Category Archives: Miriam

18

A book for all seasons

Over the last several days I have found myself thinking a lot about picking up Donna Tartt’s new novel, The Goldfinch.  I’ve been debating the notion of downloading it or walking over to B&N at the top of the park and buying the hardcover.  I even tried to get our DGLM book club to choose it for our next gathering (I was shot down).

“So?” you might be thinking, “You work in publishing.  You read a lot.  It’s a bestseller with a slew of enthusiastic reviews and miles of buzz behind it.  Why wouldn’t you want to read it.”  Seven hundred and eighty-four pages is why!  The thing is a doorstop.  I’ve got a mountain of manuscripts and proposals, a backlog of magazine articles fading in relevance as I type this, a full inbox, and an eight-year-old with more homework every night than I had class work as an undergrad at Columbia.  When, for Pete’s sake, am I supposed to fit in an almost eight hundred page book?

But, still, I’m drawn to it like I’m drawn to pumpkin doughnuts and stews in the fall.  Because it’s the season for big, important books that you can curl up with in your favorite arm chair on a chilly day—wrapped in a warm cardigan, sipping some warm apple cider as you turn the pages—and lose all track of time.  Something about the dip in temperatures and the fact that it’s twilight at 3:30 PM  makes me want to read long and complicated works. 

Clearly, I’m not alone in this.  The publishing world has traditionally scheduled big, important titles in the fall/winter season and beach reads starting in late spring.  And, when I googled “seasonal reading” to see if it’s already been classified as a disorder in the DSM, I came across this piece in the Guardian which…yeah…it seems I’m not at all original (or unique) in my fall reading needs.

What about you?  Do you get all nostalgic for War and Peace or Dune once the flip flops are put away and the jackets come out?

 

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?

1

What’s in a name?

Yesterday, I tweeted this piece about how reading literary fiction (vs. popular fiction) develops our ability to understand and decipher social cues that power our relationships with other people.   My initial reaction to the article was, “Hmmm, interesting.  Makes sense.”  I think all self-respecting bookworms would agree that books teach us much more than facts and big words, they teach us human behavior.   So, of course literary fiction would sharpen our abilities to identify emotional and intellectual motivations and apply them to ourselves and our real-world dilemmas.  After all, wasn’t that the point of all those tedious essays we wrote in high school and college about why Emma Bovary was so delusional or why Ahab couldn’t just leave that dumb whale alone?

 

But something about the piece troubled me, and my “Aha!” moment came when I read this slightly different take on the New School study.  In the first article the examples of popular fiction were Danielle Steel’s The Sins of the Mother and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl.  Literary fiction, on the other hand was represented by Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife, Don DeLillo and Anton Chekhov.  Okaaay, who decided that Gillian Flynn is more popular than literary or that she should be featured in the same sentence as Danielle Steel?  Before you Steel fans get all worked up, I am not casting aspersions on that author’s prodigious body of work.  I am merely saying that just because a book sells a lot of copies and hangs out on the bestseller lists for a while does not make it “popular fiction” as the literary snobs among us think of it any more than tiny print runs and fewer sales make something “literary.”  And so claiming that Flynn’s brilliantly crafted, psychological thriller is for the purposes of this study less literary than Obreht’s book* seems to point to a major fault in the findings if, in fact, that is the criteria for judgment.

All of this, of course, takes us to the old publishing pastime of arguing over whether something is literary or commercial.  If sales are the basis for categorization, then Cormac McCarthy, Phillip Roth, and, yes, Mr. Dickens would all be labeled popular fiction authors.  Of course, the study makes the point that a “literary” work is one that is more concerned with its characters’ internal processes and less with plot and action, thus forcing us to work harder at deciphering motivation.   But haven’t we all read many plot driven novels that have been raised to the literary canon?  Ahem, Mr. Dickens, again.

Personally, I think that most fiction flexes our mental muscles.  Even formula romance (or mystery, or science fiction) forces us to look for motivation and emotional cause and effect.  Maybe some books make us work harder and, therefore, give us the brain equivalent of a six-pack, but my sense is that I’ve learned a thing or two even from wildly popular fiction that I may not have by reading only highbrow stuff.

What do you think?  Is it possible that the bias in this study is “literary”?  Can you think of samples of popular fiction that forced you to bring out  your empathy/social decoding tools?

 

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*In the interest of full disclosure, I hated that book.

4

Give and take

My seven-year-old often (inadvertently, mostly) gives me insight into work dilemmas.  He’s at an age, for instance in which he’d rather not listen to advice from his parental units.  He’s a big boy now and wants to do things by himself, his way.  He does not need his dad and me telling him how he might save himself time and trouble on a task and outright doubts that our combined centuries of wisdom are a match for his lithe young brain.   (I gather this will only get worse once the teen years set in.)  Most of the time, though, all that hard-won experience does count for something and my son, being an honest, upstanding lad, gracefully agrees that perhaps we might know a bit more about a particular subject than he thought and that maybe our advice is at least worth considering.

Such is the way with authors sometimes.  They come to us because they want to benefit from our expertise and experience yet often butt heads with us when we try to offer advice that runs counter to their goals, preconceptions, instincts, whatever, about their books.  As a rule, the more talented the author the most able s/he is to take advice with good grace and at least explore whether it makes sense for his/her work and career.   And, much like parents everywhere feel, we hate to be right at the expense of someone’s bad choices.

Advice, though, is a double-edged sword.  Whose do you take?  Whose do you walk away from?  Everyone has an opinion and there are usually kernels of good sense in even bad counsel.  Unfortunately, the internet makes things harder by providing an ocean of often unsolicited input from everyone and their kid brother.

My feeling is, take advice from people you respect, who have solid experience under their belt, and who have had some success in the area you are looking for help in.  Then, try to tune out the rest of the noise and keep in mind that advice is just that and that ultimately you have to take responsibility for and ownership of your decisions.

With that in mind, here’s William Faulkner giving some pretty good tips to aspiring and practicing writers.

1

Twelve years ago

That white building on the left wasn’t there twelve  years ago.  The sky was as blue as it is today, but it was a crisp, dry September morning.  We were sitting in Jane’s office for our morning staff meeting when I heard the sound of a plane flying too close to the ground.  Michael Bourret and I, both fearful flyers at the time (he says he’s better now that he’s constantly on a plane), exchanged a worried look and then went back to the general discussion of contracts and deal memos.  A few minutes  after we disbanded, Jane’s daughter, who was living in Berlin at the time, sent Jane an instant message asking what was going on at the World Trade Center.  When Jane looked out her window and told us what she saw, we all stampeded to the back office where we had a clear view of the towers.  We saw a black plume of smoke rising from one of them and as we stood there, dumbfounded, we watched another plane arc seemingly in slow motion across that heartbreakingly clear sky and slam into the second building.   The world changed that morning and, twelve years later, we’re still trying to make sense of it all.

What we remember most about that awful day is how quickly this great city turned into a small village of eight million people and how everyone came together to help, to grieve, and to rebuild.  The skyline is different, but I like to think that all the good we witnessed in the aftermath of 9/11 left its mark on New York City much more indelibly than the evil that was perpetrated against it.

If you’re remembering that day too, here are some pieces that you might want to check out: http://www.megcabot.com/2012/09/9112001/, http://www.haydenplanetarium.org/tyson/look/2002/01/01/sunset-on-the-world-trade-center, http://www.buzzfeed.com/adriancarrasquillo/50-powerful-photos-of-humanity-and-solidarity-in-the-years-s.

 

3

Pigeonholing (sounds kinda nasty, right?)

We think a lot around here about authors getting pigeonholed into certain categories because one (or more) of their books was a success and now they are expected to keep writing variations on the same theme lest they alienate their core readership.   Of course, there are authors who are perfectly happy sticking to their comfort zone, but what about those who want to take a stab at different kinds of stories?  Just because her sci-fi novel about Jesuits in space achieved bestselling cult status, why can’t Mary Doria Russell write a brilliant Western or two about Doc Holliday and his cronies?  Why can’t the creator of thriller icon Rambo (a.k.a., David Morrell) not take us to Victorian England for a lively mystery featuring opium-addict-turned-detective Thomas De Quincey?  No reason, of course.  And both those authors (longtime clients) have done just that and found that their readership was able to fall in love with their work all over again.

But not everyone is able to switch gears so successfully.  Some authors have become so effectively enmeshed with a particular category or beloved character(s) that readers, at best, resist their efforts to branch out and, at worst, reject them altogether.  This piece in Cracked about “Books That Destroy Your Image of the People Who Wrote Them” made me laugh (see the Ben Franklin entry), but it also gave me pause.  I started to think about authors I love going off on wild tangents:  William Faulkner writing erotica?  Jonathan Franzen trying his hand at sunny children’s fiction?  Jacqueline Susann tackling literary biography (or really literary anything)?   It’s not that they couldn’t do it, I suppose, but I’d have such a hard time wrapping my brain around the idea that my skepticism would ruin the reading experience.

Do you have that problem too?  Do you pigeonhole your favorite authors?  And, what crazy pairings of authors and categories could you envision?

6

Books and pieces

Just got back from a relaxing beach vacation in North Carolina’s Outer Banks.  Aside from blue skies, a minimal amount of jellyfish, and the blackened fish tacos at Uncle Ike’s, one of the highlights of our week was spending time at the Island Bookstore in Corolla.  Below is a view from the front porch of this quaint, but well stocked and organized, establishment which seems to do a brisk business (warms the heart, that):

Like most publishing people (really, like most book people) I’m thrilled at how nicely the independent stores are doing after being pummeled by giant corporations starting in the ‘90s and facing the threat of death by e-books that doomsayers predicted (and still do).  What I didn’t expect, and find rather ironic, is the fact that we now are all worrying about  and rooting for Barnes & Noble’s survival in the wake of its recent struggles.  B&N, once publishing’s bad guy, has relinquished its evil empire status to the mighty (Villanous? Depends on who you talk to…) Amazon, with the result that people who once reviled the company are now offering suggestions on how to stay afloat for the sake of the book business as a whole.  This piece by Jason Diamond in Flavorwire goes to the heart of the issue and suggests that B&N act more like an Indie in order to save itself.  Did I mention irony?

As much as I love a musty, cluttered shop that I can lose myself in for hours at a time, growing up in the Miami sprawl, I went to the Waldenbooks or Borders at the mall because quaint, pretty Indie bookstores were not just a stroll away.  Sure, these mall venues lacked charm, but they offered access to the titles I wanted and needed and I was grateful they were around.  I do hope B&N, which effectively replaced those old mall stores, will hang on for a new generation of readers who get dropped off at the mall by their parents.

So, what’s your favorite bookstore?  And why?

 

Is reading changing?

I’m on vacation next week (Yay!) and for reasons I’ve never really understood (perhaps therapy would help), I’m in that clear-my-desk-of-everything-I’ve-been-meaning-to-take-care-of-since-January mode while being suddenly bombarded with contracts, manuscripts, and proposals that I’ve been waiting for roughly since, well, January and which have chosen this week to make an appearance with an “urgent” flag attached to them.  Of course, it’s my blog week as well so, in full pre-vacation madness, I shamelessly stole Jim McCarthy’s idea to ask his Twitter followers to suggest a topic for him when he returned from his travels. Several people helpfully responded to my plea and I very much appreciate their input.

The one idea that jumped out at me was submitted by our client Kevin Grange: “People are increasingly reading in shorter bursts on various e-devices. Should we construct stories differently? Thoughts?”

Partly, I sparked to this one because I’ve been fantasizing about which of my books I’m going to lug a physical copy of and which ones I’m going to add to my Kindle Fire.  (My grasp, as always, exceeds my reach here, folks.  I’m packing books like I’ve been sentenced to solitary confinement in Siberia instead of a week at the beach with my family.)

Despite my initial impulse to deny that my reading habits have changed at all and that, therefore, there’s any need to change the essential structure of storytelling,  Kevin’s question made me realize that I do, indeed, read in shorter bursts when using my Kindle (or any other electronic device).  In part, this is because, I don’t care what anyone says, my eyes get tired more quickly reading a screen.  Mostly, though, it has to do with the fact that Words With Friends, Ruzzle, Facebook, and the whole of the internet is also on my Kindle along with the 300 other titles and manuscripts residing therein.  So, if I hit a dull patch in my book, there’s always something else to take its place.

But does this mean that authors need to write shorter?  Shorter sentences?  Shorter paragraphs?  Shorter chapters?  Shorter books?  And is it already happening?

Thriller writers have known for years that trim chapters ending in cliffhangers build that all-important momentum, leading inexorably to the climactic scene involving a sinister villain, a put-upon hero(ine), and lots of weaponry.   But, does the fact that increasingly we’re ingesting our literature on e-readers mean that even literary fiction and nonfiction are conforming to the dictates of our ever shorter attention spans?

Instinctively, I want to say they are, but I’ve no solid data on the subject.  Basically,  I’m going to keep this in mind as I read and edit and consider new projects.  Meanwhile, I’ll just restate Kevin’s very good question here and ask what you all think.  For the writers out there, are you consciously shortening your stride when writing?  And for the readers, do you find, as I do, that you have less stickwithitness?

2

What not to read/Happy 4th!

I’m not even going to pretend that anyone out there is reading our blog as we head into the holiday weekend.  Personally, my head is already poolside, so I hope you all have great Fourth of July plans and the weather to go with them.

I leave you with this delightful list of books that pretty much suck as beach reads, helpfully compiled by Flavorwire.  (Much as I love the dead Russian literary greats, I have to admit that they don’t pair well with sunscreen and bathing suits.)  So, grab a Jackie Collins novel, or Snooki’s latest oeuvre (yes, she has more than one) and enjoy.  Leave the heavy lifting for the fall.

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?