Writer’s Corner: The Humiliations of Writing

Writing and publishing any piece of work, from novel to Facebook post to letter to the editor complaining about your neighbor’s cats, is a way of putting yourself out there for the world to see. So it stands to reason that there’s a large potential downside. Sure, there’s the (remote) possibility of fame and wealth, or even the occasional social media like. But more likely, and certainly more frightening, is the chance for embarrassment.

(Library of Congress, c.1872)

(Library of Congress, c.1872)

In his essay, “Writing is a Risky, Humiliating, Endeavor,” novelist David Gordon describes many of the ways in which the act of putting your name on a packet of words for sale is one of the most harrowing experiences one could endure:

Let’s face it: just writing something, anything, and showing it to the world, is to risk ridicule and shame. What if it is bad? What if no one wants to read it, publish it? What if I can’t even finish the thing? Every time I begin a book, a story, even a fresh page, I have a sense that it might go horribly wrong. And for a professional writer, working on multiyear projects, that would be more than an emotional humiliation. It would involve awkward letters from the student loan people and the credit card company…

But as logical as it might be—after all, there are critics just waiting out there with sharpened knives and killer instincts ready to slice into just about anything you might want to publish—to get anywhere, the writer obviously needs to just get on with it and damn the consequences. And yes, it can take a kind of bravery. Gordon again:

Writing then, must feel risky in order to feel like life. I used to cringe when people talked about “brave” writing. I’d think, calm down, it’s not like you’re a fireman or a Special Forces commando. If the mission fails, just toss it in the wastebasket. But I do think, upon reflection, that there is a need to generate emotional risk, a sense of imminence, of danger, in order to transmit that aliveness to the page. This needn’t mean personal revelation or offensive language. Sometimes quiet, dense writing is the most deeply and complexly honest. Sometimes intellectual discourse is brave in our Twitter culture. Genuine and sincere emotion can be risky in a world of snark and irony. So can making silly jokes about matters our society regards with sanctimonious seriousness. Sometimes it is just a matter of a writer doing what she does not yet know how to do, speaking about something he does not yet understand. The risk of ambitious failure…

So get on with that werewolf detective novel, historical exegesis of your family’s immigrant past, memoir about your mental breakdown, or enraged photo essay about your neighbor’s cats.

Writing means risk, no matter what form it takes. And in pretty much every instance, it’s worth it.

New Books: In ‘California’ the World Has Gone to Hell for No Good Reason

Earlier this summer, first-time novelist Edan Lepucki caught a lucky break. Just as her debut book California was due to come out, her publisher and Amazon got into a pricing dispute that caught the eye of Stephen Colbert. In an attempt to help out authors caught in the crossfire, Colbert chose Lepucki’s book as a title to champion. In his show’s appeal, he asked viewers to buy the book in droves—from anywhere but Amazon.

Now we can appreciate the novel itself, and not the furor around it.

California-cover1My review of the post-apocalyptic California is at PopMatters:

The setting is almost a generation after a slow-motion apocalypse has ground the modern age into dust. Lepucki’s two narrators, a young couple who unhurriedly trade off chapters, remember some of the earlier age’s technological glories. They’re of the last generation that experienced things like broadband and daily showers and refrigeration. By their childhoods, the world was already collapsing. They just managed to be there for civilization’s dying embers.

A more naïve writer might have made us think that they were unlucky to have these memories, that the ones who follow them would be happier without that knowledge. But that’s not the way Lepucki plays it: There is a Dark Age on the wing, and it will be savage and bleak, not a return to some pre-modern Edenic state…

You can read an excerpt here.

Writer’s Corner: Publish Your Poetry

Walt Whitman (Library of Congress)

Walt Whitman (Library of Congress)

If you’re a poet, you’ve already most likely resigned yourself to a career filled with penury and frustration. Fortunately, every now and again, there comes a rare chance to make some money as a poet and (quelle surprise) actually get published in a format that ensures people who aren’t family and friends will read you.

According to Poets & Writers, The Academy of American Poets is making a couple changes to their Walt Whitman Award, which “is given to an emerging poet who has not yet published a book.” It’s now “the most valuable first-book award for poetry in the United States.”

Check it out:

In addition to a $5,000 cash prize, the winner of the 2015 award will receive publication of his or her manuscript by Graywolf Press, and a six-week all-expenses-paid residency at the Civitella Ranieri Center in Umbria, Italy.

So get your pencils and poetic sensibilities sharpened. Submission guidelines are here.

By the way, this is what the Civitella Ranieri looks like. Good luck.

Reader’s Corner: Great Otherworldly Librarians

(Courtesy DC Comics)

Batgirl, when she’s not shelving (courtesy DC Comics)

Readers of genre fiction—particularly science fiction and fantasy—have a special place in their hearts for bookstores, libraries, and other (preferably dark and quiet) repositories of the written word. While librarians would seem to most like a prickly breed, they tend to show up in works of the fantastic as heroes, or at least very valuable allies.

Thanks to the smart folks at Tor, here’s a look at some of the more awesome fantasy/sci-fi librarians, ranging from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to the Sandman comics.

It’s a solid list, all in all (even if it does miss out on the omnisciently Jeeves-ian Librarian from Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash), though they do pale in comparison to Barbara Gordon, the occasional librarian otherwise known as Batgirl.

Quote of the Day: Terry Southern on Hollywood, Writing, “Freakishness”

(Library of Congress)

Somewhere in Southern California (Library of Congress)

Today’s bit of perception about one of America’s most over-analyzed, unloved, and misunderstood “cities” comes courtesy of surrealist pie-thrower and comic raconteur Terry Southern (CandyDr. Strangelove). Interviewed at length for The Paris Review‘s occasional series on screenwriters (the interview took place in 1967 but wasn’t published until 2012) the Texas-born Southern expounded on that great Southern California sinkhole of creative energy and dashed dreams:

Hollywood, that is to say, Los Angeles, is not, of course, a city, and its sinister forces are very oblique. There’s no public transportation system whatever, so the people drive around as though they were living in Des Moines, and it has all the rest of the disadvantages of a small town, only filled with displaced persons. On the other hand, life there has an engaging surrealist quality, an almost exciting grotesqueness.

The cultural scene there in general is sped up, sort of concentrated. Southern California is a mecca for all manner of freakishness, beginning on the most middle-class level—hot-dog stands in the shape of a hot dog. If you go there, you’ll immediately see a carnival, Disneyland aspect that is different from any other place in America.

Southern also notes the differences between the ladies of Hollywood and those of the East Coast:

… girls who want to be ­writers come to the Village and girls who want to be actresses go to Hollywood.

Writer’s Corner: James Franco is a Poet Now, Too

At some point, you would think that the whirling creative polymath that is James Franco would settle down. Onetime heartthrob actor turned creator of curious art installment films (Interior. Leather Bar), star of trashy-smart comedies (This Is the End), director of small-scale literary adaptations (As I Lay Dying), author of novels and short stories, and now: poetry.

francobook1Instead of going with a big press for his collection, Directing Herbert White, Franco smartly went with one of the more respected small poetry outfits out there: the expert Minnesota-based indie Graywolf Press. You can read an excerpt from the collection here.

How is the poetry itself? Not that memorable, but not noticeably worse than much of what’s out there and not necessarily contingent on Franco’s name.

As David Orr puts it in last week’s Times‘ Sunday Book Review, it’s:

“Directing Herbert White” is the sort of collection written by reasonably talented M.F.A. students in hundreds of M.F.A. programs stretching from sea to shining sea. Which is perhaps not surprising, since Franco actually has an M.F.A. in poetry…

…uniformly written in the kind of flat, prosy free verse that has dominated American poetry for ages (typical line: “New Orleans Square is my favorite part of Disneyland”), with stanzas that aren’t so much stanzas as elongated paragraphs.

One could argue that it’s just that flat and unadorned poetic style which all too often reads as lazy and slashed-up prose than actual lyricism which has helped reduce poetry to its currently weakened state.

But Orr’s ultimate take on the book is probably the right one. In short, there’s a lot of bad poetry out there. Better that somebody with the name recognition of Franco is at least taking up the flag and giving it an honest go:

Poetry is the weak sister of its sibling arts, alternately ignored and swaddled like a 19th-century invalid, and that will change only by means of a long, tedious and possibly futile effort at persuasion. Perhaps it’s a blessing to have James Franco on one’s side in that struggle.

New in Theaters: ‘A Most Wanted Man’

Philip Seymour Hoffman in 'A Most Wanted Man' (Roadside Attractions)

Philip Seymour Hoffman in ‘A Most Wanted Man’ (Roadside Attractions)

mostwantedman-posterThe latest John Le Carre adaptation is also one of the final film performances of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman and just about nearly worth seeing just for him alone.

A Most Wanted Man is playing now in limited release. My review is at Film Racket:

This elegant, sparse, and scrupulously acted but dramatically stunted adaptation is like Anton Corbijn’s last film,The American: tasteful in a Europhilic way and not quite human. Although set right in the middle of the post-9/11, post-Cold War chaos that supposedly put an end to the old ways of sleuthing, the film has us harkening back to spy business essentials. These operatives certainly make good use of bleeding-edge gadgetry; after all, one of the great draws of those old spy stories was their showing off of then-new technology, catalog-like. But the fixation is really on those classic skills of patience and mousetrap-springing that the modern espionage thriller has essentially jettisoned like Jason Bourne leaping out a window. It would seem gauche if one of these guys even pulled out a gun. That careful sense of professionals going about their work with grim diligence is some of the best of what Corbijn’s film has to offer. What it doesn’t present is a pulse…

You can see the trailer here:

Readers’ Corner: Man Booker Prize Longlist

131023 MB2013 Winner Poster MIDThe Man Booker Prize just announced their longlist of titles being considered for their 2014 fiction prize. This is literary news of a sort—prizes like this being a boon for time-challenged readers looking for help in figuring out what to read next—but nothing that extraordinary in itself. After all, this happens every year.

But here’s something different: For the first time in the prize’s 46 years, the list includes writers from beyond the UK and Commonwealth. In short, that means a couple of Americans have been allowed in; though as Publishers Weekly notes, not Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, which you will recall won (perhaps undeservingly, I and some others would argue) this year’s Pulitzer for fiction.

Here’s the full list, via PW (who helpfully annotated with author nationalities):

The 2014 Man Booker Longlist

  • Joshua Ferris (American) To Rise Again at a Decent Hour(Viking)
  • Richard Flanagan (Australian) The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Chatto & Windus)
  • Karen Joy Fowler (American) We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (Serpent’s Tail)
  • Siri Hustvedt (American) The Blazing World (Sceptre)
  • Howard Jacobson (British) J (Jonathan Cape)
  • Paul Kingsnorth (British) The Wake (Unbound)
  • David Mitchell (British) The Bone Clocks (Sceptre)
  • Neel Mukherjee (British) The Lives of Others (Chatto & Windus)
  • David Nicholls (British) Us (Hodder & Stoughton)
  • Joseph O’Neill (Irish/American) The Dog (Fourth Estate)
  • Richard Powers (American) Orfeo (Atlantic Books)
  • Ali Smith (British) How to be Both (Hamish Hamilton)
  • Niall Williams (Irish) History of the Rain (Bloomsbury)

Writer’s Corner: Selling Your Book

(Library of Congress)

(Library of Congress)

Ted Thompson’s first novel, The Land of Steady Habits, will hit stores in January. In his funny, honest essay for Salon, “I Sold My Book for $25,000,” he talks (a little) about the process and (a lot) about what he learned. It should be required reading for anybody new to the publishing game who’s got a novel in their head or hard drive and wants to know what awaits them.

tedthompsoncover1Firstly, Thompson brings a well-needed slap of reality to new writers’ often starry-eyed wishes, particularly the notion among many writers and lovers of quality work that a book is only as good as its writing:

Subject matter matters … Once a manuscript leaves your desk, subject matter is the primary (and often only) way it is discussed. So if you haven’t figured out a quick way to answer that cringe-inducing question “What’s your book about?” in a way that interests other people, somebody else will.

Though you wouldn’t know it from hearing all the self-publishing fanatics (the Hugh Howey types who insist that self-publishing is the only way to go) foam at the mouth about elitist publishers, Thompson insists quite correctly that the average publisher wants to like your book:

Every book they publish, especially if it’s by a first-time writer, is a risk to them and their reputation, and it’s one they take because they personally responded to the book. This was a revelation to me, the fact that the grand faceless facade of New York publishing turned out to be a collection of surprisingly normal people, all of whom were looking to fall in love with a manuscript.

And lastly, a point that can’t be made enough: Don’t expect to strike it rich. Thompson signed with a major publisher and even sold some foreign rights. Still, he made about $75,000, and that’s before agent and other fees.

So, even if you’re one of the chosen few who actually gets published by one of the major houses, it’s probably wiser to splurge a little on a new laptop and a few weeks at a writer’s colony for the next book, and bank the rest. In other words: Don’t quit the day job.

Writer’s Corner: James M. Cain

doubleindemnityAlthough famous for skillful thrillers like Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, James M. Cain was at heart a higher-toned sort of writer than his output might have suggested. A onetime managing editor of the New Yorker, he left for California and a different style of writing. Although his novels were full-on potboilers about cynical but ultimately foolish men and the women who dragged them into murder, Cain had the heart of a true literati. Unlike his contemporary Raymond Chandler, though (who often appeared to think himself above what he wrote), Cain seemed more at home bridging the two worlds.

In this Paris Review interview, published not long after his death in 1977, Cain holds forth on a great number of topics, tossing off the bon mots like confetti. To wit:

  • New York is not even a city, it’s a congerie of rotten villages.
  • Editorials (we called them idiotorials) were written by trained seals whose only qualifications were that they be in favor of motherhood and against the man-eating shark.
  • I slip into the Vulgate every once in a while—an affectation I only half-understand. There I am speaking impeccable English and suddenly I lingo it up.
  • I tried to write the Great American Novel, and wrote three of them, none of them any good.
  • I just don’t like movies. People tell me, don’t you care what they’ve done to your book? I tell them, they haven’t done anything to my book. It’s right there on the shelf. They paid me and that’s the end of it.