In light of the epidemic of violence and political repression in Zimbabwe – and South Africa’s African National Congress’s insistence (until much of the damage had been done) that interference from “outsiders” was not welcome – avid fiction readers may want to revisit a sub-Saharan perspective on political misrule: Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow. Writing here a couple years back, I gave the book a mixed review, finding some fault with the breadth of the satire. But, much as magical realism is said to just be called “realism” in Columbia, broad satire starts to seem awfully pointed the more one learns about the tactics of strongmen like Robert Mugabe. Which is to say, Mugabe’s decision to proceed with the election runoff in Zimbabwe borders on farce. As Ngugi shows, these antics can make for rich fiction. In life, of course, they are merely infuriating.
Not to be a shill for Amazon, but for those who like to save money on books, you can get a fourth book free after buying three books under ten dollars. They’ve got lots of paperback classics that fit the bill.
When I was a graduate student working in the philosophy department at Rutgers University, an old academic offered some advice: “don’t talk about your book until it’s published.” Like most other English graduate students, I was writing a novel. I offered that information while giving the man a tutorial on using Microsoft Outlook. My job that semester was to teach the typewriter-clinging philosophers how to use their desktop computers (in 2005).
I had started to tell him that my manuscript was a historical novel set in the American Southwest, but he held up his hand and told me to stop. He said the worst thing a writer could do was talk about his work before it was finished. “You’ll talk about it enough after that.” He said this was also true for works of scholarship, even though chapters had to be published on their own. But that seemed like a necessary evil for him. He was adamant that a fiction writer should never talk about his book until it hits the shelf. “Otherwise,” he said, “you’ll kill it.”
When Esquire published a story of mine a few years after that, I offered a proclamation in my bio note: “he’s working on a novel set in southern Vermont.” That was true. I was working on it, in the sense we devote significant hours of our lives to books. I taught during the day, went to an MFA program in the evening, and wrote late into the night. I typed, drafted, revised, printed, tore-up, trashed, and re-started a book.
But I never published that book. Like other ditched efforts, it sits in a folder titled “Vermont Novel” on an abandoned laptop in my basement. It shares that electronic graveyard with the historical novel, hundreds of short stories, and a few poetry collections.
Between 2011 and 2015, I had 7 books published by small and scholarly presses. It is fun to say that you are having a book coming out. It is fun—and more than a little self-affirming—to share images of your book contract, your cover design, and your page proofs. During those years, I was always working on a new book. To have a forthcoming book meant to be alive as a writer.
Publishing is not writing. Writing is what you do at midnight. Writing is what you do, as William H. Gass says, “to entertain a toothache.” Writing is casting your voice into a world already filled with noise. Writing is an act of faith, rebellion, and hope. Publishing is a world outside of yourself. In many ways, that is a good and necessary thing. Writers need editors. Editors help writers turn their ideas into stories; they help writers reach audiences. Yet publishing is also a place where writers must learn to cede control and embrace patience; a place where failure is likely.
Publishing is a marathon, not a sprint. When your book comes out, shout it and sing it from the rooftops. Be proud of what you’ve accomplished. Don’t worry about people being sick of hearing about your book—you’ve scrolled through their daily posts about food and politics. They can handle some literature.
But until your book is published, don’t talk about it. That old academic was right: you risk sucking the life out of your book. If you talk about your book, it stops belonging to you, and starts belonging to the world. You’ll have to explain it to people you sit next to on the train, distant cousins at family reunions, or people at work. When the soul of your book hits the air, it will dissipate without its physical body.
Until then, hoard your manuscripts. Keep your secrets. Delete your tweets about your work in progress. Play coy in your bio notes. Be devoted to your book, and resist the urge to whisper about your relationship to others. Stay committed to that book, and one day—when the time is right—you can tell the world.
Am I writing a book now? That’s between me and my hypothetical manuscript. I’ve learned to keep my mouth shut, hunker down, and get to work.
Image Credit: Flickr/Josh Janssen.
I like to travel but flying makes me anxious. On a plane, I am cramped in a seat for hours, with little to do but to inhabit the abyss of my mind. I wish I could shut out the world and sleep, but the incessant chatter of fellow passengers, drone of engines, and upright seats keep me awake. When I was fifteen, on a fourteen-hour sojourn from Hong Kong to Vancouver, the legroom was so scarce that my knees hit the seat in front of me. Somewhere near the International Date Line, I began eyeing the emergency exit doors. I wanted to open them and jump into the sky.
These days I live in Denver, where most major American cities are two to four hours away by plane. I travel often, whether for work or for pleasure, and on these short flights I see the proverbial light at the end of the aluminum tunnel before we depart, as long as I have earplugs and something to keep me occupied. I cannot seem to work or write, though I wish I could — imagine how much I could get done. What I need, I have found, is a good book. But there is airplane reading and airplane reading.
I write poetry, but I cannot read poetry on a plane. I picked up Cynthia Cruz’s third collection Wunderkammer when it came out and brought it with me to San Francisco the next day. Wunderkammer is saturated with images of old world Europe — the cover is a sepia photograph of James Joyce’s daughter Lucia dancing at a Parisian ball — yet the book made me think of California. Cruz’s poems blend decadent imagery with tense, controlled lines she pushes to breaking; perhaps I saw in her style an antidote to California’s excess. In any case, I wanted to read the book. But after two or three poems, I needed to take a walk and the trip down the aisle to the bathroom was nowhere near enough. I needed space to dwell in the silences of the work.
I also remember trying to read Djuna Barnes’s modernist novel Nightwood on a return flight from Miami. Granted, after a madcap Halloween weekend of drinking and boating on Biscayne Bay, I probably would not have been able to read a grocery list, but as much as I loved the gorgeous rhythms of Barnes’s language, I could not follow the ellipses in the story. I have not picked up the book again. I keep looking at it on my shelf, wanting to get back into the thorny opulence of its world, but Nightwood strikes me as a book that demands all of our inner resources, which lately I have not been able to marshal in my everyday life, much less in the brain fog I get at 35,000 feet.
Oddly, it’s the personal essay collection that seems to soothe my nerves on the plane. I read Melissa Broder’s essay collection So Sad Today on a recent flight to Charlotte, beginning when we took off from Denver, taking a break in transit in Minneapolis, and finishing just as I saw the lights of my destination in the night sky. It was a dream: the world fell away and reassembled just as I returned to land. So Sad Today is not an easy read: Broder writes about her experiences with anxiety, depression, addiction, and abjection, among other things. I especially loved her meditations on her husband’s chronic illness, their open marriage, and the love that sustains a long relationship. I had to close my eyes after each essay, reassessing the stories I tell myself about my life, but I kept reading. There is a thematic unity to the collection, but each essay could stand by itself, a perfect capsule of intensity that engaged my restless mind on the plane.
Another good experience: reading Wendy C. Ortiz’s Hollywood Notebook while flying to Boston last summer, on the way to Provincetown for a writing workshop. The book, which Ortiz calls a “prose poemish memoir,” was born out of a blog Ortiz kept when she lived in Hollywood in her late twenties. The ninety short chapters range from a few lines to two or three pages, from meditations to lists and quotes, charting the banalities and epiphanies of a young woman trying to figure out who she is as a person and an artist. In the three hours I spent with Hollywood Notebook, I reflected on my own circuitous path to writing, the places I want to go in my own work. I did not find answers, or even questions; for a moment, I was content that my thoughts remained amorphous.
As much as I love reading personal essays, I rarely write explicitly from my life. At this point, it is not the genre that best channels the questions I am asking in my work. But I learn a lot from these writers who examine the interstices of life that we — or at least I — tend to overlook. I learn a language to describe the recesses of my mind that I would rather avoid. And on the plane, I can read personal essays without the anxiety of comparison.
Some years ago, I met Chloe Caldwell in Portland. Her book Legs Get Led Astray, which chronicles her early twenties in New York, had just appeared that year. I said that I had read it on a plane — I don’t remember which now, but it might have been that very flight to Oregon. She wrote in my copy of the book, “A book for airplane rides.” I still have it on my shelf. I look to it as a reminder that we can write from the idiosyncrasies of our experiences, whether in life or in the sky.
At The Morning News, Robert Birnbaum interviews Jonathan Safran Foer. In his email announcing the interview, Birnbaum tries to elevate the current level of discourse surrounding Foer, who seems to have a target painted on his back these days: First, a word about what you will not read here – no reference to Steve Almond’s kvetchy and disingenuous hand wringing about Jon Foer’s new novel (at MobyLives.com)or the exponentially vile and bombastic heaving by Harry Siegal about the same at the loathsome and vile NYC weekly that produces journalistic marvels such as “50 Loathsome New Yorkers” and includes novelists on that hit list.The interview is long, and once again portrays Foer as thoughtful and unwilling to respond to criticism or praise, preferring to concentrate on just the reader and the writer:Foer: Really good books are books that have two authors, the reader and the writer. Or maybe the idea of an author is actually just a combination of two people, the reader and the writer? So when writing you use the word “tree.” Four letters. Very, very short word. Fits a couple millimeters on a page. But in the reader’s mind it becomes a kind of idealized version of a tree, and that tree is different for each person who reads the book and because of that a book is customized for each person in a way a song never could be and as a painting never could be.
Canada’s national airwaves took on a decidedly literary tone last week with the latest installment of Canada Reads. This annual, week-long competition began in 2002 when five celebrity readers went to bat for the Canadian book of their choice. The panel would convince and cajole each other and at the end of each day, they would vote one of the contenders off the literary island. At the end of the week, one book survives.The 2007 winner is Lullabies For Little Criminals, by Heather O’Neill, and championed by Winnipeg songwriter and poet John K. Samson.In O’Neill’s novel, the 12-year-old narrator, neglected by her junkie father, “collects and covets the small crumbs of happiness she finds as she navigates the streets of Montreal’s red-light district.”Lullabies beat out Natasha and Other Stories by David Bezmozgis, (championed by Barenaked Ladies singer Steven Page), The Song of Kahunsha by Anosh Irani, (pitched by writer Donna Morrissey), Children of My Heart by Gabrielle Roy (defended by journalist Denise Bombardier), and Timothy Taylor’s Stanley Park (whose praises were sung by Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy).This year’s contest was an all-star competition, as each of the panelists had successfully championed the previous five winners:Page’s pick in 2002, Michael Ondaatje’s wonderful In The Skin of The Lion, set in the immigrant communities of Toronto between the two world wars, won that year’s contest.In 2003, Bombardier’s pick Next Episode by Hubert Aquin, was victorious. Cuddy outsung the competition in 2004, giving victory to Guy Vanderhaeghe’s The Last Crossing. In 2005, the crown went to Rockbound by Frank Parker Day, and pitched by Donna Morrissey. And John Samson’s first taste of victory came last year with his winning defense of A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews.Note that these books (and their contenders) include novels, short fiction and poetry, and are as likely to be drawn from Canada’s rich literary tradition as from the latest offerings from publishers. I might quibble with some of the choices (that Leonard Cohen’s second novel Beautiful Losers lost in 2005 still irks me, and I sided with Scott Thompson in his pitch for Mordecai Richler’s Cocksure in 2006). Still, sour grapes aside, it’s tremendously healthy for a country to be occasionally reminded of its often-overlooked literary past.Those of you who have read my bio or my Millions contributions over the years know that I don’t shy away from slipping a mention of my favorite songwriters and musicians – past and present – wherever I can possibly fit them in. So with that in mind, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that this year’s and last year’s championing defender, John K. Samson is himself, one hell of a songwriter, and three albums by his band, The Weakerthans, sit proudly in my record collection. Samson is also a founding publisher of Arbeiter Ring Publishing, specializing in social and political works.
An uncharacteristically thorough post at Gawker goes in depth on the make up of the current staff of the New Yorker, pointing out that the resurgent magazine under editor David Remnick is staffed by a disproportionate number of writers brought on during the tenure of reviled editor Tina Brown. Interesting stuff.