Category Archives: Grand And Historic Proclamations

A review of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

Despite being a jaded and cynical person who’s grown weary of fashionable literary enterprise, I’ve decided to start using this wildly popular soapbox as a depository for my reviews of trendy new book releases. I haven’t written any of these reviews yet, nor have I read any of the books in question, but I’m looking forward to having firm convictions about the art of other people. I say this as if it’s a joke when in fact insightful reviews are the lifeblood of the book industry—an industry which would immediately be overtaken by Big Oil or the pharmaceutical lobby if influential critics like myself were suddenly to cease their bloggings.

But it’s hard to know where to begin. I reject most contemporary novels because they recount events that clearly didn’t happen and describe people who clearly didn’t exist. The fusty old guys didn’t have this problem. No one would ever dispute that Anna Karenina, Charles Kinbote, Julien Sorel, Heathcliff, Emma Bovary, and Moby Dick were once alive and walking/swimming around. No one would ever allege that H.G. Wells wasn’t close personal friends with an English scientist who traveled by time machine 800,000 years into the future where he was threatened by Morlocks. My chief criticism of today’s novels and works of short fiction is that they’re not real. And it’s annoying. You think Lewis Carroll wrote about Alice’s adventures using his imagination? No. He did the research. He went to Wonderland, interviewed its inhabitants, ate the cakes, smoked pot with a caterpillar, etc. Readers deserve at least that much due diligence from modern authors.

I suppose this old-fashioned interest in being real is where metafiction was born. Reading David Foster Wallace or Lydia Davis or Martin Amis for the first time feels as if you’re being let in on a secret. And naturally their books ring true because the self-aware authors responsible for them are so miserable and exacting. Having your attention drawn to that extra layer of contrivance endows the made-up story with dumb reality, to which everyone can relate. It’s like being occasionally reminded of your own hands holding the book. You don’t continue to think about your hands as you read, because that would be distracting, but you appreciate that the author is kind enough to acknowledge the existence of your humble appendages because they’re always going to be in the background anyway (unless you’re a spambot, which, judging by my comments of late, most of you are). After all, you’re a character too, even when you’re utterly lost in a book. It feels good for everybody to be on the same page: The reader has two hands and the author has a word processor. From here fabulous things will happen.

But for some writers the established metafictional techniques are not enough to drive home the truth of what they’re saying. Their reverence for the real takes them deeper into authorial self-awareness until the book is them and/or they are the book. Or at least that’s what they’d like you to believe. The reader is encouraged to identify the narrator with the author, either through name (“Sheila” in Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?) or circumstance (both the narrator and Jenny Offill have similar career trajectories in Dept. of Speculation). It’s daring, I think, to pretend to be the author of your book, when in fact you’re the author of the author of your book. People might look at you funny (as my mom did when I named my nymphomaniac, first-person narrator “Wishter” in the first draft of my novel). But it’s damn effective as far as vraisemblance is concerned. It channels the memoir vibe without ever purporting to be a memoir (as many novels also do to great effect). The writer is simultaneously perceived as a creator of art and a willing confessor, making both these books seem deeply private and real, though only Heti explicitly states that hers is “a novel from life.”

But ultimately it doesn’t matter because it’s the language, not who’s writing it, that is going to make or break a book. That, and the action has to take place in a city that actually exists, like Hogsmeade or Kings Landing.

Finally, read Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain. It was good and I liked it.

 

 

Swab talk

For my grandparents’ 90th birthday, we got them Genographic Project kits, which analyze your DNA to determine where your earliest ancestors came from. In order for the science to work, they have to take two saliva samples eight hours apart with the provided swabs. Which brings me to my punchline. I now have the title for my grandparents’ future biopic: “Between Two Swabs.”

MFA writing programs: an exposé

In May I completed my first year of a two-year MFA fiction program, and so concluded the best and worst year of my life. If someone close to you has the nerve to die, I recommend surrounding yourself with sensitive writer-types. They will email you with words of comfort, they will hold your hand when you’re trembling, and most importantly, they will go out drinking with you any night of the week. I had heard that being part of a writing community was one of the main reasons to pursue an MFA, but the truth of this didn’t fully register until I was at a bar with members of my tribe, drinking and discussing workshop submissions. For nerds, it doesn’t get much better than arguing POV and authorial intent over cocktails. When you take away all the cigarettes and whiskey and general bad behavior, we were just little kids who had finally found simpatico playmates. For instance, I was not the only one who played “Library” and “Office” as a child.

But MFA programs have their ugly side as well. One’s ego is constantly being either battered or inflated. Competition, gossip, raging insecurity, and overweening ambition all form part of the MFA gauntlet. Our words often become fighting words, and our self doubt often mutates into criticism of other writers. It’s hard to maintain your sense of self worth when you feel like everyone else is more talented, more brilliant, and more published than you are. There are moments when you feel like a total fraud. There are moments when you feel that you were a much better writer before you joined the program. The burn of one bad workshop can undo the glory of three good workshops. Many of us have never had our skill, or lack of skill, tested and exposed to such an extent. It’s completely terrifying.

But it’s not life and death. Our egos are petty creatures, and learning to rein mine in this year, even just an inch or two, has been one of the most edifying lessons of the program. Huge egos aren’t equipped to deal with failure or with success; they’ll crash from both a scathing review and from an NYTimes bestseller. The writers I most admire in the program are those who remember where their values lie. Books are less important than people. Books are written by people, for people. Our books might outlive us, but they don’t define us. Unless you’re someone like Nora Roberts who seems to write books in lieu of eating and sleeping and updating her Facebook wall.

My dad was a writer, but he was never published. He was too busy being a doctor. But when he died, he left behind decades of handwritten journals, letters to his loved ones, and stories written on the backs of prescription pads. He never wrote so that he could see his name in print; he wrote because he was moved to record the stuff of life. That man could describe the rain in a million different ways. He could describe how much he adored you in a million and one. I don’t think he would’ve had much tolerance for an MFA program, but he would’ve been crazy for the after-hours conversation.

I remember my first day back at school after the funeral. I was sitting in one of my favorite literature classes, barely aware of my surroundings, and instead of scribbling notes I was writing down everything I could recall from the week before: every flower from a friend, every visitor to the house, every embrace from a fellow mourner. I had filled up three pages when my pen ran out of ink. My classmate saw me struggling, and she pulled an extra pen out of her backpack. She said I could keep it. Someone told me later that she hadn’t known what to do for me or what to say about my dad, so she was grateful that she could at least keep me writing.

Life from inside the box

I am officially a square. The evidence:

1. I was hit with an egg at a street carnival.

2. I intern in an office where water cooler gossip revolves around who is going to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, Joyce or Cormac.

3. I notify teachers of typos in the books they assign.

4. I was relieved to get the flu over the weekend so I wouldn’t have to miss work or class.

5. Come lunchtime, I often find myself thinking, “How can I get the most avocado for my dollar?”

The new, gregarious me

It has recently come to my attention that I am no longer shy. I say this because in the past week I have made friends with a cable guy from Algeria, a chocolate shop owner from Iran, a grad student in business at Vanderbilt, a couple chefs, a painter from Croatia, a West Side boy in suspenders, and two older Jewish men who deal in reliquaries. I am not saying that I am wildly popular with these people, but I have definitely accosted them on street corners or at bars and struck up conversations from which they had difficulty extracting themselves due to my infinite charm and vigor. Sometimes I think they’re hesitant to let me wander off alone again because I’m so obviously unfit for city life, like a unicorn that has only known wild mountain pastures, but other times I imagine they’re saying to themselves, “How refreshing this young lady is with her flawless manners and Southern amiability!” The point is lately I’ve had no problem flinging myself at people and asking for their life stories like I’m a vacuum saleswoman or Miss USA, so I must conclude that I’m no longer shy. Or maybe I never was! And this makes me question all the other beliefs I hold about myself. Maybe I don’t have a love/hate relationship with alcohol! Maybe no one’s listening to my thoughts and judging me for them! Maybe ethereal mountain unicorns can also be street savvy! Maybe I won’t fail out of school! Maybe models are all ugly on the inside! Maybe James Franco really will come to my birthday pary, even though his manager already RSVP’d no. Maybe I can only sustain my gregariousness for one week, and then I will go back to being shunned and humbled by humanity! Anyway I don’t want to lose sight of where I have my real interactions with people, here on this blog, where I never have to stop talking so I can listen to someone talk so I can start talking again.

The cosmic cure for nailbiting

I have been a nailbiter since I was very young. Sometimes I attribute this to the same sort of neurological anomaly that makes small children sniff glue or pregnant women eat dirt. On good days I think, “I am like a momma chimp picking lice out of her baby’s hair, except I am both momma chimp and baby chimp.”  Other times I think despondently, “Maybe this is simply a bad habit within my control, except I have no discipline whatsoever.” But more often the nailbiting seems so out of control, especially when I’m driving down the road, trying to conform a bit of cuticle to my specific compulsive vision, all the while knowing that I am distracted enough to crash into a telephone pole but it will be worth it because my finger will be shredded just right on the gurney. It’s a sickness. I realize that. But I’ve been helpless to cure it. Even when the whole world says “Gross.” Even when I say “Gross.” There’s still something so satisfying about tearing my hands apart.

But no more! I have been cured. And it wasn’t the bad-tasting nail polish or the synthetic nails or the hypnosis or the tape or the gloves or the sedatives or whatever. I can honestly say that the universe cured my nailbiting. Or rather the universe by way of my godmother. Because she read my chi – when up until last week I didn’t even know I had one – and she told me that I wanted to get rid of my body. This is true. I’ve always been separate from my body because, let’s face it, my body is not that great. Despite the fact that tonight I sensationally dropped an edamame down my cleavage, I would readily trade my body for a few more brain cells. My body is pretty much worthless to me unless it’s wearing something really cute.

My godmother says that Christianity has instilled in us this dichotomy between mind and body wherein we privilege the intellectual/spiritual sphere over the physical. “Yes,” I say to her. “I feel that.” And then she says that we’re all actually one thing, that there’s no separation. “Yes,” I say. “I believe you’re right.” What she’s getting at is that we’re whole beings, interconnected, cosmically integrated into the couch, the stars, the popsicle, the soy bean buried in my bra. We can’t discard or abuse our bodies because we’ll simultaneously be hurting our deepest selves. That makes sense to me. But what makes special sense is when you take this concept of the universe being a single, indivisible entity with good intentions and you apply it to the bloody tips of my fingers. Why am I trying to destroy the universe? By biting my nails I am undoing all of the important work of the cosmos. I am the character in science fiction who wants to explode planets where cute, furry aliens inhabit utopias. I am a space brat. I’m destroying my nails because I don’t believe in God, order, love, or the mind/body connection.

And frankly that’s all it took to stop biting. I just had to redefine my bad habit in terms of the universe at large. In two months I’m going to be able to scratch my itches for the first time since I was five. I’ll be able to pick a quarter up off the floor! And, as a bonus, I might go to heaven too. I’m not Cinderella (at least while I wait for these 10 nubs to grow out), but I do have a fairy godmother. And I probably helped someone today. That’s just me giving back to the cosmos that made me.

In which my husband solves the newspaper publishing crisis

There’s been a lot of chatter lately about the future of journalism residing in “hyperlocal” news. Hyperlocal news steps in where the doomsday scenario leaves off: Newspapers fire experienced writers, writers have no place to go, newspapers die out, the end is nigh. Yet we still crave news that is streamlined and directly relevant to our lives. So instead of scavenging a national paper on its deathbed, we might read a blog written by an out-of-work reporter who lives down the street, a meaningful voice that in turn aggregates other meaningful voices.

This is where Darren Hoyt comes in. He and Ben Gillbanks, an English colleague, just launched Dispatch, a WordPress blog theme for writers and journalists. An add-on to the Mimbo Pro WP theme, Dispatch gives any journalist with $20* an online platform that looks and feels like a professional newspaper or magazine website. So with minimal effort and financial commitment, you can launch a respectable blog for posting pictures and stories of your tour in Afghanistan or your cat or whatever. God, my husband is on the cutting edge.

Tech Dirt tells us why hyperlocal news makes sense, and, by extension, why you should be interested in Dispatch:

The technological and economic constraints of newsprint meant that the whole process had to be done by full-time employees and carefully coordinated by a single, monolithic organization. But the Internet makes possible a much more decentralized model, in which lots of different people, most of them volunteers, participate in the process of gathering and filtering the news. Rather than a handful of professional reporters writing stories and an even smaller number of professional editors deciding which ones get printed, we’re moving toward a world that Clay Shirky calls publish, then filter: anyone can write any story they want, and the stories that get the most attention are determined after publication by decentralized, community-driven processes like Digg, del.icio.us, and the blogosphere.

Other tech people weigh in on hyperlocal news here and here and here.

In my own hyperlocal news, I want to punch that word “blogosphere” in the gut. And then make sweet love to it.

Here’s a “for instance”: Your wife needs a new website ASAP so she can compete with the New York literati! You just created an awesome website! What’s your next move?

Screenshot of Dispatch WordPress theme

Screenshot of Dispatch WordPress theme

*Keep in mind that Dispatch is an add-on to Mimbo Pro, which costs $79. Still, that totals $100 for a website with amazing functionality and versatility that you might otherwise pay a designer thousands of dollars to develop for you. I feel like I am one step away from an infomercial right now.

What – I can’t blog from hell?

Lately I’ve been thinking about what will happen to my blog and my Facebook account after I die, so this CNN article, “New services promise online life after death,” is timely.  Maybe I will create a cyber will. I hereby bequeath my Twitter status updates to my husband. I hereby bequeath my Bookreads account to my sister. I hereby bequeath my porn bookmarks to my brothers. Just kidding. That would be weird. Stacey Richter, it is okay with me if you want to post on One Star Watt when I’m dead. The same goes for Zadie Smith. I mean after you’re both done crying over me. Mom and Dad, you get nothing. I just don’t trust you with the technology.

In which I solve the publishing crisis

A few months ago I was having dinner with a friend, her billionaire husband, and some other glamorous people (sometimes I run in these circles just to shake things up). We were talking about the nation’s financial troubles. I felt more and more complacent as the conversation turned to stock losses, bankrupted companies, and subprime mortgages. I said, “I don’t mean to brag, but I haven’t lost anything in the economic crisis. You want to know my secret? I don’t have any money, nor any assets, to lose.” They were all exceedingly jealous. As I savored the creme brulee that the billionaire’s imported French chefs had just prepared in the next room, I congratulated myself on enlightening these people. And who needs money when you have rich friends?

I am reminded of this dinner when I turn my keen eye to solving  the current crisis in the publishing world. People are losing jobs in the industry left and right. Most publishing houses have implemented acquisition freezes. And in Manhattan, where literary agents and HarperCollins executives are used to three-martini lunches, the “cushy schmooze fest seems to be winding down.” But this really doesn’t concern me because no one is publishing my books anyway. I lack book deals even when the money’s there, so why should I give a shit now?

Nevertheless, on the off chance that a full financial recovery in the publishing world will mean a Random House novel for me, I will solve the crisis. Listen up, people.

(I love blogging because no one can read the time delays between when I proclaim that I have an answer to something and when I actually arrive with some semblance of an answer.)

First of all, authors should write more bestsellers. Second of all, people should read more. We can all do our part. For instance my friend Abbey and I just started our first book club. It’s really more of a drinking club, but we will definitely use the books as coasters. And look – I understand that reading isn’t necessarily as fun and social as watching TV or spending hours alone on Facebook, but just think of how lonely writing is. And people do that every day so you’ll have something to read in the bathroom. Plus there are plenty of social networking websites that focus on books, like Goodreads and Shelfari and Library Thing. You won’t feel as isolated in your reading when you’re competing sharing with other people.

But this isn’t about what we’re doing wrong; it’s about what they’re doing wrong. All those big shot Manhattan publishing people with their love for great literature and their deep pockets for brilliant writers and their hard-ons for talented, creative people. Something’s got to give. Maybe publishers should stop issuing advances and funnel their money into innovative publicity instead. Because god knows there are more ways than ever to get inside other peoples’ brains. Then the authors and their agents get 60% of ensuing book sales if they don’t starve to death in the interim. But honestly, an author who doesn’t have a day job is just being irresponsible. At least submit an article to Ladies’ Home Journal every now and then. Experiment with other media, like blogs and porn. And don’t expect a big payday unless people actually like your book. It’s only fair.

Maybe I don’t have all the answers. Maybe I just failed miserably in my attempt at winging it. The same thing happens when I’m asked about astrophysics or when I’m expected to be charming in public.

Oh! One more brainstorm – isn’t it possible that there are just more books published – most of them awful – than the industry can sustain? Shouldn’t more writers just give up so there’s more room for me? Also – hardcover? Is it really necessary? Smart people pledge to wait and read the book when it comes out in paperback, then they forget about it (in my world smart people do a lot of pledging and forgetting and failing).

Finally, what if there was a speed printer that could print and bind paperback books from your computer in a matter of minutes? You pay a minimal amount to download the book from the publisher; you buy your own paper and ink and glue, saving them the expense; you press the Future Button; and the company experiences no net loss due to unsold books because they’re operating on a one book to one reader ratio. Brilliant, right? Make it happen, American entrepreneurs! The rest of you can get back to creming and bruling my creme brulee.

New site design makes me feel urban

Maybe we can feel urban together.