Weekend Reading: October 2, 2015


Writer’s Desk: Working in Cafes


When the writing den or (for those lucky ones) the separate writing office don’t offer much hope and the walls start closing in, there is always the cafe. The clink and clatter of dishware, the hiss of the espresso maker, the low burble of conversation; for certain kinds of writers this outside interference focuses the imagination more than it distracts.

Per Benjamin Wurgaft in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

Hemingway once reported that in cafés he “was like a charging rhino when he wrote,” noticing nothing but his target. Whether or not this is true, it suggests a familiar kind of authorial self fashioning. For a kid with literary aspirations, to write in cafés is such a cliché that it needs no explanation…

Like anything Hemingway says on writing, this is both utterly true and sheer nonsense. Wurgaft is correct that writing in cafes is a cliche, but for many of us it’s a necessary one. Sometimes just feeling like a writer helps you to become one. And nothing feels more like being a writer than hunching one’s shoulders over a cheap drugstore notebook and knocking out the lines while a coffee of thin brown water (like the Tom Waits line, “the coffee just wasn’t strong enough to defend itself”) goes cold by your elbow…

Reader’s Corner: David Foster Wallace Predicted Netflix


Plenty of us have fallen down the new TV-binge rabbit hole more than once in the past few years. It’s a nice change of pace every now and again, instead of patiently waiting for the next installment just plowing through 5, 6, or 10 episodes on a weekend.  Adult life? Eh, it’ll still be there on Monday.

What goes by the wayside in the meantime, though? James Pearson’s essay on coming back to America and the media deluge that awaits him provides some answer:

When I left Uganda this winter I had finally broken the 300-page barrier in David Foster Wallace’s gargantuan novel, Infinite Jest. I’ve started it three or four times in the past and aborted each time for attentional reasons. But 300 pages felt like enough momentum, finally, to finish. Then I hit my first American airport, with its 4G and free wi-fi. All at once, my gadgets came alive: pinging and alerting and vibrating excitedly. And even better, all seven seasons of The West Wing had providentially appeared on Netflix Instant. I’ve only finished 100 more pages in the two months since…

It’s an addictive kind of media parasite that promises to keep sucking up more and more and more of our time.

Infinite_jest_coverIn an ironic twist, Wallace himself (who wrote on seductive comforts of mediocre shows) predicted the future of perfectly addictive entertainment in Infinite Jest, in which he imagined a movie so astoundingly awesome that everybody who started watching it would keep watching it … until they died.

Per Pearson:

In 2009, according to the media research company eMarketer, the average U.S. adult consumed about 10 hours and 32 minutes of media per day. (That’s including multitasking, so if you spend an hour browsing on your iPad while watching TV, that counts as two hours.) By 2012 that total was up over an hour to 11:39 per day. That’s almost eight hours more per week, per person. Now multiply that by America…

The question is what is being supplanted by all this media space? We probably already know and the answer isn’t a comforting one.

Writer’s Desk: Gaming the System

writing notebook

Some say publishing is rigged. These are often the people who have been shopping their work—whether misery memoir, cozy murder mystery, 11-part zombie erotica series, or finely etched literary short story about quiet people with quiet problems—without success for years and don’t get what they’re doing wrong. Unable to get an agent or magazine to give them the time of day, their conclusion that it’s all a closed loop for insiders is not hard to fault; especially when one considers the quality of much that is published, not to mention the august list of big-name authors who first had to grind through dozens or hundreds of rejections.

It’s hard not to write off a lot of this frustration as sour grapes, the anger of those whose writing simply isn’t good enough to hack it. Obviously a lot of the time that is true—just take a dive through what gets self-published on Wattpad if you need convincing.

On the side that argues it’s all a racket comes a rare voice from the inside. In the New Republic, Theodore Ross writes with winking candor about what happened when he got sick of his rejection slips and decided to stop following submission guidelines and game the system:

At the time of these submissions, I was a junior editor at an established magazine, and I decided to use this to my advantage. I typed up a cover letter on my employer’s very fine letterhead, slipped it and the story into an envelope embossed with our well-known logo, and rules be damned, sent it to the folks in Brooklyn. A few months later, an editor emailed me at work—stick it, SASE!—to say he would like to buy the story, which I think rose slightly-but-not-significantly above not-half-bad. It was published a few months later after a few skillful edits. I earned $500, which I believe is $495 more than I had earned in my fiction-publishing career to that point…

Moral of the story: To get published, first work at a well-known magazine.

Writer’s Desk: Writing Too Much


For the average writer, turning out new pages and finishing stories, articles, or (if we’re so lucky) books isn’t a problem. It’s the whole reason they’re doing it. Productivity counts. Quality, too, of course. But in the end, finished pages are nicer. Since the best way for most of us to be better writers is to do it as much as possible (feedback, feedback, please), then the more the better.

For some writers, though, being prolific is seen as a problem. As in: If they’re so good, why are they publishing so much? Shouldn’t they be taking their time.

As somebody who knows a few things about over-publishing (four books in a year) Stephen King has some thoughts on that topic. In discussing one of his pet peeves, the belief that productivity exists in inverse proportion to literary quality, he pulls out the expected trump card: Joyce Carol Oates.

But then King talks about Donna Tartt and Jonathan Franzen, whom he considers two of America’s great living literary treasures, and have just eight books between them. That minimal output, he admits, drives him crazy:

I understand that each one of us works at a different speed, and has a slightly different process. I understand that these writers are painstaking, wanting each sentence — each word — to carry weight (or, to borrow the title of one of Jonathan Franzen’s finest novels, to have strong motion). I know it’s not laziness, but respect for the work, and I understand from my own work that haste makes waste.

But I also understand that life is short, and that in the end, none of us is prolific. The creative spark dims, and then death puts it out.

We are only here for a short while. So get cracking.

Reader’s Corner: Paul Theroux’s ‘Deep South’

Deep South-coverPaul Theroux has spent decades traversing the world and writing about it. Although some of his fiction has been set in America, his travel writing has always been the sort of thing that required a passport. In his newest book, Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads, Theroux rectifies that oversight with a deep dive into the American south and its beautiful and fraught contradictions.

Deep South hit stores last week. My review is at PopMatters.

There’s an essay called “The South of the South” that Theroux published last year in the Smithsonian magazine that will give you some idea of what he was after in this book.

Reader’s Corner: Morrissey, Book Two

Morrissey_Autobiography_coverSomehow Morrissey went from the crooning pseudo-Wildean frontman for The Smiths to the first modern writer to have their book made into an instant Penguin Classic. For all that we love about him, his fey and aloof humor and those jabbing little daggers of surreality in his lyrics, it didn’t seem quite proper at the time that his life’s story would be in the catalog right there next to Montaigne.

But, then, as the publisher apparently argued, “it is a classic in the making.” That could be said about pretty much any book, but fair enough. It went to sell scads of copies, so good on them.

Success breeds success, it would appear, as news comes that Morrissey is now going to be releasing a second book, a novel called List of the Lost. Let it contain lines like this from the Autobiography:

All human activity is fruitless when pitted against the girls and boys singing on pop television, for they have found the answer as the rest of us search for the question. I will sing, too. If not, I will have to die.

Please, please, please let us get what we readers want.