I think I fixed capitalism in this blog post

Have been reading Natasha Stagg’s collection Sleeveless, which came out this year from Semiotext[e]. It’s sort of a short story collection, but it’s also a collection of essays and reported pieces about celebrities. What I love is that the book is unabashedly concerned with looks, style, and social status, but doesn’t satirize those things, doesn’t condescend to or look down to them, and, as a bonus, the book is also totally unconcerned with romance.

One of my favorite stories is one where a writer and an artist go home together after a show–it’s they’re first same-sex encounter, and both the women are excited and confused–later the writer mentions the artist in several of her articles and the artist’s reputation rises as a result, sending her on the road to a modicum of fame. The artist’s friends tell her, "Well, you know, that’s how it works, sometimes." The sex wasn’t at all transactional, but it still benefited the artist’s career. It just had a trueness that you don’t often see. In another story, a budding publicist listens to a group of friends at the next table discuss their problems. The publicist takes down their names, googles them, emails them the next day and books them as clients.

The reported pieces are just as good. These are mostly stories about minor celebrities: models, designers, and artists–most of whom fall in the ‘It’ girl category. The author has a keen eye for detail, and she’s good at ferreting out what is general to the time and what is specific to her subject. My favorite piece was where she noted that an It girl in the oughts is different than an It girl in the nineties. In the nineties, you needed to go out, meet people, and be charming. But in the oughts, you’re usually discovered on social media. That means your image is entirely in your control from the beginning. But it also means you don’t need to go to parties, you don’t need to be charming, in fact, you don’t need to leave your bedroom. Many of her subjects are, if not antisocial, then at least very reticent and a little bit awkward–kind of like how many musicians tend to be.

I’m reading the book slowly for some reason. Of course, collections never go as fast as novels, but still it’s not a long book, and I should probably be done by now.

I’m also listening to a book about Adam Neumann, the founder of WeWork. Books about failure are so much more interesting than books about success, just like books about mediocre artists are better than books about great artists, because everything about the story can be encapsulated by the book. Success, like great art, is ineffable and inexplicable. You can try to understand it, but those understandings are usually post-facto and insufficient. For instance, I once read a book about Twitter and came away with the impression that it was a very poorly-run company, with a terrible technical back-end, that is badly monetized, and which has teetered on the brink of insolvency several times. Nonetheless, it’s only become bigger and more powerful. Why? Well…it’s hard to say! Why did Vine go bankrupt, when TikTok, essentially the same thing, become huge? It’s hard to say! Some companies continue to boggle the mind. Tesla’s valuation is insane. The number makes absolutely no sense. Yet that’s what people have been saying for ten years! People have gone bankrupt betting against Tesla. You can’t explain that in a book.

WeWork is a much more standard tale of hubris. But you kind of understand why it worked! I mean why not? Other companies have used gobs of venture capital money to blow up so big that they couldn’t fail. From the founder’s perspective, the moves he was making were perfectly rational. The venture capitalists, too, weren’t betting their own money (mostly). Often they were running immense funds, and it’s just not easy to find companies that can take a half billion dollars of investment. When you’re working with amounts that large, there are only a certain number of places to put it. The investors are really to blame: venture capital isn’t an amazing investment vehicle. They’d be better off just putting their money into an index fund. Yet most of the investors too aren’t sinking all their money into this. It’s part of a diversified investment strategy. You know, I wonder if there is a branch of economics that studies what happens when too much capital is chasing too few productive opportunities. That seems the case these days, and it’s likely to be even more true as investors buy up distressed assets from people who’ve been bankrupted by the pandemic. It just doesn’t seem very efficient for some private equity fund to borrow money at low interest rates from the government to buy up a bunch of property, when the owners of the property ought to be able to buy up the property themselves.

I do believe in economics. I’m a capitalist. I believe it’s important for capital to be able to move, so it can be allocated to more productive purposes. And I suppose someone could say that WeWork is just a sort of creative destruction: the investors made a bet, and they lost their money. Capitalism worked how it’s supposed to. And they might’ve run other coworking spaces out of business, but they didn’t use their VC money to destroy entire industries, as Uber did with the taxi industry. But I really don’t think it’s really capitalism when some companies use a bunch of fancy rhetoric to raise money much more cheaply than other companies can, and then use that money to drive the other companies out of business. That’s not a productive use of capital. That’s simply absurd. I’m just not sure how to stop it.

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I like to feel that a book needs what I have to offer

Hello friends. Something wonderful has happened in Georgia. I don’t exactly know the cause of this miraculous event. I am told Stacey Abrams had much to do with it; I am sure other people were involved as well. I gave money to Abrams, Ossoff, and Warnock, but I think it’d be fair to say that this election–one of the most consequential of my lifetime–was more or a less a gift given to me by the Democratic voters of Georgia. And it’s a gift for which I feel extremely grateful!

We have childcare again, but what I hadn’t counted upon was that the two week holidays were also a holiday from rejection. For at least ten of those days I was absolutely certain that no agent was going to get back to me. That was really nice. I enjoyed that. That allowed me to rebuild some of my psychic defenses.

As I think I’ve mentioned in a previous post–honestly sometimes it’s hard for me to remember what I’ve talked about and what I haven’t–it’s been a long-term goal of mine to be a more generous and less envious person. I would say that I’ve been working on this for a solid twelve years–I remember distinctly standing outside my first job in 2009, smoking a cigarette, and thinking, oh my god I cannot keep living like this. I just want my heart to be whole.

I’ve tried lots of things. What worked for a long time was to just be friends with any other writers on social media. But after my first book sold, I made the perhaps poor decision to friend a bunch of other YA writers on Facebook, and ever since then my social media has just been a catalogue of other peoples’ triumphs.

As you get further into this career path, you’ll also notice that a lot of people who started out with you–people who were peers–are now a lot more successful than you. It hurts. You’re like, what do they have that I don’t have? And either you conclude that they’re better, which doesn’t feel good, or that they’re worse, which also doesn’t feel good!

I won’t go into the litany of possible psychic defenses I’ve tried. But what’s really been working for me lately is that I’ve been reading a lot of books from small presses. I always knew that lots of great work was emerging from outside New York Publishing, but I didn’t know how to find it. Even fans and friends tend only to talk about the same few books, inevitably books from major publishers, and if you want to read outside that, then you either need to read older books, which have been sieved and sorted by time, or just push forward at random, which doesn’t feel productive.

The breakthrough came last year when I started reading the New York Review of Books. They don’t review much fiction, but their nonfiction selections are often from small presses. Moreover, the advertisements between the pages are almost always from small presses. Even better has been N+1. I’ve gotten good recommendations there not just from their book reviews, but by looking up the other publications from authors I enjoyed. Most recently, I read an essay collection by longtime Village Voice and The Nation reviewer, Laurie Stone. Most of the essays originally started out as her Facebook status posts–they’re interpolated with longer pieces–that chronicle her reactions to the Trump years. The best and most provocative of the essays is a deeply thought-provoking essay detailing a number of female creatives and subservient relationships they had with their male partners. In many cases, the women were stifled by the men, but that relationship was also something that was sought out by the women, and sometimes eagerly embraced. I have no idea what major press would put out something so deeply…ambivalent.

I also have been reading works by other transfeminine people. I read Andrea Long Chu’s Females, my review of which should be coming out sometime this month in The Bind. I recently also completed Mattilda Sycamore Bernstein’s experimental memoir, The Freezing Door. And I have a few other books queued up: Heike Gessler’s novel, translated from German, about working in an Amazon factory; Natascha Stagg’s novel about internet stardom and a follow-up story collection.

The books have been accumulating (on a side-note, I’m realizing most of them are from Semiotext[e], an incredible publisher that’s an imprint of the MIT Press). I don’t feel as bad about making impulse purchases as I once did. I don’t know, I know it’s uncharitable, but sometimes it just doesn’t feel good to be the hundred thousandth person to buy Transcendant Kingdom or On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. Those are probably great books, but those writers don’t need me. Moreover, their influence is being fully internalized by the culture, and that influence will come out in a hundred ways over the next generation. Sometimes when I’m reading some hyped-up book, I just think, "I’m better than this. I have more to offer than this."

It feels like when I was single and despairing that I’d ever find someone. I wanted to be loved, of course, but what felt like such a waste was that I had so much love to give, I had so much to offer. I think readers form relationships with books, and, to be honest, I just think I have so much to offer, when it comes to books, and it doesn’t feel good to read books that just don’t need my love.

But the small press books do! I feel happy talking about them, writing about them, tweeting about them. My online engagement has turned around: I’m more excited to participate in online conversations these days.

Moreover, I’m finding myself less reluctant to read big press books too! I think now that I have some outlet for those loving feelings, I am also content to read big press books just for enjoyment, without trying to or expecting to form a relationship with them.

man painting green frog on ground
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Wrote a mystery story that’s also a play

Hello friends. Life is good here. I finished the biography of Derrida, and I wrote a review of his book, and of his place in the world of letters, that is only slightly complicated by the fact that I’ve never read any Derrida and find his writing to be incomprehensible. I think it strikes a properly erudite tone, though! I’m going to try and send it to the London Review of Books and the New York Review of Books in the next week. Don’t have high hopes, but you never know!

I’ve also written a sort of radio play that’s also a crime story: it’s about the Perfect Murder Club–a club where people get together to plan the perfect murder and then never ever carry it out. The first rule of Perfect Murder Club is "Don’t actually murder anyone." But when one member thinks she’s found a way of perfectly murdering another member, it’s up to our heroine to think things through in real time and convince her that the murder won’t work.

I’ve always wante to write a short play. With COVID, people aren’t really staging plays, but they’re doing readings and whatnot, and anyway it’s a writing sample! I’m also thinking about submitting it to Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, which I’ve been reading lately (inspired by Nick Mamatas’s recent story there, which was one of the better stories in the last issue), but the format might be a bit too outre for them. I don’t know.

Still kind of stalled on the novel rewrite. Am sort of awaiting Monday, when I’ll finally have some uninterrupted time (I wrote the beginning of the Perfect Murder story during my baby’s first nap, figuring out the plot while she was awake, and finished it during her second nap).

But writing is going great! I feel good about it! Reading is going well too. I started (and finished) Mattilda Sycamore Bernstein’s recent memoir [The Freezer Door] last night. Probably won’t review it. My turn into reviewing has made me realize that reviewing narrative is much harder than reviewing straight nonfiction. But it’s a great book! Powerful and poetic evocation of what it means to be lonely and queer, and to look for something sustaining that maybe the queer community once had, but doesn’t really possess anymore, particularly for transfeminine people. It really resonated with me.

I also spent a significant amount of time over the past few days trying to figure out how to convert Markdown files into word format. It wasn’t as easy as I’d like it to be! Definitely feels like a format designed by computer programmers. So far the easiest way is to use a command-line program called pandoc, which is simple and flexible, but kind of impenetrable. I sometimes find myself wondering why I am bothering with this, but to be honest I think it’s just neat! I have always felt I have the heart of a computer programmer: I just never had the patience to learn how to write code. Maybe I will someday though! You never know!

photo of black ceramic male profile statue under grey sky during daytime
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What I’ve been reading and writing lately

Hello friends, hope you’re having a good New Year’s. I’m still here writing on my digital typewriter thing. It might potentially be more trouble than it’s worth at this point, since to do formatting on the device you’ve got to use Markdown, which is really cool and convenient, like a stripped-down HTML, but it’s a huge bore to convert the output to Word.

Anyway, I’ve been rewriting my literary novel, THE LONELY YEARS, on it, and it’s proven to be a not-awful way to just get words down. But it’s proven most useful, I think, for writing blog posts.

The rewrite of the literary novel has taken quite a turn! Doing yet another page one rewrite, trying to get deeper into the character, closer to their thoughts in the moment, without losing the ability to comment upon the things that the character is unaware of or which are happening below the surface of the conscious mind. The result is a collection of intermingling voices that runs the risk of being, dare I say it, a little confusing. And yet I think the effect works. I’m still viewing it largely as an exercise, and perhaps one I’ll abandon or never send out.

I’ve been reading a lot of periodicals lately. Mostly recently read New York magazine’s article on the fall of Quibi–a streaming platform for very short premium content, I guess a bit like HBO meets TikTok–that ran through 1.75 bn in short order earlier in the year. What’s interesting is how many people now claim the idea was doomed from the start, or that they saw right through it. It doesn’t seem to me that Quibi is, per se, stupid. You know what was stupid? Twitter. Why would people want to post a series of 140 character tweets when both Facebook and WordPress already existed! But somehow it served a need. You just can’t know whether something will work until it gets tried. In a way there’s something respectable about actually failing, rather than simply growing so fat, so quickly on VC funding that you become almost too big to fail, a la WeWork.

I also read Anna Weiner’s New Yorker article on Substack, which contained the predictable skewering of tech world pretensions about how this or that innovation will change the media landscape forever. It made me anxious, as these things always do. Yet again another gold rush has started and gone by without me! It’s not too late, probably, to hop on the bandwagon and try to get an audience on SubStack, but my heart isn’t in it.

I’ve been reading Ryan North’s run on the Unbeatable Squirrel Girl for Marvel Comics. I love it. Doreen Green is just so…chipper and upbeat, and she defeats villains by bonding with them and meeting their deeper needs (and also sometimes by punching them). She’s an average CS student by day, and a squirrel-themed costumed adventurer by night (and also during many of the days). It’s just a fun romp through the Marvel universe, with absolutely no reverence and nothing held sacred, whether it’s Jubilee explaining "That’s not actually the sound the claws make, he just says SNIKT every time they come out" or Squirrel Girl sneaking into Avengers Tower to steal Iron Man’s spare suits so she can assemble them into a spaceship to fly to the moon to beat up Galactus (and having to detail her squirrel army to foil a bank-robbery on the way). It’s p cool.

I’m also recently finished two books, a biography of Derrida and a book about how modern art doesn’t follow the same cognitive rules as before-times art. I’m thinking of getting into the intellectual book review game (I actually have one coming out in June, in the feminist review outlet The Bind), and I was sort of thinking about reviewing these books in conversation with each other. My argument is developing, so it’s slow going, but I need to sit down and finish them and write the article. I used to never like the idea of doing book reviews, because it felt a bit too much like writing a term paper for fun. But then I read a bunch of book reviews closely and realized, "These guys aren’t doing research! They’re just throwing in a bunch of stuff they already know!" It made me feel better. And then I wrote one (the one coming out in The Bind) in about an hour as a proof-of-concept, and I was like totally, yep, yeah, I seem hecka smart in this review.

I also picked up the The Forsyte Saga by Galworthy, which I bought years ago, but which didn’t hold my interest until recently. I think I’ve become very interested in the exact point when modernism, with its more freeform depiction of the psyche, took over from realism, and the book seems to be in the very early part of that transition: the characters are well-described, but also somehow vivid and alive and a little murky, a little undefined. But I’ve been reading the book in fits and starts.

I’ve been listening to Jeff Hobbs’s The Short, Tragic Life of Robert Peace, about his Yale roommate, black kid from a poor family in Newark, who made it to the Ivy League, but still perished in a drug execution at age 30. It’s a tale. I don’t know what larger points to take from it, but the characters are vivid, and I feel for them. I’ve just come to the part where the author himself is meeting his future subject for the first time, as eighteen year old freshmen.

I’m halfway or partway through a lot of books, just like I’m halfway or partway through a lot of writing projects. We don’t have childcare because of the holidays, so it doesn’t feel like there’s much time. Really, there is enough, given that the baby is sleeping fifteen hours a day, and I have my wife at home, but it’s very nice to have uninterrupted time. I don’t know. I’ve been relatively productive on the rewrite, but I always feel like I can do more. Since turning 35, I’ve felt time passing, and I’ve felt like I need to work now, now, now. In some ways, I’ve felt the rekindling of a certain level of ambition that’d been lost. And it’s difficult, but also quite nice!

I’ve been making a list of things that make me envious (see, the aforementioned Anna Weiner article). Often they’re stories of other writers. Sometimes even the names of other writers arouse envy. Because of my agent search, I’m very aware of who represents whom, and I feel envious when I see the name of a writer whose agent has turned me down. I’m trying to understand the contours of this envy, and to figure out which writers arouse more or less envy.

I think that I would like to be a more great-hearted individual. I want to feel happy for other people. I want to not feel attacked by their success. I’ve realized that I can’t repress these sorts of negative feelings. I can’t combat, fight, or overcome them, but I do think that I search for their roots, within my self-image, and drain them of their power.

There are certain kinds of envy that don’t bother me. I don’t care when someone makes lots of money (as several of my college classmates have). I’m happy for them. I don’t mind if people have a nice vacation or seem happy online. Doesn’t bother me at all. It’s mostly only writers that arouse this feeling. Oh well, it’s a long-term project.

But I’m happy! No major complaints! Oh yeah, and I started taking hormones! It’s been good! I was absurdly tired for a few days–sleeping like fifteen hours a day–and it was quite troubling, but now I’ve my energy back, and life is good. Excited to see what will happen, but I already feel more settled in my gender identity.

P.S. Using MarkDown has made it much easier to add links to my posts, and I apologize for the fact so many of those links are to Amazon, Audible, and Comixology (all Amazon companies). But the thing is, life is too short for me to pretend I don’t buy most of my books on Amazon. I read most of my books digitally: when I buy paper, I try to buy from independents, but I can’t buy Kindle books otherwise than from Amazon, and Kindle is the best and most convenient e-reader. It is what it is. The thing is, most of you are probably the same, so let’s stop fronting. If Amazon is destroying the book industry, then the solution is regulation, not individual boycotts.

brown squirrel
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Wrap-up 2020: Everything Else

It’s been a tough year. For me, toughest have been the professional losses: a book I thought my audience would enjoy, which they didn’t respond particularly well to; the loss of my agent; the sense of being stymied, especially when I write about people like myself; and, more generally, a feeling of alienation from the rest of American letters, including and perhaps especially that small portion of it composed of people like myself.

But there was also the pandemic. We coped. We had a baby on what was essentially the first day of lock-down, and the pandemic has coincided with baby-having fugue. It’s gone about as well as one can expect it to. Our baby is literally the most adorable child on the planet. I truly believe if more people could see her, there would be world peace. She is so adorable. She also looks just like me! So sometimes it’s like I’m just seeing a little mini-Naomi harrumphing and shoving blocks into her mouth and giggling.

It’s a radically different way of living, though, being responsible for another person. I’ve largely forgotten what it was like in the beforetimes, but sometimes wisps of it come back to me, and I’m like…it was nice to just do what I wanted and not have to think all the time about what this tiny human needs.

I dunno, it’s just been an emotional year. I think this year I really scaled back on my emotional aspirations. I used to want to overcome envy and anxiety and self-loathing, or, failing that, at least not think about that too much. And I for various periods of time this year succeeded in repressing those feelings, only for them to come back as terrible jaw tension that would cause throbbing pain in my ears and teeth. Finally I was like screw it, negative feelings are here to stay! Now I don’t know what my aim is when it comes to these negative emotions. I hate feeling angry, envious, mistreated, and now that I’m out as trans, I hate the niggling worry that people see me differently or read my stories differently–the feeling of subtle, creeping bias that can neither be proven nor disproven, and, with it, a concomitant loss of belief in my self and my own abilities. I just want to write! I am so tired of living in this psychodrama, where I compare myself to other writers who I don’t even know and who don’t know me! It’s exhausting! But I fear that envy is here to stay.

I can’t even feel genuinely mistreated, because my life is so good. In terms of my circumstances and daily life, I could not ask for anything better. But that only goes so far, and I’m tired too of criticizing myself for feeling these feelings, because even that self-criticism is simply another turn of the screw.

WHATEVER

For much of this year, including most of the past three months, I’ve been pretty happy! Oddly enough, the pandemic / motherhood means I’m seeing much more of my wife than I did before, and I really like her. She’s good to spend time with! I’ll miss her when she goes back to working 7 AM to 8 PM every weekday (10 AM to 5 PM on Saturdays and Sundays). Baby-having has proven not to be the enemy of happiness that I was told it would be. I’d even say that having a baby is a net positive, at least so far.

I’ve been productive. I’ve written new things, new types of things. I’ve also redoubled my commitment to not fronting. I don’t believe in blunt ‘pull no punches’ honesty. I pull lots of punches! But I’m not gonna say things I don’t believe to be true. And I’m not gonna convey an impression of my life that I think is false. There’s considerable pressure to do that: I was reading a book about prominent intellectuals, and almost all of them really massaged their own histories and their habits. I’m not gonna do that. I look online, and all I see is people saying stuff that’s…well…it’s just not accurate. Whether it’s the agent saying, “Write your heart and the market will find a place for it!” or the author saying, “You have to be patient, don’t worry overmuch about publication” when everyone knows they’re financially supported by their spouse, I just literally wonder how people are able to say this stuff. What’s the point of being a writer / being in publishing if not to tell the truth?

Of course probably there are people out there who think I’m not forthright either. I certainly don’t spell everything out for you in soundbite form (don’t need the trouble of all the internet sleuths who’re out to misrepresent and demonize you), but I think if you pay attention, you can get a fairly good understanding of my circumstances, of my ups and downs, and of my various successes and failures.

Which is to say: I think for a long time I thought that someday I’d be a well-known author and THEN I could tell the truth. But now I just have no idea whether that’ll ever happen, and I don’t want to spend my life self-censoring on behalf of a God that might not even notice.

With that having been said, I don’t know if I’ll post again in 2020, but this is definitely my final wrap-up. See you next year, friends!

mushrooms placed on wooden surface covered with moss
This is the photo that came up when I searched for “blunt object”. Photo by Julia Volk on Pexels.com

Eighteen hundred short story rejections!!!!

Okay I wrote a whole post on this, but somehow wordpress ate it! Today I got my eighteen hundredth short story rejection! That’s a lot! I forgot to mark my 1700th rejection with a post, so I don’t know precisely how long it’s been since my last century, but I have posts commemorating my other hundreds: if you want links they’re in the sidebar to the right.

Eighteen hundred. That’s something. That’s from over 380 journals. I’ve written 255 stories, most of which have accumulated at least one rejection. And in that time I’ve made 62 story sales, meaning my rejection to acceptance ration is something on the order of 30 to 1. It’s gotten a little better in the last few years. I think in the span of the last hundred, I’ve sold six stories, making a rejection to acceptance ratio of 16 to 1. And for the past five years, I’ve averaged about four to six acceptances for every rejection, so it’s not so bad. And I no longer submit to markets as far down on the totem pole as back when I started out, so the numbers don’t tell the whole truth. If we were just to look at acceptances which paid real money, then my first one came after about three or four hundred rejections, and I would usually only get one every hundred rejections for a little while. So it is what it is! Congratulations to me!

Wrap-up 2020: Some Books I read This Year

My reading this year was a little sparser than usual. Last year I read 290 books (although these included poetry, plays, novellas, and graphic novels). This year I’m at around 100. To a large extent, the difference was made up by watching television. Not even great television: comfort-watching TV shows I enjoyed as a kid and as a teen. One might say, well, it’s been a difficult year (aside from the pandemic, we had a child in March and we’ve had my mother in law staying with us since then as well). But life seems only to get more, rather than less difficult, and a person occasionally needs to make an active effort to set themselves to rights.

There is a tension there: binge-watching eight seasons of The Practice is harmless, but it’s certainly not the best use of 200 hours. Almost all that time came whilst I was watching the baby (I mostly just listened to the audio), but I am a big audio listener, and I could’ve done that instead.

I don’t feel particularly bad about the wasted time. If I could add up all the time I’ve wasted in my entire life, it would be a pretty considerable sum. But I do believe in the concept of wasted time. I do think some activities are more valuable than others, and some time is better spent than other time. On the other hand, you can’t entirely know what is what. I’ve for years thought of this online journal as not the best use of my time, but have lately started to appreciate it for the effects it’s had on my style.

In any case, we were talking about the books I’ve read in 2020. Generally, I get on reading kicks where I read a dozen or so related books. Early this year, before the pandemic, I got very into true crime. This is surprising, because if there’s one genre I’ve always thought not particularly worthwhile, it was true crime: at its worst, the genre is just a dry recitation of facts. But the trick is you don’t read the worst.

The best true crime I read was The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist by Radley Balko, about forensic science and the way that two examiners in Alabama put away hundreds of people on unsound medical evidence. Most notably bite mark analysis, where they claimed to be able to prove, to a reasonable degree of medical certainty, that a given bite mark on a victim came from a given set of teeth, even though this was scientifically impossible based on the incomplete marks (which were often not even really from bites) that they had.

I also liked Doc: The Rape of the Town of Lovell by Jack Olsen. This one was about a doctor in a small town in Wyoming that for years was raping women during pelvic exams, and about the efforts to bring him to justice.

I also went through a cozy mystery phase. I read ten or eleven of Rhys Bowen’s Her Royal Spyness mysteries, about a minor royal in 1930s England who always seems to show up at an isolated country villa right as someone is being murdered. Also in this phase were seven Mrs. Pollifax novels, which weren’t quite mysteries: they’re more like cozy thrillers. They’re about an elderly widow who becomes a CIA operative. I’d recommend both of these series highly if you’re looking for mindless audible listens with diverting characters and interesting narrative voices.

Other than these two phases, my reading this year has been all over the place. I read most of Ibsen’s major plays: I’d never read anything of his. They were entirely worthwhile. I love literature that can mix the domestic and the heroic. Ibsen is full of characters who struggle, in ordinary situations, to do the right thing. The one that stood out most strongly for me (I wonder why….) was An Enemy of the People, which is about a doctor who refuses to recant his finding that the waters which fuel a popular health spa are actually dangerous and unhealthy.

I listened to an incredible history of The Crusades, by Thomas Asbridge. I knew a little about the Crusades before, but primarily from Gibbon, and this rounded out my knowledge. What’s interesting is that each history you read, even a popular history, is usually in conversation with other ideas about the events it covers. In this case, Asbridge clearly had an axe to grind when it came to the portrayal of the Crusades as a mighty clash of civilizations that defined relations between East and West. He contextualized the Crusades as taking place under the backdrop of complex power struggles in the Near East. Frankly, the Crusaders were only one set of players–and often not a particularly important one–amongst many.

I’ve enjoyed what little Puskin I’ve read, and Boris Godunov was no exception: a complex drama about a complex figure from Russian history. I believe I read the linked Oxford Classics edition

I went through a small Eliot phase: I reread Middlemarch and then read Silas Marner and Adam Bede. Neither of the latter are amongst my favorite Eliot: I’d recommend Mill on the Floss and Scenes from a Clerical Life before reading them, but they did fill out my knowledge, and even less-than-the-best Eliot is still great.

When it comes to pure fun, you can’t beat Deirdre Barr’s Parisian Lives, about her attempts to write biographies of Beckett and Simone de Beauvoir. These efforts spanned thirty years, from the start to almost the end of her career as a biographer, and were full of backstory about how a biographer makes their career, pursues their craft, and gets the story. And there was also gossip! Beckett in particular seems to have been surrounded by an entire court of schemers! You won’t regret reading this.

Teffi was an early 20th century Russian writer of comic sketches: I really enjoyed her book Tolstoy, Rasputin, Others, and Me, for its portrait of prerevolutionary Russian life. But I’d be lying if I said I could remember exactly what was in it.

I’m sorry, I feel like there are a bunch of books, I should be talking about: Portrait of Sebastian Khan, about a college student who finds himself entangled in a relationship with a traditional Muslim girl, even though he drinks and parties constantly (Always in the context of model UN tournaments, which was a funny touch), was one of the best books I’ve read this summer. I had to stop following the author on Twitter, because literally everything he wrote was about Bernie Sanders, but I think he’s talented, and I wish the book had gotten more attention. It’s easily as good as any of the New York Times Notable books you see.

I read and enjoyed Normal People and Kent Haruf’s [Our Souls At Night](https://www.amazon.com/Our-Souls-at-Night-novel-ebook/dp/B00PP3DNDI/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=souls+at+night&qid=1608136446&s=digital-text&sr=1-1. Normal People needs no more hype from me, but I think the praise is deserved. I do feel like the characters could’ve just…not broken up? Like gotten over it? But I was twenty once too, and I think I remember what it was like to feel strong emotions.

Our Souls at Night was typical Haruf, which is to say, excellent. Beautifully written, it’s about a widow and a widower who fall in love in small town Colorado and then for some reason can’t be together. I don’t understand why social proprieties are so against their match, but I’ll trust that Haruf knows better than I do: this is the fifth of his books that I’ve read. I’d say [Where You Once Belonged] is his best.

Jason Ridler’s Fxxk Writing, about the frustrations of pursuing publication, was a bracing read in this year. I enjoyed the honest hopelessless of the book: the sense that nothing you do will ever get published or amount to anything. That’s more the actuality than the gee-whiz optimism of many writing manuals.

In a similar vein, Tillie Olsen’s Silences is a worthwhile, though uneven, series of essays about authors who’ve for whatever reason gone silent: they stopped writing, couldn’t write, couldn’t afford it, went mad, or otherwise got terminally discouraged.

And I think, for now, those are the books I’ll write about. Not that there weren’t other good ones I read this year, but I can’t see any more about which I had anything meaningful to say.

Wrap-up 2020: Great Writing year; LEss Good Publishing Year

Hello friends. This week marks my 17th year of writing with an eye towards publication. I’m 35 years old, so that’s nearly half my life! If you’d told me in 2003, when I was sending out my first-ever story submission (to SciFiction) and counting up how much money I’d make when it sold ($1200), that in seventeen years I’d release a book to astoundingly mixed reception and be looking for my third agent and be approaching 1800 short story rejections, I probably would’ve quit.

When I was eighteen, even twenty-two looked far away. If you’d told me I wouldn’t make any money or get any prestige from a sale for another four years (I sold my first story to Nature when I was twenty-two), I probably wouldn’t quit as well!

Probably there are some kids reading this blog who are like, wow what’s this person been doing all this time? I know that I used to have that reaction when I would read other peoples’ stories. Wow! What took you so long! Couldn’t you just have, like, failed a little less? It’s like Asimov telling Heinlein, "I do one draft of a story and then I retype it to correect the typos and then I send it out." And Heinlein said, "What a waste of time! Just type it correctly the first time!" And then they went and groped some women together. Actually that is libel, I have no idea if Heinlein groped women.

Anyway, productivity-wise, it’s been a great year. I completely rewrote my novel for adults, THE LONELY YEARS. I wrote a fun thriller type book, DEATH TRAP, and I wrote a book I’m planning on self-publishing when I get around to it, THE CYNICAL WRITER’S GUIDE TO THE PUBLISHING INDUSTRY.

I also wrote 15 stories and sold six (mostly not the stories that I wrote), including second and third sales to Asimov’s, and my first sales to higher-tier lit magazines, West Branch and Gulf Coast. And I sold a story to Lightspeed and there was one I believe to Nature. That’s the most stories I’ve sold since 2015. It’s also the most I’ve written since 2015.

In part this came about because of frustration with my novel writing career. I think my YA novel that came out this year, WE ARE TOTALLY NORMAL, is a fantastic book, with a nuanced portrayal of a teen who really has no clue about where on the identity spectrum he falls. It’s gotten plenty of praise: the paperback edition is even going to have a blurb from David Levithan, who picked it up on Kacen Callender’s recommendation. And sales have been decent: better than those of my first book! But to many readers it was a disappointment: not the kind of book they expected or wanted. Whether that was a mismatch between marketing and content, or a mismatch between me, a thirty-five year old woman, and the teen readership, is something we’ll never know.

I’ve long wanted to write for adults, and this year I tried in earnest to market my literary novel for adults. But just as I was looking for an agent, the pandemic hit, and everything has been really slow and not quite how I expected it to go. I believe strongly in the book, but it’s been a disappointment. My thriller too has had a hard time in the search for representation. The fact is, having a trans protagonist generates a lot of excitement, but it also raises the question "Will cis-gendered women read about a trans woman?" And the answer is "We don’t know." Then there’s the whole PoC aspect, and it’s hard. I don’t know. I’ve been intermittently discouraged.

And yet more productive than ever! Coming out has allowed me to stop dancing around the issues I’m interested in. I finally feel able to just write what I want to write. And I’ve got so much to write and to say! I’ve learned and grown quite a bit as a writer, and the times I’d had the most fun this year have been those when I was most immersed in the writing (which has been about two thirds of the year).

So, in sum, not my best year, but not my worst, either. Honestly, as long as the writing is going well, things can’t be too bad. I’ve had years where the writing went miserably, and it’s those years when you really question who you are and why you’re doing this in the first place.

These past few months is the longest I’ve been without an agent since 2013, and there has been a silver lining. I’ve been able to write without someone else’s voice in my head. And not having an agent, so being unable to move forward with novel-length projects, has inspired me to find other outlets for my work: I’ve gotten more proactive about submitting my stories, I’ve been branching out into other forms. And the coping mechanisms you learn from failure are something that stay with you forever, so there’s that.

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Wrap-up 2020: I have fallen back in love with my online journal

Hello friends, I suppose we’ve now hit the end of the year, and this is normally the time when I summarize what’s been up. Last year, I actually summarized the entire decade! As time has gone by, my desire to look back in this way has decreased–or maybe I just no longer think anyone actually cares about how my year has gone.

One thing I’ve found myself surprisingly proud of this year is my online journal–the one you’re reading. When I started it in 2008, there were many extremely popular writer blogs. Even writers you’d never heard of sometimes had blogs with tens of thousands of readers. Many of these blogs were on livejournals, which had had a strong community of writers.

Ultimately, livejournal should’ve been a lesson for writers. An online journal exists best when it’s part of a community, and when it’s on a platform that provides a way for other people in that community to discover your work. The standalone author blog dwindled because all the promotion has to be done on other platforms, which begs the question, why not just have the writing on those platforms too!

Nowadays, authors are into creating substacks and tiny letters: email newsletters, often with tiers for paid subscribers, to deliver their writing. I am totally into that: more power to them.

But here I am, twelve year later, still writing in this space. Most of my readers these days are probably on Facebook, and they never visit this site, since I cross-post the entire text of most (but not all) of my posts directly into Facebook.

And there are advantages to doing it this way. This journal has history and continuity. Many of the old posts aren’t particularly good. Some are actively embarrassing, but the site isn’t going to just disappear. It’ll always be here on the open internet, accessible to anyone with a Google search.

Moreover, the journal chronicles my own progress. When I started it, I wanted to be a science fiction writer. I saw myself as another Lucius Shepherd or Michael Swanwick or Nancy Kress: a sophisticated writer who used the symbology and forms of science fiction to write human-oriented stories. The blog took an abrupt left turn when I sold a contemporary young adult novel, and now it’s taken another turn as I’ve gone into literary fiction (even as I’ve continued to write and publish science fiction stories). I’m proud of my history; I’m proud that I approach literary fiction from a background in commercial fiction.

There are many things I dislike about commercial fiction, but I do like the lack of preciousness and pretension. It is rare in the extreme for a literary writer to have an online journal. I’m sure others exist, besides mine, but I cannot name one.

I think for many years I also felt like my journal needed in some way to be denser and more serious, more careful, more filled with quotes and smart observations. But the process of writing literary essays has been eye-opening. First of all, I’ve realized how much of looking and sounding smart is a sham: I have a huge corpus of general and specific knowledge, and I just steer the essay towards whatever I happen to know about. Secondly, I’ve just gotten more comfortable with my less dense writing style. The words that have been ringing through my head for the past year are Sojourner Truth’s at the Seneca Falls convention. She said something like, even if you guys have a quart of understanding, and I only have a pint, then why not let me have that pint?

Even if I only have a pint of understanding, well, that’s what I have, and that’s still valuable. I don’t understand everything in the universe, but I do understand some things. And the skill of making my points clearly and with nuance, and making them the way I feel comfortable making them, as opposed to the way I feel I’m ‘supposed’ to make them, is a skill I learned from writing this journal.

That having been said, I posted very little this year. Maybe forty-five posts in all, but there were some high quality ones. My favorite are below:

  1. A mea culpa for my intemperate remarks concerning the classics
  2. For your awards consideration (and story notes for “Everquest”)
  3. Decided to give in to despair and bitterness
  4. Five classics that ought to capture you from the first page
  5. Every writer needs a more-successful friend who’s willing to validate their bitterness
  6. Writer’s block is real
  7. If you dislike my novel you’re really not alone
woman with smartphone sitting on hammock in green garden
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reading a book of brutal takedowns of left-wing intellectuals

Hello friends, it’s me again. I’ve been reading a few good books lately. On audible, I’m listening to the book Intellectuals by Paul Johnson. The author is a conservative intellectual, and the book is essentially full of malicious but (I assume) true gossip about leftist intellectuals, beginning with Rousseau, progressing through Tolstoy, Hemingway (though he wasn’t an intellectual, so one wonders why he was included), Ibsen, Brecht, Sartre, etc.

The criticisms in almost all cases were essentially the same: these men were egomaniacs who viewed other people as adjuncts to their own desires. They used and discarded people, including their own children (Marx, Ibsen, and Tolstoy all had illegitimate sons who died in poverty). They treated women badly, not just having affairs but engaging in emotional cruelty, as when Sartre adopted one of his lovers and gave all his copyrights to her instead of to Simone de Beauvoir.

More interesting are the various charges of intellectual laziness. The most prominent amongst them is that these left-wing intellectuals by and large had no real familiarity with the working class. Marx never stepped inside a factory; Tolstoy glamorized his peasants, but grumbled when they didn’t embrace top-down reform efforts that didn’t take into account their real needs; etc, etc.

And then the last and most serious set of charges concern collaboration with and apology for Stalinism. Hardly a Western intellectual didn’t support Stalin at some point or another, but some are fairly egregious, like Brecht, who allowed the East German state to subsidize his theater, in return for supporting Stalinism and suppressing works of his that might be seen as anti-communist, or Sartre, who was still defending Stalin in 1952, long after everyone knew about the Purges.

I assume the writer did not pick intellectuals who did have relatively decent personal live, so I do not see this as an indictment of the leftist intellectual elite en masse (there’s no Shaw, Wells, orwell, Woolf, for instance). And I also assume he didn’t pick conservative intellectuals (i.e. no Eliot, Pound, Celine), which seems a bit unfair, but what can you do? I’ve long been of the belief that the only function conservative intellectuals fulfill (and they fulfill it well) is calling out the hypocrisy and ludicrousness of the left. It’s an entirely destructive role, but some things need to be destroyed.

I enjoy the book as a bit of malicious literary gossip to fill the time, especially since I’ve recently gotten into essay writing myself and now view myself as a bona fide beret-wearing out-of-touch upper-class socialist intellectual.

(Please god, if I ever claim to know the hearts and minds of the working class, someone please take me aside and tell me I’m being absurd.)