I'll be appearing at an exciting storytelling event this Friday evening at Bar Matchless on 577 Manhattan Avenue in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, starting at 8 pm. We've been asked to come up with stories upon the theme "gift", and I'm puzzling over this right now (I bet the other storytellers -- Tao Lin, Justin Taylor, Starlee Kine, DJ Dolack and Mac Montandon -- are too). There will also be music by Prince Ruperts Drops, The Joints and (this should be cool) Alana Amram and the Rough Gems, self-described as "Patsy Cline fronting the Stones". The "Vol. 1" event is a benefit for 826NYC and Books Through Bars, and is sponsored by Hexedjournal.com and WORD bookstore.
Live storytelling events (like the popular Moth series) are a nice twist on the traditional literary reading tradition. Because there is a theme, writers are forced to come up with something fresh (unless they happen to be O. Henry and have a great story about gifts lying around), and this adds to the spontaneity of the evening. The notion of "storytelling" also has a homespun feeling to it, which helps to alleviate the existential artistic tension that often hangs overhead at these literary events. Party atmosphere and music also help to improve most live readings, and could probably have saved a few dreadful ones I've been to.
Speaking of storytelling, I'm working on a different kind of writing project that I plan to launch here on LitKicks in January, 2009. Regular readers of this site know that I have been working on a non-fiction book proposal, which is currently in my agent's capable hands. This proposal represents what I have described as my secret "M" idea, one of four great non-fiction book ideas that have been obsessing and possessing me, all of which I hope to eventually publish.
The "M" idea remains the most commercially viable of my four, which is important since I have no track record as a non-fiction author and must prove myself with a truly winning proposal. Being a popular litblogger doesn't get me very far (it gets me in the front door, basically), and the few literary bloggers (Ron Hogan, Mark Sarvas, Lizzie Skurnick) who manage to get significant book deals do so entirely on the strength of the work, not the blog. So I'm sticking with my "M" idea, which is on a wildly popular topic and has an excellent chance of selling a hundred thousand copies. I am an eternal optimist, so I will keep awaiting an email from my agent telling me he's found a smart publisher who sees it the same way.
However, I am aware that publishing companies are now in cost-cutting mode, and that this is a bad time to try to sell a risky concept. So, I keep waiting for that happy email from my agent, but I'm not holding my breath.
So what do I do with my non-fiction ideas? I did a bunch of writing for other venues last year, and I would like to do more. But the competition at these publications is now tighter than ever, so this is not a great outlet either for my desire to stretch my writing skills.
So I've made my decision: while I wait to hear from my agent on the "M" book, I am going to begin writing one of my other three big ideas, and I will do it right here on LitKicks. I will compose the book in blog-post-sized sections, and I will try (no promises, till I find my rhythm) to post one new entry each week. I don't know how long I'll keep doing this, but by the end of the experiment we will have hopefully witnessed the creation of ... something. And we'll take it from there.
You know I love doing projects here on LitKicks, and this may turn out to be my most ambitious project yet.
So, which idea? I've got my "I" idea, "P" idea and "Q" idea to work with. "P" is my most ambitious concept, but I don't think I'm ready to write it yet, and I couldn't even write a summary that would make sense.
The "Q" book is the one I could write most easily, because it's material I know so well. I could narrate this entire book start to finish in a week. However it has a regional audience, and I don't think it'll be my breakthrough book. I'd like to keep the "Q" idea in my back pocket for now, and I'll have fun writing it someday.
So that leaves the "I" idea, and so the "I" idea it is. This is the most personal of the four, the topic most rooted in my own life experiences. I will begin the first installment in the first week of the new year. And, as a special preview, please tune in next week to find out what the book is about, and what the "I" stands for.
That's all I can say right now. More to come, very soon.
And in the meantime, I better get busy thinking up a good story to tell for Friday night. Hmmm, gift, gift, gift ...
Now I've got the same problem with novels -- specifically, novels by newer or lesser known authors. It feels horrible to exchange emails with a nice friendly author, get a crisp good-looking book with a nice handwritten note in the mail, and never write about it. But this keeps happening, because I am a slow reader and I've barely been able to begin most of these books. I really do feel horrible about this. I know the writers deserve better.
Then again, just because I run a literary blog, who says I want to run a filtering service for new and unknown novelists? This is not a role I ever wanted to play, and it's not the kind of reading I most enjoy. At least 2/3 of the books I read are older texts (lately, hmm, Edmund Wilson's To The Finland Station, the Gunter Grass Reader) or history or politics titles (recently, Jacob Weisberg's The Bush Tragedy, David Adelman's A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today). I also sometimes read cheesy rock biographies (Suze Rotolo's A Freewheeling Time, etc.), and I try to read international titles as much as I can, so there's just not that much time left for new upcoming novelists or desparate last-gasp novelists, as good as their books probably are.
And yeah, sure, I'm interested in knowing who the next big sensation is going to be. But I really don't need to be the first to know. Hell, I haven't even found the time to read Roberto Bolano yet.
I am going to run some very few long-overdue book reviews in the next couple of weeks. But once again I have to warn any novelists who communicate with me that I'm always happy to hear from you and I'm always happy to check out your books, but please don't send it unless it's okay that the odds are against me writing about the book.
But please do keep those global history/politics titles and cheesy rock biographies coming! I need some good beach reading.
2. Oxford University Press's Evan Schnittman has written a refreshing analytical piece that projects the likely (secret) sales figures for the two major E-Book devices, Amazon's Kindle and the Sony Reader:
The chatter, as reported in the NY Times, has publishers and others speculating that Amazon has sold somewhere between 10,000 - 50,000 Kindles.
I think all the speculations are completely wrong. By my calculations, combined sales of the Amazon Kindle and the Sony Reader will be 1,000,000 units in 2008. This estimate is based on solid data.
Schnittman's math is fine -- but a projection is just a projection, and since these conclusions are largely based on parts (screens) ordered for manufacture, his research is probably over-optimistic. But he's right that E-books are a growing business.
Of course E-books will eventually succeed. Anybody who thinks they won't is out of touch with the 21st Century. But pricing is key, and the Kindle is too expensive. By slicing across the price differential, Schnittman's research misses the main lesson the industry needs to hear -- make it affordable, stupid. Still, the article is a worthwhile read.
3. It's strange that Ben Child says in the Guardian that Deepak Chopra is the inspiration for the Mike Myers character in the new film The Love Guru, since the character looks a whole lot like real-life love guru Mahirishi Mahesh Yogi, who recently died. I'll go see this film ... Mike Myers hasn't steered me wrong yet.
4. Speaking of karma, Ed Champion is dishing some heavy stuff out here.
As to how the spam device got there in the first place, it turns out to have been embedded in the WordPress theme I'd used to create the latest version of the site. The theme is called "Royaline", and anybody else who uses this theme will probably eventually run into the same problem I had. I posted about this on a WordPress forum.
It's a discouraging fact that prescription drug spammers would so carelessly violate the trust of the open source community. But it's equally encouraging that I asked for help with this problem and so quickly got what I needed. Good work, people.
I know Google is under no obligation to index LitKicks.com, but the search engine has been happily sharing my content since the day it went online, and I wish the company treated its longtime sites with more respect. I don't mean to be all uppity about how great my website is, but the fact is Literary Kicks goes way back. Readers care about this content, and this content belongs on Google.
If anybody out there has any suggestions for how I can get this problem solved more quickly, please email me or post a comment. Thanks.
2. Unlike apparently everybody else, I don't give a damn about the new James Bond novel by Sebastian Faulk as John Banville as Benjamin Black as Ian Fleming. And I already have a Matchbox car.
3. I also don't give a damn about Borders' new Magic Shelf. Just put a good book on a shelf and I'll call that magic.
(We're also going out quietly -- in fact, we agreed to disband over two months ago, and the fact that it took this long for one of us to announce it shows exactly what was wrong with the group -- as a public presence, we had completely lost our pulse.)
I respect the quiet way we operated, though. The Litblog Co-op was not only an organization designed to promote books and blogs -- it was also a small community, and as a community I think we always managed to stay polite and retain a democratic process (which is more than I can say for a few other online literary communities I've been a part of). I'm proud of us for this -- in fact, I'm proud of everything about the Litblog Co-op, and just for the fun of it I'd like to share the story of how I came to join this lovable ragtag outfit in the summer of 2006.
Fourteen months earlier, my site LitKicks.com was stuck, floundering somewhere between blogginess and nowheresville. I'd lost my patience with the frenetic message board/creative writing community that was LitKicks up to 2004, but I wasn't quite sure where to turn next. Taking cues from smart people I knew with blogs, like Jamelah, Caryn and Christian, I'd moved LitKicks towards a strange hybrid sort of blog/poetry forum, but I didn't really know what I was doing, and I think this showed.
At this point -- we're talking April 2005 -- I still had no idea that good literary blogs existed. I knew that good blogs existed, and I had occasionally Googled my way onto a blog with a literary focus, but I never saw a specifically literary blog that impressed me enough to want to go back again. I read GalleyCat, but that was about it. I guess I could have looked harder, but I didn't.
At this time, I did not feel generally fond of blogs. In fact I was nurturing my own private version of the same anti-blog resentment that Scott McLemee refers to in a recent related article on the Critical Mass blog. In my case, I resented blogs partly because they were so technically simple. As a Java programmer, I had built LitKicks by hand, and I was having trouble accepting the fact that a sloppy PHP script called WordPress could do everything I could do with Java (and better, much better). I was awed by WordPress, but also jealous of it. I guess you could say I was blinded by my own technological snobbery.
Then one day a "read this" email came from Caryn while I was at work, pointing to a Village Voice article by Joy Press that fairly knocked me off my chair.
Apparently, according to this article, literary blogs were a "scene". Apparently -- this had never happened before -- major New York publishers were taking online publicity seriously. And there was now a group, founded by a guy named Mark Sarvas, called the Litblog Co-op.
I knew two of these sites mentioned in the article, Beatrice and Bookslut, but hadn't realized that Beatrice had morphed into a blog and that Bookslut had one. I noted quite pointedly that this Village Voice article did not mention LitKicks. I started browsing these blogs, expecting to hate them, but I quickly found myself liking what I saw. I surfed Mark Sarvas with his Fowler quote, and Maud Newton with her Courier font and Jackson Pollock background. I read every single blog on the Litblog Coop's membership list, and was impressed over and over. I was seeing something I hadn't seen much of before: brains. These people knew books. And they could write.
These people also, apparently, had never heard of LitKicks. I felt uncertain whether or not I could fit in with these bloggers, who seemed to be hipper and seemed to wear more fashionable clothes than me (but than, pretty much everybody in the world is hipper and wears more fashionable clothes than me). At the same time, I was glad to see many of my less common literary enthusiasms reflected in various bloggers: Jeff Bryant read the Beats and Bukowski; Maud Newton shared my interest in dusty old classics; Ed Champion covered the postmodern stylists. I wasn't sure, but I had a feeling I could become a part of this clique, if I could only figure out how to weasel my way in.
Getting friendly with bloggers can take a while, but in my case it went surprisingly smoothly. Jeff Bryant, Ed Champion, Bookslut and Golden Rule Jones were among the first to hit me up with some helpful linkage, which I appreciated very much. I think it was Jeff who wrangled my admission into the Litblog Co-op, exactly fourteen months after I first read about the organization in the Village Voice. I always felt like a newbie there, but I made several friends and will undoubtedly keep in touch with all.
If we analyze "what went wrong" with the Litblog Co-op, I'd say nothing. We had some internal discussions last year about what forms the group could possibly evolve into, and at one point I proposed that we model ourselves on the National Book Critics Circle: collect dues, stage events, have an annual budget, open up the membership, elect rotating leaders. This idea fell victim to the same problem many of our ideas fell victim to: none of us had the time to do any of them. At one point after I suggested that we elect a leader (which is something we'd never done), somebody asked me if I would be willing to be this leader, and I had to admit that I was too busy. At that point, I saw the folly of my own proposal, and this is why I ultimately think we are making the right move in closing up shop today.
One thing I remember well: we promoted some great books. When it came my turn to nominate a title I went with Triangle by Katharine Weber, which didn't win the group's vote. Am I still mad about that? Hell yeah. Some of my favorites among the nominations that did win: Firmin by Sam Savage, Wizard of the Crow by Nguzi Wa Thiong'o, The Farther Shore by Matthew Eck, which goes down in history as the last LBC pick.
Readers of Literary Kicks are familiar with the picture of French poet Paul Verlaine that decorates every page. The poet appears to be in a stupor. In front of him is a flagon of green liquid: absinthe. The very name implies decadence and depravity. We imagine artists and writers of the Belle Epoque in Paris, sitting in cafés, drinking absinthe, and perhaps having hallucinatory visions. We think of Van Gogh, a notorious absinthe drinker: did he cut off his ear while in the throes of the drink? Numerous famous paintings depict absinthe drinkers, often in sordid surroundings, such as "The Absinthe Drinker" by Edouard Manet. Adding even more to its sinister reputation is the fact that absinthe was once outlawed in France, most of Europe, and the United States.
A lot has been written about absinthe and its effects, but perhaps one of the most compelling descriptions is from Ernest Hemingway, also a noted absintheur . In For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway’s protagonist Robert Jordan carries a leather-covered flask filled with absinthe. At a crucial point in the early part of the novel, he dips into his dwindling supply: "It was a milky yellow now with the water, and he hoped the gypsy would not take more than a swallow. There was very little of it left and one cup of it took the place of the evening papers, of all the old evenings in cafes, … of all the things he had enjoyed and forgotten and that came back to him when he tasted that opaque, bitter, tongue-numbing, brain-warming, stomach-warming, idea-changing, liquid alchemy."
2. I just attended the New York City reading debut of Mark Sarvas's upcoming novel Harry, Revised at Jami Attenberg's Boxcar Reading with Michael Dahlie, Lynn Lurie and Ceridwen Dovey. Harry, Revised is about a young widower embarking on an apparent search for self, and I cannot help imagining that there must be a lot of Mark Sarvas in the character of Harry, who (in the chapter Mark read last night) attempts to anchor his self-image by purchasing a French literary classic.
One special thing about Harry, Revised is that readers of Mark's Elegant Variation blog have been able to watch and enjoy its process of creation, and this is certainly a unique and effective way to build up anticipation for an upcoming book release. Harry, Revised hits the stores in April.
3. Earlier in the evening, before the Boxcar reading, Ed Champion and I formed an electronic mob to crash Against the Machine author Lee Siegel's conversation with John Freeman at the McNally Robinson bookstore in Soho (though we were well-behaved and unfortunately had to leave after only 20 minutes to get to the Boxcar in time). Lee Siegel's new book aims to be a rabble-rousing cry of protest against the looming evils of internet culture, though many of us who dwell happily online won't let Lee forget that he only began to develop this hatred of the internet after getting caught in a buffoonish attempt at dominating it.
Lee Siegel has had an acclaimed career as a pugnacious cultural critic (though the above-mentioned "sprezzatura" incident didn't help his reputation), but my encounters with his writing in the New York Times Book Review have revealed an ambitious but intellectually careless writer. He reinforced this impression last night with wild statements like "the internet is 80% porn". Siegel seems to lack the restraint and sense of balance that any cultural critic ought to have. He'll probably sell a lot of copies of Against the Machine -- blunt rhetoric does sell -- but I feel sorry for anyone who wastes their time reading it.
4. "A New Cultural Revolution" may not be the best title for this encouraging survey of the state of popular literature in China, since the actual phrase "Cultural Revolution" was used as a guise for Mao Zedong's brutal crackdown on personal, social and artistic freedom in the 1960s and 70s. But this is an important article, and I'd love to learn more about China's vast book industry.
5. I don't love being greeted with a plea for my email address, but I like everything else about PublicIntegrity.org, a public repository of government documents relevant to current political issues. The new exhibit "Iraq: The War Card" offers a simple and effective search engine documenting the Bush administration's justification for the war in Iraq.
6. Action Poets -- thanks for your patience with the new software, which is (obviously) still in beta. Coming soon: monthly archives, a better response system, other stuff. It's also a little slow, and I can fix that too (my MO as a software developer, as you may have noticed, has always been "launch first, fix later"). Hang in there, everybody ... and it's good to see old friends popping back in.
There's also an illustrated new T. C. Boyle short story called I Dated Jane Austen (via Knowledge Problem). I'm dying to read Oil!, the 1927 business novel by Upton Sinclair that is the basis of the new film There Will Be Blood, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (when Paul Thomas Anderson makes a movie, I'm interested).
But I can't catch up on any of this today, because I've been busy geeking out with poetry software. It's hard to explain why I have had to work so long on the LitKicks technical overhaul that's been going on since December of last year. I know many people who enjoyed the old Action Poetry pages on LitKicks are wondering why I had to take the old software down in the first place. Basically, the old software was written in Java, as the entire previous version of LitKicks was, and I've now migrated the site to PHP (using the excellent WordPress content delivery system and a few other open source packages). This involved a physical move to a new server in December, and once this move was complete I had to throw away all my old Java poetry code and begin rewriting the whole thing in PHP. That's what I've been doing for the past several weeks.
I'm also adding some features to the poetry platform, like (sneak preview) member profiles listing all of each member's poems, a rating system (which I'm not ready to show you yet) and a new page layout/design that will hopefully break less often than the old one (old-timers know that Action Poetry wasn't always smooth sailing over in Java-land).
It's an interesting fact that until last month's switchover, LitKicks was one of the very few literary blogs or websites that did not run on PHP (a language that emerged along with blog culture, and is most remarkable for its simplicity and powerful ease of use) or Perl or other "scripting language". Java is an older and more complex programming language that's widely used by companies and organizations around the world. I wrote the original Java version of LitKicks myself of course, back in 2000, and back then I assure you my homegrown Jive-based Java-based content delivery system was some damn well-written state-of-the-art software. I still write Java code for a living (as do many of my techie peers, since Java work pays better than PHP work), but even an old school Java guy like me has to admit that PHP, not Java, is the best language for content-rich web applications. In fact, I'll break ranks with my Java peers and admit straight out that many companies in the financial, legal, health care, government and other industries pay too much to build applications with Java that they could build more simply in PHP and AJAX (I always like to toss a heavy dose of AJAX into my web applications, which you'll hopefully be noticing once the new poetry software is up).
So, am I geeking out enough for you? Now that I've joined the PHP flock, by the way, the only outlier I can think of in the literary blogosphere is Mark Thwaite's Ready Steady Book, whose URLs reveal it to be a Microsoft .NET based site. I've also done some work in .NET (specifically C#, which is a lot like Java), and I can confidently say that PHP is better. I hope Mark Thwaite's having an easier time with his .NET based blog than I did with my Java blog, though. Another literary site with an unusual technical foundation is Michael Orthofer's Complete Review and Literary Saloon, which appears to use very simple flat HTML. This is not a highly scalable approach, but it's got something to recommend it (LitKicks was also flat HTML-based before I created the Java version in 2000).
Anyway, speaking of Java, I would like to thank the company that hosted LitKicks.com for the past seven years, Servlets.net. If you ever need expert Java hosting, Servlets.net is the place to go. I'm now running LitKicks on one of the major PHP hosts, but let's give it a few months to see if I ever start thanking them.
I was hoping I'd be able to re-launch Action Poetry today, but I'm not there yet. Very soon, however, I will place a notice on the top right panel (where it currently reads "Tech Notes") asking members of the old Action Poetry site to re-activate their memberships on the new site. Shortly thereafter, I'll be inviting anyone and everyone to create a login on the new site, and then we can share some poems. Thanks again for your patience, and I look forward to getting back to a focus on literature, not technology, here on LitKicks.