Essays, Notable Articles

The Reading Queue Revisited

I created my reading queue about a year and half ago because I decided I needed a system to help me work through my big to be read pile. The main problem, as I wrote at the time, was that there were a number of books in my TBR pile that I was interested in reading but never seemed to get around to. A newer, more exciting book would come along and it would vault to the top of the pile and other books would languish, unread.Part of the problem is how I read. I read fairly quickly, but I don't spend a lot of my day reading books. I spend a lot of time on this here computer, for one thing. Plus, every day I read the newspaper and every week I read the New Yorker from cover to cover. I'll probably read about 30 books this year, not a lot when you consider my TBR pile is more than 40 books tall. Though I'd love to be able to read two or three books a week, I don't really mind my slower pace. Still, I didn't like the idea of books staring at me year after year unread, so I created the reading queue.As you can see if you check out the queue near the bottom of the right hand column, I alphabetize my TBR pile by author and then assign each book a number. When the time comes to pick my next book to read, I use a random number generator to decide for me. I know, it's impossibly nerdy, but I've decided I like handling my reading decisions this way.For one thing, it is in keeping with certain compulsive tendencies I have about organizing things (although, sadly, those tendencies don't cause me to clean off my desk with any regularity, for example), and each new book I pick to read is a little surprise rather than an agonizing decision (well, maybe it's not that bad). The only time I read a book out of order is if a publisher or author has sent me an advance copy and I want to make sure I read and review it when it comes out. Those I bump right to the top of the list. But if I go buy a book or get one as a gift, it goes into the queue. Maybe I'll read it next week, maybe I'll read it in five years; the reading queue will decide.I'm probably the only odd bird out there who feels a need to organize their reading this way, but if anyone else has a reading queue of their own, I'd love to hear about it.
Essays

Distinguished in a David Niven mustache

I suppose it's what you do with luck that ultimately determines whether it was good or bad. The luck itself is kind of ephemeral, landing in your lap, ready to be spun and twisted into something more substantial. Ready to be given a direction.I was on an airplane recently - destination Norway via Frankfurt. I'd settled into my window seat, two books at the ready, pillow just so, contacts off, glasses on, and with less than five minutes before take-off there was no one, absolutely no one, sitting beside me. I couldn't believe my luck. And then...And then, with sitcom timing, a harried and rather shell-shocked individual traveling back to the EU silently slumped into the empty seat, looked up, stared at me, and then opened a magazine. In due course our flight attendant, distinguished in a David Niven mustache, began the food service. And so it was with bemusement that I watched my seat-mate take uncertain steps to lower his dinner tray - a process he began by banging the seat in front of him with jarring forward jolts. I came to the rescue.I guess this primed me for the farce that followed. I was not entirely surprised when I saw my hapless friend struggling with his seat belt, completely mystified as to how to dislodge himself from this alien contraption. I happily walked him through the rocket science required to unclasp and separate the two parts. So it was a bit odd, then, when less than an hour later my companion tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to, well, to his seat belt area. He'd apparently neglected to take notes the first time and had once again become trapped.All of which might have bounced off me except that every twenty minutes or so I noticed his peering head swivel towards my window and then extend, ostrich-like, in front of me, past my nose and right to the window pane without a single word or acknowledgement of my presence. And when he returned to his magazine he would invariably extend his elbows left and right, jabbing me sharply in the ribs each time. Now I'm not the biggest guy in the world, but I do occupy a certain amount of space. I have mass. I don't defy the principles of science. Were one to encounter me on a dark path, one wouldn't simply pass through me. There would be a discernible thud.I left the plane bemoaning my fortune, but also contemplating how this fellow handles life in the real world, how he responds, and how much control he has over life's little day-to-day torments. What if he were Norman Bray?Trevor Cole's wonderful novel Norman Bray In The Performance Of His Life just happened to be one of the two books I brought with me to Europe, and was the one I was reading as I was being poked and prodded by my oblivious airplane friend. Norman is a middle-aged stage actor in Toronto, years past his prime and relegated to the occasional voice-over gig. On the surface he seems pompous and childlike, walking through life in a pleasantly deluded state - a kindred spirit to Ignatius J. Reilly. And while this novel doesn't quite scale the same dizzying heights as A Confederacy Of Dunces, I found myself responding to the characters in a similar way - wanting to reach through the pages of the book and smack some sense into these guys, if only so they can begin to cope with their lot in life instead of just assuming with incomprehensible certainty that things would work out in the end. Of course then we wouldn't have these two gloriously funny novels.Norman Bray's problems, which he attributes to bad luck, are largely of his own doing, and the glimmer of hope at the end, which he would probably credit to his own tenacity, is in fact more a conflux of circumstances which, for once, he doesn't sabotage. Sheer luck (which he would normally have obliviously squandered) is allowed to develop into good fortune.My airplane friend would at least have stood a fighting chance as Norman Bray, since Norman relies on circumstance to extricate him from the chaotic mess of his own creation. He'd have a harder time as Lorimer Black, the hero of Armadillo the second book that I brought with me, and my first foray into the extraordinary world of William Boyd. Thanks to my fellow writer Emre, I now have a new author to obsess over and to devour everything from.Like Norman Bray, Lorimer Black is bedevilled by circumstance, but in this case, through little fault of his own. Rather than being oblivious, Lorimer is remarkably self-aware. All the more troubling, then, to find him swept up by circumstance, his London routine twisted and tossed, and then thrown into a downward Kafka-esque spiral.But at least Lorimer - an insurance-adjuster with a mysterious past, juggling work, women and family - is aware, conscious of his juggling act, conscious of his identity, and conscious of the luck that eventually comes his way. He's better suited to the task of accepting circumstance and turning it to his advantage.I didn't see my airplane friend actually leave the plane. With any luck he managed it without incident. I can only hope that fortune shines on this guy and the people he'll inevitably be around as he goes through life. They'll all need it.
Essays

Battle of the Sexes (Part Deux)

I'm glad to see my last post got people talking. I guess I have to get into specifics now. Keep in mind that I've only read about ten books this year because it took me all of January and February to read Robert Caro's massive biography of Robert Moses, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. (Incidentally, if you're looking to tone up for the summer months, I recommend all of Caro's books. Even the paperbacks come in weighty volumes perfect for curls or bench presses). After that it was a real relief to read a couple of books people have been hounding me to read: Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping.I'd read Atwood's Cat's Eye before and like it a lot, but The Handmaid's Tale is a masterpiece. My girlfriend has been teaching it to her ungrateful undergraduates, and I read it and got a few free lessons on the fascinating language play that goes on in the text. I don't think I've ever read a book that was so filling for both my heart and my head.Housekeeping had been lying around my apartment, and, to be honest, I didn't want to read it. Nobody could really tell me what it was about or anything about it, for that matter, other than that they read it in college, it was beautiful, and they loved it. I read it in twelve hours. It's the kind of book that really ought to be read in a burst like that because its physical world is so distinct and so engrossing, it invites the reader to wander in and stay for awhile. I don't think I'd have liked it as much if I'd nibbled at it for a couple of weeks, but it was the perfect book for me at the perfect time. (Note: I was also, no doubt, caught up in the Marilynne Robinson zeitgeist. I heard her read from her new book Gilead, and for a while here in Iowa, it seemed like Marilynne was all people could talk about).After these two terrific novels, I read Man Walks Into a Room by Nicole Krauss. It's a shame that congress passed that law that mandates everyone who writes about Krauss to refer to her as Jonathan Safran Foer's husband in the first three sentences (There, I've done it... I fear the man), because she's an incredible writer. Read the prologue to the book and see what I mean.Of course no year of reading would be complete for me without a couple of books about genocide. Max had a great post on historians and journalists who write about the ugly moments in history, and I seem to be working my way through most of the books on his list. Two years ago I read Philip Gourevitch's We Wish To Inform You... about the Rwandan genocide. Last year it was Anne Applebaum's Gulag (a woman!), and this year it was Samantha Power's book A Problem from Hell. I confess that I forced myself to start this book (even while I was buying it I was apprehensive), but I didn't have to force myself to finish it. Power writes with clarity and precision about American foreign policy in a way that is easily understood without being too simplistic or dumbed-down. I saw Power on Charlie Rose last year and thought she was so smart and interesting. Her book didn't disappoint.And now I'm tearing through Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence (I'm ashamed to say I'd never read it). So I've only read a handful of books this year, but I must say that the women are walking all over the men (and that's with Robert Caro and JF Powers on Team Penis). I do find that my "To Be Read" list is still male-oriented, so if anybody has any suggestions of books by the fairer sex, let me know. I'm open to anything.
Essays

Battle of the Sexes by Patrick Brown

Earlier in the year, I took a look back at the books I'd read in 2004. I was surprised to find that most of them were by men. I'd always thought of myself as a guy who reads good books, regardless of who wrote them, but the facts proved otherwise. My girlfriend, meanwhile, pointed out that her reading list was split fairly evenly between the sexes. The only conclusion I could draw is that I am a chauvinist pig. Well, maybe not, but for a guy who claims he has no biases, my reading list was well stocked with white men and little else.To remedy this, I've decided to try a little experiment this year. For the entire year, I am alternating between books by men and women. Aside from enforcing gender equality, this has so far leant some much needed discipline to my life.Some of you will no doubt say, "But Patrick, I'm not a sexist pig. I don't have to force myself to read women, it comes naturally." My hat is off to you, but I'm sure you have a literary blind spot that could be addressed with a program like mine. Maybe you only read contemporary literature. Perhaps your reading list is strictly non-fiction. Maybe you haven't read a short story collection cover-to-cover since college. If any of these are true, I recommend developing a little curriculum of your own. You'll find your literary world blown wide open, and you'll introduce yourself to some great books you might not otherwise get around to reading.
Essays

Books to Laugh with

In 2001, the New Yorker treated faithful readers to Fierce Pajamas, a comprehensive survey of humor culled from the 75-year history of the magazine. When I heard about this, my well-honed cat-like reflexes snapped into action and, three years later, I bought the book. These short pieces, known as "casuals," include parodies, absurdities and flights of fancy. They showcase the wit of some of the giants in American humor - from E.B. White, through S.J. Perelman and George S. Kaufman, on up to Steve Martin. And along the way, two of my favorites - Woody Allen and James Thurber.As is often the case with anthologies, I wind up seeking out more complete works from specific writers. In this instance I was led back to my own bookshelves, to the dusty 'A' section in the top-left corner of my wall, for my small but complete trio of Woody Allen books. This necessitates the use of a stepladder because in addition to being obsessively organized - fiction alphabetized by author, then chronological within each. I won't even get into what I do to my non-fiction - I'm also quite short and can't actually reach the top shelf of anything in my apartment.Getting Even, Without Feathers, and Side Effects collect Woody Allen's written humor from the mid 60s through to the late 70s, in 5-year chunks. I think you can get them all in one volume now, but I'm quite partial to my pocket-sized second-hand paperbacks - perfect for explosive bursts of laughter on the subway. There's hardly a page without some jaw-droppingly hysterical absurdist musing, non-sequitur, or parody of some philosophical tract or of a psychological case-study. Even a few one-act plays for good measure.Getting Even contains "The Metterling Lists" - essentially a collection of Herr Metterling's laundry lists, spun-out Woody-style into a psychological and biographical profile. And "The Gossage-Vardebedian Papers" - a succession of correspondence-chess letters, each one more politely sarcastic and seethingly hostile than the last.Without Feathers includes "God" - a now-classic one-act play in which an actor and a writer are on stage bemoaning the lack of an ending to their Greek play. "Audience members" join in the scenario and eventually the melee includes cameos by a wayward Blanche Dubois, and one Mr. Woody Allen, the Creator himself. Reality is turned on its head, then rolled up in a ball and shot through a hoop in this Pirandello-esque comedy.Side Effects has "The Kugelmass Episode" - a hilarious story in which our hero, with the help of a magician, escapes his humdrum world and retreats into the lusty pages of Madame Bovary for a succession of romantic encounters with Emma, confounding Flaubert's readers and scholars with the sudden presence of a balding 1970s New Yorker in Emma Bovary's boudoir.Fierce Pajamas also led me to the "Ts," to my somewhat haphazard collection of James Thurber books. Many years ago, my good friend Doug Holland, always a step or two ahead of me, introduced me to the world of Thurber. Humorist, cartoonist, editor, James Thurber was a mainstay of the New Yorker for decades.Out of the half-dozen books I have, my pick would be My Life and Hard Times, a humorous memoir written by Thurber in the 1930s, replete with illustrations by the author, looking back on his youth in turn-of-the-century Columbus. Deceptively gentle and low-key, his stories often build to a frenetic climax. A common theme is how misunderstanding leads to rumor leads to panic. Seems simple. Yet no one does it quite like him.A few weeks ago, as I was thinking of what to say about Thurber, fortune shone as my fellow Millions-contributor Patrick posted a great piece about the Paris Review, and in particular "The DNA of Literature", a treasure trove of archived interviews that you can read on their website. I've been exploring this site in the weeks since then, and one of the first things I came across was a great interview (pdf) from 1955 with James Thurber himself!In it he speaks of his astounding memory and how he can juggle hundreds of details in his mind. And of how he never knows until he's typing away exactly how his stories will develop. He talks about the "New Yorker style" of humor in which you take your initial gleeful idea, your hilarious impulse, and then rewrite it, playing it down. Thurber also reflects on Harold Ross, the great Editor of the New Yorker, an unread man with bloodhound instincts who demanded clarity of his writers, and, to a man, kept them from being sloppy. Thurber also talks about his wife, his sounding-board, who it seems prefaces everything she says to James with "Goddammit Thurber..."Always writing, always crafting the perfect phrase, always keeping it concise and clear, Thurber was the consummate New Yorker humorist. His humor took over his body. So much so that when turning a phrase over in his head, his daughter grew so concerned with the look on his face that she asked her mother: "Is he sick?" to which Thurber's wife reassured her: "No, he's writing something."
Essays

Leonard Cohen, Master of Prose

Leonard Cohen turned 70 a few months ago and, amid the celebration, was the subject of countless pieces of reflection. Most of them concentrated on the music career that has consumed the last half of his life, and on the poetry which runs as a current through everything. But this is not a music blog, and I've never felt particularly confident writing about poetry. (Though I implore each of you to get your hands on his various volumes of poetry and at least his first three LPs. No record collection is complete without Songs from a Room.)So this, then, is about Leonard Cohen, master of prose, and in particular, his first novel - The Favorite Game. By 1963 a 29-year old Leonard Cohen had already given the world two volumes of poetry and was living in London, reflecting on his youth in Montreal. And so we meet Lawrence Breavman, poet-adventurer. The Favorite Game weaves past with present, with an acute comic eye for Breavman's childhood -- his years of discovery of his place within and without his family, of friendships and girls. These scenes cut in and out of a later narrative which finds Breavman in his college days, still prowling for adventure, now adding words to his arsenal of weapons to conquer the hearts of women.Poetry is "a verdict," Breavman tells us, a judgment passed, and quite distinct from the creation of the words themselves. When he writes them, when he utters them, they are "propaganda," Breavman confides to us. They are spoken for their luring powers. In his childhood, Breavman experimented on unsuspecting girls with hypnosis with much the same intent. The boy becomes the man.Through it all, childhood and youth, there was Krantz -- Breavman's best friend, partner-in-crime. Devil in his ear. Their friendship was an ongoing dialogue played for comic effect, a running commentary on the world around them. It gave them an awareness, a self-awareness. A detachment.And then Krantz leaves. His next chapter will happen, unwritten, in England. "We've got to stop interpreting the world for one another." And so the dialogue is suspended, but not immediately. The early post-Krantz days find Breavman still the prowler, still soaking up experiences, and still invoking Krantz's name as if he were still there. Still devil in his ear.Enter Shell. We'd met her before. Snippets of dialogue and confidences popping up in the early narrative. But we'd never been properly introduced. Now the narrative catches up with their meeting. In New York now -- grad school. Breavman and Shell. Shell and Breavman. They become a closed world to themselves. The tone becomes more serious. More adult. Krantz is no longer in his ear. We don't know yet whether Shell will wind up as merely another conquest, another shadow, another scar. We do know that this seems different. She not only enters Breavman's life, she anchors it.When Krantz's name is mentioned late in the narrative, it's jarring. A name from the past, from a different Breavman. We realize how different his world has become. And then Krantz is back -- but he's changed. Or maybe Breavman's changed. Either way, the suspended dialogue is released, and it crashes.There's more. Old voices call Breavman back. They mix with the new voices. Pretty soon the new ones become the old ones, and Breavman's life continues, unwritten, beyond the pages of the book.Three years later, Leonard Cohen would give us Beautiful Losers, his only other novel. Its a stunning work, stylistically rich and daring. It deserves its own discussion, but not now.There's a common and rather irritating perception of Leonard Cohen as a harbinger of doom. The song "The Future" and a few other cautionary tales aside, I've never really bought into this. Maybe for some its the deep voice of the later records. But then they can't be really listening to the words. So maybe it's the depth of the words. He digs deeper into life than most writers, but he doesn't just reveal foreboding. He reveals absurdities with wit. He reveals longing with passion. And he reveals loss with sadness.This is not the stuff of dread and gloom. It's the stuff of life. And we're all the richer for his passion.
Essays

Tis the Season

It occurred to me over the Thanksgiving weekend that after three years of paid participation in the holiday retail experience, this year I am free to don my civilian garb and stroll blithely past the giftwrap lined trenches in which I used to toil. I have to admit before I started working in a bookstore I never gave much thought to what the month of December means to America's retail army. But then, on December 1st, 2001, I was hired as holiday help. I hadn't been at my new gig for longer than a few hours when I was informed that, since there was no time to train me on cash register, phones or anything else really, I would be "designated giftwrapper." This came as quite a shock. Up until that point, every single gift I had ever purchased had been wrapped by my mother, sisters, or girlfriend. If none of them were available, I would simply present the gift to its recipient in the shopping bag that it came in. That December, though, I put in many hours at the "wrapping station," struggling with fists full of Scotch tape and wrapping paper as disapproving customers peered over my shoulders.For many stores, and, it seemed, my independent bookstore in particular, the holiday gift-buying season is vital. Between success and failure lie two dozen days in December. There was a lot of pressure, but it was fun, too. With double the staff and quadruple the customers, the crush of human generosity was heartening.But the holidays bring out a certain amount of desperation, too. Every year, I fielded scores of questions that were variations of this one: "My dad's a lawyer. Do you have any books about lawyers?" Or worse: "What do you think I should get my mom?" As I got good at it, I could watch the blind panic fade from their eyes, reassured that the book that I had just slid into their hands might do the trick. As Christmas neared, the real tough cases came out. The frantic parents emptyhanded on the way to the houses of their grown children, or the daughter who decides at the last minute that she'll get a gift for her step-mother after all, if only just to make her feel guilty. Saddest of all were the drunks on holiday-inspired benders who might stumble in a day or two before Christmas, forgetting why they were there but pulled by some ingrained impulse to try to buy something for someone.I'll just be a regular shopper this year, but miss I'll the frenzied energy of working at the bookstore, and for many Decembers to come, I suspect that the peaceful snowfall of whatever northern clime I inhabit will remind me of December drama at a bookstore nestled in the palm trees of Los Angeles.
Essays

Classic Shorts

The recent news, here in Canada, of our great lady of letters, Alice Munro, taking the Giller prize for Runaway (excerpt), her latest collection of short fiction, gives us a chance to praise that wonderful literary form - the short story - and the authors who have practiced it with precision, humanity, and wit.Collected volumes of short fiction often provided me with an easy approach to the many writers who would become my favourites. Tight, economical writing, a whole world painted with just a few deft strokes - and I was hooked.And so it was that Welcome to the Monkey House became the book of my formative college years. In short order, I would devour all of Kurt Vonnegut's marvelous works, but I still hold dear this short story collection. Even now, years later, the thought of "Harrison Bergeron" makes me simultaneously laugh and shudder at the alternate universe he inhabits - a world in which all citizens are subjected to absurd physical and mental "handicapping," a leveling-out process that results in a form of institutionalized mediocrity. Sameness.For Ernest Hemingway, clarity and precision were his stock in trade, and nowhere is this more resonant than in In Our Time, a collection of early shorts. Hemingway can present Nick Adams to us and reveal more of his world in 5 pages than many writers would dare to in 500. "The Battler" stands out - a tale of young Nick's encounter with a disfigured and psychologically damaged prizefighter while riding the rails. Equally powerful are the numerous vignettes that Hemingway intersperses between the stories, many of them harrowing slices of war.Hemingway's contemporary, F. Scott Fitzgerald, gives us Jazz Age Stories. It's within these pages that you can experience the remarkable "Diamond As Big As The Ritz", an astonishing tale of money, power, fear (of losing it) and the complete moral bankruptcy that ensues. This is an unparalleled story of illusion and disillusion. It creeps up on you and will echo for years and years.While The Catcher in the Rye has become such an iconic cultural phenomenon, its often forgotten that J.D. Salinger wrote anything else. Unless of course you've read Franny and Zooey, or Raise High the Roof Beam. Or my personal choice, the collection Nine Stories. Then you never forget. This is dysfunction grounded in reality, not simply splayed out for shock value or a quick laugh. I recommend you revisit the extended Glass family in the deceptively simmering "A Perfect Day For Bananafish."In recent years, I've come to regard Anton Chekhov as the master of the form. Any collection will do. Try Lady With Lapdog and Other Stories. I challenge you to find an unnecessary or misplaced word. Simple, perfect writing. These selections just scratch the surface, and of course there's no shortage of good contemporary short fiction. But it serves us well to be reminded from time to time of "the greats" - not as an untouchable force that stomps on any newcomers, but rather as artistic touchstones that let you approach, and that remind you of first principles. These masters have given us a vital part of our literary canon.Also recommended: The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol, Lord Arthur Savile's Crime and Other Stories by Oscar Wilde, James Joyce's (surprisingly readable) Dubliners, and Where I'm Calling From by Raymond Carver
Essays

The Millions Guest Contributor: Author, Kaye Gibbons

I had the pleasure of making Kaye Gibbons' acquaintance via email, and I have very quickly become a big fan. Aspiring writers and precocious readers could learn a lot from her. One of the more noteworthy events of Gibbons' distinguished career was the selection of two of her books, Ellen Foster and A Virtuous Woman by Oprah Winfrey for her eponymous book club. I asked Gibbons how she looks back on this experience as a writer, and she was kind enough to send us the following reply:You'd asked how I felt about having two novels of mine on the Oprah Book Club. There's so much to say about it that I'll talk about it chronologically. Before the Oprah call, I was doing fine, amazing fine. But it didn't start out that way. My advance for Ellen Foster was 1500. But I've always had a strong work ethic, and as I worked, as rights were sold and awards won, the money began to catch up to the blood and time I was putting into it. Unfortunately, being a rather eccentric, free-thinking woman in the South led others and eventually me to conclude that there had to be something pathological about me, and it wasn't until two years ago that a twenty-year old diagnosis of bi-polar disorder was eradicated. Doctors made me feel forced to take drugs that took the edge off my creativity, but I've taken nothing in two years and haven't ever felt and written better.My theory is that I want to write the best literature possible and have it read by as many people as possible. Living in NC, now half-time in NY, there's a long tradition of writers helping one another, reading manuscripts, finding agents. Lee Smith introduced me to my agent, and then in 1997 I was able to pass that along when I read the first pages of Cold Mountain. Chuck [Charles Frazier] and I had had children at the same Montessori school for years and had been close friends. Things like that happen here all the time.But there's still a great deal of intellectual isolation here--and that's probably why I write and read as much as I do. The other day in the grocery store, an acquaintance asked me what'd I'd been writing since I finished Divining Women. When I told her I'd been reviewing books for Atlanta and Chicago, she asked, "They let you review your own books?" This is a strange occupation to have in Raleigh, not so much in Chapel Hill, where Alan Gurganus, Reynolds Price, and others live. But sometimes 20 miles feels very far away.So, with regard to Oprah, one thing her call did was to give what I do for a living a certain amount of validation. I'd been knighted by the French, won awards galore, sold about a million books, had a movie made, done 12 thirty-city book tours, but dealing with the perception that I was a local writer was often frustrating. I'd have an audience of 2000 in Michigan and then 30 in Raleigh, for example.What it took to manage it was self-esteem, and that generally comes from having a firm grasp of reality and what's important, my children. A digression, because I anticipate someone mouthing about the Oprah money: I have a hard time tolerating the starving artist in the garret whining about how a writer writes a brilliant book that the publisher won't promote and that no one is reading. It's easier to be a victim than take action, write a better book, listen to an editor's input, find a new publisher. I truly believe, because I've seen it, that if a brilliant manuscript exists, that if that writer has had enough gall, brains, energy, etc. to write it that he or she can get it to the right people. When a person sends me something that deserves publishing, I see it through the process. But ninety-nine percent of what I'm sent just isn't good. A writer has to be a superb editor, and wishing a book good doesn't make it so. When someone sends me something drowning in cliches, I tell them that language is to use, not to take easy advantage of. When Oprah called and said she wanted to put the two novels on her show, I was nervous about it diminishing my literary reputation, which sounds pompous to say. When she held A Virtuous Woman up and said, "America, you've wanted a love story, well, here it is," I thought, Well, here we go.But, you see, her selling, what now, about three million books that month, didn't change the basic nature of the novels or me. When Jonathan Franzen started running his mouth about the maudlin trash or whatever he said about her choices, I smiled and remembered that the first novel, Ellen Foster, is taught all over the world beside The Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird. When it was finished, in 1986, it was sent to and read by Eudora Welty, Walker Percy, Gordon Lish, John Barth, and other people who, over the years, became dear to me. The whole Franzen thing got sort of tedious, and I didn't have the time to get dragged into it.What someone like a Franzen doesn't see was how poor I was growing up, a surreal state of poverty, and then that small advance, and how I worked my way up to financial security. I'm finally making now what many, many first, very young writers are getting, and I think it damages the soul. I finally have a house that doesn't have something hanging off in disrepair. There's the whole attitude now in music and writing of, I'm 21, Where's my Big Deal? So, even though the Oprah thing seemed to come out of the blue, it had been earned. I think I'd have felt a little ridiculous if it hadn't been. I used a lot of the money establishing a library at a local children's home, which my daughters and I still maintain. We sat down and wrote checks, making decisions together about where the money went. Anything I put away personally was completely eradicated, gone, during a horrible divorce two years later. So, I found myself back at the beginning financially, having been reamed. But I've got this work ethic, and I've got the post-Oprah, broadened visibility. It'll be okay. My daughter wasn't able to go to college in NY, stayed here because of the financial drain of the divorce, but it remains, we will all be okay.I admire Oprah, enormously. As for the book club, she's getting it done, getting people in bookstores. If there's the criticism that the books she selects have taken on a certain sameness, well, so what? She's not picked Danielle Steele, for crying out loud. I know for a fact, given the hundreds of letters, that people are reading, because of her, who haven't read before.Let me tell you that when I got a letter from a mother who said her daughter's impression of her totally changed when she saw her mother sitting down, reading a book at night in bed, how very proud this woman was, it is hard to say anything critical about the Oprah Book Club.The problem is that it is hard, to impossible, for people who live around books, who read them, own them, who have, like me, about 4000 books in the bedroom, to even process the notion that houses exist where there are no books except the ones the kids bring home from school. That's a deplorable, elitist attitude. When I was house-shopping, I looked at about fifty upper middle-class houses, and only in a couple did I see more than a handful of books. I started asking the real estate agent if the sellers had hidden the books, thinking they were clutter.I have two younger teenagers, and I can tell you that seeing them reading anything is a blessing. I don't go over and demand that they upgrade. And for those 350 kids who use the library Oprah made possible day in and day out because the public library in their town will not trust them to check out and bring back books, they'd wonder what all the snobbish hoopla was about. They're able to do their homework better, their grades have improved, and that money was funneled directly from Oprah.I felt nothing but honored by the whole process, and only wish that I'd been in better emotional and physical shape at the time. I was 75 pounds heavier, weight that drugs I didn't need had put on me, and I felt run down and a little thick in the head. But that was then. This is now. I'm the person I used to be before my marriage went to hell, and I'm nothing but glad that the Oprah thing is a part of my experience. If nothing else, local ladies who stop me in the grocery store don't talk to me like I'm having to sell books out of the back of my car.I think anybody who wants to be successful at this whole ordeal of publishing has to take a certain amount of responsibility that I see so many people abdicating in favor of bitter comparisons. Language is a gift, and to be able to use language to make a living is one of the most joyful enterprises I can imagine. I try to take that joy and make what I'm writing a better book every time I edit it. I work 18-hour days. It is a long, lonely, spiritually hazardous occupation. But the joy I feel in putting even two words together in something of an original way has nothing to do with money or movies, nothing external. I think that people buy and read my books, regardless of Oprah, because I've always studied everything I've read, even packaging on the mascara I just bought, and tried to figure out why a particular word was chosen. You can get in a habit of alert, concentrated reading that comes back when the writing begins. I've learned to be honest with myself and cut what sucks.Kaye Gibbons lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. Her books include Charms for Easy Life, On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon, A Cure for Dreams, and Sights Unseen, as well as the titles mentioned above. Her latest novel, Divining Women will come out April 14th. And make sure to check out her cool new website, kayegibbons.com.Many ThanksThanks to Will Femia for allowing my self-promotion to extend to MSNBC's Weblog Central. For those that are blog-fans, it is always a must-read.
Essays, Notable Articles

I Guess It’s Probably Time for A Manifesto

At work yesterday, after my first 15 minute coffee break, but before my 30 minute dinner break, I thought about some things. Among them was the idea that The Millions really ought to have a manifesto. A manifesto takes this messy collection of asides and non sequiturs and gives it purpose and meaning. You are no longer reading my uncollected natterings... you are reading a means. And ideally this is a means to an end. It seemed like a good idea save one problem. I'm not really a manifesto guy. They strike me as too rigid, too static. Will I adopt a manifesto and then stop delighting myself, and perhaps a few others, with the promise of a varied discussion on varied topics? On the other hand, I decided a while ago to devote the blog to books primarily, so what's another artificial restriction anyway? Plus, what if my manifesto is purely a force for good, and by devoting myself to it, I provide a service to whomever encounters this little blog. Still, that word manifesto bugs me... so maybe it's just a problem of language then. Perhaps if I think of it as a declaration, a statement of purpose, an annunciation, a mission statement... a pronunciamento if you will, perhaps then I will have less reservations about its formulation. Luckily, last night when I decided that perhaps The Millions needs a manifesto (or whatever you want to call it), a manifesto sprung fully-formed into my mind. It stems from a fact that most readers are not fully cognizant of: there is a concrete number of books that you or I will be able to read in our lifetimes. I'd say that on average, given my moderately busy lifestyle and the fact that I read the New Yorker in full each week, I am able to read approximately one book a week, and therefore, allowing for longer reading time for some of the behemoths that I occasionally undertake, about 50 a year. (n.b. I set a goal for myself to read 75 books this year, but it looks like I'll be lucky if I hit 50). So therefore, I would estimate that I have probably read about 500 real books in my life, give or take a few dozen, and assuming I live until I'm 80 (and am still able to read at such a rate), I'll read another 2750 give or take a few hundred. 3250 books may seem like a lot to read in a lifetime, but a look around the book store and you quickly realize that it is possible to read only a very small fraction of what has been written, and only a fraction of what is worth reading. Which brings me to my manifesto (or whatever), given that you and I will only be able to read a finite number of books in our lifetime, then we should try, as much as possible, to devote ourselves to reading only the ones that are worth reading, while bearing in mind that for every vapid, uninspiring book we read, we are bumping from our lifetime reading list a book that might give us a profound sort of joy.I know, heavy shit: death, obligations, the conversion of unimportant choices into important ones... that's why I wanted to keep my mouth shut. But we have to look at this the right way. I am not making the declaration that if you haven't read Dostoyevsky or Joyce, you are under some sort of moral obligation to do so. I am saying that, given the finite number of books that you will be able to read, you ought to read ones that are good for you, not so much nutritionally, but spiritually. I'm partly inspired here by the food writers that I seem to enjoy inordinately. Calvin Trillin refers in Feeding a Yen to seeking "deliciousness" wherever he can find it. He and his fellow food writers are not saying that if you don't eat at this place or eat this type of food you are doing yourself a disservice; the goal is simply deriving joy from food as often as possible, ideally at every meal. The list of foods that qualify as delicious is different for different people. Likewise the list of books is different for different people. To reiterate: this isn't about compulsory reading; this is about making sure that whatever you read will serve a purpose for you and that, as often as possible, this purpose is to bring you the curious sort of joy that only a book can. Clearly there are some problems with my manifesto, first among them being that, I need a word as good as deliciousness to describe the quality we are looking for in our books. Any suggestions???Lighter NotesMy good and old friend Hot Face has finally joined the rest of us and got himself a blog... follow his adventures if you dare. I continue to feel obligated to mention The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis at least twice a week. I do this because, more than any other book, I insist that you read this... Never have I enjoyed a book so profoundly. My excuse for mentioning it this time is that I just found an interview of Mutis in Bomb Magazine. The interview is conducted by another Latin American writer Francisco Goldman, who is an old friend of Mutis' and provides the introduction for Maqroll.The book I'm currently reading refers to this historial event that I was unaware of: "Dan White, on trial for shooting and killing San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, was convicted of manslaughter instead of first-degree murder after his lawyer raised the Twinkie Defense, the claim that Dan White's brain had been so deranged by Hostess Twinkies and other sugary junk foods that he should not be held fully responsible for his actions. Twinkies, the argument went, made him do it." (Apparently this occurred in 1979, but it was news to me)Anybody know of any decent book blogs or websites about books?... I haven't been able to find any besides Arts & Letters Daily and the various newspaper book sections, of course... I'd like to find something that's a little less review focussed and more discussion focussed. (Something I hope to do here in the future).