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.

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.

Reader’s Corner: When Faulkner Reviewed Hemingway

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William Faulkner, 1954 (Library of Congress)

Ernest Hemingway had no problem with expounding on his talent, courage, or general manliness. To nobody’s surprise, this didn’t arise from a well of confidence but rather one of rabid insecurity. Just see his rivalry with F. Scott Fitzgerald, and all those petty little put-downs in A Moveable Feast.

Papa Hemingway also scrapped (albeit in a mildly literary way) with the other big prize-winning author of his time, William Faulkner. They respected each other, but found time to lob critiques back and forth.

oldmanandthesea1When the literary magazine Shenandoah prevailed upon Faulkner to review The Old Man and the Sea, he found room to list Hemingway’s faults but, interestingly, in the context of praising the novel. Here’s an excerpt of that review from Open Culture (emphasis added):

Time may show it to be the best single piece of any of us, I mean his and my contemporaries. This time, he discovered God, a Creator. Until now, his men and women had made themselves, shaped themselves out of their own clay; their victories and defeats were at the hands of each other, just to prove to themselves or one another how tough they could be. But this time, he wrote about pity: about something somewhere that made them all: the old man who had to catch the fish and then lose it, the fish that had to be caught and then lost, the sharks which had to rob the old man of his fish; made them all and loved them all and pitied them all. It’s all right. Praise God that whatever made and loves and pities Hemingway and me kept him from touching it any further.

Makes you want to go back and hunt down all the glories of the novel which too many English teachers have managed to hide.

Reader’s Corner: The Headless Woman and Other Femme Cover Cliches

belljarcover1For the 50th anniversary of Sylvia Plath’s iconic The Bell Jar, normally sane British publisher Faber & Faber decided to gussy up the thing with a cover that was thought to be more … ahem … marketable. The result was downright degrading, looking like some pandering chick-lit nonsense about shopping and getting the guy.

This isn’t a new thing, as any even casual peruser of bookstore stacks has come to know, and as Eugenia Williamson examines in a piece for the Boston Globe. Books with male authors are more likely to feature dark, moody illustrations (Cormac McCarthy) or fanciful type-heavy designs (Jonathan Safran Foer), and they don’t have to even include people (Jonathan Franzen). It all signals seriousness, even though a majority of those books are still being read by women.

Whereas, books by lady authors are either slathered with pinks and enough accessories to stock a Macy’s window or end up featuring one of two by-now cliched design motifs. Per Williamson:

In recent years, many of the people on book covers have been women without faces. So prevalent is this visual cliché that the publishing industry has cycled through at least two well-documented iterations. The first, the Headless Woman, features some poor thing cut off above the neck, like the swimsuit-clad beachgoer on Alice Munro’s story collection “The View from Castle Rock.” The website Goodreads’s Headless Women page has 416 entries. Last year, the Headless Woman was supplanted by the Sexy Back, in which a woman is shown from behind, often gazing out over a vista.

Why this is seen as being something female readers want on their covers, of course, is anybody’s guess.

Reader’s Corner: Wilfred Owen’s War Poetry

German soldiers on the Western Front lucky enough to have been taken prisoner (Library of Congress)

German soldiers on the Western Front lucky enough to have been taken prisoner (Library of Congress)

This Saturday June 28 marked one of the year’s uglier anniversaries: 100 years since the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was gunned down in Sarajevo, helping to topple that teetering Rube Goldberg contraption of treaties and animosities that started World War I.

More books will be written about the causes of the war, the way it was fought, the aftermath, and so on. Relatively few of those books’ pages will have much to do with one of the war’s most important aspects: What it was like for the soldiers unlucky enough to have fought it.

For that, we could do worse than to look back at the great Wilfred Owen, a young British officer with the Lancashire Fusiliers who was killed in action just one week before the Armistice. From his mournful, furious Dulce et Decorum Est, about a soldier dying from a gas attack:

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori.

The Latin in the last two lines is usually translated as “it is sweet and seemly to die for one’s country.” It’s a rather odious line from Horace that has often been taken seriously, most often by the sort of propagandists who like to get young men exited about going off to war.

Book Flashback: The Iraq War ‘Gamble’

American tanks patrol Baghdad on April 14th, 2003 (U.S. Marine Corps)

American tanks patrol Baghdad on April 14th, 2003 (U.S. Marine Corps)

thegamble-coverAs the ISIS campaign to topple Iraq’s government roars on, it seemed worthwhile to look back at the many books written on Iraq to see what predictions had been made about what could happen after the last American unit moved out.

I posted “The 2009 Book that Foretold the (Possible) Collapse of Post-American Iraq” at Re:Print:

For years, especially after the American troop drawdown, it seemed as though Iraq would muddle along in a chaotic but eventually stabilizing way familiar to many Middle Eastern countries with oil wealth. Although the bombings continued, it was possible to believe that the conflict was in fact done. What the recent events have proven is that [Thomas Ricks's The Gamble] was right: the 11-year-old Iraq War is far from over…

Soundbooth: Dimension X

Ray Bradbury (NASA)

Ray Bradbury (NASA)

Once upon a time, before science fiction (in the form of monster movies and comic-book franchises) took over the cineplex, anthology shows on radio and television provided a steady diet of short tales of the fantastic.

Case in point was the short-lived NBC radio program Dimension X, which ran from 1950 to 1951 and advertised itself as “adventures in time and space, told in future tense.”

During the show’s tenure, they broadcast work by some of the genre’s greatest practitioners, from Isaac Asimov and Robert Bloch to Ray Bradbury and Robert A. Heinlein. Now, thanks to the memory machine that is the Internet, you can listen to some of those programs at the Internet Archive. Make sure to check out Bradbury’s “There Will Come Soft Rains,” originally collected in The Martian Chronicles and one of the greatest, saddest testimonies ever penned on the folly of war.

(h/t to Jacket Copy)

Writer’s Corner: Dublin Writers Festival, From Festivals to The Troubles

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yearoffestivals1In the last bit of coverage from the Dublin Writers Festival, we have a story from Ireland’s fraught past and cautiously optimistic future.

First there was a marvelous spoken-word show from Mark Graham, who had decided not long before to buy a used camper and go attend three festivals a week around Ireland for an entire year. Apparently every town of more than two houses has a festival, so it worked.

Next up was “Where They Lie,” an investigation into the search for justice on the part of those who were “disappeared” by the IRA during The Troubles (that horrid euphemism) in the north for supposedly collaborating with the British or Unionists. It was a tough evening, with no easy answers for those in attendance.

“Where the Disappeared Lie” is here at PopMatters.

Writer’s Corner: Dublin Writers Festival, Day 1

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The annual Dublin Writers Festival, which just concluded this past Sunday, was an enjoyably low-key but nevertheless enthusiastic affair, mixing up writing workshops with talks and Q&As with authors and the occasional performance piece.

I covered a few days of it for PopMatters; here’s part:

This is Dublin, after all, which proudly carries its status as UNESCO City of Literature, and where the odd plaque on an undistinguished townhouse near St. Stephen’s Green reminds you that Bram Stoker lived there, and the Gate Theatre just happens to be staging An Ideal Husband by the Dublin-raised and -educated Oscar Wilde.
  
The event locations were mostly clustered within an easy walk of Temple Bar, making one conveniently never far from a restorative tipple. The offerings ran the gamut from workshop-like conversations with would-be writers to themed readings and music and poetry galas. By the end of even just one day, if you didn’t already have a novel or cycle of poems in the works, you would feel as though you were somehow missing out…

Other entries to follow soon.