Sometime around February, both somewhat crassly and in complete seriousness, I took to describing the still-newish 2019 as The Year of the Great Unclenching. The frenetic anxiety that had possessed me from working in a news cycle for the past four years that I can adequately only describe as a brain clenching its buttocks had finally begun to dissipate, leaving my mental faculties free and wanting to consume whole books again. (Apologies to all friends and strangers who had to endure me recount this self-mythologization at parties with an overenthusiastic use of the phrase “relaxed mental sphincters.”).
Since I lived in Harlem but went to lift weights three times a week at a gym in a Brooklyn neighborhood, for reasons I will explain another time—an hour-long commute each way transformed into the most peaceful uninterrupted reading time of the kind people (including me) moan about not having. At 9 p.m. on a weeknight aboard a nearly-empty 2 Train, nobody jostles you, nobody peeks over your shoulder, you don’t have to choose between balancing the book in one hand and clutching the pole with another, leaving me free to smirk to myself midway through Barbara Trapido’s Brother of the More Famous Jack—the only other book that has come close to my everlasting love for Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia, in the genre misguidedly given the insufferably twee name “coming-of-age” novel.
I have neither memory nor recollection of who told me about this writer or how I discovered her, but as the barest hint of my trapezius muscles began to emerge over the course of more Harlem to Crown Heights commutes, I inhaled Trapido’s entire body of work. Sex & Stravinksy, Noah’s Ark, The Travelling Hornplayer, Frankie & Stankie, Juggling and Temples of Delight—captivated by the way she manages to write the most charming books that take such perverse delight in the casual everyday cruelties that we, the members of the profoundly boring middle class, inflict on those (wives, husbands, offspring, mothers, fathers) when our indoctrinated veneer of fondness towards them wears thin, lobbing small grenades of destruction that do lasting damage, even as we cook dinner, fret over bills, and drink antacids to aid digestion. All I read this year were books by women who write in barbs so sharp their sentences seem capable of leaving nicks in the corners of your thumbnail. You carry their words with the same awareness that you would the hanging flap of skin leftover from a paper cut—aware always, but still unable to stop obsessively picking at it. I laughed when Muriel Spark rendered the do-nothing Writer Man character in Loitering with Intent with an evisceration so succinct it made me avert my eyes in second-hand embarrassment. I took in Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women, which is un-showy and more restrained, but no less ruthless in its intelligence. I reread The Portable Veblen, which I’d first read back in 2016 when it came out and had momentarily forgotten what a strange, inventive and just plain weird book this was. I found far too many parallels of my own with Lolly of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes and Edith of Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac. I choked with a certain crazed laughter while reading Halle Butler’s The New Me, in horrified familiarity at the scenes where the character endures the meaningless tedium of working full-time temp jobs. I read and reread Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything so many times over the summer that the brand new copy split apart at the spine. I put it back together with Gorilla Tape and read it again. I hope all these women will forgive me for comparing their writing to a hangnail. I love hangnails; they are my constant companion and keep me company when I am anxious, which is frequently.
Their writing did the same in a way.
The only New Year’s resolution I’ve ever kept (sorry vegetarianism!) was 2014’s: to write down every book I read. I’ve stuck with it; thus, I’m able to offer an exact accounting of my 2015 in reading. I can’t quite believe that someone has asked me to do so, but boy am I prepared.
As I suffer from tremendous anxiety of influence, I didn’t read a single book while writing my own. (To relax, I cooked; to fall asleep, I did crossword puzzles.) From June on, though, I read deliriously, hungrily, eager to make up for lost time. First, in (fruitless) search of an epigraph for my book, I reread Louise Fitzhugh’s The Long Secret and then Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, both as wonderful, indeed much richer, than I remembered.
I played cultural catch-up, reading books that had been much discussed among my circle (my circle: complete strangers I follow on Twitter) over the previous year and half: Akhil Sharma’s Family Life, Megan Abbott’s The Fever, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick, Rachel Cusk’s Outline, Elizabeth Harrower’s In Certain Circles, Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life (in three days!), Cristina Henríquez’s The Book of Unknown Americans, Rabih Alameddine’s devastating An Unnecessary Woman, a book that makes bookish people feel, by association, unnecessary, and Lorrie Moore’s Bark.
We went on vacation and I sat by the pool and read Mira Jacob’s un-put-down-able The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing, and Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything, which was like if Mad Men had only been about Joan (that is to say: not boring).
You can never actually be well read; there’s too much out there. So sometimes it’s best to choose randomly. I picked up Günter Grass’s Cat and Mouse because my father-in-law happened to have a particularly groovy paperback edition of it. In a piece about the Argosy bookshop, Janet Malcolm wrote about one of the owners resigning Louis Auchincloss to the bargain bin. Thus, I read his The Rector of Justin. (If you spot it in a bargain bin, give it a shot; it contains a wonderful, truly hateful character.) I read Ed Lin’s slender and foulmouthed Waylaid on the recommendation of a friend, and Grégoire Bouillier’s The Mystery Guest because I’m fascinated by Sophie Calle, and Barbara Browning’s I’m Trying to Reach You because I loved the title. I read Mary McCarthy’s The Company She Keeps and Birds of America because I never got an MFA and I have to learn to write somehow, and I read Jean Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight because I love sadness.
I’m working on a new novel that sort of involves a poet, so I read two books that involve poets: Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift and May Sarton’s Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing. This is like someone who’s never played tennis deciding to learn the game by studying Venus and Serena Williams, but there you go. I read Colm Tóibín’s characteristically wonderful Nora Webster, and Helen Dewitt’s icily smart The Last Samurai (I’ll confess a personal failing: I can’t handle children as narrators). I read Bellow’s superb Henderson the Rain King, (problematic, in the argot of our times) and then Dangling Man, the same author’s first novel.
One great perk about publishing a book is that people send you books. For free! That’s how I got my hands on Nell Zink’s Mislaid (my notes say I found it “bonkers”), and two titles that haven’t even been published yet: Emma Straub’s Modern Lovers and Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s The Nest, two excellent books destined to appear on a lot of Year in Reading 2016 lists. Jealous? You should be.
I read two works of nonfiction: Hermione Lee’s smart and comprehensive biography of Willa Cather, one of my all-time favorite writers, and Edmund White’s City Boy, a rambling and sort of disappointing document. And somewhere along the line, I read Margaret Atwood’s unexpectedly optimistic MaddAddam (spoiler: humanity perishes, the written word endures). I just counted: there are 36 volumes waiting on my bedside table (including collections of L.P. Hartley, Carson McCullers, and John Updike that contain multiple novels). Christ. The years are never long enough.
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Brian writes in with this question:
What I’d like to ask you is if you have any reading suggestions for finding out about the ins and outs of book and magazine publishing. It’s one of those topics that is absolutely flooded up to the nose with books claiming to answer all your questions. I would love some help from a trusted name. I’m trying to get a foot in the door in NYC but it is, as I’m sure you know, quite the challenge.
For this question we got responses from a pair of The Millions’ published writers, Emily St. John Mandel and Sonya Chung.
Emily: The most practical guide in my possession is probably Publicize Your Book! by Jacqueline Deval. At first glance this might not seem like the most intuitive fit for this topic, but the book provides a great deal of information about how publishing houses actually work from a marketing perspective, from the faintly chilling opening line (“The reality of book publishing is that there are too few resources to support every book”) onward. I happen to be published by a press that provides excellent marketing support to its authors, but this is by no means a given; I have friends, published by other presses, whose books have languished and died in the absence of a publicity budget. In the best-case scenario, authors need to play a substantial role in marketing their work, and in the worst-case scenario, they need to do absolutely everything themselves. Either way, Deval’s book is invaluable.
There was a brief period last year when it seemed like half the people I follow on Twitter were reading Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything. I follow a lot of booksellers on Twitter, which is deadly, because I end up spending a small fortune on books; someone will recommend a book, then someone else will read it and recommend it too, and then all of a sudden everyone’s talking about it and I have to go buy it to see what all the fuss is about. Usually this happens with new releases, but The Best of Everything was published in 1958.
This is a portrait of a lost world—the book follows five young employees of a Manhattan publishing house in an era of typing pools and three-martini lunches. It’s a novel, but one rooted in fact: the author spent four years rising through the ranks of a New York publishing house herself, and before writing the book she interviewed fifty young women to see if their experiences matched her own. The book’s account of what it took for a young woman to go from the typing pool to an editorial position in that era is not for the faint of heart. A friend who read this book told me that working in publishing hasn’t changed very much; I hope very fervently that she’s wrong.
Sonya: In the olden days, we’d all go out and buy the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP) Literary Press and Magazine Directory. Organized by state, with each entry detailing submissions policies and a sampling of the authors featured, it was considered the “Bible” of literary submission; we’d all pore over it and make our lists, noting deadlines in our daily planners, imagining that if we just did our due diligence we’d be published writers for sure. (In fact, I did publish my first stories and essays via lists I made from the LPMD.) CLMP still publishes the Directory annually, and it boasts new features such as tips from editors, profiles of publishers, and inclusion of “leading webzines.” I don’t hear young writers talking about this Directory as much as they used to – a print directory? how quaint! – but if you’re looking for a print resource, this might be The One.
Poets & Writers is an indispensable clearinghouse for all things writerly, publishing and otherwise. Their website features user-friendly, searchable literary-magazine and small-press databases, grants/awards deadlines, and contests. I’ve found their Agents & Editors series – where a roundtable of agents and/or editors talk book biz “unplugged,” or an individual agent or editor is interviewed – especially illuminating.
When I had a book length manuscript and was ready to start the agent search, I found agentquery.com and publishersmarketplace.com both very helpful. I knew nothing about finding an agent; agentquery walks you through the basics of seeking an agent and FAQs of what to expect. Both sites have searchable databases with profiles on many agents (a quick look reveals that publishersmarketplace.com has more up-to-date profiles). The best strategy for agent-seeking is to make a list of your favorite writers, then go to a library or big-box bookstore, pull those writers’ books off the shelves and flip to the acknowledgments page; usually the writer will thank/name her agent there. Take your list of agents to one of these online databases, find their submissions guidelines, and follow them to a tee.
Finally, invest some time online. Literary blogs lead you to other literary blogs, which also inevitably lead you to online lit mags that will interest you and be good potential publishers of your work (many of the major lit bloggers list extensive links which include their favorite lit mags). It is a truism, for good reason, that the best places to submit your work are sites/publications that you read regularly and admire. Editors can sense, I think, that intangible quality of “good fit” when you’ve actually been reading their publication over time.
With so many online venues these days, the possibilities for publication have increased exponentially. Writing students sometimes ask me if I think online pubs are “less prestigious” than print pubs, to which I say, hogwash: The Millions, Narrative Magazine, Five Chapters, on and on. But, as Stephen Elliott puts it: “It’s easy to get published; it’s just hard to get paid.”
Thans for the question Brian! Millions readers, feel free to chime in with your advice in the comments!
[Image credit: Jim Kuhn]