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December 20, 2011 2:47 PM   Subscribe

Fifty things I've learned about the literary life
posted by fearfulsymmetry (63 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
I liked the part with the pithy statement.

The idea of literary fiction as a genre is an interesting one. It certainly frees me not to feel bad about disrespecting it.
posted by Fraxas at 3:05 PM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Any new book longer than 500 pages is a stupefying act of self-importance.

Words to tattoo in reverse on certain authors foreheads.
posted by Artw at 3:08 PM on December 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


"1% inspiration, 99% perspiration."

Is probably the single most inspiring piece on here for those who want to write a book.
posted by straight_razor at 3:13 PM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


The majority of bestsellers are ghosted.

Buh? Really?
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 3:16 PM on December 20, 2011


Two writers, alone in a room, will talk about royalties not art.

In my experience they will most likely be gossiping or conspiring against a third writer.
posted by Artw at 3:17 PM on December 20, 2011


50 things he has learned? Exactly 50? He is precisely 5 times better than a blogger!
posted by srboisvert at 3:17 PM on December 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


1% inspiration, 9% clever assery, 20% mule stubbornness, 30% delusion, 20% numb horror and staring out the window, 10% trying to get into someone's pants, 5% abandoned interests and false leads, 5% luck, social standing and grim meat hook mercenary spirit.
posted by The Whelk at 3:18 PM on December 20, 2011 [5 favorites]


All on one page, I like this guy already.
posted by 2bucksplus at 3:19 PM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


The majority of bestsellers are ghosted.

I've heard various rumours regarding that for years, a couple from inside the industry
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 3:19 PM on December 20, 2011


Celebrity best sellers, sure. But not all best sellers.
posted by mothershock at 3:24 PM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Well, he did say the majority.
posted by Artw at 3:24 PM on December 20, 2011


8. Put a body on page one.

Or even in the first sentence.

That was a lot better than I expected. Maybe writing about books in addition to writing them adds a bit of perspective.
posted by book 'em dano at 3:31 PM on December 20, 2011


Guy, if you don't want to write a list, don't write it. And if you do, don't let your contempt for the exercise ruin the whole thing.
posted by Caduceus at 3:32 PM on December 20, 2011


The majority of bestsellers are ghosted.

Celebrity best sellers, sure. But not all best sellers.


Speaking as something of an insider - depending on whether you consider Canadian publishing to be inside anywhere in particular - this is hyperbole, but not by much, especially if you limit it to the nonfiction list. Anything with a household name attached to it probably involved very little of said household name sitting quietly in front of a keyboard for days on end, creating. If it names a "co-author," that's the one who actually wrote it based on the memo the cable news anchor dashed off in the limo en route to the studio; if it doesn't, then either there was a ghost writer brought in to turn some rough hunk of manuscript into something readable, or else an editor did the job in-house.

No one with, for example, Bill Clinton's daily agenda is actually spending weeks or months on end holed up in an office turning phrases and digging through research notes for just the right stat to pair with them.

On another note, I generally don't like these sorts of lists but this is one of the best I've seen. Especially this:
16. When blurb writers describe an author "writing at the peak of their powers", run a mile. When they say the novel is "allegorical", head for the hills. Books that "will change your life" are as fabled as the hippogriff.
That peak/height of his powers thing has always grated on me like nails on a chalkboard. I imagine wizards in capes conjuring the North Wind's howl or whatever. If what you mean is "this guy made his rep on his previous two books, which were surprising and increasingly excellent, and now he's pretty much doing more of the same so if you really liked his innovative stuff then you'll probably dig this too, even though it's nothing new" - well, then fucking say that why don't you?
posted by gompa at 3:38 PM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


15. You don't have to read every book you buy, and you certainly don't have to finish the book you've started.

Once I got over the guilt, I had no problem actually throwing books across the room and leaving them there.
posted by eyeballkid at 3:39 PM on December 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


All on one page, I like this guy already.

Like I imagine you did, I clicked the link with trepidation, only to be pleasantly surprised.

There are probably just 100 novels you really must read.

Probably true. But everyone's list is different, and everyone will tell you that their list is the right one. Read widely; you can construct your list as you die. My 100 books flashing before my eyes would be way better than my life; my life has a lot of badly-written scenes.
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:40 PM on December 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


Once I got over the guilt, I had no problem actually throwing books across the room and leaving them there.

Do you just move as the room fills up? How does this work, practically?
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:41 PM on December 20, 2011 [7 favorites]


I'd add one more:

51. Nobody anywhere in the book trade, from store clerk to executive editor of a publishing house to Booker-prize winner, reads as much as they pretend they have.
posted by gompa at 3:41 PM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Do you just move as the room fills up? How does this work, practically?

The help takes care of it.
posted by eyeballkid at 3:42 PM on December 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


7. Poets are either the lions or the termites of the literary jungle.

Compromise: ant lions.
posted by Sticherbeast at 3:45 PM on December 20, 2011 [7 favorites]


gompa - How to Lie About Books
posted by Artw at 3:46 PM on December 20, 2011 [4 favorites]


45. Writing can't be taught; better reading can.

I'm not sure whether the former is true, and I don't even know what the latter means.
posted by jcreigh at 3:46 PM on December 20, 2011


34. Lists are the curse of the age.

shouldn't this be number 1?
posted by TMezz at 3:54 PM on December 20, 2011


Number One is the primary rule for all art. The rest are pretty fluffy, except for Number Twenty, which is a revolutionary statement when applied to what happens in high school, college, and in all literary conversations, whether in academia, in book reviews, or amongst those who consider themselves literate in the realm of fiction.
posted by kozad at 3:58 PM on December 20, 2011


I read the link as "Filthy things I've learned about the literary life" and felt quite let down. Oh, and:

52: Book reviews get progressively less trustworthy the closer it is to Christmas. At least that's the situation here.
posted by Zero Gravitas at 4:08 PM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


51. Dyeing your hair isn't fooling anyone.
posted by Wolof at 4:09 PM on December 20, 2011


Two writers, alone in a room, will talk about royalties not art.

In my experience they will most likely be gossiping or conspiring against a third writer.


Actually, talking shit about other writers is a significant but distant second in my experience to complaining about how badly their agent botched the deal or their publicist messed up the media tour, both of which are proxies for talking about royalties (and lack thereof).
posted by gompa at 4:10 PM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


34. Lists are the curse of the age.

shouldn't this be number 1?


Possibly a subtle nod to rule 34 (and the associated list).
posted by mediated self at 4:14 PM on December 20, 2011


jcreigh: 45. Writing can't be taught; better reading can. I'm not sure whether the former is true, and I don't even know what the latter means.

Reading well really is a skill, and one which takes a great deal of effort to master. And you can't really write well until you've mastered it. The advice every author I've ever read, and all of my writing teachers and professors, gave is, basically, to read everything and try to understand how and why it works (or doesn't, as the case may be).

It's a bit like music: sure, you can teach somebody the basic technique and notation, the same as you can teach somebody grammar. But they can't really make music until they're able to hear music. You certainly can enjoy either activity without that kind of appreciation, but it's at the level of "it has a beat and I can dance to it" or "it made me happy/made me sad." (And you can pick the skill up without being formally taught, but it can be taught better than you can be taught "how to write a lyrical passage" or whatever. Which is generally taught by pointing to a passage or two which are considered fairly lyrical and talking about what that means, so...)

Somewhat tangentially, this is the problem with very many high school English classrooms. Too busy playing "find the symbol" (which is, admittedly, easier to teach) to teach kids how to really appreciate and think about the things they read, whether that be Shakespeare or Twilight.

*Used to teach College Lit, aka "How to Read" class. Has Very Strong Opinions on the Subject.
posted by kittenmarlowe at 4:16 PM on December 20, 2011 [9 favorites]


There is actually a pretty good case for the earl oxford ghostwriting shakespeare from the point of view of the open minded infidel. Not that I buy it, but period, end of story, is just not right. People are going to be making hay out of that story for a long time.

The other bits also had a number of exaggerations but that one jumped out at me as obvious overkill.
posted by bukvich at 4:24 PM on December 20, 2011


"20. Literary fiction is like sci-fi. It's a genre."

Well, yeah.

However, this is stupid:

"27. Words and money go together like bacon and eggs. Words written for nothing are usually what you'd expect: flavourless."

I'm a big fan of writing for money, mind you. But I got some of the best reviews I've had for a book that I didn't write for money -- and indeed didn't expect to be able to sell at all. I wrote it because I thought it would be fun to do. Writing for the hell of it has its benefits.
posted by jscalzi at 4:31 PM on December 20, 2011 [8 favorites]


Also: ArtW's link is way better than the guardian article.
posted by bukvich at 4:35 PM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


I read the link as "Filthy things I've learned about the literary life" and felt quite let down.

Google for James Joyce's loveletters to Nora.
posted by Artw at 4:43 PM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Also, most writers would've rather been athletes or musicians, because they'd get laid more.
posted by jonmc at 4:49 PM on December 20, 2011


Celebrity best sellers, sure. But not all best sellers.

Psh, how would you know oh right
posted by shakespeherian at 4:49 PM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


42. No one is obliged to like Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities.

Musil is like a benchmark for the young and ironic. Just when you think you are the most bitter and ironic young man who has ever lived, after you read Musil you just give up on this irony project. He provides a useful service.
posted by ovvl at 5:25 PM on December 20, 2011


37. Many published writers are rather less fun than generals, or even bishops.

Ok, I've read this sentence about 10 times and I just don't get it. A little help?
posted by zardoz at 5:35 PM on December 20, 2011


I read it (No. 37) as meaning that writers generally have less interesting lives and talk about less interesting things than you might imagine and you might not want to be sitting next to one at a a party for any significant length of time as a result.
posted by Martha My Dear Prudence at 5:40 PM on December 20, 2011


Not that it's probably true, I should add. Unless you find yourself sitting between two writers at a party and then they'll probably just talk across you about their royalties.
posted by Martha My Dear Prudence at 5:43 PM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


I read it (No. 37) as meaning that writers generally have less interesting lives and talk about less interesting things than you might imagine and you might not want to be sitting next to one at a a party for any significant length of time as a result.

This is probably true. I have a new book coming out shortly, and the publisher sent its in-house film crew people to talk to me about shooting video for promoting the book. They were eager to film "where the magic happens," and seemed disappointed when I told them the "magic" basically consists of me, in my comfy chair, in "yoga pants" I've slept in for three days, with a bag of Doritos. Sobbing.

No one really wants to see that.
posted by mothershock at 5:45 PM on December 20, 2011 [6 favorites]


4. There are seven basic stories in world literature.

Give me a fucking break. We're supposed to take you seriously after this? I did go on to read the rest of the list, and it's not bad, but if I could afford to keep replacing laptops, I would have thrown the list across the room and left it there.
posted by 256 at 5:52 PM on December 20, 2011


Yeah, I heard there's really only two stories.
posted by telstar at 5:57 PM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


I don't buy the 500 pages thing. If the story takes 500 pages, it takes 500 pages. If it takes less, use less. If it needs more, give it more. Just because nobody is telling 500-page stories any more doesn't mean a new one is self-important.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 6:00 PM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


"20. Literary fiction is like sci-fi. It's a genre."

This is one my personal bugaboos because this is both a disparagement of SF and literary fiction.

Now, I will qualify this by saying that there's a whole lot of very samey literature that gets published as just "fiction." Those do constitute a genre. But literary fiction is much more than the somewhat samey, realist books about disaffected people dealing with the pressures of contemporary existence. Outside the Anglophone market that kind of book is much rarer (sometimes in Europe books like that get referred to, sometimes neutrally, sometimes disparagingly, as 'English novels,' even if they're not by English-language authors). Literary fiction is such a wide category that it's impossible to define, even by the 'we know what it is when we see it' standard. A genre has to be definable in some sense (though, of course, all definitions are by their nature stuck in time and genre always evolves).

Also, by genrifying literary fiction, you place it in a similar category as SF, thereby excluding SF from being literary. There are plenty of SF authors who I'd argue belong in the canon (Joanna Russ, Philip K. Dick, James Tiptree jr. and Samuel R. Delany spring immediately to mind) and it also excludes plenty of people from being considered SF because they're also canonical (Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Margaret Atwood and Kurt Vonnegut are all types of authors who can have added value for their readers if they're considered as SF writers).
posted by Kattullus at 6:31 PM on December 20, 2011 [5 favorites]


telstar: Yeah, I heard there's really only two stories.

No, there's only One Story, the one about Our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Everything else is just the Devil's Lies.
posted by Kattullus at 6:32 PM on December 20, 2011 [6 favorites]


Damn! That was pretty realistic, Kattulus!
posted by fredludd at 6:40 PM on December 20, 2011


Kattullus: Literary fiction is such a wide category that it's impossible to define, even by the 'we know what it is when we see it' standard. A genre has to be definable in some sense (though, of course, all definitions are by their nature stuck in time and genre always evolves). Also, by genrifying literary fiction, you place it in a similar category as SF, thereby excluding SF from being literary. There are plenty of SF authors who I'd argue belong in the canon (Joanna Russ, Philip K. Dick, James Tiptree jr. and Samuel R. Delany spring immediately to mind) and it also excludes plenty of people from being considered SF because they're also canonical (Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Margaret Atwood and Kurt Vonnegut are all types of authors who can have added value for their readers if they're considered as SF writers).

I think when people are saying this--at least when I say it, which is all that matters, heh--they're actually distinguishing between "literary fiction" and "literature." I'd consider literary fiction to be a genre, with fairly standard defining traits (at least as much as any genre, anyway) but not literature, in which works of any genre can fit. I'd certainly call your sci-fi picks "literature" (as well as many other examples) but not "literary fiction." And not all "literary fiction" is "literature"; a lot of it is pretty crappy. A bit confusing since the term "literary fiction" seems to privilege the genre over other genres, and I've spent some time trying to come up with a better term, but that's the distinction I've always heard.
posted by kittenmarlowe at 6:46 PM on December 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


You can tell if something is a genre if it has it's own shelf.
posted by Artw at 7:04 PM on December 20, 2011


I favor "Transportation" myself.
posted by maxwelton at 7:11 PM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


kittenmarlowe: I think when people are saying this--at least when I say it, which is all that matters, heh--they're actually distinguishing between "literary fiction" and "literature."

Well, for me the term "literature" is an even wider term than literary fiction, covering poetry, plays, essays etc. According to my definition of literature, all fiction counts. But that's when we've entered the rather fruitless argument of competing definitions, so it's probably best to stop.

Also, as I touched on above, the "literary fiction" genre of which we speak is an almost exclusively Anglophone phenomenon. In the literatures of other languages, this genre is much less prevalent.

Artw: You can tell if something is a genre if it has it's own shelf.

Twilight is a genre? :) More seriously, are "books in Spanish" a genre, or "books by local authors?" Shelving is always a solution tailored to the needs of the community the bookstore and library serve. Books are shelved in different ways depending on where you are.
posted by Kattullus at 7:13 PM on December 20, 2011


Kattullus: Well, for me the term "literature" is an even wider term than literary fiction, covering poetry, plays, essays etc. According to my definition of literature, all fiction counts. But that's when we've entered the rather fruitless argument of competing definitions, so it's probably best to stop. Also, as I touched on above, the "literary fiction" genre of which we speak is an almost exclusively Anglophone phenomenon. In the literatures of other languages, this genre is much less prevalent.

Yeah, it's more or less a semantical argument. And yes, I'd agree it's pretty much an Anglophone genre, at least presently. I'd say there's some older French and Russian works that are closely related genres, but the point still stands; things like magical realism or African political novels are an entirely different kettle of fish. I just took from the original article that the author was attempting to de-privelege the anglophone lit fic tradition rather than trying to exclude sci-fi and whatnot from the cannon, but that may have just been me reading my own biases into it.
posted by kittenmarlowe at 7:27 PM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Kattullus:

"This is one my personal bugaboos because this is both a disparagement of SF and literary fiction."

I don't find it disparaging for science fiction to be considered a genre. "Genre" is not an insult; it's a recognition there are tropes engaged in the storytelling. It doesn't mean the best stuff in it is not also literature.
posted by jscalzi at 7:44 PM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


@mediated self

thats a pretty farfetched assumption

also isnt ohintrnet what the dramatica people made after it became politically unfortunate to maintain
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 8:32 PM on December 20, 2011


jscalzi: I don't find it disparaging for science fiction to be considered a genre.

You misunderstood. Science fiction is a genre and I'm not disputing that. What I find disparaging to science fiction is when "literary fiction" is considered as a genre too, separate from science fiction. There's a lot of science fiction which is literary and by creating a genre called "literary fiction" you cede the high ground to the sort of fiction which dominates Anglo-American literary culture.

"Genre" is not an insult; it's a recognition there are tropes engaged in the storytelling. It doesn't mean the best stuff in it is not also literature.

Absolutely there are tropes. But there are no tropes that determine whether a book is literary or not. Tropes should be value neutral, they're tools of storytelling, not signifiers of literary worth. Once you start assigning literary worth to tropes you end up with a poorer literature.

kittenmarlowe: I just took from the original article that the author was attempting to de-privelege the anglophone lit fic tradition rather than trying to exclude sci-fi and whatnot from the cannon, but that may have just been me reading my own biases into it.

Yeah, I think that's the intent too, but I think that creating a genre called "literary fiction" is hugely problematic, for reasons that I mentioned before. Instead of deprivileging a certain type of literature, it deprivileges every other type of literature by reserving the "literary" marker for this genre.
posted by Kattullus at 3:31 AM on December 21, 2011


Consider that if everything is genre then nothing is.
posted by Wolof at 3:44 AM on December 21, 2011


(This is the intention of that particular rhetorical move. It exposes the antiquated hierarchy in play. Is only history painting to be valued above all else? Because all that other stuff is genre art.)
posted by Wolof at 4:00 AM on December 21, 2011


I understand the intent, but I think it's counter-productive. It takes as its starting point the old disparagement uttered by the now withered poobahs of yore: That's not literature, it's genre.

It's wrong-headed to respond to that by saying: Well, but literature is a genre.

Besides everything I've mentioned before, once you start considering literature as a genre of literature, you end up in some sort of Russell's Paradox. That said, I do agree that the old hierarchies are out-moded. Frankly, most everyone I know who's an academic or a writer thinks the same. All classification systems are useful, but it's good to keep in mind that there are many of them and that they are all arbitrary. Instead of thinking in terms of where to shelve a book, for instance, you can look at a book and think of what kind of tag cloud it would have. Genre is a classification system, but it's just one of many, and it has nothing to do with literary worth.
posted by Kattullus at 4:52 AM on December 21, 2011


No, there's only One Story, the one about Our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Everything else is just the Devil's Lies.

Silly, short-sighted human! The One Story is that the Stars Will One Day Be Right, and Great Cthulhu and His Kin Will Rise from the Corpse-City of R'lyeh to Take Possession of That which Was Once Theirs and Will Be Theirs Again!

Everything else is just a Brittle Facade Over the Stark Truth of Cosmic, Meaningless Doom.
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:32 AM on December 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


Consider that if everything is genre then nothing is.

That's not really true -- it's like saying "if every animal is placed in the taxonomy, then no animals can be classified." Theoretically, a perfect "story classification system" would correctly place every story into a genre. In reality, any classification scheme is going to have stories that fit into multiple genres or which call for a genre not yet defined. But that is a different story.
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:43 AM on December 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


47. Any new book longer than 500 pages is a stupefying act of self-importance.

49. Some of the best contemporary writers are working in American television.


Yeah, totally man.
posted by From Bklyn at 6:08 AM on December 21, 2011


Any new book longer than 500 pages is a stupefying act of self-importance.

I really wonder when 'new' is supposed to begin, here. 2004? 2000? 1980?
posted by shakespeherian at 7:07 AM on December 21, 2011


Yeah, I heard there's really only two stories.

Only one story: Get back home.
posted by marxchivist at 8:03 AM on December 21, 2011


A bit confusing since the term "literary fiction" seems to privilege the genre over other genres, and I've spent some time trying to come up with a better term, but that's the distinction I've always heard.

Naturally German has a word for this : Gebrauchsliteratur. Which translates roughly as "functional literature", with "literature" meaning more "fiction" than elegant, complex art. I just got introduced to this word recently and really like it. The thought that immediately came to mind was, " oh yeah, the mid list." but of course in German there is no mid-list, there's the much more dignified, 'functional.'
posted by From Bklyn at 3:13 PM on December 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


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