Inspired by the recent release of The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, podcaster Len of Jawbone Radio paid a visit to Bill Watterson’s home town, Chagrin Falls, Ohio. He ended up interviewing Watterson’s mom, laying eyes on some original Calvin and Hobbes artwork and sharing some interesting bits of trivia about the beloved strip.
I met several Chicago natives while I was there last weekend, and as we discussed the city’s various merits and drawbacks, the subject of bookstores came up. The Chicago natives, being aspiring reporters, astutely asked me what I look for in a “good” bookstore, and why a chain store is unlikely to bear this mantle.When it comes to hanging out, it’s hard to beat the chains. Your nearest Barnes and Noble probably has dozens of plush chairs and couches where you can sit for as long as you want. The stores are vast wide open spaces with a controlled climate and a bit of piped in music wafting just overhead. The shopper can make a day of it, grabbing a snack and a coffee from the cafe and lounging through the uncrowded weekday afternoon. Stay as long as you want, they won’t tell you to leave until they’re closing down for the night. If you want to kill an afternoon, it’s hard to beat Barnes and Noble, likewise if you need to pick up a specific title, but don’t expect to walk away with anything unexpected from these forays. Don’t plan for a literary discovery.And therein lies the problem with the chains, they are designed not to surprise you. Their displays will, as decreed from the home office, contain a calculated mix of bestsellers assembled from the major lists. The information that they disseminate is predetermined by prevailing tastes; they are not, themselves, tastemakers. And yet, if there is any more important generator of tastes, trends, and shared knowledge in the commercial world than the bookstore, then I don’t know about it. Nonetheless, there are very few bookstores that serve this purpose. And that, precisely, is what I am looking for.To my mind, a good bookstore will have on display the “important” books not just the bestselling books, though there will always be bestsellers among those important books. For example, The Da Vinci Code is important because it is a cultural phenomenon, but not simply because it sits at number one on the Times bestsellers. There are all sorts of reasons why a book can be important. The idea is that one should be able to walk into the bookstore and be able to grasp, based upon which books are on display and based upon conversations with staff and fellow customers, what matters at that moment both in the wider world and in the neighborhood, from Presidential exposes to burgeoning local talent. At a good bookstore you can place your confidence in the people who run the place.At Barnes and Noble you can get any book you want if you can find it in the vast fluorescent retail gymnasium, but at a good indie, the kindly book clerk will take his favorite book off the shelf and hand it to you, as if a gift. Most cities of any size have at least one of these good bookstores, and thanks to some recommendations that I have already received, I’m confident that I’ll find what I’m looking for in Chicago.
The recent debate between Malcolm Gladwell and Adam Gopnik has come and gone, and by all accounts, it was an engaging afternoon. In attendance were such Canadian luminaries as Douglas Coupland, former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson, her husband – the writer John Ralston Saul, and my friend Morry.Held at the University of Toronto’s Convocation Hall, the two New Yorker staff writers (and expat Canadians) wittily deconstructed “Canada”, reducing it to its fundamentals as they debated the question: Canada: Nation or Notion?CBC Radio recorded the hour-long debate for its Ideas program. Listen here (mp3).Macleans magazine, which organized the event, also has video footage of the debate.
[Editor’s note: This week we’ve invited Megan Hustad, author of How to Be Useful: A Beginner’s Guide to Not Hating Work, to dissect our contributors’ first-job follies.]Max writes:When I finished college, I followed my then-girlfriend (now wife) to Los Angeles, where she was to attend grad school. Fortuitously, some buddies of mine from high school were headed to L.A. as well. I found an apartment with them and we set out looking for jobs. At the time, I felt singularly unqualified to do anything in particular despite just a couple of months before having been handed a diploma that had cost into the six figures.In L.A., of course, when you look aimlessly for employment, you land in the entertainment industry, which is exactly what happened to my friends and me. As I began my job hunt, I was sufficiently dazzled by this prospect even though I had never up until that point considered acting, directing, or screenwriting. As I would soon find out, if you’re not the “talent” in Hollywood, you’re just another guy at a desk.I landed at a second-rate agency in Beverly Hills as an assistant for a newly hired literary agent. We’ll call him Bert. I was so clueless that every mundane detail was a revelation: “We send out thirty copies of this script to production companies!?” “I’m supposed to call your client and tell him ‘I have Bert on the line for you?'” As I soon realized that the job mostly entailed getting coffee and related menial tasks and looking busy when the head of the firm came through, I pushed for anything that would make the hours there bearable. I got along with my fellow assistants but the bosses tended to look beyond me into the distance when I talked to them. Attempting to play to my strengths, I asked Bert if I could read some scripts.I tore into them ruthlessly. Part of this was because these scripts were undoubtedly bad – heist and car chase rehashes – and part of it was because I had never read a script before and had no idea what they looked like. I produced pages of notes cataloging logical falacies, stilted dialog, and poor character development (this for a knock-off of Vin Diesel-vehicle The Fast and the Furious) and included lots of snarky asides. I handed the notes off to Bert and he never mentioned them again.From there my trajectory was decidedly downward. I was transferred to another agent, in a move that I now realize was intended to punish her poor performance – give her the worst assistant so she knows she’s on thin ice – and then ultimately “laid off” to punish her further. From there, I headed down the path of temp work and retail before turning things around by going back to school. As it has been for many, my first brush with Hollywood was humbling.Megan Hustad responds:Ever heard of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency? Me, too! I was an assistant at Vintage Books, and my boss handed me the manuscript (for the fourth in the series, I think, but none had been published in the U.S. yet) and asked me to make six copies. I was to keep one, distribute the rest, and read overnight. That was big clue Nos. 1-6; seldom were so many souls asked to weigh in on a manuscript overnight. But no, I strolled in the following morning with this assessment: “I dunno, it seems ‘small’ to me. I just can’t picture the audience at all.” I may have added an aside about library ladies too, but I’ve suppressed the memory, so I couldn’t tell you.Thing is, the impulse to cough up withering assessments of proposals, scripts, or what have you, is strong. Especially when you’re employed in a creative industry but mainly engaged in menial tasks– how else, you think, can I help people understand that I’m capable of so, so much more than I’m being asked to do? This is what I learned, however, after eventually quitting Vintage (because my, ahem, “career” there had stalled out) and reading a lot of success manuals from the 1910s and 1920s, when snark was first in vogue: It’s actually very difficult to make positive and affirming statements, using American English, and still sound like you have a brain. Very demanding, intellectually. I mean, Lincoln had it down, but it didn’t come easy. You basically have to practice. Uselessness rating: 4For more information, please see these related posts:Welcome to the Working Week: Megan Hustad Analyzes Our On-the-Job FoiblesWelcome to the Working Week 2: EmreWelcome to the Working Week 3: GarthWelcome to the Working Week 4: Andrew
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.
[Editor’s note: This week we’ve invited Megan Hustad, author of How to Be Useful: A Beginner’s Guide to Not Hating Work, to dissect our contributors’ first-job follies.]Andrew writes:It began, as brilliant decisions generally do, in a bar. A Saturday evening, over drinks with two friends, a few months into my first real job (for the benevolent media magnates that still pay my salary). Why not, one of us spat out, drive to New York City? Uh, right now? Yeah, right now! One of us had a car. We’d need music for the 10-hour (each way), international journey. And, oh yeah, passports. Off we went.Sunday early morning we arrived in Manhattan, walked around in a daze until very late Sunday night, then drove back to Toronto, arriving minutes before my Monday shift.That I hadn’t slept since Friday night could easily be offset with a quick shower and several swigs of Jolt Cola which my colleague poured into me. And, oh, I would wear a suit, something neither I nor anyone else would conceive of wearing in the newsroom, unless heading out for an interview. But the improbable vision of young Andrew in a suit at work would distract my senior editors, I hoped, from the snoring.As it turned out, the caffeine jolt and the adrenalin rush of the whole experience kept me awake, and in retrospect, I doubt that I would have done anything differently.But I’m guessing it wouldn’t win me any awards for professionalism.Megan Hustad responds:The suit was a good call. I got promoted once because I was between apartments, living out of a duffel bag, and the suit I wore twice a week for a month because it hid stains and didn’t wrinkle prompted my boss to imagine I was going on a lot of interviews. This has historically been the best argument for wearing a suit, after all – it communicates you’re going places, and little else. Suits obscure all appetites other than ambition. Horatio Alger and other early American capitalists were nuts about suits.In any event: Children, if you took a long, hot shower and still smell of beer, consider a suit. Don’t do as I once did and show up in an orange (orange that highlighted my bloodshot eyes!), moth-eaten wool turtleneck. Uselessness rating: 1For more information, please see these related posts:Welcome to the Working Week: Megan Hustad Analyzes Our On-the-Job FoiblesWelcome to the Working Week 1: MaxWelcome to the Working Week 2: EmreWelcome to the Working Week 3: Garth
And now it is time to go. After more than three and a half years in LA, a city I knew nothing about, hated, grew to love, and still kind of hate, Ms. Millions and I are hitting the road. First there will be a wedding and then a new start in Chicago where I will attempt to be a student again. I fear that the culture shock I experienced upon arriving in Los Angeles will pale in comparison to the culture shock of leaving LA now that I have grown so accustomed to its inherent weirdness. Still, I managed to carve a niche for myself here and perhaps I can do that again somewhere new. Funny that I didn’t figure it out at the very start, but this “niche,” this sudden feeling of comfort in a bewildering place would have a lot to do with books.First, some history. I have always read a lot. Early on it was to combat my chronic insomnia, and I guess it just took. But there was a time here in Los Angeles during my first year that I would find myself without a book. This had never really happened to me before. Whereas I used to have a stack of books next to my bed ready for devouring, I had now resorted to fishing out old Entertainment Weeklies from under the coffee table. I was distracted, profoundly so. I was in a new place trying to be good at jobs I didn’t care about, lacking ambition, and devoted to those twin goddesses of self-diversion, television and video games. But then things happened, too numerous and predictable to mention here, and I found myself unemployed again and ready to try something new. So I said the hell with it and walked into a little bookstore on the Sunset Strip. Moments after I got the job I remembered (how had I forgotten?) how much I love books. And soon my hunger for words became insatiable, like that of a beggar who suddenly has daily access to feast worthy of a king. Soon I felt guilty. I had to share.My friend Derek, always a step ahead, had begun blogging. I pronounced it to be silly and a huge waste of time and then promptly started my own blog. I realized after a month or so that it had to be about books and nothing else, since that’s the only thing that really moved me at the time.And plus, I had so much material: a constant torrent of new releases and a cadre of coworkers and customers with whom I discussed books eight hours a day. (This was when I discovered, by the way, that LA is an obsessively literary place, and it doesn’t care if anyone knows it, so it doesn’t bother to tell anyone.) And then there were the authors, constant visitors it seemed, nearly all of them willing to chat with the folks who hock their wares. I felt I had to share: Julie Orringer, Jocelyn Bain Hogg (a photographer), Felicia Luna Lemus, George Plimpton, Nick Hornby, Rick Atkinson, Pete Dexter, DBC Pierre and Dan Rhodes, Michele Huneven, A. Scott Berg and Jeff Bridges, Ron Chernow, and of course, one of my heroes, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Unbelievable.My last day at the bookstore was yesterday and my last day in LA is tomorrow. I never thought I would live here. I never, ever thought I would love it. It has raised the bar, in my mind, that other cities will have to live up to. But I figure: if I keep seeking out the little bit of LA that no doubt resides in other places, I’ll get along just fine. Goodbye, Los Angeles.I’ll be back in a week. Read a book while I’m gone!