Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Soup and Salad: Lev Grossman on the Green-Eyed Monster, Jenna Blum on Inappropriate Skyping, Josh Getzler on an Agent's Pre-Pub Jitters, Sabina Murray on the Much-Maligned Short Story, Lydia Netzer on Purging Demons, Sherry Simpson on Writer's Block, Benjamin Hale on Dem Ole Post-Publication Blues, Anne Trubek on What America Used to Read

On today's menu:

1.  Early in his career, novelist Lev Grossman (The Magician King) almost let the green-eyed monster get the better of him when he judged himself against the success of other writers in his college class:
I was also convinced that my work was crap, and would always be crap, because I had no talent. There was some basis for this. There were other people in my year who also wanted to be writers, and they were producing some amazing stuff. Way better than my stuff. I still remember lines from their short stories. I was and am easily intimidated, and—through no fault of theirs—I was incredibly intimidated by these people. They were talented. They were confident. They were, for lack of a better word, glowy: they had that aura, the aura of genius in its youth, the aura of embryonic literary celebrity. I knew, to a certainty, that when we graduated and were weighed upon the great scales of the world, they would be blessed, and I would be damned. I would be the guy who appeared in the corner of the photograph in their biographies, making a weird face, who is denoted in the caption by “unidentified.”
I can relate, to a degree.  Though my undergrad years at the University of Oregon are mostly a fuzzy blur thanks, in part, to the fact I was a newlywed and a new father when I moved to Eugene, I do remember sitting next to a guy named Bruce in my writing class.  Bruce (last name now forgotten in the blur and fuzz) was thin, sported an equally-thin mustache, had dark hollowed-out eyes, and smelled like the bottom of an ashtray.  But Bruce also wrote some of the most amazing poetry I'd ever read to that point in my life.  I sat there casting sidelong glances at this guy who, I was convinced, was going to be Somebody someday.  I don't know what became of Bruce--he may be dead from lung cancer or he may be out there quietly publishing his mind-stirring verse right now--but I do know that for two golden semesters he spurred me to be a better writer.  And to force my eyes from green back to brown.

2.  Am I the only one who thought Jenna Blum's primer for writers Skyping to book clubs was hilarious?  For those of you who don't know what Skype is and think it sounds like a nasty comment you make about your co-worker's reindeer sweater at the office Christmas party, it's basically like something out of The Jetsons which allows computer users to talk to each other in "real time" via webcams.  It can be a real boon to pajama-clad, whiskey-swilling authors who want to visit book clubs but have a hard time getting dressed or putting down the shot glass.  I'm looking forward to Skyping with groups of Fobbit readers once the novel comes out in September.*  Hopefully, they won't catch me making faces like this:

3.  The days before a book comes out can be agonizing for the person waiting for its release: full of pacing, fingernail chewing, heavy sweating, inappropriate binging, and late-night calls to phone psychics.  And that's just for the novelist's agent!  At least, that's the case with Josh Getzler who's waiting for client Nancy Bilyeau's novel The Crown to hit bookstores in a couple of weeks.  Getzler describes what it's like to have the schpilkes from the literary agent's perspective.

4.  At The Story Prize blog, Sabina Murray (Tales of the New World) has some smart things to say about the short story:
The short story is a maligned form. Readers distrust it. Editors fear it. Reviewers ignore it. And writers, well, there is nowhere to hide in a short story, nowhere that a writer’s weakness is as exposed, so when the short story comes together and executes its promise, writers adore it. Otherwise, the short story can seem like the quippy, less ambitious relation of the novel. Of course, there are people who have built their reputation on the short story, people like Grace Paley and Alice Munro, so why is the short story seen to come up, so, well, short? One explanation is that the short story is held to the same standards as the novel—and how could a short story equal the breadth and depth of a novel? The truth of the matter is that most writers conceive of their short stories as part of a book, although the story has the added capacity to stand on its own. Novels in short stories come out of this—thematic linkage seems to imply a novel to some people, as if a novel is the only way that collected short stories can achieve the prestige of books. And of course there are short stories that explore the same characters, which is the most typical scenario of a “novel in short stories.” But it’s still not a novel. It’s a collection of short stories with a limited cast, and why would it aspire to anything else?

5.  Novelist Lydia Netzer (Shine Shine Shine) wrestled her inner demons....and won.  Getting the dark, bad stuff down on paper was one of the first steps:
I worry that I am not a good enough person to be a mother. That's me. I worry that I am a shitty wife. Again, me. I'm not looking in the mirror any more. I'm not looking at anything. Instead, in writing this book I have gone crawling down to a hole that is deep inside me, a black hole surrounded by claw marks and mold. Before, I did not know that it was there. But now, I have laid myself down next to it and plunged my arms into it. In dragging up whatever writhing awful thing came to my hand, and pulling it out, and examining it, I was publicly eviscerated myself. And it really did make things better. I don't feel bad about killing my mother any more. That is actually true.
--record scratch--  "Killing my mother"?  What the--?  You'll have to read "Confession of a Writer Full of Sin" to get the full story.

6.  Alaska writer Sherry Simpson confronts another fear of all writers: the Big Nothing.  Here's her very inspirational, very funny take on writer's block for the 49 Writers blog:
      By nature I am a fraidy cat whose long list of fears encompasses the ridiculous more than the rational: Alien abduction (all that probing). Unnervingly hairy arthropods (tarantulas). Mushrooms (they grow on manure!). The usual writerly anxieties afflict me, too: fear of failure, a craven need for approval, a sadistic internal critic who must be bludgeoned into silence.
      But a few months ago, something really scary happened to me. For the first time ever, I sat at my computer and had nothing to write about. Nada. Zip. The Big Zero. It was more writer’s blah than writer’s block. I felt de-sparked, un-mused, ex-inspired. What if this hollow sensation meant I had used myself up? What if there was no more there there (if there ever was)? Terrifying.

7.  At The Millions, Benjamin Hale describes the post-publication depression which is familiar to all writers (unless your name is Joyce Carol Oates and you're so busy oiling the pistons at the word factory you don't even stop to think about lagging sales and the disappointment of poorly-attended book signings).  I suspect this time next year, I'll really be able to relate to Hale's frank description of post-partum blues:
      In the months following the publication of my novel in February, I didn’t write any fiction for a long while. This was due in part to being very busy with traveling, teaching, touring, writing nonfiction and little essayettes like this one, but also in part because of a particular type of depression that some other fiction writers I know have also experienced: the strangely sinking, empty feeling that comes after publishing one’s first book. At times I was thinking things along the lines of, “What’s the point of any of this bullshit? What have I accomplished? What have I changed? Maybe I should move back home and go back to painting houses.”
      You work with single-minded devotion on something for years with hope, anxiety, desperation, ambition, daily dumping the greater part of your energy into the dream of seeing this thing bound between covers and on display in a bookstore—and then it actually happens. As Bill Hicks once said in a monologue about quitting smoking, “You know, in a way, I feel sorry for people who’ve never been addicted to anything. They don’t know what it’s like to want something that bad… and get it.”  True—the elation of seeing your book in a bookstore for the first time is ineffable. But like the cigarette, it’s followed by a vacuous wake. So what now? After the last ripples from the initial splash of attention (if you’re lucky enough to get one) fade, after the bookstore readings are over, after the young, first-time novelist’s amuse-bouche taste of glamour is swallowed, digested, and passed: now what? Well, congratulations—you’re a writer. This is your job now. So get to work. Write another book.
Hale's mini-essay, by the way, is part of The Millions' annual Year in Reading series in which writers talk about the best books they read over the past twelve months.  If you haven't already been following the series and if you have five distraction-free hours to spend with the Internet and if you have an unlimited budget to add new books to your wish list, I highly suggest you hightail it over to The Millions right now.  The roster of this year's contributors is far too long to list here, but how about Jennifer Egan, Nathan Englander, Charles Baxter, and Elissa Schappell for starters?

8.  In an earlier** essay for the New York Times, Anne Trubek (A Skeptic's Guide to Writers' Houses) wrote about the reading habits of America in the late 19th century--specifically, the books which were read by residents of Muncie, Indiana, which Trubek says has long been called America's "most typical" town.  Fortunately, the town's librarians saved their records and the recent discovery of ledgers and notebooks allows us to get a good snapshot of every book checked out of the library more than 100 years ago:
What do these records tell us Americans were reading? Mostly fluff, it’s true. Women read romances, kids read pulp and white-collar workers read mass-market titles. Horatio Alger was by far the most popular author: 5 percent of all books checked out were by him, despite librarians who frowned when boys and girls sought his rags-to-riches novels (some libraries refused to circulate Alger’s distressingly individualist books). Louisa May Alcott is the only author who remains both popular and literary today (though her popularity is far less). Little Women was widely read, but its sequel Little Men even more so, perhaps because it was checked out by boys, too. The remaining authors at the top of the list—Charles Fosdick, Oliver Optic, Martha Finley, L. T. Meade and others—have vanished from memory. Francis Marion Crawford, whose novels were chiefly set in Italy and the Orient, was checked out 2,120 times, whereas Dickens, Walter Scott and Shakespeare circulated 672, 651 and 201 times respectively. Fiction was overwhelmingly preferred, accounting for 92 percent of books read in 1903.

*If you're a member of a book club who'd like me to visit via the magical mystery of Skype, email me.  I promise I'll be dressed from the waist up and will try not to slur my words.

**I'm behind in my Soup and Salad compilations, so sue me.

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