Among the first to announce their lists of best books of the year is the CS Monitor, which delivers a solid but unsurprising batch of books. Here’s fiction and here’s nonfiction. Am I just out of the loop or was this year’s crop generally lacking in books by exciting, young authors? Was 2004 the year of the old reliable?
I always forget that, in the popular imagination, the copy editor is a bit of a witch, and it surprises me when someone is afraid of me. Not long ago, a young editorial assistant getting her first tour of The New Yorker offices paused at my door to be introduced, and when she heard I was a copy editor she jumped back, as if I might poke her with a red-hot hyphen or force-feed her a pound of commas. Relax, I wanted to say. I don’t make a habit of correcting people in conversation or in print — unless it’s for publication and they ask for it, or I’m getting paid. We copy editors sometimes get a reputation for wanting to redirect the flow, change the course of the missile, have our way with a piece of prose. The image of the copy editor is of someone who favors a rigid consistency, a mean person who enjoys pointing out other people’s errors, a lowly person who is just starting out on her career in publishing and is eager to make an impression, or, at worst, a bitter, thwarted person who wanted to be a writer and instead got stuck dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s and otherwise advancing the careers of other writers. I suppose I have been all of these.
But good writers have a reason for doing things the way they do them, and if you tinker with their work, taking it upon yourself to neutralize a slightly eccentric usage or zap a comma or sharpen the emphasis of something that the writer was deliberately keeping obscure, you are not helping. In my experience, the really great writers enjoy the editorial process. They weigh queries, and they accept or reject them for good reasons. They are not defensive. The whole point of having things read before publication is to test their effect on a general reader. You want to make sure when you go out there that the tag on the back of your collar isn’t poking up — unless, of course, you are deliberately wearing your clothes inside out.
When the opening chapters of Philip Roth’s I Married a Communist ran in The New Yorker, I got to OK it. It was immaculate, partly because we were working from the galleys of the book: copy editors at Farrar, Straus and Giroux had already been over it, and, once a piece is in that form, authors, agents, and editors are reluctant to change a ligature. I went over it, giving it all I had: sometimes copy departments at publishing houses miss something, just as we sometimes miss something. As it happens, I noticed a small inconsistency in a passage that was quoted from a children’s history book. It was a long quotation, set off in small type, and it was repeated at the end, with some slight variation. I marked it and gave my proof to the fiction editor, Bill Buford. Later, Bill’s assistant came bounding up the stairs and delivered to me a color Xerox of the first page of my proof, on which Buford had written in blue, “Of Mary Norris, Roth said: ‘Who is this woman? And will she come live with me?’”
Up to that point, I’d read only Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint. Helen Stark, who was in charge of The New Yorker’s editorial library, had been all atwitter when The Ghost Writer ran in the magazine — she saved it for herself to index. Now I bought the audiobook of I Married a Communist and listened to it on a drive back from Ohio. It was read by the actor Ron Silver, and I almost went off the road during an ecstatic passage where the stars were furnaces: furnace of Ira, furnace of Eve. It seemed so warm and passionate. The book was funny, too: the hero is forced to schlep his girlfriend’s daughter’s harp all over town, and I had a harpist in the family, so I knew what a pain the harp was — there is nothing heavenly about a working harp. I subsequently had a year of Roth: Patrimony, The Facts (“Reader, I married her”), all the Zuckerman books. When Exit Ghost came out, I went back and read The Ghost Writer. I was on a trip to Amsterdam and saw Anne Frank’s house and reread her diary while staying in a hotel on the spot of one that burned down during the war. I was so sorry when I ran out of Roth to read.
I did speak with Roth on the phone once, closing a piece about Saul Bellow, and saw him at a New Yorker Christmas party. I have been smitten ever since the proposition on the page proof. I suppose all he wanted was a housekeeper, someone to keep track of the details. But if he should ever read this I just want to say I’m still available.
Excerpted from Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris. Copyright © 2015 by Mary Norris. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
Recently, the innovative literary magazine One-Story launched a campaign to “Save the Short Story.” As the essay below suggests, we at The Millions found this effort admirable, and also puzzling. Is “the short story” even a single thing? And, if so, does it need saving? On both questions, the evidence seems mixed. We can agree, however, that short stories seem to have lost some of their prominence in the popular imagination. Mainstream book coverage tends to track the agendas of the publishing industry; those agendas, in turn, tend to be driven by coverage. With our “Short Story Week,” we aim to subvert the cycle. Between now and Friday, we hopeto revisit the work of living masters,to celebrate the writers who paved their way,to talk a bit about teaching the short story, and writing it,to link to interesting short-story sites and periodicalsto provide a selective bibliography of our favorite story collections,and, as always, to hear from you.In short: we hope you enjoy it. We’ll be linking to the week’s installments below.Inter Alia #8: Whither the Short Story?On BrevityExpat Laureate: Paul Bowles’s Too Far From HomeThe Elusive Thread of Memory: The Displaced World of Mavis GallantAdventures in Consciousness: A Review of Deborah Eisenberg’s Under the 82nd AirborneSome Recommended Short FictionAnthologies EvolvedAnd May We Also RecommendShort Story Week LinksOn Our Shelves: 45 Favorite Short Story Collections
I know it’s not too hard to peddle your wares on Amazon, but I have to say, when I stumbled across my name listed as “Editor” for something being sold on Amazon, it was quite a thrill. The book that I helped edit has been out for quite some time, but seeing it in Amazon made me realize that now might be a good time to mention it again. The book is called Two Letters, and I first mentioned it about a year ago when the book came out, but I didn’t really get into the details or how I came to be involved with the project; I was busy with school and deep in the depths of my first Chicago winter, but that’s no excuse, really.One of the great things about living in Los Angeles was that everyone there has a side project. People have day jobs, but they never talk about them. They’re always working on a short film or getting ready to open a gallery. Hollywood aside, it’s a very creative place. One such side project was conceived by a couple of friends of mine, Christopher Lepkowski and Mark Dischler. They wanted to create a publication that showcased talented writers and artists and they wanted it to look nice. If it ever got more high concept than that, I wasn’t told about it. In order to provide some structure to the book, my colleagues came up with the theme “sneaking in,” and decided that all of the work in the book would loosely adhere to that theme. I was brought on in the later stages, to recruit writers and help select work – fiction and non-fiction – for the book. I ended up getting some of my very talented friends involved. My friend Cem wrote about “sneaking in” to Burma and speaking to dissidents when he was living in Thailand. My friend Alexa wrote about unexpectedly assisting her photographer boyfriend on an erotic photo shot. My friend Joseph wrote the sort of boozy, heartbroken stories that he’s so good at. I helped my fellow editors get all the writing together, and then life intervened. I got into grad school, left Los Angeles, got married, and sort of forgot about the book. I’d almost given up hope that Two Letters would see the light of day, but then, in January of 2005 a few copies showed up in the mail. There had been delays with the printing, as is so often the case with these sorts of things, and the guys had wanted to get everything just right. I’m glad they took their time, because the book looks great. There’s tons of great art and comics, but my favorite part is that for each piece of writing, artist Michael Vecchio created an original illustration. It’s hard for young writers to get their work published, but to see it presented with such care was just a thrill. It was a great side project to be a part of, and I hope more side projects like it come my way soon. When I saw it there on Amazon the other day, I thought that I should really try to do better by Two Letters, even though it is coming a little late.A new installment of Two Letters may be on the way shortly. Here’s the website.
I stopped by the Vroman’s Bookstore blog today to answer some questions about teaching creative writing. On Tuesday, June 3rd, I begin teaching a 6-week beginning fiction class for their Vroman’s Ed program.Also, if you have a teenager, you might consider signing him or her up for my summer fiction writing class for high school students, which begins Tuesday, June 24th. If you are a teenager, and you’re reading this blog, well, you rock and I want you in my class!
Are you in the mood to read a page-turner? If you’re not afraid to read something in the mystery section at your local bookstore, try Paranoia by Joseph Finder. I keep hearing people talking about it, and it’s getting good reviews. Check out this one at Slate.com (the reviewer gets to it after he reviews John Le Carre’s latest, Absolute Friends).
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)
Josh Ferris, who continues to do an admirable job filling in at TEV, noted today that Junot Diaz’s long-awaited novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao finally has a street date.The reason I’m so excited about this is that Diaz’s story by the same title in the New Yorker’s 2000 end-of-year fiction issue was one of the best stories that’s appeared in the magazine in the ten years I’ve been reading it. It is a story so good that I still remember talking to various people about in my then home city of Los Angeles, people with whom I never before or after talked fiction. It was a story that got around. And now, finally, it has blossomed into a book.Unfortunately, since the story dates from the NYer’s stone age era, it’s not available online, but a brief excerpt is available. In addition, Ferris at TEV has pointed to an audio interview of Diaz.Separately, (and also not available online), The Economist has a short but fairly glowing review of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, the debut novel of Paul Torday. “Every so often,” the review begins,a novel comes along that is quite original; think of Yann Martel’s enchanting Life of Pi, for instance. Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is another oddball piece of fiction that – despite being told through dry diary extracts, e-mails and reports – is an amusing satire on the tensions between the West and the Middle East, and a commentary on the value of belief to mankind.