Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Problem of Casting Literary Heroes

A great deal of fun has been made this week (and, let's face it, ever since the film was announced) about the potential casting of what is the most coveted female role in Hollywood today: that of Lisbeth Salander, the punked-out anti-social heroine of Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy. Yesterday The Daily Beast reported that the casting process has been narrowed down to four final candidates, none of whom would be considered major stars. (The final choice will probably break early next week.)

Personally, I'm thrilled by the approach David Fincher is taking in his American version of the thriller. (Noomi Rapace, the extraordinary actress that played Lisbeth in the Swedish film version, reportedly declined the role.) I've been imagining different actresses in the role for months, and none of them seemed quite right. (Imagining Natalie Portman or Kristen Stewart simpering their way through the role didn't seem right at all). But I also wonder if these unknown actresses might be forever branded should they win the coveted role; when a character is this iconic, and already this imagined in the minds of readers across the world, how can any actress's talents rise above the written role? Or even live up to all those readers' expectations?

People take very different approaches when weighing whether or not to read a book before its film adaptation: if you see the film first, you risk knowing too much when you read the book, but then you might also have your narrative experience further expanded by all the nuance a book provides--imagine how much richer a reading of Pride & Prejudice might be after having Colin Firth's sulky handsomeness imprinted on your brain. Or how much better a book like The Devil Wears Prada might read when you consider
the gravitas Meryl Streep brought to a previously flat and caricatured villain.

On the other hand, the liability with seeing the movie first is that you don't allow your imagination to run wild with too many visual and casting guidelines to how you should interpret the story. Thank goodness I read Atonement before watching Keira Knightley take on the role of Cecilia, or else I would never known how much depth the character was supposed to have. And no matter what I do, it's impossible to read a page of a Harry Potter book now without envisioning Daniel Radcliffe in the part. (Thankfully, he's doing his best to break out of the post-HP casting rut.)

Lisbeth Salander is unlike any character recently introduced in fiction, and definitely unlike most roles for actresses in contemporary film: she's hard to the point of self-destruction, antisocial, sexually unconventional (both in her appearance and in the way other people objectify her), and constantly beating people up (and being beaten-up herself.) Whoever plays this character, she will be forever identified as Salander, and if she does it well, it may be impossible to see her in any other role ever again. Is this an opportunity, or a liability? It would certainly help the readers to have an unknown in the role, so we don't ascribe any characteristics of the actress onto the final performance. (This was enormously successful when unknown actress Gabourey Sidibe played the lead role in Precious--but she had to go out of her way to demonstrate to the rest of the world that she was not, in fact, the same person as her character.) Yet when our interpretations of fiction become so tangled up with their onscreen iterations, will we ever be able to picture Salander with as much freedom of interpretation?

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Publisher's Question Time, Vol. II

So, you may remember that last week we began to lift the veil from the face of publishing to reveal the beauty – and the monstrosity – beneath. In an effort to probe those murky depths, I solicited from my co-workers the most common questions that they get about their job, and their replies included queries covering everything from what editorial folks do all day to the correct pronunciation of Knopf. However, I saved the most common, and the most difficult, question for this week.

I have a manuscript—will you be my editor?
My [mother’s brother’s best friend’s daughter’s childhood crush’s dog] has a manuscript, will you take a look at it?
My dad, friend, grandpa, hairdresser etc is writing a book - can you help them get it published?

To someone who works in publishing, these words are akin to ragged nails screeching down a chalkboard. Not that this behavior is confined solely to aspiring writers: people who work in music, film, fashion, modeling, and sports get bombarded too. And it’s supremely awkward. You want to be nice; you want to help people and spread good karma. And you never know when someone might be proffering a hidden gem, the next best-seller that just needs one person to take a chance and believe in it. But the likelihood of that being the case is very small.

The issue here is the personal nature of the request, and the obligation it immediately creates. If a close friend who is serious about writing asks me to read something, I will do so because I genuinely want to help where I can. Hopefully, she will understand enough about my job to know that it’s not a question of me waving a magic wand to produce a book (I really have little power at all), and be comfortable with a respectful and honest exchange of ideas and suggestions. Most importantly, I can be sure that she’s approaching me as a friend and peer without any expectation of professional results.

However, the situation becomes very different if someone I don’t know well (or at all) asks for feedback. What do I say? They don’t know me well enough to value my opinion in and of itself or really care about what I have to say; they only want the possible connections I might have because of my job. It’s one thing to ask for neutral industry advice – for example, how best to select an agent or prepare a query, or even how to go about finding a job – and I’m always happy to provide that because it indicates that the person is professional and has a grip on the realities of publishing. There’s no inherent expectation of results, or the potential for an awkward dilemma about whether or not to be honest, and well-within the socially appropriate norms of networking and general goodwill. But it’s another thing to be cornered at a party by an acquaintance and asked point-blank if I can help her publish her boyfriend’s short story collection. Once, during a short-lived attempt to find a roommate through Craigslist, I went to see someone’s apartment; we were chatting about ourselves, and I mentioned what I do for a living. “Oh!” she said, eyes alight. “My mother writes romance novels! Can I put her in touch with you?”

You can call me grumpy and selfish and ungrateful if you want, but I think it’s rude for people to abuse social goodwill and demand an uncompensated investment of time and effort. For example, say you hurt your knee in an accident. You might ask your friend to talk to their mother who’s a doctor and see if she has any advice or recommendations, and maybe she’d suggest you see her colleague the orthopedic surgeon or visit a chiropractor. Perhaps she might even offer to look at it herself. But you wouldn’t, after meeting someone at a party and discovering he was a doctor, immediately whip off your trousers and ask him to examine your leg, would you? Or even entertain an expectation of free treatment from your friend’s mother? No, you would not. And that principle applies to all situations, whether you have a novel you want published or parking tickets you want voided. Please don’t send me your pastor’s self-published paranormal thriller unsolicited with a heavy-handed, hint-filled note; please don’t give my e-mail to your casual acquaintance without asking for my permission first; and please, whatever you do, DO NOT MESSAGE ME ON FACEBOOK just because you saw a comment I made on someone’s post that in some way casually referred to work (yes, that’s happened).

Phew! I feel so much better now.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Dear Elizabeth, Dear Robert

Recently, a writing class that I’m taking discussed Kafka’s Metamorphosis, and when the instructor mentioned in passing that some of Kafka’s best prose can be found in his collected letters, I realized to what degree I’ve been sleeping on all writers’ body of correspondence, having always been more of a fiction and poetry girl. So this past weekend, when rifling around in my book shelves for something to take with me on a trip to the beach with some friends, I grabbed Words in Air, The Complete Correspondence of Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell.

A few hours later, I couldn’t help but marvel at the degree to which the details of these two people’s lives mirrored my own. Just upon reading the chronology I learned that Bishop was a Vassar grad, as were two of my four beach companions, and while I’d always known that Lowell studied poetry at my Alma Mater (Kenyon College), I was interested to read that he had first attended and then left Harvard, the stomping grounds of my beau, small text messages and updates to whom had so far filled my day. Things really started to get creepy when I saw that Lowell also spent a not insignificant amount of time teaching in my beloved home city of Cincinnati. Perhaps most relevant, though, is the fact that it is abundantly clear from diving into Lowell and Bishop’s letters that they were constantly serving as support systems and consolers to one another, and one of the reasons that the my little beach going contingent had gathered was to provide company and good cheer for a friend who had just started the long process of mourning someone he loved. These people were treading on my territory or, to be fair, vice versa.

Moving beyond the chronology and diving into the meat of the letters, what I found continued to resonate. These two individuals who I have long considered gods of the 20th poetry world proved time and again just how human they are. They were gossipy, insecure about their contributions to their art form, full of regret (sometimes regarding their relationship to one another) and struggling with perhaps more than their fair share of demons and addictions. While it is no surprise to find an artistic soul struggling under the weight of psychological struggles or alcoholism, as so many of the greats have, to read Lowell’s very humble and anguished first hand accounts of his struggles stripped away any glamour that I might’ve attached to the dark side of the artistic temperament.

Perhaps it is their very real, very tangible humanness that makes the beauty of the words with which these individuals describe their plights, share their goals, and discuss their art that much more remarkable. Describing his experience in the early stages of sobriety, Lowell quite beautifully and hauntingly writes, “At first one feels removed from the living, that sociable drop gone that makes us all one species, in warmth, weakness and talkativeness. Then the air clears and steadies. I have so many holes in my soul, I imagine that this is the only way for me to go through the rich jungle of New York on my own feet.” Even when being a bit of a gossip Lowell’s wit and clever knack for words shines through, as when he writes, “Lesley Parker is just finishing a week with us, stonelike, sleeping in the sun, full of intense and unreal gossip that tries to be heroically ungossipy.” In what is so far my favorite letter in the compilation, Lowell takes my breath away with his passage about wondering what might have happened if he had asked Bishop to marry him: “I do think free will is sewn into everything we do; you can’t cross a street light a cigarette, drop saccharine in your coffee without really doing it. Yet the possible alternatives that life allows us are very few, often there must be none. I’ve never thought there was any choice for me about writing poetry . . . But asking you is the might have been for me, the one towering change, the other life that might have been had.”

It is probably because of the extent to which I found myself savoring these letters that I realized to what extent letters of this sort might be a dying species, and that the heavyweights of our current literary scene might not have any letters of this sort to be compiled for future generations. In today’s internet centric world, so many thoughts that might’ve been journaled or shared with only a good friend in the mid and late 20th century are posted on blogs, and an increasing number of online interviews and discussions. Further, we’re always available to our friends and family at the drop of a hat should they need to reach us, by text, or email, gchat, or skype. Struggles with issues it might not have been proper to discuss back then are no longer a thing to be kept hidden—accounts of addiction, abuse, and depression fill memoirs and reality shows. Perhaps if Lowell and Bishop were living and writing today, and Lowell was reflecting on having let Elizabeth get away he might’ve confessed his thoughts via what our generation refers to as a “drunk dial”—the tell-all after-hours phone conversation. Lowell might not have needed to unload his struggles with alcoholism and mania in an intimate letter to a close friend—his struggles would be perfectly acceptable to discuss openly with larger groups of people at any time. Even their less intimate stories and anecdotes—such as Bishop’s description of having watched a calf being birthed smack dab in the middle of one of her letter writing sessions--might’ve been posted to her blog, or recounted in an email going to a dozen friends as opposed to only one, since it is now possible to reach so many friends with one press of a button. So much of today’s conveyance of information, thought, and feeling is put out in the open forum, that sacred space like that between Lowell and Bishop seems so much harder to come by.

On top of this, I find that no matter how polished I try to make my reviews and blog posts for this site, or reader’s reports and emails to authors for my job, my casual email correspondence to friends and family takes on a decidedly more casual vernacular, and proper punctuation goes out the window. Is the same true for professional writers whose personal correspondence might one day be of interest?

Or perhaps our devolution to what seems like the excessively informal is just the continuation of a process that’s been ongoing since before even Bishop and Lowell’s time. Perhaps their letters were cutting edge and informal for their time. After all, you have a married man writing his deepest darkest secrets to a woman not his wife in letters laced with intimacy, and often addressing what would then have been considered off limits topics. These were two very gifted poets—perhaps for them casual prose was informal, not matter how poetic it sounds to readers. In one letter Bishop writes, “I started a letter to you a few days ago, but I seem to be having trouble getting to writing anything again, even letters,” as if letters are the easiest and least mentally taxing format in which to write.

Perhaps future generations will see the intimacy between the improperly capitalized lines of our generation’s preferred format and standards of correspondence and find the very human sentiments and emotional battles that lie at their heart and, when reaching out to a dear friend, at least, content will always trump form?

Sunday, July 25, 2010

A Conversation Between Freud and C.S. Lewis

Last week, my mom came to the city from Ohio to visit me. We went to a play that she had read about, Freud's Last Session, which is playing off-Broadway on the West Side at the Marjorie S. Deane Little Theater. Inspired by the book The Question of God by Dr. Armand M. Nicholi Jr., the play is a hypothetical meeting and conversation on September 3, 1939 (the day England enters World War II) between C.S. Lewis, a 41-year-old Oxford professor (he wouldn't write his most famous books The Chronicles of Narnia and The Screwtape Letters until later in his life) and an 83-year-old Freud at the end of his illustrious career, who has been driven from Vienna by the Nazis and is suffering from cancer of the jaw. Lewis had converted to Christianity when he was 33-years-old while Freud, an atheist Jew, remained committed to science until the end of his life. Freud and Lewis clash on the existence of God, love, sex and the meaning of life—only two weeks before Freud chooses to take his own.

The play made me curious to read a few books that are obliquely referenced. First, I think that many of the arguments that Lewis makes in the play come from one of his early books, Surprised by Joy, (the title comes from the first line of a Wordsworth poem), which is an autobiography about his spiritual journey. In the play, Lewis mentions that he was influenced by arguments with his Oxford colleague and friend J. R. R. Tolkien, and by the book The Everlasting Man by G. K. Chesterton. The other book that isn't mentioned by name, but is still alluded to in the play is Freud's work on humor: Jokes and their Relationship to the Unconscience.

I thoroughly enjoyed the play, and liked how the intellectual sparring was interspersed with interesting insights into each character's life. They not only discuss and debate God’s existence, but also, and perhaps more importantly, emphasize the importance of debate.

Interview with actors Martin Rayner (Dr. Sigmund Freud) and Mark H. Dold (C.S. Lewis).

You think shame is a good thing?— Freud
I'd love to see more of it! Admitting to bad behavior doesn't excuse it.— Lewis
If only we had met years ago! I would have listened to my patient's sins, then told them to fall to their knees and beg absolution. Psychoanalysis doesn't profess the arrogance of religion, thank God.—Freud

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Mourning the Passing of Daniel Schorr

I spent the morning listening to the memorial program on NPR for Daniel Schorr. Like many journalists of Schorr's generation--he was 93 when he passed away yesterday--I didn't know much about his history or the trajectory of his professional life. It was fascinating, and touching, to hear his interviews with Robert Siegel, taped when Schorr turned 90, reflections of the life he had led and the history of the 20th century for which he had been both a witness and a participant. I knew him mostly from his commentaries on Scott Simon's Weekend Edition, which I listened to with pleasure each week, always ready for his gravely, thoughtful voice to discuss the week's news and its affects.

Thinking about Schorr's life led me to remembrances of another journalism giant--Charles Kuralt, whose memoirs I grew up listening to as audiobooks and who I watched on CBS Sunday Morning every week. Much of my knowledge of foreign affairs began with those books. There was a story he told about a bricklayer that stays with me today, as do his stories of covering the war in the Congo--showing how he mastered the art of the particular, human narrative as well as being able to describe the complicated, heartbreaking and infuriating affairs of the world.

I've always had a love affair with public radio--the kind of affair that fades when I forgot to stay in the habit of listening, and then blooms again when I remember what I am missing. In college, I spent a summer taking a writing workshop at night, which often led me to stay awake til the early morning, taking walks around the nearby lake and simply being quiet and still, and then turning on my radio and listening to the BBC. As a kid, I had read a lot of books about World War II, which frequently included the desperate desire of many to hear the news from the BBC, and listening to the broadcasts from my utterly safe dorm room called forth some sense of the risk broadcasters took to send their voices out over the airwaves.

These memories are not offered as a way to mourn the past or to complain how things today are so different--I don't think they are, in essence, even if the noise around everything has grown much greater and intelligent perspectives much harder to find in the mess of the web and the hundreds of TV and radio stations. I simply wanted to take a moment and consider what voices have shaped my engagement with the news, and to remember anew what risks reporters take every day, how much they believe in the work they are doing. I dreamt of being that kind of person at one point in my life, but I didn't have the force of will to search out the world and shape it into words that can be aired, or filmed, or printed and tell us all something more about life beyond our front doors. I'm grateful for those men and women who do have that stamina and passion, whose voices help open my ears and my eyes, and touch my heart.

Whose words is it that you listen for, in the past and today, whose work you trust to tell you something important about the world?

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Where Have All the Good Books Gone?

"She thought of his face as it had been when they met; and watched it now. She thought of all they had discovered together and meant to each other, and of how many small lies had gone into the making of their one, particular truth: this love, which bound them to one another."

"She did not answer. She covered her forehead with her ringed left hand and stared into the dish of salted peanuts as though all the answers to all riddles were hidden there."

"The sky looked, now, like a vast and friendly ocean, in which drowning was forbidden, and the stars seemed stationed there, like beacons. To what country did this ocean lead? for oceans always led to some great good place: hence, sailors, missionaries, saints, and Americans."

Sometimes there's nothing like a perfect, underline-able sentence, to make you realize just how rare truly great prose actually is.

This past week, I've been devouring James Baldwin's
Another Country, a gorgeous novel about a group of friends struggling with their desires against the societally-proper structures for race, gender, and sexuality. It's been a long time since I read Baldwin; the last work of his I tackled was Giovanni's Room during a brief trip to Paris last fall. But it took only a few pages into Another Country for me to remember what a brilliant mind he had, and what a pleasure it is to read 400 pages of nothing less than flawless, sublimely beautiful prose.

When I was reading slush submissions for a literary magazine, I was told that a writer had a limited amount of space to convince you their story was worthy of publication. "At most," our managing editor told us at the time, "a person will browse through 2-3 pages in a bookstore before deciding whether or not they want to buy the book. For a short story, that's 2-3 paragraphs, max. So if you're not engaged in the story by the end of the first page, it's probably not ready for publication." This puts a lot of onus on the writer to make every sentence perfect: not a word wasted, each line a flawless composition, each paragraph a symphony of impeccably-performed notes. Supposedly, this is what it takes to get accepted for publication in this incredibly competitive marketplace...but of course, you have to then ask the question: if writing has to be perfectly economical and engaging to be worth publishing, then how do you explain all the dreck that stocks bookshelves today?

Let's be honest about the state of fiction: while there are a handful of good, inventive, often smart writers out there, there are very few writers legitimately worthy of the title "genius." Even those authors who've won coveted "genius" grants would still get knocked flat when put in a literary cagematch with
Baldwin. (The only book I can even bring to mind that comes close to this level of sentence-by-sentence excellence is Joseph O'Neill's Netherland, and that debuted over two years ago.) I'm a compulsive underliner of sentences, no matter what I'm reading, but I've found that even those recent titles I've adored fall far short of the excellence I'd find with someone like Baldwin. Compare these sentences:

"I sat in the stern, far away from my brother, and we headed north, hugging the shore, past realms of marsh grass and humps of pink granite, which in the hard red light of morning resembled corned beef hash."

"The heat and the noise began their destruction of nerves and sanity and private lives and love affairs. The air was full of baseball scores and bad new and treacly songs; and the streets and the bars were full of hostile people, made more hostile by the heat."

Guess which one is

To be fair,
Baldwin was writing, arguably, in a much more poetry-inspiring time than we are now. Everywhere he looked, people were stuck between the staid, slave-owning, racism-infused past (where they knew how to survive, if not flourish) and the more inclusive, less bigoted future (where there was no clearly defined path to success or happiness). Baldwin's prose, gorgeous yet fraught with anxiety, tackles the issues of the day with as much passion and intelligence as they deserved; ordinary sentences wouldn't do in a time of such enormous cultural commotion. His prose rose up to meet the epoch, and he didn't disappoint. The 1962 reviews of Another Country demonstrate how grand his position in literature was even at that time; the New York Times review by Paul Goodman said, "There is no doubt that this tenuous kind of involvement is in fact the daily experience of millions of people in our society, and they ought to have their Homer."

The prose in most literature today pales in comparison to
Baldwin, but perhaps this is because so few writers dare treat their novels as serious endeavors. What once was called passion now is deemed hyperbole; what would be called social engagement is called political fixation. In addition, publishers seem deathly afraid to take on any books that might prove more edification than entertainment. Sure, you could publish a serious work on the age we live in . . . but why do that when you've got a new dime-a-dozen thriller to pick up? For those of us who wish a bit more than just a cheap thrill and a speedy-read, it's the backlist of writers like Baldwin who will always be picking up the slack, naming the unnameable and throwing light into the dark corners contemporary writers would rather ignore.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Spark

This has probably happened to you before: You hear about a new book—someone tells you the premise—and you think, why didn’t I think of that?

I remember reading Jurassic Park not long after the movie came out and thinking, that Michael Crichton has quite a brain. Mosquitoes carrying dinosaur blood? An amusement park of dinosaurs? Brilliant. The idea is only the beginning of a good novel—you still have to write the thing—but still, a good idea will take you far.

This past weekend, I was thinking a lot about ideas while sitting through two and half hours of Christopher Nolan’s new movie Inception. In the film, Leonardo DiCaprio is a dream thief—someone who steals valuable secrets hidden in the unconscious mind while his victims slumber. DiCaprio is given a task of embedding an idea in someone’s head while they dream and making them believe the idea is their own.

The movie is a beautiful maze. You see a city roll up like an old newspaper, you see the mysterious world of dreams, but what I really wanted to see was something you can never see: an idea forming in someone’s head.

Like a dream, a good idea develops on its own. It seems the best ideas for novels are the ones that come easiest. In fact, that’s how the idea for Inception came to Nolan while in college—lucid dreaming after a long night out.

J.K. Rowling was on a delayed train traveling from Manchester to London when the idea of a “black-haired, bespectacled boy named Harry Potter” popped in her head. For hours, she sat on the train as the story unraveled itself, a world floating around her head. And with no pen or paper, she just let the idea develop in her thoughts.

E.B. White was in his barn when he saw a spider spinning a giant web when the idea of Charlotte’s Web came to him.

It seems to have good ideas, you have to open your brain to outside inspirations. You have to be alert to the possiblity of getting a new idea.

Then, in other instances, it just seems a good idea is just a manifestation of sheer talent. Victor Hugo wrote that his inspiration for The Hunchback of Notre-Dame came from a carving of the word “fatality” in Greek that he had found in the cathedral. One word was enough.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Games for Book-Lovers

Last week, Caroline posted her thoughts on why there's no reality television show about publishing. Well, today I'm going to advocate for another incorporation of literature into popular culture: we need more games for people who love books. Here's why.

I'm a member of the listserv for c19: The Society of Nineteenth-Century Americanists. It's a new society, one that had its first conference in mid-May. But despite the success of that conference, and despite the fact that the listserv went live immediately following it, the community has seemed dead for the last two months. I had expected discussion and debate on the listserv, but-- nothing.

Nothing, at least, until yesterday.

On Monday morning, Marcia D. Nichols, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota-Rochester, emailed the group asking for advice. She's teaching a course in the fall on nineteenth-century medicine and literature, and was soliciting suggestions for texts about dissection. Suddenly the listserv exploded. Everyone had ideas, ranging from poetry to fiction to nonfiction, some of it famous, some of it obscure.

I recognized some of the names of the participants-- in particular Wyn Kelley and John Bryant, who are both on the editorial board of Leviathan, the journal of the Melville Society. Others I didn't. Some suggestions were repeated multiple times, the writers perhaps not seeing the earlier responses in their haste-- but collegiality was the dominant mode, with responders seconding books and recommending each other's critical work. Jennifer Greiman, of the University of Albany, suggested The Life of P.T. Barnum, as well as "Benjamin Reiss's amazing study [that] fills out what Barnum omits."

Reiss's response? "Gulp." And some thoughts of his own.

Anyway, this all reminded me of the kinds of games that my boyfriend and I play on occasion. Sometimes we'll design pretend courses and syllabi-- we did this a lot after we both were counselors and TAs at an academic summer camp. At that camp, course descriptions were very general; for two summers, I was a TA for a Twentieth-Century Humanities class. The shape it took was very, very different under the two graduate students who taught it. The first summer, the grad student was writing his dissertation on modernist poetry, so the kids read "The Waste Land" and some Pound-- but there was also a heavy emphasis on ambiguity, media, and the viewer, so they additionally read Henry James's The Ambassadors and Walker Percy's The Moviegoer. The next summer, another grad student was writing on feminism and the grotesque in Southern literature-- so the kids read, among other books, William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! and Gertrude Stein.

How would we teach such a course, we asked each other. What books best framed the twentieth century, for us? What if the summer camp (which is turning more and more to science and business classes) made the unlikely choice of a Nineteenth-Century Humanities class? How would we teach that? And near and dear to our hearts, always, has been the thought of a summer Land Art class, a road trip for students from Marfa to the Spiral Jetty to the Lightning Field, and beyond.

The C19 discussion also reminded me of the most recent session of our book club, where the participants alternated weeks assigning short readings to the group. One member chose a series of excerpts on boredom; another the most excessively violent pieces she could find; I looked for meditations on place and loss. What distinguished all of these-- the course planning with my boyfriend, the book club, and the C19 discussion-- is how they illustrated how much is internalized when we read, and how few chances we get to flex that muscle, to demonstrate our knowledge. Even academics are limited in terms of how much literature they actually get to discuss in their work-- unless any of these authors were actually writing a book on medicine and literature, they wouldn't have many chances to dig deep, to remember the strange and wonderful texts that are out there.

That's why we need games for the literary. Such a game shouldn't necessarily show how well-read you are, if being well-read means knowing how to regurgitate authors and titles. It's become too obvious, working in publishing, how that ability is used to mark boundaries and exclude others from a group. The way we talk about books seems to be more mired in general connections between texts, or meant to signify small victories over other people. In the absence of critical writing-- something we do too little of since finishing our English degrees-- we need games that allow us to revisit all of the works we've read, to keep that knowledge alive and crackling, to remember and discover nearly forgotten themes and topics. Even if that topic is dissection.

Any suggestions?

Monday, July 19, 2010

Paper Love

It’s a funny mix of skills we need in this business. We act as “professional readers” in our finest hours, and I often count my blessings that I’m actual putting my English major—not entirely practical, some warned me during college—to good use. At the same time, many New York publishing companies, some housed in giant skyscrapers and buildings so large they need more than one elevator bank, have a distinctly big company feel. Those of us who serve as assistants walk the fine line between artistic passion and administrative and organizational wizardry. Though we get to offer input on manuscripts and collaborate on jacket copy, there’s a slew of less glamorous tasks that sometimes call.

The solution to this paradox for me has always been my all-purpose notebook. Always in hand, this is where I house not only my lists of to-do lists and work related tasks and production schedules, but also my notes on whatever manuscripts or books I’m reading, the list of books I hope to read in a given amount of time, blog post ideas, short story ideas, free writes during writing classes, etc. It’s my way of containing the madness and putting it all in one pretty place.

I say pretty, because the aesthetic of these books has always mattered. A sucker for thick or artfully textured paper or a unique or arresting image or pattern, I have long been in the habit of seeking out notebooks that in some way fit my temperament or fancy. This has never proven a problem in the past. In fact, living in Park Slope, where adorable paper and luxury goods boutiques are a dime a dozen, I often have a line of these bad boys waiting patiently for their go, and sometimes debate for days between two potential books. In best case scenarios, I’ll even stumble upon or be given a book of blank pages that bears significant emotional weight—a beautiful blank book the casing of which is intricately woven from multicolored threads that my boss gave me one Christmas with a note saying how much she wishes she had kept a journal during her days as a young twenty something in the city, encouraging me to do so; the blank journal I recently found during some spring cleaning that my favorite professor gave me when I graduated from college with a creative writing emphasis.

Recently, however, I’ve hit a lull. About two and a half weeks ago, I realized I was about 3 pages away from the end of the sharp red “Keep Calm and Carry On” journal that I had lusted after for weeks before finally buying and that, for the first time in a long time, I had nothing else at the ready. As the cruel hand of fate would have it, this realization hit at the end of my pay cycle, and I found myself with exactly $11.53 to spend on a new journal. Feeling optimistic, I popped into the fancy “Paper Love” stationary store on my block in Park Slope that evening and found exactly one blank book in my price range and purchased it without a second thought, relieved that the paper gods hadn’t left me empty-handed.

It was only later that I realized that my new little constant companion was, well, ugly. Covered in pink, purple, and blue flowers, I realized upon further inspection that they—gasp—sparkled. What had looked like a cream background in the cheerful summer light of that July evening looked fearfully closer to puke brown in the artificial light of my apartment. Never one to give up easily, I swallowed the lump in my throat and decided to make the best of it.

Well, two weeks later I can tell you that quitters sometimes do win. I’ve had this journal on hand for 14 days and haven’t gotten past the third page. I’ll be generous and give myself the benefit of the doubt, assume that I’ve been full of the same amount of brilliant ideas and inspired thought, but have been considerably less enthusiastic about taking the time out of my day to record them in an object the presence of which I just can’t stand.

Perhaps it’s just impossible to store the physical manifestation of your brain in an object the aesthetic of which you’re at odds with? On a more positive note, perhaps all any of us needs for inspiration of thoughtful feedback is a fitting outlet for it that represents our creative sense, no matter how subtle or unentwined it is with the final product or content? Perhaps a bad case of writer’s block or a bout of job irritation can be solved with a quick trip to your nearest paper store?

Friday, July 16, 2010

Publishers’ Question Time, vol. I

You may have noticed that, although we identify ourselves as “publishing professionals” on our biography page, we don’t go into any specifics: where we work, what we do. There are many reasons for this decision, and they are good ones—namely, we don’t want to get into trouble. But I think that conspicuous absence also serves to separate us, as founders of this project and active [tk] reviewers, from our work identities. Such separation between work and play is healthy (or so we’ve been told), and there’s a lot to be said for shedding your “office” skin at the end of the day when you slither out of the door.

However, the reality is not always that simple. To a certain extent, our work and private “selves” are inextricable because a love of books and reading is so fundamental to both. If you want to work in publishing and be happy, you have to feel passion for what you do incredibly deeply, in your heart and brain and bones, because it is what will sustain you through the long hours, low entry-level salaries, and the constant demands of a creative environment.

This inability to separate church and state, as it were, is probably why I find myself want to write a bit about my job. I’ll come out of the closet right now: I’m an editorial assistant. It’s an interesting job but a somewhat ambiguous one, because although most people understand what an editor does, very few understand the full scope and responsibilities of the role. I sure as hell didn’t when I first started. On the subject of jobs, most of my conversations with new acquaintances go something like this:

PERSON: “What do you do?”
ME: “I’m an editorial assistant.”
PERSON: “Huh. Does that mean you get to read all day?”

If only. If only. So, in a very unscientific social experiment, I polled some of my crew, including fellow [tk]ers, for the a) most common; b) weirdest; and c) funniest questions they get asked about their job.

The responses (thanks, guys!) were revelatory. Many of the most common questions speak to a fundamental lack of knowledge about publishing and how it works – no wonder the industry is viewed as some kind of elitist, lumbering dinosaur. So, for this two-part post, I have chosen my favorite (representative/interesting/funny) questions and done my best to answer them in my own words. Please share your own responses (as mine are hardly definitive), and look out next Friday for the second installment, which will deal with the biggest, baddest, most awkward question of them all.

What do you do on a day-to-day basis?
Well, I can speak only as an editorial assistant, but let me tell you – a lot. Here is a random morning from last week. By 9.30 am I already had a list of tasks from my boss that was mutating like a fast-growing vine: pull sales figures, proof-read a title information sheet for the upcoming season launch, track down an out-of-print biography of Bach, read a manuscript. First, though, I had to prepare a contract, so I was doing long division on a Post-it in order to figure out how an advance of $135,000 breaks down into fourths and the scale of earnout advances. Suddenly, the phone rang, reminding me of a packaging meeting; I went and took notes as my boss and the art director and the publicist and the editor-in-chief debated the merits of various cover designs. When I got back, there was a finished manuscript in my boss’s in-box that I had to prepare for production. It’s the editorial assistants who package the whole manuscript with the front and back “matter” – the title and copyright pages, the dedication and epigraph, all the end notes and footnotes. Freaking footnotes. I HATE FOOTNOTES!

Take a moment to experience how your brain feels after reading this paragraph. Because that is how my brain feels 99.9% of the time.

So your job is to, like, insert commas?
Well, I suppose that if I saw one missing I would put it in. But editors vary in their approach – some are meticulous line editors, whereas others leave the nuts and bolts to copyeditors. A lot of the work editors do is developmental and conceptual; most of the grammatical stuff is left for the copyeditor. And don’t forget that sometimes commas are left out on purpose. Think of James Joyce.

In your best guess, how fast do you read on average?
I’ve never thought about this before… On a quiet day I could probably finish an entire manuscript and still take a lunch hour. So that’s, say, 400 pages over about six or seven hours, which is roughly 60 pages an hour. And that, weirdly enough, works out to about a page per minute. Huh.

Have you developed really strong fingers from writing and editing all the time?
I have calluses from holding pens and pencils. They’re kind of gross. And don’t even let me start on the paper cuts. We should be reimbursed for Band-Aids.

If you were Douglas Adams’s editor, would you have made him change the answer for the secret to life, the universe, and everything from “42”?
No. I think that, especially when it comes to fiction, asking authors to alter things is a delicate art. How much content can you change before you end up with a different book – and if you want a different book, why did you buy this one in the first place?

Is your name going to be on the book jacket?
Sadly, no. In my opinion, this is one of the greatest injustices of the industry. It takes a village to produce a book, and unless authors include acknowledgments (which, fortunately, they often do) a lot of hard work goes unrecognized. Remember that next time you’re in Borders.

Is it “Noff” or “Kuh-nopf”?
The second. And yes, I definitely enjoy “Kuh-nopf, Kuh-nopf” jokes.

While we’re on that topic, is it Scribner or Scribner’s (or Scribners, or Scribners’)?
Technically the imprint is Charles Scribner’s Sons, so it’s singular. I do think it sounds better in plural, though. But what do I know?

Is publishing a dying industry?
Oh God. It is a changing industry. Publishers will have to adapt, and I’m confident that they will. Radio had to accommodate television, and television had to accommodate the internet – and 26 million people still listen to NPR, and 99% of American households own a TV.

On that rather somber note, I’m going to shuffle off and fix myself a gin & tonic and dream about Maxwell Perkins. Until next week…

Thursday, July 15, 2010

To Read is to Travel, but Dystopia is a Holiday

Due to circumstances beyond my control, my opportunity to take a summer vacation of any kind is looking less and less likely. As my fellow TKers are jetting off to all kinds of beautiful locales, seaside or otherwise, I look woefully down at my desk, bemoaning the paleness of my legs from lack of sun and the darkness of my undereye circles from lack of sleep. And I can only take pleasure in the imaginary vacations that my extracurricular (hah!) reading can provide.

When I was little, my literary vacations were much more extraordinary. For years I wanted to run away and live in a boxcar, a secret garden, or the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (I didn't discover Narnia or Uriel until I was much too old to appreciate them as vacation spots.) In reality I was taking extraordinary trips as well, but it was through the books I was reading that I felt transported; my family still tells stories about my predilection to reading on long car rides while beautiful vistas passed by unnoticed. I was like Matilda, holed up with a mug of something delicious and warm, and I went on "olden-day sailing ships with Joseph Conrad. . . . to Africa with Ernest Hemingway and to India with Rudyard Kipling. She travelled all over the world while sitting in her little room in an English village." As Dahl clearly knew when writing this brilliant bookworm of a character, "Nowadays you can go anywhere in the world in a few hours, and nothing is fabulous any more."

The unintended side effect of becoming an adult is that, of course, the more you see of the real world, the less likely it is you'll be sufficiently transported by what you read. Imagination can die with experience, and the real world becomes such an overwhelming referent for what you read that imaginary journeys can lose their satisfaction. I've been throwing myself into the mysteries of Martin Walker (set in the gastronomical wonderland of the Perigord region of France), the sensuality of an ruined Italian castle in Martin Amis's The Pregnant Widow, and to rural China with Pearl Buck, but I find myself consistently pulled back to earth by the smelly, sweat-sticky conditions of summer in New York, and find it hard to feel uplifted by my temporary travels.

The only solution I've found this summer, quite surprisingly, has been by going to those locations I'm least likely to find satisfying: those of the ruined apocalyptic wastelands of our imaginary future. Dystopian literature is having a bit of a moment, maybe because the only way we can feel better about our day-to-day reality is by imagining how it could be much, much worse. Even if my day sucks, at least I'm not getting overrun by the plague-ridden vampires ("jumps") of Justin Cronin's The Passage (or, thank god, the emo-sparkly-immortals that preceded them.) And even when the dystopian future proves bleak, it can still proves immensely entertaining. Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story, set in the impending doom of 2018, sets its dystopian predictions on the increasing vapidity of human interaction: tethered to their ubiquitous äppärät (like iPhones but more insidious), the brilliant and lovely nerdiness of Lenny Abramov goes unappreciated, as he cannot possibly rate as a HNWI (high-net-worth individual) worthy of intellectual or sexual acknowledgment. The hilarity of Shteyngart's universe (as poignantly drawn as any satire can be) provides enough contrast to the world I know that it makes me feel like I'm escaping to a more pleasant daily reality. In the future, as we've imagined it, life may be bleak, but it still has its diversions. (And if I have to choose one to live in, I'll go with Margaret Atwood's version. At least it has Scrabble.)

P.S. Soylent Green is people!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

T is for Tuesday so dark and so bleak

Last night, as part of a birthday present from my boyfriend, I saw Natalie Merchant perform at the Wellmont Theatre in Montclair, New Jersey.

There are a lot of things you could say about this concert, and a lot of reasons that New Yorkers should go to see her at the end of the week in Town Hall. Merchant’s dancing is completely unexpected, and incredible. She has a surprising number of redneck fans, whose behavior during the concert made me feel like I was among the groundlings at Shakespeare’s Globe. (Okay, not a reason to see her perform, but definitely an observation of the night.) And Merchant acts like everyone’s mom onstage, clearing clutter, chastising the band, asking them how her food was during rehearsal. By the end of the concert, I wasn’t sure if Merchant’s band members have the best jobs in the world or the worst.

And since I also attended the free She & Him concert on Governor’s Island a week ago, I found myself dreaming of an M. Ward/Merchant collaboration. Merchant, who maintains more presence and energy twitching a single hand than Zooey Deschanel does in leaping across the stage, and Ward would be well-suited in their penchant for punishingly long concerts (last night clocked in just under three hours of Merchant and only Merchant).

Anyway, none of these things has much to do with literature. What is relevant to this blog is that Merchant’s set (pre-encore) consisted entirely of songs from her newest album, Leave Your Sleep, which are all children’s poems that she set to music. You can see the full track list here; I thought there were some bland entries, including this e.e. cummings poem. Since, as my boyfriend noted, Merchant mutters most her lyrics, rendering them largely indecipherable, why make them, for the most part, so gentle? Why not pick a few more controversial ones?

Here are the poems (about, not for, children) that I imagine still wouldn’t make the cut.

5) “The Author to Her Book,” Anne Bradstreet
“At thy return my blushing was not small,
My rambling brat (in print) should mother call,
I cast thee by as one unfit for light,
The visage was so irksome in my sight.”

4) “Ave Maria,” Frank O’Hara
“they will know where candy bars come from
and gratuitous bags of popcorn
as gratuitous as leaving the movie before it's over
with a pleasant stranger whose apartment is in the Heaven on Earth Bldg
near the Williamsburg Bridge”

3) “Stillborn,” Sylvia Plath
“O I cannot explain what happened to them!
They are proper in shape and number and every part.
They sit so nicely in the pickling fluid!
They smile and smile and smile at me.
And still the lungs won't fill and the heart won't start.”

2) “Out, Out--,” Robert Frost
“The doctor put him in the dark of ether.
He lay and puffed his lips out with his breath.
And then -- the watcher at his pulse took fright.
No one believed. They listened at his heart.
Little -- less -- nothing! -- and that ended it.”

1) “The Gashlycrumb Tinies,” Edward Gorey
“A is for Amy who fell down the stairs
B is for Basil assaulted by bears
C is for Clara who wasted away
D is for Desmond thrown out of a sleigh”

Note: Gorey's poem is made much more horrifying by this film.

Enjoy the poems, and happy Tuesday!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Reality Books?

Confession: this weekend was a total guilty-pleasure marathon for me. Home in Cincinnati for a “girls weekend,” I spent a number of consecutive hours so large I won’t horrify you with it watching reality television with my mom and sister. About halfway through our couch warming session, a thought occurred to me: there is a reality show dedicated to almost every creative and or glamour industry, with the exception of book publishing. There’s Top Chef for the culinary arts, Project Runway for clothes design, Shear Genius for hair stylists, Kell on Earth in the PR vein, and the recently added Bravo shows Work of Art, Nine By Design, and Double Exposure take care of modern art, interior design and high fashion photography, respectively. There was an MTV show the winner of which won an internship at Seventeen Magazine, a reality show about working at Rolling Stone, and the girls on The Hills worked for Teen Vogue. As Hannah mentioned in her recent blog post, a Penguin Books employee was a guest judge on the afore mentioned Work of Art, but it was a one episode gig centered around one challenge on the show.

Mulling this over, I started soliciting potential reasons for this absence from friends and coworkers. My beau Ben thought it was because book consumers are less brand-conscious. While various magazines and clothing brands carry enough weight to be significant, even the most voracious readers base their hierarchies on authors or genres as opposed to specific editors or houses. While I do think there’s some truth to this, the fact that I’ve never heard of the celebrity chef judges on Top Chef doesn’t stop me from—perhaps foolishly—investing some stock in their opinions, figuring if they’re enough of an expert to be asked on the show they have some professional cred and that they’ve been vetted by people who are in the food know. I asked my fellow TK reviewers what they thought at a meeting earlier this afternoon. Hannah pointed out that there’s less urgency in our industry and thus less drama. We only have three seasons a year, so there’s a lot of long term planning that goes into books while magazines come out once a week. Jess mentioned that a pilot about the book publishing industry was in development, but after the two of us did a little research later we discovered that the project was recently quashed (it was a CBS sitcom entitled “Open Books,” and Patti LuPone and Laura Benanti were set to star in it).

The question remains, though: which party accounts for the lack of documentary or reality style book publishing coverage, the members of the industry or viewers? I think it would be a pretty safe bet to say that most senior editors at the more literary houses in the city haven’t heard of or seen a single episode of many of the shows I referenced in the first paragraph. Would their unfamiliarity with these types of shows make them less likely to grant any sort of access to their day to day lives or be a participant in one of them? Or, do the reality TV minds behind the curtain feel uninspired to execute such a show based on the fact that not nearly as many people buy any given book as do watch any given reality show hit? Do people simply not read enough to generate interest from the reality-show-watching demographic?

If a reality show about the people who find and edit the manuscripts that become books was to hit the air, would you watch it? Outside of your own interests, do you see a place for a reality series about heavy weight editors nestled in between the Jersey Housewives and the Millionaire Matchmaker? And, perhaps the million dollar question: would such a show prove good publicity and create enough new readers to give the industry a jolt of new life?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Beach Reads

I spent the weekend with friends on Fire Island in the little town of Kismet. It rained on Saturday, but today was sunny and gorgeous. One of my favorite things about the beach is that no matter the weather, it's always a perfect reading day. Yesterday I read curled up on the couch, listening to the rain falling outside. Today we sat together and read our books under umbrellas, venturing into the rough waves when we got too hot.

I took a little informal survey of who was reading what. Therese brought a couple of books with her, and had trouble settling on one. She started with Couples by John Updike, but decided on Saturday evening that she was annoyed with Updike's sex scenes and his frequent use of the word "flanks" for a woman's bottom. I lent her my new copy of The Passion by Jeanette Winterson, and she liked it at first, but said she wasn't in the mood for a fairy tale. She ultimately decided to fall back on her favorite writer as of late, David Foster Wallace, and read his collection of short stories, Girl With Curious Hair. Before the weekend, she had finished The Possessed by Elif Batuman, which she loved, and left it at the beach house for someone else to read.

Meanwhile, Marcia (pictured, center) was also reading David Foster Wallace, but had chosen his masterwork Infinite Jest. Always one to be in vogue and up with the latest trends, the last time I saw Marcia at the beach she was reading The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, and this weekend we discussed the trilogy, and how we felt about Lisbeth as a character. Everywhere I turn at the beach, someone is reading one of the books in Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy.

Matt had finished Let the Great World Spin, and was on to Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime, which he had borrowed from Joe. Christy (pictured, left) was reading The Real Life of Sebastian Knight by Nabokov and Katie (pictured, right) was reading Little Bee by Chris Cleave.

I had brought a couple of books with me, but settled mostly on The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake because my friend Jana who works for Berlin Verlag told me that she loved it and that her colleague has just bought the German translation rights. Cat, who was also at the beach, told me that she took a writing class from the author, Aimee Bender, at USC and couldn't wait to read it. Other beach books I have on deck are C by Tom McCarthy, Still Life With Woodpecker by Tom Robbins, my August book for review You Lost Me There by Rosecrans Baldwin. I think short story collections are often the best format for the beach, and so I have been bringing Birds of America to the beach as a back-up in case I feel too distracted with volleyball games and seashell collecting.

What books are you bringing to the beach?

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Here's to Literary Magazines!

Note: No, it's not Saturday today--I switched days with Jessica (I was in no-internet Amish country Ohio this weekend, a place where "to blog" would be taken to mean something like "to break logs").

Okay, back to our un-regularly scheduled programming. A couple weeks ago I went to the Magathon at the New York Public Library, part of a lit mag marathon weekend sponsored by one of my favorite organizations, the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP). The readings took place in the stately Room 108, whose decor is defined by heavily carved, long dark wood tables and paintings of various New York landmarks including Herald Square, the Puck Building, and the Flatiron. The CLMP host opened the afternoon by stating that the real literary work in America is being done in the pages of literary magazines, a point that could be debated but seems reasonably true.

And what a range those pages expressed! 19 editors, almost all of whom were women, read selections of prose and poetry. First up was Ezra Glinter from Zeek, a Jewish journal now hosted by the Forward, who read from Agua Schiff's "Blessed are the Merciful, For They Shall Obtain Mercy". Next came...spiritual possession in a tomb, from the Yankee Oracle Gazette, read by publisher Eugenia Macer-Story, a fairly fierce-seeming woman who informed us that this was "an actual experience, not Lovecraft." Good to know. The rest of the readings veered from the hilariously irreverent "In the Airport (34 lines)" by Elizabeth Swados, a kind of homage to Philip Glass from The New York Quarterly; to Parselelo Kantai's story "You Wreck Her", short-listed for the Caine prize and published in the St. Petersburg Review; to "The Red Ribbon," fiction by Aimee Bender chosen by Electric Literature.

Many of the magazines were familiar to me--AGNI, A Public Space, Bellevue Literary Review--while some were new--Storyscape Journal, Tuesday: an art project, Slice, MAKE and many others. The great joy of the afternoon lay in the many voices and the earnest enthusiasms of each journal's readers. It reminded me of a question that Diana Abu-Jaber asked on Facebook recently, and that I re-ask here: what literary magazines do you subscribe to? And, I'd add, why those particular ones?

My own desk is stacked with issues of my subscription choices, taunting me with their desire to be consumed. But every time I do sit down with a volume of Poetry, The Sun, the Alaska or Virginia Quarterly Review, or one of the many more that burst my mailbox and burden my bags, I am reminded of the often overwhelming but correspondingly incredible width and breadth of the world. There is so much in our lives that cries out to be expressed in words, and an afternoon with the CLMP reminded me of the value of taking time with those growing physical and virtual stacks of lines just waiting to be read.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

My Holiday Trip

I decided to bring along Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero over the fourth of July holiday weekend. I figured I should read it if I wanted to get to it’s sequel, Imperial Bedrooms.

Big Mistake.

It’s not that I wasn’t gripped by Ellis’s book. I was gripped. It’s just that for two days, while the rest of the country was in happy-patriotic mode, I was down in the depths of an overdose.

Less Than Zero, published twenty-five years ago, is about a college freshman named Clay who comes back to L.A. for Christmas break. We quickly see that Clay is a drug addict and so are most of his wealthy friends. He lives a life of privilege—the cars, the mansions, the parties. . . But most disturbing is Clay’s empty approach to life. He recounts the hazy days and nights with such passivity, simply recording the day’s events. There is no remorse, no feeling. It’s haunting.

I was trying to keep my jaw from dropping after every page, while others were happily splashing in the pool. I kept waiting for the characters in the book to turn a corner, to make it all stop, for something to be gained. Someone to at least say, hey, our lifestyle is really bad.

I was melting in the sun, and started to believe, that maybe I was feeling like someone who was on drugs might feel—dehydrated, hallucinating, a little tired. I began to wonder myself, am I just like Clay?

Soon enough, everyone around me was on drugs. They had to be. The overly tan guy that kept saying “brah” to his friend—definitely has a dealer and does cocaine. The conversations I heard around me—ah, so disconnected from reality—just like the people in the book.

Bret Easton Ellis pulled me in. The book altered my state of reality. I may look like I’m being social, around family and friends during a holiday—look I’m sitting right next to them—but really I’m in Ellis’s world.

On the train back to the city, I got through the book’s most disturbing parts of sexual violence, while a cute two-year-old jumped up and down in the row in front of me. I felt a little sick. At one point, my boyfriend turned to look at the page I was reading, and I instinctively covered the page with my hand. I didn’t want him to see the exact words I was reading—he’d think I was sadistic.

Maybe there's never a good time to read a depressing novel. Or maybe you should read it when you’re actually doing something fun. Just remember to come up for air. Now, with a few days off, I guess I’m ready for some more Ellis. I'll let you know where I end up.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

My Literary Home

Last October, as the end of our second year in our apartment approached, we—my boyfriend, my roommate, and I—decided not to renew our lease. The roommate wanted to “live in a place [he] didn’t hate” (I’ll keep the neighborhood anonymous) for the rest of his time in New York, before he left for grad school, and off he went to Brooklyn. My boyfriend and I moved north, to Inwood, home to a plethora of delightful things: the only road in Manhattan with “Road” actually in its name (Indian Road), the only remaining natural forest and the only remaining salt marsh in Manhattan, the Columbia stadium, two great parks (Fort Tryon, bridging Inwood and Washington Heights, the location of the Cloisters, and Inwood Park, unlit and possibly full of the ghosts of unhappy teenagers) and one okay one (Isham Park). It’s where we play trivia and go to the greenmarket and eat delicious burgers, and there was no doubt it was where we wanted to live.

Anyway, speaking of possibly being full of the ghosts of unhappy teenagers—when we looked for our new home (a whirlwind tours of approximately fifteen apartments in two weeks), we had dangled in front of us one odd piece of information about one of the last apartments at which we looked (and the one we finally decided to take). It had its original hardwood floors, bedroom windows that looked out into the park, a fairly big kitchen with a sealed dumbwaiter—and hey, Jim Carroll lived there! (Other features of the apartment that we discovered one at a time, and which still left it an improvement over our old place: poor paint and grout jobs, an upstairs neighbor who moves with all the blitheness of a dumptruck, and roaches.)

The broker told us that Jim Carroll grew up in this apartment. In The Basketball Diaries, he expresses some dislike of the apartment and the neighborhood, but—she said—he returned to the owner of this building in recent years and asked to live there again. The apartment he’d grown up in was taken, but another apartment was available, and that was where he died in September.

She showed us the caution-taped front door of his last home.

After we moved in, I asked her to confirm that he lived there while growing up, but she never responded to my email. But I found it strange, strange, that we were getting email addressed to Carroll. Tax forms, even, which I returned to the IRS. Had he in fact died in our apartment? Some searching online turned up the closest approximation to the truth: I believe he lived in the building next door as a youth, lived in our apartment for some chunk of the 80s and 90s, and died in the building next door.

In the last five years or so, I’ve visited a number of literary residences: Arrowhead (Herman Melville, the Berkshires, twice, once by candleight); the Mount (Edith Wharton, also in the Berkshires); the Edgar Allan Poe Cottage (the Bronx); the Homestead (Emily Dickinson, Amherst); Rowan Oak (William Faulkner, Oxford); the Vladimir Nabokov House (Saint Petersburg); the Alexander Pushkin Museum and Memorial Apartment (a rather morbid one, Saint Petersburg); the Jane Austen House Museum (as well as Chawton House, where her brother lived, Chawton); the Keats-Shelley House (Rome). Museums too, including the Jane Austen Centre in Bath and the Tolstoy Museum in Moscow. And there are places that I’ve just seen from the outside—the house where Austen died, in Winchester; the house where Nabokov lived when he was teaching at Stanford; the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum (this when I was 14, actually, and we didn’t have enough money for admission, Key West); the reconstruction of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s house near Tanglewood; the Jack London Yukon Cabin (Oakland). This fall I’ll hopefully make my first trip to Boston, where I’ll have a full schedule of sights to see in Concord, and I'll hopefully blog about some of these museums in the future.

Now I live in one of these literary homes myself. And when I saw today that one of Carroll’s novels is being published posthumously, it seemed as though my apartment was home to unseen commerce, as though a ghostly manuscript had made its way from one of our desks to the publisher, and I was just hearing about it now. It was thrilling and a little unsettling—the price one pays, I suppose, for the story behind your shelter.

20 Under 40: The First Ten

The long holiday weekend proved a good opportunity to catch up on my pleasure reading. I dedicated much of yesterday and this afternoon to the ten of the “20 under 40” stories that the New Yorker has published so far. (The second ten will be pulished in the next ten episodes of the magazine.) As the “Talk of the Town” piece that introduced the first issue on these writers said, these are the authors they “believe are or will be key to their generation,” so what these stories have to say and how they’re said makes them more important than your average short story, even in comparison to other New Yorker-caliber tales.

After reading ZZ Packer’s “Dayward” and Philipp Meyer’s “What You Do Out Here When You’re Alone,” I was blown away by how hope-filled they were. Anyone who reads a lot of contemporary literary fiction can tell you that protagonists don’t always end up on top and the guy doesn’t always get the girl. Packer’s and Meyer’s stories, while filled with human suffereing, loss, and doubt, ended on positive, uplifitng notes. While there was no sticky sentimentality or happy heroes riding off into the sunset, there was some hint that these characters just might be alright, or at least find a way to survive their travails. With only two stories under my belt, I started wondering whether Obama’s “Hope” campaign had started influencing the literary world, or at least members therof young enough to be labeled part of “the Obama generation.”

Alas, after reaidng the other eight stories, I realized how remarkably I had jumped the gun. Joshua Ferris’s “The Pilot,” while masterfully executed, was gutwrenchingly devoid of human happiness or potential, and even the brightest optimists among us couldn’t have found much to celebrate about humanity in Salvatore Scibona’s “The Kid” (though again, it was impressively done!). The other six stories ended on similarly sad or ambiguous notes.

What all ten of these stories do have in common, I realized after some consideration, is that they’re all very much grounded in reality. There are almost no fantastical or supernatural elements, and not a trace of magical realism. (The little girl in Sarah Shun-lien Bynum’s “The Erkling” had an active imagination, and for short bits of time we see the world as she does, but it’s always clear that this is her imagination, as opposed to an alternate reality.) What’s more, with the exception of Packer’s “Dayward,” they’re set in contemporary times.

Perhaps the next ten stories will turn this observation on its ear, and once again I’ll be surprised. In the meantime, though, I’m left wondering what it means that these great minds of our generation take a very realistic approach in their storytelling. For generations, storytellers have been creating vivid, alternate universes that, in unlikely ways, say something about our own. What does it say that most of our best young writers forego this route for the world they already know?

Friday, July 2, 2010

Too Legit to Quit

General Stanley Allen McChrystal's Rolling Stone fiasco is sort of old news by now; after President Obama sent him packing, he quietly announced his retirement earlier this week. For most people, retirement offers a chance to pursue hobbies or travel, and they actively look forward to it. I have a suspicion, however, that the man who masterminded Operation Strike of the Sword (and eliminated Abu Musab al-Zarqawi) will not be fulfilled by gardening -- or even the possibility of owning a boat with a silly name and a cooler stocked full of Bud Light Lime.

So, the million-dollar is question for Gen. McChrystal is: what's next? I was betting on some morally dubious Blackwater consulting deal, but this Daily Beast article surprised me. According to one of McChrystal's close Army pals, who was interviewed for the piece, "the only thing I ever heard him say he wanted to do, after he completed his mission in Afghanistan… was eventually retire and open a bookstore." WHOA.

Well, whaddaya know, Stan -- Politics & Prose, one of America's most venerated independent bookstores, is for sale! Located in Washington, D.C. (incidentally not far from where my mother lives, so I have enjoyed many a browse through its aisles), Politics & Prose is a community icon. It's an absolute must-stop on an author tour, and D.C.'s relatively strong concentration of educated, high-performing residents -- at least the liberals -- view it as a bastion of cultural enlightenment. The prospect of its closure has peeps straight-up trippin'. Several prospective buyers have thrown their hats in the ring, but I worry that they are driven more by idealism than a realistic vision for keeping an independent bookshop thriving in the coming years. That challenge is one for a very special person. A person with vision, discipline, strategy... a person called STANLEY McCHRYSTAL.

Lest you dismiss ex-General Stanley McChrystal out of hand, he's more qualified than you might think to lead a literary counter-insurgency. He was the Managing Editor of The Pointer, West Point's literary magazine; he even wrote seven pieces of short fiction for it. And check out this quote from Dexter Filkins’s NYT McChrystal masterpiece, ‘ “If you were to go into his house, he has this unreal library,” Maj. Gen. Michael Flynn, McChrystal’s intelligence chief and longtime friend, told me this summer. “You can go over and touch a binding and ask him, ‘What’s that one about?’ And he’ll just start. His bad habit is wandering around old bookstores. He’s not one of these guys that just reads military books. He reads about weird things too. He’s reading a book about Shakespeare right now.” ’ I also expect he'll write a memoir, which is sure to be interesting reading, and the advance he would get should about cover the asking price of the store, which is purportedly in the region of $2 million.

However, I'm sure he'd want to shake things up a bit once he took command, starting with P & P's name: "politics" is a very sensitive word for him at the moment, although Coalition Forces & Prose unfortunately doesn't have quite the same ring to it... Maybe he'll open a rare book room to match that of Powell's in Portland, and channel his determination into amassing an unrivalled collection. My personal hope, though is that his habit of only eating one meal a day will lead him to get rid of that dark little cafe in the store's basement, perhaps turning it into a gym, or even a bar (with Bud Light Lime as the house special, natch).

Thursday, July 1, 2010

#thebookthatchangedmyworld--A True Story

It's late on the Thursday prior to the 4th of July weekend, and all I can think about is the impending pleasures of the weekend: warm weather, good food, and the company of friends and loved ones. In the name of urging you onward to embracing all the happy aspects of this holiday weekend, let me tell you a love story about a book that changed my life.

As your resident Twitter manager, I get to follow a lot of fantastic trending topics, everything from the race to sell the cheapest e-reader to the coverage of the New Yorker's 20 under 40 list. Some Twitter coverage is extremely thoughtful and shows the intelligence of the book tweeters out there (see this fantastic list for feeds to follow), but also the humor that pervades through the book-reading community. What other community would have a member called @LitCritHulk, whose request for galley copies reads "HULK KEEP SEEING DAMNABLE "QUIRK CLASSICS" BOOKS ON NIGHTSTAND SOMEONE NEED TO HAVE A TALK WITH BRUCE BANNER"? And what other community would start the trending topic #swapawordinafilmforMartinAmis, making way for such entries as "Buena Vista Martin Amis Club" and "The Englishman who went up a hill but came down a Martin Amis"? I have such love for this band of misfit toys, so keep it coming, folks...

But my favorite book trend to come out of Twitter thus far has been, without question, the hashtag #booksthatchangedmyworld, a list that inspires so many immediate book desires it should like directly to some kind of Netflix for literature... The tag originated with author Susan Orlean (whose tweets you should start reading ASAP), and quickly spread to over 2,000 people in just two weeks. Some of the books people mentioned are meant to be inspirational--Eat, Pray, Love showed up at least a few times, as did Angela's Ashes--but so too did novels like The Poisonwood Bible, A Clockwork Orange, even children's books like Amelia Bedelia and Madeline. All over the site, people had stopped talking about Justin Bieber, and instead were talking about books that had profoundly influenced and impacted their lives. I didn't respond to the stream, but I spent a good amount of time reading through it, and now, I'm sharing my story with you here:

November 2007: I had recently moved to Brooklyn, and though the new place was lovely, it was definitely not the same thing as my old place of the Upper West Side, especially when it came to good bookstores. So I took the 1 train all the way up to the Columbia campus, the first place I had lived when I moved to New York, and disembarked with nothing on my mind but the hope of reconnecting with the neighborhood I so desperately missed. I got off at the 116th stop, walked a few blocks down, and entered the great independent store Book Culture (at that time it was called Labyrinth Books, but I'll accept the new name if it means you go visit it now). I browsed for a bit, looking for someone's birthday present, but mainly just let myself sink into the wonderful feeling of browsing in a great store in my old community. I went to exit the store, when I heard a guy behind me talking to a store employee about a beautiful new translation of War and Peace...

"Yeah, I really want to buy this...but it's almost $40.00, so I probably shouldn't. Still, it's a pretty beautiful book..."

I turned, glowing with the happiness that can only come with being able to bridge the gap between potential reader and well-loved book, and said, "You know, I agree with you--it's a bit too expensive for a translation. Do you want my free copy?"


"Sure... I mean, I'm not sure I'm going to read it, so give me your address and I'll send you a copy."

The man in question--who I would later learn was a San Francisco native working on his PhD in chemical engineering, who loved good food, silly movies, and Battlestar Galactica--laughed, took out a notepad and pen, and wrote down his address. A few days later, I sent him the copy. A week later, we started emailing. A little while after that, he treated me to a milkshake, my "payback" for the free book. And almost three years later, we're still together, and have both finished and loved War and Peace. Maybe it was chance, or maybe it was, as Tolstoy said in that beautiful book, "that every action is in the historical sense not free at all but is bound up with the whole course of history," but it is, without a doubt, #thebookthatchangedmyworld.

Happy 4th, everybody.