Friday, October 7, 2011

The Nobel and American Novelists

Swede Tomas Transtrober wins the Nobel. Here is a look at American writing in relation to the esteemed prize.

Publishing and Digital Content

With the rise of music you can download, record stores became obsolete. Many musicians moved to online forums for their work. The ease with which someone could post music increased. Artists received greater exposure as a result. Numerous success stories emerged of people who found record deals after their youtube videos went viral. People download individual tracks rather than whole albums now. The framework of the music industry changed as a result of advances in the delivery of music.

I wonder if similar changes will affect the publishing industry. With e-readers delivering digital content, what's to stop authors from posting short stories for sale? We could see a resurgence in the short story as a result of the ease with which readers can access the story. Take Barry Eisler for example. You can read about how he bucked the traditional publishing contract for a digital deal with Amazon here. I wonder if emerging authors will embrace online delivery for their work. The possibility exists for finding a broader audience. Say you offer a section of your novel as free downloadable content. It gathers interest on the web. Publishers take note and you end up with a book deal as a result. It could streamline the publication process. Instead of the slush pile, editors would file through the stories with the highest hits. It's an interesting scenario to imagine. Innovative indie writing could find a larger audience. Rather than rely wholly on an editor's decision to publish, user ratings could drive sales of writing.

Will digital content revolutionize publishing? Will indie writing find a groundswell of support through digital venues? I'm not sure, but the possibility is heartening. Time will tell if readers are willing to embrace digital forms of reading over a tangible book.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Literary Guide to DC

Need to find a bookstore in DC? Looking for writers' communities in the area? Check out the Washington, DC city guide from Poets & Writers here. It's well worth your time.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Murakami, Marathons, and Novel Writing

Residencies are a new experience for me. I spent part of the summer working on my novel at an artist colony in Vermont. It's easy to see why uninterrupted studio time in an environment of other practicing artists has its appeal. Everyone you meet is working on a play, poem, short story, novel, painting, sculpture, mixed media installation, or other inspired piece of art. The environment provides for interesting discussions of aesthetics and art. If nothing else, the excitement of everyone creating in the same space for several weeks can be enough to inspire the most lackadaisical of writers to practice their craft.

The daily routine of sitting in my studio at the desk, opening the document and writing is a ritual of sorts. In quiet and consistent surroundings, it becomes easier to create. You develop a routine - a specific time, a specific place, or specific music - and train yourself to write. Sometimes writing flows freely and you are truly impressed at the ease with which you write. Your writing seems stellar and you see your artistic vision clearly on the page. These are good days. Other times writing can be a chore. Even the most reliable environment can produce nothing but a few lines, and those lines you think are worthless. But you have to keep going. You can't let yourself down. To stop would be to abandon the dream of being a writer. As a novelist, you have to sustain this practice over the course of years. Finding the energy to persevere can be a task all its own.

Haruki Murakami talked about the process of novel writing in his memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. He provides an interesting take on the endurance it takes to be a novelist.
In the novelist's profession, as far as I'm concerned, there's no such thing as winning or losing. Maybe numbers of copies sold, awards won, and critics' praise serve as outward standards for accomplishment in literature, but none of them really matter. What's crucial is whether your writing attains the standards you've set for yourself. Failure to reach that bar is not something you can easily explain away. When it comes to other people, you can always come up with a reasonable explanation, but you can't fool yourself. In this sense, writing novels and running full marathons are very much alike. Basically a writer has a quiet, inner motivation, and doesn't seek validation in the outwardly visible.
It's remarkable that Murakami states that writers write for themselves, especially when that motivation must last for sometimes years. If you are not personally satisfied with the output of writing you create, no opinion matters other than your own. The author is the creator of the benchmark of success, not the critic. To create this kind of drive takes discipline and hard work. I often talk to other poets and short story writers and they ask me how I deal with all the moving parts. How do I keep coming back to the same piece day after day? The answer to both is that I do it for myself. No one will be more disappointed than me if I don't finish my novel. I will be letting myself down. Nothing anyone else says would change the fact that if I did not complete the novel, I would be failing at one of the goals I set for myself.

Murakami further elaborates,
You'll naturally learn both concentration and endurance when you sit down every day at your desk and train yourself to focus on one point. This is a lot like the training of muscles I wrote about a moment ago. You have to continually transmit the object of your focus to your entire body, and make sure it thoroughly assimilates the information necessary for you to write every single day and concentrate on the work at hand. And gradually you'll expand the limits of what you're able to do. Almost imperceptibly you'll make the bar rise. This involves the same process as jogging every day to strengthen your muscles and develop a runner's physique. Add a stimulus and keep it up. And repeat. Patience is a must in this process, but I guarantee the results will come.
I've spent a few years on my novel and can now see the finish line. It really did take years, some more fruitful than others. I wish I had someone to give me such sage advice early on. I would have been more disciplined. I would have sat down in front of the computer every day and trained myself to write. Now I'm in an interesting place. I've developed the habits and routine necessary to continue to create every day. The recent residency in Vermont invigorated me, giving me the energy to push through the next couple months to the finish line. Part of me will be sad to see something go that I've lived with for so long. Another part will be relieved to move onto something new.

Ultimately, novelists create imaginative worlds in which readers can dally for more than a few minutes. They must have stamina to create such wholly rendered landscapes. We novelists labor day in and day out on a piece, sometimes for years. Finding the dedication to keep moving forward can be challenging. The question can hang over you every day: how do I continue to write? My advice is one page at a time for as many days as you can keep going. It makes the task easier, like training for a marathon. One day, you'll find writing that one page effortless. Then you can piece all the successive days together into a larger work and tell people you're a novelist. A smile comes to my face every time I imagine the day when this will be true for me. It will be the realization of a dream, one I set for myself, and one that I'm close to achieving.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Chekhov Thought He Was a Bad Writer

Every writer has moments where the words on the page don't come together. Your characterization is banal. Your plotting is tedious. Even the most basic decisions of word choice sound cliched in your mind.

There is an air of uncertainty when you have written something. How will the world react? Will people read the piece, much more so like it? Dire, soul searching moments come. In your mind you realize that every story that can be told has already been told a hundred different ways in dozens of languages. The idea of sending a piece out is ludicrous. No one will ever see your words and if they did, you would be the ridicule of your community. You cradle your head in front of the glowing screen and wonder what you could possibly have to offer after greats like Joyce; Hemingway; Nabokov.

In moments like these, I think of Anton Chekhov.

He brings a psychological realism to fiction that was both innovative and enduring. The characters he created still have relevance today. Despite his achievements, he, too, had doubts. Look at his letter to D.V. Grigorovich, an important writer of the time.
...If I do have a gift that should be respected, I confess before your pure heart that up to now I haven't respected it. I felt that I had it, but got used to considering it insignificant. There are plenty of purely external reasons to make an individual unfair, extremely suspicious, and distrustful of himself, and I reflect now that there have been plenty of such reasons in my case. All my friends and relations were always condescending toward my writing and constantly advised me in a friendly way not to give up real work for scribbling. I have hundreds of friends in Moscow, a score of whom write, and I cannot recall a single one who read my work or considered me an artist. There is a so-called "literary circle" in Moscow: talents and mediocrities of all shapes and sizes gather once a week in a restaurant and exercise their tongues. If I were to go there and read them a mere snippet of your letter, they would laugh in my face. During the five years I have been roaming around editorial offices I managed to succumb to the general view of my literary insignificance, quickly got used to looking at my work condescendingly, and - kept plugging away!
Such despair exhibited from a now canonical writer. In this excerpt from the Norton Anthology, we can see how writing existed as a solitary, thankless task for Chekhov, yet a single letter of encouragement form Grigorovich provides enough encouragement to exalt the writer. Chekhov later endeavors in the letter to "undertake something serious" in his writing. All this emotion came from a letter of critical praise.

Sometimes all a writer needs is one voice to acknowledge the achievement of creating something. So in those moments when you stare at the page and doubt your words have any worth, remember Chekhov. Even a master of the short story had doubts. We're still reading him over a hundred years after the fact. Then keep plugging away.

Chekhov's perseverance provides today's reader with a wealth of stories to enjoy. Imagine if he hadn't continued to write. What would the state of the short story be? Above all a writer must remember to keep writing. It is the act of writing, not the acclaim, that makes one a writer. Send your work out and hope for publication, words of praise, or constructive critiques. And if these don't come, don't stop writing. Otherwise, we might not have stories like Chekhov's for the next generation of readers.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Experiments in Fiction: The Oulipo

I came across a collection of links on the Oulipo the other day. For those of you unfamiliar with them, they were a group of experimental writers more influenced by constrictions of form than anything else. An example would be a book by French author Georges Perec written without the use of the letter e.

I find Calvino to be a refreshing voice among the list. He approaches narrative with a playfulness not often seen by many authors. In The Baron in the Trees, a tale unfolds in which the young baron Cosimo refuses his sister's cooking (a dinner of snails) in favor of a life among the limbs of trees. He never returns to land, pursuing a robust life without ever feeling earth under his feet again. I think it is Calvino's daring for experimentation that allows him to create interesting scenarios like in The Baron in the Trees.

Invisible Cities
and If on a Winter's Night a Traveler both break from traditional linear narratives in favor of a mosaic approach. Invisible Cities details Marco Polo's account to Kubla Kahn of all the places in the empire Marco Polo has seen in his travels. As you read one fantastic tale after another, you begin to wonder at the reality of the tale, and of how the narrative consists of one man telling another of fantastical cities.

Stefanie Sobelle continues to describe Calvino's innovation about If on a Winter's Night a Traveler:
This novel seems like a collection of first chapters, each written in a different style, which are cut off before the narrative can fully reveal itself. “You,” the novel’s protagonist, are reading a book called If on a winter’s night a traveler and soon realize Your book is flawed. You go to the shop and replace it, only to find that the next copy is also flawed (albeit differently). The third time You return it, it happens again, and so on. Meanwhile, You meet a woman with whom You become embroiled in a series of literary escapades, until the end of the book when, to Your surprise, You’ve completed reading a novel after all.
In each of Calvino's novels, you can see how a story can be told effectively without the continuity of time. Even character is in play with Calvino's fiction.

The Oulipo can be an inspiring place to start thinking about innovation in fiction. Do you really need the letter a in your story? Maybe the sequence of your novel can be rearranged with each reading, as in Julio Cortazar's Hopscotch. While you are pushing the boundaries of your writing with experiments in form, wherever the experiments may take you, consider this quote from Raymond Carver:
I get a little nervous if I find myself within earshot of somber discussions about "formal innovation" in fiction writing. Too often "experimental writing" is a license to be careless, silly, or imitative in the writing. Even worse, a license to try to brutalize or alienate the reader. Too often such writing gives us no news of the world, or else describes a desert landscape and that's all - a few dunes and lizards here and there, but no people; a place uninhabited by anything recognizably human, a place of interest only to a few scientific specialists.
In this quote, Carver argues not to forget the humanistic element when experimenting with form. If a narrative is so abstract that a reader cannot connect with it, then what purpose does it ultimately serve? Someone has to read a story and find something with which to empathize. Without this element, writing would have no audience; for why do we read if not to understand our own experience? There can certainly be an amount of escapism in reading, but ultimately, if there is nothing with which you can connect, where can you fit within the narrative? Carver's words should be a reminder for those of us who like to experiment with fiction. Ask yourself when you write, "Where is the reader in this?"

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Tin House Has a New Blog

Tin House has opened up its new blog the Open Bar to accompany its new website. On it, you can find useful links to many online literary institutions. Keep an eye out for upcoming features such as an "extended interview with Pulitzer-winner Paul Harding, indie-bookstore love letters from some of our favorite authors, and a preview of this year’s Summer Writers Workshop." Those of you who have been to Tin House's summer workshop can surely attest that this is a resource worth reading.