Archive for the 'Writing' Category

My Jane Gardam review in the Quarterly Conversation

My review of Jane Gardam’s The Man in the Wooden Hat appears in the new Spring 2010 issue of The Quarterly Conversation.


My review of Calvo’s Wonderful World in The Quarterly Conversation

My review of the Spanish writer Javier Calvo’s novel Wonderful World appears in the new issue of The Quarterly Conversation.

On the demise of the Washington Post Book World

booksthumbiconThe persistent rumors have now been confirmed: the NY Times reported today that the Washington Post Book World will soon cease to be a separate entity in print. Book World will continue its independent existence online, but otherwise Post book coverage will be folded into other sections. As the Times story notes, publishers tend to pony up very little money for ad space in newspapers, and so folks in the newspaper business have had an increasingly hard time justifying turning over all those column inches to book coverage, especially in the midst of a financial crisis.

As a fledgling book critic, I’m never happy to hear news of newspaper book sections suffering cuts. But the news hardly comes as a surprise, and it’s possible to take at least some consolation in the fact that no one at the Post lost their jobs this time. It’s also encouraging that the paper plans to continue covering books in a dedicated and coherent fashion online.

Many of the early commentators on this matter seem to share the point of view of National Book Critics Circle president Jane Ciabatti, who the Times quotes as lamenting the death of the print edition because “it carried an authority that has not yet its parallel, online or off.” I find this comment very telling. Ciabatti is right on about one thing: there isn’t yet any site on the web that can boast of the kind of concentrated audience and authority that stand-alone print sections like Book World have enjoyed in the past. But, as the fairly widely-read book blog Elegant Variation put it today, “The future of book reviewing will not be found in print dailies…it’s online.” Sooner or later, a book reviewing website will become sufficiently popular and widely-read to achieve a position of substantial influence among dedicated readers. It’s possible that the site will be the online incarnation of an old newspaper books section—but it strikes me as more likely that it will be a new and independent operation, something born on the web and better suited to exploiting the advantages of the online environment. A good model for this would be the indie rock website Pitchfork, which started out as an amateur project, and in less than a decade became the most influential single voice within the indie rock subculture. With old models of distribution rapidly decaying, the time is ripe for an ambitious editor to bring a book site of similar importance into being.

But it’s also important to note that, despite its influence, Pitchfork is far from the only game in town when it comes to shaping indie rock opinion. Pitchfork makes and breaks bands on a regular basis, but so do music bloggers, and there are now any number of other paths by which a band or musician can come to the attention of fans. And like it or not, serious book lovers, much like indie rock fans, now constitute nothing more than another subculture. When it comes to the fate of the Book World, I think it’s not really the demise of the print section itself that Ciabatti and many others are mourning; rather, it’s the death of a world in which mainstream publications like the Washington Post could serve the role of cultural gatekeeper for a broad audience of readers. But today’s audiences are fragmented and diverse, and most consumers of books, music, and the arts are not particularly interested in being treated as an indistinguishable part of an undistinguished mass. And why should they be, when there’s a whole world of diverse and fascinating critical voices already out there on the web for readers to turn to?

140 characters or bust

When I was a teenager in Decatur, Illinois, in the early-to-mid 1990s, I thought Wired was just about the coolest thing ever. Having grown up on science fiction novels, it was easy for me to get caught up in the magazine’s relentless, starry-eyed cheerleading for the wondrous technological future. I also thrilled at being part of the in-group: nobody else I knew read or had even heard of Wired, and according to the writers and editors of the magazine, the fact that I (unlike my peers) was hip to their message meant that I was bound to be a part of the nascent techno-geek aristocracy.

These days I have a hard time with Wired: the problems with the magazine’s techno-libertarian politics are obvious to me now in ways that I failed to understand at fifteen, and its continued breathless cheerleading for what’s new and what’s next sometimes reaches absurd proportions. A case in point: a column by Paul Boutin published in Wired last month, which recently came to my attention via Bookninja. According to Boutin, the fact that professional bloggers associated with major websites draw more readers than amateur bloggers means that there’s no point in anyone else continuing blogging. “Thinking about launching your own blog?” Boutin writes. “Here’s some friendly advice: Don’t. And if you’ve already got one, pull the plug.” He suggests that because amateurs lack the skill and/or the time to write blog posts of the same quantity and quality as the blogging pros, they really shouldn’t bother blogging at all. The real action, he claims, is in brief message updates via Twitter or Facebook, and argues that the enforced brevity of the messages (a mere 140 characters for Twitter) “puts everyone back on equal footing.” As an amateur blogger, “it’s almost impossible to get noticed,” and therefore you ought to just throw in the towel.

I think it’s telling that Boutin equates a lack of recognition by the broadest mainstream readership with failure and pointlessness. In his article, he says nothing at all about the content of blog posts (amateur or professional); rather, he’s obsessed by matters of popularity and style. No doubt it’s true that many bloggers start out in the hope of having the whole world listen to them; and no doubt it’s also true that more than 99.9% of folks who go into it with that attitude eventually give up in failure. But I don’t think getting noticed is the sole point of blogging—not by any means. Personally, I’m happy when a post gets a (relatively) large number of hits, but even if I didn’t get any traffic at all, I’d keep posting all the same. I use my blog as a means for recording and expressing my thoughts on what I’m reading, listening to, watching, and thinking about. It’s also a great means for interacting with an informal community of bloggers, readers, and writers who are interested in the same kinds of things I am.

And this is the more fundamental and important point that Boutin misses here: even blogs that reach very small audiences perform real and powerful social and cultural functions—and in ways that mainstream blogs (or, for that matter, mass media) generally can’t. Though the most popular book bloggers have readerships in the thousands, rather than the millions, they’ve all the same part of a lively and deeply engaged subcultural community. Because of book blogs, I’m able to keep track of what’s going on in the world of literary writing, criticism, and publishing in an in-depth, instantaneous fashion. I’m never going to get anything like that from a mainstream blog; nor am I going to get it from the television, Facebook, or Twitter. Maud Newton may never draw enough readers to meet Boutin’s standards, but my life is better because she’s out there blogging about books. The same is no doubt true for any number of interest groups and subcultures—I’m sure there are similar corners of the blogosphere dedicated to fly fishing, showtunes, actuarial science, and many other things that I don’t particularly care about, and it’s wonderful that blogs have made those kinds of discussions and communities possible.

I’m also bothered by Boutin’s assertion that amateur bloggers are always necessarily outclassed by professionals. This isn’t true; there are many perfectly fine writers and commentators out there who don’t get paid for their work. But even as he asserts that the pros do better work, Boutin also expresses a longing for the days when posts by amateur bloggers would top the search engine results. He writes:

Today, a search for, say, Barack Obama’s latest speech will deliver a Wikipedia page, a Fox News article, and a few entries from professionally run sites like The odds of your clever entry appearing high on the list? Basically zero.

First off, Wikipedia is written by anonymous amateurs, so it’s an exceedingly poor example of the professionalization of the web. Second: it seems perfectly reasonable to me that professional news content would rise to the top of the search engine results on a topic like a presidential candidate. Professional journalists are the ones who are out there doing the reporting; bloggers add value to their work by linking to it and offering commentary and opinion from diverse viewpoints and for specific audiences. There’s nothing wrong with this pattern, and nothing wrong with the news sources getting the most hits. And besides, there’s little doubt that blogs continue to have a powerful influence over the way that news is reported: sites like DailyKos (with its mix of professional and amateur writing) really do get heard in the mainstream, and others, like FiveThirtyEight, have only recently succeeded in catapulting themselves from blogging obscurity and into the mainstream spotlight. In other words: not only is Boutin wrong about the implications of the supposed decreased importance of amateur blogging, he’s also wrong that new blogs can no longer reach the attention of the mainstream.

What bothers me more than anything about Boutin’s essay, though, is something else entirely: the absolute absurdity of the idea that a blog entry is somehow too long and cumbersome to be an effective means of communication—or that the 140 characters of a Twitter message could possibly be adequate for anything and everything that a would-be blogger might want to communicate. Even Boutin’s own article is well over that limit—3,198 characters, according to the word count feature in MS Word. As if to answer this objection, Boutin offers a Twitter-sized precis of his essay: “@WiredReader: Kill yr blog. 2004 over. Google won’t find you. Too much cruft from HuffPo, NYT. Commenters are tards. C u on Facebook?” And I suppose Boutin’s right at least in his own case: there’s just about as much substance in his 140-character Twitter message as in the whole of his article for Wired. But that doesn’t mean that the rest of us don’t have better things to say on our blogs (and at whatever length we please).


You should stop reading my blog and go vote (or even better, volunteer) for Barack Obama.

(There won’t be any new posts for a few days anyway, as I’ll be out knocking on doors.)

Writing term papers for a living

Nick Mamatas has written a funny and fascinating post on The Smart Set about his lucrative former career as a writer for a term paper mill. In the piece, he describes his typical clients (generally clueless and/or lazy college students), as well as his methods for churning out two or three term papers per day:

You have to make your own fun. In business papers, I’d often cite Marxist sources. When given an open topic assignment on ethics, I’d write on the ethics of buying term papers, and even include the broker’s Web site as a source. My own novels and short stories were the topic of many papers — several DUMB CLIENTS rate me as their favorite author and they’ve never even read me, or anyone else. Whenever papers needed to refer to a client’s own life experiences, I’d give the student various sexual hang-ups.

Mamatas says that the gig has not only helped his other, more substantial writing pursuits, but has also given him insight into why so many students struggle with writing a term paper in the first place:

It’s because students have never read term papers. Imagine trying to write a novel, for a grade, under a tight deadline, without ever having read a novel. Instead, you meet once or twice a week with someone who is an expert in describing what novels are like. Novels are long stories, you see, that depict a “slice of life” featuring a middle-class protagonist. Psychological realism is prized in novels. Moral instruction was once fairly common in novels, but is now considered gauche. Novels end when the protagonist has an epiphany, such as “I am not happy. Also, neither is anybody else.” Further, many long fictions are called novels even though they are really adventures, and these ersatz novels may take place in a fantastical setting and often depict wild criminal behaviors and simplified versions of international intrigues instead of middle-class quandaries. Sometimes there are pirates, but only so that a female character may swoon at their well-developed abdominal muscles. That’s a novel. What are you waiting for? Start writing! Underline your epiphany.

There’s some solid advice there for all you first-year composition teachers out there: please, please be extremely clear in your expectations, and give your students some examples of successful papers to work from. As a librarian, I can’t tell you the number of times that I’ve had a reference interaction with a student who simply didn’t understand what a research paper was. They’d come to me with a vague idea that they were supposed to copy some things from journals and then type them up in Microsoft Word, and would often show signs of bafflement and fright when I’d explain to them that they were actually expected to do things like construct their own original argument while marshaling support from the works of scholars and other experts. The whole concept was often foreign to them: most first-year college students have never seen an academic journal before, and many have barely read anything at all. And a good proportion of them have never been asked to build an argument or analyze a text: generally they’ve summarized things in book reports and answered “objective” multiple choice questions, but that’s about it. The task of writing a research paper, then, can seem truly daunting—but as Mamatas points out, it would no doubt go a long way if more instructors would simply give beginning students examples of successful papers, and talk about how and why they work.

Mamatas goes on to argue that he’s no more of a “cheat” than the colleges and universities that happily cash tuition checks from students who can’t really be gaining much of anything from their classes. This is an insightful observation. But all the same, I think Mamatas lets himself off a little too easily: certainly profiting off of students and educational institutions makes him complicit in their failures. It’s kind of like condemning an angry mob of looting rioters, but then reaching into a smashed store window to grab a TV set anyway.

Age, genius, and great art

Since the days of the Romantics, youthful inspiration has long been associated with artistic genius and the production of great work. Talented young artists are seen as iconoclasts rebelling against the idols of generations past, and are expected to produce their greatest and most significant work early in their careers. Older artists seen as wedded to the ideas and aesthetics of generations past, and it is often assumed that their best work is behind them.

In a recent article in The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell draws on the work of the University of Chicago economist David Galenson on the question of the relationship between age and the production of great artistic work. In his book Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity, Galenson offers a comparative discussion of Picasso (an early bloomer) and Cezanne (whose artistic success only came much later in life), and concludes that Picasso’s path to greatness is by no means the only way for an artist to get there.

Cezanne, Self-Portrait with Rose Background c. 1875

Cezanne, "Self-Portrait with Rose Background" c. 1875

With Gladwell’s article in mind, I was also struck by a recent Pitchfork interviewwith the guitarist and songwriter Marnie Stern, in which she discusses the significance of the fact that she didn’t put out a debut album until after the age of thirty. In the world of popular music, that’s nearly a decade behind schedule for a recording debut—most musicians and bands get their start by their early twenties at the latest. Even more than in most fields, there’s a very strong expectation in popular music that only the young will produce great work, and that aging only reduces the power and relevance of a musician’s output. Young bands have the greatest energy and freshest ideas, and tend to create their masterworks only three or four albums into their careers (if not sooner). After that, many musicians settle in for years or even decades of comfortably retreading the same ground, never again recapturing the fire of their earlier innovations and accomplishments.

The case of Marnie Stern, then, is certainly unusual in popular music—especially given that her new sophomore release, the verbosely titled This Is It and I Am It and You Are It and So Is That and He Is It and She Is It and It Is It and That Is That, only confirms her status as a unique and dazzling talent. Her first album, 2007’s In Advance of the Broken Arm, succeeds largely on the strength of Stern’s idiosyncratic and head-spinning fretwork: on song after song, she unleashes avalanches of notes, while all the same sounding very little like guitar gods past. On This Is It…., the adventurous guitar playing, harsh sonics, and rhythmic complexity of her previous album remain, but this time she adds a healthy dose of tunefulness to the mix. Stern has arrived on the indie rock scene as a fully-formed talent with a unique and compelling vision—an achievement that, by her own account, she simply could not have managed when she was younger.

When asked by the Pitchfork interviewer if she felt “there was an advantage to having your first record come that late,” Stern answered:

Of course. I don’t know about for other people, but I know for me, I mean, I had material for all those years and certainly wasn’t anywhere near up to par. I think it takes a long time to find your voice. A really long fucking time to figure it out. And plus, I don’t know, I guess it’s different for everyone, but it’d be hard to tap into a really honest place when you’re really young….And how brave you are. Because that’s the other thing. The only things I like to listen to are things where risks are being taken. I think that’s the only thing that pushes you to the next place, when you do things that are out of your comfort zone.

Stern didn’t emerge out of nowhere at the age of 30; instead, she devoted countless hours over a period of years to an intense and serious exploration of who she was as a guitarist, songwriter, and creative person. She was unsatisfied with the the work she was producing when she was younger, and also felt that she hadn’t yet “found her voice.” If she’d attempted to make a go at a music career in her early twenties, she would have lacked both the self-knowledge and the technical skill that play significant roles in making her music so successful now that she’s in her thirties.

Marnie Stern, This Is It....

Marnie Stern, "This Is It...."

In popular music, the norm is for an artist to follow a pattern of development that matches David Galenson’s description of a “Young Genius”—someone who, like Picasso, bursts onto the scene early in their 20s, and produces their greatest and most significant work in the years immediately following. Marnie Stern, on the other hand, would seem to be a closer match for Galenson’s “Old Master” category: artists who labor for years or decades to find their voices, and rarely enjoy their greatest accomplishments until much later in life.

For Galenson and Gladwell, it’s not just that “Old Masters” bloom later; rather, their entire approach to creativity is fundamentally different. In his New Yorker article, Gladwell establishes a contrast between the fiction writers Jonathan Safran Foer—who wrote his highly successful first novel, Everything Is Illuminated, at the age of 19—and Ben Fountain, whose debut story collection, Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, was published when he was 48. According to Gladwell, Foer writes quickly and passionately when inspiration takes him, and finds it difficult to comprehend how a writer could work doggedly at researching and re-working a piece of writing over a long period of time. Fountain, on the other hand, worked on his fiction for 18 years before he saw publication and success, and sees writing as a slow and laborious process of careful thought and self-discovery. Fountain, in fact, will sometimes write as much as 500 pages of drafts in order to produce a single short-story. Much like Stern, Fountain’s success did not depend on a burst of youthful energy, but instead on many years of devoted research, reading, exploration, and hard work.

Quoted in Gladwell, Galenson notes that, for artists like Cezanne (or Fountain, or Stern), creativity takes a very different form than it does for a Picasso:

They consider the production of a painting as a process of searching, in which they aim to discover the image in the course of making it; they typically believe that learning is a more important goal than making finished paintings.

On a personal level, I find it much easier to identify with Fountain, Stern, and Cezanne than with Picasso or Safran Foer. When I read about Fountain’s 500 pages of work for a single short story, I sighed in recognition: I tend to write at least ten or fifteen thousand words for every thousand that actually make it into a completed draft of a short story. Also like Cezanne or Fountain (and perhaps like Stern), I don’t tend to view my creative work in conceptual terms—my creative energy instead comes from the process of exploring themes, language, and characters in the hope of coming to some kind of greater understanding of the world and of fiction itself.

That said, Galenson’s categories do seem like something of an oversimplification. No doubt there are many artists who fail to fit into either the “Young Genius” or “Old Master” mold. One example that comes immediately to mind is Philip Roth: his debut short story collection Goodbye, Columbus (1959) earned him widespread critical acclaim, and positioned him as a young rising literary star. But his next few novels were far less successful, and he seemed to struggle to find his voice until the publication of Portnoy’s Complaint (1969). And Roth wouldn’t write several of his best novels until the 1990s. The pattern of his career doesn’t match either of Galenson’s categories. (Though he is a good fit for one of the Galenson’s characteristics of an “Old Master”: Roth has consistently, even obsessively, revisited similar themes, ideas, settings, and characters throughout his career.)

Gladwell’s article also alludes to another factor in artistic development without fully engaging it: questions of class and financial support. While Ben Fountain struggled for the better part of two decades to produce his first good fiction, his wife, a successful lawyer, offered him both financial and moral support. And as Gladwell does point out, Cezanne had a string of famous patrons during his very long artistic apprenticeship. Not all artists are nearly so fortunate: in fact, it would seem likely that many people who might have one day created great works instead end up unable to practice their art in any kind of sustained manner because they simply don’t have the kind of support that would free them to devote the necessary time and energy. It’s hard to labor through years and years of disappointment when you have to pay the bills, take care of the kids, mow the lawn, and put dinner on the table every night. Very few artists will be so lucky as to find themselves a good patron.

Gladwell didn’t address the class and gender issues underlying the economic realities of artistic production. In music, for example, no doubt part of why the “Young Genius” model has taken such hold is because the demands of establishing a music career are easiest for young men of a middle-class (or better) background to manage. It’s hard to (for example) raise a family while you’re broke all the time and need to devote your time to the exhausting grind of touring, as well as to the late-night partying and socializing that’s necessary for networking your way into the music scene. Older musicians are bound to have a harder time living up to these kinds of expectations. And it’s far easier to choose to place yourself into poverty for a few years if you know that you can always get a “real” job someday (thanks to your college degree), and that if you really get in trouble, your middle-class (or richer) parents will always be there to bale you out.

Recent Publications

Review of J.M. Coetzee and Ethics: Philosophical Perspectives on Literature, edited by Anton Leist and Peter Singer. The Quarterly Conversation, September 2010.

Review of Union Atlantic by Adam Haslett. The Region, June 2010.

Review of The Man in the Wooden Hat and Old Filth by Jane Gardam. The Quarterly Conversation, Issue 19, Spring 2010.

Review of 1989: Bob Dylan Didn't Have This to Sing About by Joshua Clover. ForeWord, November/December 2009.

Review of The Humbling by Philip Roth. Identity Theory, November 25, 2009.

Review of Imperial by William T. Vollmann. PopMatters, September 18, 2009.

Review of Wonderful World by Javier Calvo. The Quarterly Conversation, Issue 17, September 7, 2009.

Review of Of Song and Water by Joseph Coulson. Identity Theory, August 3, 2009.

Review of Digging: The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music by Amiri Baraka. ForeWord, July/August 2009.

Review of Death in Spring by Mercè Rodoreda. Rain Taxi, Summer 2009 (#54). Viewable online via Powell's Books

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