Monday, November 29, 2010

Gather Round for Story Hour!

Now that the Thanksgiving leftovers have been polished off and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade floats are safely back in storage, it’s time to catch the holiday spirit! Making my way home from the airport last night after a week spent in Ohio, I was delighted to see several Park Slope blocks already decked out in twinkling lights, and coming back to work after the break this morning was surely made easier by the giant wooden soldiers and massive wreaths that currently brighten our lobby.

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

Hunger-Inducing Literature

I'm sitting in my family kitchen, typing away to stave off the hunger pains. Granted, there's plenty to nosh on, but the mere aromas of roasting turkey with fruit and wine, a simmering pot of fresh cranberries and pears, and a warm apple pie cooling on the windowsill, its juices oozing through the crust, I'm going a bit nuts. It's not unlike the experiences of reading a book with great descriptions of luscious food--I blame the extra 20 pounds I carried through childhood on all the books I was reading. So to get your appetite ready for this evening's meal, here are the major categories of food in literature. Yum.

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

It Could Always be Worse

Our office is half-deserted. Empty office chairs sit wanly in front of bleakly black computer screens; one lonely coffee mug sits in the sink.

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

The Most Succinct Best-Of List

Ah, it’s that time again, when the “best books of the year" list becomes as much of a fixture as holiday shoppers and Thanksgiving Day floats. While there are a lot of fantastic, comprehensive lists floating around, I thought it might be interesting to see what the industry insiders had to say. I approached some of magazine and book publishing’s fearless leaders and the writers themselves to hear what they think stood out from this year’s offerings. Their picks run as wide a range as do the publications and agencies they work for. Since it’s 2010, I made the additional request that participants keep their answers to ten words or less—a restriction that didn’t take even an ounce of poetry or wisdom from their ever-charming answers.

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

Brooklyn Bookstores: Part 2 (and NBA parties!)

As promised last week, I'm profiling the final three on my list of favorite bookshops in Brooklyn. But first, I thought I'd do a wrap up of a few National Book Award parties from last Wednesday. First, the Association of American Publishers Young Publishing Group sponsored an event at Random House to watch the award ceremony. The Huffington Post coverage of the event includes a shaky and loud video with interviews of Chip Kidd, Avi Steinberg, Teju Cole, Brenna Ehrlich and Andrea Bartz. The Random House cafeteria in the background is hardly recognizable - all of the lights are off, with blue and pink accent lighting and swanky turquoise pillows.

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 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

The Conundrum of the Small Literary Gem

Last night's National Book Awards were a thrill to behold, and with three predicted, well-deserved wins: Patti Smith won the non-fiction prize for Just Kids, her memoir of her friendship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Kathryn Eskine won for the young-adult fiction prize for Mockingbird, her story about an eleven-year-old girl with Asperger's. And the poetry prize went to Terrance Hayes for Lighthead, a collection of poems considering fate and destiny with a consistent dash of wit and whimsy. All three of these titles were promoted by major publishers (Ecco/HarperCollins for Smith, and imprints of Penguin for both Eskine and Hayes), and so they had behind them major teams of publicists and marketers constantly rallying and cheering for them to succeed. (It also doesn't hurt that, apart from being an extraordinary writer, Smith is a national treasure, and has a place in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.)

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

Brooklyn Bookstores: Part 1

There’s no question that Brooklyn is a literary borough. From the annual Brooklyn Book festival to all of the literary cafes, landmarks, and residents (see The New York Observer article “The Brooklyn Literary 100”), Brooklyn is a bibliophile’s dream come true.

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
(718) 783-3075

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
(718) 642-8484

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

Ralston College: the Future of the Liberal Arts?

Earlier this week, Stanley Fish—professor of law, literary critic, and New York Times columnist—published a piece in the Times, “The Woe-Is-Us Books,” in which he surveyed recent books on the crisis in higher education. From Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreyfus’s highly visible book Higher Education? to his own Save the World on Your Own Time, Fish argues that this body of work presents a set of diagnoses as disparate and confusing as they are self-confident.

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).”
Although the plan incorporates some elements from the various other books that Fish discusses—Taylor similarly suggests the importance of organizing themes, rather than departments—in many ways it seems more radical. “Back to the future!” Fish writes. “Plato and students under the plane tree in Savannah. It is as if Blackwood had been reading the same books I had been reading, noted, as I have, the staggering number of problems liberal arts education apparently faces, and said, ‘Why don’t we just start all over again?’”

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?
But I couldn’t contain myself when reading this Twitter feed, which might as well be written by any painfully aspiring college freshman. Its voice is tinny, plaintive, and self-congratulatory: “Ralston College salutes Sir Salman's defence of freedom of thought and expression and intends to emulate him in this respect,” “The College is most honoured by and appreciative of Dr Fish's very generous remarks,” “The NY Times: ‘If there's any hope for liberal arts education, might it take shape at a new college planned for Savannah, Ga.?’ We think so.” Such comments reek of smarm. But even worse is how blatantly the Ralston feed disregards the point of Twitter—to produce independent, pithy commentary. Don’t like that format? That’s fine: don’t use it. But the effect of these interrelated bio-tweets, sent out individually, is of a little voice piping non-sequiturs:

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

I Feel Bad for Aspiring Writers

It’s near impossible.

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

Hangin' With the Ladies

It’s no secret that the gender ratio of the publishing industry favors the fairer sex. Because there are so many young ladies walking our halls, and the halls of publishing houses across the city, it’s always fun to have a brave young man dropped into the mix to shake things up. Recently I caught up with Andrew Carlson, one of only two male editorial assistants on our floor, to discuss the perks and pitfalls of being so outnumbered.

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

It's a Dealbreaker!

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.

I can't really enjoy the full Alikewise "experience" because I'm currently not in the market for a new love object. If I were an intrepid New York Times journalist, I'd probably make a fake profile and see what happened, but honestly I can find neither the energy nor the heart: it feels wrong, somehow, to undertake such a personal and emotionally-charged endeavor under false pretences. I'll be interested, though, to see if the idea really takes off: I know that my existing love object and I first bonded over similar (though not identical) tastes in books, and this has proved a good indicator of complementary personalities, mutual intellectual inclinations, and compatible visions of life in the long term. If anyone tries this out for realsies, however, please keep me posted about how it goes and if you ever need a second opinion. As you already know, there's nothing I like more than an exhaustive analysis of people's bookshelves, even if they only exist in cyberspace.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Writer's Drive: NaNoWriMo's Mixed Bag

I once heard an old saying that anyone who worked in publishing was just a writer who was kidding themselves. Were this accurate, it'd be an awfully masochistic truth: what enterprising writer would willingly subject themselves to the business side of making literature? It's like being a vegetarian and going to work in a sausage factory. What made the adage seem even less true is that not all people who work in the book business have a great American novel up their sleeve. Sure, every now and then you get a Bill Clegg, and Toni Morrison edited for twenty years (and wrote three novels--The Bluest Eye, Sula, and Song of Solomon) before she finally decided to quit her day job. But the majority of editors appreciate and polish the written word, rather than creating it from scratch. My one and only attempt at serious fiction was a required contribution to a class on Narrative Theory, and even then the best I could do was a rip-off of The Sound and the Fury. Sign #495 that I'm not going to be the next Jonathan Franzen.

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 soup├žon 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.