Chip’s Asleep at the Wheel

More journalistic endeavors later. For now, the NYT book coverage has me very concerned. Eurotrash is the NYT takedown queen, but I knows bad grammar whens I sees it.

From this Michael Kazin review:

“Susan Jacoby regrets in her new book” — Is that the only way Jacoby regrets? Through tomes?
“zealous Protestants secured laws to ban the sale of alcohol, erotic literature and diaphragms” — As opposed to executing them? I secure my pants and the Xmas tree on top of the car, thank you very much.
“the teaching of Darwinian theory in public schools” — Christ, why not just “teaching Darwinism in public schools?”
“Ms. Jacoby concludes her book with a shudder” — Too bad she didn’t conclude with a docey doe or a pirouette. That would have been something.
“Her title was shrewdly chosen.” Thank you, Tom Swifty.
“But parochial schools were originally established to provide an alternative to public ones where students routinely learned only the virtues of the Reformation and recited from the King James Version of the Bible, commissioned by a Protestant monarch.” Two icky adverb-verb combos in one sentence? WTF, Chip?
“religion is just a stew of unprovable myths.” Well, start cutting up those potatoes.

Kazin, incidentally, is writing a biography of William Jennings Bryan. A match made in heaven if you ask me.

Katie Zezima fares better, but not by much.

“A bar by the railroad tracks is named Casey’s” — Active voice?
“The 289 residents of Mudville” — Again, a voice that is more active?
“What is true is that Thayer” — What is true is that you don’t need anything before “Thayer.”
“Thayer went but soon returned to Worcester and wrote” — Well, make up your mind, Thayer. Three past tense verbs in nine words?
“A stadium is planned for the site where Casey is said to have played.”
— A copy editor is planned for the essay that Katie is said to have written.

Where the hell’s Tanenhaus?

The Time Has Come

At long last, I have figured this gambit out. The Life, only occasionally referred to here in Reluctant-Land, has become one of those things where one wonders how to maintain a blog under the circumstances. Over the past two weeks, I have been trying to figure out how to balance reading, writing, and living — all three of which are far more important than anything I could possibly post here. Like most bloggers, posts are offered to stave off afternoon boredom (hence the one-third nudity clause referenced not long ago — 66% of everything else is illicitly penned with frequent Alt-Tabbing, often with sizable mistakes, quietly corrected after being pointed out by nice people). This Walter Mitty existence is all fine and dandy. It allows me to keep up with literary-related news, you to read it (and/or poach it — I don’t care), and everyone remains more or less happy. But I thought it might be a good idea to point out what this blog is and isn’t.

1. This is not a 24 hour literary news powerhouse. That would be nice, but quite frankly I have other things to do with my life. If I do not read, I do not improve my writing. If I do not write, I do not improve my writing. If I do not live, I do not improve my writing. There is an ostensible goal here. It will take years. As a result, early morning and evening updates have been abolished, so that necessary existential duties and functions can be carried out. Maud, the Saloon and Mr. Sarvas (among many other swell places) pull this off better than I can. But frankly, I just don’t have the time anymore. In an effort to kill the needless distractions in my life, the plan is to blog (for the most part) daily, but only during hours in which I am renting myself out to unidentified overlords.

2. No more posts while nude. A few weekends ago, a priest buzzed my apartment. He wasn’t a Jevovah’s witness, but he did identify himself as “a man of the cloth.” The priest offered to observe me for a week and determine if there were specific activities I was particularly adept at with clothes on and (he preferred) with clothes off. I didn’t ask about the scientific principles involved. But it was either this or a three-hour effort to convert me to Catholicism. So I caved. The priest determined that I was more successful reading in the nude than writing in the nude. Since I have this tendency to take my clothes off, in part or in full, close to bedtime, and since I feel more comfortable doing this, now that a priest is no longer hanging around the flat, the choice has become obvious.

3. A greater emphasis on journalism. I don’t have Laila’s drive to do a book review every week. But I admire her ambition. And I also admire Mark for his Dan Rhodes interview. And, yes, despite my differences with Dan Green, the man is trying to come to terms with the role of criticism. So props to him too. This is the kind of stuff that we, as literary blogs, should be doing. If we are to have any real credibility or purpose here, then the time has come for us to put ourselves out there, rather than compiling collections of links. Imagine the kind of coverage that can be found at Bookslut or January or Book Ninja transposed to any of your favorite places. Elaborate comparisons, attempts to gain insight that the major newspapers can’t (or won’t) cover. You know what I’m talking about.

This whole “link plus commentary” business is about as difficult as microwaving a burrito. I think blogs can do better. I know I can do better. There’s something extant in the form that has made us all lazy.

Fuck Google News. How about making some phone calls and confirming facts? How about looking at your local literary calendars, calling up a publisher’s publicist, and arranging for an author interview? How about showing some actual initiative?

In fact, I double dare everyone involved in the lit blog world to pound the pavement.

Dale Peck: PR Poster Boy?

Rake points to this press release for “Peck’s Last Negative Review Ever.” There’s a phone number there for some guy named Peter McFarlane, if anyone’s curious. McFarlane notes that he “scored” the Peck review. Well, certainly, if anyone wishes to compare acquiring an essay called “The Man Who Would Be Sven” to a midnight run for a dime bag, then the metaphor is apt. We here at Return of the Reluctant, however, prefer publicity in a more abrasive form:


Those Nanny Diaries Gals Ain’t Got Nothin’ On Plum Sykes

Sykes, a 34-year-old contributing editor at Vogue and the more dramatic sister of a nineties ?It?-girl twin set??Lucy and I were Paris and Nicky without the sex tape??received a $625,000 advance for her novel from Miramax Books in 2002. Bergdorf Blondes turns out to be a Devil Wears Prada where everyone is an angel. ?I say, if you are lucky enough to go on gorgeous trips abroad, take your girlfriends something fashionable back,? reads one line. Early reviews are lukewarm (?Tacky? Absolutely,? said Publishers Weekly).

(via Emma)

Hey, We May Be More Paranoid Than We Think

You’ve sold more than 40 million books. Number 12’s about to come out. What do you do to keep your readers hooked? You throw in the Messiah himself.

Yes, Glorious Appearing, the latest entry in the Left Behind series is almost due. And this time, it’s personal. Jesus himself shows up. And for those who can’t wait for the Literary Event of the Millennium, there’s an excerpt up for die-hards:

Mac’s magnified vision fell upon colorful, metallic pieces glinting in the sun, perhaps a mile from his position. Oh no.

A red fuel tank and a tire looked very much like parts from Rayford’s all-terrain vehicle. Mac tried to steady his hands as he panned in a wide arc, looking for signs of his friend. It appeared the ATV could have been hit by a heat-seeking missile or smashed to bits by tumbling. Perhaps, he thought, no sign of Rayford nearby was good news.

Quite possibly, the prose could have been wrought by a devout illiterate or ignored to bits by sleeping.

Dr. LaHaye also notes, “The Bible clearly teaches there’s going to be a one-world government in the last days. And after the Rapture of the church, then that one-world government will coalesce, bringing together all the governments of the world and also bringing together all the religions of the world. The fact that we’re seeing some of those things happen right now must be a wake-up call to some people to say, `Hey, we may be closer than we think.’ ”

I don’t know, Doc. I’d go with the unnecessary revival of Kirk Cameron’s career as augury.

Dublin Shortlist

The Impac Dublin prize has been whittled down to a shortlist of ten. The final nominations are:

The Book of Illusions by Paul Auster
Any Human Heart by William Boyd
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros
Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry
The White Family by Maggie Gee
The Blinding Absence of Light by Tahar Ben Jelloun
Balthasar’s Odyssey by Amin Maalouf
Earth and Ashes by Atiq Rahimi
House of Day, House of Night by Olga Takarczuk

The prize, set at €100,000, is one of the richest literary bonanzas to nab. Or, as previous winners have put it, “You’ll never have to work again.”

About the Redundant Writer Who Couldn’t Stop Repeating Himself

When he met her he met her and he liked her as much as she liked him yes, he heard things better, meaning better than before and quite possibly better before he met her, and in his eyes those powerful bright blue orbs that had taken in her presence when he met her the lines of the physical world meeting up at that point where they had met each other and he had liked her, she liking him as much as he did, both standing on these lines signifying the point of the world where the two met, and they both liked each other. He was smarter, smarter than you, smarter than her yes, and quite possibly smarter than the rest of the world because he was a writer of redundant details, and he always had something to ramble about, whether political satire or short shorts or sentences for the kids. They would publish him because he was rich and because he liked you and liked her and he wrote about cute digressive things, nothing about the real world, the world he knew before he met her and they liked each other, just as they were standing on the lines of demarcation. But as to these physical lines of geography demarcating one detail from another, it should also be said that in addition to liking each other, they also liked these lines of geography, and it is safe to say that the lines of geography also liked them. And since everybody liked each other, they would soon spread this terminology across the planet, getting assorted people to stand upon these lines of geography, these lines of demarcation, and making them like each other without force. Everyone’s eyes would turn into bright blue orbs and, yes, he would like her, she would like him, the twain would like the lines of geography, and whoever else happened to be in the room (other than he and she and the lines) would also like everybody else. It would be a fine plan for a fine afternoon involving fine people.

Fourth Amendment Decimated in Three States

The Associated Press: “Acting on a Baton Rouge case, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that police do not need an arrest or search warrant to conduct a swift sweep of private property to ensure their own safety. Any evidence discovered during that search now is admissible in court as long as the search is a ‘cursory inspection,’ and if police entered the site for a legitimate law enforcement purpose and believed it may be dangerous.”


A hard April 1 deadline stares back at me on the play, which is doubly interesting given that a character’s gender switched over the weekend (thanks to a very simple and obvious observation from my producer, which explains all the homoeroticism that found its way in). So while I contend with this madness, you won’t be hearing much from me this week, except via the usual afternoon subterfuge.

But I will have more on the Academy of Arts contretemps very soon.

Laura Miller Pushed for the “One Imagines,” I’m Sure

The Hag hits the NYTBR again. That’s two tangos with Chip before the handover. It’s a good review. However, I suspect that the copy desk mangled clarity into a genteel timebomb: “One imagines it’s difficult to capture eloquently the horrors of a baby being thrown out with the bath water, but that’s probably why most first-time authors don’t attempt it.”

And, as Ron observes, that’s not even the half of it.

Come on, Tanenhaus. Play ball.


A Day in the Goddam Life (with apologies to Lenin and all other despicable leftists who object to modifiers like “goddam”), a new feature that will run periodically on Return of the Reluctant, follows local residents through their daily routines. But rather than dwell upon the obvious success stories, it is this publication’s hope to profile those who do not have the security blanket of an expendable income. The first installment is about Horace Krum, an aspiring writer living in poverty. Mr. Krum doesn’t enjoy being used as a yardstick, and we suspect that this is one of many reasons why he’s been denied his fame and fortune. That’s exactly why this profile is “about Horace Krum,” the same way that the average penis pump owner’s John Thomas is “about two inches” or a typical shitstorm from the Weinstein brothers is “about 7.4 on the Richter scale.”

For eight years, Krum hasn’t received a single notice from the public. He spent much of that time ingratiating himself with the affluent. He courted rich heiresses. He gardened several homes, often pruning the shears with his shirt off. Krum, however, didn’t quite have the upper body development that bored rich ladies are bound to notice. So he tried his hand at love letters. Alas, poor Krum was terrible here too.

Eight years of toiling for the attentions of some noble benefactress and eight years of writing stories. For eight years, Krum tried to be noticed. He received boiler plate letter after boiler plate letter: “Dear Ms. Krum: Thank you for submitting your story. Unfortunately, it does not suit our magazine’s needs at the present time. Please don’t send anything more to us. Ever. Frankly, you suck. Cordially, Tiny Tim Tender, Production Intern.”

Which is why our intrepid reporter followed Horace Krum for a day. What’s it like to live the life of a failed writer?

8:30 a.m. We meet in Horace Krum’s studio apartment, which he shares with his roommate Biff. The apartment’s located in a tenement. Krum sleeps in a closet, which allows him to save about $100 a month on rent. Biff, who introduces himself as a gentleman fond of “personal space,” tells us “to get the hell out.” Krum collects two suitcases: one containing his typewriter, the other containing things to work on.

Krum tells me that he’s trying to whip himself into shape. He tells me that it’s important for all writers to have a physique honed by Nautilus, because the book world has become increasingly reliant upon “sexy, fuckable authors” that they can send out on book tours. Unfortunately, Krum can’t afford a gym membership. So we end up jogging together in Krum’s neighborhood. Our tennis shoes crunch down on crack vials. We nearly run into a vagrant’s shopping cart taking up the whole of the sidewalk. And, about five minutes into the exercise, we are both mugged.

This is particularly unfortunate for Krum, because he had $200 in his wallet. This was much needed cash. Krum had sold his beloved collection of first edition O. Henrys, so that he could make this month’s rent. A hard decision, but he needed to keep a roof over his head. But Krum remains optimistic. He tells me he’s sent four stories out this week. One of his stories, “They Had Brunch at Denny’s,” is 6,000 words. Krum has high hopes for this one. He’s submitted it to Waverley Wonders, a small literary magazine that pays 4 cents a word. That’s $240 before quarterly taxes.

10:30 a.m. We return to Krum’s apartment. Biff is gone. He’s headed off to his job as a butcher. I notice that the wallpaper is peeling. Krum quickly flattens down the wallpaper. He shows me a thick file filled with rejection notices, all of them from this year. Most of them are bad photocopies. Some include marked up copies of Krum’s stories. I find one which reads, “Unbelievable! Have you ever slept with a woman?” “And that was really odd,” Krum tells me, “because that was a coming-of-age tale involving two boys.”

I point out to Krum that Waverley Wonders hasn’t published a story longer than 2,000 words in its entire run. “Oh, they will,” winks Krum. “Just you wait.”

11:00 a.m. Krum usually writes between 11:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. Except today, because he knows that I plan on buying him lunch. He needs to be done before Biff comes home. Aside from short stories and essays, Krum’s also “messing with a romance novel, partly historical, set in Larry Ellison’s home.” He writes his stories on a typewriter because he cannot afford a computer. He steals paper from a local Kinko’s. This is because he has a friend who works there, who hates the job, and wants to “stick it to the man.”

“How often do you eat?” I ask. Krum opens two doors of a cupboard. One of the doors falls off its hinges. Inside the cupboard are endless packages of Top Ramen. He gets these at Costco.

Krum has been lucky enough to be invited to a few poetry readings. And he attends these because he can count on free hors d’oeurves, which provide additional sustenance. This diet hasn’t boded well for Krum’s digestive tract. But Krum tells me he’s kept up his energy, thanks to the additional additives in the tap water.

12:00 p.m. I take Krum to Chevy’s, largely because Krum’s keen on the calories he can get from the endless chips. He orders three margaritas and eats four enchiladas. He begins to slur his words and bemoans “that muddafugga Biff.” He then declares himself a genius and tells me that New York will never understand. I point out that he’s still writing and sending his stories out regularly. He then apologizes to me for being an ass. He hasn’t been able to afford the luxury of liquor for a long time.

1:00 p.m. Back at Krum’s apartment, I ask Krum if he has a girlfriend. He dodges the question, pointing out that he used to enjoy cooking, back in the days that he had a day job. “I haven’t cooked anything in years,” he laughs. “Haven’t been able to afford even the basic staples. Man, can you imagine the kind of food that Larry Ellison could afford?”

2:15 p.m. Krum kicks me out of his apartment. It must be the margaritas, but I think it also has something to do with cutting into Krum’s writing time. I walk away with growing respect for Krum, a man with almost no resources trying to crack a cruel industry. Perhaps someday, the world will appreciate a man like Horace Krum. That is, if he doesn’t die of starvation first.

Book Babes Watch

It has now been eight days since we’ve heard anything from the Book Babes, with the last column featuring Margo alone (with an almost Stalinist exclusion of Ellen). Have the Book Babes been canned? Did someone actually pay attention to Mark’s petition? Inquiring minds want to know.

To be clear to the Poynter Institute (if they are indeed watching), the collected hope was to raise the level of discourse, not eviscerate it completely.

I certainly hope that Poynter isn’t foregoing book coverage altogether. But if they’re looking for replacements, there are more than a few possibilites.

Storming the Gates

The event is free and open to the public. It happens every year at the San Francisco Main Library. The Northern California Book Awards. Timed early enough to keep the happy hour crowd away. The library shuts its doors at eight. Get out and go home to your books. And buy some on the way.

This is an awards ceremony, but you won’t find spouses, friends or family. This is a tableau vivant. Support your local indie bookstore. Support your local gunfighters.

Walk in, away from the dying sun. You don’t even have to stroll past security. Just hang a right and gambol down the steps into a murky contemporary world of yellows and browns. Is that why they built the Koret Auditorium? The great irony about this basement hall, which seats 235 people, is that it has no windows.

There is a table of hors d’oeurves in the center of an adjacent room. A civilized din escapes the reception. Eat eat. This is legitimate gatecrashing. Drink drink. Refine your mind with some free wine. But don’t you dare take any of it with you into the Koret. It’s not allowed. This is, after all, a library.

Stand on the side as the crowd spills on. The authors smile and nod their heads. The readers gush, hoping an aw shucks will secure an acquaintance. But it’s not to be. Distance is valued. A good way to fend off the potential nutjobs and filter the unimportant and the unpublished. Telegenic cadences have been perfected on book tours, as has the well-timed bon mot. Nothing too daring, nothing alienating or iconoclastic at all.

There they are, the scribes forming circles, socializing with the occasional stragglers. If you can’t recognize them from their author photos, then there’s always the name tags. Not much that a stranger can say except, “I loved your book,” which is exactly what I tell Ms. Packer. That’s enough for most people, but, from what I can see, not enough for a few middle-aged couples looking for a diversion. The old ladies effusing enthusiasm for regional royalty aren’t noticing the rote nods, the feigned interest, the Dale Carnegie technique. It looks like winning and influencing, this listening seen from afar as a half-assed gesture. And why not? The obvious goal is to sell books.

One writer recalls my name (before I introduce myself) and pictures of presidents posted in a recent blog entry. This little place? I don’t know the ritual. Is this some indication that literary blogs have influence or is this just a way to ensure additional leverage? It reminds me of Bill Clinton noting several personal details just before talking with someone, and winning fans. But I think it’s an unintentional way of telling me that this is exactly the impression we dilettantes are conveying to the authors. After all, what can any of us possibly infer beyond the text? What is there to say? I tell her that I’ve ordered her book (“Your order has shipped” read an email that morning). I ask if she’s nervous. She says she’s had some wine. Presumably to make the trundling across the room more bearable. Understandable.

These writers hope to retreat to their ateliers. Rebecca Solnit, who wins the nonfiction award for River of Shadows, addresses this solitude and thanks “the book people.” Again, understandable. Who wants to do PR? But it’s all part of the biz. Beneath a library prioritizing technological glitz over books, there isn’t a soul under thirty, save me just barely. The room is populated by authors and their followers. Fervent readers, silent hustlers selling books. Even the catering crew’s kept behind a swinging door, save for carefully timed replenishment of viands. I joke to my friend about the guy with the Minor Threat T-shirt and torn jeans who’s not there. Fortunately, I spot a few folks in leather jackets. My people? Hell if I know.

They come. All sorts. Whoever spilled in from the street. Whoever will play the game. Whoever remains naive enough to believe that this is a genuine celebration of literature, a call and response for local awareness, the bridge between the masses and the glitterati.

See one prominent novelist’s cute lime green skirt flutter as she hits the stage. Marvel over their Miss America smiles, their poise, their diction, even the austere ceremonial rituals. Is this what literature’s about? All the nominees saunter in front of a crowd as the titles are riffled out, then disappear into a room, white fluorescent light dappling the tops of their heads. When the winner is announced, she emerges to read something within three minutes. Since there are only seven awards, the timing’s just right.

They read. And the words stand alone. But while Tobias Wolff offers a nice Southern drawl, even he has to point out where he’s quoting within his text. Solnit has to specify when she’s quoting Edison and when “that’s me.” I have to wonder if the art of reading has been lost.

There is one very sweet moment. Peggy Rathmann wins the Children’s Literature Award for The Day the Babies Crawled Away. She’s genuinely surprised and honored. Her mouth forms into an adorable O. She shows the audience two pages that she’s illustrated and then reads the accompanying text, which isn’t much. She’s off the stage in less than a minute and a half.

The other grand moment is hearing Phillip Levine, honored for lifetime achievement. He is self-deprecating when he gets his award. He thanks the NCIBA for considering Fresno as part of Northern California, “which suggests that they’ve never been there.” But it’s Levine’s poem, about spending his days in a library while on the clock, that gets me picking up one of his books after the awards are over.

There’s no way to know how nervous these folks are, or how vexed they must be to have their work judged by their deportment. I wonder if there’s a better way to generate interest or to get people reading. I wonder if there’s a better way to celebrate authors. I’d like to think so. This business of readings and awards ceremonies boils down to the same image-laden, personality-driven nonsense. So why pretend?

But I’m more than willing to concede that it’s probably me.

Northern California Book Award Winners

Novel: Old School
Short Story Collection: How to Breathe Underwater
Poetry: Notes from the Divided Country
Non-Fiction: River of Shadows
Children’s Literature: The Day the Babies Crawled Away
Translation: Head Above Water

Detailed report to follow tomorrow morning.

The biggest surprise was Orringer beating out Packer. Also, it was probably a mistake to introduce myself to Waldman and say, “Hey. How’s it going?” There were reasons for this — among them, a bad memory. More tales of inept literary adventures tomorrow.

Raines Speaks His Mind

Shocking allegations from Howell Raines will soon appear in the Atlantic — part of a planned memoir called I Was Master of the House, But Jayson Kept Playing With the Zippo. Among some of the highlights:

1. Raines secretly coveted the drugs and alcohol, and kept Jayson Blair on the payroll so that he could “relive his twenties again.”

2. Not once did Raines call Jayson Blair “boy.”

3. Raines once asked Blair to sit on his lap. Blair declined. Raines claims there was nothing sexual involved. The lap-sitting incident was all part of a great Raines family tradition dating back to 1872.

4. When fishing with John McPhee on the Delaware River, Raines promised McPhee that he would only name-drop upon publication of a memoir. McPhee gave Raines his blessing, but only after delivering a six-hour lecture on geography.

5. The one thing Raines would have done differently: casual Fridays.

(via Maud)

Hasty Snippets

Cathleen Schine’s new novel is (no surprise) about a woman leaving her husband for a woman. But that’s not all. Schine will also be appearing at the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival on a panel with the man she left, David Denby. The festival organizers have tried to get Denby and Schine to sing “I Got You, Babe,” but Denby can’t carry a tune. Complicating things further is the fact that Schine doesn’t own a leather jacket. She also reports that she saves her provocative undergarments for the bedroom.

A new Rudyard Kipling story has been found. It will be unveiled in front of Kipling fans on April 7. The story is another part in the Stalky & Co. series. The hope was that the stalkers would touch Stalky first.

Print on demand: Comes served with vanity mirror.

Northeastern University closes shop.

The Post-Gazette catches up with Daniel Keyes.

Polanski’s doing Oliver Twist. No doubt the role of Nancy will be notably broadened.

And Jennifer Haigh has won the PEN/Faulkner for a distinguished first work of fiction. Her book, Mrs. Kimble, is about a man who marries three different women at different times in his life.