Thursday, December 30, 2010


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 -," 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.