In an excerpt from Daniel Menaker’s memoir about his years working in publishing, My Mistake: A Memoir, he offers a deadpan and often hilarious take on what goes on there behind the scenes. Read it at Vulture.com.
Publishing is an often incredibly frustrating culture. If you want to buy a project—let’s say a nonfiction proposal for a book about the history of Sicily—some of your colleagues will say, “The proposal is too dry” or “Cletis Trebuchet did a book for Grendel Books five years ago about Sardinia and it sold, like, eight copies,” or, airily, “I don’t think many people want to read about little islands.” When Seabiscuit first came up for discussion at an editorial meeting at Random House, some skeptic muttered, “Talk about beating a dead horse!”
To make matters worse, financial success in frontlist publishing is very often random, but the media conglomerates that run most publishing houses act as if it were not. Yes, you may be able to count on a new novel by Surething Jones becoming a big best seller. But the best-seller lists paint nothing remotely like the full financial picture of any publication, because that picture’s most important color is the size of the advance. But let’s say you publish a fluky blockbuster one year, the corporation will see a spike in your profits and sort of autistically, or at least automatically, raise the profit goal for your division by some corporately predetermined amount for the following year. This is close to clinically insane institutional behavior.
Harry Mathews has been a friend and supporter of my work for some years. He wrote a glorious blurb for the book, all heartfelt, for which I’m deeply grateful. One day, I’ll write a short piece on how we met, which was certainly amusing, and involved large quantities of alcohol and cigarettes. In the meantime, for those who don’t know his work, or want to know a little more about it, there’s a lovely essay by Blake Butler in Vice Magazine that sums up much of his work. Check it out here.
Easily my favorite of all Mathews’s work, and probably of all I’ve read from the Oulipo, The Journalist is the most concretely formulaic of his narrative concepts, but also his most expansive. Almost like a mirror to the practice found in 20 Lines a Day, the narrator of The Journalist begins writing down his thoughts about what happens to him every day. The act is meant to be a system of relief for the writer after having just come out of a nervous breakdown, but as the book goes on the narrator’s mania for his recording project grows and grows.
So last night the lovely and marvelous Lynne Tillman joined me in helping to celebrate the publication of GOOD INDIAN GIRLS at WORD Bookstore in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. We had a great crowd, and a good conversation after we both read. All in all, a really lovely evening. Thanks to all who attended!
Melville letters are rare things, and this one is a fine example, pushy, in need of money, and at its heart a difficult, rebellious story which he was trying to sell called “The Two Temples.” Stephen J. Gertz tells the whole story over at The Booktryst.
And as a side note, the five dollars per printed page which HM asks for is more than I’ve ever gotten for the majority of my stories — and those are 1854 dollars!
Pittsfield May 9th Dear Sir -Herewith you have a manuscript.As it is short, and in time for your June number, therefore – in case it suits you to publish – you may as well send me your check for it at once, at the rate of $5 per printed page.- If it don’t suit, I must beg you to trouble yourself so far, as to dispatch it back to me, thro my brother, Allan Melville, No. 14 Wall Street.YoursH. Melville
A lovely new interview up over at W3Sidecar. Check it out here.
I can be stuck on a story for years—actually many of the stories included here were written in part, left unfinished, and then returned to years later to finish. Where that final push comes from I don’t know, except that time is mysterious, it allows connections to be made that otherwise wouldn’t have, and it allows a much deeper immersion into a character—someone I might have casually created without any clear goal in mind—to develop and emerge.
If you’re in New York City next Tuesday night, come out to a reading from GOOD INDIAN GIRLS at WORD Bookstore in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. I’ll be reading with the marvelous Lynne Tillman. Details here.
7 PM, WORD Bookstore, 126 Franklin St, Brooklyn.
Read an extended excerpt from the title story over at The Aerogram.
That night she dreamed of a naked old man in a cowboy hat hopping cross-legged from one feathery cloud to another while his knees streamed blood and his limp penis flopped menacingly between his hairy thighs. The dream must mean something and she told herself to write it down and think on it, though she never did, and a week later, trying to recall it, all she could remember was a floating cowboy hat taunting her from the heavens. The memory held an erotic charge, though why, Lovedeep could not say.
In my view, one of the central purposes of art is to unsettle, and to destabilize our own fixed notions of who we are, and who our fellow humans are. If, after having read this collection, the ground is a little more unsteady under the reader’s feet, then I’ve done my job. There’s something of the natural provocateur in me, and I get bored when everyone is going along nicely and not questioning the larger structures of their own lives. So I do hope that it provokes, and that it reaches those people who are at the moment sitting a little too comfortably in their own lives.
Over at her Intermittent Visitors site, the marvelous poet and blogger Joanne Merriam has a brief interview with me up. What will you learn? That I’m a messy writer who hates getting out of bed, thinks you should ignore all writing advice, and oh yeah, still an Alasdair Gray fanboy after all these years. Take a look here. And check out her small publishing house, Upper Boot Books, here.
What is your writing process?
Messy and undisciplined, with no clear schedules. I write in bed when I can, and I often try and get away and write while traveling, where I can keep the laptop next to my head, wake, sit up with some pillows behind my back and pull the computer onto my lap and get immediately to work, often still half-asleep and remembering dreams.
The weight of the literary novel, its dull determinism, the head eating the tail, and a search for paths of escape, which, after all, is the trajectory of modernist fiction. Tim Parks, over at the NYRB, looks at some of this, and finds he comes away disappointed with the books he reads these days. I’d agree, in general, more and more so as time goes on. The novel fails to answer the questions of modern life, and the questions it does answer, well, we know all those answers already, so it becomes little more than bedtime reading, a quaint voice lulling us back to sleep.
Read it here.
My problem with the grand traditional novel—or rather traditional narrative in general, short stories included—is the vision of character, the constant reinforcement of a fictional selfhood that accumulates meaning through suffering and the overcoming of suffering. At once a palace built of words and a trajectory propelled by syntax, the self connects effortlessly with the past and launches bravely into the future. Challenged, perhaps thwarted by circumstance, it nevertheless survives, with its harvest of bittersweet consolation, and newly acquired knowledge.