Category Archives: About Books

Intercalated Days: A Novel

A stack of Intercalated Days manuscripts; the top one is looking for a home.

Following up on “Some Updates on My Status Updates,” from March 2019, and “A Note on Notes, an Update on Updates, a Work in Progress,” from September 2017:

I finished a draft of Intercalated Days, a novel, this past summer. Then I showed the book to Emily. She gave me edits. Which I finished responding to in October.

If you happened to have read what I wrote in March—”Following Instructions exists within Intercalated Days. I’m almost done with the former. Then I can build it out into the latter”—that is what I did this summer. Following Instructions is the primary text, which is surrounded, or accompanied, by a secondary, contrapuntal text. In the margins, or perhaps in the gutter, depending on how you look at it.

In other words, I finished the novel after about two and a half, or maybe five, or maybe six years, depending on what I’m counting from: six years since I started writing; five years since I started editing; and two and a half years since I realized what the final thing would or could be, and began climbing the Heartbreak Hill of shaping it into the thing it has now become.

The current manuscript is about 125,000 words long, or about 300 pages. It’s already cursorily laid out in InDesign, which I realize may annoy some agents or editors, but since it’s in this kind of Talmudic – Pale FireEncyclopedia of an Ordinary Life structure, there’s no way to actually read it in Microsoft Word or Apple Pages.

It could still be accurately described, as I wrote two years ago, as “an autofiction wrapped in a writing dare wrapped in a false document” or “John Cheever meets Anne Lamott meets Sarah Manguso meets Jenny Offill.”

Here’s how I’ve rephrased those ideas in my current query email: “The elevator pitch for the book, I think, might be that it’s a John Cheever – Anne Lamott hybrid, or an autofiction enveloped in Oulipian saran wrap, packed into a false-document breakaway suit.”

Which is to say, the query emails are going out! Although I feel like I also understand more than I ever have how a manuscript, even one that takes years and years to write, can just end up in a drawer. Even if the writer thinks it might be good: I think I understand better how you could just never want to think about it again.

I’ll write updates in this space, if there are any!

Wish Intercalated Days good luck.

Here goes.

Some Updates on My Status Updates

The screen of a scanner.

“False Documents,” by E. L. Doctorow, on its way to PDF form: see below.

I am completely off social media now—unless you count writing a blog post update like this once every six months or so, which seems like a different creature altogether.

Goodbye, Facebook

For years, I would deactivate my Facebook account for long stretches of time (see: posts related to The Year of Living Autobiographically). But finally I listened to the advice of Virginia Heffernan, among others; the following I cut and pasted, perhaps ironically, from Twitter.

Call it sophistication, call it boredom with the interface, call it misanthropy, call it a productivity hack or a cognitive-security precaution or a weight-loss measure. Just find a reason and get off Facebook. You have nothing to lose but your chains.

I downloaded everything, then deleted my account.

A screen grab of deleting Facebook.

You’re about to permanently delete your account.

Goodbye, Instagram

I really enjoyed Instagram, and I think I would pay for a similar service—so long as it had nothing to do with Facebook, and had nothing to do with people influencing other people. I’d like to avoid places where the covert advertising of envy, despair, and rage occurs, where hostile foreign powers with highly sophisticated military intelligence operations seek to divide us, where corporations exploit beautiful young people to make us feel bad, convince us to seek out their products in fruitless attempts to salve our despair.

I just like sharing photographs. But I’m happy to have no photo sharing tool—especially no free, weaponized, democracy-eroding tool—for some time. I’m happy to wait until someone with more skills than I have reads Jaron Lanier’s Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now and then creates the solution to the problem Lanier is describing.

In the meantime, I downloaded everything, then deleted my account.

Goodbye, Twitter

I was barely on Twitter. I wrote and endlessly edited Twitter posts and essays that I never posted, which I know (and knew) is a waste of time.

I took two recent examples of this foolishness, and turned them into blog posts; I posted them retroactively, with the date and time stamps of when I stopped editing them (“How Are Things in Mandragora?” in December and “Empathy and the Obligations of Freedom” in November).

I asked a writer whose work I admire greatly, whom I’ve never met in person, and who is famously not at all on social media: “Do you happen to have any suggestions for how to stay away from such distractions, either mostly or completely?”

She replied: “As for Twitter, in my experience, addiction can’t be curbed; it can only be quit, usually after hitting bottom.”

She’s right.

Zadie Smith is right too: “I have seen on Twitter, I’ve seen it at a distance, people have a feeling at 9am quite strongly, and then by 11 have been shouted out of it and can have a completely opposite feeling four hours later. That part, I find really unfortunate […] I want to have my feeling, even if it’s wrong, even if it’s inappropriate, express it to myself in the privacy of my heart and my mind. I don’t want to be bullied out of it.”

So I quit.

I downloaded everything, then deleted my account.

Hello Again, Fakery

Separating the phone-number tabs on a bulletin-board flier.

Help with the fliers for my fakes class.

In other news, I’m teaching two creative writing classes this semester: one on monologues (both in fiction and drama), and one on false documents.

A photograph of two fliers on a bulletin board.

My class is not called “Affordable Mimeographing.”

The latter is based on Faking It, the seminar I taught at Columbia in 2012.

Spines of books on a bookshelf.

Some of the assigned reading for my classes, plus recent reading, plus Anne Lamott.

I’m using Fakes again as a textbook, edited by David Shields and Matthew Vollmer. And I recently read Vollmer’s Permanent Exhibit (BOA Editions, 2018), as well as Shields’s How Literature Saved My Life (Vintage, 2013). Both are excellent. (All pictured above.)

Hello Again, Fiction

Also, as long as I’m updating various statuses: way back in 2017, I said I might post updates here on how the novel I’m writing—trying to write—is going. I knew, and wrote, that I might fail to accomplish this. Which I have.

I’ve been calling it Xeno’s novel, meaning that as soon as I seem halfway done with the work I have left, the next half of what remains looms before me, and the finish line recedes away. Which is quite obviously not unique to me, or to this project.

The end result may be so small, so slight, that some readers might ask—if it ever has readers—This took you how long to write?

Manuscript pages.

Following Instructions: A Journal of My Second Son’s First Year.

If you’re reading this, and you’re wondering what the hell this is a picture of, Following Instructions exists within Intercalated Days. I’m almost done with the former. Then I can build it out into the latter.

I keep at it.

Empathy and the Obligations of Freedom

[NB: Before I left Twitter—having barely been on Twitter—I was inept at Twitter. Which would have been obvious to anyone who ever read how much (or rather, how little) I wrote there. The inability to edit, among other things, was a deal-breaker for me. Anyway, before I quit, I wrote a few last Twitter threads that I never posted. This is one. The date/time stamp for this post is retroactive; I’ve set it to the day I gave up on editing this particular post in TextWrangler.]

The week before the midterms, I reminded my fiction workshop students that early in the semester, I’d described the restrictions of my writing assignments in the context of our greater freedoms as Americans. In this time and place, I said, you’re free to write what you want.

But in the past few weeks, I said, we have learned that a writer for an American publication was tortured and assassinated for what he wrote. This awful news, I said, makes the freedom of expression seem terribly precious.

I want to share with you a few quotes about empathy, I said. Which may be helpful to you, if you find it hard to think about writing as a worthwhile endeavor in times like these. (In class, I wasn’t as articulate as I would have liked to have been, attempting to say all this.)

The first quote was from George Saunders, since we read “A Perfect Gerbil,” his essay on Donald Barthelme’s “The School,” and his story “Home”:

Why is the world so harsh to those who are losing? Sensing how close we were to the edge financially […], I realized for the first time, in my gut, how harsh life could be and how little it cared if someone failed. […] The realization that failure was possible, even for me, had the effect of increasing my empathy. If life could be this harsh/grueling/boring for someone who’d had all the advantages, what must it be like for someone who hadn’t? A thread of connection went out between me and everyone else. They, too, wanted to be happy.

—from the preface to CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (new edition)

Then I read a favorite quote from Donald Barthelme’s essay “Not-Knowing”:

[A]rt’s project is fundamentally meliorative. The aim of meditating about the world is finally to change the world. It is this meliorative aspect of literature that provides its ethical dimension.

Then this great quote from Nikki Giovanni:

Writers don’t write from experience, though many are resistant to admit that they don’t. I want to be clear about this. If you wrote from experience, you’d get maybe one book, maybe three poems. Writers write from empathy.

I have not read Black Women Writers at Work (1983, Claudia Tate, ed.), but I’m grateful to Jon Winokur (who compiled Advice to Writers) for having tweeted it, and Emily Barton for retweeting it.

My hope, of course, is that this is not all too much to take. I said that I wanted to share these quotes because the news of the world had been particularly devastating the past two weeks.

The torture and assassination of a writer; the attempted assassination of twelve critics of the current “louche shyster” (Josh Marshall) aka the “umber Maginot” (Rick Wilson) aka the “self-pitying drama queen” (Peggy Noonan); the massacre of eleven of my landsmen—it has all been, to put it mildly (and to view it only in one way), terrible failures of empathy.

In the face of all this, I view creative writing workshops—and the greater categories workshops inhabit (the practice of writing, the study of literature, the liberal arts, even liberal democracy itself)—as tantamount to a religious practice.

I am asking my students, I suppose, to share my faith. Which, again, I hope is not overwhelming. Perhaps they just want to write stories! But writing stories is a political act. Not seeing writing as political is itself political.

I didn’t say all this in class, of course.

It is not my job to advocate for a candidate or a cause. But it is my job, I believe, to challenge them. It is my job to make the case to my students that they have grave and magnificent responsibilities.

I closed with a quote from Alexander Chee. (Alex, if you ever happen to read this, I haven’t told you how much I enjoyed How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. I already knew that the individual essays were good—what surprises me still is how astonishing well they fit together into a larger whole, how they come together as a narrative, as a memoir.)

My syllabus ends with this quote:

Speak to your dead. Write for your dead. Tell them a story. What are you doing with this life? Let them hold you accountable. Let them make you bolder or more modest or louder or more loving, whatever it is, but ask them in, listen, and then write.

But this week, I ended my class with a longer excerpt from the last paragraph:

If you are reading this, and you’re a writer, and you, like me, are gripped with despair, when you think you might stop: Speak to your dead. Write for your dead. Tell them a story. What are you doing with this life? Let them hold you accountable. Let them make you bolder or more modest or louder or more loving, whatever it is, but ask them in, listen, and then write. And when war comes—and make no mistake, it is already here—be sure you write for the living too. The ones you love and the ones who are coming for your life. What will you give them when they get there?

—from “On Becoming an American Writer

In the quote I initially included in my syllabus, I think I was wary of mentioning war and “the ones who are coming for your life.”

But here they are: they don’t come across borders. They cross a border in their mind, then go across town on Shabbat.

Vote, I told my students. Vote!

The world will be a different place when class meets next week. We just don’t know how or in what way.

I didn’t tell them who to vote for.

But I think only the authoritarian bent on exploiting the values of a free society in order to undermine those very values would say that a teacher can’t urge a student to exercise the franchise.

Feature Request: Kindle Second Acts

A selection of my contributor copies.

A selection of my contributor copies.

The short version of my idea: 1) Amazon should open up the Kindle Singles program to include stories and essays that have been previously published by a curated group of print literary journals. 2) They should hire me to manage this.

The longer version: University-affiliated lit journals could partner with Amazon to make a little more money than they currently do, and benefit the careers (and wallets, a little bit) of the writers they publish. Here’s how:

Amazon has its Kindle Singles program, but at the moment, it’s only for previously unpublished writing (from the Singles Submissions Policy: “Original work, not previously published in other formats or publications”).

At the same time, we have this whole world of fantastic lit journals that have back catalogs of high-quality writing, much of which is only available in print, or for university-affiliated readers who have JSTOR access. Some lit journals might balk at the idea of a partnership with Amazon (see my one caveat, below). But if Amazon opened up the Kindle Singles program to include stories and essays previously published by a curated group of reputable lit journals who mostly publish in print, it would achieve the same purpose of having Kindle Singles be by submission and not a free-for-all. Essays published by AGNI have already been vetted by Sven Birkerts; stories published by The Paris Review have gotten the go-ahead from Lorin Stein. The cohort of lit journals itself would be curated (this is where I come in, Amazon)—again, to keep the program from being a free-for-all.

Lit journals and authors could split Amazon’s usual 70% royalty. Everyone wins: Amazon, the journals, and the writers make a little bit of change, and the writers get a slightly wider audience than they currently have.

I should add that I agree wholeheartedly with Emily Wojcik at The Massachusetts Review in her blog post from this past February (“Rethinking the Future of the University Quarterly”): “The capital offered by the university literary magazine is not financial but cultural, and should be measured accordingly.” I.e., I’m not at all arguing that university-affiliated lit journals are obligated to carry their weight. But I do think that a new way for journals to reach readers would be both a financial and cultural victory.

Here are some readers for whom this would be awesome:

The frugal: A reader might want to spend $2 for one story or essay by a favorite writer, rather than spending $10 or $12 to buy the whole lit journal in which it was published.

The curious: A reader might be interested in a particular writer, but isn’t sure yet whether she or he wants to spend the money and time on her or his whole essay or story collection.

The fans of the not-yet-collected: There are plenty of writers who have published dozens of stories and essays who have not yet had them published in collected book form.

The completists: A writer might have published a collection, or even more than one collection—but their book(s) might not include all of that writer’s work.

Have I covered all the possible scenarios? Let me know if not!

I want this program to happen for selfish reasons (and not just because I want Amazon to hire me to run it). I have a story collection manuscript, but I haven’t yet found an agent or a publisher for it. The collection has twenty-two short stories and short-short stories, twenty of which have been published. Some are online, but quite a few are not; none of the four stories in the ms that are over 5,000 words are available online. They’ve been published by amazing journals, ones that I’m honored to have had select my work—Printers’ Row Journal, One Story, The Massachusetts Review, Indiana Review—but again, $12 is a lot to spend if someone might want to read just my story “The Man in the Moon Is a Lawyer.”

Also, personally, I feel like you can read short-short stories on a web page, but a full-length story is a whole other business. I know not all readers feel this way, but I do think that many readers like the way in which either a physical book or an e-reader doesn’t have the constant temptation to multitask, to flip over to some other app or program that wants to take them away from the submersive experience of reading (what John Gardner called the “vivid and continuous dream”).

Part of why I think this could work brilliantly is because Ploughshares is already doing it with Ploughshares Solos: for example, you can buy my friend Alix Ohlin’s (not-yet-collected) story “The Brooks Brothers Guru” for $1.99 either on the Ploughshares website or on Amazon. This is totally great. And it makes me think that surely there’s a market for a larger program, one that includes a much wider range of established journals.

Possible names for the program: Kindle Second Acts? Kindle Take Twos? Kindle Duos?

Once more: Hey Amazon! If anyone there reads this, and if you want to hire a tech-savvy editor with great literary/publishing world connections and to launch and run such a program: I’m available!

And finally, one small caveat: I’m well aware of the criticisms of Amazon—monopsony, the Gazelle Project, etc. But since Amazon’s not going away anytime soon, my feeling is that what they do incredibly well—what they do better than anyone else—can surely still be harnessed for the much vaster project of literature itself.

The Daily Themes of Peter Matthiessen

I’m a tutor in English 450: Daily Themes this semester. It’s a legendary class; famous alumni include Calvin Trillin, who wrote about it for The New Yorker (“No Telling, No Summing Up”), and Peter Matthiessen, who died last April.

When I describe the class, I usually repeat the story that Matthiessen’s first published piece began in Daily Themes. But I’ve been wondering: is this true? It looks like it is. But what was the published piece? And what was the theme? What follows is as close to discovering the answer to those questions as I’ve gotten. (Which bring up more questions: e.g., was the story published before he graduated, or after?)

The next step, it looks like, would be visiting an actual physical library.

Daily Themes (now English 450), is a Yale Classic. Its disciples write a 250-500 word “theme” five days a week for every week of the semester—a practice that encourages odes to childhood and puppy love, eavesdropping at street corners for inspiration, and, eventually, an addiction to writing. Daily Themes has been in existence since about 1901, and its list of famous graduates is long.

Beinecke Top Tens: Daily Themes

Born in New York City in 1927, Peter Matthiessen published his first short story, written in his Daily Themes class, in the Atlantic Monthly in 1951, the year after he graduated from Yale.

Bright Pages: Yale Writers, 1701 – 2001, J. D. McClatchy, Ed.

Yet another member of Fenton’s spring 1950 fiction writing class was Peter Matthiessen, author of such major works as The Snow Leopard (1979), At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1991) and Shadow Country (2008). Like many students in the class of 1950, Matthiessen served during World War II before enrolling at Yale. He showed tremendous early promise as a writer, publishing a story in the Atlantic Monthly while still an undergraduate. On the strength of that, Fenton arranged for him to return after graduation to teach in in Daily Themes and the Short Story writing class during 1950-51.

—Scott Donaldson, Death of a Rebel: The Charlie Fenton Story

Encouraged by winning the prestigious Atlantic Prize for a story he had written as an undergraduate, Mr. Matthiessen found a literary agent, the steely Bernice Baumgarten, and sent her the first chapters of a novel.

—Christopher Lehmann-Haupt “Peter Matthiessen, Lyrical Writer and Naturalist, Is Dead at 86,” The New York Times, 6 April 2014

Valor! Love! Virtue! Compassion! Splendor! Kindness! Wisdom! Beauty!

I read the following last night, in the middle of a thunderstorm.

The entry is from 1971. “The original journals are small, looseleaf notebooks, approximately one to a year, into which Cheever typed his entries (badly), although there are also some passages written in longhand,” writes Robert Gottlieb in his editor’s note. “He did not date most of the entries, which is why we didn’t.”

I drink gin and read some stories of mine. There is the danger of repetition. Walking in the woods, I heard a man shouting, “Love! Valor! Compassion!” I followed the voice until I saw him. He was standing on a rock shouting the names of virtues to no one. He must have been mad. The difficulty here is that I wrote that scene ten years ago. Oh-ho.

—John Cheever, The Journals of John Cheever, p. 277

Google brings up Terrence McNally’s Author’s Note to Love! Valour! Compassion!: “The title,” he writes, “comes from an entry in John Cheever’s journals.”

The story Cheever refers to is “A Vision of the World” (I Google-triangulated via here, here, and here). The story was originally published in the 29 September 1962 New Yorker. Here’s the second half of the last graf:

Then either I awake in despair or am waked by the sound of rain on the palms. I think of some farmer who, hearing the noise of rain, will stretch his lame bones and smile, feeling that the rain is falling into his lettuce and his cabbages, his hay and his oats, his parsnips and his corn. I think of some plumber who, waked by the rain, will smile at a vision of the world in which all the drains are miraculously cleansed and free. Right-angle drains, crooked drains, root-choked and rusty drains all gurgle and discharge their waters into the sea. I think that the rain will wake some old lady, who will wonder if she has left her copy of “Dombey and Son” in the garden. Her shawl? Did she cover the chairs? And I know that the sound of the rain will wake some lovers, and that its sound will seem to be a part of that force that has thrust them into one another’s arms. Then I sit up in bed and exclaim aloud to myself, “Valor! Love! Virtue! Compassion! Splendor! Kindness! Wisdom! Beauty!” The words seem to have the colors of the earth, and as I recite them I feel my hopefulness mount until I am contented and at peace with the night.

Fifteen Thoughts on AWP

1) Emily’s joke: For AWP, we stayed at The Lenox, which is a member of the Saunders Hotel Group. At first, the hotel seemed like a near-future dystopia, with a lot of scary TradeMarked MidCaps (TM). Also, everyone there, like, uptalked? But halfway through our stay this totally surreal thing happened, which, by the time we checked out, via that surreal thing, totally redeemed our faith in humanity.

2) The view out our hotel window.

480852_10151464988514647_1647224179_n

3) I thought that Facebook and AWP would be an interesting combination. I had the idea that everyone would use the former as a tool for managing the latter. As in, if you were at the Bloof table, you would write “I’m at the Bloof table,” and then your friend who happened to be over at the Small Demons table would see that, and then wander from Small Demons over to Bloof, and then say hi, which is what’s so great about AWP, saying hi to all these wonderful folks.

But it didn’t seem like anyone was doing that. It seemed like everyone I knew on Facebook who was also at AWP wasn’t writing much of anything on Facebook. Presumably because they were too busy saying hi to other wonderful folks?

Or maybe the appropriate digital tool for what I’m talking about is Twitter?

4) I’m sure some people had all kinds of judgemental thoughts about us wheeling around a boy who’s four and eleven tweflths in a stroller meant for a much younger child. Perhaps they thought we were spoiling him; maybe they thought we fit some preconceived idea of modern parenting that they’ve decided they hate.

But I tell you what, the Micralite Toro is an amazing machine. You can push it with one hand. You can put all your coats on it, instead of checking them for three dollars per coat at the coat check that doesn’t allow you to combine coats. At the convention that doesn’t have child care. Or a play area. Or any comfortable chairs. Did you see everyone lining the long hallways, sitting down, napping on each other, checking their phones, reading, resting in the only place there was to rest? It looked like an airport in a snowstorm. A conference and book fair together mean walking many miles over the course of the day. Which is tiring for people of every age.

I highly recommend the Toro. They should make a grownup version.

Maybe they already do; it’s called the Segway.

And the Husqvarna ear muffs. Next year, we’re starting a fake literary journal and selling branded Husqvarna ear muffs as swag.

5) I miss tabling. I think I’m good at it. I love standing behind a table and talking to people all day. Maybe not every day, but certainly a couple of times a year. I love teaching, but I also hope my work someday means tabling conferences. I hope it doesn’t sound pathetic for someone in his early forties to say such a thing.

6) The woman who was running the TriQuarterly table on Saturday morning was not a nice person.

7) Bloof!

398930_10151466394814647_1836030590_n

8) Perhaps I just think I’m good at tabling because at AWP, there are so many people who are incompetent at it. Why go at all, why spend money on a table, if you, the editor, are not going to go yourself? Why send your socially challenged editorial intern? And if you’re the socially challenged editorial intern, why are you hiding? Why not say hi to someone and possible learn something about the world?

9) Sven Birkerts is awesome. First thing in the morning, he’s sitting behind the AGNI table. He’s a major public intellectual and he’s also trying to sell you a damn lit journal. That’s how you do it, man.

10) I’m sad I didn’t get to meet Michael or Jamie in person. I’m glad I got to finally meet Stephen. I’m glad to’ve seen Jed, Bruce, Hannah, Rach, Richard, Jess, Dan, Shanna, Sam, Brendan, John, Rick, Laurel, Laurel.

11) I’m sad we didn’t run into Maud or Alix. Whenever we go on a trip, we set up a few timers on the lights in our house. Our first floor timer, when we’re not traveling, lives tucked into the top shelf of the right-most fiction bookshelf in our living room, next to Babylon and Other Stories and The Missing Person. So when we go on trips, we think about Alix.

12) Fucking Facebook! It’s a flood of so much in medias res. If all we get are updates, which is the same as “and then this next thing happened to Joe,” but we never get the first part, the beginning of the story, the introduction of the plot, the “once upon a time, there was a guy named Joe,” then how are we supposed to follow?

13) Is it a conversational medium, or a broadcast medium? Is it supposed to be the former, but then becomes the latter? It feels like we’re all in a room, all of us talking, none of us listening.

To put it another way: if you and I are “Friends,” and we both write status updates, and I’ve hidden you from appearing in my “News Feed,” and you’re hidden me from appearing in your “News Feed,” then what the fuck are we doing?

Oddly, blogging, which seems like it starts out more as a broadcast medium, has more potential to be a conversational medium. (For old people.)

So right now, I’m writing this; I think there are about two or three people who will read it; I’m curious what those two or three people will have to say, the next time I see them.

14) Once again, I’m so ready to bail on the whole thing. Facebook, I mean, not AWP. I love AWP. I love seeing people. In person. It’s so good.

15) Friendly’s, on the way home.

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Recipes for Sauerkraut

Nicholson Baker loves artificial constraints: the clarity they bring to a project, the odd angles and tones they inspire.

—from the introduction to “The Art of Fiction No. 212,” Nicholson Baker interviewed by Sam Anderson, Paris Review # 198, Fall 2011

* * *

Lately I’ve been thinking about the relations between inventories and traumatic experiences and how the Book of Job starts with an inventory. Novels are full of inventories. When you think of three of the most anthologized stories of our time, Tim O’Brien’s ‘The Things They Carried,’ Jamaica Kincaid’s ‘Girl,’ and Susan Minot’s ‘Lust,’ they’re inventories. They’re essentially about trauma in the form of lists.

Charles Baxter, quoted by Don Lee on the Ploughshares Web site

* * *

The diminution of authors and books IS one of the major negatives—for its own sake, but even more importantly, for what it implies about the place of the self. Authorial vanities aside, I would ask as Updike does, ‘[A]re we not depriving the written word of its old-fashioned function of, through such inventions as the written alphabet and the printing press, communication from one person to another—of, in short, accountability and intimacy?’

—Sven Birkerts, “The Hive Life,” AGNI #64

* * *

Books traditionally have edges: some are rough-cut, some are smooth-cut, and a few, at least at my extravagant publishing house, are even top-stained. In the electronic anthill, where are the edges? The book revolution, which, from the Renaissance on, taught men and women to cherish and cultivate their individuality, threatens to end in a sparkling cloud of snippets.

So, booksellers, defend your lonely forts. Keep your edges dry. Your edges are our edges. For some of us, books are intrinsic to our sense of personal identity.

—John Updike, “The End of Authorship,” The New York Times, 25 June 2006

* * *

[I]t just feels good to find something there—even, or especially, when the article you find is maybe a little clumsily written. Any inelegance, or typo, or relic of vandalism reminds you that this gigantic encyclopedia isn’t a commercial product. […]

And when people did help they were given a flattering name. They weren’t called “Wikipedia’s little helpers,” they were called “editors.” It was like a giant community leaf-raking project in which everyone was called a groundskeeper. […]

It worked and grew because it tapped into the heretofore unmarshaled energies of the uncredentialed. […]

Wikipedia was the point of convergence for the self-taught and the expensively educated.

—Nicholson Baker, “The Charms of Wikipedia,” The New York Review of Books, 20 March 2008

* * *

[Wikipedia’s] scholarship is of a different order, the sourcing sometimes provisional, the arbitrariness of inclusion often troubling, but I’ve found that my students are already citing it exclusively, as if to go to the Britannica were to cast a vote for the dead past.

—Sven Birkerts, ibid.

* * *

“What do you say to that? […] Somebody just made up a story with me in it? That’s kind of weird, and I just don’t get it.”

—Earl Swift and Tris Wykes, “A case of borrowed identity for former Admirals” (re the real reaction of one of the real hockey players who appeared in a fictional Simon Rich story), The Virginian-Pilot, 30 January 2007

Via:

* * *

[I]t is a post-Frey world.

—Sarah Weinman, “The Problem of Using Real Names in Fiction,” Galleycat, 5 February 2007

* * *

Donald Barthelme, “Robert Kennedy Saved From Drowning

* * *

Sue Ann Brownly caught Miss Mandible and me in the cloakroom, during recess, and immediately threw a fit. For a moment I thought she was actually going to choke.

—Donald Barthelme, “Me and Miss Mandible” (third and fourth sentences in the last diary entry); Come Back, Dr. Caligari (1964)

Sue Ann Brownly caught Miss Mandible and me in the cloakroom, during recess, Miss Mandible’s naked legs in a scissors around my waist. For a moment I thought Sue Ann was going to choke.

—Donald Barthelme, “Me and Miss Mandible” (third and fourth sentences in the last diary entry); 60 Stories (1981)

* * *

Liza’s blindness, Clea’s amputated hand, Leila’s smallpox, Justine’s stroke, Pomball’s gout

—A list on the chalkboard behind the character Professor Hilbert in Stranger than Fiction at approx. 53 minutes; reference is to Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet

* * *

[I]s there any difference between microfiction and prose poetry any more, other than what it says on the spine and whether the publishers send it to “poetry people” or to fiction reviewers? […] I realize that it’s hardly a new question: I’m just wondering whether I’ve missed some cool answers.

—Stephen Burt, “The Practical and the Aesthetic,” 6 October 2009

* * *

What is a recipe for sauerkraut doing in my notebook? What kind of magpie keeps this notebook?

—Joan Didion, “On Keeping a Notebook”

* * *

They allow no dogs in the capital. Their eyes are the exact pale blue shade of an iceberg. They believe in Hidden People. Their horses grow long coats in the winter, and sleep lying down. I have never seen so many kinds of moss.

—Eliot Weinberger, “Paradice,” The Nation, 10 February 1997

* * *

“I tried to put the date on all my kids’ drawings, thinking, That’ll help. But of course you’re trying to save something that’s evolving. It isn’t savable.”

—Nicholson Baker, ibid.

Sarabande, Tumblr, Sarah Lawrence, Yale: or, Another Good News Omnibus

—Salvatore Scibona selected my short-story collection manuscript, The Crypto-Jew’s Dilemma and Other Conversion Stories, as the runner-up in the 2012 Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction. This doesn’t mean publication by Sarabande Books—but still, I’m very proud of the honor.

Addendum: This isn’t a blurb, but in an e-mail, Scibona kindly described the manuscript as “a hilarious book that had me spitting with laughter”! (I added the exclamation point.)

Chris McCormick, I don’t know you, but I am grateful for the tweet and the kind words on your one way to talk about contemporary fiction blog!

—I’m teaching at Sarah Lawrence this summer, on the faculty for Writer’s Village: A Creative Writing Intensive. If you know any writers “entering the 10th, 11th or 12th grade in the fall of 2012,” I believe that, as of this writing, there might still be spots available.

—I am teaching a section of Reading Fiction for Craft at Yale this fall.

(Previous good news omnibus.)

Pulling Back a Curtain You Didn’t Know Was There; or, a Note on the Always-Increasing Difficulty of Finding Anything, Ever

A little over five years ago, in a post titled “Disconnected Archives,” I wrote this (just quoting the text here—not the links embedded in that text):

Earlier this past week […] I noticed that Michael Chabon‘s “about” page was gone, and his home page said something, if I remember right, about how he’s had difficulty typing lately; it made me wonder if, and hope that, he’d noticed Richard Powers’s piece in the NYTBR about speech-recognition software. But now, only a few days later, that note is gone as well, replaced with an image of the Indian Head test card. I’m not sure what all this means; but I suppose that, in the future, whenever I read something on the web that I know I’m going to want to read again sometime, I’ll make sure to print it.

A side note: someone smarter than me, somewhere out there, has probably said something very smart about what blogging—or what we used to mean when we called something “blogging”—has become now, as F——b—— and Tw—— have taken over. (Like the brilliant Paul Ford, I, too, can’t bear to write those words again.)

Actually, now that I think about it, and dig through my jury-rigged archives, here are two smart things that two smart people have written about what blogging has become: Bill Wasik’s “Twitter and the Big Blog Dream,” and Nicholas Carr’s “Blogging: a great pastime for the elderly.” As you can see, I got to the latter from the former; and I probably got to the former after reading And Then There’s This. And I probably got to Bill’s book having known him when we were both interns at Harper’s thirteen years ago—at which point I was already a fan of his work, having lived in Somerville when Bill edited The Weekly Week: Boston’s Only Redundant News Source for News.)

But here’s what I want to tell you about Michael Chabon: somehow, about a year ago—I can’t remember how—I got past the scrim of the current iteration of michaelchabon.com. I found the corner of the curtain and tugged. And I found Chabon’s last blog post again, the one where he says that he’d been having difficulty typing. And following my own advice, I printed it out. (Or rather, printed it out as a PDF, which I saved to my computer. Perhaps this is something that only old people do as well? Perhaps the young are too busy doing something with each other that I have not even heard about yet. I’m still eagerly waiting to hear that teenagers are running away from the suburbs in droves, moving to the pampas, abandoning their digital devices, buying old Victrolas, and starting collectivist chinchilla farms. I guess the unemployed recent college grads are moving to Detroit and selling artisanal handmade watch fobs on the Internet, which is good, and a pretty close approximation.)

I’ll link to the post itself, titled “Signing off“; but I’ll also quote the part that seemed so sad, and still does:

Lately I have been suffering from Repetitive Strain Injury that makes typing a chore and clicking an agony. As I have been spending less time online I have found that I’ve lost interest in the web as a whole, and in my site in particular. I’m tired of having to maintain www.michaelchabon.com, but I hate that it gets stale, and so quickly. Yet I don’t feel comfortable with or have any interest in getting somebody else to do it for me. So I’ve decided, not without regret, to take it down, a little at a time, starting with the posting of my monthly Details column.

What was the other thing I discovered in the last five years? Oh yes! The Broken Link Checker plugin for WordPress. So there goes that problem. Once I find the time to install the plugin.

Books—physical books (or is this a sign of my age as well?)—keep looking better and better.