Writer’s Desk: Try a New Format

Sometimes the same-old, same-old just does not work for what you are trying to accomplish. If you feel that you (or your work, or both) are in a rut, try changing things up.

Consider Jennifer Egan. She has written a number of novels the usual way. On some kind of computer, using a word-processing program, the results of which are ultimately designed and laid out on printed pages, bound together, and shipped around the world.

But in 2010, she tried something different. Her novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, featured an entire chapter written in PowerPoint slides. It’s a brilliant way of showing how the 12-year-old autistic character can best express herself. (The Guardian has the whole chapter here.)

Then, in 2012, Egan serialized an entire story on Twitter. She didn’t compose “Black Box” on her phone, though, rather writing everything in longhand and spending about a year polishing it down to the chiseled nub required to produce fiction 140 characters at a time. Check out the full result at the New Yorker.

Think about the different avenues you want to take with your writing, what the obstacles are that keep you from getting there, and what tools might help you out.

Nota Bene: Twitter, Neo-Nazis, and the GOP

In March of this year, Twitter had an all-hands meeting at which an employee asked why the company can’t do as good a job of keeping white supremacist material off the site as they have done with ISIS propaganda?

According to Motherboard, another employee provided a simple explanation:

With every sort of content filter, there is a tradeoff, he explained. When a platform aggressively enforces against ISIS content, for instance, it can also flag innocent accounts as well, such as Arabic language broadcasters. Society, in general, accepts the benefit of banning ISIS for inconveniencing some others, he said…

The employee argued that, on a technical level, content from Republican politicians could get swept up by algorithms aggressively removing white supremacist material. Banning politicians wouldn’t be accepted by society as a trade-off for flagging all of the white supremacist propaganda, he argued…

Writers’ Corner: Franzen vs. World

Jonathan Franzen

As literary contretemps go, the great Jonathan Franzen-Jennifer Weiner debate of 2013 might not measure up with the best of them. It’s not exactly Hemingway vs. Fitzgerald or James Woods panning Zadie Smith’s writing as “hysterical realism.” But it’s nevertheless a bookish debate with some fire to it playing out in the commons, and thusly rare enough to deserve note.

the-corrections_oprah_book_club1In short, Franzen started things, as is his wont, with a cranky screed in The Guardian against, well, things he doesn’t like about the modern world. It’s a lengthy piece, with some well-considered points about Austrian satirist Karl Kraus and how (now, as in Kraus’ time in fin-de-siecle Vienna), “the nexus of technology and media has made people relentlessly focused on the present and forgetful of the past.”

But there’s also a good dose of simple ornery lashing out against a modernity that has been much more artfully critiqued elsewhere. Franzen also doesn’t seem to think that novelists have ever in history been dragooned into doing anything to sell their books besides writing more of them better. To him, just being asked to take part in social media for the sake of publicity is anathema. Of course, the jury is definitely out on whether an author’s Twitter or Facebook presence actually helps sell books. But Franzen’s above-it-all attitude rankles here, as it did back in the days of his tantrum over seeing an Oprah Book Club burst on the cover of The Corrections.

jennifer_weiner1

Then there’s Jennifer Weiner. A writer of middlebrow popular fiction, Weiner’s books (like those of Jodi Picoult and others) are exactly the kind of thing which sell plenty of copies and yet never get any critical attention. She’s been having a go at the New York Times and other publications for not covering books of this sort. Whereas Franzen’s books—which might deal with more serious subjects but are difficult to classify as literature—are covered in depth. More particularly, Weiner’s been denouncing the Times, and correctly so, for having a dire shortage of female contributors.

Now, replying to Franzen’s line about “literary novelists are conscripted into Jennifer-Weinerish self-promotion,” Weiner herself penned a swift and lightly denunciatory piece for The New Republic where she calls out Franzen for essentially whining from the mountaintop:

In 2010, I coined the hashtag Franzenfreude. It was very bad German for a very real problem: When Franzen’s most recent novel, Freedom, was published, newspapers and magazines devoted thousands of words to the book and its author, while giving other literary books far less attention, and, in some cases, ignoring commercial works completely. Perhaps Franzen’s recent name-check was payback for when I implied that he was the face of white male literary privilege, or for pointing out that he’s the kind of writer who goes on Facebook only to announce that he won’t be doing Facebook, with the implication that he doesn’t have to do Facebook, because the media does his status updates for him. Or maybe he just really, really hates “The Bachelor.”

As Weiner points out, Margaret Atwood tweets. So does Joyce Carol Oates. And it probably doesn’t help sell a single extra copy of their books. Maybe they just like having a new format to write in. Is that so horrible?