Category Archives: Uncategorized

Dog Days

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I’ve been traveling, and when not traveling knee-deep in various forms of work, so apologies for the silence ’round these parts. With some luck that will abate in the not-too-distant future. In the meantime, read one of these books, or check some of my latest work below.

My review of the fourth and final book of the Neapolitan novels of Elena Ferrante, at the San Francisco Chronicle.

And for The Paris Review I interview Ben Moser about all things Lispector.

And also, I’ll recommend to you The Wake by Paul Kingsworth. This is being billed as “a postapocalyptic novel set a thousand years in the past,” about an Englishman who experiences the destruction of his civilization when William the Conqueror, well, conquers in 1066. It’s written in a sort of Old English dialect (Kingsworth modernizes it so that you don’t need a Ph.D. to read the book), and it’s quite good; some slight overtones of Krasznahorkai here, as well as the Oulipo, given the nature of this literary endeavor and the radically condensed alphabet/vocabulary that Kingsworth gives himself to work with. I’m hoping to write on it more in the future.

Support Your Literary Community

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Dan Green asks a lot of important questions about “literary citizenship” and makes a lot of really good points. (And when I think of members in good standing of the “literary community” I certainly think of him.) I don’t have any answers to his questions, but I do have some responses to some of the points he raises.

First of all, I think the basic idea of a literary citizen is pretty simple. Don’t trash the community that nourishes you and gives you a place to exist. Don’t shit where you live. Do some good deeds for your people. Try to leave your place a little better than you found it. If for no other reason, it’s in your own self interest to make the ecosystem you live in a beautiful, interesting, healthy place to be.

As to the free riders and the gamers. Yes, there will always be a tiny percentage of community members who are transparently participating only for their own interests, just as there will also be a few saint-like figures who seem tireless in the good deeds they’ll do for others, with seemingly no regard whatsoever for their own careers. The cynics are easy enough to pick out and avoid, and the saints are welcome. That leaves the rest of us, the vast vast majority of or less decent people trying to do a little good while also trying to carve out a life for ourselves.

Social networks have, of course, become hugely important in the ways we interact as members of this community. But despite everything that social networks have changed, I find things like this a little overblown:

Corporate publishers have already contracted out most marketing and advertising to writers themselves, who must relentlessly promote their own work through book touring and maintaining a social media “presence.” Should writers aid and abet this process by voluntarily enabling the system in the name of literary citizenship? As Becky Tuch has written on this subject, “Today’s writers are expected to do more marketing work than ever before while not expecting much in the way of compensation or benefits. It’s what we are being ‘trained’ to do.”‘

First of all, it’s flat-out wrong that “corporate publishers have already contracted out most marketing and advertising to writers themselves.” There’s a pretty huge difference between what a career publicist can accomplish (and the work involved in getting it done) and the author who’s recruited to do a book tour.

Yes, the author is being asked to participate to a greater degree in publicity than, say, 30 years ago, but c’mon. I don’t know of any “corporate publishers” who ask their authors to print and mail out hundreds of galleys, cultivate relationships with scores/hundreds of critics nationwide, book nationwide bookstore tours (which are generally paid for in total by the publisher, and are not cheap), create and place advertising, and generally build the kind of market presence that can turn an author from completely unknown to semi-famous in a single season. I just don’t think it really helps this conversation at all to confuse the work a publicist does with the expectations that an author be part of a literary community.

As to the social media presence, yes, some authors really get social media and love it and have built sizable followings. But have a look at the number of Twitter followers for many of your favorite authors, and I guarantee they will be tiny (if they’re even on Twitter). Then compare that to the social media presence for his/her publisher. Yes, our media environment has changed quite a bit, but in large it’s the publicists and the publishers who have adapted to build sizable presences in the new online media, not the authors. And let’s not overstate what a Twitter presence can do for a writer; yes, it will help a bit, but it’s not a panacea for sales and publicity by any means.

Just one example out of many: Garth Risk Hallberg got himself a $2 million book deal with a leading publisher despite having no social media profile to speak of, having pretty much gone into hiding from the work he used to do at The Millions (or anywhere for that matter), and barely even having email. So, I mean . . .

The authors that have built sizable social media followings are generally in it for reasons other than to publicize their next book (and if they do also use it to publicize their work, I’m not going to fault them—see above). They probably get a lot out of being on Twitter, are well-suited enough to the environment that it doesn’t destroy their mood, and maybe just like being able to share information on cool books with thousands of people.

Bottom line: having been working in publishing for a while now, and having been in touch with all sorts of publishers and authors all over the place, I just don’t see any real evidence of what people like Becky Tuch say, and I think statements like hers are far too cynical and don’t consider the nuances that exist in the real world. It’s my experience that people who participate in the literary community via social media want to be there, and are doing it for a variety of reasons. The very last reason of all is that they’re being forced there by their publisher.

Dan also raises this series of important questions:

Although, to again assume the sincerity of those advocating for a writing community built around literary citizenship, presumably “business” would not be the center of activity: payment comes in “kindness and skill,” receipt of which cumulatively allows everyone to “learn, engage, and grow.”

But would real growth actually occur if all that was “paid forward” was “kindness”? Would the “skill” also offered in payment include a critical skill, an ability to honestly assess what a writer has produced, even when that assessment might be negative?

Honestly, I think the answers are “yes” and “yes.” When I look at the amount of coverage afforded today to small/indie press titles and authors in very mainstream publications with huge audiences (and it has increased a lot), I think that’s a direct result of the small/indie community that has been built in the decade-and-a-half since the Internet came into its own. Many people from that community have been enabled to crash the gates of the venerable mainstream, and they have brought along their friends with them. A lot of the people I consider peers today started out as nobodies with nothing more than shitty blogs (myself included), and now many of them are in places of power ans prestige. They still remember their old friends, and they’re still parts of the communities they started with. All of this has very substantively affected the sorts of books and authors that are taken seriously these days.

As to the honesty factor—yes, there’s tons of fluff out there. Every day we all see people passing along links to articles they haven’t read past the headline and promoting books they probably haven’t read. This is obviously not a good thing, and I think it can in part be attributed to the pressure to “keep up” and to be a “good citizen,” as well as to the list-making tendency of Internet media. Obviously these aren’t good things, we can all agree. But, two things: 1) This all existed before the Internet, and I think the Internet has only magnified it and brought it more into the open; and 2) Amid all this bullshitting I also see a lot of very genuine criticism and discussion happening.

Because, the fact is, if you really do want to start an indie press and make it live, you need to be able to handle people giving you real talk, or else you won’t survive. And if you really want to be a good writer, you have to deal with honest responses to your work, or else your writing will suck and nobody will actually respect you, regardless of what they say on Facebook.

Maybe this is just a reflection of the people I know, but I tend to see a lot more people in my community who are interested in honest feedback and improving their skills than wanting to accumulate a bunch of skin-deep praise. And, it’s my genuine belief that a ream-full of superficial praise doesn’t sell books so much as create a short-lived buzz on social media that everyone will have forgotten in a week. By contrast, my experience is that what really sells books and makes careers is the deep, extended engagement, where people are giving word-of-mouth recommendations for months/years to come, and where the analysis of the book goes so deep that said book begins to sound really, really compelling. And social media has made it possible to do this in ways and across geographies that we never could have before.

I don’t have all the answers, but I will say here that I think the image of the literary apostate is just that—an image, oftentimes cultivated by a canny and well-connected individual for careerist reasons. Even someone as genius as Samuel Beckett was a virtual nobody in the U.S. until his publisher at Grove figured out how to make him a mainstream commodity (and he wasn’t so much of an outsider as his image would have it). Even a complete misanthrope like Thomas Bernhard recognized the necessity for people to be connected to other people. Yes, writers tend to be solitary people, and some parts of the literary community will tend to turn writers off. A healthy skepticism isn’t a bad thing—but neither is finding the people in the world who get you and forming relationships with them. When you get right down to it, that’s probably 90% of what the words “literary community” mean to me.

Artist’s widows, from “Speck’s Idea” by Mavis Gallant

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Mavis Gallant on artist’s widows, from her story “Speck’s Idea” found in the collected stories. (Sadly, this one-stop-shopping, with a wonderful preface by the author herself, is no longer in print, but NYRB has three volumes of spendor for you.)

Mavis Gallant is true greatness. Before you read one of this fall’s trend novels, read a few of her stories to calibrate your expectations. It may help you avoid some embarrassment down the line.

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The Coming Lispector Tidal Wave

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I have the feeling that years of hard work and dedication are about to pay off in a very, very big way, as we approach the publication of Clarice Lispector’s Complete Stories. See the front page review in The New York Times (the first time a Brazilian’s been so honored, so I’m told) and gushing praise in The New Republic. And that’s just the start.

(As an incidental note, I’m hoping to add my voice to the mix in September, if my priorities will allow it.)

This is really the story of many people working selflessly for a common goal, along them some remarkable translators, a legendary publisher and her staff, and, most of all, the impassioned Benjamin Moser, who got the resurgence of Lispector off the ground with his biography, Why This World, and kept things going with a re-translation of what many consider her masterpiece, and then spearheaded re-translations of four more essential Lispectors. And now this, the years-long work of translator Katrina Dodson (with Moser again providing must help and guidance).

And the wonderful thing is that few authors would be so worthy of this treatment. Lispector is genuinely original, and her work is so genuinely weird and against-the-grain that she would need champions to get her right in translation and make people pay attention.

For your reading pleasure, we have three pieces on Lispector at The Quarterly Conversation: The Lispector Roundtable (featuring Barbara Epler and Benjamin Moser, among others); an essay on The Hour of the Star, and Colm Tóibín’s introduction to said book.

Here’s a little piece of Clarice’s infinity.

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Do Your Own Thing

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There is an interview here with Jon Baskin, who is one of the is co-founders and editors of The Point magazine. You should definitely check it out, as The Point has impressed me as one of the most interesting and worthwhile of the literary magazines to begin in the Internet era, and Jon et al. have impressed me more personally as editors.

One thing I wanted to highlight from this interview is one of the pull quotes, which reads:

We were in this program The Committee on Social Thought, kind of like a ‘Great Books’ Ph.D. program, where you sit and discuss the relevance of Plato and Hegel and Hannah Arendt for contemporary life. That sort of ethos was so attractive to us, but we found that when we went to write about these topics, we were forced or encouraged to do so in a way that was academic, that didn’t speak for the relevance they actually had for us. That was the impetus behind deciding ‘Maybe we should start a magazine where we can do the kind of writing that we want to do.’

It seems like right now we are in a golden era of social media-enabled identity politics, where you can very quickly and easily register your support for a certain brand of ideological argument with a simple, painless “Like,” “Retweet,” or “Favorite” (sorry Google Plus, you don’t count). That’s all fine, and I’m not arguing that people should stop doing that (I do it too), but I do think there’s a problem where people think that doing these things, and/or applying greatly over-simplified cut-and-paste rebuttals to extraordinarily complex questions, suffices for engagement.

I guess that on the whole I’d rather that people did this than nothing whatsoever, but nobody should think that this suffices. It’s just not that easy, and I’ve come to recommend to people who really want to help their cause do what Jon has advocated in this quote: start your own thing. Badgering people who don’t agree with you and may well never get it is fine and probably does some good, but an even better thing to do is to start your own publication/website/award/campaign/etc/etc in support of your own cause. And I do think what’s happened with The Point is a good case in (err) point. To wit:

The first issue of The Point we sold out the initial print run and that was great. In terms of the lows, there was a time around issue 6 or 7 when we all thought ‘Is this worth it?’ That was when we decided to do a Kickstarter campaign which ended up bringing in over $100,000. It’s been exciting trying to see how far we can take this and to what extent we can grow.

If what you’re doing resonates, and if you do it well and stick with it, you can achieve great things, like finding enough support to raise $100,000 and getting the sort of relevance and influence that comes with that level of support.

On an unrelated, and more personal, note, I had to smile when I read this pull quote from the interview:

So much a part of the early magazine that I loved was that we [Baskin and the two other founding editors, Jonny Thakkar and Etay Zwick] would meet on the weekends and literally go through every article, almost sentence by sentence, arguing, bringing up objections, fighting (especially if it was one of us who had written the article). It turns out the three of you don’t have the same image of what the magazine is going to be.

Anyone who has been edited by The Point knows that it’s some of the most rigorous editing you can get. At times it really does feel like they’ve discussed every single sentence in your piece (and these tend to be essays ranging from 4,000 to 10,000 words and more). It’s impressive, and extraordinarily dedicated, and my writing has gotten better because of it.

Adorno’s Essay on “Free Time”

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One of my favorite essays of Adorno’s—and one of his most accessible—is his essay on “free time.” It’s short—just 11 pages in my copy of The Culture Industry—and I think it’s one of his more readable pieces. It’s also a very prescient piece, an essay that has grown more and more relevant as our relationship to free time has grown increasingly fraught.

Adorno begins by noting that the phrase “free time” is a recent coinage, as its precursor “leisure” denoted a completely different way of life that was (and is) well out of reach of nearly everybody who has some measure of “free time.” (For context, I believe this essay was written in 1969.) Almost immediately after that, he declares that “free time is shackled to its opposite.”

This is the main theme of the essay: the extent to which the hours what we consider to be ours are not really ours, and the ways that the culture industry attempts to colonize that time that us members of the middle class believe to be our free time. He puts it plainly when he says “unfreedom is gradually annexing ‘free time,’ and the majority of unfree people are as unaware of this process as they are of the unfreedom itself.”

Of course, in a culture where people regularly work 60- to 80-hour workweeks, and where we are all chained to the office by the Internet and mobile devices, these sentiments seem rather obvious. Adorno’s ideas go far deeper than this. At root, he sees our leisure activities as mere appendages of our work lives: “in accordance with the predominant work ethic, time free of work should be utilized for the recreation of expended labor power, then work-less time, precisely because it is a mere appendage of work, is severed from the latter with puritanical zeal.” Adorno goes on to argue that the real point of free time is to offer us rest and recuperation so that we may be prepared to do more work.

Adorno also presents the rather dark idea that our free time has merely become another thing for capitalism to monopolize. He mentions how travel has become a profitable industry, and he also invokes the idea of a “leisure industry” dedicated to finding ways of monetizing every last moment we spend outside of the office. Then he goes on to remark on our inability to opt out of such a state of affairs: “woe betide you if you have no hobby, no pastime, then you are a swot or an old-timer, an eccentric, and you will fall prey to ridicule in a society which foists upon you what your free time should be.” And, of course, it is not enough that we exploit our free time in approved manners—we must also demonstrate in culturally approved ways that we have used this time well: “if employees return from their holidays without having acquired the mandatory skin tone [i.e., a sun tan], they can be quite sure their colleagues will ask them the pointed question, ‘Haven’t you been on holiday, then?'”

Having laid out all of this, Adorno gets to the root of the matter: our concept of boredom, which he sees as purely an emanation of the prevailing capitalist order. “Boredom is a function of life which is lived under the compulsion to work, and under the strict division of labor. . . . If people were able to make their own decisions about themselves and their lives, if they were not caught up in the realm of the eversame, they would not have to be bored.”

Boredom is closely related to imagination, which Adorno sees as being stamped out as we grow into maturity:

Those who want to adapt must learn increasingly to curb their imagination. For the most part the very development of the imagination is crippled by the experience of early childhood. The lack of imagination which is cultivated and inculcated by society renders people helpless in their free time. The impertinent question of what people should do with the vast amount of free time now at their disposal—as if it was a question of alms and not human rights—is based upon this very unimaginativeness.

As he closes the essay, Adorno notes a slight reason for optimism: “what the culture industry presents people with in their free time . . . is indeed consumed and accepted, but with a kind of reservation.” In other words, people have some idea of how their free time is monetized, how their “desires” are not really theirs but rather wants and needs created by advertising and propaganda.

I think it’s rather uncontroversial to say that this awareness has only grown in the decades that followed Adorno’s writing of this essay. Many subsequent individuals have discussed precisely how aware we are of this now—for instance, David Foster Wallace’s essay “E Unibus Pluram,” where he breaks down how we are taught that we become individuals by consuming mass-commoditized products. Or we might think of Richard Linklater’s unexpected hit Slacker (1991), which celebrated people who had opted out of using their lives and free time in socially approved manners.

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Undoubtedly, there’s a rather loud and pervasive critique that has come out of the sort of ideas Adorno lodged in his essay on free time. People these days are very savvy about the ways profit-seeking industries try to impose themselves on their lives, and there’s a very serious discussion of how to separate one’s free time from one’s productive life. There’s even been a backlash against the ideas of conformity and utility that have monopolized our education system.

I do think, though, there’s quite a way to go. The ideas that Adorno critiques are still the prevailing ideology that we are all inculcated in as a part of childhood and adolescence (to see how deep they reach, just try watching Slacker without feeling that its characters are losers or oddballs). There’s still plenty of guilt over “wasting” one’s time (just see how many people write posts on Facebook about how they wish they weren’t so addicted to Facebook). And, of course, the economic productivity of the American workforce continues to rise to unprecedented levels (while compensation remains stagnant, or decreases). The counter-strains presented by people like Wallace and Linklater are still a part of the counter-culture, not the culture at large. Which is to say, Adorno’s essay “Free Time” is still extremely relevant, and very much worth reading.

Happy 4th

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In traditional American fashion, I’m celebrating the 4th by reading the concluding volume in the lifelong saga of an Italian woman who becomes a writer.

What are you reading this weekend?

Cess by Gordon Lish

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Gordon Lish’s latest book is basically a very long list, composed of words that are generally obscure and not-known-offhand.

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Ballsy move. Props to OR Books for publishing it.

Buy Some Damn Books

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If you work in publishing, or you review books, design books, etc, and you don’t buy books on a regular basis, you’re not supporting your industry.

I get it, I get it. We all like free books. I have tons of free books just sitting around. People come to my home and burst out into laughter at how many books I have. Fact is, publishing can be a pretty lonely, poorly paid place to make your living, and free books are a nice perk of the industry. No one’s saying that you have to individually purchase every single book you plan to own (although pretty much everyone who doesn’t work in publishing does just. that). All I’m saying is, if your first thought after “I want to read that!” is “who can I ask for a free copy?,” something’s wrong. Don’t go browse a book in your local indie and then make a mental note to track down the publicist later on.

It’s true, free books aren’t the worst expense a publisher will incur. It’s probably somewhere around $3 to print each copy, plus about $3 or so to mail it to you. (We’ll leave our costs of editing, acquisitions, etc.) But you still are taking those $6 out of their pocket, plus denying them whatever a bookstore would have paid them for it, plus the fact that the bookstore will restock a book if their initial order sells out (and will return it if it doesn’t sell).

One time I was in a bookstore with a fellow publishing professional. A ready super great person, someone I consider a lion of the industry who has done a ton of good things for books. We came upon such-and-such book, and I was all like, “This book is awesome. You have to read this!” He duly picked it up and made his way to the cash register. On the way he stopped, turned to me, and said, “You know I can get any book I want for free, right?” He kinda weighed the option for a moment. And then he bought it.

I get it. It’s a pride thing. We all want to feel like we can use our pull to get some favors every now and then. And also: publishing isn’t exactly the industry that is going to leave you with the highest disposable income for something like a new $25.00 hardcover that you’ll read in an afternoon. OK, I understand. I’m not saying you can’t score a free book every now and then. But you should really support your industry, particularly the small publishers who are doing tiny print runs and scraping by. Be a good citizen of the literary community. Spread good karma.

Disclaimers apply: if you’re planning on reviewing the book or otherwise doing some reasonably serious publicity for it, you’re entitled to a free copy. If for some reason you need to read the book before publication, same thing. If publicists just send you things for no clear reason, no need to send them back if you can’t use them. Etc, etc. And sure, get a few favors every now and then. That’s fine. But support your own damn industry.

And if you do get a free copy of something and you happen to like it, make a point of sharing that information. Post something to Facebook, send out a tweet. It will take you under a minute and you’ll have made at least 3 people’s days (author, publicist, editor). Or you could even tell someone about the book over dinner or blog about it. Be a good member of your literary community. Don’t be that guy free riding on everyone else’s enthusiasm and hard work.

The Cover of My Struggle 5

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This would appear to be it. A bit intense. Not sure what it is. (Anyone know? Speculations?)

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Some people have identified it as Spiral Jetty. Which makes me wonder, why would Spiral Jetty be on the cover of Book 5?

Found here.

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