a MobyLives guest column
by Caren Lissner

9 December 2003 — There's one for every generation—at least, there used to be. The Baby Boomers had John Updike to chronicle the maturing of that generation through fiction. Generation X had Doug Coupland, who popularized the term, not to mention, early on, Bret Easton Ellis and, later, pop culture observer Ian Williams' contributions to the seminal nonfiction tome "13th Gen." Earlier generations had Fitzgerald and Hemingway.
      But Generation Y, the teens and early twenty–somethings who are said to represent the biggest chunk of pop culture marketing power, have no one who has encapsulated their generation in their writing so far. Sure, there are some authors their age—Jonathan Safran Foer, at 26, is on the top of the range—but they haven't produced a work meant to encapsulate the generation. Nor has one of them been called upon to become the chief essayist, chronicler or spokesperson for their peers, as Coupland and Williams often were.
      So where are they?
      "This isn't a literary generation," says 20–year–old essayist Marty Beckerman, who also acknowledges that it's still early for Gen Y spokespeople to come to the forefront. "It's the MTV/high–speed Internet generation."
      But there are a few Gen Y writers who are emerging, some of whom, like Beckerman, appear to covet the title of generational spokesman, while others may get it whether they like it or not, and some would like to duck it.
      Beckerman's website proclaims that he "is the 20–year–old spokesman for his generation raised in tropical Anchorage, Alaska and presently living in Washington, D.C. His occasionally controversial writing has appeared most notably in The Anchorage Daily News, The New York Press, Disinformation, Ain't It Cool News and Penthouse Online."
      His book "Generation S.L.U.T." (MTV Books) premieres in February. Like most of his past writing, it's in–your–face, categorizing the generation in a dark way and not showing much of the other side. His prose is artful but stacks the deck in favor of the more promiscuous teens, who, according to Beckerman, have all but given up on love. Like some of the Gen X books that came out in the early 1990s, "Generation SLUT" includes supporting statistics, art, quotations, and personal essays, all of which are interspersed with Beckerman's stereotypical but satirical novella of high school sluts and seducers.
      "Generation SLUT," like many books about teens, paints a bleak picture. Young author Zoe Trope, 17, whose acclaimed chapbook about high school life, "Please Don't Kill the Freshman," was published in hardcover in October by HarperCollins, says that books like "SLUT" and Nick McDonnell's "Twelve" paint her generation in a negative light, sometimes for shock value. She doesn't believe her own book epitomizes most of her generation, either.
      "If someone is stepping forward to be the voice of this generation, it sure as fuck isn't going to be me," says Trope, who graduated from high school in Oregon a year early and will apply to college next year. "And it's not necessarily because I don't want the role or I don't think I'm good enough for it. I refuse to believe I represent my generation at all. I'm a minority, I'm queer, I'm very loud, I have offensive views. I know there are a lot of other kids like me, independent thinkers into the arts, but when I look around at people my age, I don't relate to them very well. What I published is a diary. I'm not heralding it as the novel of my generation."
      Even if Gen Y is worried about books such as "Twelve," they aren't the first generation to have their dark side emphasized. Films like "Slacker" and "River's Edge" and the novel "Less Than Zero" portrayed Generation X'ers as emotionless or drug–addled, too.
      But Beckerman's "Generation SLUT" does have a point. No other generation inspired news reports of "oral sex rings" in schools, and as Beckerman notes, the Columbine shootings were a defining event for his peers.
      However, there is another side to Generation Y.
      New York–based writer Ned Vizzini, 22, will debut his novel Be More Chill (Hyperion) in June, about a high school nerd who buys a pill that tells him what to say in order to be cool. The novel has enough generational references, insight and observation to make it a must–read for the generation, and yet it is well–crafted and humorous enough to transcend its demographic.
      Vizzini made his mark in alternative weekly New York Press when he was 15 in the 1990s by sending in essays about being a computer geek at New York City's competitive Stuyvesant High School. His book of essays, "Teen Angst? Naaah. . . ," was first published in 2000 by Free Spirit Publishing and then reissued by Random House.
      But how would Vizzini feel if granted the role of spokesman? "If the media started saying I was the spokesperson for Generation Y," he says, "I'd be happy, of course, [because] it would sell more books and I'd get more fun e–mails from around the world. But I know from being a writer that being anointed Œspokesman' has less to do with your abilities and more to do with someone's angle."
      Vizzini said that even though Beckerman takes a different approach, "Generation SLUT" is worthwhile. "'Generation SLUT' is, like all great satire, less about representing people accurately and more about using grotesque to show us what we are inside," he says. "I don't know anyone who has as much sex as the kids in 'Generation SLUT.' The people I know can't get laid. But it's a good reflection of how we're perceived and sold to."
      Says Beckerman, "Our icons are worthless, meaningless scum–sucking swine like Britney, Justin and Christina, whose Œart' will never change a single life or affect anyone on a single emotional level. Even the literature that Generation Y celebrates is mediocre swill, like Nick McDonnell's horrendous failure Twelve."
      But Vizzini liked "Twelve." And Beckerman said that Generation Y has discovered non–Gen Y authors, too, like Stephen Chbosky ("Perks of Being a Wallflower"), Susanna Kaysen ("Girl, Interrupted"), and Hunter S. Thompson.
      There are, of course, other talented young writers who have long careers ahead of them. J.T. Leroy, 23, will have his third novel published by Viking next year. Zoe Trope said she believes that if any writer's work represents her generation, it will be Leroy's. She also admires wordriot.org Editor–in–Chief Jackie Corley, 21, who has written fiction and published other authors' chapbooks in her short career.
      There are also Nick Antosca, David Amsden, Christopher Paolini ("Eragon"), Heru Ptah, and the aforementioned Foer.
      But perhaps it's better that none of them have been anointed yet. They all deserve the chance to develop.
      And maybe it's also better for Generation Y if they have a smattering of diverse voices rather than letting the media anoint just one. For every Gen Y'er who is a S.L.U.T., there is still another who is more like Ned Vizzini's protagonist Jeremy, a teen who just wants the courage to ask out the girl in the school play. Between those two extremes are the kids in the middle, all with their own hopes, dreams and dilemmas.
      "Gen Y should have literary spokespeople,"said Vizzini. "It would be . . . great for me to not be the only schmuck who wants to talk about books. But I don't think anyone can personify this generation the way Hemingway did the Lost Generation, at least not with books; it's too small a market. The world has changed. So we're stuck with Britney Spears until we change it back."

Caren Lissner is the editor of The Hoboken Reporter. Her first novel, "Carrie Pilby," about a 19–year–old genius, was published in June by Red Dress Ink. Her next novel, "Starting from Square Two," will be published in March. She can be reached at her website, CarenLissner.com.

©2003 Caren Lissner

  Letters policy: You can write to MobyLives at: dlj AT mobylives.com. All letters must be signed and include an affiliation and/or hometown, although MobyLives will, upon request, run letters that are not linked to a return e–mail address. Correspondents are asked to keep their letters under a million words.

Tuesday, 16 December 2003

Bored? . . .

Over 500 American soldiers—average age, 19—have died in Afghanistan (the forgotten war) and Iraq, all of whom come home in "transfer tubes" free of any media coverage. Thousands of civilians have died in both countries (we'll probably never know exactly how many, as the Army has stopped counting) from direct attacks, not to mention the countless others who will die as a result of poisoning from the use of depleted uranium munitions, disruption of civil services, and long–term economic effects. As it is now, the death toll of Iraq alone has already exceeded that of the first "official" three years of the Vietnam War. Give the War on Terror time to come into its own; it will surely surpass Vietnam in body count, for as "Rummy" says: "The global war is not a war that we fight so that we can declare victory and go home, really." Iraq is simply one of the many places that the Bush administration plan on visiting (those that are skeptical would do well to familiarize themselves with The Project for a New American Century at www.newamericancentury.org). As for the draft, readers should check out the Universal National Service Act of 2003, S.89 (currently awaiting review by the Senate Armed Services Committee) and H.R.163 (currently awaiting Executive Comment). Those bills probably be won't be passed into law, but with the recent re–staffing of the local Selective Service boards and the military being stretched so thin, who knows. Though I may not have to go, concern for friends in the military isn't lessened any. But, I "cannot possibly feel Iraq the way someone your [my] age felt Vietnam." I guess the Patriot Act, the proposed Patriot Act 2 and Victory Act, the Multi–Area Anti–Terrorism Information Exchange (M.A.T.R.I.X.), and the grotesque terrorism futures market aren't threats to our American freedoms. Fortunately, for us, the only effect our weapons have is to cause a "philosophical headache", but for others, like 12–year–old Iraqi Ali Ismaeel Abbas, they destroy homes, blow off arms and tear families apart. But, hey, none of this affects me—I'm just bored.

Nick Marroni
Detroit, MI

Necessary anonymity . . .

Marty Beckerman and others are, I hope, better writers than I was at that age. Then again, has Beckerman even published any fiction yet? He already has a built–in audience and reputation. I hope he won't rush a novel until he's ready, because he doesn't have the benefit of anonymity, as noted by Ian Spiegelman, that all young writers should have—especially if his first attempt is as lame as mine was. My fingers are crossed that it won't be.

Justin Bryant
Elon, North Carolina

Monday, 15 December 2003

Being a "voice," and being a journalist . . .

Hemingway's "Farewell to Arms" was published almost a decade after the WWI events that inspired it; likewise, there was not a flapper to be found in the fashion spreads when Great Gatsby hit the stands. Voices of their generation, certainly; but there's an oft–forgot gap between the events of their youth and the telling of the stories.

People do sometimes write in the moment of youth. Sometimes they're even sucessful at it. But a quick glance at 20th Century American literature proves out that—in fiction and nonfiction alike—stories told immediately in the here and now almost never become "keepers," almost never survive the test of time, almost never become "generational documents." Even if you're 18 or 22 and on the front pages right now, you can hardly be considered a "voice of your generation" if no one remembers you or your book a decade down the road.

Writing about what's cool or weird or different in youth culture RIGHT NOW does not make one a voice of a generation . . . it makes one a journalist.

The events in both Somalia and San Francisco that inspired my novel "The Ice Beneath You" took place when I was 21 and 22. I wrote the book when I was 28, 39, 30. If I had listened to the call of "publish now! now! now! now!" I would have written a significantly lesser work. Timely, perhaps. In tune and time with the youth of my generation, perhaps. But a significantly weaker novel.

Ian Spiegelman wrote in one of his letters here: "Whatever happened to the idea that writers work for a living before they write fiction or poetry for a living?" Such a dead–on point. Yeah sure, the very young, inexperienced, and immature have from time to time written publishable work—I won't say it doesn't happen. But if we can say there is such a thing as a "voice of a generation," I think we can also say that being 19 and writing about your life doesn't make you that voice. It just makes you marketable.

Christian Bauman
New Hope, PA

Things to be thankful for: boredom . . .

Mr. Marroni:

Please don't let me bore you with statistics that you surely already have on hand . . . Oh, say, the 58,000 Americans who died in Vietnam—average age, 19—or the, what?, 2,000,000 or so Vietnamese turned into soil nutrient to ensure that a tiny spec of Southeast Asia without any army to speak of should continue to import Coca–Cola. And I'm certainly not about to debate the merits of the war in Iraq—this is supposed to be a literary discussion. The marrow level effect that I spoke of with Vietnam—the cultural cost—is that it had a direct effect on just about every living American, rather than the philosophical headache the Iraq debate is dolling out. You cannot possibly feel Iraq the way someone your age felt Vietnam for this reason: You don't have to go. You won't be drafted. You won't have to flee to Canada to get out of it. You won't have to wait for Carter to pardon you for dodging it. All you will ever have to do about the war in Iraq is talk about it. Be as concerned as you like about Iraq—that's a good thing—but don't tell me it stands any chance of tearing apart your whole generation, leaving you decimated, addicted, shell–shocked . . . You have boredom and ideals to contend with. Be thankful.

I am not going to respond to your mentioning the Nazis in the context of what you think are our dwindling American freedoms. I need only note that you said it.

Now, I'm off to watch The Simpsons.

Ian Spiegelman
Queens, NY

The marginalization of young writers . . .

Young first novelists are marginalized by continuing to publish (with apparent encouragment from major publishing houses) first–person coming–of–age narratives. Even well–written examples leave the writer with a serious problem: how to follow it up? We're essentially rewarding diarists and bloggers, financially and with intellectual approval, before they've displayed any ability to solve the puzzles of serious and meaningful fiction. Book two, therefore, either never gets written or fails completely. There are dozens of such authors from the 90s, but I've forgotten their names, and so have you.

Justin Bryant
Elon, North Carolina

Marketing ploys . . .

On the generational spokesperson controversy:

What happens after Generation Z? We start with A, or we assume the world ends? Generations are defined by history, not marketing campaigns. Generation X was a marketing label handed kids whom marketers saw would badger their parents into buying things for them, the kids of the previous generation who similarly had much of the world handed to them by parents who wished better lives for them than they'd had themselves.

The "Baby Boom" was a similar marketing ploy. It stretched originally from the late 1940s to 1960—not beyond—and it was determined as the children of returning World War II veterans.

The kids born of that generation had to decide, before their 18th birthday, if they might have to kill others or be killed. And why. After learning about rock–and–roll.

A spokesman or woman for a generation has to see not what eats at that generation, but what destroys it ultimately, what makes a tragedy of life—death.

The question isn't who will "speak" for their "generation." The question is what writers will be able to grasp the persistent plagues on humanity and offer insight into how to overcome such plagues. Not what generation their books can be marketed to.

Terin Miller
Maplewood, NJ

Friday, 12 December 2003

Is wanting a spokesperson a sad sign of the times? . . .

Besides the fact that a spokesperson should only be chosen in retrospect, one still shouldn't be chosen. A person should speak for themselves—it's this habit of deferring to someone else's voice and not making your individual self heard that allows great tragedies to happen. "Now that the days of wars that effect every American at the marrow level (compare Iraq to Vietnam and you are no longer allowed in this discussion) are seemingly over. . ." If the Iraq war doesn't affect you on a "marrow level", then there is something seriously wrong with you. Freedom and liberty are quickly becoming archaic concepts; Nazis burned books (Americans have too). These fundamental issues are the ones that "Generation Y" must concern themselves with—the fact that people are sitting around and discussing who the spokesperson should be shows how irresponsible we all truly are. If we don't get our priorities straight and succeed where previous generations have failed, then Generation Z might not have the luxury to decide who their spokesperson will be.

P.S.—If anyone should think I am being an alarmist, then they need to stop watching television and begin the true search for reality.

Nick Marroni
Detroit, MI

Young people! Speak for yourselves! . . .

It has been heartening to see such a lively debate engendered by Miss Lissner's article, so allow me to throw my two coppers in. I have to agree with the arguments of Ian Spiegelman, it's far to early to be concerned about a dearth of so–called Gen Y spokespeople, given that the vanguard of that generation are now only in their mid–twenties, very much still a larval stage with today's life expectancies. Lamenting that the next Updike or Hemingway has yet to emerge is much like scouring through the online poetry of countless angst–ridden high–school students and bewailing that there doesn't seem to be evidence of another T.S. Eliot or Sylvia Plath in the making. The artists who will come to be important are no doubt out there; they just need more time to gestate. The literary "spokespersons" for Gen Y may not be known for another decade, perhaps even longer.

That is presuming of course that it is even possible for a writer to be considered a spokesperson for their generation. I would suggest that it isn't. It is wise that young authors such as Zoe Trope and Ned Vizzini have disavowed interest in being appointed as Gen Y's literary voices. The only persons whom writers can speak for with certainty are themselves.

M. C. Ward
London, Ontario

Dear potential spokesperson: Get a job . . .

We all know that the business of book publishing only vaguely resembles anything that should properly be called a business. But I would suggest that one of the most basic problems on the literary side of things is exactly that search for "break out" debuts. Most of the first time authors that come around every season cannot possibly sell enough copies (at an outrageous $24.95 per) to make back an advance of $100,000, let alone an obscene $500,000. Publishers deserve to be floundering when they throw away that kind of money in the let's–invent–an–author crapshoot a dozen times a year. This tact is even more odious when it applies to the very young, whose fat advances tend to guarantee the monetary failure of their first efforts. What's worse, these bloated paydays enable young writers to sidestep that little detail of growing up that young people always find so tedious: Getting a freaking job.

Vonnegut toiled in PR, Melville was a customs clerk, Morrison worked in an office and wrote on the subway, Twain was a journalist (and a failed prospector), T.S. Eliot worked in a bank, Wallace Stephens was in insurance . . . Whatever happened to the idea that writers work for a living before they write fiction or poetry for a living?

That's another reason why the Ys have no literary voice. It isn't simply that it lacks "an accumulated backlist." It's because they haven't done anything yet. What differentiated the generation born during the ten year war in Vietnam (call us X if you must) from the three generations that preceded it is that we didn't have a war to define ourselves by. And so we were defined by a lack. That's a real shame, it's also where "pop culture" and "culture" began to be used interchangeably by people who should have known better. I would encourage the Ys not to go there, though I'm sure I'm too late.

Now that the days of wars that effect every American at the marrow level (compare Iraq to Vietnam and you are no longer allowed in this discussion) are seemingly over, generations should find more useful ways to define themselves than what they were doing from 18 to 25. To that end, it's more important than ever that writers be adults and look at the world as adults and aspire to adult accomplishments. In a world where teenagers regularly publish novels, I would have to say that publishing a novel no longer feels much of an accomplishment. Another shame.

But you know what I just thought of? The folks who marketed my generation as wasted X'ers and who are currently rallying the Y's to get into the market while the money's still wet are one in the same: Smelly, dirty hippies. They're trying to seduce you out of your youth, telling you you'd better hurry up or you're gonna miss out on the story of your generation. Don't be deceived! It's a trap! People tell their best stories when they're ready to tell them. Young people always think they're ready. It is unfortunate that we now have a culture in which money–obsessed grown–ups are encouraging that delusion.

My fave, Celine: "Youth may be nothing more than a hurry to grow old." Fuck yeah. When you consider it, youth is a piece of shit. You can't make your own decisions, can't pay your own rent, and you can't be a serious novelist. But, guess what? We all go through it. So suck it up, kids.

Ian Spiegelman
Queens, NY

Spokesperson, or prop for a failing industry? . . .

It may be a little premature to crown a Generation Y writer for no other reason than there isn't an accumulated backlist to anyone yet. Let's, for example, see if Jonathan Foer has another book or two in him first. This seems rather likely, but the economics of the book trade have changed so much that a backlist is no longer a certainty even if Foer, or someone like him, writes five novels as good as Everything is Illuminated. Consolidation and corporatization in the book trade doesn't allow for nurturing young writers and editorial titans than can carry a favoured charge through the lerarning curve are in short supply. I'd love to see a flourishing supply of young writers, but Amazon's two billion dollar debt and the advent of other entertainment options with higher profit margins, all of which Amazon is only too happy to retail, don't bode well even if there are a million new voices coming up with a can't miss first novel.

This is not meant to be a bleak assessment for the sake of being world weary, but a retail environemnt dominated by debt ridden publishers and online retailers who need breakout books just to keep the lights on, is not conducive to the search for a spokesperson for the next fiscal year, never mind the next generation. The solution if there is one, has to come from an acknowledgement that allows for a business model that works to perpetuate itself.

Dave Worsley
Waterloo, Ontario

He can't help himself . . .

In response to Elizabeth Hogan:

I didn't mean to imply that Kevin Smith can be compared in any way to JFK or Martin Luther King. However, all of the writers/musicians/filmmakers I listed inspired a lot of thought, discussion and passion from Gen Xers when they were going through their teens and twenties. (In the cases of Ellis and Coupland, maybe not passion so much as discussion.) Nobody speaks to Gen Y like that, especially writers, and that's a major problem.

As for my "self–importance speak[ing] for itself"... Shit, it's not my fault that I'm the greatest writer of my generation, is it? It's not my fault that I'm capable of literary feats even Shakespeare would've salivated over, don't you understand? It's not my fault that I'm the only interesting person left in the World, wouldn't you agree? It's not my fault that when the Universe finally contracts upon itself and all life is reduced to Nothingness, the only two names that shall live on for All Eternity are that of Almighty God—the Creator Himself—and Martin Beckerman. Why can't any of you process that information?

Marty Beckerman
Washington, D.C.

Poetry application for the spokesperson position . . .

Is there an unwritten rule here that to speak for a generation you have to be writing prose? Though I have no idea as to his personal intentions, the poetry I've read by Ben Lerner seems to address our generation in a more powerful way than any of the fiction I've read. Passages like ". . . An expert described your son// as incapable of some really important shit./ Your son described his name in the air with a spliff." or "You are the first and last indigenous Nintendo." or "The chicken is a little dry and/or you’ve ruined my life." hit home for me, on a generation–defining level.

Does it matter that poetry doesn't sell well? Or that there is no one single point being hammered home?

C. Nolan DeWeese
Port Townsend, WA

Aren't spokespeople chosen in retrospect? . . .

There are many reasons why Generation Y doesn't have a spokesman or hero, but first and foremost is because they are looking in the wrong place. Writers, musicians, and filmmakers can all acheive greatness and provide us with entertainment and something to think about, and can be the type of writer, musician, filmmaker we aspire to if we are in those fields, but heroes?

Cobain? Eh. Tarantino? Yeah, right. And Coupland? While I don't shun away from my Generation X label, I don't think that his book was "speaking for his generation" so much as chronicling it and showing us how it affected a group of characters.

I would disagree with Spiegelman's comments about people in their teens and 20s not being able to write something. Their are many good young writers (and writing isn't something you need a degree for, like that 23 year old surgeon he mentions). The problem I see is that many young writers *themselves* (and positioned this way by publishers) are trying to become spokespeople for their generation, by either proclaiming it outright or tackling big social issues in their books. Maybe they should learn to write fiction for entertainment and plot and character and style, and leave the bigger questions for later.

Maybe it's an age thing. I don't look for heroes in writing anymore, unless I'm trying to write the next chapter and I look to Elmore Leonard or Fitzgerald or TC Boyle or Jim Thompson or Sedaris to see how they did it.

Besides, "spokespeople" for a particular generation usually don't become spokespeople until history decides that they are, 10 or 20 years later, when their books can be put into some sort of context. Unless of course People or Newsweek needs someone for a story they're doing on "the next big thing" or "hey, what's up with Generation Y?!" I look forward to reading books from Beckerman and Antosca and Vizzini, not because I think they speak for any generation, but because they're good writers.

Bob Sassone
Editor, Professor Barnhardt's Journal
Boston, MA

Thursday, 11 December 2003

Real heroes . . .

In response to Beckerman's rant:

Looking for an official spokesperson for Generation Y is irrelevant, not ludicrous. What's ludicrous is equating the pop cultural "heroism" of Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino with the real–world heroism of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.

I would also like to add something in Spiegelman's defense, but I don't think he needs it; Beckerman's self–importance speaks for itself.

Elizabetn Hogan
Somerville, MA

Spiegelman responds to Beckerman . . .

to Marty Beckerman:

Relax. First, we are talking literature here. You can't compare pop music to literature. Did I love Cobain and the Clash? Sure. Did they say things that stirred my blood. Chips ahoy! But. Did they speak for me? No. They spoke to me. In any case, rock music is by its very nature something to be created by teenagers and people under 27, when most rockers should by all rights die or retire. The main thing required of a good rock song is that it be raw. Youngsters have rawness in abundance. Good literature requires more than rawness, and I'd discuss that in more detail if I could make a day of it.

You show your hand when you write, "Mr. Spiegelman seemingly believes that no teenage writing is worthwhile for the mass market." (A) Why are you interested in the "mass market"? I'm not. I'm interested in good writing. (B) I don't know what "teenage writing" is, but it sounds to me like the stuff everyone fills notebooks with while they are learning to write. Did Kerouac, Thompson, or any of the other writers you named seek to have their high school journals published? Is someone's youth really so important that we must read about it before it's even finished?

Finally, let's look at this sentence: "We're subsequently the most depressed, passionless, self–destructive and whiny kids in American history." No. You're not. But you are still, all of you, quite young and therefore prone to that hair–triggered, exaggerated and inaccurate mode of self–aggrandizement that is inherent to youth. We've all had it, we've all suffered it in others, we all know the sound of it. Enjoy it while it lasts, but don't try to write with it. It misses the note every time in terms of veracity, tone and emotion. It's that reason, above all else, that we don't see and don't expect great books from the very young.

By the way, I do not know a single person to whom the writings of Douglas Coupland have ever mattered. And I have never read Less Than Zero.

Ian Spiegelman
Queens, NY

Gen Y needs heroes not spokespeople . . .

The reason Generation Y doesn't have a spokesperson is simple: Nobody can speak for a generation. What we're lacking isn't spokespeople and pundits, but heroes. When our parents were our age, they had JFK, MLK, the Beatles, Hunter Thompson, Kerouac, Kesey, Didion, etc. Even Generation X had Cobain, Kevin Smith, Tarantino, Costello, the Clash, Bret Ellis and Doug Coupland. These figures all managed to generate true passion from large numbers of stoned little boys and girls, but all Generation Y has are pre–manufactured Wastes of Biomass.

We're subsequently the most depressed, passionless, self–destructive and whiny kids in American history. (What other explanation is there for Emo music?) The reasons for this are myriad but open to evaluation, and there is nothing wrong with a young person examining his/her peers and asking the Big Questions. That's why literature exists—to reevaluate daily life in a meaningful context; not so you pretentious NYC assholes can publish your shitty poems in Williamsburg lit journals.

Looking for an Official Spokesperson for Generation Y is ludicrous, but neither should teenagers and 20–somethings be denied major attention when they have something serious to say—and hopefully the ability to say it with eloquence. Mr. Spiegelman seemingly believes that no teenage writing is worthwhile for the mass market, but he writes for the New York Post, and thus has no right to judge the worth of anyone's writing.

Marty Beckerman
Washington, D.C.

It ain't me . . .

As one of several "young writers" briefly mentioned at the end of Caren Lissner's column, I can only speak for myself. But I want to say this: I have no ambition to be a spokesperson for anyone else. Nor would I want anyone else considered a spokesperson for me. I know almost nothing about my generation of video gamers, and I don't really want to learn now. All I'm interested in is getting stuff from my head to a piece of paper with a measure of control and precision.

Nick Antosca
New Haven, CT

Wednesday, 10 December 2003

Previous spokespeople were older than that . . .

Thank you, Ian Spiegelman!

I would just like to add that the two writers cited at the beginning of the article as the voices of their respective generations were in their late 20s—not their early 20s—when their first major works were published. John Updike was 28 years old when "Rabbit, Run" was published in 1960, and Doug Coupland was almost 30 when "Generation X" came out in 1991.

Incidentally, as a 25 year–old, I consider myself part of the generation that slipped between the cracks of Generation X (I never watched the Partridge family, not even in reruns) and Generation Y (my high school experience did not include IM and Buddy Lists, and I was in college when the Columbine shootings happened). When I was a senior in high school, my English teacher would lament the absence of any literary voice for our (then mid–90s) generation. Even then, notion of a generational spokesperson struck me as irrelevant; worrying about it smacked of a misplaced nostalgia for one's lost youth. It still does.

Elizabeth Hogan
Somerville, MA

Oh, grow up! . . .

I just have to weigh in on this. Teens and people in their early twenties don't have a "literary spokesperson" because they are teens and people in their early twenties. There's obviously material, plenty of it, to be dredged from ages 0–24, but it takes time and patience to know what to do with it. Do you remember all the very, very bad writing that came in the first few months after September 11, 2001? Here you had all the country's alleged best authors shitting themselves to say something that matched the size of the event. But sorry, New Yorker, nothing worth writing can be written without substantial time to process it—what did it mean, how did it really feel, as opposed to how you remember it feeling or how you'd expect it to feel. Most importantly, what's the right word, sentence, rythm? You don't get that by slapping together a few memories in Freshman year and hoping they stick.

Does anyone else here find it interesting that the most important novel about World War One came out in 1932 and the best one on WWII came out 16 years after VJ Day? (By the way, generation Y has a real problem learning history. Unless you know how many people died in all of America's wars, you are not allowed to be an American novelist. You also have to read all the fat stuffy old books that you think you hate—I'm still working on that.)

Dashiel Hammett, who fought in two world wars and never wrote about either one, said in his last—unfinished—novel "The problem isn't about having enough material. It's organizing it." Whenever a young writer is naive enough to ask my advice, I say, "Learn to wait." The current trend of searching for the youngest possible writers to sound off on their generation is frankly toxic. First, it is ruining young writers by robbing them of their time to develop in anonymity. The idea that it's just accepted that the second novel won't be as good as the first is a blaspheme created by putting youngsters out of the gate before they've even learned anything. There are processes inherent to becoming an adult that are essential to becoming the best writer you can be. Getting published when you've only begun that process, robs you of that process. If you want to know what a certain generation is like, it has to grow up before it can tell you with any meaning.

Ah, and you'll point out the youth or Hem and Fitz when their first books came out. If you witness the end of human civilization, you can write a great book at any age. But college and sharing an apartment in Williamsburg, while certainly a damnable existence, doesn't quite measure up in terms of automatic aging.

Look at what's being said in this column. JT Leroy is the best writer of your generation? And the person who said it is, what, eighteen? You have 18–year–olds proclaiming for 23–year–olds. Does that not scream silly to you? And both are talented writers, whose talents are being over–exposed and will now have the otherworldly experience of a readership waiting for them to produce, breathing down their necks. Oh, and the joy of having critics ponder whether what you wrote at 18 is better than what you wrote at 20! What a feast! Better than not having gotten published? No. Because they will never know what kind of writers they'd have made if they went through the growing–up process while they became writers. And if the only reason one is published is because they're so young, is that really a ringing endorsement? Would you like the cultural history of your world penned by teenagers? Another thing: when you start thinking literature is "pop culture" rather than "culture" you should fear the worst.

Also, there is no such thing as a "literary spokesperson" for any generation. I'm not sure what generation I fit into, but tell me that Coupland represents anything I think or am and I've gotta laugh. Also, "Slacker" is a puny movie. If you think of yourself in terms of your generation, you end up forcing out the pablum that the hungry publishers want, and who want one book out of you, and who will leave you penning style pieces for Salon when you're thirty.

What is important about you is not what makes you similar to other people your age—it's what makes you different. Come on, we know this.

I consider several of the young writers mentioned to be friends of mine, and I sincerely appreciate their—budding—talents. But writing fiction is a craft, and craftsmanship is learned slowly. Would you let a 23 year–old perform surgery on you? My conviction is that bad writing is bad religion, that it is lethal. A rushed writer is a bad writer, a rushed writer is a one trick pony begging to happen. Remember back in the day when your favorite writer had six, seven, ten novels that you loved to death? Why do you suppose that doesn't happen anymore?

If you think Scott Fitzgerald is the best this country has to offer, than you can disregard this whole letter—it will never matter to you. Even Hemingway, tragic Hemingway, always felt sorry for Fitzgerald, who knew until the day he died that he'd blown his wad too early, that he never quite became an adult. I feel the same way about Fitzgerald as Hemingway did: If he could write a book as good as Gatsby, he could certainly write a better one. But he never did. Then he tried to write for Hollywood. Die Hard, anyone?

In closing, Jackie Corley rocks.

Ian Spiegelman
Queens, NY

Too many spokespeople as it is . . .

I'd actually be pretty disturbed if there was a specified generational spokesman for two reasons:

(1) We should be out failing graciously right now or fucking up altogether—in both our writing and in our lives. Experience is the only honest–to–God way to emerge with any unique world perspective.

What I like about Zoe's book is that she's playing with language. She's not claiming to have the answers or be a generational spokeswoman. She's experimenting and finding her voice. "Please Don't Kill the Freshman" is a worthy read because you're thrust inside the mind of an emerging talent, not one that's fully formed (and thankfully so, because who wants to peak at 17?) I think her saving grace in this whole 100-grand-advance-found-at-fourteen mêlée is that she doesn't take the whole thing too seriously.

(2) There's a definite need for a multiplicity of voices, and ones that match the look and feel of the country right now. Pinning down a particular generational voice naturally limits the perspective. I worry about the tendency for designated voices—because I believe these voices to be more a product of publicity campaigns that caught on than anything else—will be rich and New York, which is what it has been for far too long.

Nick McDonnell's book ("Twelve") was an attempt to saddle our generation with the new Bret Easton Ellis. But it’s all been done before and with more heart: I have my disaffected prep school book in "Catcher in the Rye," thank you very much, and I don’t need or want a diluted version of it that lacks the universality of its sentiments.

Publishing, more than any other industry competing for people's attention spans, is ignorant and confused about how to engage most of the country. I said it before in a MobyLives letter, but I don't buy the "people these days don't read" argument. There's a limited audience for books because publishing establishments have routinely overlooked and condescended to most of America. Books are marketed in Publishers Weekly and The New York Times, but not in Weird N.J. I think there's something wrong with that traditional way of looking at book marketing. There are a helluva lot of smart, working–class and middle-class teens and twenty–somethings who are interested in ideas. Most of my friends have turned to punk rock to get the philosophical challenges they need. There's no reason fiction can't be a part of that experience. (I think that's why Soft Skull Press and Akashic Books have caught on and will continue to flourish.)

The writers of my generation who I like are the ones honing their talent on the internet magazines and the small presses (and granted I'm biased). I like the variety of voices and ideas coming out of these non–traditional literary places.

Jackie Corley
Word Riot Press
Middletown, NJ

Tuesday, 9 December 2003

Spokesperson? We don't need no stinkin' spokesperson . . .

As someone who rides the fine line between X & Y, I've always thought the last thing we needed were more spokespeople, more voices claiming authority and exclusivity for a gang many of us don't necessarily want to belong to.

As for the Hemmingways and Fitzgeralds, as Beckerman writes, many of our greats are exploring new media, incorporating text and image and sound, scoping out, scooping out, and shouting out about this new ground on the internet. Though the perks and the fame ain't the same, when you're book gets rejected by all major Australian publishers for not being commercial enough or for being far too controversial, the internet and CD–ROMS can often be a valid alternative.

Maybe instead of mouthpieces what we need more of are valid alternatives.

Geoff Parkes
Toowoomba, Australia

Monday, 8 December 2003

Comparing lit politics to gov't politics is like comparing apples to oranges—or Stephen King's award to Oprah Winfrey's . . .

In response to Fritz Swanson's reply to my suggestion that Stephen King apologize to the NBF:

I'm not sure what good it does to make an obviously faulty comparison between the literary world and the world of politics and government. First of all, publishing is a) a business and b) a form of cultural production. It's not "democratic" in any sense: the only people who get published are the people the publishers choose. Some books make publishing companies a lot of money; other books bring those companies less money, but other intangibles, like prestige and prominence (that's where the "cultural production" side of things comes in). The argument that only authors like King "earn their money the only fashioned way: by pleasing their readers individually" makes no sense to me. If one earns less money by pleasing fewer readers, the money is still the same, isn't it? Any author with a commercial house is being published because he or she has some value to that company—tangible, or some combination of tangible and intangible. Needless to say, nobody stays published very long in that world if they don't find some kind of audience.

Fritz says that "Literary Fiction is a product of two intertwined courts: the MFA system and those New York editors who find that system a satisfying mirror in which to find themselves." I'm not sure what the second part of the sentence means, but to suggest that the "literary fiction" that gets published by major publishers is a "product of the MFA system" is just silly. Is he suggesting that editors at Random House, Penguin, HarperCollins, et al buy books with no regard to the market? Or that somehow "literary fiction" manages to subsist without significant numbers of books being sold to (presumably) pleased readers who come back for more?

A few years ago the NBF gave the same award King receieved to Oprah Winfrey—someone well outside the literary "court" Fritz describes—for her "service to contemporary literature," or words to that effect. There was very little protest. Why? Because Oprah's book club, say what you will about it, managed to convince millions of Americans to stop reading people like Stephen King and Jackie Collins and start reading "literary" fiction instead (even somewhat difficult authors like Toni Morrison). I imagine that part of the reason King was so defensive, and so whiny, about his award is that he can't make the argument Fritz would like him to make—that "literary fiction" is just a bunch of snobs who give each other prizes and couldn't possibly make it in "the real world" of the marketplace. (Need I point out that by supporting this argument one buys into the age–old but never–more–popular American worship of the free market as the sole arbiter of value?) Thanks to the proliferation of big–box bookstores, the Internet, and people like Oprah, the market for literary fiction is probably twice as large as it was ten years ago. It seems that there were millions of Americans who really wanted to read something other than formulaic crap; they simply had no access to it before.

I have no idea why the NBF decided to give King the award. In any case, none of the above was the point of the letter I wrote to Mobylives. I explicitly said, "Stephen King has a right to his opinion about the state of contemporary literature." My argument, and I stand by it, is that if you're receiving an award (which is, by definition, not "democratic" or "empirical"—it's a subjective judgment, acknowledged as such, by a group which never pretends to go by anything other than its own combination of tastes in literature, and which rotates every year) and are planning to accept it with a speech, you don't pack the house with your supporters and yes–men like (to borrow Fritz's analogy) some sort of petty tyrant who can't stomach anything other than unqualified love and admiration.

Jess Row
New York, NY

Thursday, 4 December 2003

How to solve the NBA problems . . .

All this whining about Stephen King paying $60,000 to bring 60 of his friends to the National Book Awards makes me think. Now, I'm not good at math, but that equals out to $1000 a seat, right? Based on that, I'm wondering: if King doesn't pack those seats with his friends, won't there just be more high–level publishing people sitting down to a fancy chicken dinner? I mean, really, what small–market "literary" author can afford to pull up a chair (bonus points for anyone who did NOT just yell out "Rick Moody!") and raise a glass to the alleged best of the best?

If we want to keep rich writers from stacking the house when they accept their controversial awards, we gotta find a way to get some people in there to keep it real.

So here's my idea: Instead of apologizing, Stephen King should establish a $60,000 yearly subsidy to bring 60 underprivileged authors to the NBAs every year. Let's make it an essay competition. Everyone turns in 2000 words on, say, "Why The Way I Write Is Better Than The Way Everyone Else Writes," and the best essays win you a seat at Table 43. The contest should be judged, not by King himself, but rather a rotating panel from all walks of the bookish life—editors, publishers, "literary" novelists, "airline" novelists, a couple of bloggers, and a greeter at Wal-Mart.

This way, when people are watching the ceremony from home (on Book TV at 2 in the morning), they'll know that what they're seeing is the most objective and unbiased audience possible. Very much the way it is with the Oscars, or the VH–1 "Big in '03" awards. Mr. King! Mr. King! Who are you wearing tonight?

Whitney Pastorek
editor, Pindeldyboz
Queens, NY

No laughing matter? . . .

Tim Hall says he does not like to have Robert Lasner's views shoved in his face. But what is publishing, if not shoving your views in someone's face?

Good business, in a general sense, requires not that you avoid controversy, but that you satisfy your customers. Lasner, one supposes, does not expect to find many customers among supporters of President Bush. Why, then, cater to them, when a gratuitious jab will be appreciated by those who are potential customers?

Besides, we've seldom had a President more deserving of gratuitous jabs than this one.

Phil Sheehan
Schenectady, NY

My pleasure . . .

I learn so much about life from MobyLives. Today, for example, I learned what's wrong with the Democratics. They lash out at someone who makes a feeble joke about our unelected president, who is a, um, Republican. Thus did I learn what I'd only suspected before: there's no difference between the two major parties. The Democrats are every bit as stupid, not to mention humorless, as the Republicans.

Thanks, Moby!

Stan Ramos
San Francisco, CA

Tuesday, 2 December 2003

Lay off the prez . . .

I read this week's column by Robert Lasner with great interest, as I have been debating the pros and cons of starting a small—er, independent—press for some time. I enjoyed Mr. Lasner's piece very much, and wanted to purchase a copy of For Fuck's Sake purely because his story inspired me so much. That is, until I came to the unfortunate ending of the piece:

"[I]f you are able to somehow grow your press into something significant, you will feel an arrogance unmatched by even our current President."

And that's a good thing?

It's not Mr. Lasner's poltical views I object to, it's having them shoved in my face that I don't like. Not only was the jab against the President gratuitous, it potentially alienates half the people who might otherwise become customers (including this registered Democrat). Whatever his political views, surely Mr. Lasner understands that's not good business.

Tim Hall
New York, NY

Bloom doesn't smell . . .

I am a student of Professor Bloom's at NYU, and in the few months I've studied with him, he has made a major contribution to my life. So I feel compelled to say a few words in his defense in response to Steve Almond's column, "The Bloom is Off the Mark."

What disturbs me about Almond's article is his refusal to consider Bloom's side of the argument. I agree that the question of whether or not Stephen King is a good writer is irrelevant, as would Bloom. Bloom's contention is with The National Book Award committee's failure to recognize the scores of other candidates who have contributed more to the American literary tradition and have reaped far fewer rewards, in terms of public recognition and book sales.

Now I realize that the term "American literary tradition" sounds elitist. However, I say it because I think it is necessary for us to consider what books we would hand down to our children, or our students for that matter. While Stephen King's novels are lots of fun, the National Book Award is meant to reflect literary merit, which, in my admittedly subjective opinion, describes a book that entices us to struggle for more difficult pleasures.

Now I have no qualms with easy reading, just as I prize the value of a good nap or a scare on Halloween. Still, I validate the writers still out there who labor long and hard writing challenging books that dare me to look at the world with the eye of a painter, psychologist, poet and historian. The function of the National Book Award is to recognize the merit of these lesser known works, not to remind us that the best selling writer in the world is still around. In rewarding Stephen King, we neglect Delillo's Underworld, Roth's Human Stain, Pynchon's Gravity's rainbow, McCarthy's Blood Meridian, and countless other difficult books that most people have no interest in reading.

Almond says that Bloom feels it is necessary to sound off against writers he deems inferior, as opposed to celebrating the writers (and the ideas) he admires. I consider this unfair. Bloom spent five minutes on the phone with the New York Times defaming Stephen King and wrote 800 words challenging the merits of reading Harry Potter. But over the past few decades Bloom has committed the entirety of his life to celebrating his favorite authors.

I recommend Almond pick up Genius: A Mosaic of 100 Exemplary minds, which provides an infinitely more satisfying argument than I am capable of in the space of an email. We all know we are supposed to value Shakespeare, Dante, Virgil, Homer, Cervantes, and Plato, but few of us know why, nor do we want to be told, by Bloom or anyone else. But these are not assignments, nor is Bloom a schoolmarm. He merely shares with us what these writers have taught him and how they are significant to him on a personal level. This is his take on literary criticism--celebration and elucidation, not bilious snobbery, as Almond would have your readers believe. He is also many times more prolific than Stephen King (just try doing an Amazon search on him) despite the health issues Almond chose to poke fun of in his column.

I think Almond does himself a disservice by portraying Bloom as a "narrow–minded snob" when you are unfamiliar with the man, his history, and his scholarly work. His point regarding King and Rowling is that we do not need to be reminded of the entertainment value of their books by critics circles. If a National Book Award is to serve its purpose by introducing a new audience to a valuable book, we should first put some time into considering what we deem valuable, or in Almond's words, "heroic." There isn't time enough to read every book out there. We need some voices to guide us to the less obvious, more challenging, most miraculously rewarding of books, which happen not to be the bestsellers. And as for snobs taking pot shots at easy targets, I recommend Steve Almond take another look at his own article.

Drew Reynolds
New York, NY

Monday, 1 December 2003

King elected? . . .

I consider Jess Row a friend, so let me temper this statement: I find his demand that King deliver an apology laughable.

As Jess is, I am sure, keenly aware, the "literary" world is the least democratic of places, even in America. The MFA system, which Jess and I are both products of, is notorious for (perhaps even defined by) such an elaborate system of patronage as to make the Jacobean court look like a meritocracy. Hell, I would say a quarter of the writing we produce in the literary world is devoted to this very subject. Literary Fiction is a product of two intertwined courts: the MFA system and those New York editors who find that system a satisfying mirror in which to find themselves.

At least King earned his money the old fashioned way: by pleasing each of his readers individually. Awards like the National Book Award are instead created *explicitly* in opposition to that very democratic process. Awards, fellowships, tenure, chairs, are all created as explicit conservation reserves for those creatures of letters who cannot for whatever reason survive in the brutal jungle of a free market. The money for an award like this doesn't spring from a million eager wallets (at least not directly), but instead from a circle of learned advisors acting in the name of an Abstract and Ideal Literature.

Now, debating the merits of these two systems is a much larger task then any of us can do in a single letter. Perhaps we need Pop Literature to finance publishing, and perhaps we need awards and tenure and the like to preserve alternative kinds of writing. Or perhaps not. I don't know for sure. But it seems entirely ridiculous to defend the virtue of one with the virtue of the other.

The National Book Award is NOT a democratic process. It is, by its own definition, a discriminatory process that calls on "higher" ideals of literature to help it pass judgment. The very idea of an Award is to recognize "empirically" good writing, even when (or perhaps especially when) that writing is not recognized by a broad population.

In that sense, the NBF draws its reasoning from the theory of Anointed leaders, its aesthetics more akin to a divine right than a fair election. Like a freedom fighter (or a terrorist, depending on your perspective) invited to a royal banquet, King did the only sensible thing a person in his position could do: bring along a healthy retinue of comrades-at-arms. It was the court that invited him, after all, not the other way around. Of course King would bring along friends. He was suspicious. And judging by the response (before and after the event), I think his suspicions were well founded.

King couldn't have rigged the election. In a system that honors Platonic ideals, there are no elections. Good writing is pre-ordained, or so it would seem.

But this is where things get a little messy. If a monarchy is ordained by divine right, then it should never fear a democracy. And likewise, if a Literary Award is truly in tune with the empirical aesthetic, then it has nothing to fear from a pop writer. Great Literature will Stand The Test of Time.

The National Book Award by the very nature of its mission to define and reward great literature should be, like the pope, infallible. Even if a heretic fills the halls with a million friends, the award (and the ideal it upholds) will outlast the revolution.

If Jess Row believes in the Divine Right of the National Book Award, if he has faith in its mission and its purpose—which is to say if he believes there is empirically great literature identified (and thus defined) by that award, then he should have no fear of King or concern for what King does; he's just a lowly, foolish jester being crowned for a day by a cruel clutch of court dandies who thought it might give the king a laugh. (I recognize, by the way, that Mr. King's name makes my metaphor unfortunately messy.)

But wait, if the NBF *wasn't* playing a prank, we are left with an unsettling alternative. Either Stephen King *is* a Great Writer who belongs in the hallowed company of those past recipients, OR the NBF is fallible.

If the first is true, a lot of us folks in the Court of Fine Literature owes King an apology. If the second is true, then maybe this whole definition of Great Literature as protected and preserved by the NBF and others is itself a faulty idea (or, if there is such an ideal floating out in space, humankind's ability to discern that ideal is deeply flawed). If the NBF is fallible, maybe King was right after all when he faulted the audience for having so brazenly discounted their own culture. Either way you look at it, Stephen King isn't the real issue. Rather, it is the "literary" world that has some serious soul searching ahead of it. And hopefully we will have the courage to make some serious changes.

Fritz Swanson
Manchester, MI

Thursday, 20 November 2003

Chicken a la King . . .

Stephen King is certainly entitled to his opinion about the state of American letters, but to pack the house with friends as a way of guaranteeing applause is cowardly and insulting to the NBF, the judges, the nominees and winners. It's the rhetorical equivalent of buying an election. I looked at his official website to try to find a way to contact him directly—no such luck—but at least I can say it here: he ought to apologize, in public, for his dishonesty.

Jess Row
New York, NY

I'm all lost at the supermarket . . .

I'm finding it increasingly annoying that the popular kids (like Stephen King) are picking on me for not liking them more. Dude, don't y'all have enough readers? Is there not room in the world for writing that is entertaining and intellectually stimulating? I don't get that from the authors King praised in his speech at the National Book Awards dinner. I fear that the state of American literature will become like my elementary school graduation, when the principal stated that he didn't want to give out any scholarly achievement awards, as he didn't want to single out the smart kids. And then he announced the awards for athletics.

And as far as Michael Jackman assuming that my American experience precludes writerly 500 page novels—well, that's a bit presumptuous. Is there not enough room on the shelf for Budweiser and your local microbrew? I understand that Jackman's quibble is with the celebration of what he calls writerly novels, but hell, dude, it's not like most of these authors are making the money King, Patterson, et al. are making. Awards are pretty much all they have to look forward to.

Anyway, this all makes me very angry. It's difficult enough for a non–genre writer to get published, and now with all this "I won't buy any book I can't buy at the supermarket" rhetoric, it will become even harder.

Marie Mundaca
New York, NY

Vive le counter-culture . . .

Thank you thank you thank you for highlighting the fact that 1. Stephen King paid $60,000 to bring 60 of his friends to lead the cheers for himself at the National Book Awards, and 2. Shirley Hazzard could care less about him and continues to read Shakespeare and Conrad.

For all the criticism King reportedly received (quick, name a critic besides Harold Bloom), it was refreshing to see someone point out that this dolt is no more than a bully with a wad. If he's the "culture," as he claims he is, then shoot me now.

Michelle Mayer
Chicago, IL

Wednesday, 19 November 2003

It's all about entertainment . . .

J. Peder Zane from the Raliegh News & Observer related disdain in the statement, "We're equating arts and culture with entertainment." As far as I know both include entertainment, in fact literature began as entertainment.

Before the printed page, people who knew their timing and how to plot sat by the campfire and told stories to rapt faces. Homer wrote epic adventure tales. Sophocles hoped for loud gasps in the right places. Shakespeare grinned when the groundlings chortled and hooted at the bawdy bits.

The elitism that pops up (as in Zane's statement) is needlessly exclusionary and helps to create a segregated playing ground for readers. It's these attitudes that narrow and confine the space we occupy. One of the things the King debate reveals is a superficial class struggle. Having standards is fine; use them to guide your reading habits, not as an excuse to belittle and aggrandize.

Ivy Holt
Burbank, CA

And the REAL writers are . . .

Thank you for bringing to our attention Gordon Burns' essay on the state of American fiction.

Though Burns may be correct about Franzen, Eugenides, et al., the real problem is that he's reading inauthentic American writers. We, the authentic American writers, are out here in the American wilderness. The problem is, Burns is sniffing the hothouse flowers cultivated by the literary elite, not filling his nostrils with the perfume of our American wildflowers.

People are catching on, though. Can the day be far off when people regard the present state of American letters and wonder what happened to make us celebrate writerly, 500-page books that don't connect with the American experience?

Michael Jackman
Executive Director, Underground Literary Alliance
Detroit, MI

Tuesday, 18 November 2003

He laughed, he cried, he kissed no money good bye . . .

Your guest columns(ists) have been extraordinarily good of late (probably even longer but I am wary of trusting my long term memory).

But reading Gerard Jones' piece, well, I laughed, I cried—I was profoundly moved.

This had me in tears:

"It's free speech, a function of the free press, but in order to really be free, it has to really be free. That, in a nutshell, is why my little website can't make any money, why I don't want it to make any money, why it won't make any money. It's why I love it. It's why other people love it, too. Which would you rather have, love or money? I'll take love any day. Make love, not money, I always say. That's one of my seven pillars of wisdom, by the way."

When was the last time anyone said that and really meant it?

And the part that made me laugh? All the rest of Jones' piece.

Thanks for continuing to publish really good stuff.

Robert Birnbaum
Boston MA

Thursday, 13 November 2003

George Orwell: He was no Ronald Reagan . . .

While I do not consider any writer truly a candidate for sainthood, someone must have forced Mr. Reed to read Orwell's "Animal Farm" in high school. I can see no other explanation for his decision to excoriate Orwell, both with his column and the book he wrote satirizing the book apparently he hated reading.

The list, yes, the list. Well. The list was written at the behest of Orwell's government friend to name people who already were in government, or might be asked to help the government, who were at the least security leak threats and at the worst possibly actively working against the government. Not, specifically, to name Communists or Communist sympathizers—the question asked Elia Kazan and Ronald Regan, who began their careers as "fellow travelers." The fact that England suffered from a cabal of Soviet moles led by Kim Philby at the time probably had nothing to do with anything?

In addition to the books mentioned—so carefully—by Reed to support his rather Orwellian argument, he managed to omit "Homage to Catalonia." He accuses Orwell of deliberately omitting reference to Italy and Germany and Japan in Animal Farm, despite its having been published in 1945, after the totalitarian governments of those countries—which gained support from those fearing an even older political philosophy—were defeated by allies that included the Soviet Union.

"Homage," published in 1938, deals with Orwell's experience and wounding "fighting the good fight"—trying to prevent Francisco Franco, who had the aid of Spanish Moroccan colonial troops, Italian and German pilots, and money from all over, from taking Spain from a fledgling Republic back to a dictatorship along the lines of those in Germany and Italy at the time. The most recent historic political philosophy—Fascism—fed on people's fears of the older, pre–20th Century idea of Communism and even older concept of Democracy which has threatened the established order since before the French Revolution. Those pilots, part of a group led by Baron Wolfram von Richtofen, a cousin of the Red Baron—another Saint?—formed "The Condor Legion," responsible for the bombing of Guernika in the Basque Country, and the elevation of "terror" of a civilian population to a deliberate military tactic.

Animal Farm's themes and the experience of the animals would be intimately familiar to anyone like my parents who had grown up in the world during the period of The Spanish Civil War, especially those who saw in Socialism—not Communism—a "brotherhood of man," a lifting of the burdens of the majority of the world who needed work and money to live but had neither the means nor access to the means—such as education—to straighten backs bowed by those who sought to profit by their exploitation. Naive, of course. Evil? That depends on where you sit.

Orwell's description of the various meetings of the animals reflects experience from involvement in Spain, when the Trotsky–leaning P.O.U.M. found itself in running gunbattles with the Bolsheviks, the Stalin–supported group that, in the end, because of its overwhelming resources, took over the "defense" of Spanish Democracy and promptly handed the country over to Franco in the same year Hitler with Stalin's help marched into Poland.

Perhaps Mr. Reed should view "Land and Liberty," which, while flawed, demonstrates well the divisions in the various groups, and the all–too–human causes of those divisions, before deciding the origins of Animal Farm.

But I digress. My point is that I don't believe Orwell's keeping a list in his notebooks merits his being considered a Cold Warrior. Nor do I believe his books show political opportunism nor pure self–aggrandization. In fact, from Homage to Catalonia to 1984, Orwell shows clarity and consistency in his fear and warning about the insouciance of totalitarianism, by any name.

Taken together, as they probably should have been taught in high school, 1984 and Animal Farm are not anti–Communist as much as they warn that anywhere, at any time, groups can form from self–interest and others can be coerced or cajoled into joining them perhaps from altruistic intentions, only to find that what they purported to be trying to rid the world of they in fact had created.

Ernest Hemingway was always fond of pointing out it is instructive to remember that Mussolini started out as a Communist. Perhaps Orwell doesn't deserve sainthood. But perhaps, in his own way, he was trying to warn the world about false prophets . . . .

Terin Miller
Maplewood, NJ

What you find when you cross the picket line in Ann Arbor . . .

Michigan doesn't exactly abound in distinctions, but we do have the first Borders bookstore here in Ann Arbor. The staff voted for a union overwhelmingly some time ago, but due to unproductive negotiations has gone on strike. They're the first Borders books EVER to go on strike, as far as I know. They're getting attention as far as the UK (Billy Bragg, in town last night, had kind words for the strikers).

The strikers allowed me to cross the picket line (as long as I didn't buy anything) so I could talk to the management. It's an eerie feeling to go into the store filled with people who blithely crossed the picket line. Inside: a huge stack of books by David Eugenides, Franzen's new book prominently displayed, etc. The work of establishment writers is firmly on the other side of the picket line. Martin Amis' appearance at the store was canceled, and hardcover copies of YELLOW DOG were on the display racks in his stead.

And if Borders needs restocking, the Teamsters won't handle shipments of books, and Borders Group has to ship them in Fed Ex, at whopping cost. Not only are local unions supporting, but there is a groundswell of community support, patron support, and a hands–off attitude from the cops—even though the management has called the police 43 times!

It's remarkable to see Detroit tactics (strike) applied in a warm and fuzzy university town.

Michael Jackman
Detroit, MI

Wednesday, 12 November 2003

Useful war stories . . .

re: the book tour debate

I've got to say that I think big-time book touring on the traditional model is over–rated, a least when engaged in by small fish, which most authors (including myself) are. We must face the simple fact that it helps immensely to be a NAME.

On May 17 2002 I was invited to speak about my book THE KENNEDYS AT WAR (Doubleday, 2002) at one of the popular book and author breakfasts hosted with some regularity at the Stamford (CT) Sheraton by Greenwich’s terrific independent bookstore "Just Books." The event promised to be a big draw, as the two authors with whom I was to share the bill were Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes (there to plug his fine historical study MEDAL OF HONOR), and Greenwich native Col. David Hackworth (Ret.), there to plug his excellent Vietnam memoir STEEL MY SOLDIERS' HEARTS.

My editor had told me that these well–attended "Just Books" events were frequently the vehicles for significant numbers of sales. In the "backstage" room before we entered the banquet hall, both Wallace and Hackworth couldn't have been nicer or more solicitous of their profoundly less–well–known protégé. They each expressed praise for the well–reviewed book that my wife (already sick of the subject) had recently taken to calling the warring Kennedys. During the breakfast itself, I—being the unknown—was asked to speak first. I was given a 15–minute window, the same amount of time subsequently allotted to Wallace and Hackworth respectively. We all delivered our canned remarks, and then we and the crowd adjourned to the foyer, where three signing–tables stood at ready, each piled with a different book.

A massive line of more than a hundred formed immediately for Mike Wallace, and a slightly smaller line for the man who, instantly upon meeting me an hour before, had insisted I call him "Hack." Meanwhile I, who folks have never seen on Larry King, had a grand total of three people in the queue for a signed copy of THE KENNEDYS AT WAR. It helped just slightly when I heard the unfailingly gracious Wallace and Hackworth both loudly urge the people for whom they signed to also get a copy of THE KENNEDYS AT WAR. "That's a great book," I heard Wallace say. "I knew Jack Kennedy, and Jack would have liked that book." Nevertheless, in the end, my sales were dismal. No reflection on my book, of course—just a comment on my celebrity value as an author and the desirability of my signature, which is really what it comes down to vis–à–vis book events and book touring.

When I've had successes with events, it has usually been where I've been able to put one of my books center–stage before an audience predisposed to have an interest. The best event for THE KENNEDYS AT WAR was an evening–talk at the American Irish Historical Society on New York's Fifth Avenue, to which all Society members were invited. A large crowd turned out and a local independent bookshop—on site for the evening—sold more than 70 copies. One of the best events for my book prior to that—THE LION'S PRIDE: THEODORE ROOSEVELT AND HIS FAMILY IN PEACE AND WAR (Oxford University Press, 1998)—was the 80th annual meeting of the Theodore Roosevelt Association in 1999, where I delivered the keynote address to more than 400 attendees and then signed at least half as many books.

Of course, such targeting is—I suppose—more of an option for writers of nonfiction than it is for writers of fiction. Still, I would think that at least some authors of fiction—including those who write fiction that is specifically regional, or fiction that is somehow tied to a particular subject or era (novels of the Civil War, for example)—might be able to do some targeting.

Hope this helps.

Edward J. Renehan Jr.
Wickford, RI

Tuesday, 11 November 2003

From the Borders picket line . . .

I spent a few hours on Saturday November 8 marching in the picket line in support of the striking employees of Borders store #1—a direct descendant of the original, pre–corporate Borders.

The Ann Arbor News article makes the picketers appear ruder than they really were to the customers who crossed the line. People politely reminded shoppers of the moral ramifications of crossing a picket line. No one "yelled."

The management of the Liberty Street store had taken ample precautions against "incidents" including posting security guards at the entrance. Walking by the display window we could see that posters for at least three major literary events scheduled for the following week were stickered "cancelled" (including Martin Amis' appearance for Yellow Dog). Apparently the company wanted to preempt further occasions for embarrassing scenes while portraying the strikers as literary party-poopers.

As a former Borders employee who left because my work environment became intolerable, I identified with the Store #1 employees who voted the union in. Like me, many of them had significant longevity with the company, but had come to feel increasingly devalued in the course of the company's many "restructurings." Wages became a larger issue because the company began to treat us like fungible objects. While in theory Borders still appreciated knowledgeable, individualized bookselling, the company's new human resources approach totally undermined it in practice.

After representation was chosen by an overwhelming majority, the store went without a contract for almost a year, after negotiation sessions in which the bargaining protocol apparently went something like this.

Union: What is your counteroffer?

Company: No!

The other unionized store in Minneapolis has encountered similar stonewalling.

It was exhilarating and inspiring (despite the freezing temperatures) to be out there with these courageous folks. I urge all MobyLives readers to support the union's effort in any way they can. The strike fund needs donations. Do not shop Borders or its affiliates until the company agrees to negotiate.

Kathleen Devereaux
Ann Arbor, MI

Author tours: the "least painful" part of getting published? . . .

Let me say from the outset I haven't read all the smart things that I am sure Sara Nelson and everyone else has said about book tours. But as a major beneficiary of such author peregrinations allow me to weigh in.

First of all, in over fourteen or fifteen years I have been able to talk to close to (rough estimate) seven hundred writers, some even three and four times. The results of those encounters/conversations were published in abridged but lengthy iterations in a magazine I headed for sixteen years. Currently, I publish and archive such conversations unabridged on the Internet. Forgive the immodesty, but I think that's a damn good thing.

Second, unless a writer is a total social misfit or agoraphobic or some other pathology, it must be a good thing to meet readers and to at least be reminded that there are readers and that's part of what they spend hours of solitary head banging hoping for.

Sure, the book tour requires a different skill set from writing but it's not an exotic and archaic undertaking—no one is asked for or is required to make declamations from Cicero in Latin. Pick a passage that makes sense and says something about something and answer a few questions. What's the big deal?

The sad fact is many writers either don't care to or can't perform. Consequently, the readings are boooooring. I've seen/heard some exceptions. I've heard Will Self declaim one of his stories from memory with absolutely no hesitations or glitches. Sherman Alexie performs. Sandra Cisneros enchants. Charles Baxter weaves passages from his book while he converses. And sometime no matter how challenged the author is, the words just rise above it all.

There is at least one solution to the perfunctory author reading—which is what, I am told, Europeans do–have the author engaged in a public conversation in place of the reading. Recently, the nice folks at one of the good bookstores in my old neighborhood asked me to do just that. And it seems like everyone, Kathyrn Harrison, the audience, the people at Brookline Booksmith and me enjoyed themselves. Apparently enough so that I did it again recently with Stewart O'Nan.

So okay, there is a down side to the effort involved in the literary road show, not the least of which is, I am sure, disappointments for the author. But these may be the least painful experiences in having one's book published. This is where listening to Frank Sinatra's rendition of "That's Life" maybe helpful . . . .

Robert Birnbaum
Boston MA

Author tours: Duh, it depends on the author . . .

Know what guys? It depends on the author.

So far the correspondence doesn't seem ready to admit that readers would be more willing to listen to one author than another, nor that that author's attitude and choice of material could influence sales that night, let alone have a ripple effect.

As a small Midwestern indie we aren't on the radar of NY publicists. After hearing Michael Perry read from Population 485 at the Great Lakes Booksellers conference, though, we wrote to him pointing out that we're halfway between Detroit and Chicago and that, with a little notice, could probably drum up an audience. (Perry had mentioned that instead of appearing in six cities and staying in glorious hotels he was stretching his HarperCollins touring money by driving and staying in Motel Sixes.)

Not only did he have an audience of sixty on a January Monday night, but through his willingness to get out there and give people a sense of who he is and what his book's about in burg after burg he landed on the Book Sense list both in hardcover and paperback and is currently #21 on the ABA's bestseller list. It's a big country and word of mouth counts. Of course, Perry's an appealing guy and is smart enough to read largely from the amusing bits, only giving a taste of the more harrowing sections. And granted, some authors would be best served by isolating them from any contact with the world.

But I suspect Nelson's reasons are smokescreen. It seems much more likely to me that she realizes that personal appearances would put her in contact with wide–eyed book lovers appalled that she could be so casually dismissive of, for example, Empire Falls, White Teeth and The English Patient, people who might wonder out loud how someone who brags about never rereading got the contract to produce this book.

Susan Ramsey
Athena Book Shop
Kalamazoo, MI

Let the "poor old lizard"—author tours—"die a dignified death" . . .

I completely agree with Robert Lesner that galleys and comps should be a standard part of reaching readers. At BelleBooks we give away hundreds of copies of each title we publish, and we can point to sales and re–orders based specifically on cultivating readers and booksellers in that manner. But, coming from the flamboyant world of genre fiction as I do, (okay, okay, I admit it, I've written over 35 lurid romance and women's fiction novels) I can tell you that galleys/comps are just the tip of the iceberg for effective (non–touring) promotion. Small presses could learn a lot from the take–no–prisoners world of pop fiction promo, where contests, interactive websites, inventive knicknack giveaways, and funky fan conventions have long been S.O.P. for developing relationships with booksellers and readers. There are plenty of ways to reach out and touch a reader without planting the author's butt in a hard, lonely metal chair in the front aisle of the Books A Million.

Regarding Lesner's comment that authors need to suck it up and learn that being meek doesn't cut it in the publishing world, I don't personally know any meek authors, since the mere act of getting and staying published weeds out the lily–livered in a hurry. There's nothing meek about making a smart business decision. One look at the inefficiency, poor planning, reader rudeness, bookseller ignorance, and general public apathy that characterize the average booksigning ought to send us all shrieking meekly in the opposite direction.

If anything, it worries me that authors and booksellers alike are only reticent when it comes to standing up and screaming "The emperor has no clothes!" For godssake, swap the tour money for a two–minute video of a half-naked babe reading from the author's book, then ask booksellers to play the ad on a TV in their coffee shops. Maybe teenagers will assume it's a new video game. We could all get rich.

Touring is a dinosaur who thrived only when indie bookstores ruled the planet and authors weren't competing with twenty other major forms of consumer entertainment on a Saturday night. Let the poor old lizard die a dignified death.

Deborah Smith
Belle Books
Dahlonega, GA

Monday, 10 November 2003

What about luck? . . .

I've never done book signings (after the first, very small, one which I was literally trapped into, in New York). While I have had sponsored tours (NOT primarily from publishers), and signed books after an address, these have been really limited, and I've never done them in my own country (New Zealand). None of the tours had results that turned up in the next royalty sheets. Books sell for all sorts of reasons—luck, word of mouth, chancehappen, publicity (almost NEVER that generated by publicists etcet.), luck, unexpected or unplanned public recommendation, or luck . . . .

Keri Hulme
Aotearoa, New Zealand

A publisher insists: Writers have to meet their readers . . .

"Not to sound cavalier about those extra ten copies, but the time, energy, and money involved in sending small press authors to stores is better spent on advance copies and comps to bookstore owners and chain buyers, with a nice note from the author attached. You get the same personal touch, and pretty much the same results."

Actually, Deborah, any press worth its salt—whatever salt is worth-—should already be doing the galley/comp thing as standard operating procedure. Author events should be scheduled in addition to standard publicity. And, it generally doesn't doesn't cost alot of money for a press to send an author on a tour because presses both large and small rarely pay for them. At Ig we try to help out when we can because I think it is kinda wrong for an author to be expected to foot the entire bill for a tour, but we do have financial constraints. (I think it is disgusting that big presses won't spring for their authors to hit the road.)

There is still nothing like face to face contact to establish a good, long–lasting relationship between bookstore and press. And, Deborah, no offense to the meek amongst us, but writers have to learn that getting out there and facing the public is part of being an author these days.

Robert Lasner
Editor–in–Chief, Ig Publishing
Brooklyn, NY

Friday, 7 November 2003

Another publisher says: Trust USPS . . .

I've already weighed in once on the subject of touring (thumbs down) in my role as a mid–list genre author. After reading Robert Lasner's note about the value of touring for small press authors, let me weigh in a second time in my other role: as a partner in BelleBooks, a miniscule Atlanta press specializing in homey Southern fiction. While it's true, as Robert said, that a small press can establish strong bonds with individual bookstores via author tours, the effect is akin to spitting in the ocean. Golly, instead of selling 2,000 copies of our latest book, we sold 2,010.

Not to sound cavalier about those extra ten copies, but the time, energy, and money involved in sending small press authors to stores is better spent on advance copies and comps to bookstore owners and chain buyers, with a nice note from the author attached. You get the same personal touch, and pretty much the same results. And while I'm on the topic. . .

Jackie Corley espouses the idea of staging flamboyant book events instead of doing the same–old–same–old signing/reading thing. This is an absolutely valid and fabulous idea for the tiny percentage of authors who've mastered a rare dual persona of geeky introversion and hard–sell showmanship. I have author friends who would make P.T. Barnum seem reserved by comparison. God bless 'em. But most authors are about as personally entertaining as soggy bread (myself included.) Sending our likes out into inventive venues to stage theatrical dog–andpony show is useless torture for all involved.

Deborah Smith
Belle Books
Dahlonega, GA

And let's not forget about the venue . . .

As a small press author and publisher—on the same small press—I have a different take on the author tour.

Having read to miniscule bands of the disinterested, as well as teeming masses numbering in the low double digits, I understand the feeling of utter futility and rejection that an author on tour can experience.

However, as a publisher, I have come to recognize a very important, yet little talked about, aspect of the author tour, namely the assistance it offers to the press, especially a small press, in establishing a publisher/bookstore relationship. If you are able to book an author for a reading at a bookstore, the odds greatly increase that that bookstore will carry other books from your press. In addition, even if no one shows up for a reading, the bookstore will display the book of an author who is doing a reading, often for as long as a week. Recently, I did a reading at a Borders (yes, I, small press boy, did a reading at a chain), and not only did the store display my book—in the front of the store—for an entire week, but the store's events coordinator, who turned out to be a big supporter of small presses despite working for an evil chain, told me she would be happy to book other authors from my press for future events.

So, Mr. And Ms. American Writer, when you are reading before a madding crowd of one or two, remember that there are short and long–term benefits to what you are doing, even if it doesn’t seem obvious at the time.

Robert Lasner
Editor–in–Chief, Ig Publishing
Brooklyn, NY

Thursday, 6 November 2003

Why do author tours? One word: Groupies . . .

While Ms. Nelson is right about ineffectual B&N book–touring, she misses the opportunities of more alternative readings, which Neal Pollack's letter points too.

Word Riot Press hosted an event at the Philly 215 Festival this year, featuring established writers and some of our own up–and–comers. The audience showed for Zoe Trope and Ian Spiegelman and left fans of Ryan Robert Mullen, one of our Word Riot Press authors, as well. Ryan is a relatively unknown 22–year–old from Wisconsin who spent his well-earned AmeriCorps dollars on a 26–hour Greyhound ride to Philly. His nerdy, self-depricating wit poured through the presentation of his writing and he killed. I had a stream of people coming up to me at the merchandise table asking about Ryan, whose book wasn't even out yet. He even wound up with a groupie. (Literary groupies—who knew?)

Our venue was at a mellow bar in Philly (North Third), which of course provides an entirely different atmosphere from a stuffy B&N packed with friends who feel obliged to be there. I think the publishing industry overlooks the fact that author readings can be enjoyable events. The movie and music industries are constantly revising their publicity schemes, looking for new ways to engage an audience. Why isn't mainstream publishing doing the same? I don't buy the "people–don't–read" argument. There's a limited audience for books because publishing establishments have routinely overlooked and condescended to most of America. One of the ways to change this is by changing the way we conceive of book–touring.

Oy, that was a tangent. I'd recommend that anyone interested in looking into this further go to the 215 Festival site or take a look at the Perpetual Motion Roadshow.

Jackie Corley
Word Riot Press
Middletown, NJ

What about people on the receiving end of author tours? . . .

I'm compelled to respond to the debate about book touring because I think I can offer a perspective that's currently missing: that of the reader. When I first moved to Boston from Connecticut three years ago, I was excited by the number of opportunities to get out and hear authors read—both famous and (to me, at least) unheard of. I'm sure there are readings in and around the Hartford area, but it lacks the number of great independent bookstores we're blessed with here, including Newtonville Books, Brookline Booksmith, and Wordsworth Books—all of which host authors regularly (Newtonville Books even buys its patrons and authors a round of drinks following some readings).

Attending readings at these stores has given me access to a literary community that includes local authors as well as those just passing through. It's exposed me to books I'm sure I wouldn't have otherwise read or purchased, and it's allowed me to connect with other readers who share similar interests. When I started a book club two years ago, I was amazed by the generosity of authors who, after meeting us at their readings, offered to come visit with the group (including Matthew Pearl, author of The Dante Club, which was already a bestseller at the time). What that said to me was that those authors were truly interested in meeting and connecting with their readers, not just racking up sales figures. As a reader, of course that speaks to me in a more meaningful way than advertising or a fancy cover.

Book tours may not be practical, and they may not create the kind of numbers that certain media outlets can, but they do provide a valuable sense of community and comraderie among your readers that I, for one, would be sorry to lose.

Erin Falkevitz
Chestnut Hill, MA

Author tours: To Sheol and back . . .

I always think that I would love Neal Pollack like a brother—that is, if I had a brother, and he had spent far too long watching peyote buttons dissolve in long–neck bottles of beer, and I didn't have to see him more often than every other Thanksgiving at our sister's house. Pollack even praised my prose once–on his way toward calling me a commie–baiting warmonger, it's true, but what the hell: We take what we can get. Still this engoûtment (as we francophonies say) he professes for book–touring: It's a death wish, a lure and a delusion, the path down to Sheol. Try writing, Neal. It's a much surer road to success as what we used to call a writer. It will also save your soul from the image of Dante's Inferno attainable in this life only by a signing in a mall bookstore somewhere in the outer suburbs of Dayton, Ohio.

J. Bottum
Books & Arts Editor, The Weekly Standard
Washington, D.C.

Other aspects of the book tour . . .

The primary problem with Sara Nelson's column is that she wants to have it both ways. As a midlist writer, she wants to sell more books. But as an author on a book tour, she wants to avoid "homeless" types at a Barnes & Noble in Berkeley. (Never mind that no serious book lover in Berkeley would patronize that corporate piece of turd when there are almost as many indie bookstores in that city as the number of needless whines in Ms. Nelson's silly article.)

Herein lies the downfall of her thesis. For how can any author expect to sell books when they despise their audience, or assume that they are all a bunch of hicks in the sticks killing time? Just about every febrile book lover is looking for that author no one has ever heard about. If a new tome is spiffy, and if the author conveys a heck of an impression, then the book lover will recommend the book to his friends, and the word will spread. What better way to get the word out than with the two or three people (homeless or otherwise) in a town who actually give a damn about literature?

Additionally, local press coverage can be arranged concurrently with book touring. A face–to–face interview with a journalist willing to interview just about anybody creates a greater impression than some needlessly bitchy newspaper columnist who can't be bothered to communicate beyond a private phone line installed within her ivory tower.

Sure, book touring is cost–prohibitive and time–intensive. But if an author really expects to broaden her base without doing one whit of work after the book's in stores, then she probably doesn't belong in publishing.

Edward Champion
San Francisco, CA

Wednesday, 5 November 2003

Pollack reveals: Charlie Rose futon–less . . .

I'm not saying I disagree with Sara Nelson's column. The last four years of my life have been an object lesson in the existential futility of book touring. And if she thinks books go unsold at readings, she should try lugging around a box of baby tees for an extra dose of self–inflicted humiliation.

But I still believe that incessant touring is the best grass-roots promotional strategy. For a young author with little to distinguish him or herself from the pack but energy and a winning personality, the literary road trip stands above all other experiences on earth. At the moment, wearied from a month in a van during an almost–break–even indie–rock tour, I'd rather spend an afternoon with Jonathan Safran Foer than hit the road again. That said, my relentless touring and grass–roots Internet promotion have won me a feeble foothold in the publishing world, gained me countless friends, and a lot of good times.

A good media hit doesn't necessarily guarantee sales, either. You don't get to crash on Charlie Rose's futon or grab breakfast with him the next morning. Book touring, if done right, carries infinite and longer–term rewards.

Neal Pollack
Austin, TX

Advertising and placement are the solution . . .

I totally agree with Sara Nelson regarding the futility of book tours. As a moderately successful genre author I've done my share of them, some with the kind of substantial publisher support that ought to have made the tours worthwhile, but didn't. I've never seen any evidence that hauling my tired behind to yet another apathetic bookstore, Wal–Mart, distributor's warehouse, or publisher's sales meeting has any significant effect on my numbers. Touring only makes sense for VIP authors who attract big media coverage and big crowds, or for the rare mid–list author endowed with the dynamic personality of a used car salesman. The rest of us are better off staying at home while pushing our publishers for more advertising, fancier cover art, and expensive up–front placement in major chain stores.

Deborah Smith
Dahlonega, GA

Tuesday, 4 November 2003

Read 'em, THEN weep . . .

I'm utterly baffled by Steve Almond's commentary ["Pecked to Death"]. He is responding to a slew of articles about Dale Peck, such as James Atlas's lazy profile, rather than to the New Republic reviews themselves, all of which are far more measured, insightful, and qualified in their contempt than any single sentence of Almond's screed.

In fact, few who either complain about Peck or bemoan what he represents to the larger culture actually read to the end of one of Peck's reviews. Regardless of what Almond claims, Peck's critiques are precise. He doesn't haphazardly spray hatred all over a writer's books; instead, he picks out phrases and paragraphs and scrutinizes them for the reader, making sure to prove a writer ridiculous with that writer's own words.

And the Moody article undergoes quite a transformation by the end. It turns out that Peck does have a positive system for judging literature, and it turns out that Moody, in spite of what Peck considers to be the betrayal of that author to his own talents, actually fits Peck's criteria. Please read that review, Mr. Almond—plus the reviews of Julian Barnes, Stanley Crouch, and others—before judging the man himself.

James Atlas is a cynical man who prefers catfights to serious literary discussion. Dale Peck, on the other hand, when he's not being used by literary journalists as fuel for this week's tossed–off Arts & Ideas "think piece," can actually teach readers quite a bit about contemporary literature.

In addition, I'd like to point out that the end of Peck's Moody piece is nearly identical to the end of Almond's Peck piece. Freakish coincidence? This either proves that Almond is sympathetic to Peck's ideas, or it proves that Almond has not actually read to the end of Peck's article.

Simon Parker
Los Angeles, CA

Friday, 1 November 2003

Terse complaint . . .

About this million word limit for letters: I would merely like to point out that although I have as much admiration as anyone for the choice epigrammatic expression, the homily, the saying, the aphorism and so forth, there's something to be said for a certain expansiveness of expression. Not all truths are to be revealed in a moment—Rome, as they say, was not built in a day—but the good man of letters follows truth where it leads, 'though it leads on a very long way.

To put a fine point on it, I now find myself with a two million word letter that I now have nothing to do with. You will, perhaps, cock an eyebrow and suggest lightly that I cut it down a bit. To which I reply, that the thing is sooner said than done.

Nevertheless, my esteem for your website is such that I will undertake the burden. It will not be easy. The palms sweat in contemplation of the event. And, certainly, I knew you would wish to be apprised of the hardship so placed upon this reader, as the condition of your readers must generally concern you.

John Wright
Louisville, KY

Have you seen me? . . .

Not everyone has the problems I and others have been having—apparently Edward Champion does not. It may have something to do with variations in browser technology—I'm not a computer whiz. But despite what Champion says, when I type in my name, I STILL do not get a listing for THE ANNIVERSARY, my book published in June. I seriously doubt that Amazon did any tweaking in response to my emails, though it certainly would be nice to think they got such attention.

I tried the Amazon search of my name half a dozen times tonight and ONCE--somewhere mid-way through this little test--I got the results Ed Champion got--listing THE ANNIVERSARY first, followed by EQUIVOCAL DEATH & Die Anwaltin (a German translation of EQUIVOCAL DEATH).

Every other time I came up with 79 results—the list the begins with EQUIVOCAL DEATH, RULE THE FREAKIN MARKETS etc. I actually paged through the entire list and NO WHERE did it include THE ANNIVERSARY. The book is not just low on the list—it is not there at all!

Meanwhile, the list includes at least three books that list me in acknowledgments and one where I provided a blurb. What possible help can such a list be to anyone? Also, the list of "79" hits actually ends after 67. Don't know what that's about.

Amy Gutman
New York, NY

Writing out of love? . . .

I was interested in Mr. Almond's response to the New York Times Magazine article about Dale Peck. I enjoy Peck's literary critiques much in the way I enjoyed Almond's piece for MobyLives: interesting writing with which I mostly disagree.

Almond is incorrect to admonish everyone to: "Write (and read) because you love people and want to rescue them...."

This is hogwash.

Some of the best world literature derives from misanthropy, distrust and disgust. The list of writers with dim views of the human species is too long to enumerate but a brilliant, recent example is "Elizabeth Costello" by J.M. Coetzee. Coetzee's most recent creation hardly makes the case for an ennobling vision of humans. Elizabeth Costello finds more to sympathize with in the plight of animals than with people who systematically brutalize other species.

Almond does not establish the normative superiority of literature that "loves people." He may not like writing that "hates people," but disgust has produced thought–provoking reading for centuries.

Of course, literature that "loves people" lands on Oprah. Not where we'd expect to see Dale Peck anytime soon.

Krista McGruder
New York, NY

Answer, The . . .

I agree with Amy Gutman and everybody else who thinks that it is essentially useless to present a list of 2748 books that happen to mention some phrase or author's name. It's hard to think of another decision that so drastically reduced the usefulness of some piece of technology as much as this one has.

So I did some experimenting. The key to finding books by an author is to use the form "Gutman, Amy" either in quotes or without them. It works better when you enter that term once you're selected the Books tab at Amazon. "Gutman, Amy" fiction works pretty well too.

Nevertheless, transforming a simple quick search into a masterpiece of overkill does nothing to help the general run of users. If you have to memorize a bunch of tricks, or even go for the advanced or power search features, it might as well not be there for most folks.

Let's hope that this is some kind of New Coke decision that will get reversed soon enough, either for legal reasons or because actual users protest in large numbers.

Jessica Weissman
Takoma Park, MD


Write to Moby
Letters policy: All letters must be signed. Also, please say where you’re writing from — either an affiliation or hometown.
All material not otherwise attributed ©2001, 2002, 2003, 2004 Dennis Loy Johnson.