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Posts Tagged ‘Literature’

The (latest) book I just couldn’t finish…

In behavior, books, culture, journalism, Media on May 25, 2014 at 1:43 am

By Caitlin Kelly

 

photo(45)

Gah!

The fines alone for keeping this book out of library too long — I could have bought it.

And, too ironic, the title: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes.

It’s not even a very long book. I tried!

I just didn’t care about any of the characters. I didn’t find the plot, such as it was, compelling. Nor was the writing especially beautiful.

And it won the 2011 Booker Prize. Oh, well.

I just saw a friend’s post saying she couldn’t finish Donna Tartt’s latest, The Goldfinch.

I’ve tried several times to penetrate Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett and gave up.

Yet I am still slowly reading, and enjoying, Atonement by Ian McEwan, one of my favorite writers and recently (somewhat) enjoyed The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud.

I put off for years reading The Master and Margarita by Bulgakov, but couldn’t put it down and loved it.

What book(s) have you simply given up on halfway through — and why?

Are books — and their readers — an endangered species?

In books, business, culture, journalism, Media, work on January 11, 2014 at 9:58 pm

20131219120434By Caitlin Kelly

This recent piece in The New York Times makes sadly clear why the notion of producing a book — a dream for many — is becoming more of a fool’s errand:

Overall book sales have been anemic in recent years, declining 6 percent in the first half of 2013 alone. But the profits of publishers have remained largely intact; in the same period only one of what were then still the “big six” trade houses reported a decline on its bottom line. This is partly because of the higher margins on e-books. But it has also been achieved by publishers cutting costs, especially for mid-list titles.

The “mid-list” in trade publishing parlance is a bit like the middle class in American politics: Anything below it is rarely mentioned in polite company. It comprises pretty much all new titles that are not potential blockbusters. But it’s the space where interesting things happen in the book world, where the obscure or the offbeat can spring to prominence, where new writers can make their mark.

Budgets have been trimmed in various ways: Author advances, except for the biggest names, have slumped sharply since the 2008 financial crash, declining by more than half, according to one recent survey. It’s hard to imagine that the quality of manuscripts from writers who have been forced either to eat less or write faster isn’t deteriorating. Meanwhile, spending on editing and promotion has also been pared away.

As the author of two well-reviewed non-fiction books, both of which required national reporting, and as someone who would like to write more, I care a lot about whether new books get published, how much authors like me — yes, midlisters — get paid and when, and who, if anyone, will actually read our books.

malled cover HIGH

Without a book-seller to recommend my books or a reviewer to rave (one hopes!) about them, how will you — oh, elusive readers — find or choose us?

I gave up reading my “reviews” at amazon.com years ago as some ad hominem attacks were so nasty they left me shaking. I shudder to think how many potential readers I’ve lost thanks to the face-punches comments left there by people who take an unholy pleasure in savaging others.

Yes, be critical! Every ambitious writer needs to hear where we’ve failed to connect or persuade.

But don’t be vicious.

Professional reviewers know the difference between slicing with a scalpel and bludgeoning with a pick-axe. I’ve reviewed others’ books. I know the incredible trepidation with which any writer reads their reviews; one even wrote to me personally after I reviewed his book in The New York Times to take issue with my comments.

How do you decide which (if any!) books to read?

How many of you, as I still do, spend time in a favorite bookstore simply browsing covers and titles, old and new?

Do you briefly scan what’s on the front tables at your Barnes & Noble?

And did you know that the books there — some of them a decade old — arrive there not because B & N thinks they’re awesome but because publishers pay a fee to the bookstore for that placement?

With falling advances, writing is evermore dominated by people who don’t need it to earn a living: Tenured academics and celebrities spring to mind. For these groups, burnishing a résumé or marketing a brand is often as important as satisfying the reader.

This is a serious challenge for all but a tiny fraction of the truly fortunate — people whose combination of “platform” (i.e. millions of people eager to buy anything they write) and story attract a huge advance — like Allie Brosh, whose fantastic blog Hyperbole and a Half produced a book, published in October 2013, that is now a best-seller.

The rest of us will get an offer, after a few books, of anything from $15,000 to, (at best) $125 or $150,000, even that very rare, divided into four payments over two or three years; $12,000 or $8,000 or $5,000 a year is helpful, but no writer I know can live only on that income.

So we squeeze the important and reputation-building work of writing a book in between teaching others to write or bar-tending or cranking out copy on every other topic but that of our book, creating a competition between the work we hope will allow us to find new readers, terrific reviews, maybe an award or fellowship — and the work that puts gas in the car and food in the fridge.

We eke out excellence.

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Who are your favorite authors? A few of mine

In art, beauty, behavior, books, culture, education, entertainment, journalism on May 5, 2013 at 2:55 am

By Caitlin Kelly

The stack of books I’ve brought with me for a week’s rural vacation is nine high, from Joseph Stiglitz’ The Price of Inequality to Michel de Montaigne’s Travel Journal, from September 1580, during which the Pope greets him warmly and helps him become a Roman citizen.

On this journey, we are nestled at friends’ cottage in a cove on the Northern Neck of Virginia.

Time to read for pure pleasure!

I recently decided to finally read the Patrick Melrose novels by British writer Edward St. Aubyn. I’d heard and read so much about them and thought they just couldn’t be that great. But acerbic, cold-eyed, tart-tongued — they absolutely are.

They are not books for everyone! If you like shiny, happy stories about people deeply in love, optimistic and fulfilled, move on! His main character — a heroin-addicted hero, if you will in one of the novellas — is Patrick Melrose, wealthy, aristocratic, caustic. Sounds horrible. But so not.

This author knows his stuff inside out — the bitter, odd, deeply private behaviors of people with a lot of money and very deep secrets. Here’s an interview with him from 2006 from the British newspaper The Independent. And a Q and A from this year from The New York Times Book Review.

I also saw The English Patient, from 1996, on television again and felt in love once more with its creator, Canadian-Sri Lankan author Michael Ondaatje. His writing is exquisite, like entering a dream, so that when you put down the book again you almost have to shake yourself back into the room, here and now. I’ve so far only read two of his books, but loved both, In The Skin of a Lion, set in my home city of Toronto, and Divisadero, set in rural California. He has also written many books of poetry.

Michael Ondaatje, author of "The English ...

Michael Ondaatje, author of “The English Patient” speaks for the Tulane Great Writer Series presented by the Creative Writing Fund of the Department of English. Dixon Hall; October 25, 2010 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here’s an excerpt of an interview with Michael Ondaatje from Gulf Coast magazine.

I liked Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, (hated the next one), and Monica Ali‘s Brick Lane and Claire Messud‘s first book, The Last Life, (loathed The Emperor’s Children.)

If you have never read Alexandra Fuller, run! Don’t Lets Go To The Dogs Tonight is a beautifully written account of her growing up in Zimbabwe — as is Peter Godwin‘s When A Crocodile Eats The Sun.

Alexandra Fuller - We gaan niet naar de hel va...

Alexandra Fuller – We gaan niet naar de hel vannacht (Photo credit: Djumbo)

I realize my list is already heavily loaded with writers who are either British or partly educated there; many years ago, I loved the novels of Margaret Drabble and Nadine Gordimer as well.

I usually prefer non-fiction, and some of my favorites include the brutal but incredible war accounts, The Good Soldiers, by Pulitzer Prize winning American writer David Finkel and My War Gone By, I Miss It So, by Anthony Loyd; from amazon:

It is the story of the unspeakable terror and the visceral, ecstatic thrill of combat, and the lives and dreams laid to waste by the bloodiest conflict that Europe has witnessed since the Second World War.

Born into a distinguished military family, Loyd was raised on the stories of his ancestors’ exploits and grew up fascinated with war. Unsatisfied by a brief career in the British Army, he set out for the killing fields in Bosnia. It was there–in the midst of the roar of battle and the life-and-death struggle among the Serbs, Croatians, and Bosnian Muslims–that he would discover humanity at its worst and best. Profoundly shocking, poetic, and ultimately redemptive, this is an uncompromising look at the brutality of war and its terrifyingly seductive power.

Cover of "My War Gone By, I Miss it So"

Cover of My War Gone By, I Miss it So’

Here’s a longer list of my faves, from my website, with both fiction and non-fiction.

I don’t read chick lit, celebrity stuff, romance, horror or science fiction but am always on the hunt for great, lesser-known fiction, memoir, biography, history and belles lettres — maybe from 50 or 150 years ago.

Any suggestions from your bookshelf?

Meeting Your Readers Face to Face

In behavior, blogging, books, business, work on August 13, 2011 at 1:56 pm
Michael Shellenberger

Author Michael Shellenberger at a D.C. bookstore. Image via Wikipedia

When your books start heading out into the wider world — bought (paid for!) by libraries, schools and civilians — it’s hard not to be intensely curious about just who these people are.

Four months ago today, my memoir “Malled” My Unintentional Career in Retail” was published. To my relief, it is still selling very steadily nationwide.

It’s a thrill to know that some people are appreciating your skill and hard work and ideas — especially when you get “reviews” like the nastiest one (of many) so far at amazon.com that called me “bitter, pretentious and lazy, lazy, lazy.”

I recently read to/spoke with a small group — perhaps 15 or so — at Magers & Quinn in Minneapolis. Fun! A local blogger kind enough to feature me came out with his friends. They had lots of questions and comments, as several people had worked in retail themselves and had much to offer.

It was a lively conversation, and  so satisfying to have a chance to share with people who care as much about this stuff as I do.

When you’re writing, hunched alone in your sweats over your umpteenth revision, it’s these moments I especially look forward to as my reward. Writing books is such a crapshoot. You pray you’ll find readers, and when you find enthusiastic ones and can see their faces and hear their reactions, it closes the loop between your initial private ideas and the act of publication.

I was especially touched there by the woman whose response to “Malled” was “Yayyyyyyyyy!” and told us she keeps telling friends to read it.

For some people, authors are a mysterious breed. Unless you hang out in those circles, you might never meet one, while our products keep pouring out in a hopeless Niagara, each of us trying in every possible way to claim your attention. Booksellers see a ragged parade of us, persistently cheerful in the face of even the tiniest tiny turn-out — sometime one person, sometimes none.

The bookseller at M & Q was relieved to find me relaxed, schmoozing the audience before we began. “Some writers are really high-strung,” he told me.

Why, yes they are. I once interviewed a famous women humorist whose work I had revered for years. Disaster. She was rude, abrupt and distinctly not funny in person.

See: illusions, shattered.

It’s even a real challenge finding venues to read and meet your readers. I’m not sufficiently high profile to read at any of the Manhattan Barnes & Noble stores, and couldn’t find a single store in the city to set up an event for me. I did one event here in the New York suburbs where I live — and one person came, a fellow blogger I know.

“Book tours” paid for by a publisher willing to send you around the country are only for the uber-successful. The rest of us call a few stores in whatever towns we’re about to visit, and hope to piggyback on their local and loyal buyers to come out and meet us. Even if no buyers appear, we sign some books, shake some hands and hope we leave a good-enough impression that the bookstore staff will talk up our book — only word of mouth makes a book truly successful.

Not ads, not reviews.

And we really need enthusiastic and knowledgable retailers to hand-sell our work, recommending it with enthusiasm even while thousands of our competitors line their shelves.

Have you ever gone to a reading to meet an author?

Was s/he what you expected in person?

Literary Siblings

In behavior, business, culture, entertainment, Media, work on October 11, 2010 at 11:34 am

 

Seated man reading a book

Image by National Media Museum via Flickr

 

That’s what I call them anyway.

I grew up an only child (I now have three step-siblings) so never had to fight for my share of my parents’ attention.

Now, as an author, I get a kick of knowing who my agents’ other writers are and watching their successes. Jealous? Sure, it would be nice to make The New York Times’ best-seller list or get short-listed for the hugely prestigious Booker Prize.

But I also know that writing success is a wild mix of talent, hard work, luck, timing, persistence, discipline. It’s not, as so many would have you believe, a zero-sum game — you win, I must lose. There are always many extremely determined competitors our there; some have helped me and vice versa. Score!

I see two sorts of what I call literary siblings — both the other authors sharing the same agent — and those who are published by the same house, maybe even by the same editor. (Which does she like better?)

I heard an author interviewed on the radio recently who is also published by Penguin/Portfolio, who will issue my new memoir, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” on April 14, 2011. Some of their authors have had huge best-sellers, like Seth Godin.

I root for every writer I like but also cheer for those on the same editorial team, even if I’ll never meet them. Our successes will (I hope!) keep our agents and our publishers thriving.

That’s a win for all of us.

Read My Book! Watch My Video! Authors Turn YouTube Promoters, Ready Or Not

In business, Media on July 26, 2010 at 4:38 pm
Death found an author writing his life..

Make that video -- or else!! Image by ephemera assemblyman via Flickr

So much for the garret.

As authors today now know, or quickly learn, whether you can produce a publishable manuscript is only one piece of the puzzle. How are you on YouTube?

From The New York Times:

“But people who spend their whole lives writing and people who are good on video turn out to be two very different sets of people,” said the best-selling author Mary Karr, who last year starred in her first book video for her memoir “Lit.”

When, at her publisher’s request, Ms. Karr created the trailer, “I looked like a person in a studio who had never been in a studio.” She scrapped the footage and asked her son to shoot her in their living room instead. The final version opens with Ms. Karr drawling, “I’m Mary Karr and I’m here to talk about my new book, ‘Lit.’ ” She goes on to say, in her trademark twang, that the book “took me seven years to write, and believe me, I would have made more money working at McDonald’s.” Featuring Ms. Karr’s languid wit and reluctant half-smiles, punctuated by family photos of the author, the trailer is actually pretty good.

But don’t tell that to the author. “It is, in a word, humiliating,” Ms. Karr said.

For many authors, it was bad enough when, once every book, you had to slick on makeup, hire a photographer and adopt a writerly pose — hand on chin, furrowed brow — for the book jacket portrait.

So true!

I saw this when I sold my first book, on a cold wintry day in 2002, summoned to the headquarters of Simon & Schuster to meet several executives face to face. I knew this was my audition: Could I handle public pressure? Tough questions asked face to face? Was I fat or spotty? Did I stutter? Wilt under pressure?

I wore navy blue wool, my power uniform — anything that airline pilots or cops wear makes me feel safe and strong.

When I sold my second book, in September 2009, I sat in a very small room with, once more, my agent and three executives who would decide if I was worth their investment. This time I wore black, to hide the sweat rings. I knew how I comported myself there could kill the deal. This is the author’s lot now, donning a cool, calm, engaging public face.

It demands a very different set of skills to be able to chat lucidly and wittily to a camera, whether on YouTube or on CNN, or to do live radio or public events than to write prose of any value. Writers, by their nature and/or training, look inward or observe others. Many find such preening abhorrent, simply not who they really are.

Yet, authenticity sells.

Love the irony.

I'm So Not Hemingway — New Software Compares Your Writing To That Of The Greats

In culture, Media on July 13, 2010 at 7:33 pm
Old book bindings at the Merton College library.

Image via Wikipedia

For those in need of literary ego boost — a program that analyzes your writing and tells you which famous writer’s work it most resembles.

If you wanted this comparison to make you feel really great about your work, whose would you like it to resemble?

(For me, no one really.) I love many writers, but the whole point is to develop your own voice, not to sound like someone else.

(Oh, OK, I’d take Balzac.)

Want To Find An Agent? Don't Send Letters Like These!

In business, Media on June 17, 2010 at 10:17 pm
Old book bindings at the Merton College library.

Books. Yes, some day you, too will sell yours, with the right letter...Image via Wikipedia

This list of decidedly losing letters to one annoyed literary agent (and their unsent replies) is delicious, from mediabistro.com’s GalleyCat, the blog that follows the publishing industry:

“Greetings agent. I have written the most important book on earth.”

Will someone, for the love of God, please kill me.

If you really want to find an agent, find a writer who thinks your work is excellent and ask, very nicely, if they’ll share the name of their agent. That’s usually how it’s done. I found mine when I spoke at an event and her assistant suggested I write a memoir. I did.

Wanna Sell Lots Of Books? Hire Actors And Pay Them To Laugh Publicly At Your Wit

In business, Media on May 28, 2010 at 3:10 pm
Photo taken on April 29, 2010 in Paris shows 1...

I LOOOOOVE your book. Really!Image by AFP via @daylife

Seriously.

This just in:

she auditioned 100 actresses and hired 40 to fan out across the city and burst out laughing in public while reading her book. The actresses are being paid $8 an hour, a source said, and will hit high-traffic areas like the Red Steps above the TKTS booth in Times Square. Belle says it’s like in India where people hire professionals to cry at their loved ones’ funerals. “I’m hiring actors to laugh at my book.I’m hiring actors to laugh at my book,” Belle explains. “Publishing is no laughing matter these days.”

Hahahahahahaha.

I am leaving out her name because…I can. Give me a break.

As Book Expo America winds down this week, more things to think about for all you aspiring authors.

Here’s a recent story about book videos. Yup. Those, too. From The New York Times:

Literary publishers and writers tend to roll their eyes at book trailers, the short videos intended to promote new books. So much so, in fact, that one book blog, MobyLives, recently started a contest for the “Best and Worst Book Trailers,” to “spoof the fact that the book business too often looks to the movie business as a model,” said Dennis Johnson, the founder of MobyLives.

The winners of the Moby Awards were announced last week. Mr. Johnson said the organizers were surprised to find that there were some decent videos in the bunch.

Dennis Cass, the author of “Head Case,” won the award for best performance by an author, for a 3-minute, 20-second video featuring his end of a cellphone conversation about what he is — or is not — doing to promote the release of his paperback.

“I never did a Web site,” he says in the clip, trying to sound cheerful. “No, I know, I know, you need to have a Web site. I know, everything has a Web site. You’re right, and I don’t.”

Once my second book is published, (spring 2011), I’m going to: make a website, get a haircut, Tweet (I’ve been ordered to). You know, be normal. Yes, I’ll bug all my friends to help it and me get publicity and reviews. We all do. It’s the price of being friends with ambitious writers.

But this?

I am not going to hire and pay people to pretend to like my damn book.

Need An Extra Father? Bruce Feiler's 'Council of Dads'

In men, parenting on May 11, 2010 at 9:46 am
Screenshot image of author Bruce Feiler.

Image via Wikipedia

You’re a best-selling author, the only one to have four non-fiction books in a row on the NYT best-seller list. You’ve got a happy marriage and two little girls. Life is good.

Then, as Bruce Feiler found out in 2008 — at the age of 44 — you have a rare bone cancer, that demands a 15-hour surgery and 18 months on crutches.

What if he he didn’t make it? Who would be a father to his little girls? So he formed a “council of Dads”, six male friends he asked to help raise his daughters, offering them their collective, and specifically chosen, guy wisdom. This is the subject of his latest book, an idea I love.

I spent many years not even talking to my own Dad, (and vice versa) and never had (which I’d hoped for) an older brother.

If you don’t spend much time around them (and maybe even if you do,) guys can remain an impenetrable mystery. My only experience of them was professional — as imperious bosses or competitive/friendly co-workers — or romantic, as dates or boyfriends or a (faithless) husband. Not exactly a full set of very positive data.

Years ago, I wrote a column about my many male friends and how knowing each of them added specific bits of their insight to my life. It felt, I wrote, like gazing at a landscape through a series of telescopes. Each would be a little narrow, a slice of reality seen only through each one’s eyes and beliefs. But at least I’d get some notion how men think. And I did.

What I love about Feiler’s idea is the notion that none of us, really, has all the answers and that, even the most feckless of us still has value to offer someone else’s children — through laughter, adventure, a break from the Normal. I don’t have any nephews or nieces and often wish I did; allowing a non-relative the privilege of sharing and enjoying and helping to raise your kids is an honor.

Even the very best Dad can only be the best he can be, seeing the world and transmitting his values, through his own set of filters — and Feiler knew it.

From Bookbrowse.com:

He would reach out to six men from all the passages in his life, and ask them to be present in the passages in his daughters’ lives. And he would call this group “The Council of Dads.”

“I believe my daughters will have plenty of opportunities in their lives,” he wrote to these men. “They’ll have loving families. They’ll have each other. But they may not have me. They may not have their dad. Will you help be their dad?”

The Council of Dads is the inspiring story of what happened next. Feiler introduces the men in his Council and captures the life lesson he wants each to convey to his daughters–how to see, how to travel, how to question, how to dream. He mixes these with an intimate, highly personal chronicle of his experience battling cancer while raising young children, along with vivid portraits of his father, his two grandfathers, and various father figures in his life that explore the changing role of fathers in America.

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