On Writing and Failure

On Writing and Failure coverOn Writing and Failure: Or, On the Peculiar Perseverance Required to Endure the Life of a Writer
Stephen Marche
Biblioasis (February 14, 2023), 79 pages
Kindle edition $8.79, Amazon paperback $12.56

The small Canadian publisher Biblioasis has done a wonderful job of publishing slim volumes about books, literature, and writing in its Field Notes series. On Writing and Failure is the latest in the series and it fully meets expectations.

Author Stephen Marche tells new writers (he somewhat disrespectfully calls them “kids”) that they should not write with the expectation of fame or money. He says that they should write for the love of writing. He repeatedly tells them, “No whining.” And when he describes the struggles of earlier writers, he admonishes, “Why would it be any different for you?”

Marche strives to take the glamour out of writing. At best, he suggests writing “is like running a failing haberdashery.” For most, he insists, it’s more like selling T-shirts out of the trunk of your car. He writes about the multiple rejections that now-highly regarded works originally received before they eventually found a publisher: Twilight, A Wrinkle in Time, and Gone with the Wind, just as examples. Marche notes that Jack London kept his rejections on a spindle which got to be four feet high: six hundred rejections. Marcel Proust and Beatrix Potter, he reminds us, resorted to self-publishing (long before it was a thing!).

Marche discusses ancient and renaissance authors, as well as a couple from the Far East. He states The Prince would never have been written had Machiavelli not ended up on the losing side of the feudal battles in sixteenth century Italy. He points out that success ended the careers of Ralph Ellison, Harper Lee, and JD Salinger. He tells the story of one Joseph Mitchell (I never heard of him) who published a story to great acclaim in The New Yorker in 1964 and then “came into the office regularly for the next thirty-two years and contributed not one word to the magazine.”

The author tells young writers:

quoteYou have to write. You have to submit. You have to persevere. You have to throw yourself against the door. That’s it.

And that, I believe, is the sum total of what I needed to get from this book.

And that is true even though I am not a young writer. I have been collecting Social Security for a few years now, though I don’t consider myself retired: I continue to write and want to keep doing so. Nor am I am a new writer. I was writing stories during my free time when I was in the fourth grade. Nonetheless, in On Writing and Failure Stephen Marche is telling me what I need to hear.

Still Pictures

Still Pictures coverStill Pictures: On Photography and Memory
Janet Malcolm
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (January 10, 2023), 165 pages
Kindle edition $13.99, Amazon hardcover $26.00

As someone who deeply appreciates the art of the essay I would like to say that I have long been a fan of Janet Malcolm. But that’s not true. The first time I really paid attention to her was when her book of essays, Nobody’s Looking at You, came out in 2019. I read the Kindle sample and just wasn’t engaged. However, something or someone brought my attention to her 2013 collection, Forty-one False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers. I thoroughly enjoyed those essays, so when Farrar, Straus and Giroux published Still Pictures posthumously this month I made a point of buying it.

Malcolm was suspicious of the art of memoir and autobiography, but late in her life she apparently decided it was better for her to tell her own story the way she wanted it told rather than leaving the task to someone else. Most of the essays are based on a photograph in her possession: either of herself, her family, or people with whom she dealt.

I was not aware that Malcolm was an immigrant, but the second essay describes her departure by train from Prague with her parents in 1939. Their escape was fortunate, as the Malcolm family was Jewish. Malcolm’s father was a doctor, and he was able to obtain his license to practice in the United States, so the family, though not wealthy, lived comfortably.

Malcolm writes a lot about her Czech family and fellow émigrés. She writes about an “after-school Czech school” that her parents sent her to so she could keep in touch with her heritage and language. In a somewhat contrasting move, her parents sent her to a summer camp run by a Congregational minister and his wife, apparently to help the Czech Jewish girl better integrate into Christian American society. In a similar manner the family celebrated Easter not by attending church but by dressing up in new, colorful clothes. Her parents even sent Malcolm to a Lutheran Sunday School.

While most of the book is about her childhood and youth, she also writes about her life as an adult. She admits to having an affair with a man whom she later married. He leased an apartment for their rendezvous, from which the tableware and china that they brought in were stolen. She explains how she went to a speech coach named Sam Chwat to help her with a libel lawsuit. She writes the jury had convicted her but could not agree on a dollar amount for the award. Chwat coached her to abandon the staid, low key New Yorker style (where she spent so many years as a staff writer), in favor of a more flamboyant approach, both in tone of voice and dress. The jury in the new trial decided the plaintiff deserved no award.

Before she was a writer Malcolm was a photographer. As a writer she often thought like a photographer. In her essay on her summer camp she writes:

quoteMost of what happens to us goes unremembered. The events of our lives are like photographic negatives. The few that make it into the developing solution and become photographs are what we call our memories.

Malcom was unable to complete a planned essay on photography before her death in 2021. Instead, her daughter provides a tribute to her mother as a photographer and reflects on Janet Malcolm’s feelings about autobiography.

You’ll find this book well worth your time if you appreciate the craft of the essay or if you enjoy the art of photography.

singular they and respecting an individual’s pronoun preference

I have long attempted to be aware and sensitive in my writing. I have a copy on my shelf of Handbook of Nonsexist Writing. It was published in 1980, and I have a paperback edition published in 1981. Perhaps parts of it are dated, but it shows that consciousness and inclusiveness in writing is not a new topic. As the world has become aware that gender identity is not always a binary matter the subject has become more visible. No doubt the pandemic lockdown gave this a boost when we were all on Zoom and many of us put our preferred pronouns next to our name. That has become a convention on LinkedIn as well.

crumpled paper and notebookI discovered that writing in a conscious manner is not necessarily as easy as it might seem. I recently reviewed the book How Far the Light Reaches by Sabrina Imbler. Imbler identifies as nonbinary and uses the pronouns they/their/them. I attempted to respect that in my review. I thought I had done a pretty good job but searched on “she” and “her” just to be sure. Was I wrong! The review contained female pronouns throughout that I had to correct. I even wrote, “Imbler identifies as nonbinary and I use her pronouns of choice.” (And yes, I fixed that as well before hitting the Publish button).

Some people still get their knickers in a knot about singular they, but for many of us that ship has sailed. The seventeenth edition of The Chicago Manual of Style states, “When referring specifically to a person who does not identify with a gender-specific pronoun, however, they and its forms are often preferred.” and “In general, a person’s stated preference for a specific pronoun should be respected.” But Chicago hedges its bets. Section 5 is the “Style and Usage” section written by Bryan A. Garner. Garner writes, “For now, unless you are given guidelines to the contrary, be wary of using these forms in a singular sense.” Garner does, to his credit, repeat the assertion that a person’s preference is to be honored.

In the fifth edition of his Modern English Usage, published just last November, Garner provides a detailed history and analysis of the singular they. He concludes with some rather circumspect advice:

quoteHow future generations will deal with disambiguating they as either singular or plural in Standard Written English remains to be seen. Only time will tell. In the meantime, careful writers using the singular they must take care to avoid ambiguities, miscues, and awkwardness.

Of course, I’m not making any revelations in saying that singular they is nothing new. Grammarians and linguists have been making this point for a very long time. An article on the Oxford English Dictionary web site states that the usage goes back to at least 1375. I have seen it mentioned many times that Shakespeare used singular they and that he used it more than once. For example, an essay on the old Language Log web site at the University of Pennsylvania cites two examples, including this one:

There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me
As if I were their well-acquainted friend

There are plenty of other examples throughout literature, and much ink has been spilled (or many electrons rearranged) on the subject, so I won’t go on beating a horse that should be dead.

In a world filled with people like Ron DeSantis, where we are fighting battles that should have long ago been won, the least we can do is honor the wishes of our nonbinary brothers and sisters siblings.

And if I slip up kindly let me know.

Writers and Their Notebooks

Writers and their Notebooks coverWriters and Their Notebooks
edited by Diana M. Raab
University of South Carolina Press (May 1, 2018), 206 pages
Kindle edition $11.99
purchased during an Early Bird Books sale for $2.99

I had not intended to review this book here. I always keep a couple of books on my iPhone to read at odd moments during downtime or while waiting somewhere. When I saw Writers and Their Notebooks on sale I thought it would fit nicely into this category. It did.

The editor asked several published writers to document how they used notebooks. There were a variety of responses, but some common themes. A few writers talked about having a small notebook they carried with them to write down thoughts. Many talked about having a journal in which they wrote their reflections. Several discussed having a diary as a child or teenager. A lot of the respondents described how the particular format was important to them. They used a very specific type of notebook, and often a particular kind of pen.

The editor divided the book into five parts, all beginning with “The Journal as…” Her categories are tool, survival, travel, muse, and life. The essays in each section describe how the writer used their journal in that particular fashion. Authors in the tool section, for example, turned to their journals to extract plot points for their fiction. One writer in the travel section wrote he was not a regular journal keeper, but when he received this assignment he decided to keep a journal on an upcoming foreign trip.

There was a consensus that these journals were for the writer’s eyes only. One author wrote that her journals were not to be made public after her death. Another writer threw all of his journals into the trash compactor in his apartment building. It was the rare exception who suggested that blogging had replaced journal keeping.

I was a serious journal keeper for the two years I remained in Claremont after I had graduated from college. Those blank books at B. Dalton Bookseller where I worked were just too tempting. (I may still have those in a box somewhere in the garage.) I also kept carbon copies of typed letters sent to friends in a three-ring binder. These days I am one of those people for whom blogging has replaced writing in a journal.

The editor provides some resources in the back of the book. An appendix entitled “Use Journaling to Spark Your Writing” seemed a bit directive and overdone to me. More useful are two bibliographies, “Published Journals and References” (there are those authors who are happy to make their journals public) and “Books on Writing.”

For someone wondering how journal writing might be helpful for them Writers and Their Notebooks might be a useful tool.

updating Garner

One would think that it would be a simple thing to order and receive a copy of the new fifth edition of Bryan Garner’s Modern English Usage, wouldn’t one? Guess not.

Garner coverI was looking forward to the release of the book, which I had preordered. It was published on November 17, and as an Amazon Prime member I expected it within a day or two of publication. I had wanted the Kindle edition, but Amazon did not show it available in that format. November 14 arrived and Amazon told me I could expect the book on November 29. Say what? At that point it also showed a Kindle edition. I tried to cancel my hardcover order, but Amazon responded by telling me, “Unfortunately, we weren’t able to cancel the items you requested and these items will soon be shipped.”

Their claim of “will soon be shipped” notwithstanding, Amazon took its time getting the book into the pipeline. Eventually it made its way from Chambersburg, PA and Baltimore, MD on the East Coast to San Bernardino and then San Diego, CA here on the West Coast, where Amazon handed it over to the United States Postal Service, and thence to my local Hemet post office.

From here the post office took its time. Tracking showed that it was “Out for Delivery” on Saturday, November 26, but the postman never delivered it; it ended up back at the post office that same day with a status of “Ready for Pickup.” Again, say what? I completed the provided online redelivery request and the book showed up in my mailbox on Monday, after our regular mail delivery.

I have it now, though, and I’m happy to have the latest edition of Garner there on my shelf. I look forward to making good use of it, both for reference and for browsing.

Intimations: Six Essays

Intimations coverIntimations: Six Essays
Zadie Smith
Penguin Books (July 28, 2020), 111 pages
Kindle edition $8.99, Amazon paperback $6.99

How is it that I have never read Zadie Smith before?

I’m embarrassed. I have long known of her and I have seen her books reviewed, but I have never read any of her writing. Fortunately, when I was looking for my next book I (electronically) picked up Intimations.

Intimations is a small volume, just 111 pages in the print edition, but it is packed with superb writing. The essays in the book are Smith’s reflections on life during the COVID pandemic. Her subject matter is wide-ranging. She writes about observing flowers when the world was shut down: tulips that she wanted to be peonies. She comments on the nonsense spouted by the man who lived in the White House at the height of the pandemic. Smith offers her observations about a young man in the IT department at her university, an African American like herself. The author reflects on the chattiness of a distant relative she encounters at a bus stop and how her mother can exhibit a similar trait.

In one essay, Smith writes about people holding up signs at the park. (I assume she is referring to Central Park.) She offers practical advice on how to deal with the sign holders:

quotePeople hold signs up in the park every day. Sometimes they say “Free Hugs.” (Note to pretty Swedish backpackers: they’re not free.) Sometimes they offer a service: tarot reading, personalized poems, a discussion about Palestine, as in “Come Ask Me About Palestine.” (Don’t ask him about Palestine.)

One sign in particular caught her attention: “I Am A Self-Hating Asian. Let’s Talk!” Smith spends some time observing the man and making sure she was reading the sign correctly, but she did not engage with him.

As you have perhaps surmised, Smith writes in the context of the pandemic, but she doesn’t write solely about the pandemic. What I took away from the book is that I can learn a lot about writing from her. She also offers me a practical take on the value of writing. In discussing how we spent our time during the lockdown Smith notes, “We make banana bread, we sew dresses, we go for a run, we complete all the levels of Minecraft.” She then observes:

quoteI write because…well, the best I can say for it is it’s a psychological quirk of mine developed in response to whatever personal failings I have. But it can’t ever meaningfully fill the time. There is no great difference between novels and banana bread. They are both just something to do. They are no substitute for love.

I will keep writing. I have no doubt Smith will keep writing. But she offers a practical viewpoint to help me keep my writing in perspective.

Translating Myself and Others

Translating Myself and Others coverTranslating Myself and Others
Jhumpa Lahiri
Princeton University Press (May 17, 2022), 203 pages
Kindle edition $9.44, Amazon hardcover $19.79

When I read several years ago that Jhumpa Lahiri was moving to Italy and was going to start writing in Italian I had a couple of reactions. I wondered whether we were being deprived of one of our best storytellers in English. And I scratched my head, thinking that this was a rather odd decision. In Translating Myself and Others, Lahiri fills us in on why she made that decision.

The specific dates across the introduction and the various essays don’t sync up and had me somewhat confused, but the sequence of events is still clear. Lahiri decided she was in love with the Italian language so she moved there and began to write in Italian. She also became friendly with Italian authors whose work she later translated into English. At some point she returned to the United States to teach translation at Princeton but returned to Rome whenever academic holidays or sabbatical permitted.

The title of the book is an exact description of its contents. She writes about overcoming the fear of translating her own work from Italian into English, and she discusses translating the work of others, in particular novelist Domenico Starnone. Having lived in Italy, Lahiri has a fascination with the Roman poet Ovid and his work The Metamorphoses. She refers to passages from Ovid throughout the book and describes how she is working on a new translation with a Princeton classicist.

Lahiri is open to the criticism of her work. She writes that critics said that her Italian was not idiomatic. That is not the word they used, but that was the essence of their evaluation. She describes how American critics thought she was arrogant to write introductions to her translations of Starnone.

When she writes about the process of translation Lahiri includes the passage in its original language before providing the English version. She really wants the reader to understand what she is doing.

About translation Lahiri writes:

quoteTranslation has always been a controversial literary form, and those who are resistant to it or dismiss it complain that the resulting transformation is a “mere echo” of the original — that too much has been lost in the process of traveling from one language into another.

When I read those words this seemed like a rather narrow perspective, but if I am honest I know I can be guilty of taking such a view. Maybe that’s why most of what I read are books originally written in English. That is limiting, however. One book I thoroughly enjoyed was Travels with Herodotus by Ryszard Kapuscinski. I very much liked the writing, but the book I read was a translation into English from the original Polish. I do not know how well translator Klara Glowczewska reflected Kapuscinski’s Polish, but that didn’t interfere with my enjoyment of the book.

Another case in point: Isabel Allende. I know she writes in Spanish and her books are translated into English. I don’t know if she translates any of her work herself or if a translator is responsible for the English versions. What I know is that her literary fiction meets with high regard and that I am missing out on some good reading by overthinking these questions.

So, about translation: If the topic interests you be sure to read Translating Myself and Others. You’ll be glad you did.

Rebel with a Clause

Rebel with a Clause coverRebel with a Clause: Tales and Tips from a Roving Grammarian
Ellen Jovin
Mariner Books (July 19, 2022), 396 pages
Kindle edition $14.99, Amazon hardcover $24.29

I believe that I first encountered Ellen Jovin on LinkedIn where she posted a photo of her grammar table. Ellen is a language educator who took conversations about grammar to the city street. She set up a table in New York City with a sign offering to answer grammar questions. From there she took her table around the country. Her husband joined her, making video recordings of her conversations. She took those conversations and made them into a book.

Jovin is brave. Her first chapter discusses the Oxford comma. There is nothing more likely to tie the knickers of grammar nerds into a knot than the Oxford (or serial) comma. To my disappointment, Jovin is only lukewarm in her support of the Oxford comma. She writes that she once had a job with an organization that did not use the Oxford comma, and though she has since begun to use it she does not feel strongly that others use it. I’m very aware that neither the Associated Press Stylebook nor The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage use the Oxford comma, but I am a Chicago Manual of Style guy myself and they support it.

My favorite example in support of the Oxford comma is in a book dedication, probably apocryphal, in which it is omitted:

I’d like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and God.

I had originally inserted a snarky comment here, but I’ll let the example speak for itself. Discussions about both Ayn Rand and God can stir up potent emotions.

In another chapter Jovin discusses the appositive, where a noun or noun phrase further identifies the subject of the sentence:

WH Auden, my favorite poet, captured the spirit of his time.

The phrase “my favorite poet” is the appositive. Jovin then combines appositives with the Oxford comma, and things really get gnarly. I’m not going to try to explain that here; you’ll need to read the book.

Jovin devotes a chapter to singular “they,” something else that gets people’s knickers in a knot, not all of them grammar nerds. While sometimes it is better to recast the sentence, there are times when it makes sense to use it. Chicago in its latest edition, the seventeenth, began allowing this.

In a chapter on lie/lay confusion, Jovin goes to a great deal of trouble to set the visitors to her table straight. She always keeps a notepad at her table and she reproduces a diagram she would sometimes draw to clarify all the various forms. She seems to be something of a stickler on this point, though things get rather arcane, especially with tenses like the present perfect of lie (which is lain). I tend to agree with linguist John McWhorter who in a recent podcast suggested that in this case we should probably let sleeping dogs lay. I mean lie.

Jovin covers a variety of topics: the book has forty-nine chapters. She discusses affect/effect, adverbs, semicolons, commas, apostrophes, and many other topics about which the visitors to her table brought questions. What’s great about Ellen Jovin is that she is always congenial, she is never confrontational or dogmatic. If she brings her table to your town stop by and visit.

And whether she does or not, consider buying Rebel with a Clause. You’ll enjoy the conversations.

Index, A History of the

Index, A History of the - coverIndex, A History of the: A Bookish Adventure from Medieval Manuscripts to the Digital Age
Dennis Duncan
W. W. Norton & Company (February 15, 2022), 351 pages
Kindle edition $9.66, Amazon hardcover $20.95

Like most people who read books, I am familiar with the index in its modern form. In my college days back in the 1970s, pre-personal computer and pre-online search, the index was indispensable. I would check books out of the library and use the index to find material that was relevant to the term paper I was writing. During my days as a technical writer I would insert markers into the publishing program I was using to generate an index when the user guide was complete. (After the manual was printed I would look at my index and ask myself, “Who was the knucklehead who created this index?”)

Duncan’s book is interesting in that he goes back to the precursors of the index. In the days before page numbers a scholar would use other markers to point the reader to the point in the manuscript that had the content they were looking for. Some early indexes were not alphabetical, particularly for religious texts. For example, the first entry might be “God” with a list of attributes of God pointing to the various textual entries, and then move down the list hierarchically rather than alphabetically.

The author describes one example where the manual copying of manuscripts did not fit well with the index. The copyist copied the manuscript on a smaller size paper than the original, so the pagination did not match, but copied the index verbatim, so the references didn’t point to the location where the material actually was. The invention of the printing press pretty much eliminated that problem.

Duncan writes about how an index might be used to fight an academic battle. Adversaries would create an index of an opponent’s work to highlight the errors and inaccuracies. They might even include snarky comments as part of the index entry. One professional indexer was opposed to the content of a book the author hired him to index and so created entries that suggested the opposite of what the book actually said.

Social critics did not hesitate to use the idea of the index to beat up on their targets. They would accuse socialites of skimming an index rather than reading the entire book so they could sound informed at parties. That made me think of Dick Cavett, who admitted going to the index and looking for his name when a new memoir or autobiography came out.

There is also a brief foray into the idea of indexes in fiction. Duncan writes that Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando included an index, but that was part of the spoof since Woolf presented the novel as a biography. A couple of other novelists tried this in the early twentieth century, but fortunately it never caught on. When reading this section I kept wondering if The Lord of the Rings needed an index. Probably not.

Duncan includes an appendix in which he shows an index of the current book generated by a computer program. His point here is that human indexers have nothing to fear.

If you are a book nerd add Index, a History of the to your reading list. You’ll enjoy it.

the fiction in nonfiction

I wrote last week about Marius Kociejowski’s memoir A Factotum in the Book Trade in which he recounts his life in the book business. Kociejowski writes about how the author Bruce Chatwin lived in the building above one store where he worked. Chatwin is the author of In Patagonia, a travel book that I thoroughly enjoyed when it first appeared in the seventies. Kociejowski writes of Chatwin:

quoteChatwin was an excellent writer and raconteur, but he was not above inventing things in order to keep the reader’s interest alive and in doing so he put into motion a worrisome trend in travel literature. It is hardly surprising that many readers have come to mistrust it as a genre.

I was disappointed but not surprised. But we can hardly blame Chatwin for this phenomenon. John Steinbeck published the book Sea of Cortez with Ed Ricketts in 1941 and reissued the narrative portion of the book as a stand-alone travelogue, Log from the Sea of Cortez, a decade later. By the time he wrote the narrative his marriage had ended, but when Steinbeck and Ricketts made the trip there (it’s a body of water also known as the Gulf of California), he was still married and his wife was along on the trip, doing the bulk of the cooking and chores. In the published volume, however, Steinbeck has her waving them goodbye from the dock.

bookstoreSteinbeck published Travels with Charley in 1962, marketed as a travel memoir. His biographers, however, say that most of the encounters in his book originated in his study at his typewriter.

Paul Theroux, on the other hand, is guilty of the sin of omission. His wife did not want him leaving home and riding the rails in Europe so he could write what became The Great Railway Bazaar. When he came home months later he found her in bed with another man. But Theroux did not admit to this until many decades later.

Nor do I believe Kociejowski is correct in limiting this issue to the travel genre. Lillian Hellman published the book Pentimento as nonfiction, though commentators have long questioned the reality behind at least one section, the one entitled “Julia.” It describes an anti-Nazi activist in World War II helping to smuggle money for the resistance. The story was, it seems, for the most part fabricated. More recently, James Frey published A Million Little pieces in 2003 as a memoir of his life in the world of drug addiction. In a highly publicized scandal, it came out that the book had no basis in actual events. It got Frey in a heap of trouble, especially since Oprah had promoted Frey and the book when it first came out.

Then there’s Joyce Maynard. (Yes, I have an unhealthy obsession with Maynard, about whom I have written not just once but twice, and have mentioned other times in my blog.) She and I are the same age. Maynard published Looking Back in 1973. I fell madly in love with her when I read the book in about 1976 because it expressed the same feelings and values that I had at the time. I learned later that she did not hold those feelings and values at all, but was writing what she thought her audience wanted to read. For years I felt angry and betrayed beyond anything rational. To her credit Maynard later admitted that she was misguided to have written the book the way she did.

I have written about fabrication in books released as nonfiction before (more than once), but my reading of Kociejowski’s memoir made for an excellent opportunity to revisit the topic. Just because a book is published as nonfiction doesn’t mean that it is.