Some weeks my New Yorker shows up on Tuesday; other weeks it doesn’t arrive until the weekend. This week it showed up late, and that’s why I’m writing about it even as it’s being removed from news stands to make way for next week’s issue. But I was glad to finally get to it, especially after noting that it was the summer fiction issue. But it’s not the typical summer fiction issue and certainly doesn’t fit the accepted idea of “Summer Reading.” This issue is about war, and I’m glad that the New Yorker decided to put together an issue like this, since it is shockingly easy – three years after we invaded Iraq – to forget that this country is at war right now. It’s also fitting since we’ve been discussing war quite a bit at The Millions lately. Last month I reviewed An Army at Dawn by Rick Atkinson, which led readers to help me compile lists of World War 2 fiction and nonfiction. Vasily Grossman appeared on both lists, and his story “In Kislovodsk” (not available online) is in this New Yorker. Also contributing is Uwem Akpan with “My Parents’ Bedroom.” Akpan was in last year’s debut fiction issue.But more broadly, the issue is a nice reminder that as life goes on here in the States, war rages on in Iraq. The New Yorker has done this most vividly by providing “Soldiers’ Stories: Letters, e-mails, and journals from the Gulf.” The magazine has also created an audio slide show for the online version of the piece:This week, The New Yorker publishes a selection of letters, journal entries, and personal essays by soldiers, airmen, sailors, and marines who served in the current war in Iraq. The writings are part of a project sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts called Operation Homecoming. An anthology of the work, edited by the historian Andrew Carroll, will be published this fall by Random House. Here, in an Audio Slide Show produced by Matt Dellinger, five of the servicemen read from their work, accompanied by their photographs.
One of the familiar knocks on the short story master Donald Barthelme is that his fiction is all artifice – that, to quote Saul Bellow, it “lack[s] an inner life.” Well, Lorrie Moore, having digested the new Barthelme biography, Hiding Man, is having none of it. “In a way,” she explains in the current New York Review of Books,Barthelme’s work was all inner life, partially concealed, partially displayed. His stories are a registration of a certain kind of churning mind, cerebral fragments stitched together in the bricolage fashion of beatnik poetry. The muzzled cool, the giddy play, the tossed salad of high and low…Here, ladies and gentlemen, is contrarian criticism at its very best: illuminating rather than annihilating. Similarly surprising, and revealing, is Moore’s decision to consider the Barthelme oeuvre alongside that of Raymond Carver, in many ways his stylistic opposite. Moore is no short-story slouch herself, and one suspects she’s learned a trick or two from the School of Don B. This might help account for her sure-handed handling of Barthelme’s life and work. At any rate, like Deborah Eisenberg and Zadie Smith, whose essays have also enlivened recent issues of the NYRB, she has the virtue not only of writing like a reader, but of reading like a writer. Check out her Barthelme essay, “How He Wrote His Songs.”
Call it a sign of the times.
To compensate for dwindling sales, some bookstores are apparently starting to charge for readings. Though payment may seem antithetical to the open and accessible spirit of an event marking a book’s publication, the news should come as no surprise. Bookstores are in danger of extinction, and it only makes sense that if a writer’s habitat is in danger, readings will also struggle to survive.
Yet the shift goes beyond the economic changes precipitated by e-books and extends to the realm of author branding. Modern writers are advised to blog about their process, tweet the banal details of their lives and self-promote via book trailers. Lacking an online presence is bookselling suicide, but creating an online identity also lets authors broadcast a voice vastly different from the one that resonates on the printed (or e-reader) page. If I can “meet” an author online, why bother to go to a reading in the first place? It’s not like I can get my Kindle signed.
It’s ironic, of course, that as writers become more available online, face-to-face interactions may be put behind a paywall. And if open access to readings diminishes, will readers grow more familiar with an author’s brand than with the real person behind a text? Considering that packaging and promotion are just as much part and parcel with being writer as creating content, why shouldn’t an author’s public appearances be monetized? Writers have increasingly become products in and of themselves while getting paid less and less for their literary artifacts.
The underlying problem with charging for readings isn’t the cost (though even a few bucks will deter the cash-strapped) but that the very notion of payment turns readings into something they are not: artistic commodities. Authors are not performers; their readings are not meant to be entertaining in a splashy musical sort of way. Readings exist to promote and sell books, but they also serve a more important function: they provide space for writers and readers to directly communicate and transmit ideas, taking the solitary slow drip of the reading process and infusing it directly into the bloodstream.
However, an economic transaction implies a different sort of exchange between writer and reader. Will authors feel compelled to offer something tangible in addition to words intoned? Will they pass out cookies and break into song? Charging for readings problematically conflates books with how said books are marketed and presented, meaning that writers will feel pressure to cater to their (paying) audiences. We all want to get what we pay for, right?
Ever since my very first communication from an author — a purple form letter from Judy Blume — I’ve felt the need to connect with them. Exactly why I felt moved to write Blume I’m no longer sure, but I think it had something to do with Sally J. Freedman, Margaret and Blubber. How could a total stranger create characters that seemed to channel my most private feelings? After many years and countless books I no longer feel that authors are writing expressly for my validation, but the yearning to connect with those who intimately understand the landscape of my inner world hasn’t ceased.
A live reading is a crapshoot, but that’s the point. There’s always the possibility that a writer I revere will turn out to be stilted, less interesting in person than on the page, or just a total jerk. But I don’t really care. I want to know how writers who echo my experiences intone each sentence. I want to discover whether or not the cadence of their voices confirms the meaning of the text in my mind. In short, I want to know who they are, and that’s different from knowing their marketing plan.
Distinguishing between a writer and her brand becomes a challenge when Internet exposure reduces complex people to rough sketches. I like being intrigued by writers, and I like discovering them rather than being told how to think about their work. Tao Lin is one who knows how to remain elusive even while maintaining a strong online presence. When I went to hear Lin read, he mumbled his way through a short excerpt and made no eye contact. He spoke in a tumbling monotone that fit the terseness of his prose, and offered laconic responses to questions. The reserved demeanor stood in sharp contrast to his strong online presence. At the end, he drew a smiley face with feet in my copy of Richard Yates. I was in love, for a second.
I’m especially curious to hear writers with an unconventional prose voice read. When I went to hear Aimee Bender read from The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, the story felt like an extension of herself, as though she was recalling something from a psychedelic childhood rather than reading from a book. I spoke with her afterwards, and she mentioned that when her first book came out, someone asked her what her reading persona would be. “I felt nauseous,” she told me. “It feels disingenuous. What works best is what suits you,” she explained, acknowledging the pressure to brand oneself.
One of my all-time favorite readings was at Chicago’s Book Cellar, where five writers and critics paid homage to David Foster Wallace and The Pale King by reading their favorite selections from the late author’s body of work. A palpable intensity filled the room as the readers summoned Wallace’s voice through his text. I felt most connected to Wallace through Adam Levin, who seemed like he might be fun to grab a beer with, if I actually drank beer.
Yet I knew part of what made it special was that Wallace wasn’t there. Think Salinger, think Bolaño: their absence — online and in the flesh— makes them all the more captivating. It’s precisely the lack of accessibility that makes readers hunger for their work — and their presence.
I’m not quite sure what happens to writers — and readings — when social media self-promotion becomes not just a distraction, but part of the job description. What I do know is that being perpetually plugged in runs counter to the very nature of writing. I admire those who can disconnect and burrow inside long enough to untangle a thread of human experience with which to spin a story. It’s hard but satisfying, and that’s why I get annoyed with myself when I opt for the instant gratification of Facebook (or sometimes the refrigerator) over a sustained writing session.
I worry that having to pay for readings will make writers’ online personas more valuable than the content of their work. I don’t know if I’d trust an author who was packaged with the glossy cellophane usually reserved for pop stars. Perhaps that’s why I enjoy readings, and still believe in their importance: I want to see writers without a filter and know they are flawed and imperfect, and that they struggle to get words out too — yet still carry on. Perhaps in an age of e-readers, we’ve forgotten that tired cliché about not judging a book by its cover.
(Image: Podium in the screening room from spine’s photostream)
Though posthumously published work is often disappointing, it’s hard not to be curious about the just announced publication of The Children of Hurin by JRR Tolkien, which has been compiled from excerpts and notes by Tolkien’s son, Christopher. According to the Guardian, Tolkien enthusiasts will be familiar with the work since fragments of it have been previously published elsewhere:Extracts from the original tale, said to be a detailed but staccato account of the family of Hurin, the man who dared defy Melkor in the first age, have already been published – illuminating, Tolkien enthusiasts say, some of the oldest tales of the legendary land of Middle Earth.The new book is slated to arrive in Spring 2007.