For me, this year
of reading is forever captured by the words of our literary genius Toni
Morrison. Upon hearing of her death, I clung to her now famous quote: “We
die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the
measure of our lives.”
And then I did what I’m sure millions of other readers did: pulled a Morrison classic from the bookshelf—for me it was Sula—and devoured it anew, hungry for the language that only she could do. That slim perfect novel entered my life at a critical moment, when I was searching for a way to understand what I might uniquely say, as a young black woman writer. Sula, in its astonishing portrayal of a black woman like none we’d seen before, liberated my understanding of what was possible.
Weeks ago, at the Brooklyn Public Library, I participated in a continuous reading of Beloved for ‘Til Victory Is Won, a teach-in examining freedom movements from the Middle Passage to Black Lives Matter. Reciting Morrison’s work out loud reminded me of its power and urgency and beauty, because sometimes we must be reminded of what we already know to be true. After that experience, I felt compelled to listen to Beloved on audiobook, to remain awash in the language, this time gifted to me in Morrison’s own arresting voice.
During Morrison’s memorial service at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Oprah Winfrey chose as part of her tribute to read a favorite passage from Song of Solomon. (“If I got a home, you got one too…Grab this land! Take it, hold it, my brothers, make it, my brothers, shake it, squeeze it, turn it, twist it, beat it, kick it, kiss it, whip it, stomp it, dig it, plow it, seed it, reap it, rent it, buy it, sell it, own it, build it, multiply it, and pass it on – can you hear me? Pass it on!”). Given her masterful delivery, Oprah reminded us all of the singular and stunning gut-punch of Morrison’s writing. Again, it sent me back to the text, and I went home and re-read Song of Solomon, consuming its pages the way you do a favorite meal cooked by a favorite aunt, one you haven’t eaten in years, yet brings back with each mouthful a deep sense memory. It had been decades since I first read each of those iconic novels; I now understood I’d been bereft without knowing it, had missed the intimacy I once had with those characters and that narrator, the way you realize how much you’ve missed a dear friend only when you actually see her again.
Before the world shifted on August 5, I was busily reading newly released books while traveling on book tour for my own memoir that came out this year, The World According to Fannie Davis. I love reading while I travel, as there’s so many undisturbed snatches of time that I don’t manage to get at home: waiting at airport gates, flying on planes for hours, resting in hotel rooms before events… In those cherished moments, I read five original and compelling memoirs.
Sarah M. Broom’s National Book Award-winning The Yellow House has some of the most tactile and redolent writing I’ve ever read, is beautiful in so many ways. And it is, among other things, a breathtaking story of Broom’s own quest for both nest and adventure. Imani Perry’s Breathe was for me, as the mother of a 20-year-old black son, both an excruciating and exhilarating experience. That’s how apt and searing and moving is this love letter of a book that Perry writes to her own two African-American sons. Claudia E. Hernandez’s Knitting the Fog, winner of the Louise Meriwether First Book Prize (full disclosure: I was a judge), is a lyrically fresh account of her life as a Guatemalan immigrant, and a story we simply haven’t seen before, not like this. Good Talk, Mira Jacob’s illustrated conversations with her son about race, manages to be both visually inviting and a captivating read, thanks to both her candor and craft. The book is so fantastic, it ups the ante for what graphic memoir can be. Serial memoirist Dani Shapiro’s Inheritance moved me for its naked honesty and deft rendering of a huge family secret, that her beloved Jewish father was not her biological father. As I’ve written my own story of a family secret, I appreciated how Shapiro shared her personal story all the while examining larger cultural implications of that revelation.
Speaking of cultural implications, I crave stories about black women’s lives that situate them within historical context, which is still so often a rarity. That’s why I was intrigued by Josh Levin’s book about the original “welfare queen” demonized by the media and politicians in the ’70s and ’80s. The Queen is a rich character-study of a complicated black woman that Levin rescues from simplistic stereotyping. It’s also an apt study of the ways black women have been demonized in society; the entire time I was reading its exhaustively researched pages, I kept saying to myself both “Of course!” and “Who knew?”
As palate cleansers, I also read two refreshing narratives that took me away from my usual choice of genres. The first is the fun thriller My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite. Set in Nigeria, it’s so sly and charming that I turned the pages greedily and couldn’t stop smiling. In stark contrast, DaMaris B. Hill’s A Bound Woman Is a Dangerous Thing is a “narrative-in-verse” bearing witness to incarcerated black women across American history. That description does not do justice to the imaginative, sweeping account that Hill renders of black women she reclaims from history—some we’ve heard of, many we haven’t—who were bound in myriad ways, having lost their freedom at the hands of America’s cruelty. That she does so vis-à-vis tribute poems to each woman is a marvel. It’s a heart-wrenching read, but also a soul-stirring one.
Speaking again of Oprah, I recently re-watched her riveting performance in HBO’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, as I begin to think about a film adaptation of my own mother’s story. This led me back to the source, Rebecca Skloot’s book of the same name, which remains an astonishing story of two women—Lacks herself, who’d been all but lost to history despite her own cells’ seismic contribution to science, and her daughter Deborah whose mission in life was to right that wrong. It’s a powerful corrective.
I see clearly the theme that has emerged from my reading list this year: women’s lives revealed, reclaimed, reimagined. Feels right. As does ending with our beloved Toni Morrison’s adage:
Books are a form of political action. Books are knowledge. Books are reflection. Books change your mind.
Rejections bring writers together. We trade stories of abysmally long response times, boilerplate replies addressed Dear writer, and the requisite practice of pinning rejection slips to walls. F. Scott Fitzgerald covered his bedroom with the 122 rejections he received in the spring of 1919 alone. Stephen King “pounded a nail” into the wall to “impale” his rejections. Rebecca Skloot displays her rejections for The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks as a constant reminder of editorial subjectivity.
The screens of our computers and phones have replaced the archetypal wall of printed rejections. Social media inflames the Cult of Rejection, a melodramatic threnody of authorial frustration. Before I sound too sanctimonious, I admit participation in these public complaints. It is cathartic to scream in electronic silence. Rejection is a reminder that writers are vulnerable and sensitive — and yet still pugilistic. To write is to tempt constant rejection. The statistical inevitability of rejection does not lessen the sting.
Despite these airings of shared failure, when we close the door and sit at our own desks, it easy to think that we are alone in disappointment. I asked writers whose work I admire to share their most formative rejections, whether they came from magazines, publishers, or even professors. I appreciate their candor about those moments when they realized how to fail better.
Because I have asked to air their confessions, I should share one of my own. As a graduate student in theology, I wrote an essay of biblical criticism. I was not new to the world of submissions — I had already published a book of poems and had placed fiction in magazines like Esquire and The Kenyon Review — but my scholarship was literary, not biblical.
I have always been interested in the penitent thief in Luke’s Gospel. In the scene, thieves are crucified on both sides of Jesus. The criminals mock him. Unlike the version of the story in Matthew and Mark, the thief in Luke’s narrative is regretful and contemplative. He believes that Jesus does not deserve this brutal punishment. I submitted my essay to Catholic Biblical Quarterly, a peer-reviewed publication of biblical criticism that has appeared since 1939. A few months later, I received a response. The editor prefaced the publication’s attached decision with a warning: “I wish that they could contain more welcome news.”
Submitters to literary magazines complain about form rejections. We are lucky. Peer reviews replace ambiguity with dissection. The first reviewer considered my work incomplete, but made useful suggestions for improvement. He appreciated the patristic exegesis in the latter half of the essay, but thought I needed to study the original Greek text of Luke, and reference further examinations of the pericope.
The other reviewer was less kind. “The paper is not publishable,” he began. He skewered my essay, reveling in the evisceration. Now that my literary wound has healed, his railing is entertaining and often prescient: he wondered if he was being “too harsh, since I suspect that the author is a student.” He said my essay lacked a thesis. “It is unclear how any of [the essay’s] parts relate to one another,” he wrote; “there is no coherent argument.” The reviewer’s main bone was my usage of critical language. He called it “persistent and irritating,” and produced a litany of moments where I had folded the language of literary criticism into the language of biblical criticism. I could almost feel the exhale of disgust at the end of his review.
While I would later publish a book of literary criticism, I never returned to the biblical side of scholarship. I had tried to stretch myself too wide. Pride blurred my vision. I had assumed that my experiences in one genre translated to competency in another. I had forgotten that the term “writer” is not all-inclusive: there are so many different writers, so many different forms.
Only when I step outside the world of literary magazines do I realize the narrow and fine nature of that world. It took sustained rejection to remind me what I could do well — and what type of writing should remain a hobby. I am now thankful for the rejections that used to frustrate me. I am also thankful for sharing the experiences of others. Pity the writer who thinks or he or she is finished learning from failure.
Here are seven writers on their most formative rejections.
1. Tomás Q. Morin (A Larger Country)
I’ve never received the kind of rejection letter that becomes infamous for its cruelty or the one filled with over-the-top praise in spite of the No waiting at the end. Once a year for nine years, I submitted to Poetry magazine and every year they said no. Rather than be discouraged, I relished the yearly chance to put in front of Chris Wiman (then the editor), Don Share, & Co. a poem they couldn’t turn away. Sometimes the rejection would be a form letter, while other times someone would scribble “send more work.” When the first Yes finally arrived, I had learned that you can develop a relationship with an editorial staff as much through their rejections of your work as you can through their acceptances. This is why I always tell young writers to not give up on a magazine they love just because an editor said no once.
2. Pamela Erens (The Virgins and The Understory)
I once took part in an ongoing creative writing workshop run by an inspired teacher. I learned a great deal from him — to this day my writing process remains highly influenced by him — but he had a very particular pedagogy and very emphatic opinions. When he dismissed a piece of writing, it stayed dismissed.
At a certain point, he had to travel for a few months, and a substitute took over the class, herself a gifted writer and teacher. I started a new short story during that time, and got a lot of encouragement from her and the class through successive revisions. Then the original teacher returned. He completely trashed the story; it was all wrong. No one dared to contradict him, of course. Nor was there was going to be any discussion of what had brought my story to this point or where I hoped to go with it. I was crushed — and also furious. When I finally was able to think calmly, I realized that I needed to break away somewhat from this teacher’s orbit. I applied for my first-ever summer writer’s conference, and there I got to know writers other than those in his classes, as well as teachers who taught in other ways. Later, online, I developed a larger network of writing colleagues, generous people who encouraged my work and supported me emotionally. I stayed in my workshop teacher’s class for a while longer, but I never let myself become so dependent on one person’s opinion or ideas about writing again. Artists are very vulnerable people. We don’t know what the hell we’re doing a lot of the time, and it becomes easy to transform someone else into a guru who has the Word.
3. Justin Taylor (The Gospel of Anarchy and Flings)
When I was in grad school, or maybe just after, I was introduced to an Editor at an Important Magazine and pitched her — within 10 minutes, while sitting at a bar, which itself was deeply uncool — on a few ideas, but mostly on the idea of me doing something — anything — for her magazine. She was gracious about it, and my ideas weren’t awful, so she told me to email her and the next day I sent a detailed pitch to review a new book by an Established American Poet whose work I’d long admired. I hadn’t actually read the new book yet, but I knew enough of his catalog to make the case for the Important Magazine giving him a feature review. She accepted, and I dove into the galley, which it turned out I mostly hated. This was as much a surprise to me as anyone, and mortifying considering how much I’d professed to love the guy, but — and I think this is to my credit — I didn’t pull any punches. I excoriated the book in detail, basically arguing that he’d gone lazy and soft. When the piece was spiked, the Editor was kind enough to share her reasoning: She didn’t question my judgment of the book (though for the record she never said she shared it) and neither did she have anything against so-called “negative reviewing” (that question never even came up), but she simply didn’t see the point of using her platform to hand an ass-kicking to a book of poems most of her readers wouldn’t have heard of in the first place. It struck her as a waste of her publication’s resources and space. This was, more or less, my introduction to the idea that editors and publications have a sense not only of their audience but of themselves: their cultural position and reach, and that they wield whatever “power” they have (or think they have) with deliberation and intent. Put another way: This was the moment I learned that context is a form of content. The universe then saw fit to drive this point even further home for me, so if you’ll bear with a brief P.S. I’ll share what happened next: I took my kill fee from the Important Magazine, licked my wounds, and in the end gave the piece away to an upstart indie book website. Some time later I got an email — from the Established American Poet! It was brief, but exceedingly generous considering the circumstances. He had come across my thrashing of him and had written to say — I’m paraphrasing here — no hard feelings. To be sure, he did not share my view of his book, but he seemed to respect my work, and perhaps my ability to get so worked up over a book of poems; more than anything else, he seemed pleased that this upstart indie book website had been interested in him in the first place. He may have even thanked me for my time.
4. Matthew Salesses (The Hundred-Year Flood and I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying)
In 2011, The Hundred-Year Flood went out to a number of editors, all of who rejected it but several of who asked for revisions. Each time some feedback came in, my agent-at-the-time said I should try it. They all wanted contradictory things. When I sent that agent my revision, she sat on it for months, avoiding my emails. Finally she called and scheduled a meeting in New York. When we met, she said I should either write a different book or find a different agent. We parted ways. It was all very shocking. A month or so later, I found out that she had dropped another writer I know at the same time in an equally mysterious manner.
5. Holly LeCraw (The Swimming Pool and The Half Brother)
In August, 1992, when I was 26 years old, I sent out my first story submission ever. I had aggressively small expectations: I knew I’d probably receive a form letter, or more likely a photocopied rejection slip, not even a full sheet of paper. I’d recently started reading the slush at a small literary magazine myself, and knew that words of encouragement, never mind signatures, were doled out very sparingly. I also knew that such magazines took weeks or even months to respond.
I printed out my story on my dot-matrix printer, tore off the edges and separated the pages, filled out my SASE, wrote and printed my (very short) submission letter, weighed the whole thing, put stamps on the manila envelope, and sent it off to The Atlantic, which back then published fiction every month.
Two days later 00 yes, two days — my SASE came back with a letter, which read, in its entirety: “Dear Ms. LeCraw: You write intelligently, but ‘Sailing’ seems to us loosely organized, short of event, mannered in the telling (present tense), and inconclusive. Try us again?” It was on letterhead, and signed from C. Michael Curtis, the fiction editor.
A friend of ours, not a writer, was over for dinner that night and kept saying how sorry he was that I’d gotten a rejection. He couldn’t understand why I was excited about any of it. He was sure I was putting on a brave face, and I couldn’t convince him otherwise.
I never did publish that particular story; it was indeed very short of event, mannered, and inconclusive, and I couldn’t save it, nor many other stories that followed. But that first kind rejection convinced me I wasn’t crazy to try. Eventually, I realized I needed a bigger canvas, and started writing novels. To this day I remain vigilant for work that’s mannered and uneventful. And I’m still astonished by the efficiency of The Atlantic, Mike Curtis, and the U.S. Post Office.
6. Jessica Mesman Griffith (Love & Salt)
You know what I hate almost as much as being rejected? Crickets. There is something so humiliating about just being ignored, as if your work doesn’t even dignify a response.
That being said, I’m fresh off a formal rejection from a publisher for a book I pitched. I was, of course, insulted and embarrassed that the publisher didn’t want what I pitched, especially since said publisher had asked me to pitch this particular book to them and requested revisions to the original proposal. But I was also relieved, and that unexpected feeling of relief made me realize that I really hadn’t wanted to write the book I’d pitched after all. What I wanted to be working on was far riskier, and I’d been avoiding it and sticking to what I thought was safe. In this case, a rejection gave me the time and the guts to pursue the scarier project.
7. Andrew Ervin (Burning Down George Orwell’s House and Extraordinary Renditions)
It took me a long time to understand that every editor who has rejected my fiction has done me a favor. That’s especially true of one man I’ve heard described as “Hungary’s greatest living philosopher.” I’ll get to him in a moment. The first story I ever published, in a now-defunct print journal, required 25 fresh drafts. When it finally appeared, it did so next to some prose by one of my heroes, Andy Kaufman. That made the whole maddening process worth it; those 25 rejections proved invaluable.
The most formative rejection I’ve received to date, however, came in 1995 from Miklós Vajda, then the editor of The Hungarian Review. It said:
“Thank you for sending your story. I am sorry to say, however, I found it crudely written, superficial and much too long for the little it says. It seems your main concern must have been finding expression for the contempt you feel for your colleagues, for modern art, people in general. You have talent but this story does little to prove it.”
That is a tremendous rejection. Over a decade later, I read a subsequent — and published — version of that same story at my MFA graduation. The opportunity to continue improving a story is one I’ve learned to appreciate. To this day, every story I write needs to pass my internal “crude, superficial and too long” test before I send it out.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
I’ve been dipping in Baruch Spinoza’s Ethics and Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, for no particular reason, other than that I like thought — I’m sick of the relentless, numbing emotionalism of American culture.
Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks deserves every bit of attention and success it has received, for the way it addresses the ethics of science and race. Also, I am a huge fan of historical characters that would be forgotten if it wasn’t for a talented, curious writer who doesn’t succumb to the pressures of being in this (boring) moment. Thus I loved Monique Brinson Demery’s Finding the Dragon Lady: The Mystery of Vietnam’s Madame Nhu.
It took me only a couple of days to read Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief. One of the things we are good at are the systems of thoughtlessness — witnessing the dissection of one of them was both rewarding and disheartening. I’m a huge fan of Graham Robb’s work, particularly his biography of Rimbaud and his books on Paris and France. But Strangers: Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century was a revelation in the power of its conviction and erudition.
I loved Laurent Binet’s HHhH, its intelligence and ethical commitment. Gary Shteyngart is one of the funniest people alive, but Super Sad True Love Story is not just very funny, it is also sad and sadly true.
And it is, of course, the centenary of the publication of Swann’s Way, the first volume of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, which is one of those miraculous books that gets better with every re-reading.
And I’ve gone through dozens of books on soccer in 2013, but I’ll just mention two: Barca: the Making of the Greatest Team in the World by Graham Hunter and Pep Guardiola: Another Way of Winning by Guillem Balague, both full of great stories, meticulous research, and recollections of great soccer matches. In my entire life, I’ve read only one book about American football, which I despise every day of my life. But Rich Cohen’s Monsters: The 1985 Chicago Bears and the Wild Heart of Football is one of the best sports books I’ve ever read and now I have something to talk about with men at Thanksgiving.
Looking into the future, I enjoyed and admired Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman (coming out in February 2014), because it is a book about reading (as translating), and full of love for it. Presently, I’m enjoying Yelena Akhtiorskaya’s Panic in a Suitcase (July 2014) — it is funny and smart, inventive and poetic, makes me want to write down every other sentence. And I shudder to think it is only her first book.
I read a lot, so I’ll stop here.
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It was inevitable, really. Mary Roach’s previous books have ostensibly been about sex, cadavers, the afterlife, and space travel, but each one has spent a fair amount of time on digestion, excretion, and highly topical fart jokes.
In her latest book, Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, Mary Roach finally explores all that happens after you take that bite — not as an entertaining sideshow, but as the focus of 17 entertaining and occasionally bizarre chapters. Megacolons, stimulated saliva, death by constipation, and of course the scientists who study this stuff with aplomb (and an occasional apology): it is, as it were, all in there.
I interviewed her while she was in Seattle for her book tour.
The Millions: Your past work has focused on bringing topics that are creepy or lurid or awe-inspiring back down to earth. This one’s primarily about overcoming disgust. Did you find it challenging to make digestion and excretion palatable for your audience?
Mary Roach: Well, I think digestion is another lurid, taboo subject — particularly from the navel down. But even what goes on in the mouth is an unthinkable, revolting thing that no one wants to think about. There was a sense that this was right up my stinky little alley.
TM: Packing for Mars came out the same year that NASA retired the Shuttles and the Opportunity rover broke records for the longest Mars mission. Stiff came out around the same time that shows about forensic science became the hot new thing…
MR: And Six Feet Under.
TM: Right. Was there something that made you decide: yes, 2013 is the time to publish a book about the digestive tract?
MR: You know, I think the whole obsession with food had hit an unprecedented level, in terms of people photographing every meal and posting it on Instagram. Food has moved so far away from just a way to stay alive and take in sustenance to a point where it’s now almost high culture. So it makes sense to look past the borders of the lips and take a peek at what goes on after the food leaves the plate.
On the tour, my publicist set up events with people like Chris Kimball and Ted Allen, which makes for a really interesting conversation. We tend to elevate food to a sensual, cultural place, but for someone like Chris Kimball, he’s looking at food as chemistry. And eating is biology.
TM: Two of the most memorable people in your book were William Beaumont, the physician who made a career out of his patient’s stomach fistula, and Andries van der Bilt, the chewing scientist at Utrecht who will probably be the last researcher of his kind at the university. In other words, in the book you go from the early days of science virtuosos to very specialized people doing narrow and admittedly gross stuff. Is that how the field of gastro-intestinal science looks right now?
MR: It’s really hard to get funding for pure science just for the sake of figuring out how things work. It’s a lot easier to get funded if you have a practical application for things. Also, a lot of it’s been figured out.
I’m not a scientist, so I’m going out on a limb here, but I do get the sense that the more you know, the more you realize you don’t know very much, and there isn’t an end point. So there’s always more to be done — there’s just not as much funding for it anymore. It’s more science in the service of the food industry.
But even in that world, there are characters like Erika Silletti, who are so awed and amazed by what they’re discovering. She has this infectious enthusiasm for…spit!
TM: You’re in the middle of your book tour now. What do you like to present at your events?
MR: I don’t do a lot of readings when I do talks. Some of them are billed as readings, but I wouldn’t call them that, really. I find that if you read to non-fiction to people for more than a paragraph, people will glaze over. So I’ll read footnotes.
Once of my favorite footnotes in Gulp is where I’m talking about per anum, which is through the anus, and per annum, which is yearly. And I did a Google search for instances where people meant per annum but wrote per anum, and that’s one of my favorites. How many childbirths occur per anum, that sort of thing.
TM: Do you find that people are more squeamish to ask you questions about the digestive tract than they were on your earlier book tours, when the topic was the afterlife or space?
MR: Oh no, no. Once you open the door for them, people want to know all kinds of things. Sometimes people want to know, “I have a mucoid plaque, can you tell me what to do,” and I have to say, “I don’t have an M.D., I can’t dispense medical advice — nor do I really want to.”
But people have great questions. The other day I was doing an author lunch at Google; people had a lot of questions about rectal smuggling.
TM: Early on in the book, you find out that your palate isn’t developed enough for you to be on a professional olive oil tasting panel. Any other potential avenues of research that never worked out?
MR: I wanted to go to Food Valley when someone was actually involved in an experiment, but I couldn’t seem to time it right. There were a couple subjects, but most were not particularly interesting. There’s someone there with a tube hooked in mouth, and it squirts in something that they’re tasting, and they make a note of it. It’s not particularly scintillating, and it didn’t make it into the book.
There’s a woman who studies pica (people who ingest non-food) and she studies in Zanzibar with women who eat a variety of clays. I wanted to do that, partly because I really wanted to go to Zanzibar — that really lies at the bottom of a lot of what I do, I really want to go there, what could I find there? — but it felt a little…off unto itself. When you go all the way to Zanzibar, you want to spend a lot of time on that subject, not just a few paragraphs.
TM: When you first started writing, I think one of your pieces was about the IRS. Then you moved on to the afterlife, cadavers, space travel. What sort of writers made you think, I want to write about things that are kind of out there, or that people might not think about all that often?
MR: The writer who I glommed on to and loved his style was Bill Bryson, when he wrote The Lost Continent. This was before A Walk in the Woods, before he started going huge. I remember reading his books, and I admired his ability to combine information and humor and character. It was inspirational. Every now and then I put a little homage to passages that really got in my head from writers like him, inside jokes to myself.
When I was writing Gulp, I had just read Patti Smith’s Just Kids, and when she did something outrageous or pathetic, Mapplethorpe would say to her, “Patti, no.” And when I was with Sue Langston, who’s a sensory analyst — the nose woman — and I asked her, “if you had to choose between a Budweiser and an IPA right now, what would you choose?” and she said, “I would take the Bud,” and I said, “Sue, no.” That was my little homage to Mapplethorpe and that book.
TM: In 2011 you edited the Best American Science and Nature Writing, so I’m hoping you might pontificate about science writing in general for a second. When you write your books, or when you evaluate science writing, what are you looking for — what should a good science piece accomplish?
MR: I don’t know if the genre of “science writing” should really exist. We don’t classify “religion writing” or “political writing” as an entirely different register of writing. There’s such a wide range — material that simply explains, others that are strongly narrative. In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, you learn a lot about cell culturing, but it’s still primarily a story.
For that collection in particular, I tried to do a mix. The Atul Gawande essay, I thought, was beautiful. For someone in that community to stand up — or I should say, sit down and write — about how far the discussion about end-of-life care needs to go in order to really help people. And then the Oliver Sacks piece about prosopagnosia, he’s just a wonderful thinker/writer, he’s more reporting rather than recommending.
For me, there are a lot of valid ways to write about science, and when I was judging that book it was really just what pulled me in and kept my interest and taught me something. There are so many ways to do that.
Chabon. Obreht. Franzen. McCann. Egan. Brooks. Foer. Lethem. Eggers. Russo.
Possible hosts for Bravo’s America’s Next Top Novelist? Dream hires for the Iowa Writers’ Workshop?
Nope — just the “Murderer’s Row” of advance blurbers featured on the back of Nathan Englander’s new effort, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. And what an effort it must be: “Utterly haunting. Like Faulkner [Russo] it tells the tangled truth of life [Chabon], and you can hear Englander’s heart thumping feverishly on every page [Eggers].”
As I marvel at the work of Knopf’s publicity department, I can’t help but feel a little ill. And put off. Who cares? Shouldn’t the back of a book just have a short summary? Isn’t this undignified? But answering these questions responsibly demands more than the reflexive rage of an offended aesthete (Nobody cares! Yes! Yes!). It demands, I think, the level-headed perspective of a blurb-historian…
Let’s be clear: blurbs are not a distinguished genre. In 1936 George Orwell described them as “disgusting tripe,” quoting a particularly odious example from the Sunday Times: “If you can read this book and not shriek with delight, your soul is dead.” He admitted the impossibility of banning reviews, and proposed instead the adoption of a system for grading novels according to classes, “perhaps quite a rigid one,” to assist hapless readers in choosing among countless life-changing masterpieces. More recently Camille Paglia called for an end to the “corrupt practice of advance blurbs,” plagued by “shameless cronyism and grotesque hyperbole.” Even Stephen King, a staunch supporter of blurbs, winces at their “hyperbolic ecstasies” and calls for sincerity on the part of blurbers.
The excesses and scandals of contemporary blurbing, book and otherwise, are well-documented. William F. Buckley relates how publishers provided him with sample blurb templates: “(1) I was stunned by the power of [ ]. This book will change your life. Or, (2) [ ] expresses an emotional depth that moves me beyond anything I have experienced in a book.” Overwrought praise for David Grossman’s To the End of the Land inspired The Guardian to hold a satirical Dan Brown blurbing competition. My personal favorite? In 2000, Sony Pictures invented one David Manning of the Ridgefield Press to blurb some of its stinkers. When Newsweek exposed the fraud a year later, moviegoers brought a class action lawsuit on behalf of those duped into seeing Hollow Man, The Animal, The Patriot, or Vertical Limit (Manning on Hollow Man: “One hell of a ride!” — evidently moviegoers are easy marks).
When did this circus get started? It’s tempting to look back no further than the origins of the word “blurb,” coined in 1906 by children’s book author and civil disobedient Gelett Burgess. But blurbs, like bullshit, existed long before the term coined to describe them (“bullshit,” in case you were wondering, appeared in 1915). They were born of marketing, authorial camaraderie, and a genuine obligation to the reader, three staples of the publishing industry since its earliest days, to which we will turn momentarily.
But before hunting for blurbs in the bookshops of antiquity, it’s important to get clear on what we’re looking for. Laura Miller at Salon writes: “The term ‘blurb’ is sometimes mistakenly used for the publisher-generated description printed on a book’s dust jacket — that’s actually the flap copy. ‘Blurb’ really only applies to bylined endorsements by other authors or cultural figures.” Miller can’t be completely right. For the consultants at Book Marketing Limited — and their numerous big-name clients — blurb describes any copy printed on a book, publisher-generated or otherwise, as evidenced by the criteria for the annual Best Blurb Award (ed note: as per the comment below, this is the typical British usage). So much for authorship. The term is often used of bylined endorsements that appear in advertisements. So much for physical location. And if we try to accommodate author blurbs, even Wikipedia’s “short summary accompanying a creative work” isn’t broad enough.
What a mess. In the interest of time I’m going to adopt an arbitrary hybrid definition — blurb: a short endorsement, author unspecified, that appears on a creative work. So Orwell’s example and Manning’s reviews would be disqualified if they didn’t appear on a book or DVD case, respectively. I’ll leave that legwork to someone else, because we’ve got serious ground to cover.
If you needed beach reading in ancient Rome, you’d probably head down to the Argiletum or Vicus Sandaliarium, streets filled with booksellers roughly equivalent to London’s Paternoster Row. But how to know which books would make your soul shriek with delight? There was no Sunday Times; newspaper advertising didn’t catch on for another 1,700 years, and neither did professional book reviewers. Aside from word of mouth, references in other books, and occasional public readings, browsers appear to have been on their own.
Almost. Evidence suggests that booksellers advertised on pillars near their shops, where one might see new titles by famous people like Martial, the inventor of the epigram (nice one, Martial). It’s safe to assume that even in the pre-codex days of papyrus scrolls, a good way to assess the potential merits of Martial’s book would have been to read the first page or two, an ideal place for authors to insert some prefatory puff. Martial begins his most well-known collection with a note to the reader: “I trust that, in these little books of mine, I have observed such self-control, that whoever forms a fair judgment from his own mind can make no complaint of them.” Similar proto-blurbs were common, often doubling as dedications to powerful patrons or friends. The Latin poet Catullus: “To whom should I send this charming new little book / freshly polished with dry pumice? To you, Cornelius!” For those who weren’t the object of the dedication, these devices likely served the same purpose that blurbs do today: to market books, influence their interpretation, and assure prospective readers they kept good company.
Nearly fourteen hundred years passed before Renaissance humanists hit on the idea of printing commendatory material written by someone other than the author or publisher. (Or maybe they copied Egyptian authors and booksellers, who were soliciting longer poems of praise (taqriz) from big-shot friends in the 1300s.) By 1516, the year Thomas More published Utopia, the practice was widespread, but More took it to another level. He drew up the blueprint for blurbing as we know it, imploring his good friend Erasmus to make sure the book “be handsomely set off with the highest of recommendations, if possible, from several people, both intellectuals and distinguished statesmen.” This it was, by a number of letters including one from Erasmus (“All the learned unanimously subscribe to my opinion, and esteem even more highly than I the divine wit of this man…”), and a poem by David Manning’s more eloquent predecessor, a poet laureate named “Anemolius” who praises Utopia as having made Plato’s “empty words… live anew.” What would he have written about The Patriot?
Hyperbole, fakery, shameless cronyism: though it will be another three hundred years before blurbs make their way onto the outside of a book, things are looking downright modern. In the 1600s practically everyone wrote commendatory verses, some of which were quite beautiful, like Ben Jonson’s for Shakespeare’s First Folio: “Shine forth, thou Star of Poets, and with rage / Or influence, chide or cheer the drooping stage, / Which, since thy flight from hence, hath mourned like night, / And despairs day, but for thy volume’s light.” (Interestingly, Shakespeare himself never wrote any — one can only imagine what a good blurb from the Bard would have done for sales.)
It was only a matter of time before things got out of control. The advent of periodicals in the early 18th century facilitated printing and distribution of book reviews, and authors and publishers wasted no time appropriating this new form of publicity. Perhaps the best example is Samuel Richardson’s wildly successful Pamela, an epistolary novel about a young girl who wins the day through guarding her virginity. Richardson made excellent use of prefatory puff, opening his book with two long reviews: the first by French translator Jean Baptiste de Freval, the second unsigned but likely written by Rev. William Webster, which first appeared as pre-publication praise in the Weekly Miscellany, one of Britain’s earliest periodicals.
Hyperbole? “This little Book will infallibly be looked upon as the hitherto much-wanted Standard or Pattern for this kind of writing”; “The Honour of Pamela’s Sex demands Pamela at your Hands, to shew the World an Heroine, almost beyond example…”
Fakery? The book also had a preface by the “editor,” really Richardson himself, which concluded a laundry list of extravagant praise with the following: “…An editor may reasonably be supposed to judge with an Impartiality which is rarely to be met with in an Author towards his own Works.”
Shameless cronyism? De Freval was in debt to Richardson when he wrote his review, as was Rev. Webster, whose Weekly Miscellany was funded partially by Richardson.
All of this sent Henry Fielding over the edge. Nauseated as much by the ridiculous blurbs as the content of the novel, Fielding wrote a satirical response entitled Shamela, which he prefaced with a note from the editor to “himself,” a commendatory letter from “John Puff, Esq.,” and an exasperated coda: “Note, Reader, several other COMMENDATORY LETTERS and COPIES of VERSES will be prepared against the NEXT EDITION.”
While Fielding may have been the first to parody blurbs, it was another literary giant who truly modernized them. A master of self-promotion, Walt Whitman knew exactly what to do when he received a letter of praise from Ralph Waldo Emerson. The second edition of Leaves of Grass is, as far as I know, the first example of a blurb printed on the outside of a book, in this case in gilt letters at the base of the spine: “I Greet You at the Beginning of a Great Career / R W Emerson.” (Emerson’s letter appeared in its entirety at the end of the book along with several other reviews — three of which were written by Whitman — in a section entitled “Leaves-Droppings.”)
Whitman’s move wasn’t completely unprecedented. The earliest dust jacket in existence (1830) boasts an anonymous poem of praise on the cover, and printers had long been in the habit of putting their device at the base of the spine. Nevertheless, the impulse to combine them with a bylined review was sheer genius, and Emerson’s blurb can be read as greeting not only Whitman, but also the great career of its own updated form.
After Whitman there were further innovations. A century ago, fantasy author James Branch Cabell (unsung favorite of Mark Twain and Neil Gaiman) prefigured self-deprecators like Chris Ware by including negative blurbs at the back of his books: “The author fails of making his dull characters humanely pitiable. New York Post.” Or, as Ware put it on the cover of the first issue of Acme Novelty Library: “An Indefensible Attempt to Justify the Despair of Those Who Have Never Known Real Tragedy.” Unlike Cabell’s, Ware’s first negative blurb was self-authored, but those featured on Jimmy Corrigan were not. Marvel Comics followed suit when it issued its new “Defenders.” (A related strategy — Martin Amis’ The Information was stickered “Not Booker Prize Shortlisted.”)
These satirical strategies highlight the increasingly common suspicion, nascent in Fielding’s parody of Richardson, that blurbs just aren’t meaningful. Publishers, however, have evidently concluded that blurbs may not be meaningful, but they sure help move merchandise. Witness the advent of two recent innovations in paperback design: the blap and the blover (rhymes with cover).
The blap is a glossy page covered in blurbs that immediately follows the front cover. In deference to its importance, the width of the cover is usually reduced, tempting potential readers with a glimpse of the blap, and perhaps even accommodating a conveniently placed blurb that runs along the length of the book.
The blover is essentially a blap on steroids, literally a second book cover, made from the same cardstock, that serves solely as a billboard for blurbs. Blovers are not yet widespread, but given the ubiquity of blaps it is only a matter of time. (For an extreme case see The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, where the blover’s edge sports a vertical banality from Entertainment Weekly — “I couldn’t put the book down.” — not to mention the 56 blurbs on the pages that follow.)
Blovers and blaps… what next? For my part, I can see where Orwell, Paglia, and Miller are coming from, and I certainly wouldn’t bemoan the disappearance of blurbs. But not everyone is like me. Some people enjoy glancing at reviews, or choosing a book based on the endorsements of their favorite authors. Blurbs sell books (maybe), and they allow established writers to help out the newbies. Those are good things. And since regulating them is as unfeasible as banning reviews, as long as blovers don’t replace covers I guess blurbs are a genre I can live with. And who knows — one day Murderer’s Row might be batting for me.
Previously: To Blurb or Not to Blurb
Image credit: wikimedia commons
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for June.
The Pale King
The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books
Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric
The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry
The Hunger Games
A Moment in the Sun
Otherwise Known as the Human Condition
David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King is again in the top spot, but, interestingly, Christopher Hitchens’ "Kindle Single" The Enemy climbs further after its debut last month. The sudden proliferation of long-form journalism as ebook originals – Byliner has made a splash after releasing several of its own – will be an interesting trend to watch.
Debuting this month were filmmaker John Sayles’s massive and very well-recieved novel A Moment in the Sun and Geoff Dyer’s collection of essays Otherwise Known as the Human Condition. This is Dyer’s second book to crack our Top Ten, joining Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence.
Graduating to our Hall of Fame, meanwhile, are Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand and Atlas of Remote Islands by Judith Schalansky.
Near Misses:The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, The Tiger’s Wife, How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and Unfamiliar Fishes. See Also: Last month’s list
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for May.
The Pale King
The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books
Atlas of Remote Islands
Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric
The Hunger Games
David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King retains our top spot, but that’s not where the real action was this month. In May, a pair of new titles debuted and a third returned to our list after previously slipping off. The biggest news story of May was the killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. forces, and that event was the catalyst for the first appearance of a “Kindle Single” (or any e-book original, for that matter) on our list. Clearly, many readers wanted Christopher Hitchens’ take on this event, and Amazon managed to lock down the 17-page essay he produced. The Enemy would have appeared as a magazine piece not too long ago and would likely have therefore been pretty ephemeral. It will be interesting to see if this essay’s status as a Kindle Single affords it any staying power.
Also debuting was The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry, which our staffer Janet Potter reviewed this month. Returning to our list after a one-month hiatus is YA bestseller The Hunger Games, whose return was perhaps spurred by headlines surrounding the casting of the upcoming film version of the book. The other big mover was Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric, climbing three spots. As I wrote last month, Only Millions readers would make a book of rhetoric a bestseller.
Departing from our list were The Finkler Question, Cardinal Numbers, and Unfamiliar Fishes. Finkler’s Booker glory has faded; Cardinal Numbers was touted in these pages by Sam Lipsyte, but that was back in December; and Unfamiliar Fishes, with its somewhat obscure topic, lost some steam after the book’s initial publicity push waned.
Other Near Misses: A Moment in the Sun, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
See Also: Last month’s list
New this week is The Tiger’s Wife, the hotly anticipated debut of Téa Obreht, the youngest of the New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 from last year. Also new in the fiction aisle is Carol Edgarian’s Three Stages of Amazement. David Brooks’s latest pop sociology effort The Social Animal is now out — this one, excerpted in the New Yorker — sets itself apart from similar tomes by illustrating its findings through a pair of fictional characters. Now out in paperback are National Book Award winner Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon, Ian McEwan’s Solar, and Rebecca Skloot’s non-fiction blockbuster The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.