What does this mean? It's difficult to tell. Browsing online sources (including Houghton Mifflin's oblique website), I quickly got caught in amazing accounts of the history carried by today's Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, whose previous permutations and acquisitions include Harcourt Brace, Harcourt Brace and Javonovich, Henry Holt, Holt Rinehart and Winston, Houghton Mifflin and even the legendary Ticknor and Fields, which was merged into Houghton Mifflin in 1880. (No, not 1980. 1880.)
Books these publishers have been responsible for include Thoreau's Walden, Sinclair Lewis's Main Street and Orwell's 1984. So is this company "too literary to fail"? I doubt that. I can't possibly guess as to the business implications of today's dramatic announcement, but the fact that a major publishing firm is closing its doors even temporarily is obviously bad news for writers, publishers, booksellers, agents and pretty much everybody else. Ironically, as we've pointed out here on LitKicks often, books remain a highly profitable business every year (current code word: "Twilight"), but our top executives don't seem to be doing a good job of keeping the financials under control even with all that money (yes, money) floating around.
You know, sometimes the book game reminds me of the bank game. I just had to say that again.
Anyway, this is especially galling to me because, as I told you many months ago, I am trying to sell a book. I finished a proposal this summer -- an absolutely kickass proposal for a non-fiction book on a popular topic -- and a top literary agent (who I am very proud to have representing me) began approaching publishers with the proposal in August. This agent, who appears to be a man of few words, delivered a status report to me recently which wasn't what I wanted to hear. The email contained two sentences:
not a lot of reaction to it. but i will keep trying.
I know this will be a great book and I seriously expect it to sell a hundred thousand copies, so I find this very frustrating (though I realize that it's only been three months and I am glad that my agent is still trying). But with companies like Houghton Mifflin Harcourt slamming their windows shut and going into fetal positions, even temporarily, I am that much more depressed about my chances.
Whether we are publishing professionals, writers or readers, these business developments will affect all our lives and the lives of our children just as much as developments in the inexcusably mismanaged financial markets will. I think we'd all better pay extra close attention to the publishing industry in the next few weeks. (If you need a starting place, here's one.) Let's just hope we can get through the holiday season with no more dominoes falling.
Shea Stadium, a futuristic perfect circle ballpark cast in concrete over the ash piles of Flushing Meadows, Queens, has now gone dark forever. It will be replaced by CitiField, right next door. As a lifelong Mets fan and neighbor of Shea Stadium, I am upset to see the great building go and I don't like the corporate label on the new ballpark. But at the same time, I'm grateful the Mets will remain in Flushing Meadows Park, and I like it that CitiField is architecturally based upon Ebbets Field, historic home of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Needless to say, I loved Shea Stadium. I even wrote a book about it (I still say The Summer of the Mets was a damn great book, but nobody loves a self-published novel). I've probably seen at least sixty Mets games there, including the intense 2006 Mets, the doomed 2000 Mets, the boring 1995 Mets, the legendary 1986 Mets, the hapless 1973 "You Gotta Believe" Tug McGraw Mets, and, yes, my friends, when I was seven years old I saw Tom Seaver pitch against the Chicago Cubs with the "Impossible Dream" 1969 Mets. I also drove past the stadium about four billion times, saw the Police with Joan Jett and R.E.M. there in 1983 ... me and that big concrete bowl go back a long way.
I'm coming at today's post from a slightly off-topic direction, mainly because I'm thinking about inspiration and discipline and the idea comes from an off-topic place. I hope you can forgive me.
For a few years now, I have been a photographic hobbyist. I have no aspirations to be anything other than a hobbyist and though I've sold a few prints here & there, photography is not something for which I would ever quit my day job. I am fascinated by the craft of photography and the fact that it allows me to translate all those pictures I get in my head without having to go to the trouble of writing them. What can I say but I am an instant-gratification junkie. Sue me.
Anyway, nearly a year ago now, I started a project. It's a simple project in theory: take one self-portrait every single day for a year. (I have less than a month left, and yes, I am counting the days.) For the purposes of the project, a self-portrait can be something traditional or it can be less so, a fragment, even: a knee or a foot or a hand or an elbow. The photographs can be artistic or bland, inspired or dull, and it doesn't matter. The only point is that I'm there every day, taking a photograph.
It's a weird project for a person like me to undertake anyway, because I'm not all that interested in myself as a subject. I am not overcome with vanity and I don't just looooooooove looking at myself. I look the way I look and I'm pretty ambivalent about it all, to be honest. Comments about my appearance usually gain nothing from me other than a shrug. Whatever. The point is that I chose the project not because I really really wanted to take a photograph of myself every day, but because I really really wanted to challenge myself to do something, just one thing, one relatively simple thing, and see it through to completion.
When I started, I'm sure I thought I'd be able to come up with something undoubtedly fascinating every day. But then I got into the project, the day-to-day drudgery, the days when I didn't feel like it, the days when I was sick or tired or busy, and I have most certainly had my fair share of days when all I could think to do was hold the camera at arm's length and fire. So be it. Just as I've come up with several shots that I'm rather proud of, shots that took planning and set up and work, there are just as many (maybe even more) that I just didn't give a damn about, but you know what? They're done.
All of this to say that I've learned a lot about creativity over this year. I've always been a creative person, and if I had to pick a defining characteristic about myself, it would be my creativity. It is something that drives me. I love to make things. But the thing that I have learned, the most important thing, is that much of it is drudgery, much of it is work. I have always approached creativity as something that happened almost by magic, something that came about when I was inspired. But -- and maybe this isn't news to anyone but me -- waiting for inspiration leaves so much stuff undone. I don't always feel like creating. I don't always want to do something. Sometimes I just want to watch TV. But even when I don't feel like it, I make myself take a photo anyway. Not always, but occasionally, those photographs end up being more interesting than the ones I felt like making. So it goes.
In doing this project despite the many days when I wasn't actually interested in doing this project, when I wanted to hang it up and call it good, I have learned that making art (ha -- not that I would call the vast majority of my self-portraiture art... I might be pretentious, but I'm not that pretentious) and completing things is not a romantic ideal but work. Often the work is fun, and I sometimes end up having a good time working on something even when I started out being cranky about the whole business, but it still requires showing up and doing something, even when the inspiration isn't there.
And now I'm going to get to writing. (You thought I wasn't going to, didn't you?) Writing has been my life-long love, and something I've been good at, struggled with, enjoyed, hated, did, didn't do, etc., etc., I approached it like it was this magical thing that would happen when the moment was right, when the stars aligned perfectly, when I had something to say. But it turns out that it doesn't actually have to be like that. Or that, perhaps, it shouldn't be like that. Writing, like anything else we take seriously, takes dedication. Inspiration is all very well and good and I am not scoffing at it, but there are days when I don't want to write anything, yet I do it anyway. It isn't always good, it isn't always pretty, but it's written. And what's written can be edited, can be worked with until it's better, but the stuff that doesn't get written because I'm too busy waiting for the moment to be right never becomes anything.
The point is that through making myself employ dedication and stubbornness to an unrelated project, I have become a more productive writer as well. Last year, I interviewed Greg Fallis, who said, "The only thing that gets you past the dull, grinding bits is keeping your ass in the chair and your fingers on the keyboard. Putting words in a row." I didn't quite agree with him then, thinking that certainly there was more to it than that, that there was always some inspiration, some muse whispering brilliance in my ear, but he's right.
Creativity means creating. Just showing up and doing the job. And despite its drudgery, despite the days when it doesn't feel inspiring or interesting at all, and the only thing that keeps it going is sheer determination, what a fun job it is.
i ran out t the phone booth
made a call t my wife. she wasnt home.
i panicked. i called up my best friend
but the line was busy
then i went t a party but couldnt find a chair
somebody wiped their feet on me
2. Hootenanny time! Somebody wants to make a Broadway musical version of Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho. I like Ellis (sometimes) but consider American Psycho his least inspired and most sensationalist work. With those credentials ... it'll probably be the next friggin' Rent. Great.
3. Ed Harris is very good as Ludwig Van Beethoven in Copying Beethoven, a movie making the rounds on cable TV. Ed Harris was also recently great as Jackson Pollock, and while he doesn't quite equal that accomplishment here, he does transform himself into another creature as Ludwig Van. Copying Beethoven's plotline about a young copyist working for the master is sometimes dull, but the big scene depicting the debut of the Ninth Symphony at the end is worth the wait. This scene even captures a moment from Beethoven's life once described by Schroeder in a Peanuts strip, when the deaf composer is led to the edge of the stage so he can discover that the audience is clapping. Well done.
4. A Scott and Zelda biopic is in the early stages (via Books Inq).
5. Also from Books Inq, a new Nick Cave novel will be called The Death of Bunny Monroe.
6. I am going to check out the new Chuck Klosterman novel. If Klosterman writes fiction as well as he writes about rock music, I guess I'll be happy.
7. Bill Ectric interviews Pete Brown, a poet from the British Beat scene.
8. Everybody's calling for a time-out now.
9. The importance of The Dot and other things ASCII.
10. You know, every autumn I get some crazy idea here on LitKicks (like last year's book pricing inquiry, which certainly took on a life all its own). This year, I think many of us have the upcoming USA presidential election on our minds, but we're tired of hearing the same superficial angles explored on TV and in newspapers and online. I'd like to dig deeper, using literary points of view and original source texts as much as possible, and hopefully find more insight into some of the difficult issues that Americans are currently debating (especially issues of society, war, violence, international politics). I'm not exactly sure what I have in mind, but I've got a few more days before October starts, so at this point I'm just letting you know that this is coming up. I also hope each day's discussion will be highly interactive, so I'll welcome your input once this gets off the ground.
11. Ten years ago I directed a digital movie called Notes From Underground, based on the Dostoevsky novel and starring Phil Zampino as the Underground Man. This project was probably the hardest and most obsessive thing I've ever done, and it was also probably the most acclaimed (it got rave write-ups in WIRED magazine, Entertainment Weekly, New York Press, Time Digital). The other thing I was really hoping to do this September (but I think time is running out) is celebrate the 10th anniversary of Notes From Underground with a fresh new You-Tube version of the whole 64-minute film (in ten segments). However, I am a perfectionist and I'm not happy with the way the digitizing has turned out, so, unfortunately, I'm not going to be able to do this 10th anniversary thing in September. I am going back to my original video masters, and it'll probably take another few weeks before I can show anything. Hell, I'm the only one who remembered the anniversary anyway.
12. Well, anyway, now, to lighten up ... and because I have no shame and love making myself a damn fool in public, here's a video I just dug up and digitized while I was working on Notes From Underground, featuring me four years ago performing at the Back Fence nightclub in Greenwich Village, New York City. I'm singing a Bob Dylan tune from "Nashville Skyline", "To Be Alone With You". As you'll be able to see, my guitar playing is highly influenced by Johnny Ramone and I sing like Peter Brady. But I think the song is saved by slide guitarist Will Hodgson, of the Pennsylvania jam band the Manatees, and we really start to cook during the second guitar break.
There was also a good bass guitarist whose name I don't remember. I was singing "To Be Alone With You" to Caryn, who I like being alone with.
So, while Levi was busy getting married, I was busy watching him getting married and then doing the Hokey Pokey at the reception. And then when I came back home, my refrigerator broke, my computer crashed, my blog’s database exploded, and then when I tried to log in to write my post here, WordPress was all, “Access DENIED. No, seriously. Go away.” The moral of this story is, of course, don’t come back from vacation. Take it from me. It’s a bad idea.
Anyway, even though I wasn't smart enough to stay on vacation, the refrigerator has been replaced, I bought a new computer, I fixed my database, and here I am writing this post. So it all ended up okay, and all, but when my computer died, I lost a lot of stuff. I haven't given up hope on being able to fish around in the dead tower and retrieve some things, though I wish I'd been more vigilant about backing stuff up in the first place (this is a lesson I thought I learned a few years ago the last time I had a computer die on me, but I guess it didn't stick). It's funny though, because I obsessively back up my photographs to an external hard drive, and I'm pretty good about backing up my iTunes, so the main thing I've lost is my writing. It's a lot of writing. I may be able to get it back or not, but I can't help finding it interesting that out of everything, this is the stuff I didn't bother to save. And while I know there was some good work there that it would be nice to have, the truth is that I wasn't all that upset about it. A little upset, sure, but definitely not as upset as I thought I might be, as I thought I should be.
I'm not sure what that means, or if it means anything other than I am careless, but I sure have thought about it a lot. The main question I ask myself is that if I can write pages and pages and do almost nothing to make sure they survive, and when they're lost I don't seem to mind too much, then why do I write in the first place? Why not just take up sudoku? I've given myself a few answers:
1. I hate sudoku.
2. Habit. I've been writing all my life (or at least since I've been literate, which has been, you know, a few years), and at this point it's just one of the things I do naturally. I sit down and write something every day, good or bad, serious or not. It's just a guarantee that at some point during my waking hours I will write something, even if it's only a couple of sentences. And when I'm not writing, I'm often thinking about it, planning what I'm going to write next. It's a compulsion, almost, minus the "almost" part.
3. Words. I love them. Fiercely, passionately. I love them in four languages, and I'd love them in more languages than that if I knew more. Despite the fact that they fail me all the time in my day-to-day, face-to-face life, despite the fact that they are approximations, I love them. And it's important to spend time with the ones you love.
4. Because I can. There are a lot of things in the world that I can't do, and I am aware of them, but I can write. I don't even suck at it.
Are those good enough reasons? Does it matter? I don't know. What I do know is that I'll keep writing, and maybe I'll even get better about preserving what I write. But even if I don't get better at it, even if everything I write remains momentary and impermanent, it's enough that I do it. So perhaps the biggest reason is that I write just for the sake of writing. Sometimes I write for an audience, most of the time I don't, and I am after the creating more than the creation, I suppose. Perhaps someday that will change, but for now the very best part is the act itself, the practice. Lining the words up neatly in well-formed rows and then doing it again.
Here's what we've been doing:
See you very soon!
But what can words say? I'm in love and I'm off to get married. Right now, those are the only words I got.
We're outta here! LitKicks will be back and open for more fun and adventure in mid-July. Mazel Tov to us all!
* = "What name to call you by, I know not, for your looks are not of earth And more than mortal seem your countenances", Petrarch
As you've probably guessed, I once ran a zine. This was a long time ago, back when I was in high school, and I founded Head Express with my stepsister Kelly (who is now a librarian in Florida and occasionally pops up on LitKicks). Head Express was a parody of a rock music magazine, with articles like "Rate Your Rogers" (stacking up Roger Waters vs. Roger Daltrey vs. a Roy Rogers Roast Beef Sandwich) and terrible Rolling Stone-style flower child poetry from a fake contributor named Ann T. Lope. We ran for a couple of issues and then forget to keep doing it. Years later, I looked at LitKicks.com and realized it wasn't very different from Head Express at all. But here the flower child poetry is real, and hopefully the jokes are better.
The zine scene gets a good workout in a new novel by Tim W. Brown, Walking Man, which sends up the intense 80s/90s "Factsheet Five" era when zinesters started taking themselves seriously and pushing at the limits of creative possibility that would eventually blow up into the internet age. Published by Bronx River Press, this paperback original tells of the hardworking obsessive Brian Walker's brief rise to the peak of "zine fame", and where it left him. A breezy look back at a faraway literary age from not very long ago
2. I didn't realize the Iowa floods had reached the library at the University of Iowa, a renowned literary spot.
3. Franz Kafka's office writings (he was a lawyer in a Prague insurance firm) are being published. I'm excited about this book, though the unfortunate $45.00 price tag dampens the thrill.
4. The Diary Junction is a blog devoted to the literary form known as the diary.
5. And I Dream of Analysis is devoted to the study of one particular kind of dream.
6. Denis Johnson's latest fiction is appearing in Playboy.
7. This is one way of looking at it.
8. I was at the same Brooklyn Litfest cheese-cube party that didn't impress Ed Champion, though I was satisfied enough and don't mind that the Brooklyn book fest is reaching to Manhattan for talent. But I was at the PEN World Voices Gilligan's Island cruise party a couple of months ago, so I know what it's like when bad book parties happen to good lit fests.
9. If you're going to do a literary project called Here Ends The Beginning and bill yourself as "a multimedia storytelling experience, part screenplay, part graphic novel, part audio book and part movie, the newest chapter in publishing" (via Joe Wikert) ... you shouldn't put a talking video on your main landing page, and you shouldn't compose your final design in Microsoft Powerpoint.
10. Pratalipi is a bilingual monthly magazine -- an idea that seems obvious, but I don't think I've seen it done before.
The theme in several recent articles about the outlook for book publishing is innovation. Harper Collins wants to recalibrate author advances, making the book market leaner and meaner for authors, but with a potentially greater upside. Robert Miller's new company will refuse to play along with the punishing "returns" policy currently in place between book publishers and major chains. Miller's company is also committed to publishing books in a variety of simultaneous formats, which is certainly a good move (though I wish Miller had mentioned simultaneous trade paperback along with simultaneous audio and e-book formats, since readers would welcome this most of all). Small issues aside, though, both of these attempts at "shaking the tree" sound exciting, though they will have to be carefully managed to succeed.
The Persona Non Data blog, usually so insightful, really blows it with their analysis of proposals for change in book publishing:
"Disallowing returns and not paying advances is not going to produce a successful publishing program but producing content readers will buy will eliminate a need for returns and advances. So the solution is simple: Publish what buyers will pay for and read, and this is where Bob Miller (and all others) have their challenge."
Right, and could somebody please tell the Mets starting lineup to start hitting .600? Simple, really.
Here's what Persona Non Data misses: the literary books that the major and indie houses are putting out these days are already very good. There is absolutely no shortage of worthwhile talent in today's lit scene. But the publishing industry is locked into antique traditions (twelve months between hardcover and paperback? are you kidding me?) that regularly ignore the wishes of customers and push potential readers away. These traditions keep the financial pipelines trickling (as the machines grind debut novelists to bloody bits with their robotic teeth), but this takes place at the expense of creativity or customer demand.
Any entrepreneurial publisher willing to risk failure by trying something new deserves our support. Go Miller, go HarperCollins! Hell, anything is worth a try.
And now my exciting news. Eleven years after the relatively dismal publication of my first blockbuster, and (man, oh man) nineteen years after my first historic attempt to be a famous novelist ... my friends, I am jumping back in, and this time I'm going to do it right. I've made a decision today that my next major life project is going to be a non-fiction book, and I am now beginning the process of finalizing my proposal (which I've been cooking up for the last three months) with the firm intent to see this new project through to its ultimate end, wherever that may be.
A whole lot can go wrong here, I know. I've already been through a lot in the publishing field, but when I look back at my earlier stabs at working with agents and major publishers, I see that I was in some ways too immature, too idealistic, and too caught up in my private notions of what a writing career should be. I've matured a lot (I hope), and I think the 2008 version of me is finally ready to get the job of writing a successful book done.
So, here goes nothing. I am making a commitment to myself: I will give this project everything I've got, and if it all ends up in spectacular failure it will not be because I didn't try as hard as I could. I have crossed the Rubicon. Whether or not I will conquer on these banks is now in the hands of fate.
One reason I had trouble deciding to write a non-fiction book is that I have an over-abundance of killer ideas -- four, to be exact. Each idea is wildly different from the other three, and I am equally eager to write all four of these books. I even have code names for them: there is the "P" idea, the "I" idea, the "M' idea and the "Q" idea. After much difficult deliberation, I decided to go with the "M" idea, because this is the one I know I will enjoy writing the most. I can't tell you what the idea is yet, because I'm working on "'the pitch". But anyway, what the hell, wish me luck.
And, finally, if you're in New York City please come by the Bowery Poetry Club next Thursday, April 17 at 6:30 for a poetry happy hour hosted by George Wallace. I'll be reading and playing bongo drums, and other featured poets include Tao Lin, Zachary German, Clarissa Beyah Taylor, Joy Leftow and Larissa Shmailo.
So I'm at the Hilton Poker Room in Atlantic City last Monday evening, waiting for the late-night Hold'em tournament to start (because that's my idea of fun). And I've got my usual problem -- the 500 chip is a light gray blue, the 5000 chip is a light gray, and since I'm color blind they look exactly the same to me. A couple of other color blind players in the tournament have the same problem, but we're all used to it. There are a whole lot of colors in the rainbow, though, and I really wish the casinos would go to the trouble of picking colors that color blind people can tell apart.
The first hand is dealt -- nothing, I fold. On the second hand I call the blinds and flop a pair of deuces. Nothing to get excited about, but the bets are small and I stay in. On the turn the board pairs tens and a frat-boy across the table tosses in three brown chips, a bet of 300. But I have a moment of color-blind short-circuit brain freeze and put him on a bluff, confusing his strong bet of 300 with a weak bet of 30, and before I know it I have raised him to 600. As soon as he calls me I realize my mistake, and I'm not at all surprised when he turns up trip tens to my tens over deuces.