Monday, November 9, 2009

Writers: Here’s What You Need to Know

Some of publishing’s best and brightest offer up stuff you can put into your brain.

Last weekend was Alumni Weekend for the Queens University of Charlotte MFA in Writing program, and if the term “alumni weekend” conjures images of idle and pointless days of golf rounds and cocktails, I can assure you, these were anything but. Sixty graduates and near-graduates gathered with 12 of the industry’s top editors and agents for spirited and vivifying discourse: in the workshop, in the seminar, around the meal table, and in the barroom.
On Saturday, a Publishing Panel featured agents and editors talking about what it takes to publish a book. During the Q&A, inspiration and desperation joined forces for fellow Bay Area writer and Queens grad Christin Rice, who had the presence to ask the following:
What is the one piece of information you have in your brains that you think we should have in our brains?

The following are some of the answers, paraphrased and bastardized in tyrannical fashion by yours truly:

  • Chris Parris-Lamb, agent with The Gernert Company:

    “Our industry does not exist so writers can publish books. Our industry exists so readers will have something to read.”

    In other words, the fact that your manuscript doesn’t make it into print doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t a great manuscript. All the connections must be made, the agent must fall in love with the work and persuade an editor to do the same, and both must be ready to put their hearts and souls behind it. And while it may seem harsh, the only thing the writer can do to influence all this is to faithfully and passionately write his or her story, and nothing else.

  • Megan Lynch, editor at Riverhead Books:

    “Focus on something small and get that right before taking on something substantial.”

    I translated this as, get the short form first—the short story for fiction writers, the personal essay for non-fiction writers—then move on to the novel or full memoir. I may have translated it that way because that’s the path I’ve followed, but I think the wisdom is clear: a book-length project is a huge investment, and the chances of that investment paying off are improved if it has been preceded by a series of successful smaller investments.

  • Tina Wexler, agent with International Creative Management:

    “Take. Your. Time.”

    This was a consistent message from all the editors and agents present: If, by chance, they get a chance to read your work, are impressed by it, provide feedback, and ask for a revision, they are happy to wait many months, even years, to see that revision, because it is a sign the writer is serious and is making sure the work is at its best before sending it back. This (obviously) applies to that first submission as well: make sure it’s ready.

  • Amy Williams, agent with McCormick/Williams:

    “There’s nothing more frustrating than spending a good part of the weekend giving a close reading to a manuscript, then getting back to the writer and hearing, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve been doing some rework on that section.’”

    Again, take your time and ensure that, before you submit, you have brought the work to its absolute final, most complete, and best conclusion. One of my fellow graduates reminded me that our favorite, Fred Leebron, gave very similar advice during our days at Queens: You know a piece is ready to submit when you can read each and every page and not feel the impulse to make a single, solitary, miniscule change.

If this is all wisdom you writers have heard before, take this as a refresher; if it’s new, well, this calls for a quote from Spicoli: “Read it. Know it. Live it.”

Sunday, October 4, 2009

In Case You Missed it… The State of American Journalism

The Atlantic Monthly delivers a clear, readable assessement of news media failures in the 21st Century.

Inexplicably, an insightful, intelligent, and supremely readable 3-part Special Report on the state of American journalism that appears in this month’s Atlantic Monthly was not chosen as the cover story. Instead, the editors chose to highlight an open letter to George W. Bush about his administration’s torture policy. It was a decision that had the unfortunate effect of placing W’s face on the cover of a national magazine again, which, for me anyway, has two things in common with torture itself: No. 1, viewing W’s smug, folksy, down-home (in other words, dumb-ass) countenance is, in itself, a form of torture; and No. 2, it is something I had hoped would never, ever, ever happen again. But the editors’ decision aside, the Special Report on the Media is one you should not miss.
  • Dissecting the media coverage in the weeks following President Obama’s nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, Mark Bowden explains how virtually all the major news organizations in America have abdicated their news gathering responsibilities to the partisan propagandists of the blogosphere—and in so doing, are threatening to redefine (not in a good way) what journalism means to both the society at large and the individuals who still work as, or aspire to become, real journalists.

  • In an enthusiastic recap of his experience watching Al Jazeera, Robert D. Kaplan explains how the Qatar-based international news network has established itself as a useful, energetic, broad-based, and far-reaching alternative to the news networks of the West.

  • In an excerpt from a new book, The Curse of the Mogul, two academics and a media consultant strip the veneer off media moguls’ claims that the web and citizen journalists are killing their businesses. They instead indict the moguls themselves for the questionable decision-making and business practices that have in fact led to the tenuous fates of their media empires.

And perhaps my favorite part of the series is the John Cuneo cartoon (below) that accompanies that last article, which—rightly, in my opinion—neglects to endow the unapologetic conservative media emperor Rupert Murdoch with a rather crucial bit of anatomy. (Look closely.)

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Professional Tennis, Cheapened Again

Just one small example of the pollution of professional tennis…

If you’ve ever watched a professional tennis match from the cheap seats, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve experienced something bizarre bordering on surreal. Whether at one of North America’s largest tennis venues, the Tennis Garden at Indian Wells or Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York, or just at a local tournament like San Jose’s SAP Open, which I attended last night, your cheap seat, in the early rounds of a tournament, will be separated from the tennis court itself by rows and rows of empty seats. You’ll sit trying to track, with your woefully inadequate human eyes, a fuzzy yellow ball less than 2-5/8 inches in diameter that is often traveling 100 or more miles per hour. In the many lengthy pauses between the action, when players towel nonexistent sweat off limbs and facial skin and pretend to examine each and every one of those 2-5/8-inch golden orbs, you’ll scan those rows of empty seats, some of them in the very first row, and you’ll scan the dotted speckle of fans sprinkled over the rest of the seats in the venue, and eventually your eyes will land on the people sitting dutifully in their assigned seats 10, 15, even 20 rows further away than you are and you’ll think to yourself, “What the hell are those people doing up there? There’s no way they can see shit from up there,” and then your next thought will be, “Wait a minute, what the hell am I doing here? I can’t see shit either!”

Welcome to professional tennis. For years, tennis luminaries like John McEnroe have implored tournament organizers to loosen assigned-seat restrictions for the betterment of the sport. They have wisely suggested that, if someone buys a seat but does not occupy it, it should be made available to those fans who actually took the time to drive to the venue to see the action live. If Fatso Bloatard, who seems to have so much money he can shoot $200 for a tennis ticket and then blow off the matches, actually decides to raise his bulbous ass off his Strata-lounger and have his driver take him to the stadium, then all he’s got to do is show his ticket and the cheap-seat loser like me who has been occupying his seat can dutifully return to the skies of the upper deck. And of course, everyone knows that by the time the action stretches late into the evening, as it often does, when the celebrity singles players wrap up their match and take their custom apparel, their Gucci tennis bags, their towel-worn skin, and their magazine-cover contorted screaming faces back to their five-star hotels, ain’t no chance Fatso is getting out of that chair. So when the late-evening match—typically a doubles match—starts, instead of a sprinkling of disconnected, distant spectators spread across the entire mass the stadium, you would have a cluster of devoted fans leaning in on the action, charging the players’ energies, and generating an infectious energy of its own. And, perhaps even more importantly, TV audiences would not be looking in on a sport that, judging by all the empty seats, generates about as much enthusiasm as a rerun of “Hondo,” but would instead look in on something akin to a college basketball game, albeit with long breaks in the action for players to towel themselves off and “examine” the balls.

In case you haven’t figured it out, I’ve had several of these surreal early-round cheap-seat experiences myself, including multiple visits to both Indian Wells and Arthur Ashe Stadium. But my experience last night in San Jose—and it’s very difficult for me to write this, because I am both a San Jose native and a tennis fan—absolutely took the cake. With my wife and several friends, I went to see the evening session semifinal matches of both the singles and doubles. First off and unfortunately, the overall turnout was pretty lame, so there were plenty of those $200 seats sitting empty in the front sections of HP Pavilion. We had secured excellent baseline seats for $67 each, and from there we looked out on a venue about 1/3 occupied. During the first match, the singles semi that Andy Roddick managed to fritter away by playing the coddled, spoiled tennis brat role to a tee, we learned that the doubles semi that was supposed to follow had been cancelled because of an injury to James Blake. The tournament organizers managed to pull together an exhibition match to fill the bill—a repeat of the semifinal that had been played earlier in the day: Jarkko Neimenen and Rohan Bopanna vs. Stephen Huss and Ross Hutchins. Now, one would think, given that this was an exhibition match, an 8-game pro set between players who had already played and were planning to do little more than have fun out there, and since half of that 1/3 occupancy was already on its way out of the building, this would be an ideal opportunity for the tournament organizers to garner a little goodwill and jack up the enthusiasm and the energy by announcing open seating for the remainder of the evening. An ideal opportunity that would also have given the volunteer ushers the rest of the night off. Instead, the ushers remained in place, dutifully checking the ticket stubs of everyone re-entering any section of seating and ensuring that the dispersed, disjointed, disengaged audience remained just that—even the poor bastards up in Row 18 of the upper deck. I mean, it was 10 p.m., and it was an exhibition for heaven’s sake!

The crime here is that tennis is a glorious game. It is art and drama and dance and all the trappings of sport—speed, strength, power, and finesse—all rolled into one. But in so many ways, whether it be the cheating, obnoxious “win-uber-alles” participants one encounters at the club level or the misguided, elitist ignorance one encounters at the pro level, it is a clear, flowing mountain stream that is forever being shamefully polluted. So often, those of us bending to drink from its waters end up instead turning our noses up in disgust.
“We should reach out to people to try to go after the fans the way other sports do. Because we can't just depend on the fact that it is a great game.”—John McEnroe

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Jonathan Ames: Addiction for the Recovery Era

Thoughts on Wake Up, Sir! by Jonathan Ames...

We all know that some authors go before readers, whether in tiny bookshops or grand auditoriums, out of necessity, while others do it with relish. I’m reminded of the very first reading I attended, when Margaret Atwood appeared visibly exhausted, with heavy eyelids and a constrained voice that said promoting books was not one of her favorite aspects of the job. In that case, weariness actually accentuated Atwood’s dry wit, but there have been other readings—we’ve all seen them—when the author clearly wished to be somewhere else.

However I have also noticed that often, when writers speak, the larger the venue, the more likely the relish, and this was certainly the case when Jonathan Ames appeared in October at Litquake, San Francisco’s Fall Literary Festival. In his appearance at the opening-night event, “Suckered: Writers Confess a Profound Lack of Judgment,” which was presented in conjunction with Porchlight Storytelling, Ames showed the timing and self-assurance of a stand-up comedian on a roll as he delivered a riotous tale of adolescent penis envy to a packed house of splitting guts. I had had no exposure to Ames until then, but my wife and I both walked out of Herbst Theatre that night determined to read his written work, and a few days later I picked up Wake Up, Sir!, his 2004 homage to P.G. Wodehouse.

The back cover promo copy on the book was predictable:

“Hilarious.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Hilarious.” —Slate
“Hilarious.” —New York
“Hilarious.” —The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
“Hilarious.” —Albany Times-Union
“Hilarious.” —Time Out New York
“Hilarious.” —Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
I certainly agree that the book is hysterically funny, but I think this critical drumbeat is a bit reductive: Like Ames’s anecdote at Litquake, this story dives in deep from the start to expose the haunts of human dereliction. While the 10-minute Litquake monologue succinctly addressed adolescence and our fixation on the phallus, the novel form allows much broader explorations in Wake Up, Sir! Family, love, sexuality (homo-,hetero-, and some in-between), Jewish identity, and most of all, addiction, are all examined and tested with uncommon candor. In short, the book is much more than just a farcical romp.

Ames’s protagonist, Alan Blair, a fragile, failing writer and a teetering alcoholic, comes into a windfall and decides to hire a valet. The valet service sends a British man whose name, to Alan’s amazement, is actually Jeeves, and we are taken along to spend an unusual week with the pair as Alan is granted a stay at a prominent upstate artist’s colony. Throughout, Ames remains faithful to the Wodehouse style, replacing Bertie with the hapless Alan and peppering the narrative with witty and cogent exchanges. One morning, after Alan relates a dream he has had of a beautiful woman, Jeeves lends an ear:

“Perhaps you will dream of her again, sir.”

“You know, I was in love once, Jeeves. My heart still hurts sometimes. It’s like sciatica…I think, ‘Why didn’t she love me?’ And then I get this pain…But I wish I were in love again. I’d like to have a new someone. You know that song, ‘Good Night My Someone’? It was in some musical I saw on TV. According to the song, that’s what you say at night to the person you love when you haven’t met them yet. They’re just out there somewhere. Maybe this blonde is out there.…I’d like to tell someone I love them, Jeeves.”

“A very human longing, sir.”

“Hard facing life by myself, Jeeves.”

“Yes, sir.”

“You, of course, cushion the blow considerably.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Sorry to start the day with such talk, Jeeves.”

“Perfectly all right, sir.”

“I’m not being very stoic,” I said, and inwardly I chastised myself—get moving, Blair! So I stored the memory of the girl from the dream in my mind, like a picture in a wallet. “My towel, Jeeves?” I said, rallying bravely.

“Yes, sir.” (pp. 32–33)

Jeeves remains just this sort of rocklike presence as Alan perpetrates one foible after another and sinks more and more deeply into his alcoholism.

Which calls up the primary theme of the book, addressed on the front cover promo copy:
“Laugh-out-loud funny…[A] Wodehouse novel for the recovery era.”
—The New York Times Book Review
Here, the term recovery era suggests—to me, anyway, and I have some experience with the topic—that we humans are coming to grips with both the effects and the sources of our addictions, and are now figuring out ways to recover. But one shouldn’t read too much into the term and its appearance in the promo copy because this story, poignant and entertaining as it is, and penetrating as it is in its humorous treatment of both causes and effects, actually says very little about recovery. Alan speaks disparagingly of his brief in-patient experience and admits his problem in a free and unabashed way that reveals how clearly he understands it:

The Steps of Alcoholism that I was following went like this:

(1) Have honest intention to stay sober.

(2) Do nothing to stay sober.

(3) Drink.

He is an alcoholic who understands his problem, has every opportunity and advantage in trying to address it—financial resources, creative outlet, supportive family, even a personal valet who is also understanding and supportive—and yet does little to nothing to begin addressing it. The particular corner of the recovery era that Alan Blair exemplifies has little to do with recovery and everything to do with addiction. By giving him to us, Ames exposes through contrast the perplexing obstacles to recovery and the awkwardness and adversity that alcoholics and other addicts face each and every day. Amazingly, as ominous and weighty as that all sounds, it can actually be quite funny in the hands of the skilled artist.