Wrap-Up Season 2013: Mood

My mood fluctuated pretty wildly this year. At this time in 2012, I was on top of the world. I’d started to write Enter Title Here, I was in love with the book, it was going really well, it was flowing out of me in fits of divine inspiration. And then, at the end of January, I finished it. My mood plummeted. I started to obsess over all kinds of stuff. And I was pretty much down in the mire for most of February and March. In April, I stuttered upwards. Over the summer, I felt pretty good, but not quite at 100%. And then these last four months, I’ve felt really excellent and productive (and ready to begin the cycle again?)

I’ve learned a lot about my mood this year. I think it’s possible that there’s a seasonal aspect to it: a seasonality that was shrouded first by alcoholism and second by living in a place (California) where the seasons don’t vary as much. But we’ll see.

I have learned some other stuff about mood, though. Like, your friends can’t help you if you go to them and say, “I am sad. I am just so very sad.” But if you open up regarding the specific form that your blues have taken–e.g. “I am worried that I will never be a successful writer”–then they can say something like “You’re the best, you’re so talented, etc” and poke a few holes in your shroud of darkness. Of course, only the right sort of friend can do this. Most friends, even ones I love very much, are not very good at providing reassurances: they either try to solve my problems or their reassurances come out anemic and unbelievable. But that’s okay. They’re good for other things. I think the key with reassurance, though, is that most negative thoughts are about internalizing negative events and allowing them to affect your self-image. In order for a reassurance to be effective, it needs to shore up that self-image. For instance, if someone comes to you and says, “I am unlovable; no one will ever want to be with me” then it’s not going to be particularly reassuring to say “I’m sure you’ll be fine; everything ends up with someone.” No, you have to say something like, “But you’re the best! All those other guys are jerks!”

I also learned that there’s something empowering about taking the specifics seriously. I am very much a biological determinist. I am prone to thinking that bad moods are the result of some chemical thing in the brain. And that’s probably true. But that also leaves you nowhere, when you’re stuck in their mire. On some level, it does help to simply attack whatever problem you’re obsessing about and try to address it.

I also discovered two other defense mechanisms. The first is to not think too much about the future. Don’t make plans. Don’t dwell on what’s going to happen. Just focus on the very next thing that you need to do. And the other is to not maintain such a highly-inflated sense of self. To accept that I am not only cosmically insignificant, but that I’m not even the greatest person in the world. In that way, I can recognize that there’s an element of truth to all my negative thoughts and stop trying to engage in a fruitless attempt to wall them off.

But anyway, life right now is prrrrrrrrretty good.

I think this is the last wrap-up post. In sum, it’s been a really good year. I wrote first drafts of three separate novels (two of which are pretty good); I attended my first writer’s conference; I met Tim O’Brien; I wrote some of the best stories I’ve ever written; I got serious about submitting to literary magazines (and got some of my very first personal rejections from them); I broke into a new short-story market (Beneath Ceaseless Skies) and sold five other stories; my living situation changed for the better; I made advances in my romantic life; I developed some new productivity techniques that allowed me to reach some goals that had eluded me for a long time; I got second place in the Tu Books contest and, as a result, found an agent [!!!]; my blog’s readership grew tremendously; and I’m sure lots of other good stuff also happened. I do have a tendency to dwell on the negative, but progress is being made!

At this time last year, I wrote:

I have tons of plans for next year, but I also expect that at some point (probably somewhere between late January and early March, if the past is to be any guide) something really unexpected will happen–something that changes my life forever! And that’s something to look forward to.

It’s true, life-changing events are the province of the winter months! Last winter, I got an offer from an agent and placed in this Tu Books contest. The winter before, I got into Hopkins. The winter before that, I moved to Oakland and began a whole new life. The winter before that, I quit drinking. The winter before that, I moved back to DC. The winter before that…well…nothing really happened that winter.

Anyway, thus ends the wrap-up season.

[Wrap-up 2013] Post-mortem on a decade of writing and submitting

I submitted my first story on or about December 20th, 2003. That means that today marks the end of a full decade of writing and submitting! Probably the easiest way to sum it up is to just give you the numbers:

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These numbers are clipped straight from my Excel spreadsheet, so there are some disclaimers. The numbers for 2013 are only for the year to date, of course. I only started tracking daily reading time and writing time in the middle of 2012, so the numbers for that year don’t cover the full year. The rows that say “120”, “240”, etc refer to the number of days in which I wrote for at least that number of minutes.

I wish I could write a really cheery decades-end post about this, but I just can’t. It wouldn’t be honest. You know, every time I read on someone’s blog that they’ve turned 30, the post is always, like, “Yepperee, I feel great about this!” But sometimes you reach the end of a decade, and you don’t feel great about it. On a day-to-day level, I generally feel pretty happy. And I enjoy writing, it’s my passion and my vocation and what gives my life meaning, etc, etc.

But when I think about my writing career, I do not feel good. Until now, at the end of every year, I’ve always thought, “Wow, I did a lot of work this year. And since these stories (or this novel) are gonna hit the slush piles next year, then it’s totally possible that next year will be the year that I really take off!”

But that’s never happened. At best, I’ve only ever had incremental progress over the year. The only story of mine that even came close to breaking loose was “What Everyone Remembers,” and I sold that two years ago (almost to the day). My career (such as it is) peaked two years ago. Since then I’ve actually gone backwards. Something’s wrong, but I have no idea what it is. I’ve produced some of my best and most interesting work–stuff that’s much better than what I’ve sold–in the last two years. And it’s all been rejected. It’s not the fault of editors. No one owes me a publication. But, at the same time, a person who’s put in as much time as me should be having more success than I am. If I was someone else, and I looked at the stats above, I’d wonder what that person was doing wrong.* Most writers don’t get rejected as much as I do when they’re at this stage of their career.

With regards to myself, I don’t know. The only thing that occurs to me is that I’m too productive and don’t revise enough. But, if anything, I revise much, much more than I did two years ago. It’s not out of the ordinary for me to go through ten drafts of a story.

I don’t know. I just don’t know. In my opinion, the stories I am writing are much better than what gets published in the magazines. But the results speak for themselves. If you send out your stories again and again and again and people don’t respond to them, then the problem isn’t with them, it’s with you.

It’s a very strange feeling, to write a story that makes you so happy and to know that it’s better than anything you’ve ever published…and to look it over and then force yourself to accept that no one is ever going to read this story, because the thing that you see is something that’s not apparent to anyone else…

You’re not supposed to admit that you feel that way. It’s pathetic. Because that’s the delusional thinking of a newbie writer. I felt that the very first story I ever wrote (back in 2003) was a magnificent achievement that was destined to sell to a big magazine and win awards. Now I can’t bear to read it. And whenever I talk about my failures to any of my writer friends, I can always hear them thinking, “Oh, well, I guess you’ll have to try harder. The story probably isn’t that good.”

But I can’t help it. Because the story is that good. Oh, it’s not Tolstoy. But it’s good enough to be published in a big magazine. I know it is, because I know the difference between good and bad. I can accept that editors don’t see it that way….and I know that just means I’ll need to be better: my stories need to be so good that they teach people to recognize the good that is in them. But it still sucks. A person’s aesthetic faculty is what they use to write stories. If my aesthetic faculties are this out of line with the general tastes, then it’s going to be a hard road ahead.

Despite it all, I still believe, deep in my heart, that next year will be the year when I take off. But, at the same time, I keep telling myself, “No. That’s a stupid belief. It’s exactly what you believed in all those other years. You just need to accept that that’s not going to happen.” 

Anyway, this is not some kind of “I’m on the verge of quitting writing” post. I’m going to keep writing. But this is definitely one of the dark times.

*Note: If you chime in with some smarmy suggestion about what I could be doing wrong, it will make me so incredibly angry that it will seriously damage any friendship we might have.

[Wrap-up 2013] This year, Blotter Paper got 2.5x as many pageviews, visitors as it did in 2012

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Unfortunately, Google Analytics was breaking the blog, so my statistics on this aren’t as good as I’d want them to be. Anyway, my impression was that the Blotter Paper’s growth wasn’t nearly as aggressive in 2013 as it was in previous years. But upon viewing the final stats, I see that I was wrong. In 2012, I got 2.8x as many pageviews as I did in 2011. In 2013, the year-to-date total is 2.45x what it was in 2011. My statistics on total visitors are less good (since WordPress didn’t start giving those to me until December of last year), but it’s looking like that has increased by a similar proportion as well. Right now, my monthly pageview count hovers between 4,000 and 5,000. And the blog gets between 2,100 and 2,800 monthly unique visitors. Since I don’t have Google Analytics, I have no idea who y’all are and where you came from, but I am pleased to have you.

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Not exactly taking the internet by storm, but I am happier to have more readers. It takes exactly as much effort to write for three readers as it does to write for three thousand readers (although I guess it is possible for a blog to reach a size where comment-moderation becomes a headache).

Anyway, the focus of the blog is too diffuse for it to ever become one of those really huge hit blogs (like Raptitude or Captain Awkward or something), but I would like to continue to grow and to eventually become (in my wildest dreams) one of the world’s more heavily-trafficked author blogs. Of course, that seems a lot more likely to happen if I ever actually publish a book.

This year has contained a number of blogging milestones. It was the first year where I started writing about more personal topics, like my recovery from alcoholism and my recent weight loss. And it was the first year to have a post catch on and attract a number of hits that was far in excess of what I normally get. And I also switched to posting every day.

Keeping this thing up is not easy. It’s definitely something I have to force myself to do. And, like most things in my life, it took an absurdly long time to get going. The blog is more than five years old and I’ve been posting in it at least three times a week for the past two years. But I also derive a lot of satisfaction from it. I’ve always wanted to be in a position where I could communicate my thoughts to a large number of people, and this seems like my easiest way of doing that. And the blog does provide me with concrete personal gain. It allows me to maintain friendships with less effort and to rekindle friendships with people I haven’t spoken to in years. It’s raised my profile in the literary world and it’s provided me with a few financial opportunities. It also gives me a chance to win arguments against people who aren’t present and able to argue back. So, all in all, it’s been pretty worthwhile.

[Wrap-up 2013] If someone asked me whether or not they should get an MFA, I’m not sure I’d be able to wholeheartedly recommend it

Ambivalence 15x17x6I’ve now reached the end of my 3rd semester as an MFA student. Only one more to go, and then I’ll have a degree! I’ve enjoyed it a lot, actually. The people are fun and interesting (I’ve never been around people who were so interested in books before). The workload is unbelievably light (this day I was free five days a week; next semester I’m going to be free four days a week). The workshop holds me to a high standard and keeps me honest—I’ve produced some of my best work for the MFA workshop. I don’t always follow their specific critiques, but it is always interesting to me to see how real readers respond to my stories.

And it’s been fascinating to see how the literary world works. I’ve found that I’ve picked up tons of information just from osmosis. Unlike the genre fiction world, the literary world is very closed-off: you really only learn things by word of mouth. Being in the MFA program has given me access to writers who’re at later stages of their careers, and, by observing them, I’ve been able to see some of the ways in which it’s possible for things to go down.

All of those things are very true. And yet…I am not sure I can wholeheartedly recommend an MFA to people who ask me about it…

Before I start, I just wanted to issue a disclaimer: I know that tons of people who read this are going to interpret it as being part of the literary vs. genre divide, but that’s not how I intend it at all. First of all, the Writing Seminars have been unbelievably receptive to non-realist work: even professors who only write realism have engaged with my work on its own terms and have provided valuable comments. And, secondly, all of these things also apply to genre workshops.

My problem is that, as interesting as the MFA is and as much as I enjoy it, there’s something about it that feels fundamentally orthogonal to the project of writing fiction. Writing fiction is something that you do primarily inside your own head: it’s a certain sort of thought process. Everything that takes place outside your head can only impinge on the writing of fiction insofar as it changes the nature of that thought process.

I don’t see workshop as being about tinkering with stories and trying to make stories better. I see it as being a process of artistic education. The workshop is attempting to guide each artist towards a better understanding of beauty.

In some ways, that almost seems unnecessary. Beauty feels like it should be something that we see and perceive on an automatic level. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. If it was, there’d be no divide between high and low art. Instead, the ability to perceive beauty is something that requires extensive education. Usually, this education is a self-education. By reading a lot, you come to perceive finer and finer effects. You cannot appreciate something that you cannot see. When you first start reading, you can’t see anything: you’re overawed by the existence of these living pictures in your mind. But as you read more and more (and read more widely), you’re able to compare new books to books that you’ve read before. And through this process of comparison, you start to notice things. And when you start to compare the effect of those things on your soul, you begin to appreciate which things have beauty and which things do not.

But I’m not convinced that formal education is a good way of training someone to perceive beauty. Accepting another person’s instruction re: beauty seems, to me, to require an immense amount of trust and faith. When someone points at something and says, “I feel this way about this thing,” then you need to do your best to follow their eye and look deeply at the thing to which they’re referring and try your best to see that thing too, and to feel that thing too.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to happen very often. I find that usually people (and I am as guilty of this as anyone) will just say, “No. I don’t see that. No. I don’t feel that. My tastes must be different from yours.”

Aesthetic judgments are tied up with too much ego and pride. It’s humbling to admit (even to yourself) that there’s something you are missing. And it sucks to be humbled.

And you know when it’s even harder to admit that you’re blind? When the thing someone is pointing to is something that you created.

In every aspect of creative writing education, from my intro classroom right up to grad-level workshops, I see a lack of communication. We’re pointing and we’re saying words, but very little meaning is being transmitted.

And if a person just says, “Oh, whatever, the workshop is wrong,” then that’s fine. That person isn’t benefitting from workshop, but they’re also not being harmed by it. Their artistic development will proceed just as if they were working alone (although hopefully the workshop will still provide some kind of positive reinforcement—whenever their work does appeal to other people, they will receive praise. In this way, they’ll slowly be trained to move towards what is more beautiful).

But people aren’t stupid. They know they’re not perfect. They know their work isn’t perfect. And they know that their workshop is full of smart readers. So often they’ll come out of workshop saying, “Oh god, the workshop must be right!”

The problem is, they’ll accept the workshop’s judgment without understanding the things that led to the formation of that judgment. So they’ll go back to the story and start changing things in a more or less blind fashion, “Oh, they said the character is unsympathetic. I better have him save a cat in the first act. And they said this conflict is unclear. I’ll explain it over here.”

And then they come back to the workshop and are all like, “Welp, I fixed all the stuff you said was wrong!”

And they’re extremely disheartened when the workshop says that the story is worse than ever.

That’s the worst of all possible worlds. You cannot give up your aesthetic judgment. The only way to use workshop critique is to go back, stare at your story, and learn how to see the same things that your workshop saw. A story can’t come together except by an act of singular vision. If your mode of perception changes, then you can go back and re-envision the story. But what you can’t do is take a singular vision and just throw in a bunch of other peoples’ opinions. If you do that too much, then you’ll eventually learn to distrust your own aesthetic impulses, and you’ll end up destroying your ability to write.

That’s because there does come a moment at which you need to ignore everyone’s opinion. There comes a moment at which you’re doing something new, and it is you who are educating your audience and teaching them (through your work) to perceive a new kind of beauty. If you lose the confidence to recognize and trust in this moment, then you’ll never be a good writer.

It takes a very confident and perceptive person to be just permeable enough to accept guidance right up until the point where they need to start ignoring it. And I don’t think that most artists have those qualities (I certainly don’t).

Luckily, I am way too egotistical and stubborn to put much stock in other peoples’ opinions, so this whole problem is an academic one for me.

[Wrap-Up 2013] Books I Read And Blogged About in 2013

I’ve also updated the tab at the top to include all of these books, so that now my index runs all the way from December of 2010 to the present day!

Nightwood Barnes, Djuna
Woodcutters Bernhard, Thomas
The Closing Of The American Mind Bloom, Harold
World War Z Brooks, Max
Passage of Power Caro, Robert
Murder on the Orient Express Christie, Agatha
Influence Cialdini, Robert
Elizabeth Costello Coetzee, J. M.
Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly
Britney: Inside The Dream Dennis, Steve
The Dud Avocado Dundy, Elaine
Invisible Man Ellison, Ralph
Heartburn Ephron, Nora
Little Man, What Now? Fallada, Hans
Every Man Dies Alone Fallada, Hans
As I Lay Dying Faulkner, William
Novels in Three Lines Feneon, Felix
Gone Girl Flynn, Gillian
The Good Soldier Ford, Ford Madox
Diary of a Stage Mom’s Daughter Francis, Melissa
Lucky Girls Freudenberger, Nell
The Silence of the Lambs Harris, Thomas
Made To Stick Heath, Chip and Dan
High Fidelity Hornby, Nick
Les Miserables Hugo, Victor
An Enquiry Concerning The Principles Of Moral Sentiments Hume, David
Ulysses [2] [3] Joyce, James
Imitation of Christ [2] Kempis, Thomas a
Skylark Kosztolanyi, Dezso
Just Married, Please Excuse Lal, Yashodhara
Rosemary’s Baby Levin, Ira
Every Day Levithan, David
Mere Christianity Lewis, C.S.
The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks Lockhart, E
Buddenbrooks Mann, Thomas
The Magic Mountain [2] [3] Mann, Thomas
Embers Marai, Sandor
The Woman Upstairs Messud, Claire
The Man Without Qualities [2] Musil, Robert
Americanah [2] Ngozi, Chinamanda Adichie
Beyond Good And Evil Nietzsche, Friedrich
High On Arrival Phillips, Mackenzie
Radetzky March Roth, Joseph
The Forest of Hands and Teeth Ryan, Carrie
Lean In Sandberg, Sheryl
Lucky Sebold, Alice
A Simple Plan Smith, Scott
Save the Cat Snyder, Blake
Stori Telling Spelling, Tori
Never Mind St. Aubyn, Edward
Bad News St. Aubyn, Edward
Some Hope St. Aubyn, Edward
Mother’s Milk St. Aubyn, Edward
Confessions St. Augustine
The Rider On The White Horse Storm, Theodor
The Sociopath Next Door Strout, Martha
Angel Taylor, Elizabeth
Hard Times Terkel, Studs
Last Chronicle of Barset Trollope, Anthony
The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P Waldman, Adelle
Lolly Willowes Warner, Sylvia Townsend
Code Name: Verity Wein, Elizabeth
Flora’s Dare Wilce, Ysabeau
The Interestings Wolitzer, Meg
Mrs. Dalloway Woolf, Virginia
Orlando Woolf, Virginia
Beware of Pity Zweig, Stefan
Confusion Zweig, Stefan
Fantastic Night And Other Stories [2] Zweig, Stefan

[Wrap-up 2013] I have not sold nearly as many stories in 2013 as I sold in 2012

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This time last year, I was telling you that I’d just had my best year ever, in terms of publications. I’d sold another story to Clarkesworld (after a gap of two years), and sold my first stories to Apex, The Intergalactic Medicine Show, and to several anthologies.

This year wasn’t nearly so good. It started with a flurry of three sales that came literally within a few days of each other, to Daily Science Fiction, GigaNotoSaurus, and the anthology We See A Different Frontier. Then I had eight months of nothing, followed by a sale to Beneath Ceaseless Skies. And, just yesterday, I got notice that I’d sold a flash fiction piece to a small chapbook.

That makes five sales, and four at pro* rates. Certainly not shabby, but worse than my seven pro sales in  2012 and five in 2011. Of course, I wrote fewer stories this year, but, since most of the stories that I submit during any given year are ones written during the previous year, I am not sure this made a big difference.

I can’t really say what happened. Perhaps I’ve temporarily gotten worse (which sometimes happens, when you’re processing new lessons). Perhaps the competition has gotten better. Perhaps I’ve started moving in a different direction and am no longer really producing the sort of stories that SF magazines are looking for. A person can drive themselves crazy trying to figure out why they are and why they aren’t selling.

Anyway, one outcome of this relative lack of success is that I’m making a decidedly stronger effort to submit to literary magazines. I currently have over 100 submissions out! And, of those, almost 80 are to various literary magazines. It’s both exciting and disconcerting to be starting at the beginning again. However, I’ve also recently started to write a few non-SF stories, and I’m interested to see how these’ll be received by the lit journals.

I’ve made it my goal to sell a story (although literary writers usually say “place” a story, since even many respectable publications don’t pay) to at least one magazine with “Review” in its name =]

 

*Currently, I call 5 cents per word the “pro” rate for no better reason than that this was the rate decided upon by the SFWA. Since they’ve changed their standards, I’ll do the same. From 2014 on, 6 cents per word will be what I mean when I say “pro” rates.

[Wrap-up 2013] Nine books (including 3 YA novels) that I really enjoyed reading but never blogged about

coverThe Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan – Kelly Link used to say that the thing she liked about zombies was that you could tell a ton of different zombie stories, depending on how many zombies you use. Like if you’ve got one zombie in a town, that’s one story. And if you’ve got a town surrounded by a worldful of zombies, that’s another story. This is a YA novel that has all the virtues of the zombie genre: the claustrophobia, the hopelessness, the sense that your primary enemy is your own weakness. It’s about a town that’s surrounded by a big iron fence. And on the other side of that fence are HELLLA zombies. And the town has reverted to a weird theocracy that’s reminiscent of Puritan New England. The protagonist is a woman who’s reached her nineteenth birthday without receiving a proposal of marriage (oh no!) and is now doomed to become a nun.

Every Day by David Levithan – This YA novel is the most ridiculously high-concept book I’ve ever read. It’s about a being who wakes up every morning in the body of a new person (temporarily displacing its usual inhabitant). And each day he hops into a body that’s one day older than the last one. Thus, the being’s bodies age as it does. And right now it’s sixteen years old! It’s content to hop through bodies, experiencing a hundred high schools and a hundred ephemeral lives, mostly going with the flow so that people don’t find their lives too disrupted once it leaves. But then it falls in love! And it starts going to greater and greater efforts to spend each day with one particular girl….now if that doesn’t make you want to read it, then I don’t know what will. Also, it’s a ridiculously queer book. Way more than 4% of the characters in this book are some variety of queer.

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks by E. Lockhart – A fifteen year old tries to infiltrate her boarding school’s (normally all-male) secret society. A very angry book. Angry in a way that you don’t often see. It’s a bracing anger. Also, a very feminist novel. Notable for the interesting way its romance plot braces and reinforces the themes of the surrounding plot.

The Good Soldier by Ford Maddox Ford – This is the saddest story I have ever heard. An early modernist work about four couples, one American and one British, that meet while they’re making a lazy tour of the continent’s spas and vacation spots. They’re all idle, feckless, wealthy, do-nothing people. They gravitate towards each other and spend years together and it’s only towards the very end of their association that one of them realizes the huge number of secrets they’ve all been concealing. A structurally amazing novel: the telling loops inward and outwards and back on itself and your opinions of each character are constantly being revised.

Last Chronicle of Barset by Anthony Trollope – Not exactly sure why I am writing about this, since I doubt that anyone who reads this blog is going to go and read through the whole six book Barsetshire series (of which this is the final volume). But if you are thinking about it and if you need some reason to keep reading past Framley Parsonage and Doctor Thorne, then rest assured that there is an amazing book at the end of the journey. This novel just goes all up in there and wraps up all the loose ends. All the characters come back and intermingle, and you see what’s going on. And people die! And it’s always very sad, even when you don’t like the people. And the actual plot of the book is unusually fresh, for Trollope. It’s about a clergyman who’s accused of stealing a check. And no one, not even the clergyman himself, knows if the accusation is true or not! Very few series have ever had a more satisfying ending.

Lucky by Alice Sebold – Not sure why I read Sebold’s memoir instead of her vastly more popular novel The Lovely Bones, but I was glad that I did. This book is brutal! The author was raped, by a stranger, in some kind of tunnel, while an undergrad at Syracuse. Later, she actually finds the guy and he stands trial! Rape is deployed pretty casually as a device in fiction, but I’ve never read a book that just went at it, in a factual way.

Lucky Girls: Stories by Nell Freudenberger – I believe that four of these five stories are about white women and their travails while travelling in South Asia. Sounds like a recipe for an awful and racist book. But it’s not! Very much avoid the Lost In Translation problem of using a foreign country purely as scenery. There’s much more to these stories. Also, there’s lots of having sex with Asian men. That by itself is revolutionary. You won’t read many stories (especially one written by white people) where white women have sex with Asian men.

Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg – Not sure why this book got so much hate. Yes, it is primarily about the problems of upper-class and upper-middle-class professional women…but those are the problems that Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg knows about. And yes, it is primarily a manifest for personal, not political, change. But it certainly doesn’t discount the need for political change. I mostly read it so that I could have a good laugh at Sandberg’s expense, but I actually found it to be a very fascinating look at the problems that women have in managing both a worklife and a family life. The book contains many shout outs to The Feminine Mystique, which is a comparison that people have tended to be pretty dismissive of, but actually it’s very much in conversation with Friedan’s book. The Feminine Mystique was also more of a call for personal than political change. And Friedan was, basically, saying that women need to go out and find meaningful work—that homemaking is not enough to satisfy a person’s emotional needs. And now Sheryl Sandberg is trying to deal with the fallout from Friedan’s all-too-successful efforts.

Embers by Sandor Marai – An old, retired Hungarian general is visited by a long-lost friend from his military academy. In their youths, they were very close, even though the general was considerably wealthier than their friends. But then, one day, they had a mysterious falling out. Now, before he dies, the General wants some answers about what happened on that long-ago day. Structurally, this is a thriller. The nature of their falling-out is pretty obvious: the thriller part is “What is the general going to do? Why has the friend come back?” The story is told in a very fast-paced, but circuitous way, you’re always looping back on yourself. And it’s all shot through with the atmosphere of the decaying Austro-Hungarian Empire. Man, why is all Austro-Hungarian literature about the decay of the empire? Isn’t there any literature about the glory and power of the empire?

[Wrap Up 2013] This year, I learned that I shouldn’t bank on any reading project that involves more than 3 to 7 books.

At least half the people who've read this book on my recommendation have disliked it (although the other half have loved it!) But Gone Girl is still one of my favorites of this year.
At least half the people who’ve read this book on my recommendation have disliked it (although the other half have loved it!) But Gone Girl is still one of my favorites of this year.

I’m a big fan of grand reading plans. A few years ago, I read all the Russians. The year after that, I read Proust. And last year I read lots of Victorian literature. At the beginning of the year, I announced that I was going to spend this year reading all of the 19th century classics that I hadn’t already read. And I got a decent start. I read Nicholas Nickleby and Les Miserables and  Last Chronicle of Barset and then…I tried to read Daniel Deronda. And it was bad. Can’t put my finger on it. Just really boring and poorly structured. I gave up halfway through. And after that I was put off by the Victorian thing. So I kept looking around for a new project.

In the interim, I did do some little little reading projects. Like, I read Scott Smith’s A Simple Plan  and realized that maybe what I needed was more crime novels! So I read Gone Girl and Strangers on a Train and the Talented Mr. Ripley and Murder on the Orient Express and Silence of the Lambs.

But then I was distracted. I signed with my agent and was all, “Hey, shit, I should read some more YA novels, since that’s apparently what I write now!” So I solicited recommendations from the internet, and read some amazing YA, including Flora Segunda, The Forest of Hands And Teeth, Every Day, Eleanor & Park, and The Disreputable History Of Frankie Landau Banks.

But then I randomly started reading Mrs Dalloway and was really blown away by it and I decided, “Oh, okay, I’ll read the great works of modernism.” And I read Jacob’s Room and The Good Soldier and Invisible Man and Nightwood and As I Lay Dying and Ulysses (p2, p3and re-read To The LighthouseBut that didn’t continue either! Because my journey through the modernists led me to Buddenbrooks, and then I was like, “Wow, you know what? This is amazing! Maybe I’ll read a bunch of german novels now!” And I decided to be really concrete and systematic this time! I’d spend the whole rest of the calendar year reading German novels.

And I was pretty good. For a good two months (from mid-August to mid-October), I only read German novels. And this period included some great and thrilling reads like, A Man Without Qualities, The Magic Mountain, Radetzky March, Beware of Pity, Skylark, The Rider on the White Horse, and Every Man Dies Alone. But after I finished that last novel, I somehow just had no more enthusiasm for German novels. That was the reading initiative that I felt the most bad about. I had some great German novels that I was gonna get to: The Sleepwalkers, The Glass Bead Game, Berlin Alexanderplatz, and The Confusions of Young Torless. But I just didn’t want to do it…

So I started reading protofeminist novels. And I came across some great ones: Heartburn, The Dud Avocado, and Lolly Willowes. And I made a list of all kinds of other ones I was gonna get to next (The Unpossessed, The Old Man And MeAngel, Speedboat, etc…)

But that got derailed because I read and fell in love with The Closing Of The American Mind. And after Bloom took down Nietzsche, I just had to read Beyond Good And EvilAnd then that led to The Social Contract and An Enquiry Concerning Moral Sentiments.

I wanted a more modern look at the meaning of happiness, though, so I also read Flow. And I don’t even remember how that led me to books on communication, like Made To Stick and Influence. But I do remember that the really cold-blooded manipulations described in the last book made me interested in psychopaths, so I read some books on that. But then a Facebook post made me interested in a contemporary novel The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P, which made me wonder about other contemporary fictions and…well…I’ve pretty much abandoned all my reading schemas.

I don’t know. I’ve been served well, in the past, by reading projects. But they lack a certain spontaneity. They cause joy when you think about adopting them, because you imagine yourself possessing all this knowledge about and mastery of a certain genre. But when you’re actually doing it, the scheme eventually starts to become a chore. Leaping around naturalistically seems to maximize my happiness.

The only worry is that if I don’t watch myself, I’ll stop reading “difficult” books. But I don’t know how true that is. Certainly The Closing Of The American Mind is not a hugely easy book. I mean, it’s readable…but it’s also a book that’s repulsed me in the past. So we’ll see. Maybe this time next year I’ll be writing about the return of the reading scheme!

Wrap-up season begins!!!

Hi blog readers,

It’s time for the most self-indulgent month of the year–the time when I summarize, analyze, and opine upon all that I’ve been up to this year. I think it is not impossible that this will be the largest and most comprehensive wrap-up season of all!

Generally, I begin by talking about all the books I’ve read this year: the ones I expected to like (and did), the ones I didn’t expect to like (and did), the ones about which I had mixed opinions, and the ones that were baaaaaaaad. I’ll also talk about whatever reading initiatives I did. This year there were three! I had stints where I read modernist novels, YA novels, and German literature. It’s possible that right now I am in the midst of a fourth.

Then I’ll talk about my writing and, maybe, about some personal stuff.

Links to previous wrap-up seasons are below: