Round-Down: Enough of Genre Debate Already

MaryWollstonecraft

I’m a little disappointed in Jennifer Weiner. And not in the way you’d think. Certainly not in the same way as Jonathan Franzen. Rather, I’m disappointed that she’s seemingly buying into the genre vs. literary distinction while she (admirably and very hilariously) defends herself on Twitter against Franzen’s latest attacks.

One of the things Weiner recently wrote that left me shaking my head (rather than giving her the applause many of her other comments inspired) was this: “And yet, I end up saying it. Over and over and over again. Every. Single. Time. I should just get an I’M NOT LITERARY tattoo!” To me, that kind of statement, regardless of whether she actually believes it (and I hope the Princeton grad and prolific, bestselling author doesn’t), indicates that she’s upholding the binary belief that genre fiction is somehow less than literary fiction. I, for one, am over the genre vs. literary fiction debate, especially because it so often coincides with the discussion of the issue of gender imbalance in the literary world.

That said, I am monstrously upset at Franzen’s mansplain-y criticism of Weiner’s talent and simultaneous admission that he hasn’t actually read any of her books. He also clearly hasn’t read any of her many intelligent essays championing women’s issues–not just in publishing, but in health, image, and beauty (see one in the New York Times as recent as the Sunday after the Franzen interview broke). The more I read up on the Booth Franzen interview and its aftermath, the more annoyed I get—especially since, on one level, Franzen actually agrees with what Weiner has been trying to say all along.Continue Reading

Reading on the Go

Waiting for the 4Where and when do you make time to read? If your answer is “at Chipotle,” then you can leave now. This article isn’t for you. You should also just move along if your answer is “beside a crackling fire in my study.” I don’t know who you are. Why are you reading a blog? Isn’t there a hedge fund you should be managing?

No, for me there are only three acceptable, and interesting, answers to that question. The first is “in bed.” I can’t read in bed, but there are many who manage it with great success. A friend of mine says he read a whole J.G.A. Pocock book in bed, which must be a lie. I can’t even read about J.G.A. Pocock without at least my leg falling asleep. The second respectable answer is “while walking.” I actually do this pretty often when the weather is nice. There aren’t many of us who read books while walking. We’re a small group and quite proud of ourselves despite the fact we just banged our collective knee into a fire hydrant.

So that leaves the third, and I think most interesting, way to read: “on public transportation.”

Right now, no matter when you’re reading this, there are tens if not hundreds of thousands of commuters and travelers making time to read. Reading simply couldn’t have been done in this manner and on this scale in any other period in the world’s history. In the mid-nineteenth century, W.H. Smith & Son opened the first train station newsstands and bookshops, selling cheap paperbacks which were themselves a product of new industrialized manufacturing processes. They’re still the dominant model of English-language readership and bookselling, and none of them could exist without the affordable and rapid transit of people and goods via railway. That resulted in a new type of reading for a new type of reader.Continue Reading

Reading All the Things

A Tower of Used Books

Ahhh, new books. Nothing like the thrill of the pristine cover, the creaseless spine, the fresh pages free of marginalia, the story inside like a continent yet to be discovered. About a month ago, we bibliophiles had our new books arranged in a perfect mental stack. We contemplated them. We may have even planned the whole year around them, making wonderfully improbable resolutions to “read all of the things,” as internet lingo would put it.

But this year is a bit different for me. I’m working as a teaching assistant in a course on the Victorian novel, and that means I’ll be rereading more books than usual, some even for the third time. Like many bibliophiles, I have an ever-growing mental list called “Books I’m Ashamed I’ve Never Read.” I also have a Geiger counter up there that detects unread books in conversations and in other books and adds them to the list. As a result, I almost never reread unless I’m forced to. But so far, it’s been a nice break to slow down and switch off the Geiger counter for a change. And that’s made me ask myself a simple question: What have I been missing?

So I asked the professor I’m working with how many times she had read the first book of the course–Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray. She told me she had first read the book as a student, then ended up writing her dissertation on Thackeray, and has taught the book dozens of times since then. But when it came to how many times she’s reread Vanity Fair, she couldn’t say exactly. She said it’s not a question of how many times anymore. She doesn’t always pick it up and read it cover to cover. Instead, she often dips into a scene or even just savors a single sentence. She said she gets lost in things that grab her attention that she had never noticed before. Continue Reading

Since Feeling is First: Elements of Craft to Express Emotion

Plate_depicting_emotions_of_grief_from_Charles_Darwin's_book_The_Expression_of_the_Emotions

Emotions, feelings, desires—whatever you choose to call them—are central to writing. e.e. cummings wrote “since feeling is first / who pays any attention / to the syntax of things / will never wholly kiss you.” But how do we pay attention to syntax while retaining feeling?

There are countless elements of craft to aid the expression of emotion: sensory details, and the diction one uses to describe the world, can speak volumes about the inner landscape of a narrator or character, as can establishing background and setting the stakes.

Take, for instance, Paul Harding’s Enon. The novel follows Charlie Crosby for a year as he reels from the untimely death of his only daughter—an event revealed in the opening paragraph of the book. Immediately, Harding establishes this event, this background, and the reader waits to see how—or if—Charlie can recover. Knowing that his only daughter has died validates anything emotional the character expresses, ranging from numbness to excruciating physical pain. Grounded in what happened, none of his internal monologues wax melodramatic.

The landscape of the book also lends itself to Charlie Crosby’s grief. Enon is set in the fictional town of Enon, Massachusetts, where Charlie was born and raised. The rich bank of memories he has in this place confront him wherever he goes, re-experiencing and renewing the loss. His wanderings afford him reflections that lead to expression or repression of emotions. There is a depth and dimension to his grief because it’s inescapable.Continue Reading

Etymology as Pedagogy: How Words Teach Me to Live

mapWhen I learned, not long ago, that the word “daisy” comes from the Old English word “day’s eye,” referring to how the petals open at dawn and close at night, I was delighted. Here was proof that the English language can be governed by a beautiful logic. It was a happy reminder, too, that what I thought belonged to me did not. The words I use have been elsewhere, passing from mouth to mouth, me just a mouth in between.

A little later I learned that the word “squirrel” comes from Greek words meaning “shadow-tailed.” More delight. This was evoking in me, I realized, the same adolescent wonderment of discovering that my parents were not parents all their lives, that they were proud participants of the sexual revolution and also shoplifted more than once. What I thought belonged to me did not. It became clear that words are very much like people.Continue Reading

Proxy Narratives: Jennifer Clement’s “Widow Basquiat”

raamellzee-bep-bop I’m always looking for a stellar book come November. National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo for the uninitiated) is about as appealing of an idea as having a month-long dental procedure and about as equally fun to be around. So, I mostly hide away. I do the opposite of what you’re supposed to do in November—I take a writing break and read all month instead. Last year I read all of Larry Heinemann’s books. The year before that I dug into Rolando Hinojosa. This year, I’m reading and re-reading Jennifer Clement’s Widow Basquiat which is easily my favorite book of 2014, though it’s been around in the UK for years. It comes out in the United States this month. Continue Reading

The Book That Changed My Country

Gran_calavera_eléctrica2I mostly sit at the window when I’m working at Café la Habana. I have a spot. It’s the same spot where I sat when my buddy, Santiago, first brought me for coffee when I arrived in Mexico City. But I’m attached to the spot for other reasons too. It’s also the spot where Roberto Bolaño used to write, and the same spot where Fidel Castro and Che were said to have planned their invasion of Cuba. Mostly I’m nosy though—I love to people watch—and that’s why I sit by the window. A few weeks ago, a waiter came up to me and placidly said, “Caballero, I suggest you move away from the glass.”Continue Reading

Say Anything: A Case for Dialogue

Recently I was reading the prose section of an online literary magazine’s fall issue when I could not overcome a nagging sense that something was lacking. The stories themselves were well-written; the style was cohesive with the magazine’s tone; the narratives were engaging. Yet it somehow felt incomplete. As I scrolled through the stories again, it finally hit me–dialogue. None of the stories contained a stitch of dialogue. Certainly there were references to it and summaries of conversations. Actual dialogue, however, was nowhere to be seen.Continue Reading

The Ploughshares Round-Down: Never Tell Me the Demographics

I’ll read anything if it’s great. A romance novel, or a soldier’s tale; a book about Zsa Zsa Gabor, or one about Obama. I know what kinds of books dorky, urban-literary type of guys are supposed to be reading–those by Jonathan Safran Foer, and things titled Introduction to Banjo–but I hate most of that stuff; I don’t usually follow stereotypes. I’m continually surprised by how many people think in that sort of shorthand, though. 3tb4fep

The other day, for example, someone said to me that most of the people who read Nate Silver’s book, The Signal and the Noise, were men. (Nate is one of my agency’s clients.)  It was a woman saying this, and she had read the book. Despite that,  she was dividing the world into “big ideas” to read by men, and “great stories” that would be read by women. Not only is this sexist, it’s pure speculation. No one has any idea who bought and read Silver’s book. We can see from looking at Amazon that people who bought his book also bought other big idea books, but we don’t know anything about his readers beyond what else they might have read.

Despite this, I still hear smart people say, when reading proposals, “That’s a young person’s topic and young people don’t buy books.” Now, we can find out if a topic tends to sell books or not, but we don’t know if its readers are old or young. Still, however, this is a widely held assumption: younger people don’t buy books. That’s why the most interesting thing I’ve read this week is a report from Pew Research on the reading habits of young people. The results go against that common wisdom. Millennials are reading more books than other age groups, lagging behind older generations on ebook adoption, and looking for information they know you can’t find for free on the internet. The lesson here is, never judge a book by its cover, but also never judge a book by the kind of person you think might be reading it. Because you have no idea. Continue Reading

The Power of An Author Who Can Share Her Insides

Prozac Nation Book CoverAt least sixteen years ago, maybe more, I read Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation and saw myself.

These days, it’s de rigueur to dismiss Wurtzel as a chaotic, self-involved mess. But back then, after receiving a diagnosis of chronic depression with bipolar tendencies, I ate up Wurtzel’s navel-gazing, book-length confessional. I read about her struggles with depression and, in a time when going to therapy was still a bit taboo to talk about, I began to feel a little bit less alone.Continue Reading