This is a story about blogger's block, and about two novels I tried to review and couldn't.
I liked one of the two novels a lot, and didn't like the other one at all. One had been sent to me by the author, the other by a friendly publicist, and I intended to blog about both of them. But when it came time to write, I found myself strangely stunted. I'm not often at a loss for words, but a weariness with contemporary fiction seemed to have stormed me like a derecho. The ensuing struggle helped lead me to a decision (Rilke: "you must change your life") that it was time for me to do something new and different with Literary Kicks.
Here's what happened: first, I read The World Without You by Joshua Henkin, a smooth professional novelist who runs the MFA program at Brooklyn College in New York City. He's a master talent who takes his craft very seriously, and he's got a lot of heart. The World Without You is a family story -- love, divorce, conflict, misunderstanding -- in the great tradition of Laurie Colwin or John Updike or Anne Tyler or Katharine Weber or Jonathan Franzen or Roxana Robinson. The novel satisfies in the same sublime way that most novels about families satisfy: it wrenches at you, surprises you, aggravates you, and totally makes you relate.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. But I found myself lacking a desire to write about it. Should I describe the characters, the taciturn Dad, the fiery Mom, the brother who died, the angry sisters who remain, the outrageous (and hilarious) former slacker turned Orthodox Jew who marries into the family? I could describe them, but Joshua Henkin already did. Should I explore the meaning of the novel? I couldn't think of a meaning, except "this is a family". (Which means plenty, if you say it right.)
Next, I read Sheila Heti's How Should a Person Be? A Novel from Life, a very trendy and Zeitgeist-y metafictional thing about a self-conscious writer (named, coincidentally enough, Sheila) and her artsy/literary friends. I thought I might like this book because it's structured as an inquiry into ethical philosophy. As the title suggests, it's a novel about a writer trying to figure out the best way to live.
Changes. Funny thing ... I was planning on writing a blog post today about some changes I'm planning on making here on Litkicks. The site turns 18 years old (!) this Monday, July 23, and I'm planning to shake a few things up. I was going to write about that today, and then I heard some news about the Bowery Poetry Club.
The Bowery Poetry Club has always been my favorite night spot in New York City. It opened in the spring of 2002 -- a great time for a new spoken word poetry club to open in a New York City still recovering from the shock of the previous September. The club is the handiwork of poetry raconteur Bob Holman, a guy we like a lot and think should be Poet Laureate of the United States.
For the past eleven years the BPC has been a cozy and friendly spot for amateur and professional poets and slammers and lyricists. Everybody who worked there was a poet, and you'd find Moonshine and Shappy (two good spoken word guys) mopping the floor or tending the bar. There's a Walt Whitman Lite Brite behind the stage, tasty organic coffee and tarts out near the front ... and halfway decent poetry acts at least half the time. Whenever a friend was coming in from out of town, I'd tell them to hit the Bowery Poetry Club.
Unfortunately, it's closing down. A restaurant will probably replace the club, though there is some word that the restaurant will continue to host poetry events. Bob Holman sent out an encouraging message earlier today:
The rumors of the death of the Bowery Poetry Club are greatly exaggerated!! It is true that ten years into Project Utopia, the hamster-tail chase of booking 30-35 gigs a week to allow the Poetry we know and love to live has produced a fatigued staff, a ragged Board (of Bowery Arts + Science, the nonprofit that books the Club), and a space that's crying out for a dose TLC. But toss in the Po' Towel? No Way, Joe! By spending the summer renovating and working out a partnership with a restaurant (rumors of Duane Park as our collaborators are sweet and the two entities surely do share a love for the populist arts of the Bowery, but nothing is signed yet folks), we hope to reopen come fall and be SUSTAINABLE with a neighborhood (Loisaida/Earth) focused poetry schedule, utilizing other neighborhood resources as well as the Club. Look for a fuller deployment of the POEMobile around town, state, country, solar system, and a commitment to a global poetics rooted in the Endangered Language Movement. To the communit-y/-ies who have supported us, and to our staff, deepest thanks! Stay tuned -- we love you. Come party with Sean T and Ann and all on Tues July 17. Everything is Subject to Change! -- and for our Tenth Anniversary next year, the BPC will look different. To survive and sustain. All the better to serve the world poetry.
In other words, Holman says we don't need to worry about poetry in New York City ... and from what I know of the strong slam poetry community in New York City, we definitely don't need to worry about it. It's good news that the Bowery Poetry Club organization will continue to be active, and I'm sure they'll keep it hopping on the Lower East Side.
I had an excellent blog post planned for today. But sometimes I just can't get it done -- or I get it done and it's just not good enough. Well, I've been working hard on many things, and sometimes I need a break. I'm taking one.
But, we've got something good planned here for next week. Michael Norris and David Richardson, who began exploring the works of J. D. Salinger in our Seeing the Glass Family series last year, are back with the concluding series of this project: a visual and textual tribute to the characters of Catcher in the Rye. See you in a few days!
It's an unpretentious and friendly poetry board, but remarkable poems do show up here often. Every December between Christmas and New Years, we put up a randomized display of many of the favorite poems from the past year. Here, for your clicking pleasure, is Action Poetry 2011.
Half a year ago I began assembling Beats In Time: a Literary Generation's Legacy, an anthology of the best articles about the Beat Generation from the Literary Kicks archives. Many of these articles dated back to this website's first five years, 1994 to 1999, when Litkicks called itself the Beat Generation website.
I've expanded the site's focus since then (and vastly expanded my scope as a reader too), which is probably why I now look back at some of these early Litkicks articles with wistful dismay, even though I treasure them. I am no longer the same innocent person who wrote or published these enthusiastic pieces about Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady and Gary Snyder, and I suppose a big part of my subconscious impulse in assembling Beats In Time was to gather all these articles together so that I could say farewell to them, and send them on their way.
In retrospect, this is not a good reason to publish an anthology, and fortunately my readers let me know this nearly the minute the book hit the Kindle store. The initial feedback I got was spookily perceptive; everybody seemed to notice that I had done a rush job on the editing, that I hadn't pored through every individual piece for necessary tweaks and fixes, that I hadn't even thought about the ways the book's implicit themes -- ecology, religion, digital communication, violence, love, the writing process, the mercurial process of literary criticism -- could be highlighted as relevant to today. One person, a book marketing professional who'd been following my ambivalent and semi-agonized blog posts about my editorial process, was particularly helpful and perceptive, and volunteered to work with me on a complete edit of the entire text, followed by the publication of a new, better edition of the book.
1. I'm so glad that Charles J. Shields's biography of Kurt Vonnegut (whose birthday is today!) is finally out. I've been looking forward to And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life for a long time -- though now that it's out I've got a few other books to get through before I can begin. This will be my slow pleasure reading for the holiday season.
I tried not to show it, but I was absolutely terrified seven months ago when I launched my first Kindle book, Why Ayn Rand Is Wrong (and Why It Matters). What was I afraid of, exactly? Embarrassment, I suppose. The lingering shame of innocent hope followed by predictable failure. The apathy of my readers, the disappointment of my loved ones and friends: Levi doesn't know how to do this right.
I wasn't sure how to measure success in my first venture as an e-book publisher, but I'm always keenly aware of what failure looks like. I sent out press releases and personal notes about the book, and was pleased to see my book occupy and hold a mid-level position on the Amazon Philosophy and Politics/Ideology charts. I sold dozens of copies, then hundreds of copies. Sales never took off like a shot, but they grew at a slow and steady pace, and a variety of chatty positive/negative reviews began appearing on my Amazon page.
Why Ayn Rand is Wrong is not a success by the metrics of any major publisher. It still hasn't sold a thousand copies, though at this point I'm sure it'll reach that number soon. The best positive indication for me that the book may be a success after all is that I sold more copies in October than any month before, and that the book now comes up in the very first page -- the very first page! -- of search results when you search for "Ayn Rand" on your Kindle.
The main thing I learned is that, once I publish a book, the book won't sit still. It will cry for my attention. Friends will email me sugggestions and errors to fix. Potential customers will urge me to produce non-Kindle versions, or paperback editions. Marketing and publicity opportunities will beckon. My super-fast one-book-a-month pace was designed to keep my project moving, but I quickly began to realize I was defeating my own goals by obliging myself to be always working furiously on the next book to come, instead of nurturing and marketing the books that were already published to the maximum extent each one required.
My lesson has been learned, and I am now hitting the pause button on my one-book-a-month plan. I have two excellent new Kindle publications in progress, but the next one will not come out in August, and the following one will not come out in September. These two new books are the first stab at the second phase of the Literary Kicks publishing plan, which involves not only producing books from selected content originally published on this blog, but also producing new and innovative editions of classic public domain works related to some of the interest areas and obsessions featured here. The books I had planned for August and September are very exciting ones (I wish I could tell you more about them now, but it'll have to wait). I think both books will sell well if published properly, but they're less likely to reach their potential if I rush them out. This is why I've decided to cut the fast pace, put the new books on a slower track to launch, and devote my current efforts towards improving the four books that are currently out.
POLONIUS: What do you read, my lord?
HAMLET: Words, words, words.
POLONIUS: What is the matter, my lord?
HAMLET: Between who?
There's a whole lot of sarcasm in this 17-word exchange. The castle is in a crisis, the Prince's mental state is uncertain, and the King's elderly aide tries to calm the tension with a bit of small talk, querying the Prince about the book he's reading. When Polonius asks "What is the matter, my lord?" he's inquiring as to the plot of the book. But Hamlet pretends to misunderstand the question, and his cutting reply -- "Between who?" -- brings the conversation out of the ethereal realm of books and into the present moment. Where, of course, plenty is the matter.
"Take what you have gathered from coincidence," Bob Dylan sang. Sometimes I'm not sure what to take, and what to leave behind.
Two mathematically improbable coincidences haunted me this Saturday, both related to current events and to this website, Literary Kicks. First, I woke up early Saturday morning and spent a calm hour sipping coffee, eating blueberry Special K and browsing through my complete Plato, intent on finding a kick-ass philosophical quote to put up as the day's blog post. I finally picked a choice snatch of dialogue from the Meno, an old favorite.
Just as this blog post was going up, a brainy, deluded and possibly schizophrenic 22-year-old creep from Tuscon, Arizona named Jared Lee Loughner was shooting six people in a shopping center. Later that day an online list of Loughner's favorite books was revealed. I was shocked to see on the list, along with titles like The Communist Manifesto and Mein Kampf, an excellent novel by Ken Kesey and two by Plato: the Republic and ... you guessed it, the Meno.