Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Finding the Future by Examining the Past, at the NYPL

For the true book nerds out there, the 42nd street branch of the New York Public Library is one of the most special places in the entire city, let alone in the entire world. It's majestic, it's amazing, it's accessible and mysterious all at once. And in an unexpected turn of events, I got to stay there overnight. If you've ever read the book "From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler," you'll know how magical this prospect must seem. Take 1 majestic building celebrating its centenary year, 500 literary nerds, and an all-night scavenger hunt...and then add the final prize: your work from that hunt, printed, sewn by hand into a bound volume, and kept in the library's permanent collection for as long as New York will be standing. I was sold.
It is customary to greet the lions at the NYPL when you first enter, whether they be made of stone (and ideal for writing your release form on), or of plush costume fur. We were told that the lions were named Patience and Fortitude--some say by Major Fiorello LaGuardia, to honor the two qualities that New Yorkers would most require during the years of the great depression. But others say that they are the pillars of intellectual endeavors...
And others say that they are made of Legos. At least this year.

As 500 people piled in to the library, we knew that we had to rise to the challenge, to earn the right to stay up all night in these hallowed halls. The quote above our entrance to the Rose Reading room, our home base from 8:00pm to 6:00am, was daunting: "A good book is the precious lifeblood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life." John Milton was onto something.
We found our seats and were filled in on our challenge by Jane McGonigal, the game's creator. Over the course of the next 10 hours, we had a tremendous task ahead of us: to find 100 artifacts throughout the library, activate them by scanning QR codes on our smart phones, and unlocking writing challenges that would ask us to think about how each artifact contributed to the world we have inherited, and the world we hope to create. This could be anything from unlocking the Declaration of Independence (and writing your own declaration), to playing a game of charades, to writing a tall tale inspired by the story of George Washington and his cherry tree. Each moment from the past prompted an investigation (and proclamation) about the future.
And the artifacts could be anything...a South African Freedom Charter, just before apartheid fell...
E.E. Cummings' typewriter (note: it does indeed have capital letters on it)...
The engagement ring given to Harriet Westbrook by Percy Bysshe Shelley. It wouldn't be long before he would leave her for the pregnant Mary Wollstone Godwin, later his second wife and the author of "Frankenstein."
QR codes were placed on all kinds of items (even those to keep our hands clean), and the challenges they unlocked kept us busy.
But in the middle of all of this hunting and creating, we got another treat: we went down into the famed stacks beneath the circulation desk of the NYPL. 7 miles in all, it's a labyrinthian place. People rarely get to go see them, but we got full-on tours. And throughout the stacks were postcards, addressed to all of us, congratulating us on how we were finding ways to change the future. (To apply for the chance to attend, you had to complete this sentence: "In 2021 I will be the first person to...". And the future says that, indeed, you did accomplish it.) You were unlikely to draw the card that held your future, so it became your mission for the rest of the night to find the person whose future you had drawn.
Ashley found my future hidden in stacks relating to food and cooking--not surprising, given that I said I would be the first person to "destroy all restaurants by spreading the gospel of the home cook (and instituting Julia Child's cookbook as a religious text.)" A fellow food writer, she found me, and all around us people applauded. When one person helps another person find their future, it seems like it's fated, and a true cause for celebration.
But even in the midst of all this future-finding, there was still so much to look at from the past...the love letters from John Keats to Fanny Brawne (swoon)...
The journals of Malcolm X as he completed his 1964 hajj to Mecca...
Packets of seeds that were used to transport messages from the Resistance during the Third Reich...
And then the really geeky literary artifacts...Charlotte Bronte's writing desk...
Sketches from Maurice Sendak in the children's room sign-in book...
And Virginia Woolf's walking stick. It was found in the river, not far from her body after she weighed down her pockets and committed suicide by drowning. An eerie sight, especially when you catch it at 3:30am in a nearly silent library.
I spotted this guy in the Gottesman Exhibition Hall, where many of these artifacts are housed, quietly humming to himself and waving his hand over a document. I watched him for a while, then realized that he was conducting an imaginary orchestra as he looked over an original print of the score to the "Star-Spangled Banner." These artifacts resonated with everyone that saw them, and each person found an artifact that spoke to them, that moved them deeply. A large number of these very special artifacts are featured in the 42nd St. branch in the Gottesman hall through the end of this year--I cannot recommend this exhibit enough, so if you're in New York, make a special effort to come and see it for yourself.
Light was starting to come up through the windows of the Rose Reading Room, and the book was starting to come together at last.
It wasn't just any old all-nighter...we had produced a real tome. Even bleary-eyed and caffeine-deprived, it felt like a real accomplishment.
This suddenly felt quite epic...but there was one more thing we had to do before leaving the library. We had to sign it. All 500 of us. To prove we had been there, that we'd see these pieces of the past, that we'd made an effort to envision the future.

I signed my name, packed my bag, and slipped out into the early Midtown morning light. It's so rare for me to get to see the city still quiet, not yet moving, and I felt strangely powerful. All day long I hear people bemoaning the death of reading, of books, and yet I'd spent the night with 500 people totally committed to seeking out knowledge, to imagining worlds they hadn't yet seen. It was a totally invigorating experience, and it made even the most jaded recesses of my publishing brain perk up with excitement. Is this what it feels like to be a newly published writer? Or is it just the thrill of spending time in one of the most special places in the city, and heading out into the dawn with my "future" in my back pocket? Only time will tell...

Thursday, May 19, 2011


Last week I sent a book up to a relative, with a note attached saying, "Please, if you love this, tell a lot of people--this book really needs great word-of-mouth!" A few days later, she sent me an email, thanking me, but asking "Do you think this book won't do well?"

"No," I wrote back. "I think it will do well, but I think it will be hard to find the right audience. So we're counting on really passionate readers passing it to their friends."

"But if it's good," she replied, "Doesn't that mean it will find an audience without the readers doing the work?"

Well, technically, no...and this is one of the great conundrums I face every day as a reader. Do I tell you about the books I love that have already found an audience? Or do I make sure to sing the praises of the letter-known titles that need to find their way?

Working in the publishing industry, it's always a conflict of interest when you're asked to recommend books. I want the imprint I work for to do well, because that means greater success for the company, and greater rewards for me in the long run. But as a critics for TK and elsewhere, I spend my time assessing and reporting on books from other presses--and when I find something worth raving about, I wonder if all that raving I'm doing is going to come back and hurt my company.

And additionally, do the books that have already found an audience really need my praise? Over the last few weeks I've watched more and more of my Goodreads pals pick up--and devour with great pleasure--the three books of The Hunger Games, and it's brought me no end of joy to see that my recommendations worked out well for them. But does a hit series really need me to give it a few extra readers? Or should I have directed them to Big Girl Small, a great novel with a smart, edgy protagonist, that has yet to make it to the best-seller list? Doesn't one of them need more good word-of-mouth than the other?

Next week, Book Expo America (BEA) lands in New York, and with it come a slew of presentations and pushes to booksellers. Publishers want them to feature and promote those titles and authors that they have high hopes for in the next year, and they draw buzz by putting major authors in prominent places, hosting breakfasts, shaking hands, schmoozing at parties. But little authors don't generate buzz without big authors backing them up--big blurbs, big introductions. It becomes not about how good your book is, but who's capable of putting you in a prominent place for the buyers and the media to notice you. It frustrates me to no end that, in an industry that's all about creation, who you know becomes much more important than who you are.

But could it really work any other way? Could little authors turn into big authors simply because of word-of-mouth? When people start to self-publish e-books through Amazon, and self-promote through Twitter and Facebook, do they need all the fireworks of the fancy promotional push? If authors are willing to promote themselves--to push themselves as products to readers and publishers alike--then their future audience should be as reachable as those who rely on book review sections and endcap displays...right?

I'm not much of a pusher, and I can't do much beyond recommending the books that spark enthusiasm in me. But it seems like there's got to be a middle-ground between conversational recommendations and gigantic Book Expos, where authors of sizes and readers of all predilections can find each other and see what they're really up to.

Friday, May 13, 2011


It seems these days everyone has an opinion on the ubiquitous nature of the ebook, its effects on our culture, and the power it has to shape our experience of reading a good book. Often times the least likely candidates to espouse a given opinion or come down strongly on the matter one way or the other do. (I know people who could build a small house with all the books they own and still send handwritten letters who can’t say enough about their ipad or e-reader or kindle, and a few technology junkies who just don’t understand how someone could give up the unmistakable pleasure of cracking a spine of a book for the first time, its glossy jacket yet to earn its first fingerprint smudge.) While the buzz the e-advancement created was at first limited to the publishing industry and its closest followers, it’s now a phenomenon the effects of which can be seen everywhere.

This great debate on the mode in which we absorb our literature has now apparently extended to two of New York’s finest institutions: The New York Yankees and the New York Mets. Just last night at my inaugural meeting of a delightful new book club, one of the girls there was indignant (rightly so) about a recent experience at Yankee Stadium. She was prohibited from entering the stadium with the e-reader she had in her bag. The security guard pointed out to her that it was a formal, written rule found in their official online guidelines and indeed, I just confirmed that they do explicitly prohibit “Tablets (eg Kindles or ipads)” on their website. This unlucky ticket holder suspected that the franchise just didn’t want the camera to pan to people in the stadium reading, an indication of a less than exciting game, but she couldn’t help but notice a girl who walked in just after her with an armload full of good old fashioned books.

Having just scoured the Met’s website, I can find no indication in their official rules that they have any similar restriction. As Ben pointed out to me, the Yankees just have more rules and tighter security in general. While this is true, it doesn’t change the fact that if you’re such an avid reader you like to sneak in a few pages (or screens) in between innings, there are less ways you’ll be able to do it over on Yankee Way. It seems the team with the longer history has also, whether intentionally or not, set the stage for doing things the old fashioned way.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Dr. Seuss Comes to Park Slope!

People love to talk about how the seasons affect them. It colors everything from small talk over cocktail hours to descriptions of seasonal affective disorder in college psychology books. The mild, sun-filled days of spring are said to dry out winter woes, and for people like my mother, who claims alternately to “swell” and “melt” in the high heat, the fall—with its pumpkin spice lattes, ruby-colored apples, and gaudy Halloween costume displays—is cause for a long, deep sigh of relief. For a long time, such talk was lost on me. Admittedly, part of this is the intensity and quick turnover of my high-low pendulum. I like to run six miles then eat a 3,000 calorie meal, stay up all night writing a paper or reading a manuscript and then sleep the following weekend away. Who, I’ve always, wondered, can wait six months or a year for their next purely good, happy, decadent spell, or reprieve from the rougher, more challenging stretches we all go through, no matter how long or short lived?

It turns out, you’re never too old to change your tune. I moved to Park Slope six years ago and every year I am dazed and awed anew by the purple and white cherry blossoms that line the streets of the neighborhood come April. They’re also in Ohio, from where I hail, but because there’s so much more green, open space there, and because they’re more spread out, they don’t have quite the same effect. Though they can also be found throughout the city, there’s something about Park Slope’s brownstone architecture that makes the trees feel particularly suited to it, and I’ve never found another neighborhood with quite so many of them. Seeing them each year makes me want grass stain up every pair of pants I own playing in the park, and then make ice cream from scratch. They absolutely and fundamentally change my mood every time I see them, no matter how long the day or dreary the task at hand, and the fact that this unparalleled anecdote to the pitfalls of human existence is a seasonal one, sure to be gone by the first hint of summer, only makes it feel that much more magical.

And here’s where the great Doctor of this blog’s title enters the game. He is wed to this moody glimpse of the human psyche because these trees are almost uncannily Seussian in appearance. I would even go so far as to say the trees function in a Seussian capacity. Whimsical, colorful stimulants to even the crankiest and most cynical of adult imaginations, the cherry blossoms embody the spirit of the great author’s works. They're just the sort of exotic, colorful creation he would splash his pages with. Because the petals of the flower have started to fall in large numbers, the Park Slope sidewalks are blanketed in a colorful, enchanted carpet of them, and sometimes, when you’re particularly lucky, it even seems to be raining flower petals. The effect is that the presence of the trees is all encompassing—above, below, on the way down—just as the imaginary worlds of Seuss’s books are. Seuss made a career out of celebrating the wonders and possibilities of this world—the places and things we’ll discover if we’re bold enough to venture—and I’ve found little to trump these trees on that front. I think Seuss would have liked them. Maybe he did.

I have been convinced of this and have been singing this tune to anyone who will listen for almost as long as I’ve had the pleasure to live among these trees. Very recently, though, it was reinforced ten fold when I happened to actually read a Dr. Seuss book right before I journeyed to my Park Slope cherry-blossomed home. This wasn’t intentional. I had ordered the book awhile ago at work as part of the free book selection we have a few times a year, and found it when was cleaning out my mailbox when catching up after vacation. Reading it was simply a procrastination tool. My walk home that night, undertaken just an hour after reading the final pages of the book, made for one of the most satisfying literary experience in a long and fulfilling career of reading. It was a childhood pleasure brought to life, and one I won’t soon forget.

I’ve gathered what’s below in an attempt to entice everyone to go out and see this for themselves. My original plan was to spend the weekend getting in touch with my inner Ansel Adams and take mind-blowing photos that would capture every bit of the trees’ splendor to share on Monday. When I called the Brooklyn Botanical Garden to see how much longer we’d have to enjoy the trees, though, the woman I spoke to said they’d be in “peak bloom” this weekend. By Monday, then, it would be too late to tell you to go. The pictures I do have to share were stolen in the narrow slice of time between my commute home and sunset, and to be honest they don’t come close to capturing the epic delights of the trees. I almost didn’t share them at all but changed my mind because they do capture some shade of what I’m talking about (and because I nearly got hit by a car several times in the process of taking them!). For the full extent of what awaits you, though, you’ll have to take my word and go see for yourself. Get up early this Saturday or Sunday, prepare a big breakfast of green eggs and ham, and go!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Put On Your Crown

Set your alarm clocks, dust off the teapot, and pop to the shops for some crumpets: Prince William and Kate Middleton get married on Friday (at 6 a.m. EST)! Personally, I won’t be watching—I’m firmly wed to my bed, and nothing will tear us asunder before 8 a.m. on weekdays—but I will definitely be spending a lot of Friday gobbling up all the photographs and breathless reportage. What dress did she wear? Which tiara did she pick? Did they really put a disco ball up in the Palace? HOW LONG WAS THE KISS, AND WAS THERE TONGUE?

It’s incredibly alluring, this notion that the bride will walk into Westminster Abbey as Kate and walk out as Princess Catherine. After all, we have been inculcated since birth with the myth of royal metamorphosis. Our ancestors were, too: spend any time with folk tale scholars and you will soon see how nearly all cultures seem to have, or have had, a version of this transformation in their literature. Contemporary Western fantasies can be traced back to the 17th century, when Charles Perrault immortalized stories like Cendrillon, ou La petite Pantoufle de Verre in his collection of fairy tales; although he is considered responsible for the addition of the pumpkin (reading up on pumpkin symbolism is actually really interesting, by the way), his inspiration clearly came from past cultures. Writing in the 1st Century B.C., the Greek historian Strabo tells in Book 17, Chapter One, of his Geography the story of Rhodopis, the "Egyptian Cinderella." (Claudius Aelianus—Aelian—also mentions Rhodopis in Varia Historia). There is a Chinese story called "Ye Xian," dated 850 A.D., that follows the Cinderella plot, and a Gaelic legend.

Prince William's new bride would do well to read up on the origins of the princess myth, but I'd also suggest that she study its more contemporary iterations. I expect she's already read A Little PrincessFrances Hodgson Burnett's endearing, if a bit overly moralistic, exploration of what it really means to be royal. As young Sara Crewe proclaims:

“Whatever comes,” she said, “cannot alter one thing. If I am a princess in rags and tatters, I can be a princess inside. It would be easy to be a princess if I were dressed in cloth of gold, but it is a great deal more of a triumph to be one all the time when no one knows it."

Princess Catherine can also turn to biography. The critically-lauded Hannah Pakula introduces us to"Vicky," Queen Victoria's beloved eldest daughter, in An Uncommon Woman (which I highly recommend), while Tina Brown takes us back to the more recent past in her infamous book The Diana Chronicles.

But what of us, the commoners who will always remain so, despite our childhood wishes for a prince? Again, we can turn to the inimitable Sara Crewe for comfort:

"I am a princess. All girls are. Even if they live in tiny old attics. Even if they dress in rags, even if they aren't pretty, or smart, or young. They're still princesses. All of us."

(Or we can go here.)

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Cultured Expectations

Two weeks ago, Maureen Corrigan, the book critic for NPR's cultural program Fresh Air, released her review of a Korean novel, Please Look After Mom, by Kyung-Sook Shin, upon its publication in the United States. Corrigan is usually extremely balanced in her reviews, even when she doesn't love the book, and so it was a real shock that her review of Shin's novel turned out to be a full-on condemnation. Her criticisms were not just of the writer's style, or of specific plot details, but of the novel's entire premise. " I was stranded in a Korean soap opera decked out as serious literary fiction," she said, "If there's a literary genre in Korean that translates into 'manipulative sob sister melodrama, Please Look After Mom is surely its reigning queen." Corrigan concludes her review by urging American readers to seek out other literary options "rather than knocking back the wine and reaching for the cheap consolations of kimchee-scented Kleenex fiction."

My opinions are not those of the publisher, and I have not read the book, but Corrigan's review, and the dozens of comments she received afterwards, prompted the same questions that arose as I read my book for TK last month, a piece of historical fiction about post-war Vietnam--what kinds of cultural baggage do we bring to the books we read? As a reviewer, how well-informed am I supposed to be, not just about literature, but all forms of cultural expression? And if I don't understand the cultural context of a book, does that make it anathema to me?

Corrigan's review undoubtedly reeks of ethnocentricism--she admits that she writes from a Western perspective "indoctrinated in resolute messages about 'boundaries' and 'taking responsibility'; I kept waiting for irony; a comic twist in the plot; a reprieve." Corrigan is right in that the vast majority of American fiction, especially those tearjerkers destined for embrace by the best-seller lists and book clubs, is resolved with happy endings, rarely with a closing spoonful of doubt and blame and unending guilt. But this owes a great deal to a literary tradition rooted in stories of Christian redemption--so of course we've come to expect the happy endings. But ideas of redemption express themselves differently across different cultures--a novel written from a Buddhist perspective might let characters find redemption when they give up their personal desires; a story rooted in Greek mythology might only resolve a character's conflict once they have returned to their place of origin. But if you're reading like Corrigan did, the expectations for conventional narrative get in the way of exploring something new.

This brings me to something that I think many readers have discovered, and appreciate: fiction is the easiest and cheapest form of travel. We read fiction for a lot of reasons--entertainment pleasure, intellectual challenges, emotional growth--but we also read to expose ourselves to something unknown. Your passport may lack stamps, but if you build your library across many traditions, you can easily travel the world. I can go to India with Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, to Japan with Haruki Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, to Mexico with Roberto Bolaño's 2666, and yes, to Pakistan and Afghanistan with Greg Mortenson's Three Cups of Tea. Methinks part of the popularity of Eat, Pray, Love was not in its self-help feel-good ending, but in its geographic scope of Italy, India, and Indonesia. If you read literature in translation, the writer becomes a guide not just to a landscape, but to a whole set of cultural expectations, and you leave the work exposed to an entirely new series of ideas and possibilities. Reviewers can't be always be cultural authorities--if so, book review editors would have to provide big travel budgets--but they should be cultural omnivores. If Corrigan was turned off because the subject of motherhood from the Korean perspective proved too strangely foreign for her exploration, then one has to wonder what exactly she bothered to pick up the book at all. If you don't want to travel, then please, stay at home and leave the journey for the enthusiastic.

But of course, even if you do agree to take the journey, you may not like what you find...You can't force a book to be pleasurable if you can't make an emotional connection to it. But there, of course, is what I find one of the greatest potentialities in any book I pick up: I may really, really hate it. Not everyone reads to skate placidly across a narrative, and sometimes, you really want the experience of a rollercoaster, the narrative throwing you into wildly polarized opinions and emotions. For all the books I've loved, I learned just as much from the ones I hated--I gritted my teeth with disgust at American Psycho and Less Than Zero, groaned with annoyance at The Devil Wears Prada, and openly yelled at the characters in Freedom. But none of these reads were at any point a waste of time, and I never once put them down because I disagreed with them. And this was the point where I really fought with Corrigan's perspective: she recommends that the American readers go for Patti Smith's memoir Just Kids instead of Shin's novel. This is fine--Just Kids is a great read, one that many people have loved--but to suggest that reading is an either/or experience, that somehow one book should be substituted for another, misses the whole point of why we read. The sad, beautiful fact that we're going to miss almost everything is somewhat inevitable, but being "well-read" isn't about reading everything. It's about reading widely, generously, and with an open mind.

It's been a week full of literary highs and lows: first the potential falsehoods (and excuses) of Greg Mortenson's best-selling memoir Three Cups of Tea, then the glorious one-two punch of Jennifer Egan's Pulitzer win and HBO development deal, then today's release of the Time 100 that includes all kinds of literary tastemakers from the past year (Egan, Jonathan Franzen, Amy Chua, George R.R. Martin, and Patti Smith, among many others). All of these serve as reminders that, while we may gnash our teeth over the impending publishing apocalypse, every day writers and their work make news, incite conversation, and create reasons for the reading public to participate in a dialogue about what makes good literature. I'm happy to know that books can stimulate an exchange of ideas...it'd be nice if Corrigan could've felt the same way.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Mornings with the Twits

Those brilliant Brits at Penguin's Puffin imprint. For the next few weeks, children in the U.K. will be waking up to excerpts of some of Roald Dahl’s beloved stories on the back of their cereal boxes. The imprint has struck a deal with ASDA grocery stores to run two hundred word extracts from The BFG, The Witches, The Twits, Danny, the Champion of the World and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory on at least 10 million cereal boxes, in hopes of reaching households that wouldn’t normally be exposed to Roald Dahl.
I’ve only got one thing to say: It’s bloody well time. I’d like to suggest other places where literature could be placed. How about printing an excerpt of an exciting new novel on the back of boarding passes? Hello, you’re gonna be delayed. How about laminating literature to the table tops of trendy restaurants to read while you wait for your perpetually just-running-a-few-minutes-behind friend. I’d also like to suggest that we ban those foul-looking toenail fungus ads that we often see inside subway cars and instead run chunks of literature, for when your hands are too full to pull out a book. How about pasting pages of a book on the inside of a slow-moving elevator? The world has plenty of space and time for literature, it seems. Also, I’d also love it if someone could hold up something to read while I blow dry my hair in the mornings. In the meantime, let’s all hope Dahl’s magic inspires some of the little ones to ask Mummy and Daddy to buy them a book.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Where Have All the Starving Artists Gone?

In last week’s issue, New York Magazine did a spread of the New York City apartments where great writers and artists of the past lived while perfecting their craft. The point, it seemed from the rather humble nature of the abodes, was that the perfection of an art form often comes at the expense of certain basic luxuries. This is nothing new. Poverty, the concept of “the starving artist,” has long been a tenet of the glamour surrounding just about any art form: acting, writing, studio art. It’s one of the myths (well, is something mythic if it’s still true?) built into our understanding of artistry. A few years ago when I was working on the artwork for a biography on John Cheever, the image that captured my attention to the greatest degree was far and away the tiny, charmless room on Hudson Street where Cheever wrote before he made it big. On the other end of the highbrow low brow continuum, who doesn’t like to hear that story about how, before he landed Thelma and Louise, Brad Pitt wore a chicken costume to promote a fast food restaurant? Where they started makes where these people ended that much more noteworthy a journey, and what they were willing to give up in the name of pursuing something they loved makes their natural talent for that thing feel that much more epic. Being an artist is tough, we all seem to agree—if it wasn’t, every one would do it.

But counting your pennies no longer seems to be a requirement for joining the literary set. Some of the best MFA programs in the country will, if you’re one of the lucky ten or twelve students accepted into their elite programs, not only waive your tuition, but also give you a living stipend that hardly needs stretching given the cost of living in the places where these institutions are located. There’s now a writing major at all of the elite colleges. The art form of writing has come to be taken more seriously—as, well, an art form, instead of a noble hobby that requires breaking away from the establishment. Prestigious literary journals offer one week retreats with their more impressive contributors that will set fledgling writers back a grand or more. Even on the editorial side things aren’t nearly as tight as rumor or legend would have them. As an editorial assistant I have to do some budgeting, but when I play my cards right I can afford the occasional four dollar coffee or even, in a really good month, a piece of designer clothing.

This is obviously not any cause for complaint. As someone whose life is as enmeshed in the arts as mine is (and as someone who actually did minor in creative writing as an under grad), I would be an idiot to bemoan any of this. I think it’s wonderful that schools are making the serious and concentrated study of the craft of writing affordable, and I’ve looked into more than one of those retreats, pretty impressed that so many major writers would give their time and attention to the next generation, and I’m about to start paying tuition for a low residency MFA program because I truly believe it will be worth it. If I were to die a very, very rich woman tomorrow (having won the lottery some time in the next 24 hours) and had no heirs, I would likely leave the brunt of my dough to these institutions that foster talented young people. There’s also good reason to believe that this route is every wise a way to go as resigning yourself to poverty was back in the day—go to your nearest bookstore and I think you’ll be surprised at the high percentage of contemporary novelists whose bios boast MFAs. And maybe graduate school demands its own brand of chic poverty. (Having looked at the books and my financial forecast, it seems I’ll be going on far less trips and buying far less clothing now that a portion of my income will be funding my grad school dream, but that’s okay, it’s glamorous even, I’m a grad student.)

But looking at those pictures on the train this morning, my romantic side got the better of me. That noble striving evident in every speck of dust on the floor in those pictures, every smear of food on the plates in the cracked sinks, the shabbiness of the carpeting and the roaches you could practically feel looming right outside the frame, seemed to well, part of the point. Part of the fun. Part of what you inherit when you decide at the age of 5, 15, 28 or 40, I’m going to be a writer. Does finally getting something you’ve wanted your whole life mean less if you didn’t sacrifice as much to get it? Do practicality, fresh sheets, and a sound, well thought out financial plan have little place in the pursuit of becoming a writer? How starving need a starving artist be?

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Poetry of Hops

As a young person working in the poetry industry, I’m always surprised at how, well, old the art tends to skew. While it’s true the form does demand some experience from its composers, and having a lifetime to write about no doubt helps when putting pen to paper, even audience members and enthusiasts tend to hover in the middle ages of life. The reason that this is so mind baffling to me is that poetry is juicy. It’s about love affairs, love gone wrong, even sex (!). So often poetry—and many of my own favorite poems—harp on the passionate, adventure-filled and epic moments of our time on earth. It rarely concerns itself with listening to NPR, or gardening, knitting, or nifty ideas for how to fill your next visit from your grandkids. Though the nostalgia found in so many of the great poems does imply an older person looking back, the sources of rumination are often the concepts and themes that torture and delight the fleeting years of our youth. Why, then, don’t the young flock to it? Can we only reflect on these tortured and fast-paced eras once we’ve put them behind us?

As many of you may know April is poetry month. And in an attempt to both honor this delightful tradition and convince a younger demographic that poetry is everywhere, lurking even in the pastimes and vices that fill a typical twenty-something’s night out, I’ve decided to call attention to the poetry I marvel at every time I visit one of my favorite bars in Park Slope, The Beer Table. Known for its incredibly obscure beers with exotic and unlikely flavors, this tiny hole in the wall is a true gem. Maybe it’s just the alarmingly high alcohol content of the delicious, frothy creations they sell, but after a few sips I’m as delighted by and engrossed in the language of the menu as I am the brew. It’s not traditional poetry, but the language is every bit as playful, vivid, and image evoking as in any good poem. When trying to describe the concoctions for sale, its proprietors compare them to unlikely other taste powerhouses: tobacco, licorice, cereal, grass, earth, sugary candy, bark, smoke, and on. What’s wild is that these short summaries are often right—while beer and the oddball objects of comparison don’t naturally flow together, the parallels somehow work. I would go so far as to say this practice of matching two unlikely concepts together into a union that creates its own new, starling, and brilliant whole is also an important tenet of poetry.

So let the spirit of poetry month move you. Have a beer you most certainly have never tried anywhere else, pour over the rich language that accompanies it, and be merry. And maybe buy a book of poems while you’re at it. Until then, here are a few samples from The Beer Table’s menu to lighten your mood and bring a splash of unconventional poetry to your day. (Another perk of this place is that the menu changes daily, so this preview should in no way dissuade you from going yourself for the language—and beer—of the day.)

De Dolle Oerbier Special Reserve ‘09
Oak, deep winter, red wine, animal, elegant

De Cam Oude Lambiek ‘03
Delicate, lemon juice, mushroom, earth, subtle

Founders KBS
Ripe, wood smoke, warm bourbon, malty, vanilla, fresh coffee

Baladin Xyauyu Silver
Walnut, caramel, muscular, sweet sherry, sensual dessert

Schlenkerla Helles
Soft, thirst quenching, laced with smoke

JW Lees Harvest Ale, ‘02

Hedonistic, honey, nuts, maple sugar, figs, nectar

Goose Island Rare Bourbon County Stout

Oil, hot, syrup, massive

Oskar Blues Gordon

Floral, herbal, bitter, burnt caramel, apparent alcohol

Drie Fonteinen Oude Gueze
Cereal, hazy, light tart, lemon zest

Goose Island Madame Rose
Refreshing, subdued cherry, bubbly, sour

De Dochter van de Korenaar L’Enfant Terrible
Gueze-like, bracing, bold, wheaty

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Invention of Lying

Let’s make this an ongoing theme, shall we? Last night I watched a movie that, while not exactly about publishing, comes very close. In The Invention of Lying, Ricky Gervais plays a man who lives in a world where everyone tells the truth. His character is a screenwriter, but—as Gervais, himself a co-screenwriter for the movie, implies—movies are necessarily boring if lies are taken out of the equation. Fiction and acting are both forms of lies themselves. As a result, in this world, screenwriters write long historical narratives which are then read aloud on film by sonorously voiced actors. All movies are structured like the opening of Masterpiece Theatre, painfully extended to two hours in length. Near the beginning of the movie, Gervais’s character is fired. It’s not for any particular lack of writing ability, he’s told—he just happens to be a specialist in a very boring, very depressing time period, the fourteenth century. He’s already produced several movies about the Black Plague, and it doesn’t seem like there’s anywhere else to go. But after he commits the eponymous act—Gervais’s character tells the first lie this world has ever known—he’s alerted to the possibilities of fiction. He tells his old boss that he discovered an ancient text (conveniently dated to the 1300s) that documents alien visitors, and tells the story of a tragic love affair. Since no one else can conceive of anything that’s not the truth, everyone buys the story and Gervais’s character is hired back to write a movie that becomes a blockbuster. Gervais makes a few interesting choices in The Invention of Lying. I expected the plot would follow an Edenic narrative, that lying would begin with Gervais but spread to others. (Think the use of color in Pleasantville.) But lying doesn’t turn out to be contagious; neither does its seemingly inevitable consequence, doubt. No one ever suspects Gervais. Deception unsettles his world, but its denizens never consider that it might be anything less than fact. What does this have to do with publishing? Well, it gives us another way that consumers view the products of our industry, There’s a real dynamic between fiction and nonfiction being explored in The Invention of Lying. Although nonfiction is prioritized in a world where truth is central, it’s clear where Gervais’s sympathies lie. Truth, surprisingly, is lumped together with a whole host of undesirable traits in this movie: shallowness (an honest person’s evaluation of others is only skin-deep), exhaustibility (history can only yield so much, just as the Black Plague can only yield two completely accurate movies), brutality (honesty here is never sifted through caution, and no one ever chooses to remain silent when they might speak instead). Lies, and thus fiction, create space for the qualities we consider truly human: creativity, generosity (Gervais’s character uses others’ willing belief to get them to reevaluate their lives, often for the better), self-knowledge and an ability to move past surfaces (somewhat surprisingly). It’s worth noting, though, that we never see pure fiction marketed here: what becomes a mega-hit for Gervais’s character is fiction that appears to be nonfiction. It’s clear by the end of The Invention of Lying that Gervais doesn’t see nonfiction as a particularly creative or hopeful endeavor. Yet fiction—unexpected and radical—is an explosive presence. Where can we look to make money? According to Gervais, it’s in the fiction that masquerades as what it is not. For whatever The Invention of Lying says about fiction and nonfiction, its insidious message is that truth-seekers are always willing to pay good money to be deceived. Move over, Jonathan Franzen; move over, Malcolm Gladwell; if we're looking for real money, we should be eyeing James Frey.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Unmanageable Reading Life

Sometimes you find a viral video that's so spot-on about your day-today existence, it shakes you to the core. This, my friends, is that video, and it prompts that eternal, frightening question: "Did you read?"

(That sketch courtesy of the brilliant sketch comedy Portlandia.)

Everyone that works in media, the publishing industry, or the arts feels it's their job to consume culture. Some fly by the seat of their pants--following what they know they love, and taking up recommendations once they reach a certain level of mass popularity. (Case-in-point, the flood of Kindle readers who take on bestsellers from previous years once it becomes easy to carry their entire library with them.) Others plan out their year in culture in advance, annotating their calendars with premieres, book parties, and gallery openings. But no matter who you are in this business, inevitably you have to do your homework of following all hot cultural trends. Tools like Twitter and the Approval Matrix, as well as any number of brilliant cultural digests and podcasts, can be invaluable in this respect, but everyone has their own crazy method of staying informed. And when I say these methods can be "crazy", here is what I mean:

My daily reading routine: I click into my Google Reader. What gets read quickly becomes determined by a) what I find entertaining, b) what I find important, and c) what I think should probably be read to stay well-informed. The entertaining posts either get read right away or added to my Instapaper account for later reading, which I can do from my computer or from my iPhone. The important posts get opened and either quickly discarded or scheduled for Tweeting out both for the TK account and my personal account. (A few particularly provocative ones get sent out as posts on Facebook.) The informative posts, if they're news-related and informational in content, get read right away; if they're good for the brain, long thought-provoking pieces, they often fall to the very bottom of my Instapaper account, not to be seen again for several months later. (I have at least three pieces from recent New Yorkers languishing...)

Movie recommendations get thrown onto a Netflix queue. Book recommendations get added to a Goodreads account, then sorted by their publisher, release date, and content. (Novels, non-fiction, and cookbooks all get their own lists.) In my Google documents is a list of forthcoming books I want to review. In a desktop folder on my work computer are at least 20 PDFs and Word docs of books soon-to-be-published that I want to read. Sitting on my desk at home is a stack of books I've committed to reviewing, each with a post-in noting its on-sale date and who the review is for. For those books being read on deadline, the inside cover carries a day-by-day breakdown of how many pages should be read to finish the material on time.

I recently lay out this culture diet for a friend of mine, account by account, commitment by commitment. His response? "That's not a culture diet, that's a culture binge." Of course, he's right. In our information-saturated culture, where anything and everything is available for reading, for perusing, for mulling over late at night, it has become harder and harder to really digest anything. Impressions about great novels become muted when they're read back-to-back; music becomes background noise when it comes secondary to everything else; movies make less of an impact when they're viewed in marathons. (Unless of course these are like Lord of the Rings-extended marathons, in which you come to appreciate both the scope of Tolkein's universe and the benefits of shoes when going on epic quests.) "I don't remember what inspired me anymore," my friend said to me. "I can feel myself getting dumber, and I think I used to remember things better...did we have this problem in the 19th century?"

Of course we didn't. We used to live in a culture where books were more valued objects, where opportunities to consume culture were rarified occurrences, and often the privilege of the elite. (The theater and the opera can still be treated this way, thanks to $100+ tickets.) But with the opening-up of the Internet, a book can be read as a web page, an art gallery can be visited via Google, and new music can be selected based on a single song you already like. With so many new methods to find new entertainment, do we become more cultured? Or do we become more overwhelmed? Is it better to take small bites of art, or huge mouthfuls?

I don't have an answer to this question yet, but if you found a great article, and asked me today, "Did you read it?" I probably did. Whether I remember anything about it is the real conundrum.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


I think we can keep adding to Caroline’s excellent post on the canon of publishing movies. Today’s addendum: Limitless. Only peripherally a publishing movie, Limitless might end up saying more about what the industry means to people than a lot of movies that directly thematize the business.

As it happens, I saw it with a colleague. I should’ve been writing my launch presentation for the next day, but he suggested the movie, and I, never one to pass up a mediocre sci-fi flick, agreed. “All I know about it,” he revealed ominously, “is that this is the number one movie in the country.” “Oh, no.”

The movie’s conceit, you probably know, plays off the medical myth (debunked—kind of—at Snopes) that we use only a small percentage of our brainpower. In the movie, Bradley Cooper stumbles on a miracle drug that allows him to “access all of [his] brain.” Whatever that actually means, in the world of the movie it turns him into a total freakin’ rockstar from Mars.

“Let’s just hope,” my friend fondly hoped, “he doesn’t work in publishing.”

Prescienter words are rarely spoken. Bradley Cooper plays a writer who is late delivering his manuscript. He is dumped by his editor girlfriend (no, she’s not his editor, there just happen to be lots of editors in this movie), played by the terrible Abbie Cornish; at the movie’s beginning, she’s just been promoted: “I have my own assistant!” she gloats.

When he scores NZT (the drug’s name eerily recalls a certain “male enhancement” pill), Cooper’s character finishes his book in a four-day writing binge that looks a lot like a coke spree but less sweaty. And on the fifth day, he plops his manuscript on his stunned editor’s desk. “Just read the first three pages,” he says. “If you don’t like it, I’ll return my advance.” He may be an Übermensch, but his agent would never let him talk like that.

The bulk of the movie takes place in the couple weeks after Cooper’s character improbably delivers his book. Then he takes his superbrains and goes into mergers and acquisitions. (Wouldn’t you?)

Toward the end of the film, we skip providentially ahead Twelve Months Later: foregrounded in the scene, but forgotten by the plot of the movie, is a finished copy of the novel. It appears as if by magic, attended by total irrelevance. Which is, to be fair, probably how these things seem to happen in the real world.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Touch of a Woman

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard of a novel called The Help, by Kathryn Stockett. It’s been on the New York Times Fiction Bestseller List for a staggering 102 weeks (as of 3/27/11), and has been optioned by Steven Spielberg. Stockett has rocketed to literary celebrity, but The Help’s success has also put another name on the map—that of Amy Einhorn.

In the twenty years since she graduated from Stanford, Einhorn has amassed a formidable résumé that should inspire even the most forlorn editorial assistant; she began at FSG and rose all the way up to Editor-in-Chief at Hachette behemoth Grand Central Publishing. However, a few years ago Penguin approached her with an offer that I don’t think anyone could refuse—that of her own imprint. She moved to 375 Hudson Street in 2007, and launched Amy Einhorn Books in 2009.

And what a launch it was: The Help was one of the imprint’s first titles, boasting a simply intertwined lower-case “a” and “e” logo on its spine. It must have been a hard act to follow, but several of Einhorn’s more recent books, such as The Postmistress and The Weird Sisters, have also hit the list (though admittedly not with the soaring staying power of The Help).

With its record of stunning success, Amy Einhorn Books is firmly established as an imprint. In fact, I think Amy Einhorn Books is more accurately described as a brand, in that the presence of its logo seems to function as a Good Housekeeping Seal for readers—last year, a group of bloggers kicked off the “Amy Einhorn Perpetual Reading Challenge” on Twitter, encouraging people to read their way through the entire catalog. Although a mix of fiction and nonfiction, her titles share common sensibilities despite their varying subjects, and readers seem to have picked up on this identifiable aesthetic.

Amy Einhorn Books, however, is far from the first eponymous boutique imprint to be helmed by a female editor. Nan A. Talese Books (Doubleday), Reagan Arthur Books (Little, Brown), and Sarah Crichton Books (FSG) are some of its most recognizable predecessors, all founded by women who are venerated in publishing circles for their charisma and talent. I don’t think you’d have to throw a stone too far to hit a young editrix with a small “woman-crush” on, say, Reagan (ahem).

It’s interesting to consider the brand power of these imprints alongside their function within the larger context of their parent house/imprint. Once upon a time, there was a Nelson Doubleday; a Roger Straus, a John Farrar, and a Robert Giroux; an Alfred A. Knopf; a Charles Scribner; a Charles Coffin Little and a James Brown. One can easily forget that the imprints bearing these names were once small ventures, too, each defined by the personality and editorial taste of their founders. But will their trajectory of growth and power be followed by this new school of lady imprints? In fifty years, will we be referring just to “Talese” and “Arthur”? Will “Einhorn” in its turn be a maternal umbrella for other smaller imprints?

Equally worthy of discussion is whether or not there will space in the industry for my publishing generation to produce its own personality-driven imprints in twenty years’ time. Despite the success of Einhorn and Arthur, there is also a trend now towards more concept-oriented imprints, like Twelve and the short-lived HarperStudio. Are ideas, rather than people, now the bigger draw?

What also intrigues me is that both of these imprints were started by men. Given that the industry’s biggest houses and imprints are named after men, is it now considered un-politically correct by the industry for a younger generation of male editors to found new imprints boasting their names? Or does this difference stem from the common theory that women read more books, especially more fiction, than do men, and therefore that a name-brand imprint led by a woman has more influence in the marketplace?

I raise all these questions not to provide rhetorical flourishes, but because I honestly can’t answer them. I don’t think anyone really can. I just hope that Amy and Reagan and Nan and Sarah continue to rock on, and allow their taste to sing out loudly in this crowded bookstore of a world.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A Childhood Bookshelf Revealed

This past weekend my husband and I paid a visit to my parents in Connecticut. While my dad commandeered my husband into fixing every appliance in the house, I had time to sit in my childhood bedroom and take a long look around. Some things have changed in this room since I was home for the holidays, like the ongoing and unsettling proliferation of my mom’s completed jigsaw puzzles on every unoccupied surface. Some things haven’t, like my cringeworthy closet door collage of things I thought were rad in high school (emo bands, Jake Gyllenhaal, cheeky advertisements). But the truly revealing evidence of Pam-Cortland-through-the-ages can be found on the bookshelves that line the three walls of my room. Curious and hard up for blog fodder, I took to the shelves to ask, “What do our childhood and adolescent bookshelves reveal about us?”

This is probably the oldest book in my room. My dad, ever the ambitious English professor, gave this to me when I was…8? 9? Whatever the age, it was surely too early to encounter the unexpurgated text of the Grimm tales. The 242 stories herein are bloody as hell and tremendously anti-Semitic. And I read each story at least 4 or 5 times. I was…a pretty confused child. But now I have a keen eye for folk tale tropes!

Sophomore year of high school. My classmates and I were just starting to read real books in French class. Recall how insufferable 15-year-olds are. Now imagine a classroom of 15-year-olds reading Sartre in French. Yeah, I thought I was worldly as shit. The only reason this book looks so tattered is that I likely toted it around in my bag for months after completing it, so I could whip it out while waiting for my mom to check out at Stop n Shop and look so deep.

The most formative and weird period of my young adulthood was my four-month-long study abroad term in Glasgow during my junior year of college. My classmates and I were enrolled in English literature courses at the University of Glasgow, and I opted to have my one elective course be yet another literature course instead of something fun, like studio art or Scotch distilling. In short, my study abroad experience was more monk-like than spring break. Glasgow in the fall gets about 5 hours of daylight daily, most of which I spent in the library reading Jacobean revenge dramas and strange books like The Master and Margarita. Among the essay deadlines for my three lit classes, I barely found the time to feed myself, letting myself believe that my roommate’s orange Bacardi Breeze was an acceptable substitute for orange juice at breakfast time. This cracked-out British jacket for The Master and Margarita is a fitting illustration of how my life felt at that time. Best four months of my life!

This book is a stand-in for an intense graphic novel phase I went through senior year of college—coincidentally, the same year that my college introduced a course on graphic novels. We read so many Pantheon titles…and then I graduated, moved to New York City, got a job at Random House, and started working on those titles! DREAMS REALLY DO COME TRUE.

So. Have I come any closer to answering my post’s question? I’m not sure. I suspect I should have read more age-appropriate books. But what I’m really interested in are the books haunting your childhood shelves. Do it up in the comments!

Monday, March 14, 2011

Does alcohol breed good writing habits?

In a recent blog post, Jess talked about the extent to which writing and publishing go hand in hand with booze, and the plusses and effects of this pairing. Here, I’d like to have a quick look at how the two may have come to be wed in the first place.

Say what you will about the quality of my writing (I know, I know, as many sentences as not are run-ons, and I totally overuse parentheses, I sometimes can’t resist going a little un-artfully sentimental, and I’ve never been published outside of this blog), but about the quantity of my writing I feel pretty good. I write one line poems on subway cars headed back to Brooklyn after long days at the office, I have notebooks filled with novel openings, and I’ve got several blog posts lined up and waiting to be polished. When I started taking writing workshops again about a year ago I promised myself to never workshop the same story twice, and so far I’ve been able to stick to that.

No, I’m not bragging. I don’t think I’m a particularly inspired writer, or that I suffer writer’s block any less than any other aspirants. The key is that the very moment a good (or, let’s be honest, even decent) idea—be it for a blog post, a short story, an opening line of an as yet-to-be-determined project, or even a screenplay I have no aspirations to write—comes to me, I immediately pick up the nearest pen and closest piece of paper and scribble away. Sometimes this commitment requires ducking into small bodegas to buy an overpriced pen that usually doesn’t last very long even though I have an entire drawer of pens at home. On more than one occasion the only available paper has been a cocktail napkin or the margins of an already published book. My boyfriend Ben (the biggest Michigan football fan around) and I made a big to-do about watching last year’s opening game out at a bar. A tribute at half time inspired a short story idea that I spent the second half of the game filling cocktail napkins with until, line by line, the story was finished. Thursday nights are pretty sacred for Ben and me—we watch NBC’s sitcom line-up (The Office, 30 Rock, etc) over a beer or two and generally unwind after a long week. But when the idea for the Alice Munro/Grey’s Anatomy post that I wrote a few weeks ago hit me while he was on a quick beer run in between shows I still put the whole thing down, word for word. (He’s known me long enough that when he came home to see me scribbling furiously all I had to say was, “I thought of a blog post” for him to retreat gamely to the other side of the couch to wait for me to finish—he’s the best, that one.)

This habit wasn’t born out of discipline, determination, or even a willing time commitment to my hobby. They key to doing this is being aware of the fact that the ideas that come to all of us suddenly, at odd times throughout the day, are not going to stick around forever. (How many times have all of us though, “huh, that’s not a bad idea, remember that for later,” only to never give it a second thought?) After all, if you’ve forgotten you had a good idea in the first place, you don’t realize there’s a problem. You’ve forgotten that there was anything to be lost. You’ve forgotten that there’s anything that was worth saving that wasn’t saved.

And here’s where the alcohol comes in. The channel through which I first realized how well fleeting thoughts can serve a writer in the end was the not small amount of alcohol I drank in college, as undergrads are wont to do. As many of you well know, alcohol—and more particularly having drunken quite a lot of it with masses of close friends in the midst of all kinds of seemingly compelling drama that the young love to breed—makes even the most cynical a bit whimsical, sentimental, or poetic. As an English major, I used to drunkenly text myself the one liners and notes that were inspired by the things and people I saw when I was out on Saturday nights far past when I should have been. The next mornings I would always wake a little stunned to see that I had over a dozen or so texts, and was always both relived and a little bit embarrassed to see that they were all from me to me, and all scraps of drunken creativity.

After engaging in this horribly embarrassing quirk enough times, I realized that, in the midst of the sea of ridiculous senselessness and jumble of horribly misspelled words that resulted, there were actually a few gems worth saving and building a piece for one of my workshops from. Once this became apparent, I started saving all the random ideas I had for the pieces I was working on, whether they came to me in a fraternity lodge at two o’clock in the morning or in the corner of the library at four in the afternoon. I had seen first hand that a line or a thought or an observation pulled from thin air could eventually become something much fuller, and after seeing that proven true enough times, was more than game to cultivate the scraps that came to me, even if some of them (okay, most of them) amounted to nothing. Thus, the habit I outlined at the start of this post—writing down every little thought, essentially—was born.

Perhaps this alcohol-spawned pattern offers some small insight into why so many of the writers that dot the literature landscape’s past were total boozehounds. Maybe the flashes of brilliance that inspired their great works came to them in the middle of a shin digs of Gastsby-esque proportions, or after a wine fueled dinner with the one who would eventually get away. Maybe they only captured those flashes of brilliance that would eventually be fleshed out into staples of freshmen lit classes for years to come because they felt sentimental enough, there in the glow of a candlelit bar room, or under the intoxicating lull of champagne bubbles, to write it down and cherish it. Maybe if those ideas had first come to them in the middle of a meeting with an accountant, or at a lunch with their boss at an average nine to five gig, the details of the every day and the demands they make on all of us would have made the more practical portions of their brains that were currently being engaged convince them to put away their fanciful aspirations, at least for the moment? Maybe writers don’t happen to have a fondness for a glass or two of the fermented, maybe they became writers because said glasses kept them up, engaged in activities worth writing about and compelled to do so?

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Corrections from the Assisterati

Oh, dear...this, again?

The New York Observer has published an article on assistants in the publishing world. That's assistants to editors, agents, scouts, and publicists (never mind those assistants in design, production, and on the financial side), the group of which the article’s author, Kat Stoeffel, has deigned to call "The Assisterati." Judging from the industry responses--and the responses of the assistants around me--Stoeffel has gotten quite a few things wrong in this article. So let's take them to task:

1) Where they come from: Of a gathering of the Assisterati, Stoeffel says, "most of the guests were already connected through a network of private colleges on the East Coast . . . Some were on intimate terms, having attended the same summer camp, the Columbia Publishing Course." Certainly yes, a handful of publishing assistants emerge from excellent colleges and universities on the East coast. And some of them attended intensive summer programs like the NYU Publishing Institute, the Columbia Publishing Course, and other such immersive workshops that cram a lifetime of publishing experience (and an extraordinary series of panels headed by industry leaders) into a brief six weeks. (It's not much of a summer camp, more like a graduate-school-level boot camp.) But Stoeffel makes this all seem serendipitous, a product of privilege rather than deliberate planning for a deeply desired career. First, the geographic and economic spread among entry-level publishing employees is fairly large: I've worked with assistants who studied on the West Coast, the Midwest, the Deep South, the EU, in India, and in South Africa, and all of them had widely varying levels of economic support by way of hard-earned loans and scholarships. Secondly, the choice to attend summer publishing programs is hardly made just to gain cultural cache. While these programs carry a price tag (about $7000 for CPC, $5000 for NYU), they represent a fraction of the price and time that a person would need to commit for a master's degree in English or Journalism (usually upwards of $25,000). And because they are focused on the questions and concerns surrounding the publishing industry, they provide a unique advantage for people that are deeply committed to having a long career learning its nuances of the industry. (Remember that phrase, "deeply committed" in mind.)

2) Who do they think they are? Stoeffel starts to go into the character and attitudes of the Assisterati: "They are the caretakers, soon to be inheritors, of a sublime patrimony. Their proximity to literary creation . . . suggests they possess a cultural credibility they couldn't acquire in, say, Chicago, or on Wall Street. Underpaid but brimming with hope, they, like the people they assist, will one day run this town and steer the course of American literature." If you care about what you do, if you believe what you're doing has worth, you will take a great deal of pride in it. I freely confess that, because I work in an industry that values intelligent voices and finds ways to promote them in the public cultural sphere, I think what I do has an intrinsic value and it gives me cultural credibility. People who work in publishing are part of a tradition (which is vastly different than a patrimony) of finding ways to disseminate great thoughts by great writers, and if that's what Stoeffel wants to call arrogant, then fine, we're arrogant. (And so are all the folks in the denigrated Chicago or Wall Street communities she mentions, since I'm sure they often take as much pride in their work as we do in ours.) And as far as her pithy remarks regarding the attitudes of assistants across different departments, it seems the antipathy she perceives comes from the pettiest of interviewees. When the assistants in our office gather every Friday for a glass of wine and an hour of laughs, it doesn’t matter whether their author is a Twitter phenomenon or a poet of critical acclaim, or if they wear the elegant heels of a publicist or the papercuts of an editor. They all earned the right to be there for a drink, to celebrate the tremendous work and dedication they do every day.

3) Why they ended up getting hired, and what they actually do: Stoeffel says that, while the Assisterati may have lofty dreams of controlling the literary world, their cultural cache is rarely put to work. “Once they settle into their cubicles, these traits are about as valuable as perfect punctuation in the cover letter of a slush submission.” She goes on to quote assistants who are daunted by administrative tasks and secretarial work such as arranging travel plans, mailing packages, and Xeroxing manuscripts. Most egregiously, she suggests that many assistants continue to do these tasks as the only method of harmoniously bonding with their bosses, who serve as “gatekeepers to the kind of meaningful work—acquiring or editing books—that they must master in order to move up the ladder.” Yes, any entry-level assistant will have some level of administrative work to do, and unless they’ve worked in an office setting before, some of it will be new to them. (I’ve often wished that colleges would create seminars for graduating seniors called “Office Etiquette and Paperwork 101,” just so you could learn the multitudes of UPS and FedEx mailing options before your first interviews.) But every office environment requires this. Until publishing becomes an all-electronic industry (god forbid), someone has to mail galleys and xerox manuscripts, circulate jackets and turn over the foul copy. These are all steps in how a house functions from day to day, and demonstrate what it means to be entry-level: to see the work from the ground-floor up. And the bond with the boss is not just about sucking up or playing a “shell game,” it’s also sometimes about having a true mentor-protégée relationship that can benefit both participants. I can show my boss how I learn about breaking media news by way of Facebook, Twitter, and my Google Reader; she can fill me in on meetings regarding developments in the e-book world and new acquisitions. The difference between the Mad-Men-esque secretarial role that Stoeffel imagines, and the reality of the symbiotic relationship between established editor and aspiring assistant, couldn’t be more stark. Stoeffel is writing from a perspective that says apprenticeship and grunt work doesn’t matter—strange, given that she seems to have skipped into her Observer position by way of three internships (the majority of which are unpaid and entirely made of grunt work). Curiouser and curiouser…

4) The ones that stick around: Stoeffel notes that many assistants harbor other dreams—of writing, of traveling, of becoming pastry chefs—and some eventually leave to pursue those dreams. This is hardly news—every profession experiences some turnover. But who Stoeffel forgets to address—the population she leaves out entirely—are the many, many assistants whose dreams are to become champions of great writers through deliberate scouting around the world, dedicated representation of an author’s potential, nuanced editing of an important text, and spirited publicity of a great finished product. Those who figure out that this business isn’t for them will often leave early, and we wish them well. But for those of us who are deeply committed to this business, to this process—the making of books—it’s deeply offensive to see our dedication branded as naiveté. For those of us that threw ourselves into high school and college English courses, edited our local papers and magazines, took on unpaid internships while waiting tables, and now spend nights and weekends reading manuscripts and magazines and attending literary events, this was anything but a light, romanticized career choice. And when a reporter writes a glib, poorly researched, and intentionally inflammatory article just to get the media community talking about how offended they are, it’s more than just a raspberry being blown our way. The Observer is not meant to be Stoeffel’s personal LiveJournal on which to snark and speculate and insinuate that other people are wasting their time. If anything, her article was a profound waste of our time. We, after all, have real work to do.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Publishing Movie Myths Debunked!

In the last decade or so, the film industry has given us several movie gems set in or about the publishing industry. Not surprisingly, they range from the laughably far fetched (Lindsay Lohan’s Labor Pains) to the fairly spot on (Suburban Girl and The Last Days of Disco). Even less surprisingly, the number of conversations about these films had by young people in the publishing business far outweighs the number of films. After five years of hearing our corridors light up with excited chatter about both publishing-centered movies that have just been unleashed upon the world and those that are now classics, I decided to have something of a movie marathon and see what all of the various fusses are about. Below, the things the movies in question got right, and the touches that are solely Hollywood’s!

The Wonder Boys

In this touching and very funny Michael Chabon adaptation Robert Downey Jr. plays Terry Crabtree, an editor who makes a sojourn to Pittsburg to visit Professor Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas), his star writer who is struggling to finish his second novel. (His first was met with a cascade of acclaim and put Terry Crabtree on the map as an editor.) Though discovering one great writer can indeed launch the career up-and-coming editor, that well-played acquisition usually leads to others. Being in a position to acquire is the key (as opposed to finding anything worth acquiring), and once you’ve jumped through all the hoops in front of you to acquire your first masterpiece the process usually tends to become easier. If Crabtree was hungry enough to sign Tripp up, it feels unlikely that he wouldn’t have found other manuscripts to further build his list. His being desperate enough to make a house call to a writer felt like a bit of stretch. That said, the sophomore slump can, sadly, be very real for successful debut novelists, and the movie gets the snarky writing workshop environment spot on!


The most obvious weakness in this light and fun rom com starring The Gilmore Girls’s Alexis Bledel is the premise that there’s a thriving book publishing industry in Los Angeles. Determined to take the publishing world by storm, Bledel’s Ryden Malby starts the movie thrilled that she has an interview with an editor at Hepperman and Browining, “the best publishing house in all of LA.” My “Um, what? There’s more than one?” was quickly followed by, “Wait, there’s even one?” That said, the details of a young assistant’s life are pretty accurate (we do tend to keep late hours, and manuscript reading is usually done on your own time unless you’re in the middle of a blissfully slow period), but in true Hollywood fashion, the diva-ish ways of those we report to are embellished more than a bit. (No, I’ve never had to scrape gum of the bottom of any editor’s shoe. Most editors keep all personal favors—even the humane ones—to a minimum.) Probably the most spot on is the detail that Ryden gets the coveted job months after she applied for it. The publishing world is so small that often times if an editor likes a resume or candidate who’s not quite right for the job in question they’ll save him or her on file for future openings, or pass them along to friends. Often times the job offer call comes when you least expect it. Sadly also true in that vein is the scene in which Ryden waits for her interview in a room full of other qualified and eager candidates. There are more aspiring editors than there are jobs!

Labor Pains

This movie also had the questionable premise of a publishing house based in LA, but because of all of the other details of the film that seem to be inspired by a magical world far far away from this one, it was less noticeable. This one pretty much gets everything wrong—publishing, human nature, comedic timing. In the weak plot, Lindsay Lohan invents a pregnancy to prevent her three headed monster of a boss from firing her from her editorial assistant job. I’m pretty sure it’s not illegal to fire a pregnant woman (especially one as inept at her job as Lohan’s character seems to be), just horribly villainous and heartless, which the boss in question certainly is. The other thing that sets this one apart from all the others that had at least a modicum of truth imbedded in their tales is that in every other movie here there was whiff of the glamour in the fledgling publishing careers on display. Sure, the protagonists worked long hours and struggled with the rigid hierarchy, but there was the sense that they were pursuing a dream that made the pitfalls worth it, not slumming it. Here the office feels a little bit like a desert version of the one featured on Steve Carell’s The Office, filled with unambitious nine-to-fivers who find most of their joy outside the work place. While not everybody in publishing is a beauty queen, the homeliness of Lohan’s co-workers and their simple, shoddy wardrobes seemed to be an intentional part of the plot, as if it was one of the defining characteristics of the business. While there’s a smiley acceptance of just about any clothing style in our offices (one of my favorite details of the work environment here) the vast majority of the office doesn’t find their wardrobe at vintage seventies thrift stores. Given that this is a Lindsay Lohan movie that went straight to video, none of this should be terribly surprising. The only real mysteries here are how they got so many real comedians to co-star (everyone from Creed from The Office to Janeane Garofalo has a bit part or cameo), and more importantly, how Amazon found people to give the DVD rave reviews. Seriously, check out the Amazon page and see how they glow! Really, America?

The Proposal

The office views found in this one are familiar (our offices, too, have walls of windows that look out on the Manhattan skyline), the author and publisher names they toss around like confetti are legit (with the exception of the imprint that über-editor Sandra Bullock and her assistant Ryan Reynolds work for), and yes, it really is THAT big of a deal to land Oprah. Less accurate is the power Sandra Bullock’s character holds over the entire floor, controlling and ruining lives en masse. While some big name bosses can demand a lot of personal attention and sacrifices from their employees, there’s no one person that everyone reports to directly. (And it must be said, some bosses are a dream to work for—I never once saw a super supportive mentor boss in any of these films, and they do exist!) No, Ryan Reynolds’s character is not too old to still be an assistant. There are very few jumps to make along the publishing ladder, even over an entire career (editorial assistant, associate editor, editor, senior editor), so you’re at each one for awhile. Also, the bigger the name you work for (or the more powerful the editor) the longer it makes sense to work for him or her. Despite the absurd (but hilarious) premise and Bullock’s wild twist as villain, the details ring pretty true.

The Last Days of Disco

It’s a bit tricky to evaluate this one for accuracy as a publishing novice in 2011, given that it’s set in the publishing world of the seventies. Perhaps a more interesting question than what is accurate about this and what is made up is what from that now antiquated world has remained in our current one. Believe it or not the typewriters that line the sets of this movie are still typing strong along senior editor row in 2011. It’s only recently that some of our legendary veterans and path pavers have made the switch from typewriters to computers. While crafting a reader’s report is no longer as communal an effort as it seems to be in the film, the dream of all young assistants seems not to have wavered from then to now: an associate editor gig is what we’re after. Perhaps most interesting is that in the movie—which came out years before the James Frey scandal—the protagonist’s dream book that she is finally able to sign up turns out to be fraudulent. The author made it all up and presented it as fact. Looks like the non-fiction Pinocchio problem that rears its head in a major way every few years is a tale as old as time. Despite the publishing details and their veracity or lack thereof, this is a fabulous film that I’d recommend to just about anyone, not just those interested or invested in the business.

Suburban Girl

This one is based on a handful of stories from Melissa Banks’s collection The Good Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing, which is one of my favorite books about publishing, or just about anything, really. The opening scene, in which the young associate editor protagonist named Brett Eisenberg (yes, named after that Brett, and played by Sarah Michelle Gellar) moves copies of her latest book to the front of her neighborhood book store didn’t ring quite true only because book placement is a detail managed by the marketing and sales departments as opposed to editors. The only other slight veer off course was a scene at a book party, in which the rude and legendarily literary host pushes the young Brett aside to speak to her older and more established suitor. Though it’s not uncommon to be the youngest person by about twenty years at the book parties we assistants attend, I find that the older and more established writers and editors are rather embracing. (I’ll never forget when Gay Talese approached me at a book party just to find out how things are going in the publishing industry these days, and what it’s like to be a young person in the trenches.) Seeing a younger set nervously clutching a champagne flute in the corner reminds them of their early days, I imagine. Some of my best conversations and contacts have been made at parties just like the one featured in that scene, and with people just as large in stature as the famous host. The rest of the film, though, is filled with deliciously spot on touches—everything from the copyediting marks that Brett scribbles across her manuscript pages to that magical moment when you see someone reading a book you’ve spent the last year working on; the reality of reader’s report insecurity and second guessing your opinion, and the conviction that at the end of the day you just have to trust your gut. Small touches like mentions of real life legends like agent Binky Urban also went a long way. Perhaps most notably, though, the movie is quite lovely in its capturing of the nostalgia that permeates our industry. Those who have been in this business for years love to talk about the legendary moments that dot its past—encounters with larger-than-life and infamous writers now long gone; the discovery of a book that went on to change the canon—almost as much as those of us just starting out love to hear them.