Writing is a strange and solitary activity. There are dispiriting times when you start working on the first few pages of a novel. Every day, you have the feeling you are on the wrong track. This creates a strong urge to go back and follow a different path. It is important not to give in to this urge, but to keep going. It is a little like driving a car at night, in winter, on ice, with zero visibility. You have no choice, you cannot go into reverse, you must keep going forward while telling yourself that all will be well when the road becomes more stable and the fog lifts.—From Patrick Modiano's lecture when receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature [Original French, Swedish and video] which is about cities, old telephone directories but mostly about writing, how to do it and what it's like.
The habitual liar may be a very honest fellow, and live truly with his wife and friends; while another man who never told a formal falsehood in his life may yet be himself one lie-heart and face, from top to bottom. This is the kind of lie which poisons intimacy. And, vice versa, veracity to sentiment, truth in a relation, truth to your own heart and your friends, never to feign or falsify emotion—that is the truth which makes love possible and mankind happy. Robert Louis Stevenson on truth and writing.
Thomas King wins Governor-General’s Award for fiction In February, King won the British Columbia’s National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction for The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America. On Tuesday, he won the Governor-General’s Literary Award for Fiction for The Back of the Turtle, his first novel in 15 years. [more inside]
I never correct anything and I never go back to what I have written, except to the foot of the last page to see where I have got to. If you once look back, you are lost. How could you have written this drivel? How could you have used "terrible" six times on one page? And so forth. If you interrupt the writing of fast narrative with too much introspection and self-criticism, you will be lucky if you write 500 words a day and you will be disgusted with them into the bargain. A year before his death, James Bond author Ian Fleming explained how to write a thriller.
Closing a Chapter of a Literary Life [New York Times] Ahead of the American publication of his latest work, “The Book of Strange New Things,” Michel Faber discusses it and why it will be his last novel.
How renegade sci-fi writers of the 1960s paved the way for today's blending of literary and genre fiction [more inside]
Adelle Waldman, author of The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., was a lonely aspiring writer in New York, generally unhappy. Then she moved to Brooklyn and found that community made all the difference.
Ian McEwan: the law versus religious belief. [The Guardian]
The conjoined twins who would die without medical intervention, a boy who refused blood transfusions on religious grounds…Ian McEwan on the stories from the family courts that inspired his latest novel.[more inside]
83 year old Chicano author John Rechy (City Of Night, The Sexual Outlaw, Rushes) talks to Lambda Literary about gay assimilation, being mistaken for white, melding truth and fiction, the post-Stonewall peroid, and hating the word 'queer.'
You have demons in your subconscious? In a fantasy world those demons can get out, where you can grapple with them face to face. The story I was telling was impossible, and I believed in it more than I believed in the 10,000 entirely reasonable, plausible things I’d written before. Lev Grossman, author of the Magicians series of books, on how he found his voice as a fantasy novelist.
If I said to you, “Describe Anna Karenina,” perhaps you’d mention her beauty. If you were reading closely you’d mention her “thick lashes,” her weight, or maybe even her little downy mustache (yes—it’s there). Matthew Arnold remarks upon “Anna’s shoulders, and masses of hair, and half-shut eyes … ” But what does Anna Karenina look like? What do we see when we read?
Trans women writers Jeanne Thornton, Imogen Binnie, Red Durkin and Casey Plett read from their recent works for Talks at Google. [more inside]
The Teen Whisperer by Margaret Talbot [New Yorker] How the author [John Green] of “The Fault in Our Stars” built an ardent army of fans.
From what I saw the plurality of students and faculty had been educated exclusively in the tradition of writers like William Gaddis, Francine Prose, or Alice Munro—and not at all in the traditions of Toni Morrison, Cherrie Moraga, Maxine Hong-Kingston, Arundhati Roy, Edwidge Danticat, Alice Walker, or Jamaica Kincaid. In my workshop the default subject position of reading and writing—of Literature with a capital L—was white, straight and male. This white straight male default was of course not biased in any way by its white straight maleness—no way! Race was the unfortunate condition of nonwhite people that had nothing to do with white people and as such was not a natural part of the Universal of Literature, and anyone that tried to introduce racial consciousness to the Great (White) Universal of Literature would be seen as politicizing the Pure Art and betraying the (White) Universal (no race) ideal of True Literature.In the New Yorker Junot Diaz talks about MFA vs POC. [more inside]
Aspiring writers often ask established authors, "How did you do it?" The truth is that there is no single path to literary success. We sent a nonscientific survey to writers participating in the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books: Did they keep a diary as a child? Did they ever have a book rejected? Did they earn a living from writing? We tabulated more than 200 responses to make the board game below. Roll a die and see where the writing life takes you.
The drama issues from the assailability of vital, tenacious men with their share of peculiarities who are neither mired in weakness nor made of stone and who, almost inevitably, are bowed by blurred moral vision, real and imaginary culpability, conflicting allegiances, urgent desires, uncontrollable longings, unworkable love, the culprit passion, the erotic trance, rage, self-division, betrayal, drastic loss, vestiges of innocence, fits of bitterness, lunatic entanglements, consequential misjudgment, understanding overwhelmed, protracted pain, false accusation, unremitting strife, illness, exhaustion, estrangement, derangement, aging, dying and, repeatedly, inescapable harm, the rude touch of the terrible surprise — unshrinking men stunned by the life one is defenseless against, including especially history: the unforeseen that is constantly recurring as the current moment.Philip Roth on his life as a writer.
Creative writing professor Hanif Kureishi says such courses are 'a waste of time' [The Guardian]
Buddha of Suburbia author, who teaches subject at Kingston University, added that many of his students could 'write sentences' but not tell stories.
These days, the idea of being a “good reader” or a “good critic” is very much out of fashion — not because we believe that such creatures do not exist, but because we all identify as both. The machine of consumerism is designed to encourage us all to believe that our preferences are significant and self-revealing; that a taste for Coke over Pepsi, or for KFC over McDonald’s, means something about us; that our tastes comprise, in sum, a kind of aggregate expression of our unique selfhood. We are led to believe that our brand loyalties are the result of a deep, essential affinity between the consumer and product — this soap is “you”; this bank is “yours” — and social networking affords us countless opportunities to publicise and justify these brand loyalties as partial explanations of “who we are”.
In February 1963, a new publication took advantage of the New York City printers strike and launched with a daring editorial: It does not, however, seek merely to fill the gap created by the printers’ strike in New York City but to take the opportunity which the strike has presented to publish the sort of literary journal which the editors and contributors feel is needed in America. The New York Review of Books is now 50. [more inside]
Writing advice from Oates, Wolfe, Levine, Pynchon, Stein, Welty, DeLillo, Chekhov, Gallant, and Elkin; Baldwin, Miller, Morrison, Vonnegut, Atwood, Nabokov, and Stein again; Maugham, Hughes, Duras, Orwell, Ashbery, Sontag, Creeley, and Steinbeck; O'Connor, Baxter, Didion, Yeats, Hejinian, Cocteau, du Plessix Gray, and Bolaño; Waldrop, Cary, Pessoa, Amis, Carroll, Atwood, and Le Guin; Vinge, Williams, Crane, Creeley once more, Gallant, Vargas Llosa, Mathews, and Wolfe again. [more inside]
The Writer As Reader: Melville and his Marginalia In the General Rare Books Collection at Princeton University Library sits a stunning two-volume edition of John Milton that once belonged to Herman Melville. Melville's tremendous debt to Milton — and to Homer, Virgil, the Bible, and Shakespeare — might be evident to anyone who has wrestled with the moral and intellectual complexity that lends Moby Dick its immortal heft, but to see Melville's marginalia in his 1836 Poetical Works of John Milton is to understand just how intimately the author of the great American novel engaged with the author of the greatest poem in English. Checkmarks, underscores, annotations, and Xs reveal the passages in Paradise Lost and other poems that would have such a determining effect on Melville's own work.
This is my window. Or my windows—the view from my living room, where I sit and write. Might not seem very inspiring. I wish I could offer green mossy lava, roaring waves, a glacier mountain top. I do have other spaces—in an abandoned powerstation, a favorite fisherman’s cafe by the harbor, a summer house on the arctic circle—but this is my honest view, what I really see most of the days. This house was built in the 1960s when people were fed up with lava and mountains; they were migrating to the growing suburbs to create a new view for themselves. The young couple who dug the foundation with their own hands dreamed of a proper garden on this barren, rocky strip of land. They dreamed of trees, flowers, shelter from the cold northern breeze. What is special depends on where you are, and here, the trees are actually special. They were planted fifty years ago like summer flowers, not expected to live or grow more than a meter. The rhododendron was considered a miracle, not something that could survive a winter. It looks tropical, with Hawaiian-looking pink flowers; Skúli, the man who built the house and sold it to me half a century later, took special pride in it. I am not a great gardener. We are thinking of buying an apple tree, though they don’t really thrive in this climate. I would plant it like a flower, not really expect it to grow, and hope for a miracle. —Andri Snær Magnason [more inside]
It is doubtless tempting to exclaim against the ignorant bourgeois; yet it should not be forgotten, it is he who is to pay us, and that (surely on the face of it) for services that he shall desire to have performed. Here also, if properly considered, there is a question of transcendental honesty. To give the public what they do not want, and yet expect to be supported: we have there a strange pretension, and yet not uncommon, above all with painters. The first duty in this world is for a man to pay his way; when that is quite accomplished, he may plunge into what eccentricity he likes; but emphatically not till then. Till then, he must pay assiduous court to the bourgeois who carries the purse. Robert Louis Stevenson on art as a career.
By Heart is a series on The Atlantic's website where writers speak about their favorite passages, each illustrated by Doug McLean. Here are a few of the entries so far: Stephen King on two opening lines, Hanan Al-Shaykh on One Thousand and One Nights, Susan Choi on The Great Gatsby, Jessica Francis Kane on Marcus Aurelius, Fay Weldon on The Myth of Sisyphus, Adam Mansbach on Montaigne, Ayana Mathis on Osip Mandelstam, Anthony Marra on Jesus' Son, and Mohsin Hamid on Haruki Murakami.
"Imagine a female pov character is going along about her protagonist adventure, seeing things from her perspective of the world as written in third person. She hears, sees, considers, and makes decisions and reacts based on her view of the world and what she is aware of and encounters. Abruptly, a description is dropped into the text of her secondary sexual characteristics usually in the form of soft-focus Playboy-Magazine-style sexualized kitten-bunny-I-would-fuck-her-in-a-heartbeat lustrous-eyes-and-nipples phrases. Her breasts have just become omniscient breasts." -- Kate Elliott on the male (and female) gaze in literature.
"If Shirley Jackson’s intent was to symbolize into complete mystification, and at the same time be gratuitously disagreeable, she certainly succeeded" - The New Yorker takes a look at the over 300 letters in reaction to The Lottery
Your parent dies. You hurt. You weep. You mourn. You do and say the necessary things even as your daemon’s disciplined askesis has you (against your will) coldly taking notes on what the emotion feels like, how others around you react to the death, what the corpse of your parent looks like, how you feel while looking down at it, what voids there are in that feeling, what pretenses, what posturings. It's all part of finding your daemon that dwells perpetually in the Condition of Fire. Other entries in Dan Simmons' series On Writing Well.
Finnegans Wake, Joyce's famously unreadable masterpiece (read it online here), was considerably more readable in one of its earlier drafts. Watch Joyce cross out decipherable words and replace them with less decipherable ones! Watch him end, not with a whimper, but with a slightly less impressive whimper! Sadly, Shem's schoolbook, which in the finished version is a House of Leaves-esque compendium of side columns and footnotes, was not written until much later (according to the footnotes of that section). The introduction to this draft by David Hayman, who assembled it, is worth a read.
First editions, second thoughts. [The Guardian] "Interactive: From Amsterdam to Wolf Hall, Booker winners and bestsellers – authors annotate their own first editions.
Claire Messud: “A woman’s rant” [National Post] "Over the last week, discussion surrounding Claire Messud’s new novel, The Woman Upstairs, has shifted from the book to an interview its author recently gave to Publishers Weekly, in which Messud took issue with the following question: “I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you? Her outlook is almost unbearably grim.” [more inside]
My Psychic Garburator by Margaret Atwood [The New York Review of Books]
"Most dreams of writers aren’t about dead people or writing, and—like everyone else’s dreams—they aren’t very memorable. They just seem to be the products of a psychic garburator chewing through the potato peels and coffee grounds of the day and burping them up to you as mush."[more inside]
What Is the Business of Literature?
Publishing is a word that, like the book, is almost but not quite a proxy for the “business of literature.” Current accounts of publishing have the industry about as imperiled as the book, and the presumption is that if we lose publishing, we lose good books. Yet what we have right now is a system that produces great literature in spite of itself. We have come to believe that the taste-making, genius-discerning editorial activity attached to the selection, packaging, printing, and distribution of books to retailers is central to the value of literature. We believe it protects us from the shameful indulgence of too many books by insisting on a rigorous, abstemious diet. Critiques of publishing often focus on its corporate or capitalist nature, arguing that the profit motive retards decisions that would otherwise be based on pure literary merit. But capitalism per se and the market forces that both animate and pre-suppose it aren’t the problem. They are, in fact, what brought literature and the author into being.[more inside]
Sunday, April 28, would have been Roberto Bolaño's 60th birthday. The Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona is holding an event that day, in conjunction with their recent exhibit of Bolaño's archive, to celebrate the life and work of the writer. Or if you're not in Barcelona, the celebration is #DiaBolaño on twitter. [more inside]
STREET OF THE IRON PO(E)T, A Paris Diary by Henri Cole: "Today I visited the cenotaph to Baudelaire..." Part 2. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5. Part 6.
"As far as I’m aware, nobody that term recorded Max’s words systematically. However, in the wake of his death, David and I found ourselves returning to our notes, where we’d written down many of Max’s remarks. These we gleaned and shared with our classmates. Still, I wish we’d been more diligent, more complete. The comments recorded here represent only a small portion of Max’s contribution to the class."
"The new constitution 'recognizes the role of Christianity in preserving nationhood,' and art that is deemed blasphemous or 'anti-national' is now the target of a full-blown campaign of suppression."
Happy Thomas Pynchon rumor day! [LAtimes.com] "What's that, you say? America's most reclusive author, Thomas Pynchon, appeared in the news Friday -- not once but twice? Why, yes, yes, he has, surfacing in two unconnected rumours. Conspiracy? Pynchonian? Maybe we should henceforth designate Jan. 4 as Thomas Pynchon Rumor Day." [more inside]
With cities, it is as with dreams: everything imaginable can be dreamed, but even the most unexpected dream is a rebus that conceals a desire or, its reverse, a fear. Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else. December 2012 marks the 40th anniversary of Invisible Cities -- the sublime metaphysical travelogue by author-journalist Italo Calvino. In a series of pensive dialogues with jaded emperor Kublai Khan, the explorer Marco Polo describes a meandering litany of visionary and impossible places, dozens of surreal, fantastical cities, each poetically reifying ideas vital to language, philosophy, and the human spirit. This gracefully written love letter to urban life has inspired countless tributes, but it's just the most accessible of Calvino's fascinating literary catalogue. Look inside for a closer look at his most remarkable works, links to English translations of his magical prose, and collections of artistic interpretations from around the web -- including this treasure trove of essays, excerpts, articles, and recommended reading. [more inside]
Is Science Fiction promoting pseuodoscience? Is it not really better than fantasy? Is it exhausted and dying, per Paul Kincaid (part 1, part 2), a sort of genre-writing version of completing a list of The Nine Billion Names of God? Does physics-bothering unrepentant space case Alistair Reynolds have a compass pointing the way forwards?
[Joseph] McElroy's sense of original and authentic contemporaneity makes him the most important novelist now writing in America, the artist who has most consistently combined the mastering capabilities of systems perspectives and an art of excess. Women and Men is the capstone of his career and, I believe, the most significant American novel published since Gravity's Rainbow. - Tom LeClair [more inside]
Friendship is Optimal is not a "My Little Pony" fanfic, but a SF story that starts with a procedurally-generated MLP MMO, and crescendos to what could very well be the Best Possible Outcome if self-optimizing algorithms are given /almost/ the right goals. Some readers are horrified by the implications; some want to move into "Equestria Online" anyway. Whichever camp you fall in, you'll never forget the phrase "satisfy human values through friendship and ponies".
Just when you thought it was safe to open a book... it's the Literary Review's annual Bad Sex Award! (Previously) This year's nominees include works by Tom Wolfe, Ben Masters, Nicola Barker, Paul Mason, Nancy Huston, Craig Raine, Nicholas Coleridge, and Sam Mills. Not on the list? J.K. Rowling's The Casual Vacancy--despite "a couple of queasy moments," in the words of TLR senior editor Jonathan Beckman--and E.L. James' Fifty Shades of Grey, since the award "is not intended to cover pornographic or expressly erotic literature." Snippets from the nominated books can be found at the Guardian link.
"At the end of his life, the boxer Joe Louis said, ‘I did the best I could with what I had.’ It’s exactly what I would say of my work: I did the best I could with what I had.” [The New Yorker] "The writer Philip Roth announced his retirement in a little-noticed interview with a French magazine [Les Inrocks] and said that Nemesis, which was published in 2010, would be his last book."
Have literary journals lost their cultural relevance? Ted Genoways, former editor of the Virginia Quarterly suggests they have, and are relegated to publishing masses of material, often submitted by waves of new MFA graduates, that few read. Others question the definition of relevance. The journals do continue to proliferate, generating constant fresh material for a review that reviews them, a database that writers use to sort through them, and agents who comb through them looking for the next literary sensation. Perhaps only print journals are in real trouble?
Wickets and Wonders: Cricket’s Rich Literary Vein - a meditation on the literary history of cricket, and a few of the more well-known books surrounding gigaioggie.
Cynthia Ozick on Henry James: The Lesson of the Master: ...in earlier days I felt I had been betrayed by Henry James. I was like the youthful writer in “The Lesson of the Master” who believed in the Master’s call to live immaculately, unspoiled by what we mean when we say “life”—relationship, family mess, distraction, exhaustion, anxiety, above all disappointment.
What If Other Authors Had Written The Lord Of The Rings?...Wilde, Wodehouse, and more.
The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books catalogs the top ten favorite books of over 140 major authors and growing, including Louis D. Rubin, Jim Harrison, David Foster Wallace, David Leavitt, Paul Auster, Michael Chabon, and many more. Here's the list of books rank-ordered by frequency and here are other lists compiled from the statistics.