A Brief Word On the Effective Length & Structure of Shane Jones’s LIGHT BOXES

Written by David on June 4th, 2009

I should not have enjoyed Shane Jones’s novel Light Boxes.

Usually I just don’t like fiction that exists on a magical plain.  That’s not a criticism of the fundamental nature of such work.  It just doesn’t do it for me.  For whatever reason, I prefer my fiction to be grounded in the laws of physics.

I’ve paid a social price for this attitude of mine.  People assume I’m a snob for not being able to tolerate all of those Harry Potter things.  They secretly theorize that I shun The Lord of the Rings because my ears are, shall we say, Hobbit-like.  I don’t dig on García Márquez either (shocking!).  Or Rushdie.  I tried.  Can’t do it.  Maybe I’ll try again some day when I’ve finished reading everything else.  Maybe not.

I once had a potential love interest stop speaking to me mid-meal (as in, not speaking one single additional word) after I stated that I don’t like fantasy.  Awkward, but ultimately most fortunate.

Soon after passing by its beautifully designed cover, it becomes quite clear that Light Boxes takes place in a world created by Shane Jones.  It’s a cold, dreary place where the month of February lasts forever, where dead children live in tunnels under the ground and where February is also a person, or a person-like being, who is responsible for inflicting this seemingly eternal winter on a town of people strangely obsessed with flying hot air balloons.

My gut did initially react negatively, but I kept reading anyway.  Why?  Certainly Jones’s deceptively simple and highly effective prose was a large part of the reason.  But if this book had been 300 or 400 or 1,000 pages, I might simply have moved on to another book in the stack.  Light Boxes is 168 pages long, and they’re small pages.  It’s rare for any one of its sections to last for more than two pages, and most are much shorter than that.  Each section is tightly written and could probably stand all on its own (even if the meaning might not be entirely clear if it were taken out of context).  I have no idea whether Jones structured his novel this way intentionally, but the fact is that this book is ideally suited for reading quickly and for reading until the end.

That’s not why I liked this book.  It’s why I kept reading it.  Those very manageable short sections allowed me to get to the point where I could get past my hang-ups and really enjoy passages like this:

They held hands.  They formed dozens of circles around their deflated smoldering balloons.  Balloons silken globes the colors magenta grass green and sky blue were mud strewn wet with holy water and burned black through the stitching.

Bianca said, I don’t understand.

Thaddeus said, I don’t either.

Is this February’s doing, she said.

Maybe, said Thaddeus who looked up at the sky.

A scroll of parchment was nailed to an oak tree, calling for the end of all things that could fly…

I don’t want to make too much of our famously shortened attention spans or how the internet has made us all want to read “modules” instead of lengthy stretches of text.  There may be something to all that, but that’s not my point here.

The fact is simply that it’s hard enough to get a person to read a book, particularly a book on the more literary end of the spectrum.  If a writer has the discipline necessary to write in this way, and if such a structure suits the work, then I think it does greatly increase the book’s chances of being read.  Of course, of course, of course, it still has to be good.  But there are many good books that are rarely read.

No, I don’t think every novel now needs to be short or that literature must be comprised of bite-sized chunks.  I would not want that.  I’m quite content reading long chapters and books.

Light Boxes, I suspect, would also be ideally suited to reading in an electronic format.  Just sayin’.

By the time I arrived at page 168, if there had been more, I would have kept reading.  What can I say?  Might just have to read it again.

Light Boxes is available directly from Publishing Genius Press and at a good bookstore near you.

For a normal review of Light Boxes, try this one or this one or this one (includes a good interview with Shane Jones).

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Interview: Historian Maureen Ogle On Money

Written by David on May 19th, 2009

Maureen Ogle has not allowed her Ph.D. in the history of American technology to shackle her life and her work to the academic world.  Having discovered early in her career that writing scholarly works on narrow topics for a small audience of specialists was not going to make her happy, she left academia in the late 1990’s to begin writing histories for a general audience.

By writing about what truly interests her, Maureen has been able to share her enthusiasm with her readers, and her work has thrived.  First with Key West: History of An Island of Dreams and then with Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer, she has found contentment, an audience and more than a few writing and speaking gigs.  Her articles and op-ed pieces have appeared in the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, U.S. News & World Report and a host of other publications.  She is a frequent paid speaker and a regular contributor to the Fox Business Network.  Maureen has also appeared in several documentaries, most recently Beer Wars.

Of course, even with respectable advances and a variety of paid secondary services, writing is still one of the most difficult ways to earn a living.  Following Tao Lin and Sarah Wendell, Maureen is the latest writer to answer some of my questions about money and writing.

Interview with Maureen Ogle

David Nygren:  If you’d stayed in academia, achieved tenure and published “scholarly” books and articles, you’d probably not have made much from your writing itself but potentially could have had a reliably comfortable salary.  I know your decision to leave academia was not made for financial reasons, but how would you compare your ability to earn a living as an academic vs. your ability to earn a living as a writer of histories for a general audience?

Maureen Ogle:  Financially, I would be better off in academia. I’d be miserable, but, hey, I’d have money.

The reality of “writing” is that almost no one earns a living from it. Yes, some writers hit the equivalent of the writers’ lottery and make millions.

In fact, I know someone who did, and I was delighted for her. She worked hard to land where she did. (The downside was that various writer-rats crawled out of the sewer, asking her for money. Ugh!)  I have other friends and acquaintances who’ve been able to generate a small but steady income from writing, thanks to print runs of 60-70,000).

I’ve not had anything like that kind of success, so I am painfully aware of how difficult it is to build a financially stable career as a writer.

It takes a long time, longer than most people can hold out without some kind of “financial aid.” (I’m lucky: my husband suggested that I leave academia to write for a general audience, and has supported the process over the past decade with his own paychecks.)

Unfortunately, many writers assume and believe they’ll be the exception; that their book will earn a huge advance and land on the bestseller list. They may be, but I doubt it. (The writer I knew who “won” the jackpot was aware of the role that luck played. Yes, she worked incredibly hard, and she’s ambitious and savvy and smart. But she knew that things could have turned out differently.)

I suspect most writers’ experiences will be more like mine:

I landed a $100,000 advance for the beer book. My agent took 15%; taxes devoured another 35-40 percent. I spent five years writing the book, which came out in the fall of 2006. I’ve not earned out the advance, and I doubt I ever will. Put another way, the advance is all I will likely earn on that book.

Yet agents and publishers alike regard me as a safe bet, safe enough to contract for another book with a slightly larger advance. (Yes, publishing is an exercise in irrationality.)

The public’s lack of awareness doesn’t help. The average reader doesn’t understand that I only earn money from a book from sales of new copies.

If I had a buck for every person who said “Oh, I found a copy for a dollar,” or “Found a used copy at Amazon” or “I borrowed a friend’s copy”  —  well, let’s just say I’d have a fatter bank account than I do.

DN:  When choosing a topic for a book project, what do you do to help determine the topic’s commercial potential?

MO:  I don’t think about commercial potential so much as I think about “readability” and “interestability.”

A project has to hold my interest for the five or so years it takes me to research and write; that’s the interestability.

But it also needs to be something I’d like to read, and, because I’m a typical reader, I believe others will also find the topic interesting.

The “commercial” aspect follows from that: If I think it’s interesting, others will, too. As far as I’m concerned, a “good” book is one that I want to read. (Just as a “good” beer is the one that I like.)

The worst thing any writer can do is try to predict or write for the market. Writers need to write what they want to read, and what interests them. (Agents and publishers, by the way, eye writers’ projects from the same perspective: they buy/acquire books that they themselves find interesting as readers.)

For some writers, that guarantees a big income: Authors of romantic thrillers, for example, know that there’s an enormous audience for their work, and I’m guessing that those authors enjoy reading romantic thrillers as much as they enjoy writing them.

That’s not a criticism of genre writers. Indeed, more power to ‘em. They know what they like; they know what their readers like.

And — isn’t it interesting that publishers cater to and accommodate that genre’s audience by publishing first in inexpensive paperbacks whose price makes them affordable? And, because more affordable, all but guarantees that those writers will make more money than other writers? If only publishers were that savvy about other genres!

DN:  The topics of your books for a general audience have been Key West, beer and now meat with your current project Carnivore Nation: Meat and the Making of Modern America.  Since these subjects are all so different, do you have to build an audience from scratch for each new book?  Or do you think you’re at least partly retaining an audience that appreciates your voice?

MO:  Heh heh. I love that you assume I have an audience. I’m not sure if I do. Michael Pollan, I’m not.

Smart-ass answer aside, I don’t worry about building a new audience from scratch, because in my mind, my books are all about the same subject: The American experience. With each book, I’m exploring the same questions: What does it mean to be an American? How does the fact that I’m an American shape the way I respond to and act in and upon the world around me?

DN:  Do you feel that your very prolific blogging ultimately helps sell your books and your self?

MO:  Good question, and if publishing weren’t such a total exercise in irrationality, murkiness, and swamptitude, I might have an answer. The truth is, I have zero idea if blogging generates sales, although my gut instinct tells me that it’s good for business.

I initially resisted blogging, which I regarded as a waste of time. And because I couldn’t see the point, I couldn’t figure out what to do with a blog.

But early 2008 marked the 75th anniversary of the return of legal beer. I realized I’d be a fool to waste the opportunity to promote my book, so I wrote a series of blog entries that served as a historical countdown to the big day (April 7).

To my surprise, people read them. (I knew that because I got occasional comments, and other bloggers linked to my entries.)

And the halogen bulb finally switched on in my dimly lit brain: blogging is an incredible tool for “marketing” and “promotion.”

It took me another six months or so to figure out what my blog was “about.” The standard wisdom is that blogs should be focused and targeted.

I decided the standard wisdom was wrong. I should blog about whatever interested me; if people wanted to read, great. If not, okay.

I quickly discovered that people will read blogs for the blogger’s “voice,” regardless of content. What’s “focused” and “consistent” about my blog is — me.

Then some of my readers, including you, urged me to try Twitter.

Twitter, dear readers, is THE greatest marketing/promotional tool ever. I use it to comment on whatever, but also to post links to new blog entries. My blog traffic has soared (plus, I’ve “met” a whole bunch of interesting creative people that I otherwise would not have known about).

So I’ve traveled a long road from my “blogging is pointless” stance. It’s time-consuming and requires good time management. But I believe it pays off.

And, of course, ours is a media-saturated world, and it’s difficult to gain anyone’s attention. But blogging/ tweeting/ facebooking (is that a word?) can create an audience. (And, as you’ll read in answer to another question below, it can also pay off.)

DN:  In April of 2007, Hustler magazine selected your book Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer as its book-of-the-month. Were you able to determine whether or not this increased sales?  That is, did an endorsement from a popular yet non-book-focused entity help?

MO:  I used the “honor” as a jumping off point for an essay I wrote about historians’ work, but other than that, I don’t know if it had any impact or not. (Do Hustler readers read the magazine? Or do they just look at the pictures?)

I think too many writers take too limited a view of their own knowledge.

If you’ve written a novel about, say, schizophrenic war veterans, use the knowledge gained from your research and writing to pen op-ed pieces or to blog about the subject. Someone out there will be interested in your perspective.

I know that my skills as a writer and a historian have been honed, exercised, and stretched because of my “outreach” work. I use what I know to inform and communicate with other people who, I remind myself, don’t have that same knowledge.

I also blog about the process of research and writing. Remember, we writers know about that, but the average person does not. (Just as I have no idea what computer programmers and bridge engineers do.)

I also think many writers take a too-limited view of their potential audience. If someone is literate, that someone is a potential reader. The worst thing writers can do, in my opinion, is hang out with other writers.

Ditto for hanging out at sites for “readers.” I’m a devoted reader, and I never spend time at readers’ forums. I hang out with people; they’re where the action is. And with luck, I’ll persuade them to become readers, too. (In some sense, of course, if they’re reading my blog or my tweets, they’re reading.)

DN:  You’ve written on several occasions that you’re not even sure what a book will look like once you’ve finished Carnivore Nation (scheduled to be published in 2011 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).  Are the uncertainty in the publishing industry and the growing popularity of ebooks affecting the way you’re writing in any way?

MO:  I’m a disturbingly optimistic person, so my attitude is: Onward, onward, onward. I suspect that by 2011, my publisher will have been acquired by another house or simply won’t exist (its financial woes mount by the day). But I figure some entity or other will publish the book, in some format or other.

But I regularly ponder (and blog about!) the possibilities for and the future of “the book.”

By the time my next book comes out, it may, for example, contain embedded hyperlinks that can take a reader to more information about one of the topics discussed in the text. So I’ve debated whether I should include urls in the manuscript now so I won’t need to look them up later.

I’ve also thought about ways to weave my research and writing into my blog.

For example, I run an ongoing series call “First Draft Follies,” in which I post material that I edited out of the final manuscript of the beer book, and which would otherwise never see the light. I’ve already acquired material and text that I doubt will end up in the final manuscript of the meat book, so at some point I’ll do the same thing with it.

So I’m constantly thinking about the ways in which I can and should adjust to a digital world, and to make the interface between my three-dimensional desk and my online life as seamless as possible.

Let me add that I arrived at this place only after a struggle. For a long time, I resisted the internet (I’m 55, and I’ve used a PC since the mid-1980s, but I didn’t grow up with a computer or the internet).

Only in the past two years or so have I accepted that life as I knew it in the pre-digital era is over, and I need to adjust accordingly. So the project of meshing my writing life and my digital life is ongoing (which, of course, provides fodder for the blog.)

DN:  Let’s pretend it’s 2011, DRM-free ebooks are equally as popular as print books and Carnivore Nation is about to be released.  Market pressure for a low ebook price point and some moderate piracy have the effect of generating less revenue for ebooks compared to print.  But the availability of the ebook increases the book’s readership and impact.  Is this scenario displeasing to you?  Do you feel that income from other sources (articles, speaking engagements, etc.) could make up for the lost income from book sales?

MO:  I think writers will earn as much, and probably more, once ebooks become “normal.” I’d buy more books if a good e-reader was available (I’m still waiting for a version that worth’s spending $300 on) and the price was, say, $10 a book.

As for the piracy issue, I don’t know how that will be resolved, but as I noted before, used books are already affecting writers’ incomes.

The world’s “content providers” need to educate the public about where the money goes when someone buy a cd, dvd, or book. Most people simply don’t realize that a book or cd is more than just a physical object. Someone creates the content.

I know that sounds obvious, but it’s amazing to me how many people simply don’t get it. As long as the average person doesn’t understand the connection between the writer, the words, and the physical book, frankly, it’s not going to matter whether books are digital or e-version. Writers will still not make much money.

It’s worth noting that the only writers most people know about are ones like J. K. Rowling or Dan Brown, who are obviously the exception to the rule. And so the public makes a leap from Rowling to the rest of us, and assumes that we’re all as successfuland therefore as wealthy. We’re not. But we need to let them know that.

DN:  The number one item in your web site’s FAQ reads “Yes, I love speaking to audiences. (For money, of course.) (I wish I could do it for free, and if I win a lottery, I will).” Do people frequently expect that you will speak for free?  How common are your paid speaking engagements?

MO:  I’m sorry to say that yes, some people think I should show up for free. I had a guy ask me to speak at his beer club. He wanted me to drive 700 miles round trip, stay overnight, etc. — for free.

But again, I think that goes back to the disconnect between what writers do and what the public knows. He clearly thought I had deep pockets and/or that I ought to be thrilled at the idea of speaking to his club, so thrilled that I’d spend tons of money to do so.

The reason I listed that first at my FAQ (none of which, I might add, are frequently asked…) is because I need to advertise my services as a speaker.

For the past two years, speaking provided good money. And then, alas, the stock market collapsed, and bye-bye to paid speaking. I am hoping that will change as/if the economy recovers, but for 2009, for example, I have no paid gigs lined up.

I should add that I’ve spoken at several events this year, but they’ve been local and hosted by groups with little or no money, and I’ve either refused or not asked for a speaking fee. (Had I been asked to speak by some deep-pocketed corporation, of which there are many nearby, yes, I would have wanted money and lots of it.)

My view is that goodwill matters as much as money (well, okay, almost as much), and it’s not going to break my bank to drive 20 miles to speak to a group. (My husband, I should add, thinks I’m a damn fool.)

Another example: a bar owner in Brooklyn asked me if I’d be interested in speaking there sometime and he asked about a fee.

I told him if he wanted to pay my expenses for a trip specifically so I could speak there, great. But I’d be glad to do it for free next time I’m in New York. He can buy me dinner and a beer, and we’ll all have a good time. Again, if I’m already in the city, why not do it? (I have family there, so I visit regularly.)

DN:  Were you paid to appear in the documentary “Beer Wars” and the other documentaries you’ve been in?

MO:  No. Documentary filmmakers don’t pay their “subjects.” If they did, it would like paying for a specific opinion or viewpoint and taint the project. Some filmmakers will pay travel expenses if they want you on a specific location, but otherwise, no, it’s not a source of income. The hope at my end, of course, is that someone who sees the project on television, dvd, or in a theater, will read my books.

DN:  Do you actively pursue assignments writing op-ed pieces and articles?  Has such work become more difficult to obtain recently? How did you get your gig as a contributor to the Fox Business Network?  Have you met/seen/smelled Rupert Murdoch?

MO:  I pursue those projects, but about half the pieces I wrote last year were commissioned; that is, the editor approached me. And Fox Business Network approached me for my contributing gig.

The more important question is: How did they find me? Answer: through my blog.

The op-ed editor at the Washington Post, for example, had read my blog, liked my sardonic humor (or so she said; I hadn’t realized I was being sardonic or funny!), and asked me for a humorous piece about beer for their Fourth of July issue.

So those are cases where blogging created opportunities, many of them paying.

The Fox Business Network gig is great fun; well, okay, anything that gets me in front of an audience is fun. It’s non-paying (as are most television contributing gigs), but my appearances apparently generate buckets of emails, so that’s good for me and them.

And no, I’ve never been anywhere near Murdoch. I’m not sure I’d recognize him if I saw him!  [Ed. Note:  He's the one who smells like sulfur.]

DN:  A final non-money-related question:  what is your favorite American beer?

MO:  My favorite beer is whatever I think will taste best with whatever I’m about to eat (because beer tastes better with food). I’m a malty person, as opposed to a hoppy person, so the stuff in my fridge tends to be the “dark” beers. I will gladly bequeath my share of the world’s Pale Ales to anyone who wants them.

Update: Be sure to read Maureen’s thoughts on this interview here.

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Word DJ

Written by David on April 19th, 2009

In his post reacting to Jason Weaver’s piece on post-punk publishing last week, Mike Cane pointed out that books, along with being inherently more difficult to sample than music, don’t have any true equivalent to the DJ.

“What’s the equivalent of a DJ for a writer or book? A reviewer? Which reviewer and where?”

The growth of electronic publishing will mean that an ever increasing number of people, liberated from the authority of the traditional gatekeepers, will be able to publish their work.  That’s a good thing.  Probably the biggest negative of this phenomenon, however, is that it will become increasingly difficult for readers to discover the good stuff among all the “sludge.”

Book reviewers don’t really do this job.  They write about the book itself but typically offer only small samples.  They usually only look at newly published work and, with some exceptions, only touch books published by established publishing houses.  Plus, I don’t see our current conception of a “book” staying the same for too much longer.  In an e-dominant world, written content will come in a variety of shapes and sizes.

I’ve previously spoken of the possibility of “super readers,” but here I’ve included a bit more detail.  I’m not sure whether any of this would actually work, but it would be interesting if some people tried a little somethin’ like this:

  • Just as with traditional music DJ’s, a “word DJ” would have a fairly consistent taste (though not necessarily a niche or genre) and people with a similar taste would follow the word DJ’s who share their own taste and who do the best job of turning them on to new stuff.
  • Rather than simply making recommendations, the word DJ gives significantly sized samples of whatever kind of work fits in with the DJ’s specialty.  Fiction or non-fiction.  Samples from books, samples from short stories or articles that might be published only online and even samples from poems (or entire poems).
  • The word DJ would most certainly not limit herself to newly published work.  Any work from any period could potentially be included.
  • As with music DJ’s, some word DJ’s would have a narrow focus and some would be more ecclectic.
  • Also as with music DJ’s, some word DJ’s would focus upon one written work at a time, while others might do “remixes” that cut up and mix together work from various writers and works.
  • The true purpose of the word DJ is to take their readers on a journey, not to evaluate written works critically.
  • The word DJ does not to tell his readers “Go buy and read this ENTIRE book.”  In many cases, readers will go and buy and read the entire book, but they will often be content to read only the sample.
  • Everything that is sampled would have a convenient link to purchase the entire work.  The word DJ’s could even get an affiliate-type commission.
  • Word DJ’s would need to sample much larger segments of a work than would normally be permissible under “fair use.”  Wise writers and their publishers (if they have them) would happily go along with this.

There are bookish bloggers doing some of these kinds of things already.  But I wonder if consciously thinking about this person as a “DJ” would change how the DJ works and how others would read the DJ’s aggregations.

I’m sure there is a better term than “word DJ,” too.  Suggestions?

Update: In the Comments, Blissfool correctly points out “If a DJ is a disk jockey, and a VJ is a video jockey then surely a Book DJ would be a BJ?”  Oh, yes!  How could I have missed that?!  This idea may well catch on…

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Beer Wars

Written by David on April 18th, 2009

The documentary “Beer Wars” simultaneously demonstrates what is best and worst about America.  The best comes from the hundreds of brewers who have rejected the notion that Americans only have a taste for the nearly tasteless light pilsners concocted by Anheuser-Busch, Miller and Coors and who have devoted their lives to creating and selling better beers.  The worst comes in the form of the outmoded laws that effectively give the mega-breweries control of beer distribution in America, as well as the Washington lobbyists and interest groups who spend millions of dollars every year to keep the notorious three-tier system in place.

There are certainly many other industries where the same kind of story (passionate upstarts vs. corporate behemoths) could have been told, but the American beer industry is currently in such a state of hyperactivity that it would be difficult to find a more entertaining subject.  Filmmaker Anat Baron, although she appears in the documentary, does a good job of staying out of the way and letting the fascinating personalities of the beer world tell this story.  From Dogfish Head Brewery founder Sam Calagione (think:  telegenic surfer dude with a brain and a heart and a rapidly growing company) to President of the National Beer Wholesalers Association David Rehr (think:  this man would say or do anything for money and may quite possibly have a forked tongue), Baron’s camera rarely lingers upon anyone or anything that isn’t interesting in some way.

“Beer Wars” premiered on April 16 with a simulcast in 440 theaters across the U.S., followed by a live Q&A with some of the brewers and experts who appear in the documentary (including Ambitious Brew author and friend of The Urban Elitist, historian Maureen Ogle).  The theater where I caught it, the Chelsea Clearview in NYC, was about 95% full (two other theaters in town were also showing it), and the audience there certainly reacted positively.  A spontaneous cheer arose when the Yuengling segment began and ruddy, fifth generation owner Dick Yuengling appeared on the screen (PA in the house?).  And there was a collective gasp when the film revealed all of the beers that Anheuser-Busch imports and distributes:  Bass Ale, Boddingtons, Beck’s, Hoegaarden, Leffe, Stella Artois and several others.  In case you’ve ever wondered why these imports and not others are so prominent in the U.S., Anheuser-Busch’s involvement is the reason (not necessarily consumer demand).

The problem for the rest of you is that there’s no evidence that “Beer Wars” will have an ongoing theatrical release.  This, I suspect, will change, but get it in your Netflix Queue, just in case.

P.S.  Beer distributors are SUPER CREEPY!

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Finally, A Thorough Criticism!

Written by David on April 9th, 2009

Ryan Call of <HTMLGIANT> stayed up late to write “an intelligent post to temper all of the madhouse raving” for “Under the Table.”

Unfortunately, the story itself is fairly boring and overdone, which I suppose you can justify with the argument that those little spreadsheet cells don’t have room for subtlety. But one would hope that restriction could create some really odd and mysterious language. Also, this is a first draft, which David emphasizes in his post, so apologies for my taking it as finished product. But really, people, I don’t see what’s so “brilliant” and “nicely done!”

I don’t agree with all of his comments, but I do think Ryan is correct in criticizing the language of the “Thought” columns.  It is in these columns that the real story is taking place, and I too don’t really like the way they’re currently written.  I feel like there are two options here:  either make the thoughts more like raw data (bullet points?), which may be appropriate for the spreadsheet form, or else try to make the language a lot more artful.  Instead, what I’ve done in this first draft is end up somewhere in the middle.  That’s not going to work.  I might have to try both of the extremes to see what reads better.

In any case, I’ll certainly include Ryan’s name in the list of contributors in the final draft, if he permits it.  But I suspect he won’t.

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What Happened? “Under the Table” One Week Later

Written by David on April 7th, 2009

Well, it’s been a week since I posted the first draft of “Under the Table,” and it has now been downloaded over 10,000 times.  I’m extremely grateful for all the attention it has received and would like to thank everyone who promoted it, who commented (both here and elsewhere) and who provided feedback.  Yeah, I wrote the thing, but the people who blogged and tweeted about it and who linked to it are the ones who are truly responsible for helping this first draft find so many readers.

Let me say again:  THANK YOU!

Yes, I know that the novelty, the gimmick, of having a piece of fiction structured within a spreadsheet is the fuel that made this all possible.  In a world with so many available diversions, one must do what one can to get people to read a short story!  But the pure idea of writing in this way preceded the notion that it might be an attention-getter, and I think that fact made it possible that this piece of writing could be something readable and good rather than just a cheap stunt.

I have received some criticism that I didn’t go far enough, that Excel is capable of being far more dynamic and interactive than I’ve asked it to be here.  It was never my intention to push Excel to its literary limit, but I agree that it would be interesting to see someone try and heartily encourage others to give it a shot!

In fact, there have been rumors that others are planning their own spreadsheet fiction.  It could even be happening at this very minute.  Stay tuned…  Update: It has been done!  Jason Rodriguez has written a story in a spreadsheet as part of his project to tell the same story in 260 (!) genres.

Apart from the short storyspreadsheet concept, I’ve received enough positive feedback about the effectiveness of the story itself to convince myself that I’m not completely delusional for kinda liking this thing.  Remember, it’s just a first draft.  I can make this a lot better.  So do I plan on using the feedback I’ve received to go through the dreary editing process and work toward a final draft?  Absolutely.

Do I still hope to have this published by the online version of a highly esteemed literary journal?  Hell, yes!  With the kind of traffic it (still) has the potential to deliver, I might even make them pay me for the privilege (but don’t let that scare you off, dear editor).

Will I ever write another short storyspreadsheet, or even a novexcel?  Nah!  Well…maybe.  You never know.  We’ll see what happens.

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Short Storyspreadsheet: Excel as a Trojan Horse for Literature

Written by David on March 31st, 2009

A few weeks ago, I had a nutty idea and decided to Tweet it:

Naturally, I assumed that would be it.  Like one of Yoko Ono’s wacky concepts, the mere idea of such a thing would be entertaining enough.  No point in going through the trouble of actually doing it.

But there was a bit of a reaction to the idea.  Just a wee bit of a stir.  Then absurdist writer Nick Name came up with the term for such a creation:  novexcel.

That struck me as a beautiful new word.  It acted as a kind of fuel for my inspiration.  I decided that, for once, I really ought to put one of my nutty ideas to the test.

But the time required for a full-length novexcel would be more than I’d care to invest in an experiment.  Instead, I thought, how about a short storyspreadsheet?

So I’ve done it.  Here is the first draft of my short storyspreadsheet “Under the Table” (I hope I don’t need to point out the double entendre).  Other formats are available at the end of the post.  Read it.  I swear it’s not horrible (how’s that for a blurb?).

Click here to download the Excel version of “Under the Table.”

The first worksheet of the Excel file has the “raw data,” the story itself (8 columns x 30 rows).  The easiest way to read it is to click on the first cell and then use the arrow keys to move to the next cell you want to read.  The second sheet has a line graph that gives graphical representation to the “Character Intensity of Thought Units” (CIT Units) for each “Action Segment” in the story.

The raw data is formatted to print nicely, if that’s your thing.  However, I encourage everyone to read the story in its electronic format.  I’ve turned on “Track Changes,” thereby cordially inviting you to collaborate with me on this short storyspreadsheet.  Make any changes you feel are appropriate, and then send your version of the short storyspreadsheet back to me at david [at] theurbanelitist [dot] com.  I’ll be able to highlight any changes you made.  In particular, I’d like help with the language of each character’s thoughts.  I was not sure how best to handle this (Joycean stream of consciousness or ???).

All suggestions/edits will be considered and greatly appreciated.  However, I remain the master of this particular short storyspreadsheet.  This is not literature as democracy.  Whether or not a collaborator’s suggestions are used, all collaborators will be credited in the final version.

Of course, if you’d like to write your own short storyspreadsheet, please send it to me and I’ll add all submitted short storyspreadsheets to single Excel file (one story per worksheet).  The short storyspreadsheet collection will then be distributed globally in an electronic format, free of charge.  Those who download it will be encouraged to sneak a short storyspreadsheet or two into their dreary work-related Excel files.

Do I have any plans to turn “Under the Table” into a “normal” short story?  No.  This banal scenario, I think, would not work as a standard short story.  It only has the potential to be effective in the short storyspreadsheet format.  Besides, these characters are a rather despicable lot.  They deserve to be trapped inside a spreadsheet.  (Let that be your warning.  These characters are cruel and often crude.  Deal with it.  Short storyspreadsheets by their very nature contain only cold facts, like them or not.  Welcome to your world.)

Do I hope to have the final version of “Under the Table” published in the online version of a highly esteemed literary journal?  Yes.  I want to say something like, “Let’s see if any literary journal has the GUTS to publish a short storyspreadsheet!”  But if I were to do that, a significant percentage of people would not realize that I was kidding.  We can’t have that.  If I’m happy with the final result, I would like to see this published in a highly esteemed literary journal, but I do not actually believe that publishing it will require any “guts.”

Options for reading “Under the Table”:

Excel version (recommended)

Word version (the Excel table is pasted into Word)

Update: Google Docs Spreadsheet (thanks, Ryan)

Screen shots after the jump… Click to continue »

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Poet Stalking: In Search of m loncar

Written by David on March 27th, 2009

I have long enjoyed the poetry collection 66 galaxie by m locar.  The poems in the Bakeless Poetry Prize-winner focus upon things like road trips, film, love, death and a woman named Angelina.  These are all topics that interest me.  Just as importantly, of course, loncar’s writing appeals to me on a gut level.  There’s no bullshit.  This is poetry that is alive.  It doesn’t feel like it was composed on a college campus (even though it may well have been).  I have memorized several of the poems in this book by accident, the way you memorize songs, through endless, obsessive repetition.  Sometimes I recite these poems in the shower.

I’ve owned 66 galaxie twice.  The first time was shortly after it was published in 1998.  My girlfriend at the time bought it (we were a collective).  When we split up, I lost custody (old school DRM), and this was one of the few “lost books” that I re-acquired.

Over the years I’ve probably checked the L’s in the poetry section at least a dozen times.  At first, I might have found a copy of 66 galaxie, but nothing else by m loncar.  In more recent years, there’s usually nothing at all.  66 galaxie is out of print.

What the hell happened to this guy?

Recently, I had the flu or something like it, with fevers up in the 102-103 degree range.  When the worst was over, but while I was still stuck in bed, I started reading m loncar and Robert Lowell.  A scrambled brain, I find, works better with poetry than prose (I never would have been able to comprehend a novel or even a magazine article at that stage).  I also had the laptop in bed and out of curiosity started doing some random searches for m loncar.

Unlike Lowell, loncar lives.

More specifically, he lives in Taiwan.  What sent the Youngstown, Ohio, native there I do not know, but he seems to be teaching American literature, drama, and film at Aletheia University in Tamshui, Taipei.  Or at least he was.  The most recent evidence pertaining to his teaching activities is from this Miami University Creative Writing Alumni update that was published in 2005:

m loncar, class of 1992, has sent in the following update:

MFA from the University of Michigan in 1995, then taught 4 years as a lecturer in the Department of English and Program in Film and Video Studies. Won Bakeless prize and published book of poems 66 galaxie (UPNE) in 1998. While in Michigan, also completed two short films “hey locked boy (12 min)” and “if they hang you (good morning angel) (42 min)” and was chief editor of the exhibition catalogue The Orchid Pavilion Gallery: Chinese Painting at the University of Michigan Museum of Art (University of Washington Press).

Have been living in Taiwan for the last 4 years, studying Chinese, traveling and filming around Asia, and teaching American literature, drama, and film at Aletheia University in Tamshui, Taipei, Taiwan. Have been busy working on new poetry manuscript viola (vs. the 36 chambers of shaolin), new film project the pleasures of the fish in the hao river, and writing, recording, and playing in the Taipei band the diamond vehicles. Website to come (hopefully) in near future.

It’s strange that it begins with the note saying that m loncar “has sent the following update,” as if the words that followed were of dubious accuracy.  Or maybe the alumni people had such respect for the man’s words that they didn’t want to edit his submission into the flat third-person of all the other alumni descriptions.

As of now, there does not seem to be a published book of poetry by loncar or anyone else called viola (vs. the 36 chambers of shaolin).  This is fine.  I’m patient.  “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin” is a classic kung fu film made in 1978.

There is a MySpace page for the diamond vehicles, but no one has logged into it since September 22, 2007.  YouTube, more than any other place on the internet, offers plentiful evidence of m loncar’s existence, and there is a video posted in October 2007 of the diamond vehicles (loncar and “c lin”) playing a song called “long time.”  loncar plays a left-handed guitar.

loncar also seems to have played in a band called area c, and there is a YouTube video showing footage of some kind of parade, possibly in Taiwan, set to a piece of music called “trick with a knife” by area c.  You should watch it.

Also from 2005 is this letter to the editor of the The China Post (a little less than half-way down the page) by Michael G. Loncar, Lecturer, Aletheia University Tamsui, Taipei:

As someone who has lived in Taiwan for the last five years teaching Taiwanese university students, it’s very inspiring to see people on all sides of the Taiwan political divide coming together to support this important event and sending a powerful message to the world.

So loncar’s activities include not only poetry, film and music, but also politics.  His interest in Taiwan’s democracy was not limited to 2005.  In July 2007, loncar submitted this video question regarding U.S. support of Taiwanese democracy to the CNN YouTube Debate for the Democratic Party’s primary race.

Finally, although there’s no evidence that “the pleasures of the fish in the hao river” was ever completed, it’s clear that m loncar is still interested in the moving image.  There are the music videos, and then there is what may be the most recent clue of all:  a YouTube video posted on November 2, 2008, in the “Howto & Style” category.  It’s a freaky but colorfully interesting 19 second video called “wine.”  As of this posting, it had been viewed 35 times.

But who is this woman who posted this particular video and whose YouTube user name is ddzdza?  The country she has listed with her account is CS, which is the country code for Serbia and Montenegro.  Is this video by the poet m loncar, or is it some other m loncar?  If it is the poet, what is this woman’s relationship with him?

Enough with the stalking.  Why do I care about m loncar at all?  Here are some fragments.  I would love to post some complete poems, of course, but I believe I’ve limited myself to “fair use” here.  The titles of the sampled poems are in bold.

one night america: a boy and his blowtorch

will tear through you with his tangled

fingernails and sour memories   open   filled

4 bleeding hearts in his chest   you’ll throw

daughters and sons and black coffee at him

but he’ll stare at each and weep and worship

their bodies are like machines to him   and he’ll

be trying to love them without erections like

he wanted just to inhale them for a minute

[snip]

xxx

Giving My Head To The Mississippi

It’s just you

and me and

the hatchet

baby.

xxx

We’ve come to hear Coltrane

as she lifts off my shirt, Leadbelly

when she smiles, smoothes

mud across my chest

xxx

and   sips

xxx

a brainpanfull of

a drowning man’s

memories   says

splendid;

nightmarish.

[snip]

xxx

Timothy and Angelina Crash

[snip]

in the middle of manchuguo you wrote me

a letter about the mongolian children that

stopped your train   that it was cold and that

you were sick   they were naked with skin

leathered by the wind and smiling and playing

some crazy game dodging trains   and that you

couldn’t really stand to think about marlon

brando right now   or tina turner   but that

sometimes   you’d think about buster keaton

holding that umbrella in steamboat bill jr

[snip]

m, if you’re out there, we still care.  We’re waiting, but we’re patient.

At least I am.

Bonus Feature:  Here is a video of m loncar’s cat mack the knife attacking a golden retriever.

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Dirty Money: Interview with Sarah Wendell of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books

Written by David on March 23rd, 2009

This is not a story of struggle.  This is a story of a labor of love, natural growth, unexpected-but-not-life-altering revenue and, ultimately, contentment.

When Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan started a site called “Smart Bitches who Love Trashy Books” in 2005, they just wanted to have some fun.  They wanted a place where they could throw down some truly critical romance novel reviews, tell some filthy jokes and, most importantly, make each other laugh.

Four years later, they’ve managed to make a lot of other people laugh, too, and what is now called “Smart Bitches, Trashy Books” gets over 4,000 unique visitors a day and is one of the most highly respected and most fun romance novel-focused blogs in the universe.  The site is very prolific (usually between one and three posts per day) and is almost certainly one of the most well-designed blogs anywhere.

Along with picking up more than a few advertisers along the way, Sarah and Candy have also managed to use the site as a springboard to a book deal, and Beyond Heaving Bosoms:  The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels will be published by Fireside (Simon and Schuster) on April 14.  All of this, of course, makes them ideal candidates for the Moriah Jovan/David Nygren series on writers and money.

Sarah Wendell kindly agreed to answer a longer-than-reasonable list of my most challenging, mostly money-related questions, and I didn’t even have to trade her a book for the privilege.  In fact, for any future interview candidate who tries to demand some equivalent to the Tao Lin trade-an-interview-for-a-book model, Sarah wisely counseled that I “keep my pimp hand strong.”  I’m working on on that.

Interview with Sarah Wendell

David Nygren:  I’ve read the story of how you and Candy started Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. But was it simply a labor of love, or was it a labor of love with a profit motive? Even if the profit potential seemed very distant at the start, was the sense of purpose there?

Sarah Wendell: It was definitely a labor of love. We never expected to create the community we did of intelligent women who adore romance and want to discuss it intellectually. And really, that’s the biggest payoff of the site: any time either of us receives an email from someone that says, “I just found your site, I had no idea you existed and I finally have people to talk about romance with who are smart and proud of reading it. Thank you!” That totally makes our day. Hell, our entire year.

We never aimed for profit. In the beginning we had 4 readers and this random person who kept searching for “Dominican bitches” and then kept returning to the site day after day (Hi Dominican Bitches Google person!). We figured we’d never grow much larger than that. There were so many websites, and so many blogs when we started Smart Bitches that starting ours with an eye on revenue - when we were really just trying to crack each other up - didn’t even enter our minds.

DN:  The site now has a very active community, and all of the multi-directional communication that happens really makes the site what it is. How did you help grow this community?

SW:  I don’t have a list of conscious decisions that I’ve made, or that Candy’s made to examine the community in terms of fostering growth. We have a few guidelines that we follow, but we don’t plot the growth of the site or examine it deliberately. The interesting thing about the community that reads our site, and the part of that community I am the most in awe of and most impressed by, is the fact that the people who read and comment value the community as much as we do.

DN: SBTB is one of the better looking blogs out there. To me, the design very clearly conveys what the blog is all about. How important do you feel SBTB’s design is to its success?

SW:  Thank you! The current design was created by Joelle Reeder from Moxie Design Studios, but it’s a version 2.0 of our first design, which was a lot simpler. Both designs use exceptionally bright colors and retro styling to match The Ladies at the top. The original design was done by Candy and her goal was: screaming colors! Hot pink! Holy crap not work safe! We definitely met that goal.

DN:  At what point did you introduce advertisements to the site? What level of traffic do you feel is necessary to make ad sales feasible on a site like yours?

SW:  We introduced advertisements when we received multiple, by which I mean freaking piles, of requests for adspace. We originally had one spot, and it was sold out within a few weeks once we opened it. We didn’t make the decision to host advertisements based on traffic or statistics, but on demand from our readers and authors who wanted to advertise with us.

DN:  It seems you are selling your ad space yourself, rather than using Blogads or some other intermediary. What drove this decision?

SW:  We sell the adspace, and we design a good number of the ads ourselves. We also host and run our own adserver (OpenAds - an open source advertisement management software that is so powerful I’m totally wary of it) and manage the content of the advertising column ourselves. We’re entirely self-sufficient in the advertising department for a couple of reasons. Three, to be specific.

First, we have a No Fug clause. If the ad is fugly, we won’t run it. This can get tricky, since sometimes there’s fug caused by a bad cover, and authors are not in control of their covers. Sometimes the files animate too fast and we have to slow them down. But since we’re running the ad service, we wanted as much control as possible over what the ads look like, and what our site looks like.

Two: services like BlogAds are great, but I don’t always like the way the ads look, or in one case couldn’t figure out WHAT they were for. Not only did we want to control the look of the ads, but we also wanted a say in the content. We were honestly afraid that our penchant for cussing and our topics of discussion would yield some very outlandish and revolting Google Ads as well.

Three: We continue to run the adserver (even though it is a lot of work) because the larger ad brokers we spoke with declined to work with us because in their opinion, “Book sites don’t sell.” I think they are unequivocally wrong on that one, and our traffic and our clickthroughs prove it. Nothing is more motivating than being told it’s not going to work. Screw you, it totally works.

And really, the attitude toward book sites matches the attitude people have toward romance novels. It’s a billion dollar industry written by women for women, yet it’s dismissed and denigrated constantly. WE know there’s an active audience of book shoppers reading our site, and we certainly know that romance fans are devoted to the genre, so to be told that “book sites don’t sell” is just yet another example of the short-sighted attitude that affects romance and literature created and consumed by women. We know better, so we’re doing it ourselves.

DN:  I assume you’ve explored other advertising and affiliate program options. Why do you think your current advertising model is the best one?

SW:  We have explored other options, as I explained above, and the services that were interested didn’t seem to look very good on any of the sites that use those services, and the ones that we were hoping for didn’t want to work with us. Our current model is probably not the best one in terms of efficiency, since it’s a one-woman operation at this point (hi there!) with special backup duty performed by Awesome Hubby if need be. But the current model definitely works for the site because it’s the author and host that advertising authors and publishers are dealing with, and that personal attention, I think, makes a difference. I’m as invested in the success of the site that month as they are.

DN:  Despite SBTB’s mad hits and a soon-to-be big seller, you still have a day job. What is it? Do you hope someday to generate enough income with your writing so that you no longer need the day job?

SW:  I do in fact have a day job, but the most I will say is that I’m an administrative assistant in Manhattan. THAT narrows it down, right? Everyone I work for is aware of SBTB, and for the most part they think it’s hilarious, but I have a very strict rule that I follow. I call it the Mafia Rule: If you’re in the Mafia, you never talk about the job, and you never talk about the family. Same thing with blogging: I don’t talk about my children very often or ever by their real names, and I don’t talk about my job because, frankly, I’d like to keep it!

The troublesome thing about the internet is that it doesn’t come with health care - and I will do anything you want as long as I receive health benefits for me and for my family. Health insurance and a 401(k)? I’m putty in your hands. Alas, I think the days of making a living from one’s blog are way over, and even with ad revenue, our site is largely a labor of much, much love.

DN:  You and Candy have managed to use Smart Bitches as a springboard to a book deal, and Beyond Heaving Bosoms will be published by Fireside (Simon and Schuster) on April 14. What sealed the deal for you with Fireside? What can you tell us about the deal?

SW:  Yet another thing we never expected: a book deal. When we were first approached with the idea of writing a guide to the romance genre by Rose Hilliard from St. Martin’s, we laughed outright. When we started writing the proposal, though, we had a lot of fun because it gave us the chance to explore all the ideas we had about the romance genre that wouldn’t necessarily translate well to a blog format. So our book includes games, puzzles, hell - a coloring page, fiction, literary analysis, illustrations and longer, in depth* examinations of the genre. It was terribly fun to do.
*pun totally intended.

DN:  Your agent is the widely-respected Dan Lazar of Writers House. Did you find him, or did he find you? Has the process of working with an agent taught you anything?

SW:  Dan found us, and holy shit, are we fortunate to work with him. Working with an agent has taught me that it is always helpful to have a sounding board for new ideas, especially one who will be honest with you and answer questions you’re not sure about. That’s one of the best things about Secret Agent Dan: he’s honest and frank, which we love.

DN:  What’s next? Another book? Another web site? Anything that might capitalize on the audience and interest you’ve built with SBTB?

SW:  Another book? Nah, we shot our wad with this one. There’s no sequel to a guide to the romance genre. Another website? Only if we can clone ourselves and therefore have time to run it. Honestly, I’m not so much interested in capitalizing on our audience so much as continuing to interact with the smart folks who stop by every day. So what’s next? More of the same, getting better, I hope.

DN:  Do you ever have any crazy ideas about adding a book publishing division to SBTB?

SW:  Oddly enough, you are not the first person to suggest this to me. And my answer: see above re: cloning. Or, perhaps an extended day with more hours in it? That’d be good, too.

DN:  One non-money-related question: now that your book is about to come out, any butterflies about having it laid bare before the world of foul-mouthed, merciless, lacerating-but very fair-blogger-reviewers?

SW:  Nope. Bring it on! We plan to respond to any and all reviews because, well, why not? I’m very curious what people will have to say about it, and I hope it’s as entertaining and fun for them to read as it was for us to write.

End of Interview

Other Reading:

Smart Bitches, Trashy Books

Marta Acosta Interviews Sarah and Candy

Interview with Sarah and Candy at Writer Unboxed

SBTB Discovers Plagiarism (or something very much like it)

Sarah Wendell Quoted in the New York Post (the smartest words to appear in the paper since Pete Hamill wrote there)

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I Want to Move to St. Louis

Written by David on March 16th, 2009

It exists!  Sort of.

I thought I’d read of the existence of something like this before, but couldn’t find a reference to anything like it during my cursory research in advance of my “Writer Mall” post.  But commenter Matthew Miller has brought to our attention the opportunity offered by ArtSpace at Crestwood Court in St. Louis.

What the hell is it?  Behold…

ArtSpace is an exciting new area in Crestwood Court (formerly Crestwood Mall) where artists and cultural groups perform, paint, dance, exhibit, hold classes and sell their art. When the mall was faced with vacant retail space due to a slow economy and planned redevelopment, management thought of a creative solution: make the space available to artists for a nominal fee.

So what about writers?  Can writers get a piece of this action and do things as I described here? (Note: Yes, they can…see update #2 below.)  Or do visual artists, as usual, get all the advantages (it’s so much easier to look at something than to read something, right)?  I’m going to find out.

Until I get an answer to that question, salivate with me over these details…

What are the sizes of the spaces?
Space sizes vary, starting from 1,200 square feet; the average space is about 5,000 square feet.

How much is the rent?
Rent is extremely reasonable - between $50 and $100 per month - and is based on the size and location of the space.

Where are the spaces located?
The majority of the spaces are on the east end of the mall, where Dillard’s was located and where several stores and Chevy’s Restaurant are still open. In the west end there are several spaces near the escalators to the food court, and also some kiosks in the middle of the mall.

5,000 square feet?  I don’t even know what that looks like.  $100 per month?  Hell, I’ll gladly pay $200 to get the Chevy’s overflow to come into my Writer Retail Space!

Meet me in St. Louis?  (Seriously, I’m ready to drop everything and go.)

And just in case this St. Louis thing doesn’t work out, I’ll happily take suggestions for the best places in the world for a writer to live.  Ideal locations must have a vibrant literary community, low cost-of-living and good Indian food.  Give me an excuse to leave New York City.

Update: I should mention that I really like St. Louis and wouldn’t mind moving down to the Twenty-Seventh City at all.  In fact, a pivotal scene in my novel The Day Is Here takes place with the two main characters standing on the Eads Bridge in the early morning light, gazing down at the solitary man performing some kind of ritual at the water’s edge.  Shouldn’t that qualify me for a fellowship at ArtSpace at Crestwood Court?

Update # 2: I’ve now received confirmation from Leisa Son, the Director of Marketing for Crestwood Court, that they actually do have one writer in residence at Crestwood Court right now!  They are actively encouraging collaboration among the artists and therefore would even welcome (my suggestion) a group of writers working together in a shared space.  At the very least, that solitary writer could use one other language-focused comrade in the mall (”Dude, can I borrow your dictionary?”).  Who is going to join him or her?

(Note:  This post was written from my sickbed, between fevers.  My brain is running at about 30% of full power, so if anything here seems a bit…off, please forgive me.)

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Voice Over

Written by David on March 5th, 2009

An unnamed woman works as a public address announcer in Paris’s Gare du Nord.  The job suits her.  No need for opinion or initiative.  She just has to say what she is told to say.  That’s it.  She communicates with thousands of people every day, yet not one of them communicates back.  She is invisible and she prefers it that way.

The woman at the center of Céline Curiol’s Voice Over leads a disturbingly solitary urban existence, yet she is almost continually affected by the people surrounding her.  A stranger’s glance in her direction, a shop girl’s dutiful inquiry, the way a waiter sets down a glass of water–they all register with her.  In particular, she is affected by the man with whom she has become obsessed.  Anyone who has been alone in a large city understands how the mind, without proper care, could easily slip out of control.  This is a story of what happens when it does.

The woman seems to have no close friends of any sort.  People pass through her life, but she just doesn’t know how to hold on to them.  In fact, she hardly cares.  She does allow herself to fall into strange, spontaneous interactions with a cross-dressing cabaret singer, an African man who picks her up on the street, an actress who happens to have the exact same name as she, a man who mistakenly believes she is a prostitute.  She drifts into these seemingly random, temporary relationships, and then just as quickly the people are out of her life forever.  Even if she bumps into them again, they don’t recognize her.

There is only one person she really cares about, and her desire for him is the focus of the novel.  Problem: he is in a live-in relationship with a woman named Ange.  Ange is beautiful, intelligent, perfect.  She knows she is inferior to Ange, but she won’t let that stop her.  She doesn’t need him all to herself.  She just needs him in her life.

So why might this woman be the way she is?  There was a childhood incident.  Her “right of passage,” she calls it.  You probably get the idea.  Is this backstory essential to understanding the character and what moves her?  I don’t think so.  It’s easy enough to accept the existence of a troubled person without getting into the textbook psychological roots.  We all know that story already.

One potential problem from the reader’s perspective:  many of this woman’s problems could easily be solved by the use of a mobile phone, but mobile phones do not seem to exist in this fictitious world.  The woman sees news of the 2003 blackout in New York City, and other events place the story in that year.  This story is happening in the age of mobile phones, yet the issue is never addressed.  It may have been believable that this woman would choose not to have one, so uncomfortable is she with human contact (though she is most definitely attached to her land line), but the issue is never addressed.  This may seem petty, but in this otherwise realistic work of fiction, it becomes impossible to ignore.

There is a well-known tendency in French literature and film to use subconscious self-destruction as a plot device.  Voice Over continues this madcap tradition.  What is it with these people?  Are they really this crazy, or do they just have a greater appreciation for crazy?  I’m content to let the French be French, but the melodramatic closing of the novel does nudge it a bit over the edge.  Again, not necessary.

So perhaps the novel is imperfect, but it hardly matters.  The writing is fantastic, and this fact outweighs everything else.  Curiol is highly skilled at weaving thought, emotion, dialogue and action together into an almost seamless flow of text, as if everything were being narrated by an objective, articulate bystander within the main character’s mind.  Credit must also be given to translator Sam Richard-I mourn my own inability to read this work in the original French, but Richard’s language helps mitigate the pain.  As Paul Auster writes in the translation’s Foreword, “The reader is both inside and outside at the same time, immersed in the inner life of the central character and yet vividly aware of the world that surrounds her as she floats through an all-too-real present-day Paris.”  What a pleasure it is to find a novel that is experimental in its use of language but still very readable.

At a dinner party hosted by her obsession and Ange, the other guests ask her what she does for a living.  With her hosts out of the room, she decides to lie and tell the others that she’s a prostitute.

She said it so well, with a mixture of professional pride and personal regret, that the others believed her-she sensed it at once.  There is a brief freeze-frame.  The man with the stoop feels a bit of a jerk now that he has his answer.  He manages a polite rejoinder, all the same:  And have you been in the business long?  Maybe he’s not quite so lacking in imagination, after all.  Quick as a flash, her voice steady.  Ten years, I started young.  Even the virulent husband is taken aback; a few more details, and he could almost feel sorry for her.  She knows that none of the four men will dare ask her how much she charges.  Besides, they have ceased to look upon her with kindness:  she is no longer innocent.  Only the two women continue to regard her with curiosity.  And then, all at once, a heart-felt cry from the wearer of Iranian veils:  life can’t be easy for you.  It isn’t sarcasm or disdain, but sincerity, and it plunges all present into what, from the outside, appears to be intense introspection.  At which point he returns with a strawberry tart, Ange, and nine dessert plates.

If this scenario and this passage appeal to you, read this book.  You won’t be disappointed.

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Film Review: The Weather Underground

Written by David on March 3rd, 2009

Only absurdly optimistic white middle-class American kids could possibly believe that anything at all could be accomplished doing silly stuff like this.  Also, a background droan is a neat trick to give your documentary that ominous feel.

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The End of the Beginning, Middle and End?

Written by David on March 1st, 2009

I’m thinking about the place of fiction in the 21st Century.  Might its role in our culture be diminished?  Among all the other distractions available, how likely is it that an individual will discover and choose a novel or short story over some other diversion?  Will most people be willing to invest the time and intellectual energy it takes to get through a longer work of fiction?  Do people still appreciate a story’s resolution, a proper ending (something that doesn’t go to the next “level” or that doesn’t link somewhere else)?  Might the fundamentals of a work of fiction change somehow?

Might it be true that, more and more, potential readers can’t find the BEGINNING, don’t have time for the MIDDLE and don’t want the END?

No, I don’t think things ever change that much.

Despite all the technological changes that are affecting the way people read, despite all the other distractions that are available today, I don’t think we’re seeing the end of Aristotle’s three essential plot elements.  There’s something inherently satisfying about a well-constructed story.  As has always been the case, there will be large portions of the human population who have no time for or no interest in a good, fictitious story.  That’s fine.  But for those in the know, for those attempting to peer a bit deeper into the human experience, there is no substitute for quality fiction.

Of course, writers, publishers and sellers of fiction should not assume that the rest of the world sees fiction’s indispensability as self-evident.  Don’t wait for readers to come to you.  Go to where people are and shove your valuable product in their collective face.  Act like a pharmaceutical company trying to promote a new drug.  Tell people you know they have a problem and that fiction is (part of) the cure.

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