What is fiction? A book? A story? A craft? A solitary artistic endeavor? A meeting of minds? I don’t know. What I know is that the digital revolution affects our assumptions about what forms fiction can take.
Before we get going on this exploration of pomp and circumstance I’ll give you my background as a writer so you have some sense of whatever bias to which I’m blind. I decided to write one day while reading The Great Gatsbyor Tender is the Night—one of those prodigious Fitzgerald novels—at my grandmother’s summer cottage on Long Island. My parents, my grandparents, my aunt and uncle, perhaps a cousin, and my sister were all laid out on their backs with books on a hot summer afternoon. The sounds of pages turning, cowbirds singing in the grapevine, and large screens shifting on light breezes in syncopation with waves were all I heard for an hour after lunch. I was the youngest. While I was very much enjoying whichever novel determined the entire trajectory of my life that day before fifth grade, mainly I was bored and wanted to go down to the beach. I was not allowed to swim alone so I said, “Mom?” She said, “Read.”
I lay back on a green, sun-warmed, jungle flora print 70s, bedspread, oppressed by maternal directive, and thought, “This is so boring. No one’s talking. Everyone I care about is here but there’s no interaction. They’re all just reading.” Then my eureka moment came. If you want to have any kind of interaction with a chemist, an English scholar, a teacher, a social worker, a nurse, two biologists, and a pianist, well, then you’ll likely have to write a book. They’re all introverted readers and have absolutely no interest in communicating with anyone directly. I very much wanted to communicate with the people I held most dear. So it was decided: I’d write.
I’d already been writing for at least three years but not with any formal ambition. Having galvanized my conviction and admitted my dreams to an interested third party I was rather surprised to be told again, “Read.” Why? What on earth would reading have to do with writing? But whether or not there happened to be any logic in it at all dominant forces prevailed and I read. I won’t say I read everything because I spent a great deal of energy and effort avoiding all the books that constitute what anyone means when they say they’ve read everything. But. I read all the other stuff and loved it.
Okay. By high school I was taking myself and everything else rather seriously and allowed myself to be influenced by the following books on the writer’s life. I recommend all of them. But. When reminiscing about that era I might also be apt to recommend the Beverly Hills Cop II soundtrack so take this list for what it is: Aspects of the Novelby E.M. Forster, A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf, Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande, and—during what may or may not have been a drug-addled, new-agey period of my life if I were not currently in rather covetous defense of a license to practice pharmacy— The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. During my more recent MFA work I was introduced to Steering the Craft by Ursula K. Le Guin. If you haven’t read A Room of One’s Ownand you’re trying to become a writer I don’t know what you’re doing and I can’t help you.
It’s funny. When I was in high school diligently reading all these books and more I only ever imagined I was going to be writing books. To me, at that time, books were stacks of nice paper bound with perfectly respectable covers. I mean, what else could they be? But even as I was oh so diligently indoctrinating myself to the concrete aspects of a writer’s reality things were changing, quickly.
I do not think that any of the books I read that discuss writing ever really said you had to assemble a bunch of sheets of paper and put a cover on them to post a bit of work for sale and sharing. So. Without being able to ask explicit permission of Forster, Woolf, Brande, Cameron, or Le Guin (who I know would say it’s perfectly fine to plunge headfirst into the production of reflowable content), I think we’ll just go ahead and assume here at the outset that fiction can be liberated from our assumptions of physicality.
Roque Dalton, that great poet and cult figure, wrote that poetry, like bread, is for everyone. I truly want to believe that, though many seem either alienated or frustrated by poetry.
Aside from a poetry workshop at the Evanston Public Library, I have only taught basic college composition. Such a task requires that I teach students some basic rhetoric and push them to revise their essays until their work resembles something akin to college level English. There is no need for poetry in my lectures or assignments, yet it finds its way in. This is because I like poetry. I try to slip it in whenever possible, even when it serves little to no purpose.
Last April, National Poetry Month, I took the email addresses of willing students and sent them a poem a day for thirty days. I told them this was not anything they needed to know for class, but they should look at it as an online conversation about poetry. It is, I said, my mission to show people that poetry can be fun and interesting. One student asked me why he needed to read poems for a comp class. A fair question. Well, I asked, why not? His answer was long and rambling but here’s the gist: poetry is an elitist, antiquated art with little appeal to the average reader outside of grad school.
So let’s address this. Yes, poetry can seem an elitist art form, what with its insular groups gathering at readings; yes it can intimidate, what with those seemingly arbitrary line breaks and metaphors; yes it can seem a bit antiquated, especially when it rhymes, but really have we come so far that we no longer need poetry? Maybe we don’t need it for a comp class, or a science class for that matter, though I might respond to such allegations with examples from the metaphysical poets, whose argument and response poems provide some of the finest examples of how to persuade. To the science student: read Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” and then let’s talk.
Okay, maybe not everyone is eager to read Old Uncle Walt, and I don’t pretend that my love of poetry makes me anything special, but I do want to believe Dalton was right. Agreeing for a minute that poetry is like bread—for everyone—then why shouldn’t there be all sorts of breads? And there are. Rye, white, wheat, sourdough… certainly a bread exists to cover all tastes. So why shouldn’t poetry, equally as varied, appeal to all readers?
I tried to introduce my students to poems that I thought they would enjoy, and I encouraged them to share poems with me. Subsequently, I have read much of the poetry of Tupac Shakur, but I have also gotten positive feedback on the Langston Hughes, Mina Loy, and Yehuda Amachai poems I emailed. Overall, I felt the poem-a-day project was a success, though I am sure no one liked every poem I sent. Regardless of the small efforts I make, it seems that there’s a lot of hostility against poetry. Conversely, there is no shortage of arrogance from some of the people I meet who claim to either love poetry, write it, or both. They are happy to be part of the exclusive clique. So is it any surprise that my students, as well as some of my family, friends, and many of my enemies, are less given to reading poems?
My goal of starting a larger conversation about poetry—the way it can uplift, inspire, amuse, annoy, and perhaps alter one’s life—seems noble to me, though I may too be in that arrogant, elitist camp without realizing it. If so: so be it. I’ll live with such charges. Nevertheless, look for my daily email (those interested) next April. Maybe I can convince a few more students that a poem is not a puzzle, an assignment, a headache, a chore, or an enemy.
Books, Crooks and Counselors: How to Write Accurately About Criminal Law and Courtroom Procedure is a new offering from attorney Leslie Budewitz that seeks to help writers more accurately portray criminal proceedings. The first fifty pages, available for a free look on Amazon, are pretty good. The need for such guides is great.
Many lawyers are failed writers, but many writers fail as fictional lawyers. Authors love to write courtroom scenes, and they can't resist legal twists and turns. The appeals are several: conflict between parties; the vagaries of an arcane system; and suspense leading up to a definitive climax, to name a few. Unfortunately, even great writers often do a lousy job.
For instance, Adam Haslett, whose wonderful first book of short stories, You Are Not A Stranger Here, was a finalist for the Pulitzer and National Book Awards, focuses on legal proceedings in his novel Union Atlantic. A now-older granddaughter, Charlotte, files a “petition” pro se -- i.e., without a lawyer -- asking for the return of real estate that her Massachussets town sold to a third party in violation of rules set up by her grandfather, who donated the land. Normally, pursuant to the rule against perpetuities, such restrictions expire after thirty years. At a “hearing,” Charlotte, secures a stunning victory by announcing that her grandfather had formed a charity, deeded the land to the charity, and that the rule against perpetuities doesn’t apply to charities. The judge immediately rules in her favor.
The reasons this would never happen are many, including basic matters of procedure. Charlotte filed the petition on behalf of herself, so it doesn’t matter what the charity is entitled to, it’s not a party to the litigation. Moreover, an organization cannot proceed pro se. See, for example Varney Enters., Inc. v. WMF, Inc., 402 Mass. 79 (1988). And the rule applies to nonprofits: Brattman v. Sec’y of the Commonwealth, 421 Mass. 508 (1995).
The legal plot further loses credibility when the order gets reversed "on appeal" based on new documents detailing the charity’s lack of compliance with various regulations that the third-party buyer has stolen from Charlotte. First, appeals are generally limited to the record on appeal. Second, the buyer would be entitled to those documents through discovery, highlighting the novel's inaccurate portrayl of legitimate trial proceedings. And I could go on.
The amazing thing is that Haslett graduated from Yale Law School! He apparently never practiced, so it just shows that a little knowledge can be dangerous.
So read Budewitz’s book, or pick up some nutshells. And keep in mind two bits of advice (which Haslett could’ve used). First, spend the time to get the procedure realistic. Make sure you have the right parties in the right court. It’s boring stuff, but lawyers will notice if you mess it up. And second, be wary of the “gotcha” moment. It rarely happens. But if you dare, make doubly sure to follow the first point.
Every moment, the world is growing smaller. There are no lands left unmapped, no peoples undiscovered, no businesses left un-yelped. When I do find a store with fewer than three Yelp! reviews, I find it endearing as a result. Cyber indifference is the last frontier.
When driving home from a wedding in Indiana Amish country, my girlfriend and I stopped in South Bend, home to Notre Dame University, to find a good bookstore and see The Word of Life mural, better known as “Touchdown Jesus” (her idea; she’s a keeper). Not knowing where to turn for bookstores beyond the campus store, I turned to Yelp!. There were two or three stores in downtown South Bend that looked promising, but they were all closed on Sunday morning. The only store open to us that day, Pandora’s Books, boasted a single review, and let’s just say it was not most flattering Yelp! review I had ever read. But it was a voice in the wilderness.
Approaching Pandora’s by car, the lone reviewer’s complaints of an odd neighborhood seemed unfounded. Pandora’s is located in that strange place found in all college towns: the place where academics and real people try to live together in harmony. There were brick homes with ivy-colored walls on one side of the street, and houses with vinyl siding and satellite dishes in the front yards on the other, but there was more charm than oddity.
The foyer of Pandora’s was littered with Barnes and Noble boxes over-filled with un-marked manila envelopes. Upon entrance, we were met by a big, beautiful, barking golden retriever. We were the only customers, and the single Sunday morning employee calmed the dog’s barking quickly. He plays hide and seek with Shadow, he told us, who barked at us because we had hidden poorly. He cheerfully inquired if we were looking for some particular title. When we told him that we were just browsing, he replied with an irony-free “Right on.” See what I mean? Endearing.
Pandora’s possessed an odor unlike any other I’d smelled in a bookstore. The closest I came to finding a match is the smell of the workshop at the nursery of a family friend. As a child, my sister and I would accompany our parents to find flowers on Saturday mornings. At the end of each trip, we would go into the office to pay. The office was a small, cinderblock building with small windows and no air conditioning. There were pesticides and fertilizers on the shelves, but the smell I recognized at Pandora’s came from the earthy smell of damp soil. It’s the smell of new growth and discovery. It is not the smell of a bookstore, but perhaps it should be.
Like the shelves at Morris Clint’s nursery, the bookcases at Pandora were made of cinder blocks and plywood planks. There were more used Bibles than I had ever seen gathered in one place - clearly the used book depot of a Roman Catholic university town. The theology section rivaled the literature section in both depth and breadth. The poetry section housed a copy of Modern Greek Poetry and a 20-year-old boom box blaring classic rock. We heard The Shondells’ version of “Mony, Mony,” and The Police’s “Spirits in a Material World.” Right on indeed.
Despite finding a neurology coloring book and a velvet, black light crucifix (which, in retrospect, was probably not for sale), I did not purchase anything from Pandora’s. There was a name-your-own-price table, but most of the items on it were various takes on Rudy, which I already own on VHS. I would have liked to support Pandora’s, but by the end of my visit, I had the sense that it exists for reasons larger than my checking account.
Amanda Knox, the American student accused of murder in Italy whose trial and appeal have gripped both sides of the Atlantic - or so I've read - was recently freed after an Italian appellate court overturned her conviction. This could either drive up sales or immediately outdate the numerous books already published about the case, including The Fatal Gift of Beauty: The Trials of Amanda Knox, Murder in Italy: The Shocking Slaying of a British Student, the Accused American Girl, and an International Scandal, The Amanda Knox Story: A Murder in Perugia, not to mention this one, this one, this one, this one, and this one. Okay, can I stop now? That's an impressive array of sensational titles less than two-years since the verdict.
At least these books waited for the sentencing, if not the appeal. Today was supposed to be the sentencing of former Governor Rod Blagojevich, but last week that hearing was delayed. Of course, the postponement (or even the trial) didn't delay publication of the Governor's own memoir - or this biography.
The problem with these quick-fire books is that there is no "getting to the truth" of a trial. There is rarely any "untold story." In this era of the twenty-four hour news cycle, there is nothing to glean from a current book that wasn't already disclosed in media coverage. Anyone who reads one of these books likely has decided on guilt or innocence, although people do love to read material that confirms their existing beliefs.
Much more intriguing are studies of long ago legal proceedings, including new entries regarding Chicago trials. One book analyzes the trial following the Haymarket incident in 1886, in which eight policemen and four civilians were killed after a bomb was thrown during a workers’ rally. Another comes from the attorney (and retired judge) who defended John Wayne Gacy, the "Killer Clown," who was convicted of murdering thirty-three boys between 1972 and 1978. A good read from earlier this year is Deborah Lipstadt's examination of the Adolf Eichmann trial.
Such books explore how trials reveal and possibly change society, not to mention the people involved. They allow us to compare our justice system and understanding of fairness to those of other times and places. A good work of legal non-fiction does not dispense with the question of guilt -- what good would that be -- and can look at the evidence, included in the trial or not, perhaps subsequently discovered, with a new lens and historical perspective. But a book that claims to contain the truth about a recent trial is, as a lawyer might say, simply not credible.
It’s a good feeling, knowing exactly what you want and exactly where to find it. It’s satisfying to know that you can walk into a store and ignore all of the things that some other sucker will get tricked into buying. For weeks, I’d been reading reviews of Chad Harbach’s first novel, The Art of Fielding, and I knew that I wanted it. Giddy with anticipation, I decided I wouldn’t take any chances on an independent bookseller’s quixotic taste for what promised to be an exciting read. This was a job for Barnes and Noble.
You may not know, but Barnes and Noble allows its customers to browse its shelves without even walking through its doors - pretty handy if you’re the sort of person who likes to avoid such rigors as driving, looking both ways to cross the street, or putting on pants. All that’s required of the customer is a visit to the B&N website, a search by title, author name or keyword, and a zip code. With that information, the B&N customer is given a list of stores within a preset radius and an option to reserve the book if it’s in stock or a big, red OUT OF STOCK notification if it is, in fact, out of stock. As fate would have it, my local B&N had sold all their copies of Mr. Harbach’s novel.
Undaunted, I checked daily, hourly even. I imagine that I was more concerned with this B&N’s inventory than even its most diligent store manager. I was singular in my determination. Days the length of years passed. Finally, a truck carrying the book I yearned for arrived at the loading dock. I reserved my copy to be held at the counter for 48 hours and registered to be alerted by text message and email when the book had been placed safely behind the counter. 30 minutes, a nearly simultaneous ring, flash, and buzz later, my cell phone and computer screen confirmed that my copy of The Art of Fielding had been removed from the conspicuous "New in Hardcover" table - like a puppy pulled from the cage at the animal shelter - and set apart for me to take it home.
After work, I strolled, brimming with confidence, to the bookstore. I met a friend in the street whose love of books and baseball drew her to the title, too, and I bragged of my imminent purchase. I left her jealous and hummed the final bars of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" as I strode up to the doors. I stepped around the "Nook" display at the store’s entrance and ignored the salesman who refused to see that I was indifferent to his digital wares. "I’m here for your dead trees and ink, good sir. You need not waste your breath on me." There it was on the "New Arrivals" table: white lettering on royal blue background. Simple, elegant, and nearly mine.
Not wishing to appear overzealous, I wandered the aisles of the store as if contemplating an additional purchase. Amidst works of fiction, I discovered a table marked “Thought provoking…” Still basking in the glow of my acquisition, I chuckled to myself as I picked up a copy of Ted, White, and Blue, Ted Nugent’s bestselling “Nugent Manifesto.” Thought provoking, indeed. "Enough," I said aloud as I sauntered to the front of the store, startling the bookwormish undergraduate hunched over the "Local Authors" table. En route, I encountered the "Featured Authors" table, piled high with the work of Chelsea Handler, with whom I am only lately familiar. As I passed a "Beatles" table, I nearly gave into the urgent and hitherto latent desire for a Yellow Submarine lunchbox. Invited to approach the counter at last, I informed my summoner that he was caretaker to an item that I wished to purchase (at the discounted online price and the additional ten percent discount afforded B&N members).
Leaving the store, the magic dissipated. The book was mine now. I had employed little energy or ingenuity obtaining it. I knew precisely what I wanted and where to get it. A satisfying experience indeed, but a safe satisfaction that did not contain the romance and delight of discovering something unexpected. I’m sure I’ll read The Art of Fielding, and I’m sure I’ll find it at least as thought provoking as Ted, White, and Blue. But for now, it sits on my nightstand, waiting to shake the weight of "New Arrival" status.
October is Chicago Artists Month, a city-wide collaboration coordinated by the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events. During this month, the Borderbend Arts Collective sponsors the Chicago Calling Arts Festival, which kicks off tonight with “Bicycles and the Arts,” at Chicago Hot Glass. Tomorrow, October 1, at 4:00 pm the Chicago Scratch Orchestra performs for the “Airplay” show on WNUR, broadcast from Northwestern University’s Evanston campus. Chicago Calling continues through October 16.
Another free event is this weekend’s Ravenswood Artwalk, with a street fair, film events, presentations, and over forty artists’ studios open to the public. The Montrose brown line stop leads directly to the street fair. The festival extends on Ravenswood Avenue from Addison Street to Lawrence Avenue.
Stay tuned for a new TriQuarterly Online blog format. Starting Monday, October 3, we will feature five new bloggers from Northwestern’s MA/MFA program. I'll be reading along with you.
Rainy Night (1912), by William Edouard Scott [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Scott (1884-1964) studied at the Art Institute of Chicago.
This last week of September is Banned Books Week, an annual event in which libraries, bookstores, and news media celebrate freedom to read. According to the American Library Association:
Intellectual freedom—the freedom to access information and express ideas, even if the information and ideas might be considered unorthodox or unpopular—provides the foundation for Banned Books Week. BBW stresses the importance of ensuring the availability of unorthodox or unpopular viewpoints for all who wish to read and access them.
I blogged previously about the most-challenged books of 2010. This week, banned or challenged authors speak out in the Los Angeles Review of Books Blog. Today’s essay is by children’s book author Susan Patron. She asks authors to consider their own possible contribution to banning, by self-censorship. She writes:
Do we writers confuse our job with that of teachers, religious leaders, parents? Their job is to set examples, establish limits and rules, teach good manners, pass along moral values, exercise sound judgment, and model appropriate behavior for children to imitate. The job of writers and other artists is to prod and poke, to provoke questions, to challenge assumptions, to lift that corner of the rug and give readers a look at what’s been swept underneath. Our job is to respect readers of any age, which means to be honest with them.
This year’s Banned Books Week features a Virtual Read-Out, in which anyone can upload or watch 2-minute videos of readers of all ages reading from banned or challenged books on a dedicated Youtube channel. The message is irrefutable: Read what you want, all you can, and write what you need to write.
I’m still puzzling over the new Facebook design. Others have written plenty about the pros and cons of the new format. Here’s an article by Vadim Lavrusik, the journalist program manager at Facebook, that explains how journalists can get the most out of the new tools. I almost stopped reading when he suggested that Facebook can create “an authentic identity that has been molded over time through life experiences, personal interests, and the people we share our lives with.” Authentic? I guess Cheez Whiz is authentic Cheez Whiz. I’m annoyed but resigned to having to learn how to use the new gimmicks and setting up lists and so forth. Just as soon as I find time.
Twitter is also a mixed bag of time wasters and meaningful information. Scrolling through my feed this morning, I noticed this link to a list of “50 addictive Twitter feeds for bookworms.” The article lists popular authors, book lovers, and news sources about books that can help you find something interesting to follow. If your goal is to garner and maintain your own followers, here’s an article about how to reduce the chances of being unfollowed.
For another sort of online community, a new online bookstore, The Lit Pub, aims to fulfill the functions of a local bookseller: curating the inventory, providing a community among customers, and supporting independent presses. The founder, Molly Gaudry, doesn’t rule out expanding into a brick-and-mortar location at some point. How retro!
A recent Harris Poll says that people who own e-readers buy more books, whether print or electronic. I don’t think the study compares the same consumers before and after buying e-readers, so it seems possible that the e-reading group are predisposed to more reading regardless of medium. The poll breaks down book-buying habits by genre and by age group and has some interesting data. I don’t think we need another survey to tell us that electronic media are here to stay and successful publishers will have to adapt and innovate.
Libraries have been lending e-readers and e-books for some time now, and with some controversy. I mentioned previously that HarperCollins is imposing limits on the number of times an e-book can be borrowed under one paid license. This week’s news is that the Kindle now provides a free platform for borrowing library books. Just go to your local library website, select the book, and direct it to your Amazon account, then download the book for a two-week loan. You can save your margin notes and highlights should you re-borrow or purchase the book in the future.
How much are you reading online? E-reader or tablet computer? Lately I’ve been getting used to the smaller screen on my smartphone and carrying just that. Well, and maybe also a glossy magazine or two. And a writing/sketching journal. And a selection of pens. And notecards. . . .