I can no longer deny that the holiday season has pounced down upon us, and we are once again compelled to give gifts to everyone we know. If I have to give presents to all those rascals, then, dadgummit, I’ll make them, or try to make them, read. So, I asked some of my literary friends to offer titles of books that they would recommend as holiday gifts. Most of them protested that my request is unfair, because a book gift is a personal affair: Doesn’t it demand intimate knowledge of the particular gift receiver’s literary taste? Should we mention classics or recent titles? Can I suggest my own books or ones by my associates? Can I really give books to total strangers?
I opened the I Ching at random this morning and came up with #38, K’uei / Opposition. The commentary says it is common for two opposites to exist together, needing to find relationship. I realize an opposition is being set up just in the act of writing my memoir Drop Out: my inner writer will be observing everything I do closely and recording what she finds valuable. I’m reminded of a review of Journey into the Dark: The Tunnelby William Gass that appeared in The New York Times Book Review:
Writers double themselves all the time in their fictions, of course. That’s one of the reasons for writing them: to clone yourself and set yourself out on a different path, or to reconfigure yourself as a marginal observer of your own childhood, as Lawrence does with Rupert Birkin in Women in Love, and as Woolf does with Lily Briscoe in To The Lighthouse; or to split yourself in two and reimagine one side of yourself through the eyes of the other, as Joyce does in Ulysses, and as Nabokov does in Pale Fire.
I once wrote a novel inspired by coincidences. It was great fun–though hardly original. Metafiction, fantasy, fairy tales, and any number of other genres often require coincidence. Some even delight in riffing on it.
Often, though, we have to limit coincidence in fiction, particularly realistic fiction. Inexplicable interconnections and concurrences may seem contrived. Genre novelists—and Charles Dickens, for that matter—are routinely pecked apart for stories that are too perfect too be true, filled with dei ex machina and separated-at-birth twins reuniting on the altar or mothers rediscovering offspring on the other side of the world.
Even so, fiction often aims to tell the story of real life. And, real life is filled with coincidence, or at least what seems to be coincidence to unbelievers.
At a recent book club meeting, one of our members remarked that because the club had such mixed feelings about the novel Exit West, it likely wouldn’t become a classic. “A classic,” he said, “has to have good writing, characters we care about, a good story, and a deeper meaning.” Since we couldn’t agree about the characters or the writing, Exit West fell short.
A lot of scholars, writers, editors, and others in the literary world have defined “classic literature,” and doing a little research on the subject, I found that most of the definitions are similar to what my book club member suggested. Mark Twain had the most succinct definition—“a book which people praise and don’t read”—but assuming novels are read, I think the true standard for classic is that the novel has stood the test of time.
For decades I’ve been preaching it to myself and others: writing routines don’t have to be long. Devote just an hour every day to writing, even if you cannot get beyond a few words, or you’re writing nonsense. If you can’t write a word, at least read or think about your writing.
Don’t underestimate the power of an hour.
Just do it. It works. I wish I practiced what I preached more regularly. But I fully believe it nonetheless.
One of my novels in progress is an attempt to cope with fear and chaos in our current political climate. Without revealing too much, it envisions a near future when a certain political figure and that person’s supporters have been effectively (but non-violently!) neutralized by virtue of magical spell. The stakes and conflict of the story derive from the threat that this enchantment will come undone.
It’s a kind of absurd story, by design. It may be a little silly, a little satirical, and a lot wish fulfillment. Sadly, I’ve been working on it for about a year, now, and am only half way through the first draft. I’m not a full-time writer, alas. When I am discouraged in my progress, or distracted by my day job, I have to find ways to motivate myself.
Confession: The last resolution I made that I stuck to was about seven or eight years ago, when I resolved to stop buying clothes that needed dry cleaning. I’ve been very happy with the way that turned out, as all the clothes in my closet are now hand or machine washable—which saves time, money, and is better for the environment. Usually though I don’t make New Year’s resolutions because I believe if you want to change something, change it now. Research shows the resolutions you make on New Year’s Eve usually don’t last.
Yet this year I’m ready to make a New Year’s resolution, even though I’m two months early. My first New Year’s resolution is to buy books only by small and university presses, and my second resolution to buy books through my local bookstore Starline Books or directly from the publisher.
Speaking in a BBC interview recently, Fay Weldon described the current publishing market, emphasizing that it was dominated by women readers, who demanded women protagonists—and, increasingly in the #OwnVoices era, women authors. Ms. Weldon’s advice for male writers: use a feminine pseudonym.
As far as I could tell, this wasn’t a joke. It’s somewhat ironic, surely, after the prejudice against women writers prevalent in the nineteenth century—consider Jane Austen, George Eliot, and Charlotte Bronte, who all published anonymously or with masculine pseudonyms—that the exact same prejudice has returned, apparently, in reverse. (In spite of the much-vaunted inclusivity and diversity that we all value nowadays: maybe it doesn’t include men?) In case you think that Ms. Weldon is exaggerating the difficulty faced by men getting their fiction published, or even read, consider this: one of my male writer friends has told me that he intends to adopt a feminine pseudonym (independently of me bringing up the subject) and another is considering submitting his next novel with a woman as co-author.
“This is a work of genius, a metaphor-studded treasure chest filled with wisdom for anyone willing to go look,” says author and entrepreneur Seth Godin of David Leddick’s little gem I’m Not for Everyone. Neither Are You. A few chapter-ette titles will give you the idea. “There is no lasting comfort in a safe landing. Better to stay in flight…and embrace impermanence.” “In confrontation, never answer the way people expect you to.” “He was a man and I like that in a person.” (Leddick is gay, remember.) “He doesn’t want to give up everybody for somebody.” This chapter-ette begins by saying, “This applies more to men than to women. And not just gay men.” “A child says nothing matters, but it takes an adult to say it doesn’t matter that nothing matters.” And consider this quote from one chapter-ette: “The language you speak has much to do with your personality.
Steve Davenport is the Associate Director of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Illinois. He’s the author of two books of poetry: Uncontainable Noise (2006) and Overpass (2012). His “Murder on Gasoline Lake,” published first in Black Warrior Review and later packaged as a New American Press chapbook, is listed as Notable in Best American Essays 2007. His chapbook Nine Poems and Three Fictions won one of The Literary Review’s 2007-2008 Charles Angoff Awards for Outstanding Contributions in a Volume Year. Steve’s literary criticism includes work on Jack Kerouac and Richard Hugo.
Ron Cooper: Nice to see you again, Steve. Tell us a bit about where you grew up, were educated, etc.
Steve Davenport: Glad to be here, Ron.
As a pre-TV child (television arrived in Calgary in the early 50s, about ten years after it appeared in the U.S.), radio dramas fed my imagination: Boston Blackie; Suspense Theatre; and The Green Hornetcome immediately to mind. Though they provided the plot and dialogue, I was able to supply the images myself, far more dramatic than what any TV director could create. In my young mind, Boston Blackie was the white knight in spite of a name that implied otherwise. Evenings spent shivering in front of a radio, shivering from glorious fear and not cold. The room crackling with drama—suspense. And I was an important participant: the program needed myimagination to give it life.
At some point in those early years, someone sold my parents a set of the Books of Knowledge.
In the movie The Wife, a jaded middle-aged female novelist takes aside a talented young writer at a Smith College reading and says to her: “Don’t do it.” The aspiring student writer stands her ground, insisting that “a writer needs to write.” The older woman sighs. “A writer needs to be read,” she says.
I understand both sentiments. A writer does need to write. But, oh, how often it feels pointless, when publishing is so hard, when all-too-soon even the published book feels as impactful as a rock settling to the bottom of the sea!
Writers face an inordinate amount of rejection as they pursue their craft. I’ve often thought there ought to be workshops at writers’ conferences on how to handle rejection letters. If we’ve been sending out queries frequently, we must have developed a thick skin or sense of humor. As my friend, a realtor says, the best response to rejection is to say, “Next?” Here are some truths about rejection.
My friend Robby managed her family restaurant in Fort Lauderdale. When they needed another server, she interviewed several and was particularly impressed by a woman named Sue. Sue was hired, but after several weeks, Robby noticed Sue wasn’t earning the tips she should. After a discussion, Sue turned in her notice and left.
Although I’ve been an avid reader most of my life, I have never joined a book club. Until now.
In years past, I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to keep up with the reading pace of a club or the selections wouldn’t appeal to me and I would miss out on reading books I really wanted to read. But then I uprooted my life, moved to a new state, and decided to be open to whatever reasonable opportunities came my way. One of the first opportunities I saw was a book club in my new community, so I plunged right in.
Now here I am, trying to understand the workings of my particular book club and how to be a good contributor.
What book is top on your bucket list of books? What book have you always wanted to read but somehow never have? And what book would you feel incomplete without reading?
The English publication of the volumes of Karl Ove Knausgard’s My Struggle coincides with a renewed interest in “auto-fiction,” also known as the autobiographical novel. While I have read and enjoyed several of these works of auto-fiction, my favorite is Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, which seemed to draw on some auto-fiction elements, but also used other literary devices such as image patterning and developing character arcs, while incorporating motifs of class, politics, art, motherhood, friendship, and feminism.
Since finishing the Neapolitan series I’ve found myself wanting to read more novels that span generations, placing themselves in historical context, in which history itself (just as Ferrante’s working class post-war Italy) becomes a character. Three recent novels fit this bill, and I recommend them to anyone desiring epic historical novels that educate as well as entertain.
Sir Vidia, the great Trinidad-born, British novelist and travel writer is dead. You know he won the Nobel Prize, and the Booker, and I assume you’ve read his work. I admired it without loving it, but its importance is unquestionable: he’s one of the most influential of post-colonial writers. Paul Theroux, Sir Salman Rushdie and Martin Amis all owe him debts. I don’t know his entire oeuvre, so I’ll mention only his books that I do: A House for Mr. Biswas, A Bend in the River, and The Enigma of Arrival. More knowledgeable critics than I have eulogised his work, so I needn’t do so here. What I want to talk about is what you’ve also heard: that he was a cad and a rotter, to use the sort of quaint Edwardian terms his father might have used.
1954, offshore from Bikini atoll: Never mind radiation, naval crew, bored by days of waiting for a hydrogen bomb test, were taken ashore afterward to swim and drink so much beer that many couldn’t jump from the dingy to the hatch of the ship on their return, and their drunken bodies had to be piled en mass into netting and raised by a crane to the deck. So reports self-aware, precocious young naval officer Bill, a college graduate from Illinois. “We were a military attachment aboard a naval supply ship that had civilian officers…I chatted my head off with the second mate, who sometimes took his duty on hot days wearing only shorts. Not bad at all. But he ran a poor second to the third mate, who was really sexy.
Shabby row houses lined this block of Maryland Avenue, and a small sign identified one of them as The Dime Museum. Parking was easy—a space almost in front of the museum. We walked up to the door and knocked. We waited. An older man creaked it open and stepped aside to let us enter.
‘”That’ll be five dollars each,” he said. We dug the money out of our pockets as we stared at the overlarge coffin on the floor. Inside stretched a nine-foot-tall Egyptian mummy. “All fake,” the man said. We assumed he was the owner, curator, and docent for this odd little museum.
The Dime Museum in Baltimore closed awhile back. I hated to say good-bye to this unique bit of American history.
Is Poetry Necessary?
As a poet, I recognize poetry’s tremendous importance to a society. Still, I can get caught up in the complexities of modern life: I have classes to teach, papers to read and grade, writing projects demanding equal attention, a family to care for. Therefore, it’s easy to forget that poetry is as necessary to our well being as food, though when I say this to my students, they look at me skeptically.
Many have trouble with poetry, and I discuss this difficulty with them. “Why,” I ask, “in a class of twenty literate, intelligent young men and women do only two or three read or write poetry—even occasionally?”
They think about the question, and then a few raise their hands tentatively; they try to articulate why poetry is hard for them: “It doesn’t have anything to do with my life,” says a female business major from Hong Kong.
We’ve had plenty of lively meetings at which some members expound, politely of course, on why a book isn’t at all good and others on why it’s stunningly beautiful. The only dissension this time was over which character was the most interesting, which scene the most beautiful, or which description of music the most memorable. There were many to choose from.
In every chapter Joyce names at least one composer, composition, singer, or songwriter. I counted about 80 total in the book, ranging from Pérotin’s Beata Viscera of the 13th century to Michael Jackson’s Bad of 1987, the year before most of the book’s action takes place.
I’ve been hearing the term “aspirational” a lot lately. Aspirational recycling, aspirational eating, aspirational shopping, and so forth. “Aspirational” is a term applied to anything you do more out of hope than effectiveness. The other day when I confronted the stacks of books on my nightstand and environs, I realized that aspirational reading was also a thing.
And I was most definitely an aspirational reader.
There are so many beautifully written and compelling pieces of fiction in the world, I will never read them all. So I try to focus. One way I do that is to think, “What’s my tribe?” This is also helpful in choosing which Netflix or Prime series to binge on, hence, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is at the top of my list. Why? Because it’s about mid-20thCentury New York, and creator Amy Sherman-Palladino has a thing for playing Broadway cast albums on the soundtrack. (If you don’t know the difference between a cast album and a soundtrack, let me Google that for you…)
So, yes, one of my “tribes” is “The Tribe of the Show Queens.” Now, calm down, you don’t need to be a gay man to be a show queen (although it helps).
We’ve all heard someone say that the right book appears at the right time. That sounds mystical, as if there were a benevolent deity planning every detail our lives, which I think the Holocaust disproves. But it may be that the Taoist notion of simply paying attention to the universe, and let’s say ‘using the current’ (rather than the horrible cliché ‘going with the flow’) comes closer to what happens. In any case, I was very low, partly because I couldn’t write—at least I wasn’t writing anything worth a damn. Then by happenstance I came across Carol Bly’s Beyond the Workshop, a book I’ve owned for years, I believe, but had never read. And lo, it was exactly the book I needed.
On June 1, my novel While You Were Gone was published by C&R Press, which means I should be promoting it. Even though this is my third novel (and fifth book) in my last post, I discussed how, for me at least, writing does not get easier, as each project brings its own challenges for promotion as well.
All of my books have been published by small presses, which means a limited promotion and marketing budget. All of the presses I have published with did send out review copies (from 20 to 100) to a variety of publications; however, I usually only end up with a half dozen reviews best. Part of this is because publications (unless they are specifically geared to small presses) tend to publish reviews of books from larger presses.