Reflections on how the MFA program ushered me into class-consciousness

Sometimes, when I’m in the shower, I think about what I’ll tell interviewers after I’m famous. (Whatever, don’t pretend you aren’t guilty of equally ridiculous things).

One thing I know is that my interviewers will probably ask me at some point about my MFA and about MFA programs in general. I’ve already had this experience, actually, when a New York Times reporter, after digging up an old blog post of mine, contacted me to try to get some juicy quotes where I talked trash on the MFA. Unluckily for her, I’d recently read Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer, about the exploitative relationship journalists have with their subjects, and I was very much thinking: What’s in it for me?

My feelings about the MFA haven’t changed much in the last six years. It’s essentially a tool of the upper classes (in my second year, three members of my Stanford class were in my ten-person MFA program, and when I entered the program had were five graduates of Yale). But then, literary fiction, like all ‘high’ art (documentary film, visual art, classical music, etc) is a tool of the upper classes. It cannot support itself on a purely economic basis, but the upper classes have structured society in such a way as to direct disproportionate wealth and attention towards ‘high’ art.

Literary writers complain that their sales are low, but a professorship is a powerful reward. Very few commercial writers are earning fifty or sixty thousand (or at Hopkins, up to 120,000) dollars a year for their writing. And despite all the complaining about the teaching load, many literary writers wouldn’t be able to make ends meet without this societal support. Nor does the patronage end there. From honoraria to awards, society is structured in such a way as to direct money to literary writers. Not much money, but more than they’d get purely from sales.

(The same thing, on a smaller level, exists in YA, where writers of upmarket YA are kept afloat by librarians and schools).

So yeah MFAs are part of a system of class privilege that includes the symphony and the art school complex and all the self-funding documentary film-makers.

On the other hand, I like literary fiction. Not all of it. Not even most of it, but the sad thing is that I find the ambitions and methods of literary fiction to be more up my alley than those of commercial fiction. The losers, in my opinion, are the ambitious writers who’re trapped in commercial genres. If Ted Chiang wrote literary fiction, he’d have a Pulitzer. If Maureen McHugh wrote literary fiction, she’d be a professor. It’s really not fair that these fascinating, sparkling writers aren’t getting their just merits.

On the other hand, when people complain about the MFA, they’re often not complaining that the Ted Chiangs and Maureen McHughs of the world aren’t getting their due. They’re instead operating from a purely populist standpoint. They’re complaining that the Orson Scott Cards and the Anne McCaffrey’s aren’t able to sweep the board clean and claim all the literary prizes in addition to having immense commercial sales. To be honest, I have little sympathy for this view.

What’s bad about academic creative writing is that many of the writers it has rewarded are careerist and lacking in ambition. This is true of commercial fiction too, but at least there it’s nobody’s fault. Vox populi, vox dei; if the people are buying crap, then what can be done? But when the guardians of culture are using public money (and I consider nonprofit money, because of their tax-exempt status, to be somewhat public) to reward artists, then they have a duty not to reward small-minded writers.

Obviously there exist differences of opinion about what constitutes a mediocre writer. I don’t think it’s entirely a matter of personal opinion, though. For instance, I did not enjoy Wolf Hall, but its acclaim didn’t befuddle me. The work was ambitious and well-executed. But if you look at the creative writing professoriate, you’ll find few Hillary Mantels, and many writers who ape her sort of lyricism not out of any genuine sense of beauty or rhythm, but simply because that’s what gets applause. There’s a whole system of rewarding work simply because it’s the sort of work that gets rewarded. This is what occurs when rewards are distributed by committee.

And yet I do think a system needs to be in place to encourage the writing of ambitious stories. Because the market by itself does not reward ambition.

Writers of science fiction and fantasy love to hate on literary writers who get critical acclaim for writing novels with SFnal tropes (think Oryx and Crake or The Road), but I often ask them, “What SF imprint would’ve published The Road? Would The Road have come out from Orbit? Or from Baen? If The Road had been released as an SF novel, in the SF section of bookstores, would it have won a Hugo (or even a Nebula)? Would it have sold enough copies to support its author?”

The Road came out in 2006, and the science fiction field had the ability to nominate it for awards. Instead, a novel by Jack McDevitt won the Nebula and one of Vernor Vinge’s lesser novels one the Hugo. But that’s no surprise. Oftentimes science fiction writers don’t even like The Road (which is a truly beautiful and haunting novel), because its ecological underpinnings are nonsense (nothing grows in this world, everybody survives by cannibalism).

And maybe science fiction felt snubbed by The Road, so they ignored it, but plenty of really smart, well-written science fiction gets ignored. I’m thinking, for instance, of Brian Francis Slattery’s Spaceman Blues and Liberation (both published by Tor, which is the only major SF imprint that makes room in its list for really high-quality writing). These books got ignored. They won no awards. They didn’t even make many year-end lists.

So while I dislike the snobbery of the academic creative writing field, in some ways that’s also the thing that I value about it. Because as much as I hate on the Pulitzer, I’m far more likely to enjoy a Pulitzer-winner than I am to enjoy a Hugo winner. And I’m far more likely to enjoy the work by a randomly-selected creative writing professor than I am the work by a randomly-selected New York Times bestseller.

I don’t know the way out of this dilemma. I recognize that there’s an element of violence to this system. The upper classes are imposing their aesthetic values onto the lower. Millions of people who enjoy commercial fiction are told, by the society in which they live, that their tastes are no good. It’s quite anti-democratic.

And yet the prospect of giving up the power to be an arbiter of culture is terrifying. When I see the reading taste of the people who complain about the MFA and the creative writing establishment, I realize that I don’t want to live in the world these people would create. I don’t know, perhaps this is simply class solidarity on my part. The only solution is probably a classless post-scarcity society, where all affinity groups can practice their own tastes peacefully. But in the current world, where it requires money to live and work, I am a little bit glad that: 1) there’s some mechanism besides the market for directing money to ambitious work; and 2) this mechanism is in the hands of people whose tastes are closer to my own than they are to, for instance, the average Hugo voter.


The thing is, the writer who interviewed me didn’t care about any of the above. What she cared about were the personal consequences of the MFA. Is it a good idea for students to get an MFA? Does it help you career-wise? And does it improve your writing?

The answer to these questions is: yes, if you don’t need to pay for it; yes, but not as much as you’d want it to; and not really.

Being paid twenty-two thousand dollars a year to do minimal work is amazing. It’s so good. Especially in Baltimore, where twenty-two thousand goes a loooooooong way. I would recommend this to anyone. Also, it’s a well-known fact of academia that the more prestigious your institution, the lower their academic standards. At my MFA we had no papers or grades. My good friends who’re paying twenty thousand a year to do the Vermont College of the Fine Arts children’s literature MFA have to do so much work! They have to write critical essays! It’s absurd! It’s like they think the point of the MFA is to learn how to write!

It’s not. The point is for society to pay you to write.

Now will it help you career-wise? Ummm, yes, sort of, but in two ways. One, there is almost no online community for literary fiction. All the networking happens in-person. The MFA is your entree into this community. Being in that world gives you a clue as to the values of the community, it introduces you to people, and it teaches (if you’re alert) how to apply for things and how to get them. Nor is the credential itself entirely meaningless, although its value rapidly decreases once you start moving down the list from the top program (Iowa). If you want maximum career advantage, go to Iowa.

As for whether it helps your writing? Here there are also two answers.IUf you’re a purely or mostly careerist writer, and you use the MFA to consciously or unconsciously imbibe the formulas that the literary establishment is particularly vulnerable to, then the MFA will help you a great deal. But most writers aren’t looking for this. They want to realize their own unique aesthetic aims. In this, the MFA won’t help or hurt. It’s true that the workshop does impose a conformity pressure: writers in the workshop will tend to criticize anything that’s different in the work, simply because that’s the thing that tends to be most noteworthy (and perhaps, at least in the journeyman writer, the thing that is the least well-realized). But the workshop also encourages you to set a higher standard for yourself: you can’t get away with lazy bullshit if your peers are gonna be reading these stories. And while you have to be unique to really succeed as a writer, your uniqueness also needs to provoke a genuine response in the reader. Testing out your work on ten writers who broadly resemble your intended readership isn’t an entirely valueless exercise.

But I don’t think my professors would disagree with me if I said that the value of the instruction is minimal. It’s really hard to teach someone to write short stories, because a short story can succeed in so many different ways. It’s a lot easier to teach them to write novels, because novels live or die based upon their structure, but MFA programs don’t really do that.

You can also potentially find one-on-one mentorship in an MFA, but this is rare. Professors don’t have time to mentor writers who are often very early in their careers and many years from writing publishable work. They also know that most of their class will stop writing shortly after graduating, so there’s an incentive to step back. Furthermore, when professors show any sort of favoritism, it creates a competitive dynamic in the workshop that just leads to an unpleasant and unhealthy social experience for everybody. For these reasons, I don’t think the professors in my MFA were unique in being rather austere and remote from their students.

When it comes to practical advice on publishing, you’ll find almost none in an MFA, but when it comes down to it, what do you really need? Fiction is the most open out of all the arts. Journals take open submissions. Most agents take unsolicited queries. Just send your shit out and see what sticks.

The worst thing about the MFA (and this is what I noted in the interview with the New York Times reporter) is that it makes life too easy. Students are often only a few years out of undergrad. Many times they haven’t written a word since undergrad, or they’ve written only sporadically (they got into the MFA using stories they wrote as part of their undergrad creative writing major). During the two years of the MFA, they will often only produce the minimum amount necessary (three stories a semester). Furthermore the praise you get in workshop, while rare, is easier to come by than validation from editors, so upon graduation students go from an environment where somebody is waiting for their next story to one in which they’re getting form rejection after form rejection, and they’re unprepared to take the rejection. The MFA is a waste of time if after graduation, you’re not able to: 1) manage your time and motivation effectively so as to write even though nobody is asking you to; and 2) tolerate the years of rejection that will come before publication.

The primary attribute of a successful writer, whether in commercial or literary fiction, is determination, and MFAs don’t select their cohorts with determination in mind. For this reason, I wouldn’t be surprised if some low-res programs produce successful writers at a rate equal to or greater than more prestigious ones, because it takes grit to carry on an MFA while holding down a full-time job.

But that’s not an argument against getting an MFA; it’s just an argument against letting the MFA rule your life. Take an MFA, but treat it as a gift, rather than as a degree. For me, the MFA was entirely about money and freedom. I wrote Enter Title Here during the winter break of my first year in my MFA program. People often ask if it went through the MFA, and I’m, like, uhh, no way. For one thing, the book didn’t need it–for another, the MFA is not the place to workshop a novel or even part of a novel.


These reflections were prompted, in part, by my thought that it’s six years since I finished that first draft of Enter Title Here. It was probably the third or fourth work of realist fiction I’d written in my entire life (I wrote one realist story, entirely cynically, just to put it in my MFA applications and prove to them that I could do it). I don’t know if I’d have written the book if I hadn’t done the MFA.

What I do know is that in the past ten years I’ve moved farther and farther from my first love, science fiction. (At this point, let me note, for the haters in the audience, that I’m not some outsider: I am in fact a bona fide Clarion graduate with stories appearing or forthcoming in Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Nightmare, F&SF, Nature, Apex, IGMS, Interzone, Daily SF, BCS, The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy, and many other journals both living and dead). Not only do I not write much science fiction, I don’t read much of it either. Periodically I’ll pick up the hot new thing in the field and find that I simply don’t enjoy it very much (one notable exception was N.K. Jemisin’s fabulously realized The Fifth Season). Sometimes I wonder where it all went: the twelve years of reading and six years of writing science fiction.

(At this point, truly determined haters will note ‘science fiction’ and ‘non-realist fiction’ aren’t synonyms. And this is true, but we’re talking about my own writing life here. And for me, the primary form of non-realist fiction that I’ve written is science fiction within the broad tradition started by Hugo Gernsback, that carries a lineage all the way through to, for instance, Ken Liu and Ted Chiang and Maureen McHugh. I’ll read and sometimes enjoy and occasionally even write other forms of non-realist fiction, but they’ve never been a core part of my writing life the way that science fiction was for many years).

If I was to trace the influence of sci-fi on my current writing, it’d be extremely minor. I don’t even write about people who like science fiction. I’m not a chronicler, like Junot Diaz or Jonathan Lethem, of the inner life of nerds (although both of these writers contain much more than that, of course). If anything, I’m much more drawn to the opposite: people who dismiss, not just science fiction, but all literature.

I think all that really remains of that influence is a lingering preoccupation with heroism. I don’t believe in the science fiction version of heroism: a lone hero with exceptional abilities. But I do believe in the thing inside people that makes them want to be heroes, and I cannot commit to a protagonist until I discover their own peculiar heroism.

This is a long way of saying that one of my resolutions for 2019 is to leave non-realism behind. The struggle to write a science fiction or fantasy novel has become nothing more than a struggle to reclaim an older idea of myself. For me, the struggle to hold on to science fiction has been so painful and so confusing. Losing my ability to write sci-fi has felt like losing touch with deepest self. It’s a very odd thing to no longer be able to tap into the feelings that were once the very thing that impelled you to write.

I don’t really know what happened, but I do know that it occurred sometime during my MFA. I think, to be honest, that it was during the MFA that I came into class consciousness. To me, science fiction seems the literature of the middle-class: the lower middle class, I mean, of artisans and technicians. (This for instance explains why science fiction, like this part of the middle class, is often reactionary). There’s some bleed in values and ideals between this lower middle class and the upper middle class of professionals and managers (Silicon Valley has staked out a claim in this area of overlap, which is defined by an occupation, engineering, that has a curious position in both classes, in that engineering is both professional and a technical). I always considered myself an occupant of that middle ground, but I think in the MFA, I realized that those values and that identity didn’t entirely fit.

To most of my readers (and I’m thinking particularly of my wife), this will be an upsetting conclusion to my blog post. I think there’s an ideal that we all ought to transcend our class status, and that we all ought to embrace the art of the people, but I don’t know if I’m able to. While I believe, on a political level, in freedom, equality, and a class-less society, my personal values remain those of my class (which is exemplified by the difficulty I’m having with science fiction). And in an America with decreasing mobility and increasing stratification, I fear we’re only going to encounter more and more class identification as the century progresses.

About to finish my revisions on this book!

I’m now engaged in what I think will be the last substantive set of revisions for We Are Totally Normal (might as well start mentioning the name here so you all remember it when the thing comes out in a year or so). As part of my final process for books, I like to go through line by line and make whatever cuts need to be made on a sentence level. For instance, that last phrase would be rewritten (“and make cuts on a sentence level”). The level of condensation you can achieve is pretty impressive. In the past, I’ve reduced a book’s length by as much as 15% by doing this (and cutting the occasional errant paragraph that doesn’t belong).

Normally I enjoy this work. It’s problem-solving; there’s a thrill in finding a better solution for saying what you’re trying to say. But this time I’m finding it taxing.

For some reason, I’m cutting less (only about 5% of the sections I go through), and it’s occupying less of my brain. I hope this is because I’m writing cleaner drafts, so there’s less to do later, but it’s hard to tell.

In any case, this is probably the most unnecessary part of my work. Lots of inefficient phrasing can be dismissed as “part of the voice.” And over-long books succeed all the time. I actually think over-long writing is easier to read, because you don’t need to read every line. It’s shocking how in many books you could easily skip all but the first and last sentences of each paragraph and not miss any of the novel’s nuance.

But still, you don’t write for the average reader; you write for the best readers, and you hope the average ones can still keep up. Or at least that’s my philosophy (now whether the best readers will like my work is another thing entirely).

Start now. Your future self will thank you.

I’ve been learning to draw. And I’m really bad at it. I don’t think I have zero talent. I could’ve been good, if I’d started when I was 12. But instead I absorbed the idea that I wasn’t an artistic person, so I never thought about that stuff ever.

Whereas at exactly the same time, some people in my life said I was good with words (and admittedly I spent a lot more time reading books than looking at pictures), so instead I spent a lot of my youth on random writing projects (a lot of source material for a lot of unplayed D&D campaigns), and shortly after my eighteenth birthday I started seriously trying to write fiction.

Fifteen years later, I’m still learning things. Some of those things, I probably could’ve learned sooner, but some of these lessons are things I can’t articulate even now. It took me fifteen years to get to where I am today. Now if I started today, it probably would take me less time, but still, it takes a while!

I’m routinely grateful to my past self for setting down this unknown road, and I just-as-routinely think about what I’m doing today that my future self will be grateful for. Lately I feel like I’ve been resting on the solid groundwork that I laid at ages 24 through 29, and I’ve been thinking, well, what do I need to do now? What seeds should I plant now that will only flower when I’m 40 or 45 or 50?

As a sidenote, I think my first introduction to truly eternal thinking came when I met my wife. I had a strong suspicion, even very early in our relationship, that she was the one for me, so every time I met one of her friends or family members, I thought, “How I act now will have reverberations that echo through our entire lives.” And indeed that has proven to be the case.

Of course it’s impossible to be nice and gentle all the time, and I’ve sometimes felt myself slipping a little, but the solid foundation laid in the first year of our relationship has really helped me out.

That’s what wisdom is, I guess.

Carefulness and obscurity in fiction

I’ve been reading Stefan Zweig’s memoir The World of Yesterday. Zweig is a writer from the inter-war period whose literary reputation has really gone up in the last ten years. I remember 5-10 years ago reading this article that was like, “Hey, there’s this dude out there, Stefan Zweig. He wrote this story, ‘The Royal Game,’ that’s a metaphor for the conflict between nations that led to World War II.” And that was it. His reputation was confined largely to that one story. He was a curio piece.

Now, thanks to the translation and reissuing of his novels and, lately, of this memoir, he’s roared back to life. Thanks must be given here, as with many literary resuscitations, to the NYRB classics imprint. I read two of Zweig’s novels, Beware of Pity and the Post-Office Girl in NYRB editions. His memoir, however, was put out by the University of Nebraska Press! It’s almost unbelievable, considering that it has hundreds of Amazon reviews and has attracted quite a bit of critical acclaim.

Like Nabokov’s Speak, Memory (which I’ve never read), Zweig’s novel is an evocation of a lost world: the Vienna of the final years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This was a particularly fertile period for fiction. Robert Musil’s Man Without Qualities and Joseph Roth’s Radetzky March were also written during this time, as well as a host of lesser books that may or may not also be making a comeback (of the authors Zweig mentions in his book, I’ve read works by Hugo von Hoffmansthal and Arthur Schnitzler as well, and Schnitzler at least deserves to be more widely known).

As with all memoirs of bygone times, it’s hard to know what is real and what isn’t. Zweig describes a time of literary ferment, when everybody cared deeply for culture and art, when theater actors were mobbed on the street, when the conductor of the Opera or the Symphony was a superstar, and when 18 year old kids looked upon poets and authors almost as divine beings, completely separate from you and me.

I don’t entirely disbelieve this account. I’ve only been to Vienna once, but it struck me that even today, it’s a city that prides itself on being cultured. Even the commercials that showed on television had a very dreamy, artistic quality, and I have a vivid recollection of wandering through a public park as an aria from the Marriage of Figaro was pumped through the square by loudspeakers.

But even within this ferment, Zweig sought out a somewhat niche area. He avoided the popular press, he avoided the big imprints that sometimes published lighter fiction, and he exclusively sought out only the most renowned presses, theaters, and publications. As a result, his work, those of his fellows, and those of his idols, was often very unknown during the time in which he worked. He in particular recalls during his time in Paris that the writers in whom he was interested were the exact opposite of the super-star writer. They were humble people, who often worked minor civil service jobs, lived simple and bourgeois lives, and wrote without expectation of reward. He also comments that the three people in Paris who would later make the biggest impression on the literary world, Paul Valery, Marcel Proust, and Romain Rolland, were all entirely unknown even in the literary world at this time.

I’ve several times now read literary memoirs about small groups of highly intellectual people who wrote in periodicals with poor circulations or for small presses or in tiny editions, and who later had an outsized influence on the world (also coming to mind is Norman Podhoretz’s memoir Making It), and I can’t deny that there is something very attractive about this image.

It’s all farce and image, of course. Plenty of authors seek out immediate notoriety. Plenty of great authors write for money, or write for the commercial press. But I am attracted to the monastic quality that Zweig describes, the sense that the work itself has its own purity that will someday shine through. He tells, for instance, of going to visit Rodin in his workshop, and seeing Rodin start to work on a sculpture. The artist works for a few minutes, making corrections to a clay model, and when he’s done he’s surprised to find a strange young man in his studio: he’d entirely forgotten that Zweig was in the room.

This vision of artistic greatness has seeped into our culture and congealed. Books nowadays come with their own creation myths that are released in tandem, or even before, publication. The story of how The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao took ten years to write, for instance, or the idea of the immense periods of time that elapse between books by Donna Tartt or Jeffrey Eugenides. Yet oftentimes that labor is more of a reaction to celebrity culture than it is an inherent demand of the work. I think oftentimes authors take a long period to follow up on books simply because the pressure of delivering another success is so immense. In some ways this is the opposite of the careful, painstaking work of a Proust or of a Romain Rolland.

In my own revisions, I’ve really been enjoying the gentle suturing I’ve done on the book. Most of the changes I’m making aren’t going to matter to the reader, but they matter a lot to me. I do feel slightly resentful that the work needs to come to an end. Part of me thinks a few more rounds of revision would really be useful.

Everything about this book has been hurried. I wrote it to fulfill my contract with Disney, then after losing my agent and publisher, I rewrote it, feeling hurried and oppressed, because I wanted it to sell but I also didn’t quite have the same faith in the book. Then since it’s sold I’ve been working on my publisher’s (albeit very generous) deadlines. I’ve worked quite a bit on the book, but every word in it is also new since August of this year, and I feel that newness in the pages. Even now, I’m writing new scenes, and I think, well, these scenes are more or less going straight to press, they won’t ever get that time to sit and be mulled over.

The structure of the book is excellent. It’s as perfect a thing as I’ve ever put out, but I still somehow want more from it. And yet I also feel that the market won’t really reward that care. Whether the book succeeds or fails will depend entirely upon only the broadest possible reactions: whether people identify with the protagonist whether librarians and teachers think it’s ‘important’; whether it arouses in kids a sense of hope and longing. By the time they get to the third chapter, they’ll either be sold on the book or they won’t, and the rest won’t particularly matter.

I think all writers ultimately know this. Zweig had books and plays accepted by the most prestigious venues in Austria at an early age, and yet he pooh-poohs these works, saying he’s never allowed them to be reprinted. He knew instinctively that he hadn’t yet created anything truly great.

In the same way, I think writers need to hold themselves to higher (and different) standards than the market does, and yet that’s not an easy thing to do, because the mere fact that these standards are different means they are unrenumerated. Nor will you even have the satisfaction of seeing readers or critics grasp what you’re doing–they might like it, but they’re unlikely to like it because of those things you put into it. A really intelligent and sympathetic reading is something that most authors don’t get until they’re well into their careers.

This book is done (or almost so). I honestly don’t think I could handle another round of revision. But with my next book I hope to be able to take more care throughout.

A year in the blogging life

One post I swore I’d never write when I started this blog (more than ten years ago!!!!!!) was the one where you apologize for not writing more often, and so far I have successfully avoided falling into this trap, even as the gaps between posts have increased!

Blog readership is substantially up from last year, for some insane reason. Last year I had twenty thousand unique visitors and like forty thousand page views, this year it was thirty thousand unique visitors and sixty thousand page views. And this is despite me writing way, way less often than in the past. So that’s cool.

It’s been nice to not have a book out. I never thought of the blog as a marketing tool, but now I can ignore the pressure to turn it into a marketing tool. Instead I can just write about the shit that comes to mind. This year I’ve posted less often about books. I’m not sure why. I’ve read just as much, and I’ve gone through some pretty interesting phases in my reading. Like I just read a ton of Michael Crichton novels, including some pretty bizarre ones, and I didn’t write much about him. I spent two months reading Clarissa and posted hardly anything about that. I read Gawain and the Green Knight, a truly bizarre medieval Arthurian tale with the crazy, strange morality that medieval tales are known for. But did I post about it? No. I also watched way more TV and played more video games than in years past. This year I must’ve put at least 200 hours into Diablo 3. I beat Borderlands 2 and the Pre-Sequel, I beat Fallout New Vegas (after 100 hours) and put another fifty hours into Fallout IV. I even, finally, after bouncing off it for many years, got into Skyrim! I watched plenty of The Good Place and You’re The Worst, I fell in love with Riverdale, I saw Sorry To Bother You and Eighth Grade and Roma and Blackkklansman and A Star Is Born (and plenty of much worse movies) in theaters. But about these things too I posted nothing.

Looking back on my year, I posted largely about my writing process. Some years I post little about this, but for some reason I intellectualized a lot of it this year. For me it’s a perpetual struggle to get closer and closer to the heart of longing. For years all I knew was that I wanted to find it, but I had no idea how to go about it. This year I started to learn the secret: you just listen. It’s that simple. You put your pen over the paper or your keys over the keyboard, and you listen to your own heart. I mean that quite literally. There are some images that make the heart beat faster and that make your skin tingle, and those are the ones you’ve got to write.

See, I’m doing it again–writing about my process!

Because at the other end of the thing, at the consumption stage of my relationship to media, I’ve been wondering more and more what it’s about. I remain convinced that narrative fiction is, like gravity, the weakest of the many forces that act upon a life. People are more influenced by what they ate for dinner or by the fit of their shoes than they are by books. And even when it comes to ideas, most peoples’ ideas, including mine, are largely the same as what their peers believe.

More than that, fiction (but not just fiction, I’m talking about all art) is a shadow-play. It’s not real. I’ve spent my adult life waiting for the book that’ll truly transport me, and I’ve found them to be very rare. More and more, I feel that the best I can hope for is a book that’ll become my friend. I remain myself and the book remains itself, but it’s a true pleasure to sit down and listen to the book tell me something interesting.

Kids experience a more passionate connection to fiction. I know this. But even as a kid, I don’t think I was defined by what I read. When I hear the way people on Twitter talk about, say, Star Wars or something else from their childhood, I can’t relate at all.

But it’s still fun to write. I mean some people spend their lives writing marketing copy. Compared to that, writing fiction is pretty meaningful.

You also don’t know the things that will stay with you. I read The Tale of Genji six years ago, and it was a bit of a slog. The book is eleven hundred pages, it’s repetitious and slow. But the quiet melancholy of the book has stayed with me all these years. Lately I’ve started reading a Chinese novel, The Story of the Stone (also known as The Dream of the Red Chamber) and that same quiet sense of transience has crept upon me, but in a much more fun way! I feel really connected to the characters in this novel for some reason, perhaps because they’re the most frivolous people imaginable (a bunch of rich aristocrats who hang around in their family compound reciting poems and praising each other extravagantly). It’s a book that’s really added something to my life.

Looking back over the year’s reading, I see a few that I think I’ll carry with me forever: Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day; Arthur Schnitzler’s Late Fame; Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (extremely underrated book!!!); Howard Sturgis’s Belchamber; Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism (which has already inspired a short story); Julian Barnes’s Sense of an Ending; Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; Evan Connell’s dyptich Mr and Mrs Bridge; Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry Into The Origin Of The Sublime and the Beautiful; oh, and so many Somerset Maugham novels, but especially Moon and Sixpence.

Like gravity, fiction’s power fades less with time and distance than other things do. At times, it’s even stronger than memory. Books, or at least the right books, really stay with you. A life devoted to books isn’t necessarily logical or useful, but it’s does give you certain sorts of experiences that you couldn’t otherwise get. There’s a pleasurable solitude–a sense of communion with another person–that’s more intimate than most friendships. Although the relationship with a book is entirely imaginary and no reciprocal, it still feels in some ways like a real relationship, and that’s something that I actually enjoy quite a bit.

I’m fifteen years into my writing career, and this year I felt all the feelings

I finished (and promptly submitted) my first short story on December 20th, 2003, which means that today is the end of my fifteenth year attempting to make a go of this writing thing.

Writing-wise, it hasn’t been a bad year. I sold my book last December, and this year I’ve been making revisions to it. I also wrote the first draft of a new novel. I wrote five short stories, which is a bit down from the eighteen I wrote the previous year (but most of those eighteen were terrible, and only two of this year’s were terrible). I also sold a story (originally completed last year) to Asimov’s, which is a new market for me. That’s significantly fewer than the three stories I sold the year previous, but whatever, they’re just short stories.

I think I learned more about writing this year than I have in the last few years combined. The process of completing my novel for adults and then radically revising my next YA novel, which I felt was severely flawed (even though it’d already sold) were catalyzing experiences for me. This year, I continued to make my writing smaller, less dramatic, plainer, and more focused on the intricacies of personal relationships, and I continued to place more trust in the reader, having faith that they’d understand the little undertones I was putting into the story.

This year I also worked less hard than I have in many years. There were many days when I didn’t write at all, and many days when I wrote just an hour. I somewhat lost faith in the concept of “working hard” this year. Asimov said you needed to work out a million words of crap before you write anything good, but I’ve had five or six years in my life when I wrote a million words in that year alone. In my life, I think I’m at well over ten million words, and I no longer believe that just putting down words is at all worthwhile.

I’m coming to the end of two years working on this latest book, and I’m starting to realize that from now on it’ll take me longer and longer to write less and less. I don’t know if I can work in multiple genres anymore, and I don’t know if I can write at the pace needed to maintain a career in commercial fiction.

Moreover, this year has been somewhat disillusioning to me, as I’ve realized that I don’t think any of the advances I’ve made in my work are coming across to my readers. I’ve always believed that the solution to rejection is to work harder and to get better, but in my case getting better has only brought more rejection.

Sometimes I think it’s possible that my work just isn’t good enough. It has many virtues that I can see, but maybe those virtues aren’t the important ones. The work that excites people seems to be bigger, more florid, and angrier than mine. I’m certainly out of touch with the zeitgeist, but even more than that, I wonder if I’m out of touch with the human heart. Because as easy as it is to decry other peoples’ bad taste, the truth is that they aren’t faking it, and other authors’ success isn’t really manufactured by publishers. I’ve seen a lot of people get exposed to my work and bounce right off of it without feeling any level of excitement. At the same time, those people read other authors and it really stirs something within them.

I don’t know. It’s perplexing to me because I feel that I write straight from the heart. I don’t even begin a work unless I can feel the heart of longing inside of it, whereas I read other works that don’t seem, to me, very alive. But the longings I write about don’t seem to resonate very much with people. Or at least the way I write them doesn’t resonate.

Of course I have a new book coming out, and in the year to come I’ll get the trickle of reviews and reactions. Maybe it’ll all be great! Who knows? Yet although I really love my characters, I know that there’s a lot for people to dislike in them. Still, I am 100 percent confidence that nobody in the YA field has ever written about sexuality the way my new book does, and that makes me feel good. I’m sure at least a few hundred people out there will read it and think, “I’m not alone.”

Envy has been less of a problem for me this year than in previous years. One reason is that I manage my social media. I’ve unfollowed everybody on Twitter and am only selectively re-following people. I also mute people on Facebook if their posts inspire envy. I’ve found lately that I tend only to be envious of people who I don’t think are great writers. If someone writes a good book, even if they’re much younger than me, I’m much less envious. And if someone is genuinely my friend–a person whose company I enjoy in the real world–I’m also not envious. These things weren’t always true for me, so I guess age really does bring wisdom.

Within YA fiction in particular, there’s a cult of, well, pretending that nothing negative ever touches you. Seriously, it’s like Bad Moms every day up in this field, and I’ve found that it’s relatively easy to divide people into those-who-be-fronting and those-who’ll-let-their-hair-down-and-occasionally-be-honest-even-if-it’s-only-in-private. And if you’re telling me you never feel envy, then perhaps you’re correct, but more likely you’re fronting, so don’t come here with that shit. Samesies if you’re one of those people who never has trouble writing. For me, writer’s block is a constant companion, and I’ve made peace with that. In fact, I don’t even think of it as writer’s block, I just think of it as “having high standards.”

What’s been really amazing this year is not being under contract anymore!!!!!! For the past few years I’ve been enslaved to Disney because of my two-book publishing deal. With that deal broken and with only a one-book deal with Harper, I now feel like I can genuinely pursue projects that I’m passionate about. It is really, really, really, really nice to just be able to sit down and write whatever you want.

At the same time I’ve no idea what my next project will be. I want to write a literary novel for adults. Many YA authors seem to think writing for adults is the promised land, but I know it’s not. It is so hard to sell a literary novel, and when you do, the sales are usually awful. What I write–energetic comedies of manners–have a market in the YA world, and I enjoy writing them, but at times I feel constricted by the marketplace. There are places I’d have taken this latest novel that I knew it couldn’t go in the YA marketplace. And as I become increasingly interested in writing about masculinity and male sexuality, I feel like there’ll be more and more that I cannot say in the YA market (which is totally fine, but still, if I can’t say it here, then I need to go someplace where I can).

And at the same time, I’ve been thinking a lot this year about what impact I’ll have, if any, on the world of letters. I don’t know if anything I’ve written, or will ever write, is good enough to live on. To make your mark on literature, you need more than a good tale well-told. There has to be some element of innovation. I think that I see things and describe things, particularly when it comes to the finer points of psychology and personal relationships, that nobody else has ever seen or described, but I could just be fooling myself. Nevertheless, I don’t think that the YA world is really in dialogue with the rest of the literary world. More and more it seems to me like a different planet entirely, one where every genre has its own one-to-one YA replication (YA romance, YA thrillers, YA fantasy, etc), and the world of YA is so vast that it doesn’t need to speak to any other one. But that’s just not me.

I’m sorry, I know some authors will take that personally. There’s a profound defensiveness that runs through commercial literature, and I well understand that feeling. I came up through commercial literature. I always assumed I’d be a sci-fi writer! And I think there are many, many under appreciated YA writers. But at least those writers are usually successful within the YA field, whereas I’m kind of…not. The fact is that different genres do have different readerships, and I don’t think it’s absurd to suggest that, well, maybe my true readers are elsewhere. Or nowhere! Who knows?

This will all seem like whining and sour grapes to those determined to view things through that lens. I don’t feel bitter, though. What I have–a published book and another on the way, both from major publishers–is an incredible thing. It’s only now that I’ve sold and published a book that I can see how amazing an accomplishment it is. And selling a second book is even more incredible! This industry is pitiless. It acts relentlessly to force you out. Even authors who’ve written hits can often find themselves without a publisher. There is no security anywhere in this business, and even to continue to write and to publish is a tremendous victory. It really is, believe me. If you’re an aspiring author, you cannot even begin to understand how little this business cares about you as a person, because it’s totally different from any other personal or professional milieu in which you’ve existed. The publishing industry has a kind of contempt for its own authors that is staggering. And it’s no one’s fault–the agents and editors are all good people, who are responding to their own incentives–and the fact is that they also are facing incredible pressure–editors go out of business and editors get fired all the time (there’s a reason everybody in publishing seems to be under thirty, it’s because sometime mid-career almost everybody gets the axe). So it’s really nobody’s fault.

The quality of my work has increased this year, but the time spent writing has decreased, which is a paradox that’s left me unsure of what to do with myself. More and more I’m convinced that I’m unable to ‘force’ it. Work that I write just for the heck of it tends to be somewhat lifeless. But that leaves me, uniquely amongst modern San Franciscans, with an excess of time and energy, and I don’t really know what to do with myself. But oh well, I suppose that’s a problem for next year.

Always find going through editorial comments to be a soul-searing experience

Am going through the editorial comments for my next book. This should be the last round of substantive edits, so it’s time to fix all the little stuff: the moments that don’t feel right or don’t ring true or might possibly offend somebody (I also need to iron out one of the major relationships in the book, but this post isn’t about that).

As my parents are happy to tell you, I’ve never been good at taking criticism. I get really defensive, really quickly, and it takes a lot of soft-pedaling to get me to listen. I’ve started to get better, both when it comes to my writing and my personal life. I’ve become a very good reviser: I’m willing to completely reimagine or rewrite a book if that’s what I think it needs. But in order to get to the point where I’ve integrated somebody’s feedback, I need to go through a week-long (sometimes weeks-long) simmering down period. And even then it’s not unusual for me to feel burned or defensive.

I’ve also gotten a lot of unhelpful feedback in my life (not from my current editor, thankfully). Ironically, the best criticism comes from people who love your book the most. If somebody’s not on board for the fundamental experience of your book, then they’re not gonna give you good criticism. Like you can’t revise Catcher in the Rye to make Holden less whiny, because that whininess is at the core of the book. 

But it’s a little unreasonable for me to wince at a little comment that’s like, “Didn’t they just shower; why are they wearing the same clothes as before?” 

It’s just odd to have my own invulnerability punctured. Like getting called out for saying something insensitive or factually incorrect, there’s nothing inherently bad about it, but there’s a certain level of exposure–the sense that people can see my real self, and it’s not a great sight–that causes difficulty. But whatever, you’ve got to do it, and in the end the book is better for it. 

P.S. I looked hard for a THREE DOLLAR CLASSIC today, but didn’t find one that looks cool. This Penguin Classics edition of two Nutcracker stories (by Alexander Dumas and by 19th German tale-teller ETA Hoffman)  is on sale though. I love Penguin Classics, and they don’t go on sale very often. I sort of buy them very reflexively whenever they’re under three bucks. If you want more THREE DOLLAR CLASSICS, sign up for my email list

Today’s THREE DOLLAR CLASSIC is Graham Greene’s best novel

Some authors’ stuff is constantly on sale online. And one such author is Graham Greene. I’ve at one time or another picked up six Greene novels on sale, and if I was willing to repurchase books I’d already read, that number would easily have doubled. 

But today the very best of them is on sale. I wrote about The Power and the Glory back when I read it in 2012, but it’s a book that’s stuck with me for many years. It’s the story of a priest in 1930s Mexico who’s being hunted down by the officer of an anti-clerical leftist regime. There are shades of Les Miserables, in that, like Javert, the hunter is honest, sincere, and incorruptible. But the priest is no Jean Valjean. He’s a drunk, and he’s broken his vow of celibacy with multiple women, and has (if my memory serves me well) at least one illegitimate child. At times, it’s not even clear how deeply he believes in God.

He is in every way exactly what his foes believe him to be: the cynical peddler of an outmoded superstition. And that’s exactly where the strength of the book lies. This is one Greene’s Catholic novels, written after his conversion, and in this book I think Greene makes the most succinct and cogent case for Catholicism that I’ve ever read.

Because despite all of his flaws, there is something very moving in the priest’s rounds. His religion is a source of strength both for him and for the people he visits. And there is magic within the rituals themselves. I think Greene does quite a job of conveying the numinous and transcendent, and the book leaves you with the feeling that Catholicism, with its hierarchies and rituals and dogmas, is an edifice that is stronger than all of the people who built–the Church is like a power generator that can energize human beings, stimulating the deepest parts of their being. The Church comes off as something that is beyond and above mankind.

Of course, I don’t actually believe that. But when you’re reading the novel you do! Get it for 1.99 today.

Honorable Mention: A completely different classic Graham Greene novel, Our Man In Havana, is also on sale today.

If you want more THREE DOLLAR CLASSICS, join my mailing list!


I haven’t posted about books on this blog for quite a while, and I’m not sure why, since I’m reading as much as ever. Perhaps because my two most recent ‘big’ reads were Clarissa and The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which are both so vast that I felt there was nothing to say about them.

Anyways, I am continuing to read. Right now I’m listening to Red Rising and working my way, on Kindle, through the oeuvre of Michael Crichton. Yikes, I do not agree with many of his political views, and some of his books are downright uncomfortable to read. I just finished Rising Sun–a polemical novel, published in 1992, about how Japan was buying up all of America. The irony here is that it was published right before the great Japanese asset bubble burst, leading to fifteen years of stagnation. Where Crichton writes, in 1992, that it’s a certainty that Japan will soon be the largest economy in the world, we now live in a time where it’s become, while not irrelevant, at least something of an economic also-ran, behind not just China, but Korea as well. Anyways, I digress. 

The point is I want to write about books again! But I thought I’d do it in a slightly different way. Because, the truth is I’m a shopaholic. I am addicted to discounted Kindle ebooks. It’s a problem. I subscribe to three separate ‘deal’ emails, and every day I browse all of them, looking for books that seem vaguely interesting.

It started as a lark, but it’s gotten to be something of a compulsion. I do find some good books this way (I particularly like when I find contemporary books that were not critical or commercial successes). Just glancing over the last few months of reading, I see that as a result of sales, I’ve read a very smart thriller (The Porkchoppers by Thomas Ross), an affecting and well-written work of women’s fiction (The One That Got Away by Leigh Himes) and a fast-paced military/suspense novel (Twilight’s Last Gleaming by Walter Wager). If it weren’t for Kindle and Audible deals, I would’ve encountered none of these books.

However, during the course of my browsing, I almost always come across at least one book I’ve already read that is fantastic, and I’ve decided that I’m going to attempt to create my own little irregularly-updated deal email, called THREE DOLLAR CLASSICS. Anyway, since at the moment nobody is signed up for my email list. I’m just going to announce it here: Right now Charles Yu’s debut novel, How To Live Safely In A Science Fictional Universe is on sale for $2.99.

This is a book that, oddly enough, escaped the attention of most science fiction fans, because it wasn’t published as a science fiction novel. This distinction–novels with science-fictional elements that aren’t classified as science fiction–seems to perplex many people, but it’s not too difficult to parse. The book wasn’t published by a sci-fi imprint, and it wasn’t shelved in the science fiction section. Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine what major science fiction imprint would publish something like this novel (perhaps Tor, if it was written by Jo Walton). But the book isn’t actually too odd. It belongs to the category of playful metafictions that also have a heart (other practitioners of this craft: Ted Chiang, David Foster Wallace, Jorge Luis Borges). 

Charles Yu, the protagonist of the novel, not incidentally has the same name as the author, but he is decidedly not the author. Rather he’s a parallel version of the man, living in a mirror universe. His job involves rescuing time travelers from themselves (or something like that, it’s been awhile since I read the book), but otherwise he leads something of a mundane life. He’s an everyman, who’s awash in longing for his long-missing dad, and he sets out on a search to find the man.

Like the best time travel stories, the novel looks in and around on itself, playing around with form and structure in a manner reminiscent of Empire Star or The Man Who Folded Himself, but unlike many modern self-aware fictions, the story doesn’t get lost in its own cleverness or metatextuality. What I remember most about the book is that it always remains firmly grounded in the reality of Yu’s loss and longing, and that, ultimately, is what carries you through all the jokes.

Anyway, for today only it’s just three dollars! Buy it! And if you want more THREE DOLLAR CLASSICS then you can always sign up for my newsletter. If you’ve already signed up, then you can update your sign-up by specifying if you want to get three dollar classics emails.

Doodling around, looking for my next project

Now that I’ve turned in another revision on We Are Totally Normal and am correspondingly one step closer to (and only a few months away from) having put the book completely to bed, I am on the hunt for my next project.

This is nothing new for me. Some authors are so brimming with ideas that they can leap directly from one novel to the next. If Anthony Trollope (one of my favorite authors) completed a novel before finishing his daily allotment of pages, he would immediately begin the next one. And you can see exactly how, for him, that’s possible. Trollope basically takes a bunch of characters and turns them loose on the page to fight things out.

I find that hard to do. I have plenty of ideas, but ninety-nine out of one hundred fall apart once I actually start working on them. Thus, there’s always a period of some months where I really have no idea what I am doing.

It’s no secret to long-time blog readers that I find these months extremely unpleasant. For the past three years, ever since I finished working on Enter Title Here and seriously started looking for my next book, I was also under contract to Disney, I also felt considerable pressure to satisfy my publisher and complete my contract. That effort turned out to have…mixed results. (You’ll note I’m not with Disney anymore). The process produced We Are Totally Normal, my second book, but it was so unpleasant, so pressure-filled, and so filled with false starts, missteps, and abandoned novels (I wrote five probably-never-to-be-published novels in between ETH and WATN) that I would like, if possible, to streamline the process.

This past summer, I wrote a novel for adults that also turned out to have substantial flaws, though I did repurpose it as a novella (which I quite like) that’s probably unpublishable because of its length. 

All of this searching is pretty exhausting and anxiety-provoking, and I made the resolution, over Thanksgiving, that I’d let my next project develop more naturally. This, to me, means putting less pressure on the process. It means less agony and more playing-around. 

So far I’ve only been partially successful. I spent the morning doing some good writing, just some sketches and scenes, exploring stuff I might like to write about in the future, but then I spent the afternoon worrying about everything I’d written.

That’s the thing that drives me crazy. The constant obsessing about the novel–the struggle to shape every piece and force everything into place. I sometimes think this is what also makes me jump into a project before it’s fully ready, which in turn means that the end result isn’t quite as complete and complex as it ought to be. So this time around I’m going to try to tame the beast. But who knows if I’ll succeed. Probably not.