Lots of possible links this week, but I thought I’d focus on the topics that led me to blog in the first place: reading and writing. It’s nice to get back to the basics, especially when it seems as if online drama is on its way to consuming all the oxygen in the room.
First up, Liz McC. has a terrific post entitled Errors and Expectations. In it she talks about how her own background creates expectations and preconditions that she brings to a reading experience, including a strong professional and personal appreciation for “amateur” writers. She uses the example of a book that has received a lot of positive attention and shows why and how it doesn’t work for her.
Still, when people like Phillis Wheatley or Stephen Duck published their poems, they strove to meet the standards of their day so that their abilities would be recognized. It’s stretching a point to compare today’s self-publishers to former slaves or threshers from the eighteenth century, but I think today’s writers should emulate that desire to produce good work if they want strangers to pay for it. I’ll read a good, well-written story however it’s published. I’m not willing to accept less, even at 99 cents.
Rather than sticking to generalizations, I decided to download a sample of Mathewson’s Playing For Keeps and see for myself. I thought a lot about whether to name the book. It isn’t my intention to call out a particular author; this is one example of a more wide-spread phenomenon. But since I’m going to quote from the book, I felt I should name it.
I highlighted a problem on almost every page I read. Only one of these errors was clearly a typo (“or” for “of”). The rest were formatting, grammar and usage errors.
The way she tackles the subject, dispassionately and with copious evidence for her argument, warms the cockles of my empiricist heart.
Next, as I was thinking about Liz’s post, I ran across an interview with one of the writers I respect and admire enormously, and whose work is in a league of its own: James Salter. Salter is often described as a “writer’s writer,” which somehow suggests that we ordinary reader-schlubs won’t get him. Quite the opposite; his writing is clear, accessible, subtle, and then hits you like a hammer at just the right moment. TheHusband told me to read Salter’s Solo Faces when we first met, and I still remember the experience.
In an interview with Sonya Chung at The Millions blog, Salter looks back on his writing with the same honesty he brings to most subjects:
TM: I was struck by this description of mountain climbing in Solo Faces:
“That you come to these places and say to yourself, I can’t do this, I know I can’t do this, I’m certain I can’t do it, but I have to do it, I know I have to. You would give anything to be somewhere besides there, but there’s no use thinking about it. You have to go on. In the end it uplifts you somehow.”
Some might describe writing a novel in this way. Do you find writing very difficult? (If climbing isn’t the right metaphor for the difficulty, is there another one you’d employ?)
JS: There’s wide agreement that writing is difficult even for very good writers. Sometimes it’s more difficult, sometimes less. In climbing the difficulty defines the achievement. In writing it doesn’t have anything to do with it.
So I guess if I review Salter negatively, he won’t be reminding me how hard he worked and how important it is to take that into account when I assess his work.
Next, a completely different kind of writer, William Gass, changes his mind about ebooks. Gass was notoriously cranky and unwelcoming toward ereaders, but he’s come around. He has just published a 15,000-word essay in collaboration with photographer Michael Eastman, available only through Apple iBooks. From an interview on the NY Times’ Bits Blog:
Q: How to you feel about publication in electronic form?
A. It’s great for me. That’s my attitude. I don’t write for the reader. I’m working for the text, the object coming into existence. It makes its demands. Then, like a child you’ve raised, it goes off into its business, not mine.
Maybe you have to be a much-decorated Emeritus Professor of English to be able to take that kind of attitude about your work, but as a reader, I can’t help but appreciate it.
Finally, a much younger writer goes the other direction and unplugs himself from the internet for a year. Paul Miller of the tech site The Verge gave up all forms of online activity a few months ago. He’s been chronicling his experience at the site (he writes on his computer and someone else uploads it), and I look forward to his weekly installments. You should really read them all, and don’t miss the comments (The Verge has a higher quality commentariat than a lot of tech blogs). This week he takes stock:
Three months later, I don’t miss the internet at all. It doesn’t factor into my daily life. I don’t say to myself, “ugh, I wish I could just use the internet to do that.” It’s more like it doesn’t exist for me. I still say “ugh, I have to do that” — it’s just not the internet’s fault.
But now that not having internet is no longer new, just normal, the zen calm is gone. I don’t wake with the sunrise while chirping birds pull back the covers. I still have a job. I feel pressure and stress and frustration. I get lonely and bored. My articles aren’t always submitted on time. Sometimes my sentences aren’t good.
I’m just stock Paul Miller. No more Not-Using-The-Internet custom skin; I’m just myself. And it’s not all sunshine and epiphanies.
I enjoyed my month without Twitter, but I’m not sure I could go all in like that. I tell myself that it’s because I need the internet for work, but that’s just a cop out.
On the personal front, I’m still without broadband at home, so posting may be light. Enjoy the dog days of summer if you’re in the northern hemisphere!