As TV book clubs fall by the wayside in terms of the public’s interest, the “Today Show” club appears willing to make some more off-beat, interesting selections. The most recent pick, chosen for the club by Walter Mosley, is Graceland by the Nigerian Chris Abani. The book, about a Nigerian Elvis impersonator trying to survive in the urban desolation of Lagos, has been out nearly a year – it was well-reviewed but not a big seller – yet it will get a second life thanks to this selection. Here’s an excerpt.
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.
HarperCollins, which has been more and more active in many facets of the online world, is rolling out a “virtual book tour” with the BlogHer Advertising Network and Community. With hundreds of blogs in the network, BlogHer represents an ample crop of writers and readers for HarperCollins, which is spurred on by BlogHer’s data that among women who read blogs in the network “32 percent spent at least $100 purchasing books online in the past six months.” The idea is that HarperCollins will make review copies of several books available for bloggers in the network to read and review “and participate in book title discussions on their own blogs and on BlogHer.org.”It all seems like a perfectly reasonable plan to build an Oprah-like grass roots phenomenon, but I have two reservations. First, Oprah doesn’t have a special arrangement with any specific publisher, and while there is likely some corporate horse-trading behind the scenes when she makes her picks, at least we know she isn’t limited to only talking about selections from a small subset of all the books out there. Secondly, BlogHer operates an ad network. From the press release, it doesn’t appear as though HarperCollins will be buying ads through the network, but if that does happen, then this initiative will have crossed a line. Obviously, I have no problem with advertising on blogs and/or getting review copies from publishers, but advertising shouldn’t be explicitly tied to an initiative like this.Update: Some of the concerns I raised have been addressed in a followup post.
Do you remember your last English teacher? Did he use colored chalk to diagram William Faulkner’s periodic sentences? Did she stand in the back of the room and read a poem from Denise Levertov, most of the words pushing past your ears, but a few, like “Aren’t there annunciations / of one sort or another / in most lives?” remaining like a refrain? Or was he forgettable, distributing misspelled study guides for The Merchant of Venice before playing a tired cassette recording?
Think about your last year in a high school English classroom. The uneven rows. The loud radiator. The re-used posters, corners double-taped. You were 17, 18. Your mind and your heart were elsewhere. That tension between distraction and focus is healthy. If we do not wish that we were somewhere else, doing something else, the collective, focused breath on a single line of a poem would not be so sweet. Back then, you were full of cynicism and hope. What a mixture: your wounds and joys felt so sharp.
I tell my seniors that I will likely be their last English teacher. They are enrolled in AP Literature and Composition, a difficult course that builds toward a three-hour exam. When I began teaching the course a decade ago, my classes were nearly half the size. Most students were hoping to major in English or philosophy. Now, out of two class sections of 55 students, it is a surprise to have three future English majors. I am lucky that they are no less talented and driven. They are ready to work.
I realize that my situation is unique. My students often attend the most competitive colleges in the country. In order to do so, their high school schedules are strained. They are expected to perform highly in several intellectual disciplines a day, with only six minutes to move between classrooms within an enormous outdoor campus, and 40 minutes to be teenagers at lunch. Still, they are very fortunate. They have the support of the community and district. They are good kids. Curious kids, who stay with me when we examine the difference between mimetic and textual voice in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, or parse Wallace Stevens’s “A Comment on Meaning in Poetry.”
I tell them that I am their last English teacher because many of these students will place out of composition or literature in college. They will spend the next four to eight years busy studying, and will go on to successful careers in medicine, law, and business. No one else will ever read them a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins.
You may think this is melodramatic talk. I admit that teachers were born to perform. We are actors without stages. In a recent interview, poet Paul Muldoon said that most students struggle with poetry because of how it is taught in high school: “What’s usually happening is that the instructor, the teacher, is at pains to show what an extraordinary instructor or teacher he or she is, and the message I think that far too many of us get in high school is that poetry may only be read if you’ve got that instructor or teacher to show you what it’s really about.” I have heard this lament before, and it is not only about poetry. High school English teachers are responsible for flattening literature. We kill books.
These constant, unfounded digs are what cause teachers to be defensive. Teaching in an American public school is an idealistic act. Politicians will have you believe we are an insufferable bunch, our chests full of blind union pride, tenure our ticket to stasis. English teachers, less than perhaps only editors, live their days surrounded with the hopes, fears, eccentricities, and failures of generations of writers. Those words, classic and contemporary, seep into our souls. Why teach Beloved if you do not close your eyes and feel 124 shaking; if you do not feel your own heart shaking? That sensitivity bleeds out of the classroom.
In the latest round of testing frenzy, English teachers are unique targets. We teach the essential skill of communication — the ability to turn students’ feelings into spoken and written words — yet English is considered a light discipline compared to the rigor of sciences. I am not sure what an English teacher is supposed to be now. (I say that out of one side of my mouth; I strive to exceed the expectations of my district and state curriculum.) I mean in terms of my identity as an English teacher. I used to be considered a mentor. During my first few years as a teacher, I kept the prayer of St. Francis in my pocket: “grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love.” I was only years removed from almost entering a seminary to become a priest. You never lose that call; it simply takes another shape. My shape was a room with 28 desks and a chalkboard.
I teach every class like it is my last. It could be. When I started teaching, I thought my purpose was to create a legion of English majors. I have learned that my purpose is to pause the lives of my students for long enough that a line of poetry is the loudest sound they encounter during the day. I am uninterested in studies that assess the cognitive worth of reading poetry for future engineers. I don’t teach engineers. I teach people. My master is not a test; it is the belief that minutes reading beautiful language will stir souls. I want my students to see that words are sacraments, in the same way that Andre Dubus said each sandwich he made for his daughters was a sacrament: “physical, nutritious and pleasurable, and within it is love.” It is possible to be cold-hearted and teach, but why do so? Students experience enough private pain some days to fill a lifetime. Literature can be the salve for a weary heart. I do not mean directly; I do not think literature is a form of therapy. I mean that books enable students to experience an extraordinary range of emotions in 180 days.
Most literature we read will pass from their memory. Some works will stick. One poem might change them. It is a beautiful possibility that such an epiphany can occur in as mundane a place as a classroom. That same hope keeps me from burning out in a profession that is as exhausting as it is exhaustive. I hate how teachers are portrayed by politicians and education reformers; I hate how we are reduced to caricatures. But I keep that frustration from my students. After all, it is for them that I am here. I believe in them, and I believe in words; I better believe in both, because I might be somebody’s last English teacher.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Miss Snark is the blogging pseudonym of a New York agent who has made herself available to all the aspiring writers out there who are befuddled and bewildered by the publishing process. When particularly perplexed, these writers turn to Miss Snark with their questions – despite the better than fair chance of being called a nitwit by Her Snarkiness. Aided only by her faithful poodle Killer Yapp (KY), Miss Snark has come to the rescue of hundreds of writers in the months she’s been online answering questions on protocol, procedure and not looking like a fool when trying to turn your manuscript into a published masterpiece. Her advice is refreshingly frank and entirely devoid of BS, and she has a loyal following. Why does she devote so much time to such a thankless endeavor? I can only assume she’s trying to make the world a better place (but then again she may be banking on the many pails full of gin she’s now owed by the many writers she has helped.)I had been under the assumption that all aspiring writers were avid readers of Miss Snark, but it has recently come to my attention that this is not the case. So, if you hope to have your book published one day, and you aren’t yet reading Miss Snark, I suggest you start now. And this is doubly true if you are agentless and looking. These conditions are not, however, prerequisites. I have no plans to write a book anytime soon, and I can’t help but read Miss Snark, if only for the fearful laughs she elicits.
There are two types of people in this world: (Segment One) people who adhere, as a point of pride, to every last comma and period of the laws of punctuation, and then there the people who just don’t have the time (Segment Two) and, frankly, are a little tired of hearing about these numerous and arcane rules that are supposedly all that separates us from the animals. Bearing in mind that Segment One would be offended that anyone might suggest that punctuation rules are not self-evident and that Segment Two will tell you to blow it out your ear, a book aimed at teaching the populace the in and outs of punctuation doesn’t seem likely to be a blockbuster. Yet just such a book was a huge seller in England last year. Are the Brits crazy or are we Americans missing out on the pleasurable nuances of punctuation? We’re about to find out. Next week, Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss comes out, and its current sales ranking of 6 at Amazon indicates that it will indeed be a success on this side of the Atlantic. And the New York Times seems to like it, which can’t hurt. The success of this book will cement the notion that Americans appreciate this British brand of book that delivers dull subject matter contained in a humorous package and prove that the big sales of last year’s most delightfully useless British book, Schott’s Original Miscellany, was not a fluke. (I hope that I punctuated everything correctly in that post.)
Recently perusing the course offerings for Temple University’s continuing education program here in Philadelphia, Season Evans uncovered what has to be one of the more unsavory market research strategies ever employed by the publishing companies. A course titled (and misspelled) “A Sneak Peak at Next Year’s Bestsellers,” is described as follows:Every fall publishers introduce and promote a new crop of novels, books they hope are future bestsellers. This unprecedented course is your chance to get a sneak preview of five forthcoming novels from major publishers. You will read special advance copies of the books and then, as a class, critique each book and predict what readers and critics will say when the books are actually published. Contributing publishers will include: W.W. Norton, Knopf, Random House and others to be determined.Though it’s not explicitly stated that the students’ output will be delivered to the publishers, it seems likely that the publishers would only participate if this were the case. As Season points out, this would mean that students will be paying the publishers to do market research for them under the guise of learning. The course is taught by Lynn Rosen, “a publishing consultant with twenty-plus years of experience in the book industry as an editor and literary agent,” though its not clear if the concept for this course came from her.Some questions I have: do other people out there agree that this sounds unsavory? I think it is, though I’m having trouble articulating exactly why (beyond the fact that students will be paying for this “privilege.”) Also, is anyone aware of this practice going on elsewhere? Is it commonplace, or is this Temple course an anomaly?