Notebook Afflictions

What is it about the fetishizing of notebooks? Writers tend to think that the things they write on and with have great importance. Most writers have this need to keep things in a certain order to find the muse: a special pen, notebook, type of paper, or specific word processing program is needed in order to get it down right.

We know this concept is just fantasy. Writing is writing, and while there are things that help us get going, what is more important is the finished result.

Over at The Bygone Bureau, Whitney Carpenter writes about how she suffers from buying pretentious-looking notebooks because she believes that the notebook itself will help her write with ease:

For years I associated notebooks with the idea that I would write out my first novella in two sittings, longhand (delicately crossing out words with an inky line from my fountain pen), which elevated the medium to a paralyzing level of importance. Faced with a real notebook, the ugly reality of bad handwriting, questionable spelling, and ink blots the exact size and shape of my plot holes intruded on my fantasy. Notebooks, as any notebook enthusiast will tell you, have a legacy, and all of that timelessness can weigh on a person. The pressure to do justice to the notebook, to write something as classic and romantic as the paper housing it, is just too much; I can never muster the courage to begin. *

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Thoughts on “The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books”

Currently at the top of my “to read” list on Goodreads is The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books. Promoted heavily at one of my favorite online magazines The Millions, this book just got reviewed at the New Yorker’s blog The Book Bench.

The book is a collection of essays that examine the future of the book. More importantly, the collection explores the future of book culture and whether or not book culture will continue to hold relevance in an increasingly wired society. A couple of essays, according to the reviews, see devices like the iPad or Kindle as lacking the ability to provide a personal immersive reading experience.

Readers of this blog will know why this book interests me. From the beginning, Critical Margins has explored whether or not digital technology helps or hurts book culture. I hope to read these essays and provide my own perspective on them soon.

For now, here are some highlights from The Book Bench review:

Katherine Taylor’s essay is a hilarious list of “Survival Tips for Writers” that includes suggestions like, “If your neck hurts, it’s because your tennis racquet is too heavy. Pain in the back or the neck has nothing to do with sitting at your desk for fourteen hours a day. Maybe if you played less tennis and did more writing, your neck wouldn’t hurt so much.”

And really, that’s what each of these essays boils down to: sit, write, repeat. Is it coincidence that when all these writers write essays about the future of writing to other writers their advice is to write?

and:

In the end, the future of books is unknowable, and thank God. Why worry? I love to write. I love to read. I unselfconsciously open books and magazines and stick my nose right into the spine—right into the meat of the thing—and breathe deeply. As Victoria Patterson writes in “Why Bother?,” “I brood over my work rather than the fate of the book industry.”

I highlight both of these quotes to show one of the problems with writing about writing, or writing about books for those who already have a profound interest in books: it can get stale. When we complain about “the state of x” or “the problem with x” incessantly we miss out on the purpose of reading and writing. We forget that reading and (sometimes) writing can be very pleasurable experiences. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if it’s on paper or on a device: if it’s good, we’ll keep reading.

I have yet to make an informed decision about these essays. However, I imagine that I will stick with my belief that while digital technology is changing the objects we read on, it does not have to change the quality of what we read. Technologies do change, and often this is a good thing. For now, let’s embrace these changes, see what happens, and enjoy a good book along the way.

A Year in Big Books: New Blog Feature

I am a fan of short, compact fiction. I like short stories, micro-fiction, novellas…the majority of novels I read fall into the average 250-300 page range, or shorter. The common idea is that in recent years, readers and writers have favored these shorter forms of fiction. In a recent Time Magazine article showcasing Jonathan Franzen, author Lev Grossman claims that fiction writers and fiction publishers prefer “the closeup, the miniature, the microcosm.” * (Then he goes on defending Franzen as an outlier.) Despite a new focus on short-form fiction, I have noticed that a large number of popular books released over the past few years are much longer. It almost seems as if popular novels are fighting the trends that seem to favor shorter fiction.

I’m not the only person to notice this. A couple of months ago, an article in The Millions by Garth Risk Hallberg mentioned the rise in longer novels, suggesting that longer novels exist, in some way, to “complicate the picture of the Incredible Shrinking Attention Span.” Also responding to Grossman’s Time article, he says:

But if, as Grossman suggests, the “literary megafauna of the 1990s” no longer roam the earth, how to explain Time’s interest in Freedom (576 pp)? Moreover, how to explain the thicket of big novels that surround it on the shelves of America’s bookstores – not only Witz, but also A.S. Byatt’sThe Children’s Book (675 pages), and Brady Udall’s The Lonely Polygamist (599 pp), and Rick Moody’s The Four Fingers of Death (725 pp), and Karl MarlantesMatterhorn (592 pp), and Ralph Ellison’s Three Days Before the Shooting (1136 pp), and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (560 pp), and Javier Marías‘ Your Face Tomorrow trilogy (1255 pp) and Adam Levin’s The Instructions (1030 pp)? Surveying those shelves, one begins to suspect that the spread of micro-designations like “literary megafauna” (or less charitably, “phallic meganovels”), rather than the plenitude or scarcity of the species in question, is the true marker of our changing culture. *

Hallberg makes the claim that these long-form novels exist to challenge assumptions about 21st Century reading patterns, and that “in defiance (so far) of predictions to the contrary, readers keep rising up to meet them.” In this way, the long-form novel almost seems to work as a high-culture challenge to the popular in much the same way that modernist writers sought out stream-of-consciousness narratives to counteract realism popular in the early 20th Century.

Since this blog is concerned with the book as a physical object and with publishing trends, I want to challenge myself as a reader: I plan to read long-form novels this year and to blog about this experience. I will focus on my personal observations of the long-form novel (what makes it stand out from shorter novels? Why the trends toward longer novels? What’s the benefit, if any?). This feature, A Year In Big Books, will focus on sections of each novel as I read. It will be a review column focused on the experience of reading longer-form novels. It will be self-reflective and narrative, but it will also place the novel within a cultural context.

As much as possible, I will try to focus on single authors. To begin, I chose Jonathan Franzen. His “cultural capital” is at a high right now, and he has perfected the long-form novel. I have never read Franzen’s novels before. This experiment will be a chance for me to relate my ideas about three of his novels – The Corrections, Freedom, and The Twenty-Seventh City. I have started with The Corrections and will move to Freedom last.

After Franzen, who knows where this will lead? This concept is a challenge for me; it is a way for me to counteract my busy life with novels that will take me down new paths of thought.

Killing Writing

Fountain pen/Flickr Creative Commons/Luigi Crespo Photography http://www.flickr.com/photos/crespoluigi/3334034672/
Fountain pen/Flickr Creative Commons/Luigi Crespo Photography http://www.flickr.com/photos/crespoluigi/3334034672/

One of the most difficult things I faced as a young writer was the thought that I might have to stop a project halfway through it. This idea of stopping or killing off a project suggested failure. Everything I wrote must stay, I thought. If it wasn’t any good, I would keep working on it and hope it would get better, but I would never throw it away. Persistence meant improvement.

While this is a great approach for young writers, I soon learned that all writers abandon writing projects, even ones that have consumed too much time and energy. In certain cases, it might be best to abandon an idea. To understand why this can work takes time and patience, virtues that many young writers do not value.

An essay by Dan Kois in the recent New York Times Book Review addresses when a writer should kill off a project. In the article, Stephen King is quoted as saying that writing a novel “is like paddling from Boston to London in a bathtub … [s]ometimes the damn tub sinks. It’s a wonder that most of them don’t.” *

Certainly a project as large and cumbersome as writing a novel feels like a sinking tub in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, but what about all of those other projects we write, and couldn’t smaller scale writing be just as cumbersome and difficult? In response to some of Kois’ points in his article, I would like to explore the pedagogical and self-reflective benefits of killing writing.

A writer seems to gain a simultaneous feeling of power and freedom in the process of killing a writing project. Because these feelings of owning and controlling the writing process are so important yet so elusive to young writers, is there a benefit to killing writing in the classroom?

Kois’ argument focuses on this process from the perspective of already established authors. He mentions Junot Diaz, John Updike, and Stephenie Meyer as modern writers who have abandoned projects after years of writing yielding nothing positive. For some writers, this was a damaging prospect, as it was for Harper Lee, who still has not finished a novel since To Kill A Mockingbird.
For others, it allowed for new territory to be explored. Updike, for example, abandoned Willow, one of his first attempted novels, but still “mined the novel for material for a series of Willow-set stories — some of which were written on the flip side of old novel pages.” *
The long list of authors cited by Kois provides some credibility to the idea that writing can be a frustrating and confusing process. It also gives writing teachers some credibility in promoting the idea of killing writing in the classroom.Because the reality writers face is that not everything works, it seems more honest to encourage students and young writers to not fear killing off a project.
The safe and preferred way for teachers to approach this issue is to encourage students to develop: to cut back some parts while adding to others, to master the art of precision, to use and develop what works and cut what does not. We teach students to use a scalpel, not a meat-axe, even though there are times when we would rather take a meat-axe to that project we are encouraging them to refine. Often, the meat-axe is the best solution.I am not saying this would apply to all writing scenarios. Clearly, there are practical reasons why teachers encourage students to learn the balancing act of revising, not destroying. One main reason, of course, is time: the classroom, conferences, and workshop sessions are the only times we get to spend with student writers.

There is also the issue of grading, and the sense that if a student has spent so much time on a project, they should be able to get something from it. But I wonder if it could benefit some (many) students to stop a project and to start over. It would encourage students to do what they might want to do already but have not done due to some perceived idea of passing course objectives.

As I see it, this concept of knowing when to kill a project and start over might take the form of a class discussion or it might be incorporated into an assigned writing project. I suppose the idea would be that the teacher would allow the student to make informed decisions about a writing project but lead those who need it toward starting over.

Or, it could be the assignment itself (“today you will take the idea you’ve developed this semester, abandon it, and start over. Pass up your scalpels. Here is a meat-axe”). Clearly, it takes time to make these decisions, and time is not something that teachers can control, as much as we’d like to.

I’d like to know what some of you think of this idea. How would it work? Does a classroom setting allow for new writers to learn the idea of killing writing or is it something that is gained in practical, real world situations? Thoughts?