I have another gig besides my day job. Myself and my old friend, Derek Teslik, have started a record label, Realistic Records. Our first release will be a full length vinyl LP by The Recoys, the former band of currents members of The Walkmen and The French Kicks. It’s a great album with a great album cover. I can’t wait to own it. There’s word of a reunion show as well.
After bringing us rankings and tags and reviews and recommendations and lists and blogs and discussions, Amazon, which never met a feature it didn’t want to add to its product pages, has now added wikis. They live way down close to the bottom of the page. There aren’t many of them yet, and it’s hard to see a reason why they would really take off at this point, but who knows. To give an example here’s the text that currently resides in the wiki for James Frey’s infamous A Million Little Pieces: Author James Frey was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1969. He was educated at Denison University and the Art Institute of Chicago. In 2000, he spent a year writing A Million Little Pieces, which was published in 2003 by Doubleday Books, a division of Random House, Inc. He is married and has one child. In early 2006 he admitted that much of the content in A Million Little Pieces, which is presented as a memoir, had been fabricated.That’s it. Not very exciting, is it. But perhaps there are more exciting wikis floating around in Amazon-space. If you’re inclined to explore, the list of most-edited wikis might be a good place to start.
We’re moving this summer. I’m already dreading the packing, loading, moving, unpacking part, but other than that, I’m pretty excited. In July we’ll be departing for temporary digs in the Washington, DC area as we figure out our final destination. One thing’s for sure, though, our short stint in the Midwest is coming to an end. I never quite fell for Chicago, not the way I did for LA, anyway, but I have come to see why this place has a particular hold on people. I think part of it is the way the city wears its history on its sleeve. The city also has a rich literary history that is still very much being added to.All of this brings me, in a roundabout fashion, to the Riverhead catalog, which is next in the stack that I got from Penguin not too long ago. A couple of books in there – paperbacks of hardcovers that are already out – are worth sharing, one of which is a worthy addition to Chicago’s literature. Adam Langer’s The Washington Story brings readers back to West Rogers Park, a thickly multicultural neighborhood not far from where I live. The book is named after Harold Washington, who was mayor of Chicago during the 1980s, when the book takes place. The Washington Story is the sequel to Crossing California, Langer’s much praised debut (which is in the queue). The hardcover has been out since last August and the paperback comes out in September.Also coming out in September is the hilarious The Areas of My Expertise by John Hodgman. Hodgeman is now a regular on the Daily Show, where he does a nerdy expert shtick that is pitch-perfect, and he also appears in the new Mac commercials. The book – a compendium of fake facts, essentially – is perhaps most famous for the 700 hobo names contained within. You can hear Hodgman read the hobo names to music, and you can look at illustrations people have done of some of the hobos. Hodgman also has a blog. He ends all posts with “That is all.” The hardcover came out last October.Extras: From Penguin’s New American Library imprint comes The Sinner’s Guide to the Evangelical Right. The book is by Robert Lanham creator/editor of freewilliamsburg.com, and author of the Hipster Handbook. This time, Lanham turns his “anthropological eye” on conservative evangelical culture. The book comes out in September and would go well – or not – with this forthcoming “Compete Idiot’s” title. Finally, as if to prove that we’re all just one silly idea away from a book deal, the International Talk Like A Pirate Day guys have a book (which is already out, but I guess the publisher wants to remind booksellers to stock up each year in preparation for the lucrative Talk Like A Pirate Day shopping season).
Here is his press release:It’s been done for such entertainment luminaries as Bob Hope and George Burns, and now author and journalist Rodger Jacobs hopes to convince the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce to change the name of a street corner to honor F. Scott Fitzgerald on the 65th anniversary of the author’s death.”F. Scott Fitzgerald is an American icon.” says Jacobs. “Some would even argue that he’s one of the greatest authors this country produced in the 20th Century.”When the author of The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night succumbed to a fatal heart attack on December 21, 1940 he was living with gossip columnist Shelia Graham at her luxury apartment on North Hayworth Avenue in Hollywood.”Fitzgerald spent his last years here in Los Angeles,” Jacobs explains. “I don’t think a lot of Angelenos know or appreciate that fact. He wrote extensively about L.A. in his unfinished novel The Last Tycoon and in the Pat Hobby stories he wrote for Esquire.”Renaming the intersection of Hayworth Avenue and Sunset Boulevard, Jacobs hopes, will encourage locals to explore the literary world of F. Scott Fitzgerald.”I would be happy if this attempt to keep Scott’s name in the public eye would bring just one curious person to pick up a book of his that they might otherwise not have read. According to census data, the number of literate Americans who are no longer reading books at all is growing in leaps and bounds ever year.”The entire petition can be viewed and electronically signed here.
A friend of mine told me this story. He was sitting in a medical office waiting to get a CAT scan, trying to read Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Pnin. He’d started the book some years before, then lost it, found it again, and started over. He didn’t like it all that much (it wasn’t as good as Lolita or Pale Fire, the novels that had driven him to pick it up in the first place), and as he sat there reading in the waiting room, he thought about the CAT scan he was about to undergo. I may have only a few months to live, he thought. Is this the book I want to spend my remaining hours on?
My friend is fine, it turns out. The CAT scan came back normal. But as he told me this story, I thought back to a recent evening when I lay in my bed reading The Pale King, David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel. Like Wallace’s oeuvre in general, the book has some absolutely stunning sections that command your attention and make you feel intensely alive and aware (see chapters 6, 19, 22, or 46, e.g.), along with some that drive you batty with their dullness and perseverating detail.
I was struggling with the long, tedious section in which “David Wallace” is caught in a traffic jam outside the Peoria IRS office. In the next room, my two daughters, five and seven, were not going to sleep. I was getting more and more irritated with them and their demands for water, etc., which kept interrupting me from concentrating on the book.
Underlying my irritation was another anxiety: my sense that here I was, yelling at my kids to go to sleep just so that I could finish reading something that I myself found incredibly boring, a book that I had no practical need to read, a book whose own author had committed suicide before he was able to finish. A precious, irreplaceable moment of my own life was slipping away. I was declining a chance to interact with my children in a more positive way. And why? To read something that might best have been left on the cutting room floor.
I’ve read a fair number of short story collections. In most of them, there’s at least one and usually several stories that seem so clearly inferior to the rest that I have to wonder, Why is this in here? Does the author know that this story is bad? Is it here merely to serve as filler?
These questions remind me of an old Kurt Vonnegut appearance on Charlie Rose in which Vonnegut explains that he has graded all of his own novels. Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five received A pluses. Slapstick got an F. The book he was on the show to plug at the time (I think it was Timequake) was a B minus.
Vonnegut’s admirable candor makes me think that writers must have a sense of the relative merits of their works. Indeed, the placement of mediocre stories in short story collections is usually a good indicator of the grade the writers would give them. Such stories tend to be buried in the middle of the second half of a collection, or sandwiched in between two more successful pieces.
But why publish them at all? Why not spare us readers that experience of feeling that we’re spending finite moments of our lives on something that is less than the best?
Zadie Smith wasn’t addressing these particular questions at the time, but she pointed nevertheless to one answer to them when she wrote that “writers do not write what they want, they write what they can.”
If Vonnegut could have written nothing but A pluses, he would have. He couldn’t, however. No writer can. Yet Vonnegut still had contracts to fulfill, bills to pay. He had to publish books. It was in his job description.
Moreover, I suspect that, for Vonnegut and for most writers, there comes a time when they just need to accept that a novel or a story or a song is as good as it’s going to get, even if it’s not an A plus. The book needs to come out. The collection of stories needs to be a certain length. The writer’s time has been spent on the piece, for good or ill. It might as well see the light of publication as long as someone is willing to publish it. Who knows: some reader or critic might actually like it. Even if no one does, the writer needs to move on to the next story, the next novel.
It’s a delicate calibration. When do we, as writers, accept that a piece is as good as it will ever be, even if it’s not that great? When do we decide that a piece will never be good enough to be published? As readers, when do we decide that a book or a story is simply not going to be worth reading? When do we decide to press on in the face of boredom?
The CAT scan might come back normal, but in the larger sense, we’re all dying anyway. Our lives as writers, as readers, as human beings, will come to an end. What we write, what we read, what we spend our time on—these are incredibly weighty choices, though we may fool ourselves into thinking otherwise.
There’s a danger in perfectionism, in the compulsive attempt to make every novel and story and essay an A plus, or to finish reading everything we start. Yet there’s also a danger in easy abandonment, in the lack of persistence needed to push through the slow parts of War and Peace or Infinite Jest, or in the lack of writerly belief in one’s powers of revision and discovery.
In this way, as in so many others, writing and reading are metaphors for living. In the end, you do the best you can, and then, in one way or another, you let it go and move on.
(Image: fading contrail from dnorman’s photostream)