The Algorithm Inside

 

Last Friday, on the New Yorker‘s excellent daily blog, The Book Bench, there was a brief post on Goodreads acquiring Discovereads, “a site that uses an algorithm to recommend books to people based on their preferences and on the preferences of users with similar tastes.” It sounds like a more mathematical version of Goodreads, a better “system” for selecting books. More from the New Yorker on this:

What I like about it is the updates I get telling me what my buddies are reading. The recommendations (and the ads) don’t matter so much to me, but if they are going to be there, I would like them to be the result of the best algorithmic cocktail known to mankind.

It all got me thinking about how book and movie recommendations work in the offline world. I have one buddy whose taste in movies I trust completely, because in twelve years of friendship he has never once failed me; and I have one buddy whose taste in books I trust completely, for a similar reason. Whatever algorithm God put inside these two people is the right algorithm for me … I wonder … about my dimwitted Netflix buddy and the new-and-improved Goodreads buddy I’m about to meet: Will they one day grow so good at reading my mind that they’ll be interchangeable with my real-life friends?

This is probably supposed to be funny, but this makes me feel a little cold. Ratings and lists are everywhere now. Overrated. Underrated. Top ten. Top five. Etc. Driven by the need for revenue, websites have gotten very good at trying to determine our preferences and giving us ads that we want. This is good: you get information relevant to you, the advertiser gets the audience it wants, costs are more efficient, we’re all happy. And we all get to participate. This is good. I guess.

Over on Ploughshares, the poets Weston Cutter and Bob Hicok (who we love!) discussed the word “random” and its use, often poorly, in workshops and the classroom. Cutter quotes cultural critic (and hoops fan) Chuck Klosterman:

People are answering questions not because they’re flattered by the attention but because they feel as if they deserve to be asked.

Which is sorta how I’m feeling about this rating system game that Amazon, Huffington Post, Facebook, ESPN, and every other company (frankly, some conversations with real live people, too) under the sun has decided to play. I’m not sure I really want my book choices, or others, fully automated, an algorithm. Even tongue in cheek, I don’t like thinking of my friend’s as a math formula (aren’t we all water? neurons? souls? I have no idea). Sure, it’s nice to have recommendations for a book. But I’m not sure I’ve ever read and loved a book that Amazon or Powell’s or whatever recommended to me because of my buying history. The books I love are not products. The recommendations of friends matter to me, at least in part, because they can be wrong. They can be intimate, vulnerable, widely off the mark. And that’s why it means so much.

Step back: it’s rare, but sometimes, a person I don’t know well has asked to read my work. This someone, whoever it is, cares enough to want to experience what I do and take my writing seriously. Phrases like “I write literary realism” or “I’m like Richard Yates, only I don’t make you want to kill yourself” don’t really do justice to my fiction. The best way to know what my stories are about is to, well, read my stories. Sure, I want readers. Who doesn’t?  But the anonymous reader is not the same as a person, probably a new acquaintance or friend, who I know on some personal level, asking to read my work. That’s a different connection and it is, in many ways, one of the most important things someone can ask of me.

Recommending a book to a friend is not, to me, a small gesture. It probably isn’t a small gesture to passionate readers either. Passing a book I love is one more thing in this world I don’t want to “outsource” to a company. I’d rather have someone showing me why he/she loves a book to mean something.  Really mean something.

Two friends have recently been kind enough to mail me books. It wasn’t so much the books that matter – though both were terrific – but that the books came from friends. These were small gifts, unsolicited, unexpected, and totally loved.

One of the books was South of the Big Four, the first novel by Don Kurtz. I was delighted to received a hardcover book, the dust jacket laminated; for a wonderful moment, I hoped my friend had actually stolen this from a library in some sort of maniac desire to share. Kurtz writes with a prose style that reminded me of William Maxwell, and even had the same qualities of isolation and buried loss. The narrator, Arthur, has returned home to live on his deceased father’s old farm, and begins to work for this new businessman/farmer, Gerry Maars. It’s a patient, moving, skillful novel of the farming community in the modern world. But it has extra meaning to me because of who it came from, and that it came with a handwritten letter tucked into the pages.

The other book is a chapbook published by Catenary Press: “Houses” by Elizabeth Benjamin. It’s a series of short stories that are loosely linked as images of people and place in various stages of movement and waiting, images that became clearer and stronger the more I reread it. One of my favorites followed a man walking through the woods, and stumbling into a hunter, who warns him to be more careful. After the hunter leaves him, the man follows by stepping in her footprints. And these stories, even with all their movement, have a strong sense of physical possession. I’d never have heard of it Benjamin without my friend mailing me the book, and this mailing too had a small personal note inside.

The letter/inscription combined with the slightly battered text that was read slowly, maybe even with some margin scrawls, pages stained by wine or coffee, rounded corners, cracked spines, all of which gets sent to me as something much greater than its individual parts: there’s no algorithm in this. Instead, there is something else, not so much a recommendation but a gift. And for that, I’ll always be grateful.

Michael Nye is the managing editor of the Missouri Review

The Off Year (And, Just Maybe, A Few More)

With the semester coming to a close, one of the responsibilities of university faculty is to write letters of recommendation.  Over on the fabulous website, Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour, my old mentor Bill Roorbach has a new post up describing this period as “reference season.”  I have not had to write many of these letters, but of the ones I do, the majority are for students that are looking to enroll in MFA programs.  These are students that still have one semester left of their undergraduate studies, and they are pretty uncertain about what is going to happen next year.  Forget graduate school: with unemployment in double digits (don’t believe those “official” numbers), the big concern for about-to-graduates is earning a living and finding a way to not move back in with their parents.

This is not to say that students that have come to me about enrolling in MFA programs are half-assing it.  They aren’t.  They all are committed to writing, work on their stories and poems on the weekends when their friends are out drinking, read voraciously, and are involved in their undergraduate writing programs.  And they’re ready to continue that process.

So, they are a little disheartened when I suggest they not immediately go to grad school.

When I was an undergraduate at Ohio State, I decided I wanted to be a writer.  I had no idea what this involved.  I signed up for an Intro to Fiction Writing class during my junior year, and decided that writing stories and reading books (read: English major) was a pretty awesome way to finish college.  When I graduated, I had never written a resume or gone to a job fair or been on an interview for a corporate or non-profit position.  This didn’t worry me in the least; I never thought about any of this, so how I could worry?  I was going to graduate school and I was going to be a writer.

Of course, I had no idea what this actually involved.

I went to my writing teachers and asked two things: what did you do and what should I do?  Lee Abbott, who worked for Home Depot and got married before going to an MFA program, said I shouldn’t go yet.  The aforementioned Bill Roorbach, who played rock and traveled Europe for a decade and then came back to the States and worked as a plumber, said I shouldn’t go yet.  Stephanie Grant, who did go straight to graduate school, said I shouldn’t go yet.  Melanie Rae Thon, who also went straight to graduate school, said I shouldn’t go yet.  Do something else, they said.  Live a little.

They didn’t mean to, but I felt, of course, insulted.  Didn’t they see that?  Twenty one years old, sitting in their offices, I felt like they didn’t take my desire to write seriously.  I felt they didn’t understand how important this was to me.  I applied to graduate school.  I got rejected by every single one.  I moved to Vermont with some idea of living somewhere gorgeous, working as a bartender at night, a writer by day.

And then I wrote virtually nothing for the next three years.

I’m exaggerating, but not by much. I revised my best story from undergraduate, a story that I have no memory of. I probably wrote two stories during those three years, both of which became my writing sample when I went to graduate school in 2003. Nothing about my life resembled being a writer; I wouldn’t even say I read much. I spent three years in Boston (digression: moving to Burlington, Vermont with no plan is, simply, a really bad idea; I moved to Boston in less than three months) and during that time, I went to zero readings, read no literary journals, rarely bought new books, and didn’t meet any writers. My last year in Boston, I lived in a house with a small nook on the second floor, just big enough for a desk and a bookshelf. It even had a window with a good view of a city park.  Down the street—literally a hundred yards away—was the public library.

I didn’t write at all.

What did happen? I got a job with a mutual fund company and worked forty hours a week.  I interviewed, got promoted, got a raise, got stuck in traffic. I received my first paycheck where the taxation was in triple digits. I moved three times. I went to the gym after work to lift weights and play basketball; I became a Celtics fan. I went to a lot of weddings, and every six weeks or so drove down to New Jersey to visit my family. I hung out with my best friend, who had also moved to Boston after he graduated Ohio State. I bought a car, maxed out a credit card. I watched a ton o’ movies. I dated, fell in love, broke up and got back together (mix, stir, serve, repeat!). I took all Sunday afternoon to read the paper. I drank coffee, went to bars, suffered brutal hangovers.

I can’t say that any of this improved my writing or made me a better person. I felt no despair or regret about my time in Boston. Within the first six months I lived there, Boston felt like home; it is a city that left an imprint on me in a way that no other city has. Further, I can’t say I figured anything out that was especially earth-shattering. There was nothing wrong with my life or the direction it was going back in 2003. There is nothing wrong with working and raising a family. People that say otherwise are the ones that write “MFA novels” and are pretentious and have spent their entire lives in academia and have no heart; their disdain drips from their stories. To paraphrase Zadie Smith, you have to be a better person to be a better writer. But I did figure this out: for me, and me only, this wasn’t the life I was going to live.

 

I don’t remember being scared, by any means, but I did figure out that the finance sector wasn’t for me. And though I wasn’t really working on it, I loved to write, I loved to read, and I could somehow, in some way, make a life out of that. So I did.

I can’t tell you what life in Boston did for me or why it pushed me in the direction it did. Perhaps I’m just refusing to figure it out (or refusing to divulge it) but I like a little bit of mystery about my life. I have no memory of signing up for my first creative writing class, no recollection of a feeling that it was a good idea.

I think the time off between undergraduate and graduate school is invaluable, and yet I don’t know how to explain this to an eager and determined young writer. I don’t know how to emphasize its importance, what it is that I can point to, like a craft element in a story, to show a college senior why the time away from school will improve you as a person, as a reader, as a writer, without sounding patronizing.

Here’s the another thing, just a little bit down the life-of-a-writer spectrum: a MFA program doesn’t make you a writer. I believed and understood what it meant to write not in graduate school, but after. I felt like a writer when I went through eight agonizing drafts of a story, one that I came back to again and again, changing point of view and setting and language and details and narration, working on it every morning until it was right. It wasn’t written for workshop. I figured it out on my own. This happened about a year after graduate school. The MFA is no coronation; graduation from a writing program is just a beginning, not an end (not even friggin’ close).

So. To all you graduating seniors, if you really and truly want to know what I think, it is this: take the year off. Take two. Take three. Take a decade. You’ll write. Or you won’t.  Or you’ll come back to it. Or you’ll find that you want to do something else entirely. You’ve been in school your entire life: get out of it for a while. I believe it will do you a tremendous amount of good.

Michael Nye is the managing editor of The Missouri Review.