Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

Being A Writer

A Writer Takes It Slow

by Gerard Beirne on Thursday, October 5, 2006 08:01 am

I've been thinking about the writing process. Well, what else is a person to do? I began to take writing very seriously back in the mid-80's while working as a Domestic Appliance Design Engineer (I know, I know ...) in Bristol, England.

I knew I could write, but I also knew I didn't know how to rewrite. So I joined a small writers group in St Paul's in Bristol. The truth is, I walked up to the door and walked away again, eventually plucked up the courage and went back. There were three other people in the room (one of them Andrew Miller who has since been short listed for the Booker Prize and won the IMPAC Award amongst others). For a couple of years we met every Tuesday, and there were never more than a half a dozen writers. Most of us had good things to say but did not really know how to say them in a way that could really help each other learn about the craft. This, I believe, is still the case: most participants in writers' workshops do not have a strong critical language. They might say that they like a piece but cannot specifically say why, or outline what the writer has done formally to achieve this success.

I decided shortly afterwards to give up engineering and concentrate on literature, but I knew I had to learn more and wondered if the structured environment of a university would help. In 1990 I was winging my way to Washington State where I took a two year Master of Fine Arts Degree at Eastern Washington University. And here I learned what I needed to know. Through some very fine instructors I finally found out about form and the writing and rewriting process.

Back in Ireland I stuck to it day after day, learning as I went. 1996 was a good year. My collection of poems, Digging My Own Grave, was published by Dedalus Press. I won two Sunday Tribune/Hennessy literary awards: best Emerging Fiction Writer and New Irish Writer of the Year. I began teaching writing at the Irish Writers Centre, DCU and elsewhere. I was on the other side of the table. Now I really had to know my stuff and most importantly be able to explain it to others. It took another seven years to have my novel The Eskimo in the Net published. The book was well received. It was short listed for The Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award and was selected as Book of the Year by the Literary Editor of the Daily Express ("scandalously ignored by the Man Booker judges ...").

Yet here I am three years later, still thinking about the writing process. In fact I've been berating myself for my 'slowness'. I am very disciplined at first drafts. Day after day churning out the pages. And as a first draft it's quite solid . The difficulty I find now with rewriting is the distance necessary. You get too close to it. My 'follow-up' to The Eskimo in the Net is currently sitting 'finished' on my desk while I have just completed a first draft of a new novel. I still need time for the 'follow-up'. I'm not sure if it is really finished or not.

When The Eskimo in the Net came out in 2003 my publisher said it would be good to get another book out within a year and then maybe wait a few years for the next. Well here we are three years later. Not a finished copy in sight.

I notice other writers I know who published around the same time as I did have their quota on the boil. I thought I worked hard, but I'm beginning to wonder if really I was just not getting down to it. You get a bit panicky. The world is passing you by.

But somewhere within I know this is just an ego thing -- publishers, marketing, sales. And so when I read a clipping from the Irish Sunday Independent in their Bookworm section I was heartened to read how Eamonn Sweeney (the next big thing in Irish literature and a fine writer to boot) withdrew his third novel from his agent because he had "written it for the wrong reason." He found himself thinking of his advance, his profile, the publishing world's demands. He says when he started out writing it "had been its own reward" and he "needed to get back to that place." Good on you, Eamonn.

And good on Catherine Bush who despite being short listed for the Trillium award for her novel substantially rewrote the paperback version because she felt rushed to finish the hardback draft.

Also from the clipping, the Observer's literary editor Robert McCrum wondered if the serious novel had lost its way amongst the demands of marketing and publishing. "In 2006," he wrote, "the novelist has become a cross between a commercial traveller and an itinerant preacher."

I couldn't agree more. For years a number of top publishers looked at Eskimo (which is a sort of existential literary mystery) and wanted more action -- murder and mayhem. I resisted, and I believe I was vindicated. I'll bide my time, write the books I want to write and not get too caught up in the celebrity nature of the business.

There are already far too many books out there, and most of them are unfinished.

The Bard of Bad Writing

by Jamelah Earle on Wednesday, September 27, 2006 07:41 pm

Last night, in my perusal of literary news, I stumbled across an article on The Guardian website, Is this a pint I see before me? The title, of course, is an allusion to one of the more famous lines from Macbeth (replace "pint" with "dagger"), and has to do with the fact that sometimes Shakespeare wrote some crap:
"Crap lines can be found in even the most revered places. When, for example, pondering whether to be or not to be, Hamlet fantasises about "taking arms against a sea of troubles", what does Shakespeare expect us to see in our mind's eye? Some mad idiot firing a blunderbuss into the waves from the end of Brighton pier?"
Indeed. They write that like that's not what I'm supposed to see. Pfft.

Now, it's so easy to argue that Shakespeare is the most-revered writer in the entire history of English letters that there's no point in even arguing it, and as such, I suppose it stands to reason that there are people in the world who think that every word the hallowed William S. wrote is 24-karat gold perfection. Yet it seems to me that pointing out the fact that out of the thousands of lines Shakespeare churned out over his career, not every one of them was shiny genius doesn't really seem like all that much of a revelation. (Nevermind the fact that when the article says "Following Dromgoole and Hall's allegations, 'Crap Shakespeare' will probably be a fashionable parlour game over the next few weeks," I'm glad I don't have to party with any of those people.)

Did Shakespeare do his bad writing on mornings when he was hungover? That's the hypothesis. Unfortunately, The Bard didn't have a page on MySpace complete with a blog containing posts like "I got so wasted last night after play practice, and my hangover doth rage mightily. Duuuuuuude," so we'll never know for sure. But if the supposedly bad writing was the result of hangovers or if it's simply probability at work, the truth is that even though we tend to put writers we admire on pedestals, everybody's entitled to write dreck once in awhile. Hungover or not, everyone has an off day now and then.

Shakespeare often gets all of the attention, but certainly there are other writers out there who have penned less than stellar work, even despite a general reputation for being good. So, in the interest of fairness -- let's not let Shakespeare get all the credit -- can you think of any works by generally well-respected writers that weren't that great? Perhaps a passage or two in a novel (or maybe the whole novel itself) or a poem that just doesn't work? I'm not talking about overrated writers, since we've pretty much covered that topic already, but good writers who just happened to have dropped the ball once or twice.

For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn.

by Jamelah Earle on Wednesday, September 20, 2006 09:42 pm

The title of this post:

For Sale: Baby shoes, never worn

is a short story allegedly by Ernest Hemingway, perhaps written to settle a bar bet or perhaps written as a challenge, but either way, it's a complete work of fiction. It's a piece of writing I think about a lot, and it's one of my favorites. It's evocative, powerful and clocking in at six words, it proves that it's not necessary to blather on endlessly to tell a good story.

The Hemingway story is an extreme example of one of my favorite types of writing -- flash fiction. Flash, also known as micro, sudden, short-short, postcard, minute, quick, furious, and skinny, is a type of story that has a limited number of words (definitely under 1,000, but in many cases, under 500). Typically, it has a traditional beginning-middle-end story arc, though of course it happens in an ultra-condensed form.

Under the Influence

by Jamelah Earle on Wednesday, August 23, 2006 08:27 pm

Earlier today, I was thinking about writing, which is something I still think about on occasion, even though I don't even pretend to do it anymore. While there are many aspects of writing that I could've been mulling over, today I was thinking about things like inspiration and influence. For writers, I think inspiration can come from just about anywhere, but in the case of influence -- what shapes the way the writing flows into lines, sentences and paragraphs -- something deeper happens. It's more than liking something, at least I think so. There's something, a connection I suppose, that comes about, something that clicks, that makes sense, that helps us as we work at gathering disparate thoughts, images, sounds and smells into written form.

In thinking about this, I did a little digging to find out more about writers who influence other writers. I wasn't surprised to learn that Alice Walker calls Zora Neale Hurston a major influence, nor was I shocked to find that Mark Z. Danielewski (the writer of the twisting and bizarre House of Leaves) and Umberto Eco were both influenced by Jorge Luis Borges. Gabriel Garc

Does a Novel Need a Road Map?

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, July 12, 2006 02:23 pm

I enjoy reviewing indie/small press publications here on LitKicks, and when I do I never hesitate to critique the packaging, the marketing and the graphic design as well as the writing. I have no patience for badly published books, and in our age of easily affordable high-quality printing, design and promotional resources, I believe poverty or "indie status" is no excuse for sloppy work.

One set of reviews I put up two weeks ago was probably crankier than usual, as I complained that three out of five books were virtually dead on arrival due to bad packaging decisions: an intriguing book about a soldier in Vietnam that couldn't decide whether to bill itself as memoir or fiction, a comic novel about a deep-country hillbilly musician with a computer-generated cover illustration that looked anything but deep-country, and an well-written but obscure-looking novel called Stet that failed to provide any explanatory text -- no back cover summary, no review excerpts, nothing -- as to what the book contained. I quickly concluded that nobody will read this book, since the author is not a known name and the book package presents no compelling reason to dive in, and that was the end of my review.

I then received an email from James Chapman, the author of Stet, who was vexed at my rude dismissal. He pointed out that the book's publisher, Fugue State Press, had included a press release with my review copy, and I responded that I never read press releases when I review a book, since I'd rather see a book the way I would if I picked it up on a bookstore shelf. Why, I asked Chapman, would anybody publish a novel by a new author and fail to provide any text on the back cover to let me know what the novel contains? What would possibly motivate me to devote many hours of my life to reading a book when I have no idea what reward awaits me inside?

Here's what Chapman wrote back:

"A book is the artifact of a very special experience, and it should absolutely not contain any crap on it, no advertising language, no blurb language, no language that goes against the language of the book, which is sacrosanct. If I ran a church, I would advertise it in the newspaper, but I wouldn't put a neon ad for the church right on the altar."

I appreciate the author's response, but I still feel strongly that back cover blurbs and review excerpts are essential to the "selection process" every reader goes through when looking at a new book. A publisher who presents a blank back cover on a novel by an unknown author, in my opinion, must not be thinking about how potential readers are going to look at this novel. The purist approach Chapman describes sounds admirable, but I don't think it translates into reality. I am simply not going to devote my time to reading a book without some idea why I should read it. A novel needs a road map, and to fail to provide some explanatory text when publishing a new author is, in my opinion, a fatal mistake.

What do you think? When you consider reading a book by a new or unknown author, how much influence do the back cover blurbs and frontpaper promos have on your decision to read or not to read?

Interview with Steve Aylett

by Bill Ectric on Thursday, May 25, 2006 02:10 pm

Postmodern novelist Steve Aylett was born in 1967 in the Bromley Borough of London, England. His first book, The Crime Studio, was published in 1994, and his later works include Bigot Hall, Slaughtermatic and his most recent tour de force, Lint. Aylett's work has been variously described as cyberpunk, slipstream, postmodern, bizarro, or, in the words of Grant Morrison: "The Matrix choreographed by Samuel Beckett for MTV."

Steve Aylett's new Lint is to literature what Spinal Tap is to heavy metal music: a brilliant send-up of anecdotal, cult-of-personality biographies. The parody swings freely between the sci-fi genre, the Beats, and classic pulp magazines. We follow a comix legend named Jeff Lint, who lived in the age when "dozens of new magazines appeared, with titles like Astounding, Bewildering, Confusing, Baffling...Useless...Appalling, Made-Up ... Thrilling Wonder Stories, and Swell Punch-Ups" and editors would order up "an octopus, a spaceman, and a screaming woman" for the cover of a typical issue.

I like to call Aylett's work a combination of sci-fi, satire, and psychedelia. His sentences are not only sublimely expressive; they are beautiful in and of themselves. It's like opening a pop-up book to see gemstones and charms strung together on bracelet chains, rising to display the black noir onyx, the blood-red ruby, the diamond center of the mind, the flaming gold-leaf giraffe trinket of surrealism.

Karloff's Circus lights up the town of Accomplice with an anarchic assortment of demons, clowns, factory workers, zombies, politicians, and giant Steinway spiders. The action seems absurd until one realizes that the real world is no less freakish. Even today, we have people kept alive in hospitals against all laws of nature, connected to machines by tubes. We see self-mutilation in the form of extreme piercing and grotesquely overdone plastic surgery. Our children are sent to war by incompetent politicians. Well, you get the idea. Once we establish that our world is crazy, it makes no difference whether Aylett is using surrealism to parody reality, or if he is writing a straightforward story about paranormal creatures in a parallel universe.

Aylett cites Voltaire as an influence, and the influence shows. "Organised religion added Jesus to the food groups," he tells us, or "Pause any country and you'll spot subliminal torture in the frame."

Jacque Derrida maintained that all words have varying shades of meaning to each reader; therefore, every reader brings a certain amount of the story with them to a book. Maybe that is why I like Steve Aylett's prose so much -- he gives us plenty of raw material to process.

I asked the author some questions by email:

Q: It seems like you establish patterns of phrasing that are independent of the plot but that the reader can "pick up" on while reading.

Steve Aylett: Yes, there are several threads of sense going through it at different depths. I think the mind picks up which bits link in to which other bits. Some's almost a subliminal sort of thing going on, and then at the simplest level there's the running gags or repetitions like the "Snail, Sarge" conversation, which is just so stupid I really like it. And if you don't like all that there's always the story to fall back on.

Q: Even though Lint is a parody, I find that you throw in some semi-profound ideas. Like, commands materializing from thin air where someone's mouth happens to be. The opposite of cause and effect.

Steve: The parody thing was secondary to the meanings I was putting in there. I enjoy parody and stupid stuff, but more often than not I'll use it as a housing for old-time satire, politics and bitter axe-grinding. That thing about authority was about the fact that authority is actually quite arbitrary, and doesn't manifest any inherent quality. Traced to its root it's the result of luck, happenstance, crime and the sustaining of a set-up over many years as people hold on to power. It has no moral weight that stands up to a moment's scrutiny, and is enforced by the threat of violence. Reduced to its constituent atoms authority doesn't really mean anything. It's all just people.

Q: When you refer to Karloff Velocet as the "Fall Marshall" is this a reference to the idea of the "fall of man?"

Steve: As far as I can recall this was mainly from The Fall's album The Marshall Suite -- and he is marshalling the various falls and collapses in the circus. His circus is all about entropy.

Q: Which is better -- for countries to worry continuously about other countries' ability to build nuclear bombs, or the "stalemate effect" of each country already having nuclear bombs?

Steve: As long as America has the 'pre-emptive' policy of attacking non-nuclear countries without provocation, it's probably better that other countries have nuclear weapons also, as a deterrent to the U.S. (which doesn't like an even fight) -- but in any case there'll be a nuclear catastrophe at some point, either through psychotic panic or a technical error. It's inevitable.

Q: Did you ever hang out with the Krays?

Steve: No, I never met the Krays, but I knew their lawyer, and Ronnie liked The Crime Studio.

Q: Now I'm sort of freaked out because I'm not sure if you are serious. The Crime Studio was published in 1994, Ronnie was with us until 1996 ... are you serious?

Steve: Yeah. Actually, Ron liked it so much he wrote a story of his own, which he got to me via a mutual acquaintance.

Unfortunately, it was crap.
I think I'd got the book to him because the small publisher that did The Crime Studio originally wanted a quote from a 'name' of some kind, and I didn't know anyone in the literary world back then. Unfortunate things used to happen to people when I sent them books for cover quotes. I sent the re-print of The Crime Studio to William Burroughs and he died a week later; I sent Bigot Hall to Stephen Fry and he went insane -- temporarily.

Q: Uncanny! Speaking of insane, did you do the artwork for The Caterer? It is so classic.

Steve: It all started out as samples from a lot of 1970s comics -- that blonde grinning jock appears throughout those comics. Then I flipped them, changed colors, changed expressions and body positions etc, blended them into different backgrounds and with different characters, muted the colors down again, then added dialogue. Often I was doing so much re-drawing I was virtually drawing the character from scratch, by the end.

Q: Near the end of Karloff's Circus we read, "On the bluff behind them an angel landed, fragile as a feather made of bones. Under a sky deep as grief it closed its silent white wings."
Is Mike Abblatia the angel? And, at the beginning of the book, when Mike Abblatia jumps off the bridge, is everything that happens in the rest of the book happening in the instant that Mike falls?

Steve: I don't think the book occurs in Mike Abblatia's mind/dreams or whatever -- it happens, after he jumps. Regarding the mystery angel at the end, I wanted to make the suggestion that it might be Barney.

Q: On some level, Bigot Hall made me think of Kerouac's Doctor Sax, even though they aren't all that similar. Did you ever read Doctor Sax?

Steve: Yes, I've read Doctor Sax. Used to be a big Kerouac fan. That one was different from his others of course, being sort of cinematic and constructed.

Q: You write a lot about other dimensions; did you ever read Flatland by Edwin Abbott Abbott?

Steve: I have read Flatland, though I still believe he cribbed it from Charles H. Hinton, author of The Fourth Dimension (who I mention often in my books).

Q: If they made a Lint movie, who should portray Lint as an old man -- P atrick McGoohan or Christopher Lee?

Steve: McGoohan is more grouchy, so I'd go for him.

Q: I knew it! That would be my pick as well. So, do the English really say variations of "isn't it" all the time? For example, in reply to my last question, you might say, "Well, Lint is American, isn't he?"

Steve: English people say isn't, aint, aren't, innit, wot, and other things.

Indie Reviews: April 2006

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, April 25, 2006 11:50 am

Slushpile recently presented a sporting rant that mocks annoying people who self-publish and then get way too excited about themselves. It's a good article, though it leads to the depressing conclusion that the future of literature remains in the hands of the large robotic corporations that occasionally bestow the magic word "published" upon a tiny selection of writers. Here at LitKicks, we've always supported the little guys in publishing, and we're happy to profile worthwhile new small press books, self-published books and poetry chapbooks. If you've got an independently published book you'd like us to review, we'll take a look. Here are a few we checked out last month:

The Garbageman and the Prostitute by Zack Wentz is a thrill ride down transgression alley, and if you go for this kind of thing (fragmented violent narratives with creepy psychological undertones) this book will probably please you. Wentz gets high marks for energy and consistency, because every sentence seems constructed for mind-numbing impact, and the excellent artwork (here's a sample, an animated version of the cover) neatly captures the mood. I did have trouble finding a clear plot in this book, though. I'm not sure if the plot is there or not, but I never found it. The Garbageman and the Prostitute is published by Chiasmus Press, and boasts a surprising array of endorsements from the likes of William Vollmann, Steve Aylett and Michael Hemmingson. The promo materials compare Zack Wentz to Richard Brautigan, Kathy Acker, Charles Bukowski, P. K. Dick and Thomas Pynchon. I see Acker and Pynchon here, but I don't see the simple, clear communication of Brautigan or Bukowski.

J Milligan's Jackfish has a great setup. A humanoid creature of some kind emerges from the ocean near Coney Island in Brooklyn, and gasps painfully to accustom himself to breathing air. Apparently this guy -- the Jackfish of the title -- is more comfortable extracting oxygen with his gills, which is mainly because he lives in the mystical underwater land of Atlantis. He's on some kind of noirish secret mission, and the whole thing reads kind of like City of Glass meets Aquaman, which is not a bad thing at all. In the end, it's not the suspense but rather the well-placed details (like the deep, jarring pain the fish-guy feels when forced to breathe air) that put this story over. Jackfish is published by Soho Press, a fairly large New York-based independent publisher that hasn't been swallowed up by a corporation yet, at least not as far as I know.

Not Having an Idea is a slim and expressive book of poems by Californian poet Donna Kuhn. Her work has a visual and visceral sense, marrying the random psychological splices of William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg to a distinctly feminine aesthetic:

particles of goat head fencing
cardinal of slouched fencing eyehole
smear a plot of murder i don't understand

fencing a platinum blong 4-plex
petty venders smoke up
i bend for your sandpapers
antlered sadness

Kuhn's book is a Lulu production, and so is Dutch-booked by Warren Weappa, a longtime friend of LitKicks. This is an ambitious and openly disorganized novel about a hapless sad-sack stuck in the ambiguities of his own mind, The best example I can give of this book's sensibility is Weappa's comically self-defeating comments to me as he sent it: "I don't want a review. I just want somebody in the world to read it." Well, Weappa is getting a review whether he wants it or not, because as I explained to him in my reply, I can't stand the responsibility of being the only person in the world to read anybody's book. The author's apparent agony about his book is very fitting, because the main character -- like the author, an expatriate in Asia -- suffers from the same endearing inability to seize the day. In the first two pages alone, he is referred to as "your antihero", "your valueless villian", "your working-class protaganist", "your serial loser" and "your clueless correspondent". John Kennedy Toole created a good book out of this type of self-deprecation (although, appropriately, he died before it was discovered). Reading Dutch-booked, I'm not sure whether to sympathize, laugh or yell at the author to shake it off.

Taking the Rest of the Week Off by Erik Linzbach is a humble, attractive chapbook that speaks clearly and simply, and I like it:

How you've changed
gone from the stereotype
divorce raged child
to the calm, secure
judgemental hawk,
flying high above all these
others, the rats from high school,
whom you'll eat one by one
by one, and you'll hate yourself
when they're all gone,
and no one can see your
new limitless brilliance,
no one can read your
gut check, relentless prose,
and you're once again found all alone.

Finally, it's not a book at all, but I've been meaning to point you all to Bear Parade, an online poetry exhibit designed by Gene Morgan and featuring enigmatic poet Tao Lin, the self-proclaimed Reader of Depressing Books who writes behind a mask of playful innocence and never breaks character. I like the clean presentation of this poetry exhibit, and I am looking forward to Lin's upcoming first hard copy publication, which he has promised to send me for future review.

That's it from the indie side of the street. I also have a few titles from more established publishers to review, and this will be up soon.

Thomas Jefferson Is My Home Boy (or, The Secret Literary Life of Charlottesville)

by Caryn Thurman on Thursday, March 30, 2006 10:29 pm

Oh sure, we had the best intentions when we headed to the Virginia Festival of the Book this past weekend. In its twelfth year, the festival is known for its wide variety of panels and unique pairings of topics and presenters. Poetry, fiction, history, self-help, self-published, publicists and the genre formerly known as comix swirl into a dizzying array of events each year in Charlottesville, Virginia, home of the University of Virginia. A real opportunity for literary-minded folk to browse, mingle and come away with a new idea or two ... so Levi and I were looking forward to a weekend of seeing what the festival had to offer this year and catching some of the panels on publishing and trends in what folks are reading today. Not only is Charlottesville home to the much-lauded Virginia Quarterly Review, it has its own reputation as a very literary town, with deep history and a rich selection of bookstores dotting its main streets. Even John Grisham has a home in the area ... and William Faulkner once injured himself in Charlottesville, falling from a horse. What more can you ask for?

Unfortunately the very same characteristics that make Charlottesville an attractive and appropriate destination for a literary festival also made it difficult to limit our visit to the event itself. A short weekend didn't really afford us much time to really experience both the festival, the history and the raw scenic beauty of the area. So we did the best we could and planned to hit as many of the panels on Saturday and also catch the Publishing Day and Vendors Book Fair. Due to a somewhat hard to follow schedule of events and scattered venues, we missed some of what we really wanted to experience, but by a stroke of luck we were able to catch fellow blogger Ron Hogan (of and mediabistro's GalleyCat) as he filled in for M.J. Rose in the "Buzz Your Book" panel. It was interesting to see how the online factor has changed the nature of "buzz", from even just a few years ago. Maybe a bit too much -- as it seemed one panelist's answer for every marketing dilemma was for an author to find a topic-specific listserv to post to. The panel took an interesting turn as audience members (mostly comprised of authors looking to promote, publish and sell their books) were randomly selected to "pitch" their books for the panel ... and then receive critique and advice. This was actually less intense than the interlude described here, I'm sure the crowd was a bit more diverse as well. Even though we didn't bring our books for the hot seat, we did manage to have time to say hi to Ron and offer a friendly face to an understandably bewildered Kevin McFadden, Associate Program Director of the festival.

We milled through the various vendor booths, mostly made up of small presses and self-published authors. Oh, and a huge line of people waiting to get an autograph from Michael Connelly. It was an interesting mix, but I think the main take away from it was that mystery and crime fiction are really, really popular. (Note to self: write crime novel.)

Although there was plenty more Festival of the Book fun to be had, we had more on our agenda and daylight was fading fast. We hightailed it out of there and headed over to the University of Virginia campus. Visiting the much esteemed and wonderfully quaint university, built by the one and only Thomas Jefferson, is like walking with one foot in history and one foot in the present time. As we would learn the next day during our visit to Monticello, Thomas Jefferson not only created and planned the university and its architecture, but hand selected the faculty and determined the course offerings. Jefferson's other accomplishments aside, you can't help but attribute the enduring legacy of acclaimed writers-in-residence at UVa to a man who once said, "I cannot live without books."

During our walk through the campus, we also stopped by West Range no. 13 where Edgar Allan Poe lived when he was a student there in 1826. Thanks to the Raven Society, the room is glassed in and furnished with period items to recreate that special Poe atmosphere. This makes the third Poe site I've been able to visit in the last few years in this region, and it really is fascinating to find the wide range of his travels during trips of my own.

The next day we made our way to Monticello, the Virginia home of Jefferson. I'd been there before, but Levi, a first time visitor, couldn't help but take a very careful look at the books in the library there, almost as if he were casing the joint. It's very interesting to note that throughout the home, Jefferson historically had busts and portraits of writers and philosophers -- as well as political allies and adversaries. You could definitely tell that literature and reading were integral to the man's life, especially when you keep in mind that the sale of one incarnation of his book collection helped to establish our Library of Congress. Considering that Jefferson is probably one of the most famous authors in the world, having penned the Declaration of Independence, it's no wonder after all that we ended our literary adventure overlooking the Virginian piedmont thinking about the impact a few written words can make.

Howling at the Gods

by Levi Asher on Thursday, March 30, 2006 11:07 am

I attended a panel on book publishing in New York City yesterday, featuring Johnny Temple of Akashic Books (which has published at least one book I really love), Sarah Weinman of Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind and GalleyCat, and Jonathan Karp of Warner Twelve, which hasn't published much yet, although Karp was responsible for at least one book I've enjoyed as well.

Moderator Bryan Keefer had chosen his presenters for maximum contrast; Karp proudly represented the possibilities of editorial innovation in a corporate setting (Warner Twelve is a "concept company" that will publish twelve books a year from somewhere within Time Warner), while Temple stood for indie values and Weinman played the token blogger.

Temple spoke about how precision book sales tracking via Bookscan is changing the business, and revealed the frustrating truth that great critical acclaim tends to do very little for a book's actual sales. All three panelists spoke about the stark financial realities of the publishing game, and these realities came to life when Keefer began soliciting questions from the audience.

After a few polite softballs, two unhappy writers began speaking up. The first was a brash young self-publisher whose print-on-demand title about the virtues of selfishness had sold over 600 copies (despite the fact that Ayn Rand had gotten there first). He asked if any publishing companies might notice that sales figure (which is impressive in the world of print-on-demand and not nearly as impressive in the world of mainstream publishing) and contact him. All three panelists answered quickly: no, he should not expect anybody to contact him, and he should get busy contacting them. "Well, I don't know anybody," the guy said. Temple suggested that he look for similar books that sell well, find out who published them, and start there. "So I should send mass emails to every publisher?" the guy responded, clearly not trying to hear what Temple was saying. No, the panelists asserted in near-unison, he should not send mass emails, but instead should carefully select a few publishers to contact. The guy seemed deaf to this advice and persisted in his Manichean belief that only two roads lay before him: either publishers would contact him or he would be forced to send mass emails. The panelists let the matter drop, and the guy packed up his stuff and left the room.

Next up was a young woman with a forlorn Fiona Apple look who said she'd once written a novel that had sold 5000 copies. But she'd lost her footing in the publishing world and was now completely lost, unpublished and angry. She played the pathos card, almost starting to cry, and like the previous questioner did not seem satisfied with the realistic responses her question received. Sarah Weinman counseled her to not give up hope, but the woman replied that this answer was "just bullshit", at which point Sarah began to visibly sneer and both publishers on stage began to draw big imaginary "X" marks over the poor woman's head ("X" being the code for "Do Not Publish This Writer Under Any Circumstances").

I felt embarrassed to sit in an audience with these two deluded fools. Karp, Temple and Weinman had just spent an hour trying to communicate how book industry professionals view the business, but I don't think these two authors had heard a word of it. They were simply howling at the gods, and the plaintive cry of the neglected genius is a sound too often heard at these types of events.

I had my own question planned, although I knew I couldn't possibly provide the same level of theatrics as the two chronic complainers who'd preceded me. Byran Keefer had earlier brought up a recent New York Times article about book pricing by Ed Wyatt which I've been ranting about myself (I also emailed literary agent/blogger Miss Snark with a link to my article, which inspired a lively discussion over at her place). Keefer had asked the panelists if two-tier book pricing was going to remain the dominant model, and Karp delivered the sad news that, in his opinion, the two-tier system works and we're stuck with it. But Karp had earlier used the word "egalitarian" to describe his ideals as a book publisher, and I now pointed out to him that there's nothing egalitarian about a pricing model that forces readers who can't pay $25 for a first-run hardcover to wait a year for the book to come out in an affordable paperback edition. My question seemed to cause at least a ripple of recognition onstage, and I enjoyed hearing Jonathan Karp say "yes, you are right". But then Sarah Weinman suggested I shut up and go to the library (her words were actually more polite) and the others on stage nodded in agreement. Maybe I was just howling at the gods myself.

In other publishing-biz news, Soft Skull has come up with an exciting new subscription model for poetry books, currently featuring titles by Todd Colby, Gary Mex Glezner and Daniel Nester. Good for Soft Skull, and I hope we'll see more and more innovative book-pricing ideas like this one.

Finally, the three winners of the 2006 Blooker Prize are going to be announced on Monday, and we at LitKicks are hoping to win (interestingly, the moderator of yesterday's panel is also a finalist for this prize, though in a different category). We think we deserve this honor, so please pray for us. Or at least howl at some gods on our behalf.

Brothers in Underpants

by Caryn Thurman on Thursday, March 16, 2006 05:44 pm

No, they're not the Baldwins ... they're not even and . I'm talking about Mopekey and Humkin, the two underwear clad, cereal-loving brothers who make up the central imaginary characters of Lincoln-Mercury's new viral marketing campaign of "webisodes" known as "The Neverything".

Say what?

Have I lost my mind, you ask? Possibly, but before I cross over into the hyperreality of absurdist fiction and car commercials, perhaps you'd like to come along?

Quite simply, "" is a tightly crafted, well-produced mini-film series (and associated interactive website, of course) with the ultimate goal of getting people to talk about the sheer bizarre-kooky-Napoleon Dynamitesque approach ... and Lincoln-Mercury products. But it's not just the oddball factor that makes this so appealing (and it is appealing). There are dark elements, humor and real intelligence driving the concept behind the story.

"The Neverything" revolves mostly around two brothers living on a ship in the middle of a field. They have no outside contact with anyone but the milkman who brings their "sustenance". They survive on cereal (which looks an awful lot like Kix) and run around in their underwear all day. Sounds a lot like college, I know. The trick is -- they don't actually exist -- they're fictional characters created by a struggling novelist named Marian Walker (who is also, for our purposes, fictional). While we learn about the strange world of Humkin and Mopekey out in their field of nothing, we also find out that Marian has started to blur the lines of what is real life and what is happening in her developing novel. Which makes sense as she intentionally creates one of the characters to have an awareness that she's writing about him ... Are you starting to catch the /Calvino-style drift here?

As if that weren't enough to pull you in and make your head spin at the same time, there's a movie and corresponding site that focuses on the perspective of the author, called , brought to you by Lincoln (while "The Neverything" is specifically attributed to Mercury.)

What does all this mean? What does it have to do with selling a car and furthermore what does it have to do with literature? I'll leave it to you to come up with your own answers, but the whole phenomenon has already started to generate some buzz, mainly by ad industry types and perplexed onlookers. I'm not sure what more to say ... and perhaps I've said too much already; however the convoluted, intriguing, highly addictive storyline and motivation behind it may just possibly be the most clever bit of writing and creativity I've seen in a long while.

And I'm not even in the market for a new car.


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