Wednesday, December 15, 2010
You could almost see Jane’s brain screech to a halt. I was sympathetic to the hard truth. It’s not always about beautiful words flowing from the author’s head on to the page—there are rules to follow.
I realize it’s pretty obvious, you need a conflict in a story. But the idea of rules in fiction is so, um, industrial.
Slate recently ran a long article about MFA vs. NYC literary culture, based on another book by Mark McGurl. It was fascinating, but what unnerved me was the way the author of the article summed up New York novelists (aka, writers trying to sell their novels to publishers) and their work so concisely:
“The best young New York City novelists go to great lengths to write comprehensible prose and tie their plots as neat as a bow. . . she doesn’t worry about who might read her work in twenty years; she worries about who might read it now. She’s thrown her economic lot with the publishers, and the publishers are very, very worried. Who has both the money to buy a hardcover book and the time to stick with something tricky.”
As someone who works in publishing, I don’t want to believe it. Nobody wants to write anything truly original—perhaps mold-breaking—because big publishers won’t go for it? I'd like to think that every novel, especially those that I’d want to publish, are as unique as snowflakes swirling in the air.
The idea that novels are all the same, and the call for something new, was the topic of David Shields' manifesto Reality Hunger. It’s actually pretty funny if you think about it. The way novels can be described. James Wood in The New Yorker wrote about the rules of mainstream realist fiction: “the cinematic sweep, followed by the selection of small, telling details (“It was a large room, filled almost entirely by rows of antique computers; there was an odd smell of aftershave and bacon”); the careful mixing of dynamic and habitual details (“At one of the computers, a man was unhurriedly eating a spring roll; traffic noise pierced the thick, sealed windows; and ambulance yelped by”). Okay, so it’s true.
I recently asked some friends, what was the last book you read that was really different? Some said Tom McCarthy. Or David Foster Wallace. I felt like going back to the writers group and telling Jane—write it how you want it! Be different. Start with the end and finish with the beginning. Don’t listen to anyone.
But I can’t forget that a lot of readers—I’m thinking of those who buy every new Grisham or King—buy a book because they know exactly what they are going to get. And they are happy doing it. It’s like getting on Big Thunder Mountain for the 24th time. It’s going to be fun.
Tuesday, December 14, 2010
Some of the first signs of the season appear overnight in our office lobby: two giant wreaths, two menorahs, a gaggle of poinsettias, and four life-size Nutcracker soldiers. Some might say it's childish to admit that their presence gives my step a little extra spring in the morning, but that's the truth. And I think that I'm not alone--the front desk folks and the elevator attendants seem to smile more brightly, and it feels natural to exchange a grin with a coworker as we wait for the elevators below a garland shimmering with gold.
Sadly, our floor doesn't go in much for collective holiday decoration. With my string of lights and single card, I'm probably the most outlandish celebrant here. But as I walk down the halls, I can detect the sound of Wham! singing "Last Christmas" through more than one person's headphones. I rock out to holiday music all day on Pandora, too--it's much more fun to do all the end-of-the-year catch-up work while internally crooning along to Bing Crosby.
Even though we lack tinsel and giant baubles, you can still tell what season it is by the number of gift packages and bags that start arriving. Most of them collect along the publicity corridor, which for this month becomes a regular diversion on my route around the office. You would not believe what they collect: chocolates, cookie plates, cakes, cheeses, and all kinds of fancy candy. Right now there's even a box of gift bags containing half-bottles of Moet et Chandon, which I unfortunately don't think is for the collective taking. Production gets a fair amount of love too from all the printing companies and photo agencies, but I have slightly less of a pretext to be wandering around their hallway, so I haven't had a chance to assess their haul this year. Disappointingly, Editorial tends to be the most barren of all unless a good-natured author happens to see the light and send something along; usually, a few cards from agencies constitute our seasonal gifts.
I think the personalities of different literary agencies emerge most clearly around the holidays. Just as it's revealing to see what cards your friends and acquaintances choose to send, so it is to examine how each agency chooses to acknowledge (or not acknowledge) the holidays. Some don't send anything, whereas others mail elaborate cards, signed by the entire office, that turn into calendars. A lot of agencies choose to throw parties around this time, too, which is even more interesting from an anthropological perspective. Some of the bigger boutique operations hold formal bashes for the big editors: they send official invitations, hire a bartender, and have the food catered. Others pride themselves on their informal get-togethers, where assistants are welcome and everyone pours their own wine and helps themselves to a Trader Joe's cookie assortment.
The other ubiquitous gathering of the season is the hosted party. Young editors or agents who work together will often pool their resources and industry contact lists to jointly host a shindig in the reserved back room of a reasonably trendy bar. These are a bit less nerve-wracking than agency parties, as there's less of a professional agenda; the crowd is usually comprised of people climbing through the various ranks of assistanthood, and although you are there to "network" the guise of the holidays and the neutral location make things feel more socially genuine. With the prospect of the break ahead, everyone is usually feeling quite jolly and ready to have a drink (or three), and an authentic sense of fraternity often sets in as you begin comparing stories of servitude with other party goers.
These numerous side events notwithstanding, the November/December party carousel is always centered around some kind of official bash. It seems that the improved fiscal outlook of 2010 has spurred publishing houses to be more extravagant than last year; there are reports of one company-wide blow-out at Gotham Hall, a house that decorated each floor of their building with a different theme to host a grown-up version of "Around the World," and more than one dinner-drinks event at a rented restaurant. Individual imprints and groups also celebrate informally with happy hours and lunches. And, despite the essence of forced festivity that always lingers at the fringes of these mandated office celebrations, I think I might enjoy them most of all. And here's why.
It takes a village to make a book--editors, production managers and editors, designers, publicists, marketers, and salespeople. During the stress and chaos of the year's span cycle, it's all to easy to lose track of the big picture, of the real scope of achievement. However, there's something about December that brings everything back into focus. Our slowed schedule, the release of cumulative "best of" lists, and a collective holiday spirit unite all the separate departments together in a community celebration of accomplishment. Looking back at what I, my imprint, and the house I work for have done this year makes my little heart swell with pride. Sure, there has been sweat (try hauling boxes of books and manuscripts around), blood (oh, the paper cuts), and more than a few tears, but at this time of year--particularly when slightly inebriated on the company dollar and surrounded by my closest co-workers, many of whom have become friends--it all seems more than worth it.
As you may have discerned by now, I'm kind of an emotional lush at Christmas. It gets to me, all this baby Jesus-ing and "Joy to the World" caroling. If I go on, I'll just get worse. So let me just say, "God bless ye merry publishing people," and more importantly, "God bless ye merry readers." Happy Holidays to all, and to all a good and safe break.
Monday, December 13, 2010
“Um, Katie what are you doing?”
“It’s been a long week. I thought I’d celebrate the weekend with a glass of wine.”
“Are you gonna drink the whole thing?” (My not-subtle way of asking if I could partake in her brilliant idea.)
“I hope not.”
“Okay, I’m hitting the bathroom and then I’m coming to join you.”
It was the most historic and fateful sentence I would ever utter with the word “bathroom” in it.
Maybe it was because of the positioning of her office (smack dab in the route to the bathroom, right at the corner of a bend that made it difficult not to peak into her office as you were passing); maybe it was that Katie was friendly with everyone here, from the mail guys to our fearless leaders; maybe it was because of how cozy and warmly decorated her office was; maybe it was because she just kept buying wine. Whatever the reason, Katie’s office quickly became home to the beloved tradition of gathering with co-workers every Friday afternoon, ready to celebrate the dusk of a week hard-worked.
The process evolved over time. At first it was at four, but because these gatherings came to resemble actual celebrations instead of a few chummy people getting cozy, we moved them to five, once the work day was officially over. At first we worried that our older, more senior members would frown at the tradition, but before long they were making cameos to see what all the fuss (and noise) was about. (I once co-hosted a Friday at five with my boss.) At first it was solely a few bottles of wine and maybe a half bag of chips someone had lying around from lunch, but before long Katie started bringing in mouth-watering, home-baked delicacies, and gourmet cheeses with an impressive variety of spreads and crackers. People started trying out recipes on the group, and before long we were as culinary as we were fermented. At first I would grab a single glass of wine on my way to whatever Friday engagements I had on the calendar, but after enough instances of having to drag myself away from the festivities, I started limiting all big weekend plans to Saturdays and Sundays.
We talked about books—what we were reading and what we wanted to, and gave each other passionately espoused recommendations. We weighed and debated the merits of various jacket possibilities we had seen for upcoming titles, oohing and ahhing over our favorites, and traded notes on work loads and the most efficient way to battle the bumps in the road we all encounter at some point in this line of work. The point was never to continue working during these sessions—rather to take a deep breath after shutting of the computer for the night—but some of the most valued and fool proof tricks I have up my sleeve for my work here I gleaned during these off-hours gatherings. During our best, loudest, and longest lasting Fridays at five, senior editors would come by and regale us with tales from bygone eras, and encounters with legendary, beloved writers and passed on to us some of our imprint’s most charming bits of history. Most of the good stories I have about this place’s distant past are also by-products of Fridays at Five.
Not everyone showed up at five—sometimes big projects or looming deadlines kept us. But as there was a steady stream of entrances and exits at each week’s meeting, we never really worried—we knew some chapter of the group would be waiting whenever the last t was crossed. Every person’s arrival, no matter how late or early, or how predictable due to regular attendance, was met with a welcome cheer. It was always clear that people were happy to see you whenever you made it. About a year into the tradition we started celebrating birthdays, new arrivals and departures to other jobs as part of the tradition, which only deepened the sense of community.
This past Friday was Katie’s last day here. The publishing world is lucky enough to keep her—she’s heading over to Farrar Straus and Giroux. Like all million dollar ideas by the great minds that litter our past, Katie’s founding of Fridays at Five will outlast her time here, hopefully all of our time here. We’ll continue to gather every Friday to discuss the things that plague and delight us in this business, and the books—and of course people—that make it all worth it. With a little luck, Katie will continue to cameo every now and again, and during the weeks she’s tied up at her fabulous new job, you can be sure that at least a few of the stories shared will feature her as protagonist and star.
Because most milestones are recognized with a toast in the Land of Friday at Five, it’s only fitting that we should send Katie off with one. So here’s to you Katie—for creating a work place so lovely and inviting that nine to five, five days a week just isn’t enough, and to co-workers who become family. We miss you already.
Thursday, December 9, 2010
It's an often-repeated fact that people today may change careers--not jobs, careers--two to three times in their lives. People shift around, their thoughts on what they want change, and their lives bring new challenges that may take them to new locations. The number of unforeseeable factors that may force a change in career are endless, and so it absolutely amazes me that I know people who have spent their entire years--twice my time on earth--at the same company, in the same function, and never tired of it. And despite advancing age and changing times, they are intellectually as sharp as they ever were, with energy to spare and continued optimism about the future of book publishing.
There's a lot of debate right now about whether certain artistic inclinations can be taught--can an MFA ever truly teach someone how to become a novelist? Can you buy the instincts of a bestselling writer? Does honing your craft in graduate school mean limiting yourself commercially in the future? These are all valuable questions, and worth asking given the boom in literature, self-published and non, and the steady depletion of the reading community. But an additional question begs asking: can you, and how can you, teach people to be publishing-minded?
Obviously working for a commercial publisher requires a different set of skills than writing a novel--you're not marketing books in solitude, you're not designing a book jacket solely for yourself, and you're not seeking out paper vendors and overseas printers by way of your local Staples. But nevertheless, the skills of someone who works in publishing--a mind for both high art and low commerce--doesn't always come naturally. There are a handful of certificate programs, as well as some graduate degrees, that are meant to provide you with a "Master in Publishing." Programs like The Columbia Publishing Course (of which myself and another TKers are alumni) often provide access to industry leaders, giving participants the opportunity to ask unlimited questions and engage in exercises designed to teach you the mindset of the trade publishing world. (At CPC, we were split into teams to run our own imaginary publishing houses over the course of two weeks. I was serving as my team's CEO, and nearly had a breakdown because my editors couldn't get their shit together, having their ideas shot down over and over by real-life publishing insiders. After the exercise was over, however, I felt much more informed about the different elements of making a book imprint function.)
Clearly programs like these, where 6 weeks of participation (and a chunk of tuition) give you an enormous amount of information, qualifying as a kind of publishing boot-camp. But are they more valuable than real-life experience? Will you get more out of 6 weeks of seminars than you would out of a 3-month internship at a publishing house? It's hard to say, as everyone's experience is different. But either path will show you a few aspects of what ultimately become a lifelong calling, a 45-year commitment to making literature. I've only been in this industry about 4 years, but I have to wonder if I'll make it to my 45th, to that handshake and that applause, to the knowledge that I've built a life for myself inside this profession.
Monday, November 29, 2010
Of all the impending festivals, parties, and cheer, though, I’m most excited about a series of events that speak to both the four year old and the book worm within: Anthropologie’s upcoming holiday reading hours for kids. Starting tomorrow in Short Hills, New Jersey, and going all the way through Friday, December 17th in Jacksonville, Florida, select stores across the country will be hosting story time for kids. Customers are invited to shop while the wee ones are regaled by tales, though I personally plan just to snuggle up on the story rug to tap into my inner kid. Hand in hand with this program is the store’s book drive, which will help Reader to Reader, a non profit organization, supply books to “the nation’s neediest schools and public libraries.”
I hope to catch a gaggle of you at the Chelsea Market reading on the 8th. For a full list of participating stores across the country, check here. Enjoy the stories and, who knows, you might even spot the perfect dress for your next holiday shin dig while you listen.
Thursday, November 25, 2010
Classically delicious dinners: Nothing like a great classic novel to give you a traditional appreciation of elegant food. In Charles Dickens' world, almost every important event occurred with a mug of ale and a slice of roast beef on the side. (Even the gruel in Oliver Twist sounds a bit enticing.) In Jane Austen's world, tea was central to key moments of courtship in the text, and there's a whole school of literature that is best when paired with tea. English literature is chock-full of culinary delights--proof that the best books and the worst food can come from the same kitchen. (The kidney breakfast at the beginning of Ulysses always freaked me out; however, I still find the muffins and cucumber sandwiches in The Importance of Being Earnest especially delicious.) Stories of early Americana also provides great descriptions of food: many chefs cite Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie series for their first cooking inspiration (even if they weren't up to making oxtail stew.) But for me, nothing beats the descriptions of Southern food, be they from Mark Twain (ah, Huck's scavenged dining) or Fannie Flagg (fried green tomatoes and abusive husband BBQ, yum.)
In which the food is imaginary, but nevertheless enticing: I was a big fan of fantasy lit as a child, and the idea of "second breakfast" and "elevenses" from Lord of the Rings were especially appealing to me. The concept was simple: after breakfast, you were entitled to a second breakfast, and then at eleven o'clock, another morning meal to keep you tied over until lunch. But what really intrigued me was those foods that were not recognizable, or even real: foods from Brian Jacques' Redwall series, from the oddest entries (otter "rockcream" and seaweed grog) to strawberry and damson cordial and garlic and herb cheese bread. Jacques went into such ornate descriptions of the mice, rabbits, and badgers dining on these woodland delicacies, it was impossible not to get hungry. Other entries in this category include: Alice in Wonderland (ah, beautiful soup!) The Golden Compass, The Wind in the Willows, George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones series, and the Harry Potter books (butterbeer, anyone?) And of course who could forget Roald Dahl's The BFG, who reluctantly dined on snozzcumbers and rewarded himself with frobscottle?
In which food is the star of the show: Sometimes, food just needs to play the starring role. Novels like Laura Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate make cooking the dramatic action of the plot, a means by which good people found happiness and bad people found their just deserts, pun intended. This tradition, of treating cooking like magic, a kind of culinary alchemy, carries over into popular novels today, including Aimee Bender's The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake and Muriel Barbery's Gourmet Rhapsody. Food has become much more than just a way to add color to a novel, it has become its own subject worthy of literary digestion.
Hungry yet? I'm starving, and the turkey's nearly done. So I'm off to do something more fun than blogging--eating. Bon appetit!
Tuesday, November 23, 2010
Although our company’s holiday schedule does not technically include the first three days of Thanksgiving week, most people—in the grand American tradition—take them off anyway. Great distances need to be traveled on packed planes and trains and buses; pies need to be made, and turkeys must be sourced. Thanksgiving (and Christmas) are often the only times that families can gather in their glorious entirety, and every moment counts.
Of course, in concert with the vision of a harmonious clan gathered around a heaped table is one of familial implosion, of yet another holiday scorched by age-old grudges that seem to re-ignite themselves around this time of year. Mother, frazzled by a day spent laboring a hot kitchen, picks a fight with Grandfather who has once again become too intimate with the whiskey decanter. Sibling squabbles rise anew; clothes, figures, new boyfriends and girlfriends are judged. “Are you sure you want that second helping?” asks Aunt with raised eyebrows. Uncle snorts derisively when college-age Nephew announces he’s ditching pre-med for philosophy. And so it goes.
The thing about dysfunctional families, though, is that they’re far more interesting to read about than the well-adjusted ones. Tolstoy said it best in Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” That’s why literature is full of debased and fractured families, each one burdened with its own story of secrets and private griefs and never-forgotten betrayals. So, in the spirit of the season, I thought I’d talk about some famous fictional families, in all their fascinatingly flawed greatness.
We’ll start by assuming that the knotty Karenin/Oblonsky/Vronsky cohort is a given; if you know how the novel ends, it’s a pretty obvious conclusion that home life for the protagonists is not so great. Flippancy aside, Anna Karenina is a complex, powerful portrayal of loyalty and love’s potential for destruction; it should be on the “Required Reading” list for life. If you haven’t yet read it (probably the most accessible of Tolstoy’s novels), I really urge you to get hold of a copy and dig in over the holidays.
Feuding brothers and sisters are a common occurrence—almost as prevalent as bad mothers, and fathers who beat their children. But the siblings who love each other too much are also a frequent, and much more disturbing, trope. Silver-tongued Van and beautiful Ada Veen in Ada, or Ardor, by Vladimir Nabokov; Franny, a rape victim, and her protective brother John Berry in John Irving’s Hotel New Hampshire; and, of course, the jackpot of depravity that is Flowers In The Attic. One of the most deeply troubling novels I’ve read in my entire life, V.C. Andrews’s introduction to the Dollanganger family is a catalogue of Freudian abuse—the physical relationship between Chris and Cathy is just one of the family’s awful secrets. Products of incest themselves, the siblings are abandoned by their mother and viciously terrorized by their grandmother. The novel that inspires a wealth of conflicting feelings, because Andrews is a phenomenal writer who manages to traverse what would be, for most of us, unfathomable emotional spectrums of emotion. What would normally repulse becomes, in her hands, uncomfortably compelling.
Illness, both physical and mental, is another cause of familial corrosion. In Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, a family is turned inside out when it is forced to confront the declining health of its angry and borderline abusive patriarch, Alfred Lambert. Alfred suffers from dementia, but as they care for him his children must battle their own paranoia, depression, and pathological jealousy; it’s fitting that Franzen chooses Christmas morning as the moment for his characters’ ultimate showdown. In The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides more explicitly tackles the subject of mental illness through his story of five sisters who, over the course of a decade, kill themselves. Narrated by an anonymous group of teenage boys, this novel provides an outsider’s perspective on the gradual destruction of a family, beginning with the suicide of the youngest daughter. Grief is merciless, even when the immediacy of a tragedy has passed; its repercussions linger, lying dormant until a reawakening that has catastrophic consequences.
Horrible parents/guardians tend to be a mainstay of older novels, particularly Regency and Victorian titles. Charles Dickens’s Dombey and Son is a ruthless portrayal of a hostile, neglectful father; Florence’s refusal to give up on her quest for love from her father, Paul, truly rends the heart. Although Mrs. Joe, in Great Expectations, is really Pip’s sister, she acts in loco parentis and treats him with abominable cruelty (her husband, Joe, isn’t spared the blows of her angry fist). And the abuse Jane Eyre endures at the hands of her uncle’s family, the Reeds, is agonizing. Taunted, belittled, and physically attacked, her home life is unbearably miserable—and moving to Lowood School, where she is at the mercy of a tyrannical director, is no better.
All right, I’m out of time. I need to make my own Thanksgiving getaway—there’s an 8 p.m. flight from Newark with my name on it. But, though it is a rather depressing catalogue, perhaps this post will give you something to chew on during the holiday. Remember that, regardless of what drama and anguish goes down at your festive table, you're a real person and not a character in one of these novels…
Monday, November 22, 2010
Have a favorite of your own? Let us know!
Room by Emma Donoghue is chilling, mind-expanding, and heartrending. —Teddy Wayne, author of Kapitoil
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. The power chord meets Powerpoint. Awesome.—Jonathan Segura, Deputy Reviews Editor, Publishers Weekly
Skippy Dies by Paul Murray. The funniest, most poignant, honest novel I’ve read in years. —Jessica Freeman-Slade, TK Reviews
Maira Kalman's And the Pursuit of Happiness: More than a book; I want to move into it. —Maggie Pouncey, author of Perfect Reader
Alphaville: 1988, Crime, Punishment, and the Battle for New York City’s Lower East Side by Michael Codella and Bruce Bennett. Violent urban history—a rule-bending cop’s forthright memoir. —Ben Mathis-Lilley, editor of New York magazine’s Approval Matrix page
All the Living by C.E. Morgan. Aloma makes a home from grief, sex, tobacco & music. —Caitlin McKenna, The Melanie Jackson Agency
The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman. Linked stories are the new novel. —Zack Wagman, Associate Editor, Vintage Books
Edmund de Waal’s wonderful memoir, The Hare With Amber Eyes. A poignant memoir that reflects powerfully on art and history. —Jonathan Galassi, Publisher and President, Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Packing for Mars by Mary Roach. Redefines the meaning of “armchair explorer.” —Hannah Wood, TK Reviews
The Passage by Justin Cronin. Viral outbreak. Blood-sucking humanoids. Society falls. Centuries pass. Then... —Jake Keyes, The New Yorker
Room by Emma Donoghue captures the truth of childhood: its innocent, joyous selfishness. —Millicent Bennett, Editor, Random House
The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman. Intensely evocative of all things pleasurable, perfect summer reading. —Joey McGarvey, TK Reviews
Skippy Dies by Paul Murray. Perfect for a girl with a crush on Kingsley Amis. —Alissa Kleinman, Permissions Associate, Knopf
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. Stories coalesce into a poignant, po-mo, rock & roll novel. —Dana Liljegren, ICM
E.L. Doctorow’s Homer & Langley. A novel full of perfect sentences. —Carmen Johnson, TK Reviews
Collected Stories by Lydia Davis. Jacket's Orange Creamsicle. Inside's smoother still. —Craig Walzer, Atlantis Books, Paravion Press Publisher
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. After reading Freedom, the Berglunds seem like unfortunate family friends. —Eric Fitzgerald, Contracts Associate, Crown
Paul Muldoon's Maggot: Such grit with such beautiful rhymes. —Evan Simko-Bednarski, Managing Editor, Armchair/Shotgun
The Possessed by Elif Batuman. Adventures with Russian Books! —Claire Kelley, TK Reviews
Bob Dylan In America by Sean Wilentz covers new ground with keen insight. —Chris Bloomfield, Atlantis Books, Paravion Press Publisher
Jess Walter’s The Financial Lives of the Poets. A Catch-22-esque portrait! —Miriam Kate Robinson, Promotions and Marketing, Foyles
Sunday, November 21, 2010
Then there was the after party at Cipriani Wall Street hosted by the DailyBeast, which was attended by a young crowd. On the dance floor, there was a fair amount of Peanuts style dancing going on, including some noteworthy celebratory moves from NBA Fiction winner Jaimy Gordon and her sister. Finally, the literary magazine Armchair/Shotgun, hosted the contrarian first annual NOT-the-National-Book-Awards at Blue & Gold Tavern, where they encouraged attendees to "Suggest a book that will never win an NBA, because it's terrible. Or because it's great, but available only in Tagalog. Or because it's How I Met Your Mother: Complete Cast Bios."
And now, the final three recommended Brooklyn bookstores.
Unnameable Books – Prospect Heights
600 Vanderbilt Ave
Unnameable Books is owned by Adam Tobin and is a great place to go for poetry readings and film viewings, which are held in the shop's backyard or in the basement. In a recent profile, Adam explains why he had to change the bookshop's name (it was originally Adam's Books) and what he sees as the role of his bookstore in the neighborhood. In June of 2008, Unnameable Books was featured on the cover drawn by Adrian Tomine for The New Yorker, who lived above the shop's previous location on Bergen Street. The cover shows a guilty looking woman receiving a package from Amazon.com as the shop owner unlocks the bookstore and makes eye contact with her. One of the funniest events I attended at Unnameable Books was a midnight book party to celebrate the simultaneous publication dates of Sarah Palin's book Going Rogue and Nabokov's The Original of Laura (read The New Yorker's Book Bench coverage here).
Greenlight Books – Fort Greene
686 Fulton Street
Greenlight Books opened just over a year ago after Jessica Stockton-Bagnulo, the events coordinator at McNally Jackson in Nolita, won a $15,000 grant from the Brooklyn Public Library. Rebecca Fitting, a 34-year-old sales representative for Random House joined her as a business partner. Today, the bookshop is thriving, and hosts a great list of readings and literary events that are supported by the myriad writers who live in Fort Greene.
Book Court - Cobble Hill
163 Court Street
Founded in 1981, BookCourt is owned and operated by Henry Zook and Mary Gannett (pictured below) and their son Zack. What I love about Book Court is that it is so community orientated and they always have a wall of staff picks that I peruse every time I stop by the store. For reviews and upcoming events, check out their website. They also have a funny Twitter feed that features posts like "Waitaminute, have we talked about the fact that resident dreamboat Paul Auster is going to be here tonight, w/his new book, Sunset Park?" or "The clarity with which I understand that I need pizza is astonishing" or "Best title I've unpacked today: Diary of a Baby Wombat."
Thursday, November 18, 2010
But the one that got me thinking was the fiction prize: Jaimy Gordon won for her novel about horse racing in West Virginia, Lord of Misrule. A professor at Kalamazzo, Gordon has written several novels before (and collections of poetry, plays, stories, and essays), but has always been published by small independent presses. Lord of Misrule was published by McPherson & Company, a small literary publisher based in Kingston, New York (as agents move to Brooklyn, perhaps publishers move wherever they like.) I know we've discussed the difficulties of small presses on the blog before, and so I need not draw out a long portrait of the great struggles these publishers face to get shelf space, review attention, and national prominence. But when a small glittering novel such as Gordon's gets catapulted into a moment of acclaim, it can transform both the author and the publisher's fate . . . until the next book is scooped up by a major publisher. (The paperback of Lord of Misrule, as well as Gordon's next book, will be published by a much larger imprint.)
When a little book makes a big splash, should it be scooped up by a major publisher? You can make the case that a writer who deserves a wider audience should get the widest possible distribution--with all the sales force of a major publisher behind it. And it is undoubtably a huge coup for a major publisher to get their hands on a little gem of a book before it's cannibalized by everyone else. But it also sometimes feels like the "man" gets to scoop in and take over the title, and possibly change the future direction of the author's work. It's a lazy assumption to equate obscurity with authenticity and to call a big book disingenuous, but surely a great many people get to make that assumption. Authors certainly might--but then again, that's the nature of the business: when you walk into a bookstore, it's rare that the small-size literary novel will catch your attention when the big displays are reserved for the sure-fire sellers.
But then again, sometimes being small and famous has its virtues: when Paul Harding's novel Tinkers won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, it took many major publishers and the media by surprise. (The book had been published by Bellevue Literary Press, a small publisher based out of the NYU School of Medicine.) The New York Times went so far as to call Tinkers "the one that got away." And with Harding's next book (a sort of sequel to Tinkers) under contract to Random House, it may be that he'll take no one by surprise if he writes something extraordinary. But back when he had first won the Pulitzer, independent book publishers took stacks of Tinkers and placed them up close to the register. As people brought their copies of bigger sellers up for purchase, they could take a glance over to this lovely small-format novel, suddenly emblazoned with a sticker declaring "Winner of the Pulitzer Prize", and feel as if they'd missed the boat on something truly extraordinary. And into their shopping bags it went.
Monday, November 15, 2010
This month, I reviewed Brooklyn resident Paul Auster’s latest novel, Sunset Park, which takes place in the neighborhood the book is named for. At one point in the novel, a character considers one of the merits of his neighborhood to be the proximity and access to a bookstore. If I apply that test to my own living situation, then my apartment in North Park Slope is prime real estate. Here are my five favorite bookshops in Brooklyn.
This week I’ll write about two, and next Sunday I'll write profiles of the other three.
Community Bookstore – Park Slope
143 Seventh Ave
This bookstore is just a few blocks away from me and has a great back garden and children’s section. A cat named Sir Marjorie Lambshanks III, Esq. and a bearded dragon live in the shop, and there are a couple of book clubs held at the store, including Books Without Borders for works in translation and The Modernist Bookclub. The bookstore went through some financial troubles in 2007, but owner Catherine Bohne rallied her neighbors in Park Slope and got through it. According to Brooklyn blogs, she has apparently moved to Albania, and is in the process of selling her bookstore to someone named Ezra Goldstein. Read more about this recent development here.
Freebird Books – Red Hook
123 Columbia Street
This bookstore is special to me because I heard about it from George Whitman, owner of Shakespeare & Company in Paris while I was staying in his bookshop and planning a move to Brooklyn. The original Freebird Books founders, Samantha Citrin and Rachel London had stopped by Shakspeare & Company the month before I arrived. Today, Peter Miller owns the bookstore and runs it in his spare time (his day job is Publicity Director at Bloomsbury). Freebird holds great readings, film screenings and BBQ’s in the summer. They also have a Post-Apocalyptic book club that meets in the shop, lots of used paperbacks, and a stellar New York City section.
Check back next week for more!
Friday, November 12, 2010
After running through some of these arguments (including those of a book on which I worked, Mark Taylor’s Crisis on Campus), and “while [he] was trying, and failing, to make sense of all this,” Fish suggests that maybe, just maybe, higher education has found its savior: Stephen Blackwood, and his still-under-construction Ralston College. The story is this. Ralston is a new undergraduate institution that will be built in Savannah, Georgia. It will insist on a thorough grounding in the liberal arts. Tuition will be paid for all students. And Blackwood, a recent Ph.D. recipient whose background is in religion and classics, will be its first president.
Here’s how Fish describes the academic experience:
“When they get to Savannah, the students of Ralston College will find that the school year is the entire year, 12 months, that they are expected to dine together and wear academic gowns, that they will all be reading the same texts organized around a yearly theme (in successive years, the Self, God, Nature, Community and the Beautiful), that the texts will be ‘supremely difficult’ and begin with Greek and Roman authors, many of whom will be revisited the next year under the aegis of a new theme, and that they will also be receiving instruction in the visual arts, mathematics, the sciences and foreign languages (at least two).”
Ralston does not truly signify a new beginning: the insistence on the primacy of a classical canon is an essential part of the culture wars, and books like Hacker and Dreyfus’s represent just the latest iteration. All universities cope with the pressure of the canon in some way—the University of Chicago’s Common Core curriculum and Columbia’s Core Curriculum are two examples—and so do smaller colleges. St. John’s College, in Annapolis and Santa Fe, demonstrates a similar dedication to the classics through its Great Books Program; Deep Springs College, in the California desert, also emphasizes commitment, seriousness, and intimacy.
But Ralston and Blackwood are making an effort, and they’ve got admirers: “Either blissfully unaware of the obstacles rehearsed in the woe-is-us books or wrapped in the armor of faith and innocence like a modern St. George, Blackwood, without very much experience or money, has so far managed to secure a promise of buildings to house his new enterprise [and] gained the moral and honorific support of Harold Bloom, Hilary Putnam and Salman Rushdie.” (Fish doesn’t mention here that he’s among the official supporters, a member of their Board of Visitors.) In fact, one of the only visible online manifestations of that effort—their Twitter feed, which seems somewhat contradictory to their “Back to the future” approach—is largely dedicated to cataloguing the support and biographies of those admirers. Here’s one series of tweets:
Ralston College is delighted to announce that Sir Salman Rushdie has agreed to become a founding Patron of the College. 3:16 PM Nov 3rd via web
Sir Salman is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and the recipient of many other awards and honors. 3:26 PM Nov 3rd via web
His novel "Midnight's Children" won the Booker-McConnell Prize in 1981 and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction. 3:36 PM Nov 3rd via web
It also won the Booker of Bookers award in 1993 and the Best of the Booker award in 2008. 3:54 PM Nov 3rd via web
Sir Salman is a noted defender of civil liberties: he famously declared in December 1991 that "free speech is life itself". 4:25 PM Nov 3rd via web
These words come from an address (which he risked his life to deliver) marking the 200th anniversary of the First Amendment. 4:30 PM Nov 3rd via web
In a Latin translation they are the motto of Ralston College: Sermo Liber Vita Ipsa. 4:35 PM Nov 3rd via web
Ralston College salutes Sir Salman's defence of freedom of thought and expression and intends to emulate him in this respect. 4:38 PM Nov 3rd via web
As I’ve mentioned previously on this blog, my boyfriend and I like to play academically themed games with one another. While Crisis in Campus was still in production, we talked about what an ideal college might look like. We plan classes. We’ve extensively discussed opening a small school in New York that would function much like an arts-based Mountain School (or any other exchange program for high school students). And so, I applaud the effort here, and especially Blackwood’s can-do spirit—so much so that I was even able to stifle my amusement at Ralston’s requirement of gowns, to refrain from asking the question, “But will this be fun?”
Many consider him to be the world’s foremost literary critic. 1:00 PM Sep 27th via web
Instead of working and playing with the demands of a new media form, the Twitter feed, Ralston flatly imposes a traditional format on it. A biography will take shape!—even if it needs to be divided into 140-character chunks. It’s this—well, and maybe the tone of the tweets—that worries me most about Ralston. If they’re this inflexible (and, ultimately, unsuccessful) with something as simple as Twitter, what will the college look like? Although I too believe in the primacy of reading and writing, I'm not sure this is the way to save higher education—or the humanities.
Ralston: I’ve got my eye on you.
Wednesday, November 10, 2010
Last week, an author and creative writing teacher, Kyle Minor, blogged about reading his students’ writing. The post was titled: Five Sure Indications That What I’m Being Asked to Read Will Be Dismal Duty.
Here are a few of Minor's indications that the writing will stink: The author is a “published author” or wants to be a “published author” and what she’ll be reading is a “fictional novel.” And rather than being offered a very short story or a miniature narrative, she is being offered a flash.” Or the student says, “I’ve always known I was a writer.”
Minor's piece is a bit snarky, probably true, but still snarky.
It seems fiction writing isn’t like other activities that equate hard work with success. It’s not like being a long distance runner, where the more miles you run, the better you’ll be at running.
No, to be a good writer (admired, esteemed, and such) you can’t just be hardworking. You need to have something special. It seems good writers don’t crawl on their hands and knees, begging people to read their manuscript. They don’t divulge their feelings about being a writer. And they never send annoying query letters. It seems writers are supposed to be plucked from society, like a model discovered in a mall.
I compare this image of writers to Pride and Prejudice, when Elizabeth is confronted by Mr. Darcy’s ideas on what makes an accomplished woman: “A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half deserved.”
Impossible! I understand Minor is simply offering some advice on how to be taken more seriously but writers are so often given conflicting advice. On one hand, they are told to never stop trying, just keep at it. Many authors were rejected at first. On the other hand, there’s a sense that great writers are much too serious and engulfed in their work to send silly emails to possible mentors or editors. What is a writer to do? Probably just write.
Monday, November 8, 2010
Were you an English major?
Yes. You’ve seen me try to do math, haven’t you? Where I make that face like I’m concentrating really hard? The playing guitar face?
I ask because college English departments tend to skew towards the female as well, so I thought you might have some practice in this?
I think the population of my department was pretty evenly distributed by gender. But we sat on opposite sides of the seminar table. Kidding. Kind of.
Had you heard before moving here to pursue publishing that the females outnumbered males by such a wide margin?
I knew nothing.
Has being surrounded by all the bright, brilliant young ladies here given you any particular insight into the female psyche?
I don’t think it has. Do you think it has?
What about the book group we have—have you been surprised at all by the interpretations your female co-bookclubbies have lent to your reading of classic books?
The only thing in my experience I could compare our bookclub to would be a film club that a couple friends and I ran in college. Basically, we’d watch really snooty movies and then sit around and argue about them for a couple hours. The conversations were aggressive. I can’t imagine why our girlfriends ever came along. It must’ve been a horrible, pathetic spectacle. It was fun.
This bookclub you refer to is quite different. Not that it isn’t fun as well. It is. I meant it’s a girl’s club rather than a boy’s club. (Thanks for letting me join anyway.) And I’m fascinated by how the dynamics of the conversation differ. In a lot of ways, it’s what you’d expect. Fewer jokes about phallic imagery. More talk of dating. More talk of chicken. More consideration given to the feelings of other participants—you know, trying to disagree without giving offense. I’m trying to think of ways in which the differences might be unexpected . . .
That has nothing to do with what you asked. No, in short, I don’t think my reading of Ulysses changed in any specific way based on our discussions. Although I always enjoy the discussions, and am very impressed by what everyone brings to the table.
While there aren’t many male editorial assistants here there are a lot of male editors—does the fact that you’re relatively few in numbers bring you closer/foster closer relationships between the fellas who ARE here.
Do men around here bond, if they bond, because there are relatively few men? I don’t think so. It’s not as if I have the sense of being under siege, or something. Of needing to band together for support or huddle for warmth. I’m not aware that anyone else feels that way, either.
Now that you’ve been slogging away here for almost two years, have you gained any insight into why the imbalance exists? We do a lot of male oriented books—what keeps more gents from joining the industry and what about our life here is particularly attractive to the fairer sex?
That’s an interesting question. I think it’d be some sort of fallacy to comment on the industry as whole based on what a novice like me has seen. There may be one or two ways in which our happy family turns out to be sort of different. Is it the case that all other publishers are as skewed? I think FSG—a great publisher—has more young dudes in editorial. But I could be wrong about that. Anyway, that would be purely anecdotal, too. As for why women are still drawn to an industry that over-represents a male point of view—and I agree it does—I couldn’t say. You should ask Larry Summers or Karl Marx. I mean, is there an industry that doesn’t over-represent a male point of view?
I’d throw out, too, that there are other lines you could use to divide this stuff up. We’ve talked about how there are more women than men in publishing and about how, relative to gender distribution in the industry, there are more men in high-level positions. But it seems to me it’s also the case that people of color and people whose families were less well off, who maybe didn’t get go to elite schools where their professors were famous writers or editors, are under-represented at every level. Which is just to say that the Question of Women in Publishing probably isn’t at all specific to publishing, but maybe just throws into relief patterns that you could see variations of elsewhere.
Friday, November 5, 2010
Back in June (oh, those days of sunshine and roses seem so far away…), the lovely Carmen wrote an interesting post about how people’s reading choices influence their potential as romantic prospects. It is a debate that’s been ongoing for a while now, a literary riff on Liz Lemon’s catchphrase: “It’s a Dealbreaker, ladies!” His favorite book is The Shack? Dealbreaker. Twilight, New Moon, Eclipse, and Breaking Dawn are the only novels she’s read this year? Hella dealbreaker.
There’s something so fascinating about going to people’s apartments and having a good root through their bookshelves. It’s more socially acceptable than rummaging around in the medicine cabinet, but just as revealing: you can see which titles are well-thumbed and which are pristine, covered in a thin layer of dust. Books give away interests and passions, college courses taken and itineraries of travels past. As I wrote before in my post on book collecting, the volumes on the shelves tell the story of a life.
A couple of years ago, some enterprising folks launched a website called Goodreads, where people can assemble virtual bookshelves and talk about what they’re currently reading. The idea is that you can noodle around and learn more about people by what they post, but the actual point of it is, at least to me, unclear.
Goodreads is primarily a social networking site: although you can see some content by just browsing, you actually have to be “friends” with people to see everything they have to say. This is a fairly intimate platform, without any of the superficial agenda of LinkedIn or even Facebook, so if you’re “friends” with someone on Goodreads, isn’t there a good chance you know them in real life? Why do you need a special forum to talk about books with your friends?
However, someone recently introduced me to an incarnation of this “public bookshelf” concept that makes total sense. It’s an internet dating website called Alikewise, which allows users to build profiles based on what they’ve read and are currently reading. It speaks to Carmen’s observations, and more broadly to the general consensus that if two people’s bookshelves aren’t compatible, they probably aren’t either. In some ways it’s like a traditional dating website, in that you post a photograph and a short description of yourself. But its format is refreshingly quirky—a clear example of how structure can foster, rather than stifle, personality and creativity.
Every profile has two tabs. The first is a bookshelf on which you can display titles and a short explanation to go with them. People interpret this feature quite freely: some people write about what they’re reading now, whereas others choose to focus on their favorite books. I don’t want to quote from anybody’s profile without their permission, so I’ll let you browse through at your leisure. The other tab is labeled “His/Her Story,” and serves as the “personal statement”—except that statement has to take the form of answers to six specific questions:
I would describe myself as...
When people meet me, they notice...
You'll often find me...
Two things I can't live without...
The bravest thing I've done recently...
I am particularly good at...
At first glance these questions might seem asinine, but seeing how people choose to respond—whether seriously or flippantly, in depth or with brevity—is not only interesting, but also very revealing. It beats eHarmony’s crapulous Personality Profile any day in terms of depth and insight.
Browsing Alikewise is endlessly fascinating, a perfect occupation for a rainy Friday. You can search by demographic (a/s/l, as internet chatroom loiterers call it); by author; or by book title. Even if you’re not trolling for a date, it’s refreshing to see so many readers within a culture that is supposedly mourning the demise of books. There are the expected quantities of people reading Eat, Pray, Love and Freedom, but I was surprised by the breadth of taste and affinity. Some people do conform gloriously to the stereotypes (which is why we have them, right?), but the website does debunk a lot of the assumptions we can be tempted to make about the audience of a particular book. And, for the most part, people's comments were insightful, eloquent explanations of their choices that I respect, even if those choices would not be my own.
Wednesday, November 3, 2010
And no matter how many brilliant writers you may end up working with, you never stop being enthralled by their sheer creative force. I'm flooded with questions for the writers I admire: where do all those characters live inside your head? How can you create such rich interior lives for these people without going nuts? How do you get the drive, the commitment, to put it down on paper? More than anything else, I appreciate the writer for never losing faith that what they're doing is worthwhile: people can work on novels for decades, constantly refining and finessing every inch of their fictive creation. Even when they desperately want to give up, they somehow keep going back to the work. That kind of dedication, no matter what you produce, is awe-inspiring.
The discipline, the drive, the ability to churn out pages every day, astounds me, and so projects like NaNoWriMo seem especially attractive to the less-than-fully-productive writer. NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month, in which registered participants attempt to write a 175-page (50,000-word) novel between Nov. 1st and Nov. 30th. By making the goal quantity, not quality, NaNoWriMo seems to provide a technique to solve the problem faced by most writers: how to keep yourself plowing ahead? Last year, more than 167,000 people signed up for the challenge, with roughly 32,000 people reaching the word goal by the end of the month. Sure, that's a pretty steep drop-off from start to end, but still, that's 32,000 people who've managed to churn out a novel-length work in just one month. (And one major hit--Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants--emerged from a NaNoWriMo project, so it comes with a soupçon of critical validation.)
There's a debate brewing, however, about the usefulness of challenging so many people to put together novels. For starters, is it a good thing to flood an already crowded literary market with even more content? Would these books be published, given the chance? And even more crucially, is the work produced any good? Laura Miller in Salon has posted a controversial piece questioning the NaNoWriMo technique: when bookstores have begun to post signs saying "Write Your Novel Here," she wonders if it is "yet another depressing sign that the cultural spaces once dedicated to the selfless art of reading are being taken over by the narcissistic commerce of writing." Miller questions NaNoWriMo as an exercise designed solely for the benefit of the writer, not for the reader, and wonders if the project gives writers an excuse to churn out less-than-superb work quickly so they can force it into the hands of nearby consumers. "As someone who doesn't write novels, but does read rather a lot of them, I share their trepidation. Why does giving yourself permission to write a lot of crap so often seem to segue into the insistence that other people read it?" This is the same argument that established writers and publishers use to debate the rise of self-publishing--if a book doesn't get a critical once-over--either in the writer's later drafts, by an agent, or by a professional editor--should it make its way into the marketplace?
I see Miller's point, and I worry about a literary community in which there's so much content we can't see the diamonds through all the cut glass. But I also can't bring myself to disparage a program like NaNoWriMo that provides cheerleading for the creative process. Carolyn Kellogg has provided a counterpoint to Miller's argument in the Los Angeles Times, and she carefully dissects each problem found with NaNoWriMo, constantly asserting that "literary culture isn't a temple, it's an ecosystem." She says, "If writing is narcissistic, I for one am glad that Thomas Pynchon and Charles Dickens and Joan Didion can be called narcissists. But if writing is a commerce, tell that to Edgar Allan Poe, who died poor and sick at age 40, and the thousands of others who write without adequate compensation." Unless you're Dan Brown or James Patterson, writing has never been a cash-cow career option, and so the idea that people write in order to create temples to themselves is a pretty silly one at that. (Maybe this is true if you're in the memoir game, but I digress.) Kellogg's ultimate point is that, spending a month writing a novel, no matter its initial pre-revision quality, "is more fruitful than many things, including much of the fun, casual cultural consumption we regularly engage in. It's more fruitful than watching TV, playing video games, spending hours on Facebook or Twitter." What NaNoWriMo attempts to do is put a gaming/goal-oriented aspect into the process of writing, one that you can share with the rest of the writing world. NaNoWriMo uses the Weight Watchers-AA technique to rally a person's creative forces: join a group, log your progress, be part of a community where everyone is working toward the same goal.
Every day, more and more people choose to put down a book and pick up the remote, iPhone, and video game console. The world of books has lost too many citizens in part because we constantly put quality work on an unnecessarily high pedestal. When we treat reading a novel as more important than watching TV, we also make it seem like more work and less fun. In order to win back the hearts of writers and readers, we have to make literature more accessible. If NaNoWriMo brings the process back to the people, then everybody wins.
Wednesday, October 27, 2010
I’ve grown up a little. I’m not waiting for my prince charming handheld anymore. Nope. For the foreseeable future, I am stuck carrying all my needs in separate gadgets. I am referring to the Kindle and iPad, of course.
When the iPad was released this past April, foolish me, imagined the iPad and Kindle in a boxing ring, with oversized boxing gloves, going at each other. It was war. Which fancy reading device would Americans choose? Which little machine would prove victorious? I held my breath in anticipation. Publishers were in a frenzy.
Then both devices started selling rapidly. Apple has sold roughly 8.25 million iPads (the number varies) and while Amazon is mysteriously vague about their sales figures (they say they’ve sold millions but won’t say exactly how many)—it doesn’t matter. I don’t need any official sales reports telling me, I can just see it. Kindles and iPads are here to stay.
Americans, it seems, are not choosing between an iPad and Kindle. They are buying both because they are vastly different products. If we are choosing anything, we are choosing between reading devices (the new color Nook, Sony Reader, Kobo, or the Kindle?) or between a new laptop or iPad. As I wrote in a post last summer, the iPad isn’t about ebooks. (There’s a reason why iPad owners tend to be young and male. More than half of apps downloaded are games.) And the Kindle keeps getting better at what they are designed to do as ereaders.
My minimalist dream of having one device isn’t here yet because it hasn’t been invented it yet and because I am not willing to give up the pleasantness of reading on the Kindle or the iPad’s web browsing and apps. We are spoiled kids in the candy store—we want, no, we need both.
Monday, October 25, 2010
This little ray of sunshine in my cumulative bag of facts has, of late, become newly relevant. Last Thursday marked exactly two months until my twenty-eighth birthday. I find myself plagued with the question Am I two weeks away from AS GOOD AS IT’S EVER GONNA GET??? Though the specifics of my aspirations have evolved, I’ve always wanted to pursue creative fields (perhaps by default—math and science have escaped me always, the tricky minxes) and the fact that it might be all down hill from here in that arena leaves me with a furrowed brow that’s probably doing nothing to help the physical components of aging.
Needing a remedy for the implications of my favorite statistic, I decided to do some research on the various ages of some of the most creative minds of recent years: the last five winners of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Knowing that it probably wouldn’t be fair to look up the ages of these winners at the publication of the book that actually won the prize since it is often awarded to seasoned writers who have been perfecting their craft for decades, I was interested instead at the age these great minds were at the time they published their first book. (I.E. When do most people who eventually master the craft of storytelling first begin to create publishable works? At point does your creativity flourish enough to get you started on your journey?)
Perhaps it’s naïve to use extreme outliers on the scale of “normal” (after all, the point of the Pulitzer is to acknowledge individuals who have distinguished themselves, not fallen somewhere in the middle of the pack, or proven fairly average statistically), but nonetheless, I’m going to take heart where I can. And there’s much to be heartened by in the list below. Perhaps a little bit of the good news to be found there can be applied to the rest of us in moderation.
I may use my heightened powers of creativity to redecorate my living room this coming year, though, just in case . . .
The Pulitzer Prize Winners for fiction from 2006-2010:
2006: Geraldine Brooks:
Won for: March
Age at publication: 55
First book: Nine Parts of Desire
Age at publication: 39
2007: Cormac McCarthy:
Won for: The Road
Age at publication: 73
First Book: The Orchard Keeper
Age at publication: 32
2008: Junot Diaz:
Won for: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Age at publication: 39
First book: Drown
Age at publication: 28
2009: Elizabeth Strout:
Won for: Olive Kitteridge
Age at publication: 54
First book: Amy and Isabelle
Age at publication: 42
2010: Paul Harding:
Won for: Tinkers
Age at publication: 43
First book: Tinkers
Age at publication: 43
Friday, October 22, 2010
I would venture to say that most people (even people like me, who have a hard time remembering things like ATM pins and computer passwords and sometimes conversations completed less than ten minutes ago) carry around with them a line from a poem, or a phrase from a novel, that they will never, ever forget; a sentence or a stanza that set their synapses ablaze, ingraining itself forever in the intricate passageways of the mind.
Some of these words will leave their mark through beauty, whether it lies in their rhythm and assonance -- the way they roll off the tongue -- or the image they evoke; others remain indelible because of the deeper meaning they contain. Sometimes the association is indirect, related more to the context. A phrase, perhaps innocuous in itself, can be powerfully symbolic of an experience or a personal relationship.
However, it is a big leap to have these beloved, iconic words indelibly inscribed on your flesh. Permanently inking something onto your skin is a serious statement, and choosing to get a tattoo is a very conscious, and often deeply-pondered, decision. What spurs someone to get a line from The Satanic Verses etched into their flesh? Or, for that matter, a Charles Bukowski poem? Choices are drastically varied, as are the designs; some are straight calligraphy, whereas others incorporate illustrations.
You can while away many afternoons scrolling through the photographs on Contrariwise and also on the book's blog. Often, the featured tattoos are accompanied by an explanation from their proud wearers, each an illuminating glimpse into someone's deeply private interior life. The Word Made Flesh is also structured around this pairing of tattoo and essay, but the editors' thoughtful curation of its entries leads to bigger and broader inferences that makes the book almost anthropological in scope. It manifests a staggering breadth of human emotion and experience; it also provides incredible insight into the way we read, and the relationship that we as a society have with the written word.
For instance, some authors and quotations appear very frequently. At the event on Wednesday, the editors -- Eva Talmadge and Justin Taylor -- described the process of choosing what to include in their anthology. They received many submissions inspired by Kurt Vonnegut, e.e. cummings, and Sylvia Plath; Shakespeare and J.K. Rowling are apparently also popular writers in the nation's tattoo parlors (as an observer, this trending is more apparent on the blogs because Talmadge and Taylor made a deliberate effort to avoid repetition in the book).
This leads me to what I consider to be a major issue regarding literary tattoos. Would you be pissed if you got "Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt" etched on your shoulderblade, only to discover on some blog that at least fifteen other people have that same tattoo? Would it tarnish the special relationship you have with Slaughterhouse Five? Or would knowing you belong to a community of Vonnegut fans somehow it enhance it?
I'm not quite sure how I would feel. People seem to have mixed reactions; some of the people in the book clearly got intricate and obscure tattoos as an expression of individuality, whereas others seem to have wanted more to signify their fandom, their inclusion in a larger reading public. As I don't have any tattoos, I can't really claim to understand what it's like to select a design, get it done, and then live with it -- you know what I mean?
However, I have been thinking about the possibility for a while. I had back surgery earlier this year, which left a vertical scar about two-and-a-half inches long on my lower back; although it's perilously close to "tramp stamp" territory, I'm intrigued by the idea of disguising, or incorporating, it somehow with a tattoo. I even know what I would get (I think), but I haven't quite yet made the plunge into certainty. It wouldn't be a text tattoo, but it certainly would be literary-related... if I get it, I promise I'll show you guys a photo!
Thursday, October 21, 2010
This past Saturday night, I was at a lovely party in Brooklyn with a handful of college friends, and as the night progressed, and the drinks flowed, we naturally became less and less adult. We giggled effusively at Mad Libs (where my contributions ranged from "duodenum" to "Khalid Sheikh Mohammed", leading to their use in extremely odd context), and around 12:30am, the host decided that it was time to pull out a few titles from her collection of children's books. (She works in children's publishing, but beyond that, she's just awesome.) Emptying our wine glasses, we proceeded to turn a previously fun evening into an utterly hilarious one--somehow diving into the simple, enthralling narratives of the picture books was the best possible entertainment we could have found. Even in an age where picture books are becoming less and less popular, they still are perfect models for the short-short story: usually 30 pages or less, with concise and evocative language, they are the petit fours of literature, and make for a ridiculously fun Saturday night.
Our selections for the night, and perhaps one we should've added to the list...
Miss Rumphius, story and pictures by Barbara Cooney: I think every girl has some kind of attachment to this book, and not just because it's the most lovely wistful portrait of an elderly single lady ever written. The central ideal being, you can travel the world, and build yourself a lovely home, but the final step is figuring out something you can do to make the world a more beautiful place. In this story, it's Miss Rumphius deciding to scatter lupine seeds throughout her little seaside town, and ultimately becoming known as "The Lupine Lady." Is there any more lovely expression of what it means to lead a joyous, generous life?
Whatever by William Bee: This is actually a rip-off of the very wonderful Maurice Sendak book, Pierre: A Cautionary Tale in Five Chapters and A Prologue, but I don't think you can ever have too many books about annoyingly indifferent children. The one qualm we had about this one is that the boy's enthusiastic pleasure seems to take his son's ultimate demise in stride. Even in children's books (which should be light with the tragic touches), this was a little disconcerting...
A Sound Like Someone Trying Not to Make a Sound, by John Irving, illustrated by Tatjana Hauptmann: Fans of John Irving will recognize this story's presence in his novel A Widow for One Year (and its movie adaptation, The Door in the Floor.) What Irving had to say about adult writers of children's stories in that book was quite ominous, and this story gave us all chills. It perfectly captures that frightful waking in the night when you hear a sound that you can't quite place running through the walls and around your room. Very haunting, powerful story, with equally haunting illustrations to boot.
Donald Has a Difficulty by Peter F. Neumeyer and Edward Gorey: Any evening that includes Edward Gorey is a win in my book. Poor Donald has a splinter in his foot, and his mother distracts him as she removes it with a needle, urging him to think of markets, strings, and battles. The splinter is removed without a care, yet when his mother daubs the wound with alcohol, Donald lets out a shriek of pain. A classically dark and twisted (yet utterly benign) Gorey tale.
The Story about Ping, by Marjorie Flack and Kurt Wiese: This is when we knew that the drinks had kicked in, because it was impossible for us to get through this without additional giggles. The story of a little duck chasing his family's home boat down the Yangtze River caused us to wonder if this lovely little picture book wasn't in fact a pro-Communism missive designed to enchant impressionable children.
Tadpole's Promise by Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross: Believe it or not, this is actually a book about mature adult romantic relationships. A tadpole and a caterpillar fall in love, and promise each other that they will never change. Yet one day, the tadpole sprouts two legs, then two more, and his caterpillar breaks up with him and goes off to cry in her cocoon. The tadpole sits on his rock, bemoaning the loss of his "beautiful rainbow", even after enjoying a snack of a tasty butterfly. Gorgeously illustrated, this is a lovely yet sobering story about the inevitability of change.
As we left the party, I wondered how all these children's stories had come to move us so deeply. Was it the wine, or was it a deeper desire to go back to the days of storytime? Then I thought of a final children's book that has never lost its resonance for me, and knew that it would have to be included in the next party's reading...
Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst, illustrated by Ray Cruz: Is there any children's book that has ever been so spot-on about the trials of everyday life as this one has? Poor Alexander suffers a wide range of disappointments--he wakes up with gum in his hair, there's no dessert in his lunch, he doesn't get the striped sneakers he wants, and he has to watch kissing on TV. He briefly considers moving to Australia. But as his mother reminds him, everyone has bad days, even the Aussies. And Alexander is a reminder to us all that sometimes, you just have a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day, and tomorrow may be better.