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Adventures in Writing, Reading & Book Culture

What has happened to Literary Friend-Enemy-Acquaintanceship?

Book culture has not given us much of a “present tense” lately. At least, I can’t recall a recent (w/i the last 5 years?) full-scale mention of either contemporary literary friendships, enemies, or even acquaintanceship. Five years is a long time in any history wherein events happen, people become famous or drop away, or people die.

It’s been more than 15 years since Paul Theroux’s In Sir Vidia’s Shadow gave us the story of his and V.S. Naipaul’s falling out. Decades ago Saul Bellow befriended a precocious Martin Amis, and, through letters, we can now enjoy that story. Meanwhile, from about 2000-2015, we have heard about (from news, articles, YouTube) “meetings” between Franzen & Eugenides at some-such-festival; Houellebecq has lots to say about … anything … but little about his peers; J. Safron Foer hardly has anything interesting to say since he’s come out against meat; whenever Gary Shteyngart opens his mouth (or a book), he sounds like a stand-up comic; and then Eugenides (again) has video conversations with Karl Ove Knausgaard, both of whom have erudition behind their eyes.

Yet there is no story behind any of these writers when it comes to literary friendships. I think it’s all because of work, and family, and the fact that, what New York and London used to be, concerning the publishing world (and anything else but cash-on-the-barrel, these days), there is a loss of that intrinsic world. Perhaps people simply want to know the world through social media, and movies, and books … but not book authors, beyond what they say at the latest festival or book show. I find this a tad boring.

In the now distant past, authors used to get together (or be brought together) at events which could showcase their differences of mind, as well as similarities of literary talent. Think of Gertrude Stein’s Paris salon in the 1920s, or New York City in the late 1940s and throughout the ’50s (and even the 60s). Talents large and small came through these cities (Ezra Pound, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway; Faulkner, Vidal, and Capote; Wolfe, Sontag, Roth, and Bellow), where they wrote articles and books, dined at the tables of scions of arts and culture, and even partied till they dropped dead.

In a memoir piece in The New Yorker this month, Thomas Mallon recalls — from 40 years ago — his short time living in a rented room under John Kenneth Galbraith’s roof. And Mallon’s memory extends to many famous names of the time, including William F. Buckley Jr. and Norman Mailer. There’s was a friendship, one of mutual respect. Yes, 40 years ago. Such memoir brings to mind the Vidal-Buckley feud, and the Mailer-Vidal feud (Mailer punched Vidal at a social gathering, and, while on the ground, Vidal famously quipped, “I see words have failed you once again, Norman!”).

Friendships and rivalries and feuds have come and gone, not only (nor as epic) in Arts & Letters. But I haven’t enjoyed any outside the strained sound-recording of Vimeo or YouTube for quite awhile; everybody with a name (and without, just off the frame) makes the rounds to Wye, Frankfurt, even Mumbai. They don’t do anything but talk! What’s more, everyone is terribly congenial … yes-yes, as conversation should be, naturally. Nevertheless, something in these conversations is lacking. I can’t put my finger on it. There is little to lend an ear to, either. Maybe I’m over-burdened by the static of frequency.


What Beauty was published in 2012. It’s a story of art, obsession and ego. Read an excerpt here. It’s available as an ebook, too.

The Village Wit (2010) is a humorous and sometimes dark odyssey through village life, love’s fall, sexual politics, and that place where memory and modern love intersect. Read an excerpt here. This book is also available as an ebook.

My newest novel is “Max, the blind guy” — the story of Max and Greta Ruth, their 40-year relationship, and all the demons that show up as they find that life rarely goes according to plan. This new novel will be published on June 5, 2015 from Siren & Muse Publishing.


If You Have a Thick Skin, You Might Want to Be a Writer

I used to tell my fiction writing students — especially the ones that needed a kick in the ass to hand in pages — that “The easiest thing to do in the world is NOT WRITE.”

Sometimes this did the trick. Of course, the writers in the class (usually just 3 of the 20 students) hadn’t a problem to make story and put it on the page. It was the middle-grounders, the kids who had potential and imagination, but needed a few years to figure out how to tap into their heads, those were the hardest nuts. Nevertheless, the in-class methodology wasn’t hampering them, which was as open a process as made possible for imagination to find a story thread. Perhaps they didn’t like what they had written, or were trying to write, or how it was coming onto the page from the images in their heads.

These are all great concerns of the writer. Fortunately, criticism wasn’t part of the games we played in class. Criticism was the last thing these young writers needed at this stage; peer criticism worse still, because Who would you want least to criticize your early writing efforts but some schmo sitting next to you who himself can’t compose a coherent sentence? Right. What young writers need is encouragement. (I’ll discuss the CCC Fiction Writing Dept’s methodology in a future post)

Encouragement is a fortunate part of a writer’s life, because it can be found everywhere: the written word is bountiful in our literate world; at least, you should have a bookshelf of the best writers whose prose and characters and story are there for you to learn from.

READ GOODS AUTHORS TO LEARN GOOD TECHNIQUES! … (Roth, Bellow, Atwood, Murdoch, Woolfe, Joyce, Rush (Norman, not Limbaugh), Updike, Naipaul, McEwan, Theroux, Doctorow, Franzen, Eugenides, Waugh, Beyer, J.F. Powers, Ford, Barnes, McNair, Harding, Banville, McCarthy, Nabokov … to name but a few) … That’s another thing I told my writing students, mostly because it had worked for me and every writer for whom I held admiration of style, character, content, theme, use of metaphor, story progression; and onward. No, I am not being redundant here.

Redundancy would be for me to point out that rejection and criticism and ignorance is what writers must battle daily. Agents don’t answer but 5% of your queries (90% of which are rejections); publishers send rejections written (scrawled!) across the top of your well-written query letter; the agents and/or pubbers who ask to see your work take 6mos to answer, with another rejection (“We don’t know where your book fits in our marketing profile.”); your writers’ group colleagues don’t understand why Character-X won’t want to continue fucking Character Y “just because”; and, your family keeps asking “When is that book going to be done … Steven King writes a book every year!”; you look at your work one day, and its Pulitzer-bound, while the next day that same page is S-H-I-T; you sign a book contract only to learn the editor-of-the-day doesn’t like your book; when your book is published, the reviewers pass over yours for another title from yet another vampire author; and then, no one buys your book because it’s a single drop in the ocean of titles published this year.

This is what writers live with. And if you have a thick skin, or the perfectly matted feathers of a duck, then you might want to continue as a  writer. Why? Because you need to let the water-beads of rejection slide off you over and over. Meanwhile, you must write one sentence at a time, one paragraph after the next, one chapter and then another, until THE END appears one day on the last page. And then you start another novel.

Forget about the fact that you can publish your long-worked novel (or – GASP! – the one finished yesterday) via Amazon or another POD provider. That’s the first step in the public life of your book. Twitter away; FB is your “friend”; write another blog post — these are just starters in today’s market. And, as far as social media goes, writers are often enough hooked up with other writers, not with the readers they want to engage with. While this isn’t rejection, it can feel like a circle jerk.

So where do you find YOUR readers? Where have all the publishers gone? Why won’t your family read your published book? When shall recognition come to you, and with it the trappings of fame and success?

All of these will happen after you finish the next book. I promise. Now get back to work.


What Beauty is my newest novel, a story of art, obsession and ego. Read an excerpt here. It’s available as an ebook, too.

The Village Wit (2010) is a humorous and sometimes dark odyssey through village life, love’s fall, sexual politics, and that place where memory and modern love intersect. Read an excerpt here. This book is also available as an ebook.