Lists, Notable Articles

12 Holiday Gifts That Writers Will Actually Use

In “Aren’t You Dead Yet?”, one of the stories in Elissa Schappell’s new collection, Blueprints for Building Better Girls, the narrator, an aspiring writer, receives a black, leather-bound journal as a gift from her best friend. Although she loves the look of the journal, she never writes in it. When her friend discovers this, he’s angry, and even accuses her of slacking off: I tried to explain that I hadn’t written in it because I loved it so much and I didn’t want to ruin it. The pages were so nice, and sewn in, you couldn’t just rip them out. Whatever stupid thing I wrote down would be in there permanently. This passage reminded me of the many beautiful blank journals I’ve received over the years, journals I’ve never used. Whenever I fill up one of my trusty spiral notebooks, I go through the stack and tell myself I’m finally going to start using them. But then I think of sullying those pristine, unlined pages with my half-formed thoughts, and I feel as guilty as the narrator in Schappell’s story. Unfortunately, the same guilt intrudes on many of the other lovely writerly gifts I’ve received. At the risk of sounding ungrateful, I confess that I have a lot of nice pens I never use, because I’m afraid of chewing on them; a lot of classic novels I haven’t read because I feel guilty about not having read them; and a lot of inspirational writer’s guides I never read, because what if I’m not inspired? None of these gifts are offensive, and no one will begrudge you for giving them. But they are boilerplate gifts. Writers get blank journals for the same reasons that teachers get mugs, assistants get flowers, and grandmothers get tea. If you want to give the writer in your life something he or she will truly adore, here are twelve ideas: 1.  A Cheesy New Bestseller One of the best presents I ever got was The Nanny Diaries. I really wanted it, but there were over 300 people on the library’s waiting list (I live in New York), and I wasn’t going to shell out $25 for something I was unlikely to read twice. The funny thing is, I never told my roommate that I wanted to read The Nanny Diaries. She just guessed that I had a secret craving for it. Of course, it can be as hard to gauge your friend’s taste in pop culture as it in high culture, but it’s better to guess wrong in the pop culture arena, because your friend is more likely to exchange it for something she likes better. Whereas, if you give her Gravity’s Rainbow, she’ll keep it for years out of obligation. 2.  Good lipstick Writers are often broke. If they have $30 to spare, they are going to spend it on dinner, booze, or new books. Not lipstick. But writers are pale from spending so much time inside and could use some color. Make-up can be a tricky gift because it suggests that you think your friend’s face could use improvement. That’s why it’s important to go to a department store make-up counter and buy something frivolous and indulgent, like a single tube of red lipstick or some face powder or blush in a nice-looking case. 3.  Foreign language learning software Most writers wish they knew more languages. It can also be relaxing to be rendered inarticulate in a new language, in that it offers a real break from personal expression, nuance, and irony. At the same time, learning a new language sharpens your native tongue, and expands your vocabulary. It’s sort of like cross training. Although language classes with live instructors are generally more effective than computer programs, I prefer software because it allows me to take the class on my own time and at my own pace. 4.  A Bathrobe John Cheever famously donned a suit every morning in order to write. But as Ann Beattie recently revealed, and as a generation of bloggers already knows, most writers wear awful clothing while they are working. Help your writer friend out by giving her a beautiful robe to cover up her bizarre ensembles. Even if she already has one, she probably hasn’t washed it in a long time, and could use another. 5.  A Manicure I bite my nails, especially when I’m writing. I’ve noticed that a lot of other writers have suspiciously short nails, too. Manicures help. Also, manicures get writers out of the house—and off the internet. 6.  “Freedom”, the internet-blocking software “Freedom” is a computer program that blocks the internet on your computer for up to eight hours. I don’t understand why it’s effective, since it’s relatively easy to circumvent, but as soon as I turn it on, I stay off the internet for hours at a time. (There is also a program called “Anti-social”, which only blocks the social parts of the internet, like Facebook and Twitter.) 7.  Booze, coffee, and other stimulants Find out what your friend likes to drink and buy a really nice version of that thing. Wine can be tricky, but we are living in an age of over-educated clerks, so don’t be afraid to ask for help. If your friend is a coffee or tea drinker, find out how he brews it and buy him really good beans or tealeaves. Even better, find out what cafe he frequents and see if they sell gift certificates. 8.  Yoga Classes Yoga does wonders for anxiety, depression, and aching backs, three common writerly afflictions. Most yoga classes also incorporate some kind of meditation practice, which is also very helpful. 9.  A pet In a recent Atlantic blog post containing advice from world’s most prolific writers, a character from one of Muriel Spark’s novels is quoted, describing why cats are good for writers: “If you want to concentrate deeply on some problem, and especially some piece of writing or paper-work, you should acquire a cat... The effect of a cat on your concentration is remarkable, very mysterious.” Another prolific writer, Jennifer Weiner, recommends dogs on her website, where she's posted a list of tips for aspiring writers. Dogs, she explains, foster discipline, because they must be walked several times a day. Furthermore, Weiner notes, walking is as beneficial for the writer as it is for the dog: “While you're walking, you're thinking about plot, or characters, or that tricky bit of dialogue that's had you stumped for days.” Obviously, a pet should not be given casually, or even as a surprise, but it’s worth considering, especially if you hear of an already-trained dog or cat that needs a new home. 10.  Freezable homemade foods: casseroles, soups, breads, and baked goods. This is a potentially Mom-ish gift, but if your friend is on deadline, a new parent, or just far from home during the holidays, a home-cooked meal could be a lovely gesture. I emphasize freezable because it should be something that you make at home and leave with your friend to eat later. If you can’t cook, buy a pie. 11.  A hand-written letter I know how corny this sounds, but many writers, especially fiction writers, still get a fair amount of rejection notes via the U.S. mail. You can easily make your friend’s day by sending an old-fashioned, chatty letter or even just a holiday card. 12.  The Gift, by Lewis Hyde The Gift examines the role of artists in market economies, taking the lives of two major American poets as case studies. It’s the perfect antidote to all the earnest, helpful guides that aim to teach writers how to be more publishable, saleable, and disciplined. Where most writing guides make writers feel they could succeed if only they were more productive and efficient, The Gift argues that productivity and efficiency are market-based terms that have little meaning in gift economies, which is where many creative writers exchange and share their work. Another way of putting it is to say that The Gift makes feel writers feel less crazy. Bonus: 10 MORE Holiday Gifts That Writers Will Use (Image: Project 365 #263: 200911 Kept Under Wraps... from comedynose's photostream)
Notable Articles, Year in Reading

A Year in Reading 2011

If you're like me, you keep a list of books you read, and at this time of year, you may run your finger back over it, remembering not just the plots, the soul-lifting favorites, and the drudges cast aside in frustration. You also remember the when and where of each book. This one on a plane to somewhere cold, that one in bed on a warm summer night. That list, even if it is just titles and authors and nothing more, is a diary in layers. Your days, other plots, imaginary people. And so when, in preparing our annual Year in Reading series, we ask our esteemed guests to tell us about the "best" book(s) they read all year, we do it not just because we want a great book recommendation from someone we admire (we do) and certainly not because we want to cobble together some unwieldy Top 100 of 2011 list (we don't). We do it because we want a peek into that diary. And in the responses we learn how anything from a 300-year-old work to last summer's bestseller reached out and insinuated itself into a life outside those pages. With this in mind, for an eighth year, we asked some of our favorite writers, thinkers, and readers to look back, reflect, and share. Their charge was to name, from all the books they read this year, the one(s) that meant the most to them, regardless of publication date. Grouped together, these ruminations, cheers, squibs, and essays will be a chronicle of reading and good books from every era. We hope you find in them seeds that will help make your year in reading in 2012 a fruitful one. As we have in prior years, the names of our 2011 "Year in Reading" contributors will be unveiled one at a time throughout the month as we post their contributions. You can bookmark this post and follow the series from here, or load up the main page for more new Year in Reading posts appearing at the top every day, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed and follow along in your favorite feed reader. Stephen Dodson, coauthor of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat. Jennifer Egan, author of A Visit from the Goon Squad. Ben Marcus, author of The Flame Aphabet. Eleanor Henderson, author of Ten Thousand Saints. Colum McCann, author of Let the Great World Spin. Nick Moran, The Millions intern. Dan Kois, senior editor at Slate. John Williams, founding editor of The Second Pass. Michael Bourne, staff writer at The Millions. Michael Schaub, book critic for NPR.org. Scott Esposito, coauthor of Lady Chatterley's Brother, proprietor of Conversational Reading. Hannah Pittard, author of The Fates Will Find Their Way. Benjamin Hale, author of The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore. Geoff Dyer, author of Otherwise Known as the Human Condition. Chad Harbach, author of The Art of Fielding. Deborah Eisenberg, author of Collected Stories. Duff McKagan, author of It's So Easy: And Other Lies, former bassist for Guns N' Roses. Nathan Englander, author of For the Relief of Unbearable Urges. Amy Waldman, author of The Submission. Charles Baxter, author of Gryphon: New and Selected Stories. David Bezmozgis, author of The Free World. Emma Straub, author of Other People We Married. Adam Ross, author of Ladies and Gentlemen. Philip Levine, Poet Laureate of the United States. Mayim Bialik, actress, author of Beyond the Sling. Hamilton Leithauser, lead singer of The Walkmen. Chris Baio, bassist for Vampire Weekend. Bill Morris, staff writer at The Millions. Rosecrans Baldwin, author of You Lost Me There. Carolyn Kellogg, staff writer at the LA Times. Mark O'Connell, staff writer at The Millions. Emily M. Keeler, Tumblrer at The Millions, books editor at The New Inquiry. Edan Lepucki, staff writer at The Millions, author of If You're Not Yet Like Me. Jami Attenberg, author of The Melting Season. Dennis Cooper, author of The Marbled Swarm. Alex Ross, author of Listen to This, New Yorker music critic. Mona Simpson, author of My Hollywood. Yaşar Kemal, author of They Burn the Thistles. Siddhartha Deb, author of The Beautiful and The Damned: A Portrait of the New India. David Vann, author of Legend of a Suicide. Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Edie Meidav, author of Lola, California. Ward Farnsworth, author of Farnsworth's Classical English Rhetoric. Daniel Orozco, author of Orientation and Other Stories. Hannah Nordhaus, author of The Beekeeper's Lament. Brad Listi, founder of The Nervous Breakdown. Alex Shakar, author of Luminarium. Denise Mina, author of The End of the Wasp Season. Christopher Boucher, author of How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive. Parul Sehgal, books editor at NPR.org. Patrick Brown, staff writer at The Millions. Jacob Lambert, freelance writer, columnist, contributor to The Millions. Emily St. John Mandel, author of Last Night in Montreal, staff writer at The Millions. Kevin Hartnett, staff writer for The Millions. Garth Risk Hallberg, author of A Field Guide to the North American Family, staff writer at The Millions. Jeff Martin, author of The Late American Novel. Jane Alison, author of The Sisters Antipodes. Matthew Gallaway, author of The Metropolis Case. Nuruddin Farah, author of Crossbones. Natasha Wimmer, translator of The Third Reich. Jean-Christophe Vatlat, author of Aurorarama. Kevin Brockmeier, author of The Illumination. Brooke Hauser, author of The New Kids: Big Dreams and Brave Journeys at a High School for Immigrant Teens. Belinda McKeon, author of Solace. Ellis Avery, author of The Teahouse Fire. Buzz Poole, author of Madonna of the Toast. A.N. Devers, editor of Writers' Houses. Mark Bibbins, author of The Dance of No Hard Feelings. Elissa Schappell, author of Blueprints for Building Better Girls. Rachel Syme, NPR contributor. A Year in Reading Wrap Up Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr. Year in Reading Graphics by LK Magee
Lists, Notable Articles, The Future of the Book

Reasons Not to Self-Publish in 2011-2012: A List

In a previous essay, I interviewed four self-published authors I admire, and I examined some of the benefits of that career path. Midway through writing the piece, I realized I'd have to continue the discussion in a second essay in order to fully explore my feelings (complicated) on the topic (multifaceted). You see, Reader, I still don't plan on self-publishing my first novel, though I don't deny the positive aspects of that choice. Below I've outlined a few reasons behind my decision, informed by our contemporary moment. I can't predict the future, though I'm sure I'll remain comfortable with my opinions for at least another thirteen months. It's in a list format, the pet genre of the blogosphere. How else was I to keep my head from imploding? 1. I Guess I'm Not a Hater People love to talk about how traditional publishing is dying, but is that actually true? According to The New York Times, the industry has seen a 5.8% increase in net revenue since 2008. E-books are "another bright spot" in the industry, and the revenue of adult fiction grew by 8.8% in three years. (Take that, Twilight!) Of course, the industry has troubles. The slim profit margins of books; the problems of bookstore returns; the quandary of Borders closing and Amazon forever selling books as a loss-leader; how to make people actually pay for content, and so on. Furthermore, the gamble of the large advance strikes me as ridiculous -- and reckless, considering that editors and marketing teams have no real clue which books will be hits and which ones won't. (Still, what writer is going to kick half-a-million out of bed?) And there's the always-chilling question: With mounting pressure to turn a profit, how do editors justify publishing an amazing book that might not speak to a large audience? Talented authors -- new and mid-list -- are bound to get lost in this system. And yet. And yet. I read good books by large publishing houses all the time, books that take my breath away, make me laugh and cry and wonder at the brilliance of humanity. I trust publishers. They don't always get it right, but more often than not, they do. As I said in the piece that started me off on this whole investigation: "I want a reputable publishing house standing behind my book; I want them to tell you it’s good so that I don’t have to." 2. I Write Literary Fiction Before you get your talons out, let me clarify: I don't consider literary fiction superior to other kinds of fiction, just different; to me, it's simply another genre, subject-wise and/or marketing-wise. Many of the writers who have found success in self-publishing are writers of straightforward genre fiction. Amanda Hocking writes young adult fantasy, dwarfs and all. Valerie Forster, who published traditionally before setting out on her own, writes legal thrillers. Romance, too, often does just fine without a publisher. Aside from Anthropology of An American Girl by Hilary Thayer Hamann, I can't think of another literary novel that enjoyed critical praise and healthy sales when self-published. That's not to say that it can't -- and shouldn't -- happen, it's only to point out that it's a tougher road for writers of certain sorts of stories. Readers like me aren't seeking out self-published books. Why not? That's for another essay. (Please, can someone else write that one?) Until the likes of Jeffrey Eugenides and Alice Munro begin publishing their work via CreateSpace, I don't see the landscape for literary fiction changing anytime soon. 3. I'd Prefer a Small Press to a Vanity Press The conversation about self-publishing too often ignores the role of independent publishing houses in this shifting reading landscape. Whether it be larger independents like Algonquin and Graywolf, or small gems like Featherproof and Two Dollar Radio, or university presses like Lookout Books, the imprint at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, which recently published Edith Pearlman's Binocular Vision (nominated for this year's National Book Award), independent presses offer diversity to readers, and provide yet another professional option for authors. These presses are run and curated by well-read, talented people, and they provide readers with the same services that a large press provides: namely, a vote of confidence in a writer the public might have never heard of. Smaller presses, too, enjoy a specificity of brand and identity that too often eludes a larger house. In this terrific interview, publisher Fred Ramey of Unbridled Books puts it this way: I believe that the iron grip that large publishers and their marketing partners have had on readers' attention since the 1990s has slipped quite a bit with the arrival of online retailers and opinion-makers. Obviously patrons of online booksellers can see the breadth of reading options - "Others who bought this item also bought...." Patrons of independent bookstores know of those options, too, and depend on the recommendations of their booksellers. The few "designated" titles from the big house are still dominant, of course, even in independent stores. But if you are an author in one of those corporations whose book has not been "designated" your reality can become pretty stark. Independent presses can offer a real chance to a talented writer who might not fit the formulas of the big house. Yes, I know that each conglomerate has a few imprints and a good many editors dedicated to the best of books -- to maintaining the course of American letters. Those are the prestigious imprints that aren't always required to pretend the sales of a prior book predict the performance of the next book. (I'm often astounded at how willing the industry is to act as though it believes that. We all know it isn't true.) But independent presses are all dedicated to finding and presenting the best of books, dedicated to the books in and of themselves and to the promise of the authors. A year ago, I published my novella If You're Not Yet Like Me with a tiny press called Flatmancrooked, and I consider it the highlight of my career so far. Not only did I get to work with a sharp and talented editor, Deena Drewis, and have my book designed by the press's risk-taking founder Elijah Jenkins, I also had so much fun participating in the press's LAUNCH program, where the limited first-edition went on pre-order for just a week. My book sold out in three days, and getting that first paycheck was exhilarating. My tiny book got me on a panel at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, a few awesome readings, and it even found its way to two different editors at larger houses. It became my literary calling card. When readers received my book in the mail, it was signed and numbered by me. It also came with a condom. Flatmancrooked, sadly, closed its doors earlier this year, but Drewis has continued the LAUNCH program with her new press, Nouvella. The success of Flatmancrooked showed me that small can mean flexible and daring in its editorial and marketing choices. Small presses try things that large, established houses are too huge, and possibly too chickenshit, to even consider. The fact that Flatmancrooked is now defunct showed me that a labor of love is still a labor (especially when its laborers have other full-time jobs to go to), and that instability is unavoidable in the small press (or the small, small, small press) game. Some writers are forever wed to the small press landscape. Others, like Blake Butler, Amelia Gray, Benjamin Percy, and Emma Straub first published with smaller outfits and have since moved onto larger houses. Perhaps the small press world is becoming the real proving ground for literary writers. 4. Self-Publishing is Better for the Already-Published Perhaps the smarter, and far more seductive, path is the one where the writer begins his career with a traditional publisher, and then, once he's built a base of loyal readers, sets off on his own. The man who loves to talk smack about the publishing industry, J.A. Konrath, already had an audience from his traditionally-published books by the time he decided to take matters into his own hands. It's much harder to create a readership out of nothing. I'm interested to see how Neal Pollack's latest novel, Jewball, does as a self-published book. Short story writer Tod Goldberg is also trying this approach with his new mini-collection, Where You Lived, self-published as an e-book. I don't need an intermediary to tell me about these writers because their previously published books speak for them. 5. I Value the Publishing Community I decided to ask the most famous writer I know, Peter Straub, if he's ever considered leaving the world of big publishing and putting out a book all by his lonesome. After all, he's a bestselling author and editor of more than 25 books (18 novels alone!), and he's a horror writer beloved by genre geeks and snobby literary types alike. A few of his fans probably sport tattoos of his bespectacled face on their pecs. (Or: Peter Straub tramp stamps! Yes!) In an email response, Straub acknowledged how quickly the publishing world and our reading habits are changing, and he said he just might experiment with self-publishing short fiction in the coming years. He told me: True self-publication means writers upload content themselves, and plenty already do it. I'm not quite sure how you then publicize the work in question, or get it reviewed, but that I am unsure about these elements is part of the reason I seek always, at least for the present, to have my work published in book form by an old-style trade publisher. The trade publisher, which has contracted for the right to do so, then brings the book out in e-form and as an audiobook, so I am not ignoring that audience. What he went on to say gave me a special kind of hope: Most of the editors I have worked with over the past thirty-five years have made crucial contributions to the books entrusted to them, and the copy-editors have always, in every case, done exactly the same. They have enriched the books that came into their hands. Can you have good, thoughtful, creative editing and precise, accurate, immaculate copy-editing if you self-publish? And if you can't, what is being said about the status or role of selflessness before the final form of the fiction as accepted by the audience, I mean the willingness of the author to submerge his ego to produce the novel that is truest to itself? This -- this! -- I get. Even though my first novel was rejected by traditional publishers, one assistant editor's notes on it -- notes that were thorough, thoughtful, challenging, and compassionate -- were enough to show me that these professionals are valuable to the process of book-making. I know you can hire experienced editors and copy-editors, but how is that role affected when the person paying is the writer himself? What if the hired editor told you not to publish? Would that even happen? 6. The E-Reading Conundrum; or, I don't want to be Amazon's Bitch Many self-published authors have gone totally electronic, eschewing print versions of their work altogether. I can't see myself taking that route, however, because I don't own an e-reader, and I don't have plans to buy one (not yet, anyway... I read a lot in the bath, etc., etc.). It seems odd that I wouldn't be able to buy my own book -- I mean, shouldn't I be my own ideal reader? I also prefer to shop at independent bookstores, and in fact, I pay full price for my books all the time. The thought of Amazon being the only place to purchase my novel shivers my timbers. I don't mind if someone else chooses to read my work electronically, just as I don't mind if Amazon is one of the places to purchase my work; I'm simply wary of Amazon monopolizing the reading landscape. Self-publishing has certainly offered an alternative path for writers, but it's naive to believe that a self-published author is "fighting the system" if that self-published book is produced and made available by a single monolithic corporation. In effect, they've rejected "The Big 6" for "The Big 1." 7. Is it Best for Readers? In September, when my brother-in-law learned that my book still hadn't sold, he said, "Please don't self-publish!" He was actually wincing. If I did self-publish, he said, he'd buy it because we were family, but otherwise, he'd happily ignore my novel in search of something he'd read about on The Millions, or heard about on NPR, or had a friend recommend. There are simply too many books out there as it is. Our conversation reminded me of Laura Miller's humorous and perspicacious essay, "When Anyone Can be a Published Author," in which she reminds us that the people who celebrate self-publishing often overlook what it means for book buyers and readers. She writes: Readers themselves rarely complain that there isn’t enough of a selection on Amazon or in their local superstore; they’re more likely to ask for help in narrowing down their choices. So for anyone who has, however briefly, played that reviled gatekeeper role, a darker question arises: What happens once the self-publishing revolution really gets going, when all of those previously rejected manuscripts hit the marketplace, en masse, in print and e-book form, swelling the ranks of 99-cent Kindle and iBook offerings by the millions? Is the public prepared to meet the slush pile? As a member of the reading public, I am not prepared, or willing, to wade through all that unfiltered literature. As a writer, I must put my head back to the grindstone and write a book that more than a handful of readers can fall in love with. 8. I'm Busy. Writing. Today I wrote two pages of my new novel while my mother took my five-month-old son to the mall. I get twelve hours of childcare a week, and six of those are dedicated to preparing for my classes and running a private writing school. The other six hours I devote to my new novel. The old one, the one that traditional editors didn't go nuts for, is in the drawer. Some might say I've given up; I say, I'm just getting warmed up. I'm still writing, aren't I? My career isn't one book, but many. And like every other writer out there, I decide what road I want to travel.   Image credit: purplesmog/Flickr
Essays, Notable Articles

How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Write ‘The Marriage Plot’

Appropriately, The Marriage Plot arose from an act of literary adultery. In the late 90s, during an impasse in the writing of Middlesex, I put the manuscript aside. (I hadn’t fallen out of love, exactly, but I wasn’t sure where the relationship was headed.) Over the following weeks I began flirting with another novel, not a comic epic like Middlesex but a more traditional story about a wealthy family throwing a debutante party. At first, the new novel seemed to be everything I was looking for. It was less demanding, easy to be with, and rather nicely proportioned. Before I knew it I’d written a hundred pages – at which point the novelty wore off. It dawned on me that this new affair was going to be every bit as demanding as the book I was trying to escape. I missed Middlesex, too. I had an idea why we hadn’t been getting along. And so, with a renewed sense of commitment, almost giddy with joy, I went back to it. After Middlesex was published, I returned to the debutante novel. Its hundred pages were just as I’d left them. They seemed O.K. However, as I resumed work on the book, something kept bothering me. The novel felt old-fashioned. The writing was perfectly acceptable, even good in spots, but in others it felt lifeless, second-hand. The story was told from multiple points of view, in short sections of a few pages apiece. One of the characters was named Madeleine. As I wrote her section, I began to wander once again. Instead of placing her in my debutante-party plot, I began imagining her boyfriend troubles and the books she was reading, and soon I was straying off into memories of my own college days, when the craze for semiotics was at its height in American universities. Something changed in the prose I was writing as well. I can pinpoint when this shift occurred. It came with the line: “Madeleine’s love troubles had begun at a time when the French theory she was reading deconstructed the very notion of love.” The tone of this sentence differed from the tone of the rest of the book. It was more intimate, more colloquial, and more knowing. All at once, the fustiness of the book that had so displeased me dropped away. The debutante novel had felt like an actual 19th-century novel. It smelled like an old couch brought back from the flea market. In contrast, Madeleine’s section felt fresher, more energetic and alive. It sprung directly from concerns and details in my own life. When the narrative ceased to be a pallid replica of a 19th-century novel and became a novel about a young woman obsessed with the 19th-centry novel, and about what such an obsession does to her romantic expectations, the book jumped forward a century. It became contemporary and sounded contemporary and allowed me to write about all kinds of things I hadn’t been able to write about before, religion and Mother Teresa, manic depression, the class system as it operated at an Eastern university in the 1980s, Roland Barthes, J.D. Salinger, the Jesus Prayer, and Talking Heads. Pretty soon, I had over a hundred pages of this new section. The irony was clear: here I was, cheating on a novel that had once been my mistress! Madeleine’s section just kept getting longer. The longer it got, the more I liked it. Over the course of a painful two weeks, I surgically separated the two manuscripts, taking out three of the characters – Madeleine, Mitchell, and Leonard – and giving them their own book. I didn’t know, at that point, that the book would be called The Marriage Plot, or that it would have anything to do with marriage. But gradually, as I pushed forward with the book, other things I’d been thinking about began to make their way in. In 2004, for the online magazine Slate, I had discussed the legacy of Joyce with the novelist Jim Lewis. During that exchange, I lamented the fact that the marriage plot, which had given rise to the novel, was no longer available to the modern novelist. In my book The Marriage Plot, I put these slightly reactionary thoughts into the mouth of Madeleine’s elderly thesis director, Professor Saunders: In Saunders’s opinion, the novel had reached its apogee with the marriage plot and had never recovered from its disappearance. In the days when success had depended on marriage, and marriage had depended on money, novelists had had a subject to write about. The great epics sang of war, the novel of marriage. Sexual equality, good for women, had been bad for the novel. And divorce had undone it completely. What would it matter who Emma married if she could file for separation later? How would Isabel Archer’s marriage to Gilbert Osmond have been affected by the existence of a prenup? As far as Saunders was concerned, marriage didn’t mean anything anymore, and neither did the novel. It didn’t happen right away. But as I wrote about my three undergraduates, describing the end of their time at university and the beginning of their adult lives, such academic thoughts as these attached themselves to my story and provided me with a solid structure for the book. Instead of writing a marriage plot, I could deconstruct one and then put it back together, consistent with the religious, social, and sexual conventions prevailing today. I could write a novel that wasn’t a marriage plot but that, in a certain way, was; a novel that drew strongly from tradition without being at all averse to modernity. That’s the intellectual background of The Marriage Plot. But you don’t write a novel from an idea, or at least I don’t. You write a novel out of the emotional and psychological stuff that you can’t shake off, or don’t want to. For me, this had to do with memories with being young, bookish, concupiscent, and confused. Safely in my 40s, married and a father, I could look back on the terrifying ecstasy of college love, and try to re-live it, at a safe distance. It was deep winter in Chicago when all this happened. Every day I looked out my office window at snow swirling over Lake Michigan. After separating the two books, I put one in a drawer and kept the other on my desk. I ran off with The Marriage Plot and didn’t look back. I changed completely, became a different person, a different writer; I started a new life with a new love, and all without ever leaving home.
Essays, Notable Articles

Bartleby’s Occupation of Wall Street

1. After a couple days of hemming and hawing, I decided to join the protesters of Occupy Wall Street. I was hesitant to go because until very recently, I worked as an administrative assistant at a prominent Wall Street law firm. I didn’t know how, in good conscience, I could rail against The Man when my primary responsibility had once been to keep track of incoming phone calls from Goldman Sachs. But then I heard one of the protest’s organizers on the radio saying that the Occupy movement wasn’t against capitalism, corporations, or even big banking. He was for income equality. And democracy. The reporter pressed him to be more specific, but he refused. “Why do they have to be more specific?” I yelled at the radio. “Isn’t it obvious why they’re upset?” I was getting annoyed at the way Occupy Wall Street was being covered — as if it was insane to gather in a public space and protest. As if it had never happened in America before. Wasn’t the whole point of passive resistance to just be there? To not make any demands? As I tried to come up with a good parallel, I found myself thinking of Bartleby, the Scrivener, Herman Melville’s short story about an office worker, Bartleby, who decides out of nowhere that he doesn’t feel like working anymore, but continues to show up at the office every day. Bartleby’s idleness baffles and then infuriates his boss, who begs Bartleby to give some reason for his behavior. But Bartleby refuses to disclose his interests, and over the course of the story, his needs become so few that he dies of starvation. It’s a bleak, mysterious story, and as I returned to my copy to reread it, I was stilled to rediscover its subtitle: "A Story of Wall Street." 2. I first read Bartleby the Scrivener last summer, when I was completely burned out on office life. I actually read it at work, during a slow afternoon — “down time”, in office parlance — and was surprised by how funny and contemporary it seemed. The story is narrated by an unnamed, well-to-do-lawyer, who describes himself as “one of those unambitious lawyers who never addresses a jury, or in any way draws down public applause but in the cool tranquility of a snug retreat, do a snug business among rich men’s bonds and mortgages and title deeds.” In the narrator’s employ are two scriveners and one office boy — or, in modern terms, two administrative assistants and one intern. One scrivener is old, and something of a drunk; the other scrivener is young, and from the narrator’s description, something of a hipster: “Nippers, the second on my list, was a whiskered, sallow, and, upon the whole, rather piratical-looking young man of about five and twenty. I always deemed him the victim of two evil powers — ambition and indigestion.” One day, the narrator decides that he needs to hire a third scrivener. He interviews Bartleby, a “pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn” man. Bartleby is of “so singularly sedate an aspect” that the narrator can’t help thinking he will be an exceptionally cooperative employee. And so he hires Bartleby, installing him at a desk in front of a window with an airshaft view and behind “a high green folding screen which, might entirely isolate Bartleby from my sight, though not remove him from my voice.” In other words, he sticks Bartleby in a cubicle. Bartleby’s job is to copy legal documents by hand, like a human Xerox machine. During his first couple days at the office, Bartleby works at a ferocious pace, and is always the first to arrive and the last to leave. But on the third day, when the narrator asks Bartleby to assist with some proofreading, Bartleby utters what will become his trademark phrase: “I would prefer not to.” The reply surprises the narrator, but he doesn’t become annoyed until later in the week, when Bartleby refuses a second time, with the same vague reply: “I would prefer not to.” Upon questioning Bartleby, the narrator learns that Bartleby would prefer not to do many things, including running errands, mailing letters, and talking to his co-workers. All Bartleby wants to do is copy legal documents. The narrator decides he can live with this, and assigns all proofreading to the other scriveners. This arrangement works well, until one Sunday when the narrator happens to stop by his Wall Street office on the way to Trinity Church. He is startled to discover Bartleby there, and even more startled when Bartleby asks him to circle the block a few times, so that he might conclude his affairs. When the narrator returns to his office, Bartleby is gone, but the narrator finds evidence that Bartleby has been living there, all along. At this point, the plot of Bartleby escalates rapidly and absurdly, like a comedy sketch. Bartleby announces that he has “given up copying” and stops working entirely. The narrator cajoles Bartleby to “be a little reasonable.” Bartleby’s reply: “At present, I would prefer not to be a little reasonable.” The narrator then dismisses Bartleby, giving him his paycheck, plus twenty dollars — a kind of severance package. But Bartleby refuses to be dismissed. The narrator demands: “Will you, or will you not quit me?” Bartleby’s reply: “I would prefer not to quit you.” Eventually, the narrator decides to ignore Bartleby until he leaves of his own accord. But Bartleby never leaves. He stays at his desk, staring out the window, day in and day out. The narrator becomes accustomed to his unmoving presence, but when other lawyers visit, they are suspicious of Bartleby, and in turn, suspicious of the narrator, a man apparently unable to fire his employees. Gossip begins to circulate. And so the narrator decides he must leave Bartleby, if Bartleby is not going to leave him. He finds a new office to rent. This tactic works; Bartleby does not follow the narrator to his new offices. Instead, Bartleby continues to lurk around the old office, even after new tenants move in. At night, he sleeps in the building’s entryway. Eventually, the building’s new tenants visit the narrator, to complain about Bartleby. “You are responsible for the man you left there. He refuses to do any copying; he refuses to do anything; he says he prefers not to and he refuses to quit the premises.” The narrator, who is not without pity for Bartleby, goes to visit him. “Bartleby,” said I, “are you aware that you are the cause of great tribulation to me, by persisting in occupying the entry after being dismissed from the office?” No answer. “Now, one of two things must take place. Either you must do something, or something must be done to you. Now what sort of business would you like to engage in? Would you like to re-engage in copying for someone?” “No; I would prefer not to make any change.” The passage goes on, at length, with the narrator suggesting all sorts of work that Bartleby might do, and with Bartleby dismissing each suggestion. The exchange ends when Bartleby repeats: “No: at present I would prefer not to make any change at all.” 3. When I first began working at the law firm, I was a temporary employee, but after a few months, I became permanent. Around that time, I had a dream that I got a tattoo of the word CHANGE on my right arm. The meaning was obvious: I was uncertain of my decision to settle down at the firm, and struggling with the feeling that what I was telling myself was a day job was actually one I would be stuck with for a long time. For a while, I considered actually getting a tattoo of the word CHANGE, to remind me of the dream, and of my fears, but then the Obama campaign happened, and the word change began to lose its meaning for me. I’m not saying I was never taken in by Obama’s promises — I was — but just seeing the word, everywhere, on buttons, on billboards, on T-shirts, on TV, turned the idea of change into a kind of golden fantasy, whereas before, I had thought of it as something I could do. 4. Bartleby is very sad in its final pages. After the narrator leaves him, he is arrested as a vagrant and taken to the Tombs, a prison downtown. The narrator goes to visit him there, but Bartleby refuses to speak to him. Feeling guilty, the narrator arranges for special meals to be brought to Bartleby, but Bartleby refuses to eat them. A few days later, the narrator returns to the Tombs again, to check on Bartleby, but he can’t find him. Another prisoner directs the narrator to the prison yard, where Bartleby was seen lying down to take a nap. The narrator finds him. Bartleby is not asleep; he is dead. 5. I went to Occupy Wall Street with my friend Maura, who at 57 has already survived one protest era. “People are complaining that it’s just a bunch of spoiled college kids, but that’s what it was like in the 1960s,” she told me. Having lived through the 1970s, when much of Manhattan was dirty and dangerous, Maura doesn’t spend much time wringing her hands over the hipster gentrification of Brooklyn and Queens. To her, the bigger story is the way the middle and working-class families that have traditionally lived in outer-borough New York are slowly leaving the city. She doesn’t think hipster kids are responsible for that particular migration; instead, it’s related to the corporate mentality that is taking over all of New York City. “Everyone, even people in regular jobs, suddenly feels like they need to make a lot of money to be successful,” she says. “It wasn’t always like that. My father was happy just to own his house and support his family. He thought it was an honor to be able to pay his taxes, because he knew other people were worse off. I’m not saying you have to be a saint, but you should be able to be a normal person and live here.” As we're talking, a union organizer with a white beard hands us a flier and invites us to march with him the next day. After he leaves, I tell Maura that I would go, but I have dinner plans at seven, and I would feel bad cancelling. She laughs and says she would go too, but she’s too old to be arrested. “We’re not very radical are we?” On our way out, we see a twenty-something guy in a suit holding a brown cardboard sign: I’M FOR REGULATING THE BANKS. APPARENTLY THAT MAKES ME A RADICAL. 6. Melville published Bartleby in 1853, at what was likely a personal low point. Not only had his masterpiece, Moby Dick, received mixed reviews, but his follow-up book, Pierre, was so universally disliked that one paper ran a review titled: HERMAN MELVILLE CRAZY. His career as a writer was beginning a steep decline, and he must have known it. It’s easy to see Bartleby as Melville’s alter ego, the depressed writer who sees no point in going on. Bartleby even says that he has “decided upon doing no more writing.” But the interesting thing about Bartleby the Scrivener is that it isn’t told from Bartleby’s point of view, and so even if Melville intended the story to be an illustration of his own neglected genius, he also ended up telling the story of a Wall Street lawyer’s brief brush with despair. The most moving passages of Bartleby occur around the story’s midpoint, after the narrator discovers that Bartleby is homeless, and has been living in his office. The narrator is struck, not only by Bartleby’s poverty, but also by his loneliness, which he imagines must be greater on Wall Street than in any other Manhattan neighborhood: Of a Sunday, Wall Street is deserted as Petra; and every night of every day it is an emptiness. This building too, which of weekdays hums with industry and life, at nightfall echoes with sheer vacancy, and all through Sunday is forlorn. And here Bartleby makes his home; sole spectator of a solitude which he has seen all populous... I remembered the bright silks and sparkling faces I had seen that day, in gala trim, swan-like sailing down the Mississippi of Broadway; and I contrasted them with the pallid copyist, and thought to myself: Ah, happiness courts the light, so we deem the world is gay; but misery hides aloof, so we deem that misery there is none. The parallels between Bartleby’s peculiar form of rebellion and the protestors of Occupy Wall Street should be obvious. The point of Occupy Wall Street — and the Occupy movements around the country — is to put a face to America’s dwindling middle class. There is no need to be any more specific than that. In fact, it seems that the less specific, less reasonable, and less demanding the protesters are, the more likely they are to unnerve those who actually have the power to make a change. Bartleby is disturbing not because of what he says or doesn’t say, but because he seems to have lost some aspect of his humanity: Had there been the least uneasiness, anger, impatience or impertinence in his manner; in other words, had there been any thing ordinarily human about him, doubtless I should have violently dismissed him from the premises. Here’s the narrator again, when he is trying to convince Bartleby to help with the proofreading: But there was something about Bartleby that not only strangely disarmed me, but in a wonderful manner touched and disconcerted me. A few pages later: Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance. And finally, the story’s famous last line: Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity! If Occupy Wall Street has any goal, it should be to have the same effect that great literature has — to unsettle. Let the pundits complain about vagueness, and let the reporters ask their condescending questions. (As an example, here’s one I heard put to a young man standing near me: “Is it true that you want to put all the bankers in jail?”) Let them tease, let them pacify, let them cajole, let them argue. But don’t move, Occupy Wall Street.   Image: a.mina/Flickr
Essays, Notable Articles

Why Are So Many Literary Writers Shifting into Genre?

“I’m looking for a mystery,” my agent said. That was the last thing I expected to hear. When I met David a little over two years ago, I was so struck with his Oxford-educated, sweater-vest-wearing persona that I’d wondered if my literary novel would be literary enough. But now he was not only looking for a mystery, but was also - I’ll spare you the precise language involved - highly dissatisfied with the ones coming across his desk. “I could write a mystery,” I said. It’s not just David and I. The good ship Literary Fiction has run aground and the survivors are frantically paddling toward the islands of genre. Okay, maybe that’s a little dramatic, but there does seem to be a definite trend of literary/mainstream writers turning to romance, thrillers, fantasy, mystery, and YA. Justin Cronin has produced the vampire epic The Passage. Tom Perrotta is offering The Leftovers, a tale of a futuristic Rapturesque apocalypse. And MacArthur-certified genius Colson Whitehead is writing about zombies. It’s enough to make my historical mystery about Jack the Ripper look downright pedestrian. What’s going on? Is it a mass sellout, a belated and half-hearted attempt by writers to chase the market? Are they being pushed into genre by their agents and publishers? Are the literary novelists simply ready for a change, perhaps because even the most exalted among them have a miniscule readership compared to genre superstars? Or are two disparate worlds finally merging? Here’s my take on what’s happening - which, granted, is worth exactly as much as you’re currently paying for it. Once upon a time, genre was treated as almost a different industry from literary fiction, ignored by critics, sneered at by literary writers, relegated by publishers to imprint ghettos. But the dirty little and not-particularly-well-kept secret was that, thanks to the loyalty of their fans and the relatively rapid production of their authors, these genre books were the ones who kept the entire operation in business. All those snobbish literary writers had better have hoped like hell that their publishers had enough genre moneymakers in house to finance the advance for their latest beautifully rendered and experimentally structured observation of upper class angst. But while genre authors were always the workhorses of publishing, lately they’ve broken out as stars and are belatedly receiving real recognition. In 2010, there were 358 fantasy titles on the best seller list, more than double the number in 2006. Publishers, always the last to recognize a literary trend, are pursuing top genre writers who, for the first time, have not only bigger paychecks but genuine clout. And as one part of the industry rises, another falls. Magazines and newspapers are dying faster than fruit flies, to the dismay of many writers who counted on nonfiction to supplement their incomes. Advances are lower than they used to be, multi-book deals are becoming as quaint as hoop skirts, and, thanks partially to the rise of ebooks, the author payout per book sale is shrinking. A lot of writers actually support themselves through other jobs, such as teaching, and they may be prepared to wait out the change and hope that literary fiction returns. But those of us who write full-time are scrambling to find additional streams of income just to survive. Scott Spencer, who has published ten novels dating back to the mid-1970s, was once able to live exclusively on the income from his books and “make this kind of old-fashioned writer’s life work.” But, noting the inherent contradiction between the ups and downs and further downs of literary writing and his need to make a living, he is publishing Breed - “a horror novel that has no real place among the ten that have come before it” - under the name Chase Novak. He’s taken it to a new mystery imprint, Mulholland Books at Little Brown, and says the genre jump was entirely his idea. “In fact,” he says, “my agent was surprised when I sent her the first forty pages.” “Creative people switch genres all the time,” says Miriam Parker, Spencer’s publicist at Mulholland, who started at Grand Central and has worked with a broad spectrum of writers. Her fellow publicist Crystal Patriarche agrees. “Writers just want to write,” she says, noting that quite a few members of her primarily female client list have shifted genres during the time she’s worked with them, often combining mainstream with romance or mystery. “They evolve through stages throughout their careers.” Still, it’s hard to think of very many writers – save possibly Stephen King – who have moved from genre to literary. The floor seems to slope the other way, and Patriarche concedes that sometimes the difference isn’t so much in what the author has written as in how the publisher opts to describe it. “I’ve seen literary books blurbed as something like ‘the thinking woman’s beach read,’” she says. “And that’s a sign that the publisher is trying to appeal to consumers who are more mainstream. In this aspect the change is more industry-driven than author-driven.” Ergo, the case of Dawn Tripp who clicked onto her Amazon page shortly after the publication of her novel Game of Secrets (Random House) only to learn that she’d written a thriller. “One reviewer called it ‘a page turning thriller,’ and another called it ‘a literary thriller told through a poet’s eye,’” says Tripp. “The tag ‘thriller’ surprised me. Although Game of Secrets has a mystery at the heart of it – an unsolved murder played out through a Scrabble game – it does not unfold in a linear way.” Caroline Leavitt, whose Pictures of You has also been described as a literary thriller, started her career with a different publisher years ago. “My first two literary books were reviewed great but didn’t sell,” she recalls, “and then my publisher called me in and said ‘It’s time to go commercial with your third, so let’s all sit down and hammer out a plot.’” Leavitt followed the outline, “but with a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach” and, predictably, the resultant book flopped on both the critical and commercial level. When her publisher didn’t think Pictures of You was commercial enough, she went to Algonquin, a place she describes as an Edenic paradise for writers, and now, after eight books, she has a New York Times best seller. Even though Leavitt claims she isn’t entirely sure what a literary thriller is, she’ll take it. “A good book is a good book,” she says. “I’ve decided that genre is strictly a marketing tool.” Tripp is equally sanguine. “I don’t balk at the term ‘thriller,’” she says. “I don’t think in terms of genre. I write what moves me.” While some writers find the genre shift has been almost sprung upon them, others are happy to produce books which are consciously designed to be commercial. Once they get the hang of genre – which can be a steep learning curve as they give themselves a crash course in learning how to plot – they end up having fun with the idea. “There’s something about writing as Chase Novak that allows me to tell this story in a style that is leaner and more in service to propulsive story,” says Spencer. He took care to choose a style that innately appealed to him as a reader; although he’d never liked fantasy or adventure, “the possibility of horror rearing its head at any moment is something that I give a great deal of thought to while driving my car, taking a walk, or trying to fall asleep. My mother recently said to me ‘When you were little, you were always convinced that Dad and I wanted to kill you.’” The key to a successful transition is that the writer chooses a genre they enjoy reading, with which he instinctively clicks. I’ve had a blast writing my historical mystery. Not only did the extensive research into Victorian England bring me back to my happy days in journalism, but I bought a bunch of mysteries and read them like a student, breaking apart the plots, analyzing movements through geographic space and time, using note cards to track multiple characters across a layered and detailed literary landscape. Only someone who’s never tried to do this would declare it easier than literary writing, or the books which result less worthy of respect. There’s a big difference between selling and selling out. Of course, there’s always the danger that genre is a cul-de-sac and that once a writer turns into it, he’ll never get out. “I’ve had clients whose agents or editors turned down their second book because it wasn’t close enough to their first and thus what readers expect of them,” says Patriarche. Leavitt, who quite correctly points out that “writing the same book over and over is the opposite of what it means to be a writer,” also notes that “once you’ve had a commercial success, there’s definitely pressure on you to repeat it with your next book.” So while publishers might happily support a literary author making the switch to genre they’ll probably be less enthusiastic when that writer develops an itch to move back toward literary writing. The obvious compromise – write literary under one name, genre under another – works for some, but is a stopgap solution while the industry struggles to catch up with the reality of what’s happening. Because it’s not just a matter of writers flipping back and forth, it’s a matter of genre and literary cross-pollinating to produce a new species. Genre books written by literary writers are different than those written by authors who have always embraced and exemplified that genre. “You might call Dawn Tripp’s Game of Secrets a ‘psychological thriller' but that somewhat misses the mark,” says Patriarche. “It’s a thrilling book, but does it play by the rules of a thriller? The problem is we don’t have names for these books, so we call them by the old names, even when the terms don’t fit.” But like any good publicist, she’s prepared to find the opportunity in the midst of the crisis. “It’s hard to get publicity for any book these days, especially one that’s hard to label, but a book that straddles genres can actually be an opportunity for a publicist to open it up to the readership of both genres.” “More than ever the market requires publicists to approach all books on an individual basis,” says Parker. “I always ask myself ‘Who is the audience for this book and what’s the most effective way to target that audience?’ It can be fun, like when I was at Grand Central and we were bringing out Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. We created a great video trailer, which was widely viewed and shared, and built an active Facebook community around book.” It will probably always be open to debate whether these innovations are the result of writers seeking creative expression and wider audiences or a calculated move on the part of publishers who are simply trying to sell more product, even if it means slightly misrepresenting a book to its potential audience. But either way, the future seems to be stories which combine the pacing and plots of genre with the themes and style of literary writing. In other words, this crappy market may actually end up producing better books. Because hybrids, bastards, and half-breeds tend to be heartier than those delicate offspring that result from too much careful inbreeding. Just ask the Tudors. The best commercial writers were moving toward this anyway, creating highly metaphorical fantasy works and socially-conscious mysteries, expanding the definition of their genres even before the ex-pat literary crew jumped on the bandwagon. “We’re going to see more blending as everyone attempts to grab a larger audience,” predicts Patriarche, “and the literary snobs are going to have to stop looking down on genre.”   Image credit: Fotomatom/Flickr
Essays, Notable Articles

Shutting the Drawer: What Happens When a Book Doesn’t Sell?

1. In May, after my novel manuscript had been read and rejected by a healthy number of editors, my husband rewrote my author bio. It read as follows: Edan Lepucki was born in Lodz, Poland, in 1981. He currently lives in East Bushwick. As an American woman living in an uncool neighborhood in Los Angeles, I thought this hilarious. I also wondered -- not entirely seriously, and not entirely in jest -- if the revision might help my situation. My situation being that my agent had begun submitting my book nine months prior (not that I was keeping track), and it remained unsold. Admittedly, there had been close calls with two different editors, but, as everyone knows, almost only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. I was in the same place I'd been back in September. That is, unpublished. The waiting game was starting to char my soul; if you drew a finger across it and put that finger to your tongue, it would taste bitter. Joking with my husband ("Now that I'm nursing, I'll send them a new author photo, cleavage and all!") was one of the few coping mechanisms I had left in me. Now that it's almost September ("If anyone in publishing actually worked in the summer, I would've sold my book by now!"), the jokes aren't as funny. The truth is, my novel isn't selling, and it probably won't. There, I've said it. Eventually, a writer must accept rejection, accept the death of her first true darling, and move on. Can I face that sobering reality? Can I put my first book into the drawer, and shut it? Others have done it before me. There's a long and rich history of successful writers whose first (second, third...) books didn't see the light of day. I remember when Myla Goldberg came to speak to the Creative Writing Department at Oberlin. She explained that Bee Season was actually her second novel. "My first," she told us wide-eyed undergraduates, "you'll never read." At twenty, I thought this terribly tragic. In the New York Times Sunday Book Review, Dan Kois wrote about novelists who abandoned books for one reason or another: Michael Chabon's infamously unfinished tome, Fountain City, for instance, and the burned pages of Gogol and Waugh. But the differences between these authors and myself are important. Firstly, they all had dazzling careers, failed book or not. I can't (yet...) say the same for myself. Secondly, these authors decided to kill their books, whereas my darling was murdered. Just let me be dramatic for a moment, okay? Murdered! My book was murdered! Or was she? A friend pointed out that I was waiting to sell my book to publishers, when I could sell it to readers, all by myself. That's true, of course. Self-publishing is as easy as it's ever been, and if done well, it can even be lucrative. But, in most cases, self-published authors spend money, not make it, and they have to be their own editor, copy editor, publicist, and book cover designer (which can lead to this and this and this). I certainly could self-publish my novel, but I don't have the cash, time, or talent to do it successfully. Plus,  there's still a stigma to publishing your own writing. Though this is changing, I've never been an early adopter. (I used my AOL email account well into the new millennium, y'all; I leave the experiments to the innovative types.) The truth is, I want a reputable publishing house standing behind my book; I want them to tell you it's good so that I don't have to. So, okay, I'm willing to let my book die, if that's to be its fate. With all my talk of murder and barbecued souls, I'll be the first to admit I'm letting myself wallow. But can you blame me? I'm grieving nearly five years of hard work. I'm mourning sentences, characters, and scenes that I'm still proud of. Letting go hurts. A lot. A friend of mine once said she didn't want to write a novel because she couldn't stand the idea of working for years on a project that might fail. One of my writing students recently told me she's so afraid her book won't sell that the very thought makes her hyperventilate. Another friend said she might die if her novel wasn't published. I identified with all of these confessions. I felt them myself. Not-selling my novel was my biggest fear, and it's happening. It happened. (I was in natural, unmedicated labor with my child for 36 hours. For 24 of these hours, my cervix remained only 5 centimeters dilated. No matter how relaxed I remained, how deeply I breathed, there was no progress. None. More than once during the process, I thought, "This is like trying to sell a fucking novel!") (There's a moment, right before a newborn baby breaks into a wail, when his face wrinkles up, collapses in on itself like an imploding building, and sorrow, pure and clean sorrow, sweeps heavy across his features. I know this feeling.) Goodbye, goodbye, Novel #1. 2. The thing is, rejection is instructive. Over the past year I've learned that hearing "no" doesn't get easier if the stakes are higher. Reject my piddling short stories and I will barely flinch; mess with my dear book and I'm rendered immediately vulnerable: "immobilized, apologetic," as Alice Munro writes in her masterful story "Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You." I urge my students to go for it and send out their work, that they have to get used to a life of disappointment if they want to be writers. As if one can get used to such a thing. I've also learned, however, that a thoughtful rejection is a valuable one, especially coming from an overworked, underpaid editor. To have taken the time to read my work, and written feedback -- that's something I appreciate. This is called relationship-building, I am told. I have more than one friend who sold books to editors who rejected their previous one(s). Lastly, these months of rejection have taught me the difference between being tenacious and being stubborn -- and being stubborn and being desperate. My agent can continue to shop my novel around, but I have already attended its funeral. I've said my eulogy, eaten the casseroles, wept in the shower, screamed into my pillow. I have willed myself to move on. I must, in order to continue my life as a writer. I haven't lost my tenacity, I've simply refocused it on my next book, which I'm more than halfway done with. (This is the upside of a submission process that takes forever). Novel #2 deserves my full attention and care. Without it, my work -- and I -- will suffer. And this new book, it will be published. If it doesn't, well, I'll just die.   Image credit: Evelyn Marin/Flickr
Essays, Notable Articles

Making Room for Readers

One recent morning, my almost four year old daughter started crying out of the blue. I asked her what was wrong, and she wailed, “I don’t have a library card!” So with a proud paternal bibliophile’s heart swollen in my chest, I strapped her into her car seat and we set off for the library in search of a library card and -- at her request -- in search of Tintin books like those I’d told her were my favorite stories at the library when I was young. We went first to the branch library in our end of town, a small, round building with walls almost entirely of glass. All those windows, and the books behind them, make it look pretty inviting, and we parked our car in the lot and I held my daughter’s hand as she skipped to the door, bubbling over with excitement. Unfortunately, it was closed; I’d known municipal budget cuts had reduced the hours of all library branches, but I’d thought that only meant it was closed on Fridays. Instead, it meant this branch -- and all others, apart from the main library downtown -- were open only a couple of hours four afternoons through the week. No mornings, no evenings, no weekends. My daughter’s bubbling enthusiasm turned to tears outside that locked door, so I hustled her back to the car and drove to the main library as quickly as traffic and speed limits allowed. It was open, thank goodness, and we spent a long time exploring the children’s room, learning how to find “a book about astronauts” using the signs on the stacks and numbered shelves, and choosing other stories about dinosaurs, kids in school, and a penguin. We consulted the online catalogue, but the nearest Tintin books were a few towns away and would have to be requested for later (something the computers in the children’s room didn’t seem capable of doing, for whatever reason, unlike those in the adult section upstairs). When we’d found enough books, my daughter strutted up to the circulation desk, stood on her tiptoes, and announced to the librarian, “I need a library card!” The librarian, who must have been through this before, sighed and her face took on the look of someone who knows she’s about to disappoint a young patron. “Well,” she said, “here’s the rule. If a child is under five -- and I know it seems kind of backwards -- if a child is under five, she needs to be able to print her first and last name on this form.” She slid a small blue card in front of my daughter, and pointed to a narrow space for her name. “She can write her name,” I said, “but maybe not small enough for that line.” “I can do it,” my daughter said, so I got her a pencil and she did a great job writing her first name, Gretchen, but unfortunately those letters took up the whole space. We should have chosen a shorter name, I thought, as she got frustrated -- understandably -- and tried to print her last name, which she hasn’t practiced as much, in the margins of the card and ended up with a mess. “I can’t do it,” she said, her face melting. “We’ll practice at home and try again soon,” I told her, while sliding my own library card onto the desk. The librarian gave us a couple of blank cards to practice with, and I drove home with a crestfallen face in the rearview. And she has practiced, with tongue-peeking determination, but she still can’t quite fit her name in that space so she still can’t quite get a library card. Later in the day, I told my wife about what had happened, and she said, “It’s just like that girl who wanted your book.” I hadn’t made the connection myself, but a few weeks earlier I’d gone to Maine for a book tour event, a sidewalk signing for which I sat outside a bookstore and hand-sold my novel to passersby. I had some great conversations and lots of fun, and even sold a few books, but it’s the one that got away I’ll remember. A young teenager -- a tween, I suppose, but that label feels infantalizing -- came down the sidewalk with two older women, and the eyeball on the front of my book drew her in as her companions kept walking. Her face lit up as she read the back cover, and she said, “This sounds good. Can I buy it?” At this point, though, her escorts had realized she wasn’t with them and had backtracked to my table. Before I could answer her question, one of the women said, “I don’t know...” “It’s okay, I have my own money,” the girl said, but the women with her shook their heads. “Is it appropriate for a thirteen year old?” one of them asked, and I admit, it’s a question I hadn’t been asked before. “I think so,” I told her. “It’s not graphic or violent or anything. I don’t think there’s any swearing.” But I should have played the “I’m a parent card” to increase my credibility, because apparently I wasn’t convincing. Or perhaps I should have borrowed Mitch Hedberg’s line that, “Every book is a children's book if the kid can read!” “We should ask your mother,” said the second woman, a note of finality in her stern voice. “Books are so... books are tricky. That’s something your mother needs to decide.” “But I have my own money!” insisted the girl, her face as low as my daughter’s would be at the library later. “I can buy it myself.” At that point, I would have given it to her for free, and I would have paid for any book she wanted in the whole store, just to keep her reading, but I had a feeling that offer would make it all worse. The decision had been made, and as the two woman turned and walked away up the sidewalk, the girl (a niece, perhaps?) took a last look at the cover, then gave a sad, apologetic look to me as I gave an equally sad, apologetic to her. Then she put the book down and dragged her feet up the sidewalk. I don’t blame those two women any more than I blame the librarian. Their responsibility as guardians, whether they were aunts or family friends or much older sisters, is to watch out for the young person in their charge. Thirteen is a liminal moment between childhood and adulthood, so who am I to say what’s appropriate for someone that age, and for this particular thirteen year old I don’t know in the slightest. And let’s face it, there are probably lots of parents who’d worry about their son or daughter (or nephew or niece) buying a novel about a hermit who spends most of his story naked from a scruffy guy like me. That’s easy enough for me to accept. As my protagonist says, “if I saw myself bursting out of the woods, I might not offer help either.” Yet I can’t help but remember that reading -- both the careful selection of books and being given enough privacy to quietly read them myself -- was among the first freedoms I had. Those early choices, and being trusted to make them, seem like foundational experiences now, decades later. That’s how my brothers and I found those Tintin stories, in fact, wandering the stacks of the library unhindered until we happened upon a whole box of Hergé’s books in a cardboard box on the very bottom shelf in the very back corner of the collection. They may have been stuck there as an afterthought or an embarrassment, forbidden from mingling with “better” books, but to me they were buried treasure. And now, as a father and author, I want my daughter to find treasures of her own in the stacks, and I want a girl like the one I met in Maine to find books that are hers, only hers, and to find them all on her own. I can’t think of a better honor than to have something I’ve written be that book for someone. It’s a mistake to rarify reading and put books out of reach. It’s a mistake to assume, as Alan Jacobs did recently in the Chronicle of Higher Education (in a passage later quoted by Shelf Awareness), that readers are, “mostly born and only a little made.” Because those discoveries in libraries and bookstores -- and, yes, on my parents’ shelves, too -- are what made me a reader, not some mysterious, bibliogenic accident of birth. That kind of thinking not only makes fewer readers, but might unmake the ones already forming. In an era of reduced library budgets and hours, closing bookstores, declining sales, and lost readers, discouraging anyone, of any age, from picking up a book they’re interested in seems like the last thing we should be doing. And to the thirteen year old girl I met in Maine, if you should somehow read this, any time you want it my book is yours. I’ll throw in a few others you might enjoy, too.   Image credit: woodd24/Flickr
Books as Objects, Notable Articles, The Future of the Book

The E-Reader of Sand: The Kindle and the Inner Conflict Between Consumer and Booklover

"I can show you a sacred book that might interest a man such as yourself" – Jorge Luis Borges, “The Book of Sand” 1. Like many people who love to read, I exist in a paradoxical state of having both far too many books and far too few. I probably don’t have many more than the average literature lover of my age, but I live in a smallish apartment, and it often feels hazardously, almost maniacally overcrowded with books. A precarious obelisk of partially read paperbacks rises from my bedside table, coated in a thin film of dust. My shelves are all two rows deep, stuffed with a Tetris-like emphasis on space-optimization, and pretty much every horizontal surface holds some or other type of reading material. I haven’t read nearly all of these books (many of them I haven’t even made a serious attempt to get started on) but that doesn’t stop me from accumulating more at a rate that neither my income nor my living space can reasonably be expected to sustain. This is, on occasion, a source of mild tension between my wife and me. She’s a reader too, and likes having a lot of books about the place, but she also likes to have space for all those other objects that you need to have around if you want your home to look like a home, and not a drastically mismanaged second-hand bookshop. Every time I come through the door with a couple of new purchases, or carefully rip open a padded envelope from Amazon, I can’t help being aware that I am engaging in a small act of domestic colonization, claiming another few cubic inches in the name of the printed page, in the struggle of Lesensraum against Lebensraum. The situation has been deteriorating for years now and, up until very recently, wasn’t showing any signs of potential resolution. Then a friend gave me a gift of a Kindle, slyly mentioning that he was doing so, at least in part, as a benevolent intervention into my shelf space situation. I’m not sure I would necessarily have chosen to buy an e-reader myself. I am more or less your typical bibliophile, in that I have always loved books almost as much for their physical properties as for their intellectual ones. I like the way a well-made paperback flops open in the hand, the briskly authoritative slap of its pages as it closes. I enjoy the feel of a hardback, its solidity and self-enclosure, its sober weight, the whispering creak of its stretching spine. I like the way they smell, too: the slightly chemical tang of new books and the soft, woody scent of old ones. (If you’re picturing me crouched in a corner of your local bookstore like some sort of mental case, a Library of America edition of Pale Fire pressed to my face, you can stop right there: it’s an incidental pleasure, not something I pursue with any kind of monomaniacal intensity). My point is that I, like a lot of other people, enjoy books as objects. Despite the difficulties that can arise from their accumulation, I like that they occupy physical as well as mental space. In fact, I quietly entertained the futile hope that the whole idea of e-books and e-readers would prove to be a transitory fad, that everyone would just somehow forget that books were cumbersome and comparatively expensive to produce and not especially good for the environment and that they could very easily be replaced by small clusters of electronic data that could be beamed across the world in seconds without ever taking up any actual space. I did not want what happened to CDs to happen to books. But then I took this small, smoothly utilitarian rectangle of grey plastic out of its box and fired it up. Within minutes, I was beginning to understand its crazy potential. In no time at all, I had downloaded a small library of free, out-of copyright classics. There is, obviously, something to be said for being able to walk around with the complete works of Tolstoy on your person at all times without fear of collapsed vertebrae or public ridicule. There is also, just as obviously, something to be said for having immediate access to a vast, intangible warehouse of books from which you can choose, on a whim, to purchase anything and begin reading it straight away. It occurred to me that Borges would have been thrilled and horrified in equal measure by the Kindle. In fact, in a weird way, he sort of invented it (in the same way that Leonardo “invented” the helicopter and various other gadgets). 2. At the beginning of his story “The Book of Sand,” the unnamed bibliophile narrator — like Borges himself, a retired librarian at the Argentine National Library — hears a knock on the door of his apartment. At the door is a Scottish Bible salesman. When the narrator informs him, somewhat superciliously, that he has more than enough Bibles to be getting on with, and in more than enough rare editions, the salesman replies that he is also in possession of a strange volume he bought for a few rupees and a Bible from an illiterate untouchable in Bombay (“people could not so much as step on his shadow,” we are informed, “without being defiled”). He shows the narrator this clothbound octavo volume and, as he examines it, “the unusual heft of it” surprises him. The Bible salesman tells the narrator that the illiterate from whom he bought the volume “told me his book was called the Book of Sand because neither sand nor this book has a beginning or an end.” The narrator then tries to find the book’s first page, and quickly realizes that this is impossible, because it is as though the pages “grew from the very book.” He encounters the same problem in trying to find its final page, and stammers his disbelief at the impossible object he holds in his hands: “It can’t be, yet it is,” the Bible peddler said, his voice little more than a whisper. “The number of pages in this book is literally infinite. No page is the first page; no page is the last.” The narrator realizes that he has to have the book, and offers the salesman the entirety of his pension along with an extremely rare edition of Wyclif’s black-letter Bible (thus repeating the salesman’s previous symbolic exchange of holy scripture for this impossible text that seems at once to encompass and to blaspheme against the natural, Godly order). The Book of Sand now in his possession, the narrator spends his days and nights in contemplation of its mysteries, gorging himself at its inexhaustible font of texts. Before long, he begins to realize that the book itself is “monstrous,” and that his possession of it — and its possession of him — has made him somehow monstrous too. “I felt it was a nightmare thing,” he tells us, “an obscene thing, and that it defiled and corrupted reality.” He considers burning it, but fears that “the burning of an infinite book might be similarly infinite, and suffocate the planet in smoke.” He decides that “the best place to hide a leaf is in the forest,” and the story ends with his discarding the Book of Sand on a shelf of damp periodicals in the basement of the library, taking care not to take note of where he’s hidden it so that it is effectively lost to him and, he hopes, the world. I’m very fond of my Kindle. For the reasons I’ve outlined above, I think it’s an ingenious little gadget. But in my more hysterically Borgesian moments, I also think that there is something obscene about it, something that defiles and corrupts a reality I don’t want to see defiled and corrupted. It’s a tiny thing, really — smaller, in fact, than my paperback Penguin Classics edition of The Book of Sand. And yet the number of pages it contains is, if not quite “literally infinite,” at least potentially infinite. No page is its first page; no page is its last. If I place it on one of my shelves, if I slip it between, say, two creased and dog-eared volumes of Borges’ stories, it sits there unobtrusively, slimmer than any of the books around it. And yet it has the uncanny, shape-shifting potential to encompass all of them, to embody them all both individually and as a whole. Unsettlingly, it makes all those other books appear suddenly unnecessary, superfluous, seeming to haunt them with the imminent prospect of their own redundancy. It’s an elegant coincidence that the microprocessors that facilitate its mysterious magic are made from silicon, which is extracted from the silica contained in sand. The Kindle is therefore, in an oddly literal sense, a book of sand. What I think gives Borges the jitters about his Book of Sand is the way in which it — like the Aleph in his earlier story “The Aleph” — paradoxically contains an infinity within a finite space. Like so many of the uncanny objects in his work, it exerts a terrible, transformative pressure on reality. And the Kindle exerts its own transformative pressure, albeit in a more banal fashion. I don’t mean to imply that e-readers frighten me, because they don’t. They are no more monstrous or evil than any other example of a new technology replacing an old one (and the book itself is, after all, a piece of technology: a gadget of ink and paper and glue). But their ascendency does make me a little sad, because I know when I use my Kindle that, even though there are important ways in which it can’t even hope to compete with civilization's greatest invention, there are equally important ways in which it effortlessly surpasses it, and that these are the reasons why the e-reader will end up replacing the bound book. 3. This was brought home to me recently when I received a copy of Adam Levin’s colossal debut novel The Instructions, which I recklessly agreed to review for a newspaper. The thing is over a thousand pages and is, in its hardback edition, considerably larger and heavier than any other book I currently possess (including a Norton Complete Shakespeare that, until The Instructions arrived, did bestride its narrow shelf like a Colossus, and ruled it with an iron fist). By way of illustrating the physical magnitude of Levin’s novel, let me make the following peculiar admission: during a moment of whimsical distraction one day last week, I discovered that it was possible to insert into the generous space between the book’s spine and its inner binding not one but two standard-sized mouth organs that happened to be lying on my desk as I read it. Whatever obscure advantage might be gained from being able to secrete two wind instruments inside the binding of a book, any object of that size is going to be difficult to carry around (with or without mouth organs). And if you’re reading a 1,030 page novel to a reviewing deadline, you’re faced with a tricky conflict of practicalities: in order to get it read, you want to be able to take it with you if you have to leave the house, but lugging the thing around on a train or a bus is no joke, given that its volume and weight are roughly comparable to that of a hotel minibar. So I did the obvious thing, and decided to see whether I could download The Instructions from the Kindle Store. When I found that the e-book version wasn’t yet available, I was briefly seized by that most contemporary (and stupid) of irritations: that of being denied a convenience that didn’t even exist until very recently. Granted, Levin’s novel is an extreme example, but it got me thinking about the unassuageable forces that the book as an object, as a cultural artifact, is up against. The history of what we call progress is a catalogue of ways in which the desire for convenience has trumped almost every other concern. As I’ve said already (and perhaps even overstated to a suspicious degree), I love books, and I would rather not live in a world where they might end up as little more than interior décor affectations or, like vinyl records, fetish objects for a small but dedicated coterie of analogue cultists. E-books are not perfect, and the experience of reading them is, I think, still inferior enough to that of reading a real book that, all things being equal, I’d almost always choose the former. But the CD, as any audiophile will gladly tell you, is a far superior format to the MP3 in terms of sound quality and fidelity, and when was the last time you bought a CD? When was the last time anyone you know even bought a CD? Even my dad gets his music from iTunes now. I still have a small bookcase filled with CDs, but I haven’t added to it for years at this stage and, because I don’t even have a CD player anymore, they basically just sit there reminding me of a rapidly receding past in which recorded music used to have a physical presence. No matter how badly I want to, I can’t quite imagine a possible future in which ink and paper books might somehow avoid the same fate. The insatiable desire for ever more and ever newer forms of convenience that drives our global economy and our technological culture leaves a scattered trail of obsolescence in its wake. As much as I don’t want my bookshelves to become part of this trail of obsolescence, I can already see early warning signs of my own desire for convenience — for instantly getting what I want, for not having to deal with mere objects in all their cumbersome actuality — beginning to outrank my love of the book as a physical thing. I don’t want my identity as a consumer, as a ruthless pursuer of the most user-friendly and cost-effective option, to supersede my identity as a booklover. I don’t look forward to a future in which my Kindle (or whatever device inevitably succeeds it) is the only book on the shelf. But it’s a future I’m fairly convinced is awaiting us, and it’s one that I, as a consumer, am playing my part in advancing us toward. There are moments when I wish I could follow the lead of Borges’ retired librarian and bury my book of sand on some obscure shelf in a library basement and just forget all about it. But then I realize that the thing is just too useful, too crazily convenient a tool to not embrace. And then I tell myself that it’s not possible, anyway, to shelve the advance of technology, and that history is filled with examples of beautiful things being supplanted by more efficient versions of those things. Ultimately, you’re never going to win an argument against convenience, no matter how much you love the anachronistic, heavy, unwieldy, and beautiful thing you want to save.   Image via the author
In Person, Notable Articles

A Critic’s Notebook: On Meeting Ayn Rand’s Editor at Antioch College

1. We met at a writer’s conference at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. At sixty-six, Patrick O’Connor had a roving eye and a drinking problem. A self-professed Trotskyite and anti-Stalinist from the old radical ‘30s left wing of the Democrat party, he was Ayn Rand’s editor at New American Library in the late 1960s and early 1970s. We quickly discovered we had something in common: our aversion to Ayn Rand’s philosophy. I was an insecure young professor of philosophy at a conservative evangelical college, with a troubled marriage and two kids. Cedarville College was four miles from Antioch, but  so distant ideologically from the famously radical Antioch that it might as well have been four light years. I was prepared to dislike Patrick O’Connor intensely, based upon his association with a writer I considered odious. But he knocked me off balance with his first words. I later learned he was quite practiced at this. We met in the quad during a cigarette break. Patrick O’Connor nursed a black coffee in a white ceramic mug he’d walked off with from the college cafeteria. I had a deep tan from mowing five acres of grass every week that summer, and lazing with my kids at the pool. A small man with a round face, he had a sly smile and a direct manner. We regarded each other from opposite ends of a picnic table. Hey kid, have your good looks gotten in the way of you being taken seriously as a writer? I deflected his question. Feeling misplaced in both a marriage and a job led to fantasies about women, art, and salvation that would later land me in world of trouble; I had already taken one of the women writers at the conference for a late night spin in my convertible, and had plans to see her that night. Somehow I had arrived at two non-original ideas:  that I needed to write fiction, not philosophy, and that my personal aesthetic should be, “I write to get the girl.” I was a hollowed out writing conference cliché, and I was sure Patrick O’Connor saw right through me. Was I a frivolous person, impersonating a serious one? Talking to her favorite editor, I was certain that Ayn Rand did not see herself this way. 2. On April 15, 2011, almost twenty years after my encounter with Patrick O’Connor, and almost 30 years after Ayn Rand’s death in 1982, Atlas Shrugged opened in theaters around the country. The movie is based on Rand’s bestselling dystopian novel of the same name, a literary vehicle expressing her trademark worldview: the morality of rational self-interest, or, Objectivism. The film was financed by a wealthy devotee of Ayn Rand’s work, and marketed aggressively to the Tea Party demographic by FreedomWorks, one of the prime movers in the Tea Party movement, which engaged in a massive campaign to encourage audience attendance, and to push the film into as many theaters as possible. The opening line of Atlas Shrugged — “Who is John Galt?” — has appeared on signs at Tea Party protests across America. Glenn Beck praises Atlas Shrugged regularly, and hosted a panel discussion dedicated to asking if Rand’s fiction is finally becoming reality. Once a shadowy cult presence in the margins of American life, Ayn Rand is now one of the central intellectual and cultural inspirations for the base of the Republican Party. 3. A few days ago on Twitter someone tweeted, “The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in philosophy: the search for a moral justification for selfishness." Ayn Rand’s books provided that moral justification for my evangelical Christian students. Atlas Shrugged, in particular. They were drawn to the fierce youthful idealism of The Fountainhead, which they found, quote, empowering. I found both novels to be insufferable. Rand was a third rate novelist of turgid prose who saw no reason to pen a sentence without making a speech. Here is a sample sentence from Atlas Shrugged: That which you call your soul or spirit is your consciousness, and that which you call “free will” is your mind’s freedom to think or not, the only will you have, your only freedom, the choice that controls all the choices you make and determines your life and your character. As a stylist, she could be dreadful, her prose in service to her philosophy: It meant nothing to him any longer, only a faint tinge of sadness — and somewhere within him, a drop of pain moving briefly and vanishing, like a raindrop on the glass of a window, its course in the shape of a question. A drop of rain pain in the shape of a question: “Who is John Galt.” That’s some raindrop. 4. I don’t remember what I said to deflect Patrick O’Connor’s question — something short and inane. I was already deeply conflicted about my appearance, and felt frequently that my life was a fraud, a series of performances at home and at work. Teaching was a kind of performance art. Although I had chosen a substantive discipline, social and political philosophy, I often wondered whether this was to mask my insecurities. I felt myself to be frivolous and vain. Writing a book on the French philosopher Jacques Derrida had done nothing to dissuade me from this view, as Derrida himself was regarded as a lightweight, a “deconstructionist” more in vogue with language and literature departments than with “serious” philosophy departments in academe. I steered the conversation to safer topics: Antioch, and Ayn Rand’s books. Antioch was a hotbed of student radicalism and curricular innovation. Two years later, four miles southeast, my “Christian” college would try to fire me for publishing a book on feminism, yet here I was in conversation with the editor of an indomitable woman from Russia, herself among the first women to be admitted to university after the Russian Revolution — an atheist and fierce critic of religion — who was nevertheless the guiding light of some of my evangelical Christian students. The performative contradictions in that last sentence continue to astonish me. 5. By the time I met Patrick O’Connor, I was itching for a fight about Ayn Rand. Two students were making my life hellish in class. Both were Econ students, promoting Rand as an apostle of free market capitalism and suspicious of my muddle-headed liberalism which harped about the growing chasm in Reagan’s America between the rich and the poor and the need for distributive justice. John Rawls’ theory of justice as fairness? Forget it, Rawls was a wuss. Additionally, they were having difficulty with the concept of Jesus of Nazareth having compassion for the poor, like, say, Mother Teresa. Never mind that Jesus was a Jewish Mediterranean peasant, probably illiterate, with a biting critique of the rich and possessed of peasant humor — “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven” — my students weren’t buying it. It was not “WWJD” (What Would Jesus Do) for these students, it was more like, “What would John Galt think.” I didn’t give a tinker’s damn about what John Galt thought. Holly and Mark were becoming royal pains and I wanted to kick Patrick O’Connor in the ass. So when he told me that he was a Trotskyite, a Communist, and from the democratic wing of the Democratic party, I knew he was as misplaced with Rand as I was at my college. I asked him directly: What was she like to work with? How had he managed to be that woman’s editor all those years? Do you want to know why Ayn Rand’s books sell so well? he countered. Well, yes. Because she writes the best children’s literature in America, O’Connor said. The Fountainhead is practically a rite of passage for alienated youth. She writes these epic, Wagnerian things. Where the sex takes place on the very highest plane and it speaks to the kids’ highest aspirations, their youthful idealism. It’s all YA stuff. In that case, I argued, people should grow out of her, like a phase, they should get over her ideas when they become adults. This is America, he said. There aren’t many ideas. Ayn Rand had a few simple ones which she believed in fiercely and promoted relentlessly. But surely you don’t agree with her philosophy? The whole Objectivism thing from Atlas Shrugged? Of course not! But we never talked politics. I knew better. I wanted to know just how well Ayn Rand sold, really. She paid the bills. The lights, the gas, the heating bills, the Christmas bonuses. Here’s the thing you gotta know about publishing, kid. The publishing industry itself is basically left, but true publishers publish what they think will sell. There is very little publishing “from belief” and that’s the way it has always been. We’ll publish anything that we know will sell, and everyone — no matter what they may think of her personally — everyone, every one, admires her sales. I asked about the “didactic nature” of her prose and he laughed. Didactic, hell, it’s worse than that. She writes to convert! I thought of my evangelical Christian students. They liked the idea of conversion. They’d like to convert all of godless Russia to Christianity. China, too. And of course, they wanted to “win America for Christ.” The irony of this: these good Christian kids admired an evangelical atheist who believed in conversion. My head swam. What about Rand’s reputation for being “difficult?” I did everything she said. What’s everything? (I had three books in the pipeline. Naively, and un-Rand-like, I said yes to everything Macmillan and Prentice Hall told me.) Ayn Rand wanted approval of copy, advertising, art, you name it, O’Connor said. Publishers almost never give in to these kinds of demands, but we did. Because of her sales. I told the bosses, look, it’s her bat and ball. 6. You can get schooled at Twitter if you have the right friends. The other day someone tweeted that Facebook is the people you went to school with, and Twitter the people you wish you went to school with. So. the other day, Maud Newton tweeted: “Irony of Atlas Shrugged, movie about great people laid low by mediocre jealous people, is that it is wholly mediocre.” It’s been years since I spoke with Patrick O’Connor. And I’ve had time to think about Rand, about her legacy, about the way she never really went out of fashion among what John Scalzi calls the “nerd revenge porn” crowd. And I agree with O’Connor that Rand wrote children’s literature. The problem is that a lot of these people have grown up, put on colorful colonial uniforms, and are trying to shrink the nation’s budget to the size where it can be dragged into the bathroom and drowned in the bathtub. A libertarian whose ideas are as wacky as Rand’s (who in fact is named Rand) is now a United States senator in Kentucky. Former Fed Chairman and economist Alan Greenspan is a devotee of Ayn Rand. And a guy whom no one had heard of until recently, congressman Paul Ryan, (R-WI) Chairman of the House Budget Committee, has been making the GOP case for massive budget cuts that will hurt the poorest and most vulnerable among us, using principles derived from Ayn Rand’s “philosophy” of Objectivism, and requiring his staff to read her work. Paul Ryan proposes a budget plan would cap non-security discretionary spending at $360 billion for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 and freezing it for five years. That’s equal to 2006 spending levels. Over the next decade that means cuts to education, job training, and social services of 25 percent below levels needed to maintain current services. These reductions come on top of the $38.5 billion already cut from this year’s budget. Two-thirds of the long term budget cuts that Ryan proposes are directed at middle class and low-income people, as well as the poorest of the poor at home and abroad. At the same time, he proposes tax cuts up to 30 percent for the nation’s wealthiest corporations. Paul Ryan and his followers have solidified the connection between Ayn Rand, the Tea Party, and the Grand Old Party, with nary an outcry from the “religious right,” Karl Rove’s “base” that put George W. Bush in power. No one that I am aware of in the religious right has called attention to the words of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah in the Bible: Doom to you who legislate evil, who make laws that make victims — laws that make misery for the poor, that rob my destitute people of dignity, exploiting defenseless widows, taking advantage of homeless children. What will you have to say on Judgment Day, when Doomsday arrives out of the blue? Who will you get to help you? What good will your money do you? Isaiah 10:1-3, The Message translation In lecture tours around America, Ayn Rand defended “the virtue of selfishness.” She had a long term love affair with Nathaniel Brandon, a young psychologist, who later established the Nathaniel Brandon Institute to promote Rand’s philosophy. Though it was reported that she did so with her husband’s full knowledge, it is generally acknowledged that Frank O’Connor (no relation to Patrick) found the experience to be “difficult.” I don’t know if Patrick O’Connor got himself laid in Yellow Springs, Ohio. But the affair with the writer I met at that Antioch conference created deep pain in my family, and in hers, and led to the breakup of both marriages. In time, I came to understand the wisdom of that saying, “All love affairs are special cases, and yet at the same time each is the same case” — but in my case, it was too late. I understand the selfishness part of Objectivism. It’s the virtue part that causes me difficulty. 7. On the day that Atlas Shrugged opened in theatres, someone tweeted, “Republicanism is crumbling of its own avarice, lust for power, excesses, and hypocrisy. It could not be otherwise when their entire "philosophy" is based upon the works of a sociopath.” Patrick O’Connor did not think that Ayn Rand was a sociopath—to him she was just a loveable little old Jewish lady from Leningrad-- although apparently his bosses at New American Library thought otherwise. “She can’t be Jewish, she’s a fascist!” he reported them saying. O’Connor challenged their hypocrisy: You’ve been living off this woman for years. She’s been paying all your bills. The philosopher Jurgen Habermas spoke often of the “legitimation crisis” that plagues late capitalism, as core communication functions in society become disabled or “colonized” by money and power. I’ve often wondered whether Patrick O’Connor believed that publishers decrying Ayn Rand as a fascist while enjoying the benefits of her labor should undergo a legitimation crisis or shut up. Here are Ayn Rand’s own words, in Atlas Shrugged. Until and unless you discover that money is the root of all good, you ask for your own destruction. When money ceases to become the means by which men deal with one another, then men become tools of other men. Blood, whips, guns—or dollars. Take your choice—there is no other. 8. My encounter with Patrick O’Connor went to the heart of my struggles in those days: Was I a serious person? Was I really a pretty boy, flighty, without substance? Or someone serious enough to write, to take myself seriously as a writer? Ayn Rand took herself seriously and produced dreck—really dangerous stuff. She was a true believer. I no longer knew what I believed. I was carried away by the next breeze, toward the next woman, self absorbed and a wisp of the wind—but she stood as firmly planted as an oak. Rand was like Reagan: wrong but strong. She has endured, despite turgid prose and half baked ideas that were laughed out of the academy by people like me. The year before I met Patrick O’Connor, Mary Gaitskill published a novel called Two Girls, Fat and Thin, which featured a thinly disguised Rand character, Anna Granite, and her philosophy of “Definitism.” Like the character Justine in her novel, Gaitskill had actually interviewed followers of Ayn Rand. I asked Mary Gaitskill: what is it about Ayn Rand, and why is she still here? What inspired her to write about Ayn Rand? Gaitskill wrote back: I was inspired in part by realizing how important Ayn Rand's ideas still were, and how deep they got into the American psyche.  I thought then (and I've been proved right) that she was much more influential than she was given credit for.  I didn't have to be that smart to conclude this, I knew that Alan Greenspan had been an early devotee, and that William Buckley had taken her very seriously and that Atlas Shrugged was (according to one poll) one of the five top best-sellers in the history of the world, up there with the Bible.  I found this astonishing. Still do. Gaitskill went on to say: Rand appears to be so crazy, and yet she really does speak for an aspect of America, really for an aspect of human experience.  She treats big ideas in a way the common person can understand them; that is one legitimate reason for her popularity.  Something I noticed about the followers, the "cultists" that I met--they tended to be nice people yearning for bigger meaning in their lives. Most of them were not especially selfish.  It’s worth noting that most of them were also NOT people who knew Rand or were part of the early group.  Those people, the few I met, struck me as both crazy and unpleasant.   But the lower-level followers, no.  They were in their own way idealists. 9. Patrick O’Connor believed that Ayn Rand sold because she knew who she was, she knew what she wanted, and because she spoke to people’s common dreams-- the dreams of well meaning, idealistic people who want something more. I wasn’t dreaming of anything that day at Antioch, except maybe Rilke’s earnest childlike plea: Change your life. I knew that I needed to change my life, but didn’t know how. I couldn’t guide anyone reliably, anywhere, except in circles. Saul Alinsky used to say, when you don’t know where you are going, any road will do. Meanwhile, The Economist has reported several sharp spikes in sales of Atlas Shrugged since 2007. According to the Ayn Rand Institute, sales of the novel hit an all-time annual record that year, then reached a new record in 2008. USA Today reports that Atlas Shrugged made its debut on the USA Today Best Selling Books List on January 22, 2009, two days after President Obama’s inauguration. On April 20, Atlas Shrugged, first published in 1957, hit number 65 on the list, propelled by the new movie. Released in 299 theatres, the movie made $1.7 million in its first week. As Patrick O’Connor insisted to me in 1992, she sells. Do you remember this joke that was circulating in the 1980s: While deconstructionists were taking over English departments, Republicans were taking over the country. I never found that joke to be funny. Image Credit: Wikipedia