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Cut and Dry: Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes

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Jonathan Franzen has always been outspoken about his disdain of e-readers. In an interview with The AV Club, he said the Kindle “makes everything seem unsubstantial,” that “the words seem more arbitrary, less intrinsically valuable.” Yet Franzen writes the kinds of novels that are best read on the Kindle. They demand attention solely to the text, the kind of undistracted reading environment that makes e-readers so appealing — not to mention the perk of carrying a small electronic device instead of a 700-page hardcover copy of Freedom.

It seems fitting that Jonathan Safran Foer’s new book Tree of Codes was published around the same Christmas season when the Kindle became Amazon’s best-selling product ever. The Kindle does away with all manners of a novel’s physical form and design; Tree of Codes exists solely to embrace those things, and to be embraced, but gently.

The die-cut interior of Tree of Codes is made up of select words, carefully re-assembled from Foer’s favorite novel, Bruno Schultz’s The Street of Crocodiles, to create an entirely new narrative. (Cut ten letters from the original title and you get Tree of Codes.) If Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is the book equivalent of a mash up, perhaps Tree of Codes is akin to 8-bit music: it’s both a reduction and reinterpretation of another work. Visually, the sparse prose and overwhelming negative space leaves a stunning impression, (accurately captured in what might be the least-annoying book trailer of all time). It’s a wonderful experiment in what a book can be, and also home to a mediocre novel.

What Foer has done is a little gimmicky and not entirely new — William Burroughs and Brion Gyson did a similar cut-up book in the ‘60s — but the reading experience is an absorbing challenge. The first thing you have to do with Tree of Codes is figure out how to read it. I don’t mean interpreting the text — the prose, though occasionally aloof, reads as a fairly straightforward narrative — but how to physically hold the book. Because of Tree’s die-cut pages, it’s hard to tell what words belong on the page you’re looking at and what’s on the next page or two. After a few minutes, I figured out that the best method was to keep a finger under the page I was reading, bending it slightly, to give the words more depth (again, I mean physical depth).

Some readers have taken to inserting a blank sheet of paper behind each page, but doing that feels like a denial of the book’s design. There’s something haunting about seeing what lays ahead, just out of focus. Tree of Codes is intent on distracting its audience and making them conscious of the reading experience. The pages are also fragile, and I found myself holding Tree of Codes with extra care. According to Foer, the binding had to be paperback — if it was hardcover, the book would “collapse in on itself.” It shows consideration to the book not as an art object, but a book as a thing you read.

The format of a book doesn’t need to be challenging or difficult. But if authors really want to defend the idea of the physical book, they need to consider how the medium actually affects the reading experience. The example that comes to mind is Dave Eggers, who writes in QuarkXPress instead of a regular word processor, which might explain why McSweeney’s does just fine without selling books in ePub format.

Despite it’s unconventional form, Tree of Codes is actually a natural step for Foer, as a novelist who has toyed with visual elements like type, white space, and color in his earlier works. In an interview with The Morning News in 2005 (just after the release of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close), Foer said he “really like[d] books as objects, as little intimate sculptures that you have a real interaction with.”

Sculpture is a medium that is appreciated for its form, texture, its third dimension; sculpture is also a medium that isn’t necessarily interacted with, even touched, unless you want to be escorted to the curb by museum security guards. Really, the sculpture comparison does a disservice to what a book really is: a mass-produced object that you spend hours holding.

It’s just too bad that in the case of Tree of Codes, the reading experience is far more interesting than the actual novel. Holding the book, you can feel an absence of weight in the middle. Even within 3,000 words, Tree of Codes inconsistently waivers from abstract poignance (“The tree stood with the arms upraised and screamed and screamed.”) to the sort of pretentious mediocrity you might find in DeviantArt poetry (“I could feel waves of laid bare, of dreams.”). It boils down to whether or not you find Foer’s lyricism to be poetic or merely sentimental.

But credit is due to Foer for taking Schultz’s work and making it his own. Trees features the familiar fallible perspective from Everything is Illuminated and the Freudian relationships from Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. There are also allusions to a vague disaster — is it a plague or the Holocaust? — that amounts to an equally ambiguous tragedy that is better felt than understood.

When I finished Tree of Codes, I placed it in on my bookshelf. But it felt as if it didn’t belong stuffed next to my copy of Freedom — which has endured being borrowed by three different people since August. Tree of Codes might be a much worse novel than Freedom, but it’s a delicate book. There are thousands of copies of Tree of Codes, and yet mine feels special. It’s a reminder that the book is a precious thing.

A Year in Reading: Neal Pollack

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I had a very eclectic reading year. There was the usual assortment of pulpy crap, a moody mélange of hungover private eyes and women in trouble from authors ranging in quality from Erle Stanley Gardner to Thomas Pynchon, but I also read two David Mitchell books, inscrutably beautiful postmodern puzzle boxes that will never be adapted into movies. I sleepily plowed through every word of the Principal Upanishads, like the Bible but twice as long and starring deities totally unfamiliar to me, as well as brilliantly detailed histories of contemporary war from George Packer and Lawrence Wright. This was also the year that I got my first Kindle, which drew me back to the beginning of my life-long reading habit.

My first “adult” novels, discovered sometime in the early 80s, were the horribly written, historically-inaccurate Kent Family Chronicles, by John Jakes, which tracked a family’s melodramatic progress through 150 years of American history, starting pre-Revolution and ending sometime around the turn of the 20th Century. They contained lines like, “I’d like you to meet a young lawyer named Abraham Lincoln,” and featured cover illustrations of soft-focus Jacqueline Bisset-looking types holding a smoking pistol.

From there, it was a steady diet of James A. Michener, and Herman Wouk, and Howard Fast, and Leon Uris, and anyone else who dared publish 700-plus-page novels with historical scope. I’ve remained a sucker for those kinds of books.

Historical fiction, where the pages can be turned fast and subtlety ignored, is perfect for the new age of e-reading. Therefore this year, I devoured, with ultimate delight, Genghis: Birth Of An Empire, by Conn Iggulden, an author best known on these shores as the guy who wrote The Dangerous Book For Boys. This book tells the story of the improbable rise to power of my son’s favorite historical figure. The opening 30 pages involve Temujin, the Boy Who Would Be Khan, climbing to the top of a jagged peak to capture two baby eagles. Later, he kills his own brother, is tortured in a pit by his enemies, and unites some Mongol tribes to defeat the Tartars. It’s a ripping good tale, as far away from my actual reality as literature can get. I can’t wait to read the three sequels.

Also, I can’t write about my year in reading without mentioning the work of Alan Furst. Any page of his World War II era espionage novels top any moment of The Winds Of War that I consumed as a kid. I think I read seven Furst books in 2010. They’re a collective fever-dream of a completely displaced cosmopolitan Europe, stark tragedies set in Paris coffeehouses and deserted Serbian mountain roads, and some of the best novels being written today.

More from a Year in Reading 2010

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions

A Year In Reading: Jenny Davidson

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Fifteen things about my year in reading:

1.   My most immersive reading experience of the year took place in late January and February as I embarked upon Dorothy Dunnett’s House of Niccolo series, followed by the Lymond Chronicles.  Twelve long and involved and completely transporting books later, I closed the cover of the final installment with a profound sense of loss.

2.  My other most immersive reading experience, magically transporting in a perfectly satisfying fashion: rereading War and Peace and Anna Karenina.

3.  The book I read this year that I most wish I had written myself: Elif Batuman’s The Possessed.

4.  The book I read this year that I don’t understand why I hadn’t read sooner, it is so much exactly what I like: Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend.

5. Three excellent novels I read for the second or third or fourth time this year and found just as fantastically good as I had the last time: Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai, Cintra Wilson’s Colors Insulting to Nature, Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty.

6.  Another important reread: Mary Renault’s trio of novels about Alexander the Great.  The influence Renault’s books had on me as a young teenager cannot be overstated.

7.  The indispensable and fascinating nonfiction book that I think everyone should read: Randy Frost and Gail Steketee’s Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things.

8.  The most intellectually stimulating nonfiction book I read this year: Pervasive Games: Theory and Design.  The only other book I read this year that is likely to have such a pronounced effect on my next novel (The Bacchae excluded) is Andrew Dolkart’s architectural history of Morningside Heights.

9.  The most intellectually stimulating book I reread this year: Genette’s Figures of Literary Discourse.  In a similar vein, I also reimmersed myself in the writings of Victor Shklovsky and read Scott McCloud’s inspired Understanding Comics.)

10.  I found Keith Richards’ Life incomparably more interesting (a better book!) than Patti Smith’s Just Kids.  The latter also suffers in comparison to Kristin Hersh’s Rat Girl, which I highly recommend.

11.  Some of the top-caliber crime writers whose books I read for the first time this year: Arnaldur Indridason, Liz Rigbey, Caroline Carver, Deon Meyer, Ake Edwardson, Asa Larsson, C. J. Sansom, Jo Nesbo.

12. Writers whose new books I devoured this year because I like their previous ones so much: Lee Child, Sigrid Nunez, Kate Atkinson, Robert Crais, Ken Bruen, Diana Wynne Jones, Terry Pratchett, Jilly Cooper, Joe Hill, Tana French, Jo Walton, Connie Willis, Joshilyn Jackson.

13.   Top 2010 guilty pleasure reading, both in its guiltiness and in its pleasurability: Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel books.  (Richard Kadrey’s books are too well-written to count as a guilty pleasure, but they are immensely pleasurable.)

14. I found Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom excellent, but it did not have a deep effect on me.

15. In September, I got a Kindle.  It has saved me a lot of neckache while traveling, some dollars that might have been spent on full-price hardbacks and the pain of reading poor-quality mass-market paperbacks when I can’t find anything better.  The best value-for-money discovery: Lewis Shiner’s superb novel Black & White, available at his website as a free PDF.

More from a Year in Reading 2010

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions


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Editor’s note: This is essay is excerpted from Bound to Last: 30 Writers on Their Most Cherished Book, published by Da Capo Press.  About a month after I finished the piece, my middle daughter, nineteen, read Sula for a college class and called me while I was on a book tour in Memphis for my latest novel; while I stood beside the blues bars on Beale Street, she told me that the rich language and metaphor in the novel changed the way she looked at the world.

The Virginia Quarterly Review recently devoted a special issue to the price of e-readers and technology – the endless frantic mining for the raw materials that will power up Ipads and Kindles.  I don’t live on a street where anyone has e-readers, and I’d been thinking old school for a different reason:  How could I give away or bequeath an e-reader?

Looking around at my hundred-year-old house, a former farmhouse on a dead end street of tiny bungalows and stucco cottages in inland southern California, and having attended seven funerals in the past two years, I’ve already thought about my most prized possessions:  What would I want my children to have?

I have so little.  There’s the handwoven piece of material shaped like a folder, with thread ties, enclosing green felt pages which hold needles.  My great-grandmother made it, in Switzerland, in the early part of the century.  My girls have seen me use it countless times, to mend their clothes.

My brother has been dead eight years now – he bequeathed me, unknowingly, his Mexican fighting chicken, named Coco, who is ten years old and still lays eggs.  Also his sheepskin-lined Levi jacket, with a spatter of ragged holes from where someone threw battery acid at him, which I wear when it’s very cold or I miss him.

A cast iron frying pan given to me by my mother-in-law, who had been told that a blonde girl might not be able to cook properly for her son, but who believed in me enough to give me the pan, show me how to season it, and then teach me how to fry chicken.

And my books.

Because I still live in the same city where I was born, and no one in my family has ever loved books, the walls of my house are lined with them, including all the volumes of my childhood.

My three girls have read most of them: the ragged, much-handled copy of Little Women, illustrated with bonneted sisters; the ancient copy of Heidi which meant so much to me as I imagined my mother living that life, in the Swiss Alps (she spoke very little about her childhood except to say that when she was ten, her mother’s body lay on the dining room table until the funeral in the tiny mountain town.  (They refused to touch Alfred Hitchcock’s Daring Detectives, circa 1969, which used to scare the crap out of me and which I still love for the gory illustrations.)

My most prized book is a cheap paperback.  Toni Morrison’s Sula.  I’ve lent and given away hundreds of books to hundreds of people, but I’ve never lent Sula to anyone except my oldest daughter.

I waited years to hand it to her, a great reader like me, waiting for the right moment to put it on her dresser or in her palm and have her say reverently, “This is the book you read every year, the one we always tease you about.”  But not until she was twenty, a junior in college, did I succeed in having her actually pick it up.  And of course, she said with utter incredulity after she’d finished it, and handed it back unceremoniously, “Yeah, the mother lights her son on fire.  And the women all end up alone.  Thanks, Mom.”

Was I fourteen?  I had just met my future husband, in junior high.  It was summer.  I went to the Riverside Public Library as often as I could because it was quiet and safe.  The paperback on the revolving wire rack, with a pencil-marked A on the inside first page.  A for Adult?  It was for sale.  75 cents.

I picked it up because the young woman on the cover looked so much like my high school friends.  Brown skin, a cloud of black hair, a dark-blue floral print dress that looks ’70s Qiana-fabric slinky, and a birthmark over one eye.  Above her the words say—




Until then, every adult novel I read had come checked out from this library or the bookmobile that came to the grocery store parking lot in my neighborhood.  I thought it was a book for a girl.  I didn’t know Sula would drown a child, watch her mother burn without running to help, steal her best friend’s husband, defy her town, and die alone at thirty.

This slim novel—149 pages, the paperback published in 1975—became a dark and luminous icon for me.  It was like a premonition.  It made me into a writer, it colored how I became a mother, and images and words from it unfurl themselves in my mind—like dye dropped into water—nearly every day, as I stand at the sink, as I drive a car, as I look at my children.  Its cheap pages darkened to marigold, Sula remains on a shelf near my desk, except for the days that I read it again, annually.  I have read the book at least once a year for the last thirty-five years.  I married at twenty-two, and every year my husband would see the paperback, the girl’s implacable gaze on him, her hand under her chin, and he would say, “You reading that book again?”  I would say, “You watching Shaft again?” We had memorized large portions of the dialogue of each.

The first time I kissed him was on the asphalt basketball court down the street from my house.  At fourteen, I had understood little of the scene where Sula is making love with Ajax, but I never forgot what she saw:

…the golden eyes and the velvet helmet of hair…If I take a chamois and rub real hard on the bone, right on the ledge of your cheek bone, some of the black will disappear.  It will flake away into the chamois and underneath there will be gold leaf.

Even then, on the school playground, I studied his face, trying to define it in word-images.  His skin was the color of palm-bark, brown with red underneath; his black eyebrows were narrow crow feathers; on his cheek a complicated scar like Chinese script from where someone had hit him with jagged rock.

Months earlier, I’d been walking down a street with my best friend.  She blithely agreed to hitch a ride in an ancient Buick like a dirty white boat. I followed her into the backseat, and a few blocks later, the young men inside turned menacing.

At fourteen, I had understood exactly what happened when Sula and her best friend Nel are confronted by four Irish boys on the way home from school, boys who have been hunting them as sport, and Sula pulls out her grandmother’s paring knife—

Sula squatted down in the dirt road and put everything down on the ground; her lunchpail, her reader, her mittens, her slate.  Holding the knife in her right hand, she pulled the slate toward her and pressed her left forefinger down hard on its edge.  Her aim was determined but inaccurate.  She slashed off only the tip of her own finger.  The four boys stared open-mouthed at the wound and the scrap of flesh, like a button mushroom, curling in the cherry blood that ran into the corners of the slate.

Sula raised her eyes to them.  Her voice was quiet.  “If I can do that to myself, what you suppose I’ll do to you?”

The first time I’d read it the metaphor and simile went into my brain like the vapor of the PCP-soaked Kool cigarettes my compatriots were smoking that summer. I studied my fingertips.  Button mushroom.  Cherry blood.

In the Buick, I told the men an elaborate story about my stepfather who was a sheriff’s deputy.  I described his shotgun, fearlessly looking into their weed-reddened eyes, and said, “Do whatever you’re going to do, but when you drop us off, he’ll find you and kill you.”

My stepfather owned three Laundromats.  We cleaned them on the weekend.  He had no gun.

They left us on another corner, and my friend said, “You just lied and lied.”

Thirty years later. My friend Nicole and I sit at my kitchen table, and while she heats a straightening comb on the burner to tame my middle daughter’s hair before a dance, I am reminded of when Sula returns to town after being gone for ten years, visiting Nel’s kitchen—

Nel lowered her head onto crossed arms while tears of laughter dripped into the warm diapers…Her rapid soprano and Sula’s dark sleepy chuckle made a duet that frightened the cat and made the children run in from the back yard, puzzled at first by the wild free sounds, then delighted to see their mother stumbling merrily toward the bathroom, holding on to her stomach, fairly singing through the laughter:  “Aw.  Aw.  Lord.  Sula.  Stop.”

I am the one burying my face while Nicole says, “I looked at this brotha’s picture, the one, you understand, he thought best to put up on the dating site, and I see these rings around his face, and I look again, and he’s got his damn driver license photo on there.  That’s the best he can do and he thinks I’m about to give him a call.  Cause he’s a catch.  With his lazy broke ass.”

My girls hover in the doorway and narrow their eyes, a little afraid to come in.

The business of loving and buying and reading books is not a zero-sum game. In my daily life, I know no one with an e-reader.  It’s not that kind of neighborhood. And you can’t give away a book on that “platform.”  Thousands of people might only read on their iPads or Kindles in the future; they may never buy another printed-on-paper novel.  Thousands more will never have books; they will tell their stories by firelight and kerosene lamp in a circle of people as they always have (or in our family’s case, standing around the oil-drum cooker in my father-in-law’s driveway, the barbecue smoke drifting over all the cousins as they talk about a shooting that happened in 1921 or a shooting that happened last weekend, as they talk about how much a nephew loves the wrong woman and she’s certain to ruin his life).  And thousands more of us will only read books we can hold in our hands and pass on.

Nel and Sula.  “We were two throats and one eye and we had no price.”

The book was on the couch again, while I wrote this.  My youngest daughter, fourteen, said, “What’s Sula about anyway?”

She has seen it on every table, bed, and couch in the house, her entire life.  The solemn, hooded eyes of the young woman study her.  Does she recognize the guarded, evaluating stare as the one she’s seen countless times in the gaze of her aunts, my friends, and me?  At a school function surrounded by white parents, at sports events where people study us, at the store where the security guard frowns slightly?

She picked it up and looked at the back cover.

The Sorry State of the Rejection Letter

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I started making my living as a writer the day after Jimmy Carter got elected president. Today, more than 30 years later, a novel of mine is going out to publishers in purely digital form for the first time. That is, after writing the book on a manual Royal typewriter, I transcribed and edited it on a laptop and sent a digital copy to my agent, who read it on his Kindle, then forwarded it electronically to editors, who presumably read it (or skimmed it, or didn’t) on their Kindles, Nooks or iPads. So eco-friendly! So fast! So cheap!

Of course the half dozen rejection letters that have come back so far have not been actual letters on publishing house letterheads – who has time for such nonsense anymore? – they’ve all been those curt blunt instruments called e-mails. Three decades ago I received typewritten rejection letters that were thoughtful, insightful, sometimes even beneficial. The electronic burps I’m getting today are, for the most part, shallow, cursory and absolutely useless to me as a writer. Sad but true, the rejection letter, like so many things in book publishing, is a shadow of what it used to be.

For years I’ve kept what I call an Agony File, mostly rejection letters from agents and editors, but also critiques from valued readers. The “agony” is meant ironically. While some of the letters were painful to read, I’ve kept the ones that contain constructive criticism that helped make me a better writer. I’ve also kept a few that are so badly written, so inane, so lacking in insight or comprehension that they serve as a reminder that there are as many idiots in publishing as in any other line of work. A sense of superiority has a magical way of softening the sting of rejection.

One of the oldest items in my Agony File is a typewritten letter on Franklin Watts, Inc., letterhead dated March 10, 1986. It was written to my agent by Ed Breslin, who was then the publishing house’s Editor-in-Chief. The letter, which consists of four long single-spaced paragraphs that cover two pages, offers a detailed critique of a novel I’d written called Henry Miller Lives!, the story of a Nashville disc jockey named Peter, a frustrated writer who’s visited by the ghost of his literary hero, Henry Miller. Fireworks ensue.

“Greatly did I appreciate the opportunity to read Bill Morris’s Henry Miller Lives!,” Breslin’s letter begins. “The idea for the story is a good one, and a true writing talent is shown developing with every page. Yet, and most unfortunately, a number of people reading the book also saw problems which when corrected, we fear, will take away its magic.”

He then dissects the book’s flaws, including one character who is “a cartoon-like straw man for the Yuppie existence,” another who is “shallow and fickle.” And: “No character presents an attractive alternative requiring a real choice for Peter…forcing a most anti-climactic ending.” As for the ghost of Henry Miller: “Finally, and this is most important, the appeal that Henry Miller has for Peter as a role model is never clear. (Miller) is certainly a lovable character – like a favorite uncle who drinks too much and whores around – but from this description it is unclear who he really was, or how he inspires Peter.”

Breslin’s letter concludes: “Admittedly, it is unusual to try and explain so many of our reservations for a book we are returning. What I hoped to get across to you with all of this detail – and what I hope you will relay to Mr. Morris – is that there is real talent in Henry Miller Lives!…and we are most certainly interested in such talented work in the future.”

This is about as good as agony gets – not only because of Breslin’s encouraging words but because he (and “a number of people” in the publishing house) read the manuscript closely, thought hard about it, discussed it and came up with valid ideas on how to make the book better. This is what rejection letters are supposed to do, what they used to do, and what they almost never do anymore.

Now comes the truly odd part: I wrote Breslin a two-page, single-spaced letter thanking him for taking the time to explain, so eloquently and incisively, why he wasn’t buying my book. “Over the years,” I wrote, “I’ve received my share of rejection letters (this novel is actually the fourth book I’ve written); but never have I received a rejection letter that contained half as much honesty and understanding. Rejection never feels good. Somehow you’ve made it feel less bad.”  After explaining why I agreed with most of Breslin’s criticisms and disagreed with a few, I told him about a new novel I was working on, then closed with: “I’m not trying to sell you anything. I’m just trying to thank you for reading Henry Miller Lives! and for responding so thoughtfully to it. And I’m hoping that when I finish a first draft of this new novel, you and I have another shot at each other.”

As it turned out, Franklin Watts did not publish that new novel, but Knopf did. I’ve often thought that without the encouragement I got from Breslin’s rejection letter I might not have finished that next novel. After writing four unsold books I was close to throwing in the towel. Thanks to Ed Breslin, I didn’t.

The electronic rejection letter didn’t arrive on the publishing scene yesterday, of course. My Agony File reveals that e-mail started supplanting typewritten letters about seven or eight years ago. Looking back, I can honestly say that only one of the e-mails I’ve received in those years contained a fraction of the insight in Ed Breslin’s typewritten letter. Here are three e-examples from 2008, when I was trying – and failing – to sell a novel set in Detroit during the 1967 race riot. An editor at Henry Holt wrote: “I just didn’t entirely connect with these characters, in part, I think, because most of them are pretty masculine guys.” (What do you want, I wondered, more feminine guys?) An editor at Algonquin wrote: “I never quite ‘believed’ the narrator in some three-dimensional way. His voice seemed inauthentic to me in certain ways – too overly polished and rhetorical with every fact and figure at his fingertips.” (The novel is told in the first person by five different narrators, which leads me to believe this editor didn’t get past the first chapter.) And an editor at Bloomsbury who is obviously a big believer in brevity needed just 11 words to diss the manuscript: “As much as I’d like to like this, I don’t. Sorry.” Of all the many cliches in reject-speak, the most maddening surely is this: “I didn’t fall in love.” Of course you didn’t fall in love. It’s a book, for chrissakes, not a super-model!

To be fair, some of the typewritten rejections I’ve received were more than a little superficial and slapdash. In pre-e-mail 2001, an editor at Houghton Mifflin wrote this about a novel I’d set in near-future New York City: “I think this kind of near-future fiction is going to be very difficult to do…until we are more certain of what the near-future might actually look like.” (Say what?) And an editor at Grove/Atlantic must have just returned from a long liquid lunch when she wrote: “I found the action exciting writing skillful.”

And electronic rejection can be thoughtful, constructive, even wise. After revising that novel set in near-future New York City, I mailed a copy of the manuscript to the agent Bill Clegg at the William Morris (no kin) Agency because he had given a close reading to an earlier manuscript of mine. (At the time I was unaware that Clegg had been wrestling with the crack cocaine demon, which he chronicles in his new memoir, Portrait of an Addict As a Young Man.) Soon after I sent my manuscript to Clegg, he wrote me an e-mail – roughly the same length as Ed Breslin’s long-ago letter – that was striking for its detail and the acuity of its insights. After laying out the book’s strengths and weaknesses and suggesting how I might go about making it better, Clegg closed by offering to take a look at a revised manuscript.

So I know it’s possible for agents and editors – for anyone – to write a thoughtful, insightful e-mail. But hard experience has taught me that it almost never happens. Clegg’s e-mail is, sadly, the exception that proves the rule.

The publishing world has embraced e-mail rejections for obvious reasons: speed and convenience. The need for speed is driven by the simple fact that there are too many people writing too much stuff and publishing houses are producing too many books, most of them bad, some of them decent, a few of them truly dreadful, and a tiny handful of them brilliant and destined to last. All of a sudden everyone with a laptop has a novel inside them, or a book of short stories, or at the very least a memoir about incest, anorexia, substance abuse and/or the thrilling world of rehab. More than 4,000 Americans apply to creative writing MFA programs every year. American publishers cranked out about 280,000 “traditional” titles last year, including about 45,000 novels. That’s nearly a thousand novels a week. That’s insane. When you factor in on-demand, self-published and “micro-niche” books marketed almost exclusively on the Internet, the number of new titles surpassed 1 million last year for the first time. Understandably, agents and editors complain that they’re swamped with product, and anything that can hasten the culling process is a godsend. There’s simply no time today for such tweedy niceties as writing thoughtful, constructive rejection letters to some schmuck whose book you’re not going to buy.

But I would argue that American book publishing doesn’t need to speed up; it needs to slow down. Nobody can stop people from writing, of course, but editors can – and should – determine what is truly worthy and then take the necessary time to make it truly great. One way to buy that time would be to publish fewer titles. It’s no secret that most books today are sloppily edited if they’re edited at all, that a disturbing number of memoirs are figments of the writer’s imagination, and that most published novels and short story collections simply do not deserve to exist, either on aesthetic grounds or on the brute reality of what the market will bear. We’ve all had the experience of walking into a bookstore and feeling overwhelmed by the number of titles on the shelves. You may know in your heart that there are only a few gems in those tall cliffs of books – but how do you spot the gems?

I say it’s time for writers, agents, editors and publishers to admit that less would be more. We need fewer books, and better ones; we need more readers, and smarter ones. And I believe the former would lead to the latter.

But wouldn’t a cutback in the number of published titles hurt me and every other writer? Maybe. Maybe not. The point is that a reduction of quantity would lead to a rise in quality, and everyone would benefit – editors who actually get to be editors again; writers who get the attention, and possibly even the money, they need and deserve; and, especially, readers, whose eyes will no longer fog over when they walk into a bookstore because they’ll be confronted with fewer choices and they’ll be confident that the quotient of gems is far higher than it used to be. The only losers would be the companies that pulp unsold books.

Ed Breslin is alive and well and still living in New York City. Since retiring as a book editor in 1992 after a 19-year career, he has concentrated on writing, book doctoring and freelance editing. Now 63, he remembers the Henry Miller Lives! manuscript and the letters we exchanged a quarter of a century ago. He regards those letters as relics from a gone world.

“People don’t even write rejection letters anymore,” Breslin said when I reached him by telephone. “Rejection letters were educational and they often were important for the encouragement they gave young writers. People don’t have the time today, and they don’t have the money to spend on amenities like publicity or parties. Book publishing’s not as social or collegial as it used to be. It’s more cut and dried, and it’s not as much fun.”

With the world becoming more digitized by the minute, Breslin doesn’t expect the publishing industry to slow down, or return to its collegial ways, or even stop churning out so many unwanted books.

“It’s not going to stop,” he said. “It’s going to proliferate more and more.”

He’s probably right. I thanked him for taking the time to write that rejection letter on March 10, 1986, a dose of bad news that gave a struggling writer the strength to keep trying.

“You’re very welcome,” he said. We wished each other good luck and then we hung up.

Image credit: Flicker/dvs.

The Paper-Reader’s Dilemma

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In a new commercial for the Amazon Kindle, a man and a woman lie on beach chairs, glazing beneath the sun.  The tragically average man is trying to read his iPad; due to the glare, he can no longer follow his Patterson.  The woman, Kindle in hand, has no problem with the sun; by the looks of her, she has no problems at all.  The man’s shortcomings are plain, and the message is equally clear: the Kindle will make you sexier and resist the sun.

I find the ad faintly comical.  In an effort to fend off Apple—which builds sex straight into its products—Amazon is grasping at whatever straw lies near.  But for me, the fun ends there.  After years of rising dread—the prophesied End of Books, the Bezos Newsweek cover—“it” is finally here.  No longer are books being pitted against pixels; pointing out that paper isn’t reflective either seems very 2007.  The war is now between tablets, as if the book never existed at all.

In recent years, grief for such losses—music stores, newsrooms, this tradition or that—has become so common and compressed that it’s become a cultural given.  We now swallow our objections, lest they later seem absurd.  A few years ago, I stood in Tower Records, praising its stock to a friend: You can hold a compact disc; buying an album is a genuine act.  And just look at Bitches Brew: don’t you want to have it?

Of course, that Tower Records—along with most of its kind—is gone now; a jazz Pandora station is playing as I write.  The transition was far less wrenching than I’d previously expected; in fact, there was really no pain at all.  While I may miss aimless browsing, thoughts consumed by music, the process now seems needless, like baking bread from scratch.

I might say we’re at a moment when we face this choice as readers—the decision to climb into the boat or stay on familiar shores.  But the decision is not truly ours.  Time and again, these choices are made for us, by a collective sweep and push.  One day, everyone holds an iPod, and the next day, so do you.  Those who resist—the pipe smokers and vinyl hounds, stubborn to the end—come to seem affected, or possibly insane.  The rest of us seem modern, and eventually commonplace.

The prospect of our wonders used to bring excitement.  In the early nineties, after seeing Dick Tracy, I dreamed of his two-way radio.  How cool would that be?  I thought.  Incredibly, I found out: as two-way radios came to market, then gripped every inch of our lives, they became not cool at all.  Awe gave way to grabbiness: digitize everything, please.  Books are the latest items to be forced into the hole.

So I should probably shrug at progress and enjoy a digital Roth.  But—and at this stage, I know the pointlessness of saying it—books feel different to me.  Everywhere I’ve lived, they’ve surrounded me; nearly every night since childhood, I’ve held one in my hands.  My mother was a librarian; my father sat me on his lap and read Tom Sawyer aloud.  I now do the same with my son, though he isn’t quite ready for Twain.  Everyone, to some degree, has a variation of this history.

So here is the dilemma: you love your books, with their meaning and their warmth, but you’re not some weepy sap.  You find romance in the object, yet none in being an outlier, unreasonably clinging to relics.  Do you get on the boat—with its gorgeous women and glare-free screens—or ignore it and hold on?  Had I asked myself this question around the time of my Tower trip, I would have flared out my response: I’ll never switch, you Logan’s Run drone.  Books are too vital to trade for some overmarketed whim.

But in the time since, I’ve given myself over to plenty of similar whims—and against all odds, they haven’t ravaged my soul.  Electric books hold no appeal to me; they feel like viral death.  But so did music taken from a set of coiled wires.  The sounds were what was important.  So my answer now, however reluctant, is this: I’ll hold on to books for as long as I can.  I’ll read them, lend them, fall asleep with them.  I’ll hope they hold their own, that novelty will wane.  And if it doesn’t—when it doesn’t—I’ll find myself among a crowd that I’d never hoped to join.

(Image: circuit board, from botheredbybees’s photostream)

Is Big Back?

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Is Google making us stupid? Is reading in America a dying pursuit? Will novel srviv in age of twtr? String together enough of these think-piece propositions, and you begin to notice a pattern. Ostensibly open-ended, their very existence presumes an answer in the affirmative: yes, Google is making us stupid…at least, too stupid to entertain the possibility that this is other than a yes/no question.

If the presumption is correct, we might reasonably expect to see it reflected in the evolving form of the literary novel. Just last month, in a cover story on Jonathan Franzen, Time’s Lev Grossman postulated that “the trend in fiction over the past decade has been toward specialization: the closeup, the miniature, the microcosm.” And in practice, a young writer presenting her manuscript  to editors quickly surmises that the working definition for a novel is no longer Randall Jarrell’s “a prose narrative of a certain length that has something wrong with it,” but “a prose narrative of 235 to 325 pages that we can bring out as a paperback original.” Joshua Cohen, the 29-year-old author of several books, recently told The New York Observer that, of the eight publishers who passed on his novel Witz (800 pp), “One of them told me they would publish it if it was 200 pages…. One said 10 years ago they would have done it, back when people read novels.”

But if, as Grossman suggests, the “literary megafauna of the 1990s” no longer roam the earth, how to explain Time’s interest in Freedom (576 pp)? Moreover, how to explain the thicket of big novels that surround it on the shelves of America’s bookstores – not only Witz, but also A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book (675 pages), and Brady Udall’s The Lonely Polygamist (599 pp), and Rick Moody’s The Four Fingers of Death (725 pp), and Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn (592 pp), and Ralph Ellison’s Three Days Before the Shooting (1136 pp), and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (560 pp), and Javier Marías’ Your Face Tomorrow trilogy (1255 pp) and Adam Levin’s The Instructions (1030 pp)? Surveying those shelves, one begins to suspect that the spread of micro-designations like “literary megafauna” (or less charitably, “phallic meganovels”), rather than the plenitude or scarcity of the species in question, is the true marker of our changing culture.

Not so long ago, the phrase “long novel” was no less redundant than “short novel.” The serial publication practices of the 19th Century nudged the Victorian novelist toward amplitude. Multiply 16 (the number of pages in a signature) by two (the number of signatures in an installment) by 20 (the number of installments favored by Dickens and his publishers), and you get 640 serial pages – the length, give or take, of Dombey and Son, Little Dorrit, and Bleak House. Not to mention Vanity Fair and Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda… Soon, Trollope would be conceptualizing his novels explicitly as two- or three-volume affairs. My Oxford World Classics edition of Barchester Towers retains its two-volume pagination; it runs from 1 to 271, and then from 1 to 280. Toward the end of the second volume, the author begins to make asides about having to reach a certain page count.

In the age of offset printing, the long novel is more heterodox. Not much unites Moody and Marías and Mantel, other than the fact that they are currently stacked half-read on my nightstand. (There’s nothing like the birth of a child to foreground the sheer length of a book in one’s mind.) To yoke these writers together is thus to risk several kinds of reductionism. Most importantly (and speaking of Trollope): one doesn’t want to conflate geometric greatness with the aesthetic kind. Some of the best novels I’ve read recently are shorter than American presses tend to publish. (In the Spanish-speaking world, in particular, the short novel seems to have thrived in a way it hasn’t Stateside. A parallel essay may be warranted). Still, the current profusion of long novels would seem to complicate the picture of the Incredible Shrinking Attention Span.

Publishers’ willingness to take a chance on a long book circa 2010 may be directly connected to chances taken in the past. The fierce bidding, in 2007, for Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones (992 pp), a demanding work in translation, surely owes something to the rapt reception of Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives (600 pp) and subsequent widespread anticipation for 2666 (912 pp). McSweeney’s may be hoping The Instructions repeats the success of Chris Adrian’s The Children’s Hospital (615 pp). And David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1104 pp) continues to have a remarkable second life on the backlist, which is still the publisher’s bread and butter. Biographical books and articles by David Lipsky and D.T. Max, as well as copious online discussion, sustain interest in the book. A clerk at a local bookstore told me last week that, for the last two months, it’s been flying off the shelves. Indeed, après Jest, doubters may catch a whiff of decadence, or at least self-consciousness, around the efforts of Cohen, Levin, and other candidates for wunderkindency.

To be even more crassly economic, in the slog of the Great Recession, the long novel offers readers a compelling value proposition. One may revile all the works of William T. Vollmann, and admire those of the Mexican novelist Mario Bellatin, but even at 55 bucks, Imperial (1344 pp) offers a wildly higher hours-to-dollars ratio (it’s roughly one-to-one) than The Beauty Salon (72 pp). (Well, Imperial isn’t actually a novel, but it feels weird to discuss long books and exclude Vollmann’s megaliths.) To put it another way: Ann Beattie’s Walks With Men (102 pp) will cost you about as much as a trip to the local multiplex, and last about as long. And let’s not forget that publishers can charge more for a long book than a short one. This helps explain why the Harry Potter novels kept getting longer and longer… On the other hand, barring a guarantee of Potter-like sales, publishers hate big books, as Cohen learned the hard way. They’re expensive to print, to ship, and to warehouse. And, to compound the problem, reviewers hate long novels. How much easier to say of Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists (288 pp) than of, say, Joseph McElroy’s Women and Men (1191 pp), “It’s so good I had to read it twice.”

For a deeper explanation of the long novel’s enduring health, we have to look toward something harder to quantify: the construction of the reader. The more we’re told we’re becoming readers of blogs, of texts, of tweets, of files the more committing to a big book feels like an act of resistance. To pick up a novel in excess of 600 pages is to tell oneself, “I am going to spend twenty-four to forty-eight hours of my life with a book, rather than the newspaper, the internet, or the smartphone. I am going to feel it in my muscles” (Some will object here that lugging Infinite Jest on the subway is more a way of saying, “Look at me!” But surely matters of style, and of gender, are at play here; no one levels the same charge at readers of Marguerite Young.) The desire to escape the hive-mind of cyberspace – to be, once more, a solitary reader – may also be at play in the rise of “the Kindle-proof book”: the book so tailored to the codex form that it can’t yet be reproduced electronically. Think of The Original of Laura, or of Reif Larsen’s The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, or of New Directions’ editions of B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates, or Anne Carson’s Nox (actually more of a scroll), or Robert Walser’s Microscripts.

At the very least, the current boom, or miniboom, in big books should tell us that novelists still believe in this kind of reader.  In the end, this may be enough to ensure her survival; just as the audience shapes the writer’s habits, the writer, by the demands she chooses to make on her imaginary readers, calls her audience into being. One  of the underappreciated things about Franzen is that he writes as if the novel still (as Benjamin Kunkel puts it) “dominate[s] the landscape like a mountain range.” And lo and behold, there he is on the cover of Time!

One doesn’t want to draw a veil over the various corporate machinations that made that possible. At the end of the day, though, a large number of readers are, like their 19th Century antecedents, currently reading and thinking about and talking about a work of fiction whose physical dimensions signal a corresponding largeness of intellect and spirit. Surely, we can agree that that’s a good thing. For amid all the debatable, slippery stuff about our evolving consciousness, the relationship between the novel and a certain quality of attention appears to be inescapable. Whether in long or otherwise demanding books, or in long or otherwise demanding sentences, or in prodigious subtleties of perspective, writers of the 21st century continue to seek out an audience possessed of that attention. And, in defiance (so far) of predictions to the contrary, readers keep rising up to meet them.

Reading Green

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As if the ebook juggernaut didn’t already have enough steam behind it, The Washington Post says that, “perusing electronically will lighten your environmental impact.” You see, “every time you download and read an electronic book, rather than purchasing a new pile of paper, you’re paying back a little bit of the carbon dioxide and water deficit from the Kindle production process.”

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