The Blue Raccoon

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Literary Devices

A few days ago one of the cats that owns me objected to my reading of Sherman Alexie’s Reservation Blues and with a strong paw knocked it into the upstairs commode.

Hey, I was reading that!

Flannery shrugged, grinned, and sauntered off with big furry shoulders rolling in pride.

The book was still dripping when I wrapped a towel around it and hustled, like a medivac triage doctor, to splay it open on a basement radiator. A few days elapsed, I retrieved the book. Wrinkled, yes, and somewhat rougher in texture, and my marginalia are smeared making them slightly less legible than they were already.

But Reservation Blues is in good condition and resting comfortably back on the radiator/reading matter shelf of the upstairs bathroom. And I’m almost finished. Compelling read, by the way. Thank you, Mr. Alexie. (Born 1966, younger and greatly more published than me -- Good on him!)

But this situation put me to thinking about several items that this week piqued my curiosity/sense of failure. I am a despairing aspiring novelist whose arduous effort may come to nothing, and even if a book is produced, the goddess knows if by then the preferred delivery system will be a physical book except as an expensive collector’s item.

Readers are rushing out by the millions to delight in shiny new objects like eReaders. But what would happen to an eReader if a Flannery variant chose to demonstrate his/her valuation of the work, and motor skills, by shot-putting the hapless volume into the toilet? Think on this while we amble along a little further.

• Item: Michael David Lukas’ apparent staggering work of genius is The Oracle of Stamboul. Its exotic historical locale and origin story -- a photograph found in a Constantinople junk shop -- sounds right up my tale-sprung-from-antique-object alley, except that my assorted insecurities were rankled by the piece about him on NPR.

An artist is not his interview, and we’re all trying our best, but. Says he worked for seven years (I have two decades down on three failed books so far, thus, I sympathize though only a little because, well.)

During this time, Lukas hustled between graduate school, grants and some odd jobs to keep himself out of the daily workaday grind and write. Yes, the sound you hear is my rising frustration and envy.

Martha Woodroof writes, “Halfway through, Lukas says, he "ended up having a crisis of the lean years and [starting] a career in socially responsible business." This, he discovered, while fine for others, was not fine for him. "During that time, I learned how hard it is for me not to write — and how hard it is to write with a full-time job."
So, it was back to full-time writing, funded by whomever Lukas could shake support out of and whatever paying work fit into the corners of his writing days. "I was asking people for money essentially all the time," he says. "I'm really, really thankful for all those people who work at organizations and foundations that give money and support to writers."

At this point, I wanted to toss from the office window my accumulation of writer self-help and inspirational guides and go learn a trade, just like Dad helpfully advised in my stubborn youth. ("Dad, that's not what I do. I'm going to be a writer." As if that settled anything.) But a nearing on 50-year-old reinventing himself as a plumber or an HVAC specialist doesn’t strike me as good use of anybody's time.

If I was able to shake this affliction that spurs me to write -- above and beyond my steady and often demanding journo job -- I would. Any story you can write possesses possibilities for greatness. The tantalizing gap is between ambition and the ability to bring clarity to what's going on in the mental movie house. How may I better excel as a projectionist?

I reflect on a piece by Stephen Marche in the February Brooklyn Decker issue of Esquire. [Photo by Yu Tsai] The title: “Is James Frey The Most Important Writer In America?” The nut graph: “He's an arrogant opportunist who wants to take advantage of talented young writers. Basically, he's exactly what the publishing industry needs.”

Marche explains how Frey – “a refugee from the great decade of American fraud,” a spot-on line -- but -- come to think -- isn’t every decade a great one for American fraud? – has stepped into the current tumult of publishing with his own Full Fathom Five publishing house. He gets young writers to “coproduce’ works of adult fiction that they can say they wrote, but he controls it and he grabs up to 70 percent of the royalties.

Marche continues, emphasis mine: “Frey, at least according to some, trolls the M.F.A. programs in New York rather the way pimps in movies troll Penn Station for farmers' daughters, but I hesitate to judge his plan. The truth is that anyone who spends $40,000 a year to be taught how to write by writers who cannot make a living by writing, or who imagines that fairness and common sense have anything to do with the publishing industry, could probably use a lesson in how life really works.”

• Item: This season’s literary gothy brunette is Amanda Hocking who as the self publisher of a series of hot-right- now genre fiction, is today a millionaire.

She’s as surprised as anybody.

Hocking tapped into a hot market trend: mystery, romance, other worldly shenanigans. And good on her! If I could figure out a way to write such material I would, but she already is, and it isn’t my bailiwick.

I’ve not read her work thus cannot speak to its worthiness. But, who the hell cares what I think? USA Today, the nation’s paper of record at this juncture of the dread latter days, says 20 million people read e-books last year and many would-be authors seeking validation of readership have gone the route of self-publishing.

Mark Corker, founder of Smashwords a self-publishing firm, writes on the HuffPo, “The Author Uprising Against Big Publishing” “Do authors still need publishers in this new world order?” posits Corker. “ I think it all goes back to my first question. To survive and thrive, publishers big and small must do for authors what authors cannot or will not do for themselves.”

But I must raise my hand. I write each workday in a mostly professional manner. I get up, walk to my office where at my wreck of the Hesperus desk, I try to make some sense of the mess I've made. I am thankfully edited by not one but sometimes two or three others. Sentences get parsed and tweaked – at times, to my annoyance – but we tend to work it out.

The collapse of megalithic publishing, along with its stultifying stodginess and clubbiness and frustrating sense of professionalism, a-hem, means that a certain lack of expertise is getting flushed out. Among my tasks at work is to fairly frequently give overviews of books. I’ve seen more and more volumes released with little errors, nicks in tense, grammatical goofs, that in my shop would’ve received big red circles before going to press. Nowadays, there’s a burgeoning cottage industry of laid off editors offering themselves to those self-publishing types.

But the point of self-publishing is to avoid all those restrictive rings that keep them away from selling the thing. Used to be that a killer for self-publishing was distribution. Many bookstores wouldn’t carry self-published books. Few outlets reviewed them. Now, you can avoid not only publishers but bookstores. Blogs by the bushels full have sprouted up to extol/review these misfits that aren’t in the accepted canon of reviewing.

Lord Chesterfield said to let blockheads read what blockheads write. But that was the 18th century, he was a snob and his little aphorisms survive on Wikiquotes.

Item: Another life and world ago, Frank Rich was a founding editor of the Richmond Mercury, a weekly liberal investigative journalism tab. Then he went off and spent more than three decades at the New York Times, reviewing, essaying, caviling, annoying.

These days The Grey Lady is getting ragged around the edges. Newspapers drift politically and editorially as they stumble in the swamps from hummock to hummock where their possible extinction awaits. Writers are drowning and those who aren't are jumping in canoes and rowing. (Where are they paddling in such haste? Over the rapids? Into the cybersphere? They can't know for sure.)

Rich is heading to New York magazine -- and good on him! He wrote in his exit letter: “After seventeen years in my second career there, as a columnist, I feel much as I did after nearly fourteen years in my first, as chief drama critic—both the satisfaction that I’ve given a great job all I had and a serious hunger to move on to fresh and expanded writing challenges after having done the same assignment for so long.
... It was impossible to top the idea of reuniting with my friend Adam Moss, who has played a crucial role in my writing life since the late 1980s and who, as editor of the Times Magazine, was instrumental in my transition from arts criticism to broader essay writing.
The role Adam has created for me at his revitalized New York Magazine will allow me to write with more reflection, variety, and space than is possible within the confines of a weekly newspaper column—and, for that matter, will allow me to stretch the definition of a magazine column.”

H’mmm. Stretch the idea of a column – like to 6,000 words? (I laugh, because I’m truly guilty). But, he’s saying: Life’s too short. Why persist in doing something I don’t love if I have a viable alternative?

Meanwhile, the New York Times magazine has poetically jettisoned The Ethicist and Questions For columns. My Sunday expedition to fetch the Times from a Carytown store was as much a part of the ritual as reading it.

That phase has passed.

To procure a Sunday times I must hike to a chained convenience or supermarket to buy it and, well, the paper stacks up that must be recycled. (Reading it online doesn't come without a backend price: the electricity that powers this computer likely comes from mountain-top removed coal, the computer parts were perhaps made by Chinese or Indian children poisoned by soldering the circuit boards, etc. -- and, so, I ask, where's The Ethicist now?)

An archivist friend of mine gave me a bookmark from Biff's , a former Carytown institution that became Carytown Books and it's where the Playn'Trade video game store is now. Biff's was famous for its magazine, selection, book groups, Kelly Justice, and Gus, a cat famous for living at the time of the Pharoahs, who then decorously died while still on mouse watch.

Prior to Biff's the place was Beacon Books, something of a hipster hangout in the late 1950s and early 1960s and I believe the store sold jazz records, too, if I'm not conflating my stories.

Beneath the deco Biff's emblem is the phrase, "Books For Knowledge & Pleasure." That about covers what their job description, doesn't it?

Finally, I’ve spent a considerable time here quoting what other writers have said about writing and publishing while kvetching about the shortcomings of my own aspirations. Fact is, to write, a writer sits down and uses the personally preferred instrument to transcribe the voices in his/her head. These notes fill pages and then clot computer memories. Maybe a book comes out of it, maybe not, and if it does, people may read it or not, and these days, there’s ever more reasons not to. I plant books around my house to read them; but I now have an iPhone, too. Shiny objects.

Thing is, the power goes off, the batteries run out, I still have my warped volume of Sherman Alexie, published by the Grove Press in 1995 (Now Grove/Atlantic).

And see how the once-sodden, dried out pages resemble the rings of a tree. (
Where the pages originate, as living tissue, before ever meeting with the writer's exclamation that he, too, is alive!). The thickness of the rings indicate the tree's health during seasons of wet and drought.

All I know is, I can turn these pages until the end. That is a small but satisfying thing in a world alarmingly lately bereft of them.

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