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."