Note on Paragraphs

It was Virginia Woolf who said (I think) that instead of paying attention to a writer’s sentences (all those little marginal checkmarks of affirmation) we should pay attention to their chapters. I think this is a good idea but would offer one more metric of appreciation: the paragraph. I don’t think you should focus on one to the exclusion of the other lengths, but they are all different ways to appreciate what a writer is up to or the different speeds at which they excel.

Enter Lorrie Moore, whom I love essentially without reservation. Without going into a full defense or promotion of her work, I just want to note how wonderful she is at writing paragraphs. Normally she’s known for her sharp one-liners, slicing you unaware, and it’s true she’s got great lines and an amazing sense of rhythm. But it’s how these elements combine into whole paragraphs, where they all coalesce that I think is the mark of true excellence.

Here’s an examples from her story “Debarking”:

“You can’t imagine the daily dreariness of routine pediatrics,” said Zora, not touching her wine. “Ear infection, ear infection, ear infection. Whoa. Here’s an exciting one: juvenile onset diabetes. Day after day you just have to look into the parents’ eyes and repeat the same exciting thing: ‘There are a lot of viruses going around.’ I had thought about going into pediatric oncology, because when I asked other doctors why they’d gone into such a seemingly depressing thing, they said, ‘Because the kids don’t get depressed.’ That seemed interesting to me. And hopeful. But then when I asked doctors in the same field why they were retiring early, they said they were sick of seeing kids die. The kids don’t get depressed, they just die! These were my choices in med school. As an undergraduate I took a lot of art classes and did sculpture, which I still do a little, to keep those creative juices flowing! But what I would really like to do now is write children’s books. I look at some of those books out in the waiting room and I want to throw them in the fish tank. I think, I could do better than that. I started one about a hedgehog.”

This has all the characteristics of a classic Moore paragraph: the monologue that rapidly unspools a character, the desperate exclamation points, the swerving between emotional registers. Just look at how far the paragraph travels.

And here’s a bonus example, this one illustrating her impeccable sense of rhythm. It’s from the essay “Better and Sicker,” which appeared in Issue 4, Volume 2 of PEN America back in 2002.

I often think of an acquaintance of mine who is also a writer and whom I ran into once in a bookstore. We exchanged hellos, and when I asked her what she was working on these days, she said, “Well, I was working on a long comic novel, but then in the middle of the summer my husband had a terrible accident with an electric saw and lost three of his fingers. It left us so sad and shaken that when I returned to writing, my comic novel kept getting droopier, darker and sadder and depressing. So I scrapped it, and started writing a novel about a man who loses three fingers in an accident with a saw, and that,” she said, “that’s turning out to be really funny.”

Note on Streaming

So I was reading various think-pieces about the latest Apple press event when I ran across this article at The New Republic:

In these companies’ push to be the fabled Everything, interoperability is waning. Weeks after Facebook announced its acquisition of Instagram, Twitter cut off access to a feature allowing users to discover people on Instagram based on their Twitter “following” list. Months later, Instagram disabled Twitter Cards integration for Instagram content. Streaming music services, as is, are unfortunately siloed — one cannot, for instance, make a universal playlist that supports Rdio, Spotify, and Apple Music. It’s a situation without an analog equivalent: mixtapes work on any brand of cassette player.

But this “situation without an analog equivalent” is not in fact true. Greg Milner in his book Perfecting Sound Forever details the early years of the phonograph industry, which used to be “siloed” in just this way. Certain records would only play on their corresponding players. The technology progressed toward a world where playback devices played any kind of music.

(I don’t have the Milner in front of me; I lent it to a friend and without going over there midday and breaking and entering, I can’t give you an exact quotation. But I can feel it, man, that Milner details this somewhere in the first couple of chapters.)

So you can see today’s deliberate in-operability of current music streaming services as either a return to recorded music’s primordial warfare of formats or as another unfortunate but seemingly necessary evolutionary step of technological change, but you can’t say that it’s unprecedented. Instead, you could say that ever since music became a recorded artifact, we’ve wrestled with the format that record takes and how it gets controlled. The only escape from the headache of format would be a pure and total return to live music.

Note on Bridges

A new short story of mine, “Under the De Soto,” went up over the weekend at Fried Chicken and Coffee, the “blogazine of Appalachian literature” edited by Rusty Barnes. Go check it out!

I’m happy to have the story out in the world because for one, it’s been a while since I’ve published a new short story. The problem with working on a long thing is that you forfeit the little motivational piston-firings that come with finishing and then hopefully one day publishing smaller things. Working on longer things requires delayed gratification in a multitude of ways.

Second, this is my second story to be published at Fried Chicken and Coffee. (My short story “High Cotton” was published there a few years ago.) I frankly love appearing in the same journal more than once, whether it’s online or on paper. I relish and aspire to be a “regular contributor,” something different from a staff writer but yet more meaningful than merely a one-time guest. Your aesthetic and the aesthetic of the publication shake hands every now and then, and it’s a good feeling.

The De Soto of the title refers to the Hernando De Soto bridge, which connects downtown Memphis to the eastern border of Arkansas. It’s one of Memphis’ two expansive, industrial-strength bridges. It’s also illuminated at night in the shape of a sine-wave–like M, which nicely mimics the bends of the Mississippi River below. When I lived in Memphis, I got to see this bridge every day, and, of all the details of Memphis life that I miss, those two — the constant gravitational force of the river and the man-made defiance above it — are missed the most. It feels odd to have wistful notions toward architecture, but what can you do.

My review of ‘The Sellout’

Just a quick note to say that my review of Paul Beatty’s newest novel The Sellout is up over at Open Letters Monthly. Did I like it?

Let’s just say it gets a whole garden full of those little blue-cuffed Facebook thumbs . . .

I’ve got a pet theory (thankfully deleted from the review) about stand-up comedians . . .

Update
Here’s my theory: the most ambitious stand-up comedians evolve into novelists.

Or they seem to want to turn into a type of novelist, by which I mean they begin to get less funny — intentionally — as a way to knit together their comedic observations into some kind of larger aesthetic/point. The only examples I have are male: Pryor, George Carlin, Louis CK. This also seems particularly a late-period comedian development; it’s something that they mature toward.

Carlin might be the most perfect example of this pet theory: in his late shows he seems less a comedian than a civilization’s grumpy uncle, the neighborhood crank, dressed all in back, pinning us to our seats for 90 minutes with his dystopic theories. The results were not consistently funny, nor were they consistently enjoyable, and both of those reactions seemed to be intentional.

Ozick Across the Moat

Not that long ago, Cynthia Ozick wrote an essay for the New York Times, entitled “Writers Old and Young: Staring Across the Moat.” A short time later, this essay was put through the online web content gin and turned into “Should Young Writers ‘Wait Their Turn’? This Famous Old Writer Thinks So.” by Phoebe Maltz Bovy at The New Republic, and the results are a spectacular display of literary criticism bent to the breaking point.

First, let me declare my allegiances. I am a dues-paying, pom-pom–waiving member of the Ozick fan club, so of course I am going to defend her. But even I will admit it wasn’t the most galloping of her essays. To me, the most exciting sentence in the entire piece was the brief one in tiny, sans serif type at the end: Cynthia Ozick is currently working on a book of essays on critics and criticism. Can it be true? Will we get another collection of essays before the unknowable but inevitable end? (Ozick is 87.) Over the past several years, Ozick has been publishing fiction almost exclusively, a late-in-life flush that functions almost as an expression of regret about so much time spent writing essays, though to this humble reader there’s not much better than her five previous collections of essays. (When I read them now, I tend to do so aloud, with a first-edition hardback clutched in one hand, a raised pom-pom in the other.)

Pheobe Maltz Bovy is another writer I like, though obviously not yet at pom-pom level. She’s one of the new regular writers at the newly renovated New Republic, thus far contributing mostly interesting, brief, topical blog posts with a literary slant. She’s also written some longer, perceptive essays for The Atlantic and The New Inquiry about some of the baked-in perils of online nonfiction writing: how parents overshare details of their children’s lives in ways that previously would be considered clear violations of privacy, and how the confessional personal essay invites readerly judgment rather than empathy and defuses the magic of art, where the trivial mundane is rendered sublime.

With that calm and hopefully respectful preamble out of the way, I think that Bovy is completely wrong in her assessment of Ozick. It’s not that the substance of what Bovy says is, in and of itself, incorrect; it’s just that it doesn’t apply well to Ozick. It’s as if her set of contemporary journalistic concerns (how writers get paid, what constitutes a “career” in writing now) were decals for a kid’s toy truck that she needlessly applies to a completely different toy — a set of Legos, maybe.

Ozick writes, “Old writers are taken to be as nonessential as old magazines that long ago expired: they are repetitious and out of date, they fail to be of interest even to themselves, they are worn out.” The essay is about these old writers and their daily increasing irrelevance, in particular their irrelevance to today’s crop of new writers. My suggestion for reading this essay is to replace the phrase “old writers” when it appears with the words “Cynthia Ozick,” because she is obviously talking about herself, admittedly in a slightly old-fashioned, non-confessional, indirect way.

Bovy chides Ozick for her larding of literary allusion and high-art chutzpah, but she’s Cynthia Ozick, for the love. She’s not being pretentious so much as being consistent. Bovy calls Ozick’s essay “the most highbrow get-off-my-lawn ever written” about how young writers are unwilling to “wait their turn” in the spotlight, but this reads Ozick in the wrong key while ignoring much of her previous writing.

What the essay actually seems to be about is searing regret in the face of death. Ozick is the old writer, who is taken to be nonessential. She is the writer who, in her youth, “loitered in [her] room mooning over Proust in his silenced room, or contemplating an exhilarated Henry James.” And she did this instead of “being drawn into the distracting pragmatism of publishing,” be it journalism or any of the para-careers associated with literature. She took this approach, and she’s not crowing about it. And I’m not just consulting my Ouija Board of Ozick fandom to say this. She’s written about it many times: how when Roth and Mailer and Sontag were locking arms and skipping from the offices of the Partisan Review down main street to literary celebrity, she was completely unknown, working years and years on her first, still not published novel, and then again working years and years on another novel, finally published, but, as she claims, read by exactly no one. It was only after this (what? something like 14 years of work?) did she start to publish short stories and reviews. That is, her life has been one of relentless hermetic literary ambition.

And “who was paying for [this] art-for-art purist to hole up in [her] cabin in the woods?” Bovy asks, meanly. Ozick has been clear on this as well: her husband. She jokes in her Paris Review interview that while other writers were getting Guggenheims, she survived on a Hallotte Fellowship, meaning the steady work of her husband, Bernard Hallotte. And she doesn’t say this in some kind of flippant Caitlin Flanagan-ish way. She says it burning with shame at her late blooming.

Interviewer: What sustained you without publication during that period?

Ozick: Belief. Not precisely self-belief, because that faltered profoundly again and again. Belief in Art, in Literature: I was a worshipper of Literature. I had a youthful arrogance about my “powers,” and at the same time a terrible feeling of humiliation, of total shame and defeat. When I think about that time — and I’ve spent each decade as it comes regretting the decade before, it seems — I wish I had done what I see the current generation doing: I wish I had scurried around for reviews to do, for articles to write. I wish I had written short stories. I wish I had not been sunk in an immense dream of immense achievement.

 
When she writes of “the madness of failed recognition,” who do you think she might be talking about?

And that’s generally the problem with Bovy’s response here. It’s pitched as if it’s a response to a Caitlin Flanagan piece rather than a Cynthia Ozick piece, as if the Ozick piece was only working at the contemporary click-level rather than the coded, literary, autobiographical level. Ozick is not mainly talking about how young writers effectuate writing-related careers, or even the dwindling market for literary fiction, or the seemingly current vogue for confessing one’s privilege, or any of the other elements of writerly infrastructure that have changed. Bovy entertains the notion at the beginning of her piece that Ozick is talking about differences in culture rather than infrastructure, but then Bovy goes on about the changes in infrastructure anyway.

But what Ozick is really saying in her essay is not just that things are done differently now, but what happens when today’s young writers turn out like her — old and in the way? “How will they live, and in what country, and under what system of temperament and raw desire?” The temperament she’s speaking of is the difference between her, an old writer, who (when young) grew her literary aspirations out of that quasi-religious and thoroughly isolated infatuation with literature, the Cult of the Word, and today’s young writers, who come at writing from the celebrity end, the side of knowingness and connections, and the stock portfolio manager’s whittled sixth sense about reputation and marketability. What, Ozick asks, will happen to these writers once they’ve aged out of this Hollywood-like approach to literature — where there is a canon of connections rather than a canon of reading? What happens when they’re past 50, kids now grumpy teenagers, house under a second mortgage, body beginning to fail, and neither the will or the skill to write another pithy personal essay recapping the finale of season 27 of Girls? Yes, Ozick is old fashioned, with a romantic approach to literature. Not news. But at least she had inspiration from and a dedication to the thing itself — literature. What happens when that is given up? What’s left to fuel the fire then?

Though Bovy is obviously a smart writer and obviously has a strong grip on the weird self-exploitations that a contemporary aspiring writer is heir to, it’s almost as if she enacts the very cultural amnesia Ozick is implicitly warning us about. Ozick’s essay isn’t about waiting one’s turn so much as not forfeiting one’s continuity.

And though Ozick doesn’t push her essay into itemized cultural critique of the present moment, I will. Living in Brooklyn and having the right friends on Twitter and posting occasional humorous pictures of your cat with the book of the moment and having fleeting but deeply felt feelings for every micro-breeze in the literary chattering complex does now somehow count as a meaningful expression of literary engagement. I’m not speaking about Bovy here; I’m speaking about everyone I follow on Twitter; I’m speaking about myself. Having an interest in and aspirations to literature has become codified into a mode of “being literary.” That is, like D.G. Myers warned, it has become a kind of social class, a lifestyle, with all its attendant signifiers. But the problem with a social class is that you can accidentally evict yourself when you buy the wrong jeans, vote for the wrong person, or refuse to read the latest photogenic genius everyone’s gaga over. But Literature, that sunken cathedral, will still welcome you — fat, lumpy, badly dressed, and nearly dead. It’s almost something worth believing in.

Note on AWP

I was going to write something pithy and snarky about AWP, which occurs this week in Minneapolis, but it turns out I don’t have the gumption. (AWP is the annual convention for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, which is essentially the professional organization of people who teach creative writing at the college level.) Truth is, I wish I was there and preemptively miss the friends I only get to see there. So instead of desperate acts of personal website sarcasm, here are my small nuggets of AWP-related advice for those attending for the first time or for those people, like me, who need annual renewal advice.

1. Wear comfortable shoes. And be honest with your feet. An editor friend told me this years ago and I didn’t take her seriously. (Always take your editors seriously!) You will be on your feet and you will be walking a great deal, and if you’re like me and spend most of your regular days sitting on your buster, you’re going to need the comfiest pair you’ve got. Just do it.

2. Pack light. Wait, no, scratch that. Don’t pack anything. Or pack as little as humanly possible, because you’re going to attract books and book-like objects and you will need the extra room in your one piece of luggage. (Also, you should only bring one piece of luggage. This isn’t ’Nam.) And those seven tote bags that you magically accumulate are going to get very heavy with literary lint. I wish I could say that all of the stuff I typically hoover into my possession at AWP is half as charming when I get back home, but still that’s part of the fun. It’s a bit like playing PacMan. Regarding how this refusal to pack clothing will affect your conference fashionability, look, this is AWP. People look terrible at AWP. True, people also look terrible at MLA, but at least they’re trying hard to look normal. (So, so hard.) At AWP, people are trying hard to look arty while not appearing to care about how they look, which leads to a strained slobcore militancy. So, fight all of this by just wearing the same outfit each day. You’re gonna love how you look.

3. Remember that the primary purpose of a professional conference of any kind (even an academic one with a high contingent of graduate students like AWP) is social, not educational. And no, I don’t mean it’s an occasion to “network.” I mean, it’s an occasion to be social. As in, the fun’s at the bar.

Should you go to the panels? Well, only if you must, or only if you want to say hey to a friend, but remember that the panel presentations are never more exciting than their brief descriptions in the massive printed schedule. The actual panel is cramped seating, the constant fear of not being able to find an available bathroom, people who aren’t naturally good public speakers failing to speak into the mic, followed by people who’ve lost the ability to ask questions without long, creepy, aggressive, prefatory statements. Just skip it! Go to the book fair, and then go the bar, and then go wherever people go off-site. I never went to many off-site things because I was always too tired and scared. (See point 1 above re: shoes.)

This lesson is applicable to all professional conferences, which are complex civilized excuses to meet friends for drinks. You probably already knew that but it took me years.

4. Can you crash those special retreat/lit mag reunion-like get-togethers that happen after hours? They aren’t going to arrest you for trying.

5. Also, remember that they call them “conventions” for a reason. That is, it’s the annual occasion when a multifarious endeavor establishes, or reaffirms, or performs its conventions. Which is to say, it’s a bit like going to a drag show. Which is also to say, Go, have fun, see your buddies, but don’t take it too seriously. The actual writing is going to happen (or not happen) when you’re at home alone, sitting on your buster.

6. And for God’s sake if you aren’t there, don’t keep one eyed glued to Twitter to see how things are going. Don’t pine for the party you’re missing out on. Yes, you are missing out. Get over it. Life happens like this! Does it mean you’re a loser and no one understands you and you don’t have any true friends? Well, maybe. But yanking refresh on Twitter and feeling sorry for yourself isn’t going to make that any better. Instead, just take a long lunch and buy a taco and maybe read an actual book. Next week everyone’ll be back at work anyway.

Rhetorical Question

Is the “new” Harper Lee “sequel” to To Kill a Mockingbird a chilling metaphor for the book industry, wherein a publisher is presented with a manuscript that’s a surprise extension of a beloved cultural franchise, a predestined goldmine, written by an author years ago but conveniently “discovered” at a time when the author, though still living, seems to lack all authority with which to speak about the book, except via legally designated intermediaries, and who seems unable or unwilling to edit the book, and wherein said publisher readily admits it also won’t edit said book, but merely package it for sale, so that one’s ultimate impression is that it no longer even matters what the book itself ultimately says only that it exists to be purchased?

Isn’t Go Set a Watchman in a way the Perfect Book? (A blockbuster with blank pages.)

And doesn’t this weird willful marshalling of coincidental forces represent some kind of apotheosis of book publication culture as it’s been known in the postwar U.S. of A.?

No, you’re right, you’re right. Probably not.

Coincidental Religion

I originally wrote this over on Medium a while back, but for reasons too boring and idiosyncratic to go into, I wanted to post it here as well.

Last spring I finished Libra, Don DeLillo’s novel that imagines the unfolding of the JFK assassination. I read it in disjointed chunks, covering the first half over a couple of months, the second half in one huge gulp. Consequently, the emotion it contains was held somewhat at arm’s length, as if I were growing myopic while reading.

But then, the following Thursday, I came home and followed the police chase of the Tsarnaev brothers in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing. I followed the mayhem — this incident seems actually to earn the word — via Twitter: journalists on the ground, galloping after Cambridge sirens like hounds; police scanner DJs, EQing the static; and the real-time TV critics, embroidering (and eviscerating) the ongoing cable news coverage.

I’ve often thought that Twitter is the ultimate Modernist novel: an ungraspable fragmented mound of human utterance, revealing the consciousness of a culture in the crevices between tweets. And here, during this unfolding terrorist incident, was one of Twitter’s “best” moments, at least in terms of generating (spontaneously, collectively) a real-time Modernist thriller. The event was large enough on a national news-crisis level to magnetize and collate the million shards that is Twitter.

All of this unfolding meta-reality added a ghostly echo to finishing Libra. One of the key formal distinctions of the novel is the way that it unfolds in two simultaneous time frames: the slow accrual of the life of Lee Harvey Oswald and the much-faster unfolding of the plot to assassinate the president, orchestrated by former CIA operatives, disgruntled after the blundered Bay of Pigs. It’s a weird narrative tango for the first hundred pages or so, but you eventually adjust to the rhythm and by the end of the novel, you see what DeLillo is up to: how Oswald is both the agent of his own destiny and simultaneously a cog within a vast plot machinery, how the JFK assassination is an uncanny collaboration between circumstance and the will of various individuals.

And that is what the Boston Marathon and its thrilling boat-in-the-backyard finish felt like — a story of personal grievance that fits within the larger Narrative that None of Us Control.

It’s a cliche at this point to say that DeLillo has predicted what life feels like now. I haven’t read enough of him to argue about this sufficiently. However, I can say that DeLillo is a master of the List: the agglutination of seemingly disconnected, often repetitive detail. Here’s an example from the consciousness of Win Everett, a former CIA analyst forced into pseudo-retirement after the Bay of Pigs and one of the principal architects of the assassination. Here he’s imagining creating someone like Oswald:

An address book with ambiguous leads. Photographs expertly altered (or crudely altered). Letters, travel documents, counterfeit signatures, a history of false names. It would all require a massive decipherment, a conversion to plain text. He envisioned teams of linguists, photo analysts, fingerprint experts, handwriting experts, experts in hairs and fibers, smudges and blurs. Investigators building up chronologies. He would give them the makings of a deep chronos, lead them to basement rooms in windy industrial slums, to lost towns in the Tropics.

What’s fascinating, on a simply novelistic construction level, is how dense the novel feels, how fortified it is with matter, both “real” and invented. One reads the novel with a growing admiration not just for DeLillo’s vision in tackling the material but simply his relentless diligence with the detail.

There’s also a novelist figure within the novel itself — Nicholas Branch, a retired CIA analyst who has been tasked (again here the weird verbed word seems earned) with writing a history of the assassination. He sits in his home office, under daily assault of data sent by the Curator:

Branch sits in his glove-leather chair looking at the paper hills around him. Paper is beginning to slide out of the room and across the doorway to the house proper. The floor is covered with books and papers. The closet is stuffed with material he has yet to read. He has to wedge new books into the shelves, force them in, insert them sideways, squeeze everything, keep everything. There is nothing in the room he can discard as irrelevant or out-of-date. It all matters on one level or another. This is the room of lonely facts. The stuff keeps coming.

I bought Libra last January during a trip to Boston. It was one of those rare brief spans of time where I was unencumbered by work or children or the little horizonal clouds of impending obligation, just a free afternoon in a strange city covered in snow, walking until my feet got sore, ducking into shops for warmth.

When the bombings occurred, their location made immediate sense. My winter walking had unknowingly encircled the blast site. One floats into coincidence, both historical and trivial, like a kid swimming in a river, as unseen pockets of coldness envelop your legs briefly and then drift away.

There were too many ironies and coincidences. A shrewd person would one day start a religion based on coincidence, if he hasn’t already, and make a million. Yes yes yes yes.

Relevant tweets picked up speed when Boston police released the suspects’ photos after 5 p.m. ET on April 18. A time zone and several states away, I began following the tweets intently via my phone, on the way home from work, while letting the dog out to pee, while prepping my children for bed. After dinner, I checked back in, and there had been a mysterious shooting of an MIT police officer. I followed the tweets for the next few hours, giving up shortly after midnight and the climactic Watertown shootout.

Various journalists get re-tweeted from the scene and are subsequently followed, like Seth Mnookin. What gets reported is ad hoc, invaluable, flawed, riveting. You can feel the exponential unknowability of the moment, the JFK-ification of historical record.

Was it three shots or four? Was there one shooter or two? Did Oswald act alone or was he part of a larger conspiracy? The answer to each is both. And (so it seems) it will always be both, the gears grinding against one another, the friction of data generating narrative heat. A definitive event occurred, but we will never be able to define it, and the more information we accumulate about it, the more unknowable it becomes. It shouldn’t be this way, but it is this way.

He takes refuge in his notes. The notes are becoming an end in themselves. Branch has decided it is premature to make a serious effort to turn these notes into coherent history. Maybe it will always be premature. Because the data keeps coming. Because new lives enter the record all the time. The past is changing as he writes.

When people discuss — I admit few people discuss this — the future of the novel and what comes next after post-modernism (itself a highly dubious term), I think: there will be no next step; the authorship and reading of such a novel has collapsed into the same individual. We are all Nicholas Branch now, all connected to some Curator who is constantly sending us more data to process, and we are all fashioning our own disparate and repetitive novel from the data of the day. Sometimes these factoids magnetize around an event, and sometimes it’s just the ongoing flow — endless and contradictory, collected and composed by us, individually and collectively, simultaneously, every day. Each day we renew the personal conspiracy theory that is our own Twitter stream.

Sometimes he looks around him, horrified by the weight of it all, the career of paper. He sits in the data-spew of hundreds of lives. There’s no end in sight.

Strangers in the night: A note on agents

A couple of months ago, Stephen Akey wrote an amusing riff for the New Republic’s website about literary agents and the weird control they exert over what gets published now. The premise is that Akey has been shopping around a collection of linked essays about poetry and having absolutely no success at it. As someone who sometimes accidentally forgets to procrastinate and actually writes short stories, as well as the occasional literary essay, I was extremely sympathetic to his plight. And as my little rantlet on behalf of J.C. Hallman’s latest book shows, I tend to enjoy books whose location on the shelves of your typical airport bookstore aren’t immediately apparent. We should have shelves and shelves of books we don’t know where to shelve.

Akey says the sad truth seems to be that unless a book has the broadest appeal possible or comes attached to one’s already-cemented, celebrity-level reputation, most agents are not interested. Now I haven’t had many interactions with agents, but even my scant anecdotal data bears this out. Anyone who’s sat in the audience for one of those agent panel presentations — where they talk about how they charmingly wandered into their current gig, how much they love literature, etc. — knows just how quick the whole talk can turn grim. In my limited experience, it seems like what most agents want are, to borrow a quip from Lorrie Moore, abbreviated film plots — a book that is easily summarizable, with well-delineated genre signposts (literary or no), and above all an easy sense of taxonomy. What they want is a novel that has the easy conceptual grip of a piece of nonfiction, something that can not only be discussed as a marketable entity but in a way comes predigested, pre-understood, pre-sellable because already sold. 

A synecdoche of this phenomenon is the activity of pitching your novel to an agent, something I have only done a couple of times and an activity at which I am (admittedly) atrocious. What’s interesting in the lit agent woo-o-sphere is how each interstitial bit of copy is its own genre, with its requisite learning curve. Pitching a novel is exceedingly different from writing a novel. (Personal aside: I still find it hard to pitch something I’ve written without feeling like I have also simultaneously turned into a gigantic human booger.) After another failing attempting at pitching my novel, it’s difficult not to craft pitches for various canonical works of literature:

Absalom, Absalom! is a riveting story of a boy, confused about his station in life, who returns to have a heart-to-heart with his old man, an old lady, and a room full of dust motes. A searing portrait of a family, a region — a world! Also, there’s an unexplained Canadian roommate. Sequel potential!

If a pitch sounds like jacket copy, then all the better because what it is (again: I’m guessing!) is pre-written jacket copy. How would I sell this, the agent wants to know, not entirely unreasonably. How will this be packaged? 

Of course, as a civilian reader, I never read the jacket copy, that distracting, wet mound of verbiage second only to blurbs in its manipulative uselessness. In my dream world of book publishing (eerily like France), there would be no jacket copy at all, no blurbs, no marketing, frankly. Just the author’s name, the title, and no more than three words of taxonomic information. I liked it when books just included a nice fat representative paragraph on the back cover. If this little glop of words rings your bell, then you might like this book, which you can also open and peruse even further right here in the store — still after all this time the best way to ascertain if you’re going to like a book. But all of this other marketing copy is just word noise. The single greatest benefit to buying hardback editions of books is unpeeling that noisy cover off and lining the recycling bin with it. Yes, yes, I realize that we are paradoxically in an era of unprecedented book cover mastery (Mendelsund, Kidd, et al.) But still, nothing speaks better than the mute opaque dignity of a clothbound book. 

Of course the larger problem here is that I’m thinking of this endeavor as an English major, and in some ways a major in English is the worst thing one can get if you want to write contemporary novels. I’m including the MFA degree in this as well, though I don’t want to rehash the whole To MFA or Not To MFA debate — surely the Coke v. Pepsi of the literary world. What I mean is that what you end up studying in your English lit class/creative writing workshop is not the most representative American novel from the 1930s, but the most exceptional novel from the 1930s. That’s what the canon is: a litany of exceptions, a library of shaky notions that for some reason sing to the culture. In fact you could argue that many of our greatest novels work despite the fact that in many ways they are hot steaming messes, in terms of being immediately comprehensible narrative devices. You don’t have to reach all the way back to Melville to see the inverse ratio between novelistic and/or historical greatness and total commercial nightmare, as far as a publisher is concerned. And so after several years of studying the exceptions to the rule — despite the fact that Faulkner or Melville or Munro or whomever would get totally murdered in workshop — you as a writer want to write something that is also exceptional. Nicholson Baker said it well. What you are trying to do, as a writer, is be as completely different from everyone else as humanly possible. But this is precisely what literary agents are not interested in. This to them is commercial suicide (and they’re right!), and they don’t want to assist you. Because of the way agenting works, there is no path to success except to acquire clients along a conservative aesthetic trajectory.

What does this mean? In terms of fiction, this means they are interested in big chunky novels that can be labeled “literary thrillers.” They are not interested in metafiction, short stories, essays, poetry, fiction that eschews plot, anything that tries to address the history of the novel, etc. (Though Hallman’s book found a good home, so I very well might be totally bats.)

Which again, all of this would be fine as wine except for the fact that all of the major publishing houses are inaccessible unless you already have an agent representing your work. They simply won’t accept unagented submissions. And so what happens is that literary agents become subeditors before the great gods of the publishing houses. I’ve heard of writers whose agents go through multiple revisions of a manuscript before sending it out, all of which is fine, good lord one wants to be edited, one needs the help, but what is interesting is that these agents are acting as editors without access to a publication. If your story is edited by an editor at a literary magazine, it makes sense. You are both collaboratively working on the manuscript to make it better for eventual publication in that editor’s periodical. Same thing with an editor at a house. But the agent is an editor without an outlet and no real control over whether or not any house will publish it, so he or she is editing it not to any kind of house’s vision of excellence (or even marketability or commercial viability) but to their imagined chimera of commercial viability . . . somewhere. It’s a weird declension of the editorial function.

But the disintermediation first of manuscript acquisition and then of initial editing from the publishing house to the agents seems like an unfortunate historical accident. Amidst all of the Harper Lee brouhaha over her “sequel” recently, there was a nice long investigative piece about the book, and it showed the editorial records of how To Kill A Mockinbird went through several versions and how the editors at Lippincott helped her revise the book. I was amazed at the level of energy they expended on Lee’s as-yet-unrealized novel. All of this happens now at the agent level, though to be honest I have no idea if it still happens at this kind of back-to-the-studs renovational depth. 

Another consequence: I’ve known writers who have done the agent revisions dance and had the novel submitted only to have it rejected by the houses, after which the agent shrugs and asks when he will have an entirely new book manuscript ready to go. That is, the manuscript goes off to agented-but-unaccepted limbo, like all the babies who died before being baptized. The only person who has lost here is the author, who’s spent four years writing the book, then another two revising it, then another one waiting for people to respond. And that’s a sad situation. It’s a situation that could easily waste someone’s life. The only solution then is to remove the book from the agenting universe and send it yourself to the markets that the agents aren’t interested in — the university presses, the small presses — to try to give your book a life. The agent isn’t interested in these markets because the money’s not big enough. Suddenly the prospect of selling your book is like working with a trial lawyer. Unless he can get a large sum of punitive damages, your case is not worth it to him.

Akey is not against agents. He says they serve a crucial gatekeeping function and that there’s a lot of hokum out there to sift through. (This blog post is probably a prime example.) I see his point; my historical query is why the houses outsourced this gatekeeping function to agents. It seems like the logical next step would be for agents to start publishing writers themselves. If they do indeed already do the heavy editorial lifting and if they do indeed have the keys to the marketing kingdom, then why don’t they call up a printer? They would seem to have more leverage than the behemoth publishing houses. 

But then again, in terms of the business transaction, the agent doesn’t put forth any risk, at least relatively speaking. The agent didn’t take the time to write the book and the agent isn’t going to put $40,000 down to market it, and the agent isn’t going to make the trains run on time to have it in stores on the designated day. The agent is merely the conduit for two insecure and bewildered parties who for some unforeseen reason can’t find each other on their own in this contemporary cultural megalopolis. The agent is a pimp. 

It seems as if publishing houses could acquire new books and their authors more cheaply without agents, since using them drives up the price, though I’m sure there’s a PowerPoint presentation somewhere showing how in the long run it’s cheaper to do it this way. Why else would the publishers do it? But despite this numerical advantage, it distracts from the unseen cost of eroding the publishing house’s editorial authority, which in the end is the only authority it has.

Once, at another entirely different panel discussion, I heard an older, more successful writer quip that agents need writers more than writers need agents; it just doesn’t feel that way. And really that’s about the most intelligent statement I’ve ever heard regarding the agent situation. I wonder if it would make Faulkner feel any better.

J.C. Hallman on Nicholson Baker

I’ve got a review of B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal in the newest issue of the Quarterly Conversation. The book is an exploration of Hallman’s infatuation with Nicholson Baker and is similar but meaningfully different from Baker’s own book, U & I, which chronicled his infatuation with John Updike.

Hallman describes what he’s up to better than I can:

What needed to be done, I’d been saying, what no one had ever done, was tell the story of a literary relationship from its moment of conception, from that moment when you realize that there are writers out there in the world you need to read, so you read them.

The resulting book is totally, enjoyably, maddeningly nuts and I couldn’t put it down. Before you read the review, just go ahead and buy it. Here is a link.

The book is way more fun than whatever exercise in cultural sensitivity is currently being given the critical thumb job. For instance, while I’m just being recklessly opinionated here, instead of buying Ishiguro’s latest bland beast, save those hard-earned bucks and get this book instead.

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In related matters, my one small teensy beef with the Hallman book is what I’ve come to call the Bluets Problem. That is, an illusory commitment to full disclosure on the part of the nonfiction author, which then gets elided at some point of ultimate narrative convenience. Certain details one has come to expect are withheld from the reader. It’s the false promise of total honesty, which on the one hand totally makes sense. No author can or should tell you everything. But this completely reasonable sentiment is trapped within the autobiographical confessional mode, which subsists on the promissory premise of “I’m going to tell you everything.” What happens is that by the end of these books I feel chagrined that I’m not told more about these characters’ lives, and then I feel guilty for wanting to know everything, and then I feel like I’ve been manipulated into being a voyeur.

This also goes into my personal file of what fiction can get away with vs. what nonfiction can get away with, and actually a useful insight into this comes from none other than Jonathan Franzen.

Quick aside: I know, I know. “Jonathan Franzen, blah blah blah.” I’ve given up on the mission of having an opinion on everything Franzen does or says and whether or not he is Good or Bad for literature. Seemingly, a whole generation has substituted having a ragey opinion about Franzen in place of being well read. Love him, hate him, I do not care. (But props where props are due: the first section of Freedom is a magnificent panoramic Steadicam of novelistic goodness, even if you don’t dig that kind of thing.) (Update: See below.)

Susan Lerner: Given that you’ve written novels as well as personal essays, do you find these two forms suited to different types of exploration?

Jonathan Franzen: I think fiction is the genre better suited to exploration. Essay is reporting, in a sense. There are artistic, tonal, and structural challenges in doing an essay but I don’t feel as if, in an autobiographical essay, I’m necessarily exploring. I’m trying to take what I already know and make it interesting, palatable, not icky, and possibly instructive. And it’s true that in journalism and reported essay I am exploring something. I go to China because I want to know what the environmental situation is like in China. But for internal investigation there’s nothing like fiction, because you have so much more freedom to go to places that would be too personally compromising either for yourself or for other people. You’re essentially putting on a mask, various masks, in the form of these characters. The demands of a novel are so much greater in terms of narrative propulsion, that you are really forced to poke around deep inside yourself to find strong enough emotional drivers to get you through five hundred pages of the book.

The emphasis is mine (obv).

Now, lord knows I’ve had my own critical beef with some of Franzen’s nonfiction (short version: much of the time it reads like a failure of narrative persona), but this idea of fiction as an arena that allows you to mercilessly explore what would be too compromising to explore in nonfiction — isn’t this just the essence of my Bluets Problem? Because aren’t the rocks that these nonfiction books run up against actually the shores of fiction? Isn’t the solution to the convenient narrative blurring that happens at key points in these types of books — sort of like narrative blind spots — for their authors either to throw caution to the wind and fully exploit their friends and family, or to fully fictionalize their experiences and thereby discard the booster rockets of the factually verifiable and either make up or mine and shape experience as needed? Where “need” is defined here by the necessary steps that a book has willed itself into taking? Isn’t this similar to what Lorrie Moore said in her essay a while back in the New York Review of Books, where she reviewed three memoirs and did a sort of punchy eloquent shrug at the contemporary memoir as a phenomenon and said that the books under review acted like they wanted to be novels but didn’t give themselves over to the full reckless imagination of becoming novels? In other words, these works of nonfiction come across as somewhat post-novelistic but their apparent limitations paradoxically point back to the benefits of fiction. There’s gold still in them thar hills.

Of course all of this is in my wheelhouse of self-justification because I’m constantly looking for some kind of genre legitimacy for my own work. But my main point is that authenticity, full disclosure in prose, is always a pose. And a pose is the beginning of a mask.

Update: Today, March 19, 2015, FSG released the book cover for Franzen’s next novel Purity, which won’t come out until September 1, and people are losing their everloving minds.

Come on, people. We’ve got bigger Franzens to fry than this.