Wednesday, June 30, 2010
Sum is billed as fiction but it's not a novel. "Forty tales" would indicate short stories but they're not that, either. They are more like vignettes. Each one "hypothesizes" (word in quotes because there's obviously no way to test such hypotheses) an afterlife, or in some cases more a structure of the universe or something about the nature of God. They are mostly written in the second person ("you") or omniscient first ("we") or, frequently, both at the same time.
Critics lavished praise on this book with an almost masturbatory fervor. So I've wondered for a little while now - during the few weeks since I finished it, at least - if there's something I'm missing here. But if there is, I can't think of what it might be.
Alright, first the good. The "forty tales" are diverse and creative. Some are thought-provoking. If Eagleman has something to say about religion - good or bad - he says it very subtly. Taken together - and this was obviously the intention, given the title - they show how many different ways things can work.
Now everything else. First, the book is spare, clocking in at a whopping 110 pages. It takes only a couple of hours to read. Spare can be good, but in this case it seems thin. With 40 tales and 110 pages, each tale is quite short. Some of the tales have narrative arc, others do not. Some of them have a discernible character, and others do not. The tales themselves are about the right length. But Eagleman says he culled the 40 tales down from an original 75, and he might have done better to keep more of them in the book. Some of them are smart and creative, while others are the kind of stuff you and your college buddies probably came up with late one night in the dorms, having smoked a little too much weed.
I will cut to the chase and tell you what drove me up the wall with this book. (And I recognize that others might see this as a strength, but for me it was fatal.) The tales are way too anthropocentric. Of course religions create God in humanity's own image, but that doesn't mean that a modern scientist, contemplating the universe and positing alternatives for an afterlife, has to fall into the same trap. I am willing to suspend my disbelief and just flat out accept there will be an afterlife of some sort to enjoy the book, but the author takes it too far.
Here are a couple of examples: in one tale, Earth is an experiment run by "collectors" who want to figure out "what makes people stick together." Yeah, because "people" is meaningful in the context of the universe and our sociality is the default.
In another, humans have been sent to Earth to collect data on the planet, but to the chagrin of the "cartographers" who sent us here, we are far more interested in each other. Yeah, because humans are far more effective data collection devices than, say, cheetahs or dolphins (and our biological commonalities with all other life on earth must be purely coincidental).
In a third, God is actually a married couple and when they fight, one of the things they do is create planets of all males or all females. Yeah, because sex isn't evolved, it's the natural state of things. As is monogamy among sexual beings. And whole planets of males and females - need I even spell out the issues with that?
In a fourth, all the atoms in your body get together for occasional reunions after you die. Not only does this give sentience and human desires to atoms, but it ignores the constant flux of material that composes you throughout your life.
Eagleman sees these visions of the afterlife very much through the lens of our own place, time, and culture. Too much. God does everything but stop at Starbucks on his way home to watch American Idol before getting in his Prius and worrying about how many Facebook friends he has as Lady Gaga plays on the radio. That is incredibly limiting.
How much more interesting it would be to pair someone like him with an anthropologist, a comparative religion expert, an evolutionary biologist, and a cosmologist, and have them brainstorm "tales" together. Or at least send Eagleman back to come up with different tales. Tales that transcend time and space and human culture. Maybe some that are truly "inhuman" - that make us see our (very small) place in the universe, rather than making the whole universe about us.
Now that would be more like "dazzling" "genius".
Monday, June 28, 2010
No, this is not a rhetorical question. And if you think the Lt. must have been popping stupid pills over the weekend (unless you count beers as stupid pills, in which case I oughta be awfully stupid by now), hear me out first.
We know agents and editors place a heavy reliance on first pages and first chapters. Fairly or not, they use it to assess the quality of the whole work, to decide whether they want to see more. It is hard to object to this. If no small piece or product could be taken as representative of the whole, every author might as well just send the full manuscript in their first communication with agents. And that is, understandably, impractical (for the agents, at least, and let's face it: they're the ones in charge).
Even the Amazon contest placed a special emphasis on the first chapter. Even publishers, even newspaper book reviews, sometimes put the first chapter online as a way to entice (or not) readers.
But here is the rub, for me: everyone justifies this emphasis on the beginning of the book by claiming that if the beginning isn't strong, potential readers will put the book down. And my question is: is there any real empirical evidence for this? (and this is not a rhetorical question, either...if anyone out there can point me to surveys or studies that corroborate or falsify this hypothesis, I would love to see them)
And I would break this question into two sub-questions: a) how many people decide to buy books on the basis of the beginning? and b) how many people, having already bought a book, will put it down if the beginning sucks?
Regarding sub-question "a," the bigger question is how people decide whether to buy books, and what proportion of them decide to buy books because they are in a bookstore browsing books and reading the first few pages of books until they find those that immediately draw them in.
I withhold final judgment in the absence of real data, but intuitively it is hard for me believe a lot of books get bought this way. I buy a lot of books, and I decide what books to buy based on word-of-mouth, blogs, and book reviews, combined with maybe a cursory reading of Amazon reviews. People who buy books online probably don't buy books based on the beginning, and I can only imagine this is also true of e-book buyers.
(Btw, since we're being anecdotal, despite the proliferation of posts about e-books and e-readers - Kindles and Nooks and iPads, oh my! - on my feed all the frigging time, Lt. Commuter Cccyxx reports that for every 25 readers he sees on the train, 24 of them are reading paper books.)
So the second question is whether people just give up on a book if the beginning sucks. At first I was thinking "well, this doesn't matter, since they've already bought the book" but it does matter because if they can't get through it they won't recommend it (assuming word-of-mouth is important). I can think of a couple of examples of best-selling books that (I have heard) virtually no one has read through, though these are mostly non-fiction (think: Stephen Hawking). Again, anyone know of real data on this?
Anecdotally, I can't think of the last book I started but didn't finish, but I think this places me distinctly in the minority. I do it in part because, as a writer, every book is a learning experience, and both things I hate and things I love are instructive (example: I have read, in their entirety, two chick lit books over the last few months...and if you saw the Lt. you would laugh heartily at the thought). You might notice that my book reviews on this blog have gotten shorter and crankier over time - it becomes easier to see the flaws that every work has, to some extent. And I've read plenty of books with incredible beginnings that either run out of steam or simply don't work that well as coherent wholes.
(This reminds me a little of a notorious weekly seminar my graduate program used to hold. Every Friday, faculty, staff, and students would discuss one recent paper from the scientific literature. Without fail, by the end of the hour, the faculty would have entirely demolished the paper as the students mostly sat silent, mouths agape. After some weeks of that, it became reasonable for the students to wonder amongst themselves whether any paper deserved to be published.)
On the other hand, for a lot of people, especially non-writers, I suspect life's too short. But if people will put a book down if the beginning sucks, the question is: what does "the beginning" mean? First page, first chapter, first hundred pages? Or does it vary too much from book to book to say with any meaningfulness?
Alright, I've been kind of meandering here, so let me sum up the main points of this post:
I know the beginning is important. People evaluating the publishability of your manuscript will consider the beginning a proxy for the whole, and while you can make the case that this is somewhat arbitrary, asking everyone to send chapter 7 would be no better and might be worse. On the other hand, in the absence of real data, let's not be so restrictive about beginnings and what they can and cannot contain on the assumption that people decide to buy (or read) books on the basis of the first pages.
This is consumer behavior and it is easily testable, so I am hoping one of you can maybe point me to real information on this?
Meanwhile, a couple of questions for you: as a reader, how do you decide what books to buy and how often does the beginning matter to what you buy or read? As a writer (for those of you who are writers), do you sometimes think this "strong beginning" thing is a little over-hyped?
Friday, June 25, 2010
Did you guys read...no, I mean seriously, did you guys actually read the Rolling Stone piece? Yowza.
President Obama managed to make lemonade out of the lemons in this situation (or so the pundits tell us) by appointing Gen. Petraeus to head up operations in Afghanistan in McChrystal's place. That's all fine and good, though I kind of thought Petraeus wasn't exactly sitting on his thumbs and spinning all day in his current post.
Anyway, McChrystal's looking for a job, and after running the war in Afghanistan (and before that, special counterinsurgency operations in Iraq for several years), you know whatever job it is has to be challenging and amenable to his - oh, how shall we say? - direct and hands-on style.
It also turns out that Metro is looking for a new GM to replace John Catoe. Right now they've just got some interim guy in the spot.
Can you say "match made in heaven"?
It works out for everyone. First, McChrystal gets a pay raise, and a big one. The estimates I found put his salary as a 4-star general somewhere in the low $200k range. Meanwhile, Catoe was bagging over $300k, plus a $60k living allowance (which McChrystal wouldn't need anyway, since he'd just pitch a tent at Metro Center).
And Metro gets the leadership style they desperately need.
Would become this:
Would become this:
And think of how McChrystal would handle other typical Metro problems:
Eating on the train
Special ops forces, designed to look like regular riders, would identify passengers breaking the no eating rule, who would be shot dead by expert marksmen at the next station.
There wouldn't be any more delays, because McChrystal would pull the fucking train with his teeth.
Nonsensical service announcements
No more of this vague "sick passenger" bullshit. McChrystal himself would get on the PA and deliver a real-time briefing: "Listen up, Maggots! At precisely 1643, a 46-year old male passenger in the mid-portion of the third car of train 4136 suffered what appears to be minor arrhythmia in the left ventricle when the train was at coordinates Charlie-Alpha-Bravo-Niner. I personally parachuted onto the top of the train and delivered defibrillation, and trains are running on time!"
Weekend track work
First of all, since he only needs four hours of sleep, McChrystal could supervise "black ops" at night. But if daytime track work was necessary, you'd roll by and see McChrystal out there ripping up the rivets and ties and then welding them back together. And if you needed a shuttle, no more of this Metrobus crap: it'd be an armor-plated Humvee driven by...you guessed it, the General himself.
Fuck that. Those punks would be on their way to Fort Benning for Ranger School quicker than you can turn up your iPod to try to drown them out.
McChrystal would carry passengers three at a time on his back, then rappel down for the next load.
McChrystal will use the best humint around to ID "metrocides" and dispatch them himself, with a single bullet to the head from his small caliber pistol, before they can jump to the tracks and screw up everyone's commute.
No one would fuck around on Metro, because if they did McChrystal himself would be right there, sitting right next to them on the same motherfucking train. That's right, even Chuck Norris fears Stanley McChrystal.
Surely, this is a man who could whip even the Metro Board into shape. Let's not let his talents go to waste in some desk job at the Pentagon. Stanley McChrystal for Metro General Manager!
Wednesday, June 23, 2010
You have a specific amount of time with a specific literary agent (who you hopefully chose to meet with for a reason). Your mission is to pique their interest in your work (and you as a potential client) and get them to ask you to send them pages. Think of this like a sales meeting or presentation for work: you need to be professional (this includes looking professional and perhaps even making business cards - I did), prepared (if nothing else, this will keep you from being terrified), and organized (including bringing copies of your stuff, just in case).
Remember that your pitch and its success says absolutely nothing about your writing, but it may say something about your concept and how you approach it. Even an unsuccessful pitch session is a networking opportunity and a chance to learn about literary agents and receive feedback on your work from people in the know.
Pitches should usually be 2-3 minutes in length (or even less): even with 10-minute timeslots, keep it short. This means you will be speaking about 300-350 words. Does that sound like about the length of a query letter (maybe just a tad longer)? If you have a good query already, you've got a lot of your pitch.
The idea, much like a query, is to distill the essence of your book. Talking too long, and making it all about plot, will confuse/bore/irritate the agent and not give them time to ask you questions or offer feedback.
Key to the pitch is a one-sentence summary of your book to kick it off. Nathan Bransford recommends preparing one-sentence, one-paragraph, and two-paragraph pitches. That one sentence pitch can come in handy in other contexts, as well.
Here you need to walk the line between rambling and being too business-like. Rachelle Gardiner has a great post about what to include in a pitch. I found this particular post absolutely essential to walking that line as I put mine together. Kristin Nelson has genre-by-genre advice in this series of posts.
As I mentioned a couple of posts ago, I know myself well enough to say that my presentation skills are good, but my ability to talk off-the-cuff and not forget stuff is terrible (in science you never have to talk without a Powerpoint behind you, and I tend to build those with prompts so I don't forget things). So I prepared by writing my pitch out, word-for-word, and then memorizing it (yes, some things changed if they looked good on paper but sounded silly coming out of my mouth). My pitches consisted of about a dozen sentences and I structured them as follows:
Sentence 1: It's nice to meet you - I'm Lt. Cccyxx and...[something personalized about them to show you did your homework on them].
Sentence 2: I wanted to meet with you because I thought you'd be interested in my book, a work of [genre] called [title].
Sentence 3: It's a book about...[the one-sentence summary].
Sentences 4-9: [Summary of major plotline with introduction of the protagonist and perhaps a couple of other characters if essential. For me, this came mostly straight out of the query, though I found myself boiling it down even more than the query.]
Sentence 10: [Hook back to the agent. Reference something they said or some work they represented and connect it to your work.]
Sentence 11: [Theme, hopefully in a way that follows logically from Sentence 10 - this might be optional for some people but I wanted to include it to make the case that: a) I understood my own work, and b) the book works on more than one level. I also wanted to make it absolutely clear - since I am a scientist pitching a novel involving science - that I was not Dr. Dorky McDorkalot adapting my old lecture notes by sticking them in dialogue form.]
Sentence 12: My book bears similarities to [one or two books it bears similarities to - if it's a thematic rather than stylistic similarity, you probably cannot skip Sentence 11].
Sentence 13: I hope this has given you a sense of my book and piqued your interest.
Now of course if you go the memorization route, you don't want to sound like a robot when you deliver the pitch. I practiced with my wife a couple of times to get my tone down and ensure that I sounded excited (after all, this is my work and I am excited about it) but conversational, not like a third-grader delivering lines in a school play. Preparation aside, Agent 1 asked if I had memorized my pitch (and I readily admitted I had - obviously this did not count against me).
There you have it: my advice on pitching. Take it for what it's worth...and definitely click on the links, since most of them are written by people who have a lot more experience than me!
Monday, June 21, 2010
Belimperia is away this week on business, and so the Lt. is also cooking all the things she can't stand (lamb chops, Italian sausage, possibly Indian food, and some as-yet-to-be-determined fish).
In the rush of last week I wasn't able to set down my experiences at my first writers conference, the American Independent Writers Conference here in D.C. I was a little leery of plunking down several hundred dollars, and giving up a Saturday, for this thing, but it was well worth it.
First off, networking. Networking was very easy because there were only about 150 attendees and most of them were writers desperate to network (just like me). I'd attended some scientific conferences in the past that were: a) overwhelmingly huge (up to 10,000 people) and/or b) extremely cliquish (as in: trying to find a seat at lunch is like being a "fish" in the prison dining hall). Not so here. Because the crowd was D.C.-centric I wound up talking to people both about my novel and about my day job, and making some contacts relevant to both. The modal career stage in terms of writing appeared to match my own well: finished first novel and looking for an agent while writing the second. I thought it was a pretty diverse and interesting group of people, actually.
Second, the sessions. I admit for the first few minutes - sitting at a round and trying to mingle - I felt like I'd signed up for one of those "Get Rich Quick" seminars, but the feeling dissipated as soon as the first speaker (Chuck Sambuchino from the indispensable Guide to Literary Agents blog) began his funny yet highly informative talk. There were panels of published authors and fiction and nonfiction agents throughout the day.
I have to say that even though I've heard agents say things online 150 times (well, not literally "heard," but you know what I mean), some of these things only started to gel when I saw the agents - real people, some of them extremely young - say them as part of a panel. Things like why it is important to customize a query letter for an agent, or why agents have to "love" your work to try to sell it. One of the fiction agents said that writing was on the border of business and art, and I thought that was a pretty good way of thinking about it (and all of the tensions that result).
I guess the main message I got, and this is really a no-brainer in one way but it took the conference to bring it home, is that the publishing industry is based on relationships. Now, I have no idea why this hadn't sunk in before. After all, I came from academic science (where everyone acts like it's not about relationships but knows deep down that it is) to government and policy (where everyone is very straightforward about the importance of relationships). My guess is that every field of human endeavor is based on relationships. (Of course producing quality work is a prerequisite, in all these areas, but this idea of true meritocracies - anywhere - is false. And given how many query letters and manuscripts are out there....)
And this leads to the third experience I had, pitching agents. I got to pitch to two agents for ten minutes apiece that day. I could put together another whole post compiling all the information I gleaned on pitching, but it comes down to this: you are supposed to talk about your book for two to three minutes in a way that piques the agent's interest. I know myself well enough to know that while I can give a darned good presentation, I absolutely suck at extemporaneous speech. I also wanted to be able to say something specific to each agent. So preparation was key.
I will defer discussion of the pitches themselves for another post. For now, let's just say that the first agent listened to my pitch and then immediately said she was interested in seeing my novel and asked for the FULL. She then asked me a couple of questions about the book and my background and then we segued into a discussion about things entirely unrelated. It was extremely pleasant and professional and the subsequent agony I went through before I gathered up the courage to actually send her the full several days later is testament both to my own insecurity and fear of rejection and that I could really see working productively with her on this and future projects.
The second pitch didn't go quite so well. I did my thing and when I was done the guy just kind of looked bug-eyed at me for a couple of seconds. It's like he was expecting something more, or was just so spectacularly underwhelmed by the concept that it rendered him speechless. I had done my homework on these agents and there were plenty of reasons to think he would love my idea. I also anticipated - from interviews online and other sources - that he would be somewhat standoffish and a tough nut to crack. I was right.
He asked me questions about the books I'd compared mine to (When were they published? I knew that. What were they about? I knew that. Who were the publishers? There he stumped me). He asked me about my background and previous publications. He asked if I'd considered trying to get an excerpt of the novel published as a short story (I had not and thanked him for the suggestion, though my guess is that would be more difficult than getting the fucking novel published). I think he knew immediately he wasn't interested and was just trying to kill some time. Quite honestly, I saw no need to eat up the ten minutes this way and would have appreciated something more like this:
Him: That doesn't sound like something I want to represent.
Me: Thank you for being straightforward. I thought you'd be a good match for this but I guess was wrong. Is there anything about it that you don't find compelling or any suggestions you have for me?
Him: [hopefully gives me amazing tips to make it more compelling or at least just says what his problem is, but even if he just says "no"...]
Me: Thank you for your time.
Finally he said, "Well, it all comes down to style." and I was like "Duh, doesn't it always?" (I just nodded). He took the first chapter but I ain't holding my breath. We then talked about my day job for just a minute or two and when the bell rang he said, "I guess that bell means we're done." "Dude, I'm not a fucking moron," is what I felt like saying, though "It was nice to meet you. Thank you for your time." is what actually came out of my mouth. (I hate when people say obvious shit like that.) Yeah, I ain't holding my breath.
I guess the take-home message is that the speed-dating analogy isn't so bad. Agent #1 and I could have kept talking and probably had a great conversation even if we never talked about books at all. Agent #2 and I were not going to have a second "date" because there was no "chemistry."
Anyway, this post is already inexcusably long (just pretend you're reading all three of last week's posts right now! ha-ha) and I haven't even described the process of pitching itself yet, so I'll save that. But that's my conference experience. I would, and will, definitely do it again. And it has definitely changed my feelings about how to proceed going forward.
Monday, June 14, 2010
Look for a post talking about my (very positive) experience at the AIW Writers Conference this past weekend, a review of Sum: Forty Tales From The Afterlives by David Eagleman, and no doubt some ranting about something or other, quite possibly the Metro, accompanied by a picture of that hottie from the movie about the Purim story. And maybe something about Cthulhu.
Hope you all have a great week!
Friday, June 11, 2010
1) I linked to the New Yorker's new best 20 writers under 40 list on Monday. The feature includes short, mostly uninformative Q&As with the writers on the list. But I was really struck by a piece of the interview with Philipp Meyer (I reviewed his novel American Rust here) where he is asked if he ever thought about not being a writer and he talks about leaving his investment banking job and eventually running out of money, moving back in with his parents while he wrote. I said in an e-mail earlier this week: that's balls. But what if he hadn't been successful? What if he had skill but no luck, or what if his skill wasn't recognized by the right people? He violated all the advice we hear on blogs over and over again (primarily "don't quit your day job"). His story raises an awful lot of interesting questions, in my mind at least.
2) I read a very interesting piece in The New Republic about whether it is right for us to try political leaders in this country. The conclusions at the end are less than satisfying, but I wanted to highlight a selection peripheral to the main point but that really resonated with me:
"Democracy depends on the willingness of political leaders to go into opposition—and on their expectation that they might one day return to power. We call this rotation in office, and though it does not occur on a regular schedule, it does regularly occur. By contrast, kings and republican politicians do not alternate in office—first Louis XVI, then Robespierre, and then Louis again (actually the restoration and the revolutions of 1830 and 1848 did produce a kind of rotation, but not as a settled constitutional arrangement). Nor did we want, after World War II, to see a Nazi regime ever again in power: first Hitler, then Adenauer, then Hitler (or Göring) again. Endings such as those of 1793 (the year of the king’s execution) and 1945 are meant to be definitive; but endings such as those of 2000 or 2008, when one political party and then the other was toppled from power, are not in any sense definitive.
"The truth about democratic elections is that the stakes are fairly low, compared to the stakes in revolutions and wars. Critically important questions about public policy are (sometimes) decided democratically through party politics and election campaigns; but they are rarely decided in any conclusive way. The argument goes on after the decision has been made, and so do the arguing politicians. Perhaps if the electoral defeat is decisive, the defeated leaders will retire from politics (though usually with the hope of being called back), but their place will be taken by younger leaders with many of the same ideological commitments. This is the sense in which the stakes are low: no one expects to be killed or imprisoned after they lose an election."The bold is mine. Of course this is all a truism about democracy, and it's a good thing: the health and safety of me and tens of thousands of others is dependent upon it. But is this why I sometimes feel, in my work, like I'm always fighting and never actually getting anything done?
3) Back to the New Yorker, for another interesting piece (courtesy of Belimperia) on why dystopian YA fiction is so popular. Reason? It helps kids cope with their high school hell. I can buy this, but dystopian YA fiction is new and high school hell most certainly is not. Back in my day (and yeah, I know this makes me sound like the Grumpy Old Man - please leave that alone in the comments, thank you) YA fiction either didn't really exist or else I ignored it as propaganda from the adult world. I went right from Beverly Cleary and A Wrinkle in Time to adult fantasy and horror.
And I think there are two desires of readers like teenaged me. One is exactly what the article says - a mirror on an uncertain and sometimes seemingly apocalyptic world. The Stand is a great example. Carrie or Firestarter are others. But the other side is pure escapism. Tolkien, Raymond E. Feist, a lot of the fantasy stuff. Then there are authors who blend the two. The fantastic horror of H.P. Lovecraft or (the more contemporary) Clive Barker. Most of my teenaged fantasies involved some combination of: a) an upheaval or transformation of some kind that changed the world or created a new one in a way that removed adult power, and b) the imbuing of some kind of special power to my protagonist (who was, of course, me).
Times may change, but teenagers don't. And given how screwed up the world was, and is, I can't blame them.
Wednesday, June 9, 2010
The best word I can think of describe that book is "fun," a word I would also apply to Blind Submission, an earlier novel by the same author, Debra Ginsberg.
Not only would I generally recommend this novel, but I'd especially recommend it to my friends who are writers and aspiring authors, as the setting for most of it is a literary agency. The protagonist is Angel Robinson, a new assistant in the prestigious agency headed by the (queen witch) Lucy Fiamma. Ginsberg is smart enough to make Angel a passionate reader but very much not a writer.
While sometimes I wondered why Angel hung in there and put up with the intense office atmosphere (which reminded me an awful lot of Capitol Hill in some ways - long hours, an imperious boss, and duplicitous and self-serving co-workers eager to take advantage being some of them), and while the interactions between her and the clients probably do not reflect reality (at least, Janet Reid and Nathan Bransford would certainly not approve), the story never strains credulity too much.
The main catalyst for action is a mystery manuscript, arriving piece by piece from anonymous author, with a plot that seems a little too close to home for Angel. Who is writing it, and what - besides publication - are they trying to accomplish? Is it her writer sorta-fiance (with alcoholic tendencies) Malcolm? Her new Italian author and possible love interest? One of her less than ideal co-workers? Or someone else? Angel loves her work at the literary agency, but will she make it?
The biggest problem with the book is that the ending is quite easy to guess early on, but that still doesn't ruin the fun. Ginsberg keeps you turning the pages and the characters - again, without the true depth of real people - are still pretty compelling. The book is certainly not deep, but it's not complete fluff either.
It's definitely one of the best works of fiction I've read this year, and I'd recommend it (as well as The Grift).
Monday, June 7, 2010
The Lt. is an avid reader of literary fiction, so let's check out the list, shall we? First, a general observation: it's neat to me that "under 40" is considered young for a writer. Makes me think I haven't missed the boat. Now, here are our winners:
- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
- Chris Adrian
- Daniel Alarcón
- David Bezmozgis
- Sarah Shun-lien Bynum
- Joshua Ferris
- Jonathan Safran Foer
- Nell Freudenberger
- Rivka Galchen
- Nicole Krauss
- Yiyun Li
- Dinaw Mengestu
- Philipp Meyer
- C. E. Morgan
- Téa Obreht
- Z Z Packer
- Karen Russell
- Salvatore Scibona
- Gary Shteyngart
- Wells Tower
Just for kicks, here's the list from 1999:
- George Saunders
- David Foster Wallace
- Sherman Alexie
- Rick Moody
- A.M. Homes
- Allegra Goodman
- William T. Vollmann
- Antonya Nelson
- Chang-rae Lee
- Michael Chabon
- Ethan Canin
- Donld Antrim
- Tony Earley
- Jeffrey Eugenides
- Junot Diaz
- Jonathan Franzen
- Edwidge Danticat
- Jhumpa Lahiri
- Nathan Englander
- Matthew Klam
OK, back to the 2010 list for one last exercise (this one actually involving a little work on my part): I want to know more about these folks. How many are MFA, full-timers, teach writing, etc. and how many broke in from the outside (or at least did something else for a while)?
I did quick biographical searches for each of them, and what I found is probably what you expect: only one appears to be anything but a full-time writer (Chris Adrian, who is a medical resident) and very few of them appear to have done anything in their lives besides write. Adrian is an exception; also, Joshua Ferris worked in advertising for a few years, and Philipp Meyer was a Wall Street trader among other things. A few have interesting degrees (Galchen in psychiatry, Morgan in theology). The vast majority "do" writing and nothing but (this includes teaching writing and some journalism).
I'm of two minds about this. On one hand, material for interesting writing can come from any kind of life experiences, and this group certainly represents a diversity of those. In addition, going through an MFA program both weeds out those with less talent/dedication and (ostensibly) helps improve the craft of those who remain. On the other hand, I've always been a little suspicious of people who may be great writers, who are essentially educated professional writers, but who have nothing to say. The kind of writers who write about writers writing because that's all they know. Or think that because they grew up in a family of [insert ethnicity here] they automatically have something different and illuminating to say.
As a writer aspiring to be published, I guess this list isn't very relevant to me unless the take-home message is to start applying for MFA programs and making friends with New Yorker editors. As a reader, it's a list of people whose work I might want to check out (that might help my writing, too). I think that's about it.
How about you all? How many of these people have you read? What do you think of their work? Are you encouraged by/discouraged by/indifferent to their bios?
Friday, June 4, 2010
D.C. weather is nine months of mostly mild and pleasant conditions (Snowmageddon notwithstanding, though that at least got us a couple of days off), punctuated with three months (the summer) of intermittent hell. Add dress shirts and ties and that hell is greatly magnified.
So here is a situation for your consideration:
My wife and several former co-workers/friends are part of a book club that meets monthly (there are also 3-4 people in the book club who I've never met). One of my old co-workers is the organizer of the club. She learned about my book because of my involvement in the Amazon contest. She read the first chapter online and told me she really enjoyed it. She offered to read the whole manuscript, an offer I plan to take her up on because even though she's not an author herself (or any kind of expert on the publishing industry) she is smart and she is a reader.
She also suggested that maybe the book club could read it one month, and that she would be willing to advocate for this. My wife - who, btw, is incredibly supportive about everything related to my writing - was definitely on board. (She read an earlier version of the manuscript, back nearly a year ago now, but it has changed a bit since then and she said she wouldn't mind reading it again.) Leaving aside the issues of my wife and my friend trying to persuade everyone else to read this (unpublished, unagented) book, can you think of any reason I shouldn't be jumping for joy and encouraging this in the strongest possible terms?
I realize the feedback I would get from such a process wouldn't be the same as a writing group critiquing my work (or from beta readers, of which I've had several), but it would be feedback from six readers who get together to discuss books. If the book was already published, it'd be a little different, but my strategy here would be to listen and answer questions, join in the discussion when warranted...but not to defend.
Does this sound useful? Would you want your own work (when it's ready) to be discussed this way? Do you think people will be honest with me or will they sugar-coat everything? Will this give me feedback that will help strengthen the manuscript (which is as good as it's going to get without more feedback from others)?
In other news, the next two weeks are shaping up to be a beast. That includes weekends. So don't be surprised if I miss a post or two. I expect that things will calm down considerably again once June 20 rolls around.
Wednesday, June 2, 2010
So read the e-mail I received today, the end of a several month long waiting process for a position I applied for with [Organization That Does Exactly What I Do]. Since I submitted my application, the only communications I'd received were an auto-acknowledgment and a vague e-mail announcing that my materials were being forwarded to the hiring manager.
That's fine - I mean, I'm not complaining about that. And, well, to tell you the truth, I wasn't exactly waiting with bated breath to hear from y'all on this, but...
OK, I admit it. I'm confused.
Did I accidentally apply for the Pastry Chef position? Did I apply to be a Heavy Machine Operator? A Ballet Instructor? A Gynecologist? (Because those are examples of the kinds of jobs to which my skills and experience do not match.)
No, I did not. Because [Organization That Does Exactly What I Do] does not have those kinds of jobs. They have positions in [What I Do] because they are [Organization That Does Exactly What I Do]. I know people who used to work for [Organization That Does Exactly What I Do] and I know people who currently work for [Organization That Does Exactly What I Do], and I know what they do. And what they do is [Exactly What I Motherfuckin' Do] because that's what [Organization That Does Exactly What I Do] does!!?!
So what is this no position...that would utilize your skills and experience load of horseshit?
Because you know, um, there was just such a position. Yeah, there was. It was the one I applied for, you twits!
Or did I imagine it? Did I completely fabricate in my mind that there was such a position that sounded a god-awful lot like [What I Do]? And I said to myself: Hey, I should apply for this position doing [What I Do] with [Organization That Does Exactly What I Do] because they do what I do! And my skills and experience would fit that position just great! But it's really sad, and actually kind of pathetic, because I made the whole thing up.
No, I didn't imagine it? There was such a job? Thank goodness - I was worried about my sanity for a moment. So, wait, if there was such a job, what happened?
Oh, I see, you hired someone else for that position. You found someone else whose skills and experience more closely matched what you were looking for. You evaluated my qualifications and decided another applicant would be a better fit. You are trying to tell me that I didn't get the job I appropriately applied for.
Well that's different, isn't it? I can't really argue with that, you know. I can be disappointed (I'm not) but it's hard to complain. Lord knows this isn't the first rejection letter I'd received...or the hundredth.
Couldn't you just have said that?