Ernest Hemingway

jolt! wow! Jolt. wow. + Shakespeare, Hemingway and the Unibomber

It’s hard to concentrate on writing while the Mathematician is pacing, so I’ve tried to fix the formatting problems here. I had to start from scratch with a fluid template (if you don’t know what that is, never mind, really, the details are boring). What that means is, everybody should be able to see everything, both columns, and to resize your browser screen without losing anything. The screen cap to the left is what you should be seeing.

There is a style contest going on over at Movable Type, and the base template I am using was an entry there called Fleur.

Sorry to ask again for help, but could you let me know how this is showing up for you, and what browser you’re using?

And as a small offering, as I have nothing of real interest to share today beyond more mangled mathematician stories, here:

Jim Trelease is a reading education specialist and a very smart guy. The quote in the upper right hand column is from him, with a link to his website. On his website there is also an interesting article which considers a great question: how would Shakespeare, Hemingway, and others well established in the literary canon be graded on the new SAT essays?

Not that the answer is a surprise. But it’s still very sobering, the mess we’ve got when it comes to evaluating how ready kids are for college.


I think I’ve written about this before, but as there are some questions popping up, I’ll repeat myself:

No booktours for moi.

Why? Let me count the reasons. First and foremost, I’m not a big enough name. It’s hugely expensive to send an author on a booktour, and publishers only do it for the heavy hitters. Those who regularly hit the best seller lists, for example, and the literary icons.

Now, most authors will tell you that booktours are hell and hey, they’d rather stay home. I’m one of those authors. When I have done booktours, I am in a high state of agita, I don’t sleep well, I get no writing done, and I’m homesick. And on top of all that, readings aren’t all that well attended. At least, mine aren’t. The smallest audience I’ve had is three people, and the largest (not counting the PEN/Hemingway award) was maybe seventy-five.

What I have just written is absolutely true, but it’s not the whole truth.

I don’t want to go on booktour, but it would be fun to be asked. I can’t pretend it wouldn’t be nice to have the publisher call and say, hey, can you spare two months? We’ve got twenty cities lined up and oh then, Europe…

Of course that would be really flattering. But I wouldn’t go. Not with a teenager and a house full of pets. Not reason enough? Well, for me it is. As a twenty year old I could travel nonstop, sleep on train station benches, wander for days. Now I don’t like traveling. I think I may be developing a touch of agoraphobia, but whenever I’m away from home I have trouble relaxing and enjoying myself.

I like my place in the world. I’d rather be right here.

the agent question

I had been thinking about what to say about getting an agent (a good portion of email that comes my way asks about this very problem) when Teresa Nielsen Hayden beat me to it, and did a better job than I would have, or at least a more thorough one. See this longish entry called, appropriately enough, on the getting of agents.

My agent history is short and sweet. My first agent dumped me because she couldn’t sell Homestead (somewhere in the discussion of why it wasn’t selling, she mentioned that it ‘wasn’t the kind of book that you’d see men reading on the subway’). More than that, she didn’t want to try to sell the other manuscript I had sitting there. So I did what most people do, I asked somebody who had an agent and she kindly pointed me not to hers, but to somebody else, and one of the junior people at that agency took me on. Thus was the happy match made; Jill promptly sold both Homestead and Into the Wilderness within three months of each other, for a combined very healthy mid-six-figure advance. Jill went off and started an agency of her own in partnership with another excellent agent, and they take care of everything. I’m very fortunate (1) that my first agent dumped me and (2) that I found Jill.

When I signed the Bantam contract I sent my first agent a postcard (I did want everybody in the office to read it, I admit) with the gory details on how much money was coming in. I sent another postcard when Homestead won the PEN/Hemingway award. Yes, now that you ask, I do have a mean streak if you prod me hard enough. But in my defense you should also know that I admitted to her she was right: to this day I have never seen a man reading Homestead on the subway.

more literary pretension

The blogosphere’s literary elite are up in arms because things are changing at the New York Times Book Review, and they don’t like it. The paper is talking about more non-fiction reviews, fewer reviews of novels, and a shift in focus.

Here’s what I don’t like: first, the leaning toward more non-fiction (they had too much to start with, in my humble opinion). Mostly I don’t like the way this discussion feeds into the frenzy over that old four letter word PLOT and the idea of serious fiction.

Roget’s II: The New Thesaurus, Third Edition has this entry for serious:

1. Not easy to do, achieve, or master: arduous, difficult, hard, laborious, tall,tough, uphill. See EASY. 2. Full of or marked by dignity and seriousness: earnest, grave, sedate, sober, solemn, somber, staid. See ATTITUDE, HEAVY. 3. Having great consequence or weight: earnest, grave, heavy, momentous,severe, weighty. See IMPORTANT. 4. Causing or marked by danger or pain, for example: dangerous, grave, grievous, severe. See HELP. 5. Marked by sober sincerity: businesslike, earnest, no-nonsense, sobersided. Idioms: in earnest. See HEAVY, WORK.

The wider debate has been framed something like this: “what’s happened to the relevance of the serious novel, and how can we restore it? Or can it be restored at all?” [emphasis added]

So the distinction here seems to be between people who write fiction that is serious and those of us who opt for the easy. The question can also be put this way: why does Stephen King sell, and John Updike languish on the shelves? The answer is (and they don’t want to hear this): you can’t. People want a story; it’s a part of the way the human psyche works. Give them a great story and they’ll come, even if the novel is otherwise deficient (and I’m not going to get specific here, not just now).

There are a few litbloggers who do see some of the bigger issues here, ala The Literary Saloon. [correction follows; wrong attribution in original post] And there’s this lovely little bit (also from The Elegant Variation):

But the other, more serious issue for me is the insularity of the contemporary fiction landscape. I find too many novels that feel like MFA projects that are little more than auditions for teaching posts to grind out more MFA students. Now, this is my own personal bugbear, but if I read one more novel about an academic or a writer I’m going to blow my brains out. Are you all so bereft of invention that this is the best you can cobble up? These arch, self-indulgent self-portraits? My question to all of you is why do you think that any reader would care? What do you offer them to connect to? How are you speaking to them? And that, in my opinion, is why it’s easy for the NYTBR to cut you – and the rest of us, by association – off. You have no constituency, no one who will not only defend the need for your work but who will back it up with their pocketbooks.

I appreciate anybody who takes on the MFA elite (also known as the MaFiA). Because they are powerful, even if they aren’t very big. Is this sour grapes on my part? Good question.

I’ve been in both camps — the elite MFA and the PLOT crowd (this may be an overly simple way to draw the distinction, I admit); I gave up the first for the second. My proof is that my first novel (written under my real name) won the PEN/Hemingway award, which is pretty much a “you’ve arrived, welcome” pass from the MFA crowd. But then I went off and concentrated on this series of big, plot driven historicals, and by doing that, distanced myself. I’m a good girl gone bad. Or at least, gone easy.

Bottom line: If the NYTBR wants to give up literary gatekeeping and widen the scope of fiction it reviews, I’m pleased. But I’ll believe it when I see it.