Category Archives: culture

7

Trains, planes, reading and writing

I love long train trips almost as much as I hate flying.   To me, there is something both soothing and exciting about zipping across a changing landscape in a powerful machine that hasn’t lost contact with the ground.  Whereas planes are claustrophobic, uncomfortable (unless you don’t need to put your kid through college and  you fly first class), and occasionally panic inducing, trains are throwbacks to a slower, more genteel age when no one expected you to get to where you needed to be so fast that you had to fight jet lag for days once you got there.

I also love reading on trains.  One of my fondest travel memories is of racing through Look Homeward, Angel in a mostly empty compartment on a trip from Zurich to Bruges.  Not that I’m such a seasoned world traveler, but I really enjoy the vaguely surreal dislocation of reading about America while traveling abroad.  And this feeling, I find, is heightened by the foreign and sometimes oddly familiar scenery you glimpse when you’ve snagged a good window seat.

I’m not a writer, but I can only imagine that the sensations and emotional states I’ve experienced while riding railroads in the U.S. and around the world are fairly common and that they might serve to rev up the creative process.  That’s why I dig the idea of Amtrak offering a writing residency for writers.   If I were writing a novel, I’d book my ticket to California, pack up my laptop, a copy of Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book, and hit the rails.

What about you guys?  Do you think you could write on a train?  Would you want to?

7

Slow reading

Now that New York State schools have adopted the Common Core curriculum, a lot of us parents are mystified by the new rules for academic success as determined by the educational powers that be.  One of the things that my husband and I keep getting stuck on is how much of an emphasis is now placed on speed.  Our third grader must answer math problems in less than four seconds per problem, for instance.    Given that most of my math is done either on my iPhone calculator or my fingers, I have no moral authority to speak about that one, but when they tell me that eight-year-olds have to read a certain number of words in one minute in order to establish reading “fluency,” well, that’s when the tic  in my left eyelid becomes pronounced.

Which, as many things do on this blog, leads to a shameful confession:  I am a slow reader.

Given the thousands of pages I read in the course of a typical month, people assume that I took that speed reading course they used to advertise on television back in the day.  I did not.  I am the kind of reader who compulsively reads every word and who pauses often to swirl a particularly juicy adjective around or take loving note of an exceptionally well turned phrase.  When it comes to work, I sometimes hate that I am so slow–my manuscript piles reproduce like Tribbles, after all.   On the flip side, I think I am a much more insightful reader and editor as a result of my tortoise-like approach to the material in front of me.

Thing is, I read books the way  I eat dessert.  I want both experiences to last as long as humanly possible so the enjoyment derived from them will be prolonged as well.  What good is a bowl of ice cream if the primary experience is brain freeze from slurping it down too quickly?  Similarly, what’s the point of speed skating through a great novel or non-fiction narrative only to be done and on to the next?  Don’t we already live our lives doing constant hamster sprints as we struggle to keep up with the masses of information being thrown at us?  Shouldn’t we take a stand and force ourselves to read deliberately, thoughtfully, patiently, discerningly…slowly?  Wouldn’t that be better for our intellectual development as well as our souls?

I think the world needs less fast tracking and more thinking it through.  And, I’m not the only one.  Hopefully, my kid will learn that writing can be savored, not just devoured, that it is not just a means to an end but an end in itself.

What say you?  Is fast reading an important skill in the internet age or is there more value in the slow(er) processing of information?  And, how long does it take you to read an average book?

 

 

 

1

Reading makes you a better person. Really. There are studies.

Neil Gaiman is my favorite author…who I’ve never read.

I know, I know.  I can’t tell you how many people whose tastes I respect and generally agree with have told me that I have to read this guy.  But, well, time (as in, who has any).  He’s in that pile of books by my bedside that will one day collapse, killing me instantly  (which will serve me right for not having gotten around to reading all the tomes that made it lethal to begin with).

But, I digress.  Even though I’ve never read Gaiman’s novels, I have read enough about him and short pieces by him that I feel like our world views are eminently simpatico.  For instance, in this wonderful rumination on reading  he elegantly explains why books are necessary for not just the individual’s mental health and success but society’s as well.  The skills acquired and developed through reading are transferable ones.  They can be used to create the next iPad, social media site, or weapon of mass destruction because they involve opening up the imagination to infinite possibilities.  He argues that reading fiction is the best workout for these particular muscles and, of course, he’s right.

I’ve always had a strong, and probably  somewhat delusional, belief that anything is possible and I think that might date back to my early penchant for fairy tales and books featuring wizards and witches (Merlin was and is a favorite character).  What book or books turned on the creativity faucet for you?  And do you think that fiction is, in fact, more effective than nonfiction in this respect?

8

Quintessentially aughts?

Buzzfeed is one of my current guilty pleasures.  Its layout suits my ever diminishing attention span and…well, there are cute dog, cat, and Paul McCartney pictures.  But every once in a while, they make random picks in a category, lump them together and give them a header like “19 Quintessential Books of the ‘90s” (the numbers are never even, it seems, and that’s another BF affectation), and off I go to spend five minutes that I’ll never get back growing increasingly disgruntled by their choices.

I remember the ‘90s in literature quite well and this list is disappointing.  Where are The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, The Hours, The Hot Zone  (Remember when we were all worried about Ebola? Simpler times…), Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, for goodness’ sake?

Which got me thinking that now that the “aughts” are over we should be able to put together a list of the quintessential books of the first decade of the 21st century.  I’ll get us started (let’s keep it simple and list only fiction):

  • The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
  • Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
  • Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
  • Atonement by Ian McEwan
  • Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

What would you add to (or delete from) the list?

 

12

Covers and gender

Not sure what’s in the air, but there’s been an awful lot of chatter about covers and gender lately. Lauren just sent me a link to this piece, and then there was this, which reminded me of this.

I’m forever fascinated/disturbed by the accepted wisdom that boys don’t want to read about girl characters, but girls will read about anything. First, I’m just not sure it’s true. I don’t think we have the marketing information to back it up. But second, and more importantly, if that is the case, what the hell are we all doing wrong in raising our boys? Are we still such a sexist society that for girls to read about boys is acceptable, but for boys to read about girls isn’t manly?

The pieces above raise interesting questions, and I’m curious to hear how you think this affects you. Do you think your audience is limited by a gendered cover? And do you find yourself writing for one gender or the other purposefully? If so, what do you think that means for our culture?

7

Writer’s block

I’ve been bad. About blogging. I haven’t blogged in quite some time. I don’t want to say how long, because it’s embarrassing, even to me. I could blame computer woes–it’s been fun! Or the fact that I’ve been really busy with work work. I could pretend I’ve made up for it by being very active on Twitter, but you’d find me out. So what gives?
I would blame writer’s block, but it’s not something I believe in. Because the truth is, it’s not that I can’t write about things. It’s that I don’t want to write about things. Call it a crisis of confidence if you will, but I can’t imagine there’s anything left to blog  about that either 1) I haven’t already blogged about or 2) someone hasn’t said better than I ever could.
I’ve been feeling pretty overwhelmed lately, but not by work–busy though that has been. I’m feeling overwhelmed by the constant stream of information: the RSS feeds, the news, TV, texts, movies, IMs, music, Twitter. It’s a cacophony, and I’ve been feeling especially mindful of my part in it. Am I just adding to the noise? Does what I say actually benefit anyone or add to their existence/knowledge/growth? Am I listening and learning? Why am I blogging and tweeting? Am I carrying on a meaningful conversation?
I’m not sure I have the answers. Sometimes I feel like I’m talking into the wind, and there’s no point in that. Other times, I feel like I’m making a real human connection, and I cherish the contacts I’ve made through social media (many of whom are now people I know in real life).
I hope my quietness or silence isn’t misinterpreted. I want to connect. I want to learn. I want to grow. But I also want to make sure that what I’m putting out there isn’t just for the sake of putting something out there. Bear with me?
0

Half the World Away

Tonight is World Book Night. It’s an event that sees volunteers put thousands of books into the hands of strangers, “Spreading the love of reading, person to person” as the slogan goes. As tonight’s events aim to place books into the care of those who do not frequently read or have access to books, it dawned on me that it is rewarding to live in a society that is able and willing to allow this free circulation of cultural capital. You could say I am reading into this too much, but I will counter that in this imperfect society, such collective moments of benevolence like these are to be savored, if only for a night.

For me, this point was put into sharp focus when I came across this piece of news. The article reports that Magdy El Shafee, the author of Egypt’s first graphic novel, Metro, has been arrested following clashes between rival political groups. Hearing of this news put back into mind when El Shafee was previously arrested by former President Mubarak and Metro banned for “offending public morals.” Only recently has El Shafee’s novel been made available in Arabic in Epygt.

So, tonight, when we have the privilege of exchanging literary treasures, keep in mind those who still struggle and fight to make their voices heard, if only for a night.

Why some authors hate publishers

A long-time client, who is very dear to our agency, pointed us in the direction of a piece by Michael Levin in the HuffPost that I’d missed when it ran last week.  Our client was distressed by Mr. Levin’s assertions about the nefarious tactics mustache twirling publishers use to victimize authors.  Understandably, since Mr. Levin writes with such passion and seeming authority, she was concerned that the picture he paints is an accurate depiction of the culture of book publishing as 2012 draws to a close and we count down to the  Mayan apocalypse (which, of course, if it comes to pass will make this discussion irrelevant).

After reading the piece Jane and I had basically the same reaction which boiled down to “Why do the people talking trash about our business always seem to be the ones who understand it the least or who have a bag full of sour grapes they’re carrying around with them?”  And, then I got all happy because I didn’t have to scrounge around looking for a blog topic this week.

We promised our client that we’d go through Mr. Levin’s arguments and respond to them from our point of view and this, more or less (with my usual digressions and irritating asides), is what I hope to do here.

Mr. Levin’s argument boils down to four salient points:  (1) Publishers hate authors even though authors and the work they produce are their lifeblood. (2) Publishers are reducing advances and royalties across the board with the added perk of also reducing marketing and promotion for their titles. (3) Publishers’ dependence on BookScan (the tracking system for sales) guarantees that unless an author has a boffo success, their career is over faster than you can say “reserve for returns.”  And (4) by lowering the quality of the product because they refuse to pay what good authors are worth, publishers are ensuring that the public stops buying books and turns to other sources (the Internet) for their information and entertainment kicks.

Alrighty, then!  This should be quick(ish).

(1)   Publishers are the partners and adversaries of agents.  We work with and against them for the good of our authors, who have our first allegiance.  That said, most publishers (and the term includes all the people who make books happen at a publishing house from the CEO to the intern who opens the mail) we deal with daily, sometimes hourly, are incredibly hard working, thoughtful, engaged, and compassionate.  I’ve said this before and it bears repeating, very few people go into our business to achieve their dreams of Trump-like wealth.  Salaries are low in publishing compared to those in other media, and the work is painstaking and, often thankless (Exhibit A: Mr. Levin).  Publishing types do their jobs—which entail long hours after they’ve left the office sitting with a manuscript that needs to be shaped on a granular level—because they LOVE books.  Period.  With all the challenges publishers are faced with in this increasingly digital world, the level of care they bring to the curating of great (and even not so great) books is impressive.

(2)  Not sure which publishers Mr. Levin is talking about but our agency has had its best year ever.  We’ve sold over 100 books this year and have been paid advances, ranging from five to seven figures, on every one of them.  Perhaps there are some tiny houses that are embracing the “no advance” model but we work with the Big Six as well as many, many smaller independent publishers and have not seen this no-advance/lower-royalty model Mr. Levin describes.

(3)  We depend on BookScan too when we are considering signing up an author.  It’s a tremendous tool that lets you know what you’re up against when trying to find a new home for a previously published author whose book didn’t do well.  Has BookScan ever been a deciding factor in not signing up a book?  Probably, but only if we were very much on the fence about it anyway.  I’d venture to say that this is the same process publishers go through because we’ve had numerous authors whose BookScan sales, how to put it delicately?, were in the toilet and we still sold their next book and the book after that.  Bottom line, if your next idea is great or your genius undeniable, or your platform has reached critical mass, BookScan will not destroy your career.

(4)  Really?  Take a look at the best books of the year lists that are cropping up all over the place right now and tell me if you think important, brilliant, exciting fiction and non-fiction isn’t being published any more.  And, given the fact that book sales have risen in the digital age, it seems that a new generation of readers is turning to…books…for their information and their entertainment kicks!

Seems to me that publishers don’t hate authors any more than authors hate publishers.  In this complicated new world we live in, we all (on both sides of the business) need to take responsibility for our own failures and flaws as well as advocate for our strengths and successes rather than succumbing to paranoid fantasies about how much “they” hate us.

6

Words travel

In my desperate search for a blog topic today I came across this piece in the HuffPost that made me sit up and mouth “Shut up!” at my computer.  Gone with the Wind is a huge hit in North Korea?  WT….

But, as I read the article, it started to make sense in the way that the global bestseller phenomenon usually does.  The other day I was sitting with a client and we were talking about Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls.  Our discussion veered into speculation about why that book has been so popular across several generations—the writing is competent but only just, the story one that has been told before and will be told again, and, the characters are not, well, deep.    But the book resonated for millions worldwide, much in the way that E.L. James’ 50 Shades of Grey has four decades later.

While Gone with the Wind boasts more rarefied literary credentials (it did win the Pulitzer Prize in 1937), it’s still pulp fiction in my book.  The melodrama, the heart-stopping suspense, the fashions….  Margaret Mitchell wrote a gripping story that didn’t let politics or morality  get in the way of a good plot (even though there’s plenty of politics and moralizing going on).  GWTW, like the other two books, spoke to many different people by offering archetypal situations, a thoroughly relatable cast of characters, and a keen understanding of heart-wrenching drama—like the overheated telenovelas I grew up on and that seduce millions in the Latin world, GWTW, 50 Shades, and Valley are all just unbelievably effective escapism machines.   Formulaic? Yes?  Over-the-top?  Of course.  Capable of taking you away from your dreary reality for the duration of your reading experience?  Exactly.

What do you all think of this?  Do you find this puzzling or does it make sense?  And  70 years from now will 50 Shades of Grey be all the rage in another freedom-challenged society?

 

2

A Tale of Two Cities disguised as The Dark Knight Rises

As the details of the Aurora, CO, tragedy emerge, I’d like to point Batman fans to something that will get their minds off this dreadfulness. Surprisingly, I haven’t heard much about Christopher Nolan’s comments that this latest Batman installment was inspired by Charles Dickens. That is, until this article on Slate. (Warning: Do NOT read this article if you haven’t seen the movie yet!)

Take a moment to consider this. There’s the location—the corrupt, crime-ridden city; the orphans as principal characters; the lower class uprisings. You may even notice (full disclosure here: I didn’t) that the novel itself makes an appearance in the film. As we all know, there are a handful of stories that have been told and re-told throughout the centuries. Some people just happen to be better at re-telling those stories in new and unusual ways—like Christopher Nolan—than others. Yes, other film directors that have come out with a new superhero movie lately, I’m thinking of you.

We’ve been seeing interpretations a lot more than usual recently—or maybe I’ve just been noticing it more—from Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter being the basis of Easy A to the influx of modern day fairy tales at the multiplex. What classic tales would you like to see re-told and in what way?