Story Week at Columbia College, pt 2

Story WeekLast week I went to a few sessions at Columbia College’s festival for writers.  It was another generous time at what they called one of the largest free conferences for folks interested in writing and publishing.  Sadly, like good gatherings, it ended.

The last session I went to consisted of a panel–including two publishers, one editor, and two agents.  They talked for an hour about submissions, traditional and self-publishing, marketing, and voice.  They said a lot.  I wasn’t trying to write their comments or answers to questions, as much as I was taking them in.  Here are a few quotes were worth capturing from the panel:

There’s no threat of books and stories going away.  None.

…how it’s going to end up, I’m not too sure.

Publishing is the intersection between art and commerce.

No one place is central to the conversation.

There’s a really bright future.  For every book.

There were certainly less inspiring words.  But I’ll keep these and revisit them.  Perhaps you will too as you write, revise, and submit.

Validation, Human Desire, & Criticism

I saw part of this originally in a post by Rachel Held Evans.  Then I went back to the original post and found more to quote.

Validation is an interesting thing though, and no matter how strong or unphased by criticism we are, there is an undeniable human desire to have people like what we feel passionate about–our art, our words, our stories, our styles, our writing, our opinions.  It’s why we sometimes feel hesitant to publish or share.  What will people think?  

Let me answer that.  If you share, if you publish, if you write, if you speak, if you are brave and decide to put yourself out there, I promise you, someone won’t like it.  Someone won’t agree with you.  Someone will misinterpret.  Someone will think that you are silly, unqualified and that your work is crap.  That you are crap.  They might not just think it but they might tell you.  And that won’t feel good, especially not the first time you hear it.  But it is necessary.  And it’s okay.

My friend Melina is a fabulous writer.  She lives an adventurous life and writes riveting accounts of her excursions.  She is funny and witty and brave in her writing.  Sometimes I read her stories and think “I want to write like that.”  Her blog readership has understandably increased the last year and I wasn’t surprised when I recently received an e-mail from her–sister’s first really really nasty comment. Girlfriend took a punch to the gut, and I’m not going to lie–it was a doozy.  The commenter went for the jugular and beyond.  In summary, the comment wasted a lot of needless words to say “You. Are. Crap.”  And Melina’s e-mail to me went something like “I am shaking, I am pissed, I am processing this.”  And I shook my head and smiled and thought, “I get it, I get it, I get it.”  I promised her that she would grow confidence and understanding faster than a Chia Pet grows sprouts–that it was good and normal she felt this way and that this whole experience would help her own her words, her style, her work and be proud of it.  I told her that the hurtful words shared had nothing to do with Melina and everything to do with this commenter’s pain or insecurities or desire to do what Melina is doing.  Within two days, Melina was on a roll again.  Wrote a hilarious piece in response to that hurtful criticism and then moved on…fiercely.  She’s more confident in her writing–I can tell.

For me, receiving negative criticism has been an important tool in self awareness and owning my voice.  I’ve gone from believing what mean comments pointed out (I am a horrible person and I suck at writing), getting angry with the people who wrote them (You are a horrible person and you suck at leaving comments) and doubting if writing publicly was really something I wanted to do to a completely different place of understanding and compassion–both for myself and the people who are hurting enough to project it in a carefully crafted you-are-crapcomment.  I have a dear friend who has helped me with this.  She talks about pain–how we are all hurting–and she helps me see nastiness in the world as the need for more love.  Does that sound unicornish?  Maybe, but it has helped me move forward and embrace cutting comments both in and outside of this little Internet, as an opportunity to initiate more kindness.  We’ve all been there–the hurting one.

Read the full post by Kelle Hampton here.

Michael Bourne on the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference

Michael Bourne writes “Keeping the Faith: Ten Days at Bread Loaf” at The Millions.  Bread Loaf is a, perhaps, the premier writing conference in this country.  I’ve cut to the second half of Michael’s piece here:

What Bread Loaf offers is not just the opportunity to rub shoulders with eminent authors and publishing worthies, but a chance to do so at a time and place when their usually trip-wired bullshit detectors are disarmed. At book signings and public readings, authors are hawking a product; they’ll be nice to you, but only because they want you to buy their book. At Bread Loaf, a certain high-school cliquishness obtains — there are cool kids’ tables in the dining hall, and gossip abounds — but that can only go so far. I have read everything Samantha Chang has published, and like every other writer I know, I’ve lusted after getting into the Iowa MFA program she oversees, but at dinner we didn’t talk about any of that. We talked about mutual friends and our children. Justin Torres, likewise, may get his stories in The New Yorker and receive rave reviews on his first novel, We the Animals, but on one rainy night early in the conference he was just a guy needing to share my umbrella on the way to a reading.

The same applies to the publishing professionals, though the calculus is different. Agents and editors at Bread Loaf are quite explicitly there to do business. Each conference attendee can sign up for two private 15-minute meetings with an agent or editor, and an enterprising attendee can fit in four or five more by choosing the right seat at mealtimes or buttonholing an agent outside a Friday night dance. Most literary conferences offer similar access to publishing folk, but because of Bread Loaf’s reputation, attendees not only gain access to a slightly better cut of agents and editors, they also get the reflected glory of the Bread Loaf name.

This matters. As I wrote in a piece earlier this month, literary agents receive thousands, and in some cases, tens of thousands of query letters pitching unpublished books every year, and can take on only a handful of new writers. A conference like Bread Loaf serves a function much like a selective university does for job recruiters: it culls the untalented and unserious. The selection process is imperfect, of course, but when agents and editors sit down with writers at Bread Loaf they are free from the unspoken dictum of all publishing gatekeepers, which states that they can say no and be right 99 percent of the time. At Bread Loaf, as at other well-regarded conferences like SewaneeTin House, and Squaw Valley, publishing professionals can get out of the defensive crouch they typically adopt when talking with anyone trying to sell them a book idea and actually listen.

These are the practical reasons to attend a literary conference like Bread Loaf, and I would be lying if I said I didn’t consider them as I was writing that check for $2,725. (Yup, I applied for aid and didn’t get it.) As businesses go, publishing is a lousy one, but it is a business, and given a choice between sending my work in over the digital transom and spending a few grand on a writers’ conference where I can get the full attention of agents and editors, as well as smart feedback on my manuscript from the workshop, I’d write that check every time.

But writers’ conferences are about more than face-time with agents and sitting down to dinner with the poet laureate. I am a man who, like thousands of my fellow Americans, spends nearly all his free time on a pursuit that doesn’t pay and offers few plausible paths to fame or fortune. I’m 46 years old, sober, and hard-working, with more education than I know what to do with, yet I’ve never made more than $40,000 a year, and most years I make less. I don’t yearn for the return of the gold standard or believe in the divine rapture, but I think I have some insight into how those true-believers feel when their wives and husbands say, “That’s great that you’re going to save us from everlasting hellfire, honey, but right now I could use a little help with the groceries.”

But then I go to a place like Bread Loaf where everyone, even the most successful poets and writers, has sacrificed for his or her art, and I feel a little less crazy. Over the years, I’ve watched dozens of writers more talented than me quit the field. For some, the constant rejection wore them down, while others simply needed to make more money, but most of the time, I think, they quit because they stopped believing in themselves as writers and, absent that belief, writing poems and stories came to seem an indulgence they could no longer afford.

That’s why people like me go to conferences like Bread Loaf. Like most Americans, I live in a world that cannot see the point in work that doesn’t bring in money or instant prestige. I myself can’t see the point in work that doesn’t bring money or prestige, yet I keep doing it, day after day, year after year. At a place like Bread Loaf, I can see up close that people not all that different than me have turned this queer habit of mine into a job that gives them money and prestige. But — and this is the great secret — I also meet hundreds of other people just like me, who will never make money as writers, who will never win a Pulitzer Prize or be the poet laureate, but keep on writing because they love it. And, seeing them, I know I am not alone.

Read the rest of Michael Bourne’s article by clicking here.

Should I Write A Book?

Greg Hurwitz wrote a response to a friend who asked him his opinion about that friend writing a book.  Greg posted his answer for the rest of us.

Strung together journal entries won’t work. They might make for a blog, but not a book. To write a book you have to write a book that is clearly a book and adheres to all the conventions and requirements of being a book. This is a shit-ton of work and will take drafts and time and sweat and blood until it’s either good enough to submit or you give up. As one of my writer buddies says: One of these will happen first.

Helpful to think about it, isn’t it?  You should take a look at the entire post here.

Meg Wolitzer “On The Rules…”

Have you seen this essay, The Second Shelf, by Meg Wolitzer, over at the NYT?  You can read the entire essay by clicking here.

If “The Marriage Plot,” by Jeffrey Eugenides, had been written by a woman yet still had the same title and wedding ring on its cover, would it have received a great deal of serious literary attention? Or would this novel (which I loved) have been relegated to “Women’s Fiction,” that close-quartered lower shelf where books emphasizing relationships and the interior lives of women are often relegated? Certainly “The Marriage Plot,” Eugenides’s first novel since his Pulitzer Prize-winning “Middlesex,” was poised to receive tremendous literary interest regardless of subject matter, but the presence of a female protagonist, the gracefulness, the sometimes nostalgic tone and the relationship-heavy nature of the book only highlight the fact that many first-rate books by women and about women’s lives never find a way to escape “Women’s Fiction” and make the leap onto the upper shelf where certain books, most of them written by men (and, yes, some women — more about them later), are prominently displayed and admired.

This is a tricky subject. Bringing up the women’s question — I mean the women’s fiction question — is not unlike mentioning the national debt at a dinner party. Some people will get annoyed and insist it’s been talked about too much and inaccurately, and some will think it really matters. When I refer to so-called women’s fiction, I’m not applying the term the way it’s sometimes used: to describe a certain type of fast-reading novel, which sets its sights almost exclusively on women readers and might well find a big, ready-made audience. I’m referring to literature that happens to be written by women. But some people, especially some men, see most fiction by women as one soft, undifferentiated mass that has little to do with them.

Recently at a social gathering, when a guest found out I was a writer, he asked, “Would I have heard of you?” I dutifully told him my name — no recognition, fine, I’m not that famous — and then, at his request, I described my novels. “You know, contemporary, I guess,” I said. “Sometimes they’re about marriage. Families. Sex. Desire. Parents and children.” After a few uncomfortable moments he called his wife over, announcing that she, who “reads that kind of book,” was the one I ought to talk to. When I look back on that encounter, I see a lost opportunity. When someone asks, “Would I have heard of you?” many female novelists would be tempted to answer, “In a more just world.”

The truth is, women who write literary fiction frequently find themselves in an unjust world, even as young single women are outearning men in major American cities and higher education in the United States is skewing female. As VIDA, a women’s literary organization, showed in February in its second annual statistical roundup, women get shockingly short shrift as reviewers and reviewees in most prestigious publications. Of all the authors reviewed in the publications it tracked, nearly three-fourths were men. No wonder that when we talk about today’s leading novelists — the ones who generate heat and conversation and are read by both men and women — we are talking mostly about men.

Exploring Amazon, I came across a category called “Women’s Fiction” where I am listed, along with Jane Austen, Sophie Kinsella, Kathryn Stockett, Toni Morrison, Danielle Steel and Louisa May Alcott. (Needless to say, Amazon fits us into other categories as well.) If there is a stylistic or thematic link to be found among us, it’s hard to see. It should be noted that Amazon puts the occasional man in this category. Tom Perrotta is there, and so is Jonathan Franzen (albeit the Oprah’s Book Club edition of “Freedom”), which should provide yet more fodder for those who complain of his ubiquity. Both men write about relationships and also about suburbia; is that why they’re included?

Amazon is clearly trying to help readers find titles they want. But any lumping together of disparate writers by gender or perceived female subject matter separates the women from the men. And it subtly keeps female writers from finding a coed audience, not to mention from entering the larger, more influential playing field. It’s done all the time, and not just by strangers at parties or by various booksellers that have no trouble calling interesting, complex novels by women “Women’s Fiction,” as if men should have nothing to do with them. A writer’s own publisher can be part of a process of effective segregation and vague if unintentional put-down. Look at some of the jackets of novels by women. Laundry hanging on a line. A little girl in a field of wildflowers. A pair of shoes on a beach. An empty swing on the porch of an old yellow house.

Compare these with the typeface-only jacket of Chad Harbach’s novel, “The Art of Fielding,” or the jumbo lettering on “The Corrections.” Such covers, according to a book publicist I spoke to, tell the readers, “This book is an event.” Eugenides’s gold ring may appear to be an exception, though it has a geometric abstraction about it: the Möbius strip ring suggesting that an Escher-like, unsolvable puzzle lies within. The illustration might have been more conventional and included the slender fingers and wrist of a woman, had it not been designated a major literary undertaking.

I took semiotics back at Brown University in the same heyday of deconstruction in which Eugenides’s novel takes place (he and I were in a writing workshop together), but I don’t need to remember anything about signifiers to understand that just like the jumbo, block-lettered masculine typeface, feminine cover illustrations are code. Certain images, whether they summon a kind of Walker Evans poverty nostalgia or offer a glimpse into quilted domesticity, are geared toward women as strongly as an ad for “calcium plus D.” These covers might as well have a hex sign slapped on them, along with the words: “Stay away, men! Go read Cormac ­McCarthy instead!”

I sometimes wonder if book length, intentionally or inadvertently, signals to readers a novel’s supposed importance. Certain novelists who have achieved high literary profiles, like David Foster Wallace, Haruki Murakami and William T. Vollmann, have all published extremely long books — in the case of Wallace and Vollmann, over 1,000 pages. With some notable exceptions, women have not published many well-known doorstops since Doris Lessing’s “Golden Notebook.” As it happens, we live not only in the era of the abbreviated attention span, but also in the era of the book group, whose members often set a strict page limit. Yet does the marketplace subtly and paradoxically seem to whisper in some men’s ears, “Sure, buddy, run on as long as you like, just sit down and type out all your ideas about America” — what might in some extreme cases be titled “The Big Baggy Book of Me”? Do women reflexively edit themselves (or let themselves be edited) more severely, creating tight and shapely novels that readers and book groups will find approachable? Or do they simply not fetishize book length one way or the other? (And for that matter, would most long-form men say they were just letting content seek form?)

All this isn’t to say megabooks are necessarily better; in their prolixity perhaps it’s easier for them to in fact be worse. But they are certainly louder.

Over centuries, the broad literary brush strokes and the big-canvas page have belonged mostly to men, whereas “craft” had belonged to women, uncontested. It’s no wonder that the painted-egg precision of short stories allows reviewers to comfortably celebrate female accomplishment, even to celebrate it prominently in the case of Alice Munro. But generally speaking, a story collection is considered a quieter animal than a novel, and is tacitly judged in some quarters as the work of someone who lacks the sprawling confidence of a novelist.

My sense is that like most men, most women are writing at the length they want to write — but they’re not always getting the same reward. Men like Ian ­Mc­Ewan and Julian Barnes have written very short, highly regarded and widely read books in recent years. Yet if a woman writes something short these days, particularly if it’s about a woman, it risks being considered minor. (“Spare” is the oft-used word of faint praise.) Yet if, on the other hand, a woman writes a doorstop filled with free associations about life and love and childbirth and war, and jokes and recipes and maybe even a novel-within-a-novel, and anything else that will fit inside an endlessly elastic membrane, she risks being labeled undisciplined and self-indulgent.

Sure, Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall” is pretty massive, but I suspect that a historical work — one that teaches the reader about a subject (in this case a male one) — is considered more acceptable from a woman than, say, the kind of long “sensibility” novel written more frequently by men. Julia Glass, who won a National Book Award in 2002 for her novel “Three Junes,” said: “Many readers ask why I write so often from a male point of view. I have theories, but I don’t really know. I don’t game my books toward a male audience, and yet the point of view may help their reception. I think men are more accepting of my books than they would be if the points of view were always female.”

Characters matter to a great extent, and novels that involve parents and young children seem at first glance to be considered the potentially sentimental province of women. Except, of course, when those parents and children are male, as is the case in “The Road” and “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” both of which feature father-son duos and have been praised enthusiastically by men and women.

But some of the most acclaimed female novelists have written unapologetically and authoritatively about women. And the environment needs to be receptive to that authority, recognizing and celebrating it in order for it to catch. It seems no coincidence that some of the most esteemed women writing today — Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood, Doris Lessing, Marilynne Robinson — came to prominence at an unusual moment in time when the women’s movement could be felt everywhere. Stories, long and short, and often about women’s lives, suddenly mattered to the cultural conversation. This period, the 1970s and to an extent the early ’80s, initially appeared to create an entirely different and permanent reality for female fiction writers. Men were actively interested in reading about the inner lives of women (or maybe some just pretended they were) and received moral kudos for doing so. Whereas before that a lone woman might be allowed on the so-called men’s team, literary women began achieving critical mass and becoming more than anomalies. But though this wave of prominent authors helped the women who followed, as time passed it seemed harder for literary women to go the distance. As Katha Pollitt, the poet and literary critic, says: “I think there’s always space for a Toni Morrison or a Mary McCarthy, but only one of them at a time. For every one woman, there’s room for three men.”

Finish reading this essay by clicking here.