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The Writing Process Blog Tour – Continued

A week or so ago, I posted my entry in the “My Writing Process” blog tour.

I tagged three writers, John King, Mark Pursell, and Teege Braune, who continued the tour.

For your easy reading pleasure, I have compiled the links to their blog posts here. Enjoy!

Mark Pursell, at the Burrow Press Blog

John King, “A Word From the King

Teege Braune, “Process This!”

My Writing Process: Blog Tour

 

First, a word about the writer who nominated me for the blog tour.

I’ve known Vanessa Blakeslee (blog here) for almost a decade now, which is a little bit insane to think about. (Side-note: can something be a “little bit insane”? I don’t know. Anyway.) Vanessa was finishing up her Masters degree at the University of Central Florida, just as I was starting my own. I remember that–just as I had the wide-eyed, over-eager, over-idealistic look of a first-year writing student–she had the exhausted look of a student neck-deep in thesis work, in bureaucratic bullshit (formatting guidelines, graduation forms, etc.), in freshman composition papers that still needed grading…So we met in 2004, I think, but she probably hated me back then because my desk wasn’t yet overcrowded with the crap that ultimately overwhelms most grad students.

I don’t know whether Vanessa had yet published any of her work back then, but I do know that–as a young grad student, and then as a young teacher in the creative writing classroom–I was able to follow along as her career blossomed. Back in 2005 and 2006, we didn’t follow a young writer’s slow build toward success through Facebook status updates or author sites…we followed mostly through hearsay, gossip, grapevine talk, a smile on the face of a professor as she sat down to our workshop and told us about a former student’s latest publication. So I’d hear about Vanessa’s short fiction, and her acceptances at various colonies and writer’s retreats, and I was able to see the career take form in the same way that a little brother watches an older sibling slowly master a sport, going from first lesson to starting pitcher.

Vanessa Blakeslee is now a superstar, of course, one of those writers who makes a lot of internet lists that tell us which writers to watch. Her first book, the short story collection Train Shots, has garnered all sorts of acclaim (as well as a gold medal in the IPPYs), and she’s now got a two-book deal with Curbside Splendor, a Chicago-based publisher that I’ve also been following since they published their first book (Victor David Giron’s Sophomoric Philosophy), which I purchased on a whim during a vacation to Chicago…Vanessa has arrived, in other words, so if you care about the future of literary fiction, you should start reading her now.

So here are the questions for this blog tour that I’ve been tasked with answering. After my responses, I’ll introduce the three authors I’ve “tagged” to keep the blog tour rolling along.

1) What are you working on?

Right now, I’m driving myself “a little bit insane.”

I’m in the final revisions of a novel that I’ve been working on since 2009, I think. It’s a book that’s changed in shape quite a bit (though not in concept) and has grown progressively weirder and more epic in scope. This seems to be the case with everything I write…it’s impossible for me to develop a tiny perfect idea, to write a 150-page novel…no, no, my ideas start multiplying, reproducing, until the 150-page novel is 500 pages and spans cities, states, continents, decades.

Anyway.

The book is called Bright Lights, Medium-Sized City, and it’s my “Great Orlando Novel,” a personal description that has (ultimately) forced me to constantly consider new angles and new approaches. If I hadn’t started describing it that way, maybe it would’ve stayed 150 pages, and it would’ve just been the intimate portrait of an investor at the end of the housing bubble (2009) who finds himself losing everything he’d “earned,” while at the same time Orlando finds itself losing the momentum it had built for four decades on its explosive climb to becoming the nation’s next major metropolis. That’s the story at the heart of the book: this one character, and this one city, experiencing the same downward spiral. And how can they recover? Hell, can they recover, or are they both going to become Detroit? What happens to Orlando if the tourist industry dries up, after all?

But when I started considering the possibilities for this book beyond just this single character, the novel suddenly became a much richer and more compelling experiment. It’s written in the second-person POV, just like Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, but because this is Orlando, I also allowed myself to play around with the idea of the 2nd-person POV being a “gimmick” (what could be more gimmicky than Orlando, except maybe Vegas?), and I looked at the many uses of this POV. I also researched the city itself pretty heavily, and while the main story takes place in 2009, with the backdrop of the Orlando Magic’s NBA Finals run contrasting with the overall tone of despair that we saw in the foreclosed neighborhoods inside and outside of the city, I also zoom in to take a look at several other time periods in the city’s history. We see quite a bit of the Land Boom of the 1920s, for instance, which mirrors the housing bubble of the 2000s. And, because this is a city novel in the Tom Wolfe sense, we get to visit with a large cast of Orlando characters, from Dwight Howard to Mayor Carl T. Langford, and we get an incredibly comprehensive list of set pieces, from the Orlando History Center to the golf courses of Metrowest to the perfect perfect houses of Avalon Park.

So yeah, that’s what I’m working on. And I’m in that desperate phase of final revisions where I just have to stop the self-doubt and believe that what I’ve got is pretty fucking good. Self-doubt, self-doubt: always there on a writer’s shoulder.

2) How does your work differ from others of its genre?

Like so much of the work that I enjoy reading and watching, my work is a sort of blending of genres, a fusion, if you will. Think Star Wars and Firefly, the fusion of western/ science fiction. Think Game of Thrones, the fusion of fantasy/ political thriller. I love this sort of blending, because I think it keeps both the writer and the reader on their toes, while also maintaining some of the things that we love about a specific genre.

In the university setting, there’s been a long-running debate about what qualifies as “literary fiction,” and what is “genre fiction,” but it’s a stupid debate, really, because “literary fiction” is its own genre. It’s got its own tropes. There’s a certain type of character who would appear in a work of literary fiction but would never appear in any other genre, and–in fact–would never appear in the real world. Books of literary fiction have their own super-literary covers, their own super-literary titles. Break it down further, and you can look at alt-lit as its own genre, Oprah lit as its own genre, etc. Genre is unavoidable, and any writer who argues otherwise is mostly just trying to stake a claim to their very own genre classification (which might be true…maybe you wrote the very first thing of its kind…but if it’s successful, it won’t be the last, and then boom: you’ve got a genre).

So my work, I hope, can take some great strategies from the best of the “socially realistic fiction” genre…I’m thinking of social novels (those that attempt to show a specific place/time, and the conflicts that matter in that specific place/time, and that can offer us some social commentary on that particular moment and place) like The Jungle and Anna Karenina, but also Then We Came to the End and White Teeth and The Corrections and Angry Black White Boy…I’m also thinking of the genre of the “city novel” that Tom Wolfe champions, because I love the idea of books that try to characterize a city and its many different facets (or even just one specific corner of that city), books like Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities and A Man in Full, but also Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex and Bret Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero and Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude…these books that just leave you feeling like you know this city better somehow, like you got a tour that no one else has ever received.

I love those types of books, but also love books that play with and twist around “genre” tropes. Horror. Science fiction. Fantasy. So…Ryan Boudinot’s Blueprints of the Afterlife, and Ron Currie Jr.’s Everything Matters! and Stephen Graham Jones’ The Last Final Girl. Even some of the Jennifer Egan work that sort of takes on the “spy thriller” genre. And Bret Easton Ellis’ Lunar Park, and Alan Moore’s Watchmen, and Michael Chabon’s Yiddish Policemen’s Union, and Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America. Books that acknowledge how fun the non-realistic genres can be, and don’t shy away from them.

I don’t think that’s the type of writer I’ve always been. American Fraternity Man, my first novel, is much more socially realistic. The story would’ve been weakened by incorporating some other magical element. But more and more, this is where I see myself going: socially realistic fiction, fused with something completely bizarre and perhaps unrealistic, some genre elements completely unbefitting of (pretentious voice here) “literary fiction.” Sounds like a recipe for a lot more self-doubt, right? And a lot of rejections from lit mags.

3) Why do you write what you do?

This is a quick one to answer: because it’s fun.

Reading is fun, and enlightening, and emotionally compelling. And I want to create the same feelings that I have when I read something I love.

Why the specific genres? Not sure. Because that’s what I’ve grown to enjoy reading, no different than someone who loves Mexican fare and Californian fare, and wants to create a Cal-Mex menu. I love what I feel when I read these types of works, and so I feel drawn to continue in their tradition, and build upon them, and to ask the question “What if?” and see what happens.

4) How does your writing process work?

I feel like I talk about “process” a lot. In my classes. In conversation with other writers. In my own head, with myself. But I don’t know if I’ve ever committed my “writing process” to print. In other words, I don’t think I’ve ever written these conversations and lectures down in tangible form. Because the crappy part about talking about writing process is that, once spoken/written, it almost feels like you’re committing yourself to this one particular process forever.

Maybe that sounds dumb. But this is what I mean: the more I talk about process, the more I find myself using that same process just because I’ve told others that this is my process. I don’t want to make a liar out of myself, after all. And so I start to feel weird about stepping outside of that mold. Because this is my process, I can’t use any other process.

This is all subconscious, by the way…lest some snooty internet troll happen upon this and declare me to be an idiot, I’ll just defend myself by saying that we all follow subconscious routines that have been dictated by what we think we’re supposed to do, or what we’ve decided we’re supposed to do. And the more you follow a specific habit, the less likely you are to break that habit (unless you’re aware of it, and really try). And “writing process” is, I fear, a little bit like that for me. I’ve talked about it so much that I now find myself wondering whether this “process” is truly the best process for me, or if I’ve just convinced myself that it is.

Well. Self-doubt aside: here it is, written out for maybe the first time, though it’s been delivered in oral form a half-billion times:

I draft by hand. (Mostly: I draft blogs on the computer, and I draft student critiques on the computer, and emails, etc., but when it’s a manuscript that I really really care about (not that I don’t care about those other things, or this blog, but you get the idea) it’s got to be drafted by hand. I need to unplug from the computer, first and foremost, because I am easily distracted. If I hear the ding of my email, or see a little red notification on my Facebook tab, I’m on it immediately. No matter if it’s an urgent email, or a piece of junk mail, this toggling winds up killing my rhythm. It takes valuable time away from my writing, too…Let’s just say that I give myself an hour of writing time. That’s all I’ve got. Add up the emails and other internet distractions, and I’ve just taken away fifteen minutes from the meager time I’d allotted myself. Not cool.

I draft with a black liquid-ink pen. The kind of pen that I would never use if I was a server at a restaurant, because customers would always be stealing it. I want the pen to glide over the page, and I don’t want to have to be concerned about ink flow, about scribbling the pen until the mark shows, about having to press down extra-hard to leave a mark, or even (later) about the ink fading or seeming too light when I have to reread what I’ve written. I use a dark black ink pen, and I try not to lift it from the page…keep it there, keep it moving.

I use the little half-sized lined notepads, not the full legal pads. I try to write at least ten pages in a single sitting, and the little notepads help to make this a reality. They’re a psychological boost, let me think that I’ve written more than I have. Maybe it’s only three pages of typed text, but ten pages seems like a really productive day. I want to feel good when I’m drafting. When I’m revising, I’ll feel frustrated, discouraged, but I want to have fun while I’m actually writing the story for the first time…if it’s not fun for me, how’s it ever going to be fun for the reader?

I like to draft my work at coffee shops. Outdoors in the winter and spring (it’s Florida), and indoors in the long hot humid unbearable summer (it’s Florida…there is no Fall). I need human activity around me. I need to be reassured that the world is still going on, because that’s a feeling that disappears when I’m stuck indoors revising on my computer. Oh, and I also need caffeine. Lots of it. More. More.

I like music, but I like it when the music disappears. Give me acoustic rock any day of the week, the type that could be happy or sad depending on the particular moment in the song, or even the type of day you’re having, the type that doesn’t get too loud and intrusive, but (again) the type that reassures you that you’re not the last person on earth…the way you sometimes feel when you’re stuck indoors revising on a computer.

And revision? That’s a different process entirely, and unless I want this blog to go on forever, I’ll end it there. Let’s just say that revision can be endless, awful, and that it’s always my goal to find some way to make it slightly more enjoyable: so, for instance, I’ll print out each new draft after I’ve typed, and I’ll take that draft to the coffee shop, and I’ll handwrite my notes and edits and insertions onto that typed-out page with my trusty black ink pen…trick myself, in other words, that I’m still drafting.

The head games I play with myself.

My Tagged Authors:

Next up on the “Writing Process” blog tour are three of my Orlando literary cronies, three writers and gentlemen with whom I’ve shared many a literary conversation, many a craft beer or cocktail. And all three have blogged for John King’s The Drunken Odyssey site, too, so I figured this would feel like a real community conversation, just a bunch of dudes talkin’ ’bout writing, you know?

Mark Pursell is a lifelong geek and lover of words.  His publishing credits include Nimrod International JournalThe New Orleans Review, and The Florida Review, where he also served as poetry editor.  His work can be seen in the first volume of the 15 Views of Orlando anthology from Burrow Press.  He currently teaches storytelling and narrative design for video games at Full Sail University in Winter Park, Florida. I’ve known Mark for almost a decade, also, and we’ve both entrusted one another with our writing on more occasions than I can count…when it comes to writing/viewing interests, there are few writers with whom my own interests align more than Mark Pursell.

Teege Braune is a writer of literary fiction, horror, essays, and poetry. Recently he has discovered the joys of drinking responsibly. He may or may not be a werewolf. Teege is also the reigning “Best Bartender in Orlando,” according to Orlando Weekly, and will always be the man just off camera in my own author photos.

John King’s work has appeared in Palooka, Gargoyle, Turnrow, and others, including 15 Views of Orlando.  He is a reviewer for The Literary Review and Shakespeare Bulletin, and is a regular contributor to Celebrations magazine.  In 2010, he finished his MFA in creative writing from New York University.  He hosts The Drunken Odyssey, a podcast about the writing life. At one point, I shared an office at UCF with John King, and on another occasion, I shared a pizza with him. (Replace the word “shared” with “stole,” and the word “with” with “from,” and you have a more accurate picture of what happened when John King sat down to order a pizza and enjoy his dinner in peace.)

 

An Open Letter to List Articles

So I’ve joined the billions of other writers in the world who have helped to make the “open letter” the most popular thing since, like, internet porn.

Except my “open letter” is not directed at a celebrity, a la Miley Cyrus open letters. Instead, mine is directed at the other online article genre that is currently multiplying Gremlin-like to invade our monitors: the “list article.”

Here’s my “Open Letter to List Articles,” originally published as part of the UCF Forum at UCF Today, and then re-published at Huffington Post and Context Florida.

Consider the Milkshake

A couple months ago, I had the opportunity to participate in a “literary collaboration” at the Orlando Museum of Art’s “First Thursday” event. (These are basically the new thing, by the way. (Maybe they were also the old thing, too?) Museums/ aquariums/ science centers that open up for monthly “culture and cocktails” events…basically turning the museum into the world’s coolest bar for an evening.)

oma(picture from Wikipedia)

As part of our reading at the museum, I had to draft a story that took place at the I-Drive McDonalds here in Orlando, and because it was an “exquisite corpse”-style collaboration with five total authors (Susan Fallows, Jared Silvia, Tod Caviness, and Jonathan Kosik), I had to take the final sentence of the author who came before me, and (without seeing any of the other stories) attempt to write my story based entirely on that final sentence. Tod Caviness gifted me with the sentence, “Honey, I think your son wants a milkshake.”

So I wrote a story called “Consider the Milkshake,” which takes the McDonalds milkshake to some pretty bizarre places. I won’t spoil the story by revealing any of that here. (It was also an obvious homage to David Foster Wallace, who–despite my problems with the novel Infinite Jest–is probably the best damned personal essayist I’ve ever read.)

The story was just published online at Monkeybicycle, which–about a year ago–also published another Orlando story of mine. That story, “Fire in a Used-Car Lot,” also focused on a famous Orlando roadway: Orange Blossom Trail (or OBT, as the kids call it). So…two stories, two Orlando roads, one lit journal that’s awesome enough to publish my weirdo fiction. There you go.

Infinite Jest: is this about me, or the characters?

I spent much of the summer reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, and regardless of my final thoughts or critical appraisal, the book itself was an experience that succeeded in challenging me as a reader. Along the way, I constantly consulted the web site Infinite Summer, just to measure my reactions against the multitude of bloggers and readers who posted there, and I had to keep using and abusing their “Infinite Summery” to keep track of various character/plot details. So I’ve got much love for the site, and the overall project there, and highly recommend it to anyone opening this hefty tome. (I’ve wanted to say “hefty tome” for awhile now, btw)

Cover_IJ

My thoughts after finishing Infinite Jest are complicated, as they should be after reading something that is 1,100 pages of dense prose. So I’m going to try to unpack and distill them here, in easily digestible bullet-points, before I deliver my ultimate conclusions at the very end. I don’t know how well I can contextualize the book and its particulars, either, so if you haven’t read it, this might be a blog post to skip.

  1. There were a lot of great moments in this book. Some were small: individual sentences that just shone so bright I had to dog-ear pages or get out my phone and take a picture because I’d feel awful if I forgot about them. Absolutely timeless and brilliant. Some of the great moments were larger: long sequences of extreme empathy and such insight that it doesn’t feel possible that a single person could have observed (and written) all of this. (I say “observed” in the sense of a fiction-writer. To see it in real life and takes notes. To imagine it, based it on your real-life interactions and observations. Etc. I know that this book is not a work of weirdo-memoir a la Eggers, even though much of it seems to parallel Wallace’s personal experiences from tennis academies/ rehab centers.) To start off any discussion of Infinite Jest without acknowledging David Foster Wallace’s incredible skill as a writer (and specifically as a fiction writer) would be unfair.
  2. “Good moments” doesn’t necessarily mean “good novel,” though. So I need to be clear about that. I can love individual pieces without loving the whole. (Likewise, I can also love a whole without having a whole lot of individual moments that I found to be ground-breaking, etc. Like, we’ve all listened to albums that were great, but that didn’t seem to have that one amazing single?)
  3. I did not find Infinite Jest to be a good novel as a whole, or a good story. Despite those aforementioned “great moments,” I’m looking at this book as a novel. Not just as a nice collection of individual moments. Not just as a study in voice, or writing style. A novel. And “novel” implies a certain tradition, a certain set of expectations, a certain structure…Students cringe when I use words like “story” and “structure” in my class because they think that these words mean that I’m imposing a “stupid formula” on them; they think that–since they just discovered DeLillo and Heller and Barthalme–“story” is beneath them. But that’s not really the case. Even in wildly experimental novels, we see well-crafted stories. Storytelling is an art form. Storytelling matters. Storytelling means that you have a reader, and you’ve got something important or interesting to tell them. And storytelling is really fucking hard. And usually the students who complain about “story structure” are the ones who just can’t learn how to tell a story, and so they spend all of their time justifying the complex choices in their flawed fictions (fictions which, incidentally, could be dramatically improved if only the students cared about the readers who will be consuming this piece). Okay, so back to Infinite Jest: there were a lot of good moments, and if the author had cared enough about the characters (and the reader) it could have been a good book and a good story…but the structural issues in this novel are just too great, and they just wind up weakening the story, detracting from it, preventing it from what it could have been. This is one of my lasting thoughts, when instead I should have been left with thoughts about the characters and the situations.
  4. Quick note: I believe that the best storytellers disappear. The second that the storyteller reminds you that he/she is there, or that this work is all about him/her…well, then the story suffers. Sometimes the author is part of the story, as in the case of Kurt Vonnegut, so it makes sense that he pokes his head in. But for me, the best stories (not “fictions,” not poems) are immersive experiences where story is the top priority. Even in books like Middlesex, where beautiful prose makes you stop and admire it on occasion, or House of Leaves, where the prose is met with a variety of extra-textual elements that draw attention to themselves, every choice seems to be made to support the story, first and foremost.
  5. Other quick note: I love long novels. Infinite Jest is long, but I knew that it would be long when I, like, saw the book. I wasn’t naive. As I mention above, my favorite novels are big thick immersive experiences. I loved The Corrections, and I loved The Secret History and The Little Friend, and I loved The Bonfire of the Vanities, and I loved The Jungle and Anna Karenina. I love to fall into a book and forget that I’m reading it, to have a whole month of my life consumed in the experience. There’s nothing quite like it. So I was really pumped about reading Infinite Jest. I loved David Foster Wallace, too, and I thought: big book, plus awesome author, equals incredible experience.
  6. However, it’s too fucking long. Let’s get this out of the way first. I dedicated two complete months of my reading time to this book, and while I didn’t necessarily think that this would be a problem…it was. Why was it a problem? Because the book did not keep me consistently engaged, and because so much of it did not seem to value my time. Kurt Vonnegut was fond of saying that you should “use the time of a complete stranger in a way that he/she will not feel their time was wasted,” and there was too much of this book where I felt my time was wasted. Long twenty-page passages that revealed only one important sentence. And when we’re talking about Infinite Jest pages, a single page is the equivalent of two or three or even four Tom Wolfe pages, or Donna Tartt pages, because he is a huge fan of unbroken text (i.e. single paragraphs that stretch onward for twenty full pages) and are thick with jargon and technical terminology. Initially, I was told that the book would take about 200 pages before I got into it, which I was already skeptical about. 200 pages? No author needs 200 pages to get a reader interested. That’s a slap in the face, because that means that you’re wasting my time with those first 200 pages; they could have been structured in a way that would have been engaging (don’t tell me that they couldn’t have). But then I got to page 200, and I was told that, well, actually, you’ve got to get to page 500 before the book becomes engaging. And when I got to 500, yes, the book finally had a structure that seemed to progress the story in a meaningful way, a way where the reader was suddenly a valued part of the exchange. After 500 pages, story finally took precedence in the authorial choices. But 500 pages? A full month of laborious reading just so I could have a story in the final 500 pages? If you want two months of my time, you’ve got to do better than that; you’ve got to keep me engaged for two months; you’ve got to show me that you care about the reader and not just about your own ambition as a novelist. By page 500, I was only getting more and more pissed about how much time was being wasted on material that could easily have been cut/condensed without compromising anything.
  7. That’s the big thing: “without compromising anything.” Because DFW’s fiercest advocates will suggest that the book’s length is necessary because the rambling quality of the prose is a trademark of DFW’s voice. I would argue that the exact same effect could have been achieved with thirty fewer words per page. With forty fewer. Fifty. I would even argue that there are full chapters that literally add nothing, or that add so little that the important material could be revealed elsewhere. The argument for the book’s gargantuan size is basically, “He’s an artist, so let him do what he wants!” But from the perspective of a writer/editor, I think that’s bullshit. Every artist faces constraints. Infinite Jest was already edited and cut down from a larger page count, so DFW was not so far above editorial guidance that his art was hands-off; it just wasn’t cut enough. Additionally, the unending/unbroken paragraphs have no reasonable explanation other than to piss off the reader and test his/her resolve. You’re telling me that a ten-page paragraph is necessary as a unit of thought? That it wouldn’t have been improved with, like, a little break here, and a little break here, to create the sort of rhythm that could aid the reader in moving through the text. Hell. Look at me: this blog post is dense, so I wrote it in a bullet-pointed list. You know why? Because I don’t hate the reader, and I want the reader to move through the text cleanly and with some speed. I want you to know what’s important, which ideas you should hold onto, and which ideas might simply be supporting claims. You’re my reader: I care about clarity because I don’t want to waste your time.
  8. Look at me. I’m getting angry. This is what happens when you waste two months of my reading time. This is also what happens when I see so many Infinite Jest supporters who seem to refuse to acknowledge that there are any flaws in the book at all, and who–in their every review or blog post or whatever–justify every damned decision in the book, as if DFW could do no wrong. I mention the tiniest thing, and I feel like there’s a backlash coming. Dude. The paragraphs are stupidly structured. Yes. Yes, they are. Yes, they are. (See, now I’m arguing with an imagined DFW supporter. God.)
  9. Okay, sorry. (taking breath) The book has a story, and a plot, but Wallace’s plot doesn’t serve the story. This kind of builds on what I wrote a little while back. Quick definition: “plot” is the deliberate sequence in which the author arranges the hundreds of different elements of story. “Plot” is the way the author chooses to introduce characters or situations or setting. “Plot” is the author’s choice of putting a memory on page 6 instead of page 300. “Plot” is the opening line, and the closing line. You can tell the same story in a hundred different ways. Infinite Jest is a story that could have been told in 5 pages, or 25,000 pages. When we sit down to read a long book, we assume that one of the author’s purposes is to immerse us in the story and help us to truly experience it (as I mentioned above), whereas a quick story will be like a punch to the gut, but not a full-out 25-round fight. In this book: there are moments when the plot is meaningful, when it makes sense that a character is introduced at this/that precise spot, but there are way more moments when DFW’s structure is just a mess, when we say “Why the hell didn’t you tell us sooner?” or when you later say “Maybe I should reread the early portions of the book, since they gave me no valuable information, and I was lost, and now I’m reading valuable information that could have helped me to understand them, but I’m on page 600, so fuck if I remember what the hell was on page 20,” etc.
  10. For starters, the overall structure is confusing, and has no necessary function. For the uninitiated, the book is structured out of chronological order. We begin at the end, with the main character somehow rendered unable to speak or communicate. Then we just start skipping around in time randomly. We are introduced to characters whose importance we do not understand, and situations which will not be mentioned again for several hundred pages. And while I’m not necessarily against out-of-order storytelling, the problem here is that DFW does not construct the order of information in a helpful way. For instance, the sections/chapters of the book are generally labeled as “Year of the Perdue Wonderchicken,” or “Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment,” and we don’t actually know what this means until well past page 200. The book takes place in a weird future where all North American countries have unified, but we aren’t introduced to the particulars of this world until…geez, page 400 maybe? I used the word “random” above, and I’m sure someone will point out that DFW had a reason for the structure…but having a reason doesn’t mean that it was a good reason. To paraphrase Chris Rock, “you can drive a car with your feet, but that don’t make it a good fucking idea!”
  11. The problem, then, is that we are constantly misreading the text. Basically, we assume the world is round, and then the author comes along and tells us (200 pages later), “Oh, and by the way, did I mention that this world is flat? Ha ha! Boy, that changes things, right?” Again, DFW supporters strongly support this artistic decision. They’ll tell you that it makes you want to read the entire book again as soon as you’ve finished. To which I say: “Fuck you.” I read authors who construct their texts in a meaningful way that will teach me how to approach their world. I do not read authors who play jokes on me; it’s super-easy to hold one over your audience…the author inherently knows more than the reader, after all. If I have to watch a movie twice just in order to understand it, I say: “Poorly edited movie. You could have plotted this in a way that helped the viewer to understand the world and the characters and the conflict, etc.” Same goes for books. Yes, I enjoy books/movies that offer something new on the second read/view, but not books that only become intelligible on the second go-round.
  12. The book, then, feels like a joke on the reader. There’s actually a great moment in Infinite Jest (a moment of unparalleled honesty, in fact) where Wallace is describing an experimental film from James Incandenza called The Joke. It’s a movie where cameras are trained on the theater’s audience, and then the audience gets mad because they’re being pranked, and they all storm out of the theater having paid real money to look at their own faces as a movie-joke. Well. That’s this book, in a nutshell. It’s long, and deliberately confusing, and is designed to make you have to reread the text in order to understand what the author could have helped you to understand on the first read, but didn’t, because he apparently hated you. If you flip the final page and say, “Oh man, I’ve got to reread to figure out what just happened,” the joke’s on you. The author could have crafted this story in a way that didn’t waste your time, in a way that you could have read (and loved) it in a fraction of the time. There are thousands of great books out there that do take you as a reader seriously, and that you would enjoy (trust me: you would love them), if only you’d put down Infinite Jest and venture forth.
  13. But doesn’t that make Infinite Jest brilliant, because  the reread thing, like, mirrors the Entertainment described in the book? For the uninitiated: this book focuses (in part) on a video called “The Entertainment,” which is so hypnotically addictive that viewers become zombies and watch the movie on repeat and fail to ever do anything else with their lives afterwards. Literally. They would cut off their fingers to get the movie back on. They never speak again. Etc. So supporters will tell you that the structure of IJ essentially mirrors that of the hypnotic never-ending “Entertainment,” since you sit there reading 1,100 pages and then flip back to the start to read again. Except. Except it doesn’t. Because watching a video is passive, and reading a book is active, and that’s sort of the point of critiques for book-reading and against TV-watching. Also, the book only inspires this re-read function in a very small percentage of readers: David Foster Wallace Disciples. Those by whom he can do no wrong anyway. Most readers likely fail to get beyond 100 pages in this book, and–judging by conversations I’ve had–even fewer get beyond 200 pages, or 300, or 400. Many start the book several times, but never make a dent because it is so laborious. Personally, I re-watched each season of Game of Thrones not because its structure left me confused, but because it was so expertly constructed that I wanted to better understand the world, and the pieces involved, and how the writers had done it. The second viewing was enriching, but the first viewing had been awesome on its own. The same is not true of Infinite Jest, where even the fiercest Disciples will admit that you’ve (at the very least) got to get past the first 200 pages before the thing starts to become engaging. 200 pages of text to “get through”? Again, this is a structural problem, not an argument for structural brilliance.
  14. David Foster Wallace Disciples justify everything in this book. Listen, I’ve got my own favorite books, and my own favorite authors who can do no wrong. So I don’t hold anything against the DFWDs who love this book and everything it helped them to see and experience. I’m glad this book worked for them/you. Please try to understand these two things: (1) I’m working through my response to a book that did not work for me (but required a tremendous investment, which I gave to it), and (2) Even if you love a book, you can still admit its flaws, right? As I scan comment boards and reviews and online responses to this book (especially at Infinite Summer), I see this fierce support of the book’s every trait/element, and hey, maybe this is a result of an equal/greater critical tsunami against the book (after all, a lot of people apparently hate it, since so many give up on it)…what do I know? But just as I shouldn’t criticize DFW himself for the fans who support him, DFW supporters shouldn’t support the book mindlessly just because some critics or readers have raised legitimate arguments against it. The excessive length, for instance, is a damn good argument. Please do not try to find a reason to justify it, just because this is your favorite book/author. Don’t tell me that there isn’t a great 750-page novel in here that could actually be much better. That’s not even up for debate. It would have been possible. Admitting flaws is not admitting that the book is worthless, or that your experience was worthless, or that IJ is going to go out of print if you don’t keep hollering about how good it is. On the Infinite Summer site, there was a single featured blog post from one reader who was frustrated, and couldn’t understand why she was the only one who wasn’t enjoying the book (or even engaged by it). She was then shot down by scores of comment-boarders (“Wahhh! Quit your bitching!” “Give up, then, stupid!”, those types of comments), to the point where her next featured blog post did an abrupt (and probably insincere) about-face; now she suddenly loved the book, and was so sorry she…etc. Listen: it’s okay to be honest. The book isn’t going anywhere.

Some other notes:

  1. I understand that I’m not the smartest reader in the world. Yes, I get it. There are a lot of people smarter than me, but I don’t back down from challenging readings. I can already feel the critiques of my critique of Infinite Jest, comments telling me to go back to reading Twilight or Dr. Seuss or whatever, as if I don’t ever read books, and I just so happened to try a Big Difficult Book, and I’m mad at it because it was Big and Difficult. Go look through my Reading List. I’m not the smartest guy in the world, but I try to make my reading wide and varied. We can disagree about the merits of Infinite Jest, but not about the merits of my own reading life.
  2. I’m also not the quickest reader. I will freely admit that I’m a slow reader, in fact. That it would take me an hour to get through ten pages of Infinite Jest. And I will freely admit that this sort of thing contributed to making me an even angrier reader. It’s as if David Foster Wallace was writing his essays for a real reading audience (his essays are amazing), but he wrote his novel for this weird audience of…himself. And ain’t nobody as brilliant as DFW, even if they’d like the world to perceive them that way.
  3. I’m not the smartest or the quickest, but I am a dedicated reader. I treat all books the way that my mother taught me to treat my veggies. I give ’em a shot. And it’s very very rare that I don’t finish a book. Because I don’t want to make a judgment until I know exactly what the author was doing. So if this blog post offends someone who loved Infinite Jest, there’s a lot of things you can accuse me of: but you can’t tell me that I didn’t spend a lot of time and energy with this book, that I didn’t make as solid an effort as any author should receive, and that I am making my judgments based on some incomplete read. (No, it is not an incomplete read to have only read it once.)
  4. Maybe I’d have enjoyed it if I read it during a different time in my life. I also did not enjoy On the Road, by the way, because I read the book when I was 28. I have friends who basically told me I was crazy for not liking it…but they read it when they were 16, and it changed their lives and outlooks, etc. Maybe I’d have enjoyed Infinite Jest if I read it when I was younger, early twenties perhaps, when I didn’t get angry at spending two months with a book. But now, I have to fight for my reading time. I’ve got a wife, a baby, a full-time job, and my own writing life. Carving out a reading life is much tougher. And so I get upset when I feel as if I’m wasting my time, or as if I’m spending my time with a book that doesn’t care as much about me as I do about it. (Yeah, I know, that sounds a little creepy.)
  5. To all the people who have heard “Oh my God, you’ll love it!”, I say: “Probably not.” Go read David Foster Wallace’s essays instead. In his essays, he was constrained by editors, given direction by the rhetorical situations of the publications. He knew he had a specific audience, and so he was not given free reign. It’s this freedom, I think, that made Infinite Jest such a bloated out-of-control mess, the feeling that he–Wallace–could do whatever he wanted. Nobody pushed back and said, “Well listen, this could be a much better book if we–“

Here are my final conclusions.

This book’s most interesting conflict is not necessarily that of the characters. Instead, it’s the conflict of the author. This is a novel that seems to be torn between (a) Post-Modern/ Ironic Novels that are more concerned with the Author and His Ideas and Jokes and Wicked-Smart Displays of Wit (caps mine, heh heh), and (b) Sincere and honest storytelling, which cares (and cares deeply) about the characters and their motivations, and what will become of them.

In other words, Infinite Jest doesn’t know if it should be about David Foster Wallace and his abilities, his performance as super-smart and important novelist, or if he should just shut up and let it be about the characters on the page. It is Irony vs. Sincerity. (Which, incidentally, is a theme that some of the characters are actually wrestling with…so we know that this very conflict was on the author’s mind.)

There are moments in the book when Wallace zooms in tight on a character, when we stick with that character and become heavily invested in his/her life. It is at these moments when the emotion of the book is palpable, when we can’t put it down; you can see and feel and taste the humanity, how much capacity for caring that DFW actually had. When people say that they started to really get into the book after 500 pages, it’s because a great deal of the final 500 pages are written with this philosophy in mind (over-written, but still).

But at the same time, it often feels like Wallace was fighting against these types of moments. Like these (the moments of true humanity and honest character building) were cracks in the “smart structure” of the Big Important Post-Modern Book he was trying to write. Like, as soon as he realized he’d written something that was emotionally moving, he had to switch real quick to a funny pseudo-essay about video phones, or a quick passage about herds of feral hamsters, or whatever.

Consider this quote from his character Mario Incandenza, who is unceasingly positive and honest and good-willed:

It’s like there’s some rule that real stuff can only get mentioned if everybody rolls their eyes or laughs in a way that isn’t happy.

It’s this sort of tension that, I feel is responsible for all of the flaws that I found in the book. As if David Foster Wallace wanted to write two different books at once, and maybe please two different audiences at once: he was struggling with whether to write something Sincere, or Ironic, and that conflict bubbled over into every nook and cranny of the book. It’s almost like trying to combine Star Wars and Spaceballs into one movie. And the final result (for me) was interesting, but only on biographical level; by the end of the book, I became more interested in the life of David Foster Wallace and the evolution of his art than in the piece of artwork that I was supposed to be engaging with. (In other words: I want to read his biography, which I imagine will be more enriching than reading Infinite Jest. But now that the book is shut and the blog post is over, I’m really okay not caring about IJ or any of its characters ever again.)

The Epic Eminem Analysis Part VI: “Square Dance” and “Soldier”

The following is part of a series of essays I’ve been writing on the “character arcs” and dramatic story structure of the Eminem CDs. I apologize if they’re excruciating, or (if you like them) if the wait between essays is excruciating. Life is busy. But click here to start at the start.

The_Eminem_Showprevious: The Eminem Show (opening songs)

So the first third of The Eminem Show serves to (1) set up Eminem as the unwitting leader of a generational movement that he’d never intended on starting, (2) remind us of the conflicts that have weaved throughout the first two albums, and in particular the “white artist in a black art form, who is bringing the profane/ vulgar/ scary black art form to the white suburbs” conflict, (3) and end the ongoing conflict with his mother in “Cleaning Out My Closet.”

So where does the album go from here?

I’ve made continuous comparisons to The Star Wars trilogy, since this is the third album in Eminem’s career, and I think it’s important to continue thinking with that analogy in mind. Our heroes have just killed Jabba the Hut and rescued Han Solo, so they’ve finished one task…but now the much-larger threat of the Empire still looms. Likewise, Eminem has given us his final words about his feud with his mother, but there are still some pretty big conflicts left to resolve: in particular, we’ve still got to address that whole Kim thing, and then we’ve got to come to some conclusions about fame and celebrity and about being a white rapper in a sea of black rappers.

Eminem knows it. He set it up in the opening song. And the audience knows it, too. He knows that’s where we’re eventually going.

“Square Dance,” the White Establishment, and White Insecurity

When I first heard “Square Dance,” I thought it was a brilliant beat and a brilliant concept, that weird country/rap mash-up. After all, here was the world’s most popular and important white rapper (ever); who else could mix these genres in a meaningful way? And when he began using his “cracker” white-guy voice, too, telling the audience to doe-see-doe, etc., it didn’t feel like he was making fun of white people, necessarily, but instead making fun of those white people who were scared of rap. The suburban moms and dads. The senators who’d called him out for easy political gain. With “Square Dance,” Eminem was simultaneously appropriating white-people music, and lashing out at the criticism he’d faced from the insulated white establishment. One of the first lines in the song, after all, is “No friend of Bush,” and in the second verse we get “a plan to ambush this Bush administration/ mush the Senate’s face in/ push this generation of kids to stand and fight/ for the right to say something/ you might not like.” (And then there’s my favorite line, when he seems to be speaking to his army of suburban followers: “You just a baby/ Gettin’ recruited at eighteen/ You’re on a plane now,/ Eating their food and their baked beans./ I’m 28, they gon’ take you ‘fore they take me.”)

But that doesn’t mean that “Square Dance” only targets the white establishment. Really, the song is an embodiment of several white-related conflicts.

The first stanza takes aim at Canibus: “Cani-bitch don’t want no beef with Slim, noooo.” And, though it’s never outright stated, the Canibus attacks seem to have a racial undertone (which we see play out later in the album, too): there is suddenly an insistence upon being recognized by black rappers: responding to attacks from some black rappers, and honoring the other black rappers he sees as heroes (and whose respect he craves). In previous albums, this is a frustration that reared its head only occasionally, but it was never a primary conflict for the character of Eminem.  He was building himself as a rapper and found it difficult to do so as a white boy, but he managed pretty well by being self-deprecatory and taking shots at the other (inferior) white artists, the Vanilla Ices and the Fred Dursts and the Everlasts and what-not; and really, most of his attacks were a response to critics outside of the rap world. Yes, there were mentions of other rappers we know he respected: the line in “Stan” about “underground shit” and “Ruckus” and “Scam,” the collaborations with Nate Dogg and Snoop and Royce and Sticky Fingaz, the D12 album, but the majority of the conflicts explored in the songs revolved around Marshall’s mother, and around fame and celebrity, and around profanity. Not necessarily the rap world, or (more specifically) Eminem’s place in the rap world. Yes, race was always an issue in the first two CDs. It was always there. But it never really seemed as if this–being a white rapper in a black world, and getting the same respect as prominent black rappers–caused him real frustration or insecurity. He was comfortable in this world. And fuck everyone outside that world if they wanted to judge him.

But now, in The Eminem Show, we see that maybe Eminem has lingering insecurities about the way that other rappers view him. It’s a chip on his shoulder. In The Slim Shady LP, he’d gained credibility from the Dr. Dre appearance on “Guilty Conscience,” and obviously he appeared throughout the D12 Devil’s Night CD, too, but at the same time, those songs sort of felt like jokes. It was mostly the prankster Slim Shady persona appearing alongside these black rappers, and nobody would confuse the jokey “Guilty Conscience” verses with the career-defining Snoop Dogg verses from “Ain’t Nothin’ But a G Thang.” You can only play a snarky persona for so long, after all, before people start saying, “Okay, show us the real you.” With the exception of the “Dead Wrong” verse alongside B.I.G., it had never really felt like Eminem was a serious rapper when he appeared alongside black rappers.

Maybe this was in the back of his mind all along? Maybe it was even the reason that he never took his beefs with Everlast and Limp Bizkit and ICP very far, because why continually position himself as just the best white rapper? What value is there in such a title? So here in the middle portion of his third album, Eminem–the serious Eminem rapper persona–is vocalizing that he belongs in the black world of rap, responding to criticism from other established black rappers, rather than simply doing the easy thing and making fun of the white rappers who have come before him. (Take note of this, by the way. This is one of the conflicts that remains unresolved at the end of this CD. And it’s one of the reasons why those Recovery-era verses with Lil Wayne and Drake and Kanye, et all, are so unbelievably powerful.)

That’s a big step.

And yet it’s under-stated on this song: the initial reference to Canibus, and then the “oochie walla” reference, the lines “What’s gotten into me?/ Drugs, rock and Hennessy,/ Thug like I’m ‘Pac on my enemies.” This is a rapper who wants to belong, but he won’t yet come right out and say it. Where it initially becomes prominent is in the final fading stanza of “Square Dance,” which feels almost improvised:

Dr. Dre wants to square with me,
Nasty Nas wants to square dance with me,
X to the Z wants to square dance with me,
Busta Rhymes wants to square dance with me,
Cana-bitch won’t square dance with me…
Dirty Dozen wants to square dance with you–YEE-HAW!

And it’s here that Eminem puts himself into the company of the larger world of black rappers. He’s no longer just Dr. Dre’s little buddy, a funny prankster of a rapper with a couple black friends (D12); now he’s square-dancing with Busta Rhymes and Xzibit and (most important) Nas.

Like I said, it’s under-stated. But the first time I listened to this song, I knew that this was important. I knew that there was something different about his approach toward the world of rap, the faintest trace of insecurity about his place in it, and a real desire to be taken seriously by the rappers he most admired. (If I wanted to make another comparison to the conflict in The Star Wars trilogy, maybe I’d say that this was like the sudden arrival of The Emperor, an inevitable twist in the narrative…but something that felt like it was long overdue. We knew it was coming, that Eminem couldn’t keep rapping about pop culture without really delving into his place in the rap world.)

Personas: “Soldier”

But then, as quickly as this new conflict appeared, it was gone.

Here are the first lines of track 7 on The Eminem Show, the song “Soldier”: “Never was a thug, just infatuated with guns,/never was a gangsta, ’til I graduated to one.” It’s almost as if he’s anticipating the argument that he doesn’t belong in the world of “gangsta rap,” and he’s admitting it. He belongs in the rap world, but let’s not confuse that with gangsta rap. Let’s not assume he’s saying he’s a gangsta just because he’s a rapper.

Then he shifts back and forth between the Eminem and Marshall Mathers characters, the relationship between the things he raps about and how he might have begun believing in the violent persona he portrayed in his records. Here’s the opening of “Soldier,” and I suppose it’s just best to paste the lines directly:

Never was a thug, just infatuated with guns,
never was a gangsta, ’til I graduated to one,
and got the rep of a villain, for weapon concealin’.
Took the image of a thug, kept shit appealin’,
willin’ to stick out my neck for respect if it meant life or death,
never live to regret what I said.
When you’re me, people just want to see
if it’s true, if it’s you, what you say in your rap’s, what you do,
so they feel as part of your obligation to fulfill
when they see you on the streets, face to face, if you for real?

There’s a real struggle here, as if Marshall feels he must live up to the persona he’s created on his albums. This has been brewing since The Marshall Mathers LP, but it’s mostly been general and hypothetical: a fake character named “Stan” who believes in the Eminem raps, and a series of generalized encounters in “The Way I Am.” But now this conflict reaches a boiling point because there is some truth to everything he has feared:

Anything I do bitch, it’s news,
pistol-whippin’ motherfuckin’ bouncers, six-two.

You can smell the lawsuits soon as I waltz in the room.
Everybody halts and stops, calls the cops,
all you see is bitches comin’ out their halter tops,
runnin’ and duckin’ out the Hard Rocks parking lot.

So far in this analysis, I’ve tried to keep the focus on the characters in the albums, rather than bringing in any real-life events. This is important, I think, because the texts/songs have a life of their own. Yes, they are heightened by our knowledge of what was happened in the “real world,” too, but I’m not trying to write a biography of Eminem; I’m trying to chart how he’s built the characters in the story of his albums. (If that makes sense?)

I’m going to make a small exception here, though, since this is a moment where Eminem is literally trying to show how the real world and the fictional persona have overlapped. And I’m going to try to do this as quickly and simply as possible. Okay, so this is from Wikipedia, the most trustworthy source ever:

Eminem was arrested on June 3, 2000 during an altercation at a car audio store in Royal Oak, Michigan, with Douglas Dail, where he pulled out an unloaded gun and kept it pointed at the ground. The following day, in Warren, Michigan, he allegedly saw his then wife, Kim, kiss bouncer John Guerrera in the parking lot of the Hot Rock Café, and he assaulted him and was then arrested. Eminem recreated the Guerrera assault in a skit on his junior album The Eminem Show on a track called “The Kiss (Skit).” Mathers was charged with possession of a concealed weapon and assault. Mathers plead guilty to the charges and was given two years probation for both episodes.

I take no responsibility for any errors or omissions or typos in the above (Hot Rock Cafe?). I just want to illustrate the real-world facts that (as discussed in the song) seem to be a result of the real-world Marshall Mathers believing in the song-persona of Eminem or Slim Shady. The song “Soldier” (and the skit “The Kiss”), in other words, is not just a narrative depicting Marshall Mathers getting angry upon seeing his wife kiss a bouncer, then beating the bouncer, then getting arrested for the concealed weapon…it’s also a meditation on what it means to develop personas for yourself, to get lost and confused about which personas are real, to believe in the wrong personas, and to find yourself becoming something you didn’t want to become. We have the line, “motherfuckers know that I’ll never be Marshall again,” which seems to be a resounding final word on a dark transformation: Darth Vader declaring that he is beyond help, that it is too late for him.

Damn.

Oh yeah, and then there’s that whole Kim thing, which we’ll get to next.

Next: Kim, and Celebreality (forthcoming)

Huffington Post

Guess what? I’m on the Huffington Post.

The column is called “When Do We Stop Caring About the Brands That Define Us?” and originally appeared as part of a feature at UCF Today called “The UCF Forum” (columns by faculty members and students).

Okay, okay. I know that this–like my recent appearance on Amazon–isn’t exactly a milestone. There are hundreds of thousands of authors who have appeared on the Huffington Post.

But don’t ruin my fun, okay?

Check out my first column at Huff Po, and always remember where you were when you saw it for the very first time.

Reading Books While Burping My Baby

My baby is no longer a baby. He’s a toddler. And he doesn’t need to be burped, obviously. The kid can put down some food.

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But for the year 2012, I wrote a column at Burrow Press Review (and Burrow Press Extra, the BP Tumblr site) about my reading habits over the course of the first year of my fatherhood.

At some point, we hope to release the essays  as an e-book, with original content not previously published. But here is one of the final short essays that I wrote in February/ March 2013, in which I take inventory of how many books I was able to read, and what these books say about me.

Taking Inventory of Books Read While Burping My Baby

It’s actually the final note of a three-part essay about my sucky reading habits when it comes to female authors. If you’re in the mood to read all three, just use this bullet-pointed list:

Oh, and one final link: here is the latest installment of my Fight For Your Long Day comic adaptation. I haven’t been as quick to put out new comic installments, simply because [insert excuse about being busy here], but if you’ve followed along, or if you’ve read the book, hopefully you’ll dig it.

Marketing My Writing Part III: Amazon

Yesterday, I finished creating my Amazon author profile. It’s right here, and it feels really good to have that tiny corner of Amazon all to myself. There’s something official about appearing on Amazon, having my book for sale in the world’s largest marketplace. There’s something affirming about it, even if the idea of appearing on Amazon shouldn’t really be affirming, since I could have technically self-published my book in rough draft form through CreateSpace.

But still, whenever someone asks, “Can I buy your book on Amazon?” I can easily say “Yep. It’s easy to find.” And readers can see my whole bio, and search inside the book, and see my other books, etc.

And hell, I suddenly have a “sales rank,” too (not a good one, obviously, but I exist on some gigantic spreadsheet somewhere, at least!), and there’s a whole “Customers who viewed this product also viewed…” portion of the page, which–potentially–could help me to see the wider literary landscape in which my book will eventually settle.

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I know that Amazon is a big place, and everyone’s here. I know that it shouldn’t be a milestone, and yet it sort of feels that way.

*

The bigger issue, though, is that I’ve got a love/hate relationship with Amazon.

On the one hand, there’s nothing I love more than building my wishlists of books, and scrambling to find that one extra item that will push my shopping cart to $25 so that I can get free shipping. I love coming home to find the box at my front door.

On the other hand, though, my point-of-view on Amazon has certainly changed since I’ve become an author. What was once a fun site for book-hunting (how could I have even found half of this stuff without the help of Amazon?) now feels a little too much like an Big Dark Empire. The tactics that I have tried to ignore over the past few years (i.e. scan the prices at brick-and-mortar stores so that Amazon knows what to beat!) now feel decidedly evil.

Why do I feel this way? Well, Amazon basically takes a 55% cut of the price of the book that you sell through their site. Some might say that this is reasonable. It’s hard for me to argue, being new to the game of book sales. But it’s also hard for me (or anyone, really) to reconcile that only 45% of the book’s earnings will go to the combined team of writer, editor, agent, publisher, layout and graphic design, marketing/PR/publicity, and printer. That’s a lot of people splitting a tiny piece of the pie, while Amazon gets the lion’s share simply for existing.

I just wrote “simply for existing,” of course, knowing that this isn’t really true. Amazon has built itself into a mammoth operation that does indeed perform a service, and it’s a service that I rely on as both consumer and producer.

Still. They’ve also insinuated themselves into the American economy in such a way that they can demand whatever cut they want, without really doing any work. They’ve put a gigantic number of brick-and-mortar book/movie/music stores out of business, thereby limiting the options for the consumer. They’ve made “convenience” and “free shipping” into an expectation (they can take a loss on their 55% cut, because they’ve never really made any investment in the product: $10 is as good as $2, if it means someone is buying from them instead of from another retailer), and the results are chilling for the book industry: average readers will not purchase my books if they don’t purchase them through Amazon.

That might sound a little silly, but consider this: when we (Burrow Press) published 15 Views of Orlando, we made it a point to bypass Amazon. We decided to only sell through the Burrow Press web site, and through direct sales. We will not give in! But what happened? A significant amount of marketing effort went to waste, since many of the people who were likely to buy searched for it on Amazon, didn’t see it, and gave up. Many others wouldn’t buy from the web site because they didn’t want to pay shipping. So now you’ll easily find 15 Views: Volume II on Amazon, and we’ve resigned ourselves to the fact that it takes much much longer to recoup costs.

It’s near-impossible to compete with Amazon’s shipping, by the way. You can’t compete with free. To put things into perspective, my book American Fraternity Man could potentially ship free from Amazon (if you buy one other thing). I went to the post office yesterday to mail off some copies of the book to friends, and shipping was seven dollars. I almost cried. I’d be spending seven bucks to ship books off to friends, just so I could save them a couple dollars off the Amazon price and also get them a signed copy? That basically meant that–with the cost of book-sized envelopes–I was paying my friends to take my book.

Allow me just one second to shake my head sadly.

But hey, it’s Amazon. This year their cut is 55%, and next year it’ll probably be more, and then more, and then more, until they’re our only option and we’re all working for free to make sure Amazon gets richer and more powerful.

And here’s the final depressing note: because there are so few brick-and-mortar bookstores left, I can’t really tell anyone to buy my book elsewhere. You can get it from me (personally, at a discount), or you can get it from Amazon (who also slashes the price and gives free shipping because, hey, they’re not paying for it!). Barnes & Noble sells my book online, and you can order it in-person at their store (which I would encourage, just to support the physical stores), but they likely won’t stock the book unless there’s clear demand. I’m not James Patterson or Stephen King, and no one is dedicating shelf space to me that could go to something far more profitable, like endless variations of the Monopoly game, or stuffed Dr. Seuss toys, or “teen paranormal romance” “novels.”

*

Lest this sound strictly like I’m hating on Amazon, I want to assure you (and I want to assure any of the Amazon Stormtroopers who might be scouring the internet looking for anti-Amazon authors to blacklist) that this isn’t the case.

But my thoughts have become much more complicated now, ever since I went from casual consumer to author. Now that I’m actively marketing my book, and actively keeping spreadsheets of my own costs and my own revenue, it’s hard not to be upset when I make a single dollar off a book that took seven years to write and revise and publish. I’d always told myself that I didn’t care if I ever made money off my novel; I’ve got a full-time job, after all, and I have no aspirations of beach-houses and yachts and guest appearances in rap videos. Really, I just want to create art that I believe in, and I want others to experience it (and to enjoy the experience). If I reach a million readers but make zero dollars, I will be a happy man.

But still. Voice in the back of my head: “You made zero dollars. But you want to know who just profited off your work? Good job, kid. Really shrewd.”

*

My book is available through Amazon.

I hope you’ll buy it.

Regardless of anything I’ve written above, I will be happy if you read my book. Really.

Just, when you add another book to your shopping cart to take advantage of the free shipping, make sure it’s 15 Views of Orlando.

Stocking Stuffers

For those of you looking for the perfect stocking stuffer, might I suggest 15 Views of Orlando (the book for which I served as the humble editor)? I get no kick-backs from sales. All proceeds go to benefit the Urban Think Foundation, and Page 15 (the literacy organization under the foundation’s umbrella), and it’s gotten some great recent reviews.

Check out what The Nervous Breakdown, and [PANK] had to say about 15 Views of Orlando.

And if you’re still looking for stocking stuffers, check out my other book recommendations at the Urban Think page here. (Click on “Burrow Press” to see my picks.) Extra incentive: purchases made by clicking on these links will result in proceeds for the foundation, also. So buy some books, and then feel good about yourself!

Oh, and then there’s this, too: The Way We Sleep, a beautiful coffee table book full of essays, stories, interviews, and comics, is still available at Black Friday prices here (10 bucks). I’ve got a comic collaboration with Ben Tanzer in this anthology, but there are many artists with far more talent who contributed. Check it out!

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Also, check out the latest installment in my comic adaptation of Alex Kudera’s Fight For Your Long Day here at Atticus Review, and then go buy a present for a poor, underpaid adjunct teacher.