Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Important news for all you Chawheads out there

Hi everyone!

In the unlikely event that anyone is still visiting this blog (which I am well aware has not been updated any time in the recent past), I thought I'd let you know what I've been up to, since it clearly hasn't been this.

My first novel is coming out in March of this year from ChiZine Publications, and I now have an author website where you can check out an excerpt, stories, and learn more all about me -- even minor details like my face and name!  I hope you enjoy: http://www.chandlerklangsmith.com/

Happy reading :-)

Friday, September 16, 2011

What's the Big Idea? - pt. 10


Asking, “What is my novel about?” is a little like asking, “What makes my life worth living?”  The possibility that the answer might be, “Nothing much,” is so devastating that it often seems easier to avoid the question.  But contrarywise, the possibility that the answer might be something really, really important, something that you’ve known all along but never quite articulated, something that will clarify the meaning of past choices and make future choices easier, means that asking it is essential.

The other day, I mentioned to a friend from college that our old playwriting teacher made a few cameo appearances in this essay. 

“I’ve told you my story about him, right?” my friend asked.  “One day I was in the drama office when he walked in.  This girl was sitting at the table writing in a notebook.  He took a look around the place, and then said, to no one in particular, ‘He’s writing his will.’  Then he walked out.”

“He’s writing his will.”  Pronoun confusion aside, what a weird, dark thing to assume.  And yet, when any of us write, what else are we doing but that, really?  We’re imposing our will, our purposes and intentions, on language.  We’re leaving behind a document that, ideally, is going to survive us after death and bequeath something of value to others.  Why undertake such a thing at all if we’re going to do it fearfully, half-assedly, without conviction, without knowing what it’s meant to be?  We don't have infinite chances to communicate something of value.  We have to make our writing matter.

Eventually, whether we like it or not, all of our words will be set in stone.

I’m still not completely sure what my novel is about (or, for that matter, what really makes my life worth living).  But I do believe that it’s worthwhile to keep asking the question, persistently, seriously, on every day and on every page.  It’s at least worth trying to answer, because if I don’t, who will?  I know more about my own work than anyone else – and on top of that, I care more, too.  It’s up to me to get it right.

back to: what's a query for, anyway?  AND the art of the pitch?? AND literary rebellions & literary excuse-making AND thinking about answers AND making connections AND victims vs. passive characters AND "finding your voice" AND reading down in the trenches of the workshop AND book reports

Thursday, September 15, 2011

What's the Big Idea? - pt. 9

Book Reports

If you’re submitting your manuscript for publication and don’t want to answer the question, “What is my book about?” I have good news for you: someone else will.  And even better, that person will most likely be a disgruntled, underpaid editorial assistant, or an intern doing the job out of the goodness of her own heart (and oh yeah, inexperience and career desperation), or – as in the case of a nationally distributed literary journal where I once spent some time – the high school aged child of a well-known writer, who doesn’t care to think up explanations for what he doesn’t like about your work, because “it’s just obvious.”

 Just hope it's not his judgment you're depending on.

My point is, some of the people reading your work will be idiots, idiots with power they do not deserve, respect, or fully understand.  There is nothing you can do about this.  Others will merely be tired, impatient, and/or chronically depressed.  These are the folks in whom to place your hopes.

I hope I’m not an idiot.  But I am tired, impatient, and/or chronically depressed.  And although I try to approach every manuscript (published or un-) I read with an open mind, I can tell you right now, reading bad or even just mediocre fiction makes me angry.  It makes me angry because, as William Shatner once told me via my ear buds, “I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you’re gonna die.”  When I read bad fiction, I am aware of the seconds passing, the slow internal decay of my guts, the dulling of my once sharp mind as I read sentences like, “Throwing womanly curves left and right, he realized she was a lady few could resist.”  When I am reading bad fiction for fun, I can assuage my anger at these moments by hurling the book to the floor and going off in search of immediate sources of pleasure, like a walk around the block or an entire keg of Troegenator, thereby restoring my faith that the world does yet have things of value to offer.  But if I have to read bad fiction for work, my only means of restoring equilibrium is to write a reader’s report.

A reader’s report is exactly what it sounds like: a report, usually written but sometimes oral, summarizing and evaluating a manuscript that’s under submission at a literary agency or publishing house.  Some editors and agents take a look at everything under consideration themselves – and kudos to them – but the vast majority rely on these reports to determine if it’s even worth cracking open the document the author sent.  The reader’s report represents an argument, pro or con, for doing so.  And the tenor of that argument will be informed by how angry the reader in question has become, how much of his life he feels you’ve wasted.

When I’m in this position, reading beautiful prose without finding formal coherence beneath it is the equivalent of listening to really rockin’ hold music: sure, that sounds great, but you’re still wasting my time.  Although I’ll be significantly less angry if a book at least tries to do things at the sentence level to keep me interested, my reader’s report will still primarily address not the novel’s texture and intricacies but its bones.  Is there a story here?  Do things that happen have consequences?  Do parts of it drag, and if so, could these draggy parts be excised?  What, at bottom, is the novel about?  Because the fact is, no matter how much I like a novel’s premise or style, and no matter how much time I’m willing to devote to helping the author edit, I cannot install an underlying structure that isn’t there.

The finality of this judgment – the idea that, at the end of all the years of hard work, writing, researching, rewriting, and doubting, a total stranger can read your novel and say, “Sorry” – is terrifying.  It’s so scary, in fact, that writers go to incredible lengths to avoid thinking about it.  And one of the ways they avoid thinking about it is by refusing to ask themselves the questions that, on some level, they must realize these strangers will ask right off the bat – questions like, “What’s the big idea?” 

 next up... write what you will
OR... back to: what's a query for, anyway?  AND the art of the pitch?? AND literary rebellions & literary excuse-making AND thinking about answers AND making connections AND victims vs. passive characters AND "finding your voice" AND reading down in the trenches of the workshop

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

What's the Big Idea? - pt. 8

In the Trenches

In a haunting scene midway through The Silver Chair, the fourth book published in the Chronicles of Narnia series, three adventurers search the ruins of a giants’ city for a fabled stone carving that is supposed to instruct them on what to do next.  C.S. Lewis writes, “In order to understand what followed, you must keep on remembering how little they could see.”  In the face of blowing snow, one of the human children, Jill, falls into a deep trench, or “sunken lane,” with vertical stone walls rising up on either side.  She begins exploring, but discovers that after a couple of sharply angled turns it comes to a dead end, and she climbs back out.  There are several other similar crevasses or grooves on “The Hill of the Strange Trenches,” as Lewis refers to it, but they all appear to lead nowhere.  It’s only later that the adventurers look back at the landscape they’ve just traveled and realize that the trenches are in fact the stone carving they sought – they’re actually massive letters engraved into the city’s foundation.

 Yeah, okay, I know.

The Narnia books may be creepy propagandistic screeds, but images like "The Hill of the Strange Trenches" are the reason that I can never fully exorcise them from my defiant, sinful mind.  And, in addition to being fantastically imaginative and unforgettable, this particular image has the added bonus of doubling, for me, as a great visual metaphor for the contrast between reading a work-in-progress piecemeal and reading a completed manuscript or published book.  When I read pages or even chapters from an unfinished novel, I am down in the trenches, noticing the sharp angles, wondering if the path is leading anywhere.  When I read a finished book, I am looking at the whole hill, and the message is either spelled out there, or it isn’t.

Let me break this down.  In a traditional creative writing class, a novel of 300 pages takes 10 weeks to workshop with submissions of 30 pages at a time.  That’s if the writer gets to submit every week, which in my experience is rare.  It’s more likely that writers will submit, say, every other week, which means we’re looking at 20 weeks – five months.  Five months of readers’ patient, thoughtful attention to detail.  Five months of limitless opportunities to forget what was set up on page 2.

It’s obvious to me that this is an artificially slow pace of reading, imposed not by the necessities of the work but by the necessities of the classroom.  When reading for pleasure, it does not take five months to get through a short novel.  (It takes me maybe four days; I’d estimate that even more methodical readers don’t need much longer than a couple weeks.)

But the problem isn’t just that the pace is artificial.  Reading a novel on this schedule also mimics and reinforces the writer’s own myopic experience of the work.  A comma can loom in bizarre significance, while the dramatic events of two chapters ago can fade like the memory of a dream.  Foreshadowing becomes meaningless when you don’t reach its object within that week’s span of pages.  This leads to a strange state of affairs, in which, amid an array of contradictory recommendations to the author, many of which seem to miss the point, the one constant is this: “Keep exploring.”  Encouragement isn’t a bad thing, despite what Flannery O’Connor might say about it.  Many writers, myself included, need encouragement while penning a first draft.  But the encouragement given by instructors and peers in a writing workshop should never be confused with serious, comprehensive criticism.

The pace at which literary agents, editors, and paid book reviewers read is an artificial pace, too: a pace imposed by the necessities of business.  This pace is to read the entire work as quickly as possible – in the span of a day or, at most, a weekend.  This is not a weekend spent devoted to patient, thoughtful attention to detail.  This is a weekend spent building a case: for or against.

...next up: book reports
OR... back to: what's a query for, anyway?  AND the art of the pitch?? AND literary rebellions & literary excuse-making AND thinking about answers AND making connections AND victims vs. passive characters AND "finding your voice"

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

What's the Big Idea? - pt. 7


I’m about to circle back around to the questions I started this essay with, about queries, pitches, and the strange difference between how writers see their work and how that same work is viewed by readers, particularly the specialized readers working in publishing.  But first, I feel like I need to make one more digression, this time about that thing of which all fiction is made: language.

I find it tougher to generalize about language than the other elements of dynamic storytelling I’ve written about so far.  But a terrific essay by J. T. Bushnell in the current issue of Poets & Writers (titled, somewhat misleadingly, “The Unreliable Narrator”), got me thinking about one aspect of it: that nebulous and perplexing thing we call “voice.”  
 One thing's for sure: you don't want to sound wooden.  (Thank you, folks, I'll be here all week.)

In the piece, Bushnell first wrangles with pinning down a definition: “What is voice, exactly, and where does it come from?  Most craft books and teachers say the same thing as the agents: It’s how the writing sounds, what words are chosen, how sentences are arranged.”  But for Bushnell, this doesn’t get to the bottom of the matter.  In a sharp bit of prose, he adeptly imitates the word choice and sentence arrangements of Holden Caulfield to prove that, in fact, these verbal tics alone do not a voice make:

“I think you’ll agree… that it can’t be Holden Caulfield if the narrator is explaining his fondness for school fund-raising: ‘Boy, I loved working with old Dempsey.  What he’d do, he’d dress you in some lousy tuxedo and send you to the phoniest bastards at the concert, right up to their Cadillacs, and have you shoot the old bull as they came inside.  When they took their seats you sort of asked for some money.  It made me happy as hell to do it.  It really did.’”

The issue, Bushnell points out, is that, although this paragraph bears a superficial resemblance to Holden Caulfield’s voice, it’s about something entirely different – and that matters.  In The Catcher in the Rye, “Caulfield is obviously lonely and depressed… but he maintains his cool, casual attitude, and the disparity is what makes his voice ring.”  In the imitation, Caulfield is a self-satisfied asshat.  Though bringing up Caulfield’s “loneliness,” “confusion,” and “longing” may seem to digress from the question of voice, delving instead into “content issues, such as characterization, point of view, even theme,” it actually speaks to the heart of the matter, since these underlying forces are what in fact give his words their urgency and power. 

To frame Bushnell’s idea in the larger context of this essay, voice – like most everything else in a novel – needs to reflect the central goal/obstacle relationships that drive the story.  It needs to matter, to connect, in order to succeed in holding the reader’s attention.

Moreover, once deep-rooted connections to the central goal/obstacle relationships are in place, voice becomes easier to master.  It’s no longer something that you as the author have to generate in a panic, out of thin air.  Since the character (or close third-person narrator) has reasons for seeing the world a certain way, keeping the voice consistent is a fairly straightforward task, a question of examining those reasons, of asking, “Would the character say, think, or feel this?  Why or why not?”  As Bushnell puts it: “Understanding my characters’ secrets, illusions, and pretenses lets me see clearly how they’ll act, what they’ll say, how the action of the story challenges them.  And once I have this clarity of vision, the words and sentence structures come naturally, without thought.”

Monday, September 12, 2011

What's the Big Idea? - pt. 6


Passive characters don’t get much love in the creative writing classroom.  Yet passive characters number among some of the strangest and most memorable in classic stories: just think of Hamlet (“To be or not to be”), Bartleby (“I prefer not to”), and Fanny Price (“Don’t fucking touch me”).  So what gives?

The problem is that passive characters have been conflated with victims.  Victims are characters whose problems have absolutely nothing to do with who they are.  A victim is someone who is mowing his lawn when a giant radioactive pterodactyl from outer space takes a dump on his head.  There is no way he could have prepared for that contingency.  There is no way he could have prevented it.  And there’s no reason that it happened to him rather than to his next door neighbor.


It’s fine to open a story with the character as victim.  A lot of revenge narratives start out this way, for example, with a person getting cheated, raped, or seeing a loved one murdered, often for no real reason other than being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  But this is actually only the preamble to the real story, which begins when the victimized individual responds to the event by taking some kind of action.  The trouble with victims comes when they stay victims – when, to misquote Chumbawumba, they get knocked down but don’t get up again.  Watching someone lie motionless under a pile of glowing pterodactyl excrement is only entertaining for the first couple of minutes.  Then it gets dull fast.

Passive characters, on the other hand, are characters whose inability or unwillingness to act brings about dramatic consequences.  Hamlet’s tortured indecision about whether or not to avenge his father doesn’t bring the story to a halt; to the contrary, it has disastrous repercussions for almost every character in the play, which could have been avoided if he just accused Claudius and they duked it out.  Bartleby’s refusal to do his work, and later, even to eat, torments his boss and ends up taking Bartleby’s life, permanently removing him from a bleak world of brick walls and dead letters.  Fanny Price’s abstinence from the drama ( both theatrical and romantic) surrounding her and her rejection of a marriage proposal in fact craftily position her to get everything she thinks she wants.

Just like action, passivity needs to matter.  It needs to present an obstacle to achieving or a means of attaining a goal.  It needs to connect with what the story is about.

...next up: voice
OR... back to: what's a query for, anyway?  AND the art of the pitch?? AND literary rebellions & literary excuse-making AND thinking about answers AND making connections

Saturday, September 10, 2011

What's the Big Idea? - pt. 5


Looking back over the previous sections of this essay, and then at the ruinous wasteland of the novel I’m currently attempting to write, I feel I should clarify something.  I don’t think it’s necessary, or for many writers, even possible to answer the question, “What is my novel about?” fully from the get-go.  It’s also likely that any definitive answer to that question will, in the course of writing the book, change beyond recognition.  What I do think is necessary, though, is engaging with the question from the beginning and then constantly thereafter. 

A good way of approaching this is to look for connections.

When I’m writing, I often find myself stressed out at the prospect of having to come up with new ideas.  Character motivations can be particularly difficult.  I’ll have a character do something that feels necessary for the story, but I won’t know why he does it, or how he feels about what he’s doing.  At those moments, I often convince myself it’s necessary to invent an elaborate explanation: I’ll give the character a convoluted interior monologue explaining his philosophy or politics or a heretofore unmentioned earlier backstory that somehow justifies his actions in the present day.  These passages are not fun to write, because they involve creating out of formal necessity, not out of inspiration, and they usually feature (in my own work and the work of others) the highest density of clichés and the lowest level of clarity in the prose.  For these reasons, they’re also not much fun to read.  But more importantly, they fail at what they’re meant to do, which is to make the reader believe the character would act this way.

Allow me to provide an example from fiction’s younger and more glamorous sibling, the screenplay.  A moment like this occurs in the movie Juno, when the title character has a change of heart at the abortion clinic.  Juno, who we’ve so far been lead to believe is a spunky, independent, irritating, and fairly intelligent teenager living in the contemporary United States, has knowingly scheduled an appointment for a procedure that anyone with a television and eyes knows is highly controversial.  Abortion rhetoric on both sides of the issue is in fact so numbingly overfamiliar that it seems doubtful anyone could be unacquainted with it, even the Amish, much less the kind of smart-aleck who rattles off pop culture references at such a clip it’s like she’s composing a Barenaked Ladies song in ordinary conversation.  Yet screenwriter Diablo Cody appears to have gotten her as far as the clinic and gotten stuck.  Juno needs to stay pregnant for the story to proceed, but why?  To answer this, Cody went through the process I describe above and invented an elaborate explanation: the poorly articulated and entirely unoriginal arguments offered by a protester outside suddenly, inexplicably convince Juno, as if she’s never heard them before, and she flees.

What could have Cody done differently?  I would argue that, instead of inventing something, she could have looked at what was already present in the rest of the story and tried to find connections.  To me, the answer is obvious: Juno loves the guy who impregnated her – though she hasn’t yet admitted it – has a high opinion of herself, and believes their combined genetics will produce a great kid, one that could bring joy to the lives of others, including adoptive parents.  (It’s right there in the screenplay: she even looks at an ultrasound of the fetus later in the film and enthuses over its resemblance to the father.)  If, for example, Juno’s annoying friend said something like, “It’s too bad, though – you and the worst actor from Arrested Development would’ve made a super cute baby,” and Juno pondered this, then decided to leave, it would make sense with her character and resonate with the rest of the plot.  Bringing politics into the situation isn’t just unbelievable; it actively distracts from what the story is about, because it isn’t connected to anything else.

 Of course I don't mean you, Tobias.

My point is that, while writing, it’s often not necessary to invent anything new; you’re better off using (or re-using) what you already have whenever possible.  Oddly, this can actually be easier, too, because you don’t have to make things up out of desperation.  And it’s particularly important when it comes to characters, their goals, and the obstacles to those goals.  If you want us to care what happens to someone, then that person should have internal coherence: the way he acts should be organically connected to what we already understand about what he wants and how he sees the world.  And complications that arise should arise naturally, at least partly as a consequence of those actions; they just shouldn’t drop out of the sky from an authorial hand.  More on that in the next post. 

...next up:  victims vs. passive characters

Friday, September 9, 2011

What's the Big Idea? - pt. 4


Last night I saw my old playwriting teacher in a dream. He stood on a plinth in the midst of a desert of white sand as panelists from AWP crept past him on their hands and knees. Some of these he allowed to pass; others he incinerated with a single glance, sizzling them where they lay with blue-white thunderbolts from his eyes.

“Professor,” I called to him, “I believe I’m beginning to understand. Story is about a character encountering obstacles on the way toward a goal. Isn’t it?”

He did not reply. In the distance, I saw a great sleuth of bears roaming over the dunes toward the handful of panelists who had survived.

 Oh shit.

When I say the writer must answer the question, “What is this book about?” what do I mean, and how do I expect him to do it? I certainly don’t consider it easy. If telling stories were easy, my copies of Poets & Writers wouldn’t be all tearstained and covered with rings from the bottoms of pint glasses. But I do think there are certain things to look for, and certain danger signs to avoid.

A good way to start is to think about goals and obstacles for a character. Because I am obsessed with clowns, let’s start there. Most clown routines are predicated on a goal/obstacle relationship. Take this scene from Charlie Chaplin’s The Circus:

Chaplin’s goal in the scene is to get from one end of the tightrope to the other (to impress a girl, but that’s not important for our purposes here). His obstacle? Monkeys. Monkeys who pull down his pants. Chaplin manages to get past the obstacle to his goal; he also could have definitively failed by falling off the tightrope or being rescued by someone else. But either way, there’s a clear source of tension, because we know what’s at stake, and there’s a natural point at which that tension is resolved. 

Many writers understand this goal/obstacle relationship when it comes to short stories, but somehow, the novel seems like a different thing entirely. In the early stages of composition, a novel can feel like an endless expanse, the bottomless void of outer space in which even the most basic natural laws no longer apply. I get this. Part of what’s exhilarating for me about writing book-length fiction is the initial feeling that I’ll never run out: of new facets in my characters, of new places in the book’s world to discover, of thematic material, which seems to glimmer self-evidently everywhere I turn my authorial gaze. 

Whittling all this down to a handful of central goal/obstacle relationships seems about as impossible and pointless as carving a redwood down to a toothpick. Yet when I look at fiction that succeeds in holding my attention, I find almost invariably that this is what the writer has sneakily managed to do. 

Consider Jonathan Franzen’s overreaching doorstop FREEDOM. By rights, this novel should suck the big one. It’s chock full of sentimentality, intellectually lazy politics, and incompetently managed narration (Franzen, just admit that Patty did not write that section, you goddamn liar). Yet Franzen makes it work through the oldest trick there is: thwarted romance. Everybody in this book wants somebody else in the book, and in every case, there is a major obstacle in the way of the relationship working out. Lalitha wants her boss Walter, who loves his wife Patty, who wants to bone his best friend Richard, who is Not Good Relationship Material. Meanwhile, Walter and Patty’s son Joey wants to have hot meaningless sex with conservative coeds but he’s hindered by his abiding love for Connie, his girl back home. 

These characters have goals as obvious as the straight line a tightrope makes above the rings of a circus, and though some of their obstacles come from internal sources (guilt, being a douchebag), they’re not a hell of a lot more complicated than those adorable cheeky monkeys. It’s this very simplicity that makes the book a page turner in spite of itself. Because we know what each character is after, we know when to say, “Oh no!” or “Whew, close one!”

I’m using the words “goal/obstacle relationship” rather than “conflict,” because I think that the word “conflict,” especially when applied to character’s internal thought processes, has been corrupted to the point of total meaninglessness. In common parlance, a character can be “conflicted” about just about anything – his identity, his relationship to his family or heritage, his past life choices. But this “conflict” does not relate to story unless it poses an obstacle to action in the novel’s present day – unless it gets in the way.

Kazuo Ishiguro is the king of this particular goal/obstacle relationship. His characters’ obstacles are almost always* psychological, of their own making, but daunting and impassable just the same. The obstacle in the way of an Ishiguro character’s true goal is usually a kind of competing goal, a desire to fulfill a duty. The butler can’t allow himself to experience love because he believes being a butler should always come first. The clones can’t run away and find happiness because they believe they should do what they’re “supposed to” and give up their internal organs. The detective can’t be with his lady until he finds out what became of his parents.

However, the form this kind of story often takes in lesser hands is something along the lines of “…and it fucks him up.” As in, “This character was abused as a child, and it fucks him up.” Or, “This character always wonders what happened to his murdered sister, and it fucks him up.” The particular “conflict” doesn’t specifically obstruct the present action, mentally tying the character’s hands and preventing him from reaching a goal. Instead, it makes the character sad :-(

Let me just say this once, writers of America. SAD CHARACTERS ARE NOT DRAMA.

...next up: making connections

*This is even arguably the case in his masterpiece The Unconsoled, but here the psychological obstacles are literalized into the dreamscape the narrator navigates throughout.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

What's the Big Idea? - pt. 3


In the literary world, we often talk about writers who “break all the rules.” Obviously, this is hyperbole. If a writer broke all the rules, his book would be incomprehensible. But there are occasions when a book ignores one or more of the major foundational elements upon which most fiction rests. Not every work of fiction has incident or meaningfully developed characters, for example. The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker is a novel where nothing happens: a man rides an escalator and thinks about shoelaces, popcorn, doorknobs, and CVS bags, among other things. Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino consists of descriptions of fifty-five fantastical metropolises, loosely linked together by passages relating a meandering conversation between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. Letters to Wendy’s by Joe Wenderoth is an entire book of bizarre comment cards written to the eponymous fast-food restaurant. All three of these books – and there are plenty of others like them – succeed not in spite of but because of the way they throw off convention. They make major defining decisions and stick with them: they entirely exclude certain strategies and devices from the work’s purview and do something else instead. 

In my work at three literary agencies, I have encountered only a handful of submissions that attempted to do something comparable to the above-mentioned titles. The vast majority of fiction manuscripts are not trying to “break all the rules,” or even any of the major ones. These books have incident and character development, scenes and dialogue and descriptions. These are the types of books I’m going to discuss.

Here’s a common scenario. A writer turns in a novel. In it, a woman’s husband gets kidnapped. As she waits for news from the detectives on the case, she remembers their long marriage and problems they’ve overcome as a couple – at one point, she had an affair, but he forgave her. Meanwhile, the daughter, distraught about her father, acts out with friends, experimenting with drugs and losing her virginity. Then we have a couple of scenes thrown in showing the husband in an underground cell. In the end, the detectives manage to track down the kidnappers, who turn out to be religious extremists, and they return the husband to his family.


From the writer’s point of view, this is highly commercial material. It’s got it all: kidnapping, adultery, teenage drug culture, and ripped-from-the-headlines nutso fundamentalism. And let’s just say that on top of that, it’s “beautifully written,” meaning the author’s word choices are strikingly original and the close third person feels appropriate to each character. “Wow,” thinks the writer, “I have hit this motherfucker out of the park.” What could possibly be the problem?

The problem, of course, is that nothing connects. In the present day of the novel, neither the woman nor her husband take any actions with consequences – they sit in rooms and think. The daughter’s actions may have the consequence of disillusioning her, but they have no bearing on the main arc of the novel or on anyone else. And there’s no connection between earlier events in the characters’ lives (like the wife’s affair) and their present situation (the kidnapping). One thing may follow another, but one thing doesn’t cause another. It may have characters, settings, and scenes, but it isn’t a story.

However, here’s another likely scenario: when an agent (or editor, or critique partner) points this out to the writer, the writer’s response is often to say, “But I don’t want this to follow a traditional narrative arc. I’m trying to do something innovative, something that breaks all the rules.”

What is going on here? For me, and I suspect, for a lot of writers, fiction is particularly appealing because it allows us to inhabit a place where the rules of everyday life don’t apply. The idea that our fiction is in some way “traditional,” “conventional,” and thus beholden to certain “constraints,” immediately presses a button in the brain marked REBEL. This REBEL button shut down my brain when teachers asked me to sketch a story in one or two sentences, both in early college and later in graduate school; this REBEL button may have something to do with the odd way so many writers (perhaps most famously Lorrie Moore) boast of their allergy to plot. Yet this rebellion is a half-assed, timid, meaningless one. If authors like Russell Edson or David Markson are aesthetic bohemians, wandering the land restlessly, rootlessly, and sleeping in tents of thin silk upon the rocky soil, then their faux-rebellious counterparts (my less enlightened self very much included) are assholes in midlife crisis who want to have it both ways: they take off for a week, ignoring their kids and cheating on their spouses, then expect to return home to central air and the welcoming embrace of a Sealy Posturepedic as though nothing ever happened. They want the comforts of drama, its familiar satisfactions, but they don’t want to do the work of setting it up.

It’s also difficult to look at a document of 300+ pages of meticulously constructed sentences and say, “I need to tear this down and build something entirely new with the scraps.” Yet this is basically what’s necessary in a case like the one I described. And that’s why I began this series by advocating that writers ask, “What is this book about?” in the very first stages, not at the end, where for all but the humblest and most persistent it’s really just too late.

...next up: how to start thinking about maybe beginning to consider answering these questions
OR... back to: what's a query for, anyway?  AND the art of the pitch??

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

What's the Big Idea? - pt. 2


I took a playwriting class in college, which I did not understand at the time.  Our professor was a towering figure, nine feet tall and carved from granite, with glaciers for eyes and rough leather catcher’s mitts for hands.  I also seem to recall him breathing fire and talking to God on the telephone, but perhaps I’m confusing him with someone from the English department.  With a few rare exceptions, he spoke only in riddles.  Despite all this, one of the first exercises he had us do for the course seemed almost laughably simple: he told us to write a story in one or two sentences and read it out loud to the class.

Yet it wasn’t so simple after all.  Again and again, as we went around the room, he informed us that the words we’d read were not, in fact, stories.  They were characters, or settings, or descriptions, but they were not stories.  I became frustrated and confused.  It seemed impossible to me to tell a story in one or two sentences.  I did not know what he wanted.

Years passed.  I graduated from college.  I legally drank alcohol out of a flaming dish shaped like a volcano.  I moved to a big city.  I bought a futon and dragged a coffee table into my apartment from the street.  A tiny dog appeared on the floor of my kitchen, yappily demanding things.  I did not get any smarter. 

So many rites of passage.

And then, one day when I was in MFA Skool at Columbia University, the administrators of the program announced an upcoming event: the agents’ party.  Combining the most terrifying aspects of a job interview and speed-dating, the event threw a dozen or so agents into a room crowded with an enormous herd of sweaty, overdressed would-be authors in various degrees of inebriation.  The cacophony that then filled the place to the ceiling may have sounded like the death bleats of learned goats in an abattoir, but it was in fact the sound of those authors, myself included, attempting to “pitch” their books in one or two sentences.  Our volume in delivering these “pitches” was only matched by the disdain with which we set about the task of composing them. 

For me, at least, such crass salesmanship seemed fundamentally at odds with the work I was doing in the program.  In workshop, we read each others’ novels in chunks of no more than thirty pages at a time.  These pages gave us plenty to talk about, and talk we did: about the need to dramatize a moment in scene vs. describe it in summary, the appropriateness of a metaphor, the tangibility of a setting.  Sometimes a person’s comments would veer toward the larger structure of the novel: “Where is this story going?” someone would cry, as if waking from a dream to discover the landscape outside the windows had changed.  But these questions, being unanswerable, largely went unanswered.  These books weren’t even finished yet; it was far too early to ask what they were about.  That was a question for readers, scholars and critics especially.

Before we met with the agents, we attended a mandatory prep session, where a faculty member gave us a crash course in the art of the pitch.  My memories of these instructions are hazy, but the gist was that a pitch was supposed to be a couple of sentences, tops, and yet somehow encapsulate the whole whirring carnival in which I’d installed the better parts of my soul.  It was, in fact, virtually the same exercise from that long-ago playwriting class, only this time, instead of inventing a story, I was meant to explain one already in progress.  It might have crossed my mind that the task should seem less puzzling to me by now, that perhaps my befuddlement indicated a lingering gap somewhere in my knowledge, but I did my best to ignore these thoughts.  Instead, I called bullshit, decried “selling out,” and told my significant other that I planned to start my conversations with agents by saying, “I’m obsessed with clowns” (a worthy profession of which my protagonist numbered).  He gently suggested I might want to try harder to appeal to the “clown neutral” reader, and I grudgingly set about cobbling together a less off-putting introduction to myself and my life’s work.
I still say that if you find this guy "scary," you're out of your freakin' mind.

It didn’t occur to me at the time that asking a writer to convey, in words, what her book was “about” might in fact be a perfectly reasonable question.  It didn’t occur to me that, perhaps, it was important for the writer to know the answer to this question herself.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

What's the Big Idea? - Intro & pt. 1

This is an essay in ten (short) parts, in which I investigate what makes the parts of a novel cohere into a meaningful whole.  Although I’m using it to inaugurate what I hope will be a regular series of advice posts for emerging writers, this isn’t so much advice as it is an attempt to map out the landscape of my own thinking about a subject that continues to torment, confuse, and fascinate me on a daily basis.


I have worked in publishing – as an intern, an editorial assistant, and even, briefly, as an agent – off and on for the last six years.  And that means I have read some very shitty query letters.  I have read query letters that annoyed me, bored me, creeped me out, confused me, and made me laugh aloud for reasons clearly contrary to the author’s intentions.  I have signed into a briefly neglected email account to find literally hundreds of query letters shimmering in a rainbow of colors and a torrent of fonts; I have read them laser printed, typed on typewriters, and handwritten from prison.  I’ve read query letters from precocious, vampire-obsessed high schoolers who offered classmates’ lukewarm praise as potential blurb fodder, and from retired businessmen eager to imitate the dick-lit espionage thrillers that gave shape and meaning to their decades spent flying business class.  I’ve read query letters for literary novels and diet guides, addiction memoirs and middle-grade chapter books.  I have read the same query letter from the same author more than 100 times, thanks a lot, Oscar Whitfield.  I have sent so many form rejections that some day, I’m sure a very special corner of Writer Hell awaits me: perhaps James Frey will stand over me with a whip while I’m forced to piece together copies of his books from a ball pit full of shredded galleys.  Yet, in spite of all that, or perhaps because of it, I’ve come to what seems like a counterintuitive conclusion on the craft of the query: I think it barely matters at all.

I don’t deny that you can tell a lot from a query.  You can generally discover if the author has published broadly, if the author has attended an MFA program or has an Internet presence, if the author is aware that this is business correspondence and not a PostSecret.  You also generally get a vaguer sense of what the book is about, if it sounds like a flagrantly bad idea, and what other published work it’s consciously imitating.  You find these things out because this is the information a query letter usually contains: it’s the text, not the subtext.  And if some of this information is omitted, you (this being the tricksy, undefined second-person “you,” by which I of course mean, “I”) most often cynically assume it’s being omitted because the author has Something to Hide, or, perhaps more accurately, especially as concerns publication history, Nothing to Hide, because, like a resume, a query letter usually offers up whatever selling points its author can think of.  But there’s no secret Scantron Query Decoder 4000 employed at every literary agency, no hard and fast universal rubric to apply.  A query letter is just that: a letter, sent from one person to another person, who considers, briefly, what the first person has to say.

I say all of this because, of late, I’ve observed a high degree of anxiety concerning the “right” way to prepare a query letter in my immediate circle of literary friends and acquaintances.  Some of this, I think, is due to online resources like the immensely popular QueryShark, who eviscerates letter after letter for minute, seemingly unguessable infractions, like saying you “just” finished a novel, as opposed to, I guess, saying you finished it six months ago and then allowed it to properly marinate in a drawer full of hesitation and self-doubt.  I’ll point out something obvious: agents can be pompous assholes, but there is not a one still roaming the charred wasteland of what used to be American literary culture who would turn down an otherwise appealing prospect for employing the wrong adverb in a fucking query.  “Mistakes” like that are just an excuse for the real reason that queries get rejected, which is that the agent can’t imagine the book therein described ever making money, or even being interesting to read.  And if you’ve already finished working on the book in question, that’s not something you as the writer can do very much about.

Let me make this perfectly clear.  If you ask yourself, “What is my book about?” for the first time when you sit down to write your query letter, you are already royally screwed.  “What is my book about?” is a question that should have occurred to you long, long before, at least during the revision process but probably even earlier, during the composition of your first draft.  And by, “What is my book about?” I don’t mean the premise (which by its very nature is an unavoidable first step) or vague thematic stuff – “loneliness” or “modernity.”  I mean major defining decisions about the book’s structure, and in the case of almost all fiction, its pivotal events, their consequences, and what’s at stake for the characters.

I say this not in a spirit of condescension, but empathy, because it took me ages to start understanding how this works, and it’s still not clear or easy.  But it all boils down to this: you, the writer, must engage the curiosity of potential readers.  You must give them a reason to read your book.  Doing this is not “marketing” your work.  Doing this is the work. 

The right way to answer the question, “What is this book about?” is not to come up with some clever spin long after the fact in the form of a 250 word query letter.  The right way to answer it is to come up with a story and tell that story on every page of your book. 

...next up: the "art" of the pitch??

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

I am a double agent for the KGB, pt. 5

Good news, everyone!  My latest book review (of The Dewey Decimal System, a futuristic noir by Nathan Larson) is now live on the KGB Bar site.  Check it out here:

Thursday, April 7, 2011

In the Realms of the Unreal

Before I went to see Zack Snyder’s new film Suckerpunch last weekend, I watched the trailer – for the fourth or fifth time and in my usual state of fist-pumping enthusiasm – ostensibly for the purpose of showing a friend who’d agreed to come along what we were in for at the local Imax. Amid my exclaimed profanities and endorsing narration (“Look at the composition of that shot! And that one! Also: zeppelins?!”), he managed to get the gist of the preview, and said, once it was over and he could get a word in edgewise, “It’s a little like Henry Darger, don’t you think?” To which I squealed, “Oh my god, you are so right!” and nearly keeled over from the sudden rush of ticket-buying endorphins flooding my bloodstream.

Frequent readers of this blog will know that my affection for Zack Snyder is matched by few things, and one of those things is my passion for Henry Darger, the Chicago janitor who, working in total solitude, spent decades of his life creating a mammoth illustrated novel entitled In the Realms of the Unreal. This volume tells the story of the Vivian sisters, blameless children fighting a battle in a magical, Narnia-like realm against a confederacy of male evildoers wearing what Darger described as “college-professor hats” (mortarboards). My buddy was right on in seeing the parallel between this vision and Snyder’s admittedly juiced-up fantasy of Lolitas in peril. Darger’s postmodern visual technique involved pulling images from everywhere in commercial low culture – advertisements, coloring books, magazine illustrations, tabloid photos – via tracing, collage, and later, photo enlargements for inclusion in what was a bizarre, obsessively personal world. The sisters in particular were cribbed from clichéd paradigms of girlhood innocence, cloying figures wielding beach buckets or cowgirl hats while all around them, apocalypse unfolded. Replace Darger’s newspaper comics and Coppertone girls with anime, graphics-heavy videogames, classic sexploitation, and some back issues of Heavy Metal, I figured, and you’d be looking at something like Suckerpunch. In both cases, the characters the story follows are paper dolls, flat and familiar to the point of near invisibility. The mind we’re actually exploring is the creator’s – Darger’s and Snyder’s, respectively.

In some respects, Suckerpunch did not disappoint this expectation. The movie is fucking gorgeous, for starters. In four of the movie’s set pieces, we watch Baby Doll (Emily Browning, looking like the platonic ideal to which so much plastic surgery aspires) duking it out with clockwork samurai, steampowered doughboys, dragons, and a monorail full of robots. With enough money, anyone can film gadgets and explosions (and anyone has), but Snyder has a deep understanding of the choreography of fight sequences, and a painter’s eye for the panoramic landscapes in which they play out. As four music videos – or more accurately, silent films, since they each outlast the duration of a single song – these would be rococo, ridiculous delights.

The trouble, for me, comes from Snyder’s attempts to cram the dodecahedron of his imagination into the square hole left by recent Hollywood successes. I’m speaking here of that inconvenient thing: the movie’s screenplay.

If, unlike me, you weren’t too distracted by the trailer’s pulsating soundtrack or its images of badass dragons to see the warning signs, you’ll have gathered that the story’s frame concerns a mental institution from which our heroine wishes to escape. Her attempts are psychotically reconfigured in her ailing brain, first into a strip club/whorehouse and then into the action numbers described above.

This frame is a regrettable choice for a couple of reasons. First, it necessitates a series of scenes in which Baby Doll and several other characters talk. Let me be perfectly clear on this point: none of these characters should speak. Ever. It is totally unnecessary and invariably embarrassing when they do. I’m not maligning the actresses, who do the best they can with dialogue that sounds like it came from a cut scene in Panzer Dragoon Orta. But, if their sexy goth Halloween costumes discouraged us from imagining these women’s inner lives, their conversations confirm they have no inner lives at all. In Snyder’s masterpiece Watchmen, I considered the over-the-top obvious exchanges (“What happened to the American dream?” “It came true! You’re looking at it!”) to serve the same purpose that the superhero stances on window ledges or in fiery hallways did: the characters were striking poses, iconic ones, that served to define something significant about themselves. But in Suckerpunch, to put it bluntly, the dialogue is boring and meaningless. While writing this post, I referred to IMDB in hopes of finding some “memorable quotes” from the film to cite, but except for the fake-mysticism twaddle from the movie’s inexplicable voiceovers, even that resource seems to consider most of what these ladies say eminently forgettable.

Because Baby Doll is not believable as a character with an inner life, period, Snyder exacerbates the second and larger problem with the story's frame. It’s effectively impossible for the movie’s stunning dreamscapes to have originated in her mind. According to the production materials, the mental institution is supposed to be set in rural Vermont in the early 1960’s; because of the sepia tone, Edward Gorey-esque set design, and our heroine’s vintage sailor dress, I pegged it for even earlier. Regardless, though, the story comes from an era prior to the vast majority of the film’s many allusions and centers on a character who, as far as we can tell, is ignorant of all of them. Let’s be real: why would an orphaned cutie in New England during the Eisenhower administration fantasize about destroying androids with a samurai sword? Why would she imagine racy dominatrix outfits for all of her friends? Why, in fact, does the story that she tells herself have the structure of a videogame?

And most importantly, what does it add to any of this imagery to claim she’s the one behind it? Ultimately, this is where I got stuck. The visual world of this movie is interesting precisely because of what it suggests about the imagination behind it, an imagination saturated in the popular culture of the last 50 years. Suckerpunch has been polarizing for a reason: just as Darger’s obsession with the Vivian girls’ courage and virtue led him to create exceptionally disturbing images of violence against children, so does Snyder’s apparent girl-power message contain an immutable gender binary and a prominent rape fixation. Where is that voice coming from? Claiming it’s all in Baby Doll’s head feels like a cop-out, one that insults the intelligence of the viewer – or, alternately, suggests that Snyder has no idea what his picture is really about.

I’m not saying that’s the worst thing. Artists don’t always know what they’re up to, or where the dark heart of their material lies. I claim to love Darger, but I’ve never read the thousands of pages of fiction that accompany his dazzling paintings, and I probably never will. It’s certainly possible to enjoy the action sequences in Suckerpunch as the stunted masterpieces that they are and ignore the rest. But if Snyder wanted to make a full-length film with this material, and supply it with an accessible emotional and psychological arc, I would have suggested he take a page out of Charlie Kaufman’s book and insert himself – or a character like himself – into the picture. By doing that, he would have foregrounded what’s unsettling and original about the movie by making us complicit: sympathetic with the type of male gaze that condemns lechery and sexual aggression while only calling women by their stripper names, with the form of escapism that celebrates bloodless violence without consequences. And even more than an icepick, that’s the kind of thing that sticks in a viewer’s mind.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Grist for the Miller

At the end of last month, I took the subway up to Columbia University for a talk on book reviewing by Laura Miller of Salon.com. I'm fairly familiar with Miller's work: I sometimes read her column, and I eagerly raced out to buy her collection of essays on the Chronicles of Narnia, THE MAGICIAN'S BOOK, when it first came out in 2008. Though it was a lot less provocative than I hoped and expected – in my estimation, Lev Grossman's novel THE MAGICIANS does a better job of critiquing the authoritarian underpinnings of Lewis's original text and celebrating the imaginative possibilities it offers – I did at least appreciate her interest in digging into her subject at a far greater length than most non-academic readers would consider palatable. Even if the book too often veered into a weird combination of straightforward literary biography (we get accounts of Lewis's religious conversion, love life, and relationship with his brother) and overgeneralizations based on vague personal anecdotes ("Adults remember learning the truth about Santa Claus as a miniature tragedy. Some of us cried."), Miller seemed like the kind of writer who cared more about the ideas she was expressing than about the size of her readership.

That was before I heard her talk. Miller opened her lecture with a lengthy discourse on Google Analytics, a tool that, in its mathematically precise tabulation of “hits” has come to serve as the only muse Miller dares consult in her selection of new titles to review. Miller explained that with her audience, reviews of nonfiction always garner more online attention than reviews of literary novels or, god forbid, story collections; that reviews of books by white authors usually trump reviews of books by writers of color; and that reviews of debut fiction get the fewest hits of all. Expressing repeated concern over the possibility of losing her job – an excuse that sounds more like “Just following orders” to me every day, but maybe that’s the unemployment talking – she explained that, though she could occasionally “get away with” (more on this telling phrase in a bit) reviewing books by worthy minorities or serious novelists, she’s ultimately beholden to her readership. Her loyalty, she told us, is not to the books she discusses, but solely to those nameless clickers scrolling away at home.

While Miller was saying all this, I sketched a portrait of her with horns and dripping fangs holding a pitchfork, and wrote, “This lady is the devil” below in Gothic script for good measure. But after even a moment’s reflection, I had to admit my feelings were far more complex. For one thing, it’s tough to fault someone for being honest, especially when she’s speaking to a roomful of intellectuals and being honest means admitting she routinely throws her fellow intellectuals under the bus. (This is not something James Frey would do, for example.) For another thing, Miller wasn’t passing the buck – “My editor told me to review this book, not that one,” etc. She wasn’t just claiming that a change in her reviewing habits would result in her dismissal from Salon.com (of which she is a co-founder); she was arguing that it should. At one point, she mentioned that some readers have gotten burned from reading too many appreciative reviews of novels that will in fact bore or disappoint them. These readers, Miller feels, have been betrayed by the very folks whose job it is to tell them about books they’ll like. They’ve been let down, and she’s not going to do the same thing to her audience. Like P.T. Barnum, she believes in giving the people what they want.

Laura Miller: the carnival barker of the literary world.

This, the founding principle of Miller’s philosophy of book reviewing, went unremarked in the lecture I attended, but I suspect I wasn’t the only one there who felt there was something potentially controversial in it. Critics, after all, haven’t always played the role of Consumer Reports, directing book buyers to the products best suited to their existing wants and tastes (“Readers who liked THE LOVELY BONES also enjoyed SKELETON PROM”). We don’t regard books by great 20th century authors like Woolf, or Faulkner, or Pynchon as significant because the average straphanger – then or now – can rip through them like tween vampire romances. We regard them as significant because someone in the intellectual community at the time recognized what the authors were up to, and championed it.

Now don’t get me wrong: I totally get why Miller would regard nepotism, or even charitably exaggerated praise, in reviewing as dishonest, because I do too. But priding oneself on consistently delivering the goods to a community that isn’t much interested in, among other things, African-Americans or the English language also seems to be missing the point. Maybe I’m idealizing the past, but wasn’t there a time when a critic’s responsibility was to articulate and advance a certain aesthetic – when she was compelled not merely to predict what her readers would like to read, but to prescribe for them a new way of reading? When, to put it plainly, the critic’s responsibility was to art?

It seems to me that there was such a time (and that maybe it’s not quite over yet). Yet even in the second two thirds of Miller’s talk, where she addressed the question “What do critics look for in debut novels?”, art didn’t come up much. Miller instead spent much of her time rattling off a laundry list of what she acknowledged were idiosyncratic personal preferences – she doesn’t much care for novels about stage magicians or ranch hands, for instance – with the inevitable caveat, “But if you do it well, you can get away with anything.”

There those words were again – “get away with.” This compound verb troubled me at the time, and troubled me again even more deeply when I read the essay Miller wrote about the same Columbia lecture for Salon.com, where she uses the phrase twice in quick succession. The words “get away with” imply a set of rules, a duty that one is cleverly escaping via loophole. Yet what obligation does a writer have to cater to Miller’s unguessably individual predilections, or even the more widespread, but equally arbitrary penchants of the majority of readers?

The unnamed obligation, I’d say, is economic. What Laura Miller is actually espousing is only a slightly more sophisticated variant on the shopworn capitalist slogan, “The Customer is Always Right.” In “Advice to Writers: Skip the Scenery,” for example, Miller starts out making what seems like a justified criticism about the way passages of scenic description pointlessly slow the action in Tea Obreht’s THE TIGER'S WIFE. One expects Miller to go into a discussion, a la Gardner, of the fictive dream, or of the needless intrusion of cinematic conceits in contemporary fiction (the excerpted sketch of the village reads to me like an establishing shot in a so-so screenplay). But instead, Miller's next move is puzzling. She doesn’t argue that the quoted passage, or others like it, makes THE TIGER'S WIFE less worth reading – she simply claims that the problem with the passages is that they will make the book less read: “[T]he risk is great that readers will conclude [that] the novel has no particular place to go and will soon wander off themselves.” And she condemns all similar passages, sight unseen, for the same reason: “When it comes to more than two or three sentences of description at a go, a novelist is always somewhat on sufferance with contemporary readers” (though of course “a writer of genius can get away with just about anything” – emphasis mine).

Arguing that there’s difference between “less worth reading” and “less read” may sound like pure semantics, but it really isn’t. To say a book is “less worth reading” is to pose an argument about aesthetic value, one that ultimately demands an underlying theory or point of view about how fiction can and should work. But to say a book is “less read” or will be “less read” is to make a statement about market viability – about the number of “hits,” actual or probable. Remember Google Analytics? Perhaps the reason Laura Miller so admires it is that it automatically knows what people actually read – a task to which she, not being a computer, has chosen to devote much of her time and critical thought.

And thus that troublesome “getting away with” makes a lot more sense. When Miller refers to a book “getting away with” something, she means that the writer took a risk with, but ultimately didn't sacrifice, market viability. According to Miller (again in the Salon.com essay), Elizabeth Kostova and David Wroblewski both succeed despite their long descriptions, though Miller finds Kostova’s descriptions evocative and Wrolewski’s pointlessly florid. In Miller’s critical framework, there’s no possibility that Kostova’s work succeeds because of the very element that makes it less appealing to a broad audience.  To Miller, market viability and success are synonymous. Just as she considers herself responsible to the web surfers behind her column’s page view spikes, so too (she would say) are literary authors responsible to their pool of likely readers. Anything that makes the book tougher going for these folks risks the whole enterprise, regardless of what it accomplishes aesthetically.

“The most ravishing descriptions in the world are wasted if they aren't read in the first place,” Miller writes. I suppose I’ll concede this point: if a book filled with “ravishing descriptions” is written, then instantly incinerated before a single human being can read it, and the memory of the words within is magnetically erased from the mind of the author and then, for good measure, a superhuman turns back the wheel of time till before those cursed words were ever inscribed upon paper, then yes, that would be a waste. But this isn’t what Miller is actually talking about. In reality, even books that are published by eensy presses and go out of print in a matter of months have some readers, sometimes very devoted ones. (Believe it or not, even poets get the occasional fan letter. And somebody’s buying these shirts.) Miller is saying that a book that reaches a tiny but loyal following is a waste compared to a book that reaches a much larger audience, regardless of what the books in question are up to, and regardless of how intense an impression each work makes on those who bother. And it’s there that I have to disagree with her. If I spend years of my life writing a novel and I reach only a couple of people, but I really reach them – touch them, amaze them – in the way my favorite books have reached me, then I’m going to consider the time well spent.

And if one of those people happens to be a book critic, well, so much the better.