Fighting Discouragement: You Are New!

In an interview with Tinhouse’s J.C. Hallman, Walter Kirn refers to a common anxiety among writers:

J.C. Hallman: Do creative writers have an obligation to act as critics, to offer up alternatives to traditional critical methodologies and assumptions?

Walter Kirn: Creative writers have no obligation do anything, including their own creative work.  That’s what makes them “creative” in the first place, not merely productive.  That being said, a novel or a short story is an implicit piece of criticism.  It suggests that the job – some job; that of telling a story, say, or representing reality with language, or torturing reality with language – can be done better, or at least differently, than it has been done before.

Kirn’s right, of course – but at the same time, we all know how paralyzing this can be. There have been so many authors! Every story has been told! Everything’s been said! Blogging’s one thing, but who am I to presume that I can enter the world of writing a book that belongs on a bookshelf with all those authors I love and respect and admire?

Even the great Dr. Johnson suffered from a version of this internal narrative, giving up on writing poetry out of a belief that Alexander Pope had perfected the art, not to be surpassed.

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My Bookstore

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Okay, Borders has gone under. Barnes & Noble is struggling. Independent bookstores have been embattled for years.

I’m a fan of Amazon (and used to work there! they’re good folks! they paid my wages!). But I’m also a nostalgic person. If I can be misty-eyed about the end of Blockbuster, I’m certainly allowed to think fondly about all the time I’ve spent in bookstores. Out-of-the-way bookstores. Corporate behemoth bookstores. Waldenbooks at the mall. Airport “bookstores.” Antiquarian book shoppes. Garage sales. Library basements. Mystery-themed bookstores. Waterfront gift shops with a shelf of books about ships. Anything at all!

So maybe there’s no presently viable business model for a brick-and-mortar store. But there’s a hunger! And where there’s a hunger, there’s a fool ready to supply it.

Here’s what I would like:

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What They Knew #13

““The language belongs to fishermen, not scholars.”

–Jorge Luis Borges (on efforts to impose an official diction on English)

Parks v. Sacks: Can A Novelist Make Magic?

Tim Parks is a novelist and critic. (The distinction is important.) Recently he wrote a piece for the New York Review of Books blog about the current state of novels, and what it means for today’s novelist.

Parks’s essay, worth reading in its entirety, starts out slowly. Parks apparently feels compelled to describe (only to dismiss) other current critics of the novel, who are loud and not all that persuasive. But the gist of his essay, once he arrives at it, is compelling:

My problem with the grand traditional novel—or rather traditional narrative in general, short stories included—is the vision of character, the constant reinforcement of a fictional selfhood that accumulates meaning through suffering and the overcoming of suffering. At once a palace built of words and a trajectory propelled by syntax, the self connects effortlessly with the past and launches bravely into the future. Challenged, perhaps thwarted by circumstance, it nevertheless survives, with its harvest of bittersweet consolation, and newly acquired knowledge.

He admits this may be somewhat “reductive,” but as a general statement of a certain type of novel, it rings true to me. And then – in the heart of the essay – Parks describes his own lack of success with his recent Buddhist-themed novel:

In my own small way I tried to do this in my recent novel Sex is Forbidden, where a young woman in a Buddhist meditation center is seeking to move away from mental habits—ambition, regret, unhappy love—which have entrapped and humiliated her. I don’t think I succeeded.

What Parks seems to regret is his own lack of courage, or ability, or both. Instead of following the Buddhist themes of the novel and embedding them into the structure of the book itself, he fell back into the conventional trappings of the novel, which he felt did not quite fit:

Buddhism, as a set of teachings and practices that invite the dissipation of the “fiction” of self and a quite different idea of social involvement and personal trajectory, became in the end simply a stark contrast that exposed the extent to which the girl was trapped in the Western obsession of creating one’s own successful life story. Most readers, I’m sure, were eager for her to avoid the seductions of nirvana. More generally, the tale’s literary nature, its very presentation of itself as a novel—perhaps I just mean my own ambitions—inevitably dragged it back toward the old familiar ploys, the little climaxes, the obligatory ironies.

It wasn’t enough to make this tension explicit within the book – “set them up and then retreat from them, prepare and not deliver, encourage the reader to see how wearisomely novels do go in a certain direction.” That would be trying too hard (the opposite of Buddhism!). In the end, he went with conventional forms and was left feeling as though he had failed:

But the whole endeavor was like sailing against a strong wind: however hard you point to the open sea you are constantly blown back on the familiar coast. When the moment comes to discuss the blurb with the publisher you know that you haven’t done anything new.

Sam Sacks of the New Yorker replies with what is likely to be one of the more thoughtful responses, calling Parks “genial” but summarizing his essay as “honest, provocative, and maddeningly wrongheaded.”

Sacks’s main point is that all good novels take their own form. His objection to Parks’s characterization of the “conventional” forms of certain novels is that those forms often work very well for what that particular novel is setting out to do. Whatever trouble Parks may have had with his own novel, Sacks argues, it’s unfair to spin that frustration into a wider condemnation of novels.

Sacks’s rebuttal strikes me as being unassailably correct except for being exactly wrong in one big way. We can see this in the sort of jujitsu he pulls in his definition of Parks. He acknowledges and praises Parks’s essay for being diaristic (in that Parks refers to his own struggles with fiction). But he also pulls Parks, as a sometimes critic, into the world where what one says about novels matters.

You can see how Sacks tips his hand by contrasting the titles of the two pieces. Sacks uses the title “Against the “Death of the Novel.”” But Parks’s title is quite different: “Trapped Inside the Novel.”

To be fair, Parks perhaps invites this shift by closing with a story of a former teacher of his who later in life confessed he found most great novels empty. In doing so, Parks does commit the probably unnecessary minor sin of expanding his own experience into the world of novels in general.

To me, though, the point of Parks being “trapped by novels” is not that interesting or persuasive as a reflection on novels by Parks-the-critic. What’s much more fascinating – and in its way, revealing – is to view the essay as a cry for help from Parks-the-novelist. While Sacks’s defense of all types of novels is (of course!) the right one, that is a critic’s take, not an author’s.

In other words, Parks is telling us what it was like to make decisions as a novelist, and what it felt like to be pushing his boulder down a path different from the one he wanted to be on. He felt like his book should be presenting something different, in a different way – he wanted this to happen, and he couldn’t make it work. Why? Not because he didn’t know how to write a novel, but because he did know how to write a novel – a certain type of novel – only too well. That fascinating tale tells us only a little about novels from a reader’s or critic’s perspective, but a great deal more about the struggles of at least one contemporary novelist to bring the novel’s form in line with the author’s ambition. The magician wanted magic, and found only props.

Image Credit: Visceral Intricacy

Penelope Fitzgerald and Failure (and Free Fiction!)

Still thinking about Penelope Fitzgerald and being drawn to failure. And it made me think of this passage in The Race: A Novella (available now at!), in which the narrator first meets the Governor’s wife:

“Who’s he?” Tina said to the Governor in the foyer.

“My biographer!”

I explained that it was actually an autobiography – I was just helping him do some organization.

“Don’t sell yourself short!” the Governor said, gripping my shoulder.

I had not intended this comment to be self-deprecating – in fact it was something of the opposite. I wanted her to know that he had been writing his memoirs, that he was paying me – not that I was so drawn to his story that I, on my own initiative… I was not a vulture looking to feast on their marital carcass… but at that moment one of his boys crossed through the room we were standing in and disappeared into the hallway and the Governor chased after him to see how he was doing.

I stayed with Tina in the foyer. She clearly didn’t know what to do with me. I had no options but to stand there. Finally she invited me into the living room where we did not sit down but ventured into small talk.

It surprised me that she recognized my last name.

“Are you Mandy’s brother?”

“She’s a second cousin,” I said.

“And you live in D.C. now? What do you do there?”

I saw a flicker of approval, or at least curiosity. I was one of the ones who had left. Yet I was not such a success that she’d heard of me. I told her I was basically a lawyer.

“Basically?” She smiled faintly. I got the sense that she liked people. She hated her husband, but he was not in the room at the moment.

“I guess I am one,” I said. “It’s not something I ever thought I’d be.”

“A long story?”

I nodded.

She looked down the hallway. Now I saw her full smile; it dazzled me. “We’ve got time,” she said with a shrug.

“It’s strange,” I began, “to feel, every minute of every day, that you’re only pretending to be something that you’re not. I went to law school, I’m a member of the bar, I get paid to do the tasks that lawyers do. I meet with clients, go to court, conference with judges – and yet I never feel like it’s me doing these things. It’s not what I feel like I really am.”

She smiled warmly. “And what do you feel like you really are?”

“A failure,” I said.



The Race: A Novella by Jacke Wilson is available now at A longer excerpt is available here.

Copyright 2013 by Jacke Wilson. All rights reserved.

Failure and Penelope Fitzgerald

Oh, good lord. No wonder I love Penelope Fitzgerald so much. Here I thought it was the short length of her novels. Instead it’s the life experience:

By that time, in her early sixties, Penelope Fitzgerald was long accustomed to humiliation and, far worse, to catastrophe. Indeed, her late flowering as a novelist of extraordinary power and originality was founded in part on her ability to translate into writing her empathy for life’s losers. Failure was a major theme of her life and her work. ‘I am drawn’, she said, ‘to people who seem to have been born defeated or, even, profoundly lost.’

The passage is from Mark Bostridge’s review of a new biography of Fitzgerald. It’s not yet available on Amazon, so in the meantime, catch up on one of her books. They’re all on my shelf (and they’re all worth reading)!

The Merry Band of Walking Felonies (Iconic Poet Edition)

Howl Redux

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
tired hungry desperate, playin’ a little Frogger on the Atari 2600…

Famous Beat poet… and really really good at Frogger

The State of Publishing: The Sound of Ice Cracking

Yesterday I wrote about the possibility of small presses playing a key role in the publishing process – not as a filter deciding which books get published in the first place, but in their ability to make already published books more widely available.

IntoPrint is a good example of how this might work:

this small publishing house uses e-book and print-on-demand publishing to bring out-of-print books back into print. It was born of [their] realization that digital technology meant there’s no need for a book to stay out of print.

This small press handles digital conversion and e-book preparation. They also cover marketing. They give authors 50% (and higher) of the royalties and sign them to fixed-term contracts the authors can opt out of if things aren’t working well.

And they have no editorial staff.

Now presumably they can get by with no editors because the books have already been published. If they were looking at books that hadn’t been traditionally published, they’d likely require a layer of editing from the authors or build editing costs into the business model.

In any case this sounds like a great plan to me, in which authors and readers should both come out ahead, and IntoPrint gets paid for the value they’ve added rather than the gatekeeper function they’ve served. I expect to see hundreds and thousands of these little presses popping up, trying to find works that have been published (whether by a publishing house or an author) and could use some small press value-add to help the books reach a wider audience.

And in the meantime, might I suggest that the good people at IntoPrint take a look at the Great Brain Series by John D. Fitzgerald?

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Crashing the Gates: Self-Publishing and the National Book Awards

Fascinating look at the National Book Awards process from Eric Obenauf, publisher and editor of the press Two Dollar Radio.

Obenauf’s jumping-off point is this year’s expansion to a longlist for fiction nominees (from five to ten), which sounded promising to him, as it did to all lovers of good fiction.  Until, that is, he saw the list, which was packed with offerings from traditional publishers. This struck him as missing an opportunity:

[R]ather than five slices of plain bread hopping out of the toaster we were met with ten instead. What was the point of expanding to a longlist at all?

As I explain below, I don’t fully agree with his solution, but boy does he nail the diagnosis:

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A Self-Interview with the Author, Jacke Wilson

Today’s self-interview is with the author and sole proprietor of this blog, Jacke Wilson. Jacke’s novella The Race is available now at

Q: Thank you for sitting down with me today.

A: It was no trouble at all.

Q: How long have you been writing fiction?

A: As a serious endeavor, approximately 18 years.

Q: Wow that’s a long time. How come no success?

A: Great question. I would give at least three reasons –

Q: I actually don’t think our readers will be interested in any of them.

A: Oh. Um… Do you still want me to answer?

Q: Listen, I’ll ask the questions, Jacke.

A: Right, got it.

Q: Your first book The Race was about politics in America. It uses the phrase “wayward pecker” to describe the body part of a Wisconsin governor who was caught up in a sex scandal and is now running for Congress. Did you ever think about calling the book Wayward Pecker?

A:  Yes.

Q: How about Wayward Peckerhead?

A: No, never.

Q: Governor Peckerhead

A: Is that a question?

Q: You missed a chance with peckerhead. It could have been a tribute to the Richard Pryor routine where he – 

A: I’ll check it out.

Q: How about Members of Congress? Get it? Get it?

A: You’re making me glad I stuck to my original title.

Q: Because you don’t like selling books?

A: Are we almost done?

Q: I said I’ll ask the questions!

A: Sorry.

Q: We’re done.

A: Thanks.

Q: You’re welcome.

Readers, check out Jacke’s book The Race: The Ballad of Governor Peckerhead at Free samples available. Jacke also has free review copies available for distribution and is seeking beta readers for his work in progress The Promotion: Peckerhead Goes to Biglaw. Contact him at or by visiting this page.

The Race: A Novella

Available Now at