Another Reading List You Should Definitely Ignore

The May issue of GQ Magazine is out, and along with lots of advertisements, columns, and articles about men’s fashion, food, sex, style, entertainment and all manner of other goodies, there is a feature on books. This is a book list called “The 21 Books from the 21st Century Every Man Should Read” and includes novels by Jonathan Franzen, Zadie Smith, Cormac McCarthy, Alice Munro, Marilynne Robinson, George Saunders, and Jhumpa Lahiri.

The four woman listed here are the only women included.

This was significantly better than Esquire’s recent list of 75 books Every Man Should Read, which despite having more than fifty additional choices and expanding beyond the last thirteen years, actually managed to be even more myopic in focusing on white American males than the GQ list. Esquire, which recently declared a focus on “men’s fiction” in its editorial decision making, took a good bit of flack for this. I’m sure you aren’t surprised.

Lists like this, intended to be The Things You Should Do, upset people who care about literature. It’s hard not to look at lists like this and be, if not offended, disappointed. In a culture that expresses empathy for rapists, promotes “slut shaming” and generally treats woman like second-class citizens, it’s reasonable for educated and thoughtful people to be furious with GQ and Esquire for having such a narrow view of what men should read. Why not encourage men to read Ceremony or Giovanni’s Room or The House on Mango Street or There Eyes Were Watching God or Kindred or any Asian writers not named Murakami? Or any writers from South America not named Borges or Marquez? Or any writer from the entire African continent other than Chinua Achebe?

Probably because GQ and Esquire aren’t truly interested in American arts and letters. The era of writers building their reputations by publishing in these men’s magazines, and others like it, is long over. What these magazines are interested in, and always have been, is selling products. And their main product is the Well Rounded Man. The Well Rounded Man has these books in his home (or condo), might have read them but certainly has them on display either way next to photos of his skiing and whitewater rafting adventures, which of course impresses friends and family and colleagues, because he also drives a luxury car, wears designer clothes, drinks top shelf vodka, and knows how to impress women. He’s generally quite busy being an all-around good guy pursing the noble American dream.

Lists like this serve two purposes: one, they are incredibly easy and fast to put together on a deadline and, two, they are guaranteed to get an indignant response from the reading public. Think of any list, and you’ll almost immediately think of who was “slighted” by not being on it. You might even have a stellar postmodernist interdisciplinary multicultural post-(insert a five dollar word here) about the list and why it’s deeply offensive to a group of people who are too busy living their lives to know or care what you’re talking about.

Here’s the third thing lists do: they make us feel insecure. Maybe, then, it’s naturally for a magazine focusing on buying things to make a better you (which can always be improved!) is the natural place for a list of books you should read.

On a weekly basis, I feel insecure about what books I have not read. I’m serious. The University of Missouri offers a PhD in creative writing, and many of my friends in town are poet-scholars who are neck deep in literary theory, or their comprehensive reading examinations, or finishing up their dissertation, and in all ways, they are fully immersing themselves into literature. None of my friends thinks about making me feel inadequate. That’s not on them. That’s just me. Online, there are writers who seem to post daily through their social media outlets about everything they are reading and thinking and writing. Six days out of the week, I’m amazed. But on that seventh day, I mentally curl into a fetal position and wonder when everyone is going to figure out that I’m a fraud.

The anxiety is felt in the classroom all the time. As a teacher, the only books I’m fairly confident all of my students have read are The Great Gatsby and To Kill a Mockingbird. They admit, softly, to loving the Harry Potter books, their love of the series stated with shy chagrin. As a graduate student, I didn’t want to wilt under the stunned gaze of my professors when I had to admit I hadn’t read William Faulkner.

Since 2009, I’ve kept track of all the books I read in a given year. This year, for the first time, I made a list of books I planned to read in 2013. Figuring I’d catch up on all the books I haven’t read but should (ugh), I made a list combining the Modern Library’s Top 100 Novels and The Reader’s List, minus the Ayn Rand and L. Ron Hubbard books, and figured I would just pick and choose books from this list throughout the year. Three months in, I might have read three books from this list. Maybe.

Why can’t I stick with the list? Because there always new books and stories that come across my desk that demand my immediate attention. A new issue of a literary magazine comes out. A lost classic a friend raves about. A new story collection. A new poetry collection. A new release I’ve been eager to read (Jonathan Dee!). A book a friend hands me. A book a friend mails me. A sudden urge to re-read a book of stories I love (Andre Dubus!). Let alone all the basketball news, publishing news, political stories, all the great longform journalism online. There’s so much, and nothing I want to miss, and so I skip around and my hybrid reading list collects just a little bit more dust.

Maybe it’s just part of being a writer, but being told what to read and why usually makes me cross my arms and cock my head and say “Oh, really?” I was this way as an undergrad, in graduate school, and still today when the “you haven’t read this?” question comes with just a little bit of contempt. Bouncing along this spectrum of emotional responses—anxiety, defiance, fear, anger, discovery, and on and on and on—leads to some dark moments. But it also leads to unearthing books that I never would have read if my reading mind wasn’t open to possibilities, to wandering off the beaten path and taking a chance on a book (or an author) I’ve never heard of before.

I make lists all the time: reading lists, Things to Do Today, grocery lists, and so forth. These are lists of failure. Even with a grocery list, I often go home and realize as I’m putting away the groceries that I had, somehow, forgotten something. I need lists, I don’t need lists. I make lists, I ignore lists. Here’s the thing: it has to be my list. It can’t be one defined by GQ, or Esquire, or any other magazine or organization stepping in and saying This is What We Should Read. My list, like any writer’s, has to come from my own sense of curiosity and, yes, anxiety. Others can influence me and make suggestions—no one should be close-minded—but others can’t define it.

We make our own reading lists, our own Must Reads. The rest is just noise.

Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye

An Open Letter To A Fellow Writer About Twitter

Dear Jamie,

I read your post on Ploughshares blog yesterday. Your post was about whether or not you should use Twitter. The title is “Why I’m Not On Twitter Yet” and you actually write that you can be persuaded to join. But it feels like what you’re really writing about isn’t Twitter but addictive and dangerous behavior, about knowing yourself, about balancing what’s healthy for you and what’s healthy for your career. Know where I discovered your post? On Twitter.

Usually, when I read a blog post that I feel compelled to comment on, I end up saying something a bit lame: great post, thank you for this, etc. What I really want to do is ask a bunch of questions, to talk more to the writer, pick his or her brain on a wide-range of topics that only tangentially are relevant to the post. I’d like to buy that person a drink. But since I live in Columbia and the blogger almost certainly doesn’t, this will likely never happen. So, power of the interwebs and all that …

What I liked about your post, Jamie, is that the anxiety that you describe is all about the book promotion. You’re terrified that if you don’t do this, don’t hop on Twitter and use it (to do what, exactly?) then you’re dooming your collection to the dustbins of forgotten contemporary writers not named Franzen. And what I so admired was that you said so publicly! “I want my book to sell and I do not want to doom my career.”

I feel this way all the time. My first book, a story collection like yours, comes out in October. Am I worried that the world will shrug? That by going with a small press, my agent can’t sell my novel? That whatever miserable decision(s) I’ve made about my entire writing life, from beginning to the here and now, can somehow be salvaged if the next move is the smart move?

Yeah, all the time.

So, with that. Do not use Twitter. Never.

I say this as a monster fan of Twitter. I keep a tab open all day, in large part because I’m in front of a computer for my job. I love Twitter. I don’t recall how long I’ve had the account. I have a personal website, a Facebook account, and a Gmail account. Smartphone. Etc. People can get a hold of me however they want.

Facebook bores me: it’s an echo chamber where the same dozen “friends” post noise all day long. Facebook is visual. Seems like an obvious point, right? Pictures and videos and stuff, and all that makes me feel is that I should be doing something else, with real live people in real life who I really love being around. Which I can do at 5 pm when I log off my computer.

Twitter is textual. Seems like an obvious, yeah? But Twitter is about those pithy 140 characters and links to good articles. There are some people out there who put up some terrific stuff – Nick Moran, Roxane Gay, Nathan Bransford, Jane Friedman, Rebecca Schinsky, Ezra Klein, Maud Newton, David Gutowski, Cory Doctorow, Liz Heron, and many others. And the only one of those people I’ve ever met in person is Roxane.

There are my friends, too. Zinging each other with wit, sarcasm, even serious stuff. Real life people who I love and do, in fact, get to see in real life outside of the office.

A major factor for me is that Twitter is information. I read a ton of articles about publishing, writing, editing, and business that I simply don’t see on Facebook. The people I follow might be friends, they also might be complete strangers. But it doesn’t matter. Sure, I’d love to have lots of followers, but if something interests me, and I’m having a good time, I keep it up (digression: I probably lost a dozen followers just the other night by sending about 200 Boston Celtics tweets in three hours). I’m learning from Twitter. I believe I’m better at my job because of Twitter.

Twitter isn’t effortless. But it isn’t really work either. Have you ever read those “Why I Write” essays by famous writers? They always amaze me, how much someone can articulate, without being too pompous (I mean, some of them are, you know, but just think about the ones you actually like), the impetus to write stories or novels or poems or essays. More than once, I’ve tried writing a manifesto like that. But they never come out right. I keep it simple. I write because I want to. I like it. That’s it. Same with Twitter. I like it. I dig Twitter the same way Roxane does. It’s fun. End of story.

Jamie, I’ve thought quite a bit about book promotion, and like most writers, I get deeply anxious and nervous.  I hope Grove/Atlantic is doing something awesome for you. My press—Queen’s Ferry Press—is small. The publisher, Erin McKnight, has been a dream to work with. How can an author not love working with an editor who believes, deeply and sincerely, that your work demands to be read? But despite our shared enthusiasm for my book, the fact remains that Erin and I have a pretty limited amount of marketing cards to play. There is so much noise out there. We’ll do all we can to get the good word out, but there are 300,000 new books published each year. 300,000! I mean, if I could bank on all my Facebook friends (800) and Twitter followers (500) combined, then subtracting out the duplicates (let’s make it easy and call it a 1000), buying my book, I’d be thrilled.

But it won’t. Social media doesn’t work that way.

Here’s the thing: once you try to sell people, they won’t buy. The soft sell isn’t even the thing now; it’s more like the non-sell. Some kind of Buddist, zen, voodoo, something other. It makes no sense. I’m sure that you have gone to plenty of readings over the years. I know I have. You know what is the biggest factor in people buying books? Whether or not they like the author. Which, when you really think about it, is kinda silly.

When I got the offer from Queen’s Ferry Press, I had to think about it. Really think about. I called my writer friends and asked for their opinions. I called my agent. I stewed and marinated on it for a long time. The advice I got came down to this: no Big Six house is going to expect the moon and the stars from a short-story collection. Those people in publishing are pretty smart. So is your agent; so are your friends; so are you. Guessing here, but if you published a story collection on a major press, unless your name is Daniel Orozco, you promised a novel. Unless it’s finished (and even if it is), you have work to do.

Maybe I’m wrong. I don’t know. We’ve never met. Maybe this entire open letter thing is an awfully presumptuous thing to write. But let me say something else. You’re married, and from what I can gleam from your post, happily. You have four children, and are a conscientious mother. You wrote stories, probably ten or eleven of them, that were published by terrific journals. You have a book. It will be in the world no matter what. The view from my seat? You’ve already won. You’ve done it. You’ve climbed the mountain and slammed the flag into the ground and sounded your barbaric yawp.

Because, Jamie, none of us are going to be famous. Selling a few extra copies won’t impress the big shots in New York. As for us writers, well, none of us really care about that. In the end, when you sit down and look at your work, the person that has to live with it is you. No one else will know what went into writing each story, each paragraph, each chapter. Not really. Only the writer knows that. No one else will appreciate that good, true, honest, devastating story.

That’s why we write, I think. For the work, not for the recognition. A couple hundred people on Twitter that you don’t know won’t change that.

You spoke honestly about obsession and addiction, and while I’m not Dear Sugar and I have already exhausted my armchair psychology for the day, it sounds like you know you don’t belong on Twitter. Frankly, Twitter shouldn’t even be a thought. Stay away. Book promotion isn’t worth going crazy, neglecting your children and your husband, isn’t worth the possibility of being sleepless because you’re missing a link or two. Publishing a book should be (is this silly?) fun. We should enjoy it, celebrate it. If trying to snag a couple extra readers gives you ulcers, threatens your writing time, your reading experience, and your family, then don’t bother. It isn’t worth it.

And that you decided to address this publicly is why I’m responding the same way: Airing the honest anxiety writers feel, an anxiety and worry that I instantly felt in my stomach as I was reading your words. There are probably many other writers who feel the exact same way and I hope by answering you publicly, we help them out too.

Anyway. That was the fastest 1600 word letter I’ve ever cranked out. I hope it helps. And, the last thing: I’ll buy a copy of your book. You just gotta promise you’ll sign a copy for me … and not tweet about it.

A Fellow Writer & Total Stranger,

Michael

Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye

Not Measuring Up

I have not read Mary Gaitskill’s Veronica, but it’s been recommended to me twice, once by Slate and once by a friend who used a less convincing method than Slate’s accolades. The week that she was assigned Veronica by her fiction teacher, my friend would come to my apartment, sit on the hardwood floor with her backpack over her head, ask for a protein bar, weep, eat her own chapstick, and shout, “I will never be as good as Mary!” I would say, “I don’t have protein bars. Do you want popcorn? Who is Mary?” She would respond, “Veronica!” I searched for snacks while our Abbott and Costello misunderstanding continued until she exhausted herself or found her way out of her backpack. When I finally understood that her distress stemmed from the feeling that she would “never be able to write like Mary,” I responded without hesitation, “Well, yeah.”

I was not insulting my friend or commenting on her ineptitude in any way. If I wanted to do that I would have mentioned the chapstick. I wanted to know how she could stand to get through any book trying to compare it to her own writing. I had a moment that I have often as a creative writing student where I wonder if what I’m saying is not a thing that good writers say. It seemed like I should be in trouble or that maybe I had missed the point of four years of English assignments for suggesting that a writer read other literature without considering their own. I said, “You can’t read a book like that. It will drive you insane” to a backpack with limbs.

I never thought too in depth about how I manage, or think I manage, to appreciate the craft of a work without allowing it to get in my head or interrupt the development of what I hope will be a distinct voice. I have always attributed any initial talent I had for writing to the osmosis of reading all the time and eating family dinners with some good storytellers. I knew that the value of assigned readings in school was to hone critical thinking and motivate new art. I could see where my own desires to be a writer fit into a larger literary world, but I never wondered how I measured up. I tried to think of an analogy to describe the way that I read–a comparison to explain why I don’t compare my writing to real authors.

Mila Kunis on a Saturday, I think.

I think “real authors” hints at my psyche when I read. My warped view of celebrity has become a useful way to describe the unattainable, don’t-even-think-about-it attitude I have toward published, bound, essay collections versus my own Microsoft Word printouts. Mary Gaitskill is famous and I know that she is famous because she has written a book and she must be really famous if that book is assigned in school. Fame is odd and mostly fictional, but it is a separation. There is reality where I am and then there is a cloud of celebrity that I can wander around in when E! News is on or when I read a Sarah Vowell book. She’s been on Conan and the radio. I can’t aim for Conan or the radio when I write an essay. It’s with this same reasoning that I don’t end up rolling on the floor with shoes on my hands and a clutch in my mouth every time I try to get dressed and realize I won’t be able to do it as well as Mila Kunis.

It’s probably an unhealthy, somewhat destructive, and a very un-The Secret way of living life to suggest not shooting for the moon. So aim for your personal best or whatever, but everyone already knows that. From what I can tell, a writer spends the rest of their life developing a style and a voice that is distinct. I want my distinctions to remain fresh, not end up muddied by taking every good work of prose as a suggestion.