Jean Thompson on favors writers ask and are asked

Not only did David Sedaris include one of Jean Thompson’s short stories in his anthology of personal favorites, he was so smitten with her first collection that he sold copies on his own book tour.

Proselytizing feels effortless when you love a work of fiction. But at least as often, writers are asked to blurb things they’re not wild about or read manuscripts on impossibly short notice or participate in dreary and interminable luncheons, and their responses to those requests are trickier than, but just as telling as, spontaneous outpourings of support. Below Thompson, whose Throw Like a Girl appears next week, reflects on the realities of the writerly favor economy.

In his later years, the writer and critic Edmund Wilson (at right) famously responded to unsolicited requests with an engraved card, reading, in part, “Edmund Wilson regrets it is impossible for him to: Read manuscripts, Write articles or books to order, Make statements for publicity purposes, Do any kind of editorial work, Judge literary contests, Give interviews, Conduct educational courses, Deliver lectures, Give talks or make speeches…” The list goes on for some time, since Mr. Wilson wished to be exhaustively complete about all the things it was impossible for him to do.

You have to admire the pure crankiness of such blanket refusal, and Wilson’s unwillingness to be a professional good sport about favor-mongering. Because for most of us, to be a writer is to be part of the favor economy, the business of asking, dispensing, and trading them. We acquire and we bestow the jacket blurbs, reviews, and recommendations that are the currency of book publishing. One does what one must, and whether one regards it as a necessary evil or a necessary good probably depends on one’s own position in the food chain.

I like to think that what goes around comes around. Over the years, as a teacher of writing, I’ve generated quantities of recommendations — measurable in bushels or perhaps bales — for students needing admission to graduate school, or fellowships, or jobs. I’ve blurbed books for friends and for strangers, and in turn I’ve been the recipient of generous words from, among others, David Sedaris, Kent Haruf, and Rick Russo. I’ve been happy to recommend promising writers to editors and agents and I’ve often benefited from the same sort of reciprocal good will. At best, the favor economy is about the sharing of enthusiasm. At worst, it can leave you feeling craven, unworthy, and paranoid.

When it comes to jacket blurbs, if you’re lucky, your editor will contact the target of your intentions and make the request. The editor can then either relay the happy news or buffer the bad. You yourself are spared having to interpret the silence of the oracle, wondering if a message has gone astray, or if non-response is simply refusal. If you’re not lucky, of course, you have to manage the business yourself. You summon all your language skills in an attempt to be respectful without seeming obsequious, confident without seeming presumptive, charming rather than desperate. There are no guidelines or formulas for writing a successful letter of supplication, but if you feel a kind of nausea at your own artfulness, you’re probably coming close.

And what do you do when the tables turn, when you’re the one being solicited, and for whatever reason the request is unwelcome? That’s a different type of nausea.

Strangers can be ignored, or given the Edmund Wilson treatment, but these are usually not strangers. They are friends, or friends of friends, or spouses of friends, or long-lost acquaintances (often very long and very lost indeed). They have written works you hesitate to endorse, for one reason or another. The book is just not your thing, or is lacking in artistry, or perhaps you have been importuned, as I once was, by a young writer who claimed to have almost but not quite studied with me, and meanwhile here was his upcoming book, and because of his editor’s criminal negligence no one had blurbed it, and since the deadline was imminent, could I take a look at the manuscript and send him some praise via FedEx overnight?

I couldn’t and I didn’t. I confess that I’ve evaded and ignored and made my share of feeble excuses. Blurber or blurbee, the favor economy makes cowards of us all. Yes is a blessing, No is most often an apology, since the still, small voice within us is probably saying that the writer you kick in the head today might hold the whip hand tomorrow. The robust ghost of Mr. Wilson sneers. The man knew how to say No, but he gave out his fair share of Yes as well. We shouldn’t forget that, as literary critic of the New Republic, he helped bring to the world’s prominent attention a couple of writers named Hemingway and Fitzgerald.

Image of Jean-François de Troy’s la Lecture de Molière taken from the University of Montreal site.

No more cakes and ale: Maugham v. The Literati

The first two chapters of Somerset Maugham’s Cakes and Ale are so bitchily insightful about the hypocrisies of literary culture that, if you’re a writer, your loved ones might want to hide out somewhere else while you’re reading it, lest you follow them around the house, cackling over and orating your favorite parts.

Scandal erupted in bookish London when the novel appeared in 1930. It was believed to include flimsily veiled portraits of Hugh Walpole and Thomas Hardy. Maugham denied the charge in a letter to Walpole, claiming, “I certainly never intended Alroy Kear to be a portrait of you. He is made up of a dozen people.” After the fellow writer’s death, though, he admitted that Walpole was the model.

The story opens as the narrator, a novelist, arrives home to discover that a far more famous author — one whose career was set into motion with a modicum of talent and a great deal of transparent yet somehow decorous striving — has left an urgent message for him. To his landlady’s disappointment, our hero declines to return the call right away. Instead he lies in bed speculating about the possible reasons for it.

It might be that an admirer of his had pestered him to introduce me to her or that an American editor, in London for a few days, had desired Roy to put me in touch with him; but I could not do my old friend the injustice of supposing him to be so barren of devices as not to be able to cope with such a situation. Besides, he told me to choose my own day, so it could hardly be that he wished me to meet anyone else.

Than Roy no one could show a more genuine cordiality to a fellow novelist whose name was on everybody’s lips, but no one could more genially turn a cold shoulder on him when idleness, failure, or someone else’s success had cast a shade on his notoriety. The writer has his ups and downs, and I was but too conscious that at the moment I was not in the public eye…

I had watched with admiration his rise in the world of letters. His career might well have served as a model for any young man entering upon the pursuit of literature. I could think of no one among my contemporaries who had achieved so considerable a position on so little talent. This, like the wise man’s daily does of Bemax, might have gone into a heaped-up tablespoon. He was perfectly aware of it, and it must have seemed to him sometimes little short of a miracle that he had been able with it to compose already some thirty books. I cannot but think that he saw the white light of revelation when he first read that Thomas Carlyle in an after-dinner speech had stated that genius was an infinite capacity for taking pains. He pondered the saying. If that was all, he must have told himself, he could be a genius like the rest; and when the excited reviewer of a lady’s paper, writing a notice of one of his works, used the word (and of late the critics have been doing it with agreeable frequency) he must have sighed with the satisfaction of one who after long hours of toil has completed a cross-word puzzle. No one who for years had observed his indefatigable industry could deny that at all events he deserved to be a genius.


All of Maugham’s fiction bears some relation to his experience. Not long ago I came across a fascinating audio recording of remarks he made on the subject at seventy.

In one way and another I have used in my writings pretty well everything that has happened to me in the course of my life. Sometimes an experience of my own has provided me with an idea, and I’ve just had to invent the incidents to illustrate it, but more often I’ve taken people whom I’ve known, either slightly or intimately, and used them as a foundation for the characters of my own invention. To tell you the truth, fact and fiction are so intermingled in my work that now, looking back, I can hardly distinguish one from the other.

Image taken from a site devoted to Maugham’s “ten best novels of the world.”

The Smart Set: Lauren Cerand’s Six-Day Forecast

The Smart Set is a weekly feature, compiled by Lauren Cerand, that usually appears Mondays at 12:30pm and highlights the best of the week to come. Special favor is given to New York’s independent booksellers and venues, and low-cost and free events. Please send details to lauren [at] by the Thursday prior to publication, with the date in the subject line.

TUESDAY, 5.29: Not long ago, I was sitting with a friend who said, “It’s amazing that people think there are no single men in New York.” I gently pointed out that we were sitting in a record store at 11:30 on a Wednesday night and the so single men out front were also so smoking pot. And probably not getting up so early if you know what I mean. Less questionable types may congregate at “The Jeffrey Leonard Invitational,” aka New York Sports Trivia Night on Tuesday evening. I specifically asked guest host Bryan Keefer [full disclosure, as always: my favorite ex-boyfriend] for a literary Ron Mexico reference but instead got, “You can say something like “I’m told there may be a question involving David Beckham’s grammatically suspect sexy texting.” And so I am. 8PM, FREE. Plus, The Reader’s Room at Mo Pitkin’s presents a special Tuesday evening edition of the always excellent series, this week with Rich Cohen (Sweet and Low) and Ian Frazier (Gone to New York). 7PM, one-drink minimum.

WEDNESDAY, 5.30: This kind of breaks my heart, but it’s a must-do: “This month will be the last How To Kick People for quite some time. After three and a half years, Bob and Todd will be taking a much-needed hiatus from the (cut-throat!) world of reading humorous things off of a page in front of people. So join us on May 30th for “Parting Advice,” the final installment in the How To Kick People Reading Series. To say goodbye, we’ll be joined by an unusually huge lineup of old friends and first-timers we’ve been dying to have on the show, including: Brian Stack (writer/actor, Late Night with Conan O’Brien), Tom Shillue (Comedy Central Presents Tom Shillue), Christian Finnegan (Best Week Ever, Comedy Central Presents Christian Finnegan), Amelie Gillette (writer, The Onion’s ‘AV Club’), Chris Deluca (former writer, The Late Late Show With Craig Kilborn), and a video from Steve Burns (former host of Blue’s Clues, current musician) & Paul Ford (associate editor,; author, GARY BENCHLEY, ROCK STAR).” Go, or hate yourself forever. 7:30pm, $8. And, I haven’t seen it yet, but Once is getting some great buzz.

THURSDAY, 5.31: It figures that the Book Expo-related party I’m most looking forward to doesn’t even have an open bar (why else would one go?) — but it’s because all the BEST people will be there. Join members of the Lit Blog Co-op to discuss “the best of contemporary fiction, authors, and presses” and, noted per one invitation, “Discussion of books will be condoned only if you bring juicy gossip that can’t be substantiated.” Mais oui. At the Kettle of Fish, 59 Christopher St. at 7th Avenue. 8-11PM, FREE.

FRIDAY, 6.1: And, an invitation from our friends at A Public Space and Tin House, “The Brooklyn Independent Press Party With A Public Space, Akashic Books, Archipelago Books, Bomb Magazine, Cabinet Magazine, Soft Skull Press & Tin House. Hosted by powerHouse Books, MTV Books & Vice Books at the powerHouse Arena.” Warning for those with delicate sensibilities: the Misshapes are involved. 7-10PM, FREE; RSVP For those attending BEA, check out Bud Parr’s panel discussion, “Blogs: Is Their Growing Influence a Tastemakers Dilemma?” 10AM.

SATURDAY, 6.2: On Saturday at BEA, Our very own Maud converses with author Shalom Auslander. Elsewhere in New York, New Orleans big band Why Are We Building Such a Big Ship disembark at ABC No Rio for a much-anticipated show. 3PM. And if you are not at BEA, or in New York on Saturday, well then I dare you to listen to Architecture in Helsinki’s “Heart It Races” just once and not relentlessly over and over again like I have been for the last hour.

SUNDAY, 6.3: Also at BEA, Maud discusses The Crisis in Newspaper Reviewing. 10AM. Elsewhere, “Summer of Love: Art of the Psychedelic Era” is on at the Whitney. Check out “the unprecedented explosion of contemporary art and popular culture brought about by the civil unrest and pervasive social change of the 1960s and early ’70s, when a new psychedelic aesthetic emerged in art, music, film, architecture, graphic design, and fashion.” Or, fast-forward a few decades and subscribe to Arthur.

Summer reading at Talk of the Nation

ZZ Packer, Laura Miller, and I will be on Talk of the Nation this afternoon for a segment devoted to summer reading.

I don’t naturally think of books in terms of seasons, but in the past few years I’ve realized that my most manic reading experiences tend to happen in warm weather. See, e.g., Books that make you stand at the bus stop.

This year is no exception. Week before last, just as highs were getting up into the 80s, I spent 3 1/2 days racing through all of Kate Christensen’s funny, gripping, and very smart novels. They are, in order of publication:

  • Jeremy Thrane, which chronicles the travails of a married actor’s kept boyfriend and is possibly my favorite of the four novels. Unfortunately, the book appeared around September 11, 2001, and the world was too shellshocked to heap acclaim upon it.
  • The Epicure’s Lament, in which our narrator has sequestered himself from his family, friends, and, really, everyone except underage cashiers, with the aim of smoking himself to death. Thanks to a rare illness, he will in fact die — and soon — if doesn’t quit the cigarettes.
  • The Great Man, in which competing biographers try to piece together a dead artist’s secrets and artistic motivations by interviewing his wife, his mistress, his daughters, and the sister who hated him. This one isn’t officially published till August, so I won’t say much about it until then.

If you’re around, tune in for more.

Image of the Coral Gables Branch Library, which enabled my childhood binge-reading habits, is taken from the MDPLS site.

Postcard: Aunt Alma and the new puppies


Until all this family memorabilia came my way, I didn’t know that many picture postcards sent in the early 1900s were photos of people’s relatives.

Last week’s shot of a scowling Martha Caroline and her barefoot granddaughters is an example, though it wasn’t actually mailed.

Here’s a cheerier one, of Alma Kinchen, my great-grandmother, holding three puppies. She didn’t send it via post, but she did inscribe it: “The increase in my family — Aunt Alma.” (The giant wart on her chin is just a discoloration.)


More postcard history: An Arcadia Publishing series traces the evolution of U.S. communities through postcards.