Category Archives: Miriam

1

Youth is wasted on the young. Or is it?

Every “semester” we have an office lunch for the purpose of getting to know our current batch of interns and to answer any questions they might have about the, undoubtedly, bizarre goings-on in publishing (and in our office).  Yesterday, over a Middle Eastern spread (the baba ganoush was delicious!) we asked everyone to tell us what they read for pleasure.  Overwhelmingly, the response was YA.  And, for some reason, that surprised me and even made me a little wistful for the days when youngsters couldn’t wait to get their grubby little hands on “adult” literature.

I still remember when, in seventh grade, a beat up copy of The Other Side of Midnight (which was already a decade old at the time, in case you were wondering about the timeline) was surreptitiously passed around at my school.  The book, of course, opened naturally to the “sexy” parts and we would have all been mortified if our parents had caught us reading it.  By the time I was a young adult, myself, my peeps and I were interested in SERIOUS fiction that dealt with IMPORTANT subjects, and if you wanted some sex and scandal, you turned to grown-up bestsellers like Marguerite Duras’ The Lover  or Josephine Hart’s Damage.  You know, stories about older people behaving badly….

The thing is that, traditionally,  YA was considered “aspirational”—kids younger than those depicted in the books were the primary market for it. Now, I know that YA literature has exploded as a genre and that, in many ways, it’s tackling tough subjects in ways  sometimes more inventive and provocative than we’ve seen in what is considered adult fiction.  That said, is it narcissism, solipsism or fear of growing up that accounts for young adults actually preferring YA books in general?  In recent years, with blockbusters like  the Harry Potter  and Twilight series playing havoc with readership demographics (as evidenced by 40-something moms reading YA and NA alongside their tweens and teenagers), it seems that the category now even appeals to its own namesakes.   Crazy, huh?

How do you account for this shift?  Are there broader cultural implications that I’m missing here or is this trend just a function of how sophisticated the category has become?

 

0

Look it up!

Remember that corny cliché about every book ever written being found within the pages of a dictionary?  I’ve always gotten such a kick out of that because I love dictionaries.  I love the tiny print,  the sometimes incomprehensible pronunciation guide for each word, the prefatory material that tells you how to use the book, the illustrations that accompany some of the entries (why is Sally Ride pictured but not Richelieu?), the fact that you go in to look something up for an editorial memo you’re crafting only to get distracted by a bunch of beguiling words (xylem, yurt) that you will be desperate to use in your next heated match of Words With Friends.Dictionary

As with other books, I love old print dictionaries—at last count I  had about a dozen at home, elegantly bound ones and dog-eared paperbacks; Spanish, Russian, French and German as well as English—but I also adore the convenience of my Dictionary.com app.  How excellent to have the ability to look up a word whenever and wherever you hear it, thereby appearing to be more   sesquipedalian than you really are (see what I did there?).

This ease of access, unfortunately, has made me more intolerant of authors who routinely use the wrong word in their work and other communications.  I mean, how hard is it to look it up if you’re not 100% sure whether you loath something  or loathe it?  (BTW, I always have to look those two up myself.)

The democratization of the dictionary in this age of supreme access is a great thing, in my opinion.  But, that means that there’s no excuse for lazy usage, at least not in your writing.  Just look it up, people!

4

Learning to read

Here’s the thing.  I’ve become deeply attached to my Kindle Fire.  I can watch Orange Is the New Black on it while I work out.  I can play the twentysome games of Words With Friends I’ve got going at any given time.  I can read The Washington Post—helpfully delivered free for a trial period by the very thoughtful Jeff Bezos, who now owns the venerable publication.  I can look at the fashion magazines I used to subscribe to physical copies of.  I can find recipes for my weekend cookfests (the chili-polenta dish I tackled last week was delicious).  I can impulse buy (that little clothes steamer is a marvel)….

However, the thing I seem to do the least on my Kindle these days is read the more than 300 books stored in it.  Part of the problem is that, while I am a fan of digital content and really appreciate how much kinder this device is to my perennially aching back—which, of course, got that way from a lifetime of lugging around hardcovers and manuscripts and hunching over thousands of pages (my eyesight is bad too)—I still prefer the heft and feel of the paper product.

As this piece in The Guardian tells us, we actually absorb less information electronically because part of the reading experience involves an array of sensory input that helps us recall the physical space the words appeared in (as well as our own physical space) while immersed in the narrative.  I used to pride myself on my idiot savant ability to find a passage in a paperback I’d read 20 years ago fairly quickly by visualizing where in the book I’d come across it.  You can’t really do that on a Kindle or other e-reader, as these devices flatten the reading experience and turn it oddly two-dimensional.  Also, my Kindle doesn’t smell like anything other than plastic and maybe nail polish remover that I spilled on it while using it as a platform to do my nails.  Real books smell like musty old shops, like winter evenings, like nostalgia, like adventure.

THE DISAPPEARING SPOON

My point is that I need to learn to read better on my digital devices and I need to do more of it.  Because with all of the distractions (see my first paragraph above) these devices allow and foster, it feels like books are an afterthought.   And, I don’t mean to be overly dramatic but when books become an afterthought, civilization as we know it is over.

So, given that e-reading is better for my back, I’m going to make a concerted effort to get more acquainted with the book side of my Kindle.  If nothing else, it should save me money on all the duplicate copies of titles I have lying around my house and hibernating in the Cloud.  What about you guys?  Do you have these problems or is it just me?

 

0

Listing

Our office book club is a lovely thing, in theory.  We each pick a different book from a predetermined category and we report on it to the group.  We write a pitch letter, as if we were sending the project out on submission, and then tell our colleagues what we really think of the title in question.  It’s both fun and sobering to see how adept we all are at false praise and how mean spirited we can be when an author disappoints us.

Given that book club is an extracurricular activity for all of us and that, ironically, none of us has a lot of free time for reading, our picks are a hotly debated (sometimes hostilely so) subject.  If you’ve been following this blog for a while, it won’t surprise you that the most vituperative battles usually erupt between Jim McCarthy and myself.  I like to think that’s because we are the most passionate about book club.  Our co-workers think it’s because we’re the most immature.

But I digress.

It’s time to select our next round of titles and we decided (as we usually do at this time of year) to choose from the “best of the year” lists.  Jim forwarded a link to the New York Times Notable Books of the Year and I perused it with a gimlet eye.  Like the Academy Awards, the paper of record seldom goes for fun over (heavy) substance when it crowns its winners.  Its year-end list is always full of unimpeachably good-for-you books, and if you’re looking for the literary equivalent of junk food, you’re out of luck.  So, I went hunting and found the Goodreads list (via Buzzfeed), a more, shall we say, democratic round-up of the year’s best.  After looking at the offerings there—Rainbow Rowell! Stephen King! Anne Rice!—I ended up choosing from the Times list after all.  The Goodreads titles are must-reads by excellent authors, sure, but the Sarah Waters novel on the Times list looks like it’s going to be both healthy and delightful in a Downton Abbey sort of way.

What list are you choosing your holiday reading from?  Or are you going to ignore both the cognoscenti and the rabble and go your own way, picking your next book from a clever flap copy or an arresting cover?

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3

Bad sex

I’m sure I’ve mentioned here before how much I relish certain kinds of bad writing.  Whether it’s found in queries so incoherent they make you want to request the manuscript they reference to see if the actual pages can possibly be as gawdawful (I do not recommend this as a tactic for getting your foot in the door), a passage so ripe in an otherwise well written novel that you question everything you ever believed about the author’s talent, or a subject so tricky that even otherwise skillful writers royally muck it up time and again when attempting to capture it in simple, lucid prose.

Sex is one of those subjects that turn good and even great authors into flailing amateurs.  It’s so hard to depict well that there should be dedicated writing courses teaching young MFA candidates how not to  screw it up (no pun intended).

That said, bad sex writing is a particularly fun subset of bad writing, and the 22nd Bad Sex in Fiction Awards once again celebrate that badness.  So, wander on over to the Literary Review for a peek at the nominees for “Britain’s Most Dreaded Literary Prize.”

Can you come up with anything similarly cringeworthy?

7

Books and lyrics

Driving in to work today, I was listening to Spotify and thinking about books.  I’m currently obsessed with the song “Ugly Heart” by G.R.L. and I was thinking it could be the basis for an angstsy teen novel.  One thing leads to another in my often labyrinthine thought process and I soon found myself trying to list in my head songs I love that are based on books, poems, or other literary works.

Some obvious ones came to mind—“Calypso” by Suzanne Vega, “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen, “Romeo and Juliet” by Dire Straits, “Wuthering Heights” by Kate Bush, “Moon over Bourbon Street” by Sting.  All of these have been longtime favorites because of the dimension they add to the fictional works they, well, ripped off.  (Isn’t all creation  stealing, really?  Or at least borrowing heavily?)

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As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, I love the marriage of music and literature and I often find myself making musical pairings in my mind: Paolo Nutini riffing on The Fault in Our Stars?  Fun. taking a crack at Atonement?  Adele reinterpreting Bel Canto?  Jay-Z channeling Tennyson?  You get my drift.

What is your favorite song based on a book?   And what book would you like to see become a hit song?

1

I’ll take mine with a twist

TwistI’m still reeling from Atonement.  Charlotte Brontë destroyed me with Villette.  And, I’m glad the Huffington Post agrees that Liane Moriarty’s bestseller ends with a, well, twist because I was bowled over.

Thing is, I hate surprises.  Really, I do.  I actually break out in hives at the thought of a surprise birthday party.  Whether the surprise is good or bad is irrelevant.  I don’t like to be there when it’s happening.  My peripatetic childhood, which involved periodically arriving in a new place whose culture (and even language) I didn’t understand made me wary of the unexpected.   That, combined with my type-A, OCD nature makes me dread anything I can’t see coming from a good distance.  (I will be taking all of this up in therapy some day, do not fear.)

As a result, I am one of those rare people who also appreciates a certain amount of predictability in my reading.  Rather than finding a book whose ending I can intuit or guess at a waste of time, I enjoy being able to focus my attention on the author’s prose, character development, and attention to detail.  I like category fiction because it generally follows a formula and it’s the skill of the author at things other than surprising us that tends to set these works apart.

So, of course, it irks me no end to admit that some of my most memorable reading experiences have involved not just a surprise ending but a shocking one.  My initial response is usually rage and confusion, followed, after a while, by admiration at the author’s ability to yank the rug so forcefully out from under me.  It’s so hard to pull off, but when it’s done right, it tends to make the narrative it closes unforgettable—especially when the finale seems organic and not gimmicky.  I hate surprises but I tend to end up loving books that surprise me.

What are your favorite surprise endings?  And why?

3

Damned if we do?

Something like 20 years ago when I was a publishing newbie I came across a fascinating piece in The New Yorker about a rare disease in Africa that was positively biblical in its devastation.  I was, of course, immediately obsessed with this gruesome hemorrhagic fever whose survival rate was statistically negligible.  Frankly, and shamefully, I thought it was a great horror story and one happening far enough away that it posed no real threat to a young woman in New York City who wasn’t planning on traveling to remote parts of Africa any time soon.   I desperately wanted someone to do a book about it.   Jane, who was bemused by my weird enthusiasms (she’s grown accustomed to them in the two decades since), and I tried to contact a couple of journalists who might have direct access to information on the ground.  But while we were casting about without the help of e-mail and Skype,  it was announced that Richard Preston was working on The Hot Zone.  We had been scooped.

Preston’s book became a huge bestseller and it spawned a successful film.  Ebola entered the public’s consciousness much in the way it had for me, as something horrific that didn’t really affect us but which titillated us with the kind of fear a zombie movie might instill.  Today, of course, the threat is far more real and, with our porous borders, far less “over there.”  The world is quickly realizing that the spread of Ebola is a global health crisis and one that must be stopped in its tracks if we are to avoid even more catastrophic losses of human life.

So, as I obsessively read the headlines and listen to reports on NPR, I think, again, that a new book on the disease’s trajectory this time around is necessary and even imperative.  Except that the more mature me is  aware of the negative psychic and moral implications of capitalizing on tragedy in a way my much more clueless younger self was not.  And so once again an uncomfortable aspect of our business rears its head.  When is it too soon to write about tragedy?  What is the correct way to hype a big book touching on the suffering of thousands?  We in the publishing world, like journalists, are responsible for midwifing work that illuminates, enlightens, educates, and entertains.  But, we’re not in the trenches risking life and limb to get the story and making money off tragic events is sometimes hard to stomach.  So, do we pursue that book now or do we wait?

There are fascinating stories coming out of this current crisis and not just one book, I’m sure.  Where do you guys fall on the subject?  Should there be another Hot Zone?

5

Good bad advice

For something that’s so subjective, fluid, and intuitive, writing sure has a lot of rules.   From the time you pick up your first pencil until they pry the keyboard from your cold, dead hands, you’re exposed to a litany of do’s and don’ts that are sometimes as confusing as they are meaningless.  (I’m sure someone told Faulkner it was a bad idea to include a chapter in his first novel that is one opaque sentence long.  I’m just as sure that he ignored them on his way to creating Nobel Prize winning masterpieces.)

You’ve been told not to end sentences with prepositions, not to split infinitives, not to dangle participles (because they’re scared of heights?), and so on, ad nauseam.  If you’re even the slightest bit OCD (like me) all these rules can paralyze you when you have a thesis to write, an edit memo to compose, or a novel you want to start.

Do all those rules matter?  Well, yes, they do.  A good writer is one who knows the rules and judiciously breaks them for effect.  You can easily tell a great craftsman who uses repetition to make a point from a sloppy hack who can’t be bothered to look up a synonym, for instance.  As someone who spends a lot of time line-editing proposals, I can tell you that in most cases, rule flouting is not intentional or effective. Rules

On the other hand, there’s a lot of bad advice being doled out by “experts” that, if followed, will consign you to the Dantean circle where boring, tepid, uninspired prose blandly tortures the poor souls  whose crimes against literature landed them there in the first place.  Which is why G. Doucette’s piece in the HuffPost cracked me up.

The point?  Rules are good.  Rules should be understood and followed.  Rules must sometimes be broken.

What are your favorite rules to ignore?

0

A list is a list is a list

Recently, I was challenged by a friend on Facebook to list 10 books that had “stayed with me.”   Normally, I enjoy those types of FB challenges as much as I do folding three weeks’ worth of laundry and I often decline to participate.  But, given my line of work, it feels churlish and ungenerous to refuse any opportunity to share what I consider to be one of my life’s  great passions, so despite the ambiguity of the challenge—“Stayed with me” how?  In a good way?  In a throw-it-across-the-room-in-a-fit-of-rage way?  I mean, I hated everything about The Scarlet Letter, but it stayed with me.  And don’t even get me started on The Goldfinch—I went ahead and posted my list.  

Thing is, I find listing books for any purpose—favorites, tree killers (those that are a waste of paper), recommendations, etc.—a trying activity simply because there is so much to choose from and there is such judgment implicit in every choice.    In fact, no one is as judgmental as a book lover.  Admit it, you have mentally demoted friends and lovers based on their book preferences.  You have gloated (internally or otherwise) about how much better your taste in literature is than anyone else’s.  You have shamed people publicly after finding out they’ve never read a certain author’s work (okay, maybe that’s just me…and, the rest of the DGLMers).  So, there’s no way to pick the best of any category of books without great screeches of dissent, anger, hostility, possible projectile throwing.

And the weird thing is that I love book lists.  Other people’s that is.  I love nomination lists, seasonal lists, lists about books featuring animal protagonists, whatever.  I will happily read lists about lists of books.  In fact, you can keep your Booker and Pulitzer and National Book Awards, just hand me their shortlists.   Given the proliferation of lists on the Internet, I suspect I’m not alone.

To that end, and because it’s back to school, time to get serious about reading again, here’s The Millions’ Lists page where you can get as lost as the kid from The Phantom Tollbooth.   Go crazy and then tell me what your favorite book of the year thus far is.