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How Do You Define Something Of Literary Worth?

July 2, 2010

I was with Writer Friend yesterday, so you know things got heated. We talked about why people consider realistic fiction as ‘better’ than sci-fi/fantasy and whether Writer Friend could ever hope to achieve his goal of winning a Pulitzer with a sci-fi novel (from what I can tell, no one’s ever done it except Ray Bradbury in 2007, who won an honorary award, so my guess is you sci-fi types have to content yourselves with the Hugo and Nebula).

Later Writer Friend asked me to define what I felt qualified a book as something of “literary worth.”


  • Must be entertaining. Yes, that’s right, I actually have to want to flip the page, rather than slogging through text. Aka, give me a PLOT.
  • Must be ‘well-written’ as in, not just a good plot.
  • Must be intellectually stimulating. Must make you think, ponder, rub your chin, put book down, pick it back up, reread passage, scowl, throw book across room.
  • Must take an idea and approach it in an interesting way. I’m not asking for a never-before-seen plot or a made-up language. You even have permission to use the occasional cliche or two!
  • Must be loved by a decent sized number of people. Your immediate family doesn’t count.
  • Must be hated by a decent sized number of people. Your neighbor’s cat doesn’t count.

P.S. Writer Friend and I were in a Barnes and Nobles and you know I already have gripes about them. Well, here’s another thing to add to the list: Literary fiction was all the way on the 4th floor! Sci-fi and fantasy were tucked in a little nook right beside literary fiction! Even the magazine stands housing Cosmo and Esquire, even the cafe, had been designated a more respectable 3rd floor standing. And Y.A.? 2nd floor, of course. So unless you and your publisher manage to pay for the lucky chance to be on the tables in the front of the store (so many books I wanted to read, sigh), you aren’t getting any visibility, my friend.

You Should Read: I Want To Be A Camera by Janey Smith

June 27, 2010

You Should Read is a weekly Wednesday short where I suggest short stories and poems on the web to bide a little time on this dreadful–when will Friday come?–24hrs in the middle of the week.

I discovered this piece while reading a Big Other post (interview with Janey Smith included). Read at your own delight or peril, I suppose.

I liked reading this and yes, okay, the phrases “you would focus on her face” and “grass super close” are very overused, but all the same it was an interesting read, a reminder to always look at different perspectives, si? The title bugs me a bit (feels juvenile) but I’m tired and working on three sleepovers in a row (ha, quite a busy girl, art I?) so forgive me if your daily flash fiction is a little less flashy. It’s not every week that I can find a fricking diamond in the rough! That’s a power only Aladdin has.

First  Line(s): “If you were a camera you would see the grass super close, meandering up, out of its seeds, breaking through black dirt flecked with specks of white stuff on it, which is, probably, the unknown, or bits of inexplicable matter to which no one has given a name.”

Reading Time: 5min

Level of Enjoyment: A little bit Law of Diminishing Returns, but plenty of “ooh, how interesting, this story makes me want to put my nose up against my tree and have a piece of ‘super close grass’ poke me in the eye!”

You Should Read: Microcosmic God by Theodore Sturgeon

June 23, 2010

You Should Read is a weekly Wednesday short where I suggest short stories and poems on the web to bide a little time on this dreadful–when will Friday come?–24hrs in the middle of the week.

After a friend practically begged me to read the 30pg novella that is Microcosmic God by Theodore Sturgeon (go to the table of contents and click “Microcosmic God”), I finally acquiesced and decided to read the sucker.

The story revolves around Mr. Kidder, a scientist who secludes himself to a private island in his quest to acquire greater knowledge, etc, and who ends up creating life forms (called Neoterics) that evolve so rapidly that they easily surpass the intelligence of man. But before you think the moral lesson is that the Neoterics are going to take over the world so please don’t mess with God’s work in creating life, blah-blah, the story takes a shift as one of Mr. Kidder’s colleagues attempts to take advantage of his and the Neoteric’s inventions for ill.  The story might be a little long for you short-attention spanned folks, but if I’ve already gotten about two ADD kids to read this, then you can read this too!

First  Line(s): “Here is a story about a man who had too much power, and a man who took too much, but don’t worry;

I’m not going political on you.”

Reading Time: 30-40min

Level of Enjoyment: Just one ounce of science, one ounce of fiction, then shake the cerebral cortex firmly to insure a

homogeneous mixture and voila! human life. (Boy I wish I paid attention in Biology and Chemistry and Physics and stuff…)

Not Every Story Written By A Woman Is About Marriage, Fool

June 18, 2010

About a week ago I had two really interesting AIM conversations. In the first, a friend described his experience in a creative writing classes where his female peers seemed to concentrate solely on a handful of topics (marriage, babies, getting the guy). In the second, a different friend and I discussed our hatred of certain female classics, and I came to terms with the fact that although I love reading, and I love the idea of female writers, my favorite books aren’t written by them.

Below is the conversation (click for a bigger look). Note that in the background I’ve artfully and unintentionally placed the NY Times article on The New Yorker’s Top 20 Under Forty (which I’ve already written a post about, by the way) and that, towards the left, there is a smidgen of my current WIP. I guess that night was a particularly fiction-filled one?

Do you think most women write about certain topics? Do men write about certain topics? What female writers do you enjoy, and why are the only ones I can list Toni Morrison and Clarice Lispector (plus Marisha Pessl, maybe, or Suzanne Collins)? Not to mention, why is Austen so loved or reviled?

You Should Read: White Apple by Nick Antosca

June 16, 2010

You Should Read is a weekly Wednesday short where I suggest short stories and poems on the web to bide a little time on this dreadful–when will Friday come?–24hrs in the middle of the week.

I found this story when it was featured in an HTML Giant post arguing how when one defines a piece as ‘not safe for work’ (NSFW), one automatically judges the work’s appropriateness for the general public, thereby censoring it. So, as you can infer, White Apple by Nick Antosca is ‘not work appropriate,’ though I guarantee there aren’t any pictures that could get you into trouble. Now I hate psychoanalyzing what I think the story is about, so, to put it simply, it concerns a young man and his sexual relations with various women. Pretty basic, right? Yet Antosca constantly surprises with quirky and realistic scenes, starting off his piece with a literal crunch: we find a young man watching his lover eat an apple during the act. So….yeah. If you’re interested, Antosca blogs at Brothercyst.

First  Line(s): “Later in life he would remember her as the fruit sex girl.”

Reading Time: 7min

Level of Enjoyment: My shoulders ruffled restlessly, encouraging my feet to leap from their perch and flee.

Why Can’t Barnes and Nobels Compete With Amazon?

June 15, 2010

What I’m wondering is, why can’t Barnes and Nobles (never mind the floundering Borders) afford to price their books similarly to the range of cheapness that Amazon offers? On Sunday I bought a hardcover edition of The Hunger Games (which was released in 2008) from B&N for around $17.99–Amazon offers it for $9.78. Yes, of course Amazon has a few things to its advantage (not requiring books to be immediately in stock, not having store locations), and certainly I’m not, in an age when the publishing industry is crying in its sleep, practically sobbing all over its snotty, scratchy sweater, suggesting that they should reap less money, or that the situation should force independent bookstores to wither into insignificance but, I am truly curious to know, what is my incentive as a customer to buy from you? Unless I need it RIGHT NOW, or unless the needle of my morality compass is wavering to the right, what is my incentive? If a book has not been marked down since its release, and costs the same as its 2009 sequel, then what is wrong with publishing? Today I spend my money on you because doesn’t the author deserve it and oh my goodness the book is SO GOOD even though I know I should be reading ‘finer’ stuff like Citrus County, the latest book in The Rumpus Book Club…But what about tomorrow?

By the way, my question isn’t rhetorical. Anyone who understands the business, pray tell. Because if more bookstores were ‘reasonable’ in price, I’d acquiesce. Is my argument an unreasonable one, and why?  Not to mention, how can bookstores compete with the beast that is Amazon? If Amazon=Costco, then where’s the Whole Foods of booksellers?

Y.A. Has ‘Good’ Writing Too

June 14, 2010

There’s a huge dichotomy between ‘important’ fiction and ‘unimportant.’ I know this because I often see the book world divided by these sorry distinctions: Literary fiction is ‘important’ and well-written; YA is immediately unimportant, meant for lower earthlings or, shock, young adults. Sure there are exceptions. Ender’s Game is one of my favorite books, though, if I’d never read it, I’d certainly have an opinion on its ‘worth’ simply based on the cover edition I was reading, which ranges from sophisticated to cartoonish. For most of my life, in fact, I’ve had Literary Fiction Superiority Complex (LFSC), and thought YA should eat my waste products.

Then I read The Hunger Games. I’d heard about it on the blogosphere, had thought the premise was mildly interesting, saw a friend reading it this past weekend and was curious to see if the first page could dazzle me.

Well, dazzle me this, Batman, how do you turn an egotistical aspiring literati into a down-to-earth homosapien, begging to buy the entire trilogy of Suzanne Collins bestselling series? You remind her that there is a true art to writing the YA novel.

I often turn my nose on YA authors–just as Sociology is considered less pure than Physics or Math, Y.A. is considered impure and ‘undifficult’ compared to ‘grownup’ books, right? And in truth, I’ve often snorted at certain blog posts detailing the complexity of writing a YA narrative and providing examples of how to set up description, etc, because really, what’s so hard about getting another work of chick lit on the shelves?

But The Hunger Games is not simply an amazing premise–a gritty, action-packed story concerning a post-apocalyptic world where teens are chosen by lottery to fight to the death to both curb overpopulation and bolster the government’s power–it doesn’t simply feature a strong, capable heroine, but it is also well-written, in a way that I can’t say Twilight (if I hear her use “dazzling” one more time…) or Harry Potter ever was.

The Hunger Games sets the stakes, creates a noble, but flawed protagonist, keeps it emotional and action-packed, and more than adequately describes a new world. The book reminds me of all the books I loved when I was younger (shoutout to Garth Nix’s Abhorsen trilogy, to anything Orson Scott Card, to T.A. Barron’s Merlin series, to the first Artemis Fowl), and it reminds me that just because I’m ‘all-growned-up’ doesn’t mean YA can’t entertain, or that it still doesn’t have something to teach me.

More about What Literary Fiction Can Learn From The YA Novel in my next post.

Meanwhile, what YA books have taught you how to be a better writer? How have you begun to approach YA (or MG, children’s, genre fiction) since you’ve begun to read ‘adult’ books? ‘Literary’ books? What do you think of The Hunger Games?

The First Sentence Of The New Yorker’s “Top 20 Over 40”

June 4, 2010

A few days ago, The New Yorker announced it’s list of the top 20 writers under 40 years old to look out for. Now, I wasn’t familiar with a whole lot of people on that list, so, I decided I should get familiar with each of their most recent works. But really, how much time do you think I have, people? Enough time to read 20 stories/books? I don’t think so. Therefore I decided to assemble the first sentence of each writer’s most recent story or book (some  stories I couldn’t access without subscription, so forgive me), and then choose from there which one I wanted to pursue. Please, help me out, guys! Help me choose what I should read next, or at least help me choose which sentence is the most intriguing out of the 20 supposedly most intriguing authors of the decade:

Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche: “The first time our house was robbed, it was our neighbor Osita who climbed in through the dining room window and stole our TV, our VCR and the Purple Rain and Thriller videotapes my father had brought back from America.” — “Cell One” from The Thing Around Your Neck

Chris Adrian: “It took them both a long time to understand that the boy was sick, though she would point out that she had been the first to notice that he was unhappy, and had sought to remedy his discontent with sweeter treats and more delightful distractions.” — “A Tiny Feast”

Daniel Alarcon: “They took Norma off the air that Tuesday morning because a boy was dropped off at the station” — Lost City Radio

David Bezmogis: “‘Some businessmen’ was how Skinny Zyama had described the two gangsters from New Jersey.” — “The Russian Riviera”

Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum: “Many of Mr. Hempel’s students were performing in the show that evening, but to her own secret disappointment, she would not be appearing.” — Mrs. Hempel Chronicles

Joshua Ferris: “It was the cruelest winter.” — The Unnamed

Jonathan Safran Foer: “What about a teakettle?” — Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close

Nell Freudenberger: “On Easter Sunday of 2005, my grandmother died, of very old age.” — “Grandmother’s House”

Rivka Galchen: “Some people would consider Jacob a physicist, some would consider him a philosopher or simply a “time expert,” though I tend to think of him in less reverent terms.” — “The Region Of Unlikeliness”

Nicole Krauss: “When they write my obituary.” — The History Of Love: A Novel

Yiyun Li: “When the waitress came to take the order, she asked how Suchen was doing with the smoke.” — “Alone”

Dinaw Mengestu: “At eight o’ clock Joseph and Kenneth come into the store.” —  The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears

Phillip Meyer: “Isaac’s mother was dead five years but he hadn’t stopped thinking about her.” — American Rust

C.E. Morgan: “She had never lived in a house and now, seeing the thing, she was no longer sure she wanted to.” — All The Living: A Novel

Tea Obreht: “Neal had believed all the myths about hyenas.” — “The Laugh”

Z.Z. Packer: “By our second day at Camp Crescendo, the girls in my Brownie troop deiced to kick the asses of each and every girl in Brownie Troop 909.” — Drinking Coffee Elsewhere

Karen Russell: “Stage 1: The initial period is one in which everything is new, exciting, and interesting for your students.” — “St. Lucy’s Home For Girls Raised By Wolves” from eponymous story collection

Salvatore Scibona: “He was five feet one inch tall in street shoes, bearlike in his round and jowly face, hulking in his chest and shoulders, nearly just as stout around the middle, but hollow in the hips, and lacking proper can to sit on (though he was hardly ever known to sit) and wee at the ankles, and girlish at his tiny feet, a man in the shape of a lightbulk” — The End: A Novel

Gary Shteyngart: “I am Misha Borisovich Vainberg, age thirty, a grossly overweight man with small, deeply set blue eyes, a pretty Jewish beak that brings to mind the most distinguished breed of parrot, and lips so delicate you would want to wipe them with the naked back of your hand” — Absurdistan

Wells Tower: “Bob woke up on his face.” — “The Brown Coast” from story collection Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned

So…what should I read? (Let it be admitted that I’ve already read Karen Russell’s debut story collection and deemed it fabulous. Also, I am a big Z.Z. Packer fan and won’t let you forget it.)

You Should Read: The Book by Ben Loory

June 2, 2010


You Should Read is a weekly Wednesday short where I suggest short stories and poems on the web to bide a little time on this dreadful–when will Friday come?–24hrs in the middle of the week.

Okay so, we all know how obsessed I am with Ben Loory. I mean, he’s just fantastic, somehow I’m watching out for and whom I expect to have a short story collection or novel coming out soon or else he will suffer big time via my angry commenting. In fact, he’s already got a book coming out soon, but that’s another story. This story of Loory’s, entitled “The Book,” has a special place on my heart and NO, not just because it’s about books, though that’s always nice, but because it’s short, ‘accessible’, and feels like an awesome grown-up fable, the kind you read and think “hot diggety-dog, I am going to change my life!” And if you want to know what it’s about? Well, the first few sentences pretty much cover it.

First  Line(s): “The woman returns from the store with an armload of books. She reads them quickly, one by one, over the course of the next few weeks. But when she opens the last one, the woman frowns in surprise.

All the pages in the book are blank.

Every single one.”

Reading Time: 7min

Level of Enjoyment: HOT-DIGGETY DOG! Also, a little bit of that obligatory ‘not wanting to end’ feeling for the last few sentences.

Queries, And All The Authors Who Don’t Know How To Write Them

May 29, 2010

After reading yet another blog post from a literary agent complaining about how authors simply don’t invest enough time into writing a query–despite the availability of advice on how to write them–I’ve decided that all the queries filling your inboxes, dear literary agents, are obviously from people who do not read your blog.

Or maybe just from people who can’t read.

Or people who give up way too easily.

Or people who like clicking send.

Or people who read some of your blog post (a sentence or two), enough to know that they should send a query, and that they should include things like the book title or word count, but who never read further.

Or people who get really confused by the complex notion of ‘personalized query letters.’

Or people who penned their first book for NanoWrimo.

Or people who want to annoy literary agents.

Or people destined to try self-publishing.

Or people who are just really tired, okay, tired of there being all these BS hoops to jump through just to publish a brilliant book and maybe those agents just don’t UNDERSTAND, you know, because the publishing business is going down the tubes and how can they publish Dan Brown and not me, I mean, c’mon, obviously my literature is just so new and nuanced and CONTROVERSIAL that no one understands me and so says crappy things about my queries for no apparent reason and did Jane Austen have to write a query, huh? And maybe I’m the next Hemmingway, the next Nabokov, the next Bronte, maybe I’m just so new age that I define a my own genre and evidently you can’t appreciate it. In conclusion, the publishing world is a square, and I am only trying to be original, so bug off.

Or people who don’t know how to use the internet.

Or people who don’t know how to write, but are very very very confident that they have a story inside of them just like anyone else.

But don’t worry, dear literary agents, I read your blog. And I’m hoping I’m going to have something to wow your socks off pretty soon.