Over the holiday break I read—more like gorged on—Sandra Cisneros’ short story collection, Woman Hollering Creek. Many of her short stories are only a couple of pages, yet they left me feeling full, complete and utterly haunted. Cisneros speaks of her writing on her website: “A good story doesn’t care. What matters is that the story cast its magic, that it silence you into listening, and move you to laugh, and even better, to cry and then laugh, and a long time later, to haunt you. Long after you have closed the book, it’s what haunts and stays with you that matters, for then the story will have done its work.” I encourage you to read these short stories, as well as post a comment on any books or stories that have recently been haunting you.
sandra
“Rachel says that love is like a big black piano being pushed off the top of a three-story building and you’re waiting on the bottom to catch it. But Lourdes says it’s not that way at all. It’s like a top, like all the colors in the world are spinning so fast they’re not colors anymore and all that’s left is a white hum.

“There was a man, a crazy who lived upstairs from us when we lived on South Loomis. He couldn’t talk, just walked around all day with his harmonica in his mouth. Didn’t play it. Just sort of breathed through it, all day long, wheezing, in and out, in and out.

This is how it is with me. Love I mean.”

— Sandra Cisneros, from Woman Hollering Creek

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I read in The New York Times yesterday that Joe the Plumber has penned a book.  The news was in an op-ed piece written by Timothy Egan, in which he takes publishers to task on allocating what little money they have to giving voice to people who perhaps don’t deserve it.

Egan also writes of a possible book deal for Sarah Palin, projected to be worth $7 million—a lot of money for a would-be author who we have all seen possesses a tenuous relationship with the English language. And as these books come to our shelves, what great works of literature remain dormant in the desks of real writers?

Between Egan’s op-ed and Adrián’s post here last week, I’ve been sitting at my laptop today feeling pretty depressed. But the pieces also got me thinking about the validity of publishing one book over another, and the ways that we document the world around us. Would a book about the phenomenon of Joe the Plumber written, perhaps, by George Packer be more valid? Or were Joe’s 15 minutes of fame a mere anecdote in American history and worthy of only a few paragraphs in some political science book about elections? And in giving Mr. Plumber a public voice, are publishers defining history and validating that Joe is more than a simple anecdote?

Can we qualify the ways in which our world gets written about? I personally do not keep a journal. I have dozens of notebooks lying around my apartment, all filled with ideas, observations, and sentence fragments, but I don’t record my daily existence. However, I think about journaling all the time, and question the fact that I don’t.  And the fact that I don’t has something to do with my belief that I don’t find the day-to-day worthy of recording.

Now, I understand I am revealing my own ambiguous relationship with my ego, but what makes something worthy of being written about publicly versus privately? Should different measures of value exist when publishing and money are involved? I’d love to hear how others wrestle with these issues, and if you have a second read Egan’s piece; it’s not often I find something so equally disheartening and engaging. 

pile-of-books1“Books have particular qualities that are lost in translation into code. A book isn’t just its text, it’s also a material object with a particular history, written in stains and stamps and underlining.…The body of the book is part of what it says.”

—Shelley Jackson, from her interview in the first issue of 12th Street

 

I’ve been getting hand cramps from reading. Sometimes I read sitting at a table, sometimes in a comfortable chair, other times I read lying down in bed, waiting for sleep to overtake me. No matter the position, the cramps in my hands continue. A part of my struggle can be blamed on the book that I am reading. 2666, by Roberto Bolaño, is an immense book, at 898 pages. It weighs three pounds, which is not a weight I would normally struggle with, but when holding the pages open in my lap or above my head, those three pounds begin to feel more like 30, and after a few hours of reading, 300. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

The pain in holding a book open is a part of the delight of reading—the weight, the feeling of the gentle pages, the smell of fresh ink, watching as, with time, the pages move from one side to the other as you drift your way through the story. The physical act of reading, of holding a book, is just as much a part of the act as the words on the page.

Can electronic media replace the pages of a book? As a reader, in the romantic sense of the word, I do not believe that there will ever be a time without books. There will always be shelves in my house for books to sit on display, waiting to be lifted and held. As Jorge Luis Borges said, “I cannot sleep unless I am surrounded by books.” In fact, I have an odd habit of collecting books in bed with me, falling asleep with five or six books hidden under the sheets, held close, hoping their characters will invade my dreams.

I must admit that in recent months I have taken to reading magazines and newspapers online more often than the actual paper copy. The ease with which the Internet allows one to find information is hard to argue against. In my own writing, I find search engines are an invaluable tool for research. How did I ever write without Google?

I don’t know what the answer is, and, frighteningly, neither does the publishing industry. On November 25, The New York Times reported that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has suspended acquisitions of new manuscripts.  This is scary news for any writer, but the reality is that publishing has become too expensive and every part of the industry is reeling. Is electronic media the answer? The cost of posting a piece on line is far less than printing one on the page. But lower costs also mean lower profits, and posting all books online could mean the end of the middle-class author.

I have more worries than I have answers. The best advice I have for any writer is to buy more books. Support the industry you want to be a part of. Call it writer’s karma. If you want your book to someday be sold, buy a book today. Buy as many new books as you can afford. Carry them around with you, feel the weight of the book as it pulls on your shoulders from the inside of your bag. Enjoy that feeling while you can, because soon the only weight that you may be carrying is your computer. 

 

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”

Stephen King, On Writing, A Memoir Of The Craft

 

I guess this week I am still ruminating on Zoë’s Monday post, which, mixed with the rainy gray weather, has me burrowing into my couch and curling up with books. I’m looking for inspiration, trying to get outside of my head and then look back inside with a fresh perspective. And while my reading lists this semester are long, the book I’ve currently chosen to hole myself up with is A.M. Homes’ In a Country of Mothers.

This is probably my third reading of the novel and every time I reach the end I cannot help but be left with the idea, “So that is how you write a novel. Oh.” The woman can tell a story, and she does it so seamlessly it is both daunting and disarming.

So, I want to know what you guys are reading right now, or what books you return to repeatedly because you feel they embody writing as you desire it to be. I’m already en route to needing yet another bookcase, so give me some ideas with which to overflow the shelves in my future.

Want to be a bookseller? I asked an international sales representative from Harper Collins what it’s like. He’d just gotten back from a month long trip, back in time to watch the Minnesota Twins lose. I caught him during the 6th innings.

12th Street: So how does one become a sales representative for Harper Collins?

Austin Tripp: Well, you start, typically, as an assistant to a rep. There are other scenarios, but this is most usual. I started my adult working life working for a printer making books, and did sales for them, and then moved to New York to be an assistant. I wanted to travel somehow, and this seemed right. It is very corporate though; I wasn’t ready for that.

12th Street: You don’t feel like a salesman yet.

AT: Oh, I do, I am. Just the other day I sold a ketchup Popsicle to a woman in white gloves. Singapore and Thailand are my favorite. The business is great in both, but I like the culture. Both are very different—Singapore is so clean, and while they have atrocious human rights violations, they make decisions over there with the people’s best interest in mind. Thailand is just nuts.

12th Street: So you like the antibacterial hand wash in Singapore offered by the beaten one-eyed slave.

AT: Love it! Seriously: no litter, no spitting, and no durians on public transport.

12th Street: Durians?

AT: It’s a fruit that smells like ass.

12th Street: Aha. So, how much of Harper’s sales goes to Asia, and how does that compare with international sales as a whole?

AT: Asia compared to the rest of the Open Market (outside of US, UK, Canada, and members of the traditional British Colonies) is pretty large. Actually, it’s the largest. It could be an important percentage for a writer, but not their primary concern, unless their book has specific appeal to a country—say you are Malay or something.

12th Street: So, how does Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows do against something like Sarah: How a Hockey Mom Turned Alaska’s Political Establishment on Its Ear? (more…)