Things that Happened: ‘The Female Persuasion’ and #MeToo

In The Female Persuasion (Random House, April 3), Meg Wolitzer writes her protagonist, Greer Kadetsky, into a moment of confusing sexual assault. After Darren Tinzler reaches out and twists Greer’s breast during a conversation at a frat party, Greer recounts: “It wasn’t rape…not even close. Already it was so much less important than what was apparently going on right now at other colleges: the rugby-playing roofie-givers, the police reports, the outrage. But over the next couple of weeks, half a dozen other female Ryland students had their own Darren Tinzler encounters.” There are Darren’s repeat offenses, which are recounted, in detail, as different women compose a whisper network of their stories, much like the publishing industry’s Shitty Media Men list. There’s Zee, Greer’s best friend, who, as a 13-year-old in 2001, years before coming out as queer, listens to her peers append gay jokes to karaoke lyrics at her bat mitzvah (remember the “no homo” fad?). There’s the game a group of high-school boys play called Rate ‘Em, in which they rate their female peers based on their attractiveness. Greer scores a six. It’s a game that resembles today’s popular area-code rating system: a detailed guidebook of the rules resides on Urban Dictionary, but it is a scale in which the first digit is a score of the woman’s face, the second digit—a 0 is no, a 1 is yes, a 2 means “only under the manipulating influence of alcohol”—tells whether you’d have sex with her, and the third digit rates her body. Greer is three years older than I am—by my calculations, she was born in 1988 to my 1991—so Wolitzer’s novel had a way of prompting me to recall the early aughts in America through the age I was during each cultural moment. After hearing the stories of #MeToo, I have what now feels like a whole repertoire of instances that occurred so quickly I could almost convince myself that they didn’t, and I know from personal experience that it is often easier to mask these stories rather than face what happened. As I recently tinkered with my Facebook privacy settings, for example, I found my blocked list. Lined up was a group of boys from my high school. It brought back a story that I tried not to think about because, as I told myself, it was so minor and inconsequential. During my senior year, a boy I’ll call Tyler, who was in my group of friends, started flirting with me over Facebook. After a few weeks of his messages, which were sweet and funny, I was at a small gathering at my friend’s house, watching TV next to Tyler, when his friend stood up, leaving us alone. Tyler then leaned over and kissed me. Everything with Tyler stayed above the waist; I had never done anything else. I had probably had a half a beer and I didn’t know how much Tyler had had. The following week, my younger sister, who was a freshman at our big public high school and must have heard rumors, or was harassed because of them, cried in humiliation, “He was hammered and you were sober!” I had not mentioned anything about Tyler to her. Soon after, boys started writing his name underneath photos of me on Facebook. I began avoiding them—eating lunch with my teachers, not going to social events where I thought they’d be, blocking them on social media—even though I still saw them at track practice each day, where they’d approach me and ask about him or call out his name when I ran by. I recalled this series of events because it shares features with Chessy Prout’s story, which she recounts, in excruciating detail, in her new memoir, I Have the Right To (Simon & Schuster, March 6). Prout’s book exposes the impossibility of navigating the culture Wolitzer writes about as a young person, her story’s horror amplified by the fact that it is nonfiction. The memoir was co-written with Jenn Abelson, a journalist for The Boston Globe’s Spotlight Team and Pulitzer-Prize finalist; her past reporting has exposed sexual abuse at New England prep schools. It’s well worth a read. Prout was sexually assaulted by a popular senior named Owen Labrie as a freshman at St. Paul’s, a prestigious boarding school in Concord, N.H. Per custom, each year, senior students, both boys and girls, entered into a competition to “slay” as many underclassmen students as possible before graduation, which, according to court testimonies of the boys who participated, can mean anything from kissing to sex. (Editor's note: graphic descriptions of sexual violence follow.) Sensing an email she received from Labrie was part of the ritual, Prout initially rejected his invitation to climb a hidden staircase on campus leading to a view, in large part due to the fact that her older sister, Lucy, a senior at the school, had dated and broken up with him before Prout arrived. Once Labrie sent a friend of Prout’s to change her mind, she acquiesced. After seeing the view, they moved back inside, through a mechanical room, and he pushed her against a wall, pinning her arms above her head and then pushing her to the ground. As he tried to tug her underwear off, Prout mumbled, “No,” and pulled them back over herself. He then pulled the panel of her underwear to the side and stuck his fingers inside of her. After taking them out, he began to move downward, licking her stomach down to her vagina, trying a second time to pull off her underwear. As Prout again pulled them back over her hips, she laughed nervously and said, “No, no, no, let’s keep it up here.” After her plea, characteristic of many assault survivors, she froze, and she said that she next felt something pushing inside her—it wasn’t his hands, because she saw them on each side of her head. “He thrusted again,” Prout writes. “My whole body jerked backward. He was having trouble getting inside me and I could tell that he was angry. He paused and moved his mouth past my stomach and spit on my vagina.” Next, as she recalls, “I saw Owen’s hand move over my face to reach for something in his shorts pocket. He was back inside me. He moaned.” Semen was found on her underwear, as was Labrie’s DNA. In a Facebook message in the 24 hours after the event, when she asked if he used a condom, he said “yeah,” and then asked her if she was on the pill. When she said she wasn’t, he replied, “praise jesus i put it on like halfway through.” This is where it gets tricky. While Labrie based his defense on the claim that he never had sex with Prout, he told friends that he had. In her memoir, Prout writes that though she told her friends she said no to him, she was still stunned when she went to get Plan B, and, when asked, told the nurse it had been consensual. When she went to get a rape kit performed at the hospital, redness and an abrasion were found inside her vagina. Labrie was found guilty of three charges of misdemeanor sexual assault, another for endangering the welfare of a child, and a felony for using a computer to solicit sex from a minor. As Jeannie Suk Gersen, a professor at Harvard Law School, wrote in The New Yorker, the three convictions of misdemeanor sexual assault “did not require proof of non-consent but were based instead on the fact that the girl was under the age of sixteen.” So, she notes, “Even if the girl had sworn that the sex was fully consensual, Labrie still would have been guilty of these charges.” It is the same situation with the felony for soliciting sex through technology—her consent was not relevant to the ruling. He had to register as a sex offender, and Harvard, where Labrie was planning to attend, rescinded his acceptance. He was sentenced to a year in jail, and while he was appealing his conviction, he was given a curfew, but because he broke his parole more than a dozen times, he was put into jail. Part of what happened in Prout’s ruling has to do with our changing landscape. Of this change, Gersen notes, “We are in the midst of a significant cultural shift in which we are redescribing sex that we vehemently dislike as rape.” Gersen’s statement sounds Cat-Person-esque to me, a sad situation of regret in which sex was not forced but not consented to either. It isn’t what sounds like happened in Prout’s case. Gersen continues on to define this shift in legalistic terms: For centuries, the legal definition of rape was intercourse accomplished by force and without consent. Many states have done away with the force criterion, and no longer require proof that the victim physically resisted the assailant or failed to do so because of reasonable fear of injury. With force absent from rape definitions, there has been increasing pressure on how to define consent. As a 26-year-old, my definition of rape, a definition that has been taught to me by the numerous mandatory training programs I’ve attended in orientations for college and graduate school, is that rape is nonconsensual penetration. It is a definition also provided by the first sites that pop up when I type “rape definition” into my browser—Miriam-Webster, Dictionary.com, the Department of Justice, and Wikipedia—imperfect but arguably the four most popular sources for a layperson without a law degree. The ambiguous shift Gerson speaks of is, in large part, what leads to the kind of gaslighting that Prout endured: a case in which she understands that what happened to her was rape but the jury disagrees. As one law-enforcement official involved with the case told a Vanity Fair reporter, “She did say no. She held on to her underpants with both hands. She didn’t know how hard to press. Compliance began to look like consent.” As New Hampshire state-superior-court judge Larry Smukler noted at the sentencing hearing, just because Labrie was acquitted of the forcible-rape charge by the jury “does not mean the victim consented to the sexual penetration, and indeed it is clear from the impact of this crime that she did not.” Such ambiguity is the reason why I struggled over what to call the crime in this article. All nonfiction articles I have found call the crime assault and not rape, unless they say that Labrie was accused of rape, for example. The journalistic reluctance to call what happened rape is, of course, understandable for credibility’s sake because Labrie was acquitted of that charge, but it also demands a consideration of how the language used to frame the case influences both the public’s perception of events and our cultural understanding of what constitutes rape. I also imagine these rhetorical choices influence rape survivors’ decisions to come forward: to trust our judicial system to prosecute violent crimes. If these crimes aren’t prosecuted, it sends the message that consent is still not part of our legal definition of rape, and these crimes, of course, will continue to happen. If a jury in Concord, N.H., didn’t see Prout’s story as reliable, with all of her tags of privilege—her whiteness, her straightness, her family’s wealth and status, her education, her conventional beauty, the fact that there was no alcohol involved: all cultural signifiers of credibility—then what does that mean for survivors who don’t have the innumerable advantages these identifiers afford? To be clear, though I’m not calling what happened to Prout rape throughout this article because Labrie was acquitted of that charge, if the abrasion in her vagina came from him, I do find the fact that he was acquitted of the charge troubling. Based on the nonconsensual penetration definition of rape, Prout resisted, both verbally (“No, no, no”) and physically (by trying to maintain her underwear as a barrier between her and Labrie). Prout herself maintains in her memoir that it was rape. It is also important to note that my perspective comes from researching the case through its news coverage, both on television and on the Internet, reading Prout’s memoir and attending her event, and court documents and video testimonies available online. I have not interviewed Prout nor Labrie—anyone involved in the trial, for that matter—to hear their versions of events. [millions_ad] Critical to understanding a culture in which crimes such as these occur, the case brought details of the Senior Salute out into the open. A deeply engrained ritual, there are lists: Prout’s name had been capitalized, a reason for which, as Prout’s story suggests, was the boys’ desire to get payback after Prout’s sister broke up with Labrie. There are also online messages in which the boys mapped out their strategies. In one Facebook message, for example, Malcolm Salovaara, Labrie’s friend, called Labrie’s techniques, in all caps, “THE LEBREAZEY SLEAZY METHOD.” As Labrie wrote of the method in another message thread, feign intimacy then stab them in the back THROW EM IN THE DUMPSTER i lie in bed with them and pretend like i’m in love After encouraging Labrie to “break the slaying records,” Salovaara, two months before Prout’s assault, asked, “You slayin both Prouts in one night?” Labrie, who, two days after Prout’s assault, at his graduation, would be bestowed St. Paul’s Rector’s Award—given by the headmaster for the student who “enhanced our lives and improved the community”—responded, that’s the plan now that i’m in to schools imma do absolutely whatever And one month before her assault, in a conversation discussing girls as young as 12 years old—“HER PREPUBESCENT BUM,” Salovaara wrote, to which Labrie responded, “LOVE IT”—Salovaara wrote to Labrie: “MCCARTHY AND I ARE GONNA BE BAILIN YOU OUT OF JAIL.” When another girl rejected Labrie, he quoted Bo Burnham, complaining, “another dumb cum-bucket struck from my nut sucking, suck it slut, slut fucking bucket list.” Though after her assault Prout initially stayed at St. Paul’s for her education, she ended up transferring because of the harassment: jokes during school-wide announcements; boys, like those from my high school, who commented on photos of her and her sister with two words: “Owen Labrie.” That Prout’s assault stemmed from a tradition indicates how habitual and institutionalized Labrie’s behavior is. As the memoir continues on, we accompany Prout as, even in the wake of her ostracism, other St. Paul’s students privately reach out to her about Labrie. After she is approached by one student who asks what happened, Prout replies, “I said no but Owen ignored it. His fingers were inside me and then the next thing I know his hands are above my head and I realize something is still inside of me.” The student responds: “Oh my God, Chessy, he did the same thing to me during junior year.” As Prout recalls this student’s story, “It was dark, she couldn’t see, and he was very aggressive. She told Owen she didn’t want to have sex. He had one hand on her thigh and a finger inside her vagina. She was okay with that. But then Briana suddenly felt both of his hands on her thighs and pressure inside her. She sat up and it ended abruptly.” We also learn that Labrie had a tendency to take girls to the noisy mechanical room where he assaulted Prout. Another girl pulls Prout aside and says, “I know I probably shouldn’t be telling you this, but Owen did the same thing to two of my friends.” It isn’t clear in this case whether she is referring to assault or rape. Another murky whisper network, but it was too late. Prout, in sharing her story, is breaking even that silence now. When I went to see Prout speak on her book tour, at an intimate event in Naperville, Ill., a member of the audience asked her what we can do to change a culture composed of, as we have been forced to see this year, the dark underbelly of sexual assault. Now 19, Prout, with extraordinary eloquence and wisdom, replied that until we recognize the gravity of the problem—that there is a problem—nothing will change. Once the lawsuit commenced, Prout’s family was promptly shunned from the school community. Besides Prout herself, who endured a level of Internet harassment truly disturbing, which you can still easily find online—filled with assertions like “lying cunt deserves to get raped for what she did to an innocent bro,” and photos of her family and their new house, where they moved after the case, accompanied by their address—Lucy lost her community, and so did their father, himself an alum of the school. St. Paul’s parents raised over $100,000 to hire J.W. Carney, who represented prominent mobster James “Whitey” Bulger, to fund Labrie’s defense, and Labrie is now trying to overturn his conviction, hiring new attorneys to retry his case on the basis of ineffective counsel. As she begins her first year of college, Prout will have to rehash her traumatic story again. What Prout and Wolitzer do in their books is paint a vivid portrait of the impossible contradictions that accompany growing up female in 2010s America. Greer, Prout, and I are within 10 years of each other—we could be sisters. What’s more, because of our positions, we have a level of protection many don’t: all three of us are straight, white, and cisgender, and we either have a college education or, in Prout’s case, will receive one. We aren’t financially reliant on our bullies. Their stories show assault within the subtler, insidious instances of misogyny that constitute our culture: the rankings, the lists, the bullying that ensues after the rejection or acceptance of an advance. These authors illustrate how encountering these cruelties shapes the way their protagonists navigate the world, the people they turn out to be. Wolitzer has said in interviews that she does not want her novel to be tied to one moment. But what is magical about literature is that it often roots itself in historical details of the period it captures while exposing questions—cultural patterns—that are timeless. Of course, the kinds of cruelties Wolitzer and Prout write about have been occurring forever. The difference is that today we have begun to listen to, and believe, these stories. Three different things happened in the stories I discuss here: assault, harassment, and rape. Getting definitions in order—lining up what is in the law and what is taught in school—will help make these distinctions, as will sharing stories like Prout’s and Greer’s in all of their challenging, nuanced honesty. The experience I recounted here is not as distressing as what Greer and Prout endured: it isn’t assault or rape. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t significant or telling or pervasive. Because of Wolitzer and Prout, I recognize now that it happened. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

When There’s Nothing Left to Burn, Set Yourself on Fire: On Rachel Cusk’s ‘Kudos’

The third and last installment of Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy opens on familiar ground—in the air, where the first book began. Again our narrator Faye finds herself seated next to a man. He's just as chatty as the first guy (as if any of her characters aren't born soliloquists), but he's far less comfortable. In fact, he's struggling to get his long legs to fit in front of him. This is how it must have felt to write the book's teaser copy. A woman writer visits a Europe in flux, where questions of personal and political identity are rising to the surface and the trauma of change is opening up new possibilities of loss and renewal. A woman writer? A Europe in flux? I imagine a feminist superhero-cum-Brexit blockbuster. Like a seat in economy, the marketing synopsis is a space too standardized to accommodate all, and the Outline series became an unlikely "hit" (as much as the word can apply to an unapologetically literary novel) for being so uncategorizable. Autofiction? Maybe, but it doesn't subvert or turn away from more conventional books as much as it combusts them. The word is Cusk's actually, and not even her own oeuvre is spared. When I mentioned Cusk to a British colleague, it was as if we were talking about two different writers. I thought at first it was cultural (us Yankees being so distinct as to demand a redesigned cover; in fact I came to Outline only for its beautiful U.K. design, and would likely have never read for the notebook paper-inspired U.S. version). But it turns out she'd just stopped reading Cusk when I'd started. She knew Cusk as she was in a former life: a novelist and memoirist who brought stylized, aphoristic, and acerbic (edging on bitter) prose to the topics of motherhood, marriage, and family. It's hard to describe Outline, Transit, and Kudos to the uninitiated without calling it a series of short stories. And perhaps that's what they are, except the tales are spoken to Faye in real-time (who's now at a literary conference in an unnamed European country) by protagonists who are all impossibly eloquent, open, and earnest. Their voices can come close to converging—not unlike the characters of Anomalisa, whose lines are all read by Tom Noonan—but they're saved by their stories' distinctness and depth. And, of course, Cusk's brilliance. If she's found her novelistic structure it's because it allows her to overwhelm the reader with profound insight only to, a few pages later, reach new heights on an entirely new topic. In just the first third of the slim novel, we hear full-fledged stories from the following (insert the most tepid of spoiler warnings): the man on the plane who's had to bury the cancer-ridden family dog; Faye's publisher who delights in having found the market's sweet spot (writers that are ostensibly literary but actually readable); a deadpan author who'd been trapped in a writers retreat designed to give the villa's owner a sense of culture; and an interviewer who admits to trying to provoke Faye's envy at an earlier encounter, before detailing her own jealousy of a friend's gilded marriage (this contains possibly the most flagrant offense of burying the lede I've ever read, which I won't reveal for its narrative virtuosity). If it doesn't sound like Cusk is inventing anything new, it's because she isn't. These are fundamentally the same narratives she's built a career on, except they're shrunken, distilled, and told not by her but to. What she's doing, in other words, is what Faye's publisher suggests is the key to a book's (commercial) success: 'People enjoy combustion!' he exclaimed. In fact, he went on, you could see the whole history of capitalism as a history of combustion...Whether or not it looks like preservation,' he said, 'it is in fact the desire to use the essence until every last drop of it is gone. Miss Austen made a good fire,' he said, 'but in the case of my own successful authors it is the concept of literature itself that is being combusted.' [millions_ad] His eureka moment is sparked by Faye's own metaphor: "In England, I said, people liked to live in old houses that had been thoroughly refurbished with modern conveniences, and I wondered whether the same principle might be applied to novels." Indeed. If Cusk is explaining (or explaining away) her own feats, she's also asking us what modern conveniences her new genre has wrought. We get a generous clue in the title—rather, when it appears in the book. Faye is being led on a tour by Hermann, an unusual young man who talks about an enormous architectural snafu, public space, his mother, and gender dynamics before this: To return to the subject of the college's award, he said, the name of they had chosen for it was 'Kudos'. As I was probably aware, the Greek word 'kudos' was a singular noun that had become plural by a process of back formation: a kudo on its own had never actually existed...[it also suggests] something which might be falsely claimed by someone else. For instance, he had heard his mother complaining to someone on the phone the other day that the board of directors took the kudos for the festival's success while she did all the work. If you take Cusk for a political writer, which wouldn't be wrong, there are plenty of ways to render the passage into concepts of commonality, identity, and appropriation. The stories in Kudos have a lot to say about literature's use and misuse in the 21st century, and, more so, women's. Her splashes of second-wave feminism are not epiphanies, but they’re fresh enough in the context of a literary world busy on succeeding schools. We hear of lives ruined by society's imbalances, carried by a tone somewhere between call-to-action and eulogy. (The book ends with a haunting image of a man looking at Faye "with black eyes full of malevolent delight while the golden jet poured unceasingly forth from him.") This all may be what Cusk has chosen to fill her form with in the finale, but what's made the series from the beginning is that form itself. Whether through fiction or memoir, her work has always been personal, continuously illuminating the questions of her own life. The Outline trilogy is no different, just in its own combusted way. And in the kudos passage, we finally have a sketch of the chemistry behind it. To recap: "kudos" is something that appears plural but is truly singular. It's also taking what is not yours. In Kudos, we have many (barely differentiated) voices all written by the same hand. We also have an outline of the narrator, a first-person built on the stories of strangers—in other words, an exchange of narrative ownership. If the nature of identity has us cast on other people, seeing ourselves only by how we look on each of them—like kudos, a singular noun becoming plural—Cusk reverses the process. What's taken for granted in any first-person novel or memoir is now suddenly missing, and what we get in return is a revelation: a character defined as the reflective surface all others cast themselves onto. And why not start outside in? As Cusk says, "A kudo on its own had never actually existed."

The Secondary Mourner

An old family friend died recently, someone I’d known all my life. She was there when I was born, full of stories of my little girlhood when, for a time, I was the only child among them—my parents, their closest friends. They lived two blocks from each other in Brooklyn for a time and, later, when my parents moved to a house with a backyard, they were often there, drinking martinis and grilling food. The husband died years ago—more than 20—and the wife went on, traveling to places he’d never wanted to go, being adventurous, sailing to the Galapagos, riding elephants and camels well into her 80s. They had only one child, a daughter. I found out the family friend was pregnant when she passed on a martini and had milk instead. They—the husband and wife, the daughter—lived in the same apartment building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan they’d moved to around the time my parents bought their first house in Brooklyn: more than 50 years. The apartment was filled with art, a collection of antique salt boxes, photographs of her two grandchildren, her daughter, her son-in-law. Her daughter is the primary mourner, of course. She and her mother were a close mother/daughter pair always. She’s had a lot to handle in the weeks since her mother died, and though she is an only child, she’s had lots of support—from her family, her husband’s family, a large network of friends. The morning it happened she called from her mother’s apartment, waiting for the people from the funeral home to arrive. I went over to be with her—it’s not a time or a situation to be  alone. I’ve been with her at other times too: when arrangements needed to be made. When the ashes needed to be picked up. She’s cried sometimes, not all the time. It comes in waves, she said, and I admire the way she’s been able to ride them, to let the sadness wash over her, then wash away, her certainty that the tears would leave in their own time, the same as the certainty that they would come. Once, after we’d done something together, she texted to thank me. “You’re welcome,” I said. “But you don’t need to thank me. We’re family.” We are. And we’re not. I’ve known her all her life, as her parents knew me, and I loved them deeply. There have been times in my life they—her dad in particular—made a profound difference to me. How do you grieve when your “status” as a mourner is secondary? When you’re family, but not? When you aren’t a primary mourner? I’ve been in this place before. I had just separated from my husband of nine years when he called to tell me his father had died. I went to the funeral, alone. In separating, I’d forfeited rights—rights to the family, rights to primacy, rights to affection. I knew that. I’d given up my place. [millions_ad] Still, I went to the funeral because, despite knowing I’d be the object of gossip, of whispers about why I was there and how I looked, going felt like the right thing to do. I’d known his father for almost 10 years. I had love and affection for him. I sat in the back of the church, not in front, with the family. I greeted my husband, who awkwardly thanked me for coming, but I didn’t speak to his sisters nor they to me. I decided not to go out to the cemetery for the burial but, if I had, I’d have gone in a car with my husband’s sister’s in-laws—other secondary mourners. It was hard to be there, as I’d known it would be. People think you’ve forfeited feelings when a marriage ends, but that’s not true. The feelings I had for my husband and his family didn’t evaporate just because the marriage didn’t last. But I was definitely in a kind of limbo—neither family, nor not. When my mother died, my father received calls and notes from people he hadn’t heard from in a long time—old school friends, people from old neighborhoods. Helene. Helene was the woman before my mother—a previous, brief marriage I’d never heard a word about until my father told me, when I was an adult. There was no trace of her in my father’s life. No children, no talk, no pictures. When, years earlier, I’d helped my mother clear out my grandmother’s apartment I came across photo after photo of my father with the person he’d clearly been standing next to carefully snipped out. And yet now—here she was. Not even a secondary mourner, not even a tertiary one. Someone who’d once loved my father. Who wanted to reach out, to offer condolence, even though she had no status in my father’s life. No place. Still, she was sorry for his loss. Belonging is a human need. It’s why we form ourselves into families and clans. Why we join societies and clubs, churches and temples. If we leave them—the church or the temple, the society or club, even the family, it doesn’t mean we have forgotten what it was like when we belonged. So what does that make us—the former in-laws and spouses? The family friends? We are mourners once removed, like second cousins no one’s ever met. Technically family, practically not. My relationship with my parents’ best friends, and with their daughter was like that as well. It was family-like, but it wasn’t family. Being a secondary mourner means your grief is private because if it’s too public, too loud or visible, you divert attention from the real family. You might not sit in the last row at the funeral, but you don’t sit in the front row either. Your role is to offer support, not receive it. You are necessary to the family, but you are not family. You’re something in the middle. Image Credit: Buckley AFB.

In Praise of the “Starter Book”

Recently, in a networking group I’m part of, a woman posted in a panic. She was about to publish her first book with a small press, and she was lost. She didn’t know which way to turn, what to do next. She couldn’t stop wishing she was on the best-of lists, had the support of a Big 5 publisher behind her. She didn’t know how to market herself. In short, she was crying, “Help!” Reading her post, I went back three years in time. When I published my first book, it was with a small press where I felt that one or two people really understood what I was going for, but the rest were baffled by my weird, not-quite-genre genre-fiction. The editor who had chosen the book for publication got switched off it as my editor at the last minute. In one of the few acts of support I got from my in-house publicist, she promoted my book, an acid western largely concerned with the genocide of Native American people, as a “beach read.” Every bit of press the book got was a hard-won victory that I could trace back to my own work. Sometimes I felt like this publisher was actively working against me, giving me a terrible book cover and refusing to relent when I objected to it, handing the blurbers I found without their assitance the pub date instead of the date the book was being printed as their deadline, leaving my book blurbless. I cried the day I realized I’d “won” a scam book award contest that the press had entered me into, that I’d found out was a scam simply by Googling the name of the contest. At the time, I felt like a failure. I looked at the best-of lists and felt like crying. But three years later, having learned how to market a book with little support, how to look at the issue of getting your book into the world as one with creative solutions, having spun that work into a graduate assistantship and freelance work in marketing, having set up my own reading series, having built connections to other writers and publishers, I look fondly back on my first book as my “starter book.” Maybe you’ve heard of a “starter home,” or a “starter marriage,” the short-lived or what-I-can-do-at-the-moment solutions to building a future. The starter home is often a small, older place that a family is expected to grow out of eventually, but which is where they start learning to care for a home and begin building their family. A starter marriage is a first, short-lived, endeavor that serves as a learning experience for a later marriage that is hoped to last much longer. The “starter book” is really no different. Even when I was just starting out with trying to publish my first book, I knew that it wasn’t going to make me a million dollars. I looked at it as a beginning to something I was invested in for life. And now, after the sting of selling 200 copies in three years has passed a bit, looking back fondly on my little “starter book,” I’m able to say that even though I didn’t write something that changed lives, even though I didn’t hit a home run on the first pitch, I learned lessons that were invaluable to building a career as a writer. I learned how to market your book when it doesn’t seem anyone else cares. I learned to make spreadsheets and contact lists and do outreach. I learned to take every opportunity, no matter how small it may seem at the time. I learned to take interest and care in the careers of other writers who were at early levels, and to cheer them on and support them the way I wished to be supported—and which I now am beginning to be. I learned that the answer when someone offers you a way to promote your book is always “yes,” except when that “yes” would truly not serve you or your project. Even when “yes” has to be creative. Even when “yes” means you’ll be eating peanut butter and jelly for two weeks because of the train ticket you had to buy. Even when “yes” means doing a Skype session because you can’t be there. Even when “yes” means “do I have a couch in the area I can sleep on?” Even when “yes” means renting a car with terrible steering and fearing for your life the whole way to the opportunity. [millions_ad] I learned that I had to get my writing out there in every way possible. I called PR agents I pretended I had the money to hire, just to pick their brains. I implemented everything I learned from them, even when it wasn’t comfortable for me. When I published my “starter book,” I was a total fiction snob, someone who felt they didn’t have time for writing that wouldn’t further that goal. But what good is your fiction if no one can find it? While promoting my starter book, I learned to take every writing opportunity I could. I wrote personal essays and blog posts and articles, I learned how to do storytelling events when the idea of being on stage had previously frozen me with fear. I learned that when people made a connection to me, often though my personal essays and stories, they were much more likely to want to make a connection to my fiction. I learned to have confidence in myself, even when it seemed like the whole world was indifferent. I had always believed my voice should be out there, but now it was, so what was I going to do about it? Lament that it wasn’t with a Big 5 publisher, or a dream press that backed me up every step of the way? No. I was going to push to get it recognized in every way that I could. Even when I stepped into a small, independent bookshop in Queens and had their owner look me up and down and tell me that I’d have to have my publicist contact her if I wished to work with them on book events (crushing! humiliating!), I didn’t lose faith in what I was doing. None of this is to say that my first book was a mistake, or I didn’t love it, or put all my heart into it. I did love it, it meant the world to me. But it didn’t go very far. And that’s okay, too. The way that it crushes you when that marriage that lasts a year ends, I was hurt by this for a while. But as time went on, I was able to look back more and more fondly on the experience I’d had, and all I learned. I was able to treasure every time a random transgender person found my novel and sent me fan-mail telling me that they’d forgotten that trans people could write anything outside the realm of words about gender identity. I was able to look at my first, largely-failed baby as a “starter book.” Not a mistake. Not something I wish I’d never done. But something that built the groundwork for what I was going to go on to do. I have two more books coming out next spring, from an indie press and a mid-sized one. I feel excited and supported, but mostly I feel confident. I’ve been here before. I’m not going in brand new to the experience. I’ve learned so much from having my work out in the world, even in the form of a “starter book,” that I wouldn’t trade for anything. Image Credit: Flickr/Kelly Taylor.

Philip Roth, 1933-2018

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Beloved American novelist Philip Roth has died at age 85. Author of more than two dozen novels, including Goodbye, Columbus, Portnoy's Complaint, and American Pastoral, Roth garnered every accolade (except, famously, The Nobel--read our plea to the Swedish Academy here), and his passing marks the end of an era in American letters. Some Roth pieces from our archives: -An Open Letter to the Nobel Committee -Ten Lessons from the Professor of Desire -Staff Pick: Sabbath's Theater -Philip Roth's Bleak Theater -Life and Counterlife Image credit: Bill Morris/[email protected]

“Tales from Here and There”: On Uganda’s Literary Culture

In March, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi became a 2018 recipient of the $165,000 Windham Campbell Prize, one of the world’s most generous writing awards. Five years ago, when the Ugandan-born author completed her doctoral thesis, the novel Kintu, at the University of Lancaster in the U.K., she was unable to find a publisher in in the UK willing to publish it. Makumbi’s novel makes a fine ambassador for her bookish compatriots in Kampala, Uganda’s capital city. Kintu follows one Ugandan family across centuries of Ugandan history. It doesn’t stray into other lands or continents. It skips right over Uganda’s British colonial experience. It doesn’t dwell on the most internationally famous aspects of Ugandan contemporary history. The first book of Kintu opens with the lines: It was odd the relief that Kintu felt as he stepped out of his house. A long and perilous journey lay ahead. A half-century ago, Uganda was an African literary powerhouse. In 1961, a 22-year-old Rajat Neogy established Transition Magazine: An International Review, arguably sub-Saharan Africa’s all-time most influential literary journal, in Kampala. The great Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o  says in his 2016 memoir, Birth of a Dream Weaver: A Writer's Awakening, that the time he spent from 1959 to 1964 as a student at Makerere University, Uganda’s premiere seat of higher education, made him the writer he is today. Makerere hosted, in 1962, the first major international gathering of writers and critics of African literature in Africa. Held right as many African nations were breaking free from colonialism and attracting participants such as Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, and Langston Hughes (although as a non-African Hughes could only be an “observer”), the First African Writers Conference is often said to have cemented the concept of an “African” writer. It’s also where the young Ngũgĩ slipped the manuscript of what would become his first published novel, Weep Not, Child, to Achebe who, duly impressed, passed it along to his editors at Heinemann in London. All of this pioneering activity in Kampala might seem to have laid fertile ground for the emergence already in the 1960s and 1970s of a powerful Ugandan writerly tradition. Certainly, the Ugandan landscape offers rich poetic inspiration and its history a surfeit of dramatic material. But politics can both feed literary output and obstruct it. Before becoming a British protectorate in 1894, modern-day Uganda was split among separate but interrelating kingdoms and chieftaincies; Kintu, which reaches back into the 1750s, offers a vibrant depiction of how this worked. After achieving independence in 1962, these kingdoms struggled to find a peaceable alliance again. For a while, Transition continued to print work by Achebe, James Baldwin, and Julius Nyerere. At Makerere, visiting scholar Paul Theroux and writer-in-residence V.S. Naipaul began the great friendship that would eventually give way to their infamous feud. Under the second president, Milton Obote, however, political strings began tightening. Then came the 1970s and the power grab of Idi Amin, a professional soldier with a sixth-grade education and a profound distrust of intellectuals. During Amin’s eight years from 1971 to 1979 as Ugandan president, the country’s established literati for the most part either fled or went silent. A fractious reappearance by Obote in the early 1980s did nothing to encourage their return. That doesn’t mean storytelling stopped altogether. “What I don’t agree with,” popular Ugandan poet Ngobi Kagayi says, “is the idea that because people stopped producing literature, literature died. Literature doesn’t belong to the writers.” Uganda’s oral tradition persisted, something that plays an integral part in Kintu. It also informs Kagayi’s poetry. Kagayi’s broad-ranging and consistently clear-voiced debut collection, The Headline That Morning, published under the name Peter Kagayi, contained a CD on its back flap; fittingly, the opening poem in the collection is entitled “Listening to Poetry”: Today we shall listen to poetry While seated comfortably Yesterday we listened to guns coughing And wails of pain as blood was gushing While we hide our heads in our beds. Tomorrow we shall have what to do after the election campaigns But today? Today we shall listen to poetry While seated comfortably. Nayana Kakoma, whose all-Ugandan Sooo Many Stories (tagline: "Tales from Here and There") published The Headline That Morning, recognized a Ugandan audience as accustomed to listening to its literature as to reading it. Kakoma is a member of FEMWRITE, an NGO established in Kampala in 1995 by parliamentarian Mary Karooro Okurut with the goal of helping Ugandan women make gains in literacy, as well as to show them a way in which literacy could be of value to them. Literacy in Uganda has steadily risen over the last two decades, although women still lag behind men. At the time of FEMRITE’s inception, the rate for women was at less than 50 percent. Through workshops and a publishing arm, FEMRITE has encouraged Ugandan women of all levels of education to believe they too can be writers. “I met writers I had read and admired,” Beatrice Lamwaka, the current general secretary of PEN/Uganda, says, “and I noticed that they were not any different from me.”  In 2011, Lamwaka’s short story, “Butterfly Dreams,” inspired by her late brother’s experience as child soldier in the Lord’s Resistance Army, was shortlisted for the coveted Caine Prize for African Writing. [millions_ad] A marked success, FEMRITE now works with women all over Africa. Members Goretti Kyomuhendo and Beverley Nambozo have gone on to establish, respectively, the African Writers Trust, which facilitates collaboration between writers in Africa and its diaspora, and the Babishai Niwe Poetry Foundation, an annual poetry competition initially for Ugandan women but now open to all Africans of any gender. Kagayi’s introduction both to being a poet and a literary activist began through a different grassroots group, The Lantern Meet for Poets, a collaborative writing workshop begun in a dorm room in Kampala in 2007.  He also belongs to yet another grassroots group, Writivism, an ambitious six-step program dedicated to creating a future generation of writers. “Writivism was established not so much as an infrastructure, because you can’t do everything,” explains its co-founder Bwesigye bwa Mwesigire. “It is a community that is doing activism for these things.” Cultivating a new generation of writers and readers in Uganda, rated the 25th-poorest country in the world by the IMF in 2016, is a complex task. Public primary schools average 43 students to every teacher, and sometimes many more, and with Ugandan women giving birth to an average of 5.7 children, private schools necessitate a financial outlay beyond the reach of many families. Meanwhile, curricula remains rooted in outdated models from British colonialism. In addition, bookstores are few and, in a country where homes typically do not have street addresses, a door-to-door postal delivery system doesn’t exist. Writivism members go into schools, run workshops, and hold contests, encouraging both writing and reading. Turn the Page, a Kampala-based online book club run by Alex Twinokwesiga, has added a distribution wing to tackle the problem of getting books to readers around Uganda. In establishing Sooo Many Stories, Kakoma hoped also to offer Ugandan writers—who rely largely on the Internet (Facebook, Twitter, and WordPress) to share their work—the possibility of seeing their work on paper and maybe to earn money from it without having to join the African literary diaspora. Here too the task has not been simple; with a lack of local resources as basic as suitable paper, Kakoma had to turn to Nairobi to print Kagayi’s collection. In 2017, however, Kakoma managed to print Sooo Many Stories' second offering, an East African edition of Flame and Song, a genre-transcending poetry-and-prose-blending memoir of privileged childhood in Uganda and subsequent exile by Philippa Namutebi Kabali-Kagwa: I made friends with Silas and Paul, who lived up the road, and Charlie, who lived across the road. We rode bicycles up and down the hill every day. I even learnt to ride without holding my handlebars. I had cropped hair then and was often in shorts or trousers, and I was always with the boys. Once, riding past some ladies, I heard them debate my gender. ‘You see that one, she is a girl.’ ‘No, it’s a boy. What girl would ride a bicycle like that?’ This spring, Writivism put out Odokonyero: A Writivism Anthology of Short Fiction by Emerging Ugandan Writers, showcasing the work of 18 young up-and-coming Ugandan writers, in cooperation with South-African publisher Black Letter Media. Mwesigire and Madhu Krishnan, a senior lecturer in post-colonial writing at the University of Bristol, co-edited. Up in northwestern England, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi has seen good things for her book. An early East African edition of Kintu came out from the Kwani Trust in Kenya in 2014; in 2017 Transit Books published a U.S. edition. Oneworld Publications released a U.K. edition this January. Having won the Windham Campbell Prize should allow Makumbi to concentrate on her writing; her next book, the short story collection Love Made in Manchester, is forthcoming in 2019 from Transit Books. The collection looks at the life of Ugandans in the U.K., which Makumbi pointedly refers to as “expat experiences” rather than “migrant stories.” Makumbi’s success offers evidence that the literary culture envisioned by the likes of Kagayi, Kakoma, and Mwesigire has begun to coalesce not only abroad but, as intended, in Uganda. Like Achebe’s African trilogy, Kintu examines the power of myth without mythologizing its subject. Both it and Kabali-Kagwa’s memoir represent uniquely Ugandan voices, in conversation with their people. It’s not necessary to know anything about Uganda to appreciate either, but their story, world, and language will be specifically familiar and meaningful to readers from Uganda. Both books also have repeatedly sold out at Aristoc, Kampala’s main bookstore. “I feel,” poet Kagayi says, “like the distance between here and New York and here and the person across the street—the person across the street is longer.” Ugandan writers, whether abroad or at home, are making that journey.

On Motherhood, Rumaan Alam, and Sheila Heti

In both Rumaan Alam’s second novel, That Kind of Mother, and Sheila Heti’s third, Motherhood, the functions and symbols associated with mothering—along with the ambivalence that can come with it—are conveyed with an authenticity that feels akin to reading nonfiction. Because Alam’s work delves into racial complexities and blended family dynamics that accompany transracial adoption, he has a bit less wiggle room or freedom to roam than Heti, whose writing gives the impression of a woman loosed, set free from her inhibitions about contemplating (more so than anything, really, actively avoiding) becoming a mother as she nears 40. I read That Kind of Mother slowly, to savor it. I enjoyed Alam’s Rich and Pretty, recommended by a friend who shares my taste in books, but in That Kind of Mother, I saw the honing of a craft. There’s not much work for Alam to do in this arena, but for me, the matter of motherhood hits close to home—I am an adult orphan; my mother died six years ago. Even when she was alive, we had a bit of a challenging relationship; her mental illness required that I nurtured her more than I was nurtured. And this role reversal, which began when I was a young girl, alongside the general angst that women writers are almost conditioned to cultivate, fearing that I might not have the creative energy or time to write if I had children (more on that when we get to Heti) set up a pretty adversarial relationship between me and motherhood as a concept. I like motherhood--outside of the toxic and damaging Mammy figure--as an idea. I love motherhood for other people. But I have never been able to shake having lunch with a Pulitzer Prize-winning author in Berkeley before leaving the Bay Area and asking her what she thought about having a child. “It is,” she said, “a ball and chain. You will be shackled for life.” Alam’s book shows that not everyone feels this way--that for some, having a child is the best way to begin a family, to write one kind of story of self and to continually revise it as you go along. The main character, Rebecca, is a white woman poet, married to a busy, irritable Christopher. Their life is perfectly fine. At the start of the novel, they have one son, Jacob, who is cared for by their black nanny, Priscilla. Priscilla dies in childbirth, and Rebecca adopts her child, Andrew, despite the fact that Priscilla’s daughter, Cheryl, is living and has a respectable job as a nurse. Rebecca decides, pretty much without consulting Cheryl, that she’ll adopt Andrew. This is not the kind of thing that would be without societal friction—the gaze of others, the discomfort of seeing mismatched skin between parents and child as if it were some kind of personal imposition—in 2018, let alone in 1985. “Let strangers think her ovaries had failed her; she didn’t want the baby who would one day be a boy hear his mother discussing him as she might new drapes, an exotic ingredient, fashionable sunglasses: as a thing so lovely that you ad to wonder about its acquisition,” Alam writes. “His story could not be easily summarized but Rebecca didn’t want to say even that.” Rebecca is fascinating, irritating, and important. She epitomizes a very particular kind of white woman in our culture; one who is unnervingly earnest, who wants only recognition for trying to understand, even if she has no intention of believing, the lived experiences of the people she claims to want to understand and help. She does not know what she doesn’t know—like how to care for Andrew’s black skin, which she tells his sister is “just skin,” even though Cheryl rightly pushes back on that well-meaning dismissal. Rebecca believes that the power of her imagination and good will should be enough to triumph over the real world forces of racism that will alter the course of her sons’ lives differently. As readers, we know this is why she doesn’t answer Andrew’s question, “Why are we a family?” as he grows older—because it is more complex a question than she would like it to be. She is trying to solve a problem in society that is beyond her powers, a problem that needs a lexicon she doesn't have. Instead of admitting this, she lands on something that is not a lie, but not fully honest, either. That Kind of Mother is a novel that is also a way of helping contemporary readers with our current silences and fraught dialogues. [millions_ad] In Motherhood, Heti confesses with hilarious, quirky detail, that she basically wants to be anything in the world but a mother. The book is full of wit. I’m a person who dog-ears galleys for quoting, and I found something quotable on nearly every page. Using a faux system of divination in the tradition of I Ching, Heti voices the angst of women everywhere who worry that motherhood will become their central identity at the expense of everything else—though in some ways, women don’t really get to choose. Some of it cuts close to the bone, but I liked the sting and found it kind of delicious. A woman must have children because she must be occupied…There’s something threatening about a woman who is not occupied with children. Something about this seems true, but also like she would prefer it to be true. It was, again, hard for me to know, since, like most women readers in particular, I have my own subjective view of motherhood, the lens through which I think about such things. I found this quote most resonant: The most womanly problem is not giving oneself enough space or time, or not being allowed it. We squeeze ourselves into the moments we allow, or the moments that have been allowed us. We do not stretch out in time, languidly, but allot ourselves the smallest parcels of time in which to exist, miserly. We let everyone crowd us...Having a child solves the impulse to give oneself nothing. It makes that impulse into a virtue. To feed oneself last in self-abnegation, to fit oneself into the smallest spaces in the hopes of being loved—that is entirely feminine. To be virtuously miserly towards oneself in exchange for being loved—having children gets you there fast. Whether one agrees or not with Heti’s assertions or follows her arguments with herself, Motherhood is the most refreshing novel I’ve read in a long time on this topic. It’s made bittersweet by the fact that in the end, she reveals that she actually just wants what many of us want, which is the approval of her mother. She is still her mother’s daughter, awaiting word that even writing these truths is okay. She probably won't have a child of her own to look for her approval.

The Man in the White Suit: Remembering Tom Wolfe

Henry Grunwald, Joyce Carol Oates, Taki, Ned Rorem, Annie Leibovitz, and others recall encounters with Tom Wolfe, the dandyish inventor of New Journalism and novelist, who died Monday at age 87. 1. Tidewater Virginian Gentleman …into the clackety-clack chaos of the [New York Herald] Trib’s city room…Every desk was occupied by a man and every man wore the same shirt and tie. Except two. I spotted Tom Wolfe. He looked different [as did the tie-less and rumpled Jimmy Breslin].  His longish silky hair curled over the well-turned collar of an English-tailored tweed suit. He looked like a Tidewater Virginian gentleman, which he was. His lips were locked in a concupiscent smile. Of course, I thought he must be flicking open his satirical switchblade to dice up the status strivings of some sacred cow who had no idea he was about to be skewered. (Tom had not yet effected the wardrobe of a contemporary Beau Brummell in white suits and spats, not on a salary of $130 a week.) Wolfe’s prose was the opposite. He invented unforgettable code phrases—“the right stuff,” the “statusphere,” and “social x-rays.” He exuded excesses of hyperbole never before seen on a black-and-white page. He spotted the first “Tycoon of Teen,” Phil Spector, and he was the first to explain the vision of Marshall McLuhan. The most mind-blowing of Wolfe’s early articles examined the LSD life of Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters. …Tom Wolfe did exchange a few words with me, in passing, and I hung on them. “The Herald Tribune is like the main Tijuana bullring for competition among feature writers,” he told me. “You have to be brave.” (New York, 1964) —From Daring: My Passages, by Gail Sheehy (William Morrow/HarperCollins, 2014) 2. Many White Suits On my third trip to New York I bought the publishing rights in a book of essays called Candy Stream Line Flake Baby [sic]. The author was a leading exponent of the ‘new journalism.’ His name was Tom Wolfe. In addition to being an excellent essayist and a superb stylist with a range from art to astronauts, he was something of a celebrity about town and a famous ladies’ man. A trademark of Tom’s, then and now, has been the wearing of white suits. I remember our [Jonathan Cape] Publicity Director asking him when in London how he managed to keep his suit so immaculately white. He took her to his dressing room and opened the cupboard. There, hanging in a row, were six perfect white suits. …He is exceptionally gracious, soft-spoken and well-read, and has immaculate manners. He is also outstandingly intelligent, with the enquiring mind of a superb journalist. He is a passionately caring person. Many years ago [TM’s wife] Regina had a mysterious ailment that we thought the Mayo Clinic in America might cure. Tom went out of his way to introduce us to not one but two of the leading professors there and he wrote to them as if we were his closest friends. —From Publisher, by Tom Maschler (Picador, 2005) 3. Conversationally Frugal The form [“New Journalism”] was invented by Tom Wolfe, a young writer of genteel Virginia background who had become a familiar character on the New York scene in his white suits. As I came to know him—we were never friends but friendly dinner party acquaintances—I was struck by his extreme frugality in conversation. He obviously saved his words for his writing and used his slightly absurd, dandyish appearance as effective camouflage from behind which he observed his surroundings with merciless precision, precision that was heightened by an almost surrealist imagination. There were other practitioners of the New Journalism, some with greater literary credentials and fewer stylistic quirks, including Norman Mailer and Truman Capote. There were also Wolfe imitators for whom the New Journalism came down to writing themselves into an article, tediously going on about their reaction to the wallpaper or to being kept waiting. Wolfe remained the master. While he was unfailingly polite, I sometimes imagined him as poking me in the ribs and saying: “How are you fellows at Time going to keep up with me? I’m skating circles around you.” (late 1960s) —From One Man’s America: A Journalist’s Search for the Heart of His Country, by Henry Grunwald (Doubleday, 1997) 4.  What He Was Trying to Prove …The genre [New Journalism] was famously pioneered by Tom Wolfe in his experimental articles published by the long-defunct New York Herald-Tribune and his books about the 1960s with their wigged-out titles like The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, and The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test…”One of the points I wanted to prove,” Wolfe told me when I interviewed him in Vancouver in 1972, “was that novels and non-fiction should be written the same way. You are bringing some news to the reader, and you have a solid grounding in fact and detail. It ascends from here.” His boyish, preppy head incongruously sticking out of his signature white suit and stiffed-necked collars, Wolfe kept asking me polite questions about Canada and Marshall McLuhan. —From  Here Be Dragons: Telling Tales of People, Passion and Power, by Peter C. Newman (McClelland and Stewart, 2004) 5. Very Proper, No Sweat On one level, Tom Wolfe operated very much like Hunter [Thompson] did. Tom got his stories from odds-and-ends moments. But Tom wasn’t at all like Hunter temperamentally. Tom was very proper. He always wore long-sleeved shirts, and even if it was 95 degrees out and a 100 percent humidity he never sweated. Everyone was sweating through their clothes and Tom was completely dry. Hunter sweated a lot… I went with Tom to Florida to cover [for Rolling Stone magazine] the launch of Apollo 17, NASA’s last manned flight to the moon. That’s when Tom started doing the research on astronauts that led to The Right Stuff. It was interesting to be with Tom because you got in everywhere. There were all these parties before the launch. (1972) —From Annie Leibovitz at Work, by Annie Leibovitz (Random House, 2008) 6. Flow of Fashion Everyone has a different definition of what the New Journalism is. It’s the use of fictional techniques, it’s composite characterization, it’s the art form that’s replacing the novel, which is dying… …along comes Tom Wolfe, the Boswell of the boutiques, with a history of the New Journalism that never mentions Kempton, Cannon, or Stone. Or Lillian Ross and Joe Mitchell, who wrote for the rival New Yorker. Or any [Village] Voice writer, for that matter. Like any faithful Boswell, Wolfe only mentions his friends. …He is a gifted, original writer, but he has the social conscience of an ant. Wolfe is a dandy. His basic interest is the flow of fashion, in the tics and trinkets of the rich. But if Wolfe represents a conservative, or perhaps apolitical approach, there is also the committed school of Stone, Kempton, Royko, Halbertsam, Wicker, Cowar, Hentoff and many others. … —From The Education of Jack Newfield, by Jack Newfield (St. Martin’s Press, 1984) [millions_ad] 7. Nice Person April 13, 1978.  Yesterday, to Ann Arbor, there to meet with Tom Wolfe, who gave the Hopwood Address in the Rackham Bldg., the same building I spoke in two weeks ago exactly (surprising, that the seats weren’t all filled for his talk): Wolfe in his trademark vanilla ice cream suit with pale blue shirt and pale blue socks and white shoes (rather rushing the season, those shoes), a nice person, warm and congenial and, offstage, not at all pretentious. His talk was low-keyed and superficial, perhaps aimed for a somewhat younger (or less intelligent) audience. I am thinking of writing him a letter…We talked a bit, though not at great length. The two of us were “guests of honor” at the Inglus House dinner following the reception, which meant that we were many yards apart, at either end of a very long table. From The Journals of Joyce Carol Oates 1973-1982, by Joyce Carol Oates (HarperCollins, 2007) 8. Working Stiff …Tom Wolfe works his ass off... I used to read Wolfe and think, “Well, fuck you! God touched you and made you a fucking genius, and that’s the end of it!” Then in the mid-eighties I walked in to the offices of Rolling Stone one afternoon and saw him working at a desk. He was writing The Bonfire of the Vanities in biweekly installments at the time, and I looked in his eyes and saw the haunted, hunted animal look I know I have in my eyes when the shit is hitting the fan. And I thought to myself, “God bless you, Tom. You’re a working stiff after all.” (New York, mid-1980s) —From The New New Journalism: Conversations with America’s Best Nonfiction Writers on Their Craft, by Robert S. Boynton (Vintage Books, 2005) 9.  No Prima Donna 11 February 1985 …a short note from [wife] Alexandra saying that Tom and Sheila Wolfe had called to offer their support. The great Tom had already rung me while I was waiting for my appeal [of a conviction for cocaine possession, which resulted in three months in London’s Pentonville Prison], a kindness I shall not soon forget…Like all large talents, Tom is supportive of lesser ones. And he’s no prima donna. He is as kind and considerate and gentle in his dealings with people as his literary style is precise and devastatingly accurate. He and his wife and their two children live across the street from us in Southampton [N.Y.], but they prefer a quiet life and I don’t see much of them. But I treasure their friendship. … I like everything Tom has ever written, but my favorite remains his demolition job on the ‘radical chic’ of Mr. [Leonard] Bernstein’s cocktail party… —From Nothing to Declare: Prison Memoirs, by Taki (Viking, 1991) 10. Candle in a White Suit Had a terrific drink tonight with Tom Wolfe, who is tall and thin like a candle in his white suit, with a dryness suddenly illuminated by joyous shafts of pure malice…I told him I was having dinner with Martin Amis. “Ah, the rising novelist of thirty-four. Funny how you are a hardened thief at thirty but a rising novelist at thirty-four.” Outside it was pouring rain and we lingered over our drink at Le Périgord. He told me he is finishing his new novel about New York and the “masters of the universe” of Wall Street [The Bonfire of the Vanities]. (New York, 1983) —From The Vanity Fair Diaries 1983-1992, by Tina Brown (Henry Holt, 2017) 11. Lost Scene …Wolfe’s attack on The New Yorker [in the New York Herald Tribune in 1965]… …In the lead paragraph of his first part, he had described in lavish detail a scene in [editor William] Shawn’s office. A prospective contributor was visiting. While Shawn huddled behind the stack of manuscripts on his desk, the visitor, nervously and unthinkingly, lit a cigarette. After a couple of drags, he noticed to his dismay (though Shawn said nothing) that there were no ashtrays in the room. Desperately he reached for an empty Coca-Cola bottle and deposited the offending cigarette, point down, into its base. The barely smoked weed—all smokers will recognize this picture—continued to burn, and, as the visitor watched in mounting anguish, and Shawn smiled enigmatically from behind the barricade of his manuscripts, the brown smoke curled acridly into the unventilated room. … And yet, as we learned from Dwight MacDonald, Wolfe had never been there. He had, unforgivably, made the incident up. … …Wearing his trademark white suit, Wolfe is as insouciantly charming in our [1987 CBC] interview as his writing is energetic in print. After much palaver…I pop the question. Does he remember the scene? Of course. Where did he get it? He has, he confesses disarmingly, no idea now. He’d have to look at his notes. Concerned lest I take an already self-indulgent interview further down the lane of autobiography, I turn to other matters. (Toronto) —From The Private Voice: A Journal of Reflections, by Peter Gzowski (McClelland and Stewart, 1988) 12. Sartorial Splendor  24 February 1990. Lunch with Tom Wolfe, who is here [Tokyo] to work up a novel. It has some Japanese in it, and he has come to see some Japanese. Tallish, wide forehead, gray eyes, and much sartorial splendor. He mentions this. “I guess I am old-fashioned,” he says in reference to his Edwardian vest, his watch chain, and his wide-brimmed hat. But it is also a way of dress that alerts people. I had taken him to the Press Club, not the brightest or liveliest place, and everyone recognized him at once and several came sidling up. He is also interested, understanding,  curious. Says very little about himself unless one asks. Wants to learn. Is here for that reason. Is particularly interested in what happens to art here, how it turns into money… From The Japan Journals 1947-2004, by Donald Richie, ed. by Leza Lowitz (Stone Bridge Press, 2004) 12. Eye Contact Avoided Nantucket, 8 June [1994] …to be an honoree at a find-raiser for Marymount College… The pre-prandial cocktail hour at the swanky Palace mezzanine…Wolfe, whom I’ve never met—nor were we introduced—sitting three chairs away, arranged for his famously friendly eyes never to cross with mine, which made clear that he would not be extending his hand, nor encouraging me to do so. What, I wondered, have I ever done to him? Ah yes, it must be that crank letter to the Times, years ago, when I took to task his review of Cecil Beaton’s memoir wherein he twitted queers. Still, is that enough for him to ignore my presence now, rather than, like a suave European, to separate professional feuds from social niceties? He meanwhile might argue he didn’t know who I was. (New York) From Lies: A Diary 1986-1999, by Ned Rorem (Counterpoint, 2000) Image Credit: Flickr/Cliff.

Who Will Buy Your Book?

1. “Nobody else is here,” the elderly woman said into her phone. “It’s embarrassing!”    She was the first one to arrive at my reading at the Philadelphia Library, a week after the release of my third novel, and two weeks after the pinnacle of my writing life, when that novel was praised in both The New Yorker and The Washington Post, two articles that I had assumed would create something like buzz around me or my writing. It was 6:58, and the reading started at 7:00.   Earlier that day, I had gotten messages from nine different friends, all saying they’d planned on attending but something had come up and they couldn’t make it. Each of their explanations was understandable—sick children, stuck at work, car troubles—but also it seemed cruel that every one of them would have an emergency on the same night. My wife was there, in the second row and I sent her a text from the front of the room: can we just leave? Will anyone notice?  I did not leave. I had promised to do an event, and the library had made space for me, and even if only one person was in the audience, I had a responsibility to deliver. But in those next two minutes—as I kept hoping for, say, a bus full of book critics to break down outside—I was thinking grim thoughts about the creative life. 2. I have been very fortunate as a writer: since 2010, I have had three books picked up by three different publishers. I have gotten coverage in major publications and been invited to do events in many bookstores along the east coast. I made enough money on my first book contract to buy a pretty nice couch.   Before I ever published anything, I’d assumed that if I ever finished a book, there would be so much demand from family and friends alone that we’d have to go into a second printing before the release date. But I am here to tell you: most people in your family will never buy your book. Most of your friends won’t either.   I have a handful of friends and family members—people I consider close to me, people I see regularly—who have never come to any of my dozens of book events. I don’t know if they own any of my books because I haven’t asked, but I have a pretty good guess. After my first book came out, I would peruse friends’ bookshelves, trying to determine their organizational system (if it’s not alphabetical, then where is my book? Maybe they have some special hidden shelf for books they truly cherish?). On a few occasions, I called them out for not having it. This accomplished nothing, besides making both of us feel bad.    The point of this piece is not to shame those people or to complain about not getting enough support. It’s just to say: whatever you think it’s like after you publish a book, it’s actually harder than that.   3. During the entire process of producing a book, the writer becomes a swirling vortex of neediness. First you’re begging for time to write, then you’re asking people to read and edit, then you’re querying agents, then you’re asking (oh god) for blurbs, then you’re contacting reviewers, then you’re emailing everyone you’ve ever met, then you’re posting on Facebook (again and again), and then you’re asking people to show up to some bookstore on a Wednesday night to listen to you read words at them. Later, you’ll ask them to write reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. Every day, you are making demands on people’s time and money. It’s terrible. For most of these people, the only appealing aspect of the book is that your name is on the cover. Maybe they’re not readers. Maybe they like gritty mysteries and you’re writing literary fiction about a divorced Brooklyn couple. Maybe they like reading but don’t have time, due to career, kids, community activism, or something else. Relative to the amount of time and anxiety you devote to the project, you’re really not asking for much. But it’s important to remember: nobody in the world will ever care about your book as much as you do. Very few will ever understand exactly what it means to you.  People will like your Facebook statuses and retweet your tweets and they’ll even leave very nice comments. These likes and comments do not translate to sales. It’s the most passive way for anyone to show support. Over time, the novelty wears off. It’s exciting for non-writers to say they know an author, or for writer friends to remember back when you were starting out and working on your first, bad stories. Very little can sustain that enthusiasm over the six (or more) months during which you’re posting about the book.   I admit to having felt betrayed by my friends’ indifference, especially after the first book, but I remind myself that I do the same thing all the time. I have friends in bands that I haven’t seen live in years. I’ve never been to any friends’ improv shows. I skip a lot of readings, even when I know the readers. I have friends with books I haven’t bought or read. I have explicitly lied to colleagues about having read and enjoyed their books. The book industry is partly kept afloat by a shadow economy in which the main currency is bullshit.   4. At a family party recently, a cousin asked why I didn’t bring copies of my newest book to sell. I don’t like the idea of showing up to family parties like a cotton candy vendor wandering from table to table looking for handouts. I’ve done this before (at my mom’s wedding, I sold two books, including one to the pastor), and it has always felt cheap and more than a little passive-aggressive. I’ve decided that the misery of haggling over prices with a cousin is not worth the benefit of one more sale. When the cousin said he wasn’t sure where to get the book, I told him he could probably order it with one click on his phone. I did not close the deal. 5. The event I did at the Philly Library started late, as every reading does, as we hoped for that sudden influx of people. For the first time in my life, a (small) busload of people actually did show up. The library partners with a local retirement home, and so about a dozen people filled in the seats. Then a colleague arrived, followed by a writer friend. Then a friend from college, who I only see now at these events. Then a childhood friend, who always shows up even though he works long hours in the suburbs and has four young kids. Two people even bought books. An hour earlier, I’d been drowning myself in self-pity, vowing to never put myself through this again. But then, in front of a modest crowd in the modest basement of a local library, I thought about how lucky I am to have any of these opportunities. I felt incredibly grateful to everyone who showed up, even the woman who made the upsetting phone call (she sat in the front row and listened intently and asked three questions). As always, I felt incredible gratitude to my wife, who has sat through so many more of these events than any person could ever be expected to endure. I felt fortunate to have friends who still keep showing up, sometimes making an hour commute to get there, even when all they’re getting out of it is fifteen minutes of me reading from a book, and maybe my signature. Some people couldn’t make it, but some did. That counts.   The next night I did a reading in my adopted hometown in New Jersey and eight people showed up. I gave them the best performance I could. What other option is there?   6. Most of the writing life is disappointment. Publishing a book, which should be your most triumphant moment, is an anticlimax. There are no fireworks and no awards, no parades down Main Street. Many people close to you will disappoint you. But there are people who will come through, and they will keep coming through, and sometimes you’ll be surprised who falls into which category. I’ve learned to cherish those friends and family members who are always there, or even sometimes there. It takes real sacrifice on their part to support this weird thing I do. It takes money and time for them to seek the book out, to ask their local shops and libraries to carry it, to share it on social media.   People will read your book. Almost certainly not as many people as you wish. But sometimes a friend from high school or a former teacher will surprise you by showing up to a reading, or posting a review online. Sometimes a stranger will email you out of the blue and say they loved it, and in those moments it will feel like you’ve accomplished something impossible. It will feel better than you ever thought it could.   I don’t think there is any way to convince all the people in your life to buy your book, let alone care about it half as much as you do. Though their validation feels great, it’s important to remember that it’s also not the point. As a writer, you need to approach every project with the understanding that you’re doing this work for yourself, and everything that happens once it’s in the world is out of your control. Whatever project you’re working on now doesn’t derive value from your friends’ approval, but rather from the love and energy you pour into it. You can do the work, and you can keep showing up, and that’s all you’ve got. Most of the time, it’s all you need.