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.
Last weekend's blog post "A Dollar's Worth of Morals" may turn out to be the most unpopular thing I've ever written on this site. Several typically friendly Litkicks commenters posted in no uncertain terms that they hated the piece ... including my own beloved wife.
Ironically, I didn't expect this reaction at all when I wrote the piece. I was only trying to tell an amusing story that had, I thought, a positive and good-natured moral.
Clearly, my writing skills failed me. As they say, "If three people tell you you're drunk, sit down." I now see what went wrong with this piece, and I understand why it left so many of my faithful readers cold. I'd like to explain where I went wrong, and maybe salvage some part of my original message, which completely got lost in this disaster.
The story I told is a simple one: as I was leaving work one day, a co-worker named John T. raced down the building lobby after me, causing a lot of public commotion, so he could give me back the dollar he'd borrowed earlier that day. He evidently lived in moral horror of ever forgetting a debt, and the point of my telling this story was that I found his priorities ridiculous, especially since he had recently disappointed me by failing to speak up to our boss about a workplace problem we were both concerned about.
I was trying to make a subtle and esoteric point, in a non-judgemental way, that we often put too much emphasis on petty issues involving small amounts of money or insignificant possessions, failing to emphasize instead the things that really matter in our lives. I'm very interested in the psychology of wealth and possessiveness, and I meant this piece to reflect upon the same questions I'd brought up in earlier Philosophy Weekend posts like this one or this one.
But a strange thing happened between my conception of the story and my telling of it. I thought I was writing in an amused and jokey voice, but somehow a vein of hidden anger became exposed, and the tone of my story became shrill. I began accusing John T. of following a shallow and legalistic code of ethics, and went off on a strange half-paragraph rant about how he had betrayed our friendship. This harsh stuff did not match the intended warm tone of my blog post at all, and I ended up making readers feel sorry for poor John T., who I was beating up mercilessly for the very minor crime of paying me back a dollar.
I did not find myself on Wall Street by accident; I had graduated from a state university with a computer science degree six years earlier, and had taken a series of jobs that each brought me closer to the top of my field. I wasn't particularly interested in high finance, but I was ambitious for an exciting career, and the financial industry was considered the most prestigious place for a techie to work in New York City at this time. I did not find what I hoped for there. My two year adventure at JP Morgan left me deeply disappointed on many levels, and I consider myself lucky that I was able to leave the financial software marketplace for better work elsewhere (I never looked back, except sometimes in anger).
Four months ago I announced my intention to publish one e-book a month for the next year, thus launching a new publishing branch of this long-running website. I've released three Kindle books so far, right on schedule, and I'll be presenting the newest title on Thursday. Unlike your local train line, I've still never been late.
This is hard work, but it's going pretty well so far. The first of my three books seems to keep selling, and while the other two are lagging behind, my latest chapbook of selected literary essays did get a very nice review at Dead End Follies. Still, as I proceed I can't help feeling that I'm going both too fast and too slow. I'd like to explain what I mean by this.
I suppose it's obvious that I'm going too fast, because I'm publishing one book a month. Nobody publishes one book a month! I originally pledged to maintain this fast pace because I figure if I'm going to jump into the indie publishing business with both feet, I may as well do it Kerouac-style. I don't want to waste a lot of time triple-proofreading or worrying over spreadsheets. I want this new publishing venture to go, go, go.
Since I began publishing e-books three months ago, I've discovered that the most annoying part of the process, hands down, is marketing and publicity. The most fun part? Easy: cover artwork. I love designing covers, and I love working with artists like Vince Larue and Goodloe Byron (who's working on a cover for a new book I'm particularly excited about, which is coming out in August). For my latest book Chiaroscuro: Assorted Literary Essays I went digging into my own archives, and I thought I'd share with you what I found. You see, when I was a teenager I spent a whole lot of time doing pen and pencil sketches of my favorite rock stars.
My latest e-book, the third in a series of twelve, is out, and this one means a real lot to me. Chiaroscuro: Assorted Literary Essays is my own selection of the best literary essays I've written on this blog since 2004.
I wanted this to be a short book, so I forced myself to choose only ten pieces (and, in a Spinal-Tap-like moment, ended up choosing eleven). You can see the table of contents if you click through to the official book page, where you can also read the blurb I solicited from my good buddy Ed Champion (hey, what are friends for?).
I'm being flippant, but the truth is that the eleven pieces in this book mean more to me than I can say; they are my gems, my blows against the empire, my big fish, my keepers. This book is also arranged to represent a progression of ideas and literary notions -- transgressive visions, comic visions, great writers, overrated writers -- that encapsulates something I believe about the meaning of literature in all our lives. Mostly, this book contains the eleven essays that moved me the most when I wrote them, and I hope you'll give the book a chance and see if they move you too.
I've been pondering an article by Writer's Digest blogger and editor Jane Friedman, who is "getting frustrated with people who say they're bad at marketing & promotion because they're introverts". In the age of social media, Friedman reminds us:
... introverts should be over the moon at how lucky we are to live in an age when we can effectively market and promote by
- staying at home
- using whatever tools suit our communication style best (e-mail, IM, Skype, Twitter, Facebook, etc.)
- crafting and controlling messages to our own satisfaction
- limiting interaction when needed
I see what she's getting at, and this is a good message for independent writers and publishers to hear. It's a message that feels relevant to me, because I've been trying to push myself to work harder on publicity and marketing since beginning an e-book publishing venture in April. I know how important this is, and I already knew (before Jane Friedman reminded me) that I wouldn't get where I needed to go without stepping way beyond my comfort zone in terms of self-marketing.
I've played poker all my life. I learned five card draw as a kid, and moved up to seven card stud in college. During the late 1990s, I started to hear about Texas Hold 'Em from my older brother Gary, a serious player who won a few tournaments around Foxwoods, Mohegan Sun and Atlantic City. I quickly became obsessed with the game myself.
My best-ever tournament showing is third place, unfortunately, but I do pretty well at table play. There's a misconception that poker is unsavory in some way, or that players risk losing a lot of money; this is only true on The Sopranos or among clueless tourists, because skillful and experienced poker players are responsible and careful, never risk more than they can spend, and come out ahead as often as not. The average suburban Joe spends more money on golf or fishing than I will ever lose at poker.
I raised all three of my kids to play Texas Hold 'Em, and they're all excellent at the game. I'm sure the experience builds character; it trains important life skills like patience, awareness. subtlety. I think there's tremendous psychological and literary significance to poker, and that's why I occasionally write articles about the game here on Literary Kicks.
An NPR review by Jessa Crispin alerted me that a book I'd been awaiting with some dread is now published.
Janet Malcolm's Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial is about the trial of Mazoltuv Borukhova, a young woman who arranged the murder of her ex-husband Daniel Malakov, a young orthodontist in Queens, New York, in an attempt to gain full custody of their 4-year-old daughter. The reason I've been awaiting this book with some dread is that, a couple of months before this murder, I met the victim.