There is a paperback on my bookshelf that doesn’t exist, but it managed to change my life anyway. I found this book among other homely paperbacks on the ninety-nine cent cart at the Montague Book Mill, a used bookstore in Massachusetts’ Pioneer Valley. True to its slogan -- “Books you don’t need in a place you can’t find” -- nothing stocked is guaranteed to be there again, making this book a quintessential one-of-a-kind find. What arrested me first was its size: a little smaller than one of the classic mid-forties Penguin editions, narrow and flexible, ideal for slipping into a purse or pocket. What caught me next was its barefaced plainness. The jacket was entirely white, the cover crinkled from its stint as a coaster. Its title was an italicized Times New Roman second-cousin. It appeared to be a self-published book; inside, the author had written a note in an unassuming small-caps scrawl, wishing a friend the best of luck with his own career. Although I have searched the title and the author more than once, the novel remains nonexistent. Unlike I’d first imagined, this author had no website or author’s platform. Search engines brought up many potential origins of the title (it has a fantasy flair) but an exact match remained elusive. All signs point to the author not having “made it” as we expect authors to ascend in this century’s frenetic flux of multimedia attention. In effect, here lies the only copy; rest in peace. This novel has been on my bookshelf ever since, surrounded by the greats: Dante Alighieri and Leo Tolstoy, Emily Dickinson, William Faulkner. But this book has a special status compared to its neighbors, albeit an infamous one. It is my bad-mood effigy; I turn to this book for an adrenaline shot of self-indulgence whenever I’m in the throes of apathy, bad writing, and rejections. Simply put, the writing of this book is bad. In fact, it’s often laughably bad, an unremarkable and derivative species of the speculative genre. In my more magnanimous moments (or so I delude myself), I think self-righteously, This author -- the nerve! The self-published pretension! As my literary voodoo doll, I believed I could turn to this novel as a concrete specimen of the written word that was -- undeniably -- inferior to my own work. But books do not defer meekly to the morals we have assigned them. A bad book, so-called, has just as much to teach us as a good book. It is often a far better teacher than any work that is uniformly artful, where excellence disguises the nuts and bolts of craft. A bad book also teaches us something a better book cannot: humility. Not the humility of resignation -- that of admitting that we will never be very good at what we do, no matter how earnestly we try. Such humility can easily morph into the indulgent self-flagellation that either demands the commiseration of friends or brings our vocation to a standstill, where thereafter we are those people who petulantly claim we “could have been somebody.” Rather, it’s the humility of acknowledging that time and effort lead to changes in our abilities as writers. Instead of ascribing a moralistic verdict of good or bad, less or more, we humbly acknowledge that nothing more could be asked of us than what our creations can attest to at the time. The great works of literature are all relatively alike in their excellence. Their perfection is consummate, constantly out of reach. We become comfortable saying, amused and defeated, “I’m no Shakespeare,” as if that is that. But every bad specimen of writing is lit up by the harsh fluorescent lighting of reality. Each pockmark, scar, and slip-up is visible; we have our favorites to trot out in conversation like ghouls in chains. Moreover, what makes for a bad book is a constantly shifting parameter. Is a book bad if it is merely written poorly? Is a book bad if it’s successful with the masses? (Fifty Shades of Grey, for instance, being one of those “bad” novels that is known -- if not read -- by everyone.) But my own unique bad book quickly transformed from a voodoo doll to a mirror. This person’s writing is cheap and unmarketable, I start to think -- and before I finish the thought: So was your writing a year ago. A week ago. Yesterday. Bad books remind us of our failings and that such failings are always closer to us than we imagine. As writers, we have to be our own best advocate; we have to invest in the underdog. And by the same token, we must be our first critic, our arch nemesis. Anne Lamott posits in Bird by Bird that radio station KFKD ("K-Fucked") is playing in our heads each time we write, with “the endless stream of self-aggrandizement” blasting in the speaker of our right ear, while “out of the left speaker will be the rap songs of self-loathing.” We can tune these out but not turn them off. Similarly, Orson Scott Card contends in How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy, “Writers have to simultaneously believe the following two things: 1. The story I am now working on is the greatest work of genius ever written in English. 2. The story I am now working on is worthless drivel.” The bad book on my shelf reminds me that I will contend with both ideologies at any given moment, and at any given moment they are true. We are destined to be continuously judged and ranked on a scale of lesser to better in our work. In reality, art is a highly competitive realm with no real rules. By turns, we will be winning in the arena, and we will be losing. And KFKD is always playing in the background, whichever speaker is blaring louder at this moment. And thus the most marvelous lesson of the nonexistent book on my shelf: that of artlessness. We do not write good books or bad books. We are all teachers, capable of leaving a lesson behind.
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“As you can see here, it’s all about desire and longing.” Yes it is, Ragnar, yes it is. Icelandic performance artist Ragnar Kjartansson is fascinated by what he calls “the oppressiveness of western culture claustrophobia.” His newest work, Bonjour, has shifted focus to poke fun at the ways in which the rest of the world elevates French sensibilities.
Dear Booger-Wiper, Have you ever had a beautiful experience that was suddenly marred by something ugly and unexpected? Have you ever walked the beach hand in hand with your beloved, waves lapping at your toes, only to have a hovering seagull squirt shit across your arm? When your firstborn was presented to you at the hospital, the child’s face full of unspeakable possibility, did he or she vomit in your hair? Piss in your lap? I ask -- crudely, I know -- because of what you did to the copy of Stewart O’Nan’s West of Sunset that I recently checked out from my local library. What you did -- in case you’ve somehow forgotten -- was this: while reading this sad, lovely tale of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s final days, you picked your nose. As O’Nan’s Fitzgerald drank his way through Hollywood with Humphrey Bogart and Sid Perelman, you explored your nostrils for the treasure within. And you didn’t stop there. Instead of doing what a decent person does -- cleaning one’s fingers with Kleenex or toilet paper, or rolling the evidence into a ball and flinging it behind the couch, wrongly assuming it will eventually disintegrate -- you wiped it directly onto the pages of West of Sunset. And -- not that this would excuse your barbarism -- your boogers weren’t off to the side, limited to the margins, but directly across O’Nan’s glowing prose. The effect of your wipery -- on myself and anyone else unlucky enough to have borrowed West of Sunset after you -- was this: She was just leaving the floor, sweeping gaily along the fringe of the parquet in an ash-gray evening dress with a red velvet sash that accentuated ** BOOGER! ** His money was gone and there was blood on his jacket, and when he called Sheilah, before he uttered a word, ** BOOGER! ** They nattered on, Zelda mimicking Sara’s sleepy lilt, drawing out her ** BOOGER! ** Every 15 or 20 pages, I was ripped from the story by your nostril-rubbings, forced to grimace and soldier on. It’s a testament to O’Nan’s skill that I was able to finish the book; a lesser novel might have gone back to the library unfinished, me hesitantly returning to the stacks -- now a little scarred, a little gun-shy. How do you live your life, Booger-Wiper? My first instinct is to imagine your home as a mucus-smeared nightmare hovel, mold at the corners and suspicious stains everywhere. But upon further reflection, I think your home might actually be fairly tidy -- seeing as how you so freely deposit your filth on things that don’t belong to you. If I lent you a pair of socks, what would lurk inside of them when I got them back? If I left a piece of Tupperware in your kitchen after a dinner party, would you return it to me, empty and clean? Or would it ruin my day? Part of what’s so galling about your crime is that you chose this book to besmirch. West of Sunset is so elegant, so elegiac, so worthy of respect. If, unable to escape your foul pathology, you have to do this to a library book, why not do it to more deserving title? Try Fifty Shades Freed or Trump: The Art of the Deal. You’re obviously sick -- that much is clear -- but at the very least, don’t drag down Art with your slimy fingers. To read West of Sunset -- and I know you read it all, because your vandalism is evident to the end -- while boogerizing its pages combines the high-minded and the gutter in an intriguing way. Putting aside my disgust for a moment, I must ask: Is there a pattern to your transgressions? When you go to the opera, do you ease out silent, queasy farts as the aria swells? When you enjoy a glass of long-cellared cabernet, do you drool into it first? Do you go unwashed for days, letting your armpits ferment, then revel in their stench as you stroll through a rose garden? What the fuck is wrong with you? I finished West of Sunset, despite the harm you inflicted upon it, and I’ve moved on to another library book: Mo Beta Blues, Questlove’s music-focused memoir. The odds that you’ve borrowed both seem slim to me, though I haven’t yet flipped through to check for your handiwork. But if I find so much as a flake of one of your awful rocks in Questlove’s book, you will hear from me, you repugnant snot-monster. That much is certain. Happy Reading, Jacob Lambert Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
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Jesmyn Ward signed a deal for two books with Simon & Schuster: one adult novel with Scribner and the other a middle-grade novel with Caitlyn Dlouhy Books, according to Publisher's Weekly. From our archives: Ward's 2017 Year in Reading entry and our interview with the two-time National Book Award winner.