Monthly Archives: August 2015

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Book named Goodbye, TesticlesI remember when I was two years old, I’d get cranky sometimes, always with justification. Now that I’m 60 years on, I still get cranky about some things, although it doesn’t bother me as much now when the peas on my plate touch the potatoes. Now, though, I get cranky about the horribly dull titles of so many books. Of course you may disagree with me, if you have, for instance, a penchant for self delusion.

The title of a book should be interesting and catch the attention. Let’s take two titles, of real books: The Invited and The Witch of Lime Street. Which strikes you more? I’ve been noticing for years now—and I’ve published a diatribe on this before—that a fad has drifted through our culture, like a toxic cloud negating imagination, for dull forgettable titles, consisting usually of only one word. So alright, fads for stupidity aren’t exactly rare. They even occur in politics, trumping other considerations. But writers are supposed to be smart and care about language.

The amazing thing about this cultural blight is that it is the very people who claim to be the most creative, the most serious about language, who are the ones most avidly trotting like lemmings into the middle of the toxic cloud. Serious writers, and they are serious, of literary fiction are more likely than any other type of writer to degrade themselves with this lazy fad.

You don’t need to take my word for this (although when have you ever actually caught me lying to you?). I come with evidence. Before I present the evidence, I’ll list several ideal qualities of a very good book title. I don’t mean that it’s easy to come up with a good title, because it certainly is not, but these are ideas to be aspired toward, except by modern writers, apparently.

1) A title should be interesting for its own sake when you see it. It should make you pay attention.

2) It should have some relationship to the book.

3) It should, in the best circumstances, be euphonious in some way, so that it simply sounds good by itself.

4) Ideally, it should be so unique that when you hear it, you don’t think of anything else except that book.

The ubiquitous one-word titles that we see so many of now do not even try to do these things, other than perhaps number 2 in a super vague way. My evidence for this pathetic situation comes from one of the bibles of contemporary publishing, the magazine Publisher’s Weekly, which contains long lists of new books each week. After a few months of looking at the magazine, I realized that on the whole the titles of nonfiction books were remarkably better than those of literary fiction. All the titles I list below are from books that are currently out.

Here are several nonfiction titles: Ten Billion Tomorrows, The Birth of Pathological Technology, The Reason for Flowers, Queen Victoria’s Mysterious Daughter, The Land Shall Be Deluged in Blood, When the Sick Rule the World. It might be argued that most of these title are followed by a semicolon and a subtitle that explains what the book is about, but that actually makes the point. The titles I’ve cited here are meant to catch your attention, and they do.

For comparison, let’s see some titles from one of the categories of genre fiction, mystery/thriller. They’re not as broad-ranging and perhaps not as interesting as nonfiction, but they’re not bad either: The Hanging Girl, Come Hell or Highball, When Somebody Kills You, Daughter of Ashes, Corridors of the Night.

From literary fiction, however, from the SERIOUS writers, look at this sad list (and I didn’t have to try very hard to do this, merely open Publisher’s Weekly and start writing them down): Fishbowl, The Clasp, The Wake, Eyes, Vertigo, The Prize. With slightly more imagination, though not much: After the Parade, Above the Waterfall, The Great Swindle, Number Zero.

I am not at all saying these are not good books. Some of them are probably very good, but they are all permanently marred by the bizarre unwillingness of the writer to come up with a decent title. Some literary writers do go to the trouble, as with Rules for Werewolves or A Boy’s Book of Nervous Breakdowns. A shockingly large number, however, do not.

It’s not that one-word titles have never been used before now (Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot), but that doesn’t mean they were a good idea. Compare these older book titles: The House of Mirth, The Great Gatsby, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, A Tale of Two Cities, One Hundred Years of Solitude. Should Garcia Marquez have called his book Solitude instead? Do you really think that would be better?

Many of the writers whose books I’m citing could do great things with titles, if only they would be bothered to do it. If only.

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I Thank Your Grace For These Many Quiet Days

digital manMaybe it’s the weather, maybe it’s cosmic rays, maybe it’s my deep down genetic laziness, but I was finding it way too much effort this week to write a blog entry that makes sense, so I’m just going to allow my defective real personality to crawl onto the page, like a, you know, crawly thing.

However, before I get into not making sense, I was thinking of something I want to say, whether it’s relevant to anything or not (i.e., it’s not). This idea came to me during the night, so it clearly isn’t connected to the solid daytime logic I’m so well-known for. I was thinking what if you had a machine, or something, that could convert the universe into digital format. I don’t know why you would want to. . .or wait, yes I do. Then you could post it to Facebook. That ought to one-up your friends. That’s what you ate in a nice restaurant? And your dog and baby dance together? Well, guess what? Here’s the whole universe, motherfuckers.

So anyway, I was thinking that digital format would be all ones and zeros, right? Like 1100100100101. Then I thought, well, zero is nothing, so we can ignore that. That means we only need ones. Now this is where a shallow, superficial understanding of Buddhism comes in so handy. Everything in the universe is connected, it is all One. So everything that exists is one, and what doesn’t exist is zero. You see? The universe is already in digital format. Cool.

Anyway, let me get back to not making sense. In a month I’m going on vacation to Ireland, and in preparation for that I’ve been reading Irish novels, including three books by Roddy Doyle. I blogged about one of those books, in fact. At some point I also happened to be reading a bit about Ralph Waldo Emerson (whose house I almost visited in Massachusetts, but then didn’t), and on a trip Emerson made to Europe, he met with several British writers. Inspired by that, I wrote a letter to Roddy Doyle and offered to buy him a beer when I’m in Dublin. Depending on how much he likes beer, perhaps he’ll agree.

In fact, let’s have a quiz as to what his reaction might be:

  1. a) Who’s this stupid git from Georgia when he’s at home?
  2. b) Finally, an American writer from the south is coming to Dublin and we can meet.
  3. c) Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

On another topic that makes no sense, this week I’ve been sending more query letters to literary agents. Such letters must exhibit a careful tone, which, when used by impoverished peasants before the local aristocracy, has been known as “abject begging”. The query letter should also be literary in style, as you are displaying your craft as a writer here. I like to begin all my letters with “Your magnificent grace” as it makes a good impression, don’t you think?

This reminds me of the old adage that it best for writers not to own guns, as there will be so many occasions when you will want to shoot yourself. Along that same line of reasoning, it’s probably best not to own a hammer either. For the benefit of the writers who read this blog, a multitudinous demographic, I have no doubt, I have compiled some guidelines for contacting agents, taken from various websites:

  • a synopsis should be one paragraph
  • a synopsis should be one page
  • be sure to mention other books that you think are like yours
  • don’t bother talking about other books
  • the query letter should contain bio information on the author
  • include a separate author bio
  • put everything into the body of your email, with no attachments
  • attach everything as a PDF

If you will carefully follow these rules, plus the others that I have not mentioned, I am sure you will be rewarded, following a three- or four-month wait, with the the usual lack of response. And while you’re waiting, here’s the whole universe. I digitized it. Don’t thank me.

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Quiet Anticipation and Loud Silence

Gangster image

A writer been hanging around. Give him a good reason not to come back.

Maybe you know that in book publishing we have literary agents whose purpose is to prevent most writers… Wait, did I say “prevent”? Heh, I meant to say promote, whose purpose is to promote most writers to be accepted by book publishers.

Many book publishers, in fact, will not even talk directly with writers, even though we’re the Reason They Exist. But they won’t, and I don’t think it’s only because writers have strange tattoos and we’re drunk most of the time and we forgot to brush our hair. So it’s useful to have an agent.

Back in the spring, I signed up for the Atlanta Writers Conference to meet with an agent, which I’ve done twice now. Perhaps you don’t know all the lingo those of us in the “publishing industry” use, so I’ll tell you, when you have a brief conversation with an agent, frantically trying to think of what to say in five minutes to make them realize that you’ve written a brilliant book, that’s called “making a pitch”.

I believe the metaphor “to make a pitch” derives from the idea of ripping your heart out of your chest, tossing it across the room, and saying, “Here, catch.” They almost never catch it, though, so it falls on the floor, and then it’s dirty and you don’t want to put it back.

The first time I went to the Atlanta Writers Conference, the agent who I made a pitch to seemed to regret that he had agreed to hear about my lousy book, so we did not end that conversation with him offering to buy me a drink in celebration. The second time, this past spring, I met a woman who seemed fairly nice. She also told me—granted, not with the same enthusiasm that you might use at Disneyworld—that I could send her the first 20 pages of the novel.

In this grim undertaking of looking for an agent, being asked to send 20 pages is considered a real success. I’m not kidding. When I left the room and told somewhat what had happened with the agent, I was congratulated.

I researched “my agent” and was slightly dismayed to see that she was from the same agency as the man from the previous year. Once I knew that, I had fantasies of them talking and him saying, “Oh yeah, I remember that guy. Geez, what a shitty writer. You’re not gonna take his book, are you?”

In my research I also discovered that I had some surprising things in common with her, so I wrote a nice letter, tried to be very friendly, and sent the 20 pages. It can take a long time to hear from an agent. If you pick one out of the air and send them something, it might be three or four months (or more) before you get a reply. If you get a reply at all. Most of the time you just never hear anything.

This agent, however, had actually asked for a sample, which made me think—naive child that I am—that she would go home and read it. After six weeks, I wrote a second letter, expressing sympathy for how busy the life of an agent obviously is, and asking if I might send more. Maybe I could send 30 pages this time!

After another month had passed, I contacted someone from the Atlanta Writers Conference, to express my perplexity, and through the intercession of my friendly conference contact, the agent at last wrote to say that my first 20 pages did NOT, in fact, make her weep with gratitude that she had found me. Well, damn it. How could she possibly not like that book? I even ran Spellcheck on it.

Since the whole experience has been heartwarming to this point, I’ve signed up for the same conference again, this time to meet two agents. Because when you double the sound of silence, it gets even quieter, which is good for thinking. I was thinking, for instance, that this writing business is not for people who don’t like getting slapped around. Fortunately, I do like that.

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Catastrophic Fish

Young woman sewing

It was either this or English class

Let’s go back in time for a few minutes, to 1989. I worked that year as a copy editor for hunting and fishing magazines. One of the ones I copy edited was North American Whitetail, so if you see that one, that used to be mine. While I worked there, we had four copy editors, and we would make fun of the writers who submitted articles to us, so that we even collected quotes of what we considered particularly stupid lines. They were things like this: “While sitting in my bass boat early one morning, a huge fish suddenly snagged the line.” (In case you’re a normal person and don’t see the problem, that sentence grammatically says the fish was sitting in the boat.)

My editor at the time would also criticize the writers for things he noticed (my editor was apparently good at spelling), but later I’d go back and remove mistakes the editor had added. The mistakes I made myself just stayed right there where I left them, I guess.

It seems to me that everyone criticizes bad writing, to the extent that they recognize it. No matter how bad someone is, if they see someone else make a mistake, whoa buddy! Did you even go to school, huh?

This topic came to me this week because of a medical article I had edited at work. The article was not well written, even by medical journal standards (not by my medical journal standards anyway), and all the way through the editing I kept cursing the incompetence of the writer. Then later we had an email exchange over some questions, and the writer seemed so pleasant and friendly that I felt like I was a wretched schmuck for my bad attitude.

Regarding the articles I edit, you might think that people who send us articles would be good, professional writers (at least half of them have both a PhD and an MD). And indeed, some are. In addition, they’re working with some very complicated stuff, similar to this: “Catastrophizing is an ongoing negative cognitive style characterized by helplessness, magnification, and obsessive thoughts regarding pain, a strong predictor of negative pain-related outcomes.” And that’s one of the easy sentences.

So why does a surly muttered “dumbass” fall from my lips on a regular basis? Why do I think the writers should be better than they actually are? In fact, why does everyone think other people should write better than they actually do?

The question takes me to the time when I taught college writing, the dreaded freshman class required of every person who came to college. The existence of the class implied that everyone should be a better writer afterward, but I had students who were still trying to find a place to buy a mule to start up that mountain. They weren’t going to be looking back down at the valley any time soon.

With a colleague who also taught the class, I’d discuss questions like these:

  • Is it really possible to teach writing? (we pretty much concluded No)
  • What is good writing? What does that really mean?
  • Is it realistic or even reasonable to expect that every person who goes to college becomes a decent writer?

Honestly, this is way more complicated than most people want to know, getting into things like rhetorical awareness of audience. Even other college professors (who didn’t know shit about teaching writing) would talk about it as if there is such a thing as a universal standard of “good” writing—and there ain’t, not even close.

Someone who can write a beautiful poetic love letter may be a good writer to the person who receives it, but the same writer may not write a decent political editorial. Conversely, the logical sarcastic editorial writer may live a long lonely life if he’s depending on his dumb, dull love letters. Which one is a good writer?

In any case, whatever good writing might be, is it reasonable to think everyone should be able to do it? Do we expect everyone to be a good public speaker? Is everyone supposed to work on their own car? Are we all supposed to sew our own clothes and know how to invest in the stock market?

If you’ll sew buttons on for me and fix my car I’ll give you free editing. And I won’t call you names.

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Childhood in Savannah

living room in Flannery O'Conner's house

Flannery O’Conner’s living room

Though I am also a Georgia writer, I have to say that I actually know little about Flannery O’Conner (though I did visit her grave in Milledgeville years ago). Last Friday I stood in a bedroom on the third story of a narrow gray stone house, looking out onto Lafayette Square in Savannah, Georgia. Until she was 13, little Mary Flannery, as she was known then, also stood in that room, her parents’ bedroom, looking out across the square at the cathedral where her family attended services. What was that little girl thinking when she stood there? How did that little girl grow up to write such dark books?

I went to Savannah to see a friend, who came there to meet me, and who I was great glad to see. My friend is not from Georgia, but she knew more about O’Conner than me and wanted to visit the childhood home. The four-story house once belonged to a wealthy relative of O’Conner’s family, and Flannery spent her early years there, until her father took a job in Atlanta—to the dismay of Flannery and her mother, who eventually ended up in Milledgeville.

The Savannah house has been returned as much as possible to a facsimile of O’Conner’s childhood. Furnishing are intended to show how a middle-class family lived there in those years, and some of the original belongings have even been found and used. In particular, for a writer, the house contains a number of the childhood books that O’Conner actually owned. This includes a book of fairy tales that she wrote in, on the title page: “Not a good book”—the child critiquing the books she read.

Mary Flannery O’Conner was from an Irish Catholic family, though that fact is not quite as evident without her first name, nor would it be clear from her fiction, which often involves characters of fundamentalist Protestant religion. O’Conner’s fiction is often called “Southern Gothic” with the usual sense of “Gothic” in literature: darkness, disturbing situations, and unsettling characters. It’s slightly ironic that she grew up attending a cathedral in Gothic style, but in architecture, that term means a beautiful church filled with light and stained glass. The Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, across the square from O’Conner’s house, is just such a church, a stunningly beautiful building.

How much can a person get a sense of Flannery O’Conner from visiting this house? Such a question could be applied to visiting the house of any writer, which I’ve done plenty of (Louisa May Alcott, Samuel Johnson, Walt Whitman, Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Dante, among others). The answer probably depends on how much the writer can be felt in the house. In a case like O’Conner’s childhood home (or Shakespeare’s), there’s not much of the creative adult writer actually there, so it’s more a case of feeling connected to the human being who this person was. I wonder if that’s a more abstract idea.

I actually feel a slight connection to O’Conner from the fact that she, as well as her father, died of systemic lupus erythematosus, because I now work for a medical journal that occasionally has articles about lupus. She died at the horribly young age of 39.

Aside from this strange connection, aside from the fact that both O’Conner and I were born and grew up in Georgia, even aside from my visiting both the house she lived in as a child and the grave where she is buried, I feel a connection with Flannery O’Conner as a fellow writer—and in that regard, she could have been born in Kazakhstan. She was an intelligent, thoughtful person who was interested in language and ideas, who wanted to express those ideas by creating scenes where characters stand up and come to life. I know what that’s like. More than anything, I understand Flannery O’Conner with that passion to write.

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