Harper Lee and the Politics of Genius in Today’s Age

Nelle_Harper_LeeThe intensity of the reaction to news of beloved author Harper Lee publishing a sequel to her masterpiece, To Kill A Mockingbird, is ironic, given the very reasons we thought we’d never see this day come: Lee often proclaimed that her first book had said all she wanted to say, and that she was exhausted by the fame that came with it. She is reputedly just as reclusive as Boo Radley.

It’s curious how the mythology of the hermit writer both backfires against the author and ignites fervor in readers (and, therefore, puts money in publisher’s pockets). After this announcement, journalists flocked to Alabama, trying to weasel information out of Lee’s neighbors and her caretakers at the nursing home. Meanwhile, her books rocketed to the #1 and #2 slots on Amazon’s Best Sellers list–months before Go Set a Watchmen’s scheduled release.

In a popular TED talk, given after the intense commercial success of Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert calls for readers to stop idolizing writers as geniuses and therefore turning on them when they don’t live up to past performances. Why not, she says, instead consider that we all have geniuses that visit us, not unlike the mythological muse? She cites the pressure of following up successful literary publications as potential reasons for why many writers succumb to the stereotype of the suffering, alcoholic, depressed, suicidal artist—and for her own writer’s block (which she has since conquered with Committed and The Signature of All Things).Continue Reading

Giving, Not Taking: Expectations of Author Interactions

hal blockIn 2009, I was at the annual AWP conference in Chicago, heading into a panel session about flash fiction. Coming out of the room from the last session was Audrey Niffenegger who, even without her name tag, would have been distinguishable by her auburn hair.

“Excuse me,” I said. “Did you write The Time Traveler’s Wife?

“I did,” she said.

“I just wanted to thank you,” I said.

She thanked me for saying that, and then excused herself, saying she had to run to another meeting.

“Oh, that’s okay,” I told her. “That’s all I wanted to say.”Continue Reading

Up-and-Coming: A Look at Emerging Authors from South Asia

friday 2Literary luminaries like Salman Rushdie (The Satanic Verses) and Kamila Shamsie (A God in Every Stone) have dominated the South Asian writing landscape, but there are more heavyweights who merit recognition. The following authors offer a glimpse of contemporary English writing emerging in the subcontinent.Continue Reading

The Ploughshares Round-Down: Why Lena Dunham’s New Book is Worth $3.5 Million

Not That Kind of Girl by Lena DunhamWhen I talk to a new potential client, one of the things we go over is potential advances. Most nonfiction writers get between $25,000 and $75,000; fiction writers, a fraction of that. Everyone who gets more than that did something remarkable to get there.

During this conversation, many writers have joked to me that they’re hoping for Lena Dunham money. Dunham, the driving force behind the show Girls on HBO, received a reported $3.5 million dollars for her book, Not That Kind of Girl. The advance made headlines, and so did the proposal, which was leaked and linked to all over the internet.

The book could fairly be called “hotly anticipated,” and with the book releasing today, the reviews have started pouring in. Those reviews are generally positive, if not overwhelming. And for the publisher, they do something important: They are all written by people who had assumed that the book would be a cultural phenomenon. Because that’s what Random House paid millions of dollars for–a cultural phenomenon.Continue Reading

Welcome to the Literary Jungle

Eudora WeltySeveral times a year I am the recipient of emails or phone calls from friends, colleagues, parents, or complete strangers in search of writing guidance. Often the messages begins, “Hello, my name is Barbra. My daughter wants to be a writer. She’s very talented. Jill Matthews said you might be able to . . .” What follows ranges from, “give some advice” to “edit her trilogy.” These types of messages leave me sighing, not because I don’t enjoy cultivating new voices, but because how those people perceive the writing community and the writing vocation is often vastly different from actuality.

While it would be easy to give advice from my personal experiences, those experiences are just that–personal. Continue Reading

The Ploughshares Round-Down: What NYC Publishing REALLY Thinks About Self-Publishing

Last week, I had an author ask me the earliest his publisher could have his book out. I told him January 2016. Even if he turned it in this week. “And, they wonder why big publishers are dying,” he said. He wondered aloud if he should crowdfund a shorter idea and self-publish a ninety-nine cent ebook between now and then. The funny thing is that he’d referred a friend to me just a few weeks ago who wanted an agent. That friend had gone exactly the route he was now proposing, and had found the indie pub experience to be much less amazing than he’d been led to believe.

4x8dmoxI’ve written before that big publishers aren’t dying, but many of my authors wonder if they aren’t at least scared by the number of alternative routes to getting a book published. If you spend a lot of time on Reddit’s subreddit for writers, you’ll get the feeling that authors are all revolutionaries and that, because of them, the NYC publishers must know their weak foundations are crumbling.

That’s not, however, how the people I know think of the situation at all. I’ve never heard a single person in publishing, young or old, express fear over the rise of self-publishing.

That’s why the most interesting thing I’ve read in the past two weeks was this article in the Guardian by Suzanne McGee, called “You can try to be the next Hemingway– for $6,000.” (Full disclosure: I have spoken with Suzanne in the past about her writing, but not about this piece.) It’s an account of what you’ll have to pay to self-publish well, and it’s a useful resource for writers.

What’s even more interesting to me, however, is how much more than this a traditional publisher spends to make a book happen. NYC publishers spend ten times that, which demonstrates that you get what you pay for: the difference in the final product is a big part of why many employees at the big publishers don’t consider self-publishing a threat at all.

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Unburied Memories: A Tiny Interview with Carlos Villacorta Gonzáles

alicia-capitalismoMy newest literary kick is immersing myself in literature from Latin America that hasn’t been translated to English yet. Reading outside of the American canon, you learn new tricks and new ways of cutting familiar narratives—but if you’re lucky you learn a new kind of reading altogether.Continue Reading

I’m in Love With a Writer: A Survival Guide

Being in a relationship with someone in the same profession is tricky business. While there is a shared understanding of the ins and outs, it can also cause friction, particularly in competitive fields. Dating a writer was one of my bigger relationship snafus—his ego often made our duo a trio.

My spouse is a reader but not a writer, so though he has literary knowledge, he is what I call an Innocent Bystander: while he wisely dwells in the science world, he has the arduous task of being involved with a woman in a crazy-pants profession. He patiently waits while I pause movies to talk about the brilliance of the writing. When I publish something new, he promotes it with pride and diligence. And he doesn’t flinch when I’m working on a project and become the Angst Monster I was a few weeks ago.

Sadly, not everyone who ends up loving a writer is as well prepared. For those not-so-lucky Innocent Bystanders struggling with your blessing and your curse, here are some things to help you navigate these treacherous waters.

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Seven Types of Writer That Don’t Play Well With Others

Wromance, a word I invented, refers to a friendship between writers at its ideal—respectful, supportive, and considerate. You champion each other but never abuse your relationship. Friendship is not confused for a professional agreement or misconstrued for therapy. Your commonality may lie in a shared passion, but it does not overshadow the human elements of your relationship. Searching for a Wromance can be tough, however, as many writers do not play well with others. Here are some types to give a wide berth . . . or avoid being yourself.

1. The Pimp

The age of social media has thrown a little pimp in all our games—promoting our projects is crucial. At some point, however, it moves from promotion to harassment. Two or three tweets or retweets is reasonable. Mix in a quip, a quote, or a retweet about something else to balance it out. Maybe a few days or even weeks later, tweet it again. I once heard a writer say that Twitter is like attending a fabulous party—there are many fantastic people to meet, but no one wants to get stuck in the corner with the guy who can’t stop talking about himself.

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The Ploughshares Round-Down: Why “Do What You Love” Is Bad Advice

find a job you loveIn 2005, Steve Jobs gave a now-famous graduation speech at Stanford University. “You’ve got to find what you love,” he said.

“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.”

“Yes! This is the Truth about careering!” Said everyone, ever.

Or okay, most of us. Who read or heard it.
And who also are privileged enough to have lives in which such an admonition has any chance of being follow-able.

Oh darn.Continue Reading