Today at the bookstore I met a young writer named Julie Orringer. She talked about Dave Eggers and Heidi Julavits and 826 Valencia, an exciting bunch. She mentioned that her first book, a collection of short stories called How to Breathe Underwater, will come out this Fall. A quick look at the website of one of the big book distributors confirmed that Knopf is expecting a strong debut. After I got home I did a little Google and discovered that a few of her stories are on the web. She has won several awards and fellowships and looks to be a real rising star. My favorite of the three stories that I read today originally appeared in Ploughshares. It’s called Pilgrims. I most enjoyed the ease with which she tells a story full of the troubles of adults from the point of view of children. I also read Care from the Barcelona Review and Note to Sixth-Grade Self from the Paris Review. I enjoyed these stories as well, though I felt that Note to Sixth-Grade Self was unecessarily clever. Keep an eye out for her. She seems likely to do impressive things.
Here in Iowa City, the only town in America whose economy is fueled entirely by football, alcohol and literature, we get more than our share of readings to attend. While I don’t make it to all of them, I did manage to hear Marilynne Robinson read a few weeks ago. Ms. Robinson is an enchanting reader, and her new book Gilead was atop many “best of” lists for 2004. As anyone who has read a review of Gilead knows, it is Robinson’s first novel since Housekeeping was published 24 years ago, and the way many in the media talk about it, it might as well have been 224 years ago. While Robinson has written two non-fiction books about such varied topics as John Calvin and Great Britain’s nuclear policy, Gilead is indeed her first new work of fiction in many years. But so what? I for one would like to see more authors take their time between novels. One of my favorite writers, J.F. Powers, wrote only two novels and wrote them nearly 30 years apart. They’re both nearly perfect, and I don’t find myself wishing he wrote more. In fact, the scarcity makes it that much more likely that I’ll actually read one of his books a second or third time, something I rarely do. I don’t think I’ll find myself diving into Kingsley Amis’ very fine Old Devils as I’ve been poisoned by the vast sea of mediocrity that separates that book from his masterpiece Lucky Jim. So hats off to the Marilynne Robinsons, the J.F. Powers, and the Donna Tarts of the world. I sometimes wish we had a few more of them and a few less mediocre novels.
There is a paperback on my bookshelf that doesn’t exist, but it managed to change my life anyway. I found this book among other homely paperbacks on the ninety-nine cent cart at the Montague Book Mill, a used bookstore in Massachusetts’ Pioneer Valley. True to its slogan — “Books you don’t need in a place you can’t find” — nothing stocked is guaranteed to be there again, making this book a quintessential one-of-a-kind find.
What arrested me first was its size: a little smaller than one of the classic mid-forties Penguin editions, narrow and flexible, ideal for slipping into a purse or pocket. What caught me next was its barefaced plainness. The jacket was entirely white, the cover crinkled from its stint as a coaster. Its title was an italicized Times New Roman second-cousin. It appeared to be a self-published book; inside, the author had written a note in an unassuming small-caps scrawl, wishing a friend the best of luck with his own career.
Although I have searched the title and the author more than once, the novel remains nonexistent. Unlike I’d first imagined, this author had no website or author’s platform. Search engines brought up many potential origins of the title (it has a fantasy flair) but an exact match remained elusive.
All signs point to the author not having “made it” as we expect authors to ascend in this century’s frenetic flux of multimedia attention. In effect, here lies the only copy; rest in peace.
This novel has been on my bookshelf ever since, surrounded by the greats: Dante Alighieri and Leo Tolstoy, Emily Dickinson, William Faulkner. But this book has a special status compared to its neighbors, albeit an infamous one. It is my bad-mood effigy; I turn to this book for an adrenaline shot of self-indulgence whenever I’m in the throes of apathy, bad writing, and rejections.
Simply put, the writing of this book is bad. In fact, it’s often laughably bad, an unremarkable and derivative species of the speculative genre. In my more magnanimous moments (or so I delude myself), I think self-righteously, This author — the nerve! The self-published pretension! As my literary voodoo doll, I believed I could turn to this novel as a concrete specimen of the written word that was — undeniably — inferior to my own work.
But books do not defer meekly to the morals we have assigned them. A bad book, so-called, has just as much to teach us as a good book. It is often a far better teacher than any work that is uniformly artful, where excellence disguises the nuts and bolts of craft. A bad book also teaches us something a better book cannot: humility. Not the humility of resignation — that of admitting that we will never be very good at what we do, no matter how earnestly we try. Such humility can easily morph into the indulgent self-flagellation that either demands the commiseration of friends or brings our vocation to a standstill, where thereafter we are those people who petulantly claim we “could have been somebody.”
Rather, it’s the humility of acknowledging that time and effort lead to changes in our abilities as writers. Instead of ascribing a moralistic verdict of good or bad, less or more, we humbly acknowledge that nothing more could be asked of us than what our creations can attest to at the time.
The great works of literature are all relatively alike in their excellence. Their perfection is consummate, constantly out of reach. We become comfortable saying, amused and defeated, “I’m no Shakespeare,” as if that is that. But every bad specimen of writing is lit up by the harsh fluorescent lighting of reality. Each pockmark, scar, and slip-up is visible; we have our favorites to trot out in conversation like ghouls in chains. Moreover, what makes for a bad book is a constantly shifting parameter. Is a book bad if it is merely written poorly? Is a book bad if it’s successful with the masses? (Fifty Shades of Grey, for instance, being one of those “bad” novels that is known — if not read — by everyone.)
But my own unique bad book quickly transformed from a voodoo doll to a mirror. This person’s writing is cheap and unmarketable, I start to think — and before I finish the thought: So was your writing a year ago. A week ago. Yesterday.
Bad books remind us of our failings and that such failings are always closer to us than we imagine. As writers, we have to be our own best advocate; we have to invest in the underdog. And by the same token, we must be our first critic, our arch nemesis. Anne Lamott posits in Bird by Bird that radio station KFKD (“K-Fucked”) is playing in our heads each time we write, with “the endless stream of self-aggrandizement” blasting in the speaker of our right ear, while “out of the left speaker will be the rap songs of self-loathing.” We can tune these out but not turn them off. Similarly, Orson Scott Card contends in How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy, “Writers have to simultaneously believe the following two things: 1. The story I am now working on is the greatest work of genius ever written in English. 2. The story I am now working on is worthless drivel.” The bad book on my shelf reminds me that I will contend with both ideologies at any given moment, and at any given moment they are true.
We are destined to be continuously judged and ranked on a scale of lesser to better in our work. In reality, art is a highly competitive realm with no real rules. By turns, we will be winning in the arena, and we will be losing. And KFKD is always playing in the background, whichever speaker is blaring louder at this moment. And thus the most marvelous lesson of the nonexistent book on my shelf: that of artlessness. We do not write good books or bad books. We are all teachers, capable of leaving a lesson behind.
Now the much-vaunted “Oprah effect” has hit Britain, where a brief mention of Joseph O’Connor’s Star of the Sea on a popular daytime show caused sales to go through the roof. Stunned by the response, the hosts claim that they will once again press their producers to allow them to start a book club. It’s amazing to me that the TV book club phenomenon did not actually originate in England, where the world of books is far more integrated into popular culture. In fact, last summer’s “Big Read,” a sort of all time greatest books countdown show on the BBC, was wildly popular and apparently bumped book sales in England noticeably. Meanwhile, Star of the Sea, a book that received decidedly mixed reviews gets a boost that points to the power of the television in the world of books. Here’s the original “Oprah effect” story.To anyone who has read Dan Brown’s mega-blockbuster The Da Vinci Code, here’s an interesting article from the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel that tries to separate the facts from the fiction.The Pulitzer Prizes will be announced in a couple of months and I’ve been thinking about who might win. I’ve lately been favoring Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc in the General Non-Fiction category. I’ll probably muse over who I favor for the next several weeks, and stay tuned for the First Annual Millions Pulitzer Pool (complete with prizes!). Details to come.
Tao Lin, a young writer with a flair for cleverly drawing attention to his work, is in the news again. His latest scheme is to take investments from “the public” in his novel-in-progress in exchange for a portion of the royalties.The move appears to have been successful; shares are no longer available and Lin got written up in several mainstream publications, including a fairly lengthy piece in the Telegraph, and dozens of blogs. What nobody mentioned, however, is that this has been done before, some 40 years ago, by another outsized, New York personality.In the early years of his career, playwright and actor Wallace Shawn did the same thing, according to a John Lahr piece that originally ran in the New Yorker and is collected in his book of profiles, Show and Tell published in 2000. Shawn, son of legendary New Yorker editor William Shawn, was a struggling writer going out of his way to achieve literary success without tapping into his father’s considerable influence. Lahr writes:Back then, Wally was forced to follow his own quirky, unconventional path. He told me he’d “sold stock in himself” – his way of rationalizing a twenty-five-hundred-dollar loan he took from a consortium of friends in the sixties, in order to go off and write his plays. (To this day, the investors receive a small yearly check).The juxtaposition of the two schemes presents an interesting notion. $2,500 40 years ago got you some small percentage of a budding artist’s career in perpetuity. $2,000 now only gets you 10% of the royalties for a novel. Inflation, I suppose.Finally, despite Shawn’s scheme (I believe) initially being revealed in a New Yorker piece and despite Shawn’s obvious ties to the magazine, The New Yorker, in its (admittedly very brief) mention of Lin’s plan on its own blog, did not catch the Shawn connection.Given the fractured state of publishing and the enthusiasm for trying new models, perhaps this shareholder form of patronage will take off, but it will have been Shawn, not Lin, who was the first innovator.
Millions contributor Ben penned a post in February about a documentary called Operation Homecoming about the National Endowment of the Arts’ (NEA) program of the same name which is designed to help soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan put their experiences into words. (One participant in the program was Brian Turner whose book of poetry Here, Bullet was reviewed here a few months back.)As was noted in a comment on the original post, Operation Homecoming is also going to be covered as part of a PBS package called America at a Crossroads. That series is set to air beginning this weekend. The 11-part, six-night series covers “the war on terrorism, conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan’ the experience of American troops serving abroad, the struggle for balance within the Muslim world, and global perspectives on America’s role overseas.” The Operation Homecoming installment airs Monday at 10pm (check your local listings, of course.)
The emergence of the New York Review of Books publishing arm has been a treasure. They have managed, with this line of books, to package the feeling of falling suddenly in love with a book that you only even opened on a whim, perhaps being drawn in by an intriguing cover or title. They have hand selected the most deserving of the unknown and the out of print and returned them to bookshelves. Among the hundred or so titles that they have put out in their four or fve years is the book that I will keep mentioning until everyone on the planet has read it: The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis. Thanks to the Book Expo’s being in town this weekend, I had the opportunity to talk to Edwin Frank the editor of the New York Review of Books series. We discussed Maqroll at length, of course, trading theories as to whether or not the Gaviero will appear in print again, or whether it is up to us readers to track down his further adventures on our own. (Read the book; you’ll understand). We also talked about uncovering lost treasures in used bookstores, at good will, and at sidewalk book stalls. We also discussed several of the other titles in the series. When I asked him for the hidden gem among the hidden gems, he passed this title my way: To Each His Own, a Sicilian mystery by Leonardo Sciascia. He rated this one among the very best of the series, and since he’s the one who picks the books, I can’t help but trust him.