Instructions for Reading Your Work in Public

First, schedule your reading somewhere, anywhere, that is extremely not easy to find. An alley behind a derelict girdle factory. A fallow field along a disused state highway. A hidden alcove on one of the upper floors of the condemned records building of an abandoned steel town. This is the critical first step to making sure you will have an unsuccessful reading. Next, remember to never tell anyone about the event, especially not your relatives or closest friends. If a mention of your upcoming reading accidentally slips out, deny what you have just said. If denial fails, plead drunken confusion. If you are clearly sober, sabotage the friendship. If your friends turn out to be social masochists and your bridge-burning attempts only increase their desire to hear you read, change the venue, making sure to move it by a distance of at least ten miles; also change the time of day by at least six hours, the date by at least three months. If you become worried that you might slip again, consider keeping the details of your reading a secret even from yourself.

No matter where you end up having your reading, make sure it is nowhere near a bookstore. Ideally, your reading should likewise be in a dry county, in a state that has no truck with literary culture. Sobriety and willful ignorance will be vital to the failure of your event. Next, get a job you hate, one where you are worked to the bone, drained dry at the end of every shift, with no energy remaining for creative endeavors. Make sure that the job has glimmerings of practicality, but only faintly so; your parents should be somewhat relieved, but still concerned. “The beef rendering industry isn’t going away anytime soon, that’s for sure,” they should say, smiling nervously, “but do assistant sluice managers have any room for advancement?” Whatever your vocation, make sure you have no time left over for writing: take extra shifts; bring work home with you; sign up for a correspondence course. If you have not done so already, develop a taste for alcohol. Let your love grow, but not like a well-tended flower, more like an ignored and sturdy vine, weedy and ferocious in its impulses, the tendrils of your habit entwining with the ramshackle chicken wire of your self-loathing. Lose money. Forget your passions. Forget, if you can, that you ever even wrote a word. Go to seed. Become pasty, disheveled, untucked. Be prone to haphazard spasms of knowing, disgusted laughter. Eat the leftovers of others from the break room refrigerator. Steal medicines you have no use for from the pharmacy. Begin a collection of old newspapers; keep them fastidiously folded in paper bags, hidden inside the Murphy bed in the basement apartment you call home.

When it comes time for your reading, let it take you completely by surprise. Frantically dig the manuscript of the first chapter of the novel you began as a sophomore out of storage. As you bang up the stairs and out through the screen door and across the crumbling pavement and eager dandelions, skim your pages, your eyes crusting over with nostalgia. Such early promise! Head out to your reading—in the far corner of the empty mimeograph repair shop, at the bottom of the dry quarry, under the neglected wharf—both horribly late and deeply satisfied at your own fragmentary genius. Drive into the early evening sun remembering that time you got into an argument with your ex—back in college, when you were still going out—about all the unpublished work Hemingway’s first wife lost in that Paris train station. Wasn’t it a damn shame? Wasn’t it a great loss to literature? “Oh, no,” you replied, smiling wistfully, “Don’t you see the beauty of it? That no words can ever be as good as those which can’t ever be read?”

Hitting, Not Aiming

I told one of my classes the other day that I’ve been reading E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, but that I did not recommend it, as it has the somewhat musty air of being exactly what it is, which is a transcript of a series of lectures the novelist gave at Cambridge in the late twenties. I originally said that, though, after reading the chapter on plot without having read what preceded it. Now, starting at the beginning like I should have in the first place, I’ve completely changed my mind; now I think that if you can hear that voice—the voice of the speaker at the lectern—the book is hilarious and smart, a sequence of ideas that don’t always survive out of context, although I hope that this one does:

The plot-maker expects us to remember, we expect him to leave no loose ends. Every action or word ought to count; it ought to be economical and spare; even when complicated it should be organic and free from dead-matter. It may be difficult or easy, it may and should contain mysteries, but it ought not to mislead. And over it, as it unfolds, will hover the memory of the reader (that dull glow of the mind of which intelligence is the bright advancing edge) and will constantly rearrange and reconsider, seeing new clues, new chains of cause and effect, and the final sense (if the plot has been a fine one) will not be of clues or chains, but of something aesthetically compact, something which might have been shown by the novelist straight away, only if he had shown it straight away it would never have become beautiful.

The book is quoted fairly heavily elsewhere on the Web, but I haven’t been able to find this particular quote anywhere. It doesn’t really amount to practical advice on writing, but then I’ve also come to the conclusion of late that when writers aim directly at such a thing they invariably miss the mark wildly—or, rather, are aiming for a target altogether not worth shooting at—a target which Forster, I think, blessedly ignores.

In the Public Interest

An idea: What about a Web site called “Am I Public Domain or Not?” At first I thought this could be something as simple as an algorithm that would generate a yes or no answer from the basic information required by this flow chart (or this, or this, etc.); when the work was published, when the author died. But things get trickier than that, of course—maybe you’ve had better luck, but it can be rather difficult, in my experience, for a regular reader to discover, say, whether or not a work that was published after 1950 but before 1964 had its copyright renewed by the author (or the author’s estate) after the 27th year but before the 28th year subsequent to the year of the work’s publication. So publicdomainornot.com couldn’t just be an algorithm, but would require, I believe, a massive database of information entered, and maintained, by hand, a database of all books published ever—sort of like IMDb meets Hot or Not, or something, except for book nerds. But who would build such a thing? As long as I’m constructing a fantasy, I think it ought be a joint project of the Library of Congress, the Authors Guild, the AAP, some enormous university library, and Google. (Wouldn’t it be nice to see them all in a room together, getting along swimmingly?)

Emily notes that this project could be tied in to a service she has long wished existed, 1-800-DEADORALIVE. Both would need to be operating 24 hours a day; both would have such simple interfaces for their complex machinery, burping out simply a yes or a no answer for the user; both would be so useful!

The Future of the Book of the Future

The first to go will be the editors, although this won’t happen immediately; the end will be a slow decay, not unlike the legend of the frog ignorant of its own boiling. Editors will, with all the best intentions, stop making it to the ends of manuscripts; then they’ll drop the skimming of sample first chapters; and then, finally, realizing that it is not only possible, but preferable, to conduct their business without the distraction of print at all, the editors will no longer even bother with pitch letters. The only employees remaining at the publishing houses who actually consider the words contained inside the objects those houses produce will be the typesetters, who will no longer be native speakers, necessarily, but rather the cheapest purveyors of this service, depending on the strength of the dollar and other sundry global market forces: one day the typesetters of diet books in English may be Bangladeshi, vice versa the next; Argentinians will typeset Danish poetry; Ethiopians, Mexican political tracts; and so on. Once the agents realize that the editors are no longer reading, they shall follow suit, and instead will only pitch the works of their most attractive clients with the sexiest-sounding ideas. Hard on the heels of the agents will be the writers, who never much liked the grunt work of stringing sentences together anyway, greatly preferring to lounge around fashionable saloons, or their own living rooms, complaining to friends and strangers and colleagues and pets alike about the monumental and laborious difficulties of their chosen trade. Writers shall, instead, simply cobble together documents as random collages of appropriated texts, cribbed willy-nilly from their own correspondence, the stories they wrote in graduate school, the essays they wrote in college, various novels of yesteryear that may or may not have entered the public domain, maps, weather reports, stock tickers, and the Bible. Soon the only professionals remaining in the publishing world who still read books—actual, physical books; books from beginning to middle to end—will be the critics. They will rant and rail, vent and brickbat, sputter and spleen at these paper gallimaufries, but the newspaper and magazine owners of the world will discover, through scientific polls, that not a soul cares for the book reviews anymore, preferring, instead, to spend their valuable time ingesting interesting new facts, such as how fighting crime can aid the shedding of pounds, how renouncing freedom can lead to a pointier chin, a more savage nose. The critics will throw up their hands in submission and willingly dance on the grave of literature, but no one will notice, because their employers will have long since moved on to more promising schemes, like investment real estate and amateur pornography. The interesting facts still printed in the newspapers and magazines will blur around the edges, fray at the seams, then finally explode in a colorful, lusty, mouthwatering display of mixed metaphors. Without fiction still extant as its natural counterpoint, the word “fact” will come to mean “something extremely delicious that maybe you can buy right now with money.” The word “truth,” lacking novels to tell deeper versions of it, will evolve until it means “attentive ladies offering extraordinary special massages for discerning gentlemen.” Dictionaries—the books still referred to as “dictionaries”—will entirely consist of advertisements for call girls; grammar will slink off to the dusty cemetery where propriety, etiquette, socially progressive taxation, high-fiber diets, spelling, and whalebone foundation garments lie waiting for its arrival; and the streets and alleys of the cities of the world will be full of joyous humanity and all the naked alphabets and ideographic systems of all the human languages, rutting continuously and without shame, letters and fluids and ink strokes and dead skin shedding into the gutter like so much unnecessary baggage, like the struggle to find the right word, leaving only, in its place, a magnificent collage.

(See also: “End of the World of the End,” Cronopios and Famas, Julio Cortázar.)

Destruction and Loss

I am obsessed with stories of lost or destroyed writing—everything from Hughes burning Plath’s diary to the burning of the library of Alexandria to the loose manuscript pages blowing every which way in the wind at the end of Wonder Boys. I have a “destruction of writing” folder going in my files—not far from “Donald Barthelme” and “workshop etiquette,” for no good reason—and I can’t wait to read Stuart Kelly’s The Book of Lost Books: An Incomplete History of All the Great Books You Will Never Read. I am hoping, actually, that that book makes my folder obsolete, and serves as a more complete compendium than I could ever hope to assemble of anecdotes like this one:

‘The first stuff you write doesn’t mean a damned thing. I had one of the best newspaper jobs in Europe, writing under two different names with two salaries and two expense accounts, and when I had saved enough money to quit the newspapers and take a chance on fiction, I wrote for two years and didn’t sell a damned thing. I kept sending them off and when they sent them back they wouldn’t even call them stories. They called them sketches. Then when I left Paris I had all my stuff in my suitcase. My wife lost the suitcase somewhere on the way and I never did get it back. At first I couldn’t realize what had happened. I had lost two years’ work, and once I write a thing and get it the way I want it I forget about it and can’t remember it afterward. I didn’t realize it then, but that was the most fortunate thing that could have happened to me, because now the critics don’t know what I wrote first and they can’t trace my development. It’s none of their business that you have to learn to write. Let them think you were born that way.’

—from Arnold Samuelson’s With Hemingway: A Year in Key West and Cuba

The last two sentences appear to be quoted quite frequently on the Web; the entire paragraph—which contextualizes the quote such that the reader now knows who “they” are (which, to my mind, is much more interesting than a vaguely paranoid and misanthropically generic “they”)—I was only able to find at the ‘Times, on a page originally published in 1985. (I love it when dated items that predate the existence of the Web are republished on the Web. It makes me wonder, with optimism and trepidation, how the words we are writing now will appear years from now? If our words will, in fact, continue to exist?)

Note also: Garrison Keillor’s own story of lost pages in his preface to Lake Woebegon Days—”The lost story shone so brilliantly in dim memory that every new attempt at it looked pale and impoverished before I got to the first sentence”—and Keillor’s (parodic) note on the similarity between his and Hemingway’s experiences in this regard, here; scroll about a third of the way down the page.

Are the Stories Still Very Short Sometimes Where You Are?

“It’s like,” he said, tapping the end of his cigarette on the edge of the ashtray, “it feels like there was this whole world, see? I mean, what I mean is, a whole world of stories. Geez, I don’t know if I’m making any sense.” He stubbed out his cigarette, got up from the couch, and walked to the kitchen. “You want another beer, honey?” he asked. She nodded at him from the couch. “Okay. Okay, I’ll get us both a couple beers,” he said. “I’d like a beer,” she said. He got the beers from the refrigerator and walked back to the couch. “What do you mean when you say it’s like it was a whole world?” she asked, grinning at him. “You’re not going cuckoo on me, are you?” He pulled the tabs off both beers and dropped them in the ashtray with the dead cigarettes. “Hey, I’m no loon,” he said, gently punching her in the chin as he handed her one of the beers. “It’s just, it’s like all these old stories, see, it’s like they were supposed to be these mirrors, but it’s more like they were windows, you know?” He sipped his beer. “Windows on this world where all these gents and dames talked alike and all, all natural-sounding and such, all in this crazy mixed-up world that wasn’t real, even though it was supposed to be real. You know, a world where it’s like all they do is smoke and drink and the dames are made of cardboard! And nothing ever happens! Ah, nuts,” he said. “See what happens when I try to go and make sense? I get all, what’s that word, I get all cockeyed.” He took two cigarettes from the pack in his pocket, lit them both, and handed her one. “Screwy, is all it is,” he said. They both took drags on their newly lit cigarettes at the same time. She turned in her seat and slid down, resting her head in his lap. She balanced her beer on her belly. “What’s wrong with smoking and drinking all the time?” she asked. “That’s like, well, I mean, that sounds pretty swell to me.” He stroked her hair with his cigarette hand. Her hair caught fire. “Geez,” he said. “Honey,” she said. The flame quickly spread to the couch, the area rug, to her body and to his. They both tried to put it out with their beers, but the beer did not extinguish it, but rather fed the fire. “What the,” he said. He held up his burning arm. “How come,” he said, inspecting it. “How come it doesn’t hurt?” She sat up. “I’ve never been on fire before,” she said. “It’s kind of, it’s kind of nice, I think. Don’t you think?” They looked at each other. They looked at the room, now completely engulfed in flame. “Well now, I don’t know what I think,” he said. “I mean. Not exactly, is what I mean.”