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 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.)

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Shake it like you just don't care

I spent a lovely afternoon walking home from the office listening to The Dukes of Stratosphear's 1987 CD Chips From The Chocolate Fireball.  This album combines the band's two releases, the EP 25 O'Clock and the album Psonic Psunspot, both pastiches of psychedelic rock in the style of, say, the Zombies or Jefferson Airplane, and both actually the work of the British new wave rock band XTC.

I don't know what XTC fans generally think of these records, but for my money, they're the best thing XTC has ever done.  They are funny, inventive, catchy, and utterly lack self-importance, which, when XTC isn't so hot, is often the way they are not so hot.  They employ all the familiar tricks and tropes of the era, including phased and modulated vocals, thick harmonies, combo organs, fake Indian chord progressions, acid-trip lyrics, hard panning of instruments, tape hiss, backwards guitar solos, and copious amounts of echo.  Indeed, they court cliché, they toe the line so hard.

So why do they sound so inalienably like everything that is great about XTC?  In part it's because this kind of music inspired the band in the first place.  But mostly, I think, it's that this music was freeing for them--under a false name, and under the sway of artificial constraints, they didn't have to worry about making an XTC record.  They just had to worry about having a good time.

When I think about which of my novels and stories and other things I like the best, and I try to remember what it was like to write them (as I often do when I don't like what I'm writing), I generally come to the conclusion that, at the time, I didn't care how it came out, and I assumed it would never be published.  Mailman is a good example--it's my favorite of my books, and the whole time I was writing it I kept thinking, "Nobody is ever going to publish this thing.  So why not write whatever the hell I want?"

Of course I was lying to myself, even then.  Secretly, I very badly wanted those things to be published.  But I somehow managed to lie to myself about lying to myself long enough to accomplish something.

It's not that I dislike the work that is the product of intense cogitation and self-conscious effort.  Indeed, I've often said, here and elsewhere, that I don't believe in--or, more to the point, don't trust--inspiration.  And the freewheeling stuff is always subject to multiple revisions, executed in a soberer mood, much later.

But I do think we're often our best selves when we forget ourselves.  Perhaps this is why genre fiction so often appeals to literary writers--or metafiction, for that matter, or pastiche, or parody.  We're such sniveling, self-pitying bastards; it's nice to step away from the mirror and be somebody else for a change.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Blame grad school

Am I really going to write about this again?  I suppose I am.  I have remarked here, from time to time, about the embittered ravings of Anis Shivani, and his loathing of all things academic.  But now here we go again, this time from Cathy Day, writing on (via HTMLGIANT, again, thank you Kyle):

...most fiction workshop instructors use the short story—not the novel or the novella or the novel-in-stories—as the primary pedagogical tool in which to discuss the craft of fiction. Why is this so? Simply: the short story is a more manageable form, both for the instructor and the student, and I have been both. For the writer who teaches a full load of courses and is always mindful of balancing “prep” time with writing time, it’s easier to teach short stories than novels, and it’s easier to annotate and critique a work-in-progress that is 10 pages long as opposed to a story that is 300 pages long. It’s advantageous for students, too. Within the limited time frame of a semester, they gain the sense of accomplishment that comes with writing, submitting for discussion, revising, and perhaps even finishing (or publishing!) a short story. It’s a positively Aristotelian experience. Beginning. Middle. End. Badda bing, badda boom. 
I’m going to go way out on a limb here and say this: The short story is not experiencing a renaissance. Our current and much-discussed market glut of short fiction is not about any real dedication to the form. The situation exists because the many writers we train simply don’t know how to write anything but short stories. The academy—not the newsroom or the literary salon or the advertising firm—has assumed sole responsibility for incubating young writers.

Oh, for pete's sake.  "Incubating?"  This is not what we're doing, and for those of us who have been in MFA programs, this isn't what we felt was being done to us.  That is, if we were bothering to do anything at all worthwhile.  As students, we were writing whatever the hell we wanted to write, and as teachers, we are teaching according to whatever the hell our students are writing.

"The short story is a more manageable form."  Perhaps.  But you have to be a pretty shitty teacher to value manageability over artistic ambition.  More than half of my current fiction grad students are writing novels, and some of my undergrads are, too.  And I read them all, without hesitation.  BECAUSE THAT'S MY JOB.  Several of my recent grad students are publishing novels as well--good ones.

But how is this possible?  Well, it's because grad students are not fucking idiots, that's why.  They are able to give one another the proper context when they workshop novel excerpts.  They read one another's novel manuscripts.  When their peers workshop short stories, they are able to apply much of what they learned in this process to the process of writing and editing a novel.  They also read lots of novels.  And, at least at Cornell, we have craft-centered literature classes in which the structure, style, and purpose of novels are discussed.

The workshop model is not forcing anyone to write short stories, or any particular kind of short story.  Undergrads like short stories because they're just starting out at fiction and want to give it a try on a smaller scale.  And it's true, we are very ready to accomodate them.  But these stories are not like processed meat, dumped out of a can.  They are wildly different from one another.  And we accomodate students' longer works too--and their memoirs, graphic novels, poem cycles, opera librettos, dance/literature hybrids, experimental film scripts, fine art printing projects, and collaborations with composers.  And yes, I have seen all of these things in my five years at Cornell.  And every time, I've said, "Awesome, let's do this."  Is your writing program not like this?  Then fix your writing program, because it sucks.

Furthermore, much of the work of a writing teacher happens not in workshop but during office hours, or at the coffee shop in the basement, or at a bar after workshop, or on the phone, or via email, or in the many years of professional and personal friendship that often follow a student's years in an MFA program.  We do not run factories.  We provide a place for students to figure out what they want, and then we help them achieve it.  The idea that there is some rigid structure here, or that we are helpless in the face of it, is asinine.

If the publishing world appears to be drowning in a flood of mediocre short stories, that's because it is.  It always was.  Most writing is terrible, and there is a lot of it.  I am tired of people declaring that this era is shittier than all the others, and then blaming me for it.  In fact there is more good fiction being written now than I could read in eight lifetimes, and, much as I'd like to believe otherwise, that's not my fault either.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Lorrie Moore is Right

This weekend the New York Times ran an op-ed piece by Lorrie Moore on the Huck Finn n-word thing I posted about last week. She suggests that Huckleberry Finn isn't really appropriate for high schoolers and should be studied in college. Well, she's right, I think, and I was wrong. It's a great essay.

Of course, convincing high school teachers to change their curricula is probably more difficult than cutting a word from a book. And what should replace HF? I guess we can't answer that question until we figure out exactly what the goals are when we teach literature to high school students. Lorrie Moore suggests that a main goal is to get kids to like to read. That's a good goal, but I don't think it's enough. The fact is, for many kids, the books they read in their high school English classes will be the last novels they ever read, no matter how much those books cater to their tastes. Perhaps some of those books should challenge their tastes -- broaden them. The Scarlet Letter was the most difficult book I'd ever read back in 11th grade; I remember opening my bedroom window and leaning out into a snowstorm to try and stay awake through it. I hated every page of that stupid book. But I learned that I could actually read something hard, and understand it. (Later we read O.E. Rolvaag's Giants in the Earth, which was about 900 pages of Norwegian immigrants trying to bury their dead children in the frozen prairie. OMG. I can't believe I read the whole thing. My English teacher was a genius.)

These days high school curricula are much more multi-cultural, which is good, and I suppose HF has hung on so long in part because of the difficult questions about race and history it raises. But what else is out there? Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which Moore mentions in her essay, is terrific and a perfect choice to teach to teenagers: it talks about identity, history, and culture, but is also very funny and brilliantly written.

Can you think of any other great books for a high school literature class?

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Killing time

photo from
As an introduction to this post about Iambik, the indepdent audiobook publisher (Castle for five bucks, allow me to remind you), Kyle Minor at HTMLGiant shares an amusing story about his days as a traveling salesman of "eighth-rate university educations":
Even when I’m driving, I prefer reading a book to listening to a book. I once drove eight hours, from Pensacola to Lake Wales, Florida, while reading Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. This horrified everyone who cared about me. This was before the days of education about texting and driving.
It's amazing to consider just how much of one's life is utterly wasted in the execution of necessary, time-consuming, and mentally empty tasks.  Driving is the obvious one, of course.  But then there's waiting in line at the post office or the bank, waiting for a children's birthday party to end, waiting for a child's music lesson to finish.  In college I lived on the twentieth floor of a high rise with an interminably slow elevator. It took me months to realize I should always, always have a paperback in my pocket.

Of course the problem is there aren't many paperbacks that can be digested in a manner appropriate to the amounts of time you have to waste.  There are only so many times you can read, say, Thomas Bernhard's The Voice Imitator, or, for that matter, my plundering of it.  This is one of the major reasons I am in love with my phone--I've got all my favorite blogs, literary and otherwise, subscribed to an RSS feed that I view using Reeder; and if I'm in mid-novel on the Kindle, I can pick up where I left off on my phone, then return in the same place when I'm back home on the sofa.

One oft-mentioned side effect of this age of technological fetishism is that we are constantly distracted by our devices.  It's true, we are.  But we can also make use of time we used to have to kill by, in my case, obsessing over worthless shit.  Today, thank heavens, it is more possible than ever to stuff worthwhile reading into every empty crevice in our lives.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Are You a Double-Spacer?

image lifted from
You've probably seen this article in Slate: the author works up quite a lather about people who still put two spaces after a period. I was all set to defend the double space--sentimental old Luddite that I am--but then I looked at some writing I did recently and was vaguely surprised to see that I apparently dropped the double space a while ago. Maybe I knew at some level that computers do proportional spacing, so there isn't a need. Also, laziness.

What's most interesting about the article is the author's barely concealed rage. What's that all about? Hatred of the young for the old? Because most people really stuck in the double-space thing are older. Those of who took typing classes or had tough old English teachers or who worked as secretaries got the double space thrashed into us, and there's no one around to thrash it back out.

But yeah, who needs it anymore? Let's save a calorie or two and create manuscripts--or blog posts--that look like type-set type.

But again: what's with the anger? Who cares? Blogger, for example, apparently nixes the double space anyway, and certainly if you're writing for publication, the copy editor will take care of it, along with all your dumb mistakes. The average email is hardly a thing of beauty that will be marred by an extra space here and there.

(This is probably not the place to bring this up, but why is there so much misplaced anger these days? Tea Party, yeah, I mean you.)

I have a little more sympathy for people who obsess about grammar and usage: there's an argument to be made that persistent errors of usage actually degrade the language. But typography has never been the concern of writers. That's what printers are for.

Here's something to get mad about: word processing programs that automatically put a white space after every paragraph. THAT IS WRONG! AND BAD! Look at a novel--are there spaces after every paragraph? No, there are not. Sometimes there are white spaces, but those are deliberate and have meaning. Some kinds of non-fiction, I guess journalism, put a white space after each paragraph (I'm doing it now!), but why can't people who want it just hit the return key? Okay, that's enough of that.

Friday, January 14, 2011

JRL reading in NYC next Friday, 1/21

Hey readers--Rhian will be back with a real post tomorrow, but until then I thought I'd let you know I'm reading in New York a week from right this second, Friday January 21, 7pm, at the Housing Works Bookstore Cafe in Soho.  Here are the details.  I will be reading with the very funny Ben Greenman and stealth genius Lynne Tillman (whose magnificent freakout American Genius is not like any book I have ever read in my entire life), in an event dedicated to promoting the fifth issue of the excellent, excellent Electric Literature, the cover of which features a painting of some nude dude playing a video game.

This event is billed as "plus film and a DJ," so you never know, maybe there will be live dancing videogame nude dudes?  I certainly hope so.  Anyway, please come, and buy me nine drinks.  I dare you.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Great reading experiences

No, I'm not talking about your experiences reading your favorite books, but your favorite experiences reading books.  That is, the times you most enjoyed the act of reading.  I was thinking about this tonight because I've been wondering about the incredibly intense pleasure I feel reading thrillers, even when they're not especially good.  What's up with that?  I am already forgetting the one I read a couple of days ago (although the one I read yesterday will likely stick with me a while), but I get a delightful little chill thinking about the hours I spent lying on the sofa, in my pajamas, in the middle of the day, zooming through its mass-market pages before a roaring fire.  (Can you tell classes haven't started yet?)  I also recall the intense pleasure of hiding in our bedroom at our rental house at the Jersey shore one August, reading Black Dahlia Avenger.

Most of the books whose contents have stuck with me have become unmoored form the circumstances in which I read them.  Not all--Rhian pointed out that she has rather unpleasant memories of reading Anna Karenina: she was temping at the Teamsters' Union and reading at her desk.  I, on the other hand, read Anna K while sipping liquor in our friend's friend's log cabin (insofar as a four-bedroom rustic quasi-mansion with satellite dish and wet bar can be called a cabin) on the Madison River in southern Montana.  But I couldn't tell you what it was like reading, say, any Alice Munro story--the intensity of the fiction, I suppose, has overridden the real-world circumstances of my reading it.

I guess a book has to reach a certain threshold of quality before it can generate a memorable reading experience--one has to be into it, after all.  But in most circumstances, at least for me, it can't be too good, so good as to make the world around it disappear.  Aside from Anna K, I most strongly remember reading books that I read without much effort...the ones that seemed to flow into me.  Like, I suppose, sipping liquor in a log mansion.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011


Here's something that's not going to go over well: I think it's just fine to take the n-word out of Huckleberry Finn. Not forever, not in the definitive version or the Norton edition or whatever -- but in a version for teaching in high schools: sure. Do it. The word's meaning has changed and become loaded with complicated baggage and what Twain meant is no longer obvious. The word gets too much attention, titillates some kids, shuts other kids down. Conversations about the book end up being about that word. Replace it with some asterisks and get on with it.

I taught school in my twenties, and I had classes that were 100% African-American, was sometimes the only white person in the room. Handing my students a text with that word in it would have made me feel sick, sad, and abusive. Sure, we could have talked about it, put it in its correct historical context, had a powerful conversation about who makes the language, who owns it, etc. But at the end of the day, what would the kids remember? Let's be realistic. Their teacher used the n-word.

It's possible that my views on the subject have to do with my unresolved, unexcavated, feelings about those teaching years. And maybe I don't think kids are ready for Mark Twain at all. Could be.

But I also don't think there's much wrong with "censorship" when it's done by an adult for children. I don't let my kids watch Quentin Tarantino, either. And no text is sacred. I mean, thought Jane Austen was sacred, but look: now it's full of zombies.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The groove and the slump

I had a mad, mad week of writing last week.  I've been working on a second draft of a novel-in-progress for some time, and figured I would complete this draft around the end of my winter break, which ends in two weeks.  My pace was steady and sure, and the work pretty much what I'd hoped it would be.

Then, a week and a half ago, I fell into a groove of some kind and spent the better part of the week writing, in bed, more or less all day long.  Even when I wasn't writing, I felt as though my head was exploding.  I would bounce ideas off of Rhian, and she would volley with some more ideas, and I would go pouring them all into the manuscript (and coffee into my body) starting at five the next morning.  I wasn't getting enough sleep and drinking too much in the evening in order to achieve it.  It was a totally unsustainable state of being--I think the last time I experienced something like it was as long ago as 2002 or 2003, when I was writing my fourth novel.  The difference this time, of course, was that I knew about, and felt intensely the inevitability of, the crash to come.

I finished the draft Saturday morning and sent it out to my usual second-draft readers.  I have no idea if anything I just wrote is any good.  But man, am I in a slump now.  I did a month's worth of work in a week, and now I doubt I'll be able to do anything useful with the rest of the month I should have spent writing.

I wonder about these rhythms--if they're healthy to indulge, in the long run, or damaging to the kind of emotional equilibrium that a steady and productive writer needs for a fairly successful career.  I'm not a big believer in "inspiration"--or, rather, I doubt that it is nearly as valuable as it is generally given credit for.  Most of my best stuff, even if it was initially the product of inspiration, was only made readable through careful, calculated editing, done alone or with others' help.

At the moment, even in the depths of the slump, I can't say I really miss the intensity of last week.  Rather, I miss the sober, gradual progress of the week before that.  That's what I want back now.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Quitting is Good?

This post on Lifehacker -- "Create Better Things by Abandoning Crap and Focusing on the Good Stuff" -- might make a person feel slightly better about all the the unfinished work in her desk drawer. Ira Glass talks about how, in the making of his radio show, he has to sort through tons of ideas and try them out in order to find a single good one:

Killing the bad stuff, he says, is just as important as doing good stuff. I agree -- "quitting" is awfully stigmatized, but sometimes it's the right course. Sometimes your work is bad, and you're just wasting time pounding your head against its ugly hide.

However. As someone points out in the Lifehacker comments, giving up too soon really is a bigger problem for most artists. The trick is knowing what's worth finishing and what isn't. Ira Glass doesn't have to worry about that. It's not hard to tell when a radio story put together by a group of people isn't working. It's much harder to know when it's the novel you've been working on alone for five years. And sometimes you have to finish a thing before its true crappiness -- or greatness -- comes out.

And sometimes the crappiness of a project doesn't even matter. It's just the thing you have to do right now, and so you do it.

How do you know if your work is worth finishing?

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The current state of self-publishing

Our friend Jason Lewis, an Iowa Workshop grad and author of the tech blog Stuff I Don't Need, recently wrote a post about his novel The Fourteenth Colony,
...that took me five years to write, and has been done since November 2009. And by done, I mean that I wrote six drafts of it (a few completely from scratch) and when I put the final period on the last draft, the book was the book that I wanted it to be, maybe not perfect, but the book I wanted to write.
He's got an agent, and the agent sent the book around, and it didn't sell.  And now he is asking himself the very reasonable question of whether it is time to self-publish.  Or, specifically,
in a world where the publishing industry is failing according to many and the means of production are available at a high level to everyone, should I release my book into the world to see how it fares and move on with my new projects, or is there a reason to keep pounding away at the traditional structure in the hopes of acceptance?
And that is a very good question.  I suspect that Jason has many novels in him, and eventually one of them is bound to find a home in the conventional publishing world.  What it comes down to, though, is whether the stigma of self-publication harms the future chances of a new writer in that world.

There was a time when one might confidently say that yes, it would.  But I'm not sure it does anymore, as the link between good writing and institutional stewardship of it grows weaker and weaker.  And it's becoming possible to question, quite reasonably, what value that world has in the current climate of enthusiastic DIY publication and distribution.  People are already getting used to the idea that small presses are as legitimate as their commerical counterparts; the major awards have been trending towards the indies for several years.  If small presses are the new big houses, then who's to say that going it alone might soon be the new small press?  We have a few readers who've been going it alone fairly successfully for some time...I wonder if any of you are thinking of following suit, and how you're choosing to do it.

Note: the photo is of Jason's last record as Sad Iron Music, available for download on his website--it's a good album, check it out.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Writing to Music

JRL and I are opposites in many, many ways. In practically every way, actually. One big difference is: I have to listen to music when I'm writing. He can't.

The main reason I listen to music is to block out ambient sounds. Like: cars rumbling past and potentially turning into our driveway. Mice in the walls. Other mice being chased by our cat, and in need of rescue. Family members saying interesting things on the phone. The heater turning on and off. Why does it do that? Wind slapping the screen door. Oh, anything.

But the other reason is just because music seems to calm my brain waves. I'm not sure there's anything to that, but you know.

I listen to music that has no words, or if it has words, is so familiar to me that I can ignore them. I like classical music a lot, Debussy, Satie, Mendelssohn, Scriabin, and Phillip Glass. One morning my clock radio alarm went off (on?) and began playing the third movement of Satie's Gnossiennes, and it infiltrated my dreams. That music ended up being the secret inner sound track to my novel. I didn't actually mention Satie in the book -- I really don't like it when writers put their inner soundtracks into their writing. That stuff is too personal.

Another time I was listening to an instrumental group called Tulsa Drone, and that inspired a half a novel. But then the book got too creepy and I abandoned it. I blame the music! (Not really. I still like them.)

Anyway, it seems like the music the writer is listening to while writing ends up in the work in all sorts of ways... but the reader never hears it or sees evidence of it. Which is kind of strange.

I'd love recommendations for good writing music.

Thursday, January 6, 2011


Well, I read it, but I am not sure what to think.  For one thing, on the surface, it feels as though it couldn't possibly be written by the same guy.  But then again, there's no one else who could have written it.  It is, like Remainder, a strange book masquerading as a normal one.  Both books are about connections, metaphors, and the power of the mind to create its own worlds.  Both contain the smell of cordite, and narrators who fall into trances and mishear what other people are saying.

C is an episodic bildungsroman about Serge Carrefax, son of the founder of a school for the deaf, brother of a suicide, casual scientist, possible sociopath.  The episodes in question are variations on a theme, or rather on themes: networks, communication, the complexity and interplay among various human endeavors.  There is no plot, other than the wandering course of Serge's life: idyllic childhood, tragic loss, strange illness, war experience, fateful research trip.  What happens here isn't the point, though--the theme is what it's all about, and everything is about the theme.

McCarthy is riffing here, in other words.  This is something he can do--the writing is spectacular, for the most part.  The novel is spilling over with historical research about the technology of the early twentieth century; characters routinely predict the future of communication here, or traffic in the kind of metaphors we use today to describe computers and the internet.  The characters are, in the end, entirely subservient to these ideas and historical details; they're performers putting on a play about what Tom McCarthy is interested in.  (And yes--there is a play within this play, a pageant performed by the deaf chilrden who, in one of the book's central ironies, can't hear themselves speak.)

This might sound cold and pretentious; in fact the book is, at times, utterly absorbing and quite moving.  Certain scenes are evoked with uncanny beauty, as when the child Serge witnesses a sexual tryst that will color his erotic experiences for the rest of his life; or when his plane crashes in no man's land, and a plague of birds arrives to peck at the blasted remains of his compatriots; or when he and a lover screw upon a pile of mummies.  But the mode of writing is detached; point of view is fluid, and one feels as though the book does not belong to the characters, but to the writer and reader.

I never fully owned it, personally.  The last section is a true disappointment--it consists almost entirely of expository dialogue, and ends in a delirious virtuoso recapitulation of every symbol and metaphor in the novel--but nevertheless has a certain mad rigor.  It's impressively bizarre and not really successful, like most things that I admire.  I recommend the book with reservations, but have reservations about my reservations.  I will most certainly read the next one, and all the ones after that.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011


I love metaphors in fiction -- the funnier, the crazier, the more surprisingly apt, the better. For instance: in Elizabeth McCracken's story "Some Have Entertained Angels Unawares," a character is as "pale and bitter as aspirin," and another as "chinless and gloomy as a clarinet," and children sleep "beneath the clasped hands of the roof" (which I think I stole once; sorry, Elizabeth). In Bruce Duffy's The World As I Found It, outlandish, perfect metaphors are everywhere. On a single half page I found a person who smelled "like a sickroom quilt that needed airing," and ice that makes "a sound like a nail being wrenched from a board," then breaks "like the surface of a vast aboriginal egg." (By metaphor I'm referring to similes and metaphors, just to be clear.)

There are people who don't like this kind of literary whimsy, but I don't understand that. However, a writer friend of ours recently said something that made me stop and think. A writer should make sure a metaphor does at least two things, he said. A metaphor that's just a metaphor, that just serves to compare a thing to another thing, is not good enough. Metaphors should really work. The chosen metaphor should carry out the theme, or refer to something in a character's past, or bring out something hidden, or something. Otherwise, they're distracting flotsam.

This, I think, is an example of a rule that could very well improve the writing, certainly make it more rigorous and disciplined. However, in the above examples, the aspirin, the clarinet, and the nail would all have to go. The clasped hands and the egg would probably get to stay, because they resonate with the works' themes.

But I like all of them, and in my ideal world they would all get to stay, even if aspirin really does nothing more than sit there being pale and bitter. But I like junk shops, I like things not to match, and I think fiction should be full of surprises.

Where do you stand? Any examples of good, or, even better, bad metaphors?

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

What happened to Borders?

I was in the local Borders the other day, helping my kids cash in some gift cards, and was kind of shocked at the state the place was in.  The inventory computers were grimy, old, and slow, and couldn't tell you if books were in stock.  A book we were looking for showed two on hand but the bookseller couldn't find it.  The CD shelves were almost completely empty, and the place was understaffed.

I worked at the Borders in Madison, Wisconsin in 1992.  It was great--in those days, the staff of a new store was hired before construction was finished, and the booksellers themselves assembled the shelves and unloaded the books from the trucks.  Everyone had a section they were the expert on (mine was cooking), so somebody could always, always find a book.

Nowadays, Borders is definitely number three, after Amazon and B&N--or four, really, if you count Wal-Mart.  They have the shittiest e-reader, and it looks like they're having liquidity problems.  So what happened?  Back in the day, they were the "cool" chain; B&N was busy seeming to overextend itself, and provided a much chillier, more generic experience.  Now, Borders feels like a chain on its way out.

In the end, I'm not invested in any of the chains...I do still prefer the small independent bookstore experience to a big box.  (If I want generic and commercial, I'd much rather order from Amazon, who will also sell me some camera lenses and a waffle maker, than drive down to the commercial strip for B&N or to the mall for Borders.)

But...what happened?  How'd Borders go wrong?

Monday, January 3, 2011

Reading Out Loud

Recently I've noticed we aren't reading out loud to our kids anymore. They still enjoy it, and we still have time, but I've kind of run out things I want to read them. The books we've read over the years are mostly ones I loved as a kid; the last one I chose was The Dark is Rising, which was my favorite when I was 11 or so. But you know what? I didn't like it this time around, and neither did my kids. It was a lot of atmospherics, and the story didn't really make sense. My kids are savvier than I was.

That last experience put me off a little bit, and I'm wondering whether the read-aloud era should come to an end, or if I should keep it going until the kids tell me to stop. When we're all really into the book, it's enormous fun. John had a good time with The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and its sequels, and we all loved The True Meaning of Smekday, which I found at the bookstore and bought on a whim. So I know more good books are out there, though it does feel like we've read all the obvious ones. And it's just a nicer way to end the day than a session of Minecraft and Failblog.

I'm not a holy roller about the power of reading aloud. I know it's a good thing, but if the kids or parents don't enjoy it, I don't think anyone's doomed to a life of illiteracy and general unhappiness. And as it gets harder and harder to find a book that pleases the kid who doesn't like fantasy ("girls with winter coats and dragons laying eggs"), the one who likes only fantasy, and the overly-picky mother... I wonder if I should let the ritual go.

What do you think? Were you read to? Recommendations? Is it weird to read to teenagers, or what?

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Who's using Scrivener?

Rhian's gonna kill me ("Not another tech post!") but I really am curious if any of our readers are using Scrivener, the dedicated word processor for fiction writers.  This used to be a Mac-only affair, but a Windows version is now in beta, and anyway I've switched to a Mac laptop for my writing.  (Sorry, Ubuntu, those were good years.)

My awareness of this app comes at a time when I have been quite vexed by the problem of re-organizing a book that contains dozens of small chapters, which I am doing now.  In a conventional word processor (in my case,, this is a really annoying task.  In Scrivener, you can assign each chapter a note card, on which you can type a summary of the chapter; then, on a "corkboard" screen, you can rearrange the cards at will.  When you're finished, you can export the whole thing as a unified .doc or .odt.

I think it's too late for this novel, but I may switch over for the next.  If any of you are Scrivenists, please share your thoughts.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Reading and Writing Resolutions

I love resolutions so much I make them twice a year: at New Year's, then again in June, on my birthday. Sometimes I keep them and sometimes I don't, and I often think I should give up the whole stupid idea of self-improvement, but I'm helplessly drawn to new goals and new visions of my life. So, this year I want to fill in some awkward gaps in my reading. I'm thinking of Jane Austen (I'm so tired of not getting the references) and War and Peace. People say that new translation is pretty great.

As for writing, I don't know. I've had trouble finishing things for a Very Long Time; a reasonable goal would be to finish anything. But -- is finishing anything really the point? Writing for the sake of writing -- why bother? If I don't have anything worth finishing, anything that drives me to finish it, maybe I should just shut up. It's not like there aren't enough books in the world. I've seen them!

So maybe a better goal would be something like, Find a story that makes me want to finish it. Good luck with that, I tell myself.

Anyway, do you do this?? What are your goals, resolutions, reasons for not doing resolutions, or what have you?