Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Author, Critic, Stripper, Fowler

I must admit, I'm getting kind of sick of seeing author bylines that make mention of their graduation from MFA creative writing programs. There's an overabundance of books being published that use this bit of information as a marketing tool, as if I should be significantly impressed enough by the author's schooling history to pick up their debut short story collection. "Yeah, I get it, you went to the Iowa Writers' Workshop & therefore I need to read your flowery new experimental novel." An MFA in creative writing seems to be a person's ticket to publication more often than not these days, which can do nothing but dilute the quality of the writing that gets produced. That said, there are some very competent, incredibly talented new writers out there who happen to be products of those programs & we - both critics and readers - shouldn't dismiss them due to the degrees mentioned in their jacket copy. It's a tough decision to make as a reader - do you scoff at the degree or should you pick it up anyway & give it a try? (So in the span of a paragraph, I've managed to argue both sides of this discussion. Good night everybody!)

The impetus for this post is Ruth Fowler's recent piece of criticism in the Huffington Post, The Orange Prize Has Let Us Down (June 10, 2011). Recently, Téa Obreht, author of The Tiger's Wife, won the 2011 Orange Prize - an annual award that "celebrates excellence, originality and accessibility in women's writing." Fowler took umbrage with this, to say the least. Some choice verbiage from her post:

A plump, blonde, smiling MFA-product, Obreht's debut novel, The Tiger's Wife, has resulted in some astonishingly pretentious bullshit from the critics, to rival the content of her own book.'s unreadable: turgid, overwritten, self-indulgent... god is it boring.
Worthy, insufferably dull, and an ordeal, it's the kind of book that one reads only because a sibling or loved one wrote it...
It's like gagging down spinach when you hate it.
...competent, assured, boring-as-fuck prose.
...we should make 10 years in the real world compulsory for all writers who have graduated from an MFA course before the age of 25.
I'm going to admit now that I haven't read all of The Tiger's Wife.
Ruth Fowler
Now, again, I don't completely disagree with Fowler on the MFA issue in general, but to assume that everyone under a certain age is incapable of writing a story that reaches beyond their own life experiences is ridiculous. (In fact, it was actually this ability of Obreht's to write beyond her years that so impressed me with The Tiger's Wife.) It's easy, I would assume, for Fowler to complain about a writer not having enough life experience to be able to write a well-crafted story, as she made her bones (so to speak) writing a blog - Mimi in NY - and a book - Girl, Undressed - about being a stripper in New York City. Not everyone needs to have the same resumé or narcissistic, sociopathic tendencies as that in order to be able to write a novel. 

I think that what bothers me most about this, is that Fowler actually got paid to write a snarky, bullshit piece like that - a piece where she admits to not finishing the book she was paid to review! Alright, so you were bored by the book, you thought it was overwritten, I get it - but all credibility you might have as a critic is lost when you admit to not finishing the book. It's one thing to pan something so heavily that the reader assumes that you threw the book across the room at some point or walked out of the theater in disgust, but you shouldn't ever admit it. Hell, it's not like I follow any sort of rules when I write reviews here - it's not that I adhere to some list of stodgy guidelines that I learned in some writing course. So it's fine that Fowler writes with such honesty in her post - what do I care? What I do have a problem with, is that she wrote this - for pay, one would assume - in a widely-read format like the Huffington Post. If anything, I think by having a critic with a tone like Fowler write for Huffington, they've done nothing but compromise their own journalistic integrity. Such as it is. Did I mention that Fowler became a "famous" author by writing about stripping?

I'm not saying that you should only read reviews from the New York Times (far from it, actually, especially since they've started charging to read their online reviews) but I think there should be a sort of unspoken professionalism in criticism to avoid having pieces published with tones like Fowler's. For the most part, there is that level of professionalism in criticism. While the tone may be different from the Times to The Millions, the New York Review to Publisher's Weekly, to the New Yorker to The Morning News, there is always a degree of professionalism in the writing. Write however you want on your own website, who am I to judge? But as soon as you get paid to write a review elsewhere, you need to get your shit together, tighten up your prose, and ditch the personal attack jobs. 

One last thing: Fowler tears into Zadie Smith in the middle of her piece - "Shut up Zadie. You're about as entertaining as an enema." - but fails to mention that Smith is quite proud of the fact that she never attended an MFA program. However, Lionel Shriver, who is championed by Fowler in the piece, has an MFA from Columbia. I'm just sayin'.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Galore by Michael Crummey

Michael Crummey's novel Galore opens with a living man being cut out of the belly of a whale on a beach in Newfoundland. Given my unexplainable propensity for books about fish and other marine animals (Tuna, Cod, The Whale, Kraken, etc.) all I had to do was read the jacket flap and I was in.

In an early-19th century spring, "during a time of scarcity when the ocean was barren and gardens went to rot in the relentless rain," the people of Paradise Deep in Newfoundland, gather on the beach to butcher a whale that has run itself aground. When the Toucher triplets poke a hole in the stomach lining of the beast, a human head, with "hair bleached white" reveals itself. Hacked loose by the woman known only as Devine's Widow, the albino corpse proves to be living still, and the town is never the same. The mute man is dubbed Judah ("a compromise between the competing stories of who it was in the Bible had been swallowed by a whale") and as the fish stocks hit an all-time low after his appearance, the town starts to think he's "bad for the fish." (Not to mention that he carries the eye-watering stink of fish on his person until the end of his days.) But when Judah is taken out to the fishing grounds by Callum Devine (at the mysterious behest of his mother, Devine's Widow) he proves...well, magically adept at fishing and the town's fortunes swing back towards abundance and prosperity. Fish galore, as they say.

Galore is filled with weird little vignettes like this one, imbued with a magical spark and a folkloric vibrancy that sucks the reader into its undertow and deposits them for the duration amongst the bizarre folk who populate Paradise Deep. Mummers storm your house every Christmas, the ghost of an awful husband is condemned to watch his wife with another man, a woman has all her teeth pulled out so that they never rot, unrequited loves abound across the generations. The family Devine and the family Sellers are the integral cogs in the machinations here, driving the story forward with their slights, feuds, disagreements, illicit love affairs, snubs, fistfights, and secret children. Inextricably linked together, they are Paradise Deep, in the end, whether they like it or not. The story arcs over the course of 100 years or so in this tiny town, tracing familial lineages as they intersect and merge to create a beautifully complicated family tree. Always hovering amongst the branches of that tree is the mysterious Judah, pale, mute, and possibly ageless, yet infinitely more complicated, magical, and brilliant than anyone gives him credit for. He's the star of the show, the white whale always alluded to but never caught, as his significance manages to slip through our fingers until the last glimpse of him vanishes behind a wave in the final act.

While some readers of The Catapult will think that the family-of-mariners-folklore thing to this is oddly reminiscent of We, the Drowned - another one of the best books I've read this year - this similarity is simply due to the fact that I have read and recommended them both. Which begs the larger question (to me, at least) of why am I drawn to novels with themes like this? Hell, I don't know, but they're both pretty great, so just pick one and get readin'.

Not convinced? Take 2 minutes and watch this video of the author (a Newfie his own self) talking about the folklore of Galore and Newfoundland/Labrador. 

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Thursday, June 09, 2011

Hey everybody, The Book Catapult is growing up! After 5 years of meager existence, faking my way across the internets with my own name, you can now find this site by going to...! Try it! 

You can also "like" the Book Catapult on Facebook and "follow" me on


In the ten years that I've been a bookseller by trade, by far the biggest perk of the job has been meeting authors face-to-face. I've attended countless book signings & lectures, shook thousands of famous (or relatively famous) hands, all while on the clock. (This perk might be better than the free books, actually.) Granted, sometimes meeting "The Author" is a bit of a disappointment - maybe you love their work a little too much, have built them up to deification in your own head, and their in-person personality turns out to be a little lackluster. Sometimes they're just assholes. (People are assholes sometimes, it's okay to say so.) No, I'm not going to name names. Wait, I'm getting off point here. Most of the time - at least 99% - it's reaffirming, in a way, to put a face & a voice to the creator of the written word you've enjoyed so much. Sometimes, the experience of meeting that person surpasses all expectations & transcends into something else entirely. This was the case with Mr. Sebastian Junger this past Monday evening in San Diego.

Junger (you know, The Perfect Storm?) was appearing at Warwick's to discuss and sign his latest book, War, (also a 2010 Catapult Notable Notable book) which is a chronicle of the 15 months he spent in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan with the Army's 173rd Airborne. (His time spent there also resulted in the film Restrepo.) The Korengal is a horrible place, due to all the shooting, bombing, & killing and is perhaps the most violent place on earth right now (he witnessed 4 firefights with Taliban soldiers on the day he arrived in camp). His book is, as he says, "about men's reaction to combat - which is a complex thing. It's not simple, it's probably not what civilians expect, but it needs to be understood...."

So, like I said, I've witnessed a lot of author talks, but the one delivered by Mr. Junger was far and away the best one I have ever had the privilege of seeing. He was erudite, courteous, polite, candid, & wholeheartedly honest in his assessment of what is happening in Afghanistan right now - at least as far as he saw in the Korengal.

So, I know that the video is crazy long, but you owe it to yourself to watch at least some of it. (Please forgive the jumpy video at the start - not my fault, I promise.)

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Saturday, June 04, 2011

Outer Dark

They crested out on the bluff in the late afternoon sun with their shadows long on the sawgrass and burnt sedge, moving single file and slowly high above the river and with something of its own implacability, pausing and grouping for a moment and going on again strung out in silhouette against the sun and then dropping under the crest of the hill into a fold of blue shadows with light touching them about the head in spurious sanctity until they had gone on for such a time as saw the sun down altogether and they moved in shadow altogether which suited them very well.
The opening sentence of Cormac McCarthy's second novel, Outer Dark - a hidden gem in the Cormac canon, published in 1968 when he was just 35 years old. It's dark, twisted, and a bit disjointed, but there's no denying that it shows flashes of his distinct, sparse prose style, dialogue, and thematic arcs that we've become accustomed to in later, more celebrated works.

Young Rinthy Holme gives birth to a child by her brother, Culla - right there we're thrown off balance by the incest - who decides it best if Rinthy thinks the child has died, so he leaves the baby under a tree in the woods. This is early 20th-century Appalachia, so naturally a tinker happens along the babe and takes him in - long enough to give him to someone else in trade. When Rinthy discovers that the child has not died, Culla takes off running and she sets out across the land to find her son. The resultant tale is of their divergent paths across this dusty, rural landscape, searching, wandering, struggling. Not a happy tale, even by Cormac's standards and the added element of a trio of murderous chaps also wandering the countryside lends an extra sinister air to the whole thing. But still, if you're at all a fan of any of his other books, you might not have stumbled across Outer Dark in your travels to date & I'd recommend you check it out.

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Wednesday, June 01, 2011

San Diego's Literacy Health

Last week, Amazon announced the list of the 20 "Most Well-Read Cities in America" according to their own sales data and however else they decided to gauge things. The list was compiled from "all book, magazine and newspaper sales in both print and Kindle format since Jan. 1, 2011, on a per capita basis in cities with more than 100,000 residents." (The Christian Science Monitor pointed out that this list is nearly identical to a list compiled by Amazon last year entitled "The 20 Most Romantic Cities in America." Hilarious.)  Regardless, the town that I live in wasn't on either list, which got me thinking...

The store formerly known as Borders in downtown San Diego
1. Cambridge, MA
2. Alexandria, VA
3. Berkeley, CA
4. Ann Arbor, MI
5. Boulder, CO
6. Miami
7. Salt Lake City
8. Gainesville, FL
9. Seattle
10. Arlington, Va.
11. Knoxville, TN
12. Orlando
13. Pittsburgh
14. Washington, DC
15. Bellevue, WA
16. Columbia, SC
17. St. Louis
18. Cincinnati
19. Portland, OR
20. Atlanta

According to the Most Literate Cities survey conducted (with a bit less bias, perhaps) by Central Connecticut State University in 2010, San Diego ranked #38 overall (in a tie with Greensboro, NC) and #40 in number of per capita bookstores. (This list focused on the largest cities in America, all with over 250,000 residents.) Granted, we're not top of the heap here, but San Diego still seems to be a relatively literate and book-friendly town by most standards. For comparisons, CCSU's overall Top Five cities:

1. Seattle, WA
2. St. Louis, MO
3. Minneapolis, MN
4(tie). Cincinnati, OH
4(tie). Portland, OR

So, since I'm trying to look for a positive spin here, does the omission of San Diego from the Amazon list strangely translate into hope for local independent bookstores? I'm presuming that the data compiled by Amazon was strictly from their own sales, which would cause the list to be an "Amazon top customer" list, rather than one highlighting overall literacy. By that rationale, paired with the findings of the CCSU survey, San Diego seems to be a city open to brick & mortar bookstores. Maybe? The success of the 2 larger independent stores in SD would seem so...

There are not that many indies in San Diego these days - by my count, there are 4 "legit" stores, focusing primarily on books, one of which is planning on closing up this summer - but does the closing of most of the branches of Borders in SD County, coupled with our failure to make the Amazon-friendly list create a literacy vacuum that can be filled by indies? Are San Diegans poised to shop local or am I just being overly hopeful and naive?

The questions about this topic that I've been asking myself lately (in an attempt to shake things up, personally, perhaps) are nearly endless: Does SD need more bookstores? Can our city sustain a literary society like a Seattle or Portland or even a Cincinnati? Do we still want to read actual books, or do we prefer to get our content online or in a digital format?
I know that the majority of readers of The Book Catapult don't live in San Diego (oddly, only 14% of pageviews even come from California) and I know that many of you are ebook readers, but I am curious about where people think the book world is heading. On the heels of Book Expo and the Book Bloggers Convention in NYC last week, I don't get the sense that that giant elephant of a question was fully addressed. Are paper books dead? Do we still want places to go and physically browse stacks of books? Do we want to meet authors in person anymore? Or do we just prefer the ease & anonymity of buying books online? What does the 21st century bookstore look like to you, if it exists at all?

Any thoughts?