While I was there, I felt great. I felt special. I tweeted about it, and I’m still trying to reckon out how it works that I felt special–like I’m doing what I ought to be doing, unintimidated by the huge number of other writers, most of whom are far bigger deals than I am. I should’ve felt like an imposter, like I feel every time I sit down in front of a blank screen or page. I should’ve felt like there’s no hope for my success in this world. But I felt the precise opposite.
It was affirmative. Encouraging. And gave me more tools for moving forward, even though I failed to make as much use of the conference as I wanted to. As I should have.
My Brain Feels Mushy
And I want to take a nap. A two-day nap. I think I can manage a two-hour one sometime tomorrow.
The article inspired a lot of impassioned comments. Some of the commenters felt anger and annoyance. All directed at the guy who wrote the article. And I am really confused about how people could get so angry with Dwight Allen. He actually read SK’s books, a good number of them, and with thoughtful consideration to SK’s body of work, which I am mostly unwilling to do.
In the piece, he said, “Yes, I have read these books, and they are mostly without literary merit, but SK is the most famous-and-rich writer alive, and that’s really fine with me. But I become annoyed when he is awarded prestigious literary prizes, like the one for his contribution to American Letters in 2003, just because he’s a nice, liberal guy. Also, why do we choose to read this when there are so many better things to read.” That’s pure paraphrase. The article was wonderfully written, full of money vocab and openly a little snobby and pretentious. Go on, click the link.
But I get it. Because I think what’s going on here is that there’s a chasm between my sense of literary merit and that of the unwashed masses. We writers are a little bit uppity about our relationship with craft, and we have every right to be.
I mean, it’s simply not fair that people who write utterly un-extraordinary sentences, and sometimes people who write horrible books that are full of tropes, redundant phrases, flat characters, and totally predictable turns of plot get to do so and make money from it, while many more people who honor the craft are labeled snobs and relegated to academia or the reviewer’s circle.
Other commenters said, “But you’re wrong! SK does write literature!” He does not. It’s not a value judgement, it’s a fact. SK writes books that a lot of people like. That does not, as we know, literature make.
And that brings me round to the review of 50 Shades of Grey by EL James that I read (and shared on facebook) yesterday by PhD candidate Alison Balakskovits in The Missouri Review, a literary journal. And after my inital twinge of “OMG, why the hell are they talking about that turd in a literary journal or even on its blog,” I read the article. I was deeply amused.
And the Facebook comments on that review were mostly “Yeah!” and “I’ll never read that shit!” And I’m glad my friends feel that way. But the only difference between EL James’s contemporaries and SK’s is that SK got started when there were still gatekeepers, and when books meant something more than money to publishers.
Though it’s a stretch to slide SK and EL James in the same file, it is a much grander stretch to file SK and say, Joan Didion together.
And I was thinking before that maybe the problem is the labels we put on books: that genre labels are unhelpful.
And I still think they are, perhaps, part of the problem; though I recognize the need for some finer classification than just Fiction and Nonfiction, because the shades of variation of each are greater than fifty to be sure.
And I was thinking that if we could just get more smart books and writing in front of more people, change the perception of “literary” that inspires fear and angst in the hearts of previously-tortured high school English students, that’d be terrific. People would read them and see, and smart books could enjoy at least equal market share. And I still think that’s true, too. I think a lot of the reason that high school kids hate literature is that they’re not yet mature enough to understand it.
I think maybe those people who teach classics in well-done, well-written comics are onto something.
But it occurred to me in this morning’s wee small hours, as I sort of talked myself through what I know of the history of literacy (which is admittedly little) that reading used to be a thing that rich people did. Poor people didn’t read. They didn’t know how, and they didn’t have time.
But it seems to me that the advent of books for mass-consumption in the US coincides nicely with the latest stages of the industrial revolution, with a kind of upward slope after WWII when attending school became compulsory for all US children of a particular age.
So now, 60-70 years in, we’re in a place where not only can everyone read, our educations are so diluted that we don’t even know what good reading is. We’re so ignorant on that topic that people actually read and enjoy! BS like 50 Shades of Grey. And worse, anybody thinks she can write a book!
I mean, I’ve read tons of books, and my canonical, classical reading repertoire is shit. And mine is loads better than a lot of people. I can at least say that I’ve read one or more works from all the major literary periods.
Not at all to vilify teachers and education, I’m beginning to think that the misfortune of literature is owing to the logistical problems with literacy and education for everybody and funding of it. Of course, I’m not proposing that we return to the class-determined education model. Certainly, I would be a laundress (though I do love doing laundry), but I’m suggesting that perhaps we ought to re-evaluate how we do book teachin’ at the primary and secondary levels.
Whenever I am not sure where to take my blog post for the day, I spend a few minutes with Twitter before getting out of bed.
This is one of the many things on my smartphone that make my job as a writer better, easier, or more efficient. This morning, my friend and former teacher Cathy Daytweeted about her female #amnoveling students being pissed about some things that were pointed out by a particular op-ed by Meg Wolitzer about women literary fiction writers, and differences between the ways books by men and women are publicized.
So of course, I Googled that shit right up.
And of course, it’s not shit at all.
It’s a beautiful essay. It’s a thing I love about the New York Times (And the L.A. Times), the writing is just gorgeous. There seems to be a pervasive notion among the newspaper set that the writing does not have to be good, it has to be fast. But it’s nice about the digital age: the writing can be. The web gives us our poorly-written, instantaneous news, and in the print media we can slow down a bit. Thanks, New York Times (and L.A. Times) for understanding that.
And as I read the beautiful piece that talks about literary fiction like it’s something people talk about, I got sad, because it’s true that in the literary fiction world, it does seem like people are talking about it. But even Jonathan Franzen’s popularity is nothing next to, say, Neil Gaiman’s or Stephen King’s or Norah Roberts’s or J.K. Rowling’s.
I was talking to Sari Wilson at The Wildcat Comic Con about how Literary Fiction is sort of atomized or ghettoized, and that there are all kinds of irritating preconceptions about it that are moshing around in the mass market. Sari Wilson, though also an educational writer and collaborator with her partner Josh Neufeld, who is a graphic novel artist and author, is a literary writer herself.
So I offer that the unceremonious labeling of literary fiction by women as “women’s fiction” is probably the action of someone who’s noticed this odd ghetto and wondered, from a book-sales (not academic) standpoint, what could be done about it.
Enter the clumsy semantic.
And Wolitzer observes, rightly, that it’s problematic. But she also acknowledges that women are the biggest consumers of fiction (all types), and that “as readers they are attentive and passionate.” My friends who write romances experience this generosity. Plus, they are superstars. Everyone in their world knows them.
But you know what about commercial fiction writers? Something HUGE that’s different from literary writers? They give back (to their fans). I’m not talking about giving readings at colleges and signing books or answering questions after, showing up at AWP (though the commercial fiction writers I know do that, too, only with a different conference). I’m talking about blogs–they do blog tours about their books, blog about their processes, their offices, their characters–they are active on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, etc.
It’s true that commercial fiction authors don’t often have mountains of undergraduate papers about killing the first buck to read, but they do often have other careers, children, partners, homes. And oh yeah: book deals. They’ve promised a publisher they can write four of them. In eighteen months.
Of course, writing literary fiction is totally different from writing commercial fiction in terms of time. Language does not make itself beautiful, and conflicts do not complicate or render themselves, and characters do not deepen without major intervention. Probably the average literary fiction novel is about two to five years in gestation.
What’s the deal?
The thing that defines what you think about the literary fiction world is where you sit in relation to it. If you are within it, there is nothing more important, even though the reading audience of literary fiction is much smaller than that of mainstream (or commercial or genre or whatever you will call it) fiction. I can’t find any hard numbers on this, but go to a book store, and compare the number of genre labeled shelves with the contemporary fiction shelf and you’ll see how it just can’t not be true.
But if you’re outside of lit fic, there’s nothing less important. It’s like this fuzzy blurb of hoity toity on the periphery of culture that the Amazon Bestseller list ignores, that the New York Times has a special bestseller list for, and that’s slowly getting smaller or getting absconded with by other genres.
For example, I read “Some Zombie Contingency Plans” by Kelly Link in an anthology of Zombie stories, fully expecting the poor writerly discipline I’ve grown accustomed to in commercial fiction, and was pleasantly surprised. I can see it anthologized like “Trauma Plate,” by Adam Johnson, because it’s doing a similar sort of cultural commentary thing. It’s asking why we value what we do, and when stuff is important, and maybe it’s even indicting the way we handle the mentally ill.
I wonder how many other little anecdotal literary stories and novels have been absorbed by the mainstream, that nobody in the literary world even knows about. In my experience, the literary world is incredibly insular. It, like its mainstream counterpart, posseses a great number of biases and misconceptions toward the mainstream literary world.
So we have a genre which is itself other, within which women’s fiction is acknowledged to be equal but is still other, and we wonder why people look poorly upon the academy which–as my friend Carolyn points out in the comments of my post about MFA vs. PhD–does within itself that which it proclaims to abhor.
I’m still concerned about literary fiction and I still think that something needs to be done to make it more visible to more people. But what I’m starting to think, as I read and study this topic is that–while marketing and publicity efforts would surely help, literary fiction authors need to help themselves.
Like Cathy Day and probably a small number of other literary authors have done, they need to figure out Twitter and Facebook and Blogging and build themselves a platform. I suspect that if they build it, their fans will find it. And that will happen without additional effort.
But somebody needs to figure out how to put it in terms that are adequately academic such that they take notice and actually do it. Jane Friedman’s blog is going a long way toward this end, but I don’t know if a blog is the medium that can get through to enough literary authors.
Maybe that’s the scholarly thing I’ll do for my MFA: Social Media for Very Brainy People Who’ve Written Beautiful Books and Are Perfectionists And Who Think Social Media Will Ruin Their Lives (and It Might, but More People Will Read Their Books).
It’s true of blogging, too. I decided about 2 months back that it was time to try to take this blog to the next level.
As I began to read about others’ ideas about blogging, things have more-or-less fallen into place.
Here are a few highlights of the things that have set the ball in motion for this blog, and for my future as a person who makes a living doing social media:
1. I finally focused. Not hyperfocus or microfocus, but I figured out what I write about most often, watched my hits by varying post types, and paid attention to tweets & retweets & comments.
2. I’ve got a schedule–sort of. A loose one anyhow. I (almost) always write for my blog first thing in the morning, and I post at least 5 days a week. I don’t find this to be terribly difficult, but some folks would and do. You do what works for you, okay?
3. I am a read like a crazy person–at least one blog post or resource a day. It’s paying off.
1. Reorganize and purge my categories and labels.
2. Get some material in he hopper for weeks I have big projects.
3. Post two reports for sale (hopefully by end of April): one on How to Start a writers’ group (post on the topic on Friday), and one on verb tenses. Both inexpensive and well worth it.
4. Figure out some kind of email subscription service (a la feedburner) and do a newsletter.
5. Post a survey. That’s next. If you read here regularly, or if you’re in new blog love, please take eight seconds to click your answer or write one. I don’t feel like I have to ask people to vote if they hate it, because haters like to hate.
279 Days to Overnight Success is an amazing resource. And it’s free. Read it. That’s all. Any type of blogger with any goals would benefit from the 12,000 words (which is not a huge time committment, either).
Stanford at Pushing Social writes a lot about how to use blogging to build your own business or brand. I find some of his tips to be too sales-y for me, but he is not over-the-top.
Penelope’s advice about blogging which was the first place I went. That was not–though I do love Penelope–100% all the best advice for me. You really have to find what works for you, what’ll make you feel like doing your blog. Now, I’d say about in the middle of my journey, I’m reaching a spot where I synthesize the voices I hear. Pluck some advice from one, and other advice from another.
My Name Is Not Bob is Robert Lee Brewer’s blog. RLB is an editor at Writer’s Digest which is a terrific publication. He writes about other stuff, too, but his thoughts about social media for writers tend to be more about sharing than about bossing you around. I dig that.
Copyblogger is more about the business of copywriting and web marketing. But they’ve got loads of free info on SEO and Keyword stuff that I’ve been meaning to get back to.
Brian A Klems is one of the bloggers and editors for Writer’s Digest. Most of the time I dislike his posts, but this one is truly excellent, and a pretty solid distillation of all the best blogging advice.
Resources for Writers, Novelists, Self-published, and Wannabes
A note here: You can tell when these various folks have done their due diligence about blogging and are doing it well. Reading at these sites–though they are not as universally well-blogged or well-designed as above, sometimes they didn’t have to because their readers came before their blogs–can be educational on the point of what looks most professional or badass.
Justine Musk writes about creativity and authorship and being a badass. I really dig her.
My friend Jamie writes about being an editor. She gives great tips about excellent stuff to read, writing pitfalls and grammar issues to avoid, and has a generally enjoyable voice & aesthetic.
Julianna Baggott’s blog is probably weighted heavily toward being more entertainment than advice, but she does have an advice to writers section that she updates whenever she posts on the topic. Always, the posts are beautifully written.
The Rumpus is great. I haven’t spent enough time there, but there’s a lot of entertaining, smart writing. Entertaining, smart writing is good stuff to know about if you wanna be a writer.
Kristen Lamb’s blog is all about writing and authorship. Her voice is also spunky and fun. My favorite thing she’s doing right now is her series of posts called “Don’t Eat the Butt!” It’s about bad–but prevalent–advice to writers and how to avoid being bogged down.
Tomorrow is the Weeks to Geek post. It’s going to be a little bit headier than you’re used to, but the whole component of the event that’s for librarians has gone–so far–unmentioned in the press & on this blog. And well, I’ve always been a softy for the underdog.
Here we go. Those of you on whom I bestow this award, your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to pass this award along to 15 other bloggers, and share 7 things about yourself that your readers may (or may not) know. You can read mine here.
A note about my awards: I am first awarding to people like me–or better than me, but not so much better than me that they won’t participate and re-award. These account for about half. I’m including Justine Musk in this category because I have a small suspicion that she would view this kind of thing as big fun, and participate to prove that she’s not too big time. The rest will be blogs I think it is essential for you to read, but by people or organizations who are so awesome that my blog is not even on their radar, or if it is, they are really freaking busy doing all the stuff that their big-time public lives allow or require of them, so they will probably not be paying this award forward.
I hereby award this Versatile Blogger Award to (drum roll):
1. Marc Schuster: Marc’s blog is informative and writerly. He tells good stories. Go forth, friends, and read him. And buy his books.
2. Becoming Cliche: This woman is really funny. And her blog is inspiring because she does, indeed, post every single day, and she uses strikethrough to great effect.
3. This is me not awarding to Solomonian, since she hasn’t posted since she got a job. But before she became employed, her blog posts were one of the joyful parts of my day.
4. Jamie Clarke Chavez is my newest cyber-acquaintance, and it turns out, we are the same person separated by about 1,000 miles and an undisclosed number of years. Seriously, why would you even ask? Jamie is wonderful, so much so I’m excited to meet her in person, and will travel to do so. So I’m hereby extending the scope of this blogging award to include exceptional social media cheerleading, friendship, and food love.
6. Justine Musk. This is the kind of blog I can get lost in for hours. Her writing is delicious and she is legitimately a generous soul topped with an excellent mind.
7. Penelope Trunk is inspiring and smart and obnoxious and she home schools her kids. I love her. I write about how much all the time. Doubt me? Go ahead, plug her into the search bar over there. She’s easily the most-linked person here.
8. Julianna Baggott is smart and incredibly prolific. She’s like 40, and she’s written 17 books, some of poetry, most novels. Her blog is lovely and she is so thoughtful & generous with her time and thoughts.
9. Jane Friedman‘s blog provides amazing insight into the publishing industry, what thinking people are saying about authorship, social media, new media, etc. She collects voices. My blog is not 100% off her radar, since she has published a couple of my posts on her blog, but she is really busy. And really inspiring in her ability to get stuff done.
10. Copy Blogger is a great place to learn how to do any and all of the following & more: market yourself as a writer, build a platform, use SEO, use social media, find copywriting work, etc, etc. Very helpful. Not maybe for all of you, but there’s a lot of stuff there that can be applicable to anybody using social media for business–not necessarily all writing projects & work.
It’s a little early for New Year’s thinking, but I find myself in a place of reflection, and with the desire to re-examine where I want to land. I’ve been doing some reading along these lines: things about how to run my freelance business better, how to get writing work from writing for free, etc.
In that vein, November 1st, an essay I wrote about my interview with Rosemary Wells will appear on Jane Friedman’s blog.
Jane Friedman is a giant in the industry I am trying to infiltrate as a freelance writer and writing teacher. I am both honored and excited to have the opportunity. Plus, she liked my essay. And said so. Both to me and to her audience.
I am also hoping, with my fingers crossed, and my eyes squeezed shut, and my spiritual observances made, that the essay yields an inquiry or two into my services as a writer.
One of the awesome things about being self employed is that I have total control over the focus of my business.
This same awesome thing can be hugely dangerous for a person like myself who has obsessive focus and drive, but can switch gears quickly and often, especially if something new is more interesting (or potentially more lucrative). For example: my present focus in writing is divided in three. I am doing some short stories, a novel, and some personal essays. I am thinking about learning graphic design. For a time, I was obsessively pursuing additional proofing and copy editing work. But the last two are not my passion. They are a distraction.
At the core of what I want to be now, and what I have always wanted to be, is a wordsmith tapping away at the keyboard for 8 hours a day (or more), journaling at the park while her kid plays, and 10-year-plan style, retreating to some secluded place in the summer for writing solace and fulfillment.
And on more levels than some other people with my same credentials, I am successful. But I’m not there yet.
So thank you, people who read this blog: those of you whom I know, whom I don’t know, whom I hope to someday know. Your consistent visits here encourage me on a daily basis. And any greater success I obtain will be yours, too. Since what I write doesn’t matter a lick without you who read.
And thank you, Jane Friedman, for lending me your audience.