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

Okay, I admit it, this constitutes self-promotion.  But I'm quite excited about it.  Today, 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

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?