Thursday, January 28, 2010


Dead at 91. I remain a fan, even of the late Glass Family stuff, even of "Hapworth 16, 1924." I actually have a hand-assembled, hand-photocopied collection of every single uncollected story, spiral-bound by Kinko's in the late '90s, before all that stuff could be read online. Most of them aren't very good, but a few are okay, and "Hapworth" is a real trip.

So is our curiosity about what the hell he's been doing for forty years going to be satisfied at last? Or will his obsessive privacy infect his descendents? Will the rumored notebooks and chest filled with finished novels be ritually destroyed in a massive bonfire over which his loved ones will roast his favorite health food items skewered on the end of maple twigs? Or will the publishing world get its way and embark on a decades-long fusillade of unedited garbage?

My hope of course is that he's been writing really good books and that we will get to read them. But a writer who shuns the supporting armature of editors and publishers rarely does very well on his own. We'll see. Or not.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010


Well, everybody, what do we think? The first picture I saw today that showed the iPad next to a Kindle, I thought, Why in the hell would anybody buy the Kindle?

Well, there are certainly reasons, the main ones being price, and the difference between electronic ink and a backlit LCD. But perhaps the iPad screen isn't as fatiguing to look at as a laptop screen (it's an IPS display, as well, which certainly makes it nicer to look at from an angle); perhaps it would be a delight to read a book on it. The page turning animation is quite impressive, and the iBooks store has rather a cute interface--an implausibly uncluttered bookcase that flips around to reveal a bookstore.

As our son Owen said, I'd sure like it if our real bookcases had a bookstore behind them. In the case of the virtual bookstore, I'd sure like it if independent publishers were represented there. But upon first blush, the whole package looks very impressive, especially if you're also in the market for a small email and video-viewing machine.

All of that said, this is the first time I've truly felt that independent new bookstores were doomed. Apple, by creating a highly appealing, reasonably-priced gadget that, among other things, will sell you electronic books, is casually dictating the future of publishing. (Similarly, the incapacity of the iPad to run Flash isn't really a liability--rather, it spells the death knell of Flash. Nobody will want to have a web site you can't view on the iPad.)

And finally, however nice it might be to read books on this thing, it won't be as nice as reading a real one, at least not for me. As an e-reader, it seems to be solving a problem that not only isn't a problem--it's an inadequate technology, cleverly but unnecessarily mimicking an already perfect one. But our habits change with the technology, for better or worse. And for better or worse, I think the publishing industry just got a big wake-up call.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Snap decisions

My, that was an embarrassing pause. Sorry, I was addicted to reading.

I may have mentioned on here from time to time that I'm a big hobbyist photographer. (Here's my flickr.) One thing I enjoy about this pastime is the opportunity for--indeed, the necessity of--making quick decisions and acting on them without forethought. When you see something interesting, you have to react immediately to get the picture, and nothing really compares to the excitement of making something out of nothing in little more than an instant.

Writing a novel would seem, upon casual examination, to be the exact opposite--the product of long consideration, revision, and reimagination. But when I think about it, that isn't really so. I don't know how it is for all of you, but for me, when I'm writing at a good clip, I'm not thinking about anything at all. I'm making snap decisions and following them wherever they take me. If I have one particular strength as a writer, it's that I'm hooked on that feeling--of coming up with something and just going for it like a madman.

Of course, a lot of this stuff turns out to be gobbledygook, and eventually has to be deleted. But the best parts of my books, I think, have always been the things I've done with the least forethought. And the lion's share of work on a novel consists of supporting these sections and making them work together--not making up new stuff that's better than them.

I think that, when you practice something, what you're really doing is honing your instincts. We often find, in work and in life, that we spend days, weeks, months, debating in our minds things that we really decided in about a second back when the problem first presented itself. (I fell for Rhian after glancing at her at a picnic--maybe we should have just gotten married that afternoon?) And maturing as an artist, and as a person, is a process of learning to trust the instincts you've honed.

Maybe writer's block happens when you lose faith in your instincts. Here's hoping it doesn't afflict me this year. Or photographer's block, for that matter. Or, heaven forefend, marriage block.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Elmore Leonard's dialogue

You'd think, if you read this blog at all regularly, that I would be a huge Elmore Leonard fan. And indeed, I've long thought of myself as one, even though I'd only read one of his novels (Killshot, maybe?) and listened to another (Be Cool) on a car trip. Unfortunately, the guy reading the latter was terrible--I can't recall who it was--but he made all the women sound like seven-year-old children.

Anyway, the one book I actually read, I loved. And I knew I would love his other books. And I love crime novels and am always looking for something to read. Sometimes it is actually painful for me not to have a good crime novel to read--and here's Leonard with like, how many, thirty books? And yet I never read him. Why not? I have no idea. I guess it was always just something I was going to get around to.

Well, I'm on a Leonard kick now. I just read the new one (terrific) and Freaky Deaky, and will probably read half a dozen more before school starts. It's kind of a cliché to say that Leonard is a Great American Writer, because it's obvious that he is, though he doesn't write about anything of particular importance--nothing historically significant, or morally challenging, or especially "moving" or "inspiring." But he does do the only thing literary writers are supposed to give a crap about--create distinctive characters using distinctive prose.

The thing that really makes the guy what he is, though, is dialogue--he is better at writing it than pretty much anyone I've ever read. Here's a random scene from Freaky Deaky; a police Detective, Chris, is staying at his father's apartment after getting kicked out by his girlfriend:

     His dad said, "You seem to have a lot of trouble with women. They keep throwing you out."
     "I do what she wants, she comes up with something else, I don't talk to her."
     "I don't know what it is," his dad said, "you're not a bad-looking guy. You could give a little more thought to your grooming. Get your hair trimmed, wear a white shirt now and then, see if that works. What kind of aftershave you use?"
     "I'm serious."
     "I know you are and I'm glad you came to me. When'd she throw you out, last night?"
     "She didn't throw me out, I left. I phoned, you weren't home, so I stayed at Jerry's."
     "When you needed me most," his dad said. "I'm sorry I wasn't here."
     "Actually," Chris said, "you get right down to it, Phyllis's the one does all the talking. She gives me banking facts about different kinds of annuities, fiduciary trusts, institutional liquid asset funds...I'm sitting here trying to stay awake, she's telling me about the exciting world of trust funds."
     "I had a feeling," his dad said, "you've given it some thought. You realize life goes on."
     "I'm not even sure what attracted me to her in the first place."
     His dad said, "You want me to tell you?"

Leonard is a master of dropped words, rubber-stamped dialogue tags, comma splices, tense changes, cross purposes--he mingles the inventive efficiencies of real speech, as spoken by people who love to talk, with the technical requirements of written prose in a way that makes the page disappear and the voices come to life in the mind. As I said to Rhian last night, in the final stretch of this book, I could listen to these people all day long.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

MFA application time

At Cornell, we are just now digging in to the massive pile of first reads for next year's fiction MFA class. I'm not going to discuss how we make our decisions, but I can tell you that all previous volume records were broken this year--by a huge margin. And I suspect most other schools are experiencing a similar surge. Who wouldn't want to shield themselves from this economy, and live for a couple of years in their own imaginations?

Anyway, a few tips for those of you who are hoping to be accepted into an MFA writing program this year, to keep you from going too crazy. First, don't spend too much time on the MFA Weblog or other websites and forums--you will drive yourself bananas. Second, don't worry about getting your first choice. Really. If you're any good at all, you will do well wherever. Third, don't worry about not getting in anywhere. If you're any good at all, you will do well without doing it in school.

Yeah--easy for me to say. But it's true, and you all know it. MFA programs are great resources for inspiring writers, but you don't need us. You can be good without help--at least without the formalized assistance of an academic program.

When you get rejected, don't take it personally. How people react to your writing is entirely personal and idiosyncratic--we choose the students we think we want to work with, not the students whom we consider most likely to end up with a three-book deal at Knopf (if, in fact, such contracts even exist any more for literary writers). And so you are not being rejected by the establishment itself--you're being rejected, this time, by a handful of people who don't share your taste. If we don't want you, you probably don't want us, either.

If you get in somewhere, go read your future teachers' work. It's helpful for you to know where they're coming from--and it's helpful for your teachers to be able to refer to their own writing experiences and have you know what they're talking about. If you don't like your teachers' work, no problem--our advice, if we're doing our jobs, is not intended to make you write like us, but to make you write like yourself, only better.

Finally, you may feel, at some point along the way, that the whole world of writing is entirely insular, a tightly-knit community of snobs whose job is to hold back the deluge of wannabes and up-and-comers. Don't succumb to those feelings. Certainly there's as much nepotism, logrolling, and favoritism in publishing as in any other line of work, but the world of writing has little to do with that. The writing is the thing you can control--the publishing is a crapshoot. Focus on the former, no matter what news you get this month.

Good luck!

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

No plot, no momentum. No problem?

I don't think I got up from the couch a single time while reading the new Magnus Mills novel, The Maintenance of Headway. (Sorry, US readers, it's UK only at the moment--I got it at the college library.) It isn't that it's so gripping--it's that it's exactly like all of Mills' novels, so short and amiable that you can't think of any real reason to stop until you're done.

Mills is one of my favorite novelists--his deadpan narratives crack me up, and he doesn't appear to be influenced by anyone at all. His books are always about a job (fence builder, painter, explorer, etc.) and a mystery--just one mystery, mind you, one single thing that doesn't make any sense, and that you're dying to figure out. The central question in a Mills book is "What the hell's going on?" And at the end, you're always rewarded with the answer. Rhian's favorite is the hilarious All Quiet on the Orient Express; I favor Mills' two novels set in some indeterminate imaginary past, Three to See the King and Explorers of the New Century.

This one, though, is about bus driving, and I have to tell you, this time, even the mystery is gone. There is NO plot. I mean NONE. Indeed, it reads more like a memoir, or a diary even--Mills used to drive a bus. There are a few characters--other drivers and transportation officials--and a few minor dramas, like a water main break and a fired employee. But there's no story, no momentum, no nothing. Just people driving buses. The only attempt at suspense is the fired employee. Why was he fired? For a hundred pages, you don't know. Then you find out.

Is it possible for a novel to be so deadpan that it is actually dead? This one is the test case. I don't think it's quite pointless--indeed, I enjoyed it. It seems as though Mills has been saving up this material for a long time--and it's good material, a fine sketch of an obscure subculture. But I don't think I've ever read anything with less drive, less ambition, than this little novel. And I can't decide, in the end, if it's audacious or boring. Perhaps it's both.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Katie Roiphe's Sex Essay

This morning I opened my New York Times (after digging around in the snow for ten minutes, in my bathrobe, in a blizzard) to find an annoying essay by Katie Roiphe about "Great Male Writers" and their sex scenes. Her thesis: the old guys were exuberant and sexy, but the news guys are wimpy and ambivalent about sex, presumably because they're all feminist and sensitive and whatever.

What's annoying about it is that she chose to write about only those writers who fit her thesis. The new guys in the essay are Chabon, Wallace, Eggers, Franzen, and someone named Benjamin Kunkel, whom, I'm embarrassed to admit, I've never even heard of. But there are many writers who are just as prominent, just as well-reviewed, who don't fit her thesis at all. Junot Diaz comes to mind, and George Saunders, Chuck Palahniuk, Richard Powers, Denis Johnson. Chabon, Franzen, et al, are doing a particular self-conscious thing, yeah. But they're not really representative of "Our Great Male Writers" -- just a subset. Four guys whose subject, unlike the guys in the previous generation, isn't really sex at all.

The NYTimes is still a great paper, even after Judith Miller and Jayson Blair and all that, but they're obsessed with noting "cultural trends." Hand-picking your examples to make a vague semi-truth is just bad journalism.

However, the most intriguing thing about the essay is this: on my paper version of the article, the main graphic has a little picture of Dave Eggers under the wimpiest sex: "Cuddling." The internet version has Kunkel. Did they just not have room for both, so they picked one for the paper, one for the digital? Or did Eggers call up in a rage and demand his picture be taken off? I dearly hope it was the latter.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Finishing: A Resolution

Does anyone else have a problem with finishing things? I do. When we moved into this house two and a half years ago, I stripped about 1/3 of the paint off the staircase, then stopped. It is currently a horrible eyesore that we've all grown used to. Around the same time, I started knitting JR a sweater, grew nervous when I realized I was unsure how to do the collar, then put it aside, on top of a pile of other partially-finished knitting projects.

But of course this is really about writing. I'm not going to list all the unfinished stories and even novels I have lying around my office. What gives? Really, what gives???

For a long time I thought there was some mysterious thing going on, a non-finishing neurosis. What does "finishing" symbolize, Dr. Freud? Well, death! But also sex, which kind of cancels out death.

JR thinks it's about fear of failure. Probably. It's so much nicer to keep everything in a state of potentiality -- I'd rather think, "I'm knitting JR a sweater!" than "I spent two years knitting a sweater and now he won't wear it because of that bad collar." And I guess I'd rather have my characters suspended in their intriguing situations than have them march out some plot toward a necessarily limited denouement. Right now, my unfinished novels can mean anything, and anything could happen! There's something really pleasurable about it.

Of course, something really stupid and juvenile, too. A friend told me yesterday, in the nicest possible way, that I'm not very ambitious. I would never have thought that, but it's true. It takes wanting something more than the pleasure of potentiality to get things done, to get past the fear of disappointment and actually accomplish things.

So, resolution number one for 2010: be more ambitious. Got a good start: I finished the sweater. It took about twenty minutes, and the collar looks fine.

Friday, January 1, 2010

How you fool yourself into revising

Happy New Year! We're back on task after a holiday vacation--here's wishing all of you a great year of reading, writing, teaching, and whatever else you do.

I just sent a novel draft to my literary agent--maybe and maybe not the version that will make its way to my editor, and certainly not the one that (with any luck) will see eventual publication. This is the third draft of this book--the first I finished in August, the second was a fast rewrite to give to Rhian. (That's it there, in the photo.)

Rhian's comments were fairly exhaustive, and during the semester I made myself a long list of changes, cuts, and additions to work on over break. The day after the last day of class, I dug in, and when I handed my grades in I started writing and revising as fast as I possibly could.

Rhian often says that I work too fast, and she's probably right. But every revision, I think, is a compromise between what you know you have to do, what you aren't admitting to yourself that you have to do, and how long you can bear to do it. I'm a fairly aggressive reviser, but I do it best in bursts of a few weeks--I have to declare completion in order to relax, so that I can gather energy for the next sortie. In my case, there will probably be another draft after my agent sees it, and then (again, with luck) several more with my editor. The result of this is that I'm always showing people inadequate versions of things--but for some reason I need to hear somebody else tell me when I've failed. I don't seem to have the strength to tell it to myself.

In any event, here's to a couple of weeks of nothing--a good way to start 2010, I think.