Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The End

Dear Friends:

After more than four years, we have decided to shut down Ward Six.

Writing this blog, and reading your responses to our posts, has been a great experience, and we're going to miss it.  But maintaining Ward Six has increasingly caused more anxiety than pleasure, and it's time for us to move on to other projects.

The primary reason for this decision, of course, is time.  Our professional lives have become more demanding over these years, and we want to devote as much time as possible to our fiction, not to mention our family and friends.  Something had to give.

There are other reasons, though--less important, perhaps, but more immediately compelling.  For one: the longer we remain in the business of writing and publishing, the more people we know.  The American literary world is like a big small town, spread across the country; stay in it long enough, and you end up connected to everyone.  As a result, it has become increasingly difficult to write anything that doesn't offend someone connected to us. Sometimes this manifests itself in the comments; sometimes via email.  Of course this should be perfectly fine--shouldn't a literary blog offer a forum for spirited disagreement?  Indeed, it should.  But when those disagreements keep you up at night, when they result in emotional exhaustion, you have to wonder if it's worth it in the end.

In an ideal world, we writers could write about one another without concern for hurting anyone's feelings.  Personally, we never read or respond to anything written about ourselves online--this seems like madness to us.  It wasn't until last year that we even realized there is a thing called Google Alerts and that writers use it to find discussions about them; the result is that we live in a world where you can always hear when people are talking about you.  There is one word for such a world: hell.  It's hard to remain neutral in it.

There are other reasons we're shutting down, less connected to our emotions.  John is writing more book reviews for print publications; this work is supposed to be free of any possible conflicts of interest.  Carrying on dialogues with other writers here makes such impartiality hard to achieve.  He will also, in the coming months, take over directorship of Cornell's creative writing program, and is increasingly conscious of the possibility that readers will interpret his remarks on Ward Six as representative, somehow, of the institution he works for.

But the main thing, aside from time, is that internet writing is stressful.  We don't blame writers, in the end, for their passionate advocacy of their own work online; the publishing industry is forcing them to do so.  Publicity and marketing budgets are down; writers are asked to promote themselves, ad nauseam, on Facebook, Twitter, and blogs.  This isn't a good thing, we don't think.  Writers should never ask other writers for blurbs: that's what publishers are for.  Writers shouldn't be responsible for what is said about them online.  They should put their heads down and work on their art, without regard for the vicissitudes of commerce.

But that's not the way the wind is blowing.  We receive many requests each month for quotes, and are sent a lot of galleys, and we find ourselves having to tell people over and over that Ward Six is not a promotional blog, but a labor of love.

Unfortunately, lately, it has become more labor than love.  We are proud of the fact that we have never run an ad on this site, have never made a cent from it.  But it's time for our labor to be directed elsewhere.

We've made a lot of friends here, and look forward to keeping in touch with them.  And we won't be disappearing from the internet.  So you'll be seeing us again before long.

Until then, you have our profound gratitude and affection.

John and Rhian

Sunday, April 17, 2011

"A life of their own"

I got a question from a grad student yesterday regarding a paper he's writing, and I thought my answer to him would make a good blog post.  So here you go.  The question (thanks, Alex): "Writers (and I've heard this from poets, too, who are inhabiting an historical voice) claim that characters 'take on a life on their own' and act autonously, despite their ontological tether to the author himself.  The character kind of becomes an 'other.'  What's your experience of creating characters like?  Do you feel this doubleness as actor/observer?"

My off-the-cuff reply was, "Yes, characters do seem to 'take on a life of their own,' but that phrase is sentimental and overplays the role of inspiration and loss of control in the writing of fiction.  Personally, I always feel that I'm in control of my characters.  But I also feel that they are manifestations of the self (that is, the author) that draw from parts of the personality (that is, our own) that we don't ordinarily have direct access to, which must be dug for with great effort, and generally are only uncovered in a state of deep concentration.  The process of creating a character is a process of assembling emotions, memories, hypotheses, and the like, until they form a pleasing shape.  And the more material one assembles, the more dots there are to connect, the more detailed a picture emerges.

"That isn't to say a character can be anything and all things--it's more like fractals, details concealed inside details.  You might think of this process as being like formal limitation in poetry--instead of being able to look anywhere, we limit ourselves to those personalities possible within a set of initial parameters.  And it is only inside these limitations that we're able to feel that we really know something.  If the plot demands that our protagonist is going to be a fifty-year-old woman with three grown children, a two-pack-a-day smoking habit, an abiding love for the string quartets of Shostakovich, and, back in her past, a youthful stint as a game show host, then we already have somebody in mind.  YOU have somebody in mind, right now.  This woman opens her mouth and speaks: I am certain that you know what her voice sounds like.  Because human beings are made to make broad judgements about people based upon small collections of data, and predict their future behavior according to those data.

"So this thing about characters taking over the story is, ultimately, silly nonsense.  (Nabokov, for one, hated the notion.)  But it is a pleasure for the writer, and one hopes the reader, to experience the illusion of same."

Monday, April 11, 2011

The quest vs. the meander

I listen to a lot of nerd podcasts, including this one, which today included an interesting tangent about Pixar.  You know, the animated film company everyone loves.  The co-host, John Siracusa, had the previous week been comparing Pixar to Hayao Miyazaki, and finding the former inferior, for various reasons: all of them, in my view, very valid.  This week, though, he pointed out that almost all Pixar movies feature male protagonists, and most of Miyazaki's feature female ones.

This in and of itself doesn't really concern me--I think children are perfectly able to identify with the other gender in a narrative, should their parents adequately encourage them to.  But this got me thinking about what I do hate about Pixar: their storylines.

Don't get me wrong--I really quite enjoy these films, particularly The Incredibles and Ratatouille (which, if nothing else, provides the extraordinary spectacle of Patton Oswalt not swearing).  They are visually stunning and often quite funny.  But they depend, by and large, on the same dreary goal/motivation/conflict plotlines that Rhian criticized in this post.  There is always some quest, or some search for self-actualization or self-improvement.  There always has to be a moral, a life lesson.  There always has to be a danger that forces people to embrace their better selves.  The world must always prove, in the end, orderly and sensible.

I find myself thinking of this as a "masculine" storyline, though I'm not particularly eager to defend that characterization; I will say, though, that the primary way girls get to be the heroes of contemporary children's movies is by proving that they can do the same stupid shit boys can.  Miyazaki, on the other hand, makes movies about intense, often directionless exploration.  He is contemplative, and his films often remain movingly unresolved.  Pixar movies look great, but the visuals are illustrative.  In Miyazaki, the images are the movie.  They make the story.  I can't, for the life of me, remember the plot of Howl's Moving Castle--but I will never, never forget the sight of it.  Is this perhaps a feminine ideal--that it is sometimes enough simply to be?  In any event, it is a worthwhile ideal, gendered or not.

Is this "better"?  It is to me.  My middle career (and, I fear, accompanying slump in book sales) has been largely about an effort to abandon the kind of heavily directed plots I love to indulge in as a casual reader, and concentrate more on the enigmatic things that move me.  I certainly haven't abandoned plot, nor have I become remotely experimental.  But my forthcoming (late 2012 I suspect) novel is about a woman who gets horribly lost in an increasingly confusing spiral of impossible domestic events, against a backdrop of impossible sci-fi phenomena, and I had more fun writing it than anything I've done in ten years.  It's the result of an obsession not with story, but with motif, situation, and emotion.

I dunno--I think we're stuck in this country in a plotline that's so familiar we can't even see it.  We keep telling ourselves the same damned stories over and over, are comforted by them, and live our lives by them, when in fact they are bankrupt and getting us nowhere.  We are never going to win the big game, or make people love us at last, or find what we're looking for.  Friendship isn't going to conquer all, we are not going to find the treasure, and we aren't going to land the deal.  If the worst thing that's going to happen to us is that we're just going to keep living for a while, we are in luck.  There are a million ways to write about that experience, many of them profound and beautiful.  Maybe we can do that now.

Thursday, April 7, 2011


I think I've posted about this before, but it's on my mind this week, for several reasons.  Writers have a strange relationship to their, you know, physical existence.  Like anyone whose satisfaction comes mostly from time spent in their own head, writers often find the actual world rather vexing to navigate, and have mixed feelings about presenting themselves to others.  Even though, in theory, nothing could be more simple than giving a reading--you don't even have to memorize anything, you just stand there and read stuff off of a piece of paper--many of us find such events incredibly stressful.  We are not accustomed to being in front of our readers--it's not in the contract.  We're supposed to be able to be our worst selves on the page, without fear of embarrassment or misunderstanding.  All we are is a pile of paper, a book, a digital file.  We aren't supposed to have a five o'clock shadow, pit sweat, or PMS.  It just isn't natural for a writer to perform.

Some people, though are so good at it.  Margaret Atwood was here last week, and R. and I got to spend some quality time with her.  Her reading was great, but her performance lasted the duration of her stay in Ithaca.  She was on all day long, keeping up a hilarious and fascinating line of patter on her favorite subjects--genetics, the environment, the culture of writers and literature.  (Sadly, no hockey.)

I'm giving a reading tonight, and I gave a reading last week, and I must admit I love giving readings.  But my hands shake as I do it, sometimes visibly.  The version of myself I'm willing to be while writing is not the version of myself I would naturally present to others in person.  This creates a certain dissonance while teaching, too--as writers, we talk about sex, death, self-disgust, self-doubt.  As teachers, we are supposed to be experts, flawlessly confident and assured, and keep a personal distance between ourselves and our students, even as we encourage them to reveal themselves in ways we might be reluctant to suggest even to our own spouses.  The result is this bizarre stew of emotions, of concealment and revalation, of intimacy and detachment.  I think this is one of the reasons creative writing classes are so popular, even with students for whom writing itself is not a great passion: they are a forum for deep personal expression, but with built-in limits and controls.  They are an oblique form of self-analysis, for people who might otherwise be afraid to examine themselves too closely.

We went to see The Mountain Goats the other night, in Ithaca, and I was struck by the facility with which Darnielle and company presented the deeply intimate, even disturbing, material the band is known for.  Sometimes I wish I could read or teach with Jon Wurster drumming behind me, and a guitar and amp to give my words something to ride on.  Then again, the typical literary audience is a bit better groomed and doesn't shout requests.  I'll take it.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Me and Lou Beach: The Great Zombini

Lousy of me, I know, to come slouching in after a week of absence with a self-promotion post, but that's what I'm doing.  Soon I will post about my busy week with some thoughts about performance, literary and otherwise.  But for now, news.

I have collaborated on a new book with visual artist Lou Beach called The Great Zombini.  It's a collection of 21 short stories inspired by 21 of Lou's hilarious and bizarre photocollages.  The book contains the images and the stories, and it is an ebook only release.  The link above is for the Kindle page, but it will soon propogate to your favorite ebookstore, including the B&N and Apple sites.  For those of you who were at my reading with Amy Dickinson and Jaime Warburton yesterday, those stories were from this book.

What can I say about it?  Lou and I have decided to be annoyingly cagey in our description: "Cautionary tales for adults, illustrated. You've been warned."  Here's a sample.

And do us a favor, will you?  If you read the thing, review it on Amazon, even if you didn't like it.  Our publisher is an indie, Red Willow Digital Press, and they (and we) need all the publicity we can get.  Blogward ho!

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Literary blurb translation guide

"luminous prose" = too many goddam words
"a tour-de-force" = threw it across the room
"a triumph" = huge advance
"a commanding new voice in fiction" = girlfriend's brother wrote it
"sublime" = didn't know what the hell was going on
"unflinching artistry" = lots of boobs and stabbing
"grabs you on page 1 and won't let go" = stuck reading it on long flight
"achingly beautiful" = really long sentences
"brilliant" = smarty-pants
"profound" = written by old person
"a story for the ages" = ripoff of Tolstoy
"taut" = limited vocabulary
"finely wrought" = namby-pamby
"best of the year" = only thing I've gotten around to reading
"deeply imagined" = makes no sense
"incredible range and breadth" = all over the place
"ingenious" = confusing
"radiant" = already been blurbed by people more famous than me
"lyrical grace" = either is girl or writes like one
"rich language" = not enough paragraph breaks
"devastating" = dropped it on my toe
"goes straight for the heart" = sappy
"trenchant satire" = poop jokes
"clever" = thinks it's being clever
"fiercely resonant" = author looks hot in publicity photo
"a small gem" = will sell five hundred copies, tops
"first-rate" = grad school pal
"bracing" = fits nicely in box headed for used bookstore
"tightly coiled and edgy" = contains fucking
"humane" = contains murdering
"you'll feel forever changed" = you will never get those hours of your life back
"transcends its genre" = stuck in its genre
"affirms the human spirit" = contains scene of winning big game
"searing...glorious...a fury of dazzling transcendence" = I'm just stringing random words together now

Please...add more.

Thursday, March 24, 2011


I just had a hissy fit on facebook but figure this is probably a better place for it.  A friend remarked that today was Lawrence Ferlinghetti's birthday, and then quoted him: "Don't patronize the chain bookstores. Every time I see some author scheduled to read and sign his books at a chain bookstore, I feel like telling him he's stabbing the independent bookstores in the back."

My response was as follows: "So, we are supposed to refuse what tiny, pathetic opportunities we have for publicizing our work, further restricting our already-meager options for finding new readers, to serve somebody else's anti-corporate agenda? As if anyone gives a rat's ass that a literary writer somewhere is taking a bold stance against some hairsplitting distinction that about nine people in the entire world even recognize. Ferlinghetti should try opening an independent bookstore in, say, Ohio or upstate New York, and see how much traction he gets. Personally, I feel stabbed in the back when I'm told how and where to sell my books by somebody I've never met."

Sorry, Corey, don't unfriend me.  But really: as a corollary to the last post, I personally decline to feel bad about failing to sell my own work according to some impossible left-coast standard of moral purity. And though I love my local independent, and support it with my dollars, rhetoric, and what little authorial clout I possess, the fact is that indies have been a niche business for a long time and are only going to get nichier.  People don't like them, they like Barnes & Noble.  Or ebooks, for chrissake, which are selling like mad, and this is for reading on a device aesthetically akin to a home perm kit from 1983.

Physical books and independent bookstores are a fetish.  I happen to embrace this fetish, personally, but I do not have the mental energy to proselytize about it, or to get all high and mighty about the method by which readers pay attention to what I do.  Frankly, this amounts to stabbing readers in the back.  "No--you're liking me wrong!" is the message Ferlinghetti is encouraging us to deliver to them.  Honestly, their only reasonable response would be to give up liking us at all.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A writer wants to sell books

Funny when you encounter the same unexpected thing twice in twelve hours.  Last night I was sitting on the sofa reading an essay about Kurt Vonnegut in this Steve Almond collection (it's good, you should read it) and came across this quote: "It's what writers do, this shuck and jive, this nevous dance to balance the emotional needs of those you love against your own need for glory."

Almond goes on to talk, briefly, about the writer's need to be noticed, to have his books read, which he shares with Vonnegut.  I didn't think much of it until I woke up and read this HuffPost piece by Julianna Baggott, which links to an Andre Codrescu piece (full disclosure: I didn't read that, as Codrescu makes me want to claw my eyeballs out) about facebook.  And in it, Baggott says, "And I know I'm supposed to feel guilty for wanting people to buy my books... and books in general? Novels and poetry, they belong to the realm of art. How dirty of us to try to hawk art! But, after a decade of hand-wringing and apologies, I can't quite muster the guilt anymore."

I feel bad for anyone who has experienced even a moment of guilt for wanting people to buy her books.  In fact, I think Baggott is lying--I don't think she's ever really felt guilty about this.

Because honestly, if we don't want to be read, what the hell are we doing?  If we write and don't send out our stuff, it's because we're afraid of rejection.  If we have writer's block, it's because we're afraid of failure.  But not wanting to be read is not any writer's problem.  If you don't want to be read, you're not a "writer."  You're some other thing.  A diarist, perhaps.

Now, as for Codrescu's complaint, if I am friends with you on facebook, and you use more than, say, 1 in 20 posts to promote your own work, then I find you annoying, and I have you hidden in my news feed.  facebook is for being mildly amusing and posting links to videos of stampeding baby goats and pictures of your kids with ice cream on their faces.  If you listen to your publicist and treat it like an advertising medium, then you're crapping in the pool.

But I sympathize: I want to be noticed, too.  Everyone does.  Am I not blogging right this minute?  The thing is, the correct way to be noticed is not to ask people to notice you, it's to make more stuff for them to notice.  If you want readers, write a lot, unshittily.  Don't post ads on facebook, post content.  (I have at least one friend, Lou Beach, who has a book coming out that consists entirely of short stories written there.)  Same goes for twitter, and your blog.  Listen carefully here, writers, because this is important.  Content.  Do not post reports on how many people came to your reading or what nice things book reviewers said about you.  This is called bragging and it makes you look like an ass.  People will read your books not because you're telling them how much people like you, but because your writing is worth reading.  So, on the internet, give them more of that.  Give people more of yourself.

And quit feeling guilty about wanting people to buy your books.  It's like feeling guilty about wanting sex, or breakfast.  And yes, there are people who feel guilty about those things, too.  Take a good long look at those people.  Do they look happy?  No, they look hungry.  And horny.

Desire readers.  Then write.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Random poetry idea generator

A quickie for you this morning: my undergraduate workshop was having trouble getting inspired to write poems, and asked me to give them some kind of exercise.  So I made this.

It's pretty simple--just a bit of javascript that chooses one item apiece from three lists: an action, a subject, and a method.  The interesting thing is, I was planning on stopping at fifty items per list, then couldn't stop.  It's up to 273 each now, which means there are more than 20 million possible combinations.  It got to feeling like writing, and I belatedly realized that's what it is.  It's writing!  I am just sacrificing control and sense for the pleasure of constant amusement and inspiration.

If you have some ideas, let me know, I'll add them in the next round of updates.

Also on the web, by the way: the young geniuses at Electric Literature have made a web app that allows you to record stories and pin them to a map.  It's cool, check it out.  And now that my former student Téa Obreht is super famous, you might want to listen to the interview I did with her last year, on the Writers At Cornell blog.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Gimme some happy

On HTMLgiant the other day, Blake Butler asked, "What are some good books that have happy endings and don’t suck shit?"  Hey, yeah--good question.  Commenters gave him plenty of answers: Jesus' Son, The Fermata, Ulysses (sort of), Stuart Little.  Well--that last is a kids' book, so of course it has a happy ending.  But it doesn't suck.  Neither, for that matter, does the ending of Little House In The Big Woods.  In fact, this latter is the only book ending that I start crying just thinking about: it might be the most beautiful ending of any book I've ever read.

But Laura lay awake a little while, listening to Pa's fiddle softly playing and to the lonely sound of the wind in the Big Woods.  She looked at Pa sitting on the bench by the hearth, the fire-light gleaming on his brown hair and beard and glistening on the honey-brown fiddle.  She looked at Ma, gently rocking and knitting.
     She thought to herself, "This is now."
     She was glad that the cosy house, and Pa and Ma and the fire-light, were now.  They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now.  It can never be a long time ago.

A while back a relative told me that eventually everybody turns into a Republican--the older you get, the harder you get, the less you want to give away.  Nope.  I am getting softer by the day.  And I like happy endings more and more.  If you can write one, you are a badass.  They are hard.  Our assumption, I think, is that happiness is empty.  Misery is real, happiness is an illusion.  Life will end in pain and fear, after all--why should our novels be any different?

Fuck that.  Gimme some happy.  Surprise me with it.  Find a way to tell me that love matters, and everything that is temporary is beautiful.  Show me that now is now and it can never be a long time ago.  I dare you.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

This new thing the kids are doing

A student recommended Mary Miller's Big World to me the other day; we were at a bar and she brandished it like a pack of the best cigarettes anyone has ever smoked.  It's about the size of a pack of cigarettes, too, and has an ashtray on the cover.  I bought it and am reading it now, and it's pretty good.

It does this thing, though.  Amelia Gray does it also, with mixed success, in her recent book that I reviewed in the NYTBR.  And the student who recommended the book to me does it, and so do a couple guys in my recent undergraduate workshops.  It's partially a McSweeney's thing, I think, although my student would probably bristle at that; she's not a fan of the mag.  And it's also kind of neo-Carverian.  It's minimalist, sort of, and sometimes it's selfconsciously odd.  It employs serendipity and timely pop cultural references and short unadorned sentences.

I'm not sure I like it.  I like some of it, of course--my student is very good at it, I think, and I liked parts of the Gray book and the Miller book.  (Oddly, I like Gray's twitter feed better than most of her stories: her tweets are genuine non-sequiturs, intended as non-sequiturs, and are really funny.)

But what is it exactly?  I think it's this: there's a new breed of minimalist writers who appear confident that passing something through their particular consciousness, however seemingly banal that thing is, will lend it sufficient weight to justify its inclusion in a story.  Some of these Miller stories are nothing but that: rambling lists of banal acts and observations.  And damned if she doesn't pull it off half the time.  These things do take on weight in each other's presence, and rendered in her lazily precise prose.

The other half of the time, though, stories like this just seem precious, or random, like stuff you find in somebody's dead grandma's glovebox.  You read them and you think, I guess you had to know grandma.  Or they feel like a night spent smoking pot in your sister's apartment with her grad school friends.  You know they're smart, and you know you're as smart as they are, but you don't understand a thing they're saying.  It's not for you: it's an insider code.  The context is missing.

It would seem that the key to doing this thing right would be to provide that context without appearing to do so: giving the reader the key on the sly.  Letting the reader be inside and outside at once.  A neat trick, if you can figure out how to do it.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Excellence by association

Inspired by the abandoned novels post, we seem to have temporarily abandoned our blog.  Sorry, life intervened!

Rhian showed me a surprising review by Tadzio Koelb in the NYTBR this weekend.  What's surprising is how clearly and cogently it's written, and its willingness to take a step back and examine the context into which the book in question, Rebecca Hunt's Mr. Chartwell, is being published.

In short, Koelb calls the book "well-packaged chick lit" that "benefits from the reassuring aura of history."  (Winston Churchill is one of its three main characters.)  He compares it to another recent novel, Child 44, which he says "was in the running for two of Britain's most important literary awards."  This comes as a surprise to me, because I read that novel and thought it was rather poor, even as a piece of genre fiction.  In any event, Koelb contends that both books are mediocrities that the literary press has elevated by virtue of their subject matter, rather than their artistic value; he believes this is a trend in book reviewing.

I think he's right.  I am still bewildered by the fact that nobody seems to have recognized Freedom as Jonathan Franzen's worst book; it's a lopsided domestic drama with a lot of timely and unnecessary sociopolitical nonsense slathered over it.  (FWIW, I enjoyed it anyway--but it is not up to Franzen's usual standard.)  In that book, we were seduced, I think, by its ambitious title, its environmental subplot, its political undertones.

While I am enjoying the democratization of literary discourse that the internet has brought us, the trend Koelb describes is a consequence of the decline of newspapers and print magazines--hardly anyone is being paid to recognize artistic value anymore.  And so, I fear, hardly anyone is bothering.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Abandoned novels

page one of King's book
I guess I'm a few days late on this topic, but I only just now read the Dan Kois piece in the Times about abandoned novels and thought I'd throw in.  First off, my favorite line in it, as my Twitter followers have already seen, is Elizabeth McCracken's: “It hurt for maybe a week. And then I decided to be butch about it.”  That is echt McCracken.  And I was also delighted to learn that Stephen King had posted manuscript facsimiles of his abandoned novel, The Cannibals.  Very cool!  Though after reading a few pages I think he made the right decison.

I've got a couple myself: three complete novels, actually, that never went anywhere.  The first, Telegraph Road, was about a rock band who has to drive a baby from Seattle to Philly in their van.  Ann Patchett, my teacher at the time, said, "This is just a list of band names."  Ouch.  Too, too true.  The second is a crime novel, Born Again, that I wrote in maybe 2004?  I still kind of like it, but I am the only one, apparently, because many an editor passed.  It was to have been only the first mystery featuring the overly tall, overly selfconscious campus-cop-turned-homicide-detective Malcolm Friend.  (I still have two complete plot lines in reserve in case I take him up again someday.)  And then there's 2009's The Document, a novel about an annoying person's every annoying thought, to which my agent said, "I'll send this to your editor if you really want.  But I think you should shelve it."  I shelved it, and wrote him a new one.

I hope Rhian weighs in--several of my favorite things she has ever written are abandoned novel bits.  I don't think non-writers realize how difficult it can be to actually finish a coherent long-form narrative--even the very best concept can be utterly destroyed by a host of factors.  The novel I just finished, Familiar, was an abandoned book for eight years before I took it up again--the problem, it turns out, had been that I'd chosen a topic I lacked the maturity and experience to properly explore at the time.  And even now it took a couple of false starts and a major, major overhaul to crack it.  (At least I think I cracked it: time will tell).

Let's hear what you've got in the orphanage.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Forbidden things you can do anyway

I've been having kind of an amusing exchange with a friend on facebook, a fellow teacher, who presently is grappling with inexperienced writers' mistakes.  She has been citing the mistakes, and then I have been firing back with examples of really good fiction that uses the "mistake" to greater ends.  For instance, to "it was all a dream" I countered David Foster Wallace's "Oblivion."  "Everyone dies in a car accident at the end" reminded me of Charles Baxter's "Saul And Patsy Are Getting Comfortable In Michigan" (although he did bring them back to life in a later story and novel).  And when my friend complained that her students don't even know to start a new paragraph for dialogue from a new speaker, I threw down Stephen Dixon's Interstate.

Of course my friend is right: there are things that are almost impossible to do well, and other things that a beginner can wrap his head around more easily, and learn to do skillfully, in the three-and-a-half-month confines of an academic semester.  But wow, it's hard to know how to tell them what's right and what's wrong.  "Some writers have been able to use this technique effectively," you can say, "but it isn't working in your story."  Or, "Traditionally, dialogue is formatted this way.  You can format it another way, but you need to know the convention, and understand the consequences of breaking it."

If you ever wonder why creative writing classes often seem to be graded rather generously, this is the reason.  Everything is a gray area.  Nothing can be judged out of context.  There are no things you can't do, and there are no things that always work.  There are only...things.  An infinite number.  And they can be arranged in an infinite number of ways.  It's enough to make me think my job might actually be...difficult.

Well--let's go with "complicated."

Monday, February 28, 2011

Books alone are not enough

I'm down with e-books, I guess, if that's where we're headed.  But this really depresses me.
“The national bookstore chain has peaked as a sales channel, and the growth is not going to come from there,” said David Steinberger, chief executive of the Perseus Books Group. “But it doesn’t mean that all brick-and-mortar retailers are cutting back.” 
A wide range of stores better known for their apparel, food and fishing reels have been adding books. The fashion designer Marc Jacobs opened Bookmarc in Manhattan in the fall. Anthropologie has increased the number of titles it carries to 125, up from 25 in 2003. Coldwater Creek, Lowe’s, Bass Pro Shops and even Cracker Barrel are adding new books. Some mass retailers, too, are diversifying — Target, for instance, is moving away from male-centered best sellers and adding more women’s and children’s titles this year.
Cracker Barrel.  Cracker Barrel.  We have arrived, it appears, at a moment when a book is roughly equivalent to a roll of masking tape--a more or less interchangeable commodity that you can buy at any one of many retailers.  But a place to immerse yourself fully in it?  A place that curates it?  A place where anybody knows anything about it?  Nope.

If you had told me in the late nineties that Amazon customer comments would eventually be one of the only remaining sources of generalized literary expertise in the world, I would have laughed at you, then gotten a funny look on my face, then said oh my god, then retreated to a corner to whimper.  But maybe that's where we're at.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Podcast: Nicholson Baker

We had a great time yesterday with Nicholson Baker, who was visiting Cornell for a reading and to talk with students--he read from his most recent novel, The Anthologist, and followed up with an essay about giving public readings from The Size Of Thoughts.  This interview is one of my favorites that I've ever done--we discussed the relationship between Nick's activist and formally experimental modes, his thoughts about literary fandom, how he arrives at the form and structure of his books (the answer quite surprised me), and the impermanence of literary texts.  My thanks to the W6 readers who provided questions--I fit quite a few of them in!

We also talked, off-air, about his next book, due out in August, and I must say that it sounds like a doozy.  If you liked Vox and The Fermata, this might be the one you've been waiting for.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A brief review of Scrivener 2

I've had Scrivener 2 installed on my Macbook for a month or so now and thought I'd share my impressions of it.  This is a perfect example of my tendency to buy something I don't really have a pressing need for, but which seems like it might open up new avenues of something-or-other, so I go ahead and drop 40 bucks and then immediately wish I hadn't and then, several weeks later, realize it was the right decision after all.  Scrivener is appealing in theory, annoying in practice, then, finally, excellent in practice.

Let me explain.  The idea behind this word processor is that it is designed for creative writers--it eschews those features of, say, Word, that are of no use to us, and adds a bunch that are.  A Scrivener file is essentially a wrapper for a bunch of smaller files, which can include novel chapters and sections, notes, research materials, character and place sketches, and the like; one can view the text of a given file, or a cork board that shows note cards for each file, on which you can type descriptions of its contents.  This is incredibly useful when you're writing a novel and can't remember where and when certain things happen; it also allows you to move material around by clicking and dragging the note cards.  Files can be automatically backed up to a folder in your Dropbox--a great feature.  When you want to print out your manuscript or send it to your agent or what have you, you compile it into a pdf, doc, or other file; this exported file includes only your primary text and not all your notes.  In short, Scrivener is a writing organization system with a word processor at the center of it.

Perhaps the simplest and most delightful thing about it is the fullscreen mode, whereby all the auxiliary controls disappear and all you can see is your text, displayed as though on a piece of paper against a black background.  I thought at first that this would be a minor advantage for me, but in fact writing with this minimal interface is an extraordinary pleasure.  You can't see emails coming in, you can't see anything at all except your text.

Here's the annoying part.  There are two separate sets of formatting tools in Scrivener: one that determines how the writing looks on the page while you're working on it, and another that determines how it looks once it's been compiled and exported.  This of course is useful, if you actually want these things to be different.  But I am wedded to the idea that what I am looking at is my manuscript.  In other words, I don't like the notion that the text is one thing, the display of the text is another thing, and the exported appearance of the text is a third thing.  I want to see, while working, that I am, say, on page 47, and I like that "page 47" to mean something definitive.  In Scrivener, it doesn't.  Furthermore, Scrivener's stock templates for composition and export look terrible, in my opinion.  I hate Courier--it is fake, a skeuomorphic gesture, the typographical equivalent of the PT Cruiser.  I don't want my name on every page of my manuscript, or centered page numbers, or a copyright notice at the end, or the like.  I want my stuff to be clean and simple, and I want to compose and export it in Garamond Premier Pro or Bembo.

Luckily, all this is totally customizable.  But the controls for customizing these functions are complex and unintuitive, and the method for customizing the composition screens is completely different from the method for customizing the compile settings.  You have to learn how to do the same thing twice, and once you've learned it, you forget it all instantly.

I recently transferred my entire novel-in-progress into Scrivener (see screenshot), and the process nearly made me give up using it entirely.  But I bore down and figured it out, and now I've got a couple of very useful templates and compile settings that satisfy me.  The app's usefulness has already proved itself in spades--I've had to insert, delete, or move chapters, and have been able to do so without needing to select text or renumber those chapters.  The note cards have enabled me to find stuff easily, and it is great to have all my research material close at hand.

But I don't necessarily recommend this app for people who need their work to look a certain way, or who are bothered by cutesy mimetic stuff like cork boards, or silly features like a character name generator.  There is something to be said for the starkness of Word or OpenOffice, and I'll probably still use the latter for short stories.  But for novels, the advantages of the app outweigh its irritating quirks, and I'll stick with it.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Christopher Higgs on experimental literature

I wanted to take a moment to link to this impressive series of posts by Christopher Higgs on "experimental literature" on my current favorite litblog, HTMLGiant.  I especially like the last one, on the notion of blankness--something I've been obsessed with myself from time to time.

This is the kind of thing I think a blog is good for, but it's also the kind of topic I tend to run like hell from, as I do not have the kind of brain made for defining and categorizing.  (Case in point, the bit where Higgs makes a distinction between conceptual and experimental literature.)  In general I am too aware of, perhaps too fond of, the tendency of distinctions to blur and categories to bleed; I admit the usefulness of holding them in mind, but never seem to be able to do so myself.

Anyway, these are rigorous and interesting posts, well-illustrated and interestingly commented upon.  Give them a look.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Writers At Cornell is back

A little cross-blog action here, as I inform you that the first interview podcast of the year is up over at the Writers At Cornell blog.  It's with W6 friend Stewart O'Nan, author of many novels, including Last Night At The Lobster, Snow Angels, Wish You Were Here, and the forthcoming Emily, Alone.  He gave a great reading the other night at Goldwin Smith (interrupted, with just one sentence to go, by a fire alarm); during this interview we talked about his prolificity and work habits, his research acumen, and his adventures chronicling the Red Sox with Stephen King.  Click the link above, or subscribe to the podcast in iTunes.

This Thursday I'm going to be interviewing one of my favorite writers, Nicholson Baker, and will post the results Thursday evening.  Anything you'd like me to ask him?  I've already gotten a lot of good suggestions from friends--honestly, I'd happily talk to Baker for an hour if I could.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Are E-Book Readers a Transitional Medium?

CAUTION: boring tech post ahead! I'm getting ready to review some small press books AND John Dufresne's book on writing a book in six months. Is it possible? Stay tuned!

The other day I was reading a blog -- somewhere -- in which a commenter prophesied that one day we would all have little e-readers in our pockets, like pocket calculators. It would be that normal.

Hm. I always had the idea that e-readers and phones/tablet computers would kind of merge. What's the point of having a dedicated technology for reading books, when you can have a thing that will let you read books AND do a ton of other things? Seems to me that the e-reader is a transitional technology, one that helps people give up paper books before doing all their reading on a regular screen. How necessary is the whole "e-ink" thing? Most people who seem really excited about the Kindle and other e-readers are, well, old: my age and the next generation up, the Boomers.

But what do you think? Will we all have cheap little dedicated e-readers in our pockets stocked with entire libraries of books? Or will that whole model fall aside, and we'll be reading on our phones, as well as ordering food, checking our glucose, and whatever?

(Apparently contrary to a lot of arguments I hear lately, I think the medium is important. Would the novel be what it is -- chapters, 300ish pages, with paragraphs, etc -- if the technology of the bound book weren't holding it together? I'm no so sure.)

Picture is of the MailStation, an e-mail-only device I used for about 6 months many years ago. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Who the hell is Arcade Fire?: The Aftermath

For those of us who like the band, Arcade Fire's Grammy win the other night was quite a treat--an unexpected bit of recognition for a good album.  But, like many people, I was struck by the meta-story that quickly supplanted the good news: the story that there are lots of people out there who had no idea that Arcade Fire even existed.

This is related to my previous post about the new NYT bestseller list, which makes a distinction--an arbitrary one, I think--between physical and virtual books.  Both items call attention to the weird divide between those people who get most of their information by reading it online, and those people who don't. That is, the divide between people for whom the virtual is not any less real than any other reality.

For people whose cultural knowledge comes from the internet, Arcade Fire is a famous band--indeed, for some of us, they're an overexposed band we're sick of hearing about.  (Not me, btw, I still like 'em.)  If you buy music on iTunes (or steal it from Mediafire, for that matter), learn about new music from YouTube, or read music blogs, you know Arcade Fire.  For those who consume music in the more traditional ways--listening to the radio and buying CD's at record stores--you probably don't.

It's the former people, I think, who have also digested the idea that the ebook is roughly equivalent to the physical book (at least by quantitative, if not aesthetic, standards), and don't really get why the Times should separate the two.  This isn't necessarily an age divide, or a political one, or even an educational one.  It's cultural.

We've reached the point at which hip obscureness is large enough to no longer be hip or obscure--indeed, it's a new, parallel mainstream, one that Rosie O'Donnell didn't appear to know about.  And was offended not to have been informed of.  That she expressed this emotion via Twitter is an added complication I don't think I have the mental energy to even contemplate.

Monday, February 14, 2011

More bestsellers

I don't suppose I'm the only person who gaped in horror when he opened up this week's NYTimes Book Review and saw this.  It's the new and improved bestsellers, divided into physical books, e-books, and then recombined, along with special charts indicating the differences between the two.

I don't mind that the New York Times is compiling this data; after all, it is of some use to some people.  Publishers, I guess.  People who market and publicize books.  Jeff Bezos.  But am I mistaken in believing that most people who read the Book Review do so in order to read about the contents of books, not their sales patterns?  And honestly, what normal reader cares what percentage of book sales are electronic?  Unless you are a dedicated technophile or luddite, it's all the same.  A certain number of Steig Larsson books have sold, a high number.  That information alone is more than most of us need.

It reminds me a bit of the shock--shock!!--that pundits and congressional Republicans profess when polls show, again and again, that no normal people give a rat's ass about deficit spending.  It's blindered insider baseball--people in authority mistaking their own concerns (or, in the case of the Republicans, feigned concerns) for those of the people they serve.  I can't imagine that the Times has been suffering under the weight of letters from readers, demanding more lists indicating who is making the most money in the publishing industry.  I didn't send one, anyway.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Two interesting things involving physical manuscripts

The first is this retrograde-tech art project by Maria Fischer featuring "hyperlinked" text connected with pieces of thread.  Wow:

To ease the access to the elusive topic, the book is designed as a model of a dream about dreaming. Analogue to a dream, where pieces of reality are assembled to build a story, it brings different text excerpts together. They are connected by threads which tie in with certain key words. The threads visualise the confusion and fragileness of dreams. [...] On five pages there are illustrations made out of thread. Their shape and colour relies on the key words on the opposite page. This way an abstract image of the dream about dreaming is generated.

That one is via Engadget, now the top legible tech blog that a sane person can actually read, in the wake of the horrid Gawker redesign.  The second is this little piece by Andrew James Weatherhead at HTMLGiant about Emily Dickinson's dashes.  That debate seems to have been settled (dash inclusion good, dash elimination bad), but Weatherhead notes that the actual character of Dickinson's actual dashes is quite variable, and that even post-dashgate editions differ in how they treat the dashes.

"This is kind of interesting right?" he asks.  Yes, optional-bracketing-comma man, it is!

Thursday, February 10, 2011



What seemed inconceivable for this college town just a few years ago is now a fact. There will no longer be an independently owned bookstore for new books in, not only Ithaca, but all of Tompkins County. After many years of hard work and much, much joy, I am sad to announce that I will be closing Buffalo Street Books. This has been an incredibly difficult decision to make, one that many of you know I've been forced to contemplate for quite a while. The positives and negatives of owning and operating an independent bricks-and-mortar bookstore are many with the perks far, far outweighing the bumps but for personal reasons and a rapidly diminishing bottom line, I finally have no choice.

This has been, I think, a long time coming--Gary Weissbrot, our friend, and the owner of the store, nearly closed before, and it's an extraordinary achievement to have kept the place going for five years.  He deserves a lot of thanks for providing Ithaca with a wonderful environment for readers and writers, and we will miss the place.

This is the first time in my entire adult life that I will have lived in a town without a viable independent bookstore.  We have a Borders (though not for long, I'm sure) and a B&N, along with the Cornell Store, which has a small, decent trade-book section (about one-third the size of the sweatshirt section).  But really, I think this pretty much ends the period of my life when I go book shopping in bookstores, at least in my home town.  I don't like the chains at all, not because they're chains, but because their aesthetic depresses and repels me.  I'll be ordering from Amazon, either for delivery or download.  And every few months I'll drive downstate and visit the Strand.

End of an era!  Thanks, Gary, for giving it a little more life.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Bad Reviews

I like this post on The Millions by Emily St. John Mandel. It brings to mind a few interesting questions: How important should feedback be to a writer? What's the point of a negative review?

We've talked a lot about feedback here recently. As for the point of negative reviews: I guess there are two valid raisons d'etre: as a kind of consumer warning ("Don't waste yer money!") or as a contribution to a larger discussion, both of which are mostly only relevant to big books. There's really no defending a negative review of a small press book by a non-famous writer -- ignoring that book, if you don't like it, is enough. Since so much of reviewing is a matter of taste, you risk sinking a person's nascent career because of your fickle whims. I don't approve.

Of course, the real reason for reviews is publicity... and if all of a publication's reviews are positive, that would undermine the validity of their reviews in general. A reviewing publicity organ needs to distribute a certain number of negative reviews in order to maintain its credibility. Kind of depressingly arbitrary, isn't it.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

How much bummer is too much?

I spent most of yesterday sitting in front of the fire, watching slush bucket from the sky and reading David Vann's new novel Caribou Island.  I would say that I liked it, but this isn't really the kind of novel one can say one "liked."  It was certainly absorbing, very psychologically astute, and elegantly, straightforwardly written.  But it's hard to imagine a novel being more claustrophobic and depressing.  It isn't just that it's about a couple in their fifties attempting to repair a failed marriage by building a tiny cabin together on a remote Alaskan island--it's that the emotions are so unrelievedly grim, so unrelentingly joyless, that you can forget, reading it, that happiness even exists in the world.  The one character in the novel who gets to experience happiness, the married couple's son, is able to achieve it only by cutting everyone else in the novel out of his life.  Another guy gets to have sex with a beautiful woman, but it's portrayed as shallow and morally repugnant, and the woman turns out to be an evil manipulator who makes him give her ten thousand dollars.

I was addicted to this book while I was reading it--I ate it up with the kind of abandon I can usually only achieve with a really good crime novel--but in the hours since I finished I've grown increasingly disenchanted.  It is accomplished but, to my mind, unnuanced--it starts out in hell and just stays there.  The two main players are a total asshole ("You're a monster," he is told, and he is) and an embittered nag ("You're a mean old bitch," she is told, and it's true), with a supporting cast of losers, stoners, and meanies.  The only character we are capable of somewhat liking, the daughter, is last seen, on the book's final page, riding on a boat, in the snow, toward the horrifying revalations that will destroy what's left of her pathetic life.

It isn't that Vann's writing is humorless--it isn't.  One can sense that the author stands outside this material, that he is intentionally creating an artifact of human misery outside his own experience.  But it is also clear that he set out to write a Very Serious Novel, with a lot of hatred and disgust and really terrible weather, and Very Seriously is precisely how Caribou Island is being received.

More power to him, I suppose.  But, to me, this book is too one-dimensional to feel serious.  It isn't that I want redemption, exactly, and I'm certainly not looking for sweetness and light.  I suppose I think that good ficiton ought to acknowledge that human existence is absurd, not just painful.  I mean--I already know it's painful, of course it is.  Life is pain.  But it's other things along the way, and those things give the pain meaning.  And those things are not in Caribou Island.

For all that, I sort of semi recommend it--it's a vigorous piece of work.  Just be prepared, once you put it down, to cancel your Alaska travel plans.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Who Should Write a Memoir?

Every once in a while the New York Times Book Review publishes a total trashing -- it's rare enough that it gets a good deal of attention when it happens. I'll never forget Lee Siegel's evisceration of Alice Sebold's The Almost Moon -- reading a review like that is like hearing about a friend's divorce: it makes you feel simultaneously sick and intrigued. How awful it happened to them! And Thank God it didn't happen to me.

The latest victims are three memoirs taken down by Neil Genzlinger in the most recent NYTBR. I haven't read them, so I'm not going to comment on them in particular (though I guess that hasn't stopped me in the past) but rather on a couple of things Genzlinger says in his piece. The first is something I agree with, that No one wants to relive your misery. Well, okay, *I* don't want to relive your misery. I mean, I don't think I want to. But somehow I feel compelled to. It's weird. A few years ago I read probably the most horrifying memoir EVER: Ten Degrees of Reckoning by Hester Rumberg. It's about a family who travel around the world in a boat until a huge tanker crashes into them. The mother of the family watches as each of her children and her husband sink beneath the waves. She somehow makes it to land and is never the same. OF COURSE. It's a memoir of such abject misery I honestly don't know why it was published, though I know why it was written.

I agree with Genzlinger when he says,
Say you get stuck under a rock and have to cut off your own arm to escape. If, as you’re using your remaining hand to write a memoir about the experience, your only purpose in doing so is to make readers feel the blade and scream in pain, you should stop. You’re a sadist, not a memoirist; you merely want to make readers suffer as you suffered, not entertain or enlighten them.
Yet, as queasy as these sadistic memoirs are, I can't stop reading them. How awful it happened to them! And Thank God it didn't happen to me.

So I do disagree with Genzlinger: my disagreement is two-layered. First, I don't think the content of the life experience should determine whether a person writes a memoir at all. At all! People's lives don't vary much in terms of interestingness; what varies is how perceptive the writer is. If you're a terrible, blah writer, you could make being the first woman to open a rib joint on Mars sound stupid. On the other hand, someone like Alan Bennett makes his quiet life infinitely fascinating. Genzlinger implies you need either an interesting life or a talent for writing. I think you just have to be able to write.

Secondly, he blames writers for the flood of banal memoirs. But human beings have always written about their lives, for better or for worse, boring and silly or vicious or sadistic. That doesn't mean publishers have to publish it. Why do writers always get the blame for bad trends? Seriously, I don't know a single person who can crank out 300 pages of something they don't believe in. Every memoir out there had to be written -- someone had to memorialize her dog, or capture his traumatic disease, or remember a childhood.

But need does not necessarily translate to excellence. And it's the editor's job to notice that, in the end, isn't it? You can't blame a writer for lacking talent, but you sure can blame a publisher for pretending the subject will carry the day.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Suggested memes for eager trendseekers

from patchworkunderground.com.
It turns out porno quilting
is a real thing.
I've got a lot of very fine ideas for hit nonfiction memoir/self-help titles, but am too lazy to write them.  Would you like to?  You don't even have to share the money with me, just thank me profusely in your acknowledgements section.  Which, by law, must be at least three pages long.

Passive Daddy's Parenting Boot Camp
My Year Of Only Snacking
Vodka Buddha
1000 Prescriptions: My Harrowing Journey Through Hell To Purity
Fertility By Proxy: A Love Story
Baby Talk Saved Our Marriage
Kickball King: A 40-Year-Old Man Repeats Fifth Grade
Chimp Vs. Child: A Homeschooling Odyssey
Pill Pals
Bros Before Hoes: How Four Heterosexual Men Discovered Communal Gardening
The Hirsute Nearsighted Men's Midnight Samovar Society
The Videogame Organic Cola Cure
Hipster Tent City: Six Months In A Vacant Lot In Flatbush
The Power Of Clowning
Vow Of Silence
Canning Therapy
The Swap: How My Sister And I Traded Husbands And Why We're Not Switching Back
Laced: How I Overcame Drug Addiction Through Tatting
In The Margin: My Year Living In A Highway Median Strip
Kickboxing Librarian Sex Goddess Speaks
Philosopher Dogwalker
Mating Call Of The Thai Noodle Daddy
Cry Every Hour
The Booksellers' Noonday Forced Laughter Club
Krumping With Aunt Sue: How L.A. Street Dancing Healed My Family
Driving My Neighbor's Kid From Houston To Anchorage
The Lego Sex Life Solution
Par None: How I Found Myself Through Ironic Golf Playing
The Unemployed Academics' Five O'Clock Actors' Studio
My Year Of Muttonchops
Scavenge For Life
How I Found And Kept True Love Through Celibacy
The Netflix Marriage
My Year Of Buying Every Single Thing I Wanted
Multiple Orgasms Through Prayer
My Year Of Being Constantly Stoned
My Year Of Lies
Porno Quilter

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Ward Six Way

You have seen, have you not, the hideousness that is AOL's leaked business plan?  If the idea of clicking that link gives you a headache, that probably means that you already know what it says.  The plan is essentially a blueprint for creating as much video-heavy, search-engine-optimized crap journalism as is humanly possible, as quickly as possible.  If there is an opposite to literature, "The AOL Way" is it.

I did, however, enjoy Horace Dediu's response today on Asymco, his very well-written tech-industry blog.  (Yes, I read such things, so sue me.)  And I think "The Asymco Way" is germane not only to this blog, but to anyone who creates content on the internet.  In short, Dediu says:

- Learn by writing. Teach by listening.
- Improve. Move the intellectual ball forward.
- Illuminate topics which are bereft of analysis.
- Be notable. [...] How likely is the idea to being widely re-published?
- Review. Encourage participation by reading all comments and reply to as many as possible.
- Repair. Declare and correct errors.
- Select. Publish only when the contribution is unique. Avoid redundancy, clutter and noise.
Yes to every one of those.  And, if I were going to create a "Ward Six Way" I might add the following: Respect one's fellow writers not only with praise, but with constructive criticism, when warranted.  Avoid cynicism.  Substitute rigor for snark.  Have a sense of humor.  Educate yourself well on a topic before commenting on it.

And Dediu's closing remark could be seen as a golden rule for anyone seeking a career in writing or publishing.  He writes: "What about the business model? I’m afraid there isn’t one. I’m still naive enough to think that if I build a great product then everything else will take care of itself."

Here's hoping we all stay naive, indefinitely.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

What Happened to Harper's?

I've subscribed to Harper's Magazine for at least 20 years, since I got out of college. I also subscribed to The Atlantic then, but I always liked Harper's better (all the fiction in The Atlantic, we used to joke, had to have priests, Irish people, or boats in it, if not all three) and then The Atlantic stopped publishing fiction, except for once a year, so I stopped reading it. Harper's stayed good, even great; the fiction was wild and unpredictable (even publishing a whacked-out novel in serial by some crazy guy) and the non-fiction always surprising and smart. I even enjoyed Lewis Lapham's loopy rants. If the mag seemed to be less totally wonderful lately, I chalked it up to the natural cycles of publishing: everyone has their ups and downs.

But could Harper's be... over? You probably heard about the trouble they've been having with their publisher, who is laying off several editors. What it looks like from the outside -- and I certainly have no inside knowledge -- is that the magazine doesn't want to make the compromises it has to make if it wants to survive in the same world as Huffington Post and Gawker and Talking Points Memo and all those other constantly updating, endlessly interesting, free sources of news and journalism and culturey stuff. Their publisher has publicly ranted against the Internet. But is it even possible to be a print-only, general interest magazine anymore?

Well, The Atlantic seems to be doing okay. It has a real, busy, packed-with-news website, lots of bloggers, and it's spiffed up its journalism -- lots of attention getting articles like Caitlin Flanagan's anti-school-gardens screed. That knee-jerk nay-saying stuff is annoying as heck, but it gives people something to argue about. Anyway, The Atlantic feels alive.

Should Harper's take a leaf from The Atlantic's pages? Should they modernize and hyperactivate? Or go down screaming?

Monday, January 31, 2011

Really, Steve? Really?

Oh, for Pete's sake.
Wesley Smith buys an Amazon Kindle to keep his mind off his recent nasty breakup, but he finds that his version is no ordinary e-reading device. Smith's Kindle has a special Ur option, which reveals the future and all the works his favorite authors have written in parallel dimensions. However, when the Ur delivers news of terrible events on the way, Smith must decide if he should interfere in fate. While King can certainly spin a good story, the Amazon Kindle focus (the story was written exclusively for and can only be read on an Amazon Kindle) keeps this one feeling like an advertising gimmick.
Let's see--why, do you think?  Maybe because...it is one?  I mean, I like the Kindle and all, but this is really a step beyond that U2-branded iPod.

The funny thing is, my Kindle also has an Ur option, which enables me to predict exactly what kind of book Stephen King is going to write next.  It's going to be about an educated guy in a creative profession, who nevertheless possesses considerable working-class street cred, and who discovers some kind of evil lurking in a small town, and must confront his own fears to defeat it.

Ah, I should leave the poor guy alone--he probably needed the dough.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Great Sentences?

Thanks to Matt Tiffany at Condalmo for writing about this article on Slate: a little summary of Stanley Fish's new book, in which he "celebrates" some great sentences from several centuries of literature.

Here are a couple of the sentences he chose:
Jonathan Swift (from A Tale of a Tub, 1704): "Last week I saw a woman flayed, and you will hardly believe how much it altered her appearance for the worse."

Ford Madox Ford (from The Good Soldier, 1915): "And I shall go on talking in a low voice while the sea sounds in the distance and overhead the great black flood of wind polishes the bright stars."
I wouldn't have chosen Fish's sentences; I don't like any of them at all, actually. The Swift, for instance, isn't particularly clever or sly or whatever -- it's just grotesque, and if that's his point, fine. But I don't have to like it. And the Ford Ford is really just too much: the wind as a polishing black flood? Wind being wind is enough, for me.

In college I learned that a perfect sentence is a line of iambic pentameter, that the English language strives toward that shape. And I like surprises, simplicity, and deadly accuracy in sentences. I don't collect sentences, but I think Nabokov wrote my favorites. Here's one from Pnin that's painted on the wall of the Cornell English department:
The brook in the gully behind the garden, a trembling trickle most of the time, was tonight a loud torrent that tumbled over itself in its avid truckling to gravity, as it carried through corridors of beech and spruce last year's leaves, and some leafless twigs, and a brand-new, unwanted soccer ball that had recently rolled into the water from the sloping lawn after Pnin disposed of it by defenestration.
Gawd, I love that sentence. Not, for sure, an iambic pentameter, but so vividly specific, and heartbreaking -- Pnin bought that soccer ball for the son he had never met, wildly guessing what a teenage boy would like.

What do you like in a sentence?

Friday, January 28, 2011

Chabon on blogging

The author in less bloggy times.
OK, then, since Rhian likes it so much, here's a follow-up to that last post about engaging the world.  Michael Chabon did some pinch-hitting over at The Atlantic this week, and departed with some reflections upon the experience.

Novelist time is reptile time; novelists tend to be ruminant and brooding, nursers of ancient grievances, second-guessers, Tuesday afternoon quarterbacks, retrospectators, endlessly, like slumping hitters, studying the film of their old whiffs. You find novelists going over and over the same ground in their novels [...] configuring and reconfiguring the same little set of preoccupations, haunted by missed opportunities. That may be because getting a novel written, or a bunch of novels, means that you are going to miss a lot of opportunities, and so missing them is something you have to be not only willing but also equipped by genes and temperament to do. Blogging, I think, is largely about seizing opportunities, about pouncing, about grabbing hold of hours, events, days and nights as they are happening, sizing them up and putting them into play with language, like a juggler catching and working into his flow whatever the audience has in its pockets. 
Then there's that whole business of the Comments.

The first thing that occurs to me, reading that, is that Chabon spent way too much time on that paragraph--you can tell he's new to writing for the internet.  The second is that, of course, he's quite right--if you assume blogging to be a particular kind of thing.  The thing he thinks it is, is, indeed, what it usually is.  But one thing I like about litblogging, as opposed to, say, tech blogging, is that it specifically doesn't depend upon timeliness and close attention.  It can be contemplative.  One can write about things published thirty years ago, that nobody is making any money on.  One can blog in reptile time, as he puts it.

The blog, like any technology, has many uses.  Zen sandbox is one of them.  Not that, say, responding to Anis Shivani posts is remotely zen--but engagement is a choice, level of engagement is a choice.  One can ask a litblog to fit into one's writing life, to support and nurture it.  Which I think this one has done for us.  Otherwise we wouldn't have kept it going for (!) four years.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Recluse or gadfly?

Image Source: The Internet
Sometimes, such as right now, I am given to wonder how important or useful it is for a writer to be engaged with, and alert to, his own culture.  Is it better to sequester oneself, monklike, so as to avoid distractions and petty desires and dedicate oneself fully to one's work?  Or is it preferable to fling oneself into the river of crap, in the hope of finding some choice flotsam?

This occured to me today because I just started reading Nabokov's Glory, and found I had to force myself through the first couple of pages.  I love Nabokov and I'm sure I'll get into it soon enough, but I decided to go back and figure out what the problem was.  And it was that the opening pages of this novel are written too narrowly for a particular time and culture (the Russian intelligensia of 1932).  There are allusions, references, assumptions that the young Nabokov expected his readers would understand, and at the time they probably did.  But I don't--not instinctively, anyway.  The pages make sense, of course, but they leave a vague sense of obscureness, of exclusion.

You won't get this with Chekhov.  As Rhian was saying yesterday, he holds up awfully well.  One feels he was writing for the ages, not for his culture.  The work is ostensibly about his culture, but its true subject is universal human emotion.  You don't need a footnote in "The Lady With The Dog" to tell you that Yalta is where Muscovites went on vacation.  It doesn't matter; we get it.  What matters is the bit where the civil servant leans out of the carriage and tells Gurov that the sturgeon was a bit off, and Gurov is for some reason deeply wounded.  He desires a certain kind of succor and instead is confronted by his alienation from other people and their petty concerns.  This is universal--as long as people read short stories, this scene will make sense.

I can't help but feel as though all the September 11th novels we've seen so far will be forgotten very very soon.  The novels of contemporary manners, the novels of urban snark and hip self-consciousness: they are too much about what we think we are, not what we actually are.  When we immerse ourselves in the here and now, we lose sight of the fact that most of our daily worries are about things that will be gone in a century, if not next week.  But it's hard to write about what will be left.  Those are the things that hurt us the most, that make us feel the most helpless.

Which is not to say I'll soon be deleting my Twitter account.  Life in 2011 is too damned much fun.  I think I'll try to lock my cave door a little more often, though.

Monday, January 24, 2011


The are a few things I read over and over -- the stories of Alice Munro -- but for the most part I don't reread much. Lately, though, I haven't found anything new to read so I tried looking over some old favorites. MISTAKE! A novel I loved, loved, loved twenty years ago seems to have some big obvious flaws these days. A favorite kids' book is, somehow, mysteriously, boring.

But the stories of Anton Chekhov, the patron saint of this blog, are even better than I remember. Each story is also a little different from how I remember it: this time around, new details stand out, and different observations resonate with me. I have a copy of Lady With Lapdog that I first read in grad school. I underlined certain things. For example, I underlined the following from the story "Ward Six":
There was a pause. At that moment Darya came out of the kitchen and stopped in the doorway to listen, with an expression of mute grief, her face resting on her fist.
Why? Why that bit? I have no idea. It's a nice bit, but I have no idea what particularly struck me back in 1994.

This time, I underlined a new bit, from "Ariadne," which is a story I didn't remember well but might be my new favorite:
Ariadne wanted me to join her in Abbazzia. I arrived there on a bright, warm day. It had been raining and the raindrops still hung on the trees.
Of course, I know what I like about it this time: first, I like the audacity with which Chekhov totally dispenses with the journey to Abbazzia. There's no buying the tickets, getting on the boat, being on the boat, blah blah blah. Instead, of all the details to choose to describe arriving in a new place, he picks that one little one about raindrops. And I know what he means. Sometimes you arrive in a new place where it has been raining, but it isn't anymore, it's sunny, and you can't even imagine what that place looks like in the rain. It's a detail about newness and alienation, but it's also beautiful and vivid. There's probably more packed in there, but who wants to pull it apart?

Sometimes a not-so-good piece of writing feels great -- and actually is great -- because it's the right thing for you at the right time. But other stories or novels or poems are so hugely great that they somehow manage to be always new, always surprising, and always just the right thing for whoever you've happened to turn into.

Do you ever reread? What books stand the test of time?

Sunday, January 23, 2011

A hodgepodge

There were all kinds of things I wanted to tell y'all about this weekend, in the form of web links.  So here they all are:

Pics and blogging from the Electric Literature reading the other night in New York.  Big thanks to Five Red Pandas and husband for coming!  EL5 is out now, with a story by me and more by other people.

Here's a new interview with Ed Skoog, our sporadic co-bloggist.

I sort of liked this James Ryerson piece in the Times Book Review, but if you cross your eyes just a little, it starts to sound like every let's-make-up-a-category-of-novel-then-analyze-it essay you've ever read.

The chords to Robert Pollard's "Tight Globes."  I have no idea what this song is about, but for some reason it gets me all choked up.

A terrific essay on Springsteen by Hope Jordan.  Do you have to be her facebook friend to see it?  I hope not, it should be public.  Anyway, everyone should be her friend, too.

Via the great HTMLGIANT, a largely visual blog called Writers No One Reads.

And from the same place, a nice Kyle Minor piece on the sentences of Vladimir Nabokov, which of course were also very, very nice.

Some interesting thoughts about Diane Arbus and Sylvia Plath on Montevidayo.

You can never re-read 27b/6 too many times.

Patton Oswalt goes to town on Geek Culture, and then Ed Champion reacts with the most words any human being will ever write about the new movie The Green Hornet.  Also, Oswalt decided to make his 2000th tweet something really special.

W6 friend Rana Dasgupta has a new book out, and it looks great.  Go listen to him on his US tour.

Finally, we are having some killer readings at Cornell this spring, which means some interesting new interviews, I hope, on the podcast blog.  For some reason the schedule has not yet been posted, but look forward to Stewart O'Nan, Nicholson Baker, Laura Furman, Peter Balakian, and Margaret Atwood.  (I think I'm leaving somebody out.)