The Writer’s Lament

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Timothy Egan put the lament of all but the most successful writers into his column on Sunday in the New York Times. His complaint?

A plaintive why.

Why do publishers shovel out so much crap (witness Joe the Plumber’s book deal)? Why do people who can barely string together a sentence – like Sarah Palin – get $7 million advances? Why do so many people think they can write? And why does celebrity crowd out real writers in the marketplace?

As someone who has experienced publishing rejection firsthand, I feel his pain. But everything is relative, a matter of degrees. I have been told by my agent that if I was Bob Woodward or Thomas Friedman, my book (which I now intend to self-publish) would have been published. (A palliative explanation perhaps, but not impossible to imagine).

Those two, as examples, are celebrity writers crowding out a young unknown. Why shouldn’t I feel resentment for them? Why shouldn’t I feel resentment for Tim Egan? I wouldn’t mind writing a column for the New York Times.

Furthermore, who is to judge who is a writer? True, writers must demonstrate command of the language, but otherwise the barriers to entry are ridiculously low. A pen and a piece of paper. Who is to judge whether or not someone is a worthy writer?

Right now, it is simply the gatekeepers of America’s literary and journalistic brands. And, in this world, they are increasingly pressured to sell. What sells? Celebrity, name recognition, and really lousy fiction. (And, by-the-way, it doesn’t hurt if you roomed with that future editor back at Vassar.) Once in a while, something new, original, and previously unknown squeaks through by virtue of mere talent alone. But that is indeed rare.

So what is to be done?

Storm the ramparts. Blog, self-publish, start your own journal or imprint. Thousands (if not millions) of writers are already doing these things, and by doing so, they are shaking the foundations of the literary and journalistic establishments. Yes, they’re largely unpaid, and that is painful to writers who seek to make a living from the word. But don’t blame a writer for writing. Real writers are going to write whether they are paid or not.

And don’t blame the business of publishing for shoveling out crap that sells more than the hidden gems. If you want to make a living writing, then you’ve got to respect the marketplace. As a voracious reader of fiction and non-fiction, I can tell you that even among the “respectable” work by “real” writers, there is a hell of a lot of crap.

So do not lament a dying business and standards that protect a lucky few. Sure, Hemingway and Joan Didion deserve(d) their places and fees, and yes, Sarah Palin is an ignorant disgrace, but, ultimately, the market will decide who makes their coin as a writer.

Your best option is to put yourself in the role of gatekeeper. This is a time of empowerment for writers. Seize your moment and reach out to the marketplace directly.

Save your lament for the poor fools who actually put down their hard earned money only to find the Sarah Palin story doesn’t include nude photos.


David Foster Wallace Found Dead

Sunday, September 14, 2008

He hung himself, apparently.

Ranking the New York Times Columnists

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The editorial page of the New York Times is arguably the most influential in the world. Lately, I’ve begun to feel that the page has grown a little stale. In an attempt to understand why, I decided to rank the columnists who regularly appear there. This ranking system is presented beginning with the worst columnist (#11) and continues to the best (#1), and is measured on a purely subjective qualitative scale.

So, without further ado:

11. Irving Kristol’s son. This smug, lizard-faced, son-of-privilege delights in writing columns that he believes tweak the noses of the Times liberal readership. This is, as far as I can tell, his only goal. When he signed on, he was already way overexposed writing and editing for the Weekly Standard, appearing on Fox News, etc. It still remains a mystery why the NY Times felt this “useful idiot” needed another platform. A disastrous addition, expect him to be gone in one year.

10. Thomas Friedman. This self-important Iraq War supporter is responsible for foisting the worst metaphor in the history of metaphors upon an unsuspecting public with “The World is Flat.” A globalist lapdog, he is beloved by a middle-brow audience for his “Aftab Meets the Future” columns and equivocal analyses of complex situations. Rarely worth the read (now he’s going green, ugh), somehow he’s the star of the paper. He’ll be there for as long as he wants.

9. Roger Cohen. The Parisian Partisan. Combines a love of France with oddly unsexy writing. He is a longtime foreign correspondent who originally appeared as a columnist in the International Herald Tribune. His opinions reflect a bien-pensant benignity that would be right at home during cocktails at Bernard Kouchner’s. His columns are eminently skippable. Seems like a decent fellow, though.

8. Nicholas Kristof. In a word? Borrrrring. He bleeds for the world and wants you to bleed, too. Darfur, sex trafficking, the occasional toe dipped into the Middle East. Somehow he makes these topics seem even more wonkishly mind-numbing than they actually are. I appreciate the effort, I really do, but I don’t read him very often. If I’m ever feeling too pleased with life, I’ll give him a shot, but otherwise I’d sooner read the letters to the editor.

7. Charles Blow. Haven’t the faintest idea who this is. He’s listed on the website as publishing every other Saturday. I’m not sure if I’ve ever read anything he’s written.

6. David Brooks. Brooks is still capable of a broad social insight and a truly thought-provoking piece, but he might be overtaxed by the demands of the paper. He seems to want to come up with a fresh idea for every column and some of them are hurting (did you read that weird, dorky one about the magic of the Middle Ages?). That said, Brooks is a good writer and a smart guy and he should stay. Maybe just one column a week?

5. Paul Krugman. It pains me to put him here because he was, easily, the best columnist they had during the Bush years. His scalding attacks left you breathless with their intelligence, research, and evocative writing. But Krugman might be like Churchill; without a war, he’s just an irritating eccentric. Now that Bush is winding down, Krugman’s political columns have become flat and, often, misguided. Despite that, he’s got to stay, if only for his brilliant and clear writing on economics and related topics.

4. Bob Herbert. Even when he’s writing about something dull or obvious, which is fairly often, Herbert draws me in. His prose style makes convincing points without unnecessary flair and he’s capable of tugging on the heart strings. When Herbert writes about sex trafficking, you read it. He is a powerful, populist force on a sometimes sadly removed opinion page. He’s there to stay.

3. Maureen Dowd. The paper’s other big star, she’s clever as all hell and loves to show it. Plus, she’s kind of hot for an older broad. I don’t have much to complain about with Dowd, except that she’s a little bitter about men. She’s got a bead on Washington and a sense of fairness and common sense backed up by a wicked vocabulary and the tools to wield it like a knife.

2. Gail Collins. I’m surprised by this one myself. Collins used to run the page and now writes on Mondays and Thursdays. I’ve been reading her columns on the campaign and they are laugh-out-loud funny. I swear I’m on the subway snorting into my shirt. She happily deflates any political pretension and serves up a serious dose of real world perspective. She has quickly supplanted Dowd as the best (Irish-American?) woman on the page.

And, the winner is:

1. Frank Rich. Rich is always on-point, always ahead of the game, always capable of a new, interesting idea or a startling insight. His prose is accessible, but nuanced. He brings gravity and seriousness to his columns while sacrificing nothing in terms of, yes, pleasure in reading. Rich writes once a week on Sundays and this is a good perch for him. His column is the first one I check in the Week in Review.

So there you have it. My suggestion is that Andrew Rosenthal gets rid of the last five (or keep Blow, but give him real shot) and adds some fresh blood to the page. Here, as an added bonus, are my suggestions for the additions:

To fill the foreign policy hole: Tony Judt and Fareed Zakaria

To supplement internally: Michiko Kakutani (with guns blazing), Natalie Angier (they definitely need more science writing on the editorial page), Gretchen Morgenson (and good business writing too), and, if she isn’t taking a buyout and retiring forever, Linda Greenhouse.

To add a little youthful point-counterpoint: Matt Taibbi and Jonah Goldberg.

That’s it.

Human Smoke

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Nicholson Baker’s new book, Human Smoke, is brilliant. It is a work of diligent scholarship, presented simply and artfully, that does what the best books do: it will make you think seriously. There has been some controversy about the book, particularly from neoconservatives. The otherwise reliable Adam Kirsch in the New York Sun wrote, arguably, his worst review about the book. The Sun, as I’ve said before, is like the student paper at Neocon High. Any piece that can be filtered through a prism of neoconservative principles (of which I can ascertain two: blind, reactionary support for Israel, and war as a means of promoting democracy), will be. Kirsch, in this case, hates the politics he perceives behind the pacifism that Baker espouses and goes on to write a biased and ad hominem attack on the book. The only objective info you’ll get from his review are winning discussion points for a cocktail party at Paul Wolfowitz’s house.

The columnist Anne Applebaum, who was apparently deeply threatened by Human Smoke, wrote a hysterical and condescending review in the New Republic that ranted about bloggers and amateurism. And lastly, William Grimes panned it in the New York Times.

I honestly don’t know what they’re talking about. Human Smoke is an impressionistic masterpiece that presents simple information in chronology and let’s you filter it through your over-saturated understanding of World War II. It demythologizes the neocon sacred cow Churchill (they all want to be him); makes the U.S. entry into the war seems inevitable from the first; and presents a view of the little seen pacifism movement of the time.

When I was finished with the book, you know what I walked away with?

War is terrible and must be avoided at all costs and we must fight them only when we are forced to.

Can any book that reinforces these truths really be a “stupid” and “scary” book?

Go out and get it. I recommend it highly.

P.S. I know I promised a book recommendation every Friday, but I simply can’t do it. Look in every two weeks or so (click on the category link for books) for a new recommendation.

Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Marco Roth of n+1, the intriguing hipster literary journal (not to be confused with their hated archrival McSweeneys) whose intellectual perspective, has, according to their website, singlehandedly saved (shame on them), Jonathan Franzen from existential despair, has reviewed Salman Rushdie’s new novel, The Enchantress of Florence.

He gave it a good review, though he takes Rushdie to task for indulging his ego through his characters.

The hyper-prolific and much-hated (but not by me, again I haven’t read her) Joyce Carol Oates also reviewed the novel (with lots of quotes) in the New York Review of Books. Funnily enough, she had more or less the same judgment as Roth.

Both commented on the fantastic unreality of the novel.

She writes: Though The Enchantress of Florence includes a densely printed five-page bibliography of historical books and articles and is being described as a “historical” novel, readers in expectation of a conventional “historical novel” should be forewarned: this is “history” jubilantly mixed with postmodernist magic realism. The veteran performer-author is too playful and too much the exuberant stylist to incorporate much of deadpan “reality” into his ever-shifting, ever-teasing narrative of the power of enchantment of cultural opposites: “We are their dream…and they are ours.”

Roth points out: There are pirates, shipwrecks, hidden princesses, lost heirs, and magic mirrors. There are giants, epic battles, and potions that “facilitate one hundred consecutive ejaculations.”

I don’t know about you, but this sounds pretty good to me.

I have only read one other (should I be ashamed to point out all the stuff I haven’t read?) Rushdie novel: Midnight’s Children. It was a while ago now, but the book stayed with me and I remember it as one of the best I have ever read; it was a whirling tableau of charm and color and I was deeply engrossed. Rushdie’s ego aside (Who cares unless it ruins the book? And if it does, why don’t they say so explicitly?), I am looking forward to this one. After getting dumped by that hot wife (it couldn’t have ended any other way), I suspect that he’s turned his anguish into art.

Update July 23: I’ve read the book now and it is almost exactly as described above. Two things:

It takes a while before you actually become engrossed. There’s a lot of light and flash here and Rushdie can sustain it for a long time without actually creating a meaningful character. Eventually he does, and in the meantime, the light and flash entertains.

This book is a great beach read. Not too deep, transportive but not ponderous. Recommend it for that purpose. It is not, however, another Midnight’s Children.

September, Inverness

Thursday, May 22, 2008

This is a poem by Robert Hass. I post it with a recommendation that you buy his new book, and look forward to a summer whose spring hasn’t yet arrived.

Tomales Bay is flat blue in the

    Indian summer heat.

This is the time when hikers on

    Inverness Ridge

Stand on tiptoe to pick ripe


That the deer can’t reach. This is

    the season of lulls –

Egrets hunting in the tidal

    shallows, a ribbon

Of sandpipers fluttering over

    mudflats, white,

Then not. A drift of mist wisping

    off the bay.

This is the moment when bliss is

    what you glimpse

From the corner of your eye, as

    you drive past

Running errands, and the wind

    comes up,

And the surface of the water

    glitters hard against it.

This post represents the first of a new regular Friday (I know, it’s Thursday) series in which I will be recommending a book. Enjoy.

Kirsch Slams Frey’s Bright Shiny Morning

Friday, May 16, 2008

The New York Sun, which otherwise seems like little more than the student paper at Neocon High, has got a first rate Arts section. The estimable Adam Kirsch is their chief book reviewer. On Tuesday, he slammed James Frey’s new book, Bright Shiny Morning. For anyone looking to indulge in a little schadenfreude, this will be a satisfying read.

His last line will disappoint though: “…I am sure “Bright Shiny Morning” will be a big best-seller.”