Literary Resolutions 2011

Happy New Year all! I hope you have a prosperous 2011.

I think I finished my resolutions for 2010, or at least, more or less. So Now that a new year is upon us, here are my brief literary ones.

  1. Finish the novel I’m working on. That way I can start the others. Optimism at its finest.
  2. Read books I own. The stack is huge and there is no way I could even read the whole stack in one year. I think you can see the problem.
  3. Read more in Spanish. I already do this, but I can do more of it.

Pretty simple. Have you similar ones?

Saving Us From Grammarians: Roy Peter Clark’s The Glamour of Grammar @ NYT

I dislike the prescriptive grammarians who, for a writer, stifle creativity with misplaced criticisms. Yes, good writing has rules, but worrying about prepositions at the end of sentences is tiring. I for one can not get enough of these kinds of books.

Via the NY Times

Most striking is that unlike many traditional grammar books, Clark’s reserves its scolding not for students of writing, but for teachers who harbor unduly restrictive views — “members of the crotchety crowd” who “tend to turn their own preferences about grammar and language into useless and unenforceable rules.” Linguistic insecurities and peeves, once they take hold, are exasperatingly difficult to shake. Even though the first edition of Fowler’s book, released way back in 1926, unequivocally states that the proscriptions against ending sentences with prepositions and splitting infinitives are absurd, we’re still arguing about them today, in 2010.

Clark wholeheartedly endorses breaking the commandments that make no sense, as long as in the breaking, the writing still holds up. “Prescriptive critics may condemn my recommendation that writers politely ignore the ‘crotchets’ of purists who insist on . . . rules that have little influence on the making of meaning,” he writes; those “who profess that these are violations must face the counterevidence produced in the classic works of some of our most distinguished writers.”

Although this statement is true, if you were to point out that even Shakespeare was known to split his infinitives (“Thy pity may deserve to pitied be”), end his sentences in prepositions (“I will wear my heart upon my sleeve for daws to peck at”) and even on occasion begin them with “but” or “and” (“But love is blind and lovers cannot see the pretty follies that themselves commit”), you’d be more likely to annoy the prescriptivists than you would be to convert them.

When Writing Groups Go Bad: The Cat Man

I should have known better, but I was somewhere between desperate and lonely, that place writers who want to be read often find themselves and which leaves them susceptible to the power of assertive critics. Sure, giving the story you slavishly worked over for days to someone who is never going to read it often comes to a disappointing nothing, but its just a sin of eagerness. Giving your mailable self over to a self appointed arbiter of taste is another mater.

I met the Cat Man at a local writers group after the night’s speaker had spent 45 minutes explaining the best way to do goal setting. My least favorite thing to hear about in writing groups. The Cat Man was an older fellow with white hair and glasses, and wore a button down collar and white sweater. He came right over to me—I was the only stranger—and introduced himself. He told me within 30 seconds that he hosted a writing group at his home. He had done it for years and had had helped the writing of a local author whose books I had vaguely heard of. What he didn’t do, was write. I should have thought that was a bad sign, but I’m not particularly tied to the notion that everyone in a group needs to participate. Anyway, it had been a couple years since the last group so I was more than eager.

The next week I arrived at his home around 7. It was an old craftsman and was well taken care of. I knocked and he let me in, recognizing me from the week before. As I walked into the house, though, I was overcome by the smell of cat, or to be more precise, litter box. I don’t hate cats, just that smell. I’ve never understood how people can live with that, but I ignored the smell as best I could and entered the dining room where two other writers were waiting. When I took a seat his wife asked if I wanted coffee.  It seemed like a good sign, especially since she looked like a kindly grandmother, and picturing them both together they were quite charming.

After the coffee came, we all traded stories and I read the two pieces of fiction from the other two, while he read all three of ours. Normally, I like to know something about the people I’m trading writing with, so I can know if it is really going to be interesting. With this group I didn’t have any option but to read. It was one of the most painful 20 minutes of reading I’d ever done in my life. Not only was their writing uninteresting, it was so badly written that I think a tenth grader must have written both of the pieces. I’ve read uninteresting things that at least held together, but this stuff was in such desperate need of work.

My mind quickly wandered. I hoped I could make it down to the Trader Joe’s before they closed to buy a case of wine since I’d just gotten a raise and I wanted to celebrate. I couldn’t leave, though. That would have been rude. So I waited until the Cat Man finished marking up our work.

When we finally got to the criticisms and talked about the other writing, he mostly said good improvement. I don’t even want to think about what those writers had written before. It was obvious that he was shepherding along his foundlings and they were slowly becoming what he envisioned. When he came to mine, I knew we would be in conflict. He had begun punctuating my first paragraph and chopping it up into small pieces. Sure the sentences were long. I knew that, but that was part of the deal. He looked at me and said, “these sentences are too German. They don’t work in English.”

Too German? What does that mean? And, really, what’s wrong with a little German flavor now and then? His criticism is the kind that ticks me off, because it doesn’t ask the question, does this work? Rather, it asks, is this in Stunk and White, because that is the limit of my thinking. I wasn’t going to pay much more attention to him, because he obviously wasn’t going to be helpful. What I want in a critic is to know what they see. I know what I want to happen, but is it there? It is the hardest thing for a writer to do. Instead, I found a fellow who subscribes to those tired dictums, such as, always use Anglo Saxon words instead of Latin and French imports, but I like to eat beef instead of cow, and I’d rather live in a mansion than a house.

My mind had already shifted back to the case of wine at Trader Joe’s, when he said, “you shouldn’t be so serious.” Serious? Now he had lost me. Why should I be funny? I’m not a comedian, so I seldom write comedy. It wasn’t as if I was writing about a Dickensian work house, either. On your first encounter with an author, especially his first four pages, you should refrain from suggestions on the weight of material. If you are going to be helping the writer through to the next level, you need to know what the writer is about. There will be plenty of time for readers to say someone is too serious.

Needless to say I left as quickly as I could. It was too late to get my cheep case of wine, but at least I didn’t have to smell that cat box, which I never got used to. When he emailed me the next week to ask I was coming, I politely declined. I wish I had said, “I’m sorry but I’m moving to Germany where they will understand me.”

Final Thoughts on Hugo House Writer’s Conference: Finding Your Readers in the 21st Centruy

The Richard Hugo House’s writers conference was tiring, like most conferences, yet a great conference for the those seeking to understand not only how to get published, a timeless question, but how to use the new tools of media. All of it was quite useful and seeing what you have to do to support a book is rather daunting. There was a talk from one PR agent and the details she went in to on just setting up bookstore readings, something that has only minimal success these days, could be a real time suck. What was interesting, too, was not only to get a chance to talk to other writers, but to talk to writers in genres I don’t even think about, and to be honest, sometimes value disparagingly. It gives you a chance to see where you are, but also what it is that drives other people who are committed to an idea that you would never otherwise think about. On the other hand, I got tired of trying to describe my novel since it is too amorphous at this point.

Being with writers searching for readers and also being a reader/reviewer who’s been watching the publishing world struggle it was fascinating to see how those two worlds try to sink up. The new writers are shocked, the more experienced are navigating it the best they can, and we have publishers like Mathew Stadler trying to be innovative, and still there is panic. Yet on the small press front there is the DIY attitude, which is quite refreshing and gives you hope. The turmoil is just so unsettling and now there is no one way to go, and whatever you do it will take some of your precious writing time.

As a web developer who participates in social media projects, the questions that came up about social media are both eager and uncertain. Many writers have such a long way to go to get a handle on social media. I think many writers have a hard time moving beyond the work. I can sympathize, I don’t want to either, but for better or worse, you have to. I saw the same thing in the technical writing community, where you can find writers with a similar mentality. When that group was hammered by the .com bubble there was a cry for the writer to lift the head from the work and it was hard for many.

I’m certainly glad I went and it was definitely worth sacrificing the prime writing time.

Hugo House Writer’s Conference Finding Your Readers in the 21st Centruy Day 2

Today’s session was filled with talk about how the relationship between the author and the publisher and the reader has changed radically. Mathew Stadler opened the day with a talk about changing the role of the publisher, towards a small publishers who refuse to participate in the shell game that is book sales: no more returns. Instead, he looked towards a model where the publisher sells just a copy or two to a book store and the publisher gets paid upfront. He wasn’t sure if he was going to make that work, but it was his hope to try and break the old paradigm. He also quoted Epstine in saying that “a publisher’s job is to supply the necessary readings for democracy.” As such, Stadler looks to the small publisher to remove the hierarchy and control and create a more flexible and democratic publishing. In a more practical vein, he suggested that if you take an advance you should know how that will help your publisher’s plans. Avoid the shell game and, instead, make books for readers. Taking the advance just perpetuates the ambiguities between the wasteful system, and actual valid engagement with readers. While some of Stadler’s ideas are politically motivated his ideas are interesting and do suggest a different business model for the publisher – bookstore relationship, which, ultimately, will affect the writer and reader. Only time will show if Stadler’s experiments will work.

The rest of the sessions I attended were focused on how to do the marketing work yourself even if you have some sort of book contract. It is a real mix of things you have to do, everything from having and online presence (check) to determining who you want to send galleys to, what bookstores to target, and just about everything that a publicist for a publisher would have done. It is a little annoying since you should be writing, although it wasn’t something I didn’t already know.

At one moment when a freelance editor was talking and I misunderstood him when he said you need lots of dialogue in your fiction, I had a moment of complete disappointment. What is the point if you have to fit in a formula. Turns out he was not talking about literary fiction, but, still, it was one of those moments when I don’t like thinking about writing and all the silly conventions and rules people come up with when describing what will sell.

Tomorrow more of the marketing then I can return to what actually matters.

Rumpus Book Club Another Way to Interact With the Author

Conversational Reading notes that Rumpus has a new monthly book club that will send you an unpublished book by one of their authors. While I don’t agree that with Conversational Reading that all author readings are boring, although those who spend too much time reading from their books should probably put the book down, it does get around the problem where the reading is more like a sales pitch and not having read the book you have nothing interesting to say about the new book. I like the human interaction, but this book club may ultimately lead to more sales and more engaged readers, which, in theory, should lead to follow up sales.

Hugo House Writers Conference – Finding Your Readers – Day One

After work I headed over to the Richard Hugo House’s writer’s conference. The conference is focused on marketing and selling your work in both traditional and non traditional media. Tonight’s session was a round table discussion by Alan Rinzler, Barbara Sjoholm, and Jeff Vandermeer. Sjoholm read a history of publishing, while interesting, it was not particularly revealing. Alan Rinzler talked next and he covered the same ground he did a few months ago and you can read my review here.  Rinzler is part cheerleader, part realist and his talks always leave you feeling that you can do it with a bit of luck. Vandermeer’s talk was the most interesting because he talked about mixing social media into your publishing platform. Naturally, he noted that it is the correct mix of social media and writing that makes one able to finish a book. If you are not careful you will end up doing too much social media. He is an interesting case because he talks with his readers via his blog about what he is doing and that feeds back into his writing. I don’t know if I’d ever like to do that, but it is an interesting approach. I think he is right in noting that starting authors should be careful about doing too much social media because it only becomes chatter and gets lost amongst the noise. Ultimately, though, most of what they talked about was the oddities of the publishing business (book returns, etc), and the need to make yourself stand out, both in your work and the ways you talk to your readers.

Rules for Writers – The Spanish Edition

On the seeming heels of the Guardian‘s Rules for writers series El País has its own collection of rules, although they have titled it better, calling it “The defeat of the blank page” (La derrota de la página en blanco · ELPAÍS.com).  With contributions from writers like Enrique Vila-Matas and Elena Poniatowska, the main advice seems to be read. I would agree with that and find that’s all you need after a certain point. Those pedantic rules, especially those of Elmore Leonard, are just tedium of the unimaginative trot out when faced with the strange. In too many writing groups I have heard those kind of rules repeated and looked at their writing and thought, yep, you got the rule right, too bad it isn’t interesting.

New Letras Libres Up

Letras Libres has published their March issue. Among other things there is a brief over view of José Vasconcelos’s seminal work the La raza cósmica.

A ver. En principio está el mundo y el mundo está dividido en cuatro pueblos: el blanco, el negro, el indígena y el mongol. A veces domina uno y a veces –durante un parpadeo que puede durar siglos o milenios– rige otro. Ahora reina el blanco. O para ser precisos: el anglosajón. No hay de qué preocuparse: ya será desplazado. Esta vez –la última de las veces– no por otro de los cuatro pueblos elementales sino por una nueva cultura, una quinta raza –“una raza universal, fruto de las anteriores y superación de todo lo pasado”. La raza cósmica.

Luis García Montero Reading at the University of Washington

Luis Farcia Montero
Luis García Montero Reading 3/3/2010

The Spanish poet Luis García Montero read at the University tonight (3/3/2010) to a packed room of students and academics. He read 8 poems from his body of work that the graduate students had translated into English. I’m not that familiar with Spanish poets and so had no idea what to expect, although I had seen his interview on El Público Lee. He is considered one of Spain’s best poets and is considered a realist poet who uses the elements from the everyday to express emotion or the experience of living. The poems that he read were very interesting and would be worth a return to. While he is a realist, the poems did have a good sense of imagery and didn’t slide into that reportage that is so real it describes nothing but itself and seems to afflict many of the American poets I’ve read and seen recently. Before each poem he explained where the ideas came from and they were often from the most basic experiences, but went beyond the moment he explained and captured something about modern living. The one I remember most was his poem to his mother. It was a reflection on the dreams she sacrificed to her family that in the era of Franco were not possible. And although he fought with her as young man who was experiencing the transition to democracy, he now sees her as someone who was so much more.

Read at the Hugo House 3/1/2010

I did a little reading (2 pages to be exact) of a story called Hostages last night at the Hugo House. There was an interesting collection of readers. One woman read a poem that didn’t really seem like a poem, but what was interesting was when she sang parts of it. It was a welcome change from some of the slow talking symbolists. At the opposite spectrum was the Mexican American comedian who gave us 5 minutes of funny stand up. He had great delivery and sure knows how to wait for the laughs. The reading series actually tends to always have a couple of really interesting presenters.

New Quarterly Conversation Available

The Quearterly Conversation has just published its 19th edition. A few articles and reviews that look interesting:

From The Girl with the Golden Parasol by Uday Prakash

By Jason Grunebaum

The Girl with the Golden Parasol follows Rahul, a non-Brahmin, who finagles his way as a student into the department of Hindi: one of the most corrupt in the university, and a “den of Brahminism.” He does so after falling utterly for Anjali, a Brahmin girl, who, through simple bad luck, could find a home in no other department. The narrative chronicles exactly how the powers-that-still-be in India have harnessed globalization to further consolidate power over language and culture at the most local of levels. It’s also a love story, and a tale of students protesting the corruption of the Indian university system.


On Jonathan Swift’s Poetry

By Patrick Kurp

In the popular mind Swift remains a one-book author, and even ambitious readers may be unaware he wrote poetry. But scholars have identified roughly 280 poems in English . . .


Per Petterson and The Masculine Question

By Adam Gallari

Petterson, whose work calls to mind the reserved nature of such “masculine” writers as Knut Hamson and Richard Yates, makes a more difficult target than present-day male writers exploring the masculine question through worlds of hyper-violence and hyper-reality. They are the men at the bar talking a good fight, while Petterson is the guy in the corner.

Reviews

Fascism, Art, and Mediocrity: Monsieur Pain by Roberto Bolaño

Review by Stephen Henighan
Precise and dramatic yet suffused with a dreamy suggestiveness, Monsieur Pain is a real discovery and a substantial addition to the growing Bolaño library in English.


Word Games and Surreal Imagery: The System of Vienna By Gert Jonke

Review by Matthew Jakubowski

Jonke’s writing isn’t difficult, though his sentences can stretch on into multi-page masterpieces, and he’s a fan of word games and surreal imagery. But beneath these formal surfaces and experimental style (some have called Jonke a “text composer”), these stories are frequently tender and funny; for all the book’s curiosities and through-the-looking-glass moments, System proves Jonke was that rare thing: a huge, rebellious talent with tremendous heart.


Devotion to the Book: Rex by Jose Manuel Prieto

Review by Geoff Maturen
Rex’s narrative structure—consisting of twelve “commentaries” written some time after the events have occurred, and addressed to J.’s former student Petya—offers an initial clue that it is not a straightforward novel. As becomes evident, J. is not really concerned with relating what has happened. Rather, he seizes upon the events as a series of “teaching moments,” ostensibly to instruct Petya, but, one suspects, really intended as a way for J. to come to terms with the trajectory his life has taken.


Correspondence Theory: The Abyss of Human Illusion by Gilbert Sorrentino

Review by Daniel Green

In his now posthumously released (and presumably final) novel, The Abyss of Human Illusion, Sorrentino again offers a relatively brief work (150 pages) built out of narrative fragments. As Christopher Sorrentino points out in his introductory note, the most obvious features of the novel’s formal structure are its division into fifty numbered sections.


Existential Mysteries: Fugue State by Brain Evenson

Review by Salvatore Ruggiero
Evenson’s story collection has characters who try to dissociate themselves from their beginnings (or who have their beginnings redefined by others), who consciously neglect previous happenings and logical prognostications to believe what they want to believe to make the best of their situation at hand. They look at their past as a constellation, trying to fit the events in order so that it makes the now more palatable. It’s an unrealistic notion, but it’s one that is aptly accentuated by the gothic and grotesque nature of these stories.


A Sensual Anti-Novel: Juan the Landless by Juan Goytisolo

Review by Gregory McCormick

In grappling with Peter Bush’s recent re-translation of Juan Goytisolo’s 1974 novel Juan the Landless, I kept wondering why we read at all. Goytisolo’s book is notoriously challenging: there’s no real punctuation save frequent colons, and the book is full of shifting protagonists and pronouns and constant pressure on the language, as though Goytisolo aims to make the text itself implode. So why do we read, and what can be said about a book seemingly created to subvert the entire act of reading?


Humor in the Face of the Tragical: The Golden Calf by Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov

Review by Karen Vanuska
What if your country was in a midst of a purge of all private wealth, yet all you longed to do was to get your hands on a million rubles and run off to Rio de Janeiro? Well, if you were affable and clever Ostap Bender, the hero of The Golden Calf, you would scheme your way into a fortune.


Reimagining Greek History: The Lost Books of The Odyssey by Zachary Mason

Review by Michael Moreci
When it comes to the elusive concept of authorship, there’s no shortage of reference points. From Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence to Jonathan Lethem’s “The Ecstasy of Influence,” the definition of authorship is both a polarizing and fascinating topic. In his debut novel The Lost Books of the Odyssey, Zachary Mason takes this debate a step further by conjuring a set of interpretations to a story whose authorship has sparked many academic studies: Homer’s Odyssey.

Interviews

Gert Jonke’s Radical Compassion: The Vincent Kling Interview

Interview by Matthew Jakubowski
I looked up—there was Jonke at the bus stop. And he got on the bus. And I thought, “OK, he’s going to sit next to me.” I know it. And he did. He sat right next to me. And it wasn’t a very crowded bus. And I thought, “OK, you’re never supposed to talk to strangers in Europe—I’m doing it.” So I just said, “You’re Herr Jonke, I believe?” And he said, “Yes, why?” And I said, “Well, I’m writing a scholarly article on you.” He said, “You have to be from Great Britain because nobody from the United States knows who I am.”


The Jason Grunebaum Interview

Interview by Annie Janusch
“No U.S. publishing house has brought out a single living Hindi novelist in translation in more than a generation.” Hindi translator Jason Grunebaum discusses the state of Hindi writing, language, and publishing—and what American readers are missing out on.

A Guide to Online Fiction at the Millions

The Millions posts a nice overview of some on-line fiction that David Backer has found. Some of it looks genre shaping, others such as Words Without Borders are more traditional literary reviews. The article is sure to have something for all tastes.

First, look Ben White’s Nanoism. White is a medical school student in Austin who’s developing the quality and presentation of twitter-sized fiction (140 characters or less). This isn’t a new form of fiction: fragments have existed from Gilgamesh to Kafka. But now these small pieces of language have won a currency in our minute-to-minute lives, a chirping and ambient speech. Sites have come about to present these “litwits” (Escarp, Thaumatrope, Outshine, PicFic). The difference with White’s stuff, both his own writing and the writing he publishes, is that in it you can see the litwit taking shape as a valid form, shaped by our technology, for getting at the truth.

Richard Hugo House to Host Writers Conference May 21-23

According to the Hugo House’s website they will be hosting a conference focusing on how one finds readers. This is a nice change to see, because while the Hugo House is a good resource (I am a member and read there occasionally) they typically only offer classes and if you are not interested in classes their program isn’t of much use.Looking forward to see if it will be interesting.

On the weekend of May 21-23, Richard Hugo House will be hosting its first writers’ conference. The topic will be: Finding Your Readers in the 21st Century.

Our focus will be on exploring the changing literary landscape and the options available to writers for getting their work out in the world and into the hands of readers. While we will certainly look at traditional publishing models, what we’re really interested in is showcasing new possibilities that writers in our community may not be aware of, from the traditional to the off-the-wall. We’ll look at ways writers can promote themselves and their work directly to their readers, and offer hands on practical workshops on basic tools of the writing business from creating a pre-pub platform to building your own website.

Registration for Finding Your Readers in the 21st Century will open on April 5 for Hugo House members and April 12 for the general public.

Hipólito Navarro, El Sindrome Chejov and the Spanish Short Story

I’ve been reading the short stories of the Spanish writer Hipólito Navarro recently (a review forth coming) and enjoying his complex and compressed stories, which are often no more than four pages long yet wait until the end to reveal themselves. He is someone who should make it into English someday. While looking for information on him I found the blog, El Sindrome Chejov (the Chekhov Syndrome) which has a large number of interview with short story writers, including a long with Navarro. It is worth the look.

Q: If a novelist always writes the same novel, is the work of a short story writer a farmhouse that one goes little by little tearing off the roof, reinforcing the walls and adding rooms?

A: Yes, one suspects that it is this way. At least in part…

P: Si un novelista escribe siempre la misma novela, ¿es la obra de un cuentista un cortijo al que se van poco a poco echando los techos, reforzando los muros y añadiendo habitaciones?

R: Sí, cabe sospechar que así sea. Al menos en parte…

The Best Time for Writers – Alan Rinzler at Elliott Bay 1/23/10

I went down to Elliott Bay Books on the other day (1/23/10) to see a presentation from Alan Rinzler, an editor at Jossey-Bass, about getting published. Naturally, an interesting topic for any writer:

The topic of his talk today is “Why There’s Never Been a Better Time for Writers Who Want to Get Published.” He’ll speak about book publishing from the inside, dispelling myths, confronting realities, and explaining what current changes mean for writers wanting to be published in this volatile business. He will also speak about presenting proposals and manuscripts in an effective manner, finding an agent, knowing what acquiring editors are looking for.

It was quite interesting to hear the state of publishing from an insider who is more cheerleader than defeatist. As the title of his talk suggests, he believes this is the best time for writers. While there were some contradictory elements in his presentation he does have a point. He started off by noting that the number of book sales is up in certain genres, specifically young adult, graphic novel and literary fiction. Certainly encouraging news. However, as he would do throughout the presentation he then notes that publishers either don’t know what they are doing or botch the sales job. In his opinion, the only way to sell a book is have buzz via social media. Book tours are a thing of the past (I often wondered how they could make money with them when so few come to readings; it’s at best a break even proposition). Interestingly, he really didn’t see much room for the book stores. He noted that they usually send back all the copies of a book with in a few weeks of receiving them so that there is not time for the slow build, which is es specially important in fiction. only 10% of books make money. He didn’t answer how publishers can justify big advances with those odds. His final, comment of note on the publishing business was that all the job cuts were just cutting away the fat and that staff now are more lean and do more with less. The take away is if you are going to write, be social media ready.

He then went on to talk about what writer should do to get published. Most of it is common advice, but he did break it down into quick bites. Finding an agent, for example, isn’t a book length topic.

Find an agent – You need one to protect you from “people like me.”

  • To find one go to writers conferences. It is relaxed atmosphere and they are on their best behavior.
  • Be aggressive: go to their office and wait them out; send an email submission even though they say no because they can be tempted by something good (and they ignore query letters).
  • The best if you know someone who has an agent.
  • Self publish and show them the book.
  • Read Publisher’s Weekly and Publisher’s Market Place weekly emails. It will tell you the deals with the agent’s names.

Writing a Proposal

  • Should be 25 pages.
  • Have a 2 to 3 paragraph hook. How you are going to say this book has to be published.
  • Out line of no more than 10 pages
  • Platform: where are you in the public. Have you written anything else, been on TV, etc.?
  • DVD of you talking.