On March 28, 2019, Norwegian filmmaker Kristoffer Borgli attempted to interview David Shields at a NORMS Restaurant in West Hollywood, Calif. Later he attempted to interview Shields by a hedge and at a bookshop. Later he attempted to interview Shields and Bret Easton Ellis at the latter’s nearby apartment. Luckily, Borgli’s cameras were rolling, and The Millions is proud to present its readers with what is likely the most awkward author interview in the history of American letters.
Sometimes, like most storytellers with a book or two under their belt, I’m asked if I have any advice for younger or less experienced writers. I hope the following five tips can be of some assistance.
1. Exhaust other paths to earthly renown.
Before you sit down to write, carefully ensure that a ticket to widespread adulation, or at the very least cultural relevance, is not more readily available from a more auspicious venue. Ignominiously fallen from its privileged position of yesteryear — i.e., the days when electronic media did not exist — the writing of belles lettres should no longer be considered an effective strategy for achievement of fame or fortune. Each potential alternative to this challenging and circuitous route should therefore be pursued exhaustively; a checklist can be a useful tool in the process. A few examples of superior options: Singer. Newly rich individual. Reality TV person. Naked blogger. Politician sexting victim. Politician. Tech mogul. Koch-brother style of oligarch. It is imperative, before you sit down to write, that none of these alternatives are available to you in either the short or medium term.
2. Rid writing space/home of counterproductive elements.
Children and pets, ideally, should be removed, the former in particular. Pets may remain if silent/unmoving. Some plants may also remain, if watered by others/servants. Children must be extirpated. In special contexts this may be achieved on a temporary basis, but permanent elimination is always the safer course. As a writer, you will require absolute peace and tranquility to enable a singular focus on yourself, your train of thought, indeed your every notion or desire as such. Do not live on a loud street, nor should you abide among active and loud persons. Distressed or ill persons, like children, should not be allowed to persist in your vicinity. Side note: Also, avoid passing your weeks, months, or years in a state or region ravaged by crime, war, toxins of water or air, or highly infectious disease. Nations governed by autocratic rule are permissible, but seldom preferred.
3. Provisions must be abundant.
Persistent hunger is anathema to the serious writer, much like civil strife. We recommend a fully stocked larder. We recommend, also, a well-furnished bar and wisely chosen selection of fine vintages. Poverty, whether inherited or self-made, is rarely a judicious choice for writers determined to express themselves and delicately hone their craft. Few among our thoughtful legion work well in a state of extreme destitution; there are only a handful of exceptions in recent memory, each one of whom is now, sadly, deceased. Cleave to the immortal rationalization of vaunted French scribbler Gustave Flaubert: “Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” Indeed we would go further still: better, far better to be a bourgeois than to live like one.
4. Be no man’s wife/no woman’s husband.
You may gather your acolytes about you, as a writer, and indeed you should do so expeditiously, for even a fledgling writer requires admiring readers as surely as a fragile ego needs to shore up strength. If you elect to follow the popular middlebrow path of academic writing, becoming for instance a poet/professor or fiction writer/professor, students can function well in this supportive acolyte role. Spouses, however — unless secured in a permanent position of eager servility — are not devoutly to be wished. Exceptions may willingly be made for an “art wife,” i.e. a domestic and professional helpmeet and facilitator of male creative output, but female writers should be advised that few, if any, “art husbands” have yet to be discovered in the annals of literary history. Thus we must counsel against the conjugal state in the majority of cases, and indeed against amorous entanglements of most kinds, which can be not only distracting but drain the serious writer of vital fluids/attention. Short-term encounters are best, in the event that human contact beyond the immediate circle of acolytes is wished.
5. Banish the critic from your mind.
In our line of endeavor, self-confidence is de rigueur. Because of its often-solitary nature, book-writing, unlike the writing of comments on websites, the posting of witticisms on social media, etc., must be pursued, at least in part, absent the constant and daily input of our fellow humans. This, in any case, has been the traditional model. In this regard, two items are worth noting: first, a writer must banish the inner critic, that critical force that lurks within your own intelligence. An overzealous, naysaying mental habit is death to the production of both prose and verse. Second, banish the outer critic handily. Yes, there will be those who argue against the value of your work; ‘twas ever thus. There will be those who gainsay your genius, at various points; those, in publishing and reviewing equally, who turn their faces from the gifts you give. These unenlightened souls cannot be allowed to enter your mental world. Remember always that, as writers, we give because we must. We give, at times, despite the knowledge that our gifts may not be needed, wanted, or enjoyed. For us — we must remind ourselves — the joy is in that selfless offering.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
HOST: You’re watching The Reissue Factor, a talent show in which out-of-print books compete for a second lease on literary life. Let me introduce you to our judges, each of whom has to the power to introduce a work to a new generation of readers.
PENGUIN CLASSICS: Don’t forget Morrissey.
HOST: Next, the precious stones lobby is furious with these guys, because they’re flooding the market with lost gems…New York Review Books Classics!
NYRB: We like to call ourselves the New York Review Bling Classics.
PENGUIN CLASSICS: Really, just how many neglected masterpieces can there be?
NYRB: You’re just bitter we scooped you on Stoner.
HOST: And finally, from across the pond, the exacting and ever acerbic Faber & Faber, home of the Faber Finds list.
FABER: I’d just like to state that T.S Eliot was one of our original directors. T.S. Eliot. And now here we are on a reality show.
HOST: Those are our judges, and I’m your host, Jonathan Lethem. Just kidding. He was booked. I’m Ryan Seacrest.
Our first contestant tonight is a mass-market paperback from the 1970s, Never Say Sometime, which describes itself as “read hard and put away wet.” Tell us a bit more about yourself.
CONTESTANT: Well, I guess I’ve always felt less than, worthless, unappreciated. I’ve never known the intimacy of a bedside table, nor the snug fit of a tightly-packed shelf. My first owner picked me up in an airport, then left me in a seatback pocket. I’ve had abandonment issues ever since.
PENGUIN CLASSICS: Yes, but why do you deserve to be republished? And more important, what are you actually about?
CONTESTANT: About? You want to know what I’m about? I’m about watching my best friend getting pulped in front of my eyes. I’m about cold porcelain sending shivers down my spine when I was used as bathroom reading during my teens. I’m about the shame of selling my wife to a seedy used bookstore to make ends meet.
FABER: No, no, no. I can only fault your unfortunate owner for placing you beside the toilet rather than flushing you down it.
NYRB: It’s a little melodramatic for us, so we’re going to pass. But don’t get discouraged — every book has a lost classic inside.
[Two crew-members escort the book off-stage and toss it into a Goodwill donations box, where, in a welcome twist of fate, Never Say Sometime is reunited with its long-lost wife, a failed contestant from a previous episode.]
SEACREST: Next up — and it’s understandably taking its time getting up on stage — is The Falkland Octet, a long out-of-print, eight-part saga tracking the fortunes of a Falkland Islander family from the 1830s to the outbreak of war in…
NYRB: We’ll take it.
SEACREST: Don’t you want to see it first?
NYRB: Nope, we just put it into production a few seconds ago.
SEACREST: Moving on then, we have an elegantly slim academic monograph: a revered cult study on the works of Milton Mutey, a woefully underappreciated figure himself whose own cult novel is set to appear on the show next week. First off, your title?
CONTESTANT: The Novels of Milton Mutey: A Critical Study.
PENGUIN CLASSICS: Catchy. And is that an Oxford book jacket I see?
CONTESTANT: I should certainly hope not. Cambridge University Press, sir, and worn proudly.
PENGUIN CLASSICS: Apologies. And in your dream scenario, who would write the new introduction to your book?
CONTESTANT: F.R. Leavis.
NYRB: I think he’s dead.
CONTESTANT: William Empson then.
FABER: Definitely dead.
CONTESTANT: I feel like Rip Van Winkle. Harold Bloom?
SEACREST: He, I know for a fact, is still alive. We lunched last week at Spago.
NYRB: One more question. What do you see your reissue bringing to a new generation of readers?
CONTESTANT: A timely critical study on the novels of Milton Mutey.
SEACREST: Anyone interested?
FABER: This could be the ghost of old Wonkypenky talking, but we love everything about you, from that old-timey donnish swagger to your Ex Libris sticker. Whatever “it” is, you definitely have it.
SEACREST: I believe we call it…The Reissue Factor!
Our last contestant, a memoir, evocatively depicts a society whose very way of life is threatened by environmental hardships, fearsome predators, and rival clans. Its frank account of the sex lives of early hominids caused quite a stir when it was first published on a cave wall in 50,000 B.C. Make no bones about it though: This Stone Age coming-of-age tale is more relatable today than ever.
[WHEELS SLAB OF PAINTED ROCK OUT ONTO STAGE]
PENGUIN: I’m intrigued, but are we sure this is in the public domain?
FABER: Sorry, it’s a no for us. Lacks emotional depth and the saber-toothed tiger subplot felt forced.
NYRB: We’re worried about the shipping costs.
SEACREST: Anyone know if Goodwill takes granite?
We hate to end the show on a sour note, but we’ve had some great finds tonight on The Reissue Factor. Tune in next week when our panel will include Melville House, Pushkin Press, and New Directions deciding whether to reprint a classic travelogue long forgotten because never written.
[Recent studies] suggest that children learn best when they are allowed to select their own books… [According to one researcher,] “I don’t think the majority of these kids ever read during the summer, but [being] given the opportunity to select their own books and discuss what they knew… was, in itself, motivating to them.” –The New York Times
My Summer Book Report
By Zach McCormick
Mrs. Bianco’s class, Grade 4
The book I picked to read during my summer vacation was Portnoy’s Complaint, by Philip Roth. I picked Portnoy’s Complaint because it was right on my dad’s bookshelf and also because the cover was very yellow and the writing on the cover was very swirly. And I was also pretty curious about Portnoy and his complaint. What is he complaining about, I wondered? I like to complain sometimes, like when my mom forgets to put Fruit By the Foot in my lunchbox, or if she puts a plum in there instead of Fruit By the Foot. So I thought it would be neat to see what he’s complaining about.
The first thing he complains about is his mom. I don’t think he likes her very much, because she does really bad things to him. She won’t even let him eat French fries or hamburgers! She says, “Don’t eat French fries with Melvin Weiner after school.” My mom doesn’t want me to eat French fries that much either, but Portnoy can’t EVER have them or he’ll get in trouble.
Portnoy also complains about his dad, because he doesn’t know how to hold a baseball bat! Portnoy also talks a lot about his dad’s rectum, which is WEIRD. I never read a book that had the word “rectum” in it before, except maybe the dictionary. I know it’s in there because I looked it up when I was reading “Portnoy’s Complaint.” It means “tush.”
Also, besides “rectum,” there are a LOT of bad words in Portnoy’s Complaint, by Philip Roth! Portnoy says the “f” word a LOT. I felt kind of bad when I was reading it, because I knew I wasn’t supposed to see those words, and my dad might catch me and then I wouldn’t be able to watch “Phineas and Ferb” for a whole week. That’s what happened when I used his drill, even though I was wearing goggles and I didn’t go ALL the way through the car door. He never caught me reading Portnoy’s Complaint, though.
Portnoy also says “bullshit” and “nipple” and “bitches” and “whore” and “ass.” Also, he says “prick” and “tits” and “sex.” And also, “suck” and “crap” and “diarrhea.” (Sorry, Mrs. B!)
There are a lot of words in Portnoy’s Complaint that I didn’t really get, like shtupp and schlong and shmutzig and punim. I don’t know what they mean, but they’re really fun to say! Shtupp shtupp shtupp shtupp schlong schlong schlong schlong!
There’s a whole part in Portnoy’s Complaint called “WHACKING OFF” that I didn’t really get. Philip Roth, who wrote Portnoy’s Complaint, keeps talking about penis, so maybe it’s about peeing? Which I like, especially after asparagus, so it smells like asparagus pee. But Portnoy doesn’t talk about asparagus pee at all. Maybe Portnoy isn’t talking about peeing?
What’s a “vaselined upright”?
I guess the main part of Portnoy’s Complaint is how he has all of these girlfriends, but he doesn’t really like them, and that’s sort of WEIRD. I don’t have a girlfriend really, but I think if I did, I would like her. DON’T TELL HER, Mrs. B, but I had a SUPER HUGE CRUSH on Danielle S. last year. She wasn’t my girlfriend because I never talked to her, but I really sort of liked her and never threw at her in dodgeball, except the one time when I hit her in the ear and she had to go home. But Portnoy even calls one of his girlfriends a monkey! Monkeys are cool, especially ones that wear clothes, but I don’t think I’d want a monkey for my girlfriend. She’d probably smell bad and have bugs on her, and also she’d try to eat my Fruit By the Foot.
I wonder if you had a monkey girlfriend though, if you could play baseball with her. I saw a movie one time where a monkey was a pitcher on a baseball team. That was the best movie. If my monkey girlfriend could play baseball than maybe it would be okay if she was a monkey. Portnoy never did that with his monkey. They were always doing something else, I think.
But Portnoy doesn’t like his monkey girlfriend, especially when he calls her a “crazy bitch.” (Sorry, Mrs. B!) He doesn’t like ANYTHING, to tell you the truth. He doesn’t like his parents, or his girlfriends, or even himself, really! He says he’s a barbarian, and a pig, and also “psychoneurotic,” which I’m not sure what that means, but it doesn’t really sound very great. We had an assembly last year where they did this play, and it was all about how you should like yourself. They sang “I’m unique and unrepeatable” a bunch of times, and it got stuck in my head for about a month! I don’t think Portnoy saw this play, which had puppets in it.
I didn’t really like Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth, even if it had a yellow cover and swirly letters. It was pretty hard to read, because I didn’t understand a lot of the words, and it made me feel kind of gross, like the time I ate all those Rice Krispies treats at the beach. There were a lot of curses, and Portnoy was angry all the time. He complained about EVERYTHING. I probably should’ve picked Diary of A Wimpy Kid for my summer reading book.
P.S., Mrs. B—what does “Jewish guilt” mean?