Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose
Yes Please by Amy Poehler
Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
Read Harder by various
No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy
*I didn't do books bought for March because I was too...something, but it deserves to be noted that I ordered approximately 15 books of poetry online in March.
*I believe March was also the month where I took two trips to Barnes and Noble in one weekend and the damage was what you'd imagine it to be. Don't hate me for going to Barnes and Noble, hate San Diego for having one independent bookstore that I already frequent.
*I didn't buy any books in April. I had all the ones from March that I was/not reading. But I'm back on the train now.
The good news – I have recovered my lost ability to read. The bad news – I hate everyone and my life is a yoke. You take what you can get though, and I'm glad to have books back in my life even if everything else feels like the worst prank the university ever played.
I've been doing this new thing, in the name of having plans and projects because sometimes those things aid in one's general happiness, where I try to read books by writers about the craft of writing and take notes on them. I do this because although I do think that I have some form of talent in writing, I know that I have a lot of practicing to do and also perhaps learning about actual form and grammar and style.
Some of the books are more worthwhile than others. I have no problem believing that they are all worthwhile for the right demographic, but the right demographic is not always me.
Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose had a lot of useful advice, but was also told in a rather pretentious tone literally the whole time. And I'm pretty pretentious myself, so I get it, but also, if something is pretentious enough to bother me I think that means it's crossed some kind of pretention line.
I understand why a writing guide borrows liberally from other books to point out techniques, but there comes a time when the book is 75% excerpts from other books and I'm like well I'm just not going to copy Isaac Babel's exact technique, so instead of reading a million excerpts can you spend more time talking about what they're doing in the grander context? Instead of like, 'Ah, look at that.' Also, I don't know about everyone else, but reading excerpts out of context just isn't THAT helpful.
There was definitely some great advice in this book, mostly on sentence structure and word choice, but I felt like the good stuff could have been put into perhaps an essay, rather than hiding it in the mires of an entire book. Also, the main thesis of the book was this: “Here's a bunch of rules, but really great writing breaks these rules all the time, but you probably aren't that good, so follow the rules.” First, I don't really care for any book that can be boiled down into a paragraph, and second, what useless advice! 'Some people can break these rules but you probably aren't one of them so suck it.'
I wish that I had liked Yes Please by Amy Poehler a bit more. That's not to say I didn't like it – I would say I felt...lukewarm towards it. First, I don't think that there's a ton of value in at least 1/8 of a book being about how hard it is to write a book. That's a pretty commonly accepted fact, and also, you're a famous person who probably got a large advance and a lot of support, so I don't have a whole lot of sympathy, and it's not really what I bought your book to hear about.
In addition, I feel that for all the complaining about the difficulty of writing, the book itself wasn't particularly well written. This is not to say that Amy Poehler is a bad writer. I think that she's very good at her particular brand of writing, which is humor writing for television. This does not always translate well to book form. I think there's still plenty of value in writing the book, but I'm at a loss as to why the editors didn't clean it up a bit more. Old man harumph.
Of course I still think the book has great value, such as the advice that one should spend some of their thirties married without children. Sounds great! Much better than in tenuous discussion with challenging people at a physically demanding job in your twenties! Most of what she said about growing up in general made me feel better and that there is hope, which is alas, rare for me. Also a great credo for feminist advice: Good for her! Not for me. Six words to cut down on the comparing that women so constantly engage in.
I liked all the parts about her becoming a comedian in New York with other energetic young people, but it really made me sad that instead of moving to the same city to follow our dreams, all my awesome smart energetic creative friends and I are living in different cities faking being adults. But alas there is nothing one can do but change one's own life, and I'm doing that by moving to said city when I save the dollars. And hope to make fun energetic smart friends when I get there. Which seems unlikely. But better than here.
Of course I liked her parts about waitressing, duh. And I agree that 'waitressing takes a certain gusto.' It's always comforting for me to read about successful females waiting tables, but then I am reminded of the millions of waitresses who wait tables forever and don't go on to become famous tv writers or write books etc etc. And I wonder which camp I will fall into, as I imagine my knees giving out in a few years / tomorrow.
Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan seemed promising, as it's a collection of essays by a well respected essayist and this year's editor of Best American Essays. It started out great, with him regaling the tale of attending a Christian Rock festival and the ensuing absurdity, but quickly became a long journey down a river of a middle aged white guy writing about various not entirely interesting aspects of American culture. And please understand – I don't lay down the middle aged white guy (or white thing in general) very often because I think for the most part it's reductive, but here I found it apt, because who else would be interested in such esoteric aspects of American culture that have so little relevance when there is always so much going on that IS relevant? Apparently the author and the readers of his articles which all seemed to first be placed in GQ magazine.
I did enjoy Sullivan's voice in most of the essays, his humorous asides gave him a unique style and kept my interest. This reminds me that voice is one of the most important factors in a piece of writing for me, which I will file alongside the fact that boring subject matter is one of my mood killers.
He did have some astute observations hidden within the wanderings of a privileged white man - “I don't know if he was gay or bisexual or pansexual. Those distinctions are clumsy terms with which to address the mysteries of sexuality.”
I found it patently odd that he devoted less than seven pages to an essay about the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, but seventeen pages to an essay about the television show The Real World. Maybe the original assignments were just that long, but homie, this is YOUR book. I assume there was more going on after hurricane Katrina than with some lame ex reality star! Aside from my intense aesthetic aversion to trashy reality tv (I literally felt physically uncomfortable reading The Real World essay) I just did not feel any value in learning about the highs and lows of former reality tv stars. You made your bed! Lie down!
Lots of essays about musicians that I didn't care about and that, more importantly, he didn't make me care about. Lots of essays about very obscure historical happenings, that again, he did not make me care about. I'm a passionate and generally interested person, I can be made to care about pretty much anything, but the writer has to do some work to make things accessible and not just pet projects. The fact that the last essay in the book was about Sullivan and his wife and child living for several years in a home that was a set piece on One Tree Hill led me to believe that he probably needs to get out more.
I have always liked Anne Lamott, so this pains me to say, but I did not like Bird by Bird. Perhaps this is my own fault – I should have read it when I was younger, instead of when I'd been through four years worth of writing workshops taught by unsentimental badasses, or before I already considered myself a serious writer despite my lack of credentials.
Many books I read about writing do this thing where they tell you that you have to write just for the sake of writing and have no eye whatsoever on any kind of success. I get it, I do, but I think it's a pretty silly thing for a successful writer to say. Like oh, ignore the fact that I make my living off of this, you definitely never will so think about other things instead. I wouldn't even say that for me personally the goal is to make a living off of writing – I really have no idea how to make a living other than the thing I do now, the waiting of the tables, and I don't particularly know what my ideal is, I just write because I'm a person who writes. It's not a particularly complex thing in my mind, I'm not going to stop writing regardless of what happens to what I write.
Anyway, point of that is, don't tell me what I want or don't want, humans!
Qualms: pretty much everyone who thinks of themselves as a serious writer knows that you just have to keep writing. It's not rocket science. Thus, I don't need three chapters of a book I read to be dedicated to that. Again, maybe I just came to this book too late, but I don't think there's a ton of value in repeating that particular piece of advice. If people don't get it when you say it once, they probably aren't going to for a while.
Oh, I already forgot! My biggest qualm with Anne Lamott writing a book instructing people how to write novels is that Anne Lamott does not write good novels. Anne Lamott writes great memoirs, she puts an incredible spin on religion and spirituality for people who have issues with said things generally, but her novels are not great. So all of her advice on that front felt tainted.
I guess this is all my own fault, because I want to read more advanced books on craft, and this was not that. Alas. I tried.
I have this thing where some of my favorite books are anthologies of literary magazines, because I'm probably not going to read every issue of a literary magazine, but I generally like what they produce, so the best ofs are some of my favorite things. Alas, Read Harder, a Believer anthology, was not one of my favorites. I mean, it was still better than reading a random book, but compared to my heavyweights (the n + 1 anthology mostly) it was just not le same. I didn't realize until later that Believer is part of the Dave Eggers multiplex, but that could be part of the problem. I sense this weird unwarranted superiority coming from anything he touches, and I don't like it! And I know it isn't because of the in-group mentality that I'm not a part of, because n + 1 exhales that in-group mentality like nobody's business but I'm still obsessed with n + 1!
I guess I just felt that, if this was really the BEST of The Believer...it didn't seem like the best. There were certainly a few gems, but also a lot of meh, and if this is the BEST, then shouldn't they all be gems? I really don't think I'm that picky about essays. I can get into pretty much anything if it's written in an engaging and exciting manner, evidenced by my obsession with the entirety of Best American Essays 2012.
Gems in this volume include Travels with My Ex by Susan Straight....which I have already read in a volume of BAE, but had no problem rereading because it's excellent. Racism on the road, an ever present topic. Virginia Mountain Scream Queen by Rebecca Taylor, detailing her years as the lover/assistant to a B horror movie director. Dark Family by Sarah Gran and Megan Abbott, researching V.C. Andrews – amazing! Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah's essay about Dave Chapelle.
I suppose a common theme in this curmudgeonly entry is that some things people write I just do not find interesting. I don't want to read an entire essay on erasure! Or about the anatomy of a beaver! But I feel the need to stress again the point: I am vastly capable of interest in stupid topics. Probably moreso than the average person. See above, where I get excited about B horror movies and V.C. Andrews. I think it's the writer's responsibility more than the reader's to make a topic interesting. If you have the go ahead from the Believer or GQ to play out one of your stupid pet projects, you should see that as a privilege and make your writing a joy to read.
Of course, they sneak some killers in at the end. An essay by Francisco Goldman about the writing of Say Her Name that is both tragic and a discussion of genre? Kill me! (With joy.) That crown of glory does not belong in the same volume as crap about beavers! Yeesh.
Curmudgeon is back for a moment: I skipped over the Leslie Jamison essay because I hated it the first time I read it in her book and I don't care to make myself repeat the experience. If anyone would like to explain the current fascination with her and her writing, I'm all ears, because I find it useless.
The last essay, Nick Hornby telling of his years as an 'Asian company man,' was funny and also inspiring for a writer who needs the gentle reminder that he future arrives in strange ways.
Then I read No Country For Old Men, which was 90x better than any of these other works of tomfoolery. Lest you think I'm just throwing around that sentence, I'll point out each way it trumped all the other books – it broke all the rules, looking at you Francine Prose, it was well written and did not feel the need to complain about the challenges of being a book, looking at you Amy Poehler, it was a great novel that I would be interested to hear from the author of, looking at you Anne Lamott, it was about America and random esoteric topics but I was still interested, looking at you John Jeremiah Sullivan, and it took material that could have been boring but made me be interested, all you Believer fools.
I won't bother describing the book, because I'm apparently the last one on the Cormac McCarthy train so everyone already knows. I would only like to note that the book fucked with plot, style, and character, and was kind of confusing, but it totally worked and that may just be the mark of a great writer. Who knows.