Tonight at Housing Works Bookstore & Cafe, I’ll be competing in the sixth NYC Literary Death Match, sponsored by Opium Magazine. I’ll be reading a ten-minute story representing Canteen, three readers will do the same on behalf of three other publications, and then an illustrious panel of judges – including The New Yorker’s Ben Greenman – will evaluate us, “American Idol” style. Intrigued? Me, too. The $10 cover includes a free copy of Opium’s latest issue. Hope to see you there.
In John Hodgman’s charming 2005 miscellany The Areas of My Expertise, “Were You Aware Of It?” serves as a recurring title for astonishing “facts.” One of my favorite among these inclusions reveals that:Jack Ruby owed seventeen dachshunds, whom he referred to as “his children.” In an astonishing coincidence, all of his dogs were named either Lincoln, Kennedy, or Oswald, except one, which was named “Li’l Grassy Knoll.” Meanwhile, Jacqueline Kennedy kept seventeen cats. She disliked the animals, but kept a pack of trained felines for the hunting of voles. This was an ancient European pastime akin to fox hunting, but replacing the dogs with cats, the fox with voles and/or shrews (moles and mice are disqualifiers), and the horses with single-speed bicycles. Her passion for the sport, which bordered on addiction, was considered a potential liability by some within the White House, who feared that many in mainstream America, who rarely eat vole, would perceive the sport as an aristocratic European fancy. Still, it was practiced on the sly, and as a result, most of Washington, D.C., is still voleless. Continuing in the great Hodgman-ian tradition of “Were You Aware Of It?”, I submit the astonishing (and, unlike Hodgeman’s, completely true) fact that the illustrious London Review of Books publishes personal ads. (I just began a subscription, so this is news to me.) And they are quite the literary genre: haiku-ishly, Sapphic fragment-ally tantalizing their in brevity, they recall that six word short story of Hemingway’s (“For Sale. Baby Shoes. Never Used.”) and seem to offer kernels of novelish potential to those in the market for adventures in literary romance:M, 48, reaching the end of a marriage of convenience, clings to the belief that there still may be one beautiful woman left who values kindness above all else. Few demands other than intimacy in the beginning, in exchange a generous monthly allowance and the opportunity to travel.Sweet-natured F, 38, battling Dorothea Brooke tendencies. Seeks mildly eccentric unattached man with good heart.Don’t tell me about your current literary read, I’ll just sigh at the leaden predictability of it all, start twitching after you say “it stays with you” and grate my teeth like two whirling quern stones when you tell me you don’t want to see the film until you’ve finished the book. Instead why not tell me about America’s got talent and your favorite continental lager? Averring but occasionally surprising prof.Having just retired my ambition is to become the next Ernst Blofeld. I am looking for a lady to enjoy life with while I take over the world from my headquarters in South-East London.Update: Via commenter Imani, a collection of LRB personals was published in 2006: They Call Me Naughty Lola: Personal Ads from the London Review of Books
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.
In a post last December, I briefly explained why books first come out in hardcover and then, nine to eighteen months later, they come out in cheaper paperback versions. This has become a standard in the book industry, and as a result, some readers, myself included, are leery of books that come out in paperback first without ever being released in a hardcover edition. “What is wrong with this book,” I think to myself, “that the publisher didn’t want to release it as a hardcover?” At the same time, many readers, including myself, are frustrated that the book industry is so rigid like this, and that it is so expensive to purchase a brand new book. Laura Miller in the Times Sunday Book Review goes over many reasons why the current setup is counter-intuitive, including this one: “riskier books rely heavily on reviews and other media coverage to attract readers, but the reviews appear when the books are new. By the time the books show up as affordable paperbacks, the spotlight has moved on.” Miller wonders if the industry’s rigid selling strategy might be thawing, and she points to David Mitchell’s popular new book Cloud Atlas, recently released as a paperback original, as a sign. Read the column here.
Goodreads is a vibrant and feisty place – if you can even call an online community a place. Its slogan boasts, “it’s what your friends are reading!” and perhaps that’s true: the site’s more dedicated members are so busy posting the books they’ve read, and want to read, or are currently reading, that you might assume they no longer have time to actually read. But the opposite is true for me – since joining the site, and becoming obsessed with it, I’ve been reading quite voraciously. Chalk it up to a pure-hearted love of sharing my thoughts about literature; or to some illusory sense of accountability (“Everyone’s breathlessly awaiting my opinion of Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao!”); or to my desire to read a novel as soon as it’s lauded by a friend (“Wow, Katie gave 5 stars to The Dud Avocado, I must see what’s so great about it!”). Or maybe it’s just a primitive lust to build up my roster of books read, to assert myself as the most bookish.Goodreads allows you to organize your books in self-created bookshelves (mine include “Theory” and “Tried but Failed to Read”), and to see if you and a friend have similar reading tastes (apparently, my taste is 100% similar to the aforementioned Katie’s, which is just creepy). Most importantly, the site lets you rate books on a star system, one star signifying “I didn’t like it,” and five signifying, “It was amazing.” The fact that there isn’t an “I hated this piece of crap” option suggests that Goodreads is generally promoting a positive reaction to books. You can, however, say whatever you want in your reviews, and your friends can respond as they wish in the comments section. On my page, for instance, there’s a 33-comment thread that covers Jonathan Lethem (the original subject of my review), Haruki Murakami, Miranda July, Michael Chabon, hipsters, blonde women, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Kelly Ripa and Faith Ford (that is, who’s hotter), Rushmore, irony, Colson Whitehead, and more. Another friend’s two-star rating (denoting “It was okay”) of On The Road caused another friend to comment, “You also gave two stars to The Stranger, you tool. For that I should bypass this comment box and toss a flaming bag of shit at your house.” This, unsurprisingly, led to a heated ping-ponging of comments. My, my, reading is more fun than I thought.I’d say more, but I must get back to that Junot Diaz novel – which is definitely already 4 stars-good, if not 5.
There’s been a lot about soldiers in the news recently, both good and bad, and suddenly all us civilians are struggling to understand military culture. For the curious it might be worth taking a look at David Lipsky’s Absolutely American (I’ll be reading it sometime soon since it’s on the reading queue). The book is about the four years that Lipsky spent following a class of cadets through West Point. Lipsky is not a military guy, and his outsider’s perspective helps explain how the military fits in to our heterogeneous society. Of special interest to those who might have read the book already, here’s the transcript of a chat with Lipsky that follows up on a lot of the cadets that are in the book. Nearly all of them have been stationed in Afghanistan or Iraq.