In Person

No Boys Allowed: A Book Club to Discuss Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom

Last month, a group of women between the ages of 25 and 35 got together in Los Angeles to talk about Jonathan Franzen's new novel, Freedom.  I was one of these women.  I loved the idea of getting together to discuss a big book, one that people across the nation were also buying, and reading, and meeting to talk about.  It felt like we were participating in a cultural moment--it was like getting a Cabbage Patch Kid in the 1980s.   Plus, there would be snacks. Since the novel is 562 pages, we decided to discuss the book over two meetings--crazy, I know.  Because I actually get paid to facilitate a different book club (can you believe that?), I held back from planning questions and discussion points for this new one.  I would not let this group become a job. I would not bring a highlighter.  However, I did bring one quote, from Garth Risk Hallberg's review on this very site.  To start the meeting off, I read the quote aloud to the others: It is surely worth mentioning that Franzen writes more persuasively and attentively about the inner life of women than any male American novelist since Henry James. "Who wrote that?"  someone asked. "What? You don't think a man can write from a woman's perspective?" "Was the reviewer a man or a woman?" "How does he know?" "The question isn't whether a man can write a woman's perspective, but if Franzen can. Was he successful?" The responses were mixed to this question.  All of us felt Patty Berglund, midway through the novel at least, was a complicated and believable character, but a few of us--myself included--did not buy the conceit of her autobiography.  It did not feel as if she had written it; arbitrarily capitalizing words does not render a perspective true!  To me it felt half-assed, almost offensive. Why present these words as Patty's, when they are really the author's, barely concealing himself?  It didn't seem like a true investigation of a character's world or her use of language to describe that world. But I digress.  We talked a whole lot about Patty. "Why did Richard keep saying she was tall?  She's only like 5' 9"!" (So said our tallest member.) "Did anyone really imagine her as attractive?" "When I think female basketball player, I'm unable to imagine a good looking woman." What's interesting to me about an unguided book club is how quickly it dives into content, with only brief exchanges about form.  There is analysis, but it's about the characters.  Why did Patty marry Walter?   What is the nature of the love between Richard and Walter?  What the hell was up with the dirty talk between Joey and Connie?  ("That was my favorite part!")  The great fun of these meetings--and perhaps why they're not particular productive--is that you get to talk about the characters as if they're real.  People describe emotional reactions to the events in the book.  They make value judgments.  They psychoanalyze the characters--and this inevitably pulls the discussion away from the text.  I recall one moment, as we were debating the potential selfishness of the characters, when someone said, "Well, first, we need to define selfishness."  This led us down a thorny but fascinating path, which had little to do with the Berglunds and their problems.  In a book club about Freedom, it's easy to go from a discussion of Walter's environmentalism to a discussion of overpopulation to a discussion of having babies to a discussion of orgasms to, "What do you think Jonathan Franzen's lovemaking style is?"  No wonder Franzen hemmed and hawed his way to a dis-invitation from Oprah nearly ten years ago!  He understood how dangerous a group of women can be. It turned out, after our first meeting (four hours long, no joke), we were all talked out.  Our second meeting was shorter and more subdued.  We discussed the ending, and the relative happiness of Patty and Walter.  Had anyone changed?  Could anyone really change?  We discussed the structural and narrative similarities of the first and final sections--was that return to the elevated perspective beautiful, or a cop-out?  (My answer?  Both.)  We talked about whether or not the sections about mountain top removal were sort of interesting or incredibly boring, and how we reacted to real-life details in fiction. "You think Jonathan Franzen listens to Bright Eyes?" "Is there a real life version of Richard Katz?  I never believed he was actually famous." "What the fuck is up with the band name Walnut Surprise?" "It was so silly!" "Should have been Walnut Hotel or something." "Walnut Surprise sounds sexual, and scatological--like a Joey and Connie thing.  Franzen is obsessed with poop." In both meetings, we came back to this question of whether or not Freedom is a masterpiece.  Why was Jonathan Franzen, out of the many talented and important authors, the anointed one?  We all agreed it was pretty great to see a writer on the cover of TIME, but was he truly "the great American novelist"?   He is both commercially successful and critically acclaimed, and few can claim that mysterious combination these days.   We were saddened, or sobered, by the fact that a woman, at least in the present day, would not be given that title.  Everyone agreed with that. Of course, we spent the last twenty minutes discussing the most important question: "What should we read next?"
In Person

Nuit Blanche Toronto: Finding Inspiration After the Sun Goes Down

My friend Morry and I reached Nathan Phillips Square after sunset, long after several hundred had scattered themselves in front of Toronto's City Hall. Somewhere among the curious and cold was Daniel Lanois. We could hear him; we could even see him projected in a dozen different places - on screens where no screens had been before, even in the reflecting pool. There was no obvious stage, but eventually we found a ramp leading up to a platform on which a few dozen had congregated. They were peering down into a pit. We did the same - and there he was, at the controls of an audio-video installation. And there he would remain until sunrise. And half the fun was finding him. Lanois' all-nighter was one of the hyped attractions of this year's Nuit Blanche, an all-night free art festival held in early October at dozens of venues in and around downtown Toronto. Over the course of five years, my feelings have swung from amazement to irritation and back again. I've been bemused and bored. I've been caught up in curious crowds, and I've loathed the drunken hordes. The first year was a delight. I knew nothing about Nuit Blanche. There had been some chatter about it, but it was largely word-of-mouth that drew a few hundred thousand night-owls into the streets - looking to be inspired. The high point for me was an outdoor fog installation in a leafy stretch of the University of Toronto, where I and dozens of others walked - sightless - on a meandering path drenched in fog. All other senses were heightened - the bumps of the earth beneath us, the sounds of chatter around us. Behind me, a guy telling everyone within earshot how the mushrooms he'd taken were just then kicking in. I've never managed to last beyond three in the morning, and in the second year, the high point came at about 2 a.m. Exhausted, my friends and I ducked into the Music Faculty of the university, plunked ourselves down in the auditorium, and were treated to the quiet and cool sounds of a live jazz ensemble. The following year, in front of an old downtown building known for its galleries and studio space, a small crowd had gathered for a guided tour of the building. We joined. Ten minutes into the tour, it dawned on me that this was no ordinary tour. We were, in fact, part of a performance piece - the tour guide a performance artist leading us, her audience, up and down staircases, into hidden rooms, basements and rooftop gardens. Like a general leading troops into battle, she marched on, regaling us with stories. I would have followed her anywhere. Last year should have been the best. I knew the city inside out. I knew which areas promised inspiration. I had visiting guests and was anxious to show off the city. But the crowds from previous years had suddenly mutated into hordes. And where the leafy university area and fascinatingly dodgy outer edges of downtown had been the focus of the earlier years, now the downtown commercial strip and the financial district had suddenly become the focal point. And we were swept up, and let down, by the masses. This year was a targeted approach. One glance at the throngs on Yonge Street, and we made for the infinitely more interesting strains of Daniel Lanois at City Hall. Curious crowds over partying hordes. Then it was on to the newly-opened film centre, Toronto’s year-round cinematheque. In one small screening room, a handful of us filed past the empty audience seats, to the edge of the stage, where we sat, looking out into the seats. Above the seats, suspended from what appeared to be clotheslines, were sheets of varying sizes and suspended at varying heights. On each, a different looped segment of Fellini's played. Apparently curated by Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan, Fellini's fragments were hypnotic. You create your own Nuit Blanche. With so many venues, inside and out, in so many neighbourhoods, you chart your own course. And with a bit of timing and luck, moments of inspiration might just be around the next corner. Image credit: City of Toronto
In Person

Among the Precocious 45,000: Meet Some of the Thousands of Kids Doing NaNoWriMo

Not far from where I live, on the South Fork of Long Island, 107 eighth graders at the East Hampton Middle School are racing to complete first novels by the end of November. And these fledglings represent but a fraction of the 45,000 youngsters who are taking part in National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, which commenced just after midnight on November 1st. In a communication addressed to parents, (“Have you heard the great news? Your child has decided to write a novel….”) The Office of Light and Letters, the non-profit that runs the event, offered practical advice for the care of the young artist, who will be in friendly competition with students ages five to seventeen from twenty-eight countries around the world, including a cohort of diminutive scribblers from Kazhakstan. (Prose coming from all quarters – stand back!) The note closed with a run-down of the essentials, explaining that while the adult contenders must grind out 50,000 words to be declared "winners," the children may choose the length of their work. All any of them have to do is finish. Since 2005, when NaNoWriMo inaugurated its Young Writers Program, the East Hampton school’s entire eighth grade class has participated in this creative endeavor, which will ordinarily produce 50 to 250 page manuscripts on deadline. (The new novelists’ combined output – 485 titles by one teacher’s estimate – occupied a corner of the library until the space was remodeled two years ago, when an administrative decision was made to pulp the lot.) Last year, having reached an impasse with my own first novel, I dropped in on the eighth graders during the last days of NaNoWriMo to see if I might learn something. Everyone was typing away, including the math teacher, who, I discovered to my alarm, was also writing a novel.  Meanwhile, fuelled by secret supplies of leftover Halloween candy, the kids were sneaking up on denouements and endings. At lunchtime, a knot of refugees from the cafeteria retreated to an empty classroom plastered with helpful notices (“Hook the reader!” “Say something catchy!”), to discuss their books before cramming last cookies into their mouths and returning to imaginary lands. “I’ve been so caught up in finishing, I totally forgot about a title,” confided the auspiciously named Sedona Hoppe-Brosse, a pretty thing with masses of curls, dressed from head-to-toe in lavender. The imminent author of a 140-page Word War II drama had conceived a plot involving an Alsatian great-granny who marries a German soldier in Vichy France at the expense of her reputation. Ms. Hoppe-Brosse, who spends her summers in Alsace and cites the comic book Astérix et Obélix as a great influence, learned of her relative’s travails from her dad. "But the book isn’t true true, because I changed tons of stuff,” she emphasized, as she pondered how to wrap up a story which in real life did not end well. Meanwhile, her friend, Sarah-Jane Lynn, way ahead of the game, had just finished the second volume of  “The Criminal Hunters Agency”, a projected trilogy about a female detective “from a poor city in Belgium” whose services are retained by a lady seeking “good and solid proof!” that her husband is having an affair. “What makes you think that?” said [the detective], opening a fresh page in her notebook. “The usual….” Ms. Lynn, now thirteen, was born and reared in France. Like a modern-day Colette, this young writer composed much of her oeuvre in bed while listening to Beethoven’s "Moonlight Sonata." “I’d really like to see the series made into a feature film, with the cast of NCIS playing the roles,” she enunciated in the careful lilting English she had learned from watching “Barney” videos. Then there were the romantics, the creators of Odysseus-like adventurers who long for their wives and their homelands, triumphing over road accidents and shark attacks and plane crashes that leave them far from the known world.  “Augie and Sophia were arguing in a sense of love and passion,” wrote a thirteen-year-old boy of letters whose novel of ideas opens with a grabber: “The snow is covering the hills of Montauk and the ocean is frigid. Life is slow and dreadful. A baby is about to be born and Augie is summoned to Australia to help cure a disease. Who knows what will happen next.” (As it happens, that unborn child has a daunting problem: he is nine months pregnant.) There were small surprises, too: A plot summary -- “The monkey got caught and put in the zoo.” -- lovely in its brevity, which brought to mind Hemingway’s famous six word story about the baby shoes; and random insights born of misspelled words, as when the teenage heroine of a political thriller stumbles upon a copy of “Jane Air” in a Dubrovnik bookshop. (Dubrovnik? “Travel is a huge part of my life and writing is a form of travel,” observed Cosima Scheflout, a long-limbed beauty chewing a wad of blue bubble gum, who solved the problem of getting her characters in and out of three foreign countries by giving them a yacht). But the boldest vision of all, alas, was perhaps a failure. Daisy Kelly, a British expat, essayed a personal diary of a Yeti but abandoned the project after her parents scuttled her plans to mount a research expedition. Realizing the inherent challenge of narrating an entire novel in the voice of a “shy yet determined” creature that she had little hope of ever glimpsing, she contemplated turning her lament for a vanished and possibly mythological beast into the story of a village felled by plague. However, a schoolmate pointed out that the latter tale was too similar to the plot of a well-known... ”Book?” I interrupted. “Movie,” said Ms. Kelly firmly.  And so, with the ruthlessness of a true pro, she refashioned the material into a murder mystery, and brought the story back home. (Image: Brainstorming supplies, image from mpclemens's photostream)
In Person

Marfa: Donald Judd’s Melancholy Monument

I recently made the pilgrimage to what the French would call one of the hauts lieus de l’art:  Marfa, Texas.  Like any place of pilgrimage worthy of the name, Marfa is remote and difficult to get to.  One makes the journey because the artist Donald Judd, beginning in the 1970s, moved his base of operations to this former cattle trading center, gradually buying up several properties in Marfa,  Then, with the help of New York’s Dia Foundation, he purchased an entire disused Army base next to the town, over 300 acres of industrial scale warehouses, barrack and office buildings, and scads of empty space. Out of this Texican cattle barony without the cattle, he created living and working spaces for himself, as well as permanent exhibition space for his work and that of a few colleagues and friends. Like many born east of the 100th meridian, in the green, humid half of the continent, Judd fell in love with the dry crystalline air and unforgiving light of this part of the country, with its high arid plains,  its horizons punctuated with mesas and buttes.  For certain artists and intellectuals, the Southwest is America’s Provence,  a place where (in the American mode) the configuration of the land itself, with its vast spaces, is a kind of liberation.  Marfa was Judd’s Arles, and like Van Gogh, Judd dreamt of an artist’s utopia.  He didn’t realize his dream, but he did create a series of ideal settings in which  art could be displayed entirely on its own terms, without the misguided interference of dealers and curators. With the creation of the Chinati Foundation, Judd put in place an institutional framework for the preservation of his vision after his death. Now, years after Judd’s passing in 1994, Chinati is a going concern.  For those in the art world, it is an item on the checklist of places to see before you die.  I’ve wanted to go there for a long time, but not because I am big fan of Judd’s work or of Minimalism.  Judd reached for his Luger whenever he heard  the word Minimalism, as well he might, since the term is entirely apt in my view.  His work, and that of his brethren, ruthlessly reduced to a set of Platonic essences,  provides a minimum of sustenance for the eye.  It is a Stoic’s or a Puritan’s bowl of thin porridge. Everything this kind of work has to give you is exhausted by mere moments of looking.  Simplification and purification of form, elimination of content and narrative, all this exacts a high price.  If, in the end, we look at art for the profound pleasure it gives us, why look at work that has , in an ascetic quest for some ideal, done away with so many of the qualities that make art pleasurable?  For me, at least, years of received opinion and the torrents of ink that have been spilled arguing for the far-reaching philosophical significance of Minimalism do nothing to counteract the indifference of my eyes whenever I look at the stuff. Why then did I want to go to this place at the back of beyond?  Simple.  All of Judd’s real strengths as an artist—his finely tuned sense of proportion, his sensitivity to the surface facture and weight of materials, his exquisite, but not fussy, craftsmanship—resonate much more fruitfully in his architectural and design work than in his sculpture.   Judd’s plans required the renovation and often radical reconfiguration of existing structures.  He also designed and built much of the furniture himself.  Seeing the results of this impressive effort in photographs, I found it to be both stark and elegant. Functionality brought his forms to life for me: one of his buildings or even a desk seemed to give me much more to look at (and feel) than his artwork ever did.  So off I went to Marfa.  And, in the back of my mind, I hoped to be won over by the artwork itself.  Maybe, seeing it under Judd’s ideal conditions, my eyes would be opened to its virtues.  Only a fool closes his mind completely to new sources of pleasure. Such was my thinking before arriving in Marfa itself. One is allowed to view the art on the former military base only as part of a tour run by Chinati.  There are several permanent installations; three of these best exemplify Judd’s intentions.  One is by Dan Flavin, an array of light sculptures in six barrack buildings, which is conceived of as a single work.  The second is in a warehouse where a display of John Chamberlain’s wadded up automobile sculptures occupies a basilica-like space.  Then, there is Judd’s own work. The centerpiece of his project in Marfa is housed in two monumental buildings, the Artillery Sheds.  It comprises one hundred aluminum boxes, identical in size, lined up in three evenly spaced rows running the length of these very long buildings.  Within this matrix (which includes the building itself) of Euclidean geometry gone apeshit, the boxes themselves are far from being clones of each other. Sometimes sides are open, or half-open and half-closed.  The internal space of a box might be bisected by one or more horizontal, vertical or oblique planes.  The metal boxes, like Flavin’s piece, are meant to be taken in as a single work on a heroic scale.  Judd wanted Chinati to be a place where he, and his friends, could make real their grandest ambitions, giving them permanent form, unfettered by worldly constraints.  Clearly, in this, he succeeded. If one is of a mind to, one can follow up the Chinati tour with a late afternoon peek (also guided) at the Block, Judd’s residential compound in town.  Behind high adobe walls sits various structures which contain Judd’s library, workspaces ( home to some of his early sculptures) and living space, all widely separated by a vast flat expanse paved with loose cinder rock.  You admire the lovely proportions of this enclosed area and the buildings disposed across it, but the mind quails at the thought of crossing this treeless waste on a hot summer day—La Jornada del Muerto in your  own backyard. So, what does all this add up to in the end?  This is the question I’ve been mulling over since the middle of the tour itself.  I’m afraid that the admirable open-mindedness I boasted of earlier availed me nothing; my mainlining all this Juddiana did not make a convert of me.  (Putting aside both the work of the other artists and the architecture,  I will focus on Judd’s 100 Boxes alone as emblematic of the whole enterprise.)   Certainly, when I entered the first Artillery Shed, I was more affected than I expected.  Judd had removed the solid side walls of both buildings, replacing them with rows of large floor-to-ceiling windows, the illumination from which, reflecting off  the mirrored surfaces of the boxes and the shiny polished floor, choreographed a dazzling dance of light and shadow.  Some of the boxes lost their hard edges, even seemed to dissolve in this play of silvery grays and chiaroscuro blacks, changing constantly as you shifted your viewpoint.  Surprisingly, these cold metal boxes were actually quite sensual. But, after this initial enthusiasm, I soon began to experience box fatigue.   Initially assuming an air of the implacable in their machined perfection, the boxes secretly want you to find them fascinating, to like them. However, Judd’s  endlessly clever improvisations on the boxes’ structure actually serve to trivialize them. We look at them and their permutations, as isolated instances, forgetting that they are supposed to be components of something much larger. The variety itself sooner or later becomes tiresome and boring, or simply too much to take in.  The variations are really just an empty formal strategy, an arbitrary problem the artist set up for himself.  They don’t interact with each other, creating a dynamic movement, a musical counterpoint, that plays out through the piece as a whole.  Therefore, the boxes never coalesce into a unified experience. As a collection of individual iterations exploring a single idea, the work in the Artillery Sheds is, up to a point, fascinating, but it very quickly becomes just one damn thing after another. The modular premise underlying the work, with its tension between overall unity and the autonomy of each module, was stretched to the breaking point by Judd’s overreaching ambition. Judd was aiming very, very high here, and didn’t  make it.  As a coherent  work of art, I think we have to count 100 Boxes a failure. This conclusion raises a disturbing question.  Why is a failed artistic endeavor being enshrined like this?  Judd is an artist who deserves our attention, but the degree of cultural canonization and institutional validation that has been conferred on his work at Marfa is commensurate with the very highest levels of achievement.  Who decided that Judd’s legacy is that important?  Well, for one,  Judd himself, aided and abetted by a  coterie of partisans of Judd’s idealist avant-gardism within the rarefied upper echelons of the American art world.  Judd’s really big dreams were realized not in response to a deeply felt need in the society at large, or even because of official recognition on the part of the State, but through the decisions of a very small number of self-appointed people with, crucially, access to capital. Ultimately, in today’s world, in which society as a whole has no agreed upon use for art, money becomes the sole and final arbiter of value, in art as in everything else.  In these circumstances there is tremendous financial incentive to inflate reputations.  Nothing new in that observation, but there’s another, mostly unacknowledged, tendency at work here as well.  In the post-war decades, for America’s art world taste makers, a driving concern was to demonstrate, to one and all, that this country’s culture had come of age.  A great culture requires great artists, but faced with a real paucity in that area, critics, curators and dealers (and artists) worked assiduously to convince themselves and us that many fine second and third-rank artists  rightfully deserved to be elevated to the very pinnacles of Mount Parnassus itself.  Claims were made for these artists out of all proportion to the work itself.  Interesting but limited talents, such as those of Pollack or Johns, were held up as proof that, as an exhausted Europe passed the torch to the New World, America was ready.  The money flowed in response to this debasement of the critical coinage, validating it. Because the art world is so insular and small, and the public obliviousness to serious art so nearly complete, there is no external reality check on this process, (which continues to this day, mostly shorn of nationalist content). Was Judd a beneficiary, and Marfa a direct result, of this process?  Is Judd’s work, in other words, worthy of the exalted treatment it receives at Chinati? My answers will be plain enough by now.  But, don’t take my word for it.  Everyone who cares should decide for themselves. However, relatively few people will ever be in a position to do that; because of its remoteness, few will ever go there.  Regardless of what you make of my thesis, agree or disagree, this is the paradox at the core of  Judd’s self-willed monument.  A monument, or a museum, if we care to look at it as such, implies a public, but Chinati’s public is miniscule, a molecular fraction of a population which mostly remains ignorant of the very existence of the place.  Undaunted, Chinati sits on its arid upland, its back sublimely turned on everybody except the initiate, and the mildly curious willing to go way out of their way to scratch an itch. Despite his success, Judd felt that his work and the thought behind it was never fully understood, either by art world professionals or the informed public.   Even during his life, this was probably largely true.  How much more so now.   In response to this incomprehension, the vision he developed for Chinati was a hermetic one, informed by more than a little despair.  For all its scale and ambition, what Judd built at Marfa is a refuge from a cruelly indifferent world.  Its elite financial underpinnings and its splendid isolation, physically and culturally, from the lives and concerns of most people in this country, speak volumes about the plight of the arts in a society such as ours.
In Person, The Future of the Book

Report from the Future of Reading: The Books in Browsers Conference

Does a reader who lists all the books he reads on the internet still care about privacy? Should an ebook be an app on its own or one of many books available through an ebookstore? Do readers also want to be writers? And what, if anything, is the publisher’s role in all of this? These and many more questions were the subject of discussion at the second annual Books in Browsers conference at the Internet Archive in San Francisco. Sponsored by O’Reilly Media and planned by the IA’s Peter Brantley, the event brought together publishing and technology professionals from around the world (presenters flew from as far as Japan, Singapore, and Australia to speak) to discuss the consequences and opportunities of books becoming digital. The talks ranged from the highly conceptual to the very specific. Some presenters discussed the history of publishing stretching back before the industrial revolution while others more or less demonstrated their software. This kind of dual-personality is a product of the confusing landscape those of us in the book business face today. Nowhere was this more evident than when the IA’s founder Brewster Kahle gathered those of us in attendance together to take a group photo. Wanting to take a sort of general census of attendees, he asked anyone who considered himself or herself a publisher to raise his or her hand. When someone asked for clarification of what a publisher was, he more or less said “anyone who facilitates production and distribution of the written word.” As an employee of Goodreads, I felt compelled to raise my hand. Then he asked those of us who were authors to raise our hands. As a blogger, both here and elsewhere, I felt I should raise my hand again. I also claimed the title of bookseller, as Goodreads does sell ebooks. If I’d wanted to, I might even have been able to claim I was a librarian, but I didn’t. Lastly, every one of us was, of course, a reader. Nevertheless, clearly the old lines of demarcation in the publishing industry don’t really apply anymore. If there was an overarching theme to the conference it was “social reading,” so much so that several presenters, including Goodreads founder Otis Chandler, who was there to announce the Goodreads Social Reading API, apologized for discussing the topic yet again. Michael Tamblyn from Kobo books proudly announced that his speech was free of any and all things social. “Hell is other readers,” one of his slides proclaimed. But sharing the reading experience was clearly on many people’s minds. In presentation after presentation, speakers discussed their vision for what a social reading experience – and in some cases, a social writing experience – might be. In Thursday’s dazzling keynote address, Brian O’Leary of Magellan Media Partners urged publishers to move beyond the “container model of publishing” and to look instead to create context first: [B]ook, magazine and newspaper publishing is unduly governed by the physical containers we have used for centuries to transmit information.  Those containers define content in two dimensions, necessarily ignoring that which cannot or does not fit. Worse, the process of filling the container strips out context – the critical admixture of tagged content, research, footnoted links, sources, audio and video background, even good old title-level metadata – that is a luxury in the physical world, but a critical asset in digital ones.  In our evolving, networked world – the world of “books in browsers” – we are no longer selling content, or at least not content alone.  We compete on context. But moving from containers to something infinitely less contained creates problems, as well. Nicole Ozer of the Northern California ACLU spoke eloquently on the dangers of gathering data on what people read. “If you build it, someone will come calling, asking for information.” Other speakers, though, argued that many readers will trade some amount of privacy in exchange for more features and greater possibilities. If a website helps you find the next book you want to read, perhaps giving it your reading history or some portion thereof is a price worth paying. Day two of the conference kicked off with back-to-back talks from two publishing iconoclasts – Bob Stein from the Institute for the Future of the Book and Richard Nash, former editor of Soft Skull Press and founder of the publishing start up Cursor. Stein presented a call to create a Taxonomy of Social Reading. Stein aims to provide a framework to discuss all the various ways in which we do read socially in the hopes that the publishers might band together to create an open platform for sharing notations and comments across all texts. It’s only through seizing the social reading moment, so to speak, that the publishers can hope to wrestle some measure of control back from the tech companies that have come to dominate their industry. Stein’s taxonomy is well worth examining in depth, and at the risk of simplifying a complex idea, I will summarize it here. He breaks social reading into four main categories: category one: in-person informal discussion of a book; category two: discussion of a book online; category three:  formal discussion of a book in a classroom or book club; and category four: online, synchronous discussion of a book in the margins of the book itself (A few examples of this are the Commentpress platform in which Stein’s piece appears and the website BookGlutton). This concept – of group annotation and community reading – was arguably the most controversial idea of the conference. Does the average reader even want to mark up a text, much less share their annotations with others? Would this idea apply equally to fiction and non-fiction? Or would people prefer to keep the actual reading experience private, to remain immersed in a narrative rather than constantly checking the margins of the text? Richard Nash followed Stein’s presentation with a thought-provoking talk about the ways in which authors are also readers and, perhaps more importantly, vise versa. His new venture Cursor aims to cultivate a community of writer-readers. Whether he is successful or not will not hinge on whether many readers also fancy themselves writers -- that much seems self-evident -- but instead on exactly what people are willing to pay to be a part of a community of like-minded folks. Both Stein and Nash argued that the way most of us read now – alone with the text – has only been the way we read for the past two hundred or so years, a product of the industrial revolution. Prior to that, reading was something done in a small group, typically the family, and discussion was a natural and essential component of it. Whether that desire – to experience a text as a part of a group – has been thwarted by the past couple hundred years and consequently liberated by the connectivity of the net is at the very heart of the matter. Fittingly, the debate about the issue spilled out from the conference itself and onto the Read 2.0 email list, which discusses issues pertinent to the future of the book business. Skeptics argued that shared marginalia was innovation for innovation’s sake, or that it might be applicable to academic environments and certain kinds of book clubs, but that it had little future as a commercially viable project for commercial publishers. While it’s easy to see why many are skeptical, one can’t help but wonder how many people knew ten years ago that they wanted to write a blog? How many could have explained their desire to connect with other readers on sites like Goodreads? And yet there are millions of bloggers and Goodreads has four million members and counting. The text has been an isolated thing for so many years and decades that it’s difficult to imagine it as something different, as one part of a community and a conversation, rather than a thing unto itself. We want to interact with some texts, it seems, but whether we want that to extend to our long-form narratives remains somewhat in doubt. Another thing very much in doubt is the publisher’s role in this changing world. It is telling that at a conference so focused on the future of reading, there was only a single representative of any of the six major publishers in attendance. The leadership, it seems, comes not from New York, but from the startups and thinkers on the fringes of the industry proper. People like Eli James, whose website Novelr has been covering the world of online fiction for some time, and Matthew Bernius from RIT, who closed the conference with the presentation of a canon of publishing, continue to lead a vanguard that increasingly has less and less to do with what’s happening in Manhattan. Leaving the conference, I couldn’t help but be excited for the future. Simply being at the Internet Archive – one of the few places on earth actually digitizing books – was an exhilarating experience. On the second day of the conference, the attendees all banded together to form a "box brigade" to help the Internet Archive move a few dozen boxes from the first floor of their building to the second. The boxes contained hard drives capable of storing 2.8 petabytes of data, or 2 billion books. This is an incredible time to be a reader, even if it’s a terrifying time for traditional publishing. I will admit to getting chills thinking about what the 2020 meeting of Books in Browsers will be like. The only things I’m comfortable predicting that far in the future are that people will be writing long-form narratives, people will be reading them, and they will be dying to talk about it.
In Person

Scattered Out Over the Land: A Southern Hamlet Crawling with Writers

Greensboro, North Carolina, is that true American anomaly – a place where there seem to be more people writing serious books than reading them.  Pick your flavor – literary fiction, poetry, history, biography, memoir, true crime, sci fi and fantasy, young adult, chick lit, historical fiction, literary and music criticism – and you'll find serious practitioners toiling quietly, often unaware of each other, in this sleepy city with a population of 225,000, five colleges, just a handful of surviving independent bookstores, and no formal literary scene to speak of.  As with so many things in the South, you need to understand a bit of history before you can begin to understand how this curious state of affairs came to be. Greensboro's literary DNA winds back to the Civil War, when William Sydney Porter was born here in the summer of 1862.  After doing three years in a federal penitentiary for embezzlement, Porter relocated to New York City and began churning out short stories under the pen name O. Henry.  Though he is still read today for his clever plots and twist endings, the man suffered no illusions that he was producing high art.  Writing, he once said, "is my way of getting money to pay room rent, to buy food and clothes and pilsener.  I write for no other reason or purpose."  Admirably clear-eyed, but he should have gone a bit easier on the pilsener.  He died of cirrhosis at the age of 47.  Today his name graces a prestigious short story prize and the plushest hotel in his hometown. Jump forward to the 1930s, when the esteemed poet and critic John Crowe Ransom, a member of the literary Fugitives at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, came to Greensboro to teach a summer session at what was then called the Woman's College of the University of North Carolina.  A number of Ransom's colleagues and star pupils from Vanderbilt eventually made their way to Greensboro to teach, write and hang out, among them Allen Tate and his wife Caroline Gordon, Randall Jarrell, Robert Lowell, Peter Taylor and Robert Penn Warren.  Only Jarrell stuck for the long haul, joining the Woman's College English faculty in 1947 and staying on it, off and on, until he was fatally struck by a car near Chapel Hill in 1965.  To this day, no one knows for sure if his death was an accident or a suicide. Shortly after arriving in town, Jarrell dubbed the Woman's College campus "Sleeping Beauty" and gushed to his friend Lowell about the place's cardinal virtue: "Greensboro leaves one alone just wonderfully."  Unlike more famous literary meccas, such as New York City, Provincetown, Iowa City, Key West, Oxford, Miss., and even the nearby "Triangle" of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill, unassuming Greensboro may be the best of all possible worlds for a writer – an under-the-radar place where one can work in peace, but can also find camaraderie and support from others engaged in what will always be a grindingly lonely pursuit.  The gifted southern journalist and biographer Marshall Frady once explained to his editor at Harper's magazine, fellow southerner Willie Morris, why he preferred living quietly in the South to basking in the dazzle of New York City: I've never been too sure that it is benign for a writer to spend any great length of time in the company of New York's estate of appraisers from afar and traffickers in reactions and responses.  Because maybe you start after awhile writing from those secondary vibrations, instead of from the primary pulses and shocks you can't afford to lose.  Perhaps writers ought to be scattered out over the land... more or less lost in the life of the country, not special aesthetic creatures apart from most men but only another suburbanite, another townsman, another farmer, who just have this secret eccentricity of an obsession to write... Frady's words resonated with me when I first read them 30 years ago and they still resonate with me today.  The reason, no doubt, is that when I wrote my two published novels I happened to be working as just another newspaperman in Greensboro, and the place left me alone wonderfully to do my "real" writing when I wasn't working my day job.  It was, as Jarrell had learned half a century before me, a dream set-up for a writer. The year Jarrell died, as it happened, the creative writing program began offering a Master of Fine Arts degree at newly renamed UNC-Greensboro, now a co-ed school.  The small faculty was headed by the poet Robert Watson, the short story master Peter Taylor, and Fred Chappell, prolific writer of poetry, fiction and criticism who would become the state's poet laureate and a renowned nurturer of young talent.  Chappell, now 75, is retired from teaching but he's still writing and still living on a shady street a few blocks from campus. "The MFA program has exploded," he told me recently.  "A lot of the writers don't leave town after they graduate, they stick around.  There's always somebody to drink with even though there's never been a satisfactory literary bar in this town."  Echoing Jarrell's discovery, and mine, he added, "People leave you alone if you want them to." One writer who stuck around is Drew Perry, who graduated from the MFA program in 1999, still lives near campus, and recently published This Is Just Exactly Like You, which has been short-listed for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize from the Center for Fiction.  I asked Perry why he didn't go off to New York after getting his degree.  "Because I was incredibly poor and I didn't have anything to show publishers," he said, adding that the short stories he wrote to get his MFA were "not ready for prime time." So he stayed in Greensboro, working on stories and a novel, doing home repair jobs, eventually landing a gig teaching creative writing at nearby Elon University in Burlington.  Eventually he started placing stories in literary journals, and in the fall of 2008 an agent signed him up.  Six weeks later Viking bought his novel at auction.  Perry is now married to Tita Ramirez, a fellow student at UNCG, and they have a 3-month old son, Tomas. "I still have that community of support," says Perry, who grew up in Atlanta and earned a degree in advertising from the University of Georgia, where he took his first creative writing courses as an undergraduate.  "My neighbors in Greensboro are the best friends I've ever had in my life.  It felt like the MFA program continued after I graduated.  What I learned (at UNCG) is that there's a difference between wanting to be a writer and writing.  I love Greensboro and, yes, it's too sleepy.  There's nothing specific to recommend it.  But it's just big enough and it's just small enough." Candace Flynt, a Greensboro native and early graduate of the MFA program, still lives in town, writing fiction and memoirs.  And then there's a whole flock of writers who have nothing to do with the MFA program.  Parke Puterbaugh, who is now enjoying a major success with his book Phish: The Biography, about the popular jam band, said, "If you're sufficiently motivated and self-directed, Greensboro's a nice mid-sized city with decent bars, restaurants and culture – but not an overwhelming mix of things to swamp your concentration."  Bill Trotter is the wildly prolific and versatile author of histories, biographies, novels, reviews, essays and, for good measure, columns about computer games.  His philosophy: "Adopt a blue-collar attitude and write for whatever and whoever will pay you for your time, sweat and expertise."  Mark Mathabane was teaching at N.C. A&T State University when his memoir about growing up in South Africa, Kaffir Boy, became an international best-seller.  Jerry Bledsoe was working as the local newspaper columnist when he wrote a true-crime book called Bitter Blood that became a #1 New York Times best-seller.  The late Burke Davis lived here while writing many of his more than 50 published works of history, fiction and biography.  Robert Watson still lives here, as do the accomplished writers Marianne Gingher, Lee Zacharias, Michael Gaspeny and too many others to name. Orson Scott Card, two-time winner of both the Hugo and Nebula awards and best known for Ender's Game, is perhaps Greensboro's one brand-name author.  He's also a prolific contributor to a local free weekly newspaper called The Rhino Times, in which he writes copious, cranky musings on everything from current politics to cookies, squirrels, movies and global warming.  Today Greensboro itself is something of a Sleeping Beauty, less a true city than a well groomed but slightly overgrown town.  It is a thoroughly middling place, blessed with mild winters, governed by aggressively moderate leaders, populated by citizens whose civic pride and self-satisfaction can sometimes shade toward smugness.  The town is located squarely in the center of the state's rolling Piedmont, midway between the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Atlantic beaches, a place so at-home in its own skin that it never developed the big-league pretensions of Raleigh to the east or Charlotte to the west.  It's content with its new minor-league ballpark and downtown public library, its respectable symphony orchestra, its one renowned art museum. Most of the state's bold-face writers live or teach in the Triangle, including Reynolds Price, the novelist Lee Smith and her essayist husband Hal Crowther, Jill McCorkle, Kaye Gibbons and many others.  It was there, in the writer's mecca of Hillsborough, that the late Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Doug Marlette dared to publish a novel in 2002 that lampooned his neighbor, the writer Allan Gurganus.  The ensuing literary cat fight – there were charges of everything from elitism to homophobia, the two unpardonable sins of our age – merited several buckets of ink from the Raleigh News & Observer.  Such hot-house foolishness would be unthinkable in lukewarm, mannerly Greensboro. Or maybe Greensboro's exposures to the limelight have left its residents – writers and non-writers alike – relieved that the town is so rarely in the news.  It was in downtown Greensboro that four black students from N.C. A&T State University had the audacity to sit at the whites-only F. W. Woolworth lunch counter in February of 1960, a gesture that enraged many whites, inspired many blacks, and helped ignite the civil rights movement.  And it was in Greensboro in November of 1979 that five communist organizers were shot dead by Ku Klux Klansmen and American Nazis at a "Death to the Klan" rally, leaving the city deeply traumatized.  These two visitations of klieg-light glare were, respectively, noble and brutal; they were also utterly out of character in this city that has always prided itself on its willingness to compromise, to accommodate, and to get along.  Greensboro, after all, is the site of one of the South's first universities built for African-Americans during Reconstruction, and it was one of the first Southern cities to willingly and peaceably integrate its public schools after the Supreme Court's Brown decision in 1954.  Greensboro, as Marshall Frady wrote about South Carolina in a slightly different context, "seemed merely to lack the vitality for any serious viciousness.  It was as if its defense were a colossal torpor." Torpor is a funny thing.  While most people find it stifling, many writers find it alluring, even necessary.  The cliche of the writer toiling in his remote shack, much like the reality of Philip Roth toiling in his remote New England retreat, are two equally valid illustrations of the writing life's solitary nature.  And Greensboro's genial brand of torpor goes a long way toward explaining the place's allure to writers – both to the young ones who keep coming here to launch their careers, and to the established ones who work here, quietly, often apart, usually alone.  There's a sense here that if your writing is not always avidly read by your neighbors, at least its making is regarded with genuine respect by them.  Al Brilliant, owner of one of the town's few surviving independent bookstores, expressed this perfectly: "People treat writers as workers here."  Not as special aesthetic creatures, not as eccentrics or pariahs or freaks, but as people who work hard to make worthwhile things.  That's an intangible but vital thing for any writer to feel, and I've lived in dozens of places in America where it was utterly absent, and sorely missed. It certainly doesn't hurt that in a country of flowering creative writing programs, UNCG's is consistently ranked among the top 25 by Poets & Writers magazine.  While this is not the place to debate the merits of such programs – are they incubating genuine talent, or are they spawning a torrent of technically accomplished books that are devoid of felt life? – there is no doubt that the UNCG program's rich history and its continuing reputation for quality are a spring that keeps replenishing the city's literary life. "One thing that's really strong with our program is the sense of community," says Jim Clark, who came to Greensboro in the 1960s to organize textile workers and now runs the MFA program and edits its respected twice-yearly literary journal, The Greensboro Review.  "We bring in people like Robert Pinsky and John Irving and Joshua Ferris, and the town people come to these events.  We do writing workshops for all ages, from at-risk kids to the elderly.  We do benefit readings to raise money for the Food Bank and for homeless people.  We've tried to organize a community of writers that extends beyond the campus."  He waved at the nearby neighborhood known as College Hill.  "There's people out there who sit on their porches and talk about books, and drink together, and peck away in their rooms." To most people, that probably sounds like a working definition of colossal torpor.  To a writer, it sounds like heaven. (Image: Carolina Theater (1927), 310 South Greene Street, Greensboro, North Carolina, image from sminor's photostream)
In Person

A Novel in Three Days

Day three, ten a.m.: no sleep last night. Nothing else seems substantial anymore except for the words on the laptop screen. The backs of my eyeballs feel prickly, suggesting complete and unforgiving fatigue. My brain went AWOL hours earlier and I keep omitting words like 'a', 'an', 'or', and 'of' from sentences. Yet I am ecstatic—an intense happiness burgeoning in me from too much caffeine, too little sleep, and having just spent two and a half days in a dream world of my own creation. As of right now, I am a novelist. Three days from midnight to midnight: write as much as you can, wherever you wish; this is the International 3-Day Novel Contest. The average finished entry is between twenty and thirty thousand words. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is about 77,000 words. Thus, the finished result is more novella than novel, but all the same, a grand effort considering the timeframe. Back to day one: The Setup. The contest allows prior planning of plots and characters. Oops. I snatch at ideas, desperate for anything. How about an alien abductees’ support group? Brilliant—very Fight Club. (Didn’t Graham Greene once say, “Writing is a form of therapy”?) Having a vague idea for a plot, I engage in the writing process. Many authors talk of losing themselves in the “zone”. They make it sound as if the words write themselves. I wish. Midnight arrives and the word count is a contemptible 4,500 words. The zone has eluded me. The 3-Day Novel Contest is held annually in early September on the Canadian Labor Day long weekend. In 1977, a writer’s group in Vancouver accepted the challenge for the first time. The contest has been running ever since. According to the organizers, the 3-Day Novel Contest has been called a “fad,” an “idle threat,” a “great way to overcome writers block,” and “a trial by deadline.” It opposes the notion that novels take eight years of angst to produce. Most entrants recognize that winning is secondary to finishing with a complete novella and no nervous breakdown. Day two: The Complication. Fatigue and patchy concentration lead to self-doubt. The successful 3-day novelist, like an athlete, must tailor his diet for maximal alertness. Red Bull, orange juice, pancakes, dark chocolate, Indian takeaway, Pepsi, bananas, Canadian Club and Cola: nothing helps. (I thought only my characters were delusional alcoholics.) Back in the fictional world, my imaginary small town is rocked by a grim discovery at the local fishing hole: a young woman’s body. Worse, the deputy sheriff believes my protagonist’s ex-girlfriend is the killer. Did she do it? Have you ever read a novel and wondered if even the author knew where it was going? Trust me, they don’t. In this masterpiece, characters change their motivations more frequently than their underwear. Fortunately, by midnight on the second day, I have managed to reach 10,000 words. My eyes close and my head hangs as I nearly drift off, still sitting upright on the sofa, laptop in front. Here is where the true writers are sorted from the wannabes. To do nothing but write for seventy-two hours requires dedication and a lack of distractions. Some contestants book hotel rooms for the isolation. Budget writers have been known to lock themselves in the bathroom for the entire three days. Eccentric tactics are not unheard of amongst even the elites; Stephen King wrote his breakout novel, Carrie, on a typewriter in the cramped space of his laundry room. There are reports from contestants of exhaustion overcoming rationality. As one contestant’s testimonial states, “On the second day I was hanging out the window, shouting at the neighbor’s dog to be quiet. My neighbor doesn't have a dog.” Day three: The Resolution. I force my eyes open and resolve not to sleep for the final twenty-four hours. After two days spent hunched over, my ribs now feel bruised and tender. However, a transformation has taken place within me. Time skips by without realization as a state of manic hyperactivity consumes me. Two hours are lost when I think only ten minutes has passed. (Agatha Christie purportedly entered trance states while writing.) Here lies the true value in entering this masochistic contest. First, the enjoyment derived from losing oneself in the writing process is exaggerated in such an environment. Second, your most common mistakes and over-used sentence structures become woefully apparent by midway through this event. My partner awakens in the morning, concerned to find I have not moved in eight hours. She feeds and tends to me with great sympathy. Feeling the fatigue, my problems now are clarity and plot progression. 3-Day Novels are famous for logic holes; this is when the murder victim from page three magically returns for the Vegas wedding at the end. The author must battle against sleep deprivation, sugar highs and lows, mood swings and headaches, successfully tying up every thread of their story. No easy task by day three. However, the word count is rising and I ponder how the career novelists do this for a living. Stephen King typically writes first drafts in under three months. Enid Blyton produced nearly 800 books in forty years as a novelist. Reputedly, she consistently achieved 10,000 words a day at one point in her career. The first draft of Hemingway’s The Torrents of Spring was written in little over a week. Better yet, Samuel Johnson reportedly wrote Rasselas in under a week to earn the money to pay for his mother’s funeral. Evidently, speed does not necessarily impair quality. That is why the first prize of the 3-Day Novel Contest is publication. Sunset: The Epilogue. The end approaches for both the deadline and the novel. Many competitors get to this point, throw in a surprise ending two chapters earlier than expected, and find a warm bed to clamber into. I struggle on, realizing it is time to forgo any semblance of editing or proofreading. The climax arrives with a twist that I had not planned or foresaw until the words appeared on my screen. Bang! Gunshots sound out in abundance. The deputy sheriff is found holding the clichéd smoking gun. (Wait… it was him? Really?) The death of the hero’s ex-girlfriend has ruined all hope of a happy ending. Or has it? In an all too convenient twist, it turns out that there are aliens with advanced medical technologies who can resurrect my love interest. No time to change the cheesy ending, midnight is fifteen minutes away. I type my hasty ending paragraph of explanatory exposition and save the document. 97 pages. 20,000 words. As I put my book and myself to bed, I smile. The contest may not have been judged yet, but one decision has already been made: next year, I will do it all again. Fortunately, Sean Di Lizio’s memories are hazier than his diary and he will be competing again in this year’s event. The 2010 International 3-Day Novel Contest will be held on September 4-6. To enter, download a registration form from the official website. [Image credit: Joelk75]
In Person

Report from Paris: Kicking around at the Shakespeare and Company Festival

In certain bus stops around Paris, there’s an ad up for for Sex and the City 2: a glittery stiletto heel crushes a soccer ball, while the caption reads: “In theaters during the World Cup.” With slight modification it could have been the poster for the fourth biannual Shakespeare and Company literary festival, which also took place in Paris this weekend during the World Cup, except instead of watching the game we were listening to Martin Amis declare himself a “millenarian feminist.” Always on the periphery of the festival, the Cup provided the ambient background (cars driving by on the quai, honking and flag-waving; crowds cheering in front of Notre Dame and in nearby bars) as well as a ready metaphor for many of the panels. The theme of the festival was “Storytelling and Politics,” and over three days, 6,000 people gathered in a tent in a small park across the river from Notre Dame to hear writers like Will Self, Martin Amis, Fatima Bhutto, Ian Jack, Breyten Breytenbach, Philip Pullman, Hanif Kureishi, Nam Le, Petina Gappah, and Jeanette Winterson talk through the relationship between the storyteller and his political context. But the World Cup was on everyone’s mind; in nearly every session I attended, someone tossed off a reference to it... National literatures are like national teams ...an unstable notion in our cosmopolitan world, where half the Algerian team was born in France and half the French team was born in Algeria, as Breyten Breytenbach pointed out on a panel on the World Cup. “Our societies all over the world are far more complex and hybridized than they used to be,” he said. “A few years ago I saw an exhibit, Magiciens de la terre, at the Pompidou, and it was African artists doing African work, but many of them were actually living outside Africa, and some of them were even born outside Africa. The one point I’m trying to make is that while there has been far more movement from one continent to another, there is still something that endures. Why would someone of African descendance born in Britain define himself as an African artist, or an African soccer player?” “My influences are transnational,” the Botswana poet TJ Dema said in an interview for the Festival and Co Gazette, a daily broadsheet circulated to catch festival-goers up on what they might have missed the previous day. “My generation has been accused of being heavily influenced by the American arts landscape, which is not wholly incorrect. But I feel you are a product of your environment. If you’re growing up not listening to your grandmother telling stories around the fireside, but instead in front of the television, and there are American people on that television, there is no way that isn’t going to be a part of your mindscape.” “I’m a child of the universe,” she said. “Everywhere I go I pick and choose what I want to become part of my work.” Except writers don’t play on teams Repeatedly the writers at the festival sought to distance themselves from any kind of group identity. “I didn’t want to be a part of a communality,” Martin Amis said on foiling Christopher Hitchens’s attempts to get him to join the Trotskyists when they worked together at the New Statesman.  “I was very committed to not being part of a group.” The South African writer Njabulo Ndebele wore the yellow South African football jersey to his panel. “But I wouldn’t wear it at home,” he explained. “I have an inclination that when the crowd goes one way, I want to go another.” Mark Gevisser, another South African writer, commented that one of the things that has struck him about the World Cup is the tension between the ways people are making their own national identities and they way they are decided for them -- “how they choose to put a flag on their car -- how you pimp your vehicle, by flying flags, or those funny little socks that people put on their rearview mirrors in South Africa, or those amazing hats that are a feature of South Africa football -- and how on the other hand you  might become subject to the flag that’s put in your hands by the leader.  It seems they’re two different ways of belonging to a nation.” This idea was echoed throughout the festival by writers like Ian Jack, Nam Le, and Hanif Kureishi, who each discussed the complicated relationship they feel as writers to their own ethnic or national identities: “You don’t just play for one team,” someone might have said, but didn’t. Sports bring people together, and can even help avoid civil wars, kind of like the rugby World Cup in that movie Invictus Ndebele first spoke on a panel entitled “Biography as Political Storytelling in South Africa”; he read from his 2004 book The Cry of Winnie Mandela, which is an essayistic, fictionalized biography of the former first lady of South Africa -- he explained that he chose to concentrate not on the drama of the relationship between the Mandelas, nor on their political moment, but on the everyday intimacy he imagines existed between them. There is a subversiveness to writing about normality, he said; it “could be one of the most radical ways of fighting the system, because the system has to respond to complex individuals, rather than cardboard boxes.” But under apartheid, writing even about unspectacular things was “a very risky thing to do, because you could be accused of being blind to the suffering. […] reclaiming an experience of regular life. Even under apartheid, people still fell in love, they had uncles who visit.” When asked about the possibilities of recuperating from apartheid, Ndebele evoked two great moments in South African sporting history: first, the 1995 Rugby World Cup, when Mandela appeared at the stadium wearing jersey number 6, the number of the team’s captain, Francois Pienaar.  “Rugby was very much a white South African’s game, and for Mandela to actually stand there on that particular day was an extremely radical move, and of course, he made all those people who were in that stadium at that particular moment identify with him in a very special way.” Second, Ndebele referred to a recent rugby match between Cape Town and Victoria, which couldn’t be held in the usual stadium because it’s currently occupied by the World Cup, and it worked out that the newly renovated stadium they were assigned to play in was in a mainly black area. “There was a lot of excitement about the fact that white South Africans -- particularly the Afrikaaner kind -- were going to play in a black township for the first time in a major game. Thousands of white fans went to see it. It was extraordinary, because for over the time of 80 or 90 minutes of the game, the fears that white South Africans had about black people (despite the fact that we’ve been all free since 1994) ceased operating. It was so good that many of them ended up having drinks afterward in [the neighborhood], in the places associated with violence and terror. Some of them forgot where they had parked their cars, and the locals took them to look for their cars. No one was molested, not a single car was stolen, and nothing disappeared, but the common memory was of a day of great fun an reconciliation.” Ndebele stressed the fact that it is in the “unplanned interactions that in the end resonate much more deeply than political declarations. It is interesting that it is sporting events that do this, rather than the political rallies.” Having the World Cup in South Africa promised redemption and recognition, kind of like the rugby World Cup in that movie Invictus, except this time for the entire African continent Ndebele spoke again about this moment with Mandela the next day, on a panel with Breyten Breytenbach and Petina Gappah -- “What the World Cup Means For Africa: Four Writers Kick the Ball Around.” The panel kicked off with Gappah’s son blowing the vuvuzela, and with a discussion of France’s shameful loss the previous evening, and Algeria’s win the evening before. Mark Gevisser said that from what he had observed in the streets of Paris after the games, this dual defeat/win had prompted some feelings of rebellion amongst the Algerian population in France, that it provided at the very least “a moment of redemptive joy.” “The possibility that the colonial masters are going to be sent home, and that Algeria and Ghana are going to make it to the next round on African soil I think is very exciting,” he said. “This world cup is not just about football. The former president, Thabo Mbeki, whose grand projet the World Cup was, said that it would be a moment when Africa would stand tall, and resolutely turn the tide of centuries of poverty and conflict.” This seems a pretty tall order for a ball game, but we listen on: “It has been called as important to Africa as the election of Obama was, and one of the most interesting moments of the last few days has been when the current president of South Africa Jacob Zulu went to wish the Bafana Bafana, which is the South African team, good luck (which didn’t do them any good), he was saying to them: bring home the cup, and he was very self-consciously imitating what Nelson Mandela did in 1995, with rugby, and as those of you who saw the Clint Eastwood movie know, that 1995 rugby cup was something of a redemptive moment when the Springboks, an all-white team, won the World Cup and South Africa was saved from civil war, because Nelson Mandela managed to seduce white Afrikaaners. “And I think that the current World Cup holds a similar redemptive quality. Will this current World Cup do for South Africa and Africa economically, spiritually, psychologically, what the 1995 World Cup did?” Ndebele and Gappah lamented the shortcomings of South Africa’s performance in the cup. Ndebele said this is linked to the social reality in South Africa, which is still being created. “Bafana Bafana,” on the other hand, “represent the story of South Africa, which is still in the process of being made.” Petina Gappah confessed to being “a lot more pessimistic because the only reason the World Cup is being held in South Africa is because South Africa has become a brand -- it’s something very specific, the rainbow nation, Mandela, and so on. I’m not sure that any other African country would have the same success of bidding for the World Cup. And so to me, the World Cup being held in South Africa is […] a story of South African’s inclusion in this moment of globalization. South Africa is part of the machine now, like it or not.” Gappah, being from Zimbabwe, lamented her own country’s exclusion, in spirit because of the human rights abuses of the country’s long-term leader, Robert Mugabe, and in practice because, well -- they lost in the qualifying rounds. Finally, Gappah concluded, if the World Cup will not ultimately do much for South Africa, much less the entirety of African, it is “because Bafana Bafana are not very good, they’re not the team that’s going to inspire South Africa and bring the country together in some kind of happy momentum.” Sports are like books: they bring people together through a common idea… except no one ever said “the sporting industry is in crisis.” André Schiffrin, Philip Pullman, and Olivier Postel-Vinay, editor-in-chief of the French magazine Books (yes that’s what it’s called in French, too) gathered for a panel led by Ian Jack called “Do Books Change Things? Are Things Changing Books?” Philip Pullman took the anti-technology stance, on the grounds that e-books and the Internet are not “self-sufficient, you can’t do them on your own. It depends on an enormous infrastructure that you can’t see in order to get it done at all.”  You could make a book if you really wanted to, but it takes Amazon to make a Kindle. “Books as books will survive until the last leaf of paper decays on the last book on the last shelf,” he asserted. “Books will decay, as do all human inventions, but the idea of the narrative of some length will last as long as human beings themselves do.” Andre Schiffrin took a broader view. “There’s nothing wrong with the technology,” he said; it’s the way it limits what’s available to the reading public. “The problem is the conflict between form and content, there is the question of whether the new forms will change the content, and in what way.” The changes in the publishing landscape, he said, “came more in the structure than in the technology -- it changed by the fact of ownership, by the fact that large conglomerates recently bought up all the publishing and determined that it should be much more profitable than it had been, historically.” “How can we afford to allow these monopolies to be established? Because of course once you have a monopoly, you can determine what’s going to be available, and a lot of what is being written will not be available on these machines. The idea that if you have a Kindle or an iPad you can get anything in the world is mythology. The books that are going to be available are the very same books that are on the bestseller list or the classics that can be had for free, but they’re not going to include the wide choice that you need.  I say ‘need’ because in any democracy the ideas that come in books are an essential part of any debate.” The point Shiffrin was making is that a bottom-line driven publishing industry means that the books that are most widely available are the ones with the most economic potential. Which, he argued, limits the field of options for readers; moreover, the conglomeration of the publishing houses leads to less editorial variety. Of course, more publishers would lead to more competition, but only if they’re each getting an equal shot at a share of the market; the larger publishers with more money have more of a chance at getting their books into things like the Kindle under the most favorable terms and onto the front tables of Barnes and Noble than a small independent publisher.  A bottom-line oriented publishing industry ends up narrowing down the field, rather than becoming more inclusive; what readers want to read may not be available to them on their new electronic readers. It’s a little like if you’re a Zimbabawe fan but your team didn’t make it through the qualifying rounds so you have to content yourself with rooting for South Africa. Countries are like people. Male people. But they should be run by female people. This idea = Amisian feminism Countries are like people, Martin Amis proclaimed in his talk with Will Self, “and not very nice people. Very touchy, vain, obsessed by appearances, by face. There’s a tremendous anomaly in historiography, at least in Anglophone historiography, and that is countries used to be referred to as ‘she.’ [But] if we change it to ‘he’ then it all makes sense.the  aggression, the unappeasable nature of state leaders is highly masculine.” “Uh-oh,” the friend I came with said. “Here we go. Women are gentle, they are never violent…” “I now am a millenarian feminist in that I believe what we have to evolve towards with some urgency is women heads of state who bring feminine qualities to government.” At this, a few confused people applauded. “Stop clapping!” I hissed. “The trouble with feminism as I see it now is that it’s founded on this idea that pole-dancing is empowering, and empowers women. What feminism has to do is not think that it’s emerging from Victorian values, it has to go back much further than that. Patriarchy [at this point I can’t understand what he said on my recorder as I am laughing too hard and a siren is going by]… for five million years. The idea that you could rise above that and really change things in a generation is an illusion. You’ve got to feel the weight of the past. But we have to be able to envisage a future -- science has shown that there are certain basic differences between a male brain and a female brain; there are massive differences in acculturation, that women are kinder and gentler, and less close to violence than men, and this idea has to be reflected on the international scale.” My friend the illustrator Joanna Walsh, who did all the drawings for the festival, sketched three journalists sitting in the front row grimacing. But the crowd is pleased. It has been told many funny jokes. And we all know what feminism really is -- who cares if Amis has it a bit convoluted? We’re here to enjoy ourselves, not to theorize. Still.  For the rest of the festival Amis’s remarks were a touchstone of every conversation between  female attendees. While half the world goes nuts over a soccer ball, we sit under a tent talking about books. Jeanette Winterson took the stage while the sound system blasted Pink’s single “Please Don’t Leave Me” and the audience -- a full house spilling into the park on all sides -- went nuts, as if they actually were at a rock concert. She began. “So Europe’s in economic crisis, and the Third World is in poverty, the Middle East’s a warzone, the USA is dealing with political unrest and a huge environmental disaster, and China is set to become the world’s leading trade nation, and will do so at the expense of the environment. So the human race on planet Earth could easily manage a Gotterdammerung of a meltdown, and here we are, you me, at a literary festival. [Big laughs from the audience.] So. Are we crazy? What on earth have books and art got to do with the present state of the world? The money’s run out and nobody’s got time to do anything except survive! But Shakespeare and Company has got up a tent to celebrate books and ideas.” The impact of the work of art, she maintained, is that it makes us “conscious and awake, frees up our own energy so that we can think clearly and feel honestly and act accordingly. There’s nothing passive about a work of art. And when we engage with it we throw off our own passivity. We realize that there’s always something that we can do, always someone that we can be, and we move, probably diagonally, like a chess piece, a little bit closer to being a human being, instead of a by-product of consumer culture.” She quoted Sontag’s Against Interpretation, reminding us that a work of art is not about something, it is something. “I believe that artists should be politically engaged,” she said. “This is our world, and we have to fight for our values. But if the only art that’s important is the art that deals directly with contemporary issues, then we could have no relationship with the art of the past. […]Art doesn’t have to struggle to be up to date with its subject matter. Because its real subject is humanity. Its territory is us, now, and in the past, and in the future. To remember Calvino’s first novel, it was a political novel. And after that he wanted to write very differently. And his friends in the Communist Party thought that he was betraying the cause. But he had the courage to honor his imagination, and that’s why we still read him. Because anyone who will follow their imagination helps the rest of us to follow ours.” Where would a World Cup be without death threats? Nigerian midfielder Sani Kaita received death threats on Sunday after receiving a red card, which led to his team’s loss to Greece. Meanwhile here in Paris, there were rumors that Fatima Bhutto and Emma Larkin had both received death threats. For Bhutto, niece of Benazir, whose uncles, aunt, grandfather, and father were all assassinated, this is nothing new. She doesn’t even have a bodyguard; she tells the audience she doesn’t want one.  Security is beefed up anyway. Emma Larkin writes about Burma from inside Burma and apparently that isn’t allowed in Burma. She’s the only writer in the program not to have a sexy black and white author photo; instead there’s a photo of her book. Emma Larkin is an assumed name, too. No one did any tailgating, but there was plenty of champagne On Friday night after the last panel, over at the at the Refectoire des Cordeliers near Odéon, Paper Cinema presented their curious storytelling project: drawings projected onto a screen, wordless stories told to music. There are people actually moving the drawings around in front of a camera to create the story on the screen. Joanna is transfixed. But the music is foreboding and the drawings kind of macabre and freaky, so I don’t stay for it. There is food and champagne and lovely weather outside in the courtyard. I get so wrapped up in conversation out there I almost miss the Beth Orton concert which follows the freaky puppet show.[1] Saturday night, we headed to the very exclusive private party at an hotel particulier in the 7th.  Kristin Scott Thomas is there, in sky-high Louboutins.  Jeanette Winterson wears a dress. All the big writers and big sponsors are here.  We underlings are thrilled to be at this kind of event: everyone is nervous; everyone is on their best behavior.  Some of us congregate outside in spite of the unseasonable chill. “What is this place?” Nam Le asked, fresh off a plane from Italy, looking up at the house. The girl who fetched him from the airport took this as a sign of Nam’s unfamiliarity with Parisian geography, and launched into an explanation. “Well you see if someone were to frown” -- she frowned -- “then the frown is the Seine, it goes like this, see?” and she began to point out all the monuments of Paris on her face. “So we’re here,” she said, indicating a point right under the middle of her frown. “Oh,” Nam said. “I was actually wondering about the history of the mansion.” Kristin Scott Thomas sat on the floor while Natalie Clein gave a transcendental cello performance; meanwhile the kids in the crowd passed around a piece of wood on which someone had painted the words “post-cello dance party!” Natalie eventually finished playing but no one danced. 11:30 rolled around and we were bodily kicked out of the space. We lingered in the courtyard until we were chased from there too. Half of us headed to an after-party at the flat of one of the people who work in the shop. The other half (my half) went home. Sunday night was the closing party on the patio in front of the shop.  There were piles of crushed lavender on the ground outside in front of the champagne station. It looked, and smelled, like an aromatherapy litter box.  Storyteller Jack Lynch climbed up on a bench and launched into a story about a Scottish giant. The party inside the shop was private, while the one on the patio was public. I was not aware of this until I wandered into the shop, where I had heard there was more champagne, and was stopped at the door and looked over. “You look familiar. You know someone or something. Come on in.” I went in and found various friends who also knew someone. We are a group of “know someones.” At least it’s a step up from “know nobodies.” George Whitman, the 94 year-old founder of the bookshop, came down to the party around 9:30 and was given a special blue felt chair. His daughter Sylvia, who now runs the bookshop, sat with him for awhile, Tumbleweeds[2] gathering at their feet. Dozens of people milled around until after midnight, while the staff closed up the shop for the night -- they're the only ones who are waiting for the party to end, as they have to have the shop open as usual at 11am the next day.  The alcohol was finished and rumors of an extra bottle of champagne forgotten by Jeanette Winterson were dashed when the empty bottle was found in the green room, along with a couple of Tumbleweeds holding plastic cups of champagne in their hands, looking abashed, but happy. Back | 1. To be fair this is one woman’s narrow-minded opinion. Everyone else really did love Paper Cinema. Back | 2. Shakespeare and Company slang for the writers who stay at the shop for free in exchange for an hour of work per day (they have to read one book a day in addition to their bookselling duties). [Image credits: Badaude]
Curiosities, In Person

Sonya Chung at McNally Jackson 3/10

Millions Contributor Sonya Chung will read from her just-released novel Long for This World at McNally Jackson Books, 52 Prince Street, NYC, on March 10 at 7pm.
In Person

Jonathan Franzen, Honesty and the Lines of Literature

"What turns out to matter most is that you write as truthfully as possible" -- Jonathan Franzen In Germany to deliver a talk on fiction, Jonathan Franzen couldn’t be more American. He is friendly and informal, casual and comfortable, approaching the podium of a University of Tübingen auditorium so packed that students are sitting on the floor in front of the podium and on the stairs between the seats. A few even perch up on the broad windowsills, two or even three students to a window. About to kick off a week-long series of lectures and discussions, Franzen has his talk printed out in a sheaf and rolled up sort of nervously in his hands. Then he realizes the Germans haven’t finished introducing him yet, have actually only finished the first half of an introduction that will describe him in ways that might be more fitting for a landscape or a panorama; proclaim him to be the most significant voice in America, an arbiter of its culture and an example of the best of its art; and awkwardly recommend him for the Nobel Prize. It is only half over and he’s embarrassed himself by standing up in the middle. He grimaces, mouths “Sorry,” walks back to his chair in exaggerated tiptoe, and sits down. Midwesterners, and Americans generally, often carry with them this suspicion of the formal and overly complicated - a fear that, other times, is expressed as a commitment to hospitality, honesty, and egalitarianism. In a piece in The New Yorker, in 2002, Franzen cringed in print at the thought of his mother asking him “if he was just showing off” with the big words in his third novel. She was, he writes, “a lifelong anti-elitist who used to get good rhetorical mileage out of the mythical ‘average person.’” In the essay, “Mr. Difficult,” Franzen finds himself caught between two models of the novel. One, which he calls “Status,” values a novel for its appeal to an elite. The harder it is, the better. The other sees the novel as a “Contract” between reader and writer. It’s the novel as an exact balance between entertainment and having something serious to say. “In my bones,” Franzen confesses, “I'm a Contract kind of person.” A great novel, according to this model, will aspire to the broad middle, neither showy and elitist nor low-brow and trashy. This is the novel that, if it were a politician, could win 51 percent of the vote. The comparison to politics is actually helpful here. If you're on the political fringe in America, you find yourself weighing two possible rhetorical moves. The first is to defend extremism, almost abstract extremism, extremism for its own sake. You deride the democratic majority, calling them "sheep," unwitting pawns of powerful forces. Thus your fringe status is a sign of the value of your ideas, marking you yourself as one of the few, the chosen, those who really understand. This is the move of anyone quoting Barry Goldwater on extremism in defense of liberty. The other possible move is to attempt to redefine everything, to re-frame the picture so that you are actually at the center. Everyone else is on the fringe, the real crazies. This is what libertarians do with their World's Smallest Political Quiz, wherein, through "just the honest magic of truth and common sense," libertarians fall at the center and top part of the map, while mainstream Republicans are a dot on the far right, along with fascists. (Liberals and anyone who doesn't think the government should be shrunk by 50 percent or more is out on the left with the commies.) The move is actually kind of brilliant, in that the reframing appears natural, and it's hard, while looking at the redrawn Bell curve, to notice immediately that the terms being used aren't quite the common, accepted ones. Jonathan Franzen ended up making something like the second move in his December 1st talk in Tübingen. He structured his talk - "Description of a Struggle: How I (Mostly) Fail to Write" - around four unpleasant, vexing, and (he said) good questions authors are always asked: Who are your influences? What are your writing habits? Do your characters sometimes take over and take on lives of their own? Is your writing really autobiographical? By way of answering them, Franzen talked about the moral struggle of writing, and - quite openly - about his own personal efforts as a writer to overcome shame, guilt and depression. "Unless the writer is personally at risk," he said, "it's not worth reading, or, for the writer, worth writing." Early on, though, Franzen made a little detour, an almost-aside, in which he attempted deftly, like the libertarians noted above, to reframe literature so that he and his project occupied its absolute center. He began by dismissing genre novels, pushing them to the one side of literature, as "a literature of diversion.” He then dismissed experimental novels, postmodern writing and "art novels," pushing them to the other side as, also, "a literature of diversion." He cast genre writing as harmless but unserious, and experimental writing as unserious but harmful. We value genre novels, in Franzen's view (he mentioned Elmore Leonard specifically), for their consistent form, and we appreciate and anticipate their repeated pattern. They are entertaining, but do not address the human condition. Experimental novels, for Franzen, are also all about form, in the sense that they overemphasize and foreground it, focusing on technical tricks and theoretical poses. They are solipsistic. They are playacting. They are too conscious of the act of communicating and modes of communication. They are not, Franzen suggested, fun or entertaining enough - and they are also not about the human condition. The upshot was that literature, this thing left in the middle ground between genre and experimental novels, must take us, humans, people, as "both its subject and dubious object." Offering Kafka as a model of what literature is and what literature should do, he said literature shows us how "to be human in the face of the awful truths of ourselves." However, problems arise from the conflation of what something is and what something should be. For one thing, Franzen's definition of the literary novel doesn't really leave space for a failed work, something that takes the human condition as its subject, but isn't successful. He also, at this point, took a little hop-skip and said literature is about "people as they really are” – as if realism were as natural as breathing. In fact, novels are not and never could be just simple reflections of reality, but are always and have to be constructions, artificial and formal mediations, interpretations. Moreover, it's not at all clear that this description of literature as being about "people as they really are" will divide writing in the way Franzen wants to divide it. It doesn't seem obvious that a story about a man turned into a bug, just to use Franzen's own example, is about humans "as they really are," in some way that, say, Leonard's story about former '60s radicals on a for-profit bomb spree is not. During the question-and-answer period after his talk, Franzen visibly recoiled when someone asked him why he hated experimental writers. "I didn't say 'hate,'" Franzen said. "I was really careful not to use that word." He did, though, describe postmodern writers, experimental writers, as his "enemies" and as enemies of the novel, people who make reading harder. He didn't name names, but did give a long list of descriptions of the writing he doesn't like, including "too self-conscious" and "solipsistic." Afterwards, I asked Franzen whether his aversion to experimentalists included his good friend David Foster Wallace. After all, everything Franzen said he didn't like could be (and has been) used to describe Wallace’s writing, and yet Franzen has never seemed to think of him as an enemy of the novel, or to cast him beyond the boundaries of the literary. Franzen offered three not entirely compatible answers, illuminating some of the unexamined tensions among the Midwestern virtues extolled in “Mr. Difficult” - hospitality, egalitarianism, and candor. First, Franzen insisted that he really wasn't decrying experimentalism, and threw out some names of experimental writers he liked. Instead, right now, he was really opposed, he said, to the "sentimentalists." When asked whom he would describe as a sentimentalist, however, he made the motion of zipping his lips and throwing away the key, which isn't exactly the best way to oppose something. The sentimentalists, he said, were writers who wrote with a sort of moral superiority. His second answer was more of a holding firm to his dislike of experimentalism while also defending Wallace, whom Franzen described as a "once-in-a-generation genius." His idea seemed to be that Wallace was able to overcome experimentalism and its limitations by virtue of his immense talent - to surpass it en route to real literature. Asked for clarification, though, Franzen gave what might actually have been his most satisfying answer. “You know,” he said, “honesty was a life and death struggle for Dave." Franzen too has struggled. He spoke very openly, in Tübingen, about his own struggle to "becom[e] the person you need to be to write the novel you need to write." And he said that his "conception of the novel is that it ought to be a personal struggle, a direct confrontation" - that the point at which writing becomes easy for a writer is where it becomes unnecessary to read that writer…. What turns out to matter most is that you write as truthfully as possible. And so Franzen’s fear of being mistaken for an elitist ultimately seems like a distraction, for himself and for his readers. If we disregard his rather conservative attempt to demarcate the boundaries that divide literature from mere writing – if, that is, we disregard his abstract pronouncements and look instead at the writing he admires, it becomes clear that he values above all the great moral effort to be honest in writing, no matter what form it takes. And here we must side with Franzen against himself. In the end, honesty is the moral project that divides good writing from bad, whatever “literature” turns out to be.