Monthly Archives: November 2013

Playing By The Book

I am a slow adopter in almost every sense. This has less to do with grand theories about the slow unraveling of polite society than it does with pure laziness. I can’t be bothered to read manuals and I’m annoyed all-out-of-proportion with the seemingly endless proliferation of objects in my life that require near daily charging and upgrading. I love books not just because I enjoy their heft and smell, but also because as someone astute once noted, “Books boot instantly and run on available light.”

When I do occasionally give in to an impulsive itch and download something onto my husband’s iPad, I nearly always walk away from the experience with a new set of complaints (It’s too hard to highlight, I can’t flip around easily, the screen is always too bright or to dark . . .). After much deliberation, I remain convinced that what you sacrifice in aesthetics and enjoyment when reading on an e-reader more than cancels out whatever convenience they might offer. But my feelings about electronic books might change if they did something to truly transform the way we read and, according to a recent article in The Atlantic, they may be on the cusp of doing just that:

Device 6 is a metaphysical [e-thriller] in which the world is made almost entirely from words. Playing it is like reading a book—except, in this book, the words veer off in unexpected directions, rather than progressing in orderly fashion down the page. When Anna, the game’s protagonist, turns a corner in the narrative, the text does too, swerving off to one side at a right angle, forcing the player to rotate the screen.

Our story begins when Anna awakes in an unfamiliar room. She is alone on an apparently deserted island, with no recollection of how she got there. The runaway words of Device 6 relate the story of Anna’s attempt to unravel the mystery and escape from the island, but as you swipe to follow them, you realize that they are simultaneously drawing a map. Long, trailing sentences make corridors; blocks of type form rooms. As you move forward in narrative time, you also advance in geographic space.

Books like this will likely never be a substitute for “real” reading, but for bookworms like me they might just be the next best thing to an XBox and that I can get behind.

The Neuroscience of Fiction

Neuroscientists have embarked on a project designed to map our literary circuitry. We’re all familiar with the dictum, we read to feel less alone, but will scientists prove that we actually read to replicate the feelings of the author?

From “Wired: Putting a Writer and Readers to the Test,” The New York Times, Nov. 29, 2013:

Over the past two weeks, [Dutch author Arnon] Grunberg has spent several hours a day writing his novella, while a battery of sensors and cameras tracked his brain waves, heart rate, galvanic skin response (an electrical measure of emotional arousal) and facial expressions. Next fall, when the book is published, some 50 ordinary people in the Netherlands will read it under similarly controlled circumstances, sensors and all.

Researchers will then crunch the data in the hope of finding patterns that may help illuminate links between the way art is created and enjoyed, and possibly the nature of creativity itself.

“Will readers of Arnon’s text feel they understand or embody the same emotions he had while he was writing it, or is reading a completely different process?” said Ysbrand van der Werf, a researcher at the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience and the VU University Medical Center in Amsterdam, who designed the experiment with Jan van Erp of the Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research. “These are some of the questions we want to answer.”

It’s Always More Than Sex

Over at The Nervous Breakdown, Debra Monroe writes beautifully about sex and what writing about it reveals:

Today the so-called sexual revolution seems to have been only provisionally extended. Rape remains a crime for which we try not just the accused but the victim. Because of the internet and phone cameras, public shaming of women who’ve had sex—whether or not they’ve consented—has a terrifying ability to proliferate faster than  a communicable disease. And we’re still arguing about what “consent” means. It means to feel with. Yet it’s familiarly construed to mean a half-hearted “Yes, because objecting doesn’t seem worth the effort.” I wrote about sex because I hoped to depict more than measly consent, more than promiscuity and its repellent alter-ego, respectability. I wrote about sex because it’s a small moment that reflects big quandaries: the myriad ways young women will be allowed or persuaded to clasp or unclasp; the rituals that preserve at least a façade of inexperience; also that big taboo, single mothers with inconvenient longings.



Nicholson Baker: On Noticing

Something that also taught me how to write that I tell people . . . is to buy a notebook or a spiral-bound book or something and get a ball-point pen of your choice. And sure people say, “You’ve got to carry around a notebook and jot down ideas” and that is OK, and I adapted that by writing on a folded-up piece of paper and carry it around in my pocket – that’s one thing. But this is different; if you’re reading along and you come to something that’s really beautiful, that really stops you in the eye with its prose, you see it’s true, then I’ll stop or make a note to stop later and open the notebook and copy it out, in quotation marks, of course, and write down – copy that out word for word, with full punctuation, in handwriting.

And the reason that’s useful is it slows you down and helps you understand the rhythm of the prose and how a person constructed something that opened up in your mind in just that way. So copying out in a commonplace book interesting bits of writing that you find inspiring or interesting is the only piece of advice I have. It’s the only secret that I have to pass on. I’m not a poet, but copy it out and you will be amazed at how much it helps you almost instantly. Instantly, it makes you a more thoughtful reader and possibly a better writer.

Nicholson Baker’s Best Advice,” Salon, November 26, 2013


Ann Patchett on the key to making art:

Forgiveness. The ability to forgive oneself. Stop here for a few breaths and think about this because it is the key to making art, and very possibly the key to finding any semblance of happiness in life. Every time I have set out to translate the book (or story, or hopelessly long essay) that exists in such brilliant detail on the big screen of my limbic system onto a piece of paper (which, let’s face it, was once a towering tree crowned with leaves and a home to birds), I grieve for my own lack of talent and intelligence. Every. Single. Time. Were I smarter, more gifted, I could pin down a closer facsimile of the wonders I see. I believe, more than anything, that this grief of constantly having to face down our own inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers. Forgiveness, therefore, is key. I can’t write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing. Again and again throughout the course of my life I will forgive myself.

From This Is The Story Of A Happy Marriage

Stop Writing When You Hear the Buzzer

When Art Meets Capitalism 2: An Italian game show dangles a book deal to authors capable of composing on demand in front of a live studio audience.

During the shooting of an episode last month, the expert panel — the novelists Andrea De Carlo, Giancarlo De Cataldo and Taiye Selasi — sat behind a desk while makeup artists darted about blotting foreheads and touching up lipstick. Facing the judges, four contestants perched behind their keyboards, with every typed word projected on screens for all to see, as a timer above their heads counted down and cameras swooped in for close-ups.

Tom Rachman, ‘Masterpiece,’ an Italian Reality Show for Writers. (It’s worth noting that Rachman himself is a fiction writer, best known for his wonderful novel-in-stories, The Imperfectionists.)

The Problem with “Moralizing Niceness” in Fiction

A great deal of nonsense is written every day about characters in fiction–from the side of those who believe too much in character and those who believe too little. Those who believe too much have an iron set of prejudices about what characters are: we should get to “know” them; they should not be “stereotypes”; they should have an “inside” as well as an outside, depth as well as surface; they should “grow” and “develop”; and they should be nice. So they should be pretty much like us. In The New York Times, a critic complains that the “decrepit womanizer” played by the septuagenarian Peter O’Toole in the film Venus . . . and Hector, the elderly teacher “who gropes his male students” in The History Boys . . . are meant to be relatively “benign,” but instead their actual behavior makes them seem “venal and self-deluding.” There is what she calls “a significant ick factor” in watching such elderly people “stalking” their young victims. But, she argues, instead of portraying these characters as the predators they really are, the filmmakers seem to want us to sympathize with, even applaud, such behavior. The problem with The History Boys is that it “assumes that the audience will embrace its lecherous hero as fully as the film’s creators do.”

In other words, artists should not ask us to try to understand characters we cannot approve of–or not until after they have firmly and unequivocally condemned them. The idea that we might be able to feel that “ick factor” and simultaneously see life through the eyes of these two aging and lecherous men, and that this moving out of ourselves into the realms beyond our daily experience might be a moral and sympathetic education of its own kind, seems beyond this particular commentator, of whom all one can say is that she is unlikely to be so unforgiving when she herself has reached seventy. But there is nothing egregious about this article. A glance at the thousands of foolish “reader reviews” on, with their complaints about “dislikable characters,” confirms a contagion of moralizing niceness.

James Wood, How Fiction Works

The Emotional Economics of Publishing

When Capitalism meets art.

Now I have been senior literary editor at Random House for six months. I remain in many ways ignorant of the realities of book publishing. But it begins to dawn on me that if a company publishes a hundred original hardcover books a year, it publishes about two per week, on average. And given the limitations on budgets, personnel, and time, many of those books will receive a kind of “basic” publication. Every list—spring, summer, and fall—has its lead titles. Then there are three or four hopefuls trailing along just behind the books that the publisher is investing most heavily in. Then comes a field of also-rans, hoping for the surge of energy provided by an ecstatic front-page review in The New York Times Book Review or by being selected for Oprah’s Book Club. Approximately four out of every five books published lose money. Or five out of six, or six out of seven. Estimates vary, depending on how gloomy the CFO is the day you ask him and what kinds of shell games are being played in Accounting.

I am trying to acquire two novels, one completed and the second under way, by a British writer. Ann Godoff likes the finished book, or takes my word for it that it’s good, or she is in a good mood, and has authorized me to offer $100,000 for each book. On the phone to the agent in England, I say, with no guile, “We’re offering a hundred thousand dollars for both books.” He says, with acceptance detectable in his voice, “You mean $50,000 for each?”

I hesitate, but not too long. “Yes.”

“Done and done.”

Excerpted from My Mistake: A Memoir, ­published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. © 2013 by Daniel Menaker.



Publishing and Prejudice

Over on Brooklyn Based today, they are running: Publishing and Prejudice, a conversation I conducted with five female authors about the realities of sexism in the literary world. It was a fantastically interesting piece to put together and I’m so grateful to Lydia Millet, Adelle Waldman, Julia Fierro, Roxanne Gay and Ayelet Waldman for their generosity and frankness.