Curiosities

The Rude Writer

In the September issue of Elle, Lorrie Moore talks about why being a writer means being creepily detached and rude.  Redux here at Jezebel.
Curiosities

Profit-Sharing for Authors and Publishers

Novelist and blogger M.J. Rose thinks authors' personal marketing efforts should be more substantially rewarded; Robert Miller, president and publisher of HarperStudio, responds with a proposal to restructure the author-publisher relationship into 50-50 profit-sharing, as HarperStudio has done.
Curiosities

Poet Claudia Rankine Narrates the S. Bronx

The L Magazine features an interview with poet/multi-genre artist Claudia Rankine, whose performance piece The Provenance of Beauty: A South Bronx Travelogue -- a Rankine-written-and-recorded narrative that accompanies a bus ride through the South Bronx -- will run for two months beginning Labor Day Weekend.
Essays

The Bronx is Yearning

I. The Bronx is hot.  Meaning, it’s all the rage. It may not be burning anymore, but its image continues to smolder. The nomination and confirmation of Sonia Sotomayor to the United States Supreme Court put the Bronx on the media map in a particular way – as a place wherefrom tough, brilliant figures rise up — out of the ashes, so to speak, to become prominent leaders (Attorney General Eric Holder has been cited as another Bronx-emerging Obama appointee, the footnote of his urban-tough origins a weird tagalong trailing behind Sotomayor’s blazing coattails). Although, more often than not, the Bronx seems to come up in the phrase Bronx-born.  In other words, as far as the media (including the arts media) is concerned, the Bronx is a bad hand you get dealt; it’s the place that you survive, and then surmount, and eventually flee.  The cinema has immortalized for us this gritty, get-out-while-you-can image of the Bronx in films like Bonfire of the Vanities, Summer of Sam, and Fort Apache, The Bronx. In 1931, The New Yorker published this couplet by Ogden Nash: The Bronx? No Thonx (Thirty-three years later, in 1964, Nash penned the following poem to the Dean of Bronx Community College: I can't seem to escape / the sins of my smart-alec youth; / Here are my amends. / I wrote those lines, "The Bronx? / No thonx"; / I shudder to confess them. / Now I'm an older, wiser man / I cry, "The Bronx? God / bless them!”) New York State Senator and Democratic Majority Leader Pedro Espada, Jr. (33rd Senate District, the Bronx) is under investigation for (among other things) allegedly keeping a dummy apartment residence in the Bedford Park section of the Bronx while primarily living in an affluent suburban area in Westchester County. Writers – Bronx-born – off the top of my head:  E.L. Doctorow, Don Delillo, Richard Price, Abraham Rodriguez, John Patrick Shanley.  After doing a little research: Herman Wouk, Moss Hart, Theodore Dreiser, Oliver Sacks, Paul Attanasio, Sarah Jones, Chazz Palminteri (yes, just like his character Cheech in Bullets over Broadway, he wrote – a one-man theatrical piece upon which Robert DeNiro’s A Bronx Tale was based). None, as far as I know, stayed or returned. II. Colson Whitehead wrote about moving to Brooklyn in the mid-90s because he wanted to be “part of a vibrant cultural scene.”  His tongue-in-cheek piece about Brooklyn-as-literary-mecca ran in the NY Times Book Review in March 2008: As you may have heard, all writers are in Brooklyn these days.  It’s the place to be.  You’re simply not a writer if you don’t live here.  Google “brooklyn writer” and you’ll get, “Did you mean the future of literature as we know it?"  People are coming in from all over.  In fact, the physical act of moving your possessions from Manhattan to Brooklyn is now the equivalent of a two-year MFA program.  When you get to the other side, they hand you three Moleskine notebooks and a copy of “Blogging for Dummies.”  You’re good to go... In interviews, I get asked a lot, “What’s it like to write in Brooklyn?”… I expect… it’s like writing in Paris, but there are fewer people speaking in French. III. I live in the Bronx – in the southeast corner of the borough in a neighborhood called Port Morris. I lived in Brooklyn a few years back.  When I lived in Brooklyn, I didn’t write much.  After I moved to the Bronx, I wrote a novel.  Mostly, I write alone, at a desk, on a laptop.  Out my south window, I see the Triborough (recently renamed RFK) Bridge, the Bruckner Expressway, and the on-ramp to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.  It’s noisy here; we’re surrounded by industrial plants and the rumbling trucks which transport their equipment and materials.  Port Morris is both sanitation-plant central (the sweet smell of garbage hovers, especially in muggy weather) and the asthma capital of the world.  There are no bookstores or wi-fi cafes.  I don’t talk to people about what they’re reading on the subway; not very many people are reading (books) at all on the 6-train after the Harlem stop, the last stop in Manhattan.  Although the other day, I saw a young man – probably 18 or 19 – reading Alex Ross’s The Rest is Noise. I do sometimes wonder what it would be like to live in Brooklyn as a writer.  Setting off for the corner coffee shop with my laptop and travel mug and student stories and six bucks to my name, only to be stumbled into by one of the Jonathans – Lethem, Safran Foer, or Franzen – who would be standing in line in front of me, iPhone to his ear, stepping back to survey the scone selection in the display case.  “Oh, sorry about that,” Jonathan would say with genuine remorse, as I grit my teeth to bear the pain of a squashed pinky toe.  Then, back to the iPhone:  Six figures?  Just based on the proposal? Optioned, too? Excellent.  Gotta go, the last blueberry-bran scone has got my name on it. I wonder what it would be like to live in… Iowa City as a writer.  Fresno?  Portland?  London?  I wonder if it matters at all anymore where you live.  I wonder what “literary community” means these days.  Even way back in 2008, when Facebook was (to me) still that college-kids thing, Whitehead mused: A lot of my writer friends live near me, and that makes people think we just hang around with one another in cafes, trading work and discussing Harper’s and whatnot.  But I rarely see them.  We’re home working… It would be swell if it were otherwise – if there were some sort of unified Brooklyn vision.  But you’d have to be a bit dense to confuse a geographical and economic accident with an aesthetic movement, no matter how sick you are of hearing about how green the grass is over here, no matter how much you long for that nurturing Elysium of your dreams. IV. I’ve been thinking lately about moving to Manhattan. A change may be on the horizon. Cafes, bookstores, parks, readings, what not.  I don’t know, though… On warm evenings, when I’m working at home, I like to sit on our 4th floor window sill facing the street, beholding from a bird’s eye the waterproofers and metal workers; my legs dangling over onto the fire escape, waiting and watching for my partner J. to come home.  I look down at the old Puerto Rican woman sitting on her stoop – the one who laughs at me when I attempt to parallel park in front of her house – and she waves at me, pointing to the little TV set she’s brought out with her, then pumps both her fists in the air in praise of the Yankees.  The happy transvestite from two doors down rushes up the old woman’s stairs on cloppy high-heels and pushes her way past, barreling through the front door (I’m pretty sure someone’s dealing drugs in there).  To the west, on another neighbor’s rooftop, a lush garden—a veritable local farm’s worth of vegetables—grows from contractor buckets and halved metal burn barrels, green beans and cucumber blossoms vining their way up the TV antenna and vent pipes.  And Mayor Bloomberg has recently graced our block with tree plantings – a boon, especially, for my pup. On clear nights, we sometimes climb up to the rooftop with a beer and a cigar and watch the blinking lights circle and land at LaGuardia Airport, one after another, like gently, patiently falling stars.  Bridge traffic never seems to relent, no matter what time of day or night. From where we are, we can see the three boroughs, three cityscapes - Queens, Manhattan, the Bronx - everyone shuttling back and forth, here to there and back again.  This is the Bronx, but really, it’s a crossroads. I like the suspension, and the motion. For a writer, it’s a kind of exile - the good kind.  It’s as if, from here, if anything-anyone-anywhere started to burn, or surmount, or speak French, or forge a unified literary vision, we’d see it, and hear it, and smell it; and then, I’d write about it. Photo by Sonya Chung
Essays

Book Lovers

It starts out innocently. I recommend Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son. "I think you'd like Johnson," I say, after reading one of his short story drafts. "The violence and the tenderness together. 'Emergency' will knock you out." He's never read Johnson before. I know it will knock him out. It does (of course). He can't stop talking about it. I introduce him to some of Johnson's poetry. What else? he asks. Meaning: more, more, I want to be knocked out again. We'd talked about minimalism. I recommend Hemingway's A Moveable Feast. He is European, so I am sure he's read it, but he hasn't. Again, he loves it. What else? Now I have cred. Now we're rolling. He goes back to Europe. The email exchanges begin. He sends me "In Memory of My Feelings" by Frank O'Hara. I send him Galway Kinnell's "The Bear." Don't be intimidated by Kierkegaard, he writes, start with the Diapsalmata. And Proust goes fast, once you get into it. Read Sherwood Anderson, I write. Winesburg, Ohio. Then David Foster Wallace dies, and we both read Consider the Lobster before even mentioning it to one another. What a coincidence. The Dostoevsky essay. Yes, yes, the Dostoevsky essay. Rilke creeps in (of course he does). He reads Letters to a Young Poet, I read On Love and Other Difficulties. It all comes together in Rilke, he writes. It crystallizes. Yes, I write, Rilke goes his own way, beauty and goodness are one - not sequential, not interdependent, but one. More Hemingway. I find him unanalyzable, I write. The greatest work is like that, don't you think? I read For Whom the Bell Tolls and quote this passage: Then there was the smell of heather crushed and the roughness of the bent stalks under her head and the sun bright on her closed eyes and all his life he would remember the curve of her throat with her head pushed back into the heather roots and her lips that moved smally and by themselves and the fluttering of the lashes on the eyes tight closed against the sun and against everything, and for her everything was red, orange, gold-red from the sun on the closed eyes, and it all was that color, all of it, the filling, the possessing, the having, all of that color, all in a blindness of that color. For him it was a dark passage which led to nowhere, then to nowhere, then again to nowhere, once again to nowhere, always and forever to nowhere, heavy on the elbows in the earth to nowhere, dark, never any end to nowhere, hung on all time always to unknowing nowhere, this time and again for always to nowhere, now not to be borne once again always and to nowhere, now beyond all bearing up, up, up and into nowhere, suddenly, scaldingly, holdingly all nowhere gone and time absolutely still and they were both there, time having stopped and he felt the earth move out and away from under them. My God, I write, what is there to say? Yes, he writes back, I could not have stated it better, the way pure language leaves you speechless; I feel exactly the same way. For two months, neither of us writes. His father is ill, my manuscript is due. An awkward, quiet phase, during which I slog through The Brothers Karamazov (can't seem to keep my head in the game - guilt, theology, melodrama. Too much, too much...). He writes again, responds to my last email in which I complained about the Twilight phenomenon in the US. There are so many other better guilty pleasures, I'd written - Edith Wharton, Balzac, Palahniuk and Pelecanos. Yes, he writes, recalling a particular page-turning summer of his youth: Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther, Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, Borges' A Universal History of Iniquity. All mind-blowing, all in one week. Then, a small thing I notice - a reference to the Norwegian writer Erlend Loe, which he'd recommended some time before, maybe more than once. When you get to it... he writes. That book really changed my life. When I get to it. In the back of my mind - a tiny thought, barely perceptible - I think: when am I ever going to get to Erlend Loe, when I've got Jean Rhys, Bolaño, Toni Morrison, and Tolstoy on the nightstand? I think also about whether I'd ever say such a thing: That book changed my life. He writes that The Name of the World - a minor Johnson novel I'd recommended as an alternative to Tree of Smoke - didn't speak to him, but Douglas Coupland is wrecking him. I write that since it was the scene in The Name of the World where the narrator has an atheistic epiphany (he is sitting in church and realizes, ecstatically, that he doesn't believe in God) that really got me, I'd be interested in Coupland's Life After God. But really, I only half mean it. In the back of my mind, I think: I am too old for it. I don't know exactly how old he is, likely a few years younger than I; but now I begin to wonder just how many years. He's reading more David Foster Wallace, sings the cultic praises of Kerouac (I roll my eyes a little). He raves about Lars von Trier (ok, but Breaking the Waves made me literally vomit). I recommend In Bruges - Martin McDonagh is kind of a genius, I write - which he watches and then reports back as "odd" and "all falling apart at the end." We both agree that "Sonny's Blues" is indeed a masterpiece. I don't hear from him for over a month. I do google searches on Erlend Loe and read this at 3000 Books: If Tao Lin is the self-referential, disaffected freak-pop on the literary twenty-something's jukebox, then Erlend Loe is the guy sitting in the corner at the piano, picking out notes that eventually turn into a tune. I add Life After God to my goodreads.com to-read list. I think: what the hell am I doing? He writes again, back from travels. I decide to throw in a curve ball, just to see what happens. Everyman's Rules for Scientific Living by the Australian novelist Carrie Tiffany is the best book no one's ever heard of, I write. I happen to believe this, but I don't imagine he'll agree. For good measure, I add: Have you seen Superbad? I could watch that movie over and over again. (This, too, is true.) I think: what the hell am I doing? The next I hear from him the email is short. He has deadlines to meet. He is planning a trip to Berlin for work, then Venice with his girlfriend. You must bring Death in Venice along for the trip, I write. Ah, yes, it's been years, he writes. I suspect it holds up over time. I suspect it does, I write. One of the great literary endings. The decrepit Aschenbach, slumped over in a beach chair, that final reverie of youth and eros. He asks me if I am on Facebook. I write yes. Let's be Facebook friends. Yes, let's. (My mind flashes to all the profile photos of me and J. - grilling fish on the porch, gussied up for a film opening, canvassing for Obama.) I read on about Erlend Loe: "Naive.Super is a tiny charmer, a ripe fig that falls out of a budget store Christmas cracker onto your toe. Sure, it's 12 years old, but it remains a fresh antithesis to the meta-literary swagger of the 21st century, an antidote to superanalysis and overcomplexity." I think: that sounds refreshing. And J. might like it, even though he generally prefers nonfiction. I click, moving it from my wish list into the shopping cart.
Essays

Free is a Complicated Word, or, The Idea Coincidence

Sonya Chung's first novel, Long for This World, will be released by Scribner in March 2010. She is currently at work on a second novel, Sebastian & Frederick. You can learn more about Sonya and her work at www.sonyachung.com.Here's how it happens: an idea, or a question, or a theme begins to take shape in your mind. There is a tipping point, when it moves from background to foreground. Then: you see it everywhere. You are wearing Idea-X-colored glasses, everything speaks to this idea; it is a prism through which All Can Be Considered and Understood.Lydia Kiesling noted a related phenomenon in her essay here at The Millions, "The Reading Coincidence."Throughout my life as a reader I have noticed this thing happening over and over; a book I read after finishing a seemingly unrelated book turns out to be linked to the previous book in some way... Every book you read in a short period of time mentions one of the other books you just read, or a movie you saw last week, or even, like, a dream someone told you against your will? Doesn't it? And isn't it weird?... What is it called? Is there, perhaps, a pertinent volume of Remembrance of Things Past to which I should address myself?It is weird. And I don't know either to whom or what we should "address ourselves" in order to understand. But following is the anatomy of my Idea Coincidence around the notion of free:June 11 - My blog response to Dan Baum's twitter-essay about being fired from the New Yorker. I ponder the tensions between institutional sanction and intellectual-creative freedom.June 19 - A friend refers me to D.H. Lawrence's "The Spirit of Place" from his Studies in Classic American Literature. "Men are not free when they are doing just what they like. The moment you can do just what you like, there is nothing you care about doing." June 25-27 - I read Toni Morrison's A Mercy. Jacob, an Anglo-Dutch trader, inherits New England farm land in the early years of the American slave trade. He and his English wife Rebekka, are orphaned (literally and emotionally, respectively), free from family ties; and they reject church-community ties, forging instead a life of untethered self-determination. "They leaned on each other root and crown. Needing no one outside their sufficiency. Or so they believed... Those [church] women seemed flat to [Rebekka], convinced they were innocent and therefore free."Then, a week of being haunted by Rebekka's fate: Jacob dies of smallpox, she contracts the same; her isolation engulfs her (her children have also died). Their makeshift family - a Native American bondswoman, two cast-off slave girls, two indentured servants, and a blacksmith (a free black man) - begins to come apart:They once thought they were a kind of family because together they had carved companionship out of isolation. But the family they imagined they had become was false. Whatever each one loved, sought or escaped, their futures were separate and anyone's guessOn death's door, in feverish lucidity, Rebekka asks, "Were the Anabaptists right?... [Was] her stubborn self-sufficiency outright blasphemy?... She had only to stop thinking and believe." She recovers, then joins the church; her deal with God. The indentured servant Scully observes: "Mistress passed her days with the joy of a clock. She was a penitent, pure and simple. Which to him meant that underneath her piety was something cold if not cruel." Was Rebekka, the only technically free woman in the novel, ever truly free?July 2 - In an effort to shake off some of Morrison's (and Rebekka's) haunting presence, a light movie rental, Waitress, by Adrienne Shelley. Protagonist Jenna Hunterson, played by Keri Russell, wants to break free of her tyrannical, dim, pathologically love-hungry husband Earl, but finds herself unhappily pregnant with his baby. In the end, she finds her freedom in the mother-child bond.July 5 - I read Adam Zagajewski's heady essay, "Toil and Flame," on Polish painter Jozef Czapski. For Czapski, freedom was a way of seeing, an inner disposition. "Seeing must be governed by one principle alone, the principle of ‘inner freedom'" - which, according to Zagajewski, is rooted in Keats's negative capability, and a dynamic "not-knowing" that is essentially religious - "very strong faith and very strong doubt alongside a complete inability to stay fixed in one single, stable metaphysical conviction." July 9 - Publishers Weekly article on the hoopla around Chris Anderson's book Free: The Future of a Radical Price. Upon its release, angry readers accused Anderson of claiming that everything online should be free. Says Anderson: "... the book is not about how everything should be free, but about how the economics of free are developing in the increasingly digital world... I knew that the word ‘free' was a misunderstood, confusing word, and it has triggered fear and longing in equal amounts. I'm now dealing with the consequences of just how complicated the word is." July 14 - Bezalel Stern's guest post at The Millions on Richard Ford's Independence Day. Stern: "Real independence, Ford posits, is all about making connections. Independence is with people."What does it all mean? The fulcrum for me is Morrison's Rebekka. She is "free" - a white woman, living outside of religious institutionalism, unobligated to crown or lineage or patriarchy; free from the dictates of group or creed. Tied only to one person, one man, her kind (and equally untethered) husband Jacob. She has arrived at this station through a series of choices - in each case making a calculated determination to trade in the devil she knows for the devil she doesn't:"...her father got notice of a man looking for a strong wife rather than a dowry... her prospects were servant, prostitute, wife, and although horrible stories were told about each of those careers, the last one seemed safest... marriage to an unknown husband in a far-off land had distinct advantages... America. Whatever the danger, how could it possibly be worse?Religion, as Rebekka experienced it from her mother, was a flame fueled by a wondrous hatred. Her parents treated each other and their children with glazed indifference and saved their fire for religious matters... It was when [the Anabaptists] refused to baptize her first-born, her exquisite daughter, that Rebekka turned away. Weak as her faith was, there was no excuse for not protecting the soul of an infant from eternal perdition.But then here is Lawrence, cautioning against a dangerous kind of "masterless-ness," a specifically American version of freedom defined in negative terms, and by flight:Those Pilgrim Fathers and their successors never came here for freedom of worship. What did they set up when they got here? Freedom, would you call it?... They came largely to get away... That's why most people have come to America, and still do come. To get away from everything they are and have been... Which is all very well, but it isn't freedom. Rather the reverse. A hopeless sort of constraint. It is never freedom till you find something you really positively want to be...Zagajewski/Czapski bring Morrison and Lawrence together for me: Rebekka possessed some strain of Czapski's inner freedom, a dynamic not-knowing; her "weak faith" was her faith - faith and doubt together. Partnered to Jacob, she was able to sustain a living doubtful faith, her own version of what Lawrence terms a "deep, inward voice of religious belief" to which an individual must be "obedient" in order to be truly free. One of my favorite moments in the novel is this exchange between Rebekka and the Native American servant Lina, Rebekka's closest confidante:R: I don't think God knows who we are. I think he would like us, if He knew us, but I don't think he knows about us... He's doing something else in the world. We are not on His mind.L: What is He doing then, if not watching over us?R: Lord knows.The strength of Rebekka's doubt-faith only fails her after Jacob dies; her essential solitariness, and the demons of her cut-off past, are no longer counterbalanced by her flesh-and-blood life of goodness and freedom with the man on whom she bet everything. Morrison paints her as a tragic figure - strong enough for a free, uninstitutionalized life only as long as a man anchors her world; in his absence, the thin-threaded ties that have bound her to her motley household of strays fray and unravel abruptly.Morrison's socio-historical context is specific; but the implications may echo into the present universal. Where does our freedom, our "masterless-ness," leave us in the end? For modern, ambitious urban-dwellers, for instance, who've fled constraining or otherwise unfamilial families, the tenuousness of patchwork community and makeshift family simmers uneasily beneath busy lives of creativity and/or career. Will these new and sometimes unconventional threads hold? Perhaps independence is indeed about "making connections," as Ford's Frank Bascombe comes to realize (according to Bezalel Stern); but the nature and context of those connections matters. Not all of them will endure. And true freedom seems to be a condition that reaches for both depth and permanence.Is it the parent-child connection that is, in the end, The Profound and Enduring Bond which engenders a true inner freedom? Both Morrison and Adrienne Shelley posit motherhood as a miraculous road to freedom - as if childlessness is a woman's specific version of Lawrence's masterless-ness. The slave girl Sorrow in A Mercy gives birth to a child and then renames herself:She had looked into her daughter's eyes; saw in them the gray glisten of a winter sea while a ship sailed by-the-lee. "I am your mother," she said. "My name is Complete.Waitress's Jenna Hunterson also looks into her newborn daughter's eyes and is instantly endowed with clarity, courage, a moral center. No longer desperate to flee, she finds liberation right where she is, in the identity of mother. (Hmm... Maybe this is a "Mom Book" question.)"Free" is a complicated word indeed, Chris Anderson. And while at first the commercial use of the word may not seem relevant, it does raise relevant questions: free equals something for nothing, in the parlance of commerce. At no cost. But it seems clear that true freedom does indeed come at cost. The uproar over Anderson's book reveals a fear that the cost of "free" would be borne disproportionately by media organizations, artists, content providers. For Dan Baum, the cost of creative freedom was a burned (or at least singed) bridge with a powerful cultural-media institution, as well as the financial stability that I would guess "freed" him in many ways. Fellow freelancers out there may feel the cost of your freedom from institutional-employment daily: isolation, financial worry, wide swings in self-esteem (my attitude toward my freelancer's freedom has been known to shift by the hour, depending on what does or does not arrive in my email box).In the end, I address myself to you, thoughtful reader. "I would rather start a conversation about free, even in wildly misinformed, polarized, noisy ways, if it gets people thinking," Anderson said about his book.Perhaps to start we can embrace our dynamic not-knowing - all that we might be fleeing and whatever doubt-faith undergirds our present freedom. We can wonder if we are on God's mind, if self-sufficiency is really a virtue; if we should have children (or not) or live closer to (or further from) our biological families; if we should keep freelancing or take a real job; what free means and what it really costs. Suspended between drudgery and flame is what Jozef Czapski called his work, implying perhaps that only in the liminal state can we fully experience the process of freedom - living out choices and circumstances, forging and casting off various ties that bind - all of which ultimately teaches us what it means to be free.
Essays

“A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Designing a Book Jacket…”

Sonya Chung is a freelance writer and creative writing teacher who nourishes her split personality by living part-time in the S. Bronx and part-time in rural PA. She writes and grows vegetables in both places. Her stories and essays have appeared in The Threepenny Review, BOMB Magazine, and Sonora Review, among others. Her first novel, Long for This World, is forthcoming from Scribner in March 2010. You can find her fiction and blog-chronicles (adventures in publishing a first novel) at sonyachung.com. I. If you've ever wondered what goes into designing a book jacket, you're not alone. It was one of the things that seemed a bit mystical to me when my novel went into production. In fact, the process remained shrouded in mystery up until the moment I received an email from my editor with jpeg attachments of a few prospective designs. Let me back up by saying that one of my favorite quotes is a line from indie actor/filmmaker Steve Buscemi, who said, in a profile in The New Yorker a few years back: "There's something about being naïve. Really interesting things come because you don't know what the rules are, what you can and can't do." I went into the publication process with little-to-no knowledge of what goes into producing, promoting, or releasing a book. And I had a vague sense that it might be fruitful to maintain some measure of that ignorance; that becoming immersed in the ins and outs of production and marketing could be detrimental, both to my writing process and to the publisher's ability to do its job. How much of a sausage-making expert did I really want to become, and how useful to the publisher would my porky hands be? II. In the current publishing environment, this is a rather old-fashioned way of thinking, and unrealistic. Much more pro-activity is expected and required from authors, now that marketing budgets (for unknown writers, especially) are dwindling; and readers have come to expect and crave more personal connection with authors. As Farrar, Straus & Giroux Publisher Jonathan Galassi put it in his recent interview for Poets & Writers, "We're selling authors, not books. We're selling people the illusion of an experience with an author... They want the full experience." So it's a somewhat complex relationship, an intricate dance. Contractually, the book no longer belongs to the author. And yet collaboration each step of the way is ideal. When it came to the book jacket, I was invited to be involved, and my input was both valued and incorporated; at the same time, I sensed that fussiness would be received as such, and knew that, technically speaking, the final decision was not mine. As a first-time novelist, new to the dance, I felt a little like I had two left feet. III. I did not have a specific picture in mind of what I wanted my book's jacket to look like. But I did have a vague idea of what I didn't want it to look like. I did not want the design to be too literal; I myself am drawn to jacket covers which are more evocative of a novel's essence than descriptive of its plot or characters (I dislike, for instance, the movie-poster jackets of books which have been made into films, which often present celebrities' faces for characters you'd rather imagine). I also knew that conveying the cultural elements of the novel in a jacket image could be tricky. In a recent article in Hyphen Magazine, books editor Neelanjana Banerjee expresses a frustration with the easy cultural tropes that are often used for the covers of novels by Asian Americans - fans, geishas (or other painted-faced women in traditional East Asian dress), dragons, chopsticks, lotus blossoms (I would add peonies, cranes, and scantily clad Asian temptresses) - to "mark" the books in an exoticized way and thus, presumably, sell more books to readers attracted to the familiarly exotic - whether or not those tropes best represent the novel's actual thematic content or storyline. So when I received the jpeg attachments, I was relieved to find that each of the drafts centered around a dream-like (non-literal) main image; which did not include any of the above-named objects or tropes (none of which are particularly relevant to the novel). The image was a rather spare photograph of a single, hatted (i.e. wearing a canvass sport hat commonly seen in the southern regions of South Korea), female figure, shot from the back, looking out into an illuminated horizon - somehow both figurative and abstract at once in its facelessness - that I thought evoked the emotional core of the novel quite well. IV. What's strange about the jacket-design process is that the people who are weighing in are in a sense the least qualified to provide an informative gut-level response - a simulation of that half-second book-browser reaction. My agent, my editor, and I have all (obviously) read the book, so we came to the image as anything but blank slates. After considering my initial (positive) reaction, I registered a concern that the image was a tad too abstract, and that it would not be clear to someone who did not know the story what the figure was doing (she is taking a photograph). So I forwarded the attachments to a couple of trusted friends, one of whom knew almost nothing about the story (about a Korean family, mainly an immigrant father and his American-born photojournalist daughter who find themselves reverse-migrating to the father's village hometown in South Korea), the other of whom knew a little. I asked them, simply, "What do you see here?" The former wrote: "I see a white woman looking off into the distance, most likely taking a photograph." The latter wrote: "I love it! But why is the woman white?" Whaa? This, you may have guessed, was not at all the response I was expecting. V. I mentioned these responses to my editor. She was shocked; it never occurred to her that the figure would be perceived as non-Asian, nor did it to me. As I looked more closely, brightening my screen settings, I saw that the woman's hair had brownish highlights, accentuated by the light emanating from the horizon; it also had a slight wave to it. I thought, this must be what my friends are reacting to. So I asked my editor (trying not to trip over my two left feet) if she could track down the origins of the image, to see if it was a composite and might be altered. While she was (justifiably) dubious that the perceptions of two people warranted an alteration, she kindly agreed to do the research. In the meantime, I sent the image to a dozen other people. I literally received six responses identifying the woman as Asian or "non-determinate race" and six responses identifying her as white (one person even used the word "WASPy"). I was stumped. What's more, there was no discernible pattern in the responses, no correlation between response and respondent: people of Asian descent, people of non-Asian descent, people who knew the story or didn't, male or female, political persuasions one way or another – the responses were all over the place. (One of the people who identified her as white was a Korean American woman who herself had brownish wavy hair.) By the twelfth response, I just had to laugh. Fascinating! This was turning into a kind of Rorschach test. My editor wrote me back with the results of her research: no, it was not a composite and thus could not be altered. But, as it turned out, the model in the image is in fact Korean; and here, attached, is a photograph of her from the front. Did this help settle it for me? Well, no. Not really. VI. What is the primary function of a book jacket? The adage "You can't judge a book by its cover" is, to me, despite its cliche status, rather sophisticated in its irony; because in fact we know darn well that not only can you judge a book (and, to some limited degree, the metaphorical person to which the adage refers) by its cover; but that a good many book-buyers do judge books by their covers. I was encouraged to focus on the question, "Does it make someone want to pick up the book and find out what it's about?" In the case of this design, I'd say sure, and most of the respondents would, too. Regardless of the racial identity of the figure, the emotional evocation is, I think, compelling overall. But would the perceived race of the figure affect one way or another whether someone would pick it up? And what about after the half-second impression? Has the jacket cover fulfilled its purpose at that point? Would finding that the character is of a different race than initially perceived (and that the story is a bicultural story) affect the reading experience? And does the fact that the "truth" of the image matches the "truth" of the story - that the model is Korean - matter, if the reader does not have access to this background? The questions spiraled out from there: how much does the author's name affect the reader's expectation of the novel's content? Does the name "Chung" on the cover incline readers to certain assumptions? What does it mean that some segment of the population expects that an Asian woman would have straight black hair though not all of them do? Is it productive to work at meeting the expectation, or is the time ripe in our culture to test the waters of deviation and diversity? I could also hear in my head the voices of Ethnic Studies activists and feminist scholars challenging the tyranny of Western beauty standards and the blondifying of Eastern cultures. What to do? VII. There is actually an end to this story, and a rather anti-climactic one. (No dramatic showdown between author and publisher, no grand moral stances taken.) As my editor and I discussed it further, we realized that her computer screen was showing black hair. So I asked her to send me hard-copy printouts of the image; and as it turned out, it was in fact variations of screen views that created different hair-color shades and thus impressions. The hard-copy showed black hair, and without the highlights, the appearance of the wave was slightly less pronounced. We liked the image all along, and we knew it would be hard to recapture all that we liked about it if we went back to the drawing board. We decided to go forth. I am still a little nervous - having no control over the final printing process, color-correcting, etc. - about what this cover will look like. But I also realized that as each response piled on one after the other in my inbox, I was beginning to delight in the wackiness of the whole thing. Would Jane, the character in the novel, be so easily identified or defined by race? She is unambiguously an American of Korean descent; but she is also many other things: a war photographer, sister, daughter, lover, survivor of trauma and tragedy. She is a woman looking for her life in the wake of death. She would never deliberately deceive; but she would embrace the essential mystery of identity, the complexity of perception from the viewpoint of the beholder. And - no surprise - so do I.
Essays

Slinging Stones at the Genre Goliath

Sonya Chung is a freelance writer and creative writing teacher who nourishes her split personality by living part-time in the S. Bronx and part-time in rural PA. She writes and grows vegetables in both places. Her stories and essays have appeared in The Threepenny Review, BOMB Magazine, and Sonora Review, among others. Her first novel, Long for This World, is forthcoming from Scribner in March 2010. You can find her fiction and blog-chronicles (adventures in publishing a first novel) at sonyachung.com.I.When a friend admits to me - usually a bit sheepishly, knowing that I am a literary writer and reader - that she is reading a paperback romance novel, or, even "worse," a series of them, I laugh it off and say, as sincerely as I can muster, Good for you, I'm sure you need the relaxation and escape, and we move on to the next topic.In my fiction classes, I always ask students to fill out a brief survey on the first day of class so I can get a feel for their reading interests; invariably, a number of students list Dean Koontz or Dan Brown or Nora Roberts or (most recently and markedly) Stephenie Meyer as their touchstones. When I see these writers' names or hear them mentioned in class, something goes thud in my stomach and a low-grade dread begins to buzz in my head.II.Am I just an insufferable snob? Possibly. If you think so, feel free to stop reading now; we may be at an impasse.III.A spiritual war rages between art and entertainment, elitism and populism, the difficult pleasure and the mindless escape, complex meaning and convention-driven predictability... literary fiction and genre fiction.Or not. On the Op-Ed page of The New York Times, a new "Summer Thriller" series - featuring, this past Sunday, a story (or serial installment?) by Dean Koontz. The protagonist is a whipsmart hostage negotiator who faces off with a Hannibal Lecter/Buffalo Bill-esque psychopath (he "displays" his dead [raped] female victims after dipping them in polyurethane). In a zippy plot twist (SPOILER alert), the hostage (ah coincidence!) turns out to be the negotiator's savvy wife; the revelation elicits a "gasp" from the psychopath.In The New Yorker this week, a profile by staff writer Lauren Collins on prolific romance novelist Nora Roberts. I haven't read the full profile, but it's got Slate's XX Factor blogger Willa Paskin (presumably not currently a romance reader) ready to pick up a Roberts novel - "Collins makes the case, without ever overselling, that Roberts' books might not be totally devoid of artistic merit" - and eager to hang out with Roberts herself, who "comes across as a down-to-earth, foul-mouthed, self-deprecating, extremely grounded, extremely disciplined woman."IV.What is going on here? Are we in the literary and genre camps laying down our arms and reaching across the proverbial aisle to hold hands and work together? More importantly, is "not totally devoid of artistic merit" some kind of newly-acceptable standard for reading selection? (Like how the standards for "organic" loosen to near-meaninglessness as big farming corps get into the business?)To anyone feeling ready to click away from this post in a huff: I feel a little like Sherman Alexie, who said last week in a follow-up to his feather-ruffling comments about the Kindle being elitist that he felt like David being mistook for Goliath.With its obligatory happy endings, strict conventions, formula elements, and, above all, comforting predictability, genre fiction will always garner a wider audience than literary fiction. Which is another way of saying that more people buy books and spend time with the words in them to evade the (messy, complicated) world as it is than to see it more truly - in all its mystery, pain, complexity, and beauty. Resistance - perhaps opposition is not too strong a word - to genre fiction for a writer and reader of literary fiction is, in my opinion, a literary ecosystem imperative.V.Why do The New Yorker and The New York Times want me to rethink my dividing lines? Are my soul or my artistic integrity at risk of atrophying if I don't see the light and embrace a new political correctness that's deemed formulaic genre writing and literary writing more alike than they are different?Let me, for the sake of this essay and the ensuing discussion, take a (overstated, survival-driven) hardliner's position: pure genre writing invites and indulges engagement and validation of our lesser, lazier, unthinking, hedonistic selves; well-wrought literary fiction affords, in the critic Harold Bloom's words, a difficult pleasure and illuminates the truths of the human soul, for better or for worse, thus opening the engaged reader to the possibility of courage, intellectual and emotional honesty, wisdom. Popular genre writing and literary writing represent diametrically opposed visions of the value and necessity of reading books; they are as different as lust and love, band-aids and surgery. To imply otherwise is to cop to hysterical anti-intellectualism and give credence to the same sorts of "elitist!" cries that sought to make Barack and Michelle Obama appear out of touch and John McCain a man of the people.There are real stakes here. What you read matters.VI. But enjoy your genre books, I say. Life is tough, we all seek ways to effectively distract and soothe ourselves. Consume your genre series with gusto and pleasure, like a drippy, juicy bacon burger; kick back and let them carry you away weightlessly, like an after-midnight Wii session. But do not imagine or attempt to argue that they play a vital role in augmenting the human experience. They allow for, are designed for, reader passivity and thus do not do what Joe Meno described eloquently in Edan Lepucki's profile this week:Books have a different place in our society than other media. Books are different from television or film because they ask you to finish the project. You have to be actively engaged to read a book. It's more like a blueprint. What it really is, is an opportunity... A book is a place where you're forced to use your imagination.VII.So with Roberts and Koontz now occupying prized real estate in the pages of The New Yorker and the New York Times, it's fight or flight as far as I can tell. Recently, I've been developing a list of what I call "bait n switch" books - books that bring together the strengths of both the genre and literary forms: suspense, sexual tension, absorbing dialogue, compelling plots, characters you come to love like your favorite pets; and fresh and inventive language, complex characterization, settings you can taste touch and smell, consequential ideas, ambiguity and surprise and mystery. I've given these as gifts or recommended them to people who tend to read only genre fiction or little fiction at all; with good response. My ultimate mission: to convert the unbelieving to the (crucial, soul-shaping) fact that you needn't ingest bad or "not that bad" writing in order to be entertained and/or absorbed by a book. For anyone who'd like to suit up for the battle:Sarah Waters's Fingersmith (for erotic thriller lovers)Pam Houston's Cowboys Are My Weakness and Lorrie Moore's Self-Help (for chic lit readers)Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence, Chekhov's "The Lady With the Pet Dog," and really anything by Henry James (for romance readers)E.L. Doctorow's World's Fair and Ragtime (for Harry Potter and other boy-adventure fans)Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son (for manly men who are into horror)Poetry by Jane Kenyon and Rilke (for people "intimidated" by poetry)The following two are a little riskier, but I'd like to try inflicting one or both of them on a poor unsuspecting soul one of these days:Annie Dillard's The Maytrees (a simple, universal story of love/breakup/love again)Roberto Bolaño's Last Evenings on Earth (pure storytelling, you hardly know what hit you)And, if all else fails, well: there's always "The Wire."[Image Credit: Randen Pederson]