Booker chair expresses desire to “foster consensus”

“Chris Smith’s appointment as chairman of the judges for this year’s Man Booker Prize suggests that the prize’s administrators are anxious to avoid controversy,” Lilian Pizzichini argues.

The former Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport was in full New Labour-speak mode as he deliberated on the task ahead of him: “My role will be to foster robust discussion but also to foster consensus.”

Maybe he should have chaired The Big Read, then?



Rupert Thomson on writing and nightmares

One night last summer I awoke from a nightmare at 5 a.m. Bad dreams are fairly common for me — sometimes I have them back to back, all night, for weeks — but this was one of an ongoing, especially disturbing series about Miami as a totalitarian prison state that’s been ripped away from mainland and is being propelled into the Atlantic by a host of swimming Rottweilers.

I bolted up in a sweat and got out of bed for the rest of the night. I didn’t want to risk starting the nightmare over again.

Several weeks later, I picked up Rupert Thomson‘s The Insult, a novel about a man who’s left blind after a violent accident but believes he can see clearly in the dark. The desperate mood evoked by the prose called my nightmare to mind, and I wrote then: “Rupert Thomson writes nightmares. How does he do that?”

Just last week I happened upon the answer, in Thomson’s own words, from a 2001 interview:

Whenever I start a new book I have nightmares. Night after night. For a long time I didn’t understand why. Recently I came up with a theory. To write fiction of any power and authenticity you have to draw on the deepest, most secret parts of yourself. That’s where fiction comes from, but it’s also where dreams are made. Small wonder, then, if there’s a certain amount of cross-fertilisation between the two. I often think of Louise Bourgeois in this context. She once said, “I trust my unconscious. The unconscious is my friend. . . .” You might say that I want my fiction to have that relationship to reality. I want to be able to look at reality from a standpoint that feels unpredictable, surreal, and yet, at the same time, entirely cogent. I seem to be attracted to ideas that allow me to do this, The Insult being an obvious example.

(From the Thomson entry in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 267: Twenty-First-Century British and Irish Novelists.)



Writing workshops: what are they good for

Emma, a friend and classmate of mine, offers some interesting thoughts on writing workshops and success in publishing:

having both worked in fiction publishing and participated in a writing program, 90% of the benefit of such programs – the illustrious Iowa or otherwise – is that they buy you time, space and most importantly opportunity in the form of connections and putative prestige.

Be sure to read the whole post, or you’ll miss her take on the misreporting of book deal figures.

Meanwhile, Chicha offers a first-hand perspective on the Iowa program.



“Death of the ebook” pronouncements premature?

Jim McClellan says the market for electronic books is growing, slowly but significantly:

Nick Rogaty, executive director of the [Open eBook Forum], admits that the number of ebooks sold is still a tiny fraction of the overall book business. But the figures show that electronic publishing is slowly growing into a viable business. The exit of Barnes and Noble and Gemstar was, he suggests, “because their parent companies are under pressure to achieve profitability. So they moved to stick with their bread-and-butter business”….

Ditching the obsessive focus on the idea of the ebook might also help e-publishing grow. When people talk about an ebook, they’re usually thinking about a digital version of a novel or a biography. The problem is, these types of reading experience work best in print (at the moment).

However, there are other types of reading and other types of “books” that are better suited to electronic formats and are very successful. As Toby Mundy, managing director/publisher at Atlantic Books (publishers of Guardian books, among others), points out, we have already seen massive upheaval as a result of new technology. “Looking round my room,” he says, “I can see all sorts of books… but what I can’t see, and I would have seen a decade ago, is any reference books. I now use reputable brands like Britannica online.”



Laptop theft victim suspects thief found her personal essay files clumsy and self-conscious

From Bloggy Mountain Breakdown’s “An Open Letter to the Fuck Who Stole My Laptop“:

On second thought, you’re probably not enjoying it too much. If you’re breaking into cars in the Winn Dixie parking lot at 2:00 a.m. on a Tuesday morning, odds are good that you do not have a full appreciation for the stability of UNIX. Just a guess.

Did you get a chance to pilfer through my files yet? This vague sense of violation that I’m holding on to tells me that you did. So, what did you think of those essays? No, no, you’re right. They are a little clumsy and self-conscious. That one about my dead father though, that was getting somewhere, don’t you think? You should have seen the first draft. What a mess! I couldn’t get around my defensive use of humor. It just got in the way and stayed there. But after I cleaned it up, I thought it was taking shape quite nicely. You know, old man, you really should feel free to send me your thoughts on it. You’ve got my e-mail address (provided you know where to find it). I’d simply love to get some feedback from the juvenile delinquent set, they being the intended audience and all.



Stupidity, the foundation of civilization

I have my eye on The Encyclopedia of Stupidity:

Matthijs van Boxsel believes that no one is intelligent enough to understand their own stupidity. In “The Encyclopaedia of Stupidity” he shows how stupidity manifests itself in all areas, in everyone, at all times: stupidity is the foundation of our civilization. In short sections with such titles as “The Blunderers’ Club”, “Fools in Hell”, “Genealogy of Idiots”, and “The Aesthetics of the Empty Gesture”, stupidity is analyzed on the basis of fairy tales, cartoons, triumphal arches, garden architecture, Baroque ceilings, jokes, flimsy excuses and science fiction. But Van Boxsel wants to do more than just assemble a “shadow cabinet” of wisdom; he tries to fathom the logic of this opposite world. Where do understanding and intelligence begin and end? He examines mythic fools such as Cyclops and King Midas, cities such as Gotham, archetypes including the dumb blonde, and traditionally stupid animals such as the goose, the donkey and the headless chicken. van Boxsel posits that stupidity is a condition for intelligence, that blunders stimulate progress, that failure is the basis for success. In this witty book he maintains that our culture is the product of a series of failed attempts to comprehend stupidity.

Here are some stupid quotes. Here are some more.



I don’t know, I think he’d be good in television

This isn’t the first time Daniel Radosh has touched a nerve with his remarks about other writers. Some years back Radosh wrote a disparaging piece about Michael Moore for Salon. Michael Moore responded angrily, calling Radosh’s article “libelous” and drawing Salon’s editor David Talbot into the entertaining exchange. (Thanks to John Warner for the heads-up.)



My favourite colour…

I suppose this is political, in a way — it’s a lamentation about the erosion of Canadian spelling. Here’s an excerpt:

Standard Canadian spelling follows British spelling in many, though not all, cases. (The British drive on “tyres,” use “aluminium” siding and “realise” that they can be sent to “gaol.”) Like other aspects of Canadian culture, our spelling, in spite of its second-hand appearance, is unique. Part of our inheritance is a system for distinguishing between related nouns and verbs. The laminated card that authorizes you to get behind the wheel of a car is a “licence,” but the bar from which you take a cab home is “licensed.” Your son “practises” a sport, but you drive him to “practice.”

My students at the University of Guelph—and even some of my colleagues—are unable to master this system. Many of them write “colour” and “favour” and sometimes “centre,” as a basic declaration of identity, but after that they throw up their hands. Their confusions mirror the inconsistencies of the signs we see around us, where dissonant spellings mingle. Our newspapers offer little guidance. For years Canadian newspapers used U.S. spelling. In the early 1990s the Globe and Mail, in theory, changed to Canadian spelling. Major Southam papers such as the Montreal Gazette switched to an impoverished version of Canadian spelling, adopting “centre” but not “colour”; under Conrad Black’s ownership of Southam, the “-our” forms came into use, though some American spellings (“traveler,” “two-story house”) were retained. Quill & Quire, another editing anomaly, brandishes a house style that juxtaposes the Canadian “offence” with the U.S. “defense.”

I guess I’m one of those who puts her hands in the air. Like, I just don’t care.

(Okay, I care. But only a little bit.)



Blogger in hot water

There’s a big brouhaha over blogger Daniel Radosh’s criticisms of New York Times Magazine reporter Peter Landesman’s recent story about sex slaves. Radosh felt Landesman’s reporting was sloppy so he made an off-hand, somewhat irresponsible comparison to Stephen Glass. It was the flippant kind of remark bloggers toss off all the time. But Landesman hit the roof — he threatened to sue. From a Slate piece on the subject:

On Monday evening, a shaken Radosh forwarded to me an e-mail in which Landesman promised Radosh legal and professional ruin at the hands of his lawyers, Times lawyers, and in the pages of the Times itself. The e-mail, which Radosh won’t release in full, said the blogger would soon regret having written his column, as would Shafer of Slate. Landesman followed the e-mail with what Radosh describes as a 20-minute angry rant on the telephone, which repeated and amplified the threats. After concluding the phone call, Radosh revised his blog and expressed regrets there for having linked Landesman’s name to that of Glass, writing, “Whatever problems Landesman’s article has, I don’t think any of it was fabricated and I shouldn’t have implied such a thing.”

The “edit” button on this thing? One of my favourite features.



Slightly less than twenty questions

Claire Zulkey interviews T. T. Coraghessan Boyle:

What did you learn at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop that made you the writer you are today? Or was it nothing, were you always the writer you are today?
The Writers’ Workshop gave me the time to become a writer (and a scholar: I worked simultaneously in the English Department on my Ph.D. in Nineteenth Century British). I learned to spend less time at Gabe & Walker’s Bar and more time at my typewriter. I learned the fanaticism of art. I learned how to see cornfields as nature. I learned that all writers are madman and madwomen and to be strenuously avoided at all cost.

What surprised me most is that Boyle posts on his website’s message boards.



Vanishing Point

A review of David Markson’s latest, Vanishing Point:

Markson’s technique, or device, is brazenly unorthodox. This book is a series of little snippets, from one word to a maximum of five or six lines. The narrative voice is presented as “Author” – never “the author” and not otherwise described. Author is writing on a 40-plus-year-old portable typewriter. The bits are presented as notes taken on 3-by-5-inch index cards that fill two shoeboxes. There’s an early declaration that “Author is pretty sure that most of them are basically in the sequence he wants.”

And:

I decided early on that I would not devote my next year to determining how many of Markson’s bits are authentic and how many fanciful. But taken as a whole, they present the glory of a rich and deeply cultured mind. Literary, architectural, musical, artistic, political and scientific history are drawn together in ways that are unifyingly powerful. They make clear that Markson, among other virtues, has a fabulous eye and the discipline to have compiled a commonplace book of uncommon brilliance.

Almost magically, these snippets expand in their capacity to fascinate. They have crackling acceleration, from one to another. The text moves along with the captivating drive that usually comes only from a narrative that’s intricately, suspensefully plotted or ecstatically musical. The ideas themselves grow into a sort of critical mass of energy. Then, artistic, literary sophistication plays counterpoint to rollicking, frolicking absurdity.

Many of the bits are written in inverted forms that call attention to the less obvious element of the statement, giving surprise: “Very great is the number of the stupid. Said Galileo.” Or “There are always more fools in the majority than in the minority. Said Anatole France.” Or “As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me. Begins an Orwell essay dated 1941.” Almost no one gets off easy, present company included: “Odious vermin, Henry Fielding called critics.”

From time to time Author asks a question and answers it, sometimes a page or more later. Things like this: “If the sun were to go out, how long would we continue to see the sun?” Then the next entry: “Why has Author composed that line as a question when he would have known how to calculate the answer by the age of twelve or thirteen?” And then, a full page later, with no other connection made, this bald declaration: “Eight minutes, twenty seconds. Give or take.” Index cards. The trick works. Well.

(Via the The Elegant Variation, which also provides this link to another positive review.)



I’m a believer in facelessness

Now and then I check The Believer site to see if they’ve put Charles Baxter’s article “Loss of Face” online yet. Apparently, it’s about how the “modern face” is “woefully underrepresented in contemporary fiction” and I am dying to read it. (Not literally dying, though. No way am I driving an hour on icy roads to pick up a copy of the magazine.) I’m intrigued by this article because a) I happen to like the fact that most fiction doesn’t contain detailed descriptions of its characters’ faces. In real life we live in a tyranny of the face — faces matter way too much and even when we want to, it’s difficult to see past them. A face can be like a wall. The general facelessness in fiction relieves us of that barrier. A fixation on faces seems to me somehow silly, similar to a brief obsession I had as a child, which was why didn’t Nancy Drew ever go to the bathroom?

And b) I admire Charles Baxter — his essay “Against Epiphanies” is one of the wisest pieces about short fiction I’ve ever read. Maybe he’ll change my mind about the face thing. So I keep checking the site in the vain hope his article will appear.

Anyway, when I was visiting the site yesterday, I happened to spend a little time meandering around in Tom Bissell’s article about how-to-write books. Tom Bissell is quite the wanderer. I like that about him. And I hate to admit it, but I own a good number of the books he mentions in the piece. (I hide them in the back of my coat closet, as if they were pornography.) Here are some snippets of Bissell’s text, like snapshots of the view along the way or something.

On Strunk and White and the New Yorker style:

There are several types of how-to-write books. The first is the rigorous handbook-style guide that does not concern itself with creating interesting characters or crafting exciting scenes. Rather, it concentrates on how to write a decent sentence that means what one intends it to mean: a User’s Manual to the English language. The most famous is William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White’s The Elements of Style. If one wishes to write New Yorker-style prose, this is the book to read. Of course, the New Yorker style is a fine style with which it is eminently worth getting acquainted, but it is not the only style. Nor is it, in every case, even the most preferable style. One truly interesting thing about the New Yorker style is that it can serve both as a hiding place for mediocrity and as the lacquered display table for masters rightfully confident in their powers. Used well, the New Yorker style is what one imagines the style of God might be, if there were any indication that God spoke English. Used poorly, the New Yorker style is all gutless understatement, decorous to a Fabergé extreme.

On “historico-romance novelist” Anne Perry’s foreword to Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel:

“Put yourself on the page and all that you think and feel about life, but do it with discipline; do it with skill. Then the good agents and the good publishers will get your work into the hands of the good readers.” And then the good fairies and elves will approach your front door carrying bags of gold, and the leprechauns will come, and the gnomes, and the friendly talking monkeys will sing, oh sing! outside your window!

On Maass’s advice about how to create complex supporting characters:

But can one learn how to keep readers turning pages? Can one learn some magical method of “Building a Cast” of supporting characters, as one of Maass’s subchapters is headed? “Needless to say,” Maass writes, “the more complex you make your secondary characters, the more lifelike and involving your story will be.” One can almost hear the scribbly note-taking accompanying that insight. Maass is not wrong; it is needless to say. But seeking to provide writers with some surefire method of injecting complexity into secondary characters seems a sloggy concern more along the lines of a DePalma than a Dos Passos. How would one do this, if not intuitively—if not naturally? Well, let us try. Say I have just created a secondary character named Jake. Jake works at a zoo. He is overweight, conscious of his body, and has no girlfriend. Okay. Complexity now. He was once kicked in the face. By a zebra. That Jake, he hates zebras. This is pointless, of course.

On Anne Lamott:

Of well-known how-to-write books by established authors, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life is, despite her healingly mild approach, the most fun to read. The title comes from a story out of Lamott’s childhood. Her brother, overwhelmed by a grade-school writing project on birds, despaired of his ability to finish it. Lamott’s father put his arm around the boy and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” Perhaps one feels a small temptation to snigger at this advice—how easily it is imagined upon a crocheted pillow—but this temptation should be fought, for a simple reason: like much of what is found on crocheted pillows, it is memorable and quietly true.

Note to self: crochet the words “like much of what is found on crocheted pillows…” oh wait. You can’t crochet words onto a pillow. Embroider the words “like much of what is found embroidered pillows, it is memorable and quietly true” on an embroidered pillow.

There’s a helpful Richard Rhodes quote:

“If you’re afraid of what other people will think of your efforts, don’t show them until you write your way beyond fear. If writing a book is impossible, write a chapter. If writing a chapter is impossible, write a page. If writing a page is impossible, write a paragraph. If writing a paragraph is impossible, write a sentence.”

Yes, and if writing a sentence is impossible, write a letter. If writing a letter is impossible, make a short telephone call. Maybe wait until you know the recipient will be out. That way you can just leave a message.

The summary:

It is the delusions endemic to bad writers and bad writing that need to be destroyed. Here are a few: Writing well will get you girls, or boys, or both. Writing well will make you happy. Fame and wealth are good writing’s expected rewards. Writing for a living is somehow nobler than what most people do. What needs to be reinforced is the idea that good writing—solid, honest, entertaining, beautiful good writing—is simultaneously the reward, the challenge, and the goal.

Now that’s good stuff. (I should warn you. If you intend to read the entire piece, you’ll need a glossary. Here’s a start: an·i·mad·vert, bull·shit·less·ness, in·cu·nab·u·lum.)



Issues of etiquette

Jonathan Lethem talks briefly about computers and the internet:

Is the net the world’s biggest library or the world’s biggest sex shop?

I see it as almost like a Jorge Luis Borges story … the endless library of Babel! I like the way the net has this funny tendency to devolve into very traditional epistolary form and it brings up these issues of etiquette. For all its revolutionary potential, I love that homely face it sometimes shows when it turns into an 18th-century epistolary novel.



I’m not a fan of big crowds, either

William Schofield, an eighteen-year-old student with Asperger’s syndrome, reviews Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time for the Guardian:

Can you, though, diagnose a fictional character? My answer to the question is that you cannot. I think that Mark Haddon may not have intentionally set out to write about someone with this particular condition as he frequently just describes Christopher as having “some sort of disability”, but may have ended up doing it anyway; the similarities are very convincing between Chris and me especially, in my opinion.

These characteristics are:

I, like Chris, like my food separate.

I don’t like big crowds.

I don’t like new places.

I don’t like new ideas.

When unhappy I use my database of films in my head to play a certain scene.

I find it hard to talk to people and make myself understood.

I would say that Christopher and I are pretty similar but I am older, more mature and more aware of the way the “normal” world works.



Mustaches, Puzzles, Puzzling Mustaches

Ed Page of Danger Blog! explores the natural history of the mustache:

This was the mustache’s darkest hour. It was an hour that would last three million years. During this time, the mustache population was so small, it left no evidence that it even existed. No mustache fossil dating from this period has ever been found and, consequently, almost nothing is known about the mustache’s day-to-day life during these years. What did it eat? Where did it live? Did it interbreed with sideburns? The answers to these questions and to others like them are forever hidden behind a thick wall of impenetrable mystery.

Michelle Orange has produced a lovely radio piece about her dad and his puzzle habit. She originally interviewed him on the subject for McSweeney’s.

Some puzzling mustaches.