Galley Cat takes all the “best of” list and finds out who is the best of the best. I was thinking about doing a post like this one, but she beat me to it and did a much better job than I would have. Enjoy.
It is a cliché of the creative writing workshop to discourage a writer’s use of cliché; and
It is a cliché of the creative writing workshop to say that clichés are too familiar and therefore ineffective; and
The first time we heard this cliché against clichés it was a revelation, but with each successive repetition the cliché against clichés became increasingly faded and opaque, i.e., clichéd:
a comforting logical fabric (“I’ll say the thing about clichés!”) to throw over a gap where uncertainty lay;
a stand-in for new and difficult thinking
because you’d have to remember all the way back to the first time you heard this cliché against clichés to actually see, once again, that clichés are ineffective because they prevent you from seeing;
but also an efficient shorthand,
one soothing for its familiarity,
and in its familiarity suggestive of rightness,
and in its rightness suggestive of belonging: to the community of those who’ve been through writing workshops and so have been inducted into the Army Against Clichés,
which is also an Army Against Genre Fiction and Commercial Fiction and Popular Nonfiction, all of which are what they are (beloved, commercially viable, popular) because they return dependably to clichés of storytelling invented and real; and
which may itself be an Army Against the Teeming Masses, who buy mass-produced books for the soothingly familiar stories inside; and
which is therefore an Army of Elitism, reproducing clichés of class; but
which may also be an Army Against Itself; and
Every word of our language is a cliché, so familiar as to be efficiently, effortlessly understood; and
We cling to these clichés (of language, of description, of workshop) for their ease and also for their familiarity, which suggests rightness, which suggests belonging; and
Cliché, here, may refer to a bevy of workshop clichés, including:
clichés of praise (this is effective, is working, is strong, great, fantastic, amazing, well done), which stand in for consideration of what these terms mean;
clichés of condescension (this isn’t working, is ineffective, weak, less well-done), which cover over uncertainty about what these terms mean;
clichés of response and suggestion (too heavy-handed, sentimental, familiar; more subtle, restrained, fresh), which assume there is a single aesthetic community to which we all belong; and
other such meaningless pandering and avoidance of considerate thought, tics that are contagious because we reach for agreement because we reach for belonging because the truth that there is no rightness is so damn maddening;
THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED…
That we will use the cliché against clichés against itself, at once ratifying and refusing its meaning:
abstaining, in our conversations about new writing, from using workshop shorthand, i.e., from not thinking;
abstaining from agreeing with each other too much, i.e., from group-think;
granting that, in the process, we will create new clichés; and
trusting that we will question and thereby destabilize these clichés along the way.
Image Credit: Flickr/Tom Newby Photography.
I could not stop. I became a Calvino junkie and read The Nonexistent Knight and The Cloven Viscount, two separate stories collected in one volume as suggested by the titles, and a book along the same lines as The Baron in the Trees. The stories are about an exemplar non-existent knight that the king’s army despises because he lacks human vice, and a generous and noble viscount who is split in half during battle, hence losing his good side and becoming evil. Both are great fairy tales with a grain of cynicism, a touch of distrust bred by 20th century politics (Calvino was also a linguist and deeply involved with leftist politics, which at times caused him discomfort), and the humanist wishes of an idealist.As with Kapuscinski, I had to take a break from Calvino, and picked up Arthur Nersesian’s Chinese Takeout. I picked Chinese Takeout because the picture on the book cover was of 7B, a one time favorite dive of mine that was four blocks away form our East Village apartment. It was one of those books that I kept seeing and telling myself that I would get it the next time I saw it, just because of its cover. As luck would have it, I really enjoyed the story of Orloff, the book’s protagonist. He walks through streets most familiar and beloved, sells books on West 4th street (in front of the NYU library and Stern School of Business), struggles to make it as a painter, lives in the back of his van, deals with junkies, and longs for the days when the lower east side was a cheap haven for artists. A romantic and nostalgic look at the areas currently being overridden by hipsters and $150 torn diesel jeans (my personal favorites). Or (short for Orloff) still exists in Manhattan, and walks those streets and probably does sleep in the back of his van or at the rent controlled apartment of his friend from time to time. Chinese Takeout is a good New York story that one should read on the beach during a vacation or in the subway.Previously: Part 1, 2, 3
Barnes & Noble is buying used books. They’re marketing it as a way to sell your old textbooks, but they’re buying other books too. They’ve set up a simple site that lets you check titles and find out if they’ll take them and how much they’ll pay. You then send your books to Barnes & Noble and they cover the shipping. As far as I can tell, the prices are fairly comparable to what you might get selling your books to your local used bookstore, maybe even a little better.
At the Powells blog, Alexis writes about the awkward transition young readers make from young adult fiction to regular fiction.When the children are still young – toddlers to fifth grade, say – parents will sometimes make a point of telling us how advanced their kids are. It might go something like this: She’s only two but she’s way beyond board books; or, He’s in fourth grade but he reads at a seventh grade level. But get the kids to junior high, and suddenly the parents start to fret that their intellectually advanced kids are going to be reading books that contain “mature” content.I definitely remember this experience from my bookstores, even in permissive Los Angeles. Later on Alexis writes:That said, I often wish that I could recommend more adult books to some of my teen customers. Nothing is stopping me, I suppose, except my own anxieties about parents flipping out that a Powell’s employee exposed their high school freshman to Margaret Atwood’s sexual dystopia.When I was a teenager, discovering Kurt Vonnegut, John Irving and T.C. Boyle was a revelatory experience, and I’d certainly recommend books by them to today’s teenagers. I’ve also said in the past that classic novels can be a great bridge from young adult novels to adult novels. Sometimes, when I worked at the bookstore, I would recommend classics to precocious youngsters who had read “all” the young adult stuff. In this post from last summer, I and a few others put together a very short list of classics that kids might start with.Some might say that kids won’t be willing to read these “old” books that they associate with school, but it’s also true that kids can get a lot more out of a book they read for fun rather than for school, even if it’s the same book.
Louis Menand is one of my favorite regular contributors to the New Yorker, so I was excited to discover a Web site devoted to “the foremost modern scholar of American studies.” The Essential Menand includes commentary by three contributors as well as a handy collection of links to dozens of Menand essays in the New Yorker, The New York Review of Books and Slate.
Borders’ plan to display more books face-out and, as a result, to stock fewer titles has generated quite a bit of discussion. On our own post about the plan, we received several interesting comments, but I was most intrigued by what commenter Matthew had to say:The Froot Loops example is classic thinking from retailers who enter bookselling from another retail environment.The next time I go down to my local chain Cerealseller to choose my cereal for this week from among the 150,000 cereals on offer Mr Froot Loop can come and offer me some buying advice.Finally, the point of facing out is to attract attention to specific titles from the larger product range. The larger product range sells fewer copies of individual titles, but sells well by total volume… it also serves to attract serious bookbuyers and lend kudos to the bookstore.If chains chose to employ staff with knowledge (and local control) of that enormous range then they’d have a most effective sales tool. These retail gurus need to spend less time in supermarkets and more time at beauty counters and in cell phone stores. Books are a knowledge product requiring retail guidance and salesmanship… do these guys spend as long with their Wheaties as they do with a novel?Emphasis mine. What Matthew has so deftly put into words is something I’ve mulled over since my bookselling days but never quite found the right words for. I’ve always known that knowledgeable booksellers are a huge asset to any bookstore – I was lucky to be surrounded by many when I worked at one – but I had never fully grasped what it means to sell a “knowledge product” as opposed to a “commodity product,” nor had it occured that generally products can be described as one or the other.What’s key here is the distinction between how knowledge products are sold versus commodity products. To use Matthew’s example, when buying a cell phone or going to the beauty counter, you are confronted with many dozens of choices offering an array of specific features suited to a variety of specific needs – bluetooth or dry skin, for example. When it comes to breakfast cereal, you don’t need the guidance as much. The product is cheaper, “wrong” choices cost less, and cereal box mascots aside, one type is generally as good as another.Viewed in this light, it’s crazy to try to sell books as a commodity product because, (and this is just a guess) out of all the retail categories out there, bookstores by far offer the widest array of products, and therefore would require the most guidance and the best systems to help customers find what they are looking for. Undoubtedly, there are many knowledgeable booksellers at chain stores, but if the chains continue to view books as commodity products, their booksellers’ efforts will be futile. It’s also clear why Amazon has been so hugely successful. The site is the ultimate resource for selling knowledge products, with a wealth of information at the ready for anyone looking for a book. It’s possible that, thanks to the internet, the costs are simply too high for chains to go the knowledge-product route, but running in the other direction, towards Froot Loops, hardly seems the answer.For those still interested in this issue even after all this, check out these links:GalleyCat wonders if face-out books will put more emphasis on cover design and follows up with further questions about the co-op payment aspect of this.The Stranger guesses we’ll see more extremely popular and/or bad books face-out at the expense of those hidden gems.A dissenting opinion