Best of lists for 2008 are already starting to pop up. Amazon recently posted its Top 100 of 2008. The surprise at the top of the list is The Northern Clemency, the Booker shortlisted novel by Philip Hensher. The year’s fiction phenomenon The Story of Edgar Sawtelle was fifth, and Millions favorites Neverland and 2666 land at 15 and 24 respectively.
The worst author introduction I ever saw is making me cringe, right now, as I remember it. The co-owner of the bookstore started by reading through the store’s upcoming events flier, pausing to extemporize on each event. This took a full 10 minutes. Then she spent 5 minutes talking about the plight of independent bookstores, and how they need money to do things like community book nights, and hey she’s got this newsletter sign-up sheet that she’s going to pass around. And while we’re at it, the store actually has two different email newsletters that they send out, and she described them both in great detail. Another sign-up sheet is passed around.
Having already wasted close to 20 minutes of our time, she launched into a synopsis of the book, interspersed with her own impressions, leaving no secondary character or minor scene unnamed. Worst of all, the book has a rather large twist in the second half, and she was explicitly hinting at what it is. Someone in the audience actually yelled out, “Don’t give it away!” This was advice she did not take.
This is an extreme example, by far the worst I’ve ever seen, but author introduction crimes are rampant. I was recently at a literary festival where at least 10 of the roughly 15 author introductions I saw were painful to sit through. I take this issue seriously because I was an author events coordinator at Brookline Booksmith for two years, and we took pride in our author introductions. The willingness and ability to carefully craft a good author introduction, in fact, was part of my job interview.
Author introductions, in my opinion, are about courtesy. Should a beloved, Pulitzer Prize-winning author have to hear the president of Northwestern’s Jewish students’ society call him Michael Sha-BONE eight times in two minutes? No. Because he flew across the country to speak for 50 minutes in your overheated auditorium and you have the internet. A good author introduction shows the author that you’re excited to be a partner in promoting their work and that you value the role their career plays on the literary stage, all while being informative and – lord have mercy – brief.
How To Introduce an Author
Step 1. Find Out Who the Author Is
Get your details straight. Look up the pronunciation of their name, even if you think you know it. If a definitive answer is elusive, ask their publicist, agent, or whoever set up the event with you. Otherwise, ask the author when they arrive, before you hit the microphone with some garbled version of Eugenides.
Find out what books they’ve written. Don’t say that Stay Awake is Dan Chaon’s fifth novel. He’s written two novels, but this is his third story collection. Do you think A History of Love is Nicole Krauss’s first book? Wrong! Look it up. If you find yourself introducing someone like Michael Chabon, who’s written novels, short stories, essays, comic books, and children’s books, just avoid taxonomy and say he’s prolific.
Find out what awards they’ve won, where they teach (currently), and what periodicals they write for. More on this later.
If you haven’t had time to do your research, don’t guess, and definitely don’t — as I saw someone do last weekend — turn to Kevin Brockmeier in the middle of your introduction and say “Is The View From the Seventh Layer a novel?” I shudder.
Step 2. Weed Out Unnecessary/Unimpressive Details
So you’ve printed out the author’s Wikipedia entry. Don’t include the fact that they teach creative writing part-time at Eastern Nevada State. Don’t mention that they won the Central North Carolina Writer’s Prize. Don’t say that they were included on Entertainment Weekly’s 100 Authors to Watch list.
These details do two things — they make the author look small-time, and they give the impression that you’re desperate for any scrap of information to fill out your introduction.
Which Brings Us to Step 3. Include Personal Impressions
Personal impressions of the author’s work should be the bulk of your introduction. Ideally, they will be your personal impressions. During my first year as an events coordinator, I read each author’s book before I hosted their event, a debatably unnecessary gesture with enormous dividends.
Firstly, it is yet another step you can take to avoid looking like an idiot. The room is full of people who’ve most likely come to hear the author because they’ve read their work. It’s embarrassing when the person at the microphone is the only one who hasn’t.
Secondly, it will endear you greatly to the author. Consult any number of essays written by authors on the drudgery of the book tour, and you’ll know that being greeted by someone who’s taken the time to prepare for their visit is a rare and lovely thing.
Thirdly, nothing is more compelling than sincerity. Speaking thoughtfully and graciously about your reading experience will get the whole room, including the author, excited about the event far more than a list of writing prizes they’ve won, or periodicals they’ve contributed to. Listening to someone introduce one of their favorite authors can be really beautiful.
I spent two days writing an introduction for Jonathan Safran Foer. I read Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close and I reread Everything is Illuminated. I quoted both books. I talked about his critical reputation and my own love for his work both as a reader and as a bookseller. After the event he asked me if I would sign my printed out copy of the introduction for him to keep. I’m sure he doesn’t have it anymore, but it was absolutely the best moment of my nine-year bookselling career.
That introduction, by the way, was 235 words long.
So Obviously Step 4 is Wrap It Up
500 words maximum. Absolutely no more than 500 words. 200-300 words is ideal, but 500 words is the limit. No exceptions, friends, 500 words.
Do your homework. Communicate enthusiasm. Get out of the way.
Caveats on Introducing a Famous Author
If you’re in a theater with a few hundred people, you don’t need to convince anybody that the author you’re introducing is impressive. They know that, that’s why they’re in a theatre. Stick to two or three of the most impressive details. “Marilynne Robinson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author who teaches at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop” does the trick as far as eminence goes. A long, long list of accomplishments isn’t impressive, it’s tiresome. Jennifer Egan was included in Best American Short Stories? No kidding. She’s Jennifer Egan.
Unless it’s short, pithy, and you’re working it into one of your sentences, you don’t need to quote a famous author’s reviewers. The New York Times thinks Richard Ford is a great writer? No kidding. He’s Richard Ford.
Caveats on Introducing a New/Not Famous Author
Please read the book. To avoid filling the introduction with the only vaguely impressive accolades we talked about earlier, read the book and say something nice about it.
In this case, it is great to quote reviewers. Not everyone gets to teach at Iowa, but a lot more people get reviewed by a major newspaper. Quoting these reviews puts the author in the big leagues. If you find a great review of the book, but it’s not in a well-known publication, just attribute it to “one reviewer,” not “a reviewer in the Tuscaloosa Daily Press.”
Don’t list everything the author has ever written. Five titles maximum, or one or two from a few different genres.
Don’t synopsize anything but the book the author is currently promoting.
Any synopsis you do give of the current book should be one sentence long.
Don’t pretend like you have plans to read the author. Comments like “I can’t wait to get my hands on this book” or “A Thousand Acres has been on my to-be-read pile for a long time” are condescending and blatantly untrue. If you were going to read the book, you would have done it.
Do quote the author in the introduction.
Do get housekeeping details — where the signing line will be, where to buy the books — out of the way before you start your introduction.
If you’re introducing a joint reading or a panel, don’t make one author sound more impressive than the others.
Print out your introduction (you’ve worked so hard!), practice reading it out loud before the event, and don’t go off script.
Image via Wikimedia Commons
On the last Sunday in November, book critic Adam Begley scooped Frank Rich and Maureen Dowd for the top spot in the New York Times most emailed list. Not with a review though. Instead, he wrote an excellent piece about Florence for the travel section, in which he recommended E.M. Forster’s Room with a View as a kind of literary guidebook to the city. The Florence piece came several months after Begley employed the same tactic to tour Sicily, that time with Giuseppe de Lampedusa’s The Leopard in his pocket.Those two pieces inspired me to think about other novel-city pairings. Last June, The Millions ran a guest post from novelist Joan Silber, in which she detailed some of her favorite books for enriching a trip abroad. Here I have something slightly different in mind: novels that allow you to follow Forster’s advice to leave the guidebook at home (and instead replace it with a great work of fiction). So, without further ado:The American southwest: Try Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House for its stark descriptions of a New Mexico mesa.If you don’t know Boston already, let Henry James introduce you with The Bostonians, his story of love and politics in the 19th-century city.It feels cheap, I know, to make John Grisham your tour guide, but I devoured The Client on a boat trip up the Amazon and don’t regret it a bit. If, for some reason you’re looking to weigh down your trip to Brazil, go with Claude Levi-Strauss’ Tristes and TropiquesSee the Windy City through the eyes of Dreiser’s classic Sister Carrie, which renders a teeming, if not always hospitable portrait of Chicago.I like Graham Greene for Cuba, with Our Man in Havana. Greene recurs a lot in this list, so in order to get it out of the way all at once: London (The End of the Affair); Mexico (The Lawless Roads or The Power and the Glory); Switzerland (Doctor Fischer of Geneva); Vienna (The Third Man); Vietnam (The Quiet American)There’s still no better guide to Dublin than James Joyce (The Dubliners).Greece: Bring along The Colossus of Maroussi by Henry Miller.E.M. Forster’s good for Florence. He’s also good for intrigue in colonial India: A Passage to India.It’s always a decision, do you want to see a place through the eyes of a perceptive foreigner or a local? In Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul: Memories and The City you get both.Jerusalem: Mark Twain voyages to the ancient capital in The Innocents Abroad. How can you resist?London: OMG. Ready to party? Try and keep up with Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies. A jaded post-colonial? Nick Hornby’s About a Boy. Prefer to delve into immigrant life? Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. Or, if you take your London straight up, there’s no better pour than Bleak House by Dickens.Try Joan Didion’s Miami if you have half a mind not to come back.I can think of nothing finer than New York in the hands of E.B. White: Here is New York.Paris: Again, are you going for the expat experience or the genuine article? If the former, go with James’ Portrait of a Lady or Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. But for my money, see the city like a native. Stendahl’s The Red and the Black.The great Russian novels are like a trip abroad no matter where you read them. Try Crime and Punishment or Gogol’s “The Nose” and “The Overcoat” for St. Petersburg.Switzerland has inspired some great books in addition to the aforementioned Greene. There is Twain again with A Tramp Abroad and Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain.I conclude the list with wanderlust. Books and foreign places are a fitting pair. There will always be more of both than there is time. This is of course anything but an exhaustive list. I’d love to hear what books you recommend in lieu of a tour guide.
All of a sudden, I have been teaching public school English for a decade. Why am I surprised? I never thought I would be a high school teacher. I never took education courses. Only now am I beginning to reconcile my different professional selves: teacher, adjunct professor, and writer.
For years I avoided writing about my full-time profession. From 7:20 to 2:21 each day, I teach literature and creative writing courses at a large public high school in New Jersey. The day stretches much longer than that, but those are my salaried hours. I love kids, and I love books, and I love writing.
I didn’t avoid writing about teaching because I was ashamed of my profession, though I am aware that save for a handful of other teacher-writers scattered around the country, the majority of my literary peers work in higher education or publishing. They are tenured professors and adjuncts, editors and freelancers. When people learn at a book release or reading that I actually teach high school, as in kids, they look confused. I don’t blame them.
There are few professions more confusing, or misrepresented, than high school teaching. Education is a ubiquitous experience — public or private, we are all taught by someone, somewhere — and yet it remains misunderstood. I have now begun to write about teaching because I profoundly respect this vocation. I refuse to allow politicians to corner the rhetorical market on this subject. There are stories that need to be told.
I hesitate to call what follows “advice,” though it might seem as such. There are so many varied experiences during a single teaching day that I am much more comfortable thinking in epigrammatic terms. I have a lot more to say about teaching, and certain reflections will need to wait. But, for now, here are 55 thoughts about teaching English.
You need to love words. You don’t need to love a certain type of book or a particular writer, but you need to love letters and phrases and the possibilities of language. You will spend most of your days dealing with words, and students can sense if words do not bring you joy.
Students can sense a lot of things.
Do not confuse reading passions with reading biases. Be aware and upfront about your biases and work to decrease them. Your passions are healthy, as long as you help students understand why certain words stir you. Love Gerard Manley Hopkins? Telling them so won’t do a thing. Blow-up “Pied Beauty” on an 11 X 17 page and show them how a comma can change a moment, turn a breath.
Speaking of poetry: they will hate the idea of it, but they already love and live the soul of it. Condensed narratives and emotions tucked in abstractions? Those are their existences. Give them “Scary, No Scary” by Zachary Schomburg, and see what happens.
“Mostly I want my poems to generate their own energy through confusion. I want my poems to confuse the reader. Not a confusion in a cognitive or narrative sense, but in an emotional sense.” — Zachary Schomburg
Create a space for safe confusion.
Teach Sylvia Plath, but help your students understand that she is more than how she passed from this world. Teach “Blackberrying,” teach “Pheasant,” and, most of all, teach “Sow,” that beautiful and strange poem about a mythical pig hidden by her breeder.
Show them that poetry is about being surprised.
Remember why you are doing this.
Your students are not data.
Teach them writers who look and sound like them, so that they can believe that their words are the types of words that can be printed and praised.
Teach them writers who look and sound nothing like them, so that they can recognize what we share.
Politicians will misrepresent you. Vote.
Teachers used to be activists. There is a difference between being an activist within your classroom — which is not your role — and being an activist for your profession and your students.
Know what opinions are appropriate to express, and which are not. Respect your students enough to never cross that line.
Students have a reason for everything they do.
You need to be awake. Sleep is essential. Hoard your hours of sleep.
You will make a hundred decisions within a single class period.
You need to somehow give your attention to each individual student without dividing that attention.
Thomas Pynchon is worth teaching. Often confusion breeds later curiosity.
Think about the worst teacher you ever had. Recognize that he or she was probably not as bad as you thought. Think about that teacher’s classroom, students, situation. Were you part of the problem? How would you have helped yourself?
Write. Talk about your writing. Show them your drafts, your edits. Write along with them.
Trade robotic peer editing for writing workshops. Follow the undergraduate model but manipulate it for the needs of your students. Establish clear guidelines and model them during a mock workshop of your own work. Show them that you can be vulnerable, that you can accept criticism.
Never ask students to complete an assignment that you are unable to complete.
You will often have young women in class who love to write, and who outnumber the men, and yet these young women will stop writing. Teach them to keep writing. Show them their words matter. Introduce them to Mary Shelley, Marilynne Robinson, Jayne Anne Phillips, Toni Morrison, Tayari Jones, Charlotte and Emily Brontë, Alice Elliott Dark, Virginia Woolf, Stacey D’Erasmo, Roxane Gay, Jamie Quatro, Megan Mayhew Bergman, Mary Karr, Susan Sontag, Natalie Diaz, Emily Dickinson, Kate Chopin, Denise Levertov, Adrienne Rich, Anne Sexton, Willa Cather, Joan Didion, Donna Tartt, and, please, Flannery O’Connor.
Do not try to sanitize Flannery. Let her live on the page.
Students want to know about you. Sometimes their personal questions are a clever distraction. Be more mystery than memoir, but never be cold.
If a student wants to engage in small talk at the start of class, they probably have not completed their assignment, and are hoping for some temporary graces. But don’t assume that.
Give them the benefit of the doubt until they will no longer benefit from it.
Avoid instructing your students to use dialogue tags in fiction other than “said.”
Cut their adverbs, but show them how, in the right hands, those words can be powerful.
“His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” — “The Dead” by James Joyce.
You may be the only person who will ever read their sonnets, or their prose poems, or their dystopian novellas. Don’t take that privilege lightly.
Teach writing from literary magazines. Encourage your students to read those magazines. If a student comes to class with tomes of speculative fiction, send them to Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Strange Horizons. Show them how literature is built from these little magazines on up, and how they can help maintain the foundation.
Give students the confidence to believe that they might publish their work, but teach them the humility necessary to withstand rejection.
Create meticulous plans for each day.
But be alive in the classroom.
“Through my years of teaching, I learned to walk into a classroom wondering what I would say, rather than knowing what I would say. Then I learned by hearing myself speak; the source of my speaking was our mysterious harmony with truths we know, though very often our knowledge of them is hidden from us. Now, as a retired teacher, I mistrust all prepared statements by anyone, and by me.” — Andre Dubus
Social media and cell phones exist, and neither is going anywhere. Help students use both responsibly.
Teaching is performance, but not the performance of theater; there needs to be genuine interaction. They can tell if you are putting on a show.
Each course is a different world. Each class period is a different world.
There is an art to asking questions. There is a way to ask questions that will only produce answers that you want to hear.
Wait after asking a question. Help show them what silence can reveal.
Math is language. Physics is language. Language is math. Language is physics.
You are there to teach them, not punish them. They need your help.
Read aloud. Every day.
Don’t be so dramatic about drama. Barebones in-class productions can be beautiful.
Of course, read Shakespeare, but also read Ionesco, Beckett, and Shepard.
For the right group of students, No Exit can be perfect.
Teach them how to closely read a text. Not only for the skill, but for the experience of spending time with words. Show them the worth of contemplation.
Be pragmatic and idealistic. If you are too much of one, the students will catch you.
This is not supposed to be easy.
Remember that you, also, are not data.
One day you will no longer be in the classroom. You will be standing in a garden or sitting in front of a television or holding the hand of a grandchild or pulling a plate from a dishwasher, and you will remember those rows and some of the faces. Try to remember none of the distractions; not the shortsighted pedagogical fads or the boorish politicians. Remember the students who thanked you. Trust that you helped the ones who did not.
For some students, you are their only light.
Image via Jayel Aheram/Flickr
The New York Times has been highlighting a new trend. With all the Kindles, Nooks, iPads, and whatnot being unwrapped on Christmas day, (to home in on just one of those devices, they say Amazon may have sold over 8 million Kindles this year), what was once a day of rest from shopping is likely to be a booming day for ebook sales. Some in the publishing industry are even beginning to see the ebook emergence as a ray of light in a stagnant industry.
It’s pretty clear by now that ebooks and ereaders are a fully mainstream technology. Even among the avid, book-worshiping, life-long readers that frequent The Millions, ebooks are surprisingly popular. in fact, looking at the statastics that Amazon provides us, about 15% of all the books bought by Millions readers at Amazon after clicking on our links were Kindle ebooks. Put another way, that’s about one out of every seven books.
So, for all those readers unwrapping shiny new devices, here are some links to get you going.
For starters, here are the top-ten most popular ebooks purchased by Millions readers in 2010. You’ll notice that these aren’t all that different from the overall Millions favorites — to the extent that they are different from other books popular with our readers, these books tend to skew towards the page-turner (Tolstoy notwithstanding) and the cheaper (all but one are, as of this writing, at or below the $9.99 magic ebook price point).
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson ($5.20)
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell ($7.66)
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan ($9.34)
The Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Stories by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky ($4.46)
Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart ($9.10)
Faithful Place by Tana French ($12.99)
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen ($9.99)
The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson ($7.57)
The Passage by Justin Cronin ($9.45)
Tinkers by Paul Harding ($5.68)
Other potentially useful ebook links:
And in this fractured ebook landscape, you’ve also got your NookBooks, Borders ebooks, Google ebooks, and Apple ibooks. All of these purveyors happen to do a brisk “business” in “selling” free, out-of-copyright ebooks, but readers may prefer Project Gutenberg, an unaffiliated site that’s been making free ebooks available for years.
With year nearly half over, it’s time once again to look ahead at books that will be arriving in the coming months. 2007 was very much a front-loaded year in terms of big-name literary releases with heavyweights like Delillo, McEwan, Murakami, Lethem, and Chabon all dropping new titles early in the year. The second half of 2007, while it doesn’t have as many headline grabbers (excluding Harry Potter, of course), does have a number of interesting books on offer.September: I’ve already written about the Junot Diaz book The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Here’s what I said “The reason I’m so excited about this is that Diaz’s story by the same title in the New Yorker’s 2000 end-of-year fiction issue was one of the best stories that’s appeared in the magazine in the ten years I’ve been reading it. It is a story so good that I still remember talking to various people about it in my then home city of Los Angeles, people with whom I never before or after talked fiction. It was a story that got around. And now, finally, it has blossomed into a book.” Since then, the New Yorker has published another excerpt from the book, in the June 11 & 18 Summer Fiction issue, but the story isn’t available online.Suite Francaise, a posthumously published work by a Russian-born, French novelist who died in the Holocaust was a surprise bestseller in 2006. Though Irene Nemirovsky was a celebrated writer in the 1930s, she had been largely unknown to today’s readers. Now, however, her work is returning to the spotlight. Like Suite Francaise, Fire in the Blood was written during the early years of the war, but only published decades later. Unlike Suite Francaise, Fire in the Blood does not center on the war, instead “it dwells on intense, often repressed emotional conflict set against bucolic country life,” according to the International Herald Tribune where more about the book and Nemirovsky can be found.Songs Without Words is Ann Packer’s follow-up to her acclaimed debut, The Dive from Clausen’s Pier. Based on some reports from BEA, the book has generated some buzz, but I haven’t seen any early reviews. Publisher Knopf describes the book as a chronicle of a friendship between two women that is shaken when an “adolescent daughter enters dangerous waters” and “the fault lines in the women’s friendship are revealed.” An excerpt from the book is available, too.Denis Johnson has a hefty new tome (600+ pgs) on the way. As Garth pointed out to me when he snagged a galley of the book at BEA, Tree of Smoke has garnered some serious praise from FSG head Jonathan Galassi. His letter from the front of the galley says: “The novel you’re holding is Denis Johnson’s finest work, I believe, and one of the very best books we have ever had the honor to publish. Tree of Smoke has haunted me in the sense that I’ve thought about it and dreamed about it since I finished reading it, and the impression it left has only deepened over time. I think it is a great book, and I hope you will enjoy it as much as I have.” (via SoT)Richard Russo is taking something of a departure from his usual terrain in upstate New York with his new novel Bridge of Sighs. The book’s protagonist Louis Charles “Lucy” Lynch hales from upstate Thomaston, but the book’s action takes place partly in Venice where Lucy goes with his wife to find a childhood friend. From the sound of it, Russo stays true to the themes and tone of his past books but broadens the geography a bit.October: Ann Patchett, author of big seller Bel Canto has a new book coming out called Run. Patchett recently told Amazon the book is “about a man who is the former mayor of Boston, who has three sons and who has political ambitions for his sons that perhaps one of them would go on to be president, and he pushes them in that direction.” Or if you want a snappier blurb: “Joe Kennedy meets The Brothers Karamazov,” which sounds more than a little intriguing. Curious readers can listen to Patchett reading from the book courtesy WGBH Boston.In my early days as a bookseller, Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones was one of the first bestsellers I encountered from that side of the retail equation. I came to understand that this meant having a copy of the book within reach at all times since requests for it came unabated. At one point I even had the book’s ISBN memorized from ringing it up so frequently. Sebold and her publisher will undoubtedly be hoping for similar success with her follow-up novel The Almost Moon. USA Today recently ratcheted up the hype by revealing the book’s first sentence: “When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily.”Tom Perotta’s last book, Little Children got noticed both because of good reviews and because Pepperidge Farm made publisher St. Martin’s take its goldfish crackers off the cover (they were replaced by chocolate chip cookies). Perrotta’s new book, The Abstinence Teacher depicts no food whatsoever on the cover. The book treads Perrotta’s usual turf: the raw underbelly of suburbia. Following in the footsteps of Election, another Perrotta novel, a film version of The Abstinence Teacher is said to be in the works.Perhaps the “biggest” book yet to come out during the second half of this year, though, will be Philip Roth’s Exit Ghost. Billed as the final Zuckerman novel, Exit Ghost follows Zuckerman back to New York where he is seeing a doctor but is waylaid when chance encounters stir things up in the way things get stirred up in Roth novels. An early look from PW is less than impressed – “the plot is contrived.” A random blogger offers a different opinion. With the publication date several months away, the jury is still out.The above are the forthcoming books that have caught my eye, but I’m sure I’ve missed some good ones. Tell us about them in the comments.