Falling in Love

A couple times in my life I’ve avoided falling in love. The first time I was aware of doing it was in 1985, which was a watershed kind of year for me: I had a breast cancer scare (that turned out to be benign); My father went into a steep decline and died; A six-year long relationship finally crashed and burned; I met the Mathematician; I started field work for my doctoral dissertation; and I saw a movie that I tried not to see.

The Eric Garden was a tiny theater on Nassau Street in Princeton, just across from the university. I didn’t often have money or time for the movies, but then one day I saw a new movie poster to the left of the ticket booth.  Recall that this was long before you could google a movie trailer to see what it was about, so the poster was all I had, but on that basis it was clear to me that this was a movie I would adore.

Look at it, this object of my reluctant admiration. I still get a flush when I see it, all these years later.

The odd part: I simply could not make myself buy a ticket and go inside. I waited until the last day of its run, and then, sure enough, I was very put out with myself for waiting.  I would have happily bought another twenty tickets and seen it twenty more times. Assuming of course my graduate school budget had stretched so far. Because I waited, it was a couple years before I could see it again, but I thought about it, a lot. 

So now this phenomenon has repeated itself, but this time with a novel. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society came out in 2009 so it has been about eight years that I’ve successfully avoided reading it. I somehow knew that I would love it, and so I stayed away from it. 

I’m here to confess that again, I was wrong to wait. I just finished it, at 2 a.m., and I’m kicking myself because now I know that The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is one of those novels that I will re-read every year. I’ll start feeling lonely for it first. Then the story will keep intruding into whatever I’m thinking about until I  give in, sit down and read it again. There are maybe six novels and just as many movies that have this ability to kidnap my attention.  

As I just finished reading this novel, I need to think about it for a while before I’ll be able to put into words why I like it as much as I do. Of course that will mean reading it again. Once or twice, at least.

perfect working chair: found and lost

This post is 2 years old.

intrsthl_mtos_02__16348.1405436448.500.500I’ve been looking for something like this for last last five years, at least. Ergonomic, adjustable to the nth degree, a built in, well design laptop arm. Expensive, but not completely in the stratosphere. This is the Interstuhl Mitos Mobile MS 14. And it’s nowhere to be found in this country, as far as I can tell. It may not even be in production any more.

Back to the drawing board.

 

writer’s remorse, regrets, satisfactions

This post is 8 years old.

Your questions, my answers (these all kind of fit together, which is why I’m handling them as a group):

Kelly D:

Of your published work, is there any writing that you wish you could take back and rewrite…anything that makes you cringe now?

mrs mj:

Who, of the characters that you’ve written, is your favorite?

carolynvt

Are there any characters in the Wilderness series that you have killed off and then wished you hadn’t because they would have fit in really well in one of the later books? I don’t have any particular person(s) in mind, I just wonder if it is common for Authors to ever think, “Darn, I should not have killed off so-and-so because they would have tied in perfectly with this storyline.”

My sense is that published authors always have regrets. I suspect that few of us ever sit down to read (or listen to) earlier work, unless there’s some compelling reason. On a couple occasions I’ve had to read from an older book, and two things are always true. First, I’ll find something I don’t like, sometimes something that makes me cringe; second, I’m usually relieved that it isn’t worse. Once in a while I’ll be pleased with a turn of phrase, or happy that the scene flows the way I wanted it to.

In my case, my regrets are always about wording or phrasing. I can’t remember ever regretting a plot turn. Which brings me to the question about killing off characters.

It’s really hard to explain this without sounding silly or melodramatic, but here it is: Characters decide for themselves when they’ve had enough. And probably for that reason, I’ve never looked back. I can’t remember ever feeling the lack of somebody who has moved on.  See? I told you it would sound odd.

As for favorite characters: I have many of them. Some are more persistent than others — a few from Homestead still make themselves heard now and then. It would be easier to name characters I never much liked. But I’ll let you guess. Except, don’t guess Jemima, or Julian. Because you’d be wrong. There are other characters I liked much less.

five things you can do to support your favorite authors: new & improved!

This post is 9 years old.

Talk to people about YFA’s newest book, let them know why you like it; mention it at dinner with cousin Trudy or in an email to a friend you think might like it. And if you have no friends who fall into this category, consider that you might need to get out more.

The next time you are in a bookstore, ask for YFA’s newest book, and also for one of his or her backlist. If they don’t have it, look surprised. If they volunteer to special order it, say, thank you, but (a) I saw a pile of them at B&N or (b) I’ll get it from Amazon.

Every once in a while, buy one of YFA’s books new. If you have Joe Morgenstein’s fifteen volume series of novels about a pirate with a weakness for high heels, but you got them all used, then consider buying volume sixteen, Manolo Masquerade, new. Because used books don’t really help YFA out much.

If you visit the author’s website or weblog, look for clickables. You know, “digg this” or “stumbled upon” or “technorati favorites” or “email this to a friend”- and click ’em – in moderation, but do click. Think of it as a thumbs up, much appreciated by YFA.

Concise Amazon reviews that provide balance Maybe not so much in terms of actual sales, but they do a lot to dispel that feeling that you’re shouting into an empty room.

Let’s turn this around

Edited to reformat and reformulate::

Let’s take for granted that you want a good story, plot, characters, and all that. What else makes the experience of reading a novel or a body of work more enjoyable or interesting? You can pick all or none of 1-13, or tell me to mind my own business with 14. If there’s something you’d like to suggest, please mention it in the comments. (if you don’t see the poll, hold on; I’m tinkering).

Well, shoot. The polling plugin isn’t working with the new version of WordPress, so I’ll have to do this the old fashioned way. Here’s a list of things you might like or dislike. If you are so inclined, could you tell me which ones appeal to you?

  1. maps (somewhere inside the book)
  2. illustrations (other than maps)
  3. a note from the author about how the book came to be
  4. a note from the author on the research (if there was any)
  5. suggestions for further reading that’s relevant to the book’s theme or setting
  6. a cast of characters list
  7. footnotes (this has been done in novels, specifically in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, for example)

more specifically to the author, are these things you’d rather have, or not have

  1. an author website
  2. an author weblog that is regularly updated
  3. a discussion forum maintained by the author
  4. discussion forum, but it can be anywhere and the author doesn’t need to be present
  5. author biography
  6. photographs
  7. book recommendations and reviews
  8. writing tips and exercises
  9. interviews with other authors
  10. giveaways/contests

Use the comments to tell me what you think, okay? This would be a help to me — and other authors, too.

what you should know about anonymity: yours, mine and ours (in which I admit: I review for PW)

This post is 9 years old.

The internet is a wondrous thing. It brings together people from all over the world to discuss and share the things they love: Stamp collecting, horse breeding, politics, antique electric fuses, baseball, the perfect martini, hedgehogs, Sanskrit, Buddhism. It’s hard to imagine a topic that’s not represented someplace, and this is only one facet of the whole enterprise. Sales, marketing, corporate branding, all that has been turned on its head. Banking, investing, selling or buying property — all revolutionized for the consumer’s ease.

And then there are the personal weblogs. People who keep journals about their daily lives for the sake of friends and family. People who start a weblog to keep track of a pregnancy, losing weight, learning a language, battling cancer, organizing a bridge club, caring for a parent with Alzheimers, looking for a job.

The internet is also a free-for-all, a megaphone for every cause, worthy or fabricated. It’s a way to reach out and touch, or reach out and punch neatly on the nose.

I mostly stick to the publishing/reading/book-ish part of the internet. Weblogs by authors and writers, weblogs for readers of a dozen different kinds, review weblogs. Booksellers. Book group organizers. Weblogs by agents and editors. Big name review venues, and teeny little weblogs. Some of them anonymous.

Anonymity is an issue that people talk about a lot, and that they will continue to talk about because there’s a difference of opinion that can’t be resolved. Four years ago Amazon’s lackadaisical anonymous review policy finally backfired and the result was a first page article in the New York Times. Laura Lippman’s concise overview of the whole debacle came down to this:

Why does Amazon allow anonymous reviews at all, especially when there have been numerous reports of vendettas bordering on actionable libel? Legal issues aside, it’s just darn strange as a business practice — and saying the reviews are “popular” is a weak defense. The Paris Hilton video was popular, and Amazon didn’t make that available for downloads. Can you envision any independent bookstore, or Barnes & Noble, handing out Post-its to customers and encouraging them to affix their scrawled thoughts to volumes? Imagine going into a bookstore and seeing little yellow squares stuck to Huckleberry Finn (“An erotic masterpiece,” LF in Montana), Portnoy’s Complaint (“Don’t shake hands with this author” — A reader from Central Park South) and the latest Atkins diet. (“He’s dead, but it might work for you.” Hizzoner, Gracie Mansion) Look, I sign my reviews and I think other people should, too.

In the end Amazon did change its review policy, and my guess is it had more to do with the issue of actionable libel than anything else.

The question of anonymous reviews predates the internet, of course. Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly, for example, both publish reviews anonymously. The idea, it seems, is that they want a uniformity of tone and approach, an argument that many people don’t find convincing. Quinn Dalton’s essay on this topic demonstrates how destructive one anonymous review from a respected source can be.

Anonymity means the reviewer has nothing to lose by writing a negative review, and nothing to gain by writing a positive one. Fair enough. But anonymity doesn’t remove personal bias on the part of the reviewer—for or against certain authors, or certain types of books. It just cloaks bias behind a brand name, and is therefore untraceable for librarians and booksellers and the authors whose careers suffer or are nurtured as a result.

I have had my share of mean-spirited reviews, some from Kirkus, some from Publishers Weekly, and more than a few from anonymous Amazon customer reviewers. I’m not talking about negative reviews, which any reasonable author expects and will learn from. I’m talking about the nasty stuff. But I think it was Dalton’s article — read some years ago for the first time — that made me want to pursue the subject.

I do some reviewing myself, right here, but I also write reviews for Publishers Weekly. Anonymous reviews, because that’s the way they do it. I’ve been writing PW reviews for about a year now, two or three a month. I started because I wanted to understand the process from the other side and then I found I started looking forward to what might show up next for me to read. I have never been sent a book by anyone I know personally, or by any author I strongly dislike. I’ve seen a few big names, but more usually novels of authors who are just starting out. Here’s something that may surprise you: even if I wanted to get up to anonymous mischief, I couldn’t. The editors do their job. They make sure that the PW style is maintained and word count is observed. They’ve got procedures in place to make sure I read the book I’m reviewing. Most of all, they stand there ready to step on any excess of negativity. Sometimes I think they are too quick with that, but hey, I’m only the reviewer and let me assure you: I’m not doing this for the money, which is negligible. I do it for the perspective. Last year I asked the editor where he had been when PW’s review of my (I think it was) Lake in the Clouds came out with the never -to-be forgot line color by number cartoon caricatures. “Before my time,” he wrote back. I like the two editors, both male, even when I don’t agree with their decisions about my copy. Because my name isn’t on it, I can live with the changes. Usually.

From this angle, it seems to me that it’s sensible to distinguish between anonymous reviews that are vetted by editors, and those that aren’t. Kirkus and PW might get it wrong; off track, mean spirited, even petty. But the anonymity is only one layer deep. There is always an editor there in front of the anonymous reviewer, and a publisher in front of the editor. There are responsible parties.

There is no depth to an anonymous weblog, no responsible parties at any level. For a certain amount of money, you can cloak your personal information so that even the ownership of the web address remains hidden. And then there are different kinds and degrees of anonymity. I’ve only ever found one list, from back in 2003 (via Joho):

  • Hiding all biographical facts but using your real name (= shy blogger or professional journalist blogger)
  • Making up biographical facts using your real name (= liar blogger)
  • Making up biographical facts while using an obviously false name (= fictional blogger)
  • Telling the truth about biographical facts while using an obviously false name (= informant blogger)
  • Telling the truth about biographical facts while using a false name (= witness-protection blogger)
  • Hiring someone to boast about your life and sign it using your name (= CEO blogger)

Sometimes the reason for anonymity is clear and compelling. You don’t want to get fired, or make your spouse unhappy, for example. GetUpGrrl was one of my favorite weblogs of all time, smart and funny and important, too. Grrl documented her history with infertility treatment, right up to the point where her son was born to a surrogate. She remained anonymous, and in that case I don’t think anyone even thought of trying to out her, because she had the respect, admiration and good wishes of her readers.

But in many cases there seems no reasonable argument for anonymity. Lorelle the WordPress goddess has written at length about this:

You can stay anonymous by not clearly identifying exactly who you are, but help us to understand at least where you are coming from and why we should 1) care, 2) trust, and 3) read. If you are pontificating about the rain in Spain or number of terrorists inside of the United States, I will want to know how you know this and whether or not to take you seriously.

There are also compelling arguments against anonymous blogging at The Aardvark Speaks, and the more in-your-face position of The Gothamist:

Gothamist does not approve of anonymous blogging: We believe all bloggers should stand behind their posts with their real names. If you can’t do that, you shouldn’t be blogging.

But anonymous weblogs won’t go away. The Supreme Court has made it clear any number of times: anonymous speech falls under the First Amendment rights, and is protected. ((More detail on the legalities at The Electronic Frontier.)) So there’s no question of legality, unless the anonymous blogger causes real harm to someone else.

There are quite a few anonymous weblogs that focus on some aspect of reading or publishing fiction. Miss Snark — a literary agent — wrote a sharply entertaining weblog, where she was clearly trying to be helpful to people trying to get published — but the masses wanted to know who she was, and eventually she was identified as Janet Reid. At which point she stopped blogging, much to the dismay of her many readers.

I have been thinking about anonymous reviews for a long time (obviously, given my PW gig), and trying to sort out for myself whether they do what they set out to do. Which is? I hear you asking, quite rightly. And no, I’m not going to get into the sticky territory of defining the review in all its forms and approaches. But I can ask a different question instead:

Why anonymous review blogs? I can think of reasons that someone might want to be anonymous, but none of them are encouraging. Someone who has not been able to get their own books published, and has an axe to grind with the industry (and published authors); a person with conflicts of interest (such as the husband of the poet, at Foetry) ((I’ll tell this story in another post; a cautionary tale when it comes to anonymity)); a person who wants to be published someday and therefore couldn’t afford to offend people openly; somebody with strong opinions who likes to stir up controversy, but not be held responsible for it.

Are there any compelling arguments for this practice? I can’t think of one, but maybe you can.

Faulkner, pajamas, progress

This post is 9 years old.

I’m reading at Village Books here in Bellingham tomorrow night. Last week I sent out my usual email to friends asking them to try to stop by, and announcing my intention to wear pajamas to the reading. Thus far I have got promises from seven other people who will be showing up in jammies. So if you’re within striking distance, come on down. Treats for all those brave enough to dress up. Or, actually, down.

Yesterday our neighbor Bob (of X-Files fame) called me to read me an excerpt from an interview with William Faulkner. It’s the famous 1956 interview Faulkner did for the Paris Review. ((You can see the full archive listing on the Paris Review website, here but there’s only an excerpt from Faulkner’s.))

This was the bit that made Bob call me:

Q: Is there any possible formula to follow in order to be a good novelist?
Faulkner: Ninety-nine percent talent … Ninety-nine percent discipline … Ninety-nine percent work ….

And then this really made him laugh:

Q: Do you mean the writer should be completely ruthless?
Faulkner: …If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the “ode on a Grecian Urn” is worth any number of old ladies.”

[asa left]0312361750[/asa] They are publishing all the Paris Review author interviews, which are interesting reading. With a proviso: remember that these are critically successful writers, but each one of them struggled his or her way through every sentence ever put down. They had an approach that worked for them, and that’s all they can share. Though it may sound as if you’re being told how it must be done, please remember: there is no such thing. No absolutes, no secrets, no magic formulas. And probably not a good idea to rob your mother, either.

And all of this reminds me that I put in a revolving quote box in the far right hand column. I’ll be adding the 99% one of Faulkner’s to it asap.

I’m writing pretty well, and now I’ll go back to that.

PS don’t forget to vote in the caption-me poll!