The Passage, only human error and human striving. There are even a couple of pretty good love stories, including a moment so heartbreaking I actually screamed. (He makes up for it later, don't worry.)

It bugged me a bit that the book basically starts over on page 210, by which time everyone you have met and gotten invested in is dead. And the middle section starts slowly. But stick to it, this is the real story, the one we will probably still be reading through the two announced sequels.

Yeah, sequels--the ending promises much, much more of the same. I have to confess, I am doubtful. Much of the fun here is the fun of discovery--having mysteries solved, being shown amazing things. The sequels? Well, one of the characters actually asks about this, in the penultimate chapter: "Now what?" she says. The reply is ominous. "Now we go to war."

Oh. My fear, of course, is that we are heading for season 3 of Lost: no more smoke monster, lots of torture. Time will tell if Cronin can avoid this trap. I'm guardedly optimistic, though. He sure knows how to show a guy a fun weekend--let's see how he does with a long-term relationship.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Old notebooks

Rhian will be mad, as she is preparing a post herself. But it'll keep. I have this strange and incorrect idea about myself that I don't take enough notes or have enough notebooks. Obviously this is nonsense--the house is littered with the things. I had been neglecting my personal archives for about five years, and they got pretty mouse-eaten and water-damaged...recently I moved them to my office at work, which I should have done a long time ago. Today I uploaded some photos of them to my flickr.



I used to use those big black sketchbooks, the kind with the hard covers--I kept one for years during college--a few shots of it are at that link. In grad school, I discovered the amazing National 43-581 chemistry lab notebook, with its blue hard covers, stitched binding, and green narrow-lined paper, which Missoula legend said was the notebook Richard Hugo favored for his poems. The photo above is one, containing the beginning of a lousy short story. I actually ordered a few of the smaller size today, the 43-571. In the pre-Moleskine era, these were as sweet as it got. I have also been using a Moleskine-knockoff hardcover notebook for music for about six years now, though the binding is shot and the elastic band is completely dead. There's a pic of it in that set.

I actually quite like the Moleskine notebooks these days, trendy as they are. Not many manufacturers line their notebooks narrowly enough for me, but those little brown Moleskine journals hit the sweet spot.

As for these photos, I love the serendipitous beauty of handwritten notes--but, paging through these, it was sometimes obvious that I was trying to make them look beautiful, and thus they looked stupid. Maybe it's my own former innocence I find appealing, who knows. Anyway--post some notebook shots, if you got 'em.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Murzban throws down

Zaaang! W6 friend Murzban Shroff (who recently scored a win in his fight against obscenity charges in India) emailed me today to let me know about this Huffington Post interview, wherein (in the context of much praise for American writers and writing, including me (thanks, Murzban)) he has the following to say:

The biggest weakness of American literary culture is the academia that has crept in--the golden rules of creative writing, which present a sort of ready reckoner for evaluation. There are too many people trying to be writers and trying to make a story out of their lives. As a result, there is a certain degree of sameness in the writing: in not just the choice of themes (parents' divorce, death, sexual abuse, etc), but in the narrative arc, in the way the whole thing drums out. This happens mostly at the university level, where filters can be imposed in the creative writing programs, making entry-level barriers more rigorous, more discerning.

My response to this is my usual eye-roll, I'm afraid: I honestly do not blame academia for any of this. It is true that the academy has succeeded in making competent, mediocre writers out of people who perhaps shouldn't bother. But nobody is forcing this stuff to be published. If there's a failure here, it is in the risk-aversion and excessive chumminess of commercial publishing. For my part, as a teacher of writing, I am not trying to churn out new young literary phenoms. I am trying to help intelligent, passionate people discover and cultivate the best parts of themselves--and when this results in work of genuine promise, to encourage and help shape it.

I generally don't strive for consensus in my classes, and when I apply filters, as I sometimes must, it is for the purpose of filtering out the conventional and uninspired. I do strive to lure weirdos into my classes and make them weirder still. So don't blame me, dammit! I'm doin' my best. But I don't think I'm just trying to justify my existence when I say that, when it comes to undergraduate writing classes, the more the merrier. It's about more than creating great writing, at least for me. It is about creating better people through literary art. When we get our hands on a live one, of course, we are delighted; and our graduate program does set the bar for entry very high. But when my lower-level classes fill up, I tend not to cull.

I think Murzban's work is the exception that proves the rule about the conventionality of American publishing. We are big on Indian fiction here, but not enough editors and marketers are willing to think very far beyond incense and arranged marriages. Then again, that is what people seem to like. Indeed, maybe it isn't the conventionality of publishing that is the problem, but the conventionality of human beings. Nobody's ever going to thank you for being eccentric--and if anyone does, befriend them for life.

As for our friend Murzban, read the whole interview; it's excellent. And read his book.

Monday, July 19, 2010

My Index Of Slightly Horrifying Knowledge

Well now, here's a man after my own heart. At times, in this terrific collection of poems, Paul Guest seems to be channeling my very thoughts, or at least their velocity. After hanging out with a bunch of poets at the Colgate conference, I came home with a verse jones, and found myself with Rhian last week at the Strand in New York, where, while wearing pants one size too small (don't ask) vowed not to leave the poetry aisle until I'd found at least two excellent new books by people I'd never heard of.

I didn't quite make it--this is the only one I found. (I bought another, but it was by somebody I'd heard of.) These poems are earnest and manic and a little bit inscrutable, which is precisely what I like. Sometimes they remind me of Dean Young; they mostly remind me of Ed Skoog. And at their extremes they evoke the recent John Ashbery, who has been a bedside companion for weeks.

The title poem, which stands at the book's center like a drain, is a stone cold classic that I will be xeroxing and mailing to people for years to come. It's one of those crazy tours-de-force that fixes the deeply personal into a firmament of wild American randomness, like Whitman (note: one letter away from hit man) or Ginsburg. It's funny and painful. You get "sweet, sweet Crisco / coursing the byways of my broken heart," a boldly corny riff if I ever read one. Or "Strangers who stopped me in the street / or paid for my lunch / or wept over their dead son / or asked how many miles / in my wheelchair I could go. / The twenty-five miles in five hours / that would take me nowhere / except the car plant or pet food factory / the wind at night / would bring to everyone."

Man, I love that. Guest has a couple other collections and a recent memoir, check him out.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Daniel Clowes and Harvey Pekar

I have always been vaguely fond of Daniel Clowes' young-loser heroes and heroines, and enough a fan of his deadpan draftsmanship to pick up a new book whenever it came out. But in the end, I've always come around to thinking that he tends to pull his punches, that he always stops just short of genuine pathos. David Boring is a good example--there, Clowes seemed to be relying too heavily on his strengths, and on the prevailing tastes of his genre.

But I love this new book Wilson. A novel-in-vignettes that spans a long, sad life, it sees Clowes experimenting with narrative and visual style, and digging deeply into aspects of human character he'd previously explored only glancingly. Wilson, a single man, is pathologically unpleasant, narcissistic, and paranoid; he vaccillates wildly between knowing himself all too well and seeming not to know himself at all. He is pathetic and mean, loving and loathesome--and weirdly appealing nevertheless. Clowes renders him in a variety of comic styles, morphing him according to subject and mood; the vignettes are laid out as Sunday funnies, of a sort you'd never see in the paper, with deeply depressing punch lines in the final panel. The book is a real achievement for Clowes, and has moved me firmly into the category of dedicated fan.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't add here to the chorus of praise for the brilliant, uncategorizable Harvey Pekar, who died this week at 70. We loved his work and will miss it.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

An interview with Téa Obreht

For a while now I haven't been cross-posting with the Writers At Cornell podcast blog that I maintain--W6 deserves its own posts, I decided. (As a result, you might have missed interviews with Paul Muldoon and Billy Collins, among others, so do stop by there.) But I want to make an exception today for my former student Téa Obreht, whose novel The Tiger's Wife is due out in the spring, and who is the youngest member of this year's New Yorker "20 Under 40" lineup. The interview is sort of embarrassingly informal--honestly, I am a little bit in awe of my ludicrously talented student--but I'm delighted to get to file an early dispatch from what will doubtless be a mini-industry in Téa Obreht media coverage. The interview is about 20 minutes long, and should already be waiting on your iTunes if you are a subscriber to the podcast.

In other news, blogging on the iPad is a PITA. Fetching an image alone is absurdly time-consuming, and when you come back to your tab in Safari, all the forms have been refreshed. Blogger needs a tablet interface, eh?

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Cloud Atlas

People have been recommending this book to me for so long that it seemed inevitable that I would never get around to it. But then last fall my friend Edward forcibly lent me a copy--I found it in my mailbox at work--and, some months later, another friend spent twenty minutes of a car trip telling me how good it was. So I went to my office, got the book, and dug in.

The pleasures of this novel are many, as are my qualms about it. But the pleasures are great and the qualms are petty. It's really quite a masterful piece of work, with all of the qualifications that word suggests...an unusual project of an unusual writer.

In case you haven't had the pleasure, Cloud Atlas is essentially a series of nested novellas spanning several hundred years, from a recognizable past to a dystopian future. The novellas are connected in clever ways--primarily by theme, but also (successfully) by some interesting inter-textual shenanigans and (not so successfully) a series of identical birthmarks. Each novella is written in a drastically different style--there's a journal, a series of letters, a pulp mystery, a kind of neo-gothic comedy, a sci-fi story, and...well, I won't even bother trying to describe the last one. The stories are arranged in a kind of pyramid, each but the final one split into two, so that you get the first half of every story first, moving forward through time, and then the second half as you return to the past.

I tried to resist this novel: it is at times too didactic (especially the ending), too tricky, too virtuosic. But Mitchell is so good. I'm not terribly wild about the journal or mystery sections, but even those are executed with tremendous skill; the writer's ability to inhabit different characters, historical situations, and styles of language is simply incredible. Reading him, I kept hearing that line from Charles Baxter's "Gryphon," where the narrator is scolded by his friend for attempting to ape their wildly inventive teacher: "Don't you try to do it. You'll just sound like a jerk." It's hard for a writer to read this book--at times, Mitchell seems like a different species of creature entirely.

I guess my primary complaint with this novel is that it's all so arbitrary--the structure just seems like an excuse for Mitchell to show off his chops. But hell--I enjoyed pretty much every second of it, so who am I to complain? He's got a new one out, and a bunch of others I haven't read, so I'm going to dive in and see if Mitchell doesn't end up becoming my favorite new superhuman writer.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Ideas for the storage and display of books

First off, a quick note on my return from hiatus--my thanks to all of my friends, peers, students and colleagues at the Colgate Writers' Conference, especially W6 commenters Hope and Gallagher, who workshopped their novels-in-progress with me--it was great fun, and the talks especially were better than ever this year. (They should be hitting YouTube shortly and I will repost mine here.) Hope to see you all again in 2011.

So there you have it--Rhian's office is clean. Walking into it is like walking into an orderly mind--I am jealous, and now have to go back into my studioffice and pick up all the microphone cables and other crap the floor is covered with.

One thing we discovered as Rhian started putting away the many stacks of books that used to be sitting on her floor: we don't have enough bookcases. I don't know how this is possible, I just installed a new one last year, but it's already full. We do get rid of books now and again, and I bring some to my office at school, but honestly--we need some ideas for what to do with them all.

Generally we get our bookcases at the Unfinished Furniture Store on the west side. (I think it's called something else now actually.) But the house ends up with something of a college-dorm feel, as a result. I have been trolling the internet for ideas and come up with a few--building bookshelves into staircases, recessing walls and building shelves in between studs. In our old house, we had one room with a single bookshelf up above the window frames, going around three walls--that was cool, and maybe I can build something like it again here. I could also completely transform one windowed wall of my room, the one beside my desk.

This is particularly important to me now that I have read four or five books on the iPad and found the experience surprisingly lacking. It isn't the iPad, which is fairly pleasant to use. Rather, it is the apathetic, ham-handed execution of the ebook medium in the hands of major publishers. Ugly design, formatting errors, awkward layout...one senses that they are just tossing shit up there as fast as they can to cash in on the rush.

The tech is not mature, in other words. And the paper book still feels great. So let's hear your storage ideas.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Phonebook Names

So I'm actually cleaning my office. It's a huge undertaking: there's an unpacked box in the corner from our move three years ago, on top of which I've been mounding stuff that needs to be filed. And other stuff -- a paper glacier. So the office has never really been "clean." It feels pathological. When it's done I'm going to be a whole new person -- maybe someone who actually finishes writing the novels she starts!

Among other things, I found a list of excellent names. At first I thought I made them up, but no: I could not have invented such great names. I actually found them in the Missoula, MT, phonebook. I've always spent a lot of time reading phonebooks. One day, there won't be any phonebooks anymore, so we should celebrate them while we can!

James Snoozy
Vernon Slippy
Paul Tissue
Fern Tiger
Priscilla Wig
E. Warmflash
Amy Brokenleg
Boyd Booze
N. Eyepopper
Andrew Face
Ace Feek
Elaine Ee
E. T. Bob Sleem
Spanky Scrunchly

I still can't believe N. Eyepopper. Really, the Ithaca phonebook just can't compete.

Please share names you've found in phonebooks!