Reader’s Corner: American Science Fiction in the ’60s

If you’re looking for a good book or eight to spend your shelter-in-place weeks with, the Library of America is a good place to start.

My review of their big and gutsy boxed set American Science Fiction of the 1960s — including everything from groundbreaking Samuel R. Delany space opera to proto-feminist work from Joanna Russ and even Flowers for Algernon — is available in the spring 2020 print edition of Rain Taxi Review of Books:

The driving impulse behind this anthology is not, nor should it be seen as, a greatest hits compilation. Rather, editor Gary K. Wolfe appears to be approaching it in the same sidelong manner that he used for his previous anthology of nine “classic” science fiction works from the 1950s: He is mixing in the familiar with the lesser-known, using many of the latter to stand in for whole swaths of the genre. This professorial survey-course approach necessitates plowing through some lesser material—which one might have skipped in their original paperback binding—but provides fascinating glimpses of whole styles of writing little seen now…

Reader’s Corner: Buy a Book Today

We will lose a lot in these next months. We’ve already lost too much. One thing we don’t need to lose is our independent bookstores. You have watched all the episodes of Norsemen. I’ve watched them twice. Now we need books…

If there were ever a time to take a few extra moments to order through your local bookstore, it’s now. Admittedly, all retail is and will be under unimaginable strain in the coming months, but bookstores are one category where, with owner ingenuity and community spirit, survival might be possible.

— Dave Eggers, “Bookstores Can Be Saved

Writer's Desk: Start with a Cold Shower

The Atlantic‘s James Parker wrote recently about how most of his writing days used to start:

I’d wake up, smoldering and sighing, reel out of bed and into the kitchen, and put the kettle on. Then I’d think: Well, now what? Time would go granular, like in a Jack Reacher novel, but less exciting. Five minutes at least until the kettle boils. Make a decision. Crack the laptop, read the news. Or stare murkily out the window. Unload the dishwasher? Oh dear. Is this life, this sour weight, this baggage of consciousness? What’s that smell? It’s futility, rising in fumes around me. And all this before 7 a.m…

His new approach to kicking off a day’s writing appears to be more fruitful:

I wake up, smoldering and sighing, reel out of bed and into the kitchen, and put the kettle on. And then I have a cold shower … Then you get out, and you’re different. Things have happened to your neurotransmitters that may be associated, say the scientists, with elevated mood and increased alertnessYou’re wide awake, at any rate.

This usefulness of this approach to the writing lifestyle has not been fully tested as of yet.

TV Room: ‘The Plot Against America’

In Philip Roth’s 2004 novel The Plot Against America, it’s 1940 and Hitler is rampaging across Europe. Only in America, Franklin Roosevelt is facing serious political competition: fascist sympathizer and popular hero Charles Lindbergh. A Jewish family in Newark, drawn in part from Roth’s childhood, starts realizing they may have to chose between fleeing to Canada or facing pogroms in New Jersey.

My review of HBO’s The Plot Against America, a six-part adaptation by David Simon (The Deuce, The Wire), ran at PopMatters:

in 1940, the idea of a white supremacist president in league with a fascist foreign power was hard for many to contemplate. Even a fully-fledged racist like Woodrow Wilson had not colluded with enemies abroad. And nobody truly imagined the likes of Donald Trump as president until The Simpsons Movie in 2007. It was a different time. The Wire was only in Season 3.

Writer’s Desk: Be Organized

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Gustave Flaubert

We all know the stereotype of the absent-minded artist. Brilliant at illuminating the furthest reaches of the human soul but can’t remember where she put her glasses. It is a stereotype but a true one, nonetheless. Some think that artists have to be absent-minded because they have to keep space in their mind and their soul open for their art.

But at the same time, one must remember your Flaubert:

Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.

Get your act together in real life. Pour out the chaos onto new pages.

Writer’s Desk: Find a Safe Space

BlackBeautyCoverFirstEd1877.jpegThe life of a writer is usually a precarious one, for those of us who make their living solely on their wits and their pen. The lucky ones do not have to hustle all day and night from one assignment and check to the next, but are actually employed to write as part of their job. Whether or not that writing is what they want to do (and if not, there’s always the weekend and mornings to work on the novel), it’s always a relief to be employed to do what one loves.

The great journalist A. J. Liebling—who found his base of operations at the New Yorker—once compared his fellow ink-stained wretches to a certain famous fictitious horse:

The pattern of a newspaperman’s life is like the plot of Black Beauty. Sometimes he finds a kind master who gives him a dry stall and an occasional bran mash in the form of a Christmas bonus, sometimes he falls into the hands of a mean owner who drives him in spite of spavins and expects him to live on potato peelings…

Sometimes this can mean swallowing one’s pride. But if the stall is nice, frequently mucked out, and comes replete with fresh hay and the occasional apple, that comfort can leave more time for doing what you are meant to do: Write.

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Just Write Your Story, Live Your Story

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(New York Public Library)

Molly Antopol, author of The UnAmericans, once said that to her writing and reading can be acts of generosity:

One of the main reasons I read—and definitely why I write—is to try to see the world through someone else’s eyes. To try to imagine what life is like for someone who’s different from myself … I’m forced into having empathy for everyone—even someone who I’d normally be upset with, or feel wronged by…

As a result, she views writing as a fully immersive experience:

The moment a character becomes real to me, and their experience becomes real to me, the writing itself almost feels like method acting. When I’m writing a story, which takes me a year or more, I can feel my character living with me—they’re responding to whatever funny, familial, or social situation I’m in, and I think about their responses constantly. This feeling of living alongside a character is one of the most gratifying things about writing, and definitely one of the reasons I do it…

Don’t just imagine your characters. Live them.