Wednesday, November 22, 2017

On Friedmanese and brandnames in print

We love a good, sharp repudiation of Thomas Friedman's trademark style. From a review in Rolling Stone of his latest, Thank You for Being Late:
Friedman's great anti-gift is his ability to use many words when only a few are neccessary. He became famous as a newspaper columnist for taking simple one-sentence observations like, "Wow, everyone has a cell phone these days," and blowing them out into furious 850-word trash-fires of mismatched imagery and circular argument.
Phew! Few things in reviewing are as satisfying as a swift and deserved coup de grace. This review brings to mind another one by Taibbi, written back in 2005, for NYPress.com. In it, he takes down Friedman's book The World Is Flat; we featured it on the NERObooks homepage on 08/22/17. Taibbi writes:
Friedman is such a genius of literary incompetence that even his most innocent passages invite feature-length essays. I'll give you an example drawn at random [...] On page 174, Friedman is describing a flight he took on Southwest Airlines from Baltimore to Hartford, Connecticut. (Friendman never forgets to name the company or the brand name; if he had written The Metamorphosis, Gregory Samsa would have awoken from uneasy sleep in a Sealy Posturepedic.)
Emphasis ours, to draw attention to another hobbyhorse of our: capital-letter Brand Names. Up with them we do not put.

Every week or so, it seems a blogger or columnist returns to the low-stakes question of how and whether writers should respect commercial brand names. "Use 'Kleenex' or the phrase 'facial tissue', not 'kleenex'", that sort of thing. "This easy-to-remember keystroke combination will allow you to effortlessly insert the essential symbols indicating copyright, trademark and registered trademark."

Officially, Pen & Anvil rejects this kind of etiquette. To our writers we say: Use Kleenex, kleenex, tissues or boogie-catchers, as the textual context calls for. As editors and publishers, we decline the invitation to serve as volunteer branding police. If a corporation wants our help in enforcing their preferred brand identity, they can make an offer! We'd be required to flag any such purchased copy as #sponcon, of course. Not that most marketing budgets would be able to afford our asking price...

* * *

NB: NERObooks homepaged another Taibbi take-down of Friedman, featuring his review of Thank You for Being Late for Rolling Stone on 12/05/16.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

An honest reply to an unpleasant author

A real letter we sent to a real(ly despicable) submitter. Edited slightly for concision and to remove identifying information.
Dear AUTHOR
I'm writing to you as a follow-up to the message ("Thank you for your non-form letter response...") you emailed yesterday to one of our staff members. I wish to advise you that if by adopting an antagonistic and wanton manner, your intention is to attract attention to your writing, you should not hope for much success. 
In my experience such baiting will tend to work against you. (Happily, at the same time it works for the benefit of readers at large, for by such behavior editors are able to identify and ignore personalities who aren't likely to enter into constructive publishing relationships). 
I encounter many different sorts of folks in this line of work, and I instruct the editors and readers under my supervision to expect to encounter the same. We take people as they come, and are as glad to advocate for the writing of an abject asshole as that of the nicest kid on the block, if the work in our view deserves the attention. I explain this so that when I tell you that your submissions and correspondence are no longer welcome at Clarion or any Pen & Anvil affiliate, you won't misunderstand our reason. 
Your venomous message was abuse and vanity of so depraved a species that I find myself entirely uninterested in your experiments in literature. 
Though your email is entirely disagreeable, I will admit to finding a scrap of pleasure in it: I look forward to sharing your message with my colleagues elsewhere in the writing world. They're going to get a kick out of you, vile racist misogynistic enfant risible that you are. (Though, I don't believe you will have much to teach them, however much you think you "know more about writing than they have forgotten." I daresay they know the words "kike" and "cunt" already.) 
Should you require any clarification as to my message and meaning, feel free to look us up in Boston sometime. It'd be an additional pleasure to put a boot square on the flat of your ass. 
With sincere prejudice, and on behalf of the whole pissed-off Clarion family, 
Mr. Zachary Bos, Publisher

Edited to add a post-script:
People have asked, so here we offer one of the messages sent by this contributor to our staff member:
It's funny how starkly you can be reminded that society continues not to validate a woman. You don't have a right to professionalism... if you turn down a piece, you're a cunt.
Edited to add another post-script:

We shared this author's submission with one of Clarion's contributing editors. He writes:
Understandably rejected. I also make my works shitty on purpose and then, instead of spending time to make them better, come up with uncreative insults. I gather from the email address that he is a student. Hopefully he isn't studying creative writing.

Friday, October 6, 2017

On writing after tragedies

On the morning after the latest mass shooting, one of the largest in US history, a writer and an editor met up in a chat channel to talk through their feelings of disbelief, frustration, and wanting to do something constructive. The following exchange, edited for clarity, is a record of that conversation.

WRITER: I can’t believe this has happened again.
EDITOR: What has happened? You fell in love with an Englishman, but you play the fiddle in an Irish band?
WRITER: “At least 50 dead, more than 400 hurt in concert attack.”
EDITOR: Oh yes.
Our inheritance as a society, for being tolerant of our gun-nut uncles at Thanksgiving.
. . .
A senior citizen did this
WRITER: It’s not funny.
EDITOR: It isn’t. Nor was I making fun.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Using Goodreads to learn from bestsellers

This evening, I had a consultation with a young author, who'd asked for feedback on his novella in progress, a kind of bildungsroman in which a Boston boy tries to figure out how to be a man. Good pacing, realistic dialogue; not bad, all told!

I did encourage him to work on tuning his prose style, making it more specifically his own -- to shake off the generic. The narrative and the characters all work, but now the sentences need to be recognizably his.

I had the idea of calling up examples from some recent best-sellers, to show him how three authors who aren't trying to turn verbal somersaults nonetheless create effects that belong distinctly to the genre they're working in. For a touch of poetic flair, I told him -- look at Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See. For a clear trade fiction style with a hint of noir, Paula Hawkins' The Girl on the Train. And finally, for a kind of unabashed sentimentality, Jojo Moyes, Me Before You.

Here's a trick of the trade, if you want to learn from the prose style of best-selling books that you don't happen to have on your shelf at this morning. Go to the Goodreads pages for each of the books you're interested in. There, you'll find there a compilation of reader-favorited excerpts.

Thanks to Goodreads, I was able to source a quick list of exemplary sentences for my author friend. I sent him away not just with recommendations that he check those three books out, but with a typed sheet of illustrative examples that he can readily look over and learn from as he prepares to go over his own book manuscript for an extra polish.

- ZB

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Regarding lit mag submissions and prior publication

This weekend I was at a reading for a group of plein air poets whose work had been gathered together for yet another chapbook by editor Susan Richmond. The poets had been invited to visit the orchards and sculpture gardens of Old Frog Pond Farm in Harvard, Mass., where each of them selected a spot to stand or sit, and in that moment take in the landscape, as a painter does when capturing a scene in the moment. The poems produced in response were each in accordance with this year’s theme: “memoir.”

(At the reading, many people said it was a perfect day for poetry, commenting on the bright sunshine, on the late summer gold in the air. I rather felt that this was a terrible day for poetry… A day suitable for a picnic, or sitting beside the beach, is not a good day for a poem. Snowy days, foggy days, thunderstorm days—any day you have to stay inside, that’s a good day for poetry reading.)

After the reading, we two dozen poets and sixty-something guests mingled on the grass beside the mill pond and ate canap├ęs and drank lemonade while we chatted. More than once, I was asked about our new publication, Hawk & Whippoorwill. Or rather, not a new publication, but one renewed, for H&W was first published in the 60s, edited by August Derleth of Arkham House; and then again in a “new series”, edited by a group of Boston-based writers, about a decade ago. This latest revival is therefore the third life for the magazine.

Given that the order of the day at Old Frog Pond Farm was plein air poetry, it was natural enough that people wanted to talk about the new Hawk & Whippoorwill, the focus of which is poems “of humanity and nature.” It turns out that my call for submissions had been circulating among this crowd, and more than one person there had already submitted. And here is where I get to the point of today’s post.

More than one poet expressed concern that they had committed a faux pas by submitting material that has previously appeared somewhere, be it a blog, chapbook, or even, in one case, as a spoken word performance on the radio.

Here’s what I told them: They should not have patience, as I do not have patience, with publications that give a damn about prior appearances. 

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Recommended reading: Yukio Mishima

Have you read Yukio Mishima? He's certainly an interesting figure in Japanese literature. Rabid right-winger after the War, in contrast with the popular liberal attitudes of the 1960s. There's Hemingway comparisons, but I think such a likening is lazy. Their writing styles and philosophies aren't remotely similar. People link them because they're both "masculine" writers, who viewed their childhood selves as contemptibly weak, and who killed themselves. Mishima was amazingly prolific. Maybe check out with Acts of Worship (Mikumano Moude) a 1965 short story collection. John Bester did an English translation."

This recommendation comes from Jon Maniscalco a contributing editor to Clarion magazine, and contributor to New England Review of Books (both of which are published by Pen & Anvil). He has spent the last year teaching English in Japan.

Friday, July 21, 2017

"The Translator Vanishes"

Just now on BBC Radio 4's Front Row
Daljit Nagra reads a poem by Liu Xiaobo.
In English.
No mention of a translator.
Do they think Xiaobo wrote in English?
Did Daljit translate it?
Did the poem drift out of the air into English?
And yet the poem I heard was in English and it was a poem.
So what happened to the translator?
Have the police started looking for her?
or him?
Or indeed Daljit?

- George Szirtes